A sitcom showrunner finds the road to her first series launch much rockier than expected.
When Ruth Saunders gets “the call” from the network telling her that her original series, The Next Best Thing, is a go, at first she is incredulous. Although she’s served her time in a writers’ room, she never expected to sell her autobiographical concept about a young woman, Daphne, and her grandmother, Nanna Trudy, who move to Miami to seek their fortunes. Ruth moved to Hollywood with her grandmother, Rae, and they’ve both enjoyed success, Ruth as a comedy writer and Rae as an extra. Rae raised Ruth from toddlerhood after a car crash killed her parents and disfigured Ruth. (Even after multiple surgeries, one side of Ruth’s face is badly scarred.) After Ruth is hired as an assistant to two writer-producers, Big Dave and Little Dave, they help her develop and pitch her own show. The process of bringing the series to air is sardonically chronicled by Weiner, herself a TV veteran. Ruth’s hopes for Next are systematically dashed. The network suits insist on a terrible rewrite of a critical scene, and now Nanna has morphed from Golden Girls ditzy sophisticate to randy, superannuated cougar. (So shocked is Rae by her raunchy doppelganger, that her relationship with her granddaughter is sorely tested for the first time.) The zaftig leading lady (Daphne is insecure about her weight) shrinks down to a wraith of bulimic proportions, while shilling for a new diet. The seasoned character actress playing Nanna is replaced because the suits want a name, and the bimbo who caused Ruth’s departure from her last writing gig is hired as Daphne’s sidekick. Worse, Ruth has, for once, gotten what she wished for in the romance department—her first requited love, yet she pushes Little Dave away. The plot, exposition and flashback, heavy at first, pick up speed as complications multiply.
Spares no bon mot in exposing Hollywood’s sexism, ageism and incurable penchant for extravagant silliness.
Juliet Applebaum, wife of a schlockmeister L.A. screenwriter, mother of three and part-time partner in the p.i. agency former cop Al Hockey runs out of his garage, barely gulps when she surveys her new client’s vibrant green eye shadow and nail polish and full-fashioned wig, not to mention her six-foot-plus frame. Miss Heavenly, a former he, wants to know who killed her sister Violetta. So what if she was an addict and a Figueroa Street hooker? She’s been dead six months, the cops haven’t a clue, and her poor mother’s heart is breaking. Juliet carpools her kids, then heads for Figueroa, where, with the permission of Baby Richard, the pimp loitering at the taco stand, she buys coffee and buns for his girls and learns Violetta was not the only one killed, probably by the same man. Juliet rushes off to the detective in charge of cold cases. Meanwhile, another pimp crosses Juliet’s path, and she sinks much of her babysitting budget into coffees for the working girls. Turning to Violetta’s family for insight, she discovers that Violetta shot up the money supposed to finance her rehab and came on to her own brothers, even Heavenly, before he changed over. But did it all add up to murder?
Though Juliet (The Cradle Robbers, 2005, etc.) is still adorable, Waldman has bouts of preachiness better suited to the op-ed page than a mystery.
Twenty-five years ago, Ellis made his popular debut with a slim novel that took its title from an Elvis Costello song. It concerned drug-addled young hipsters in Los Angeles and was widely perceived as the West Coast equivalent of Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney’s novel about drug-addled young professionals in Manhattan. Ellis’s sequel takes its name from a later Elvis Costello album, and the young hipsters have gotten older. Some of them continue to lust after young flesh, though that flesh—like drugs and talent—is just another commodity in Hollywood, which may seem like a seller’s market to those peddling their wares but may be more of a buyer’s market, where supply (particularly for attractive young flesh) exceeds demand. Narrator Clay has become a bicoastal screenwriter, recently returned to Los Angeles from New York. He is either paranoid or the target of a great conspiracy. Or maybe he’s part of that great conspiracy. In any event, the narrative meanders from party to party, where Clay encounters seemingly random characters, some of whom he knew in the first novel, until the randomness starts to tighten into a web. A young actress seems attracted to him, or what passes for attraction between a supplicant and someone who might do her career some good. But who holds the power here? And just what kind of guy is our narrator, anyway? “This isn’t a script,” warns his boyhood friend, Julian, who is also somehow connected with the actress. “It’s not going to add up. Not everything’s going to come together in the third act.” This warning might be better directed toward the reader, who must determine whether another character’s insight that “everything’s an illusion” is profundity or cliché. The novel is short, elliptical and sketchy—even jumpy—but it feels like it takes forever to end.
