The end of reading: Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson

zoo-time-coverZoo Time is another very funny, novel by Howard Jacobson, the writer of the Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question (read my review here) and The Making of Henry (reviewed here)

It’s the story of Guy Abelman, a once successful satirical writer, whose last book, Who Gives a Monkey? was loosely based on his relationship with a chimpanzee-masturbating zoologist at Chester Zoo.

Since then, he hasn’t written a bestseller in years. His books are out of print (available as ‘print on demand’ his new publisher tells him) and worst of all, making their way into the second-hand section of charity book stores.

Indeed this is where we first meet the middle-aged Jewish satirist: outside an Oxfam bookstore in the Cotswolds where he has just stolen a copy of his novel and been apprehended by the police.

Asked why he stole it, Abelman replies that he did not steal it but “released it”.

“The book as prestigious object and source of wisdom is dying,” he tells the constable.

Resuscitation is probably futile, but the last rites can at least be given with dignity. It matters where and with whom we end our days. Officer

In the Cotswolds to speak – or rather be heckled – at another writer’s festival (“The only character I identified with in your book is the one who died,” retorts one reader) Abelman believes the book is all but, dead, because no one reads books anymore, certainly not the clever literary stuff which once won him minor awards.

To confirm this depressing state of affairs, his old publisher, the terminally depressed Merton has just committed suicide, his final words being “Mmm” while his agent, Francis, does not even bother to restock his office bookcase with his old novels when Guy comes to visit.

The party’s over [Francis] wanted me to know. The age of sparing a writer’s feelings was past

To top it all off, Abelman desires to bed his sixty-something mother-in-law, Poppy while his frustrated wife, Vanessa wants him out the house so she can finally finish her own novel.

So badly has Guy run out of ideas, that the best he can do is tell Francis about his idea for a new novel: a plot based around his unrequited passion for Poppy.

If he’s sounding a bit like a neurotic, over-sexed Jewish character dreamt up by Woody Allen or Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David – albeit a very British one – that’s probably a fair assessment.  And if you delight in that type of Freudian black humour and cynicism you will enjoy reading Zoo Time.

If not, I would suggest giving it a wide berth.

Indeed we spend the entire novel inside the head of the sentimental, lamenting and self-important  Guy, who when he is not railing against the loss of his own cherished self-worth (even the Soho hobos are writing novels), is indulging in fantasies about where, when and how to seduce his mother-in-law.

For Australian fans of Howard Jacobson, who spent three years lecturing at the University of Sydney, there is the added pleasure of numerous trips Down Under,  as Guy interrogates the collapse of his literary career.

Reminiscing about a trip to a writer’s festival in Adelaide (where a fat Nobel prize-winning Dutch author who wrote “slim novellas’ got a standing ovation despite not uttering a word on stage) Guy remembers his brief affair with Philippa,  a young Kiwi lecturer and teacher of ‘Unglush Lut” who performed oral sex on him among the vines of the Barossa Valley.

“You novelists tell the story of the human heart,” Philippa said. You see what no one else can see.” She was holding my pruck as she was saying this.

He also recalls a West Australian outback road trip, where he travelled with his wife and mother-in-law from Perth to the tourist town of Broome, stopping on the way for them to swim with the dolphins at Monkey Mia and where he thinks about an alternative career as a stand-up comedian, he’s opening line being: “Take my mother-in-law – I just have.”

It’s a darkly funny book. Guy is a pompous, snobbish, egotistical ass, but I liked him a lot, not just because of his cynical, very Jewish view of the world, but because of his lament against the decline of book reading in the age of smartphones, ipads, Facebook and Twitter.

You only have to sit on a train and see how many people have their heads buried in their mobile phones compared with the few who are actually reading a book to understand the truth behind the black comedy.

Interviewed about the book, Jacobson said it was primarily a book about reading, not literary failure.

“We don’t read well anymore. It’s a bit risky, because you’re insulting your own readers. But you hope they will feel they are exempted from that general charge,” he said.

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Howard Jacobson

This charge is best personified in the character of Sandy Ferber, the new head of Guy’s publisher who tells him at their first meeting that there is a “historic opportunity to “rescue reading from the word” by creating ” a thousand story apps for the mobile phone market”

Bus-stop reading he called it. Unbooks that could be started and finished while phone users were waiting to call them back, or for the traffic lights to change, or for the waiter to arrive with the bill. In short, to plug those small social hiatuses of life on the run.

