Sunday 29 January 2012

The Farnsworth Invention - nuthin but talkin

The Farnsworth Invention by Aaron Sorkin (Samuel French: 2009) A screenplay following two driven men as they race to be the first to invent television. For one, the invention itself is the Holy Grail; for the other, harnessing the power and control that the invention will give is the motivation. 
I have an admission to make. There are a number of men for whom I have inappropriate feelings (sorry Mrs GBR).
Matt Smith for instance. Probs my favourite actor. I know what you're thinking, and no, it's not because of Doc Who, I was on this bandwagon well before the T.A.R.D.I.S. appeared. I bear no responsibility for my actions should I ever find myself in the same room as him. None.

Matt Smith, pre Doc Who. I need no excuse.

Aaron Sorkin is another. And yes, I know he’s a bit of a fuck up. And I’m not impressed by his cocaine struggles. By all accounts, I understand he’s a bit of a jerk. But the man wrote The West Wing, and that’s enough for me. He need do no more.
So when I saw this screenplay on Amazon, I was one-clicking it in a heartbeat.
Now, this isn’t entirely new territory for GBR. I’ve reviewed a screenplay before, The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy. But I’m no practiced reader of scripts, so I thought this would be quite fun to try out.
And to be honest, it didn’t take as much of an adjustment as I thought it would. The layout, dominated by dialogue with the odd stage direction, means you read it with a picture of the stage and actors planted firmly in your mind’s eye. With novels, I find myself picturing the story as it may be in real life. With this, I was picturing it being played out by actors in a theatre.
The danger is that you therefore lose a bit of the realism. But there are two strong factors that keep that from happening.
One is the nature of this screenplay. I have no idea how much of this really happened, but I’ll bet some of it. And that “based on a true story” factor helps inject a bit more believability to it all. What’s more, it’s a story that we can all immediately identify with - the invention of TV. For starts, we’ve all got one. And for seconds, we can all identify with that feeling of desperately trying to figure something out, trying to work out how something works. And if you can’t identify with it, Sorkin writes it so smoothly that you will find yourself right there alongside these guys whether you like it or not.
But the second factor is the one I really want to hammer on about. It’s the dialogue. Nothing’s more real than two people talking with each other. And this whole thing, save the odd bit of direction in italics, is dialogue. The most immediately engaging parts of any book are when people are speaking, and a screenplay by its nature is nothing but that.

The West Wing - they were all
the smartest guy in the room

And this isn’t just any dialogue, this is Sorkin dialogue. I mean, drug addiction and anti-social tendencies aside, he has a gift. It’s just so sharp. True, he has a weakness for a smartest-guy-in-the-room-hero. Everything he writes has that brilliantly flawed genius character in it, sometimes more than one. But he creates them and their voices so perfectly that I can’t help but love them every time. It happens again here.
The characters aren’t real people, they’re better than real people. They’re what you want the world to be filled with. Every one of them. The genius, the business visionary, the humble hard working student, the smart strong women, the honest sidekicks – you want to be every one of them. They’re each different types of perfect person, and they’re all created through nothing else but what they say.
And that’s what’s real. There’s no long passages describing someone’s character – it begins and ends with speech and actions. And to create such perfect people with just that is impressive.
Me and Aaron, it’s a platonic admiration thing. If I’m honest, it probably drifts into a bit of hero worship when I let my guard down. So difficult to score this objectively.
Reading screenplays is fun, I’d recommend it. It’s a change of pace and a different structure to wake you up. They’re packed with nothing but talking, and in the right hands, that’s a great thing. And there are no better hands than Mr Sorkin’s.
Falling short of a ten for two reasons only. One, it’s not the West Wing. And two, however brilliant his characters are, I can’t help thinking he’s created them before.
Next week, either that German novella I promised you last week (well done the eagle eyed amongst you that spotted that mistake) or my second graphic novel. I haven’t decided yet. But it’s Sunday, and I refuse to make decisions on a Sunday. So there.

Friday 20 January 2012

Keswick and other recommendations

Kewick - the obvious choice for a 30th birthday celebration
I’m almost certainly not going to do a review this weekend. Only the fourth Sunday of the year, and already a skipped beat.

My only excuse is a man commonly referred to as “Tatty”. This “Tatty” is turning 30, and so we’re all off to glorious Keswick for the weekend to celebrate. Why Keswick, I don’t know. I honestly don’t. I’m told there are around 30 pubs there. Which will be interesting as I haven’t had a drink since New Year.

So in lieu of a review, I thought I'd give a bit of a preview. Below are the books currently on my reading list - a bit of an amalgamation of books you've reccomended to me and others that I've read about. These are the ones set to appear on GBR in the near future, though not neccessarily in this order.
But when they’re done, I’m going to need more ideas. And I (as always) want to read as wide a range of genres as I can. I might even give chick lit a try this year. Maybe. Possibly. I should really. Right?

