Book Review | I’ll be there for you: The One about Friends

It has been over two decades since Friends appeared on our TV screens. As a child of the early nineties, I didn’t watch it first time round, but instead caught it on reruns throughout the 2000s on E4. And I quickly became obsessed with it.

I’m not the only one. Friends has long since held an important place in our collective consciousness and in the annals of pop culture – but while many other TV shows du jour have since faded into obscurity, the popularity of Friends has endured.

“Some things don’t change. Friends is a reminder of that, and that’s why so many of us reach for it in times of grief or fear, when catastrophe strikes or when life seems suddenly unrecognizable.”

There’s something about watching old episodes of Friends that is soothing and comforting. It’s wholesome. At nights when I can’t sleep, I deliberately replay episodes in my head until I drift off.  

The part of the book that I found particularly interesting was when Miller delves into the post-9/11 landscape and how a show like Friends could deal with such life-changing trauma inflicted upon their city. In the end, the production team went with small changes – more American flags, more I ❤ NYs, and re-taping the untimely episode where Chandler jokes about being a terrorist at the airport.

“She (Lisa Kudrow) thought of all those fans over the years – before the attack – who would stop her on the street and gush about what a fun little escape it was. Only now did she understand the magnitude of that. […] Throughout her years on Friends, Kudrow had always tried not to take it all too seriously. “We’re not curing cancer. It’s not a big deal. But you know what? It is a big deal when you can offer people a break from such a devastating reality.”

It’s important to remember, of course, that Friends was a product of its time, and by no means a perfect show. Watching it now, it’s hard to ignore the lack of POC, the fatphobia, sexism, transphobia and homophobia, and these are things that Miller touches upon in this book. It’s a mark of how much progress has been made that these things feel startlingly out of touch when you watch the show today.

The book delves into the background stories of the actors before they were famous; the development of the show and the famous negotiations where the cast banded together to ask for a raise and wage parity. Miller also discusses the story of Amaani Lyle, a black woman who was a writer’s room assistant in the early 2000s who lost a harassment and wrongful termination case against the production team. Largely kept out of the media at the time, you can’t help but think about how the story may have been received in our post #MeToo world and the brave women who stood up to harassment in the entertainment industry for decades and were ridiculed, ignored and dismissed.

I was hoping for a more of a deep-dive into the show itself, the character arcs, the storylines – something a bit more of an analysis rather than a sweeping look at the life and times of the show. There wasn’t the sense of any new ground being uncovered, but Miller nevertheless has an engaging writing style and compiling secondary source information in the way she did was no mean feat. Recommended for all Friends fans, especially if you are interested in the cultural and production context of the beloved series.

Book Review | The Shape of Us by Drew Davies

The Shape of Us takes the stories of Chris and Daisy, Jojo, Adam and Dylan, disparate characters trying to make their way in London. Chris and Daisy meet for the first time, Jojo comes to terms with her husband’s infidelity, Adam struggles to find purpose after being recently made redundant, and Dylan deals with typical teenage struggles on top of having a debilitating illness.

I picked up this book because of my twinge of homesickness. I try to read as much fiction by British authors as I can, and when I saw that this one was set in London – one of my favourite places on earth – it caught my eye. Davies writes interludes about the city that perfectly punctuate the characters’ stories, getting to the heart of the city in all its grime and splendour, and the moments of connection within the chaos.

‘That is, until one afternoon, when a stranger offers something so preternaturally kind – a shared joke, a spare seat, help carrying some especially heavy groceries – that we find ourselves in a vibrant city once more, one of endless possibilities, both familiar and yet not the same.’

I would have liked more of a sense of the city to come through in the actual stories, not just in these interludes, to really bring the capital to life. London doesn’t really feature in the narrative otherwise, which I feel was a missed opportunity for a book so heavily marketed as a London novel.

The stories are told in a heartfelt way, an easily-digestible read that nevertheless has surprising depth at points. The narrative threads not so much came together in a big reveal, but rather brushed up against one another. Rather than a contrived web of how all of the characters were related, the story was set up much more realistically – momentary interactions with passing strangers.

I found the book funny, too – gentle doses of humour from characters who are realistically drawn and, at times, sorely lacking in self-awareness.

Adam takes a stab in the dark: ‘P-Proctor M-Media?’

Patrick nods, ‘I heard they were hiring. But I thought they were focusing on digital displays?’

