A retrospective of the groundbreaking TV series, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of its premier.
When Sex and the City first aired on HBO in 1998, the provocative comedy about four attractive, single women living glamorous lives in New York City quickly gained an immense following. The show marked a significant departure from typical network situation comedies and, along with the Sopranos, would lead to an increased demand for well-written adult-themed programs, many of which would be produced through cable networks. TV historian and entertainment writer Armstrong (Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, 2016, etc.) provides an in-depth account of the show, from the early development stages in its transformation from Candace Bushnell’s popular weekly column in the New York Observer to its six seasons and eventual incarnation as two films. Through interviews with various cast members and writers, including the show’s creator, Darren Star, and executive producer, Michael Patrick King, the author shares vivid stories of the writing process, with particular emphasis on the women writers whose personal dating experiences inspired many of the memorable plotlines. Armstrong is clearly a fan of the show, yet she offers a balanced and insightful perspective of its cultural influence, specifically in relation to our country’s evolving feminist movement. “Sex and the City, for all of its excellent and addictive qualities, served as a weekly commercial for white ladies doing what they want as the ultimate liberation,” she writes. “Its portrayal of women as layered characters, flawed and sometimes unlikable, freed the women of television and the women who watched them to embrace more than the traditionally feminine role meant to delight men at all costs. But the show also equated feminism with wearing expensive clothes and sleeping with lots of men. While this was a step up from single women as cat ladies, it only provided a limited view of liberation in which patriarchy hasn’t lost much ground.”
An entertaining, well-documented consideration of a significant TV series—thoughtful fare for TV historians as well as fans of the show.
In his second departure from quiz-show fare, Jennings (Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids, 2012, etc.) tracks the development of an abiding personal passion: comedy.
The author assembles a concise but thorough history of the sweeping trends in American humor that have led to our present situation, in which comedy serves as the cultural lingua franca, so central to our ways of interacting, consuming, and producing that it is taken for granted. In this groundswell of “laughterhood,” Jennings hears the rumblings of a not-so-distant time when we will reach “peak comedy,” an opinion he shares with Simpsons writer Tim Long: “I don’t think you can go that much faster than people are going now.” Jennings frets over oversaturation and whether the increasingly frenetic pace of comedy (measured in JPM, or jokes per minute) might feed into our widespread anxieties, with a worldwide web of people typing “that’s funny” but never really laughing, too caught up in getting the next joke to pause and develop deeper senses of humor and too busy searching for the laugh to deal with the tragic or the truly serious. In a more hopeful projection, the author sees Twitter exchanges making us all funnier, its circulating joke cycle forming the training wheels for quick thinking, the learnable part of wit. Jennings downplays his fame as a “professional ex-game show contestant” (the winningest champion on Jeopardy! to date, for all the Rip van Winkles out there). A self-professed comedy geek, he switches from the funnyman’s thinking guy to the thinking man’s funny guy depending on whether the comedy or the geek is uppermost. Let us hope that the author has geeked out in some other areas he’d like to share with the class.
This book is full of good sense and meaningful interviews, and it would be difficult to find a smarter or more satisfying treatment of a subject so evanescent and idiosyncratic as comedy.
Here's a change—a psychological thriller in which a man is the crazy one.
Michael Hayes made it through a childhood of poverty, abuse, and misery to what was, for him, the pinnacle of happiness—his eight-year love affair with Verity Metcalf, a girl he met at Bristol University. The centerpiece of their intensely passionate connection was a game they invented called the Crave. The pair would separate at a bar and wait for a man to hit on her; it never took long. From across the room, Michael would watch for the signal. When she touched her silver eagle necklace, he "would push through the mass of people, pulling at the useless man drooling over her, and ask him what he thought he was doing talking to my girlfriend. And because I am useful-looking in that tall, broad way, and because V likes me to lift weights and start all my days with a run, they would invariably back off with their hands in front of their faces." Having dispatched the hapless patsy, they would sometimes head to the bathroom to have sex. All is going well until Michael takes a temporary job in the U.S. in order to make a lot of money quickly, working toward his master plan of retiring by 45. By the time he returns to England, things have gone awry. One of the first pieces of mail he receives is an invitation to V's wedding. He's only upset for a moment, excited to realize this is just one step in Crave, the most daring one ever. "Part of me doesn't want to write it all down like this, but my barrister says I must," he explains.
