“Animal” by Sara Pascoe (2016)

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animal“Writing a book is an arrogant thing to do.”

I really like Sara Pascoe. She’s a newer face on the panel shows and comedy programmes of our televisions, and I fell a little bit in love with her when she first appeared on QI and knew lots of stuff about London and pandas. She’s the kind of woman I’d love to tell, “Hey, I really like you. You’re so beautiful…” but before I could finish, she’d throw her drink in my face and yell, “What about my brain??” I’d splutter through the G&T or whatever she drinks before saying, “I haven’t finished! You’re beautiful, intelligent, funny and generally awesome.” And then I’d still feel guilty as I do right now about the fact I started with “beautiful”, and feel that maybe I worded the compliment badly. But it was a compliment – I’ve always been very attracted to women’s brains. A smart woman is a sexy woman, although I’m obviously aware that a woman is not an object to be looked at, and I don’t expect anything to come from the compliment, I’m just trying to be nice, I … I’m digging myself into a hole here, aren’t I? Look, I just like paying people compliments, I’m just a bit cack-handed at it.

(Sara, should you read this and I did it wrong, I sincerely apologise. Can we forget this ever happened and move on?)

A couple of my female friends have been reading Animal and they went on to me about how amazing it was. Finding myself with that free trial of Audible that everyone who listens to podcasts gets bombarded with a few times a week, and going on the suggestion of a friend that it’s even better when read aloud, I downloaded the book and it has become the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to. Sara has a wonderful voice, full of real warmth, like she’s talking to you down the pub. You and her, the writer and the reader, are mates, and she’s going to tell you what she’s learnt about the female mind and body.

Split into three sections – Love, Body and Consent – the book is part-memoir, interspersed with stories from her own life (some hilarious, some tragic) and part science book, talking about what it is to be a woman both now and throughout history. She covers every possible aspect of this, including but certainly not limited to whether humans are naturally monogamous or not, how menstruation is viewed and treated around the world, what the “right” age is for consent, how we define rape, why men feel sleepy after sex and women don’t, female genital mutilation, the politics of abortion, why women evolved breasts, the female orgasm, and why humans are one of only three species on the planet (aside from killer whales and pilot whales) to undergo a menopause.

I wondered, as a man, how relevant the book would be to me, but it turns out your gender doesn’t matter in the slightest. It is eye-opening, incredibly interesting, sharply funny, and while perhaps in another person’s hands the ideas could come across as lecturing or dull, Sara weaves genius throughout it. She’s naturally funny, and very frank and open about her own problems, concerns and issues.

It’s also given me a really interesting new discussion topic for others around me. Not strangers on the bus; I’m not confident enough to strike up loud “Did you know?” conversations about tampons with them (yet) but with friends and colleagues. Most of my friends are female, as indeed are most of the people I work with, and this book has granted me access to things I, shamefacedly, even as a sexually active man in his late twenties, still didn’t really understand. One of the most curious facts I found out was about how long a menstrual cycle could last. I’d always been under the assumption it was 28 days – about a month – and had never really considered that it varied that much between women. I don’t know why. I don’t think about it much, I guess. After finding out the truth, I asked the girls at work if they knew. They all said 28 days. I revealed that, actually, it could be anywhere between 20 and 60 days. None of them knew this, and one of these girls is at university studying to be a surgeon. Even if this fact had somehow slipped through the net of secondary school sex ed, then that’s one thing, but is medical school not even drawing attention to this?

And, yeah, while we’re at it, why are the boys sent out of the room when girls learn about menstruation at school? If you take the argument that it might be uncomfortable or embarrassing for pre-teen girls to ask questions in a room full of boys, then that’s fine and I totally understand it, but the boys should be taught this stuff too, separately. We might not have the equipment, but we should know how it works. It might remove some of society’s stigma about the whole thing. Boys should probably also get a brush up on consent, as barely a week goes by without some boy somewhere dodging a jail sentence because he’s convinced a jury that consent was granted. We need to update both our sex education and our rape laws. But Sara will explain all this much more eloquently than I ever could.

I believe firmly that everyone, regardless of whether you’re male, female or somewhere in between, should read this book. It’s fascinating, funny and might even save your life.

