Sunday, 15 November 2015

A Beginner's Guide To Literary Fiction, Written by a Beginner

First of all I want to offer my condolences to anyone who was affected by the horrific, inhuman atrocities carried out by the Islamic State in Paris and Beirut over the past few days. None of it seems real. Thankfully nobody I knew was affected but fuck did it floor me. I have more to say but I think in the next week or two I'll post something, not now. Now all I can do is hope that everyone affected can move on, and that the violence won't escalate, although I fear both of those things are highly unlikely. 

Anyway, around a year ago I was in a bookshop in Sligo (north-west Ireland, very nice place if anyone is thinking of visiting) with my mum. At the time I practically read nothing but fantasy and science fiction, with the occasional YA thrown in. I periodically picked up a literary fiction novel but I generally avoided that sort of stuff, and anything that wasn't genre fiction really, because I thought it was all boring and pretentious. However my mum thought that it might be a good idea to read something else, she wanted me to 'broaden my horizons". Naturally I thought this was her trying to force me to stop reading the genres I love. So anyway here we were in this bookshop. My mum picked up a copy of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I didn't want to buy it, but eventually I gave in. I knew from the moment I purchased it that it was a mistake. It was dumb, pretentious crap for people who thought they were smart. I knew I'd hate it. So dutifully Catch-22 sat on my bookshelf for months on end. I looked at it regretfully. It became a symbol of what not to do when in a bookshop. I should stick to what I like. Pretentious crap for adults should be avoided at all costs. And then my parents got me a copy of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell for Christmas. As I mentioned I had read some lit fic at this point (Fight Club, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and Lord Of The Flies to name a few) but I hadn't fallen in love with it and was still generally opposed to the genre as a whole. Then I read The Bone Clocks. Now, my review was relatively lukewarm, but upon reflection that book was a turning point for me. It showed me that literary fiction, while still being very deep thematically, could be just as emotive and exciting as any other genre. It opened my eyes to an entire genre that I had previously generalised and put under the umbrella of being "boring pretentious shite". And thus, when I finally picked Catch-22, the purchase of which I had lamented for months, back in August I utterly loved it.

Since then literary fiction has become the majority of what I read. The Bone Clocks opened the floodgates to what has become the majority of my reading material. I still love fantasy and science fiction, but lit fic has now become where I go to provoke discussion, to be moved and to have a good time, most importantly.

So what's the point of this? Well I'm a big proponent of the belief that people should read as many genres as they possibly can. I try to be as varied as possible in my reading. And I think everyone should be too. If you only read one genre you're depriving yourself of the joys of reading other genres. The hardest transition to make is that from genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction, YA etc.) to literary fiction. It took me a while but now I don't regret it at all. This post is just me talking about some of the tips I have for people who are trying to broaden their reading horizons by getting into literary fiction. Hopefully I'll be a help. Also bear in that I'm still getting into the genre. By no means am I some guru. This is just some advice I have from my personal experience.

Just getting into any genre is going to be tough. If you try to move from, say, YA for example to literary fiction you will read some books that you hate. You will find them boring. You will wish that you could return to the warm embrace of John Green. But just remember: Don't give up! Admittedly it was tough getting into literary fiction. As I mentioned, even though I had read some literary fiction, I was still generally opposed to the entire genre. It took me a while before I found my groove. There will be rocky patches at the start. You will be reading stuff that will be pretty alien to you. Not enjoying some of them is normal. Just make sure to persevere, it's worth it. A good example of this, for me, is the author Haruki Murakami. During the summer last year I picked up 1Q84 on a whim and decided to read it. I didn't like it and gave up after 100 pages. However, after properly getting into literary fiction I read, and loved, both Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and now Murakami is one of my favourite authors.

