(updated 6/13/01)

The Express (6/12/01)

Nick Hornby has set up a deal with Channel Four to make movies out of stories he wrote for an anthology he edited called Speaking With The Angels. His agent Jenny Casarotto told The Express "the idea is to turn seven or eight of the stories into separate films, although the project is at a very early stage of development." Nick Hornby's first two novels Fever Pitch and High Fidelity have both been made into movies and his new novel How To Be Good has just came out in hardback.

The Daily Telegraph, by Nigel Reynolds (12/9/00)

If you want to speak to the Angel, head to Soho
There will be only one place the Notting Hill classes will be heading in the spring: to the little Soho Theatre.

The fashionable literary success of the moment is a new book called Speaking to the Angel, a Penguin volume of a dozen short stories by a coterie of stars that includes Zadie Smith, Colin Firth, Irvine Welsh, Robert Harris, Helen Fielding, Roddy Doyle and Patrick Marber, all friends of Nick "Fever Pitch" Hornby, who also wrote one of the stories and who put the project together.

The book has been out less than a month but the temperature is rising. Channel 4 is expected to sign a deal shortly to expand some of the stories—they are monologues really—into television films.

A host of actors, comedians and directors want to climb aboard and the result is likely to be a hybrid of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads and that incestuous little film Peter's Friends in which Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Ken Branagh and Hugh Laurie relived their undergraduate days.

First, though, will be the Soho Theatre, which will stage several of the monologues in March and April.

They will be performed by different stars on different nights. Marber, author of "Dealer's Choice" and "Closer," two of the sharpest plays of the last decade, wants to direct one himself.

"These are some of the best authors in Britain and the United States, writing at the top of their form. I think it's a great idea to perform the stories live and on film—they are monologues after all," says Hornby.

Speaking to the Angel is a rather remarkable project altogether. Hornby made his friends write to raise money for TreeHouse, a London school for severely autistic children. Hornby, 43, has a seven-year-old son, Danny, at the school and pounds 1 from every book sold goes towards expanding the school. Profits from the new spin-offs will help further. Hornby is so well connected that he persuaded Teenage Fanclub, one of his favourite bands, to cancel a gig in Norway to help publicise the book at Hammersmith Palais the other day.

Connections made the book possible, too. Thriller writer Robert Harris, for example, is his brother-in-law, Colin Firth played the lead in the film version of Hornby's Fever Pitch, while another monologue-ist, John O'Farrell, the novelist, television scriptwriter and satirist, is an old school friend.

The monologues are eclectic. Firth, Marber and, oddly, Zadie Smith, have all written about male adolescence; Irvine Welsh's piece is about a violent hater of homosexuals condemned to rape his male friends in the afterlife; Roddy Doyle writes on midlife crisis; and Hornby's piece, "Nipple Jesus," is a parable about a security man guarding a piece of dodgy modern art.

"Nipple" Jesus has already been performed on stage, by The Full Monty star Mark Addy at the Hammersmith launch. Harris's monologue was read by Griff Rhys-Jones. Addy is likely to be involved in either the television or stage adaptations.

New York Times, "Bits and Pieces From Writers With Buzz,"by Michiko Kakutani (2/6/01)
The narrators in "Speaking With the Angel," an eclectic anthology of short stories, are a varied lot to say the least: they include a British prime minister hiding from his own security guards, a pit bull speaking from beyond the grave, an aging courtesan who's fallen in her bathroom and can't get up, a teenager having sex for the first time and a failed mime artist.

Nick Hornby, the author of the delightful novel "High Fidelity," conceived this anthology as a benefit for autistic children, and he invited some of the most talked-about new voices in fiction to contribute first- person narratives. His contributors include Dave Eggers ("A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"), Zadie Smith ("White Teeth"), Roddy Doyle ("Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha"), Helen Fielding ("Bridget Jones's Diary") and Melissa Bank ("The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing"). Though the stories vary enormously in quality, they provide the reader unfamiliar with these writers with a tasting menu of their work, and longtime fans with some new morsels of fiction to debate.

Dave Eggers's entry, "After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned," which recounts the short, happy life of a pit bull, is a small tour de force that ratifies his ability to write about anything with style and vigor and genuine emotion. He not only uses his feeling for the sound and speed of words to concoct a convincing voice for his canine narrator, but also manages to convey persuasively what it might feel like to be a dog who evinces an unaccommodated delight in the sheer physicality of existence, a wry skepticism when it comes to the peculiarities of human beings and a quizzical appreciation of the strange vicissitudes of daily life.

While Zadie Smith's contribution, "I'm the Only One," similarly showcases her gift for creating funny, engaging characters, it feels less like a full-fledged story than like a snippet from a novel or longer work of fiction. The piece, told in the voice of a querulous teenage boy, gives us some antic glimpses into his contentious relationship with his brilliant and cosseted sister but demonstrates little of the ambition and reach that distinguished her dazzling first novel, "White Teeth."

