Fiction That Deserves Our Time, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:26am


When you have a job, recreation is simple – it happens in the time left over.

By the way, I’ve never been one to recreate with sports or hobbies. Exercise is effort; knitting would kill me. Hotel stays are good, especially with a spa onsite, but my tastes are sadly fancy and therefore unsustainable.

I amuse myself, therefore, primarily with narrative – both printed word, and those images that flicker by which can’t quite be called television if you watch a streaming service on a laptop.

When I worked, I held these narratives to no standard at all. All the junk stories fit to consume, a motto. Supermarket romances, soap operas, thrillers, beauty pageants. No more. In retirement, anything I do as “work,” i.e., writing, has to be fun; anything I do as “fun,” i.e., consume narrative, needs to be worth my time.

All of which is naught but preamble to a few recommendations. You too might be looking for stories that deserve attention.

Books Read (Books I want to read because people in my family have thought they are good include: The Ninth House by Alice McDermott, Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain, and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent)

  1. Exit West – Mohsin Hamid (Immigration, delicate and enchanting magical realism, you can’t figure out how the book does what it does as you read, even the over-rational like me can completely immerse ourselves in the narrative)
  2. Pachinko – Min Jin Lee (Korean immigrants in Japan, over decades. A family saga, at the next level of artistry.)
  3. The Traitor Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson (It’s a fantasy, but imagine Jared Diamond’s geographical masterpiece, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” as a novel about a woman warrior who enters politics, as a tax collector, in a richly imagined land. One of the most compelling reads I’ve had in the last couple of years.)

Digital Narrative Watched (I’m going to assume you’ve all seen or at least heard of The Crown, and Frankie and Grace, so I’ll focus on somewhat lesser known shows.)

  1. The Good Place – ABC (Brilliant, funny, about moral philosophy and giant flying shrimp. Also Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto. Just watch it. Do not give up on the first season, it is masterful all the way to the end. And the first season is like Groundhog Day meets Through The Looking Glass Cheers and Veronica Mars. Obviously indescribable.)
  2. The Path – Hulu (For anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s, this portrayal of cults is unmissable. Featuring Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad.)
  3. Vera – ITV  (In its 8th season, this British detective series stars the fantastic Brenda Blethyn as a single middle-aged woman who wears a rainhat like nobody’s business and calls people “Pet.” So comforting, so well-written and performed. Previous seasons can be seen on Hulu and on Acorn, a Commonwealth-produced-only streaming service.)
  4. The Deuce – HBO (Maggie Gyllenhaal is worth watching in anything, even something about 70s-era Times Square and the pornography industry.)
  5. SMILF – Showtime (Newcomer Frankie Shaw wrote and stars in this show about a single mother in Boston. Rose O’Donnell plays her mom. It’s very raw, but also funny, and Shaw is incredibly appealing as are the adorable little ones who play her son)

If you know some under-the-radar good stuff, particularly of this artistic but not impenetrable variety, please feel free to share below.

Have a wonderful weekend. So much going on in our world. I imagine my little post on fiction as mere white space to the graphic novel in which we now live. Stranger than fantasy indeed.

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25 Comments

  • 01/20/18
    11:40 am

    Reply

    Mardel said...

    I adored Exit West, and several people have recommended Pachinko, including some whose recommendations I take seriously, so now it must go on my list. Everything else is new to me and I am looking forward to explorations.

    01/20/18
    11:44 am
    Lisa said...

    @Mardel, You’re always so generous with recommendations, I am glad to return the favor in a small way:).

  • 01/20/18
    12:36 pm

    Reply

    Kathryn Irvine-Bray said...

    For those with Acorn TV three with heart are Agatha Raisin, Delicious, and detectorists. My book recommendation is Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis which explores what might happen if dogs were granted human intelligence.

    01/20/18
    1:04 pm
    Frances/Materfamilias said...

    Absolutely concur with Kathryn’s recommendation of Fifteen Dogs, one of my favourites of 2016. And most recently, I loved Ali Smith’s Autumn.

    01/20/18
    4:19 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Kathryn Irvine-Bray, Ooh yay I just saw the promo banner for detectorists! And if Kathryn and Frances both like Fifteen Dogs, I bet it’s great. I think maybe I should give my dad a copy too if he hasn’t read it.