A Pulitzer Prize–winning husband-and-wife reporter team track the growing movement to empower women in the developing world.
Kristof and WuDunn (Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia, 2000, etc.) traveled through Africa and Southeast Asia meeting with victims of sex trafficking, forced prostitution and various forms of gender-based neglect and violence, as well as interviewing those who are making a difference in the lives of impoverished and abused women. While they provide historical background and cite grim statistics to back their claims of oppression, the impact of their report comes from the personal stories of remarkable women, such as Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who was gang-raped. Instead of killing herself as was expected by her culture, she fought back, won compensation and is using the money to build a girls’ high school. The authors argue that fighting back is key and that education that will empower women is crucial to changing culturally embedded attitudes. Along with the success stories, Kristof and WuDunn report on the failure of large-scale international aid, which often comes in the form of what they term “tree-top” projects as opposed to grassroots efforts. The authors are especially effective at getting women to speak openly about their lives, and they do not hesitate to write about unpleasant facts, bad outcomes and unintended consequences: Women are often the abusers of other women; women freed from brothels sometimes return for drugs or money; introduction of a cash crop to help women earn money for their families can end up polluting the environment. Also noteworthy is the authors’ willingness to say what is politically incorrect: When microloans are made to men, the money is likely to go toward instant gratification—alcohol, drugs and prostitutes—while women are more apt to spend it on family health and educating children. Pointing out that the emancipation of girls enabled China’s economic surge and that the status of women is “the greatest handicap of Muslim Middle Eastern societies today,” Kristof and WuDunn forcefully contend that improving the lot of girls and women benefits everyone. They conclude with specific steps that individuals can take to support the empowerment movement.
The zombie genre provides unlikely inspiration for the author’s creative renewal.
Whitehead (Sag Harbor, 2009, etc.) never writes the same book twice, though his eclectic output had fallen short of the promise he flashed in his early novels (The Intuitionist, 1998, etc.). Yet here he sinks his teeth into a popular format and emerges with a literary feast, producing his most compulsively readable work to date. Though there’s enough chomp-and-spurt gorefest to satiate fans of the format, Whitehead transforms the zombie novel into an allegory of contemporary Manhattan (and, by extension, America), where “it was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been” and the never-explained apocalypse “sentenced you to observe the world through the sad aperture of the dead, suffer the gross parody of your existence.” The reader’s guide through this particular circle of hell is a clean-up/extermination operative called Mark Spitz (for reasons that aren’t worth the elaborate explanation the novel eventually gives). He was formerly employed as a social-network functionary for a Starbucks-style coffee chain, an occupation that seems even more ludicrous in the wake of a society transformed by hordes of organ-eating zombies. (A colleague’s former occupation was “a sommelier at a high-end eatery in Cambridge that specialized in offal.”) With its savage sense of humor and thematic ambitions, the narrative is to contemporary zombie novels what the movies of George Romero are to other zombie flicks. As survivors of the “Last Night” struggle through “PASD, or Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder," the government (located in Buffalo) peddles hope in the form of its “American Phoenix Rising” campaign, with its own power-ballad anthem: “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction).” When the protagonist was a child, he asked his father the meaning of the word “apocalypse.” His father replied, “It means that in the future, things will be even worse than they are now.” And, sure enough, they are.