Podcasts: Part Three

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OK, so according to the views of this blog, people like reading about podcasts. Here are four more of my favourite podcasts and why I think you should get hold of them if you haven’t already. For more, see parts one and two.

podcast 9Podcast: The Message
Number of Episodes: 8

This is a really short one, but it’s completely worth it. It’s a story that follows Nicky Tomalin, a podcaster who is following a team of cryptographers as they try to decode The Message, a noise that arrived on Earth from somewhere far out in space in the 1940s. But as she and the team look into the history of the sound, which definitely seems to have extraterrestrial origins, it becomes clear that something is very wrong with it. Bad luck and worse follows those who’ve listened to the noise, and it isn’t long before disaster strikes closer to home…

I’m not going to say anything else about the plot because you need to listen to it to get the full impact, but it’s a punchy, well-performed piece of work and intensely creepy. Although there are only a handful of episodes, and each of those is only around fifteen minutes long, it’s enough to get across a story that grips you from the start and has you terrified by the end. It’s hard to say much else – this is just one of those one’s where you’re going to just do it, as my words can’t do it justice.

podcast 10Podcast: Desert Island Discs
Number of Episodes: 1000s
Release: Every Sunday

If you’ve never heard of Desert Island Discs then I worry for your sanity. It’s a radio show where every week (for the last sixty years) a celebrity guest is interviewed by a charming, affable host, currently the sultry-voiced Kirsty Young. The interview is built around a simple question; “If you had to be sent to a desert island, what 8 records would you take with you?” Then, a longform interview takes place about the interviewee’s life and career, interspersed with the eight songs that mean the most to them. At the end, each castaway can also choose one book to take (they all get the Bible and the works of Shakespeare automatically) and one single other luxury to make things more bearable for them, as long as it isn’t too useful (i.e. no speedboats).

Most episodes have now been converted to podcast form. All the ones of the last few years are there, and then there’s a selection of others dating right back to the forties. Guests range from musicians and actors, politicians and ambassadors, scientists and explorers, astronauts and soldiers. There’s nowhere easy to suggest you start from, so your best bet is to find some names you’ve heard of and download those. I’ve found that even with people I’ve only vaguely heard of, I find the episode hugely fascinating. Kirsty Young is a wonderful host and can get some really interesting stories out of her castaways, providing an interview that is often funny, tragic and fascinating all at the same time.

It’s also always quite interesting to see what luxury people pick at the end. Recently, Tom Hanks has gone for a typewriter and paper, Berry Gordy took a cellar of wine, Chris Hadfield opted for his guitar, and Kylie Minogue went for a family photo album. One of my favourite luxuries ever belonged to John Cleese who wanted to take Michael Palin. Since other people are forbidden, he was given the option, “You can have him as long as he’s been stuffed.” Cleese accepted.

podcast 11Podcast: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
Number of Episodes: 7
Release: Every Saturday

OK, so I admit that suggesting a podcast when it’s not even got ten episodes up is perhaps jumping the gun, but I’ve never fallen for a podcast so quickly. Part of me wishes I hadn’t discovered it so early so that I could have a good binge, but at the same time I’m pleased to be able to one of the people who can count themselves as a fan from the beginning.

The concept of this podcast is simple. Hosts Vanessa and Casper, a Harvard chaplain and minister respectively, are reading the Harry Potter books chapter by chapter as if they were a sacred religious text on par with the Bible and its ilk. I’ll stress that they’re not declaring Dumbledore’s dialogue the word of God or anything, they’re just examining the text through themes and seeing what it can tell us about our own lives. Each half-hour episode features one chapter and explores a theme. For example, “The Boy Who Lived” is looked at through commitment; “Diagon Alley” explores the idea of being a stranger. Each episode delves into examples from the text, followed by more intensive readings of certain passages, and then ends with a blessing for two of the characters in the chapter.

It’s really beautifully done. I’m not religious in the least, but these books do hold a real magic for me, and for millions of others, so it’s interesting to see them studied in a slightly different way. Perhaps one day, hundreds of years from now, future humans will find this podcast after the apocalypse and a new religion will begin. We can only imagine.

podcast 12Podcast: Talking Simpsons
Number of Episodes: 50
Release: Every Wednesday

By now surely everyone in the Western world has seen at least one episode of The Simpsons. Since December 1989 the show has had people hooked and it’s still enjoyed across the planet. But perhaps the biggest fans of all are the guys on this podcast. They’re responsible for several other podcasts in which they found they made a lot of Simpsons jokes and references, so started a new podcast where they could talk about nothing else.

