Book review: 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die

Book review: 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich.

Published by Workman.

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1,000 books to read before you die is actually a surprisingly tall order, when you think about it. Personally, I feel like I read quite a lot, but tend to average only about fifty books a year. Some of these are long: War and Peace, A Suitable Boy, Stephen King’s The Stand. Some are short: Goodbye Mr Chips, Jonathan Livingston Seagull or The Catcher in the Rye. But always roundabout thirty to seventy books a year.
I am writing in October 2018. That means if I want to read 1,000 books, I won’t be finished until about 2038. I’ve actually read well over 100 of the titles included on this list already (151 to be exact), but even if I miss them out, I’ll still be nearly sixty by the time I’m done.
Perhaps I should up my game. This book itself apparently took only six years to write. And it’s a good book which has interesting stuff to say about every title featured. The books are listed alphabetically by author, unlike the similarly titled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die which lists each book chronologically and is, it should be emphasised, completely different. Neither that or this are actually listed as a book you must read here although both are good and will take you a while to read on their own.
This is an excellent volume and a very thorough piece of work. I would personally question the absence of anything by Sue Townsend, Ian McEwan or Iain Banks, but hey, it is American.
But still: check it out. And even if this is the only book you read between now and 2038, you could do a lot worse.

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Book review: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

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Soupy Twists!: The Full Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Fry and Laurie, by Jem Roberts. Published by: Unbound

It has now been thirty years since the TV debut of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This news should be ample cause for celebration in itself. Running for four series between 1987 and 1995, the show was occasionally patchy, in common with every sketch show ever made (yes, even The Grumbleweeds) and ran out of steam before the end. The “yuppie businessman” sketches, generally featuring an over-use of the word “damn” often seemed to run on forever.

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But dammit Peter, thanks largely to the formidable combined intellect of comedy’s foremost Steve and Hugh (no offence, Punt and Dennis), A Bit of Fry and Laurie was far more often good than bad.

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Consider: the song “Kicking ass,” a parody of US foreign policy values which concludes: “We’ll kick the ass of cancer and we’ll kick the ass of AIDS,
And as for global warming, we’ll just kick ass wearing shades. We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone, We just stand in front of the mirror, and try to kick our own.”

Or Fry: “I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player who first pointed out how lovely I was.”

Or Laurie: “Then I was Princess Anne’s assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job.”

Or Fry’s: “I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

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Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jem Roberts’ excellent book reminds us just what a formidable body of work the talented duo have produced together: Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder (including the famous scene in which Fry’s Iron Duke punches Laurie’s Prince Regent repeatedly), countless TV adverts specifically for Alliance and Leicester (“Mostin!”), their early Young Ones appearance, operating the celebrity gunge tank on Comic Relief, Peter’s Friends and much much more. Roberts also fully covers their formidable solo careers including Laurie’s spell as the highest paid TV actor in the world, in the long running House, probably the only thing many overseas readers seeing this will know him for. Fry has, meanwhile, appeared in everything from IQ (a 1995 movie comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein) to QI. His intense overwork was, of course, symptomatic of problems that would lead to the Cell Mates debacle in 1995.

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Laurie and particularly Fry’s lives have, of course, been well-documented already: as a writer on the history of Blackadder and a biographer of Fry’s slightly older technology-obsessed friend, Douglas Adams, Jem Roberts has written about the boys before himself. He deserves all the more praise then for shedding new light on them – and uncovering and reproducing many new unused A Bit of Fry and Laurie scripts – in this fresh, thoroughly enjoyable and engaging biography of Britain’s brightest ever comedy partnership.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 3

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Upstart Crow, that is, the further adventures of Will Shakespeare, returns for a third series. As before, Shakespeare (David Mitchell) is depicted as a normal if somewhat conceited man, simultaneously brilliant while full of human flaws. He alternates between his humble Stratford domestic existence with wife, Anne (Liza Tarbuck), somewhat embarrassing parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox) and children (notably Helen Monks) and his busier London life dominated by his flamboyant contemporary, Kit Marlow (Tim Downie) and assistant Kate (Gemma Whelan).