As Beckett said: "Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

This point is really important. Just because a book is famous, or because a friend likes it, or because you've heard of it somewhere, doesn't mean you will like it. Before I take the plunge into a genre I like to do some research before I try a few books out. That way I'll be able to find books that I'll be more likely to enjoy. I really can't stress this enough. If you're wanting to get into literary fiction, don't read something you know you will hate. Obviously if you've never read any avant-garde before and you decide to give Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow a crack (I'm still many years away from attempting both of those) you will hate them, unless you're like a chameleon and can adapt to any genre immediately. Do you're research on the Internet and try to find some books you think you'll enjoy. It'll make the whole process much more enjoyable. That being said, I didn't really do that so who am I to speak? 

Also, literary fiction DOES NOT mean classics that were written over a hundred years ago. That is a misconception many people seem to have.

If you start a book thinking you're going to hate it, and combing through each sentence to find faults, you're going to hate the book, and you're going to find faults, whether they're there or not. I feel like this is a big reason why people fail to get into new genres, not just literary fiction. People expect to hate it, and while obviously people's expectations can often be turned on their head, most of the time from my experience, if I go into something expecting to hate it, I probably will. The desire to experience new things, new challenges, is part of the fun I have in reading literary fiction, and in exploring different genres of books (and music, and films as well for that matter) and I think that sense of exploration and intrepidness is needed if you are going to get into a new genre.

This point kind of feeds into the last one. OK, say for example you predominantly read YA. YA, from my experience, in general seems to be pretty plot driven. Oh yes character is important, but often it seems like the deal breaker in YA is whether the plot is exciting. Obviously there are plenty of character driven YA books out there, but the majority of the attention seems to generally be focused on plot. Anyway I feel like I'm just digging myself a hole. What I'm trying to say is that YA and literary fiction, for example, are two different genres. They exist for different reasons and go about their storytelling in different ways, for the most part. A lot of literary fiction  is done to illustrate a theme, not just to tell a fun story. I'm not saying that those two things can't co-exist, but don't expect to find most literary fiction books engaging because of its rapid-fire plot. There are plenty of thrilling lit fic books out there, but if you compare them to most fantasy novels out there, for example, they don't seem quite as thrilling. Try to focus more on enjoying a book because of the writing, or the characters, or the themes, as opposed to just whether the plot is exciting. I find that if you find things like characters and themes interesting, the book will be engaging, even if the plot is essentially boring (or in the case of Catch-22, it doesn't really have a plot).

I don't really know how well I expressed my point but fuck it I'm getting tired.

  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: This guy is a class act. Cloud Atlas is incredible, but this is a great introduction to his works. Definitely a good one if you're looking for something but a more engaging plot. Even features a lot of fantastical elements, so if you're coming from fantasy this wouldn't be a bad place to start.
  • Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin: I don't know why I love this book but I do. When I read it summer last year I loved it. Now, with a bit more experience I might not adore it quite as much but I'll always have some nostalgia for this quiet, sad little story.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I think this is a book a lot of people hate because they have to study it in school but I adored it. Every sentence is a joy to experience. Yeah, the characters aren't exactly nice people, but that's the point. It's simultaneously one of the best social critiques I've read but also one of the most moving experiences of my life. Some of the quotes still give me chills. Beautiful.
  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: This. Fucking. Book. I utterly adore it. So much. While I do prefer The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, this book is a fantastic introduction to the weird world of Haruki Murakami. It contains a lot of the same themes and brilliantly evocative writing as his other books, just without a lot of the weirdness. Out of all the books I mentioned here, this is probably a good place to start if you're getting into literary fiction. 

Anyway I hope this list was of some help.I made the post because it seems to me that most people in the blogosphere just read one or two genres, YA being the most common I've encountered, and won't read anything else. And even if they do they tend to not follow anything I've listed above. I think it's important to read as many genres as you can. It helps you not only to become a more well rounded reader, but in my experience a more well rounded person. Also literary fiction tends to be regarded by fans of genre fiction as the big bad genre ruled by pretentious assholes. Some people are assholes, like anything every group of people has a few dicks, but as a whole it's a wonderful genre. 

