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Bar-Naked Cover: Esquire’s Best Ever

8 Jun

The cover of Esquire’s July 2009 issue is striking:  Bar Refaeli wearing nothing but lines from Stephen King’s short story, “Morality.”  Yes, it’s taken a naked supermodel and one of America’s literary giants to bring The Hangover out of its spring hibernation.

Read Me, Baby (Esquire, July 2009)

Read Me, Baby (Esquire, July 2009)

In the past, this space has admonished Esquire for its seemingly fading commitment to the short fiction it once championed.  But the editors have just taken a master stroke.  A painted, unclothed super model will catch the eye of most men.  Then, hopefully, the twisting language of King’s sentences will spur those potential readers to search out the story (page 57) in the magazine.  If this kind of heat can sell beer on television, why can’t it work for fiction in a glossy?

The pairing of King and Refaeli is genius.  The accompanying photos of the word-paint-splattered supermodel, July’s Esquire “Woman We Love,” speak for themselves.  And if there were a statistic that somehow averaged “book sales” and “literary quality of writing,” it’s likely that Stephen King would sit atop those standings.  Make no mistake, his story here is a contemporary, relevant monster.    

Now if we could only get some aspiring model to volunteer to be painted in the words of a Hangover Post, cultural satire would reach heights previously considered unattainable.    Applications for the position will be gladly accepted.


Big Hype, Bad Movie–The Love Guru Standard

22 Jun

The Hangover suspects that the amount of marketing preceding a movie’s release exists in an inverse proportion to the movie’s quality.  In other words:  Big Hype, Bad Movie.   This thesis results from 1) suffering throught a month-long, full scale media assault by Mike Myers and 2) various reviews of his film The Love Guru.  (Full Disclosure:  This is a movie that The Hangover won’t be seeing until it hits HBO in the hopefully distant future.)

In the past few weeks, Myers has:

  • Appeared on the cover of the July Esquire.  The accompanying article 45 Years in 45 Sentences wasn’t nearly as funny as it could have been, although it did manage to pimp The Love Guru and re-pimp Shrek, Wayne’s World, and Austin Powers
  • Hosted the 6th Annual TV Land Awards (6/15/08 )
  • Appeared with Justin Timberlake (also from the movie) on ESPN’s Sportscenter.  (And this is after hockey season.) (6/13/08 )
  • Appeared on The Tonight Show (6/12/08 )
  • Hosted MTV Movie Awards (6/1/08 ), resurrected a tired Wayne and Garth
  • Appeared on Ellen (5/21/08 )
  • Appeared on American Idol Finale as Guru Pitka, his character from (surprise) The Love Guru. (5/21/08 )
  • Well, you get the point by now.  The Hangover also wishes to remind the reader that this is only a partial list.

Now let’s compare the amount of Myer’s promotional work with some reviews of The Love Guru.

From Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe ( earning 1 out of 4 stars):

“Some movies are polite enough to save their outtakes for the closing credits. Others wait for the DVD release. “The Love Guru” doesn’t have that kind of patience. It’s a pitiful assortment of bad ideas and gags that never work; I don’t know what else to call a movie that asks us to find Jessica Alba credible not only as the owner of the beleaguered Toronto Maple Leafs and a comedian, but as a woman attracted to a vulgar, hirsute Mike Myers. Oh, yes I do: Embarrassing.”

From A. O. Scott of the New York Times: 

“Which (the movie’s catchphrase being much less amusing than it should be) might sum up “The Love Guru” in its entirety but only at the risk of grievously understating the movie’s awfulness. A whole new vocabulary seems to be required. To say that the movie is not funny is merely to affirm the obvious. The word “unfunny” surely applies to Mr. Myers’s obnoxious attempts to find mirth in physical and cultural differences but does not quite capture the strenuous unpleasantness of his performance. No, “The Love Guru” is downright antifunny, an experience that makes you wonder if you will ever laugh again.”

The Hangover realizes that we may be committing a stasticial fallacy by taking this one example and extrapolating the “Big Hype, Bad Movie” theory of film marketing.  We’ll have to put the research department on this for further study.  Or perhaps we’ll wait and see what happens when Shrek Goes Fourth comes out.  The guess here is that Myers will have a much less demanding promotional schedule–those Shrek movies are actually funny.     

The New Yorker: Still Champion of the Short Story

1 Apr

Since its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has published some of America’s best short fiction.   That legacy continues today despite trends to the contrary.  Many of the magazines once featuring short stories have ceased to exist, such as Collier’s and Story.  Others like Esquire have lessened their commitment to the form, cutting back in fiction print pages while shifting that emphasis to their web sites.  Meanwhile, the New Yorker continues to place contemporary stories in its issues–and amazingly, as the fates of other periodicals might suggest–the magazine has not suffered. 