‘They’re diversifying,’ Adam replies. It’s one of his interview go-to words. That and ‘extrapolate’.

&

‘What if someone tried to make her buy a pretzel, and she didn’t want a pretzel, but they were so American and insistent about everything that she bought them all? What would she do with so many pretzels?’

Nevertheless, there are poignant observations offered to help the characters make sense of the chaos in their lives:

‘The shape of everything changes over time. Things you thought were absolutes start to ebb and flow. The knack is to let them – without causing yourself too much pain and suffering in the process.’

It’s been a while since I indulged in a light-hearted book, and I have to say, I enjoyed it.

I voluntarily read this copy provided by NetGalley. The Shape of Us was published on November 27th.

Book Review | Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman is out of college, restless, and haplessly in love with an older woman. The object of her affections is also involved in an international drug smuggling operation, and Piper – longing for a sense of adventure – willingly flies halfway around the world to partake – in however small a measure – in these affairs. Soon tiring of the lifestyle – nowhere near as glamorous as she’d hoped – she ends the relationship and returns home to the U.S.

Five years later, Piper could almost put these escapades down to a bad dream. She has a conventional job, a close circle of friends and a solid relationship with a dependable guy. That is, until the knock on the door comes. It’s two policeman, and someone has spilled the beans on the whole sordid affair. There’s no way she’ll escape without jail time.

It’s fair to say that middle-class, well-educated, able-bodied white girls are few and far between in prison. It’s a fact that Piper is cognisant of (albeit never really interrogates beyond the surface.) There’s an interaction with her attorney that typifies her inescapable privilege: ‘”That’s the one,” said Pat, pointing at the skirt suit. “We want him to be reminded of his own daughter or niece or neighbour when he looks at you.”’ Piper is able to distance herself – in the eyes of the jury and in her own personal sense of who she is – from her crime and from other prisoners by virtue of her class, race and level of education.

But privilege can only get you so far. After years of having her life on hold, awaiting the day when she would be put behind bars, Piper finds herself sentenced to 15 months in a minimum-security jail. What follows is an account of life incarcerated – from the mundane to the downright dehumanising. But peppered amongst the doom and gloom are the moments of levity: the small acts of kindness displayed between inmates, the creative meals constructed from contraband flavour sachets, the DIY parties for birthdays and Christmases, and that joyous day when someone’s time is up, when they are finally free to re-join the outside world.

There is some degree of self-reflection from Piper. However, she never really interrogates the power structures of the prison system and the punitive, futile nature of retributive justice. Any occasion where she does find herself in an illuminating situation, where mixing in a socially diverse milieu has shed light on things she hadn’t considered, her insights read like a footnote, something suggested by a socially-conscious editor.

‘I found myself participating in the meaningless rituals … because prison is all about waiting in line. For many women, I realized, this was nothing new. If you had the misfortune of having the government intimately involved with your life, whether via public housing or Medicaid or food stamps, then you’d probably already spent an insane amount of your life in line.’

I think if we take the memoir for what it is, commercial, mass-market non-fiction, then we have an engaging, readable account from a woman who endured the misery of life behind bars with impressive stoicism. I do, however, feel that the author could have exploited this platform and her privilege to better ends: no, it’s not a wide-ranging polemic – nor should it be, necessarily – but I feel that the book would have benefited from a greater deal of self-awareness, reflection and critical analysis of the state of the prison system in the U.S. – a nation that incarcerates more individuals than any other.

Nevertheless, there was one arena in which the novel excelled – illustrating to the reader the absolute futility of the current criminal justice system. The absurdity of federally-mandated minimum sentences for drug crimes has resulted in hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders being locked up in a system that fails to offer anything in the way of restorative justice. Opportunities for personal development and skillset building are few and far between. How can we be surprised that the recidivism rate is so high? What viable option is there to make money and support a family in many of these parts of the country?

‘Most of the women were poor, poorly educated, and came from neighborhoods where the mainstream economy was barely present and the narcotics trade provided the most opportunities for employment.’

‘Prison is a place where the U.S. government puts the inconvenient – people who are mentally ill… people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled.’

This book could have been, and done, more. But at the same time, it is a memoir. And we are always the hero of our own story – and have the right, undeniably, to tell our story in the way that best reflects our lived experience.

(P.S. I have never seen the TV show, which I know people rave about, so I went into this with no preconceptions).