 

 

 

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‘One of These Things First’: the joy of reading Steven Gaines’s bittersweet childhood memoir

one-of-these-things-first-360x544My introduction to the New York writer and journalist Steven Gaines came through a review copy I was sent of his newly published memoir, “One of These Things First”.

Beautifully written, with equal measures of tenderness, sadness, cheeky humour and a big dollop of nostalgia, it’s the story of his difficult Brooklyn childhood and the time he spent in the Payne Whitney psychiatric hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1962, aged just 15.

Being a gay, Jewish boy in Brooklyn in the 1960s did not make life easy for Gaines, who, fearing his “dick and balls might be cut off” because of his homosexuality, kept his predilection for the naked chested lawn-mower boy and Warren Beatty’s topless scene in Splendour in the Grass to himself.

I promised myself that I would not let myself think homo thoughts, yet I could think of nothing else. I was haywire with hormones. I spent most of the time walking around in a semi-hunch trying to hide an erection that wouldn’t subside.

Keeping a dark secret manifested itself in an obssession with stealing strange objects and then an obssessive compulsive counting disorder, culminating in his suicide attempt –  punching his fists through glass in a door at the back of his grandparent’s ladies shop, Rose’s Bras Girdles Sportswear – and his commital to a mental hospital.

Luckily for Gaines, he had a wealthy and loving grandfather – “Gog” whom the book is part-dedicated too – who paid for his stay at the expensive clinic (most famous as having treated Marilyn Monroe). Otherwise he would have ended up in the Hillside Hospital in Queens with its cold bars on the window and air of despair and hopelessness.

As it turned out, Gaines’s stay at Payne Whitney became a turning point in what up until then had been a very unhappy and lonely childhood, with constant reminders that he would come to “no good” and a difficult (to put it mildly) father who referred to his son as a “nut job”.

Gaines emerged from Payne Whitney with a degree of self-acceptance and self-worth that must surely have saved his life, and also inspired his career as a writer and journalist.

Here he found acceptance and friendship among the other “crazies” including the film and theatre critic Richard Halliday, who turns out to be the husband of Broadway star Mary Martin, one of Gaines’s childhood idols.

Even his Freudian therapy with the kindly and good-intentioned Dr Myers who attempted to ‘cure him’ of his homosexuality, ultimately proved beneficial because for the first time there was someone who “seemed interested in what I had to say”.

Gaines has an endearing obsession with movies and the book is peppered with references to his favourite films – Gone with Wind, Lust for Life, Gaslight and Marty and trivia about which actor or actress received an Oscar nomination or Academy Award.

He tells Dr Myers his favourite film is Splendour in the Grass, starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, which he saw 11 times – not because he related to Natalie Wood’s character who has a nervous breakdown, but because he got to see Warren Beatty with his shirt off.

The book is full of these painfully honest and darkly funny insights into himself as a yong man. It’s also full of the colourful characters – both good and bad – that shaped his young Jewish life for the better and for the worse, set among Borough Park, “the cognac of Brooklyn, the potent and flavorful essence” a ghetto-like place of immigrant Jews that no longer exists

Reading “One of These Things First”reminded me why I loved movies like Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Woody Allen movies, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm with their quasi-tragic Jewish humour and quintessentially Jewish characters: the overbearing mother, the neurotic, the obsessive personality, the self-made man, the kids bound for decades of “strict Freudian analysis”.

Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there. I wouldn’t have it any other way, not for any suburban childhood or silver-spoon, Upper East Side private school education.

Reading about his life, I felt a connection with Steven Gaines that encompassed our  Jewishness, our capacity for mental disintegration (I suffered for a time from debilitating anxiety attacks and thought I was literally going mad), shared love of movie trivia and nostalgia for the people and places from our childhood.

Gaines-HIFF3After finishing the book, I had a peak around Gaines personal website. He is a prolific writer, the author of dozens of books including  biographies of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper and who has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the New York Times.

I especially like his website photo. It shows Gaines, middle-aged but still youthful with a cherub like grin, and suggests a man of warmth, intelligence, kindness and cheekiness, character traits which were also part of the make-up of the 15-year-old boy in his memoir, who came of age during his stay at Payne Whitney.

To Rome with love (and a bit of hate)

to-rome-with-loveWoody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’ is a gorgeous tribute to the “eternal city” and a feast for the eyes.

The Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, quiet cobbled back streets and rooftop panoramas are the backdrops to four off-beat stories about people caught up in various adventures and mis-adventures in Rome.