The latest from a generation of literary novelists who are erasing the distinction between art and pulp.
New Yorker staff writer Orlean (My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, 2004, etc.) follows the long and curious trail of the celebrity dog born on a World War I battlefield.
The author, who has written a cookbook for dogs (Throw Me a Bone, 2007) and about obsessiveness (The Orchid Thief, 1999), combines all her skills and passions in this astonishing story of Lee Duncan (1893–1960), a young American soldier and dog-lover who found the German shepherd puppy that became Rin Tin Tin (Rinty) in France, got the dog home and spent the rest of his life training and promoting Rinty, breeding other German shepherds and living with the belief of Rinty’s immortality. (Rinty XI now lives in Oklahoma.) Orlean—who belongs to the generation that remembers the cry “Yo ho, Rinty!” from the popular The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, which premiered in 1954 and ran for 164 episodes—recalls that her grandfather kept on his desk a little Rinty figure. But the author is not interested only in the dog. She also provides the biography of Duncan, as well as Bert Leonard, writer and producer, and she includes interviews with Duncan’s daughter, the current keeper of the latest Rinty and scores of others. The author tells the story of silent films (where Rinty began his career), the transition to talkies and to color, the rise of television, the popularity of dog ownership in America (especially of German shepherds and collies—because of Lassie) and the evolving tastes of American youth. For years, Orlean chased Rinty—even to his grave in Paris—and by the end, began to question her sanity.
Although occasionally excessive in its claims for the ultimate significance of it all, a terrific dog’s tale that will make readers sit up and beg for more.
In a whimsical twist on the Back to the Future scenario, a bully returns to her high school days to right some wrongs.
At 17, Lissy Ryder was the Mean Girl of Lyons Township High in suburban Chicago. As head cheerleader and girlfriend of the football team captain, Duke, she had a clique of cool girls in her thrall, and she persecuted anyone who was different or nonconformist. Now 37, Lissy, a publicist, lives only to overspend. After she’s fired by her PR firm for shirking, her husband, Duke, stops covering her massive debts and asks for a divorce. She’s gained a few pounds since moving back to her parents’ house and is not looking forward to the 20-year reunion of LTH’s class of ’92. Hoping to network with her former sycophants, she’s appalled to find that, without exception, her victims have outclassed and outperformed her. Amy, a girl Lissy mocked for her long nose, is now a plastic surgeon to the stars. One-time hippie outcast Debbie is now Deva, a New-Age entrepreneur. Brian, a dorky but attractive neighbor Lissy dumped for Duke, is an Internet couponing mogul. At the reunion, Lissy is the pariah. When Deva gives her a rare Incan potion, Lissy thinks it’s a hangover cure, until she wakes up in her parents’ house—in 1991! Lissy seizes this opportunity to avoid karmic missteps, dialing down the meanness. Back in the future, Lissy is not only happily hitched to Duke, but as the CEO of a thriving Chicago PR firm, is supporting him. She has it all, including the Birkin bag and the Gold Coast town house. However, now her victims are failures: Brian toils in a grim cubicle, the plastic surgeon is a trailer-trash drunk, etc. How can Lissy rectify the unintended consequences of her well-meaning do-over? The answer, while subject to many of the logical sinkholes typical of parallel-universe tales, is still unexpected enough for a fitting and none too treacly close.
The globetrotting, guerrilla TV chef of ill repute serves up some journalistic odds and ends.