Two other stories in "Speaking With the Angel" are also told from the point of view of an adolescent or child. Patrick Marber's "Peter Shelley"—which reads like a comic prelude to the sexual roundelay depicted in his Broadway play, "Closer"—is a sad-funny-depressing account of two teenagers' loss of their virginity. And Colin Firth's "Department of Nothing" touchingly depicts a young boy's efforts to escape the depressing realities of his everyday life by immersing himself in the make-believe world of his ailing grandmother's stories.

Bookended with these coming-of- age tales are four stories about midlife crises. "PMQ" by Robert Harris, the author of the best seller "Fatherland," is a humorous little tale that works a satirical variation on the Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck movie "Roman Holiday," recounting the adventures of a British prime minister (not a princess, as in the film), who goes AWOL from his job. And "The Slave" by Roddy Doyle is a masterly monologue that uses the author's pitch-perfect ear for how people talk to limn a man's sudden apprehension of vulnerability and loss—all brought on by his discovery of a dead rat on his kitchen floor.

Mr. Hornby's "NippleJesus" traces a security guard's new appreciation for the politics of aesthetics, galvanized by his latest assignment, guarding a controversial painting from vandals, while "Walking Into the Wind" by John O'Farrell looks at an aging mime artist's efforts to stay true to his profession, even as his friends all start climbing the corporate ladder.

The trouble with "Walking Into the Wind" is that it radiates a sour disdain for its hero, who is made out to be a vain, boastful fellow, self-deluding and self-righteous in the extreme. This narrator is too easy to dislike, and as a result the plot twists seem less like plausible developments than simple payback for his sins. A similar problem afflicts Helen Fielding's "Luckybitch" and Irvine Welsh's "Catholic Guilt (You Know You Love It"), two flimsy fictions that feature a rich floozy and a homophobic barfly, characters for whom the authors, and consequently the reader, feel nothing but facile contempt.

Newsday, by John Freeman (1/31/01)
Some people read fiction to exorcise their demons, while others discover their guardian angels there. In "Speaking With the Angel," English novelist Nick Hornby rounds up 12 of today's most entertaining and provocative young writers to enlighten us with stories about salvation. Delivered entirely in the first person, these pieces imagine their way into all walks of life, from the British prime minister to a security guard for an art museum. Talented and energetic, Hornby's cast plumbs the depths of depravity—and loquacity—to illuminate why they are so inspired, why they feel saved.

The narrators of "Speaking With the Angel" seek redemption in objects, people and activities as diverse as their backgrounds. The acne-ridden teenager of Zadie Smith's slight but funny tale, "I'm the Only One," relieves his feelings of weirdness by befriending a 6-foot-9 14-year-old. "I kept looking at him and feeling this strange sense of pride, as if the fact that he was so tall was something to do with me." Ultimately, the friend's lean frame forms a bridge between this lonely boy and his reclusive, snobby sister.

In "The Slave," Roddy Doyle's 42-year-old protagonist probes the soft belly of middle age, declaring how techno music brought him out of a midlife funk and closer to his family. "Me dancing to a thing called Afro Left, sweating like a bastard, that was an announcement. I'm grand."

While some of these tales leave us with a warm glow, others end on darker, more plaintive, notes. In Giles Smith's virtuoso piece, "Last Requests," a widow who cooks last meals for Death Row inmates relates the oddity of her culinary exploits. As the story pro gresses, she reveals her pride in her work: Through salt, meat and spices, she plants a parting kiss on each doomed soul. Yet, as the story closes, it's clear that most prisoners, by the moment they lift forks to mouths, have already given up. Hers is a salvation offered too late.

Nick Hornby's edgy bouncer makes a similar mistake in "NippleJesus." After accepting a job as a museum guard, the man falls in love with a painting of Jesus, comprised in the dot-matrix style of Chuck Close, with thousands of little pictures of nipples. Defending the painting from religious zealots, he becomes one himself, blinded by his intolerance of other opinions.

It was smart of Hornby to enlist this particular group of writers. All this talk of angels and salvation can get a little heavy. Yet, thanks to their pitch-perfect voices and their razor-sharp wits, many of these stories are hilarious. While Dave Eggers' "After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned" is as sloppy as a dog's tongue, the pit bull narrator compensates with heartfelt humor.

Colin Firth's ventriloquism in "The Department of Nothing" is no less deft, as he brings to life the petty superstitions of an elementary school student. This boy explains why his brother is suspiciously immature: "He just stopped playing with Pokmon cards and you can't get much pantser than that, and weirdest of all, I found two Barbie dolls in with his action men and I think he might be doing pervy things to them." Finally, anyone who's ever faced off with a dead rodent in their abode will be in tears from the opening moments of Roddy Doyle's story. 

