Friday, September 21, 2018

Book Review: Famous Last Words

By Jami Deise

As an avid Twitter user, I sometimes get tweets like this: Morena Baccarin Compares Kissing Ryan Reynolds to ‘Kissing a Giant Latex Condom’. Now that I’ve read former People magazine reporter Sara Hammel’s latest, Famous Last Words, I have a much greater understanding of everything that went into turning one or two salacious quotes into a Twitter-worthy story. (Spoiler alert: It was Ryan’s costume, not the actor himself, that was the problem.)

Ever since she was a child, Augusta Noble has worshipped celebrities. When she was overweight and lonely, they provided comfort from the classmates who bullied her. Now an adult, she uses them to hide from the fact that she could be a murderer.

A hard news reporter, Augusta quits her reporting job and becomes the London stringer for CelebLife, a People-type magazine that only prints the best about the celebrities it covers, after the traumatic event. Pursuing stars for quotes such as the Morena Baccarin line above, Augusta finds that some celebrities are nice and others are mean. Having once told her mother that it would take 107 celebrity encounters to make up for not having a lot of friends, Augusta works toward that number while dealing with the shaky fortunes of print journalism in the twenty-first century. At the same time, police are hounding her to remember exactly what happened that night at her best friend Caroline’s apartment that left someone dead. And there’s a possible romance with a member of the British aristocracy.

There’s a lot going on in this book, including multiple time lines and locations, and there were times I got confused. Hammel has a strong narrative voice, and her characterization of Augusta is multi-faceted and generous. Strangely enough, I would have appreciated more time in the past with Augusta and the mystery of Caroline than chasing after real-life stars. Undoubtedly, many of the tidbits Hammel drops as Augusta flits from red carpet to after-party are based on the author’s real-life encounters. But save for the dirt about the Beckhams and Princess Kate, nothing she reveals would surprise anyone who has ever stood in a check-out line at the grocery store.

Although this is Hammel’s second book, she may be better known for the scathing public letter she wrote when resigning from People magazine after a 14-year career. (That letter is also available on Amazon, as a Kindle document entitled Red Carpet Regrets.) The question of whether the public really needs weekly musings on the contents of Jennifer Aniston’s womb notwithstanding, underlying Hammel’s career and Famous Last Words is a very real crisis in journalism. As talented, seasoned reporters are pushed aside for struggling freelancers and established newspapers are bought by organizations in order to silence their voices, folks who strive to tell the real stories may become an endangered species. And then none of us will be able to difference between tabloid news, “fake news,” and what is really going on.

Thanks to Jed Hammel (Sara's brother) for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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