Quick Review: MONSTER by John Gregory Dunne (Vintage)

DunneJG-MonsterUSAn entertaining, engaging memoir of screenwriting

In Hollywood, screenwriters are a curse to be borne, and beating up on them is an industry blood sport. But in this ferociously funny and accurate account of life on the Hollywood food chain, it’s a screenwriter who gets the last murderous laugh. That may be because the writer is John Gregory Dunne, who has written screenplays, along with novels and non-fiction, for thirty years. In 1988 Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, were asked to write a screenplay about the dark and complicated life of the late TV anchorwoman Jessica Savitch. Eight years and twenty-seven drafts later, this script was made into the fairy tale “Up Close and Personal” starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Detailing the meetings, rewrites, fights, firings, and distractions attendant to the making of a single picture, Monster illuminates the process with sagacity and raucous wit.

This is a fascinating, unreserved memoir of John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion’s long, often frustrating experiences writing Up Close & Personal. It’s engaging, entertaining and illuminating. Continue reading

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Review: SLEEPLESS IN HOLLYWOOD by Lynda Obst (Simon & Schuster)

ObstL-SleeplessInHollywoodAn excellent follow-up to Hello, He Lied

Over the past decade, producer Lynda Obst gradually realized she was working in a Hollywood that was undergoing a drastic transformation. The industry where everything had once been familiar to her was suddenly disturbingly strange.

Combining her own industry experience and interviews with the brightest minds in the business, Obst explains what has stalled the vast moviemaking machine. The calamitous DVD collapse helped usher in what she calls the New Abnormal (because Hollywood was never normal to begin with), where studios are now heavily dependent on foreign markets for profit, a situation which directly impacts the kind of entertainment we get to see. Can comedy survive if they don’t get our jokes in Seoul or allow them in China? Why are studios making fewer movies than ever — and why are they bigger, more expensive and nearly always sequels or recycled ideas?

Sleepless in Hollywood is an excellent, accessible explanation of the ways in which Hollywood has evolved since the 1980s. This is an account of emergence of the “New Abnormal”, as Obst calls it: the shifting practices and ideologies that dictate how the movie and TV industries operate. Continue reading

Excerpt: MARLENE DIETRICH by Maria Riva (Open Road Media)

RivaM-MarleneDietrichORMOpen Road Media recently published Marlene Dietrich, a biography of the eponymous actress, written by her daughter, Maria Riva. To celebrate its release, the publisher has allowed me to share an excerpt. First, though, here’s the official synopsis:

With intimate detail, author Maria Riva reveals the rich life of her mother, Marlene Dietrich, the charismatic star of stage and screen whose career spanned much of the twentieth century. Opening with Dietrich’s childhood in Schöneberg, Riva’s biography introduces us to an energetic, disciplined, and ambitious young actress whose own mother equated show business with a world of vagabonds and thieves.

Dietrich would quickly rise to stardom on the Berlin stage in the 1920s with her sharp wit and bisexual mystique, and wearing the top hat and tails that revolutionized our concept of beauty and femininity. She comes alive in these pages in all her incarnations: muse, collaborator, bona fide movie star, box-office poison, lover, wife, and mother.

During World War II, Dietrich would stand up to the Nazis and galvanize American troops, eventually earning the Congressional Medal of Freedom. There were her artistic relationships with Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco, Shanghai Express), Colette, Erich Maria Remarque, Noël Coward, and Cole Porter, as well as her heady romances. And in her final years, Dietrich would make herself visibly invisible, devoting herself to the immortality of her legend.

Capturing this complex and astonishing woman, Maria Riva’s insightful profile of her mother has the depth, range, and resonance of a novel, and takes us on a journey through Europe and old Hollywood during an era that is gone but not forgotten.

The excerpt, which starts after the break, covers how the actress decided on her stage name.

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Review Round-Up: LITTLE KNOWN FACTS and THE HOPEFULS

Two novels. Two families. Two very different reactions.