The New Yorker has even deepened its commitment to the form by reaching back into its history while embracing modern technology.   Through I-tunes and, the magazine offers a series of podcasts featuring some of today’s best writers reading their favorite stories from the magazine’s vast catalog of published fiction.   It is a deep and wide-ranging collection of homage.  One can find Jonathan Lethem reading James Thurber’s “The Wood Duck” and Richard Ford choosing John Cheever’s “Reunion.”  The Hangover highly recommends TC Boyle’s interpretation of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.”  (Boyle’s “Greasy Lake” and Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” are two of The Hangover’s favorite short stories.)  All are considered classics.

In addition to the story itself, New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman hosts a discussion of the piece with the selecting author.   The views expressed are always enlightening, as the selector speaks as a fan as well as a fellow writer.   Consistent with The Hangover’s “short stories, long payoff” philosophy, the podcasts usually run less than 20 minutes.  

The podcasts are available on the New Yorker web site and the I-tunes Store (go to podcasts, search for New Yorker: fiction).  The best part:  They’re free.  

Making Antonement

16 Feb

When I first read Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr’s review of the movie “Atonement” I decided I needed to read the book.  Although The Hangover likes to be entertained by his reading material, I also read as a writer and hope to learn at the same time. Burr’s description indicated the book held great promise:  

“Regret is everywhere in Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel ‘Atonement,’ like the air the characters breathe or the water they keep tumbling into. It seeps into cracks, weighs people down, turns them brittle and exhausted. It’s the stuff of life and the clay of fiction.”

That sounds like compelling reading, and I believed my fiction could only be improved by delving into Ian McEwan’s mastery of authorial control and tone.  I ordered the book, scanned the cover, and was horrified by a blurb on the back:

“McEwan could be the most psychologically astute writer working today, our era’s Jane Austen.”  –Esquire

The problem being,  I just can’t read Jane Austen.  I’ve tried.  I couldn’t do it in high school when “Pride and Prejudice” was required in a world lit class.  I couldn’t do it in college when confronted by the same book.  Maybe the archaic sensibilities of Austen’s time were partly responsible.  More likely it was the narration which seemed to have six pages of detailed thought for every one line of dialog.  I remember myself screaming at several characters:  “Oh for chrissakes, just do something, you jackass.”

The closest I’ve come to reading Austen was seeing the film, “Sense and Sensibility.”  I must confess that I only went to the movie because it was Mrs. Hangover’s turn to pick, and more to the point, at that time we were only dating.  Somehow, Emma Thompson turned what had to be characters buried in an intolerable amount of thinking into characters actually doing and saying things.  I did enjoy the movie, although I did not feel in the least compelled to go buy the book.

I term over-the-top, stuck-in-the-head style writers, Henry Jamesians.  As you might guess, he is another writer I just can’t stomach.  I’ve failed in two attempts on “Portrait of a Lady,” including one in graduate school where I promised myself I would read everything.   I think my official “Lady” total was thirty-two pages.  I hated it so much that when I rented the movie (I would not lower myself to Cliff’s Notes), I couldn’t watch more than fifteen minutes (even with Nicole Kidman, Barbara Hershey, and Mary Louise Parker filling the screen). 

The Hangover is not alone in its disdain for these two writers.   Mark Twain couldn’t stand them either:

On James: “Once you put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.”

On Austen:  “Jane Austen?  Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen.  Even if it contains no other book.”

Ian McEwan, on the other hand, is a pleasure to read.  His characters may think, but they also talk and act–quite frequently.  The pages of Atonement resonate.   Description is tactile and comes from every angle.  And as Burr notes, mood and atmosphere are masterfully alive and real.  That The Hangover highly recommends a book that was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and named Best Book of the Year by the hordes of newspapers (Washington Post, Boston Globe, etc…,.) should not come as a surprise.  That we do so when its author was compared to Jane Austen is shocking.  

I cracked the cover fearing overwritten, Jamesian introspection.  I was not disappointed to find it missing. 

The Hangover Strikes: Our Miss Brit

18 Jan

If a reader should doubt the veracity of The Hangover, consider this:  In The Rocket Misfires on January 8th, The Hangover predicted the inevitable comeback of one Britney Spears.  And so it begins.  On a tri-page type cover of the February 2008 Esquire, a 2003 in-her-first-prime Britney is sandwiched between a 1966 Angie Dickinson and that 2008 powerhouse of femininity, the Victoria Secret models.  The “Thank you, God” girls and Britney reprise Ms. Dickinson’s original shot, posing in nothing but fetching white sweaters. 

