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The One About Matthew Perry

By Miriam Kramer “Could you be any more brutally honest?” Matthew Perry got his big break in 1994 when he and his four costars became television superstars with the advent of Friends, one of the most beloved sitcoms in TV history. With the publication of his recent memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing; Perry bares his soul and life-long trauma. This extraordinarily raw memoir recounts not only the story of his life as a Generation X emblem and beloved actor, but also his terrible battle with addiction and the ways in which he has come to terms with it. Matthew Perry grew up in Canada with his mother until age fifteen, a nationally ranked tennis player who felt a huge hole inside that was partially a result of his parents’ early divorce. His father, John, an American musician, separated from his mother, Suzanne, a beauty queen. His father became an actor who lived in California. His mother, a respected journalist, served as press secretary for Pierre Trudeau, former prime minister of Canada. Perry marked his childhood and adolescence with a longing for the stability and security that he had never experienced. Known for his tennis prowess, he never found it a means to establishing a sense of identity and self-worth. With his mother’s high profile job traveling with the Canadian prime minister, he often felt abandoned and always on edge. He moved to live with his father in Los Angeles when he was fifteen. In hindsight, as an adult, he views his parents with love and respect for doing the best they could as very young people raising him, and for sticking by him during his stints in rehab and in the hospital. To get attention and please his mother on the occasions she was at home, Perry…

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Bridgerton

By Miriam R. Kramer “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In her eight Regency historical romances, focusing on the family Bridgerton from 1813-1827, Julia Quinn might take this introductory sentence to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and slightly re-write it: “It is a truth acknowledged in the Bridgerton family, that any Bridgerton heir has enough money to marry well and for love, and should do so post-haste.” If you have binged the two costume-drama seasons on Netflix, with Shonda Rhimes as the showrunner, you will mostly know what to expect. The highly popular novels do take a slightly more serious tone at times. Their titles are as follows: The Duke and I (Daphne), The Viscount Who Loved Me (Anthony), An Offer From a Gentleman (Benedict), Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (Colin), To Sir Phillip, With Love (Eloise), When He Was Wicked (Francesca), It’s in His Kiss (Hyacinth), and On the Way to the Wedding (Gregory). The Bridgerton family, heir to the deceased Viscount Edmund and vibrant Viscountess Violet, comprises eight stair-step children named in alphabetical order according to age. Anthony, the Viscount-to-be, is pressured by the responsibility that will fall on his shoulders of looking out for his siblings. Next come Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. With a loving, wise mother ready to push her children into society to find spouses, Quinn puts a happier, lighter spin on the Austen society satire and adds in the boisterous nature of an exceptionally large family whose members all adore and support one another. The first novels start with comments from a light-hearted, acerbic, and anonymous society maven named Lady Whistledown, who knows everything about the glittering society in which the Bridgertons move. In a…

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The Ink Black Heart

By Miriam R. Kramer Published November 2020 With an Addendum about J.K. Rowling’s New Novel, The Ink Black Heart J.K. Rowling, ranked in the top ten bestselling authors of all time, has moved far away from her Harry Potter days. Her renown from penning her beloved children’s fantasy series of seven books, plus other books related to the series, have made Harry Potter and his world of witches, wizards, and fantastic beasts a global pop culture touchstone. The Casual Vacancy, her first murder mystery, was a stand-alone novel with a nasty tone about nasty people. After this freshman effort, which had a mixed reception, Rowling decided to create the Cormoran Strike series, a succession of blunt, psychological murder mysteries based around two private detectives, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. Deciding to write under the pen name Robert Galbraith, Rowling wanted the series to sink or swim on its own merits, while signaling that these thrillers were set in a different universe than her blockbuster children’s novels. She was outed as the author, however, and the first novel subsequently shot up the bestseller list after its middling initial sales. The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, Career of Evil, Lethal White, and very recently, Troubled Blood, have profiled a provocative, evolving partnership between Cormoran and Robin, along with their private lives and hunts for the criminals who lurk among their diverse victims. Cormoran Strike, a former military policeman who wears a prosthesis after his leg was blown off in Afghanistan, starts a struggling detective agency. A secretarial temp assigned randomly to the office, Robin Ellacott, shows up there for a week’s work, only to be confronted with Strike’s ex-fiancée running out the door and Strike himself, who nearly knocks her down the stairs by accident. A sympathetic, personable, and organized colleague, she complements…

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Revisiting the King of ‘Bump, Eek, and Ook’ of the Night