But most of all, read literary fiction because it's fun. It's fun trying out new things. Literary fiction is a brash, vibrant genre full to the brim with innovation, excitement and beauty. It is constantly evolving and constantly engaging. As I've said I haven't been reading it properly for a full year yet but I already love it passionately. Who can resist the childlike wonder of being introduced to a whole barrage of new ideas, concepts, authors, themes and more. Experiencing literary fiction after almost exclusively reading genre fiction is very eye opening, and is something I think everyone who reads seriously and not just to kill time should do.

It's important to read all genres. Literary fiction is an incredibly important genre, just like any other. If you haven't already, give it a go. If you're anything like me, you won't regret it.

Also for those interested while writing this post I listened to the album DIfferent Class by Pulp, which is one of the unsung classics (well, only unsung compared to the adoration of other bands) of the Britpop era. Now whenever anyone asks me the question: Oasis or Blur? I will say: Pulp. Check out the song Common People, it's about as good as it gets.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

My Month In Movies (Part 1/2)

First of all this title is sort of misleading. Basically I'll be summing up the newly released movies I've watched over the past two months but that doesn't sound quite as catchy.

Also, Happy Halloween! I hope you all had a good day! I was at a party which was partially fancy dress (I didn't dress up, there's another party next weekend though and I'm saving my costume for then) and one of my friends had the genius idea of sellotaping lettuce to his raccoon onesie and saying he was Rocket Raccoon from Guardians Of The Galaxy. And yes he was aware that lettuce and rocket are two different things. He looked like a fucking fool. Also by the end of the night he had no lettuce left because kept on eating it.

Anyway, I'm supposed to be talking about movies. This post is basically a summary of some of the best movies I've watched over the past few weeks. Also do bear in mind this is not a list of my favourite movies so far this year or anything, this is just a few new releases that I've watched since the start of September that I really enjoyed. Obviously I'd highly recommend checking all of them out.

I'll be honest, this movie made me cry. It was absolutely beautiful and touching and heartbreakingly honest. It's based on the true story of David Lipsky's (Jesse Eisenberg), a Rolling Stone magazine writer with literary aspirations, five day interview with the famed writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) after Wallace's mammoth novel Infinite Jest was published back in the mid-nineties. Most of the dialogue is taken directly from the tapes of that interview and the two actors pull it off brilliantly. The movie deals with themes such as loneliness, addiction, the desire for fame and what happens when you become famous. It is honestly the most moving film I've watched this year. Segal's beautifully warm portrayal of DFW, who was an incredibly damaged person and ended up taking his own life (don't worry, not a spoiler, you find that out in literally the first scene of the movie), was a joy to witness and the chemistry between him and Eisenberg was palpable. Anyone who wants to be a writer, anyone who has ever felt lonely and anyone who has ever felt inadequate will certainly leave this film a little different from how they were at the start. 

It's undeniably one of my favourites of the year so far, up there with Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road and a few others.

I saw this with a bunch of my friends at the cinema and honestly if you don't see this on a cinema screen you're really missing out. The adaptation of one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies is really striking visually. The cinematography is utterly stunning. Both the opening and closing battle scenes have some of the boldest and most mesmerisingly beautiful images I've seen this year in a film. While the Shakespearean dialogue was, at times, difficult to understand (I haven't studied MacBeth, we're doing Hamlet at the moment) it was still possible to get the gist of what was happening. Michael Fassbender, who's had a brilliant few years recently, was great as MacBeth and was certainly the highlight of the movie. While the movie is very artsy and slow paced you are rewarded for your patience with an incredible climax and some brilliant scenes laced throughout. I don't know if this is being shown in cinemas any more but if it is make sure to catch it, the incredible visuals wouldn't look nearly as good on a TV screen.

Overall a very solid movie with good acting and utterly amazing visuals.

