Dalton Trumbo: Bruce Cook

As I write this, I am in the process of watching this book’s 2015 film adaptation. It stars Bryan Cranston as the titular Trumbo and is actually pretty good. To be honest, I had never heard of Dalton Trumbo, nor did I know much about the Hollywood blacklist. I picked up this book mainly because it was 50 pence and sounded pretty interesting. I do love a good biography.

Dalton Trumbo is actually a pretty interesting book about a pretty interesting guy. Trumbo was one of the highest paid screenwriters of the 1940s-1960s. This book was researched and written within the last years of his life with his permission, as he was facing a lung cancer diagnosis. It starts with his difficult upbringing in Colorado, and the eight years he spent working in a bakery, supporting his family. In 1947 Trumbo was brought before the committee of unAmerican activities for his membership of the Communist Party, along with nine others – the Hollywood Ten. All were sentenced to jail time and blacklisted from ever working in Hollywood. Trumbo aimed to break this, continuing to write screenplays, sold under aliases or in the name of others. You may have heard of one, Roman holiday? The film that made Audrey Hepburn’s name. He in fact won an Academy Award for it whilst on the blacklist. His  role as writer was only reinstated fully in 2011. 

As a period I knew little about, and as a historian, I found this book intriguing. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to learn something new about such an interesting man. Despite the book being written without Trumbo having approved any of it, you can tell that author Bruce Cook is in awe of the man-he writes with such love. If anything, now I really want to read Trumbo’s key anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun

Arthur & George: Julian Barnes

I know it has been a while. This one took a little long to read. Not just a slow burner, life has been pretty hectic over the past month. I have now relocated (if temporarily) back to my mother’s house in Devon, university life now being well and truly over. Hopefully, the peace and quiet will allow me a little more time to read (I highly doubt it).

And now, to Arthur & George. This one jumped out at me in the Amnesty Bookshop (back in York), partially because I had a vague inkling of a television programme of the same name based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life. I was partially right, the book is based upon actual fact, yet is mostly focused upon the case of George Edalji. I have read bits and pieces by Julian Barnes before, chiefly A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters as a sixth form set text. That was pretty bizarre in itself, with one chapter being told from the view point of a word-worm on Noah’s Ark. So to be honest, before starting this book I wa not very sure what to expect.

George Edalji was a Birmingham solicitor, convicted in 1903 for the mutilation of livestock in the ‘Great Wyrley Outrages’ and suspected of penning a number of malicious letters to himself and his father, an Indian Christian vicar in Great Wyrley. He was  given a seven year sentence, and let out after only serving three with no explanation. It was at this point that Edalji contacted Conan Doyle for help, his case already having attracted 10,000 signatures and being publicised by his family. Conan Doyle aims to prove Edalji innocent and gain reparations for his case. The narrative flips between the viewpoint of Arthur and George, detailing their lives in third person – George in present tense and Arthur in past. A vast amount of context is provided, with the two protagonists not meeting until at least halfway through the book, if not further.

I did quite enjoy this book. One thing I must say, is that I read the whole story without googling the case, to be honest I was not even sure that it had really occurred. This I feel really aided the reading experience, as I was unaware of what would happen. I found parts of Arthur & George difficult to read, I am rather uncomfortable reading about people being obviously set up or discriminated against. But that is just a personal fault. At times though, I did find the writing style slightly cumbersome, the book took a lot of time to get going in its desire to provide detail. It was no Charles Dickens (detail-wise), but this style prolonged my suffering somewhat, and at times even provoked me to skip ahead to conclusions before going back and reading the detail (something I rarely do).

So, Anyway…: John Cleese

As you may have guessed, along side my great enjoyment of short stories, I also love comedy auto-biographies. If you do not believe me, please check out my reviews of Stephen Fry, Amy Poehler and Rik Mayall. I first registered John Cleese’s new book after his appearance (with his cat) on The Last Leg. Apart from being generally hilarious, it got me thinking – this guy has been around for a while. Joining the BBC in the 1960s he was a part of the revolution of comedy, the movement towards the zany and bizarre that I find so hilarious. In my opinion, Cleese is a national treasure.

monty python the parrot sketch ex parrot

So, Anyway… details Cleese’s life from around the age of 11 to the beginning of the Pythons, with a brief skip forward at the end of the book to cover the Flying Circus revival in 2014. It kind of seems like he managed to fall into a lot of his career based on accepting every opportunity which came his way – something we could probably afford to do a little more. The book takes a lot of time to discuss Cleese’s creative processes, working with Graham Chapman and on TV and theatre productions.

funny monty python john cleese the ministry of silly walks

Cleese was ridiculously engaging to read, as can be expected, its anecdotal and occasional turn towards tangents making the experience a delight. I was particularly interested in his career experiences – as someone who hopes one day to go into TV production it was fascinating to see how the industry has changed. So, Anyway… also allowed an insight into a man who is often described as withdrawn from the press, some of whom choose to highlight his anger roles as a reflection of the person. To learn of his anxiety and fear of performing is refreshing, as he ponders candidly on why he turned out the way he did.

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Could not resist.

If you are intrigued by the vanguard of British comedy this is definitely the book for you, the comedy connections are ripe in this one. On the other hand, it provides an easy to follow read for anyone interested in biographies, with a little extra for comedy fans.

In Harm’s Way: Martin Bell

In Harm’s Way – Bosnia: A War Reporter’s Story – Martin Bell

In all honesty I chose this book because of my interest in the 1990s war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In fact, I am writing my dissertation on it. It has been sat in my Kindle library for ages, yet I did not have time to sit and read until my trip to South East Asia a couple of months ago. I love a good biography to sink my teeth into. Journalism is also a fascinating job idea for me, so this book ticked a lot of boxes.

