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summer suggestions

our recommendations for enjoying adult adolescence
in print and on screen

Impossible Vacation
Straight Man
Eiger Dreams
Lost in America
About a Boy

Galaxy Quest
Walking and Talking
After Life
Jack Lemmon

And Be Sure to Pack Along Your Neuroses

Impossible Vacation, by Spalding Gray (Knopf, 1992)

Okay, Impossible Vacation doesn't really work as a novel. It reads like one of Gray's monologues. And if you've heard Monster in a Box or Sex and Death at Age 14, then the protagonist, Brewster North, his mother, and his journey, will be familiar to you. That said, it's still a good read. Brewster moves through careers as an actor, a model, a storyteller, and through obsessions on meditation, marijuana, India, acting, porn, sex, and California. At one point, his girlfriend's sister asks him, "Brewster, why do you have to turn everything into shit? Where's your self-esteem?" In Impossible Vacation, Gray reveals the causes and the implications of his hero's immaturity in naked, sad, and funny ways.

~ nada

Fast Times at a Pennsylvania College

Straight Man, by Richard Russo (Vintage Contemporaries, 1997)

Russo's new novel, Empire Falls, is receiving much acclaim from Esquire, The New York Times, and all the other right literary places. But if you are waiting for the paperback, then go ahead and pick up his 1997 novel, Straight Man. It's a great summer read.

Hank Devereaux, interim English department chair at a small, poorly funded Pennsylvania college, suffers from a case of "arrested adult development." He has destructive prankster tendencies, misgivings about his career, and is troubled by his relationship with his father, a well-known professor of trendy literary criticism. He has fears of kidney stones and prostate cancer, fantasizes about his wife with his best friends, and is half in love with three women—his secretary, the daughter of a colleague, and a lesbian professor.

The novel contains laugh-aloud scenes involving threats to geese, adult incontinence, and snappy locker room dialogue between faculty members. It's also quite sad, if slightly less dark than his previous novels, including Nobody's Fool and The Risk Pool. In all his works, Russo plays homage to his main literary influence, Charles Dickens, with his finely drawn minor characters and human story. Straight Man is the perfect middle-age, coming of age story.

~ nada

The Heights of Folly

Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains, by Jon Krakauer (Lyons & Burford, 1990; Anchor Trade Paperback, 1997)

"Most climbers aren't in fact deranged, they're just infected with a particularly virulent strain of the Human Condition," writes Jon Krakauer in a note to the paperback edition of Eiger Dreams. Even those who wouldn't climb a tree, much less a mountain, should appreciate Krakauer's spare prose and lively narrative in this collection of his essays. Whether recounting his own adventures on the fabled Nordwand, sketching vivid portraits of fellow climbers, or wryly offering advice for the tent-bound, Krakauer brings a passion for his subject, a guiding eye for the uninitiated, and an appreciation for both the absurdity and the existential nature of these pursuits. While providing fodder for those who "hunger for the ultimate experience," this collection offers deeper insights "about what mountains can and can't do, about the limits of dreams."

~ vera

Like a True Nature's Child

Lost in America (1985)

For originality and truly hilarious moments, Albert Brooks's Lost in America ranks as one of the great American comedies. When ad executive David Howard (Brooks) and his wife Linda (wide-eyed Julie Hagerty of Airplane fame) decide to sell off their possessions, drop out of society, and cross the United States in a Winnebago in an effort to live the Easy Rider days they never experienced in their youth, they learn more than they had expected—about each other, small-town America, and the real value of a nest egg. Their troubles and Brooks's insights provide a new perspective on the expectations of adulthood. Forget the strained humor of The Muse and Mother; this is Brooks at his angst-ridden, comic best.

~ vera

Losing One's Cool

About a Boy, by Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books, 1998)

Like its predecessor, High Fidelity, About a Boy offers a brutally honest but sympathetic and very funny portrait of a not-so-young-anymore man's confused resistance to entering the adult world. "To all intents and purposes he was a teenager," 36-year-old Will Freeman admits to himself, with more pride than shame. But unlike most teenagers—or his Hi-Fi counterpart, Rob Fleming—Will doesn't know anguish or passion. He's determined to skate happily over the surface of life, filling his days with idle pleasures (heir to a Chistmas-jingle fortune, he's never had a job).

It's a losing battle, of course, and the book follows Will's gradual defeat at the unlikely hands of "a depressive hippy and her weirdo son." The weirdo son, the hilariously, unwittingly deadpan Marcus, gets equal time, with chapters alternating between his and Will's points of view. Marcus's bittersweet growth into adolescence and the secondary cast of single mothers and a rebellious girl make About a Boy more than a mirror held up to the "Generation-X" male.