This is the second movie I've seen with Michael Fassbender this year (as I said he's been in some phenomenal movies) and this one is just as good as usual. It tells the story of a young naive Scottish boy who travels to the Wild West of America to seek out his love and her father, who have fled and have been branded murderers. While aimlessly wandering the wilderness he bumps into Fassbender who takes him under his wing. Slow West is a thoroughly entertaining movie. Visually, it's very striking and full of bright, vibrant colours. The worldbuilding is also excellent. The world created feels so lived in, packed full of so much life. And while the movie is overall very serious, featuring plenty of murder, death and moral dilemmas, is has an off-kilter sense of humour that was very unexpected but very welcome. Slow West seems like an atypical story on the surface but I found it to be far more entertaining, varied and original than I had anticipated. 

Overall it's a movie that has some brilliantly memorable characters, a really cool world and some quality visuals and acting to go with it.

This is easily the most original new release of the year. Basically, it's set in an alternate reality where it is compulsory to be in a romantic relationship. All single people are sent to a hotel where they are given 45 days to find their soul mate (which in this world is someone who shares a defining characteristic) or else they are turned into an animal of their choosing. Colin Farrell, who plays the main character, is a recent divorcĂ© who has decided that if he doesn't make it he wants to be turned into a lobster. Yes it's batshit insane. And yes, it fucking works. The Lobster is one of the blackest comedies I've seen. It's has an absolutely razor sharp and bizarre sense of humour which was present throughout the movie despite the serious subject matter. Aside from the brilliant humour The Lobster is a brilliant study into the nature of human relationships, conformity and societal pressure. The closing image is incredibly thought provoking and despite the ridiculous premise this remains one of the best films of the year. I also stayed at the hotel in Kerry (south of Ireland) where it was filmed so that was pretty cool.

Overall The Lobster is utterly unique, absolutely hilarious, and despite some slow moments in the middle is absolutely amazing.
Ex Machina is the best film I've seen this year. It is incredible. It takes place in the near future and follows Domhnall Gleeson, who plays a young coder who gets chosen to spend a week at the house of an elusive tech billionaire played by Oscar Isaac. It is then that Isaac reveals his real intentions: he has built an AI and Gleeson has to test whether it is sentient or not. The film is an incredible exploration into the morality of science, the meaning of life and the nature of humanity. Aside from the direction, which is pretty great, the acting is absolutely phenomenal. Gleeson has a great performance but it is Isaac and Alicia Vikander, who plays the AI, that steal the show. The underlying menace and danger that Isaac imbues in his character is incredible and constantly keeps you on edge and Vikander is utterly mesmerising as well. It's a stylish movie with a great script that discussing incredibly important themes, yet stays tense and engaging throughout. It has an amazingly claustrophobic atmosphere and is a must-see out of this year's new releases.

Overall Ex Machina is stunning in every way. It has stellar acting, writing and direction and will force you to think. This is science fiction done well.

Well that's all for now I think. I'll probably some up the older movies I've watched since September in another post seeing as this one is getting a bit long. Obviously I have watched other new releases but these are the ones that really stuck with me. Obviously I'd highly recommend watching them all, especially The End Of The Tour. I think you'll all definitely appreciate it. 

Have you seen any of these movies? What are your favourite movies that have been released this year? Let me know in the comments. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Where I've Been: An Update

Unrelated but necessary for life
I realise I have done literally nothing on my blog for weeks now. Sorry about that. In this post I shall try to explain. The past few weeks have been busy and confusing so I'll do my best to sum them up here. I'm currently enjoying my mid-term break so that's why I've decided to write.

