“Spectacles” by Sue Perkins (2015)

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“My first memory of Dad was him approaching my cot.”

Humour isn’t the only thing I look for in a book, but everyone would rather laugh and cry, I’m sure. As such, I am automatically attracted to books about funny people. Sue Perkins is one of those. I’ve always been vaguely aware of her and her comedy life partner Mel Giedroyc, but they didn’t properly cement themselves as favourites until The Great British Bake Off, by which time everyone else had taken them into their hearts as well. I’ve always enjoyed their friendship from afar, and their easy banter, and so since one of them has a book out now, I decided to take a dip.

Spectacles is like many other autobiographies. Let’s be honest, they’re all, broadly speaking, of a type. We learn about the writer as a child, relive their school days, see them fail and deal with setbacks in their career, before being granted National Treasure status. In those respects, Perkins tells a story we all know. However, there’s something else going on here that puts it on a pedestal above others I’ve read.

There are laughs from the very beginning, where she openly admits that she’s changed a few details to “protect the innocent” and “make you like me”. Then we see the moment she tells her family she’s writing the book, and how they all worry about their appearance. Her father wants it to be known he’s tall (he isn’t), and her sister would rather not be mentioned at all. This version of events lasts three pages, before the far more interesting and messy reality sets in. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Perkins has a sublime way with words that I envy, and even when you think you can see a punchline coming, she’ll sidestep you and reveal something even funnier.

Her relationship with Mel is painted in wonderful colours, showing its natural progression. They are clearly very much in love in the way that few best friends can ever claim to be, but she still manages to find the time to explain, almost every time Mel’s name comes up, that Sue is the younger of the pair (by two years). From performing shows at Edinburgh with one person in the audience, to chasing one another around a white marquee in an attempt to lick out the bowls, they are silly, lovely and sweet. Have they ever had a cross word with one another? You wouldn’t think so reading this, and I’d be prepared to accept that it’s the truth.

She is modest, too. Almost nothing is made of her time as President of Cambridge Footlights, a topic that I’m sure would be hugely interesting. She’ll focus on how she has nearly cocked up her career several times by turning down big shows and instead hosting dross – even she can’t really bring herself to remind everyone about Don’t Scare the Hare. She gives us a tantalising glimpse into the worlds of Supersizers and Bake Off, providing a light sprinkling of celebrity anecdotes that leave us hungry for more. But, as ever, I understand that the book is about her, and frankly she’s plenty interesting enough.

Despite the comedy, she’s also very open about the struggles she’s dealt with. Her father’s ordeal with cancer, the decline and death of her beloved beagle Pickle, the breakdown of her relationships and the discovery that she had a brain tumour that had left her infertile. You don’t laugh at these pages, and they provide the balance that show life isn’t all joy. She is brutally honest about the pain these moments caused, and I just wanted to give her a hug.

Charming, honest, hilarious, brave and moving. You cannot get a better combination.

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“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

“Agatha” by Anne Martinetti (2016)

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agatha-comic“These novelists will stoop to anything for some attention!”

Of all the authors I’ve discussed on this blog over the years, there’s none I’ve talked about quite so much as Agatha Christie. As the bestselling novelist of all time, Christie is someone who, even if you’ve never read one of her books, you will be able to name at least one of them. Her life was much more than just writing murder mysteries, though. In fact, her feat of writing over eighty novels and countless plays and short stories is just about the least remarkable thing about her.

My love for Christie is unashamed and unlimited and, as you have probably noticed, today is Valentine’s Day. I’m told you’re meant to spend the day with someone you love, so I did the best I could and ventured to the small village of Cholsey in Oxfordshire to visit the grave of this incredible woman. It only seemed fitting, then, to read about her while I was there. Although I do have her autobiography on my shelf awaiting reading once I’m finished with her fiction – plus it’s a hefty tome and I need to work on my upper body strength first – I picked up this book, Agatha, last year and decided to read that for now. It’s a graphic novel that tells the story of her life; a story just as interesting and complicated as her finest novel.

The story opens with her fabled disappearance in 1926, before leaping back to explore her early life. Once caught up to her vanishing act again, it progresses forward. The story deals with all the important moments in her life, such as the death of her beloved father when she was just a child, her first husband’s affair, her time as a nurse during the First World War, her sister’s challenge to her to write a novel, her travels around dig sites in the Middle East, to the success of The Mousetrap and later receiving her DBE. It also explores things about her that are perhaps less well-known, such as the fact she was one of the first British people to surf standing up, having learnt while in Hawaii, and that she was once offered propaganda work by Graham Greene during the Second World War.

christie-graveThroughout the narrative, she is visited by her characters, Miss Marple, Ariadne Oliver, Tommy & Tuppence, and most of all, Hercule Poirot, a man she swiftly grew to hate and promised to kill off. Sometimes these characters serve to give her advice, but sometimes she longs for them to go. Her relationship with Poirot is particularly interesting, as she realises that while she doesn’t like him, he can’t exist without her and she has no fortune without him.