Which is worse—an emotionally disturbed murderer or a woman with a fierce libido? Hall's U.S. debut is designed to show just how much trouble society has answering that question.
A road novel that mixes warmth, empathy, tragedy, and hope.
Southern novelist House’s (Eli the Good, 2009, etc.) new book is a paean to the wisdom of the heart and the remarkable ability of humans to listen to that wisdom despite a lifetime of believing (or preaching) intolerance. The novel opens in the wake of a catastrophic flood that all but destroys a small Tennessee town, as seen through the eyes of Asher Sharp, a Pentecostal preacher. Asher and his 8-year-old son, Justin, save a neighbor from his house as it literally floats down the river; they are aided by two gay men who have recently moved to the area and who lost their home in the flood as well. Asher is moved by the couple’s selflessness and offers them shelter in his own house, but his archreligious wife cannot abide it. The event shakes Asher sufficiently enough to make him question the foundations of his faith and everything he stands for, and as he begins to preach the gospel of tolerance and open-mindedness, he loses the respect of his congregation and the support of his wife, who attempts to wrestle full custody of Justin from him. At the end of his rope, Asher hops in his Jeep and makes a late-night run for Key West—with Justin in tow. There, he hopes to find and make amends with his estranged brother, Luke, whom Asher hasn’t spoken to since he came out as gay 10 years ago. All of this unfolds in a third-person voice redolent of the rich dialect native to the characters in the story; House has an unsurpassed ear for dialogue, and his prose is spare, fluid, and naturalistic throughout. After such a dramatic beginning, the story slows a bit as Asher and Justin arrive in Key West and get settled into a clandestine existence, but the propulsive pace picks up soon after, as the novel speeds toward its conclusion.
A brave tale of human generosity and the power and peace that come from heeding the courage of one’s convictions.
The day after Nina Browning's son, Finch, is accepted to Princeton, he makes a terrible decision, and Nina's perfect life comes crashing down.
Raised in the small town of Bristol, on the border of Tennessee and Virginia, Nina married well. Her husband, Kirk, and she have raised Finch among Nashville’s privileged, well-manicured mansions, sending him to the prestigious Windsor Academy. Yet an alcohol-soaked party ends with Finch snapping compromising pictures of an unconscious young woman, Lyla Volpe, a sophomore on scholarship to Windsor. The photos spread like wildfire through the town, leaving Lyla devastated. Her father, Tom, a carpenter struggling to raise Lyla alone after her mother deserted them, is determined to exact justice from the school’s Honor Council. Nina is dismayed to find Finch and Kirk blithely unconcerned about Lyla's feelings or Finch’s crime. They are far more interested in using the Browning family wealth to convince the school and Tom to turn a blind eye—not to mention using Finch’s sexual magnetism to manipulate Lyla’s emotions. Distraught, Nina forges friendships with Tom and Lyla, which will expose the fault lines in her own family. Giffin (First Comes Love, 2016, etc.) shifts perspectives from chapter to chapter, giving voice to Lyla’s teenage fears of social repercussions and Tom’s efforts to balance his fierce protective streak with his desire to give his daughter her freedom. Yet it is Nina’s chapters that ring most powerfully, as Giffin captures the complexity of Nina’s emotions: Her maternal instincts to protect her son war against her feminist alliance with the wronged Lyla; her wistful memories of her beloved little boy wrestle with her outrage at his racist, sexist, and increasingly devious young adult behavior; and her carefully constructed sense of family fractures against her realization that Kirk may not be the husband, father, or man she thought he was.
A compelling portrait of a woman facing the difficult limits of love.
A wedding on Nantucket is canceled when the bride finds her maid of honor floating facedown in the Atlantic on the morning of the big day.
One of the supporting characters in Hilderbrand's (Winter Solstice, 2017, etc.) 21st Nantucket novel is Greer Garrison, the mother of the groom and a well-known novelist. Unfortunately, in addition to all the other hell about to break loose in Greer's life, she's gone off her game. Early in the book, a disappointed reader wonders if "the esteemed mystery writer, who is always named in the same breath as Sue Grafton and Louise Penny, is coasting now, in her middle age." In fact, Greer's latest manuscript is about to be rejected and sent back for a complete rewrite, with a deadline of two weeks. But wanna know who's most definitely not coasting? Elin Hilderbrand. Readers can open her latest with complete confidence that it will deliver everything we expect: terrific clothes and food, smart humor, fun plot, Nantucket atmosphere, connections to the characters of preceding novels, and warmth in relationships evoked so beautifully it gets you right there. Example: a tiny moment between the chief of police and his wife. It's very late in the book, and he still hasn't figured out what the hell happened to poor Merritt Monaco, the Instagram influencer and publicist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Even though it's dinner time, he has to leave the "cold blue cans of Cisco beer in his fridge” and get back to work. " ‘I hate murder investigations,’ [his wife] says, lifting her face for a kiss. ‘But I love you.’ " You will feel that just as powerfully as you believe that Celeste Otis, the bride-to-be, would rather be anywhere on Earth than on the beautiful isle of Nantucket, marrying the handsome, kind, and utterly smitten Benji Winbury. In fact, she had a fully packed bag with her at the crack of dawn when she found her best friend's body.