Ben Elton’s sitcom has always had something of the air of a Blackadder II tribute act about it (not forgetting, of course, that Elton co-wrote that superb mid-eighties series). Will is essentially a less sinister Edmund, Marlow is Flashman, Greene (Mark Heap) is Lord Melchett, while Kate is a female…er…”Kate” (short for “Bob”) while Baldrick was basically a much dirtier Bottom (Rob Rouse). Ahem…

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There is also a definite sense of fatigue creeping in. The issue of Marlow’s impending murder is dealt with rather unsatisfactorily and there is also an over-reliance on extending words (for example, “strap on a pair of boobingtons”) for comic effect. It’s lazy and not even very Shakespearian. There are cameos by ex-Young Ones Nigel Planer and Ade Edmondson and, separately, by Edmondson’s daughter, rising star Beattie Edmondson.

And yet, for all that, there are frequent flashes of brilliance here. The use of language is often superb as with Mitchell’s hilarious sex monologue in the first episode. Ben Miller brilliantly sends up actor Mark Rylance as the Tudor actor, Wolf Hall and Spencer Jones continues his excellent piss-take of Ricky Gervais. The cast, particularly Whelan and Downie are also consistently great.

And, as in real life, all does not always necessarily end well. The final episode is surprisingly, beautifully and wonderfully poignant.

Release date: October 8th 2018

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Carlos Ezquerra 1947 – 2018

ComicScene UK Magazine

dreddThe death of Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog co-creator Carlos Ezquerra, brings to an end a unique era in comicshistory. Chris Hallam looks back on a golden career…

Carlos Ezquerra was there right from the start.

It was the mid-seventies and writers John Wagner and Pat Mills were working on a new character: a futuristic cop. Perhaps his name would be Judge Dead or Dread? Or Dredd.

Wagner had worked with Ezquerra, on war comic Battle. Mills approached the young Spanish artist (all three men were then in their twenties) in search of design ideas for the new character. Wagner sent along an advert for the film, Death Race 2000 (1975), in the hope of stimulating ideas. The ad featured a grim, leather-clad motorist in a helmet. Ezquerra took the idea and ran with it, drawing inspiration from his own experience growing up in General Franco’s Spain. Wagner…

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DVD/Blu-ray review: I Feel Pretty

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DVD/Blu-ray review: I Feel Pretty

Out now

Directed by: Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein

Starring: Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Emily Ratajkowski, Rory Scovel, Aidy Bryant, Busy Philipps

Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) struggles in life. Working in the basement of an office block, running the website of a major cosmetics firm, she aspires to apply for the position of receptionist. But, crucially she lacks confidence. She is in fact perfectly attractive but being slightly overweight she feels anxious about her own appearance, a feeling re-enforced by the large number of models who are cast in the film alongside her.

She’s so big that she actually breaks the exercise bike she’s pedalling on in the gym. This sequence is played for laughs but completely fails to amuse. For one thing, the accident – were it real – looks quite painful. For another, Renee immediately walks out humiliated, as if it’s her own fault. Although it’s quite possible she might feel like this, nobody challenges this view in the film: clearly the accident was her own fault. She was too fat to go on an exercise bike. Stupid girl! In reality, she’s nowhere near overweight enough to have broken a fully functioning exercise bike. She should be suing them.

Later on, guess what? The same thing happens again. It’s still not funny, but this time has plot implications. Having just watched the bit in the fairground in the film, Big, Renee has desperately wished under a fountain, not to be “big” (quite the opposite) but to be beautiful. Now, soon after, thoroughly concussed after her second accident, she becomes convinced she’s very beautiful. In fact, no magical transformation has occurred. She’s physically exactly the same.

The film really isn’t very funny at all. That said, it is mildly amusing seeing Renee convinced she has been suddenly radically transformed. For a while anyway. She grows confident enough to land her dream job and make a big impression on the boss of the cosmetics firm (Michelle Williams – atypically annoying in a sub-Marilyn Monroe performance). She also lands a boyfriend – a genuinely nice guy (Scovel) – although a surprisingly ordinary one in the circumstances. She ultimately ends up getting too snobby and alienating her friends (Bryant and Philipps).

Amy Schumer is a major name in comedy these days and one senses I Feel Pretty has good intentions behind it. But it misdirects its fire somehow and, crucially, for a comedy,  just isn’t funny.

Worst of all: it doesn’t even have the song, I Feel Pretty, in it.

