“Nerd Do Well” by Simon Pegg (2010)

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pegg“It was never my intention to write an autobiography.”

On one of my many and frequent excursions into London, I last year found myself absolutely bladdered and ended up in a small pub which I believe was above a theatre, somewhere on the Isle of Dogs. I can’t remember it’s name, nor it’s exact location, but what I do remember is that on one wall there was an alcove filled with second hand books. A sign next to them indicated that if you popped some change into the pot, you could take away anything you wanted. I fished around in my pockets, dropped the meagre change I had into the pot and pulled down two books: Kraken by China Miéville, and Simon Pegg’s memoirs, Nerd Do Well, the latter of which I will get around to talking about once I finish this meandering introduction.

Simon Pegg is, of course, known for working on both brilliant TV shows (Spaced, Big Train, etc) and films (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, etc), displaying himself as both a talented actor and writer, as well as a man who seems really understand the medium and “get” what works and what doesn’t. When combined with the likes of Edgar Wright, Nick Frost, Jessica Hynes and so forth, he becomes almost unstoppable.

His memoirs, like they all tend to, detail his childhood, formative school years, later education, springboard into the world of comedy and film, and his meetings with cinema’s great and good. It’s also a love letter to those films that made him the big kid he is today, such as Star Wars and George Romero’s classic zombie flicks. There’s no denying that when it’s finished, I still like Pegg, and it’s clear that he’s talented, intelligent, passionate and, above all, perhaps strangest of all for someone who has just written a memoir, incredibly private.

It was only after finishing that I thought about how you very rarely see his name in the papers in any situation that isn’t directly related to a project he’s working on, which is absolutely not a complaint, because a man is entitled to his private life. It seems odd, therefore, to want to write a book about oneself.

The book deals heavily with Pegg’s childhood, talking about his friends, cinematic obsessions, schooldays and early theatrical accomplishments. In fact, so much of the book is given over to the first ten or fifteen years of his life that all the stuff that happened since he became famous barely has the space to shine. He actually acknowledges that himself at the end of the book, saying that to him the things that he did in his youth are far more interesting than what came later. He also says that he doesn’t want to get to into it, not because he has any bad things to say about people in particular, but simply because in writing memoirs you’re having to talk about other people, and that may not always go down so well. I do understand all that, I do, but it’s still a bit disappointing.

You may be gathering from this review that I didn’t like the book much and, unfortunately, you’d be right. I really like Pegg, and I really wanted to like this book, but his reliance on talking about his nerdy fascinations overwhelms the rest of the text. He spends numerous chapters dissecting Star Wars, going over his experiences watching the films for the first time and talking about the intricaties and cleverness of plotting and the series place in the world of science fiction and modern film making. It’s done well, too. Pegg isn’t an idiot, but sadly I’ve never seen Star Wars, have no interest in doing so, and so most of it just went over my head. It’s like when I read Victoria Coren Mitchell’s memoirs and realised I don’t know anything about poker.

Maybe it’s just me (but I don’t think it is), but I wanted to know more about what it was like working on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the latter of which is mentioned on just five fleeting occasions. This is the same problem I had with John Cleese’s book too – I want to know the secrets behind Fawlty Towers, not about his childhood. Not that either Cleese or Pegg’s lives were boring, but they also weren’t particularly dramatic.

I also should confess that I can’t give a full review about another part of Pegg’s book. In between chapters, Pegg has written an intentionally bad action novel with himself as a Bond-esque hero with a servant robot and all sorts of other oddities. There’s eleven or twelve chapters of it and, after reading the first two, I didn’t bother reading the rest. Whether they add to the tale or not, I don’t know.

So, sorry Simon, firstly for skipping out a bunch of chapters, and also for not being enchanted by your book. I’m still a big fan, but it’s like the old saying goes: never meet your heroes, and sometimes don’t even read their autobiography.

“Harry, A History” by Melissa Anelli (2008)

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“I know all about you, of course – I got a few extra books for background reading…”

“I know all about you, of course – I got a few extra books for background reading…”

“Within twenty-four hours, everyone would know.”

In 1997, when I was a bookish nine-year-old with bad hair and an overactive imagination (as opposed to what I am now, which is a bookish twenty-five-year-old with bad hair and an overactive imagination), my teacher procured a new book that he was going to read to the class. It was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

It was the beginning of one of the most amazing journeys in my life, and in the lives of millions of others. I was immediately captivated by the series and the world, by Rowling’s writing and the notion of a magical world hidden behind our own. I even borrowed the book from my teacher to finish it off over the weekend before the rest of the class. I was hooked immediately.

