Thursday, 28 August 2008

Gilding The Lily

If you love a book, NEVER NEVER go and see the film thereof (apart from "Hellboy", which was a class act). We've all been there - the extraordinary disappointment of seeing your favourite character played by Tom Cruise (or, worse, Val Kilmer, a man who looks like somebody drew a face on a balloon and then blew it up slightly too much), the dreadful soundtrack, the hamfisted casting, entire story arcs left out. I completely understand that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with altering a book to fit what some ponytailed suit thinks would be nice (and shoehorn some sex/car chases etc into a plot otherwise devoid of them), but in that case why say "Based on the novel by.." ?? Why not just totally rewrite it and call it something else - and in the process get the credit for a whole new and original plot? I only say this because I went to see "Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day" last night. Ho hum, I say to you, ho bleeding hum. And in fact quite the reverse argument applies to this one. Far from being a complex work gutted for the screen, the book was a frothy little nothing of a plot, a really good holiday read, and I have to say I could see it being a very sweet Sunday night feelgood kind of thing. So when I saw that it had Frances McDormand in it my heart sank slightly - not because I don't like her, because I really really do, but because she's decidedly not an insubstantial frothy kind of actress. And lo, lo and behold - suddenly the film was rife with foreboding, and I use the phrase advisedly (mostly because it sounds good); bomber planes flying overhead, air-raid drills, gasmasks in shop windows, characters saying sadly to each other "They don't remember the last war, do they..", all sorts of things that were never in the book - HELLOOO, I wanted to shout at the screen, the whole point of this book (written as it was in 1938) was to stop people thinking about the outbreak of war, and give them a frilly piece of frippery to take the nasty taste away. And as such, perfectly suited to our rather uncertain times, non?

I attach for your delectation a picture of Amy Adams, because she really was the only one who was perfectly cast and, bless her, she's another ginger. And Lee Pace, because when he appeared on screen we all cheered up immensely.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Enraged marine gastropods

One of the great joys of a bookshop, as opposed to buying books on t'internet, is that you can have a bit of a trial flick before you commit. Obviously I'm talking about brand-new, un-road-tested, speculative buying, rather than re-acquiring old loves that you lent foolishly to a friend, and which promptly went out of print shortly after the friend went off round the world with no mobile phone. I know, I know, a certain online book site allows you to "see inside!!" but when you buy a book there are many factors that affect your choice. Everybody in the book trade will tell you most people do judge a book by its cover - as anyone knows who has bought a copy of "Pride and Prejudice" with a nice 19th century watercolour on the jacket as opposed to a BBC publicity shot of Colin Firth in a wet shirt. I personally never buy the film tie-in edition of anything - do you really want people to think you're reading a novel by Hugh Grant? Some people like a nice high gloss finish on a paperback cover, some like that rather subtle buffed matt finish we're seeing more and more of these days (and is a right sod, because it's actually almost frictionless and if you pick up a pile of 5 or 6 of them, they fly in all directions like a school of bars of soap). Hardbacks are generally considered a treat, or for presents, or for the diehard nailbiting author-junkie who can't wait for the paperback - I personally hate them because they cost at least three times as much as a paperback for the same amount of print, and when you're reading in bed they leave a nasty red three-cornered dent in your knee.

HOWEVER to my main point. When you're considering buying a book, the "see inside!!" feature is near enough useless, as it doesn't tell you anything about size of print, or more importantly font - I went through a phase in my late teens of only reading Picador books because after reading two or three that I loved, I found I had a Pavlovian response to the font they habitually used and would have read the Yellow Pages if they'd been printed in it. And most important of all - the sample paragraph. I like a cursory flick through a book. Nothing so crass as reading the last page; after all a book is a journey to another world, and would you start a holiday by already anticipating your sweaty return trek through Heathrow baggage claim at 7am? A quick glance will tell you a lot about a book, however, in much the same way as a travel guide will whet your appetite for your eventual destination. A friend lent me a novel the other day that I had heard nothing but good reviews of, and I was quite looking forward to giving it a go. It was an American import, and I have to say the Americans are streets ahead of us in cover design, and the cover was that lovely soft matt finish I hate at work but love in my hands (although interestingly American paperback covers tend to curl really badly - excellent cover design but cheaper laminate?).

I opened it, I had a flick, and the phrase "angry red whelks ran across his back" sprang out at me. What can I say? There's no way I can read it now. What should have been a nailbitingly dramatic scene about priestly abuse became a positive fiesta of grumpy seafood.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Personal Gods - a rogues' gallery of deities I quite like.

Fortuna, goddess of, unsurprisingly, fortune. Known aliases include "Lady Luck"; aspersions are cast on her fickleness (qv O Fortuna by Carl Orff, staple soundtrack to horror films and aftershave ads). Famous for not often being a lady, and maybe not having been a lady to begin with (qv Guys and Dolls). You can do what you like to please her, but you'll never know if your luck was favourable because she liked the cut of your jib, or not. Unpredictable. The only thing you can guarantee is that there are no guarantees. To paraphrase what Pascal said of God, it's best to worship her, because if she exists you're covered, and if she doesn't, you've lost nothing. Aptly enough, even worshipping her is a gamble.

Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Bear with me a little on this one if I tell you his main alias is Lucifer. Worshipped pretty much exclusively by the Yezidi, a tiny ethnic Kurdish minority in Iraq. They believe that God made man and told the angels to bow down to him, which they duly did, but Melek Taus refused, saying that surely the angels were the finest of God's creations and shouldn't bow down to a creature made of mud. So far, so Biblical. The Yezidi reckon, however, that at this point rather than casting him out for insubordination, God said "Well done, that was exactly the answer I was looking for, and unlike all these yes-men you alone have the pride to recognise that you are my most beautiful creation..." and other encouraging noises. God then disappeared to create other universes, leaving Melek Taus, the Devil, in charge of this one. Given the extraordinary persecution the Yezidi have suffered over the years, that sounds about right.

Legba Atibon, voodoo god (or loa) of the crossroads. He represents humility, comprehension, and the ability to see and appreciate the potential in others, which in itself facilitates communication. Definitely the god of the internet and libraries - and of any conversation or exchange of information. How could you not worship him? The kindest and most affectionately-regarded of the loa, he has relatively simple tastes for a god, and rather than demanding expensive tribute and sacrifices is happy with a cup of coffee and some tobacco. So also the god of booksellers then...

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Why I Love The Internet

It's all been said before, and by people far more clued-up and techno-geeky than me, but I LOVE THE INTERNET. Damn, but it's a boon to mankind. I speak as one to whom the phrase "knowledge is power" is not just a phrase but a way of life, and I literally cannot imagine how I used to live before I had this wealth of facts at my fingertips. I will give you but two of the million examples of this :
1) Recently, in France, on a fairly remote country road, my friend's car had a minor wobble. She has a Honda, and a small but doom-laden amber warning light started flashing on the dashboard. It was in some peculiar shape we couldn't work out (I thought all cars were idiot-proof these days???). Mr Fishwife, who fancies himself as Jeremy Clarkson (thankfully without the paunch and the perm), made all sorts of manly noises, but admitted defeat when all four of us decided the only shape it remotely resembled was maybe a gastro-intestinal tract, or a kohlrabi, neither of which play a huge part in the functionings of a Honda. THANK GOD FOR THE INTERNET - which she could access via her iPhone - where we found not only the Honda homepage (it was a warning light for "the engine", helpfully unspecific there) but also the phone number for her Honda Garage, who made reassuring noises and booked her in for a check-up when she got back. All we needed to know was that it was safe to keep driving the car with the dash warning still flashing, and lo we were duly reassured. And stopped for more ice cream rather than racing home before the kohlrabi exploded.
2) I had lunch a few days ago with my 95-year-old grandmother (not the dead alcoholic one, the living Swiss one) - I won't use the phrase "marvellous for her age", although she is, because what does that mean? Why is it surprising to be marvellous over a certain age? She forgets things a lot - but then when I think about it, she always has. And when I think about it, so do I. However, get her onto something that doesn't involve what she's doing next Tuesday week, and you're away. We had a long chat about the etymological derivation of the words "discreet" and "discrete", and then she said to me "What's the rest of that poem, you must know, it, something about "pense à Andromaque", or is it Andromache?" ... How sweet of her to have thought I must know it, which I didn't. So I Googled it. It's from "La Cygne", by Baudelaire. Which I printed out and am posting to her. God bless the internet.

Everything is there in fabulous cyberspace, it's just knowing how to find it - I couldn't for the life of me remember where the lyric "trying hard to recreate what had yet to be created" came from, and Googling a line of text is so much easier if you slap quotation marks around it, and was it worth the effort to find out it came from "What A Fool Believes" by crooning falsetto Santa-clone Michael MacDonald? Yes it was. Watching a film and can't remember what you've seen the tall girl in? Internet. That hotel you stayed in 5 years ago and can't remember the name? Internet. It'll never replace the dictionary for settling a potentially fatal Scrabble row, or Brewer's Phrase And Fable for the collective noun for crows, but it's up there in my pantheon of gods. I'm often thankful I only use it for reference, email and blogging, and not something more time-consuming like those vast online role-playing universes, but there's always time...

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Room Lovely (with apologies to Stephen Fry)

Watching a very old repeat of "Room 101" last night - most of the time the things the guests choose strike a chord (thongs, lateness, lads' mags, Anne Robinson etc), but of course Stephen Fry went one better, picking "Room 101" itself as one of his choices. His argument (or one of them) was that there is something fundamentally depressing about sitting around discussing what you hate (I personally can't get enough of it, but I am a lesser mortal). Another point he made was that there is nothing more destructive to the human spirit than looking at the, in the main, grotesque mess we have made of the world and realising we are part of a species that makes things ugly wherever it goes - although I think he made that point in connection with the Limited Edition Collectable Plates to be found in Sunday colour supplements ("White Wolf's Spirit Brother", "Adela's First Ball", "Waiting For Santa" etc etc). Aaaaaaaaaanyway - he suggested a TV programme called "Room Lovely", although I would recommend fancying up the name a bit, in which guests talk about what they find wonderful and indispensible about the world. I attach above a little collage of things that make me happy. Sadly I won't be including a picture of Mr Fishwife as he is in fact either a hugely famous film star or a high-profile wanted criminal, take your pick - can't remember which excuse he'd prefer, although what it boils down to is that he's read too many articles about identity fraud and is convinced it will happen to him. Tchuh, Virgos.
Those of you who read this by subscription (you know who you are, Ma) will have to look at this actual page to see the pictures...!