Well first of all I've started fifth year in school. Now if you're unfamiliar with the Irish school system let me explain.In Ireland we have no middle school or high school or anything. They're just rolled into one. When you're 12/13 you leave primary school and go to secondary school. After three years, when you're 15 (or sixteen depending on your birthday) you have the Junior Certificate. This is a big state exam of the past three years of school. I did twelve subjects for that and did quite well. After this you have Transition Year. This is basically a break year. You don't do much academic work and it's more focused on building your CV ('proactive' was the buzzword of the year). Plenty of people take this as an opportunity to do feck all for a year but I tried to do a bunch of work experience weeks. There were a bunch of trips too. Basically it was fucking awesome. However after this you go into fifth year. At the end of sixth year, you have the Leaving Cert. You can do as many subjects as you want (I'm doing eight) and your best six are chosen. You are given points for your grade (they're changing the points system so I'm not so sure what they are at the moment) and the total number of points you get determines what course at university you can do. For example, I want to do Law at Trinity College Dublin, which required a minimum of 540 points in total last year. So basically I have two years to literally decide my future. It's a fair bit of fucking work. Now it hasn't been so bad this far and I've been enjoying a good few of the subjects but still the dramatically increased workloads hasn't been fun. And then there's maths. Fuck maths. For anyone interested the subjects I'm doing are Maths, English and Irish, which are compulsory, and then French, Economics, Accounting, History and Music (music is outside school, the music teacher in the school is beyond shit. A few of my friends do it and they've barely done anything so far). Anyway shit is stressful, relatively, and I don't have enough time to write during the week. 

However, I have been implementing a plan to keep myself from going insane. Over the past few months I've really been getting into film and I make a point to watch a movie every weekend (I watched Taxi Driver a few days ago. Fucking brilliant). That relieves a good deal of stress. I've also been listening to a lot of music (I'm listening to the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik by Red Hot Chilli Peppers for the first time at the moment. It's pretty great). Unfortunately I haven't been reading as much as usual. I gave up on The Naked And The Dead by Norman Mailer a while back (I'll come back to this later) and since then I've only finished one book, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, which was very enjoyable. At the moment I'm halfway through Canada by Richard Ford and it's pretty great as well. I think some time over the next few days I might do a post on some of the movies I've watched over the past few weeks. I've been watching a lot of new ones (many of which are smaller indie films) as well as some classics, such as the aforementioned Taxi Driver, as well as Blade Runner and a few others. Exposing myself to different mediums other than just literature has been a brilliant experience and I'd highly recommend anyone who doesn't really pay attention to movies or music to do so because having an appreciation for multiple art forms is very fun.

However, the past few weeks haven't all been fine and dandy. First of all, one of my friends is leaving to go to America (Boston specifically) in December. I've only been friends with her since June but she's definitely one of my best friends. Basically, I became friends with her on a French exchange with the school. Only four girls went on the trip and none of them were her friends so she hung out with me and my friends who had went. Afterwards I suddenly got inducted into her group of friends, who are awesome, with my few other previous friends too. This is weird for me. I had figured that, at this point, I had made all the friends I was going to make. But now suddenly I have a bunch of new friends. I still haven't quite gotten my head around it and it's fucking October. About five or six weeks ago when we were wandering around Dublin (if I remember correctly we had just eaten burritos and were going to get frozen yoghurt in George's Street Arcade, which is a very nice area of Dublin is anyone ever visits) when she told me that there was a possibility that she would be moving to Boston in a few months. Naturally I was pretty shocked. Fast-forward a few weeks and it's confirmed. We actually just had a going-away party for her on Monday (at the end somehow we ended up sitting in a circle debating the merits of socialism. Bear in mind most people, except me and the girl who is leaving, were drunk. That was a weird experience). Her impending departure has been tough. For about three weeks I found it pretty tough not to think about her. It was like a dark blanket covering everything that I did. Partially because I'm upset she's going but also because I'm really fucking jealous. I would literally give anything to move to America now. There are other reasons why I'm upset because of this but to be honest I'd rather not talk about them on such a public place. Anyway, all you need to know is that it's been pretty shit. 

However, I have been far more social than usual over the past few weeks. Nearly every weekend I've gone out with my friends, mostly just to wander around Dublin or to watch a movie. It's been good. As I mentioned as well I was at a party on Monday which, again, is pretty unusual for me. I've gone to parties where the whole year has been invited, but excluding two other parties, I've never actually been invited to a smaller one. However, I have been a bit lucky. One of the girls who I became friends with over summer is basically the designated party-hoster for the year. She's had like three since I've been friends. She's having one on Halloween too. It's fucking great for me. Even though I don't drink like practically everyone else at parties (my parents would probably crucify me if I drank) it's still great fun. I'm enjoying doing things at the weekends. It's a novelty that still hasn't worn off.