The Harry Potter phenomenon (the word “phenomenon” is used liberally when discussing Potter, but few other words do it justice) has taken the world by storm, and with the revelation last week that it’s not over and Rowling is writing a new film set in the same universe, I decided to do a bit of reading up on the backstory.

Harry, A History (the title itself a play on in-universe textbook Hogwarts, A History), is the story of how Harry Potter became such a success, from that now famous beginning to the much-celebrated end. Written by Melissa Anelli, the webmistress of fansite Leaky Cauldron, this is her inside scoop on what it was like to party with wrock bands, help protect fans from spoilers, and even interview the lady herself.

It’s a really interesting book, and there’s no denying that Anelli is a huge fan – the fan’s fan. She understands the heart and soul of the books, enjoys the theories and loves helping the fans get the same thrill she gets from it. However, the book is slightly jumbled, leaping around in time between 2000 and 2007, from the time she gets into the series until the release of the seventh book, Deathly Hallows. There’s a big tangent about 9/11 which, while very good, all takes place before the explanation of how Rowling came to have the books published. It seems to me that that should have come first.

I found the sections about wizard rock (wrock) and the “shipping wars” tiresome, as they are two aspects of the fandom that I’ve never really got into, in particular shipping. There is much time dedicated to the battle between those who believed (before Rowling revealed it all in the final book) that Harry and Hermione would get together, and those who put their money on Hermione and Ron. I, like many, thought it was obvious, but there are those die-hard people who insisted to the end that Harry’s true love was Hermione, ignoring all the evidence. I’m not knocking those fans at all – as long as you’re not hurting anyone, do what you want – but my position in the fandom has always more been one of observant bystander, knowing that it’s all going on, but not getting too involved.

There’s a certain amount of self-congratulation in the book, which is pretty much justified, but Anelli never loses sight of the fact that, without J. K. Rowling at the helm, none of this would have happened. I will never be the first to leap to Rowling’s defence and call her the greatest writer of all time, because she isn’t, but the fact is that she creates fully-rounded characters like no one else, and has world building skills on par with Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde. And, more importantly, she got kids reading again. Something happened, a real spark of magic, that made children sit up and take notice of a book in a world where entertainment seemed to be dominated by video games and films, and the children’s book market was rapidly shrinking. For this, she has my eternal gratitude.

For any Potter fan, this book is a great addition and makes you realise that you most certainly not alone. My generation were the Harry Potter Generation, already the zest for it has diminished in the upcoming generations. We are some of the last who remember a world where we didn’t know how it all ended. And now, as we ready ourselves for the next chapter, we can turn and thank Rowling and the team that made the books (and, yes, the films) so wonderful and a symbol of genuine magic. The series has assuredly achieved what Voldemort never could – eternal life.

“Bird By Bird” by Anne Lamott (1994)

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Albatross, bittern, crow, etc

Albatross, bittern, crow, etc

“I grew up around a father and a mother who read every chance they got, who took us to the library every Thursday night to load up on books for the coming week.”

Some of you may or may not know that I am not only a voracious reader and reviewer of books on a tawdry little WordPress blog, but I am also a writer under my own steam. I’ve got a degree in it and everything, so it must be true. However, just lately, I have been entirely drained. The idea of writing has dragged me down and the words aren’t coming. I’m not the sort of writer who will force himself to sit before the keyboard and waste an hour just tapping away at a stream of conciousness about how much I loathe myself – not my style.

Since I finished my first novel last year (drafts and edits in progress), I have not really found myself diving into anything new. Lamott may well have changed all of that because Bird by Bird is an incredibly persuasive book.

The title comes from this story that Lamott shares:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

The book is a combination of memoir and how-to guide, mostly giving the reader an insight into the world of writing. It doesn’t focus on the actual aspects of getting published (although they are glossed over towards the end) but instead gives you other reasons to write, and explains how to actually get the words down. Lamott is clearly very gifted and this book is beautiful, moving, hilarious and most certainly inspiring. She makes wonderful observations about character, plot, dialogue and writer’s block. She talks about the frame of mind required to write, about how one should listen to their work and see where it takes them.

And somewhere along the line, it stops being advice about writing, and starts being advice about life. The chapter on perfectionism is particularly great for that.

Anyone who is a writer, or wants to be a writer, could benefit from giving this book a once over. Some of the advice you’ve heard a million times before but some of it is brand new, and while everyone has their own style of working, all writers can glean something out of this, if only some of the great anecdotes that get used. There’s also a great poem by Phillip Lapote in it – it might be worth it just for that.

All I know is, I am inspired to write again. Fingers crossed I can produce something worthwhile!

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