Lights, Camera, Fiction! Novels Written by Actors
Nobody asked for it, but here it is – a list of fiction written by thespians! While of course these things are subjective, it is safe to say that the following titles run the gamut from surprisingly good to flat-out terrible. At any rate, they are fun to peruse if you’re in the mood for something, ahem, novel.
Here are the rules of the game:
This list contains ADULT FICTION ONLY (which left out a slew of Young Adult novels and ghastly celebrity-penned picture books--but hey, that’s not my department).
NO GHOSTWRITERS ALLOWED. To the best of my knowledge, these tomes were written by the star and only the star—stand or fall alone. Collaborative fiction tends to be the realm of amateurs, charlatans and, of course, James Patterson, so you can imagine how many books this little rule disqualified (I’m lookin’ at you, Shatner).
THIS IS NOT A COMPLETE LIST. Of course, I am unable to read and review every novel ever penned by an actor in the history of the world. Time and sanity constraints simply don’t permit it. What I have done is to sample from a broad array of thesps who have set aside their greasepaint sticks in favor of a pen. Some of them (e.g., Steve Martin) you probably already know about. Others, hopefully, will come as a fun surprise.
Finally, since many of these books are sort of bad but not bad bad, EACH WILL BE ASSIGNED ONE OF THE FOLLOWING RATINGS:
SMILEY FACE – surprisingly good
STUMPED – cannot wholeheartedly recommend OR bash
SIDE-EYE – a few redeeming qualities, but still kind of lame
SNOOZER – bland, boring, blah
SHADE – flat-out terrible
Okay, that’s it. Roll ‘em!
Ruth Chatterton - Pride of the Peacock
I don't know what you're reading these days but it probably isn't Ruth Chatterton. Still, I say you should. Vintage actress Chatterton seems to have done it all—the Broadway stage, the silent “flickers” and then on to the talkies, where she was nominated for an Oscar for MGM’s 1929 film Madame X. She was also an early aviatrix, close friends with Amelia Earhart. And she was a passing-good novelist, as Pride of the Peacock shows. Told from alternating points of view, Peacock is the story of a family of eccentric women centering around black sheep Zan, who is returning to hearth and home (and daughter and estranged husband) after a torrid affair with an Italian pianist. Will Jocko and Zan reunite? Will Jenny Wren grow up and out of her mother’s shadow? Can Granny Peacock somehow keep her flighty flock together? Infused with an actress’s eye for telling detail, Peacock is definitely worth a read for lovers of period antics.
Rating: SMILEY FACE
Macauley Culkin - Junior
A miserable hodgepodge of stick-figure doodles, questionnaires, stilted correspondence and scenes from the life of an unhappy child star. Junior is virtually unreadable, yet the sense of wandering through a lost boy’s mind is unmistakably real. Culkin is the first to admit (in the book’s painfully unfunny Forward) that he is not a writer, so it would appear that in writing Junior he was once again strong-armed into doing a project he hated (Richie Rich, anyone?).
Kirk Douglas - Dance With the Devil
Having read and enjoyed Douglas’ memoir The Ragman’s Son, I was interested to see what his fiction would be like. Turns out it’s very similar. In fact, there are many parallels between Douglas and protagonist Moisha, who starts off life as a holocaust survivor before making it big in Hollywood, where he hides his true ethnic identity. Despite his worldly success, Moisha becomes increasingly unhappy until he meets hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Luba. Though the plot may sound conventional, Douglas has a genuine knack for pacing, drama and turn of phrase. If you are a fan of his or are interested in the subject matter, then this is a book, and an author, you should read.
Rating: SMILEY FACE
Carrie Fisher - Delusions of Grandma
Something of a deep cut in the Carrie Fisher canon, her 1994 novel Delusions of Grandma is nonetheless an entertaining read. Delusions tells the story of Cora (Carrie?), a successful script doctor (just like Carrie) who eventually discovers she is pregnant by her nice-but-not-quite-magical-enough ex-boyfriend. Though the titular Grandma (clearly based on Debbie Reynolds) doesn’t appear till late in the game, the story chugs to an amusing conclusion with mother and daughter traveling by train in order to bury an eccentric relative. Autobiographical elements (not the least of which is Fisher’s own 1992 pregnancy) abound, but it doesn’t really matter since the yarn does entertain. Unfortunately, Carrie tends to treat her readers much as Cora treats her boyfriend, committing the crime of “neglect of others through overconcern for myself,” as she puts it. Not a delusional assessment.