The book dwells a while on her disappearance, although because she never spoke about what happened, what is displayed in the book is pretty much all drawn from the imagination. One incident that really occurred around this time involved another great mystery writer – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a medium to get to the bottom of whether she was still alive or had died rather than just gone missing. Rather pompously, but very sweetly, he comments here, “the father of Sherlock Holmes could hardly abandon the mother of Hercule Poirot!”

Above all, while reading this, not only do you get a sense of what an interesting and bright woman she was, she can also be considered very modern. While there’s no getting away from the fact that some of her books, particularly the earlier ones, contain views that are very much of their time, she was a pioneer in many other respects. In 1911 she flew in one of the first aeroplanes, and later she spent so much time on archaeological digs with her second husband Max Mallowan that she became the most knowledgeable woman in Britain on the subject.

Agatha Christie was a phenomenal woman, modest and humble right up to the end. She knew her own mind and lived an extraordinary life, but I sense that she didn’t always see that. I am honoured to have her in my life in such a big way, and if there was a better way to spend Valentine’s Day this year, I don’t want to know about it. Thank you, Agatha, for everything.

“A Natural History Of Dragons” by Marie Brennan (2014)

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dragons 1“When I was seven, I found a sparkling lying dead on a bench at the edge of the woods which formed the back boundary of our garden, that the groundskeeper had not yet cleared away.”

I think everyone likes dragons. People are fascinated by dinosaurs, really, because they’re the closest thing we ever had to real dragons. There’s something remarkable about them, and given that they turn up in pretty much every ancient culture, maybe they were real once upon a time, but we’ve now relegated them to myth and legend.

Always eager to expand my knowledge in every direction, even a fictional one, I was attracted to the idea of A Natural History of Dragons, but even more than that I was attracted to the absolutely beautiful cover of this book, which, as you can see, displays an anatomical drawing of a dragon.

This is the first book of memoirs of Lady Trent, a famous dragon naturalist from a world which is greatly similar to ours, with the natural exception of different countries and so on, and obviously the inclusion of dragons. It is an era in which women are expected to keep house, talk of simple hobbies and not do anything that would stir up trouble in society; it’s an alternate Victorian era. But this is the age of discovery, and Lady Trent, or Isabella as she’s known at this point in her life, is keen not to be left behind. As a girl she studies sparklings, tiny dragon-like creatures that are believed at first to be insects, but is dissuaded by her mother from doing so, meaning she has to hide her fascination.

Her father, however, is kinder and when it comes to the time that Isabella must find a husband, he suggests a few names to her, not going on the gentlemen’s looks or riches, but on the size of the library. Isabella eventually finds a husband in Jacob Camherst, whom she meets while at the king’s menagerie with her brother one day. They have only visited because the king has some dragons in captivity, and Jacob seems quietly impressed with her knowledge.

Once married, the opportunity comes for Jacob to travel with their friend Lord Hilford to the distant mountains of Vystrana in search of dragons. Unwilling to be left out of it, Isabella insists that she come with him. Despite the men believing that this is no place for a woman, she is allowed to attend, thanks to the true love of her husband who wishes only to make her happy, regardless of what society thinks.

The troop set out to the mountains and there encounter wild dragons. But there is far more danger lurking in the caves of the mountains than Isabella and her companions ever thought possible and they soon find themselves caught up in the activities of smugglers, an unusual number of dragon attacks, and a supposed curse. The adventure is one that Isabella will remember for the rest of her life…

dragons 2Indeed, she will remember it because the book’s framework is that Isabella is now elderly and penning her complete memoirs for her interested fans. We learn via this that in the future she is widely renowned in the field, hugely successful and popular, and these are her tales of how she got to that position. She is a wonderful creation, perhaps a feminist icon, unafraid of going against the opinion of the time and determined to make her own way in the world. Why, indeed, should only men get to be scholars and adventurers?

The story is rather gripping, but if you’ve come here for a blow-by-blow account on the nature of dragons then you will be disappointed. First and foremost these are the memoirs of a spunky Victorian-esque lady adventurer, but the passages on dragons are fascinating. Isabella is obviously besotted with the creatures but her expedition is to study them, so we learn alongside her the nature of the beasts. Although similar to traditional dragons in Western mythology, there are some new additions to the mix. For example, the bones do not survive in air very long after death and crumble almost immediately. Also, not all of the dragons breathe fire, although there are some, but they all breathe something unusual;be it shards of ice, poison gas or lightning.