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DVD/Blu-ray review: March of the Penguins 2 – The Next Step

Release date: November 5th 2018

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The penguins are back. And this time, they’re mad as hell…
Thirteen years ago, the United States went penguin-crazy as the documentary film, March of the Penguins (La Marche de l’Empereur) waddled to considerable box office success. It was a nicely made film and many people undeniably have a soft spot for these particular flightless birds. Despite this, many Britons were probably baffled by the film’s success which inevitably spread to the UK too. It is easy for us to forget that the US does not have high quality nature documentaries on TV fairly regularly. We have, in many ways, been spoilt by the licence fee and David Attenborough. We don’t know how lucky we are sometimes.
The film produced some odd side effects, however, with many eccentric American conservatives bending over backwards to find reassurance in right-wing lessons which they imagined the film had taught them as if it turned out an episode of Pingu had been secretly written by Ayn Rand. It is surprising that they were not put off by the fact the film was French, the French nation being held in even lower than usual regard by the US at the time after they’d sensibly avoided the Iraq War which both the US and UK had foolishly become embroiled in. The film’s success also led to a spate of slightly bizarre penguin-themed animations: Happy Feet, Happy Feet Two and Surf’s Up (although the last two of these flopped at the box office).
For various reasons, this sequel seems unlikely to set the world alight in quite the same way. It’s pretty similar to the first film. It looks nice. The English language version is again narrated by Morgan Freeman. The penguins are praised for their “good manners” as they walk along neatly. They do walk along neatly. It is nothing to do with “manners” though. That’s a human quality. It’s that sort of standard.
This was shown on a TV channel in the US, here it’s gone straight to DVD/Blu-ray. But don’t be fooled: if you saw March of the Penguins, rest assured: this is every bit as boring as the original. I pretty much forgot I’d ever seen it even before I finished watching it.

Book review: Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince

Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media.
His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman.
Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith or Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life.

corbHe, by and large, comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a backbencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated.
There is nothing to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, when serving as a backbencher. He is certainly not pro-terrorism, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future.
Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not.
The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings, in my view. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.

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There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgewood-Benn (p71 and p308).
By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly at the fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable and that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than the likes of John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – all from comparatively humble backgrounds – were unlikely converts to the Right.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, Rosa Prince is a Telegraph writer. We should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge.
These blind spots (admittedly common to many Tory supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.

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“Psst! The secret’s out…”

Chris Hallam's World View

Welcome to Exeter: a city of witch trials, civil war sieges, uprisings, thwarted conquests and World War II bombing raids…

At least it was once…

Today Exeter is a modern, thriving and pleasant city, known for its cathedral, university, busy array of shops, cafés and restaurants and historic quayside. However, beyond its sometimes quirky, narrow streets, hide many lesser-known aspects in its history, those forgotten fragments of the city’s past that have thus far mostly eluded twenty-first-century attention.

How many people today, for example, know of the devastating Victorian theatre fire, the mass executions or of the multiple sieges that the city has endured during centuries of warfare? In Secret Exeter, local authors Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam attempt to shed light on the neglected corners of Exeter’s past.

From the introduction of Secret Exeter:

“Exeter is a fine place to live. Like Goldilocks’ third bowl of porridge, it is…

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Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson

Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson. Published by: Carlton Books.

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A century ago, the guns fell silent after four years of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. It is a conflict often described as futile with countless lives lost in skirmishes over very trivial areas of land, it is worth remembering that this was a war won as a result of military strategy as well as a war of attrition.

In fact, as late as 1918, after the humiliating capitulation of Bolshevik Russia at Brest-Litovsk, the war still looked like it could go pretty much either way.

Major General Julian Thompson’s book is produced in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum and is packed with detailed maps and relevant illustrations. It is a thorough and comprehensive account of the final year of the First World War.

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Book review: Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box

Chris Hallam's World View

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Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box: 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections
Edited by: Philip Cowley and Robert Ford
Published by Biteback Books

People who vote Tory are rubbish at sex. Okay, perhaps that’s not fair. But they are worse than at sex than normal people are. Sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s apparently true. If this troubles you, perhaps defecting to UKIP might help? Or marry someone else.
That’s actually the only real revelation about sex contained within this book of fifty short political essays about elections and the imminent 2015 General Election penned by the leading political academics throughout the land.
The title was worth a try though. After all, one suspects simply calling it 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections might not have attracted fewer readers.
Which would be a shame as the book does address important, interesting if non-sexy…

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