Quick Review: CANADA by Mike Myers (Doubleday Canada)

myersm-canadaAn endearing, informational memoir

Mike Myers is a world-renowned actor, director and writer, and the man behind some of the most memorable comic characters of our time. But as he says: “no description of me is truly complete without saying I’m a Canadian.” He has often winked and nodded to Canada in his outrageously accomplished body of work, but now he turns the spotlight full-beam on his homeland.

His hilarious and heartfelt new book is part memoir, part history and pure entertainment. It is Mike Myers’ funny and thoughtful analysis of what makes Canada Canada, Canadians Canadians and what being Canadian has always meant to him. His relationship with his home and native land continues to deepen and grow, he says. In fact, American friends have actually accused him of enjoying being Canadian — and he’s happy to plead guilty as charged.

A true patriot who happens to be an expatriate, Myers is in a unique position to explore Canada from within and without. With this, his first book, Mike brings his love for Canada to the fore at a time when the country is once again looking ahead with hope and national pride. Canada is a wholly subjective account of Mike’s Canadian experience. Mike writes, “Some might say, ‘Why didn’t you include this or that?’ I say there are 35 million stories waiting to be told in this country, and my book is only one of them.”

This beautifully designed book is illustrated in colour (and not color) throughout, and its visual treasures include personal photographs and Canadiana from the author’s own collection. Published in the lead-up to the 2017 sesquicentennial, this is Mike Myers’ birthday gift to his fellow Canadians. Or as he puts it: “In 1967, Canada turned one hundred. Canadians all across the country made Centennial projects. This book is my Centennial Project. I’m handing it in a little late…. Sorry.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book. I had high hopes, of course, that it would be an amusing look at Myers’s Canada, and it certainly did contain that. It is also a more-general memoir. Every chapter, though, even when covering Myers’s time in the UK or US, is filled with references to Canada (Toronto in particular) and how the country has shaped his character and comedy. It is amusing, intelligent and quite endearing. Continue reading

Review: ANGRY OPTIMIST by Lisa Rogak (St. Martin’s Griffin)

RogakL-AngryOptimistPBDisappointing, NYT-bestselling bio of Jon Stewart

Since his arrival at The Daily Show, Jon Stewart has become one of the major players in comedy as well as one of the most significant liberal voices in the media. In Angry Optimist, Lisa Rogak follows his unlikely rise to stardom, from his early days growing up in New Jersey, through his years as a struggling stand-up comic in New York, and on to the short-lived but acclaimed The Jon Stewart Show, before at last landing a job as host of a half-hour comedy show that at the time was still finding its footing amidst roiling internal drama.

Once there, Stewart transformed The Daily Show into one of the most influential news programs on television today. Drawing on interviews with current and former colleagues and with new material on his departure from The Daily Show, Angry Optimist reveals how Jon Stewart has come to wield incredible power in American politics and changed how the news is reported along the way.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is one of the most influential television series of the past couple of decades. Like many people, I first took notice when segments from Indecision 2000 went viral: the blend of hilarious satire and sharp observation was a winning combination. Despite the host’s denials, The Daily Show was a real force in American politics, often providing more news and media analysis than actual, professional news channels. Jon Stewart, however, has remained something of an enigma, however – fiercely private, most of us have only had the occasional magazine profile to inform us of what might make the host tick.

It was with great interest, therefore, that I started reading Angry Optimist. A quick read that, while entertaining, left me disappointed. Continue reading

Audio Review: YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler (Harper Collins/Audible)

PoehlerA-YesPleaseAn amusing, interesting idiosyncratic memoir

Do you want to get to know the woman we first came to love on Comedy Central’s Upright Citizens Brigade? Do you want to spend some time with the lady who made you howl with laughter on Saturday Night Live, and in movies like Baby Mama, Blades of Glory, and They Came Together? Do you find yourself daydreaming about hanging out with the actor behind the brilliant Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation? Did you wish you were in the audience at the last two Golden Globes ceremonies, so you could bask in the hilarity of Amy’s one-liners?

