Read this book: The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the RyeOkay. Normally I review all the books I read here, regardless of when they were published, because why the hell not it’s my blog I do what I like. But you don’t review The Catcher in the Rye. You don’t review The Catcher in the Rye. It’s one of the most important, most discussed, most critiqued books of the 20th century. You don’t just drop in all, “Oh boy I sure get a bang out of this book and isn’t that Holden Caulfield sure surrounded by a lot of lousy phonies?”

(I’ve read Catcher several times now and every time I get stuck in a lousy/crummy/phony loop for a couple weeks after, so bear with me here.)

So my review of this book is: this is a terrific book. But really this post is: if you haven’t read this book, read this book. Buy it. Borrow it from the library. Pirate the ebook. Maybe you’ll get a kick out of teenage protagonist Holden and maybe you won’t – whether you like him is almost beside the point. His despair and loneliness and hopeful desperation vibrate truth, and pretty much every angsty young character since is just a pale Holden imitation.

(Also – and maybe I’m projecting here, but again, it’s my blog and I do what I like – Holden is absolutely a homosexual. Yes he is.)

Read Catcher in the Rye. Read it. (At the very least, you’ll be able to casually mention to people you hardly know that you just finished The Catcher in the Rye and they’ll think you’re literary, which is honestly the best reason to read literature.)

Less Than ZeroImmediately after finishing Catcher I moved on to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, a novel that pretty explicitly follows on from Salinger’s: both are about rich, disaffected young men struggling against the realisation that life – or, more accurately, enduring life – is hard.

(By the way: I don’t recommend reading these books in tandem. The themes are too much. It’s depressing.)

First: Ellis published this when he was 21. So fuck you for writing so good when you were 21, Bret Easton Ellis. Second: like I said, Ellis is a great writer. But his style is (infamously) brutally nihilistic, and sometimes it wavers close to brutal nihilism for the sake of brutal nihilism. This obscures the portrait of his protagonist Clay, who’s hard enough to know as it is. (Astoundingly, Wikipedia alleges that Zero‘s first draft was “incredibly emotional and over-wrought”, which is so un-Ellis-ish and bizarre.)

Previously: Book review: Exit Through the Wound, North Morgan

 

Not-so-memorable one-shot and little-seen Simpsons characters

Back in the early days of The Simpsons there was pretty much no way of predicting which incidental characters would develop into major supporting roles (your Apus, Skinners, Flanderses, Moes, and so on), and which would vanish, never (or rarely) to be seen again.

Here are some of those Springfieldianites who could have broken out, but never did. (Note that, generally, I didn’t include characters voiced by celebrity guest stars. Characters who only had lines in one episode are noted as such – a couple of them pop up in the background of later episodes.)

The Simpsons' dentist Dr Wolfe

Dr Wolfe, the Simpsons’ dentist (‘Last Exit to Springfield’. “Dental plan!”). I’m surprised this character (who was intended to be voiced by Anthony Perkins, who died before he could record the part) never came back – Hank Azaria’s delivery of “Why must you turn my office into a house of lies?” at least deserved Jasper-level recurrence.

The Simpsons' vet

The Simpsons’ veterinarian (‘Dog of Death), who flunked out of dental school. (Apparently he’s based on Ben Casey, a character from the ’60s medical drama of the same name – the eyebrows are certainly the same).

The Seven Duffs: Tipsy, Queasy, Surly, Sleazy, Edgy, Dizzy and Remorseful (a Simpsons fan who can list all seven off the top of his head truly has something to be proud of). Oh sure – you might say there was no possible way to expand on a pretty shallow beer mascot joke. To which I reply: Duffman.

Mr Largo

Dewey Largo, Springfield Elementary’s (apparently pretty mediocre) music teacher. He’s had a couple of memorable scenes: “This is not a dream!”, the forbidden music, and “Ew, a bug!” The writers did attempt to flesh out Largo’s character  bit: Bill Oakley revealed that the original script for ‘Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Badasssss Song’ included a line implying the teacher is married and closeted.