Each episode of the podcast zones in on one episode of the series, and at time of writing they’re midway through season three, so there’s hundreds more to go. Each episode contains a rundown on what was happening in the world the day the episode was released (just to hammer home to point that this show has been running for a looooong time), anecdotes regarding both the series and the presenters, information from the writers and creators, explanations of jokes that went over our heads the first time round, audio clips from the episodes themselves, and a lot of really nerdy issues with continuity and character appearances.

Episodes run between thirty and fifty minutes, generally getting longer it seems as the show improves. If you’re looking for their analysis of season one, you won’t find it on iTunes, as it’s hidden behind a paywall, so while really die-hard fans might want to get their hands on it, there’s plenty enough for everyone else here. It’s really funny and brings back memories of some of the classic episodes and their greatest moments, all lovingly bundled up with new information and gags.

Podcasts: Part Two

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Last month I reviewed four of my favourite podcasts, and now I’m back with another four. Let’s get going!

podcast 5Podcast: Flash Forward
Number of Episodes: 15+
Release: Every other Tuesday

As humans, we seem to spend an awful lot of time worrying about the future. Will we be successful? Will we be happy? Will we survive? In Flash Forward, every episode sees host Rose Eveleth conjure up a possible future for humanity. The show combines snippets of drama as we hear the future played out as if it’s happening, and masses of interesting information, as she speaks to experts about whether the future she’s envisioned could ever become a possibility.

Episode topics covered recently include a future where everyone wore lie detectors all the time, a future where we’d eradicated mosquitoes, a future where everyone knew their date of death, and a future where paper is no longer used and everything’s digital. Some of the ideas are realistic and could happen; others are from the deepest realms of impossible science fiction, but are no less interesting to discuss. It’s actually on it’s second season, but the first isn’t available on iTunes and I haven’t got round to listening to it yet. It also has another name; Meanwhile in the Future. The first season includes such futures as what would happen if Earth gained a second moon, or if a robotic overlord banned all human weaponry.

Rose is a very chipper host, keenly interested in her subject, and the interviewees she gets are no small bones, all being important in their fields. There is such a mix of tones and emotions at play here too, but she navigates them with serious skill. Any episode is worth listening to, but to start off I’d go for “My Everything Pal” or “Love at First Bot”.

podcast 6Podcast: Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast
Number of Episodes: 100
Release: Wednesdays, but currently on hiatus

There are so many people in this world that I’d love to sit down and have a chat with. While I still can’t really do it, someone who can is Richard Herring. His podcast (RHLSTP) is smart, irreverent, hilarious and pure bliss. His guest list is one that other interviewers can only dream of, and it doesn’t matter who’s sitting opposite him, they’re going to get the same treatment. Herring is capable of asking really important questions, getting to the heart of who someone is and what drives them, and where they think their careers are going, but mostly he just wants to make cock jokes and talk about seventies television. That’s not a complaint.

It’s currently on hold, and will be back this month, but over the last 100 episodes, guests have ranked from up-and-coming comedians like Joe Lycett, Sara Pascoe and Roisin Conaty, to really high-profile guests like Stephen Fry, Eddie Izzard and Harry Shearer. While the guests are generally pulled from the world of comedy, there have also been academics (Mary Beard), TV presenters (Louis Theroux) and fellow podcasters (Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann). While a lot of it seems to be Herring asking people if they’d rather have a hand made of ham or an armpit that produced sun cream, he nonetheless always gets a great interview.

Particularly wonderful episodes include Stephen Fry (for which the podcast got noticed by the mainstream press when Fry admitted to recently attempting suicide), Armando Iannucci & Graham Linehan (if only for Linehan’s Bob Dole anecdote), Louis Theroux (which contains a lot about Jimmy Saville), and Miles Jupp (who is distraught at Herring’s obsession with Balamory). Frankly, if you’ve ever liked anyone in comedy, chances are they’re in here somewhere.

While I’m a bit too young to have been able to appreciate Richard Herring the first time round – indeed, I didn’t know he had a lot of success in the nineties until I started listening to this – it’s clear that the rest of the comedy industry worships him and he seems to be on good terms with all his guests. They’re really good fun, but if you’re listening in public, be prepared to get some odd looks.

podcast 7Podcast: Serial
Number of Episodes: 20+

If there’s ever been a podcast that changed the nature of the genre and showed people what it was really capable of, it’s Serial. Everyone else has already talked about how wonderful this is, but in case you’ve been living under a rock with limited Internet access, here’s what you need to know.