James Franco - Palo Alto: Stories
Short story collections are a tough sell in today’s cutthroat book market, and this one would never have been green-lighted were the author not actor James Franco. Still, it’s not as though the stories are laughably bad. They all seem to recall Franco’s middle and high school years, offering anecdotes of boys behaving badly or sadly or both, of lost youth generally misspending itself. “American History” tells the tale of a tenth-grade boy who uses the N word in history class to make a cute girl smile (yuck). Interestingly, it is the stories told from the first-person perspective of young female characters that resonate most strongly—in particular, “Lockheed,” about a lonely girl who shares a brief encounter with a bad-boy she idolizes right before his violent death at a high school party. Though it’s easy to bash the smarmy Franco, he’s not a terrible writer and many of his observations are sensitive and fine. It’s not bad, just undergrad.
Stephen Fry - The Hippopotamus
If you just can’t get enough scatological humor in your life, this is the book for you! Often witty but pretty rough going, this largely epistolary novel by British actor/writer Fry concerns the unraveling of a mystery at an English country estate. But there is no murder to be solved. On the contrary, somebody or -thing appears to have been saving the lives of various sick people (and a horse) via “mysterious powers.” Crotchety tosspot/poet Ted Wallace, in the employ of his terminally ill goddaughter Jane, is dispatched to find out what’s going on. Is the Age of Miracles still with us? Or do we live, to use Fry’s term, in “arse-paralysingly drear times”? An interesting, if off-putting, meditation on the nature of faith in “civilized” society.
Ethan Hawke - The Hottest State
Having heard somewhere that Ethan Hawke’s fiction was supposed to be really bad, I began to read The Hottest State with very low expectations. Which may be why I ended up liking it. Published in 1997 when he was just 27, The Hottest State tells the story of two people chasing their dreams in NYC. Sarah wants to be a singer, Will is a fledgling actor who has just landed his first film role. From the beginning their relationship is lopsided, with the fragile, offbeat Sarah in control. Hawke does a grand job of depicting the agony and ecstasy of young love. The secondary characters are richly drawn, and the structure of the book is tight. While it is not literary fiction of the highest order, The Hottest State will resonate with anyone who’s ever been 20 and absolutely sure that they are desperately in love.
Rating: SMILEY FACE
Hugh Laurie - The Gun Seller
Laurie, who co-starred with Stephen Fry (see above) on the popular British TV show A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and—oh, yes—followed that up with a little American show called House, is one of those depressing sods who can apparently do it all. He is funny and tall and British and a good actor and, now we find out, quite a clever writer. The Gun Seller is a hilarious spoof of the classic spy novel, a mashup of Monty Python and James Bond. It concerns the adventures of ex-soldier Thomas Lang, who is unwittingly drawn into a web of international intrigue replete with terrorists and high-tech weapons. Though it might be more enjoyable to a male readership (as the Bond books largely are), The Gun Seller is nevertheless almost unbearably droll and certainly well worth a read.
Rating: SMILEY FACE
Janet Leigh - The Dream Factory
Who wouldn’t want to like a novel with this title, written as it was by Miss Janet “Psycho” Leigh? The story of Eve Handel, a Chicago girl who makes it big in 1940s Hollywood (as a studio executive, no less) seems loaded with potential. But the novel’s leaden pace and miniscule payoffs made getting through 100 pages feel like it took 100 years, and the overabundance of exclamation points only added to the uphill climb. Might be worth a peek for super-diehard fans. All others are urged to find accommodations elsewhere.
Steve Martin - Shopgirl
Having read and enjoyed Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up, as well as Cruel Shoes, his 1979 collection of hilarious, wackadoo vignettes, I was yet unprepared for the surprising grace of his novella Shopgirl. The book, a finely crafted piece of largely expository prose, centers around 28-year-old Mirabelle, who has a degree in Fine Arts, a prescription for antidepressants and a dead-end job at the glove counter at Neiman’s. Enter Ray Porter, a fiftyish millionaire who has a place in L.A., a connoisseur’s eye for skin, and an aversion to commitment. Slowly, over dinner dates and various outings and innings, a relationship develops between this unlikely pair. The circular ending is a bit flat/pat but overall the book is sensitive, canny and artfully made.
Rating: SMILEY FACE
David Niven - Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly
Set in Europe during World War II with forays into Hollywood and NYC, this work by dapper actor Niven had the potential to be, if not engrossing, certainly entertaining. The title refers to the sentiment all lovers feel when separated by forces beyond their control. Alas, this story of an RAF pilot and his American actress love is just not very gripping. Sentimental, dry and a bit convoluted, it has none of the appeal of Niven’s excellent memoirs. By all means, do seek those out, particularly his delicious Bring on the Empty Horses. Simply put, this book isn’t nearly as much fun, nor does it score many points from a literary standpoint. Go Slowly goes—well, you know.