Amber Dempsey

Amber Dempsey (‘Lisa the Beauty Queen’). “Not. In. Paraguay.”

The Happy Little Elves

The Happy Little Elves. These critters, it turns out, have names: they include Moldy, Bubbles, and Yendor (?). The Elves featured heavily in very early episodes of The Simpsons, but eventually appeared less and less as Itchy and Scratchy became the show’s go-to cartoon satire.

Arthur Bouvier

Arthur Bouvier (‘The Boy Who Knew Too Much’). Marge’s brother – yes, Marge has a brother, though he’s never been seen and was only mentioned once. Marge tells Bart “[his] uncle Arthur used to have a saying: ‘Shoot ’em all and let God sort ’em out’. Unfortunately, one day put his theory into practice. It took 75 federal marshalls to bring him down. Now let’s never speak of him again.” They never did.

Sam and Larry

Sam and Larry, two barflies who frequent Moe’s Tavern. (Sam is the one with the green trucker hat. I first learned his name via an old issue of Simpsons Illustrated ((Remember Simpsons Illustrated?!?!)), and it stuck for obvious reasons.) As far as I can recall, neither of them have ever had any of their own lines in the show.

Baby Gerald

Gerald, the baby with the one eyebrow. Who is Gerald? Why do he and Maggie hate each other so much? Why does he get into so much mischief? I guess we’ll never know.

Rafael, the Sarcastic Guy

Raphael, the sarcastic guy. I actually had no idea this guy even had a name – apparently he earned it in a season 12 episode – till I started this post. (It’s also spelled Rafael, depending on the source.) He’s recurred many, many times during the series, having worked pretty much everywhere in Springfield, though he’s never been more than a minor character (and a terrifically droll foil).

Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabbadoo

Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabbadoo (‘The Last Temptation of Homer’). “Come back, Joey Joe-Joe!” But he never did…

The Very Tall Man

The Very Tall Man(’22 Short Films About Springfield’. His appearance while driving his automobile was indeed comical, though the “doing things while tall” joke would’ve worn thin had he recurred. Probably.

Worker and Parasite (‘Krusty Gets Kancelled’), the Eastern-bloc cat-and-mouse duo who all-too-briefly replace Itchy and Scratchy. A Salon.com article describes Worker and Parasite (Worker is the mouse, according to in-depth Googling) as an animators’ “inside” joke, though I don’t think it is. Even knowing nothing about Cold War politics or animation history – as I didn’t when I first watched this episode sometime in the early ’90s – these characters are delightfully strange.

The Happiest Man in Springfield

The Happiest Man in Springfield (‘Hurricane Neddy’). What’s with this guy? Why is he so happy? Does it even matter? I guess we’ll never know.

Mrs Glick

Mrs Glick. One day I’ll host a Simpsons trivia night, and one of the questions will be “In which Springfield resident did Dr Hibbert once confesses to leaving his car keys?” I adore her mistreatment of Bart in ‘Three Men and a Comic Book’, her first appearance. Anyway, apparently she’ll never be back, because she died in a season 23 episode (deep in Zombie Simpsons territory, so you can hardly blame me for not knowing that).

Scott Christian

Scott Christian. Kent Brockman is Springfield’s go-to newsreader, so no surprise that his bizarrely haired co-anchor Scott Christian never really registered.

Ms Sinclair

Ms Sinclair, of the Ayn Rand School for Tots (‘A Streetcar Named Marge’). The Simpsons could have probably benefitted from more recurring female characters, and I’d’ve preferred to have seen more of Ms Sinclair than some of Jon Lovitz’s other characters (ie, Artie Ziff – blergh). An extra point in her favour: her daycare centre apparently influenced the creation of Rugrats, so.

Aristotle Amadopolis

Aristotle Amadopolis (‘Homer Defined’). Another Lovitz character, Aristotle would’ve been an ideal foil for Mr Burns; I’m surprised their rivalry never popped up again.

