Quick Review: THINKING ABOUT IT ONLY MAKES IT WORSE by David Mitchell (Faber)

MitchellD-ThinkingAboutItOnlyMakesItWorseA superb collection of Mitchell’s Observer columns

Why is my jumper depreciating? What’s wrong with calling a burglar brave? Why are people so f***ing hung up about swearing? Why do the asterisks in that sentence make it okay? Why do so many people want to stop other people doing things, and how can they be stopped from stopping them? Why is every film and TV programme a sequel or a remake? Why are we so reliant on perpetual diversion that someone has created chocolate toothpaste? Is there anything to be done about the Internet?

These and many other questions trouble David Mitchell as he delights us with a tour of the absurdities of modern life – from Ryanair to Downton Abbey, sports day to smoking, nuclear weapons to phone etiquette, UKIP to hotdogs made of cats. Funny, provocative and shot through with refreshing amounts of common sense, Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse celebrates and commiserates on the state of things in our not entirely glorious nation.

David Mitchell is a comedian, actor, writer and the polysyllabic member of Mitchell and Webb. He won BAFTAs for Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, and has also starred in Jam and Jerusalem, The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff and Ambassadors. He writes for the Observer, chairs TheUnbelievable Truth, is a team captain on Would I Lie To You? and has been in two films, neither of which made a profit.

I have long been a fan of David Mitchell’s television work – That Mitchell & Webb Look, Peep Show (which I was actually didn’t love at first), the all-too-short Ambassadors mini-series, and his frequent guest spots on QI and Have I Got News For You being my favourites. After I listened to the audio edition of his superb memoir, Back Story, my respect for him grew even more (it’s among my top ten ‘reads’ of the year, easily). I didn’t know how frequently he had been writing for the Observer, however, so I was pleasantly surprised when I received a review copy of Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse. This is a great read. Continue reading

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

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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.

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

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“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.

Rat Queens, Vol.1 – “Sass & Sorcery” (Image Comics)

Writer: Kurtis J. Wiebe | Artist: Roc Upchurch

Who are the Rat Queens?

A pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire, and they’re in the business of killing all god’s creatures for profit.

It’s also a darkly comedic sass-and-sorcery series starring Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage, Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Atheist Human Cleric and Betty the Hippy Smidgen Thief. This modern spin on an old school genre is a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!

Collects: Rat Queens #1-5

In the tradition of Skullkickers (also published by Image) and Princeless, Rat Queens is a tongue-in-cheeky, funny take on traditional sword-and-sorcery tropes. We have the classic fantasy band of adventurers, with an amusing dynamic. That they happen to all be women is a nice touch, too, and Wiebe clearly shows (without any type of preaching) that there’s no reason why only big, hulking male barbarians or wizened, white-bearded sages have to be at the centre of fantasy adventures. Someone in the Rat Queen’s home town is setting up the local mercenary bands – engineering deadly assignments intended to eradicate them entirely. Unfortunately for the conspiracists, the Rat Queens won’t go down without a fight, a lot of killing and plenty of raucous fun.

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As the first volume, we’re still only just getting to know the characters by the end, but I am very eager to read more of their adventures. There is a perfect balance between action, story, and just plain fun in this first volume. At the same time, Wiebe does not ignore the importance of character development, and we start to see them develop a good deal over the course of this collection – there’s still plenty of scope for expansion, which I have no doubt the creative team will firmly exploit in the future.

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There were so many great touches throughout that just made me like the characters more – the unusual, perhaps conflicting character traits and mannerisms they have round them out wonderfully (one, for example, has extreme social anxiety, despite being able to throw down with a troll – below), and even after this short introduction to them, we start to see them as fully-rounded, three-dimensional characters. The dialogue and interaction between the cast is sharp and funny. There are a fair few background gags and asides that a quick read might miss (poor, put upon Dave, for example).

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The artwork is clear, if slightly cartoony. This does not detract from the story, rather it enhances and complements it perfectly – Upchurch realises the action and visual gags extremely well. Like my other favourite artists, Upchurch has a gift for drawing and presenting facial expressions, and conveying so much with a simply smirk, raised eyebrow, or knowing glance. It really adds an excellent, bonus nuance to how the characters interact with each other.

A must-read for fantasy and comics fans. Long live the Rat Queens! Can’t wait to read book two.

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Dead Cat Bounce… [Musical Interlude]

DEAD CAT BOUNCE – I learned about this band today. I went to school with the lead singer. Haven’t spoken to him since school (too many years ago to admit to…). This is kinda surreal. But they’re funny, and actually talented… So check ’em out.

First, a song for Movember…