Serial is the brainchild of Sarah Koenig, a journalist and producer who was asked to look into the case of Adnan Syed. He was arrested in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, a student in Baltimore, Maryland. Syed pleaded his innocence, but was given a life sentence in 2000. He is, as expected from this verdict, still in prison. Koenig looks into the case and begins to see that things aren’t as simple as they seem, so week by week goes back and visits the locations, speaks to the people who were involved at the time (although she wonders how much anyone can remember after 15 years) and talks directly to Syed himself. Koenig fishes up evidence, theories, information that was missed or ignored during the trial, and tries to piece together what really happened.

It’s hugely compelling, and I’ve already forced so many of my friends to listen to it. Not one of them was disappointed. It isn’t a spoiler at this point to say that when the series finishes, Koenig doesn’t give us an answer. She has presented to us all the evidence, and we can make up our own minds. The thing that makes this particularly compelling? In my social circle, we can’t agree on whether Syed was innocent or guilty. With our own backgrounds and ideas, we’ve chosen our own answers, for better or worse.

There is a second series, but it’s about a completely unrelated story, and while I haven’t listened to it, everyone I know who has says that it doesn’t compare at all to the first. So, please do listen to the first series of this, but then don’t feel an obligation to continue. It’s simply incredible listening.

podcast 8Podcast: No Such Thing As A Fish
Number of Episodes: 100+
Release: Every Friday

One of the greatest shows on TV is QI, simple as that. John Lloyd, the brains behind it (and, frankly, every excellent British comedy show of the last forty years) has declared it more a way of life than a show, and so it has expanded in many directions, including books, websites and clubs. A podcast was a logical step. Hosted by four of the QI researchers (the “elves”) – Dan, Anna, Andy and James – every week they take a bizarre fact that they’ve discovered and for about thirty to forty-five minutes discuss them and any other facts they’ve found related to each core fact. Prone to tangents and base humour when the opportunity arises, this is nonetheless one of the smartest and funniest podcasts ever.

The hosts have great chemistry, and while Anna and James are primarily researchers, Andy is an improv comic, and host Dan is a stand-up. They’re all blisteringly intelligent though, and can dredge up facts off hand about any topic, no matter how far from the original point they go. They also occasionally record the shows in front of a live audience (and I can tell you first hand, they are hugely entertaining evenings, having been to one myself) and now have their own TV show, No Such Thing As The News, which is in the same format, but with a more topical edge.

With over 100 episodes now, and that’s without including the special short episodes they did with information about each country taking part in the 2014 World Cup, there’s plenty to be getting on with here. They also occasionally turn up with a special guest, including Victoria Coren Mitchell, Simon Rich or John Lloyd himself. It’s the best way to learn without realising you’re learning.

More podcasts next month!

“The Fourth Bear” by Jasper Fforde (2006)

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fourth bear“The little village of Obscurity is remarkable only for its unremarkableness.”

Last month I started my travels back through the books of Jasper Fforde with The Big Over Easy, and so here I am with the sequel, The Fourth Bear. Although the two are different enough and there shouldn’t be many – if any – spoilers here, you should still read them in order as most of the world-building and early character introductions have already taken place.

Last time, we were dealing with the fall of Humpty Dumpty, and this time there’s another well-known case to deal with – the breaking and entering of the Three Bears’ cottage. The tale opens with investigative reporter Henrietta “Goldilocks” Hatchett looking into a story about extreme cucumber growing. When she gets a strange call from Stanley Cripps, grower of one of Britain’s largest cucumbers, worried that his prize possession is about to be stolen, she finds herself drawn into something much bigger than herself, and a short time later, she’s dead too.

DCI Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crime Division is asked by Goldilocks’ brother, the vile journalist Josh Hatchett, to look into the case. Soon Spratt and his assistants – the contrary Mary Mary and the alien Ashley – find themselves deep in Anderson’s Wood, looking for the last place Golidlocks was seen.

But Spratt has got other things to worry about than just this. Not only has he technically been suspended from duty after a debacle involving Red Riding Hood and a wolf, he’s just bought a strange car off a man who has now disappeared, Punch and Judy have moved in next door, the antropomorphic bears of Reading are involved in the underground trade of porridge and honey, the World-War-I themed amusement park SommeWorld is readying itself for opening, the psychopathic biscuit the Gingerbreadman has escaped from his asylum, and Jack’s wife is dangerously close to finding out that he himself is a nursery rhyme character.