While not a classic among the director’s huge body of work (no less than 50 movies), it is filled with enough classic “Woody Allen” moments to make it one I would recommend to fans.

There are plenty of trademark Annie Hall-style intellectual jokes delivered by Woody Allen’s character, Jerry an unhappily retired opera director, much to the exasperation of his wife Phyllis (played by the always brilliant Judy Davis):

Jerry: “I couldn’t be a communist. I could never share the bathroom”

And…

Jerry: “You know, you married a very bright guy. I got a 150/160 IQ.
Phyllis: You’re figuring it in euros, in dollars it’s much less

There are also some very funny moments as when Giancarlo (played by real Italian opera singer Fabio Armiliato) – the soon to be father-in-law of Jerry’s daughter Hayley  – is wheeled on stage in a production of the opera Pagliacci singing in a portable shower while he soaps himself (I am sure you can work out the reason for yourself).

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Jerry: I see New York. I see Vienna Opera House. I see Paris.
Phyllis: All in the shower?
Jerry: Yes. They love it that he sings in the shower. They identify. You know, he’s going to be the most popular opera singer in the world.
Phyllis: Certainly the cleanest.

Like the more successful Midnight in Paris, elements of magical realism are interwoven in the story as when Leopoldo (played by the charismatic Italian Oscar winner Roberto Begnini) awakes one morning transformed into an instant celebrity (much like George Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, though a slightly more appealing predicament) hounded by the paparazzi:

Journalist: Good morning. We are at the home of  Mr. Leopoldo Pisanello. It’s half past seven, and Mr. Pisanello is shaving…an event that we document
from first to last gesture. Mr. Pisanello is having his hair cut. – Look, just a trim – He opted for only a trim.

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Roberto Begnini finds himself irresistable to beautiful Italian women

There’s also a sensational performance by Penelope Cruz as Anna a gorgeous, buxom prostitute and great cameos by Italian actors Rosa Di Brigida and Antonio Albanese among others.

Watching ‘To Rome with Love’ took me back to my last visit to the city, in 2010, when I was backpacking around the world with my wife.

I blogged on July 15 under the heading: “No roman holiday” –

“Rome is too bloody hot, too overcrowded with tourists and we can’t wait to leave”

Rome felt nothing like the care free, enchanting city depicted by Woody Allen.

Our few days in the “infernal city” had been a disaster from beginning to end starting from nearly getting run over by Italians in small cars as we hiked down a narrow road, in desperation, trying to find our budget hotel on the edge of town.

After that ordeal, we spent our days fighting our way through traffic jams of tourists at every famous site and on every crowded piazza. Even getting a simple scoop of gelato meant standing in a long line. Worse was the sun which pounded down relentlessly while Rome seemed to offer no shade or escape from the heat. Everything was too expensive, the subways and trains were like ovens and we felt like the only two fools in Rome without a penny to scratch between us. We were glad to leave.

This was nothing like my experience of Rome about eight years prior, when I visited with friends.

I was living in London at the time and money was less of an issue.

We hired a large rooftop flat with sweeping views over the city. We ate delicious pizza and pasta al fresco on big piazzas with the locals. We drank lots of Italian red wine, sipped cappuccinos and shots of Amaretto liquer and watched the sun sink below the white church domes from our mock-castle in the sky. At least that’s how I remember it!

We visited all the sites; stared up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and explored countless old churches. We went walking along the Appian Way to find the ancient catacombs and took naps in parks in the afternoons.

I remembered getting lost outside the Altare della Patria, the white marble national monument known as the ‘wedding cake’ on our way to find some famous site just as Hayley (Alison Pill) does at the start of the movie, only for Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) to show her the way.

When John (an architect played by Alec Baldwin) is drinking a glass of wine with his wife and friends on the piazza, I remembered sitting at an outside table in front of the Pantheon, ordering a ‘prosciutto’ pizza only for the waiter, confused by my poor pronunciation to bring me a ‘bruschetta’ – much to the amusement of my friends.

‘To Rome with Love’ is not Woody Allen’s greatest film or even a great one, but as a homage to Rome, it is practically flawless.

It reminded me of all the reasons I loved Rome the first time.

Five Woody Allen movies infinitely better than Blue Jasmine

woody_allen__1218229285_1191I’ll be honest. I was a little bit disappointed with Blue Jasmine.

