The quest for the perfect holiday read

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Lunettes de soleil et livre fond plage exotique

Choosing a book to take on holiday with you is serious business. Without proper preparation and research, you might end up making a fatal error which could lead to emotional distress, divorce or even imprisonment. Don’t believe me? Read on.

Which is the best type of book to take on holiday?

A classic

See: Anything that you wish you had read in high school, or anything written in the last few years which has received a major literary award.

Pro: When else are you going to get the time to lose yourself in a great work of literature? How good will it feel to come back from holiday feeling as though you have used your time off work to truly achieve something?

Con: You might develop uncontrollable book envy as your friends devour one whizzy beach read after another as you battle through 975 pages of Anna Karenina, leading to slowly simmering resentment that will create cracks in the foundations of your friendship that will only deepen over time.

Something ‘light’

See: any chick lit or mass market thrillers which aren’t too strenuous on the old mind cogs.

Pro: What better time to give your brain a rest and enjoy life’s simpler pleasures?

Con: Define light? How do you know that your frothy and silly retro romp about three beautiful and morally flexible young friends trying to make it in Hollywood (Valley of the Dolls) won’t end in tragedy of Shakespearean proportions (and for real, Shakespeare could’ve learned a few things from Jacqueline Susann. If there is one thing his plays are missing, it’s really great wig-pulling fight scenes set in women’s toilets).

That book everyone’s talking about:

See: Gone Girl, The Dinner, Inferno, How To Be a Woman, How Should A Person Be?

Pro: It’s bound to be worth the hype, right?

Con: Sometimes books become hits that everyone wants to talk and write about because some people find them fist-shakingly rage-inducing. If someone you know is desperate to talk about one of these books, it could be to share their joy with others, or equally as likely to purge themselves of the horror of That Ending (yes The Dinner, I’m looking at you).

A book that is universally beloved

See: The Hunger Games, Good Omens, The Fault In Our Stars, The Book Thief, Ender’s Game

Pro: Well, surely you can’t go wrong? You know you will love this book. Everyone loves this book. It won’t make you angry. It won’t ruin your holiday. It won’t make you want to throw your Kindle into the sea.

Con: What if it’s too good? What if it’s so unputdownable that every hard-earned penny you have paid for your trip away has been in vain, as you eschew sightseeing and going to the beach in favour of spending seven straight days in District Twelve with Katniss?

A bonkbuster:

See: Fifty Shades of Grey, Bared To You, Hollywood Wives, Riders, Lace

Pro: Obvious.

Con: What if your real life partner fails to match up to Christian Grey? What if your eye starts to wander past the person that you came on holiday with, eventually leading to the irrevocable break-up of your relationship? What if you suddenly become a sex maniac and get thrown in a harsh foreign prison for public lewdness, and request to use your one phone call to get in touch with Jilly Cooper and ask her to bail you out because it’s all her fault?

5 books which need to be made into movies, like, immediately

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Invisible Monsters – Chuck Palahniuk

Jennifer Lawrence at the 83rd Academy Awards crop

Any excuse to have a photo of J.Law. Sigh.

This book is the business. It’s Fight Club with drag queens. It’s a modern twist on the age-old story of boy meets girl, girl gets lower half of face shot off in drive-by, boy dumps girl, girl befriends drag queen and boy, girl, drag queen and boy travel around the US going to open houses, taking on new identities and stealing enough painkillers and hormone pills to fill the Grand Canyon, something something wedding house fire, something something secret sex change, something something gonorrhea, the end.

It won’t be an easy adaptation; ‘unreliable narrator’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. I think it can be done – I see the story as being shot as if we are seeing the world through the narrator’s eyes, Peep Show-style. MacLaren Productions Inc. acquired rights to the novel four years ago, but a film has never materialised. All they’ve got is a sad little website, Facebook page and Twitter account asking fans to ‘demand’ an Invisible Monsters movie (not even a Kickstarter campaign).