    01/23/18
    6:10 pm
    Kristina Zack said...

    @Kathryn Irvine-Bray, The first 2 seasons of Detectorists are on Netflix, too, 3rd on Acorn. I highly recommend it — funny, gentle, and smart.

  • 01/20/18
    1:28 pm

    Reply

    Amanda said...

    I adore the Good Place – “what the fork” has entered our family lexicon. Also enjoying Jane the Virgin, iZombie (full of Veronica Mars alumni), Bake Off. Concur on Vera (the early side kick turned up in late season The Good Wife with American accent), Agatha Raisin (same author as Hamish McNab) and the Detectorists is on my must see list. Reading Blood, Bones and Butter – brilliant writing and the Nest (though it makes me anxious)

    01/20/18
    4:19 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Amanda, Agatha Raisin. There is no way that could be anything but British, right? Good! And Blood, Bones and Butter? Hadn’t heard of it, thank you!

  • 01/20/18
    1:44 pm

    Reply

    luci short said...

    All-right I’m going to go out on a limb to make recommendations which feels a bit dangerous to me.
    In the fiction that “deserves our time” category:
    1. The Girl On The Train Paula Hawkins
    2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
    3. All The Light We cannot See Anthony Doerr
    4. Crow Lake Mary Larson

    If none of these interest you read what you love!

    luci

    01/21/18
    8:21 am
    Lisa said...

    @luci short, No risk here – rules are that people can be mean to me but you guys are sacrosanct! I have read the first three of your recommendations, liked them all, so will have to try #4. Thank you!

  • 01/20/18
    1:48 pm

    Reply

    KSL said...

    Just read a real page turner “The Woman in the Window” a debut novel by A.J. Finn. And a great under the radar TV series (I may have mentioned already) Is an Australian series called “A Place to Call Home” – absolutely fantastic. And if you haven’t watched “Grantchester” I highly recommend that as well – British.

    01/21/18
    8:22 am
    Lisa said...

    @KSL, I’ve watched some of Grantchester, but I have a terrible time finding PBS shows online:(. Yes to A Place to Call Home, my daughter and I are watching it together whenever she is home these days. The lead actress is amazing. And I’m so up for a good page turner, I will try The Woman in the Window, thank you.

  • 01/20/18
    2:07 pm

    Reply

    Redolence said...

    Luther on Netflix. He’s a tortured soul detective in London played by Idris Elba. Need I say more?

    01/21/18
    8:22 am
    Lisa said...

    @Redolence, No need to say more. No need at all;).

  • 01/20/18
    2:38 pm

    Reply

    Kris Lindquist said...

    I also love The Good Place. Book recommendation: The Keeper of Lost THings by Ruth Hogan – one of the best books I’ve read in years!

    01/21/18
    8:23 am
    Lisa said...

    @Kris Lindquist, Ah thank you!

  • 01/20/18
    3:49 pm

    Reply

    Laura said...

    Hurrah! I’m downloading books for a five month trip to Kenya, these sound fabulous.
    I just started a series by a Smith sibling, featuring vampires (but creative) and sex and frivolous well written fun. There are fourteen books, another plus!
    J.R. Ward, Dark Lover, The Black Dagger Brotherhood.
    But your list is probably better brain food…

    01/21/18
    8:24 am
    Lisa said...

    @Laura, Fourteen books in a series! That is a total plus. If you want more in that vein, The Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater is a great YA read.

  • 01/20/18
    4:50 pm

    Reply

    Jane said...

    I have been seduced by Vera. I can not resist watching this program even though half the time I can not understand the dialogue because of the heavy accents. The narrative is well-written and the character is complex. The outcomes are never what you would expect. Vera the character reminds me of a woman that I worked with in both personality and appearance.

    Two of my favorite books recently are: The Leavers by Grace Ko (immigrant story) and Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan (satire of the privileged).

    01/20/18
    11:03 pm
    Debra said...

    @Jane, Put the closed captioning on! I do for all British etc, shows.

    01/21/18
    6:03 am
    Jane said...