So what would you like to see reviewed on GBR? If you have a recommendation in any genre at all (and it's not already on the reading list below), let me know, either by leaving a comment, tweeting me @Gavcollins9, or emailing me at

Go on, don’t be shy, you know you want to.

Current GBR reading list (with appropriate Amazon links, like I work for them or something):

Sunday 15 January 2012

The Orchard Keeper - a slow start

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy (Random House: 1965). The story of an out of the way community between the world wars. A bootlegger kills a hitchhiker and later unwittingly befriends his son.
Everyone’s got to start somewhere, right? There are some jerk’s who start with masterpieces. I hate those guys. The naturally talented sort who seem to be able to just spit out perfection at their first shot. The guys who were clearly better at football than everyone else since they were about three years old. The kind that could kick a conversion from the halfway line about two seconds after they learned to walk. The kind that could draw a bowl of fruit that looked better than the real thing whilst the rest of us were still struggling to hold the pencil the right way round.
Cormac McCarthy is not one of those jerks.
This is a guy who has written some amazing stuff. I’ve reviewed The Sunset Limited here before. I was a fan, as I am of a couple of his other books. Enough people love this guy for a handful of his books to have translated into big budget movies. The Road. No Country for Old Men. These things don’t make their way from his laptop in the early hours of a Tuesday morning to the Screen 1 down the Odeon on a Friday night by luck. A lot of people have to be fans, and a lot of people have to spend a lot of their money for it to happen.
No doubt, Cormac McCarthy is very good at writing. But he had to start somewhere. And The Orchard Keeper is it. This is his first published book. So I thought it’d be interesting to find out how he kicked off.
Disappointment doesn’t quite cover it. I opened the first page all eager. I was all set to connect at the roots with one of American literature’s greatest living writers. This came out in 1965, and made enough of a splash to get McCarthy noticed and start an illustrious career.
By about page ten, I knew this wasn’t going to live up to all of that. For starts, the story jumped around like a flea in a jumping around circus in which the fleas are forced to jump around more than fleas naturally jump around.
I’m all for a complex story line. I’m all for strands being laid down, dropped, picked up again. Weave it correctly, and it can make for a rich experience. But that didn’t happen here. All that happened was mass confusion. I honestly couldn’t tell you much about what happened in this story. I’m still not even sure why it’s called The Orchard Keeper. I spent so much time flicking back and forth trying to figure out who was who and what was what that it all ended up being a chore.
Elmore - not a fan of hooptedoodle
For twos, the sections which I decided just to sit and read weren’t that great either. I mean, the writing was good. The guy can create scenery and atmosphere that can knock your socks off. But then I was there, sockless, and it kept going. Elmore Leonard talks about avoiding too much hooptedoodle in writing. Me, I tend to think there’s room for a bit of hooptedoodle when it’s well done and indulged in with moderation. But moderation had left the building here. McCarthy kept going and going and going.
There was just no balance. I love an atmospheric book. I love pages that can take you to complete other places and keep you there for hours. I love writers that create tastes and sounds and smells and light. There doesn’t always need to be huge amounts of plot behind it. But it does need to have some meaning that breaks the surface. There needs to be a structure behind it. Steinbeck does it. McCarthy does it too, just not on his first time out.
So no, didn’t really enjoy this one. There were good bits, a few little anecdotes that worked, scene setting passages that warmed me (until they dragged on).
But when the last page went by, I was pleased to be done with this.
On to the next one. A German novella next week. Think that’s the first time I’ve ever said that sentence.

Sunday 8 January 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles - stealing a march on the BBC

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (George Newnes: 1902). A classic Sherlock Holmes novel, in which Dr Watson narrates his experiences with perhaps the world’s most famous detective as he faces peril, mystery and the English countryside in his efforts to get to the bottom of the Baskerville family curse.
I absolutely did not do this on purpose. Cross my heart. I was genuinely interested in reading a Sherlock Holmes novel, and then spotted this good looking copy in the book shop by work.
The result is a suspiciously well timed GBR entry. This evening, BBC1 have their second instalment of series 2 of Sherlock. Probs the most anticipated BBC series of the last few years. And the story they’ve reinterpreted? Hound of the Baskervilles.
Boom! Me and the BBC, totally on the same wavelength.
Of course, that means absolutely no spoilers, promise.
What did I think of it? Well, to be honest, it was exactly what I thought it’d be like. Which I’m not sure is great thing. It struggled to be any different from the picture I had in my head before I turned the first page. Which is unsurprising I guess.
Because how foten do you have an excuse
to include a picture of Oompa Loompas?
Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes and his world. It’s like Robin Hood or Mr Wonka – you don’t have to have read the stories to know all about the merry men or the Oompa Loompas. Holmes is the same, which is exactly why every modern representation of him relies on injecting something other. The Robert Downey Jnr films rely on Hollywood action scenes to freshen it up. The BBC series sets the whole thing in modern day London, changing the context and allowing that to alter the characters a little as well.