While The Big Over Easy is liberally sprinkled with nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters, here there are far fewer. It also does away entirely with the premise that the detectives are trying their best to be readable, and their adventures are written up in magazines and enjoyed by all. However, the book is clearly more influenced by the Thursday Next novels, Fforde’s best known series, which deal with storytelling. The fourth wall is shaky at best, with some of the characters apparently aware that they’re in a story. Jack’s therapist is dealt with when he realises she’s just a threshold guardian stopping him from getting on with his job. The reader is told to just accept a far-fetched theory late in the book without any question. And at one point, Jack and Mary break character to even insult Fforde himself.

While there are fewer characters from nursery rhymes here, we get other fictional characters, such as Dorian Grey, Caliban (from The Tempest) and Mrs Danvers, though the appearance of the latter will make more sense to those who’ve read the Thursday Next books. Again, this one makes a lot more sense if you’ve read those first, but is still enjoyable on its own level without. The jokes are nonetheless still funny, and while it takes the piss out of police procedural novels, it works as one just as well. Ashley is given more depth than in the first book, and he’s truly wonderful, and the addition of Punch and Judy who love each other but have beaten each other senseless every day for the last three hundred years is a masterpiece. And the Gingerbreadman remains one of the most terrifying villains in literature, with his taunts that he cannot be caught. Cautionary tales and nonsense poetry also come into their own here, and anyone with knowledge of Edward Lear’s poem “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat” may be quicker at picking up references.

There’s so much going on here and while it is a really good book, and very, very smart, it remains I think my least favourite of Fforde’s adult novels. That’s not to say I don’t like it, I do, and his books are all of a high standard and plotted to absolute perfection, but with the lack of many of the things set up in the first novel, it lacks something and feels more stand-alone.

The series, unfortunately, ends here. The back of the book declares that the characters will return in The Last Great Tortoise Race, but that was a decade ago now, and the book still shows no sign of appearing. Fforde originally stated that it would be a trilogy, but either his attention is focused on his other series’, or we were to take a joke midway through this book about the series never seeing its end as a foreshadow. Maybe one day we’ll return to Jack and Mary, because I for one am not done with them.

“The Big Over Easy” by Jasper Fforde (2005)

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big over easy

It’s not easy being an egg.

“It was the week following Easter in Reading and no one could remember the last sunny day.”

Long time readers of this blog will undoubtedly be aware of my love of Agatha Christie. No other writer has been reviewed or spoken of with such wondrous tones as she. But, truth be told, she shares her position of my favourite writer. Maybe she’s my favourite dead author, or my favourite female author, as the second is both living and male: Jasper Fforde.

A master of wordplay, puns, literary knowledge and general comedy, Fforde has penned a whole bunch of books in different series’ that are all equally funny and brilliant. I’m re-reading him this year so there will be a lot of waxing lyrical about his genius throughout 2016. However, we begin now with the first in the Nursery Crime series, The Big Over Easy.

The book is set in a version of Reading where nursery rhyme characters, and indeed, all characters from the oral tradition exist and have celebrity status. DI Jack Spratt heads up the Nursery Crime Division, responsible for dealing with any crimes involving these people, be it breaking up a straw-into-gold racket, or trying to convict three little pigs of the murder of Mr Wolff. He’s just been assigned a new recruit, DS Mary Mary, a fairly contrary young woman with a string of unfortunate ex-boyfriends and a desire to be out of the NCD as soon as possible.

However, things take a turn for the interesting when Humperdinck Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III (better known to most people as Humpty Dumpty), well known businessman and egg is found at the bottom of his favourite wall, smashed to pieces. Spratt and Mary must rope in witnesses and work out whether he fell or was pushed – and if so, who by? – all the while trying to maintain a readability in case their story ever gets published in an issue of Amazing Crime Stories. Meanwhile, super-sleuth Friedland Chymes is trying to take the case away from under Spratt’s nose, the world’s second largest footcare business, Spongg’s, is about to go down the drain, and Spratt’s mother has got a beanstalk growing at an alarming rate in her back garden.

There’s so much going on in this book, I just feel I want to talk about it all, but I must be careful not to give away too much. Firstly, we find ourselves dealing with nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters, with none of the other characters seeming to be aware that there’s anything strange about this. Along with the aforementioned Humpty Dumpty, Jack Spratt and Mary Mary, other traditional characters making an appearance include narcoleptic night-worker Wee Willie Winkie, penniless landlady Mother Hubbard, long-haired and beautiful Rapunzel, kleptomanic son of a famous flautist, Tom Thomm, Monday-born millionaire Solomon Grundy, the crazed psychopath the Gingerbreadman, and notorious crime boss Georgio Porgia. Fforde takes this madness and runs with it, bringing so many of these classic characters into the modern world and giving them a new life, showing the darkness that sits behind the stories we know.