Rex

Rex (‘I Love Lisa’). “Everyone knows I’m the best actor in this school!”

Skincare consultant Rowena

Skincare consultant Rowena (‘Mr Lisa Goes to Washington’). There is something deeply hilarious about this. No, I don’t know quite what.

The Krusty the Klown Show

Miss Lois Pennycandy (‘Like Father Like Clown’). Miss Pennycandy is one of The Simpsons‘ ultimate dropped characters – there was potential around the unrequited-love-for-Krusty thing, except the writers apparently forgot about her. (Also in the “forgotten Krusty associates” category: Corporal Punishment and Tina Ballerina. What were their stories?)

Springfield Elementary's teachers

Springfield Elementary’s other teachers. Google-fu turns up no names for any of these guys. I particularly like the middle one, another cynical Doris Grau character who’s sceptical of Skinner’s plan to hold unruly students in place with magnets in ‘Dog of Death’. The hippie-looking one on the right, by the way, is the teacher responsible for the famous “Purple monkey dishwasher” line.

Lionel Hutz's secretary

Della, Lionel Hutz’s assistant (‘Bart Gets Hit by a Car’). Yet another cynical Doris Grau character, and reader of Popular Secretary magazine.

Ms Albright

Ms Albright, the Sunday school teacher at the First Church of Springfield.

Just Stamp the Ticket Guy

“Just Stamp the Ticket” Man, aka, the biggest asshole in Springfield. This guy has no apparent name, and only one apparent character trait: jerk. His nickname came about after his first appearance in the series, after he rudely dismissed Flanders’ cheerfulness by demanding to have his parking validated.

Leopold

Leopold. What is Leopold’s job, anyway?

Gulliver Dark

Gulliver Dark (‘Homer’s Night Out’), the lounge singer at the Sapphire Lounge where Princess Cashmere works. What’s kind of interesting about Gulliver – aside from his name – is that he was voiced by Sam McMurray, who played the live-action version of the character in The Tracey Ullman Show. Simpsons trivia! Gulliver returns as the singer in Tito Puente’s band in ‘Who Shot Mr Burns – Part 2’, though he wasn’t voiced by McMurray second time around.

Watched alias

Mr and Mrs Winfield. They were the Simpsons’ neighbours on the non-Flanders side. The reason they never reappeared: they departed Springfield in the episode ‘New Kid on the Block’, apparently because they disliked the Simpsons so much.

And here’s a pretty definitive list of Simpsons characters to round things out.

 

Book review: A Tale of Time City, Diana Wynne Jones

A Tale of Time City, Diana Wynne JonesThe stuff you like when you’re 10 you don’t usually like when you’re an adult. Actually – this is super untrue. When I was 10 I liked The Simpsons and train sets and video games. I still like all those things!

But it is true that there are beloved relics of childhood best left in childhood. There’s probably a multi-syllable German word for the “I enjoyed this?” emotion aroused when you attempt to sit through a once-loved now-tacky TV show/movie/book. (Maybe… like… kindheitschade? Thanks for that one, Google Translate.)

When I was 10 one of my favourite books was A Tale of Time City, by Diana Wynne Jones – the first thing of hers I ever read. The story is more or less what it says on the tin: it’s about a city that exists outside history, and its mix of the legendary and the futuristic proved so appealing I must’ve read it five or six times in the years after I bought it. I dug that copy out of a box not long ago – that’s its creased, scuffed cover up there – and decided to read it again.

So: does A Tale of Time City stand the test of time?

Yes! Largely because Jones was (RIP) incredible. Christ, what a brilliant and inventive writer. Her mind must’ve been a bubbling spinning miracle of alchemy: here it produced Vivian Smith, an English schoolgirl who’s whisked out of London on the eve of World War II to live safely in the countryside.

