What I've been watching, listening to, and reading in these surreal times


These are strange times, to put it mildly.

Again and again on Twitter I see people posting something along these lines: In these times of social distancing/quarantine/lockdown, so many of us are streaming movies/television, listening to music, and reading books to get though the day. Don’t ever say again that art is useless.

Some of the art I’ve been consuming:

TV

I remain obsessed with the Chinese fantasy drama The Untamed (which I wrote about at the end of my last post here). I am still losing myself in this rapturous, epic love story; still watching fanvids, still swooning over the beauty of this show and grieving over the terrible losses the characters endure. If you want to be swept into another world, into other lives, to feel intensely and cry over problems that are not your own—this is the show for you.

Music

I’d never paid much attention to K-pop, but when BTS released their latest album, Map of the Soul:7, I clicked on the performance music video of their song “On,” out of curiosity. And was, along with my teen daughter, instantly hooked. Their latest album is now constantly streaming in our home. An extra pleasure I’ve found: fan edits of The Untamed set to music from BTS. Like this one and this one here


Stories and books

A modern-day Decameron project online

A cool new storytelling project I came upon: a modern-day Decameron project for our age, featuring a different speculative fiction story each day from the leading lights of the fantasy/science fiction field, including Jo Walton, Naomi Kritzer, Max Gladstone, and more. The stories are free to read to on Patreon, although you can also pledge to support the authors. I’ve read the first two, and they are marvelous; I particularly admire the story, “One Hundred Tasks for Bones,” by Leah Bobet, which reminds me a bit of Patricia McKillip’s writing—both fantastical and grounded, and glowing with such warmth and humanity and love.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

One of the most delightful and wildly original books I’ve read. It’s a high-stakes escape room puzzle/tournament set in a crumbling Gormenghast-in-space with necromancers and sword fighters, mystery and banter and wonderful action scenes (many of them involving skeletons). Harrow is the Reverend Daughter, teenage leader, and ridiculously powerful necromancer of the Ninth House. Gideon is her servant, an orphan and sword fighter, who has longed all her life to escape the House. Harrow and Gideon despise one other. But they agree to team up to win a competition set by the Undying Emperor, with immortality and immense power as a reward. The relationship between Harrow and Gideon evolves exactly as you hope and expect (especially if you’re familiar with fanfiction tropes), and it is glorious. This book is zany and crazy, dark and sharp and full of fun. . . until it’s suddenly tragic and heart-breaking and full of feels. One of the best things I’ve read in a while.


Poetry from Ancient Times

I will confess it: Gideon the Ninth is one of the few books to capture me in months, because for months I have had a hard time with the concentration needed to read books. And as someone for whom books have always been an escape and comfort, this absolutely horrifies me. But since January, I’ve lost something of my ability to focus and lose myself in novels as I once did, and the novels that I have read have (by and large) left me cold.

This personal affliction predates the explosion of COVID-19 and lockdowns in the U.S. It predates the first widespread news coverage of this novel coronavirus in the West.
It feels like a side effect from just the general, free-floating anxiety and instability of the world, which has haunted me since fall 2016. This winter, it felt that aside from watching The Untamed, my ability to consume a sustained narrative was . . . broken.

But one thing I was able to turn to this winter, and that I can still turn to now, is lyric poetry.

I’ve been rereading Kenneth Rexroth’s translation, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, which features the Tang Dynasty poetry of Du Fu (also spelled Tu Fu) and selected Song Dynasty poets. These poems echo across centuries and language and culture. Du Fu and most of these other poets wrote from times of war and upheaval far greater than what we in the U.S. know now. These are vivid flashes of beauty—of willow trees bending in the breeze, flower petals flying, the flight of swallows and the light of a crescent moon. These are poems that evoke melancholy, loneliness, exile. The beauty of nature and the warmth of friendship and love, set against a vast world of nature and empire that continues relentlessly on no matter a poet’s personal travails. There are poems here that feel so light and delicate, and that change emotion and mood so sharply. Here is a short one from Du Fu:

A pair of golden orioles
Sings in the bright green willows.
A line of white egrets crosses
The clear blue sky. The window
Frames the western mountains, white
With the snows of a thousand years.
Anchored to the pilings are
Boats from Eastern Wu,
Three thousand miles from home.

The painterly evocation of scenery, and then that sharp turn into distance and implied loneliness and longing for home. . .

My favorite one from Du Fu in this book:

To Wei Pa, A Retried Scholar

The lives of many men are
Shorter than the years since we have
Seen each other. Aldebaran
And Antares move as we have.
And now, what night is this? We sit
Here together in the candle
Light. How much longer will our prime
Last? Our temples are already
Grey. I visit my old friends.
Half of them have become ghosts.
Fear and sorrow choke me and burn
My bowels. I never dreamed I would
Come this way, after twenty years,
A wayfarer to your parlor.
When we parted years ago,
You were unmarried. Now you have
A row of boys and girls, who smile
And ask me about my travels.
How have I reached this time and place?
Before I can come to the end
Of an endless tale, the children
Have brought out the wine. We go
Out in the night and cut young
Onions in the rainy darkness.
We eat them with hot, steaming,
Yellow millet. You say, “It is
Sad, meeting each other again.”
We drink ten toasts rapidly from
The rhinoceros horn cups.
Ten cups, and still we are not drunk.
We still love each other as
We did when we were schoolboys.
Tomorrow morning, mountain peaks
Will come between us, and with them
The endless, oblivious
Business of the world.

More recently, I have also discovered the Persian medieval poetry of Hafez and Rumi, thanks to Jenny Hamilton’s post on these poets. I am mostly working through the volume of Hafez right now, and they are gorgeous, ecstatic poems of love and longing, the very distillation of pure yearning.* Very different from the selection of Chinese poetry in Rexroth’s book, yet they also speak across time and distance to reach us in our current day. And to say, people have always loved, people have always suffered, the world has always been beautiful and terrible and often unjust.



*Because I am That Bitch and everything seems to feed my obsession with The Untamed, I have followed Jenny Hamilton’s example and also made my own pairing of Hafez’s poems with gifs from The Untamed, which you can find on Twitter here.

**Also, I posted years ago about finding comfort in the exquisite and fantastical tales of Pu Songling’s Strange Tales of a Chinese Studio, and I have turned to these stories again now. 

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