The book is also peppered with beautiful illustrations, presumably done by Isabella herself who is primarily on the expedition as an artist, which allow the reader to see the dragons and the locations in fine detail.

It’s hugely compelling and while some parts go a bit too deep on customs of the various countries or the political situations between them, the chapters in which Isabella is meeting dragons are hugely interesting. She is a brilliant character herself, but the supporting cast are also well-received and all seem believable within the setting, which is familiar but just different enough. If you have even a passing interest in dragons and, as I suggested above, you do, then you should curl up with this book and dream of having adventures half as interesting as this.

“H Is For Hawk” by Helen Macdonald (2014)

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hawk“Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed.”

My faith in memoir still hasn’t quite recovered from my last dalliance with it, but I fancied something based in truth rather than fiction. H is for Hawk was a book that bookshops seemed incredibly keen on advertising. Indeed, last summer you couldn’t pass a Waterstone’s without a seeing a whole window dedicated to the book, just as Go Set a Watchman is doing at the moment.

Eventually I succumbed and bought a copy and now urge you to do the same. Helen Macdonald, our narrator, has always been fascinated by raptors and from a young age was keen to become a falconer, despite it traditionally being something that is considered a bit of a “boy’s club” and definitely something linked to the aristocracy. As a child she learnt all the terms and read every book she could get her hands on, and indeed eventually her dreams came true and she started training birds.

Then, quite suddenly, her father dies. She is racked with grief, almost unable to go on, and decides that the only way to keep herself in check is to train a new bird; in this case, a goshawk, one of the most difficult species to tame. On a Scottish dock, she purchases Mabel and the two set about getting to know one another and as time goes on and their relationship develops, they start to learn from each other and the threads of wildness and domesticity begin to tangle up in new and unusual ways.

Not only is it the story of Helen and Mabel, but it’s also a back door biography of T H White, the author of Helen’s apparent birding bible, The Goshawk, but perhaps better known to most of us as the writer behind the retelling of the Arthurian legends, most notably, The Sword in the Stone. Mixing in with the genres of misery memoir, biography and falconry textbook, there is also a vast amount of nature writing, painting the British countryside in wonderfully poetic and descriptive hues.

There is something hugely compelling about the writing. Macdonald is clearly in love with the subjects she tackles and bravely holds forth on memories of such a painful time in her life. There are moments of utter joy, such as when she discovers that goshawks are capable of play, and dreadful sadness when depression sweeps over her and she is trapped in a black fug of grief.

Macdonald never seems to particularly anthropomorphise Mabel, although I’m sure the temptation is there and once or twice she inserts lines suggesting what Mabel might be thinking. However, she also never loses sight of the fact that this is a wild animal, and could easily turn against her and fly off to never return at any time. There’s a wonderful note in the text that even though humans have coexisted with birds of prey for thousands of years, we’ve never been able to domesticate them completely. They remain as unchanged and wild as they were when our ancestors first took an interest in them. They represent something otherworldly, it seems, and Macdonald frequently points out how Mabel is reptilian in many aspects of her appearance and behaviour, a reminder that this is what the dinosaurs turned into.

A captivating and engaging read about what it is to be human, to be wild, to grieve, and to love.

“Love, Nina” by Nina Stibbe (2013)

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love nina“Being a nanny is great.”

Autobiography is a risk. A celebrity can write their life story and be pretty sure that it’ll sell and people will be interested. A non-famous person, though, will never get the step up that fame provides, at least when the book is first published. It’s not to say that the non-celebrity will have a life less interesting than the celebrity, the opposite is absolutely possible and perhaps in some ways more likely, as while I like celebrity biogs, eventually they start to merge into one, sometimes becoming merely lists of plays, films or name drops.

So I started reading Love, Nina because it was the story of an unknown, a woman who had published the letters written to her sister (Vic) during the time she was nannying in London in the 1980s. It was a notable choice because she worked for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her sons Sam and Will Frears (now an actor and director, respectively). I’d love to give more of a summary of the plot, but that’s about it. Nina writes letters, we get a glimpse into 80s literary London (which should be far more interesting than she makes it) and she worries if she doesn’t get Thomas Hardy.

The front and back covers, as well as the first three pages of the book are printed with reviews containing no less than twenty-six uses of the word “funny”, “hilarious” or similar. Given that most of these are attributed to newspapers, they’re clearly not all from friends trying to big her up, but it does make me wonder if they’d been given the wrong manuscript to read. Oh sure, the observations of the children, Sam and Will, are occasionally quite amusing, but none of this is laugh out loud stuff. Stibbe has all the concerns of typical twenty-somethings of the decade, but is somewhat oblivious to the wider world.

