'The Starlet': Wishing, Fervently, for a World Without Fanny Packs

The prose is slick, the dialog believable, the humor subtle, and the characters self-destructive. What more could you want in a summer read?

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Format: Paperback
Author: Mary McNamara
Price: $15.00
Title: The Starlet
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: 2010-06

The Starlet by Mary McNamara opens with a bang as Mercy Talbot, a nearly naked, drunken, stoned actress attempts to climb a public fountain in Rome. Paparazzi, quite aptly compared to a zombie plague, wait for Mercy to slip, fall, and/or die. Enter Juliette Greyson, a former drug addict, a Hollywood insider, and possibly the novel’s heroine, who swoops in and rescues Mercy, both from herself and the paparazzi. Mercy shows her gratitude by vomiting on the ground, rather than Juliette’s shoes, popping a few more pills, and passing out in Juliette's arms.

Mercy is a character the audience can both love and hate -- sometimes at the same time. Clearly the statements “Mercy Talbot is 23 years old. She has been famous since she was eleven. She never stood a chance ... ” are meant to make the audience at least somewhat sympathetic to this character as are passages like “‘Carbs,’ Mercy said happily, grating drifts of parmesan onto an alarmingly large portion of linguini. ‘They’re the only real drugs in Hollywood. If I could have bread even once a week, I wouldn’t need cocaine.’” Conversely, when Mercy is snorting cocaine and gulping vodka, sleeping with other people’s spouses, or crying/whining about her life, she is not particularly likable or sympathetic.

The book contains most of the makings of a fine summer read: romance, sex, mystery, and murder. Following up McNamara’s bestseller The Oscar Season and containing many of the same characters, The Starlet's plot is relatively simple and somewhat expected: a Hollywood movie is being shot on location in Rome. After one of the stars mysteriously dies and Juliette rescues Mercy from the public fountain, the film moves to Juliette’s Tuscan retreat. The expected chaos, another mysterious death, and a love triangle fill out the rest of the story.

The book is pure Hollywood, and for those that indulge in E!, TMZ, or Entertainment Tonight, certain scenes or characters may seem quite familiar. Angie Talbot, Mercy’s mother, is the quintessential stage mom. Angie runs her daughter’s life, tells her what roles to take, sells pictures of her to the tabloids, supplies her with cocaine, and reminds her not to eat dairy because, as Angie tells Mercy, “you know how dairy makes you bloat”. Other characters include a self-absorbed shrink with a book to peddle, Juliette and her two potential love interests, and a slew of interns and producers, writers, key grips, and best boys.

Perhaps the most interesting character is Juliette’s cousin Gabriel Delfino. Gabriel is a former drug addict, but currently spends his days as an eco-friendly, philosophizing inn keeper. He describes the movie-making process as “ ... a three-ring blockbuster circus with a carbon footprint bigger than King Kong’s” and worries about the dyes and wood pulp waste from the constant rewrites. Still, when he sees inaccuracies, he can’t seem to help himself: “‘Um, are we supposed to be in Italy here?’ he asked as he watched with horrified fascination as the set dresser moved plants this way and that. ‘Because there are no gardenias in Italy. Excuse me?’ he called to the woman in black who seemed to be in charge. ‘No gardenias. In Italy.’”

The prose is slick, the dialog believable, and the humor subtle: “Juliette had nothing against tourists; she even understood the economic and emotional need to travel in packs. She just wished, fervently, for a world without fanny packs.”

The moral messages could be slightly subtler. For example, Mercy’s thoughts as she climbs the fountain in the beginning of the book: “She needed to get to the top. That was it. She was climbing so she could get to the top. Simple. If she got to the top, she could really see things -- clearly, for once ... ”

Most of the book moves well, but at times, there is almost too much and one starts to wonder how many times can Mercy get drunk or high and almost fall off a building? Or, how many times can Juliette step in and save Mercy? How many times can Juliette debate the direction of her life?

The last chapter, however, and particularly the last part of the last chapter, is nice. The book ends with grace and beauty partnered with just the right touches of humor and hope. And, of course, in true Hollywood fashion, with lots of room for the possibility of a sequel.

McNamara has been a journalist for the Los Angeles Times for nearly 20 years, and she has written “hundreds of entertainment stories, including a recent-much-buzzed-about front-page story on the television career of Barack Obama, and regularly shares her Hollywood scoops on television”. Her first book, Oscar Season, was praised for its realistic portrayal of the Hollywood scene. Most likely The Starlet will be as well. After all, how difficult is it to think of an actress (or singer or heiress) who is constantly in the news because of her drunkenness, promiscuity, drug use, or some combination thereof? Perhaps one can only hope that some of these real life “starlets” have the happy ending that The Starlet has.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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