Alan Vaarwerk, Editor
As much as I’d love to say I’ve been spending social isolation catching up on the great works of English literature, I’ve found it near impossible over the last fortnight to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes without refreshing the Guardian liveblog. That said, earlier this year I made a concerted effort to finally figure out cryptic crosswords, and I’m very glad I did, as they’ve proven to be one of the most effective ways to take my mind off the news and my eyes off the screen for a few minutes. I’ve subscribed to SMH/Age crossword writer LR (Liam Runnells)’s PuzzleMail e-newsletter, which sends through a weekly puzzle. They’re difficult but achievable, often nerdily funny, and extremely satisfying.
The Cheer-sized hole in my Netflix-documentary life has been more than filled by Tiger King, a new seven-episode series which is ostensibly about the strange world and stranger personalities of American big-cat breeders. Largely following ‘Joe Exotic’, the mulleted, gay, polygamous, gun-toting, showboating, self-styled redneck big cat park owner, and his increasingly unhinged feud with a rival park operator, the series begins as a kooky look at a car-crash of American exceptionalism but spirals down an increasingly sordid and disturbing path of violence, misogyny and sexual manipulation, with sobering consequences (not least for the poor cats involved, who end up bit players against Joe’s ego and paranoia). As one interviewee observes at the end of episode five, ‘it was sort of funny when they started, but it’s gotten really dark.’
I’m also currently obsessed with US Girls’ new album Heavy Light, particularly its opening track ‘4 American Dollars’ (I’m a sucker for anything with a hand drum). While returning to Twitter at the height of a collective global freak-out was absolutely not a good idea, I am also glad to have found this strangely hypnotic (and legit banger) earworm, which has now become my go-to hand washing song.
I’m doing good how are you? pic.twitter.com/srSmAUyDOF
— whitmer thomas (@WhitmerThomas) March 18, 2020
Alice Cottrell, Publisher
I’m aware that my culture recommendations usually skew towards the depressing (Soviet history, anyone?), but during this strange time I’m looking to culture as a salve for my worries.
On TV I’m watching Frayed (ABC), a great Australian comedy about a hugely wealthy London housewife who is forced to return to her home town of Newcastle to confront the past life she fled as a teenager. I also really enjoyed the web series Sex and Death, produced by Melbourne team Kewl Studios, an offbeat comedy that chronicles the romantic and aspirational sagas of a neurodiverse amateur actress.
I recently read Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There and have found myself thinking a lot about the ideas of optimism and radical change that are possible in our society once this crisis is over. While I’m working from home I’m listening non-stop to a lovely Spotify playlist called Calming Music for Chaotic Times, curated by PBS presenter Milo Eastwood.
And I also love this meme, which I’m sure many people can relate to at the moment:
me and my coworkers logging into all of our meetings remotely for the next couple of weeks pic.twitter.com/fpOYiHJLcl
— isha (@ikasliwal) March 9, 2020
Rebecca Starford, Publishing Director
My streaming has been lighthearted this month—and at the rate things are going may well be for the rest of my life! After getting up each morning, reading the news and hyperventilating, I’ve found myself re-watching Kath & Kim episodes to calm down, and their ridiculous wigs, malapropisms and ‘look at moie’ has been a real tonic. I’ll also be returning to my all-time favourite Peep Show (imagine Mark and Jeremy’s different takes on COVID-19!).
At our house we recently binged Feel Good, Canadian comedian Mae Martin’s charming series about addiction, being queer, and finding (and keeping) love. For something even lighter and more heartwarming, I recommend checking out This Country, a BBC mockumentary about the Mucklowe cousins in rural Britain. It’s silly, distracting and will definitely make you smile.
Meaghan Dew, Podcast host & producer
So, apparently in the 1850s someone suggested hippos should be introduced to the Mississippi and farmed for meat as ‘water pigs’. Sarah Gailey took this ridiculous historical aside and created American Hippo, a fabulous alternate Western where the cowboys are ‘hoppers’ who ride hippos and assemble a diverse team of cutthroats, demolitions experts and conwomen to take on a job for the government. Along the way they must outsmart a government agent, run rings around a criminal saloon owner and avoid being eaten by rabid hippos. American Hippo collects Sarah’s two novellas and short stories set in the hippo world, so it’s tightly plotted and concise as well as deeply odd. Follow with Upright Women Wanted (librarians on horseback distributing seditious material) and Magic for Liars (what if Lily and Petunia, but one became a magic professor and the other a private investigator?). Happy sigh.
My usual reading time is during my commute each day, carefully timed to make sure I can curl up in a corner with a book for up to an hour. When it suddenly became obvious that COVID-19 was serious, I had trouble reading for more than a fortnight, just when escapism would have been a welcome distraction from how close I was to other people or (soon after) how I was one of the only people on a tram or train. It was False Value, the latest novel in Ben Aaronovitch’s magical police procedural series Rivers of London, that drew me in enough to break through. In it, policeman and wizard Peter Grant goes undercover in the tech industry to discover what Skinner, the ‘boring billionaire’, is hiding in his secret room. Top tip, it’s probably something magic. Or techy. Or both. All through the investigation Grant quips witty quips, thumbs his nose (selectively) at authority and looks forward to the birth of the twins he’s having with the physical incarnation of a river spirit. If magical detectives are your jam I can’t recommend this series highly enough.
Dženana Vucic, ‘Swipe Right for Friendship’
To make the time in self-isolation pass quicker, I thought I’d recommend a couple of things that have kept me entertained so far.
This podcast by Reply All is a perfect piece of reporting and immensely satisfying.
Speaking of podcasts, CoffeeBreak do great (free) French, German, Spanish, Italian and Mandarin courses. I’m working through beginner German and advanced French and feel like I’m actually making progress.
RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12 is streaming now and it is giving me life.
I’ve been doing yoga to keep active and following this YouTube channel recommended by a friend.
There’s a lot of Studio Ghibli on Netflix right now, and all of it is excellent.
I’m enjoying listening to DhakaBrakha, and this in-studio performance is well worth watching.
Aimee Knight, ‘Why Musicals are TV’s Problem Child’
‘What is with this belt buckle and fate?’ asks reporter Starlee Kine in the third episode of Mystery Show. Such inscrutable questions fuelled this curious, playful podcast, which set a high watermark for ‘human interest’ storytelling. In each episode, the former This American Life reporter goes where no search engine can—the IRL—to investigate such stunningly niche cases as the backstory to a custom belt buckle, and the origins of a Welcome Back, Kotter-lunchbox-related prank. But the show’s best surprise is that its deep specificity conjures wide relatability, as Kine incises stories of loss, longing and joy with X-ACTO knife clarity. I’m on my fifth listen since 2015, revisiting the series whenever I need an aural shot of wonder and warmth. Kine’s contagious optimism, her genuine human interest, is always a salve.
Fernanda Dahlstrom, ‘Civil Disobedience is the Only Rational Response to the Climate Emergency’
This month I’ve been reading Phillip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s monumental expose of Donald Trump’s shambolic first term, A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s testing of America. Ignoring his advisers, firing staff on Twitter, pulling a door off its hinges and throwing it—this is the 45th President’s dysfunction laid bare by some of his closest associates.
I’m also enjoying Ken Liu’s new short story collection, The Hidden Girl. As in his debut collection, The Paper Menagerie, Lui explores the conflict between loyalty to one’s Asian and American cultures, using speculative fiction to do so in startling new ways. A young woman uses her ability to commune with the dead to spy on Japan for the US; virtual reality is used to decide which humanitarian causes receive aid; a scaly student—genetically engineered to survive on a hot planet—learns about humanity in the year 2313.