Dream director: David Fincher

Fantasy casting: Channing Tatum as the narrator’s ex Manus Kelley, the Speedo-clad dirty cop who goes deep undercover (a bit too deep, if you catch my drift) to catch gay men trying to solicit sex in public parks; Jennifer Lawrence as the Queen Supreme, Brandy Alexander (although if J.Law ever played a drag queen, I would be worried about the internet imploding under the weight of all the gifs).

The Worst Date EverJane Bussman

John Prendergast

Hunky UN activist John Prendergast

This book is the business. It’s Bridget Jones’s Diary with African war lords – and it’s a true story. It’s a modern twist on the age-old story of girl meets Ashton Kutcher, meeting Ashton Kutcher makes girl re-evaluate entire life so far and decide she never wants to spend time with people like Ashton Kutcher ever again, girl reads about hunky UN activist (John Prendergast, pictured) in magazine, girl stalks hunky UN activist all the way to war-torn Uganda, girl struggles to find a way to bump into hunky UN activist, girl gets job teaching impoverished African children and learns a thing or two about how not to be a selfish arsehole, girl meets Joseph Kony, girl finally gets to meet hunky UN activist, girl writes Broadway play and everyone lives happily ever after (except for the impoverished African children, who are still impoverished). Fact: I read the latter three quarters of this book in one sitting, and even cancelled a night out so I could finish it. I laughed out loud more than I ever have at any other book before, and cried when it ended.

Dream director: Jane Bussman

Fantasy casting: Sally Hawkins as Jane Bussman; George Clooney as John Prendergast (the two are even friends in real life); Don Cheadle as Joseph Kony; Charlie Sheen as Ashton Kutcher.

The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten – Julian Baggini

Eddie Murphy Shrek Shankbone 2010 NYC

Eddie Murphy, one of the leading donkey-portraying actors of our time

Fact: I stole most of my morals and opinions from this book. It’s non-fiction, but that didn’t stop Mean Girls (based on Queen Bees and Wannabes, Rosalind Wiseman’s self-help book for teenage girls and their parents) becoming a hit.

J.Bagg takes us through a series of ‘thought experiments’, many of them inspired by movies, including Minority Report, Total Recall and An American Werewolf in London, using vividly drawn dilemmas to help the reader examine their true beliefs about subjects like terrorism, corruption and abortion.  A film could work well as a series of Waking Life-style animated vignettes.

Dream director: Richard Linklater

Fantasy casting: John C Reilly as the pig that wants to be eaten; Vince Vaughan as Dick, the guy who ends up chained to another man on life support for nine months against his will after a night of drunkeness; Eddie Murphy as Buridan’s Ass.

House of LeavesMark Z. Danielewski

Charlize Theron (6852646838)

Any excuse to have a photo of Charlize Theron. Sigh.

Another book whose adaptation would make Being John Malkovich look like Two and a Half Men, House of Leaves is the story of a couple falling in and out of love, their homicidal house and a young drug addict who is driven insane reading their story. The title describes the book itself – a sprawling labyrinth of mulitple narrators, multiple languages, acres of footnotes, passages written forwards, backwards, upside down, books within books within films within books and over a thousand pages worth of sleepless nights. Danielewski has apparently turned down several offers for the rights to bring the novel to the big screen. I don’t know how anyone could do it, but I would love to see them try.

Dream director: dare I say David Lynch?

Fantasy casting: Will Smith as Pulitzer Prize-winning photo journalist Will Navidson; Charlize Theron as his wife, former model Karen Green; Evan Peters as Johnny Truant.

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

Zach Galifianakis at the Hangover II Premiere 2011

Any excuse to have a photo of Zach Galifianakis. Sigh.

Seriously. It’s been 33 years. Just bloody get on with it.