Peppered with such laugh-aloud moments, "Speaking With the Angel" acquires the hypnotic effect of a really good monologue. All of these writers share the gift for gab, especially Helen Fielding, who animates an aging grandmother deluded about her sexual prowess with an accuracy that's both incisive and devastatingly funny. In "The Wonder Spot," Melissa Bank gives a hip, ironic voice to an insecure woman nearing 40. Thanks to stories like this, it's hard, then, not to read this book in one sitting.

Although the anthology boasts some of the hottest names in contemporary literature, from Eggers to Fielding to Irvine Welsh, the virtual unknowns deliver its most memorable tales. Robert Harris, in "PMQ," shows how documentation uproariously ensnares a prime minister on the lam. And in "Peter Shelley," Patrick Marber scripts one of the most poignant teenage courtships in recent memory. Awkward, anxious, hurried and finally playful, Marber's characters explore their bodies in a way unpolluted by our watching. In the end, Marber reminds us how, when we were young and in love, these first gropings made us feel like we could devour the world.

Cobbling together a collection from such leading writers is no small feat, but prompting them to move past the irony that has pervaded their previous work is perhaps a greater accomplishment. This tonal shift may stem from the fact that Hornby, whose son is autistic, will donate some of the proceeds to benefit children with autism. Kinetic, witty and, most important, soulful in unexpected ways, these stories help us transcend the mundane and look toward the heavens, smiling.

The Independent, by Lisa Allardice (12/10/00)
Novelist Nick Hornby has inspired a starry line-up of writers to raise money for a special needs school which his son attends. The result is delightfully unangelic. Robert Harris's revenge story tells of a prime minister who goes AWOL with a teenage girl; Helen Fielding's "Luckybitch" is a witty reversal of mother-daughter roles; and a homophobic ghost gets his comeuppance in Irvine Welsh's modern-day morality tale. Some of the sexiest young names on both sides of the Atlantic—Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers and Melissa Bank—also make an appearance. Although he shouldn't give up his day job, the dashing Colin Firth has contributed a touching tale about a boy and his grandmother, while Hornby's "NippleJesus", narrated by a bouncer-cum-art-critic, is one of the best in this luminary collection.

The Daily Telegraph, by Melissa Denes (12/02/00)
When Nick Hornby begins his introduction to this collection of short stories for charity by saying that he was inspired by the good example of Bono, the heart sinks. The last thing one wants from Nick Hornby and the other writers assembled here (including Helen Fielding, Zadie Smith, Melissa Bank) is a lecture.

Bono's efforts have been on the global scale, but Hornby's are more local: for every copy of Speaking with the Angel sold, he explains, pounds 1 will go to TreeHouse, a London trust for severely autistic children, of whom his son Danny is one.

Fortunately, Hornby has charm, and he says his piece—a short, moving essay about the "mixture of exhaustion and depression and panic" felt by the parents of autistic children—without seeming to do so. And though he claims to lack the influence of an international rock star, he is perhaps uniquely well-connected in British literary circles—among the writers included here are Hornby's brother-in-law (Robert Harris), an old school friend (John O'Farrell) and the actor who played Hornby in Fever Pitch (Colin Firth). The collection, which consists of 12 monologues, has no organising theme but is characterised by a lightness of touch. Giles Smith's "Last Requests" is a gently funny meditation on mortality and mince from a Death Row dinner lady: "Thai-style dipping sauce: that was an odd one. I think he was mucking me about, to be honest. In the end I sent out the Thousand Island."

Helen Fielding's "Luckybitch" is good, too—a fighting monologue from "the former Grace Kelly of Hampshire", now reduced to hitting the panic button from the bathroom floor of her nursing home. In her youth, Lucky made love to Matisse, Sinatra, Hemingway; now she decries the way her daughter is tormenting her boyfriend with all her talk of commitment. "What's the point of marching the poor boy round Sainsbury's in a filthy mood when you could be sliding your toe up his thigh in the Caprice?"

Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle stick to familiar terrain, the male midlife crisis. Colin Firth, Patrick Marber and Zadie Smith all write about male adolescence, with varying degrees of success. Firth's "The Department of Nothing" strikes just the right note of boyish swagger (the narrator's parents are forever "going postal" and "mental"; his older brother is, like, "blatantly pants"). Patrick Marber's "Peter Shelley" is a sweet and authentically visceral tale about first love and first sex. Zadie Smith's account of a meeting between a boy's best friend and his older sister is disappointing.

In this breezy, good-humoured whole there are only two misfits—Dave Eggers's dark and rather brilliant "After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned" and Irvine Welsh's singularly nasty "Catholic Guilt". Eggers's story is about the life and death of a very fast dog—"I go and go and go my name is Steven." Welsh's story about a violent hater of homosexuals condemned to rape his male friends in the afterlife is notable only for its lack of imagination. Presumably Welsh wants to make some point about the nastiness of this prejudice, but in doing so he gives us far more about the nastiness of homosexuals. No doubt Hornby could have found a better writer in his little black book, but few so bankable—and in this case it's the profits that count.

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