If your answer to these questions is “Yes Please!” then you are in luck. In her first book, one of our most beloved funny folk delivers a smart, pointed, and ultimately inspirational read. Full of the comedic skill that makes us all love Amy, Yes Please is a rich and varied collection of stories, lists, poetry (Plastic Surgery Haiku, to be specific), photographs, mantras and advice. With chapters like “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend,” “Plain Girl Versus the Demon” and “The Robots Will Kill Us All” Yes Please will make you think as much as it will make you laugh. Honest, personal, real, and righteous,Yes Please is full of words to live by.

I’m not actually too familiar with Poehler’s most famous work — save for a few SNL skits (mostly those with Tina Fey), Undeclared, and a couple of episodes of Parks & Recreation, I haven’t really seen much of what she’s done and been in. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed what I have seen, so I was interested in listening to Yes Please. I was not disappointed: this is a fun, lively and welcoming memoir. It’s not linear, and Poehler jumps about a bit in her narrative, but it is always interesting and entertaining. Continue reading

Audio Review: TRAVELLING TO WORK – DIARIES 1988-98 by Michael Palin (Audible/Orion)

PalinM-Diaries3-TravellingToWorkThe third volume in Michael Palin’s bestselling diaries

After the Python years and a decade of filming, writing, and acting, Palin’s career takes an unexpected direction into travel, which will shape his working life for the next 25 years. Yet, as the diaries reveal, he remained ferociously busy on a host of other projects throughout this whirlwind period.

Travelling to Work opens in September 1988 with Michael travelling down the Adriatic on the first leg of a modern-day Around the World in 80 Days. He was not the BBC’s first choice for the series, but after its success and that of the accompanying book, the public naturally wanted more. Palin, though, has other plans.

Following the tumultuous success of A Fish Called Wanda, he is in demand as an actor. His next film, American Friends, is based on his great-grandfather’s diaries. Next he takes on his most demanding role as the head teacher in Alan Bleasdale’s award-winning drama series GBH. There is also his West End play, The Weekend; a first novel, Hemingway’s Chair; and a lead role in Fierce Creatures, the much-delayed follow-up to Wanda.

Michael describes himself as “drawn to risk like a moth to a flame. Someone grounded and safe who can be tempted into almost anything.” He duly finds time for two more travel series – Pole to Pole, in 1991, and Full Circle, in 1996 – and two more best-selling books to accompany them.

These latest Diaries show a man grasping every opportunity that came his way, and they deal candidly with the doubts and setbacks that accompany this prodigious word-rate. As ever, his family life, with three children growing up fast, is there to anchor him.

Travelling to Work is a roller-coaster ride driven by the Palin hallmarks of curiosity and sense of adventure. These 10 years in different directions offer riches on every page to his ever-growing army of fans.

This is yet another excellent instalment in Michael Palin’s series of diaries. Unlike the first two audio editions, this one is unabridged. This series is a real must for fans of any of Palin’s work: Palin is genial in his delivery, and there is plenty of gentle comedy. It was a welcome ‘more of the same’. Continue reading

Audio Review: MORE FOOL ME by Stephen Fry (Audible)

FryS-MoreFoolMeA third excellent memoir from Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry invites readers to take a glimpse at his life story in the unputdownable More Fool Me.

It is a heady tale of the late Eighties and early Nineties, in which Stephen – ever more driven to create, perform and entertain – burned bright and partied hard with a host of famous and infamous friends, regardless of the consequences.

This electric and extraordinary book reveals a new side to Mr. Fry.

Stephen Fry is an award-winning comedian, actor, presenter and director. He rose to fame alongside Hugh Laurie in A Bit of Fry and Laurie (which he co-wrote with Laurie) and Jeeves and Wooster, and was unforgettable as Captain Melchett in Blackadder. He also presented Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, his groundbreaking documentary on bipolar disorder, to huge critical acclaim. His legions of fans tune in to watch him host the popular quiz show QI each week.