Fantasy casting the Gone Girl movie

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Reese Witherspoon 2009

So, as the Gone Girl superfans among you will already know, they’re making a movie. Reese Witherspoon, who has bought the rights to produce the film adaptation, has apparently said that she won’t be playing Amy, in contrast to what was previous reported.

I have so many questions. Will it be amazing? Will they keep in the controversial ending? Why does Gillian Flynn have to keep reminding us that Desi’s mum smells of vagina? (It’s not just her, either – with it’s richly evocative and incessant descriptions, this book is like Chocolat for people who enjoy the scent of ladyparts). Will they find a way to work that obviously integral piece of characterisation into the script?

But most importantly, who should be in it?

Andie (beautiful young student who [SPOILER ALERTS] with [SPOILER ALERT])

Emma Stone 2011

Safe choice: Emma Stone? Kat Dennings? Ellen Page? Ellen Wong? Vanessa Hudgens? Aubrey Plaza? Shay Mitchell? Amber Heard?

Intriguing unsafe choice: Sexy? 20something? Large breasts? Lots of freckles? People still really like her and really root for her, even though she does really horrible things all of the time? I can think of a very famous actress who fits that description, but unless her latest bout of rehab goes spectacularly well, John Goodman has a better chance of getting cast as Andie than she does (and a very fine job he would do of it too).

My choice: John Goodman.

Margo (Nick’s twin. I actually wrote ‘identical twin’ several times while drafting this blog post, which should be proof enough of how good I am at fantasy casting – that I think Zooey Deschanel and Ryan Gosling could play identical twins)

Zooey deschanel

Safe choice: everyone’s hipster twin, Zooey Deschanel.

Intriguing unsafe choice: Greta Gerwig. If you aren’t familiar with the work of Greta Gerwig, she’s basically Chloe Sevigny if Chloe Sevigny wore normal-people clothes, actually moved her face when she spoke and had never performed le art of fellatio en camera for les reasons artistiques.

My choice: at 40, Selma Blair is possibly a tad too old to be playing the twin of someone like Chris Pine, but she is exactly how I picture Margo, and she rocks.

Desi (Amy’s ex-boyfriend who [SPOILER ALERT] [SPOILER ALERT] [SPOILER ALERT] [SPOILER ALERT])

Matthew McConaughey 2011

Safe choice: smarmy yet charming? Charmy yet smarming? Can do comedy and drama equally well? Bradley Cooper.

Intriguing unsafe choice: McConaughey. He’s a surprisingly versatile actor. I would love to see him bring his unique brand of southern-fried craziness to the role.

My choice: McConaughey.

Rand Elliot (Amy’s dad)

ChristopherPlummer07TIFF

Safe choice: Christopher Plummer? Alan Arkin?

Intriguing unsafe choice: Bryan Cranston. He’s only 57, so much too young, but he’s such a good actor. As a matter of fact, Bryan Cranston could play Nick.  He could play Amy. And, just like that, I’m now fantasising about a version of Gone Girl where Bryan Cranston plays all the characters like Eddie Murphy in The Klumps.

My choice: Cranston got this one in the bag, yo.

Amy

Jennifer10

Safe choice: Witherspoon. She’s said that she’s not going to take the part, but who is Amy Dunne if not a grown-up Tracy Flick?

Intriguing unsafe choice: Paltrow. Sickeningly perfect blonde exposes that her life is a sham? People either love her or hate her? “Your wife’s pretty head”-level plot twists?

My choice: Aniston. America’s sweetheart?  Beloved only child with a challenging relationship with her famous parents? People still think she’s a bunny boiler, despite a neverending barrage of evidence to the contrary, so I would like to see how Jen would play a genuine wife from Hell.

Nick

Ryan Gosling 2013

Safe choice: plenty. There are several all-American hunks in their early to mid thirties who I could imagine in this role. Chris Pine? Ryan Reynolds? Charming Potato? 

Intriguing unsafe choice: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is probably too New York sophisticated to play someone who grew up in the Deep South and has a huge chip on his shoulder about it, but I would be interested to see him try.