It certainly wasn’t a Woody Allen clunker like Celebrity or Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Small Time Crooks, but it wasn’t up their with his best work. It was better than his middle-of-the-road stuff, and neatly reflected in the IMDB  score of 7.4 out 10.

Blue JasmineThe acting was excellent, particularly Cate Blanchette as Jasmine – the neurotic, snobby and materialistic New York socialite brought down to earth by the scandal of her New York husband’s Hal’s  (Alec Baldwin) Bernie Madoff-like fraud, who flees to San Francisco to start her life over. There are also excellent performances by Sally Hawkins (who plays her sister Ginger) Andrew Dice Clay (Ginger’s ex-husband) and Bobby Cannavale (Ginger’s cocky love-struck boyfriend).

For me, the film started incredibly strongly and then just lost momentum two-thirds of the way through with an obscure, annoying ending (I won’t spoil it for those who have not seen it). It felt like Woody Allen wrote the film mainly to win an Oscar for Cate Blanchette – roles involving dysfunctional, intense female characters having a history of Oscar success, consider: Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, Natalie Portman in Black Swan to name just three (all far better films than Blue Jasmine).

Blue Jasmine is worth watching for the acting and some excellent scenes, but if you want to watch classic Woody Allen at his best, there are more than a dozen films that are better from his vast oeuvre going back five decades.

For Woody Allen novices, these are five of my favourites, all absolute classics:

Crimes and Misdemeanours (1980)

Woody Allen’s greatest cinematic achievement. Interweaves multiple plotlines in a film about the nature of comedy, guilt, forgiveness, betrayal and love. Incredible performances from Martin Landau, Angelica Huston, Alan Alda, Sam Waterston, Mia Farrow and Jerry Orbach. Some of his funniest jokes, some of his most poignant moments in film. IMDB rating 8.0

Judah Rosenthal: I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

Annie Hall (1977)

A romantic comedy about Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), a neurotic, over-sexed comedian who falls for the utterly charming but ditzy Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) filled with Jewish New York humour, witty observations about sex, love, family and relationships. IMDB rating – 8.2

Annie Hall: Sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture.
Alvy Singer: You? You kiddin’? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell ’em everything.

Manhattan (1979)

Shot beautifully in black and white to the music of George Gershwin, this is Woody Allen’s homage to his favourite city, New York. It stars Allen as Isaac Davis, a divorced writer of TV shows caught in a dubious love affair with teenage Tracy, (a very young Mariel Hemingway), but who falls in love with his best friend’s mistress (Diane Keaton). IMDB rating 8.0

Isaac Davis: My analyst warned me, but you were so beautiful I got another analyst.

Match point (2005)

Set in London high society, a tennis professional (Jonathan Rhys Myers) engages in a steamy affair with visiting American Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) while engaged to Chloe (Emily Mortimor) the innocent daughter of a wealthy family. A film that examines the nature of good and evil, temptation and fidelity and injustice. IMDB rating 7.7

Christopher “Chris” Wilton: It would be fitting if I were apprehended… and punished. At least there would be some small sign of justice – some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.

Play it Again Sam (1972)

A screwball, slapstick comedy set in San Francisco about Allan (Woody Allen) a neurotic film critic who takes dating advice from his alter ego (Humphrey Bogart as Rick from Casablanca) and best friend Dick. Predictably he falls in love with Dick’s wife (Diane Keaton).

Allan: If that plane leaves the ground, and you’re not on it with him, you’ll regret it – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.
Linda: That’s beautiful!
Allan: It’s from Casablanca; I waited my whole life to say it.

And here’s a whole bunch more to add to your “Must watch” list:

Love and Death (1975)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1987)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Husbands and Wives (1992)
Might Aphrodite (1995)
Hannah and her Sisters (1986)
Interiors (1978)
Midnight in Paris (2011)

freshlyworded list of the week: the 10 Woody Allen films you must see before you die

woody-allenWoody Allen, born in the Bronx as Allen Stewart Koningsberg in 1935, has been making movies since 1965, having starting out as a sketch writer and stand-up comedian.

In total he has written and directed (and in many cases starred in) 46 films starting with ‘What’s Up Tiger Lily?‘ and is currently in post-production on a film called “Blue Jasmine” starring Cate Blanchette and Alec Baldwin.

I admire him immensely: starting from his early stand-up comedy records (watch his famous and hilarious “I shot a Moose” sketch from 1965″) to his early relationship comedies to later more dramatic works.