A garrulous, sublimely talented chap with an eminently respectable couple of New York brasseries and a load of opinions to spare, Bourdain (A Cook’s Tour, 2001, etc.) remains an anomaly in the Food Network era. Instead of running a chain of big-ticket, big-ego eateries, he roams the world consuming massive quantities of strange food and prodigious drink, adding snarky commentary and turning it all into a TV show of sorts. Along the way, he writes for several publications, from Gourmet to the Los Angeles Times; a good selection of those writings are collected here. Subjects include other celebrity chefs (Rocco DiSpirito “messed with the bitch goddess celebrity and got burned”), the best bars for adrenaline-jacked kitchen crews to get hammered in the wee hours (in Chicago, it’s Matchbox) and the proper definition of cooking (“a cult of pain”); somehow it all flows together with nary a seam in view. But there is some repetition and, unlike most writers with an edge, he's better at being nice. Scourging attacks sometimes fall flat for lack of variety, while puff pieces offer the finest examples of foodie enthusiasm. Indulging in Masa Takayama's insanely expensive sushi is “like having sex with two five-thousand-dollar-a-night escorts at the same time—while driving an Aston Martin.” The unfathomable wizardry of Spain’s mad-chef genius Ferran Adria is “hugely enjoyable, challenging to the world order, innovative, revolutionary.”
A vibrant discourse on satisfying hungers of every kind.
A witty, astute collection of essays and lectures on science fiction by the acclaimed novelist.
The motivation for this book is a review of Atwood’s 2009 novel, The Year of the Flood, in which Ursula K. Le Guin accused Atwood of rejecting the term “science fiction” in connection to her own work, lest it trap her in a populist ghetto. In the three new lectures that anchor this collection, Atwood shows that such claims are unfounded. She’s just careful about terminology, and her close studies of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Le Guin herself prove she’s not just playing semantic games. In one lecture, she recalls her obsession with sci-fi tales as a child and studies the ways that the genre’s tropes have been the bedrock of storytelling since antiquity. In another, she discusses “ustopia,” the term she uses for her own forays into science fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003), in addition to The Year of the Flood. “Ustopia” reflects her belief that every dystopian tale has a utopian one embedded in it, and vice versa; for instance, George Orwell’s 1984 concludes with a faux postscript that suggests that the grim authoritarian society it depicts ultimately faded. The individual reviews read like rehearsals for the themes she covers in the longer lectures, but they’re worth reading in their own right: Atwood is a stellar reviewer who deftly exposes the ironies and ideas embedded in books by Rider Haggard, Kazuo Ishiguro and Jonathan Swift, and her tone easily shifts from rigorous academic to wisecracking feminist. A handful of fictional excerpts prove that she can walk it like she talks it: Whatever name she applies to the work, it’s clear that her affection for the genre is deep and genuine.
Wholly satisfying, with plenty of insights for Atwood and sci-fi fans alike.
The past comes knocking for a former stripper who thought she’d said goodbye to all that in an altogether less-successful distaff reworking of The Innocent (2005).
In some ways, the life Megan Pierce left behind when she stopped giving lap dances and calling herself Cassie was perfect: exciting, glamorous and anything but routine. If only her abusive client Stewart Green hadn’t vanished under circumstances that strongly suggested a violent end, Megan would never have taken a powder, ultimately trading Atlantic City’s La Crème nightclub for the American dream with a lawyer husband, two perfect children and every appliance of the upscale suburban lifestyle. One day, however, Megan—motivated solely, it seems, by the need to kick-start the plot—decides to drop in at La Crème. Her sudden reappearance, together with her old colleague Lorraine Griggs’ sighting of somebody who looks a lot like Stewart and the remarkably similar disappearance exactly 17 years later of construction heir Carlton Flynn, sets in motion a new chain of violence and threatens to reveal all of Megan’s carefully hidden secrets. Eventually she reconnects with her old flame Ray Levine, a photographer who has hit the skids big time, and tells what she knows to Det. Broome of Atlantic City Homicide. But both men’s most protective instincts are challenged by a pair of wholesome killers calling themselves Barbie and Ken—and by the fact that Broome’s own boss is working against him.
A proficient but routine thriller in which you can tell for miles in advance who’s disposable and who’s slated for survival, marked by the virtual absence of the baroque plot twists fans of Coben (Live Wire, 2011, etc.) expect as their due.