Sink into this book like a hot, scented bath...a delicious, relaxing pleasure. And a clever whodunit at the same time.
In which the veteran humorist enters middle age with fine snark but some trepidation as well.
Mortality is weighing on Sedaris (Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, 2017, etc.), much of it his own, professional narcissist that he is. Watching an elderly man have a bowel accident on a plane, he dreaded the day when he would be the target of teenagers’ jokes “as they raise their phones to take my picture from behind.” A skin tumor troubled him, but so did the doctor who told him he couldn’t keep it once it was removed. “But it’s my tumor,” he insisted. “I made it.” (Eventually, he found a semitrained doctor to remove and give him the lipoma, which he proceeded to feed to a turtle.) The deaths of others are much on the author’s mind as well: He contemplates the suicide of his sister Tiffany, his alcoholic mother’s death, and his cantankerous father’s erratic behavior. His contemplation of his mother’s drinking—and his family’s denial of it—makes for some of the most poignant writing in the book: The sound of her putting ice in a rocks glass increasingly sounded “like a trigger being cocked.” Despite the gloom, however, frivolity still abides in the Sedaris clan. His summer home on the Carolina coast, which he dubbed the Sea Section, overspills with irreverent bantering between him and his siblings as his long-suffering partner, Hugh, looks on. Sedaris hasn’t lost his capacity for bemused observations of the people he encounters. For example, cashiers who say “have a blessed day” make him feel “like you’ve been sprayed against your will with God cologne.” But bad news has sharpened the author’s humor, and this book is defined by a persistent, engaging bafflement over how seriously or unseriously to take life when it’s increasingly filled with Trump and funerals.
Twenty years after a murder at her family’s tony Long Island Sound summer enclave, an expatriate actress returns to right a terrible injustice and heal her broken heart.
From June to August, generations of fishermen from Winthrop Island’s year-round Portuguese community have supplied the lobsters and occasional bootleg for bridge parties, weddings, golf tournaments, and other social occasions organized by the island’s patrician cottagers. Just as the locals steer carefully around summer people, the “purebloods” are ever mindful of subtle social gradations within their own set. As one of them, Isobel Fisher, remarks to her divorced father, Hugh, on the day of his wedding, “Thank God you’ve found a dear, lovely woman to marry…and not some gimlet goddess from the Club.” It’s 1951, and the Fishers are still regarded as new money (derived from an ancestor’s investment in toilets), their summer redoubt, Greyfriars, built on the less fashionable end of the island, next door to the lighthouse. If the summer crowd and locals are in perfect accord over one thing, it’s Isobel’s wild streak and too-close friendship with the lighthouse keeper’s handsome son, Joseph Vargas, while engaged to a scion of the old guard. As she tells her soon-to-be stepsister, Miranda Schuyler (who has her own thoughts about Joseph), “I haven’t got your brains, I’m afraid. I need a little action to keep me happy.” As in many Williams novels, there’s quite a bit of zigzagging though the 1930s, '50s, and '60s to fill in the characters’ backstories and milk the main plot intrigue: the murder of Hugh Fisher and a homicide verdict that’s fishier than a Fourth of July clambake. Eyebrows lift when the victim’s stepdaughter, Miranda, steps onto the island for the first time in decades. Since moving to Europe she’s become a successful actress, never mind the enormous shiner her movie-star sunglasses can’t quite conceal. To outward appearances, the salacious curiosity about her stepfather’s murder which drove her from the island has greatly faded. Even her dear, lovely mother and Isobel, still single (and sullen), appear to have moved on, converting Greyfriars into a glorified boardinghouse and calling it an artists’ colony. Meanwhile, the family of Joseph Vargas—the admitted killer sent to Sing Sing—is stone-faced about his recent prison escape and rumored sightings near the island. Helping Miranda in her effort to clear Joseph—whom she believes innocent, though she keeps her reasons close to the vest—are her rambunctious half brother, Hugh Jr., (born after their father's murder), the ladies boarding at Greyfriars, and old-shoe banker Clayton Monk, Isobel’s square, endearingly steady ex-flame. As Miranda’s Shakespearean namesake would say: "How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't."