So yeah that's been my past few weeks. Please forgive me if anything doesn't really make sense I'm not really bothered to proofread. Obviously there's been more I could write but I'm fucking tired so I'm going to stop now. I don't know how often I'm going to post, but I definitely want to keep up commenting on the blogs I like. Well here I am again. 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Book Review #24: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Practically every rule that exists when writing novels is thrown out the window in Catch-22. It is a book that is the literary embodiment of rebellion, of protest, of a pure and utter throwing away of the shackles of the literary world. I've never read anything like it and don't think I ever will again. Catch-22 exists in its own funny, bitter, sardonic groove in the literary world, one that it most certainly hollowed out for itself. Nothing about it should work. The jokes are repetitive, the characters are overblown, the plot has no form at to the extent that you could question whether there even is a plot and the message is so in-front and preachy that it should be obnoxious. But, somehow, these are the things that makes the book so great.

I know I said there's no plot but I suppose I should at least give you some indication of what the book is about. Catch-22 is set on the island of Pianosa in the dying months of World War Two. It follows (sort of) Yossarian, a disgruntled bomber pilot who will do anything to go home. However, he has fallen victim to Catch-22: If he flies, then he insane and doesn't have to fly, but if he doesn't fly then he is sane and has to fly. This neverending loop is the only form of central conflict you could possibly say the book has. Aside from it, the plot is aggressively non-linear and follows a whole host of characters, from the pompous Colonel Cathcart who is solely obsessed with his standing in relation to other generals (expressed in the form of 'feathers in his cap' vs. 'real black eyes') to Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer who over the course of the book builds up a gigantic business syndicate that basically runs Europe. Really there is no plot though, it's just experiencing the various characters on the island.

Catch-22 is a book that is built upon contrast and this is evident from the opening page. The book starts with Yossarian lying in hospital with a liver disease that isn't quite so bad that it can be classed as jaundice, which the doctors can treat, but not good enough to be discharged, and declaring that he had fallen in love with the chaplain. That sentence is blatantly ridiculous and farcical but when you consider that this is a WAR NOVEL I think how bold that opening was really becomes clear. War novels before this were Important and Very Serious. War was not a laughing matter. Compare the opening of Catch-22 to what was probably one of the most celebrated war novels ever at that point, The Naked And The Dead by Norman Mailer (which I'm reading at the moment). That book starts with the soldiers waiting for an invasion to start, scared and tense, terrified in the knowledge that some of them are undeniably going to be dead soon. Catch-22 opens with a man faking a sickness professing his love for a priest. The rest of the novel builds on this mould. There are dramatic shifts in tone and pace and sharp contrasts in subject matter and tone. It single-handedly spat in the face of serious literature and I love it for that.

Part of what makes Catch-22 so brilliant, and so funny, are the characters. I definitely have never read a book that is as richly peopled as this one. The characters are all completely overblown, as you would expect from a book that is essentially a comedy (although a dark one). Each one of them is a complete caricature. They all have one distinguishing characteristic that Heller brings to the forefront and milks for all it is worth. Again, like so many things with this book, that should be a negative, but it's just not. And the weird thing is I can't explain why. The characters just sucked me in completely. They're so diverse, so bizarre, so non-conformist, they captivated me. And then there's Yossarian. In this character Heller crafted easily the most subversive hero I've ever encountered. His flagrant and angry protests to the war are especially rebellious when you consider that it was written in the midst of the Vietnam War. His everyman banality coupled with his righteous fury makes him easily the most compelling and subversive hero I've read about in a very, very long time.

