“Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson (2015)

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“No, no. I insist you stop right now.”

I’m not going to pretend I’m qualified to talk on the subject of mental health. I’ve never had therapy or been diagnosed with anything, although if I was going to be I’m pretty sure anxiety tops the list, followed by narcissism, although I’m not sure if that’s actually a mental illness or just me failing to yet realise that I’m not the centre of the universe. Many people I know and love, however, make it through their days dealing with all manner of things that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

I read Jenny Lawson’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened ages ago – so long in fact that I thought it was even prior to the existence of this blog, but no, actually, it’s there in the first year. Five years later, here’s the sequel. I was introduced to her work by my sister, and I bought her this second collection for her birthday last year. In it, Lawson continues her exploration of her struggles with her mental health. She has anxiety, depression, insomnia, agoraphobia, and a whole bunch more, but she seems to be someone who, for the most part, truly enjoys life.

The book’s title comes from her decision to be “done with sadness” and instead be so vehemently happy that it freaked out the people who didn’t think she should be. It became a movement on Twitter and her blog. The book itself is then a collection of essays, stories and recorded conversations that detail both her, quite frankly, insane life, and her deepest struggles with her own mind. Among other things, she goes to Australia to meet koalas while dressed as one, gets anonymously sent a box of cat skins, undergoes marriage therapy with her eternally-patient husband Victor, loses all feeling in both her arms, recalls her father’s lessons in catching catfish, tries to achieve a “better face”, has gallbladder surgery, and shares her thoughts on how air travel can be vastly improved with the use of occasional blunt weaponry.

But in among the madness, there are some deeply moving and honest chapters. She describes how it feels to have depression, how anxiety can overcome her in hotel rooms while she’s travelling, promoting her first book. She talks honestly and brutally about how she feels like a failure and a fraud, how, despite her apparent attitude for lust for life, she’s often struggling to stay afloat. It’s a remarkable piece of work, as hilarious as it is heartwarming. You can’t help but love her, nor indeed her husband who, despite being her regular sparring partner, loves her wholeheartedly and would do anything for her, except leave his office door unlocked when he’s in a conference call.

The style is breezy, and Lawson has a habit of wandering off on bizarre tangents, misunderstanding situations, getting herself into those odd situations in the first place, and trying to cope with the long silences her therapist leaves. You’ll also learn perhaps a little more about both taxidermy and possums than you ever thought you wanted, but you won’t care. It’s a journey and while it might not have any seat belts and be entirely off road, you’re going to have the ride of your life.

It’s a wonderful book, and a call to arms in some ways. We should all try to be furiously happy – go big, or go home.


“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.

“The Year Of Reading Dangerously” by Andy Miller (2014)


reading danger“My life is nothing special. It is every bit as dreary as yours.”

Few of us, I suspect, have ever read as many of the classics as we feel we should have done. Maybe we even tell people that we have read them and then hope they don’t ask any difficult questions about theme or character development. I, for one, know that I have not read many of the classics, and I’ve properly enjoyed even less. Thus, while there’s a nagging feeling deep in my brain that tells me I should read Jane Austen at least once (but with the Pride & Prejudice & Zombies film out next month, I’m resigning myself to just watching that instead and letting it count), I don’t feel particularly strongly about having not read Moby-Dick or Middlemarch.

In this book, Andy Miller, editor and journalist, has started feeling guilty about all the books he claims to have read but hasn’t. He writes up a List of Betterment, originally containing twelve – and then later, fifty – books that he should read before he’s forty. Part of this is inspired by his desire to seemingly be a better person, and part of it comes from the fact that the only book he’s read in the last three years was The Da Vinci Code. That says enough.

He embarks on his journey, starting with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, and soon rediscovers his joy of reading. He is led on a journey though some of literature’s best and worst, all the while discovering what it is about books and reading that humanity loves so much.

As a tale, it’s a bit disjointed in places. While he does read fifty(-ish) books, only some of them get a focus and there are huge sections of the list that get entirely missed out, including, unfortunately, the few on this list that I’d read (Jane Eyre, Lord of the Flies, The Dice Man, etc). The first thirteen, which includes Pride and Prejudice and Moby-Dick, but also The Sea, The Sea and The Unnamable – two I’d never even heard of – are discussed in some detail, but then he seems to look at his watch, decide that time is getting on, and so he hurries through the rest. The epilogue, oddly, is all about his love for Douglas Adams and recalls the few times they met. While I have no qualms about this – Douglas Adams is one of the finest writers who ever lived – it seems a little jarring as he hasn’t put any Adams on this list, and it doesn’t seem to have much relevance to what came before.