Humpty, in happier times.

Humpty, in happier times.

However, it’s also not only a murder mystery but a complete parody of them, dissecting all the associated tropes and having the detectives all get their stories published in the manner of Holmes and Watson. They must, therefore, solve crimes in an entertaining way that will ensure high readership. Along the way, the tropes are played with hugely, having news reports that state that identical twins are no longer acceptable in crimes, and that anagram-based clues can’t be used as evidence in court.

Some of the background to this story makes a little more sense after the third book in Fforde’s Thursday Next series, and a discussion on that will come in good time, but it doesn’t mean this book isn’t possible to read. Every character is great fun, from the nursery rhyme figures to the more regular cast, such as the other staff working at the NCD and Jack’s family (his first wife died because she ate nothing but fat, of course).

It’s a great introduction to Fforde though, and shows that his mind is something quite wonderful. Not only does he combine the above nonsense, but he enjoys adding in extra flourishes, such as the fact that aliens have landed (mostly because they were curious as to why we never broadcast them a third series of Fawlty Towers) and have been accepted into society, the country seems to be run by history’s only honest politician, the Jellyman, there’s a lot of emphasis on the importance of good foot care, and Prometheus, the god who gave fire to mankind, is lodging in Jack’s spare room. The book also affectionately mocks existing famous detectives, giving us cameos by characters including Hercule Porridge, Miss Maple and Inspector Moose.

Most remarkable of all, however, is the fact that Fforde manages to stay hilarious for nearly four hundred pages. The whole thing is done with its tongue pressed firmly in its cheek, but it nonetheless works as a proper story, and you’re soon as blase about the idea of an egg wandering around Reading as the characters are. As is usual in most of Fforde’s work, each chapter also opens with an excerpt from a newspaper article, book or speech that gives more colour to the world and fills in some extra story and allows for more jokes. Examples of these here include the trial of Rumplestiltskin (it took seven days and 8,632 guesses), the story of scientists who have developed technology to transfigure pumpkins, and details on the upcoming nuptials of the Owl and the Pussycat.

For anyone who likes their literature a bit strange, but very, very clever, then this would be a good place to start in the worlds of Jasper Fforde. Few can match him, and I find it just a little odd that the year his first book was published was the year Douglas Adams died. If his soul went anywhere, it found its way into Fforde.

“Macbeth” and “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599 – 1606)

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This post is an unusual one as it is for two books, both of which were too similar to really warrant pages of their own. Last year I reviewed (individually) manga versions of two of Shakespeare’s plays; Henry VIII and Much Ado About Nothing. I return here with two more.

macbeth“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare (1606)

“When shall we three meet again?”

Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and one I studied at school more years ago than I care to think about. Along with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, it is probably his most famous play, and even if you’ve never read or seen it, you’ll know some of the quotes and characters from it.

While the text of the play remains the same here as in the original, the setting has been entirely changed, now taking place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland as the survivors, many of whom are mutants, fight for dominance over the landscape. So, not Denmark then.

Most people, I think, will know the story, but for those unfamiliar with it, Macbeth is spoken to by three witches who tell him that while he is already Thane of Glanis, he will soon become Thane of Cawdor and then later, he will be king. They also tell his friend Banquo that, while he won’t be a king, his descendants will be. After originally dismissing their prophecies as nonsense, Macbeth is soon made Thane of Cawdor, leading him to believe that what the witches said was true.

He begins to conspire to take the throne from Duncan and, egged on by his power-hungry wife, the infamous Lady Macbeth, sets plans in motion to kill anyone who may get in his way. Once Duncan is dead, he takes the crown. But in doing so, he has made many enemies, and the witches convince him that he is invincible with a smartly-worded prophecy. Meanwhile, he has started to see ghosts, and Lady Macbeth has started to go mad with the knowledge of what she and her husband have done.

It doesn’t end well.