Or not. Vivian swiftly is kidnapped by Jonathan and Sam, boys her age who take her to their home in the fantastic, glittering, aeon-spanning Time City. The boys are convinced Vivian is destined to play a vital role in rescuing the city from impending destruction, and she’s swept up in their quest as she tries to figure out how she’s going to get back home.

One of Jones’s great talents was digging right inside her protagonists’ heads, crafting characters who are vivid and true despite their fantastic backgrounds. In Time City, Jonathan is lordly in the exact way of entitled boys, Sam is grubby and hungry and loud, and Vivian approaches her predicament with an endearing mix of trepidation and gusto. Examining her with an adult eye, she emerges as a strong female character – and all the stronger for not being blessed with any special talents or powers. She really is just an ordinary person dropped into extraordinary circumstances, and she just keeps calm and carries on.

But that adult eye also exposes Time City‘s flaws. The time-hopping, jargon-heavy story is dazzlingly complex – admirably complex, proving young readers shouldn’t be pandered to – and for the first two-thirds or so Jones does a top job holding her plot together. But it’s that last third where it comes apart: all the elements of a satisfying conclusion are there, but there’s a harried, sometimes slapdash touch to the way they’re hashed together in the climax. The baddies are exposed, the goodies save Time City, and everything wraps up just like that.

Another of Jones’s novels, Howl’s Moving Castle, was adapted into a stunning animated film by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. A Tale of Time City is ripe for the same treatment – its extrahistorical setting is a pretty thrilling place of glass and stone. That Jones realises it so fully on the page is a testament to her skill.

 

Movie review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Instagram filters in the Yemen

You know, the lack of a hyphen between “salmon” and “fishing” kind of indicates that this film’s about salmon that fish in the Yemen, not salmon that are fished in the Yemen. Aren’t ambiguities like that just the worst?

Anyway. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘s title maybe isn’t grammatical, but it is literal: the film is really actually about salmon-fishing in the Yemen. You think of fishing as either a quietly compelling hobby or an inoffensive but dull way to pass the time, and I reckon audiences will in turn  think of Salmon Fishing as either quietly compelling or inoffensively dull. It’s a sweet, pleasant movie – but it’s so nothing. You walk away feeling like you’ve spent all afternoon standing waist-deep in a river without catching a fish.

If you’ve seen the trailer you know what to expect. There aren’t any surprises in the plot: Ewan McGregor is Fred, a public servant and fishing enthusiast (a total riot, in other words) who’s forced to help out on the Sheikh of Yemen’s (Amr Waked) so-stupid-it-just-might-work dream to introduce salmon to his country. Yemen, oh by the way, is mostly desert. This doesn’t faze the Sheikh’s chipper financial consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt, who’s both delightful and just one stomach flu away from her goal weight), who connects with Fred as the project begins to become a reality.

It’s not Salmon Fishing‘s polite predictability that’s the problem.  It’s the plot’s super-low stakes. The strongest emotion the Sheikh’s epic ambition ever arouses is: “Oh. That’s nice.” You know something’s amiss when Fred drinking cold water from a well in Yemen is a key moment in the plot.

(Some minor spoilers ahead.)

The screenplay throws up a few hurdles. The Sheikh’s plans are opposed by rebels. Harriet has a soldier boyfriend (Tom Mison) who goes missing-in-action in Afghanistan and resurfaces just in time to thwart her burgeoning romance with Fred. Kristin Scott Thomas plays a press secretary who’s preposterously manipulative even by the preposterously manipulative standards of real-life spin doctors.

But there’s still never much sense everything won’t work out okay in the end: the rebels’ motives aren’t defined beyond “We hate the Sheikh because he hates God or something!”; Harriet and her soldier boy only dated for three weeks before he was posted so remind me why we’re meant to care about their relationship?; and Scott Thomas drops in every now and then to say something zany then choofs off again.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen probably would’ve been better if it was about salmon that fish in the Yemen. It could’ve been animated. There could’ve been songs!