I listened to the Audible edition of this biography. And, much like The Fry Chronicles, it is both entertaining and excellently produced. Fry’s performance is, as can be expected, superb – welcoming, honest, and rather whimsical. This is another excellent memoir, and superb audiobook. Continue reading

Audio Reviews: MICHAEL PALIN’S DIARIES, 1969-1988 (Orion/Audible)

PalinM-Diaries-Vols.1-2

A fantastic pair of memoirs, covering some of the best of British comedy

Michael Palin has kept a diary since being newly married in the late 1960s, when he was beginning to make a name for himself as a TV scriptwriter (for David Frost, the Two Ronnies, etc). Monty Python was just around the corner. In this first volume of his diaries, he tells for the first time how Python emerged and triumphed. Perceptive and funny, it chronicles not only his struggle to find a niche in the world of television comedy, but also the extraordinary goings on of the many powerful personalities who coalesced to form the Monty Python team.

The second volume of Michael Palin’s diaries covers the 1980s, a decade in which the ties that bound the Pythons loosened as they forged their separate careers. After a live performance at the Hollywood Bowl, they made their last performance together in 1983, in the hugely successful Monty Python’s Meaning of Life…

Continuing my consumption of comedian memoirs, I turned to Michael Palin’s excellent Diaries. These first two volumes (I’m listening to the third at the moment), details much of Palin’s most famous work with the Pythons – as part of that group and also the projects that involved just one or two of them. They’re abridged, which sometimes made me wish for more. At the same time, though, they kept the story moving, and I was never bored (in fact, I blitzed through them in three days). If you’re looking for an excellent comedian/celebrity memoir, then I would absolutely recommend these two: The Python Years and Halfway to Hollywood.

Palin takes us through the Python movies, touching upon the different dynamics that evolved between the members of Britain’s best-known comedy group. Whether it was the wild years and antics of Graham Chapman (who seems rather self-destructive and reckless), the rather serious John Cleese, the savvy and fame-hungry Eric Idle, and the more sedate Terrys (Jones and Gilliam). Palin’s comments on Life of Brian and The Holy Grail will be of interest to anyone who enjoyed those movies, as will his thoughts on A Fish Called Wanda (one of my favourite movies). He talks of the highs and lows of his career; his joy at seeing his family grow and succeed around him; his respect for his fellow Pythons and frequent happiness for their individual successes (Fawlty Towers, for example).

He wrote much of the dialogue and acted in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and acted in his next film, Brazil. He co-produced, wrote and played the lead in The Missionary opposite Maggie Smith, who also appeared with him in A Private Function, written by Alan Bennett. For television he wrote East of Ipswich, inspired by his links with Suffolk.

The second book finishes around the time that Palin was starting the first of his hugely popular and successful travel programs for the BBC. (Sadly, I have yet to see these, but after hearing him talk about them, my interest has certainly grown.)

Overall, then, these two Diaries audiobooks are a delight to listen to: Palin comes across very much as his reputation would suggest: kind, calm, and frequently amusing. I thoroughly enjoyed these, and didn’t hesitate to pre-order the third volume. A must-read/-listen if you a fan of Monty Python, or any of Palin’s other great projects.

Very highly recommended.

Audio Review: STILL FOOLIN’ ’EM by Billy Crystal (Audible/Macmillan)

CrystalB-StillFoolinEmA really good audiobook by a great comic

Billy Crystal is 65, and he’s not happy about it. With his trademark wit and heart, he outlines the absurdities and challenges that come with growing old, from insomnia to memory loss to leaving dinners with half your meal on your shirt. In humorous chapters like “Buying the Plot” and “Nodding Off,” Crystal not only catalogues his physical gripes, but offers a road map to his 77 million fellow baby boomers who are arriving at this milestone age with him. He also looks back at the most powerful and memorable moments of his long and storied life, from entertaining his relatives as a kid in Long Beach, Long Island, and his years doing stand-up in the Village, up through his legendary stint at Saturday Night Live, When Harry Met Sally, and his long run as host of the Academy Awards.

