Pomo Picks

The Pop Culture That Helped Us Through the Year

From murder mysteries to fingerpicked tunes, these cultural nuggets helped make 2020 just a little more bearable.

By Portland Monthly Staff December 24, 2020

John Prine passed away this year due to complications from COVID-19. Portland Monthly senior editor at-large Fiona McCann found solace in his songbook.

2020 was rough. Before we search for silver linings, let's just knock that one out: basic functioning was a feat for much of this year, and it's a huge win that things are looking (slightly) brighter at the moment. 

There were silver linings, though. "Free time" became all but meaningless, and many of us tunneled into TV epics and classic films and our ever-growing book piles, reading and watching and listening our way through surreal world development after surreal world development. The arts have always offered flotation and encouraged reflection, and this year they pulled double duty. As the holidays roll in and we turn the page on 2020, we took some time to look back on the culture that kept us going this year.

The Great Believers

I didn’t read as much as I usually do in 2020, which is, of course, the inverse of how I expected things to go. A lot of the time, I'd sit down with a book on my balcony and my brain just wouldn't quite boot up. At the end of the summer, though, it booted up just fine, and I devoured Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers in a handful of days. 

The narrative is split between Chicago in 1985-86 and Paris in 2015. In Chicago, Yale Tishman works at a Northwestern University gallery while AIDS ramps up around him; his friends are dying and a golden age is ending, and he may or may not have stumbled on a career-making haul of 20th century art. In Paris, Fiona Marcus is searching for her daughter who’s recently defected from a cult, and she stays with an old friend—one of the few artists to survive AIDS  in the Chicago of her youth.

I almost have nothing professional or illuminating to say about this book. I just fucking loved it. It’s incredibly transporting, an absolute page-turner, and it radiates warmth. Makkai’s settings (especially her Chicago) are so vivid that they stick in your vision for hours after you set the book down, and any capital-L Literary plot machinations feel more like accidents of history than the work of a heavy authorial hand. It led me down a path that's included Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances and the catalogue of Arthur Russell and a treasure trove of other works produced at the height of the AIDS epidemic by the people it ended up claiming.

I probably consumed better stuff this year, but nothing lived in me and steered me and managed to break me out of my very of-the-moment doldrums quite so effectively. —Conner Reed, arts & culture editor

Hasan Minhaj: We Cannot Stay Silent About George Floyd

 Hasan Minhaj dropped this rant in June, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. MInhaj passionately calls out anti-Black racism among Asian Americans—a challenging and honest sermon about a certain type of racism that often goes unacknowledged or swept under the rug. It’s worth a watch (and many rewatches) and it’s a damn shame Netflix cancelled his show not long after this segment. I hope to see more of him, somewhere, in 2021. —Marty Patail, editor in chief 

John Prine (and Other Stuff, but Especially John Prine)

In the breaks from blind panic, paralyzing anger, and relentless daily grind, 2020’s arts and culture offerings broke through with many moments of powerful joy, recognition, appreciation, and even some kind of transcendence, and I’m grateful for all of it. For the percussive, loopy joy and righteous thrust of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, for the effervescent Schitt’s Creek, for the terrifyingly human Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alexander, for pondering mattresses with Diane Seuss, and for the art of protest that emerged on our streets and statues this year.

And in a year that in so many ways has been defined by loss, I keep coming back to John Prine, who died in April from COVID-19. But what a catalogue of grit and humor and warmth he left behind, including the heart squeezing gift of his posthumously released “I Remember Everything.” These days, it’s his cover of Blake Foley’s Clay Pigeons that I have on heavy rotation, a song of his plans to meet people and sing again that cuts close. “Count the days and the nights that it takes to get back in the saddle again,” he sings with that voice warm as a hand-knit scarf. “Feed the pigeons some clay/ Turn the night into day / And start talkin' again, when I know what to say.” —Fiona McCann, senior editor at-large

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Truth be told, when I look back on the year and the non-news media I consumed, a lot of it was comfort driven. I hung out with my friends from 90210 in the most triumphant of all 90s reboots. I fell asleep regularly the soothing tones of Rick Steves voice in his gorgeous travel shows, and even Jean Claude Van Damme doing his thang in Bloodsport.

But the one bit of new content I can’t seem to get enough of is none of these. It is best described as the Australian version of ­Murder, She Wrote (another one of my faves), set in the 1920s. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is centered around a Phryne Fisher, a beautiful 40-ish woman who is fantastically wealthy and entertains herself by becoming a “Lady Detective” where she’s consistently smarter than the police, uses her money to take care of anyone who needs it, and regularly beds hotties along the way in scandalous fashion.

If this isn’t enough to do it for you, let me say the costume work is some of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. Her intricately beaded flapper gowns, the smart tailoring of a man’s lapel, even the feathers pinned to a cloche hat just so are all impeccable. It’s categorized as a “costume drama,” but I like to think of it as an inspirational tale. —Eden Dawn, senior editor

The Plague

I promise you, Albert Camus is not as hopelessly existential as your high school English teachers led you to believe. Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague (or La Peste) takes us into the city of Oran, where a plague has shut down the city and has wreaked havoc on its people. Through the central character Dr. Bernard Rieux and a small handful of others, we’re presented with vastly different responses to an outbreak. Yes, an allegory for war and the Nazi occupation of France, but also cry for collective good and common decency. I was struck by its uncanny parallels to our own current epidemic: the early and ongoing resistance to protective measures including a citywide shut down, the deep uncertainty about how long and devastating the plague might be, and an unfathomable death toll.
In Camus’s world, “the plague” is our own mortality, something we all know and must face. Only now, during epidemics, do we see it with such maddening, harrowing, humbling, terrifying clarity. The Plague asks us then what it means to be alive, what we owe other people, and what it means just to be decent. See? He’s not all existential conversations in a bar and killing random people on a beach. —Gabriel Granillo, digital editor
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