    Oops! The author of The Leavers is Lisa Ko, not Grace Ko. My bad.

    01/21/18
    6:07 am
    Jane said...

    @Debra Thank you for that very good suggestion!

    01/21/18
    8:24 am
    Lisa said...

    @Jane, Love Kevin Kwan. And I will read Lisa Ko’s book, thank you for that recommendation. Vera – don’t we kind of wish she were our neighbor?

  • 01/20/18
    5:09 pm

    Reply

    Bungalow Hostess said...

    I loved All the light We Cannot See and The Nightingale…I am and avid reader and knitting is my way of meditating…as to Spas in high end hotels…I must restrain myself!
    Watching on the telly…This is Us and The Crown…
    soon it will be warm enough to potter in the garden. :-))

    01/21/18
    8:26 am
    Lisa said...

    @Bungalow Hostess, I too am looking forward to garden puttering (somehow in the USA we call it puttering vs. pottering?). That’s a recreation I get to think of as productive, so, two birds with one stone:).

  • 01/20/18
    5:51 pm

    Reply

    Queenie said...

    Marvelous Mrs Maisel Amazon Prime

    01/21/18
    8:27 am
    Lisa said...

    @Queenie, I’ve heard that is great, I am stubbornly boycotting Amazon over Breitbart ads, I may eventually decide that it’s not a worthy crusade and then the gates will open back up. Also, Amazon has Catastrophe, which I loved.

  • 01/20/18
    6:14 pm

    Reply

    Katherine C. James said...

    For some months I couldn’t read or watch screens because of hitting my head. After a relatively short amount of time I could watch streaming comedies, which proved to be easy on the brain despite being on a screen. As time went on, the programs I could watch could be more demanding, but I still couldn’t sustain reading of any length. Interesting that.

    I made a list for a Facebook friend who asked for viewing recommendations when she was ill. It’s long. I look forward to replacing viewing time with reading and active time soonest. I’m with you regarding The Good Place, which I found clever, refreshing, and unexpected; I appreciated that it made me laugh out loud. Here’s my list for Netflix and Amazon, TV then film. My list is limited to those two sites because I’m trying to control the number of streaming sites I buy into, though I do have PBS Passport as well.

    Netflix:

    Doc Martin
    Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
    Rita
    Last Tango in Halifax
    Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    The Good Place
    Call the Midwife
    Sherlock
    Grace and Frankie
    Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee
    My Next Guest
    Frasier (All 11 seasons)
    Desk Set
    Spotlight
    Mudbound
    Emma
    The African Queen
    Apollo 13
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    The Meyerowitz Stories
    Cinema Paradiso

    Amazon Prime:

    Mozart in the Jungle
    Catastrophe
    Downton Abbey
    Mr. Robot
    The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
    Love and Friendship
    Manchester by the Sea
    Paterson

    01/21/18
    8:39 am
    Lisa said...

    @Katherine C. James, As you know, I am so sorry you had those concussions to deal with. What a long burdensome journey. But this list is a service. Thank you so much.

  • 01/20/18
    7:01 pm

    Reply

    Victoire said...

    Good reading: “The Price of Illusion,” (2016) a memoir by Joan Juliet Buck about growing up as the daughter of a fairly successful Hollywood producer, and then becoming the editor of French Vogue for most of the 1990’s. Hilarious and harrowing, with a good amount of hedonism along the way – but finally leaving the luxe life for a more satisfying one of complex honesty and simplified style. Very well-written, and endlessly interesting.

    Good movie (I watch little TV): “The Phantom Thread,” now in theaters, with Daniel Day-Lewis as a 50’s fashion designer in London. Mesmerizing to watch, brilliantly acted, and oh, the clothes! Full of the mystery and misery of high couture – but I’m still not sure that I quite understand what’s going on towards the end. Guess I’ll just have to see it again! And to repeat: oh, the clothes…

    01/21/18
    8:39 am
    Lisa said...

    @Victoire, Thank you! These two make a good pairing it seems to me – couture and Vogue.

  • 01/20/18
    11:07 pm

    Reply

    Debra said...

    Just watched one of the best shows I’ve seen, Line of Duty. It’s on Acorn and Amazon. Loved Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng.