Listeners get a front-row seat to his one-day career with the New York Yankees (he was the first player to ever “test positive for Maalox”), his love affair with Sophia Loren, and his enduring friendships with several of his idols, including Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali. He lends a light touch to more serious topics like religion (“the aging friends I know have turned to the Holy Trinity: Advil, bourbon, and Prozac”); grandparenting; and, of course, dentistry. As wise and poignant as they are funny, Crystal’s reflections are an unforgettable look at an extraordinary life well lived.

I didn’t know this when I started Still Foolin’ ’Em, but this audio edition has won a number of awards (and was also nominated for a Grammy). Certainly, I can see why. This is a great audiobook, and I laughed out loud on a number of occasions. Crystal was a favourite in my household when I was growing up, so I was familiar with so many of the movies and moments Crystal mentions (his reminiscing about When Harry Met Sally is, of course, excellent and probably a stand-out).

I particularly liked that some chapters were performed and recorded live – this offered a nice change from the ‘normal’ format of just a reading from the book, and the added audience aspect of it brought to mind a live recording of a great stand up shows. If I had one quibble, it would be that some jokes and themes were rather drawn out and therefore lost impact. A minor issue, though.

All in all? I would definitely recommend this if you are a fan of the actor. Even if you are only somewhat familiar with his work, though, I think you’ll appreciate his humour and thoughts on growing older.

A fun, honest, humble, and generous memoir.

Mini-Review: “Back Story” by David Mitchell (Audible / Harper)

MitchellD-BackStoryA marvellous memoir by one of Britain’s best new(ish) comedians

David Mitchell, who you may know for his inappropriate anger on every TV panel show except Never Mind the Buzzcocks, his look of permanent discomfort on C4 sex comedy Peep Show, his online commenter-baiting in The Observer or just for wearing a stick-on moustache in That Mitchell and Webb Look, has written a book about his life.

As well as giving a specific account of every single time he’s scored some smack, this disgusting memoir also details: the singular, pitbull-infested charm of the FRP (‘Flat Roofed Pub’); the curious French habit of injecting everyone in the arse rather than the arm; why, by the time he got to Cambridge, he really, really needed a drink; the pain of being denied a childhood birthday party at McDonalds; the satisfaction of writing jokes about suicide; how doing quite a lot of walking around London helps with his sciatica; trying to pretend he isn’t a total **** at Robert Webb’s wedding; that he has fallen in love at LOT, but rarely done anything about it; why it would be worse to bump into Michael Palin than Hitler on holiday; that he’s not David Mitchell the novelist. Despite what David Miliband might think…

The synopsis does a very good job of suggesting the tone and content of the memoir. But what it doesn’t fully convey is just how good it is. Delivered in Mitchell’s distinctive voice, with just the right amount of sarcasm and cynicism, this could very well be the best memoir I’ve listened to from Audible, or at least an equal to Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles. This memoir had me laughing out loud plenty of times (something only Tina Fey and Jane Lynch have done so far).

I was surprised to learn just how much great television Mitchell has been involved in over his relatively few years of fame and celebrity. That being said, it was the chapters covering his early years that were hilarious – when talking about his successes, he came across as almost embarrassed (which was rather endearing). Tales from his childhood and years at Cambridge were great, and quite relatable. Recounting his post-university years of near-poverty, and his eventual success also gave me a modicum of confidence that I’ll be able to make something of myself, too (though, not in the way Mitchell has, I’m sure).