Manhattan has been the canvas for his stories, but he’s also made London, Paris and Barcelona backdrops for his films.

Not all have been classics, some have been mediocre and forgettable and others have been plain awful.

Why do I admire him so much: it’s the stories he tells about love, relationships, anxiety, existentialism, religion all brought together with classic Woody Allen wit and insight.

It’s also his iconic angst-ridden, questioning, self-doubting and fallible jewish male character, portrayed so often in his films that I love so much.

These are 10 of his films that I have loved (I’ve not seen all of his films) and recommend highly:

215px-Crimes_and_misdemeanors2Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) is Woody Allen’s greatest cinematic achievement. It brings together all of his key themes – religion, morality, family, guilt, the meaning and purpose of life – in a seemless way with great writing, a pitch-perfect soundtrack and wonderful performances by its ensemble cast. There are numerous plots and sub-plots, but the film principally revolves around Judah Rosenthal (a brilliant Martin Landau), a successful and wealthy ophthalmologist, who resorts to desperate measures to end an affair with Dolores Paley (equally brilliant Angelica Huston).  Despite the heavy material, it is also extremely funny with the humour provided by Allen himself an idealistic documentary film-maker Clifford Stern, given the opportunity to make a documentary about his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), an obnoxious big-time television producer. He does it so that he can earn enough money to make a documentary about a life-affirming jewish professor, Louis Levy, all the while falling in love with Lester’s associate producer Halley Reed (Mia Farrow).

Annie Hall

Annie Hall (1977) would be top of many people’s lists of favourite Woody Allen films. At its heart it’s a love story between the angst-ridden, neurotic Alvy Singer (Allen) and quirky, lovable, absent-minded Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) with some of his best lines and jokes thrown in and questions about God and the meaning of life. There’s also some great cameos from Paul Simon, Christopher Walken and Sigourney Weaver.

One memorable line comes after Annie Hall parks her VW beetle almost perpendicular to the curb following an exhibtion of some of the worst driving ever seen on film.

Alvy remarks: Don’t worry. We can walk to the curb from here.

ManhattanShot beautifully in black and white, Manhattan (1979) is Woody Allen’s visual homage to the city that he loves. The city is the backdrop  to Isaac’s (Allen) affair with 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), while pursuing the mistress of his best friend, Yale. There are so many iconic shots of Manhattan to drool over and great lines like:

Yale: You are so self-righteous, you know. I mean we’re just people. We’re just human beings, you know? You think you’re God.

Isaac Davis: I… I gotta model myself after someone.

matchpoint

Matchpoint (2005) sees Woody Allen move locations to London with this dark tale about seduction and murder starring Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

play it again sam

Play it Again Sam (1972) is actually directly by Herbert Ross, but based on Woody Allen’s stage play and stars him in the lead role of a love-sick film critic and schmuck who turns to his alter ego – Humphrey Bogart in his role as smooth talking Rick Blaine from Casablanca – for inspiration as to how to be a lady’s man.

love and death

Love and Death (1975) is a historical comedy set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. Woody Allen plays neurotic soldier Boris, in love with his Sonja (Diane Keaton) who gets involved in a plot to assassinate Napoleon, with philosophical musing and some very silly (but hilarious) skits thrown in.

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In Midnight in Paris (2011), Owen Wilson plays Gil, an American would-be writer in Paris with his pretentious fiancée who finds himself transported back to the Paris of the 1920s where he meets, drinks and parties with his literary idols including F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and artists like Picasso, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec.

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Zelig (1983) sees Woody Allen play the title role of the chameleon (literally) like Leonard Zelig who can change his appearance to match the people he is with and becomes a global phenomenon. Told in documentary style, it’s hilarious.

deconstructing harry

In Deconstructing Harry (1997) Woody Allen plays Harry block, a writer suffering from writer’s block, with a penchant for prostitutes and vulgarity. It’s a very funny film as Block recalls events from his past and characters from his books. There’s a memorable scene played by Robin Williams, an actor worried about losing his focus who is shown as actually out of focus in the movie.

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Broadway Danny Rose (1984) sees Woody Allen play a talent agent to a string of bizarre performers that no one else will hire. One of them is Lou, a talented lounge singer, making a comeback. Allen goes out of his way to help Lou, but finds himself being pursued by mobsters after trying to bring Lou’s crazy mistress Tina (Mia Farrow) to his concert.

And here’s four to definitely avoid:

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Small Time Crooks

Celebrity

Scoop