Paulina Porizkova - A Model Summer
Fifteen-year-old Jirina’s journey from ugly duckling in Sweden to aspiring model in 1980s Paris has all the elements you’d expect to find in a tale of high-fashion debauchery—underage sex and drinking/drugs, catfights in exotic locales, lecherous photographers, sympathetic makeup men, abortions involving rock stars. Although Jirina’s relative “goodness” can be a bit cloying at times, model/actress/author Porizkova does a better job than you’d think. And the story of a young girl of Czech descent hitting the big time in Paris fashion is certainly hers to tell, since she lived it first. Worth a read for anyone interested in an inside look at what it really takes to make it as a supermodel.
Molly Ringwald - When It Happens to You
Surprisingly good novel written as a series of interlinked short stories whose characters criss-cross through each other’s lives in unexpected ways. Brat-Packer Molly shows a deft hand at portraying the lives of Angelenos struggling to carve a little happiness out of their various family hells. There’s the woman whose husband has cheated on her with their daughter’s violin teacher, the single mom whose 6-year-old son knows that he’s really a girl, the older couple who is taking in their heroin-addled grandson, and so on. It’s good to know that the ‘“popular girl” from all those ‘80s films was taking things in the whole time, and is sharing another talent of hers in such a notable way.
Rating: SMILEY FACE
Ally Sheedy - She Was Nice to Mice
Written by Ringwald’s fellow Brat-Packer Ally Sheedy when she was just twelve years old, this charming tale of a mouse befriended by Queen Elizabeth I is a quick, enjoyable read. Sheedy clearly studied up on Elizabeth’s life and times, for woven into this story of the formidable Queen are accurate period details regarding her dress, makeup and grooming habits, as well as appearances by historical personages such as William Shakespeare and the ill-fated Earl of Essex. Peppered with delightful pen-and-ink drawings by 13-year-old Jessica Ann Levy, this buried treasure of a book is well worth digging up if you wish to spend a pleasant hour in the company of mice.
Rating: SMILEY FACE
Meg Tilly - Singing Songs
Published to great critical acclaim in 1994, this flowers-in-the-dirt saga of one girl’s dysfunctional upbringing in 1970s Oregon remains an affecting if uncomfortable read. Actress Tilly (star of The Big Chill, big sister to Jennifer) hits all the right notes in her portrayal of Anna, whose plaintive voice tells the tale of her tumultuous childhood from ages 6 through 12. There are fearful encounters with malevolent grownups (including some wrenching molestation scenes) and joyous times with her many siblings, playing together and protecting one another from the stark, unfiltered reality around them. In the Forward to this second edition, Tilly reveals that the book is semi-autobiographical, but that should not diminish her cred as a writer. These Songs are beautifully crafted. If you’re up for something poignant and unsettling, try Singing Songs.
Rating: SMILEY FACE
John Travolta - Propeller One-Way Night Coach: a Fable for All Ages
Hokey but heartfelt tale of an 8-year-old boy’s magical first plane ride. Woven into the very slight plot are angelic stewardesses, businessmen on the make, kindly pilots and one bona fide lunatic. This slim volume also serves as a bittersweet valentine to the flawed mother character. The lovingly recalled journey surely must have sparked Travolta’s subsequent real-life love of aviation. Based on the title alone, this would be an easy book to trash, but there’s something so earnest about the whole thing, I just can’t hate on it.
Gene Wilder - Something to Remember You By: a Perilous Romance
Well-meaning, sentimental and steeped in nostalgia, this novel by likable offbeat actor Wilder is, nevertheless, not very good. American medic Tom meets Danish resistance fighter Anna in a London café during World War II, where they share a meal, a bottle of wine, and some lame jokes. Rapidly they fall in love and are soon engaged in acts of highly implausible derring-do, outwitting the Nazis to save one another and, presumably, the world. All of which would be swell if the characters felt more real and engaging, if they didn’t seem to expect the reader’s interest and sympathy as their automatic due. Though their situation certainly does inspire sympathy and all the world loves a lover, Tom and Anna remain difficult to invest in. Diamonds are needed in a setting like this, but these people are only paste.
I hope you enjoyed this little excursion into the world of Novels by Actors. To find out what our librarians are reading, recent arrivals and hot titles, book lists by subject, new books by genre and other reader resources please visit LAPL Reads.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013