SneedC-LittleKnownFactsLITTLE KNOWN FACTS by Christine Sneed (Bloomsbury USA)

The people who orbit around Renn Ivins, an actor of Harrison Ford-like stature — his girlfriends, his children, his ex-wives, those on the periphery — long to experience the glow of his flame. Anna and Will are Renn’s grown children, struggling to be authentic versions of themselves in a world where they are seen as less-important extensions of their father. They are both drawn to and repelled by the man who overshadows every part of them.

A story of the fallout of fame and fortune on family members and others who can neither fully embrace nor ignore the superstar in their midst. A story of influence and affluence, of forging identity and happiness and a moral compass; the question being, if we could have anything on earth, would we choose correctly?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Little Known Facts. I’d been looking for something new and different to read, and this looked like it might fit the bill. Sneed’s prose is very good, and pulled me through the novel nicely. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, and the novel works its way through the experiences of those who have been swept up into Renn Ivins’s orbit. Sneed does an excellent job giving each character their own distinct voice, and luckily all of them worked.

As can perhaps be predicted, there’s a fair amount of bad behaviour in this novel — especially when it comes to infidelity and philandering (Renn’s behaviour is quite reprehensible in some cases). Each of the characters is flawed, of course, in their own way. Each of them is trying to carve their own identity separate from Renn, while also being unable to resist the allure of proximity and what that conveys and enjoying some of the perks.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. And, despite some flaws, would recommend it to anyone who wants to read a good story about family, fame and celebrity (but mostly focused on what’s going on with the individual family members).

Little Known Facts is published by Bloomsbury.

*

CloseJ-HopefulsUSTHE HOPEFULS by Jennifer Close (Knopf)

The story of a young wife who follows her husband and his political dreams to D.C., a city of idealism, gossip, and complicated friendships among young Washington’s aspiring elite. 

When Beth arrives in Washington, D.C., she hates everything about it: the confusing traffic circles, the ubiquitous Ann Taylor suits, the humidity that descends each summer. At dinner parties, guests compare their security clearance levels. They leave their BlackBerrys on the table. They speak in acronyms. And once they realize Beth doesn’t work in politics, they smile blandly and turn away. Soon Beth and her husband, Matt, meet a charismatic White House staffer named Jimmy and his wife, Ashleigh, and the four become inseparable, coordinating brunch, birthdays, and long weekends away. But as Jimmy’s star rises higher and higher, their friendship – and Beth’s relationship with Matt – is threatened by jealousy, competition and rumors.

A glorious send-up of young D.C. and a blazingly honest portrait of a marriage, this is the finest work yet by one of our most beloved writers.

I think “glorious send-up” means something different to me than to the writer of the synopsis. I had high hopes for this novel, but unfortunately it didn’t deliver. There’s nothing wrong with Close’s prose — there’s a very good flow, and I read the novel pretty quickly. But, ultimately, the story was dull. Things happen, of course, but so much of what I think might have been interesting takes place off-stage. Beth is basically floating through this novel, a mere observer to… well, very little.

Maybe if you’ve lived and worked in DC, you’ll “get” this. There’s certainly a “knowing” tone to some of the scenes. I just think it’s not being quite as clever as it thinks it is. There was nothing particularly original, and nothing particularly interesting in the novel. There was only one moment that made me chuckle (a dream about Mitt Romney). Most of the points to be made — young DC workers are self-involved, form their own tribal rituals and rules, are too earnest for their own good, and are also highly competitive and jealous — is repeated so often, with little variation. The characters felt flat, and Beth’s self-involvement blinded her to potentially interesting observations (maybe that was the point — if Beth was meant to be a boring character, then job well done).

Most of the elements of the novel felt half-baked — if things had just been followed through, then it could have been a very good novel. As it stands, it’s unfortunately quite bland.

The Hopefuls is published by Knopf in July 2016.