While the memoir is undoubtedly funny, as one can expect, it is also quite moving. When talking about his friends and colleagues, he is always gracious and warm. His respect and brotherly love for Robert Webb is obvious, and he is particularly heartfelt when talking about his writing/comedy partner’s wedding. The second-to-last chapter of the book, however, was the greatest surprise: in it, he talks about Victoria Coren, who he recently married. It is a very sweet and endearing story of a long courtship, with its ups-and-downs, but also shows Mitchell has a hitherto unseen romantic streak. Very moving.

Overall, and I know this review is relatively short, I loved listening to this. It’s funny, curmudgeonly, honest, and entertaining from beginning to end. There were no drops in momentum or interest. Excellently and clearly performed, great production, and a great story.

Very highly recommended. If you have any interest in comedian/actor memoirs, or comedy, then you must listen to and/or read Back Story.

I liked it so much, I’ve also bought the eBook, so I can read the best bits again, later – I’d like to share some of the best nuggets of wisdom, but I didn’t write any of them down while listening.

***

Back Story is out now – available as an audiobook from Audible, and in print and eBook from Harper.

Quick Review: “Happy Accidents” by Jane Lynch (Audible / Harper)

LynchJ-HappyAccidentsAUDA great memoir by a great comedienne and actress

In the summer of 1974, a fourteen-year-old girl in Dolton, Illinois, had a dream. A dream to become an actress, like her idols Ron Howard and Vicki Lawrence. But it was a long way from the South Side of Chicago to Hollywood, and it didn’t help that she’d recently dropped out of the school play, The Ugly Duckling. Or that the Hollywood casting directors she wrote to replied that “professional training was a requirement.”

But the funny thing is, it all came true. Through a series of Happy Accidents, Jane Lynch created an improbable and hilarious path to success. In those early years, despite her dreams, she was also consumed with anxiety, feeling out of place in both her body and her family. To deal with her worries about her sexuality, she escaped in positive ways such as joining a high school chorus not unlike the one in Glee but also found destructive outlets. She started drinking almost every night her freshman year of high school and developed a mean and judgmental streak that turned her into a real- life Sue Sylvester.

Then, at thirty-one, she started to get her life together. She was finally able to embrace her sexuality, come out to her parents, and quit drinking for good. Soon after, a Frosted Flakes commercial and a chance meeting in a coffee shop led to a role in the Christopher Guest movie Best in Show, which helped her get cast in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Similar coincidences and chance meetings led to roles in movies starring Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, and even Meryl Streep in 2009’s Julie & Julia. Then, of course, came the two lucky accidents that truly changed her life. Getting lost in a hotel led to an introduction to her future wife, Lara. Then, a series she’d signed up for abruptly got canceled, making it possible for her to take the role of Sue Sylvester in Glee, which made her a megastar.

Today, Jane Lynch has finally found the contentment she thought she’d never have. Part comic memoir and part inspirational narrative, this is a book equally for the rabid Glee fan and for anyone who needs a new perspective on life, love, and success.

While listening to this audiobook, I realised I’ve seen a hell of a lot more of Jane Lynch’s TV and movie work than I originally thought I had. And, it must be said, she’s brilliant in everything. That’s quite the detailed synopsis, above, and I think I will actually not go into too much detail about the topics and projects Lynch goes into, here. I really, really enjoyed listening to this.

Happy Accidents is an aptly-titled memoir, too. The author’s journey really has been a long string of happy accidents – with a few unhappy ones thrown in the mix, too. Here, Lynch takes the listener/reader on a journey to and from her childhood in small-town Illinois, to New York (which seems to have been an alternatively exhilarating and exasperating city), to Hollywood. She describes her experiences trying to get her first roles, the roadblocks that appeared in front of her – sometimes due to her gender, sometimes because of the vagaries of Hollywood and television.

She’s honest, self-deprecating, sarcastic and doesn’t speak ill of anyone. She’s kind towards and praiseworthy of many of the people she’s worked with – from Charlie Sheen (Two and a Half Men) and James Spader (Boston Legal), to the whole cast and crew of Glee (her enthusiasm for this show is infectious).