This is most obvious when you come to learn that Alan Bennett (the Alan Bennett) is a frequent guest at the house and joins them for dinner most nights. His voice utterly fails to come through, mind, and Stibbe seems completely unimpressed by his existence. She is also nonplussed by the fact that Michael Frayn and Jonathan Miller also live in their street, meaning that the book is literary London through the eyes of someone who doesn’t understand the significance of what she’s seeing.

It’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on as well, given that very rarely are any dates given. The odd letter here and there has a year on it, sometimes a month, but Stibbe herself admits that some of them may well be out of order, and it’s disconcerting to realise that you’ve suddenly skipped six months ahead. What happened in that time? The letters are one-sided (we never see Vic’s response), so we have to interpret cryptic replies to unseen questions ourselves and are left wondering what’s going on. Because of the style, too, there is no real beginning or end. We don’t find out how Stibbe came to be working there, and the letters stop just as abruptly as they start. If you’re looking for something with a plot, don’t bother looking here. I get that real life pretty much doesn’t have a plot, but it feels like something should’ve been constructed.

All in all, for the comments of the kids (both of whom seem far older than the ages given to them), it might be worth taking a look at, but it doesn’t deserve double-digit declarations of hilarity. This is the book they’re talking about when they tell you not to judge them by their covers.

“Only When I Laugh” by Paul Merton (2014)

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only when“I used to enjoy sitting inside my parents’ wardrobe.”

Comedy has always been a pretty big part of my life. Not in the sense that I want to be a comedian (you have to be funny for that, and I’m not), but in the sense that I love comedy of all kinds, be it highbrow, slapstick or satirical. Therefore, reading about the lives of comedians is something that interests me but, if you’ve been sticking around this blog for a while, you’ll know that that doesn’t always go to plan. Julie Walters wrote an excellent autobiography. So did Dawn French. Simon Pegg, not so much. It was therefore with more than a little trepidation that I approached Paul Merton’s memoirs. I really like Paul’s style, and I wanted to really like the book. I hoped it was a good one.

It begins, as these things are wont to do, with his childhood, growing up with his parents, grandfather, and younger sister in south London. He was a shy child but upon going to the circus one day and discovering the clowns, he knew that all he wanted to do was get on the stage and make people laugh.

The book slides through his school days (genuinely quite hilarious) and then into him stepping naively into the real world and living in a small bedsit, determined to get onto stage or screen but not knowing how. He and his friend John write endless sketches and scripts, but his chance finally comes when a comedy club, The Comedy Store, opens in London. He arranges to do a five minute set for them, and his policeman on acid sketch goes down a treat. Soon he’s performing all the time, then heading to Edinburgh to perform in the festival, and before long television comes calling and he finds himself on camera as he goes from success to success with his own sketch show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and, of course, Have I Got News For You.

But it’s not all happy and ha-ha, as Merton discusses his time spent in a psychiatric hospital with refreshing honesty. They are some of the best chapters, as we see him struggling to come to terms with who he is and what has happened to him. He may not dwell on events (at one point, he thought he was being hunted down by the Freemasons), he doesn’t gloss over them either. They are a block of tragedy in an otherwise comedic life.

Merton deals with all three of his marriages here, and there’s not a bad word to be said about his first to Caroline Quentin, the only one that ended in divorce. (His second wife died, and he’s still married to the third.) He seems to be a genuinely sweet man, and despite making a living making people laugh, he appears to be rather shy. There are some odd nuggets to be discovered about him in here too that I would never have guessed, including the fact that he hand writes all his material and has never learnt to type, and also doesn’t own a mobile phone.

Unlike many of these memoirs, his early life was not littered with meetings of the great and good, although they do come later. He meets a bunch of well-known comedians at The Comedy Store, and later has run-ins with such greats as Peter Cook and Eric Idle. He has been close friends with Julian Clary for a long time, something I never knew, but otherwise his life seems remarkably un-celebrity-like.

Best of all, because I am a nosy bastard for wanting to know what’s going on in the world of show business, he spends a good portion of time talking about Have I Got News For You, giving some detail on Angus’s departure, and also talking about some of the best and worst guests they’ve had on the show, even going so far as to note the worst presenter they’ve ever had. (It’s one I have to agree with, actually – the episode was appalling.) It also comes across that he and Ian Hislop do genuinely like one another, which is a blessed relief.

Merton writes with charm and warmth, although unusually for an autobiography, I never once heard his voice telling me the story. I think that might be because we never seem to hear him speak at length anywhere. That’s not a complaint either. He’s clearly a man who likes to perform, but also likes his private life. He says at one point that he never likes to do things that involve him being a celebrity to be gawked at, and I think that’s a very good line to take.

Merton has produced a hugely interesting autobiography and his highs and lows should be of interest to anyone who he’s ever made laugh – and surely that’s everyone?

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