Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Charlotte Mendelson's Almost English

Oxford-educated Charlotte Mendelson is one of our Best British Authors. Her novels to date - Love in Idleness, Daughters of Jerusalem and When We Were Bad - were all released to prizes and popular acclaim. Her latest, Almost English, has already been long-listed for the Booker and shortlisted for the Orange. It sounded so promising that I did the unconscionable and bought it brand-new for my Kindle before its paperback release.

That, regrettably, was where it all became a bit familiar and the excitement began to peter out. Mendelson specializes in a certain type of British character: in Love in Idleness, a naive university student fantasises her way into sexually confused neuroticism; in Daughters of Jerusalem, Mendelson evoked the stifling lives of academically elite girls and their emotionally unfulfilled parents - a thinly veiled portrait of Oxford, her hometown, and its league-table-topping High School; in When We Were Bad, her funniest novel, an extended Jewish family contend with family secrets and surprising longings; and in Almost English, we see the return of the Neurotic Teen and the equally emotionally challenged Mother. Except, by now, it's slightly irritating.

Marina is a shy half-Hungarian sixth-former, the unfortunate subject of her immigrant grandparents' ambition. She begins the school year at a mid-ranked co-ed boarding school. To remedy her total lack of, ahem, experience, she embarks on an awkward relationship with a younger boy who turns out to be the son of a famous TV historian, Alexander Viney. Meanwhile her mother Laura bunks on the floor of her Hungarian ex-in-laws' cramped London flat, desperately missing her daughter and mourning her dull adulthood. Then the ex turns up. And some kind of half-baked family secret emerges connecting the Hungarians with the smooth TV historians.

That, sadly, is basically all there is to Almost English. It's well-written, and there's some astute social observation (the upper-class Vineys are spot-on), but its a bit too template and suffers from spineless protagonists. While Mendelson has previously created sympathetic characters muddling along in thick, atmospheric, timeless problems, I found myself increasingly annoyed with Laura and Marina. Their inability to finish a sentence in dialogue, unrelenting awkwardness in social situations, and general floundering in the face of - well - life, smacked not of poignant caught-in-two-worlds coming-of-age swansong for mediocrity, but of slightly dull filler, enlivened by a bit of exotic Eastern European context.

The latter certainly sells books these days (see Marina Lewycka), but Almost English needed more original main characters for its occasional glimmer of humour to carry any weight. One hopes that Mendelson has something a bit better up her sleeve for novel number five, and her previous books lead me to think that she'll soon be back on form - hopefully with all-male characters, set in a supermarket in Grimsby, a commune in Sloane Square, or an ashram in Norway. That would be a Booker dead cert.

Monday, 29 July 2013

How To Be An Oxford Tourist In July

The people of Oxford welcome with open arms the hundreds of thousands of tourists who descend on our cobbled and police-horse-excrement-bespeckled streets every year. Tourist season begins in April and ends in October. Please try to plan your visit within these dates, otherwise the usual 50% chance of rain increases to 98% and the probability of sudden onset Gloomy-Spire-Variant SAD observes a similar hike.

© Ian Fraser
To make the most out of your time in Oxford, please note the following suggestions for your trip.

1) Stand in the middle. Of everything. Pavements ('sidewalks'), roads, conversations, and most particularly entrances. Entrances to Sainsbury's, the Bodleian library, the banks, Marks and Spencers and the train station are highly recommended as sojourning spots. If possible please supplement with all six members of your family and slurp ice-cream at a noise level of your choosing.

NB. For extra pleasure, slow down dramatically, or indeed stop when your foot strikes tarmac upon exiting said establishments. You did it. You owned the shop. Stand where you are and be proud.

2) Visit the underground cathedral on St Giles. The steps are misleadingly labelled 'public toilets', but don't let that fool you. This is a delayed gratification exercise to test how smart you are, designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Please spend at least half an hour trying to locate the underground passageway before exiting.