By Miriam R. Kramer From the Vault: I have read a number of Stephen King’s compulsively readable books since this column: Firestarter, The Dead Zone, The Shining, Rose Madder, The Eyes of the Dragon, Joyland, and The Outsider. They all touch on the wide-ranging variety of interests and subject matter I detailed below in my original column. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the most recent. The tale of Trisha, a young girl who gets lost in the woods off the Appalachian Trail, is an older publication but a compelling page turner. She keeps herself going by listening to Red Sox baseball games starring her favorite player, Tom Gordon, on her Walkman. In the process she forages for food and seeks shelter while sensing a lurking presence watching and following her. I look forward to King’s next publication, Fairy Tale, which comes out in early September. Since officially beginning his career with a short story sold in 1967, the extraordinarily prolific author Stephen King has written more than 60 novels, not to mention multiple screenplays, five non-fiction books, and approximately 200 short stories. His first published book, Carrie, was released in 1973 when he was in his twenties, giving him enough money to write full-time. Since then, he’s left a legacy inextricably intertwined with pop culture in books and movies. His writing comprises horror, science fiction, fantasy, and straight fiction genres, with those genres often overlapping. He has referred to himself as the writer’s equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, which does not tell even part of the story of his enduring popularity, despite showing that he understands his common-man touch. Even as an omnivorous reader, I put King aside for a long time. What I did read I found to be propulsive and very engaging, but I…

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A Bouquet of Beach Books

By Miriam R. Kramer What constitutes a beach book? It is different for all of us. This month many of us will be at the beach or the pool, traveling to see friends and family, or just hitting the deck or porch to snack on biographies, fiction, or history. Luckily I have been hitting some lighter books hard this past month to collect reading ideas for your own dog days of August, hopefully to be spent with a dog or two flopped at your feet and a glass of iced tea at hand. First up are two suspense thrillers with unpredictable story-telling. Verity, by Colleen Hoover, works not just as a thriller but also as a sly commentary on writing with a classic example of an unreliable narrator. A New York writer, Lowen Ashleigh, who has had moderate success with her books, meets a man after she sees an accidental death on a street. After he cleans the blood off her, they both head off in separate directions, only to end up in the same literary meeting. Jeremy Crawford’s wife, Verity, is the author of a highly successful series of books. After an unusual car crash, she is left almost comatose with constant nurse supervision at home. Jeremy seeks a writer to continue his wife’s series of novels. Verity had thought very highly of Lowen’s work. Therefore Jeremy wants her to author the novels, first doing research to pick up narrative threads and organize Verity’s outlines. Against her better instincts, Lowen moves into their Vermont home to put together Verity’s writings. When she finds Verity’s diaries, she is swallowed up in Verity’s version of the truth, which paints herself and her husband in a certain light. She also finds herself obsessed with Jeremy and haunted by Verity. I heard an…

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Happy-Go-Lucky

By Miriam R. Kramer In the last twenty-five years the writer David Sedaris has gained what could oddly be called a mainstream cult following not only in the United States, Canada, and other English-speaking countries, but also all over the world. After starting out reading essays on NPR in the 1990s, Sedaris continued with books such as Barrel Fever, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Calypso. With his extensive book tours followed by long, conversational book signings, he has even made his self-promotion fun and collaborative. We long-time readers consider ourselves honorary members of his family, who are often the subject of his satirical essays. So where has his mordant wit taken us in Happy-Go-Lucky, his most recent release? In this case, you should judge a book by its cover. Happy-Go-Lucky features a shudder-inducing clown and cheerful little girl on its book jacket and even in its electronic versions. The cover is peak Sedaris. He has always been interested in the unusual and freakish aspects of human nature, and somehow makes them acceptable and accessible to a mass audience. His public follows his lead in enjoying, or at least experiencing, a frisson of weirdness and distaste from looking at the bizarre. In this book, he takes a sobering look at life in the pandemic and late middle age, but leavens it with the appreciation of the absurd and grotesque, along with the superficial lightness that gilds much of his work. With the recent publications of his two collections of diary entries, Theft by Finding and A Carnival of Snackery, he allowed readers to trace the evolution of his writing from 1977 to 2020. Sedaris is no longer the edgy young New York City writer who lives downtown and cleans houses or moves furniture…

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Mean Baby

By Miriam Kramer As an actress Selma Blair emerged in the early 1990s in such films as Cruel Intentions, a modernized version of the novel Dangerous Liaisons, and as the dark counterpoint to the sprightly character played by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. An actress who always had the intensity and quirkiness of an art-film star, she embodies the antithesis of the all-American girl. Friends with Karl Lagerfeld and hip New York figures such as Ingrid Sischy of Interview magazine, she also served as the face of Chanel. Her recent released memoir, Mean Baby, attracted my attention because of her unusual literary artistry and thoughtfulness, history in Hollywood, and multiple life struggles that continue despite her victories. Her retelling becomes gradually richer and more complex over the span of her memoir. For a Hollywood-related autobiography, this work is atypical and completely absorbing on an intellectual and emotional level. Not primarily a gossipy recount of film adventures, this memoir still includes enough Hollywood for all of us who enjoy escapades. It is mostly an exploration of self, of the challenges that come our way as human beings, and the maturation, joy, and love that can develop in an individual personality and soul despite the combined hardships of abuse, depression, alcoholism, and chronic illness. While this memoir shares Selma’s turmoil and angst, readers should not put it aside as a potential downer. Her appeal lies in her vulnerability, sensitivity, and genuine insights. Blair’s memoir title comes from the way to which she was referred as a newborn. With her facial expressions, her neighbors jokingly called her a “mean baby”— whose disconsolate, surly expression defined her from day one. Referred to by her family only as Baby Beitner, and then casually as Blair Beitner, she was not formally named until she was three…

