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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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Modern Love

By Miriam R. Kramer There is no Hallmark Holiday about Modern Love. A book of essays by multiple authors and edited by Daniel Jones from the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, it does not even feature enough meet-cute stories to reach the standards of the Humans of New York interviews. These are real-life; sometimes improbable, sugar cookies fallen on the sidewalk, often more burned than palatable, with a bite or two taken out of them. You can decide where they fall between the saccharine and the over-salted, or if they even qualify as love stories suitable for celebrating February 14th. Jones, after reading tens of thousands of essays on love, still has difficulty defining it. He sees it as “more a wheelbarrow than a rose: gritty and messy but also durable.” He also speaks to vulnerability as the animating quality of all love stories: “In every case…vulnerability means exposing ourselves to the possibility of loss, but also—crucially!—to the possibility of connection. You can’t have one without the other.” Then he boils it down á la Spock from Star Trek: “a combination of three emotions or impulses: desire, vulnerability, and bravery.” Yes, you may think, you have gotten enough out of therapy to understand the surface of these words, if not always feeling them viscerally or having the ability to act on them. In a few stories, I recognized the way younger people in particular distrust themselves in the arena of romance. These are perhaps both self-trusting and self-building stories. Particularly as younger people, we try to be what we think other people want us to be. We do not trust ourselves, maybe in part because we have not yet figured out who we are. The romantic bogs we slog through help get us there, but even reaching the end…

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Vengeance, Comedy, and Suspense

By Miriam R. Kramer Unfortunately we are seeing another round of shutdowns with the advent of this new Omicron variant, so many are canceling plans to travel or go out for entertainment. Razorblade Tears, by S.A. Cosby; All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business by Mel Brooks; and The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz will take you away from home, but in quite different psychological directions. S.A. Cosby has made a mark for himself with his provocative Southern noir prose. The latest, Razorblade Tears, is a fast-paced tale of guilt and vengeance in which an unlikely duo of two fathers and former felons, one Black and one white, join up to find out who killed their two sons, who are married to one another. Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee’s relationships with their sons are fraught with tension and distance, since both are homophobes who have come close to disowning their children for the perceived crime of being gay. As both reckon with their individual pain and grief, they start examining their own discomfort with people who are “other,” whether they be gay, Black, or white. They begin to try clumsily to cross a color divide and use each other’s strengths to pursue the murderers. Cosby creates a lively, modern twist to the classic theme of polar opposites who cross boundaries to value and bond with one another. He vividly brings to life these two men who have tried to put away the violent or murderous impulses that landed them in prison in order to create a life on the outside, only to find that they are forced to use these tools to punish their sons’ killers. If I have a quibble, it is that Ike Randolph’s speech as a Black man seems more authentic than that of Buddy…

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Going There

By Miriam R. Kramer  Going There If you are not craving a stately overview of a serious rise to the pinnacle of helming television journalism, but instead want a dishy tell-all from Katie Couric, America’s former “Girl Next Door,” her new memoir, Going There will satisfy your needs. You may find some of the former mixed in as well. Couric has written a bright, conversational overview of her career that will definitely pull in anyone who watched her for years as the co-anchor of the Today Show, first with Bryant Gumbel, and then with Matt Lauer, and her star turn as the first solo evening female news anchor at CBS. Couric starts off discussing her idyllic childhood in Arlington, VA in the 1950s through 1970s as the baby in a family of four. Her father, a reporter turned PR specialist, was a strong influence on her future career in communications. He would request that she learn a new word every day to present at the dinner table. As she notes, “It’s not an overstatement to say I pursued journalism for my father.” If you find early family dynamics one of your favorite parts of a memoir, you are in luck here. Couric’s steady family life, with parents who valued education and getting into a great college, put pressure on her family of achievers, including the oldest, her sister Emily, and her sister Kiki, who were both accepted to Smith when it was one of the Seven Sisters and the Ivy League was single sex. As she points out, she got into the venerable yet academic University of Virginia, whose social scene was a much better fit for someone whose likability, emotional intelligence, and tenacity allowed her to open so many doors in the future. Couric tackles her own struggles with…

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A Pocketful of Mysteries

A Pocketful of Mysteries Miriam R. Kramer “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”― J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s important to give thanks this month for family, camaraderie, the happiness of being together, and the books that sustain as much as any hearty Thanksgiving dinner. As I look back over years, I can always pick out a number of novels suitable as the weather turns colder and my focus turns inward. Most of us want to relax before the holiday whirl of travel, parties, and family get-togethers is underway. The triumvirate I wrote about below in November 2017 always makes me happy and satisfied upon a re-read.  The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, The Likeness by Tana French, and Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie are the perfect accompaniament to a hot cup of tea by the fire. These classic suspense novels will give you a respite from hectic reality and take you on a dream trip to Europe as cold rain blows against your windowpanes. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith is a master of psychological suspense. Her clipped, matter-of-fact sentences present one of the most interesting anti-heroes of twentieth-century suspense: Tom Ripley, a small-time crook who dabbles in mail fraud while moving from one shabby apartment to another in New York City. The father of a casual friend, Dickie Greenleaf, offers him a trip to Italy if he will visit Dickie there and persuade him to give up his dilettantish pursuit of becoming an artist to return home and join the family business. Tom, notable only for his lack of notability, takes on this voyage from its inception as a method for metamorphosis. He lies skillfully and pathologically, making up stories about his origins. In…

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