    01/21/18
    8:43 am
    Lisa said...

    @Debra, Why had I never heard of Line of Duty?!?! Apparently it’s the most popular show in Britain? Something to make up for having finished all the Vera episodes that have been already filmed;). And I gave LFE to my sister for Christmas, thank you for the reminder, as I haven’t read it myself and want to. I loved her first novel.

  • 01/21/18
    6:11 am

    Reply

    Amy said...

    Ditto Pachinko, also HIGHLY recommend “The Sympathizer” by Viet Than Nguyen. Excellent writing and cultural themes/observations.

    01/21/18
    8:44 am
    Lisa said...

    @Amy, I read The Sympathizer, I agree. I thought his first chapter/section was one of the most compelling pieces of fiction I have ever encountered.

  • 01/21/18
    9:21 am

    Reply

    dottoressa said...

    I am so backward with tv shows that I’m ashamed to recommend something ancient that all of you have seen long ago,but I liked BBC’s The Last Post,Ten Days in the Valley with Kyra Sedgwick and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake-China Girl with Elizabeth Moss
    I was besotted with Vera books,as well as with Shetland mysteries books,all by Ann Cleeves
    Beside this ,I liked Ruth Ozbeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (was it maybe your suggestion?)and Frederik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry-a very peculiar book-,among others
    I’m going to check the books you’ve mentioned here
    Dottoressa

    01/21/18
    10:13 am
    Victoire said...

    @dottoressa, What a coincidence! I am recording the Ruth Ozeki book you mention right now at Recording for the Blind/Learning Ally – it is just wonderful! Being the voice of teenage narrator “Nao” is quite a treat, even with the difficult things she relates. I have to keep reminding myself, “This is fiction, this is fiction… don’t get upset, keep reading …”. And then becoming the character “Ruth” as she works her way through Nao’s notebooks – layer upon layer of experiences. Glad to know you admire the book, too!

    01/21/18
    10:17 am
    Victoire said...

    @dottoressa,

    01/21/18
    7:19 pm
    Lisa said...

    @dottoressa, Not backward, just not pell-mell as I am:). I will have to try Ten Days in the Valley, I like Kyra Sedgwick a lot! And the Ozbeki book might have been my recommendation, I loved it.

  • 01/21/18
    11:13 am

    Reply

    Sue Burpee said...

    I’m with you in the narrative hobby. Except I also use narrative (books on my i-pod) to be able to keep doing things that require no brain power, and which I hate to do. Like cleaning my house or exercising. Well, except for skiing… one must have their wits about them on the ski trails.
    P.S. Love “Vera”…and love Ann Cleeves’ books as well.

    01/21/18
    7:21 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Sue Burpee, I also plan to start using the hobby to motivate me to exercise, as soon as I get the treadmill in my garage and a stand for my laptop I’m with you!

  • 01/21/18
    9:07 pm

    Reply

    Hilde said...

    84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. A book about books, and about reading, and the daily life in London and NYC after WW2. And about friendship. I had to buy a new copy as my old one was falling apart.

    01/22/18
    8:30 am
    Lisa said...

    Wow, I read that book when I was young. I remember it was lovely. How nice that you loved it so much it fell apart.

  • 01/23/18
    10:50 am

    Reply

    BethF said...

    Great post! Lots of good suggestions for my to read/to watch lists. Here are my contributions:

    1. Anything is Possible – Elizabeth Strout. Strout’s beautiful writing delves into the interior lives of her characters.

    2. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy. Transvestite Muslims in the Indian subcontinent struggle to find love and a place to belong amidst a background of violence and cruelty.

    3. How to Behave in a Crowd – Camille Bordas. A poignant but funny coming of age story of a ‘tween French boy.

    4. 4321 – Paul Aster. Aster sets out the back story for the birth of a boy. Then, in alternating chapters, imagines four different lives for his character. A long read, but worth it.

    01/23/18
    7:35 pm
    Lisa said...

    @BethF, I love the works of Elizabeth Strout and Arundhati Roy, at least those I’ve read. Thank you very much for these recommendations. I see that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been nominated for an National Book Critics Award, along with Exit West among others..