My choice: GOSLING. Think about it. He’s adorable. Everyone loves him. He could steal your fiancee, hang off the top of a ferris wheel and threaten to commit suicide if you don’t go out with him, or straight-up murder you in an elevator, and you would still happily take him home to meet your mum. He and Eva Mendes enjoy what is probably the least-documented A-list relationship of all time, because no-one wants to read about them and be reminded of the fact that, 1) HE ISN’T GOING OUT WITH YOU and 2) THE NOTEBOOK ISN’T REAL. For Gosling to play a man who people don’t like would be the greatest acting challenge of all time. One can picture him now, hearing his name called out for the Academy Award for Best Actor, shuffling and wheezing his way up to the stage, having gained 257 pounds worth of awful douchebag for the role, while Carey Mulligan and Russell Crowe dab their eyes with silken handkerchiefs at such a courageous and inspirational display of self-sacrifice in the name of art.

5 pieces of pop culture that helped me through hard times

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Persepolis (2007)

Of all the scenes in the film adaption of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, the one that made the biggest impression on me was when the teenage Marji takes to her bed after she discovers her boyfriend has cheated on her.  She is upset that he betrayed her, upset that she ever loved him, and upset that she’s upset.  She is distraught that, after a life of hardship, spending her adolescence escaping the shadows of oppression and tragedy – the Iran/Iraq war, being separated from her parents in her early teens, the torture and murder of her favourite uncle – breaking up with some spotty twerp has driven her to attempt suicide.  Among the lessons that Persepolis helped teach me is the realisation that our emotions don’t react in predictable ways.  It is easy to imagine that that day you experience a tragedy is as tough as it gets, and each day after that is a little easier.  It doesn’t work like that.  You can fight through a war and let teenage heartache knock you for six.

So What – Pink

I can’t imagine how hard it must be to tell everyone you know that you’re splitting up with your husband after only a couple of years of marriage.  I especially can’t imagine how hard it must be to tell everyone who knows you that you’re splitting up with your husband after only a couple of years of marriage when you’re one of the most famous pop stars in the entire world.   With that in mind, it takes gigantic ladyballs to not only release a song about it (with the opening line ‘I guess I just lost my husband, I don’t know where he went…’) , but also to release a video for that song in which you sing it to said husband and mime strangling him (and also appear naked from behind while doing some sort of T-Rex dance?  And have a 1990s Nicholas Cage doppelganger set fire to your hair?  Whatevs, it’s a weird video.)  One time when I was feeling very low, I put this song on repeat for about an hour and a half and told myself that I’m still a rockstar too goddammit.  Bonus awesomeness: they’re now married again, and have a baby together.

Beginners (2011)

I watched this film for the first time on New Year’s Day, 2012.  Having had a few friends over the night before, I spent the day alone, hungover and tired, eating re-heated leftover mozzarella sticks in a filthy apartment, thinking about New Year’s Resolutions and all of the uncomfortable self-questioning that comes with them.  That evening, I downloaded this wonderful little movie about an elderly man (Christopher Plummer) who comes out as gay after his wife of 44 years passes away, and chases love with all the energy and enthusiasm of a man a quarter of his age.  The film is based on director Mike Mills’ own experiences of his father coming out at the age of 75.  Watch it next time you’re feeling inadequate about what you have achieved during the short time you have been on this earth.

Invisible Monsters – Chuck Palahniuk

‘”Now,” those Plumbago lips say, “You are going to tell me your story like you just did.  Write it all down.  Tell that story over and over.  Tell me your sad-assed story all night.”  That Brandy queen points a long bony finger at me.

‘”When you understand,” Brandy says, “that what you’re telling is just a story.  It isn’t happening anymore.  When you realise the story you’re telling is just words, when you can just crumble it up and throw your past in the trashcan,” Brandy says, “then we’ll figure out who you’re going to be.”‘

I want that whole passage tattooed inside my eyelids.