~ dušan

Max and the Millionaire

Rushmore (1998)

For a perceptive look at adults, adolescents, and adult adolescence, you can't beat Wes Anderson's Rushmore. With Bill Murray as disillusioned, middle-aged millionaire Herman Blume and Jason Schwartzman as the fifteen-year-old scholarship student Max Fischer who stirs Blume from apathy, the film is funny, moving, and forgiving without straying into sentimentality. Fischer and Blume's friendship-turned-to-rivalry over the school's first-grade teacher may be absurd, but it's also so full of youthful passion and determination that you can't help rooting for them both.

Murray gives an understated, underrated performance; Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham (American Beauty) has nothing on Murray's malaise-stricken Blume. And young Schwartzman, with his dark-rimmed glasses, braces, and precocious manner, is adolescence personified. His secret: "Find what you love to do and do it for the rest of your life." A great, effective soundtrack includes music by The Rolling Stones, Django Reinhardt, Cat Stevens, The Kinks, and John Lennon.

~ vera

Never Surrender

Galaxy Quest (1999)

(with apologies to Joe Bob Briggs)

No breasts, but Sigourney Weaver with cleavage and padded bra. One inside-out exploding space pig. Four evil green lobster-men splattering against windshield. Man sucking face with an octopus.

Drive-in Award nominations: Sigourney Weaver, for refashioning herself as blonde middle-aged space-bimbo sex symbol; Tim Allen, for refashioning himself as arrogant groupie-laying TV superhero, and saying, "Never give up, never surrender!"; and Alan Rickman, for never appearing without a cheesy rubber scalp, and lamenting, "Dear God...How did I come to this? I played Richard III..."

Three and a half stars. On the Page says check it out.

~ dušan

Sex, Angst, and a Sick Cat in the City

Walking and Talking (1996)

The corny prologue of two teenage girls sifting through The Joy of Sex doesn't do justice to Walking and Talking's subtle understanding of the tensions, jealousies, and connections between adult female friends. Laura (played by pre-Ellen hype Anne Heche) suddenly gets antsy and afraid when boyfriend Frank (Todd Field) proposes marriage. She both envies and mocks Amelia (Catherine Keener, before her coming-out role in Being John Malkovich) in her single life. When Amelia finally succumbs to the advances of "the ugly guy" at the video store, her dates are funny, poignant, and cringe-worthy. Amelia supports her ex-boyfriend Andrew's (Liev Schreiber) phone sex habit and continues to over-analyze the causes of their breakup. There aren't big moments in the film—subplots revolve around Frank's mole, Amelia's cat, and Laura's internship as a therapist and flirtations with a bad actor. It is a great summer rental—a funny, real picture of female angst and dating in New York. Not surprisingly, screenwriter and director Nicole Holofcener later went on to write and direct episodes of "Sex in the City."

~ nada

Taking It with You

After Life (1998)

Imagine that on your death, you are given three days in which to select a single memory from your life to carry with you for eternity, after which you will have to leave everything else behind. What moment would you choose? Now think again: is that really the memory you want to spend eternity with? Sounds like a game at a teenage slumber party. But it is the very real dilemma faced by the newly dead in Kore-eda Hirokazu's 1998 film as they review their lives for the happiest, most meaningful, or least painful moment. Meanwhile, the overworked staff who try to recreate these memories on film have their own troubles. This intriguing premise is executed with grace and restraint; it is the very ordinariness of the people and the simplicity with which their stories are revealed that makes the film so thought-provoking.

~ vera

He Had Rhythm
So Long, Jack Lemmon

At his best, Jack Lemmon portrayed an average guy, wrapped up in neuroses and dreams, suddenly awakened to the realities of the world and forced to make choices. In an era of Hollywood glamour films, he created fearful, lonely, scheming, and silly characters. He strains his spaghetti with a tennis racket and sells his soul for the key to the executive washroom in Billy Wilder's masterpiece, The Apartment. Tony Curtis looked much better in a dress and got Marilyn Monroe, while Lemmon snagged geriatric tango dancer Joe E. Brown in Wilder's Some Like It Hot. As Ensign Pulver, opposite Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts, he wasn't Tom Joad, but rather Joe Schmuck, full of prankster plans but too afraid of Captain James Cagney to carry them out.

Lemmon's characters were often darker than we may remember. In the film version of The Odd Couple, his Felix Unger contemplates suicide and treats his roommate like his wife, rather than face the changes associated with his imminent divorce. His portrayal in Days of Wine and Roses of a good-time guy who pulls his wife (Lee Remick) into alcoholism with him is painfully real. Many years later, in Costa Gavras's Missing, Lemmon's American businessman wants desperately to hold on to his patriotic vision despite mounting evidence of governmental deception. Before he became known for being a grumpy old man, in flicks like these Lemmon created unforgettable portraits of adults coming of age.

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