City of Flickering Light by Juliette Fay (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Historical setting: 5/5

A great story! It grabs you from the first page and won’t allow itself to be put down. It’s a fascinating piece of historical fiction taking place in Hollywood during the Silent Era (1890s – 1920s). The history comes to life through the experiences of our three main characters: Irene Van Beck, Millie Martin, and Henry Weiss. In the opening scene, the three jump off a moving train to escape their current employer — the Burlesque company Chandler’s Follies — and its enforcement goons. They make their way to Hollywood for a chance at a better life.

This is my favorite kind of historical fiction — the author embeds as many of the personages, events, and mechanics of the era into the story as possible: vaudeville, burlesque, and films; jobs within the studios (scenarists, costumes, editing, etc); prohibition and speakeasies; taxi dancing and prostitution; (legal) use of heroin; housing issues (No Jews or actors!); unintended pregnancies; a budding studio Publicity department and the power of the Press to destroy; fancy Hollywood parties; and most interesting — the feel of the small Hollywood enclave within which social mores are relaxed, and many kinds of “forbidden” love are possible (though only with great discretion — hence the budding Publicity department).

In summary — a terrific story with a real feel for what life was like, embedding historical facts and figures without fictionalizing real people (I hate that!). The characters are very likable, with fully fleshed out, historically accurate, backstories (but not the rich interior life that I like). Excellent pacing, decent writing, the story “sticks” with you for a long time…

As an aside, the author lists many sources in the afterward, including a reference to a 13 part documentary called Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film. All the episodes (listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_(1980_TV_series)#Episode_list) are available on YouTube. Start at Episode 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mo3Z8IkLnU.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.

Just the Funny Parts by Nell Scovell

Writing: 5; Importance: 4; Pleasure Factor: 5

Funny, personal, and important – all in one sparkling package!

There’s been a recent spate of celebrity memoirs written by female comedians. I’ve read (or tried to read) them all:  Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Anna Ferris’ Unqualified, Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?, etc.  This one is much, much, better — no doubt due to the fact that Nell Scovell is a comedy writer rather than a comedy performer and therefore can really write!

This memoir is part sitcom, part Hollywood wannabe training material, and part exposé on the difficulties of women getting fair treatment (or any treatment at all, really) in the industry. The very first line is her own paraphrase of Nietzsche: “That which doesn’t kill me … allows me to regroup and retaliate” — a great and apt opening!

I love Nell’s writing – it’s well structured and quite personal but never strident nor overly dramatic. Some great quotes, intriguing character profiles, factual depictions of the diversity (or utter lack thereof) in writer rooms, and a real sense of the frustrations in the field. The book is littered with fabulous (and funny) story ideas that went nowhere for no reason.  Her summarized job timeline in the appendix is full of “shot but unaired”, “unshot”, and “unsold” labels, with what feels like a tiny sprinkling of successes.  Such futility!  Any dreams I had of working in Hollywood (luckily I had none) have been thoroughly quashed by reading through this descriptive tour of a Hollywood writing career. At the same time, Nell’s love and passion for the work is obvious, and it is clear she wouldn’t choose to be doing anything else.

Perhaps you know her from Sabrina the Teenage Witch or perhaps from her co-authorship of Lean In with Sheryl Sandberg.  Even if you’ve never heard of her at all, you’ll enjoy this well-documented peregrination through her life as a writer of comedy. FYI I tend to find non-fiction a slog, rarely making it past the 1/3 mark, but I gobbled this book up in two days.