  • 01/23/18
    11:14 am

    Reply

    Elizabeth said...

    Great post. I have enjoyed recently:
    The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
    The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa – translated from Japanese
    A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

    Love reading recommendations from your readers!

    01/23/18
    7:36 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Elizabeth, I read Tea Girl too – I found it fascinating. Thank you for these recommendations, and I am glad you enjoy the thoughts from other readers.

  • 01/23/18
    5:04 pm

    Reply

    lauren said...

    in honor of ursula k. le guin’s passing, i’ll recommend HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES (carmen maria machado, which is whip-smart, feminist magical realism at its finest. if you’ve ever watched LAW AND ORDER: SVU, i can’t praise ESPECIALLY HEINOUS, her barnburner of a novella, enough. it’s readable online.

    i don’t want to say too much about michel faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, but it is one of the most heartbreaking works of speculative fiction i’ve read in years. it’s about a missionary dispatched to a planet humankind hopes to colonize because its indigenous population has requested religious instruction; their interactions are not at all what one would expect, and the whole book feels like going out under the stars and taking a deep breath. along similar lines, if you haven’t read emily st. john mandel’s STATION ELEVEN, get on that. my first manager at my bookstore volunteer gig had its motto tattooed on his arm: because survival is insufficient. art after the end of the world: it’s an apocalypse i needed.

    if you’re looking for another impeccably crafted immigration narrative, i loved MY CAT YUGOSLAVIA (pajtim statovci), the intertwined stories of a young gay man who immigrated from kosovo to finland during the war in the balkans and his mother’s youth and marriage before the hostilities.

    on television, we just watched and loved the first season of DARK, a german netflix missing-child drama that blends the period intrigue of STRANGER THINGS with DONNIE DARKO’s mind-bending. it is utterly beautiful, and very smart.

    01/23/18
    7:38 pm
    Lisa said...

    @lauren, As I read Exit West on your recommendation, it’s highly likely I’ll follow up on these others. I’ve skirted Dark, sounds as though I ought to grab its hand. I love smart narrative to pieces.

  • 01/24/18
    11:11 am

    Reply

    Mary Q said...

    Try Alias Grace on Netflix. It’s utterly compelling.

    01/27/18
    9:45 am
    Lisa said...

    I saw that – compelling is the exact way to describe it.

  • 01/24/18
    5:00 pm

    Reply

    Victoire said...

    In response to Lauren (above), may I recommend Ursula K. LeGuin’s non-science fiction book, “Orsinian Tales” (1976), a collection of short stories about an imaginary Central European country over many periods of its history. Beautifully written, of course, and full of her unique perceptions on truth and strangeness. She makes the usual comedic “Ruritania” not just real, but a part of our own historical and emotional experience as well.

    LeGuin was a wonder, and women readers, in particular, owe her a great deal. Not to mention women writers – and all writers who imagine worlds other than our own. (Yes, even More and Swift benefit, in retrospect, from Leguin’s work.) Reading is a many-sided conversation, traversing time and space, and what a joy it is to be part of the continuum …

    01/27/18
    9:45 am
    Lisa said...

    Thank you. It’s become clear to me that I did not read nearly enough LeGuin in my life.

  • 02/01/18
    7:46 am

    Reply

    Annie Green said...

    I cannot recommend Detectorists highly enough – a land where it is always summer, brilliant soundtrack and stories that are gentle, funny and entirely English in their understatement. Also Grace and Frankie which makes me burst out laughing in places. Sherlock – of course. I love, love The Good Place – so very clever and Ted Danson is a revelation. Not sure if you can get Beck – Nordic Noir which is compelling. And Lewis: spin-off of Morse and, let it be said, better. Who knew that Oxford was such a killing field? Happy viewing.

  • 02/12/18
    8:27 pm

    Reply

    Christine Sigman said...

    I am late to the discussion but since you brought up sci-fi/fantasy, I must recommend Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. A unique premise set within the genre of world building. It has stayed with me for a long time. As an aside, though I am a big reader, I had not read much science fiction or fantasy since I was a teenager. Perhaps it’s the impossibility of the real world these days that has driven me back to it. Not sure that’s a good thing, but one can only take so much at a time.

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