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

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.

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.

The End of Faith: Sam Harris

No personal God need be worshipped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation.

Strap in folks, this one is pretty serious! The End of Faith looks to challenge attitudes towards religion in the modern world and how far it can be judged to be compatible with a rational and scientific society. Sam Harris is an author, philosopher and neuroscientist who co-founded the organisation Project Reason, focused upon secularism and the use of science to create moral obligation. Harris is anti-organised religion, asserting that such teachings are out-dated. The key question the book attempts to be address is whether moderation and tolerance are actually dangerous in their lack of challenge to organised religion, which is in itself a form of extremism.

I don’t know whether it is just me, but I find that sometimes an ‘American’ voice comes across in American authorship. It is slightly informal and anecdotal, something that is a bit bizarre in this book as Harris discusses holidays in Paris with his partner as a way to lead into a point. The arguments that he pursues can be complex at times – this is something that needs undivided attention. I read it in between studying and so couldn’t get through much at a time. The narrative has a tendency to reiterate points in order to cover the major religions , which can be irritating at times as it feels like the argument is going round in circles – but ensures that Harris covers all the basis.

The End of Faith raises some very valid points, I enjoy a book that makes you think and this is definitely in the same category of others such as The Establishment by Owen Jones. I like that it made me question my preconceptions but I felt that Harris could have gone further. He spends a lot of time talking about the negatives of inaction in the face of organised religion, yet does not expand upon what the rational solutions could be – beyond common sense.

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.


The Establishment: Owen Jones

…and how they get away with it.

I’m sorry it has been so long since I have done any reviews. I’ve been reading this last one since around Christmas but I haven’t had the time to finish it, what with paying for the pleasure of reading for my degree.

I picked this book because I’ve been going through a non-fiction phase and fancied something that would make me think. I can’t claim it didn’t do that. Owen Jones is a homegrown writer, political activist and beautiful man who has spent much of his professional life as a left-wing commentator for papers such as The Guardian and The Independent. He may be most recently known as the guy who spoke out about Donald Trump in one of his columns, describing him as a proponent of terrorism due to his recent incitement against Islam.

The Establishment is a social commentary which aims to turn the attention away from the lowest rungs of society and back on to the elite. It discusses the development of the current British system of governance and how politicians, the media, police and various others are aiding business in a way detrimental to the people. Jones ends with a call for a democratic revolution, in which power is taken back from the forces of the elite and self-serving.

This book, more than anything, made me angry. Not because of the nature of things that he was saying, but because I felt that I had little power to change anything. It helped me to properly form my political opinion; I’ve always had a rough idea, but the clear and eloquent way in which he laid out his argument helped me to understand how I really felt about matters such as the EU and privatisation. If you can get past the initial depression this book is an inspiring piece, it definitely did its job with me as I no longer feel resigned to my political fate!

I recommend everyone to read, although it can get quite heavy at times-perhaps not a cheerful bedtime story!