With just the right touch of bitters, Williams (Cocoa Beach, 2017, etc.) mixes a satisfyingly tempestuous—and eminently beachworthy—follow-up to her beloved Schuyler Sisters series.
Christensen (How to Cook a Moose, 2015, etc.) chronicles the intersecting human tragicomedies above- and belowdeck during a luxury liner’s farewell Hawaiian cruise.
Commissioned back in 1953, the Queen Isabella has had a long sea life. But now the corporate owners have arranged her farewell adults-only cruise with a glamorous mid-20th-century retro theme. In fact, the Queen Isabella is a little too retro, with drab '70s-era staterooms and a pool considered tiny by today’s standards. Christensen writes with tenderness but no sentimentality about the old ship and about aging human characters, too. Having played together for more than 40 years, the elderly members of the Sabra String Quartet—Miriam; Isaac, her co-founder and ex-husband; Jakov; and Sasha, “the one she’d always had a crush on”—know they are nearing the end of their run. Based in Israel, the quartet is aboard to debut a work called “The Six Day War” composed by fellow passenger Rivka Weiss, whose wealthy husband owns a share in the ship. Crotchety and kind, sometimes both at once, Miriam is the novel’s strongest character, expressing the quicksilver nature of human emotions: Even as her passion for Sasha re-erupts into a full-blown septuagenarian love affair, she finds herself distracted by her scratchy yet deep familial love for Isaac. Miriam befriends 36-year-old Christine, a hardworking Maine farmer’s wife whose successful journalist friend Valerie is on a working vacation. Luxuriating in food, drink, and warm weather, Christine re-examines her life choices while Valerie, who’s paying for their room, tries gathering information on the ship’s uncooperative crew for her “book about workers.” Belowdeck, executive sous chef Mick is caught between his sense of professional duty and a multicultural staff in revolt against horrible working conditions. Then the ship’s engines fail, along with its electricity and plumbing. While Miriam dryly jokes about icebergs, what’s begun as an idyll at sea, at least for the passengers, becomes a crisis. Soon divisions between decks blur and relationships reconfigure.
An entertaining mashup of Ship of Fools and Titanic.
A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.
Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.
A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.
Horrormeister King (End of Watch, 2016, etc.) serves up a juicy tale that plays at the forefront of our current phobias, setting a police procedural among the creepiest depths of the supernatural.
If you’re a little squeamish about worms, you’re really not going to like them after accompanying King through his latest bit of mayhem. Early on, Ralph Anderson, a detective in the leafy Midwestern burg of Flint City, is forced to take on the unpleasant task of busting Terry Maitland, a popular teacher and Little League coach and solid citizen, after evidence links him to the most unpleasant violation and then murder of a young boy: “His throat was just gone,” says the man who found the body. “Nothing there but a red hole. His bluejeans and underpants were pulled down to his ankles, and I saw something….” Maitland protests his innocence, even as DNA points the way toward an open-and-shut case, all the way up to the point where he leaves the stage—and it doesn’t help Anderson’s world-weariness when the evil doesn’t stop once Terry’s in the ground. Natch, there’s a malevolent presence abroad, one that, after taking a few hundred pages to ferret out, will remind readers of King’s early novel It. Snakes, guns, metempsychosis, gangbangers, possessed cops, side tours to jerkwater Texas towns, all figure in King’s concoction, a bloodily Dantean denunciation of pedophilia. King skillfully works in references to current events (Black Lives Matter) and long-standing memes (getting plowed into by a runaway car), and he’s at his best, as always, when he’s painting a portrait worthy of Brueghel of the ordinary gone awry: “June Gibson happened to be the woman who had made the lasagna Arlene Peterson dumped over her head before suffering her heart attack.” Indeed, but overturned lasagna pales in messiness compared to when the evil entity’s head caves in “as if it had been made of papier-mâché rather than bone.” And then there are those worms. Yuck.
Not his best, but a spooky pleasure for King’s boundless legion of fans.