There’s also quite a lot of political commentary to start off with. Miller is clearly on the left – one of his first books is The Communist Manifesto – and at times it feels like he’s trying to recall his youth and make a political point about … well, something. But there’s also a lot of talk about the importance of libraries and bookshops, about how booksellers should be passionate about selling books rather than just books themselves, the perils of being in a book club, and also the difference that exists between a love of reading and a love of books. It’s funny, his comments about Dan Brown and his novels are particularly excellent, and Miller often writes with a flippancy or dry humour that is charming. He’s a nice man, I’m sure of that.

Like I said about, it’s a shame that he misses out the few I knew well, but it’s very much a personal list. I think that might make it harder to appeal to a wider audience. He doesn’t at any point, though, declare that this is the list that everyone should read, and acknowledges that some people don’t like reading (although it’s not something he – nor I – can understand). Anyone else is bound to disagree with his list of books, but then again it’s specifically ones that he has said he’s read but he hasn’t. He also only adds them to the list if he wants to read them, which makes more sense to me than people continually listing Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake on these sorts of things and snobbishly insisting that everyone must read them.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m not at least a bit of a literary snob. My dislike of Dan Brown, E L James and Stephanie Meyer are documented elsewhere, but at the end of the day I accept that we all have different tastes. I won’t read them in the same way I won’t read Tolstoy – I’m simply not interested. If anything, it’s a book that celebrates our differences, and that’s something I can’t stand against.

An interesting concept and experiment, but not one I’m in a hurry to replicate. I’ve got enough to read as it is.

“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.

“Love, Nina” by Nina Stibbe (2013)


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?

“So, Anyway…” by John Cleese (2014)

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cleese“I made my first public appearance on the stairs up to the school nurse’s room, at St Peter’s Preparatory School, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England, on 13 September 1948.”

I have a pretty broad taste when it comes to comedy, enjoying in equal measure the utter surrealism of The Goon Show, the smart, political wit of Yes, Minister, and the observational humour of Peter Kay. (Although not all comedy tickles my fancy – I still don’t understand the popularity of The Mighty Boosh.) Much of this comes from my dad, I think. He was the right age in the sixties and seventies to enjoy all the best sitcoms and as such, pass them down to me, imbuing within me a love as strong as his own for things like Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Blackadder, and The Two Ronnies. (Again, there are gaps in this knowledge – I never understood what he saw in Bottom, and neither of us ever felt much affection for Only Fools and Horses.) Two shows, however, are definite stand out favourites: Fawlty Towers and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

John Cleese is, of course, one of the driving forces behind both of these behemoths of the comedy landscape and upon news of him releasing his memoirs, I excitedly picked them up and readied myself to dive into his life story.

Born in Weston-super-Mare in 1939, Cleese lived a charmed but somewhat sheltered childhood in the West Country, with a father who adored him and a mother who was always slightly distant. The first half of the book details his education, including his brief stint as a teacher and his time at Cambridge. The second half focuses on his sidestep into show business – he had studied law and criminology at university – and he writes with great humour about a life that seems to have had its hardships, but mostly has been fun, exciting and graced with luck.

It’s a good read, and it’s definitely funny, showing why he is one of the best comedy writers of his generation (if not all time), peppered throughout with sketches and details about his time working with some of the other biggest names in comedy at the time. Aside from the other Pythons, he also worked with Ronnies Barker and Corbett, David Frost, Nicholas Smith, all three of the Goodies, Peter Sellers, and many more. He hasn’t much bad to say about any of them, meaning his few fleeting negative comments about Bill Oddie and Terry Jones stand out like a Norwegian Blue in a white snowscape. The passages about his best friend and former writing partner Graham Chapman are particularly heartening.

I have come away from the book with the feeling that he is overall a very nice man who finds it hard to say no, understands that he is funny, has a great thirst for knowledge – something I particularly admire – and a firm work ethic. He dislikes few people, is self-deprecating but never overly so, and is generally awkwardly British. However, I also came away somewhat disappointed.

Like many people reading this, I mostly went into it to find out more about the workings of his greatest legacies. However, in a book that is 404 pages long, the Monty Python team doesn’t form until page 383. Fawlty Towers is mentioned only a few times and none of his marriages (save to that of Connie Booth) are discussed. It isn’t a bad biography – it’s very enjoyable and interesting, as is the man himself – but it cuts off just at the part we’re all probably gagging to hear about. Maybe this is the point – maybe we’ve all heard so much about his hits that he doesn’t want to retread old ground. I can understand that.

Or are we, then, to expect a sequel, whereby he deals with the events with the Pythons and the creation of Basil Fawlty? One hopes so, but the book ends with a brief discussion of the 2014 revival show, suggesting that there won’t be. It would be a great shame as, while I know people will lap up this book, they would probably love that even more.

So please don’t take this as a bad review. It’s really well written, and Cleese’s humour and sense of fun pervades throughout. I just found myself left hanging.

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