Guest Post: “The Long Orbit of RADIANCE” by Catherynne M. Valente

ValenteCM-AuthorPicSometime in 2009 I was asked to write a science fiction story for Clarkesworld Magazine. At the time, I had mainly written fantasy — I was eager to dive into the other side of the speculative field. Two things had been bouncing around my head, and they bashed together at once. I had sprouted a fascination with the pulp SF planets of Zelazny, Bester, Burroughs, and Asimov’s day. The worlds we thought might be out there before satellite footage assured us it was not. Savage deserts of Mars, undersea Neptune, Venusian waterways. I wanted to make a planet like that. I didn’t want to follow the trend of hewing closely to established scientific fact. I wanted to go back to the wild, free-wheeling pulp universe, where there are no shackles on what you can imagine out there.

At the same time, I had read an interview with Mark Danielewski, who wrote House of Leaves, one of my favorite novels. He talked about his father, a cinematographer, and what a profound influence on his writing his father’s profession had been. And I thought: I was raised by a film director. It shaped every way I see the world and the ways I make my own. And I’ve never written about it even a little.
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Quick Review: WE DON’T NEED ROADS by Caseen Gaines (Plume)

GainesC-WeDontNeedRoadsUSA behind-the-scenes look at the making of the wildly successful and beloved Back to the Future trilogy, just in time for the 30th anniversary 

Long before Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled through time in a flying DeLorean, director Robert Zemeckis, and his friend and writing partner Bob Gale, worked tirelessly to break into the industry with a hit. During their journey to realize their dream, they encountered unprecedented challenges and regularly took the difficult way out.

For the first time ever, the story of how these two young filmmakers struck lightning is being told by those who witnessed it. We Don’t Need Roads includes original interviews with Zemeckis, Gale, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Huey Lewis, and over fifty others who contributed to one of the most popular and profitable film trilogies of all time.

With a focus not only on the movies, but also the lasting impact of the franchise and its fandom, We Don’t Need Roads is the ultimate read for anyone who has ever wanted to ride a Hoverboard, hang from the top of a clock tower, travel through the space-time continuum, or find out what really happened to Eric Stoltz after the first six weeks of filming. So, why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here – and start reading! We Don’t Need Roads is your density.

It’s always difficult writing reviews of histories like this (or many others), as one’s interest in the subject can often result in over-long recitations of what the author covers — thereby potentially negating the need for others to read it for themselves. That could very easily be the case with this book: there are so many great moments herein. Therefore, I’m going to keep this very short. First of all, We Don’t Need Roads is a very good book — it’s witty, exhaustive (despite its slim length), engaging, and clearly written from a place of affection. This is a must read for any fan of the franchise. Continue reading

Gore Vidal’s “Narratives of Empire” Series

Vidal-NarrativesOfEmpire

Has anyone read these? The series, Narratives of Empire is also sometimes known as The Chronicles of America. I’m really interested in reading them (American history and fiction = bound to attract my attention). Most of all, I’m interested in reading WASHINGTON, D.C. (mentioned in Mark Leibovich’s This Town, which I finished last night). Here’s the synopsis:

“History is gossip,” says a protagonist in Washington, D.C., “but the trick is determining which gossip is history.”

It is a trick that Gore Vidal has mastered in his ongoing chronicle of that circus of opportunism and hypocrisy called American politics and which he plays with renewed vigour in this expose of the nation’s capital.

Young Clay Overbury, Senator Burden Day’s assistant, has both a modest background and immense ambitions. Extremely handsome, oozing charm and seemingly dedicated to the Senator’s cause, he is also duplicitous, conniving, and disloyal. But Enid Canford doesn’t think so: she marries him, so providing the Sanford newspaper dynasty with a direct line to the Senator. Her father Blaise, at first loathing his son-in-law, later learns to love him – for all the wrong reasons.

So begins this tale of lust and ambition set in the Republic’s high noon. From the late 1930s to Jo McCarthy’s reign of terror, Gore Vidal charts the seamy, sleazy side of Washington. Mixing sober history with nakedly Gothic melodrama, he provides an intoxicating cocktail of blackmail, betrayal, sexual ambivalence, lunacy and conspiracy – or, in a word, politics.

The novels are apparently all connected, but I’m not sure how essential it is to read them all, or to read them in order. The seventh book, THE GOLDEN AGE, does feature characters from WASHINGTON D.C. and HOLLYWOOD, though.