Oxford's best-kept secret - the underground Cathedral

3) Play 'kill a cyclist'. Healthy fun for all the family, you can win the game in several ways:

a) Holding your camera at eye-level, step out into the street while pretending not to look. Magdalen Bridge and the High Street are terrific opportunities for this, with a 48% fatality rate in 2012.

b) If aged under eighteen, hire your own bike and cycle the wrong way down the streets, preferably with an equally unhelmeted wheelie-ing friend. The Plain roundabout is especially recommended as being likely to take out the odd car and even yourself alongside the unwitting cyclist.

c) Walk very slowly and diagonally across main streets as you cross (it goes without saying that you should avoid traffic lights), making eyes at the cyclist in your sightline. They will struggle to measure distance, speed, and direction accurately. A flurry of your handbag or plastic rain-cape boosts your probability of winning by 17%.

4) If aged under thirty, make a point of purchasing Oxford University clothing. Hoodies and t-shirts are particular faves. Even though you are thirteen years old, cannot ask bus directions in English, and are being shepherded around town with your mates by a bored-looking undergraduate with a dangly name-badge, all the thirteen-year-olds with the other language school will look at you and be convinced you go to Oxford. Then they will photograph you.

5) Finally, WALK SLOWLY. The toy town of Oxford is best navigated at a gentle moonwalk.

'Oxford Broad St in July', courtesy of Annette van der V.
Please take out appropriate insurance before attempting any of these feats. Enjoy your trip!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Director and screenwriter Joss Whedon is best known for creating Buffy and directing Avengers Assemble, one of last year’s slightly more memorable superhero blockbusters. He reveals indie aspirations with his adaptation of Much Ado, filmed in twelve days in the Whedon home, with a cast of vaguely familiar faces. Shakespeare's Sicilian elite are transported to an ambiguously modern California, where the girls wear mid-twentieth-century dresses and the dudes whip out evidence of Don John misbehaving on their smartphones. Baz-Luhrmann-meets-Sofia-Coppola pandemonium ensues.


For Much Ado newcomers, the plot revolves around two relationships: Beatrice and Benedick, an intellectually jostling, sarcastic duo who can't quite get it together; and Claudio and Hero - saintly, naive young things whose love is hijacked by the scheming malcontent Don John. First, let it be said that Whedon's black-and-white, cinematographically elegant rom-com makes this all very enjoyable. Amy Acker (Beatrice) and Alexis Denisof (Benedick) are individually very good, and Fran Kranz makes a touching Claudio. For light relief, Nathan Fillion's Dogberry and co. steal the show, and Whedon's musical arrangements for 'Sigh No More' and 'Heavily' are a lovely touch.

However, the film is not without perplexity in its hybrid Shakespeare-California form. The Prince and Don John turn up in limos, sharp suits and sunglasses. Are they Hollywood execs or gangsters? Gangsters make more sense with Shakespeare's war-talk and the concealed pistols, but these guys look like gangsters circa 1980. Then there are the smartphones. And the girls' dresses. It's a bit muddled, but beautiful enough that we suspend disbelief.

Beatrice eavesdrops as Hero and Ursula stir up romantic mischief
The bigger problem is the romance. A love scene at the beginning of the film sets up the idea that Beatrice and Benedick were once thoroughly modern lovers. But their physical chemistry in the rest of the film is very chaste, in line with Shakespeare's language of 'maids' and 'talking' (ahem) at chamber windows. There's none of the awkwardness, energy, or magnetism that we suspect should be there given that history, and given their plotted sense of direction. The moral anachronism is a problem for Claudio and Hero, too. Clark Gregg's terrific speech as Leonato rejecting his defiled daughter just falls a bit flat when the spiky-haired wedding photographer is wielding a gigantic Canon.

Benedick and Beatrice: will they, won't they?
But perhaps these incongruities make the audience think. I squirmed to watch the patriarchal handling and transaction of women wearing modern clothes, and the defeatist tears of the tame and placid Hero; it's a shame that the chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick goes stale now that they're grown-up enough to get hitched. Much Ado's fairytale narrative, its playful staging, and its little glitches certainly make Whedon's adaptation linger in mind.