Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Two Way Street

"There is dignity in all work"

Caine, from Kung Fu

(With summer knocking on the door, things are slow in town right now -- time to take a break from the down-and-dirty world on set and have a look at how other people make a living...)

This space has never been a one-way street. When a reader takes the time to submit a comment, question, or suggestion, I pay attention. Late last September, a reader named "Rhys" recommended two books he felt could provide some ideas how I might structure a book based on this blog.*

I took a look, then ordered both books. The first -- "smile when you're lying," by Chuck Thompson (that's right, no caps...) -- arrived in a couple of weeks. The other -- "Would You Like Fries With That?," by Prioleau Alexander (pronounced "pray-low" according to the text) -- took a full six months to find its way into my mail box. I'm not sure what caused the holdup, but it was worth the wait.

"smile when you're lying" is in many ways the coming of age story of a professional writer. The narrative bounces around in time, detailing how Thompson got into the field of travel writing in the first place, the many adventures his free-lance career lead to, and offering sage advice for anyone who likes to travel on a dime. Thompson's writing is "bright and tight" as they say in the newspaper biz -- crisp, vivid, and funny -- while his insights on the travel industry, travel writers, tourists, and life in general are worth the price of admission. Once I got started, this one was hard to put down.

I judge a book by how good it is at taking me far, far away from the All Homeless, All the Time Laundromat where my most challenging reading is done. If the writing is good enough to make me forget where I am and transport me to a much better and more interesting place -- thus rendering me blissfully unaware of all the preening, yammering, narcissistic, self-obsessed, cell-phone yakking, flea-scratching Angelenos all around me -- then that book earns top honors here at BS&T with a three star rating.

I am happy to award "smile when you're lying" all three stars.


"You Want Fries With That" is aptly described by its subtitle: "A white collar burnout experiences life at minimum wage." Sickened by a meaningless and duplicitous white collar career as an advertising man (working forty years after the smoky, sex-and-booze-fueled era of Don Draper), Prioleau Alexander finally quit to embark on a march through the world of minimum wage employment. He delivered pizzas, scooped ice cream, worked construction, made strenuous efforts to land a job in a Big Box store, endured a spectacularly horrifying week in a hospital Emergency Room, flipped burgers, and tried his soft, white collar hand at being... a cowboy.

As a concept, this struck me as a bit of a stretch -- more like the end result of a clever book proposal than one man's honest quest to find meaningful employment. The first chapter on his brief experience delivering pizzas didn't resonate with me, probably due to my own youthful stint in a pizza parlor long ago. Still, some books are slow starters, and you have to give them a fair chance. I began to warm up to this one in the next chapter detailing Alexander's experience in an ice cream shop, then fell head-over-heels in love with the section on working construction, aptly titled "Why the Roofer Wants to Kick Your Ass." This ruthless dissection of the construction trade is as entertaining as it is eye-opening. The narrative got even better when Alexander suited up in scrubs to work a hospital emergency room -- a chapter that will make you so grateful for your own job, no matter how bad it might seem on Monday morning.

The default prose setting is loose and informal, occasionally veering towards juvinelia. Like most swords, this has two sharp edges -- some of his humor comes across as flippant and silly -- but when he really gets going, Alexander is very good indeed. The three-and-a-half page intro to the ER section ("10ccs of Sanity, Stat...") features a brief history of medicine that just about killed me -- I was laughing so hard it hurt, all the while shaking my head in admiration at the pace, rhythm, and phrasing. Good stuff.

I really enjoyed this book, which taught me a lot I didn't know about each of those jobs and left me with a little more respect for those who do them for a living.

"You Want Fries With That?" is a bit uneven, but managed to carry me far away from that hot, oppressive laundromat. Three stars.


Both these books are are great summer reading -- thoroughly entertaining page-turners that offer occasional scalding (and spot-on) commentaries about modern life. Thanks, Rhys, for pointing me in their direction.

Those are my picks 'o the week. Check 'em out...

* I'm still toying with this idea, noodling around with an introduction and first chapters. We'll see how it goes...


Lakshmi said...

Maybe you have read this blog already - Waiter Rant ( He already has a book out and I think it was a best seller. Somehow your writing conveys a similar mood to me.


Michael Taylor said...

Lakshmi --

I stumbled across Waiter Rant two or three years ago, and liked it enough to buy the book, which takes a very different approach than these two, but is a very good read. I'm flattered that you see some similarities in my efforts.

Thanks for tuning in...

rhys said...

Glad you enjoyed the books. I miss recommending books to people from when I used to work at bookstores. Instead I made the poor decision to become a lawyer - oh well. The books may have been between printings which is why they took a while. Sometimes it's better just to go to the used book section on Amazon. Many of the sellers in the used book section are actually used bookstores. That's what I did when I picked up "Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing." Have you read that? It's OK. I am just reading it because I am considering trying to get into TV writing.

Michael Taylor said...

Rhys --

Hadn't heard of "Billion Dollar Kiss." Good luck with TV writing -- that's a tough nut to crack, but lawyers have a pretty good track record in literary ventures.

I'm currently reading "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," an eye-opening account of the celluloid revolution that upended studio system in the late 60's and 70's. It's a bit gossipy, but a great read.

rhys said...

I've gotten about halfway through "Down & Dirty Pictures" - Biskind's follow up to "Easy Riders Raging Bulls" about the rise of independent films. It is pretty good, although fairly dense on the facts. It reminded me of that movie "Overnight" - which is a documentary about Troy Duffy, the writer/director of Boondock Saints who was picked out of obscurity by Harvey Weinstein while a bartender. It was shot by his friends while they were working on the movie and was supposed to be a chronicle of its rise and success. However, the guy went completely crazy with delusional dreams of grandiosity and the movie barely got made. Pretty interesting look into the mind of someone who gets carried away by sudden fame.

Michael Taylor said...

Rhys --

Delusional dreams of grandiosity in the film biz? Say it ain't so...

I suspect there's a demon within all of us just waiting to get out -- but most people aren't in a position where flattery, ego, and temptation combine to unleash the beast. Politics, Wall Street, and show biz do just that.

Thanks for the tips.