Steph Cha binges “Six Feet Under” and reads kindred authors to feel less alone
The Times asked authors, who are stuck at home like the rest of us, to track what they do over several days of isolation. Today’s quarantine diary is from Steph Cha, the author of “Your House Will Pay” and other L.A.-based thrillers.
Friday, March 20
I’ve been sheltering in place with my husband, Matt, and the dogs since last Thursday, and today was the day I kind of broke down. It was a minor thing wrapped in a major thing. I stepped on a scale and discovered I’d lost 2 pounds in the last week, which is disconcerting when you’re eight months’ pregnant during an unprecedented pandemic and have just canceled your various medical appointments.
It’s tempting, somehow, to spend all day on Twitter, consuming news and anxiety and suffering in bitter little bites. I’ve had a hard time concentrating, which makes reading actual paragraphs harder than usual. But books are part of my routine, and I sense it would be ceding too much to skip my daily reading now.
Join author Steph Cha and Joe Ide for a streaming conversation about new L.A. noir. The March 30 event will be live.
I get halfway through an advance copy of “These Women” by my friend Ivy Pochoda, and it’s absolutely superb, a painful, atmospheric novel about women living on the margins of Los Angeles. Sex workers, drug addicts, women viewed and treated with contempt and disregard — easy prey for a serial killer loosely based on the “Grim Sleeper.” Ivy specializes in the kind of crime fiction that I love to read, using crime more as lens than engine, illuminating character and community and revealing the cracks in the system.
Matt and I have a doomsday Google Hangout with friends, then watch an episode of “Fleabag.” We started watching this show months ago, but under normal circumstances, we watch only an hour or two of TV a week, so we’re only now at the midpoint of the second season. It’s fantastic, and it keeps getting better, just like everyone told us. We’ll probably finish the season this week.
Saturday March 21
Today is better than yesterday — the sun is out, and I get to socialize. A Zoom chat with high school friends, a Google Hangout with law school friends and a social distancing happy hour in front of our neighbors’ house, where we all stand well over 6 feet apart and catch up with our outside voices. One of the children, I think 8 or 9 years old, declares: “This is a story I’ll tell my kids — except I’m not going to have any.” His mother tells us he’s been adamant on this point.
In a coronavirus quarantine diary, ‘The Other Americans’ author Laila reads ‘The Bell Jar,’ recommends Kiese Laymon’s ‘Heavy’ and watches ‘Devs.’
I read more of “These Women,” which takes place along Western Avenue, centering on West Adams but ranging a few miles north and south. I live within walking distance of the Koreatown stretch of Western, and I’ve known the street most of my life. Even when I was a kid in the Valley, my mom would bring me to visit my grandmother and shop at Koreatown Plaza. Ordinarily, it’s a busy street, choked with cars and buses and pedestrians, and Pochoda brings its bustle to life in a way that is both exhilarating and familiar. It’s also distressing to read about now — my brain is mush, so I keep thinking these characters shouldn’t be out there, recklessly endangering themselves and others.
As soon as we started self-isolating, Matt and I decided to watch “Six Feet Under.” We watched the first five episodes 10 years ago while we were studying for the bar, but then we moved across the country and lost the DVD somewhere along the way. Just over a week into the quarantine life, and we’ve already caught up and then some. The show is obviously morbid, but I’m enjoying it anyway. One bonus is that it takes place in Los Angeles, and we’ve been pausing on various street shots, trying to figure out where they were filmed — not quite like going outside, but a bit of the same flavor. The family home and mortuary is on Arlington in West Adams, directly south of where we live and just west of the action in “These Women.”
Sunday March 22
I wake up and finish “These Women.” It’s a stunner, and I hope that we’re in a better place by the time it comes out in mid-May. We all want this, of course, for more reasons than there are people on this Earth. I want Ivy’s book to sell, and I want people to stop dying; I want the economy to bounce back, and I want my friends to meet my newborn baby in the flesh.
I’ve been listening to audiobooks lately, figuring I’ll lean on them pretty heavily when I’m taking care of an infant. A couple of weeks ago, I put a hold on the first volume of Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” through the library — I own the paperback too and figure I can toggle between them. The audiobook just became available, and Matt and I start it together, another project to get us through these endless days. We’ve both been meaning to read this book for years, and so far, it’s pretty fascinating. We also start a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” putting the border together while we learn about [Caro’s subject] Robert Moses.
After dinner, we watch “Iron Man 2” — we’re cutting “Six Feet Under” with the Avengers movies, figuring we could use some pure escapist entertainment. I’m disappointed in the movie, which is genuinely less engaging than the introduction to Caro’s 66-hour audiobook. There’s no conflict worth caring about for more than five minutes at a time, and Scarlett Johansson’s character is a sexy embarrassment. I understand these movies get better, though if not, they’re shiny at least and available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Matt goes to bed because he’s still working full-time, while I’m just sitting around the house and tackling minor tasks when what I should really be doing is preparing to be a mother and laying the groundwork for my next novel. I’d planned to start writing it this month so I could get wrist-deep before the baby comes, but for now, I can’t really concentrate, and part of me wonders if it even makes sense to put in the effort. I write contemporary novels about Los Angeles, and I suspect the city and its concerns will have changed dramatically by the end of all this, in unpredictable and possibly permanent ways.
I open “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” by poet-memoirist-essayist Cathy Park Hong, and read the first piece, which deals with depression and identity and racism. It hits me hard, as I knew it would. Our president is making a point of calling this thing the Chinese virus, and it’s not just racist — it’s strategic. He can’t function without human enemies and scapegoats, and it serves him to give an Asian face to this faceless virus, no matter the public cost. People are getting hurt. I haven’t suffered any great harm, but in the past month, I’ve had a stranger in an elevator ask if I’d been to China lately and a stranger tweet at me about China’s responsibility for the coronavirus, calling it “your country.” On top of everything else, this crisis has really shown Asian Americans where we stand — perpetually foreign, perilously yellow. I’m glad to have Cathy Park Hong to keep me company, as well as other Asian American writers like Ed Park, who wrote about Hong’s book and his own coronavirus-related run-ins for the New Yorker last week, and Charles Yu, whose novel “Interior Chinatown” could have predicted this all. It helps to feel less alone.
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