Macbeth is rightly one of the best known plays, and I think it helps because it’s one of the shortest (2477 lines compared to Hamlet‘s 4024) and easiest to understand. It’s simply a story, I feel, of how knowing the future can drive one mad. The appearance in the story of prophecies and ghosts are taken as read, and they aren’t there to be questioned. While a lot of it is about men fighting and basically having a pissing contest regarding who is most powerful and who will have the best legacy, it’s arguably the few female characters who make the story what it is. The Weird Sisters put the whole plot in motion, and Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most interesting and recognisable woman (after Juliet, maybe) in the Shakespearean canon.

While I like the graphic novel format (plays are a visual medium, after all), and it made for an interesting take on the story to set it somewhere completely new, I think that the manga format works slightly better for the comedies. Which brings us to…

as you“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599)

“As I remember, Adam, it was bequeathed me by a will a thousand crowns to breed me well.”

Before coming to As You Like It, I knew just three things about it. Firstly, that it was a comedy. Secondly, that it contains the “all the world’s a stage” speech. And thirdly, it involved a lot of trees. I always prefer the comedies over the tragedies and histories, and I’d chosen this one because it seems to be one, as I just demonstrated, that gets forgotten and people don’t necessarily know a lot about.

In this tale, we have all the usual tropes of a Shakespeare comedy – boys dressed as girls, love at first sight, sibling rivalry, a happy wedding-centric ending, and so on. Orlando and Rosalind fall in love and, while both of aristocratic circles, they meet once and then are split. Rosalind is banished from the lands of Duke Frederick, her tyrannical uncle and in an act of solidarity, his daughter and Rosalind’s best friend, Celia, leaves with her. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and Celia becomes her sister. They also take with them the court fool, Touchstone, and head off into the Forest of Ar-Den.

Orlando, too, must leave his home or he will be killed by his brother Oliver, and he also powers into the Forest with his trusted servant Old Adam. In the forest, couples meet and part ways, Orlando writes poetry, Rosalind must not reveal herself to him, and Jaques, the most melancholic lord of the sixteenth century presides over everything, sharing his opinion and generally moaning about being melodramatic.

Though I actually sort of hate being the person who says this about Shakespeare, but it did genuinely make me laugh on a few occasions. It’s incredible skill that four hundred years later and in an old-fashioned form of language, Shakespeare has managed to write something that can still make us chuckle today. The biggest laughs come from Touchstone, the fool, and Jaques who was emo long before that was even a thing. I also adore the relationship between Rosalind and Celia, which borders on more than platonic from time to time, but is realised better than many female friendships in modern movies.

It comes to it that this might have just become a Shakespeare play that I really like, and the manga styling works really well for it. Again, the setting has been updated, this time to “an Oriental … post-modern city”, but like most of Shakespeare’s works, this could really be set anywhere.Well done, William, another cracking performance.

“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?

“Scoop” by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

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Extra, extra, read all about it!

Extra, extra, read all about it!

“While still a young man, John Courteney Boot had, as his publisher proclaimed, ‘achieved an assured and enviable position in contemporary letters’.”

Back in the day, I thought about working in journalism for a bit. I have since done the odd bit of freelance here and there, but generally I find that it’s not an area that comes naturally to me. Besides, in these days of fearmongering, phone hacking, celebrity obsession and Rupert Murdoch, it’s not exactly an area that seems particularly pleasant sometimes. It all seemed to much more wholesome back in the thirties, so let’s go!

So, another classic book on the blog – a rarity for me, and my first one this year, but thankfully another one I happened to like. Scoop is a farce of a novel, reading like an early sitcom and definitely comedic. The story opens with John Boot, a popular novelist, telling his society friend Mrs Stitch that he longs to escape. She offers to put in a word for him with Lord Copper, editor of newspaper The Daily Beast, suggesting that maybe the Lord can get John out of the country and into something a bit more exciting.

However, when the discussion arises between Copper and his assistant Mr Salter, confusion begins. Already working on the Beast is William Boot, a distant relative of John and known only for writing articles about nature and having recently got in trouble with an article about crested grebes. Assuming that this is the Boot in question, Copper and Salter call him in and request he go immediately to East Africa where drama supposedly reigns supreme in the small country of Ishmaelia. There is a war going on and, while no one’s quite sure what it’s about or who they want to win, every other newspaper is sending a reporter, so the Beast must do the same. William would rather stay at home and live his quiet life at Boot Magna, but no one argues with Lord Copper, and after some issues with the passports and luggage, William finds himself in the middle of Africa, not knowing the first thing about foreign reporting. And then the revolution happens.