I have to admit it did take me about one hundred pages to really get into the book. The style is so idiosyncratic and the humour is such an acquired taste that it really took a bit for the book to fully absorb me. But when I fell in love, it was with a burning passion. The emotions in the book are just so vivid. Aside from being very funny (I know people say it's not but I'm still convinced they're just trying to be cool or are trying way too hard to like it, one or the other) the other emotions are beautifully evoked as well. There were many moments in the book where I was genuinely moved. A lot of authors preoccupy their time with attempting to conform to what I novel 'should' be, and the fact that Heller completely ditched that ideology meant that he could focus on true emotional purity, and oh did it work. Throughout the book Yossarian is constantly haunted by the death of one of his crewmembers and this serves as a violent emotional touchstone throughout the book. The emotions are so vivid, so honest, so damning and the humour is so subversive, and, near the end, incredibly (I have to stress this, INCREDIBLY) dark that I was an emotional mess for basically the whole course of the book. I was dragged one way, then another, and then another again, often in the course of one page. While the book certainly tips into melodrama at times, that's part of the appeal. Catch-22 isn't a novel of restraint, it's one of excess, and again that's part of what makes it so compelling. 

Catch-22 is essentially a mess that shouldn't work. Its gags are repeated ad infinitum, the characters are nothing close to realistic (which again spits in the face of war novels everywhere that tended to focus on gritty realism) and the message is preachy as fuck. But I don't care. Catch-22 is a glorious, irreverent mess. It knows the rules of literature and it breaks them all. It is funny, darkly gripping, moving and has a strange beauty to it at times that I just can't quite place. Naturally it's one of the best books I've read so far this year, second only to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Catch-22 is a book everyone should read at least once. My advice would be to enter it with an open mind. Don't try too hard to like it and don't dislike it just to be cool. Take it as it is and hopefully you'll love it as much as I did.

What do you think of Catch-22? Have you seen the movie (I haven't)? Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

An Apology and A Review of Me And Earl And The Dying Girl

I realise I have been fairly lax with my blogging duties over the last month or so, and by lax I mean I haven't fucking done anything at all. I could say that it's because I just started school again and I'm snowed under with work or whatever but to be honest that'b be a lie. Really I just got disillusioned with the whole thing. This partially happened because I recently discovered that one of my real life friends likes reading (I've since got him into Murakami) so blogging wasn't the only way of talking about books. However I mainly became bored and frustrated with the whole blogging process. I generally find the whole book blogging community pretty insular and averse to doing anything outside its comfort zone (thankfully there are a good few going against this but it's slow) and this sometimes makes me feel that when I don't blog about YA I'd actually be better just screaming at the sky. 

That being said I've been doing some thinking. I like writing about books and music and movies. I like reading good blogs about those things. I will also go utterly insane if I don't keep up some of my hobbies (the next two years in school are going to be stressful). So for now I'm going to try and return to blogging. 

I think part of what was frustrating me before was the fact that my posts were all the same (they were literally all book reviews more or less) so now I'm going to try and diversify that. I'm going to try and review as many of the movies I see as I can and some of my favourite albums (remember back in the day when I did album reviews? Good times.). I'll review books too, obviously, but I want to have more variety. I also want to talk more about my personal life seeing as I'm going to be making some pretty fucking important decisions over the next while (where to go to college, whether to move abroad, that sort of thing). 

So anyway. Sorry that I haven't been blogging. I'll try to amend that, even though I'll probably only have time for one post a week. Let's get on to the review now.

So I saw this film yesterday with two of my friends and I have to say it was far better than I had expected. I never wanted to see it originally because I thought it was just going to be a boring John Green TFIOS knock-off, and I don't even like John Green all that much. However, one of my friends really wanted to see it and seeing as I've basically forced him to go to whatever I've wanted to see for the past few months I figured I might as well go to something he wanted to see. And turns out he was right. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is a charming, moving, funny and (bizarrely for a modern YA movie) actually pretty realistic. While it can be a bit too quirky for its own good sometimes it's a pretty great movie, with a solid cast and a very strong script.