Happy Accidents is, frankly, excellent. Lynch’s narration is amusing, welcoming, clear and, well, quite happy. She’s open and honest about certain aspects of her character that she doesn’t seem too happy about, but also enthusiastic about her experiences and work, and certainly her colleagues. The production is crystal clear. Very highly recommended.

Also try: Tina Fey’s Bossypants; Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles

LynchJ-HappyAccidents

“Bossypants” by Tina Fey (Reagan Arthur Books)

Fey-BossypantsA brilliant, hilarious memoir

Before Liz Lemon, before Weekend Update, before Sarah Palin, Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey’s story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon – from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you bossy.

(Includes Special, Never-Before-Solicited Opinions on Breastfeeding, Princesses, Photoshop, the Electoral Process, and Italian Rum Cake!)

I don’t think any book has made me laugh so often and out loud during the opening pages as did Bossypants. In fact, I rarely laugh out loud when I read.

This memoir is self-deprecating, honest, very well-written, and above all hilarious. I’m still not entirely sure how to review memoirs, yet, having not done many of them. In the case of Bossypants, to offer too many examples of Fey’s witty observations and reminiscences would be to kind of spoil the point of reading this in the first place. And there are a lot of very funny moments in this book…

Fey takes us quickly through her childhood and teenage/college years, sprinkling these chapters with her observations about growing up and being a woman (in comedy, college, and society in general).

While my parents talked to the teacher, I was sent to a table to do coloring. I was introduced to a Greek boy named Alex whose mom was next in line to meet with the teacher. We colored together in silence. I was so used to being praised and encouraged that when I finished my drawing I held it up to show Alex, who immediately ripped it in half. I didn’t have the language to express my feelings then, but my thoughts were something like “Oh, it’s like that, motherfucker? Got it.” Mrs. Fey’s change-of-life baby had entered the real world.

I think the only weak chapter in the book was about Fey’s honeymoon on a cruise (this dragged, didn’t really say much, and wasn’t particularly funny – naturally, this meant I thought it didn’t belong…). Every other chapter and topic was fascinating – Fey’s move to join Second City and her adventures there, meeting Amy Poehler, her tenure at Saturday Night Live, the creation and success of 30 Rock. I think I was mainly surprised that there was very little mention of Mean Girls (except in passing). It would have been interesting to read a little more about that movie. As someone who first became properly familiar with Fey’s work during the 2008 presidential election, it was also interesting to read her thoughts about how her impressions of Sarah Palin brought her back to SNL and right into the national conversation (but, damn was she brilliant in that role…).

Alongside the memories, Fey sprinkles some great observations and critiques of various topics and entertainment industry “norms”. These include the difficulties she and others have had in promoting greater diversity in TV and comedy; the stagnant TV executives’ impression of what kind of show can be successful…

“For years the networks have tried to re-create the success of Friends by making pilot after pilot about beautiful twenty-somethings living together in New York. Beautiful twenty-somethings living in Los Angeles. Beautiful twenty-somethings investigating sexy child murders in Miami. This template never works, because executives refuse to realize that Friends was the exception, not the rule.”

the excessive use of Photo Shop these days…

“Just like how everyone learned to spot fake boobs – look for the upper-arm meat. If there’s no upper-arm meat, the breasts are fake. Unlike breast implants, which can mess up your health, digital retouching is relatively harmless. As long as we all know it’s fake, it’s no more dangerous to society than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Photoshop is just like makeup. When it’s done well it looks great, and when it’s overdone you look like a crazy asshole. Unfortunately, most people don’t do it well. I find, the fancier the fashion magazine is, the worse the Photoshop. It’s as if they are already so disgusted that a human has to be in the clothes, they can’t stop erasing human features.”

… and many others.

I don’t think I’ve done a very good job at ‘reviewing’ this book. Regardless, and to sum up in a clear, succinct manner: You need to read this book. It’s hilarious, welcoming, intelligent, and very endearing. Very highly recommended.