For a book written nearly eighty years ago, I was surprised not only by how funny it was, but also by how relevant it still seems. The journalists are seen as ruthless and quite happy to make up a story if there isn’t one to be had. There’s the fun idea that if enough journalists descend on a place where nothing is happening to report on it, their mere presence will cause something to happen. It’s a good classic case of mistaken identity that couldn’t happen in the modern world (you’d think) and Waugh clearly revels in mocking journalists and indeed the English. William Boot is a classic Englishman in the manner that something has happened that he didn’t expect, but rather than cause a fuss, he’s just keeping a stiff upper lip and getting on with it.

Some of the secondary characters don’t appeal to me much or seem to add anything particularly vital to the narrative. William falls for a German woman while in Ishmaelia, but her existence seems only really to give him something to do while waiting for the news to break. The way that the country of Ishmaelia changes leaders so quickly and repeatedly is a parody of how great world powers fought over (what were to them) new lands, all trying to do what they thought was right, regardless of what the natives thought.

The language is fast and witty, as particularly displayed in this passage where Mr Salter attempts to explain to William how he is to tell the difference between the two factions in the war, the Reds and the Blacks:

You see, they are all Negroes. And the Fascists won’t be called black because of their racial pride, so they are called White after the White Russians. And the Bolshevists want to be called black because of their racial pride. So when you say black you mean red, and when you mean red you say white and when the party who call themselves blacks say traitors they mean what we call blacks, but what we mean when we say traitors I really couldn’t tell you. But from your point of view it will be quite simple. Lord Copper only wants Patriot victories and both sides call themselves patriots, and of course both sides will claim all the victories. But, of course, it’s really a war between Russia and Germany and Italy and Japan who are all against one another on the patriotic side. I hope I make myself plain?

It’s a quick read, and while not laugh-out-loud funny, is certainly capable of making you smile and have a little chuckle at the British, the way we handle ourselves abroad, and the manner in which we conduct our journalism. Like I say, while some things have certainly changed, a lot is still deeply familiar.

For my take on modern day journalism (with the necessary addition of old gods and lots of cannibalism), download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from all online ebook retailers.

“Ant Farm” by Simon Rich (2007)

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ant farm“How about some ice cream, Isaac?”

If you loved yourself, you’d read Simon Rich, and that’s all there is to it. Given that this is his fourth appearance on my blog in just over two years (see also: What In God’s Name?, The Last Girlfriend On Earth and Spoiled Brats), it’s no surprise that he’s back here again and I’m talking him up once more.

Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations, to give it its full title, is his first book, published when he was just twenty-three and is already full with all the humour and sheer genius that his later books also contained. I’d worried that maybe he’d started off not being quite so good, but, no, he’s been brilliant from the first moment.

Containing fifty-seven separate narratives, it sounds daunting, but each is unique and expertly constructed, and none of them are more than three pages long. These are not short stories, they are flash fiction, and yet using just a few hundred words at a time, Rich is capable to drumming up such drama and comedy that you long for there to be many, many more stories. Most of them revolve, as the full title suggests, around people stuck in difficult situations and how they cope with them, revealing a myriad facets of the human psyche, almost all of which are simply hilarious. The book is packed with laugh out loud moments and, sure, it’s a short read – not even 150 pages – but there are few better ways to spend an afternoon without taking your clothes off. Unless you like reading in the nude, but that’s not for here.

From the first story (what happened on the journey home after God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac) to the last (a troop of soldiers heading off to war), there are many adventures to be had. I won’t list them all – we’ve all got other things we need to be getting on with – but some highlights include:

the fact that in medieval England, all measurements were derived from the king’s body parts,

what happens when the guy responsible for naming Crayola colours has problems at home,

the two situations in which learning trigonometry turns out to have been useful,

what your mother thinks you think when she leaves you home alone,

what happens when a murder victim bumps into his murderer in the afterlife,

why parents don’t care if their teen rebels, as long as they wear deodorant,

and what happens when small talk goes wrong.

The book is split into five sections which contain stories centered around rough themes. In order, these are probably best labelled “childhood”, “teenage years”, “work”, “relationships” and “God”, although these are prone to blurring and not strictly that firm, but they give you some idea of what to expect. As I said at the start of this review, Rich is a treat that we should all be reading because the man can do magic with his brevity, and because he’s still so young, there are surely many more years of his work to look forward to.

If your tastes are not for Simon Rich, but rather you fancy something a bit stranger about cannibals, witches and investigative journalists, try my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, available for all ebook platforms right now!

“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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