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The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois

Miriam Kramer Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of five poetry collections and recipient of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Poetry, transitioned to writing fiction in releasing The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, a National Book Critics Circle Book of the Year winner. This absorbing and compulsively readable story sprawls across the painful, mixed history of native American, African-American, and white settlement in Georgia. Jeffers mixes in the musings of the twentieth-century African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois and the personal and intellectual growth of her main character, Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young, educated Black woman navigating the juxtaposition of white and Black worlds. Ailey grows into her destiny in the late twentieth century and beyond, as she uncovers the tangled worlds of her past. Born in the Seventies, independent, youngest sister Ailey; middle sister Coco; and older sister Lydia grow up the daughters and granddaughters of doctors. They transition between an unnamed urban area simply called “the City,” and vacations to her mother’s ancestral home of Chicasetta, Georgia, where her grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-uncle Root live on a farm. They coexist distantly and uneasily with the white branch of her family, which intermittently shows them a combination of decency and prejudice. Both family lines are descended from a slave owner named Pinchard, representing fully their painful, inextricably intertwined past. Growing up in an educated household, the daughters do not escape the problems inherent in a modern society’s, and sometimes in particular a modern Black world’s, structure. Coco is brilliant, gay, and closeted, and beautiful Lydia suffers from drug abuse. Despite a loving, solid upbringing, they suffer from sexual abuse and one snobbish grandmother’s internalized racism, as she most highly prizes the lightest-skinned members of the family. As Jeffers sets up her story of Ailey’s growth into Black womanhood, she…

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Jack Reacher’s Chaos Control

By Miriam R. Kramer What do you read when a terrible war takes over television and social media, horrifying you and making you feel helpless to do anything to change the situation? As I sat down to write, I suddenly realized that my reading this past month has been pushed in a very unusual direction by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which started on February 24. Assuredly some mental relief has arrived in reading all the Jack Reacher books written by Lee Child. An action series like this is not my typical choice. Yet as a speed reader, I compulsively swept through Child’s many books because of the way their themes, tone, and structure come together in easily read works suitable for beach vacations or airplanes. Mostly aimed at men, these muscular books, and Jack Reacher the flawed hero, provide satisfying and instinctive solutions to difficult problems. Jack Reacher is a loner, the star of this long-running show. As a military brat and a former member of the Army Military Police, he has had a peripatetic international upbringing, with a French mother, a brother, and a Marine father who moved multiple times to bases around the world. Mostly called Reacher, he has few close friends and no living relatives in most of the books and short stories. He is an army of one, with his own strongly instilled code of conduct and an unyielding, vigilante sense of justice. In attending multiple schools growing up, along with training for the military, he learned to fight bullies hard and dirty to win at all costs. At 6’5” and 250 lbs., he can confront and dispatch predators with great ease. As the founder of the Army Military Police, 110th MP Special Investigations, he serves in a very unpopular part of the Army, but one…

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The Border

By Miriam R. Kramer This review originally was published in April 2019. I also highly recommend Dopesick, a compulsively watchable fictionalized short series and exposé starring Michael Keaton. It illuminates the recent heroin epidemic that has infected the United States. Dopesick is not a Don Winslow production, but it provides an excellent recent companion to this trilogy in examining the origin of dangerous, overprescribed opiates, and subsequently the effects of their cheaper substitute, heroin, on the American public. Despite weighing in at a walloping 716 pages, Don Winslow’s The Border explodes off the mark like a doped-up Olympic sprinter. The final installment in a trilogy covering the United States’ War on Drugs, The Border picks up where The Cartel and The Power of the Dog leave off and brings the story to an electric conclusion. Winslow’s twenty years of research into the illegal drug trade between the United States and Mexico make him uniquely qualified as a novelist to bring its dizzying highs and lows to light. Art “Arturo” Keller, the American son of a Mexican mother and an absentee American father, is a former CIA agent turned DEA after Vietnam. Having spent more of his career living in Mexico than the United States, Art has seen everything from the burning of Mexican poppy fields in the mid-1970s to the vicious battles between cartels seeking to mark territory in the early 2010s in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Obsessed with bringing down Sinaloa cartel leader Adán Barrera, who murdered his partner, Ernie Hidalgo, Keller uses almost any resource possible, even other cartels, to find a way to destroy his bête noire. In The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, Winslow brings to life complex interactions between drug cartels; Mexican armed forces, police, and…

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