Britney must have one hell of a marketing and PR team.  As anyone who has done the family grocery shopping this week can tell you, Britney also graces the covers of The National Enquirer, People, and Star.  While the tabloids focus on her various mental health issues and poor parenting skills, Esquire sagely honors her as a cultural icon and one of the magazine’s “Women We Love.”  

It is a testament to Britney and her staff that as she is still sliding toward her “celebrity rock bottom” of despair, the comeback is already underway.  You go, girl. 

The Lion in Winter: Esquire Magazine

4 Jan

Shortly after graduating from college, I came across a short story collection titled, “Great Esquire Fiction:  The Finest Stories from the First Fifty Years.”  The table of contests listed those one would expect to find on a Glenlivet-drinking New York editor’s bookshelf:  Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike, Carver, Malamud, O’Connor, O’Brien, and thirty-one other brilliant writers.  The stories were fantastic and I started buying the magazine, mainly because of the fiction that appeared in every issue.  My current complaint isn’t that the writers published in Esquire today are bad (although I don’t think that even the famous Steven King or James Lee Burke would crack the Fab 38), it’s that the fiction offerings are so infrequent.  If there’s a short story in every other issue now, it’s a bonus. It can’t be because there aren’t any good writers out there.   

Esquire does promote their fiction on their web site.   They offer stories published in the magazine and others written for  Their current online feature is the Napkin Fiction project.  Esquire sent cocktail napkins to 250 writers to pen sip-sized stories on said napkins.  Courageously, not all the writers are known literary figures (I can’t believe they missed me), and some of the pieces do have the delicious sting and tingle of a tequila shot.  However, trying to gain appreciation for a writer on a piece of ultra-flash fiction is like picking songs on I-Tunes based on the allotted 30 second snippet.  What if the oohs and ahhs don’t come in until the chorus?   I’m sure that at least one or two of the chosen authors could have developed something worthy of bumping an article on dress shirts and pocket squares.

Which brings us to what is in Esquire these days:  clothing ads, cologne ads, luxury item ads, and self-referential, middle-aged-men-need-this-item features.  And there are plenty of fashion tips.  The former publisher of Ernest Hemingway is now an orgasm article away from becoming Cosmo-for-a-Man.  I understand how the publishing business works.  The ads pay so the content can play.  Still, I find it hard to believe that people really need to see a fashion layout with Bob Dylan impersonators wearing two thousand dollar wool coats, five hundred dollar sweaters, and seven hundred dollar boots.  The editors manage to slip in Dylan quotes among the clothes, apparently in hope of what?  Irony? 

(Richard Russo once said that he wished to remain the kind of guy who mowed his own lawn.  It is a worthy goal.  Should success strike me and I start purchasing four-figure jackets and three-figure shirts, I authorize any of my close friends to beat me about the head with a two-figure Louisville Slugger.   Yet, my subscription remains active.)

In lieu of short fiction, the highlight of the present-day Esquire is the “What I’ve Learned” series.  An Esquire writer interviews a notable person, asking them “What do you know?” and boils down the answers to a one-page list of clear and lucid declarative sentences.  There is much to be gleaned there, especially in the January 2008 issue which celebrates the tenth anniversary of the feature. 

Along with six new interviews, Esquire includes segments from the most notable of the past.  For the current issue, Eric Clapton reveals, “One of the most beneficial things I’ve ever learned is how to keep my mouth shut.”  Michael J. Fox shows insight thought impossible from someone who once portrayed Alex Keaton (Unfortunately, Fox does not address his anti-Elvisness).  The back catalog reveals wisdom from among others, Ted Williams, Muhammad Ali, Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Branson, Larry Flynt, and Julia Child.  Evil Knievel states:  “Anybody can jump a motorcycle.  The trouble begins when you try to land it.”  Simple and sharp. 

What makes the feature stand out in the current Esquire is that the writer stays the hell out of the way.  In the usual Esquire profile, a reader invariably learns that the interviewer is fat, goateed, a smoker, a drinker, awed but then un-awed, and ultimately perceived as cool by the subject.  With this tiresome perspective removed, the subject’s thoughts are actually shared with the reader.  The tenth anniversary celebration of “What I’ve Learned” makes January 2008 a very worthwhile issue.  Naturally, it is also one without a short story. 

While a fiction hyperlink is given one of five spots on the header, the genre is often ignored when the magazine comes to print.  By restoring short fiction to every issue, the editors would make it so much easier to flip through the glossy pages of tousle-haired male models.  One would think that Esquire’s heritage demands it.