Peep Show

This British sitcom is perfect for when you have done something you regret and need to put it into perspective.  Next time you do something awful and/or embarrassing, you should try what I shall call ‘The Jez Test’: assessing your actions against those of Jeremy from Peep Show to see which is worse.

The Jez Test:

  • Have you tried to run over your girlfriend’s lesbian fiance accidentally on purpose?
  • Have you accidentally killed your girlfriend’s dog, set fire to it to dispose of the remains, and eaten a bite of its charred leg in front of her?
  • Have you bested a love rival by pooing in the pool of the gym he works at, and blaming it on him?

No?  It’s probably fine then, you shouldn’t worry about it.

On reviews, reviewers and reviewing things

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This week one of my favourite writers, Nicole Cliffe from The Hairpin, has been discussing what makes a good review.  As a guest reviewer of the ‘Critical Hit Awards’ at Electric Literature, she wrote: 

I believe it is very difficult to succeed with a book review if you lack generosity of spirit and a genuine love of books. There are plenty of terrible books, there are far more mediocre books, there are many good ones, and there are some that are great. Books that are terrible or mediocre are rarely worth your time to review. Which is not to say that a negative review has no place in your arsenal, but when I am reviewing a book, I try to imagine that I am speaking to the author, that that author wants to have written a good book and has proceeded with that desire in good faith.

Linking to the article on The Hairpin, Nicole reflected:

But then, when I think about some of the book reviews which have really stayed with me, some of them are mean and brilliant. And I greatly prefer Anthony Lane’s more withering movie reviews to ones that are all, oh, Jessica Chastain is a revelation. So, hm, who knows?’

For me, the distinction isn’t between positive and negative reviews.  Whether it’s affectionate yet clear-slighted love like Nicole’s Cliffe’s own Classic Trash, where our heroine takes us on a personal journey through her experiences with the best trashy literature through the decades, or vicious slamdowns (there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t shed a tear for the untimely hiatus of Videogum’s ‘Worst Movie of All Time’ reviews), I believe that the best reviews are highly personal and passionate ones.

We all have different experiences and worldviews and different reasons for loving what we love, and hating what we hate.  When I used to write about music for another site, the editor would send me singles and albums to review.  My biggest problem was never not liking them, but being able to acknowledge that they were good, but just not to my taste.  How do you critically assess something like that?  All the noises sounded good in my ears and everything, but once the review was written, I would never listen to them again.  I was never particularly proud of those reviews – I would much rather write about something that provoked a strong response in me, one way or another.    

I think that there’s a huge gulf between loving something and acknowledging that something is very good with few, if any, flaws, and not a lot of traditional reviewers cover that space.  How often does Roger Ebert write reviews like “Terrence Malick’s new film is a profound and stunningly accurate examination of the human experience with a first-rate script, career-best performances from the world’s greatest actors and flawless direction, but I could have watched White Chicks twice during its 280 minute run time, and would much rather have done so”? (and he wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, so he should know the joys of great trash better than anyone). 

That isn’t a problem – that is where bloggers can come in and win hearts and minds with their ‘OMFG guys, you just have to watch this movie right now’ views.  (To quote John Cheese from Cracked.com: ‘If I have to explain who Leslie Nielsen is, you need to stop what you’re doing right now and go watch the Airplane and Naked Gun movies, and the Police Squad! TV show. Call in a sick day to work or school, explaining that you just discovered his body of work. They’ll understand. In fact, the only punishment you might receive would be a dock in pay or grades for not having done it sooner.’)  There are a huge number of reviewers out there, in print and online, so what can set you apart is having a unique perspective and a story to tell.  What can you see that no-one else can?  Do you still love a much mocked movie because it came along at just the right time in your life when you could appreciate it?  Do you love Freddy Got Fingered and hate The Godfather?  Tell me why!