The revised edition of this book was published in 2012 after its original publication in 1995. As this would have been written immediately after the end of the conflict. Because of this much of the writing is close to the bone, yet the revisions are able to benefit from hindsight and a better awareness of facts that would not have been clear at the time. Bell was working as a BBC war correspondent covering the Bosnian conflict throughout the period. If you have an interest in conflict history Bosnia is particularly good to study as it is an example of civil war in which ethnic cleansing played a large role, as well as marking a change in how war reporting occurred.

The morality of Bell’s writing makes him an automatically likeable narrator. The self-consciousness of his work makes for enlightening reading. I particularly found it interesting due to my research into the subject and deeper interest in Bosnia and the media.

I would recommend this book to any would-be history buffs who are looking for a reflective war narrative to stimulate the interest.

M Train: Patti Smith

I was first introduced to Patti Smith’s work at the ripe old age of 17. The music spoke to my teenage angst and confusion. I jumped at the chance to read the auto-biographical Just Kids, a tale of her early life and career before major fame. I even saw her perform at Hyde Park this summer – one of the greatest experiences of my life. Speaking of another of my greatest experiences, I read one of her newer releases en route to Hanoi on a sleeper train. The beautiful scenery may or may not have added to the experience.

M Train follows a year or so in the life of Patti Smith, as she fills her time with self-reflection, dreams and celebration of the dead. It is not your typical auto-biography, instead following thought trails and bizarre tangents. The narrative almost takes you on a journey, from complete loss and confusion to the understanding of Patti’s position, her loneliness, and her depression. The book almost reads as a mourning period in her fascination with death. I found it uplifting in its morbidity. Its simplicity.

Maybe it was the Vietnamese scenery, maybe it was Patti’s lyrical prose, either way reading this book felt like taking a journey into her mind. The normality of her life; the time spent over coffee in cafes, buying a beach house and enjoyment of detective shows. It is more of a conversation with her. The intimacy of these moments creates something precious, M Train was delicate in its childlike qualities.

I would recommend this book as a tool for mindfulness. If you need to take some time for yourself, then this could be a good place to start.

Bigger Than Hitler-Better Than Christ: Rik Mayall

The Rik Mayall. The Great Book. This is how Mayall sells this book and that is why I bought it. Such levels of narcissism are hard to resist. I have been a big fan of new wave 1980s comedy ever since I read Jennifer Saunder’s auto-biography Bonkers: My Life in Laughs a couple of years ago, so when I saw Rik Mayall’s book I had to give it a try. Rik Mayall, before his recent death, was a pioneer of British comedy for the last 30 years. He was in all manner of things; The Young Ones, Drop Dead Fred, Comic Strip Presents and as Flashheart in Blackadder. I fancied something a little whimsical and silly and I felt like he could probably be the one to provide it.

The book is made up of lots of little bits and pieces stuck together using ridiculous claims. It is almost a fantasy of a life, using made up letters to various celebrities, school teachers, publishers and condom companies about potential advertising opportunities. Mayall makes a joke in the beginning about not letting anyone proofread his words so that they are pure as from the mouth of the oracle himself. He uses all kinds of footnotes, poor spelling and bad grammar (poor spelling and grammar kills me) to labour this point. There are a couple of moments of real emotion, when talking about his motorbike accident for example, but most of the book is full of the usual toilet humour and shameless self-promotional/derogatory comments.

I would not recommend reading this book if you are looking for a serious biography. If you want something flamboyantly ridiculous and downright stupid then this is the book for you! The only comment that I would make is that the constant jokes and innuendo (ooo err) can get a bit wearing after a while – maybe read this book now and again, in small doses.

Yes Please: Amy Poehler

In my Christmas Wishlist I made a reference to wanting to read Yes Please for a while. Well, I finally got out there and bought it! I was having a bad day and decided a little online retail therapy could not hurt. Plus, I needed some of Amy’s positive thinking (yes, we’re best friends now – I get weird when I’m reading auto-biographies).

I am new to Poehler’s work. A couple of friends of mine made the mistake of suggesting that I should watch Parks and Rec and it all kind of snowballed (currently in mourning for the end of the series). I found her writing style to be bright, amusing and light – an excellent book to take on holiday, as I took it to Budapest a few weeks ago. She is someone who I find genuinely funny and inspiring.

When I write these reviews I check out some of what others have written in response to better formulate my own ideas. In one Guardian review I found the reviewer made the point that this is not an actual book, as it does not form a conventional narrative and can at times seem cluttered. The author then went on to say some other not very nice things about its lack of intellectual substance, which I shall ignore whilst knowing that they are right. But I did not choose to buy this book for its intellectual musings. I enjoyed its mismatch of poems, lists and childhood memories. As a ‘book’, this one should definitely be described as cute.

Yes Please often takes the guise of an almost self-help book. As a person who does not read self-help books I found this a little bizarre and at times too sugary for my tastes, yet also comforting. I am unsure if this is just a style of auto-biography that has not made it over to the UK yet, so I shall conduct some more research at some point, perhaps by looking at books by Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling. One thing that did strike me was that through this method of writing and through the telling of her stories Poehler appears to write on a personal level, while remaining impersonal. It is an honest account, yet not a very deep one.

My favourite part of this book is Poehler’s insistence on not glossing over her experiences, to emphasise hard work and strength, something that I found very refreshing. I would probably recommend this book to a friend, again as a holiday read or as a breather from studying.