Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Review: The Mother Garden and The Mercy Papers by Robin Romm

These two touching and moving books were yet again gifts from my US editor, to whom I am forever grateful. She works on wonderful books and has excellent taste but, of course, I would say that.

I'm sure you would too if you read these books. The first, The Mother Garden, is a book of short stories with a definite theme. In every story there is a mother and, in each of them, this mother is either dead or dying. The book is a smorgasboard of oxygen tanks and chemotherapy, of lives lived on but with an inevitably massive hole. Most of the stories are firmly planted in the soil of realism, except perhaps 'The Mother Garden' of the title. This slightly surreal piece contains many different mothers brought together and planted in an attempt to fill the hole left by the main character's lost mum.

The entire collection is touching and compelling. I often find short story collections tricky, enough of the stories leaving me cold to make finishing an entire book difficult, but this was definitely an exception. I was compelled to pick it up and continue until I had finished them all. Since, I've found I wanted to buy it for friends, one of the biggest compliments I could give a book, passing it on to people I care about.

It's no surprise then, that reading Romm's bio, you find pretty quickly that she did lose her mother in the recent past. The Mercy Papers is her record of that experience. It's a sad book, so very sad, but it's also incredibly honest, at turns angry, aware and vibrant. It's beautifully written in that clear concise style that seems to be such a mainstay of American publishing. Crafted. Although the subject matter is sad, and it could be depressing, I didn't feel depressed afterwards so much as full of compassion for those who have, are and will go through such things. All of us, then.

I hate to use a cliche but I feel I have to here, about these books, and that is that they are two sides of the same coin. This is an overused turn of phrase, but it does describe perfectly what I felt on reading these two pieces of writing so sod it. Romm documents what I think must be her most life changing experience so far in a memoir, then fiction. In doing so she gives the most complete picture I could ever imagine and that's as much as a writer can ever do. I am full of admiration.

I wrote a story once on this topic which I couldn't help but think of when I read Romm's books. In fact, it was my first pubished piece of fiction. I don't think for a moment it stands up to what Robin Romm has achieved. They say write what you know, and I didn't know this at all, though I could imagine it and have, as we all do, in bad dreams and moments of worry. I can imagine it whole lot better now thanks to Robin Romm's insightful and moving account.

I can't recommend these books highly enough.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Synecdoche, New York

"Millions of people, none of them is an extra. They're all leads in their own story."

I've been trying to blog about this film for days and have variously deleted everything I previously wrote, started from a different angle and realised again that it won't be enough. In the end, I decided this would tell people more about the film, and the dilemmas of its main character Caden Cotard than I ever could. Some people have compared the movie to a mobius strip , but I'd say it was more of a torus, self referential, spinning in on itself, everything the same and yet everything different. A rather abstract way to talk about a movie, I know, but then it's a rather abstract movie.

I thought it was brilliant. Like I did with Mulholland Drive, I know I will buy Synecdoche on DVD and that I will watch it many times, as many times as it takes for me to be able to watch and enjoy the scenes without trying to piece them together. My lovely hubby felt very differently, and I quote 'It was stupid.' The reviews I've read online seem to flick between these two standpoints, some of them expressing both opinions at the same time. Again, that tells you more about the film than I ever could.

Go see it. It's brilliant. It's a little bit stupid too.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Realism in films

I've been thinking a lot about film recently, and watching lots of new films as well as old faves. This is partly because I'm working on the adaptation of The Killing Jar, partly because I finally have the time to focus on film and TV, but a good deal to with a course I'm teaching in Nottingham: Writing a short film. I sometimes feel a bit of a fraud teaching this. I've not got any short films out there. I have written them, though, but inertia and practical issues have meant I've never tried to go further than the writing. I was so focused on being a novelist for so long, especially when I first discovered screenplay, on my MA course. But, to be honest, it does quite suit my style. Very structured, very visual. I enjoy the challenge of having to break my story down and work it out in pictures.

One of the films I've revisited recently is Swordfish. I think this is an interesting movie, not necessarily that great, but definitely one that I find worth studying. The opening is pretty special and probably holds more promise than the movie as a whole plays out. We've got John Travolta talking for several minutes, delivering the well written lines of dialogue the way only he can. He's talking about Hollywood and its lack of realism. He's suggesting ways that seige situations could be more realistically done, with no mercy on the part of the hostage takers and lots of bloodshed. People are sitting around drinking coffee, commenting on what he says. Then bam: span out and we are actually in a seige situation. Travolta follows up his words, well, I won't say how because some readers might not have seen the film. But he does follow up.

It almost feels like the film writer is setting his premise with Travolta's speech. 'This is going to be a realistic Hollywood film'. Of course, as the film continues, it's really not at all, just as stylised as anything you've seen. There's the longest and most unrealistic car chase I've ever seen. And the computer displays are much more visual than any hacker's screen would ever be. Perhaps it's impossible to be realistic in film, no matter how you set out to be. Maybe that's the point. A couple of views and I'm still not sure.

So I thought to myself, what would happen to some Hollywood storylines if the writer did try to inject some of that realism Travolta talks about?

Starting with Swordfish. Well, I reckon it would have taken the Hacker several hours if not days to get into the department of defense computer. He would have drunk coffee while hacking, not wine, but if he had drunk wine then he would have spilled it on the keyboard, turned the thing upside down to try to empty it out, then started typing again only to find the spacebar didn't work and several other keys had to be bashed quite hard, over and over, to get the letter on the screen, at which point they would stick and the computer send out a mad beep as it filled with bbbbbbbbbbbbs.

Fight Club would be a really short film. Jack would go out and get himself beat up once, then realise that it hurt, and he didn't like it, wasn't very good at it, and retreat to his finely Ikead apartment with his tail between his legs.

Pulp Fiction, I don't even know where to start, except that Uma Thurman would have died, John Travolta got shot by the big boss, and Bruce Willis would have won the fight and taken the money.

I'm going away to think of a few more examples and will post them when I do.