Book review: Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

 

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“I sometimes feel like my head is a computer with too many windows open,” writes Matt Haig. “Too much clutter on the desktop.”

He is not the only one.

In recent years, the world has become an increasingly anxious and stressful place. And Haig should know: he has suffered from debilitating attacks of depression in the past himself. This book is essentially a follow-up to his bestselling 2015 account of his own experiences, Reasons To Stay Alive. This book is less about Haig himself though. It is more of a self-help book, divided into short, concise chapters. And I’m well aware the phrase “self-help book” is not exactly inspiring. But this isn’t the usual Eat Drink Pray Shoots and Leaves dross. Haig (a talented novelist) can write and knows what he’s talking about.

So what is the problem? Part of it is down to the rapid rise of technology. At one point, Haig lists a selection of technological developments we have become accustomed to just since the start of the 21st century. It’s a surprisingly long list.

Supermarkets radiate harsh electric light. Twitter debates turn everyone into either a friend or foe in an instant. A simple viewing of a news broadcast can be a harrowing experience.

Haig is certainly not anti-technology per se: he is a prolific user of Twitter himself and recognises the importance of the resources of emotional support the internet can provide. But he cautions against overuse of these medium, such as the endless mindless trawling of the internet, so often carried out on our mobile phones. Perhaps you are even doing this now as you read this. If so, cut it out. Or at least, think about how much time you’re doing this.

At one point, Haig summarises a small part of his argument in a poem:

“When anger trawls the internet,

Looking for a hook;

It’s time to disconnect,

And go and read a book.”

Perhaps start with this one. You could do a lot worse.

Notes on a Nervous Planet: How To Survive the 21st Century

Author: Matt Haig

Out: now

Published by: Canongate

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Blu-ray review: Game Night

Game Night

Thirty-something couple, Max and Annie Davis (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) like games. Nothing weird, just simple quiz games, or perhaps charades or Pictionary, usually with a group of friends once a week at their house. Ultra-competitive, the couple first met during a particularly exhilarating quiz session while Gary even managed to incorporate his successful marriage proposal into one of their ‘Game Nights’.

The only awkward point about this arrangement is Gary, their next-door neighbour. An intense and socially maladjusted cop, Gary (Jesse Plemons) is more the ex-husband of a friend than a friend in his own right and with his marriage now a thing of the past, Max and Annie are not particularly keen to invite him over.

The other fly in the ointment is Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s rich, successful and similarly competitive brother. Brooks’ occasional visits have a way of getting under Max’s skin. Indeed, it is during a special “Game Night” apparently initially organised by Brooks, that Brooks is kidnapped. Here the fun begins: is the “kidnapping” just part of a game or has Brooks been genuinely abducted after getting involved in some shady business dealings? And, more to the point, if, as seems likely, Brooks is in genuine trouble, will Max and Annie and his four game-obsessed friends ever realise what’s going on?

Game Night is a good, lightweight piece of evening entertainment boosted by a strong cast which includes TV’s Catastrophe star, Sharon Horgan and a wonderfully intense turn from Plemons as cop next door, Gary. There are lots of fun film references – Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury play a couple under strain after she blurts out that she once had sex with a celebrity whose name she won’t reveal – and Rachel McAdams and Billy Magnussen particularly demonstrates again their real comic flair, the latter as Ryan, the least intelligent person in the film.

At one point, it is revealed, Max’s stresses about Brooks are hampering his attempts to help Annie conceive: an unnecessary element in what is essentially a far fetched escapist comedy. This aspect also makes Max and Annie seem even more like Chandler and Monica Bing in the later episodes of TV’s Friends.

But in general, this is an enjoyable, forgettable diversion: a welcome Saturday night alternative to your own game of choice, be it Risk, Scrabble or ‘Naked’ Twister.