As you may have guessed MAEATDG is one of those 'diseased teen comedy dramas'. It tells the story of Greg, a high school senior who has spent his life carefully cultivating a passing acquaintance with all the various 'factions' in his school, so he isn't ostracised by any of them yet also doesn't form any lasting friendships. He only has one friend, Earl (whom Greg refers to as his co-worker as opposed to his friend), who he makes crappy versions of famous movies with (highlights include Senior Citizen Kane, 2:48 p.m. Cowboy and The 400 Bros). His life changes when a girl Rachel is diagnosed with leukaemia and Greg's mum forces him to spend time with her. 

Part of what makes this movie so good is how refreshingly honest it is. One of my major gripes with a lot of the more popular YA books and movies around at the moment is that the protagonist always feels too perfect, too moral, fuck even too attractive. However, MEATDG breaks out of that mould. Greg's emotional problems (worrying about college, trying to fit in, all that stuff) is constantly juxtaposed against Rachel's life-threatening illness. The movie shows that we can all be selfish and that our problems always feel more real to us. The two main characters, Rachel and Greg, also felt very real. Even though Greg did feel, at times, to be your typical 'quirky YA protagonist', he was definitely well rounded enough to stand out. However, I really felt like Earl was a pretty useless character, despite getting his name in the title. He really felt like the Obligatory Black Character and the script was trying WAY too hard to make his character seem 'street'. I don't really know what the point of this was. It was actually like the writer had got all of his knowledge on black people purely from listening to Fuck Tha' Police by N.W.A. I think the only reason Earl was in the movie was just so they could make the co-worker joke. He didn't really develop much at all and his involvement in the plot was fairly minimal. The story was really between Greg and Rachel and Earl felt utterly irrelevant. 

However, the movie was brilliantly cast. All of the actors fit really well into their roles, even the supporting characters (who, again felt a little overly quirky but they were funny so that doesn't really matter). The two leads gave bruising, heartwrenchingly honest performances and you could tell that they really connected with the script and the characters. There were a few scenes near the end where the acting really stunned me and they were able to handle the major tonal shifts in the film very well.

I just remembered that I had neglected to mention that MEATDG is funny as fuck. Seriously. The script is brilliant. Another thing I dislike about a lot of teen comedies (well specifically John Green) is that while the dialogue can often be pretty entertaining, it's completely and utterly unrealistic, often to laughably ridiculous levels. While MEATDG does occasionally fall into this trap, in general the dialogue is a perfect balance between funny and realistic. There were a tonne of one-liners in the movie that completely floored me they were so funny. I actually cannot stress enough how great the script was. It was by far the best part of the movie.

However, I found that the major tonal shift that the film underwent in the last third was very poorly done. For the most part, MEATDG was an honest and poignant, but generally very funny comedy drama. However, in the last third with literally no warning it suddenly decided to be deadly serious. That would've been fine if the first part had been a good mix of emotional drama and humour, but generally it was more focused on jokes than on anything else. This made the grim realism of the final third very jarring. Don't get me wrong, individually, the first and last acts are both great, but together they don't seem like part of the same film. This is a trap that a lot of comedy dramas fall into and I was disappointed to see this film succumb to it also.

That being said, I really appreciated that MEATDG didn't pull any of its punches. It is a very emotionally pure movie and doesn't try to pull wool over the eyes of the viewer. It has it's ugly moments mixed in with the highs, sobs with the laughs. However nothing feels forced. Most of what happens feels very realistic, often brutally so. It doesn't glamorise anything or water it down. Emotionally it is loud and if it doesn't affect you in some way then you're either incredibly cynical or a psychopath. One or the other.

Overall, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl was far from perfect. Some of its characterisation, aside from the protagonists, could have been deeper and more nuanced and the jarring tonal shift in the last third was very cliché. Aside from that, the casting was great, the direction was solid, the emotions were pure and the script was absolutely killer. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is a modern teen comedy drama done right. If you were turned off by this because it seemed like a John Green rip-off, trust me, it's better than that and will certainly be one of my favourite films of the year, despite its few flaws.