Penfold - see previous

The original though is the original. It’s the source material, and so was incapable of holding any real surprises. Holmes was exactly the character I’ve heard about forever, as was Watson (though I was mildly surprised at Watson’s athleticism, having previously pictured him as a portly sidekick – more Penfold than Robin).
The result is a book that relies more on the writing than any surprise ingredients. And it’s good. There’s a reason these books took off and survive more than a hundred years after they were first written. It was fluent and fast paced, well plotted with the key spikes in activity expertly timed. Action is a difficult thing to achieve in a book, much easier on film, but it’s done well by Arthur Conan Doyle. He mixes in fast paced scenes with tension building passages expertly, and it makes for exciting reading.
The first person narrative from Watson also helped give it a tinge of reality, avoiding the very real danger of the book descending completely into fantasy.
And my disappointment at the lack of new stuff (as stupid an expectation as that was) was softened a little by the sense of nostalgia and comfort that grew as the book raced on. I felt closer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson than ever. They’re disappointing familiarity gave way gradually to the feeling that I was reconnecting with old friends.
 So in all, I enjoyed it in a fairly mild way. I’ll definitely read another. It was fun and comfortable and exciting in places. But it suffered from its own fame a little. Don’t expect surprises around many of the corners, or anything that really raises the eyebrows.
Next week, a review of Cormac McCarthy’s first ever book. The guy that wrote The Road and No Country for Old Men first started churning books out in 1965 apparently, so I thought I’d go find out how that all started.
Hopefully the BBC will be showing a Cormac McCarthy film adaptation next week.

Sunday 1 January 2012

How I Escaped my Certain Fate - a funny start to y2k+12

How I Escaped my Certain Fate by Stewart Lee (Faber and Faber: 2010). One of Britain’s most acclaimed stand-ups explains how he became disillusioned with the industry and drifted instead into directing Jerry Springer the Opera. And then how he fell back in love with stand-up as he started to better understand his own brand of it and rediscover his audience. Includes transcripts from the three shows which marked his return to the world of stand-up.
Happy New Year chumps!! And welcome to a GBR 2012.
I (like you, I’m sure) have one or two rubbish New Year’s Day chores to do today. I’m supposed to clean out the fish tank. Also, I’m supposed to go for a run (which, after the December I’ve had, will be no simple thing).
And all after an evening which stretched into the small hours and was soaked in festive juice (otherwise known as gin, champagne, red wine, then champagne again).
So I’m putting it all off with a bit of fun first. Excuse me whilst I subject you to the first review of the year.
Stewart Lee is a bit of a hero of mine, for a few reasons that I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say I’ve followed him for a young age (in a healthy fan, not a borderline stalker, sort of way). So I’ve been meaning to read this since the paperback came out in August.
I was expecting transcripts of some of his comeback shows, split up by some narrative direct from the man himself. I expected him to explain how he was dragged him from the obscurity of directing one of the most controversial and successful musicals/operas of all time, back into the glaring limelight of alternative comedy and a late night half hour show on BBC3.
I was expecting it to be funny, of course, but also to give a bit of a peek into how Stewart Lee works, and what parts are played by the people around him (especially his 90s sidekick Richard Herring).
For the most part, the book delivered on these expectations. I don’t want you to think it didn’t. But it delivered more as well. Largely through the extensive footnotes, Stew (as his friends and me call him) constantly keeps you on his side of the bar. He doesn’t treat the reader as a member of the audience, he brings you behind the scenes with constant explanations of his thinking. The result is a more intimate book than I was expecting, and more intimate perhaps than Stew had intended.
By the time I put the book down, Stew had turned from one of my favourite comedians into a real person; from someone on stage doing an act into a man whose way of thinking and motivations I could begin to understand. Not inside and out, but a little.
And he does this without losing any of the humour. He doesn’t weigh the text down with emotion or with an overdeveloped sense of his ‘journey’. There are no X-Factor style cut-aways where we learn more than we wanted to about some semi-manufactured sob story. But he does slowly tell us why he gets on stage, why he writes comedy, why he’s made the decisions he’s made, and why he tells the jokes he tells (though of course he’d deny that he actually tells jokes). He tells us who his heroes are and why. He tells us whose work he dislikes and why.
In short, he lets us into his world in a more real way than his stand-up act ever has. And his world is an interesting one.
The form he’s chosen to achieve all of this can be a little distracting. In the sections where his shows are reproduced, constantly flitting between the transcript and his footnotes (where the real story lies) can be disorienting in places. But it’s a minor criticism, and I’m not sure how he could have achieved what he has here without this format.
This is essentially a funny book, and one that successfully brings us behind the scenes of Stew’s act without ever leaving it behind fully.
I liked it. I think you would too.
Not a bad start to the year then.
I now have about ten books lined up to work my way through, finally following up on a few recommendations you guys have given me in the last couple of months. All made possible by a well informed Santa who seems to have worked out how to order vouchers from Amazon.
Next week, something Arthur Conan Doyle flavoured.