Blu-ray: Out now

Released by: Warner Bros Home Entertainment

Bonus features:

Gag Reel

An Unforgettable Evening: Making Game Night Featurette

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DVD review: A Very English Scandal

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Forty or so years ago, an extraordinary thing happened. One of the leading political figures of the day, was arrested, charged and tried for conspiracy to murder. The recent BBC drama A Very English Scandal based on the recent non-fiction book by John Preston, brings the story of Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott vividly to life on screen. Russell T. Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk and architect of the 21st century revival of Doctor Who, presents the story with clarity, humour but also the appropriate level of drama.

He is helped immeasurably by a near perfect cast. Hugh Grant, for so long the victim of a bullying press, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, his credentials as an actor of both depth and maturity. He captures perfectly the upper-class charm of the dynamic, hat-wearing old Etonian, Thorpe, who between 1967 and 1976 was amongst the most appealing leaders the Liberal Party ever had. Privately, however, Thorpe (who appeared for a short while in 1974 to be close to achieving a position of influence in a coalition government) was a deeply flawed individual, drawn to extreme solutions when he fears his personal life is erupting into scandal. Grant captures this dark side of Thorpe too.

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Ben Whishaw is also great Norman Scott, the troubled young man who came perilously close to becoming the victim in the farcical dog shooting incident on Dartmoor. The real Scott was grossly mistreated by both Thorpe and a legal process skewed against him by the unscrupulous but brilliant George Carman QC (played here by the excellent Adrian Scarborough) and the absurdly biased and pro-establishment judgement of presiding judge, Sir Joseph Cantley. In a notorious eccentric summing up, Cantley argued, “He is a crook, a fraud, a sponger, a whiner and a parasite…But, of course, he could still be telling the truth.”

Scott deserved better. This breezy, watchable and highly compelling drama directed by Stephen Frears and packed with star turns from a cast which includes Alex Jennings, Patricia Hodge, Michelle Dotrice, Monica Dolan and Jason Watkins at least goes some way towards redressing the balance. It is one of the best of the year so far.

DVD: A Very English Scandal

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release: July 2nd 2018

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Book review: Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know – Conspiracy Theories That Won’t Go Away

Book review: Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know – Conspiracy Theories That Won’t Go Away.

By David Southwell and Graeme Donald

Published by: Carlton Books

Publication date: 12 July 2018

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Conspiracy theories are odd things.

At one extreme we have the people who believe that the Earth is flat or that the world is ran by a sinister cabal of malevolent lizards. Eccentric? Yes. But in many ways, not much more unlikely than what billions of religious people accept unquestioningly on a daily basis.

Less eccentric perhaps, but certainly ill-informed are those who believe the moon landings were faked.  There were, of course, reported to have been seven manned moon landings. Granted, the moon landings may have been faked once. But why would anyone go to the trouble of faking them seven times?

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It is a sad fact that twenty years after that supposedly great easily accessible resource of information, the internet came into our lives, such easily refutable theories are today, if anything, more prevalent than they were before.

But let us not get carried away. After all, in 1972, if I had alleged the US president and his administration were implementing a full-scale cover-up to suppress legal investigation into illegal break-ins authorised to discredit their political opponents, I could have been accused of peddling baseless conspiracy theories. However, as we now know: the claims would have turned out to be true.

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The Iran-Contra scandal is another example of a real-life conspiracy. We should not let President Trump or anyone else convince us that the existence of a few flat Earthers mean that there are no real conspiracies at all. We should not let any such scepticism divert us from perusing perfectly legitimate lines of enquiry, such as establishing the truth behind Trump’s dubious Russian connections. Conspiracies do happen in real life, after all. Not always, but sometimes.

This book does a good job of summarising the key conspiracy theories. It details their key points while never  (or at least, only occasionally) specifically endorsing them. It would be a good coffee table read which would have benefited from a more detailed list of contents. Admittedly, it’s not a huge book but the conspiracies here are listed under ten general headings and these aren’t much help if you’re generally flicking through. Does the JFK assassination come under Politics, Historical, Tragedies or Murdered Or Missing, for example? Clue: it is not the same category as his brother Bobby’s own assassination. A minor criticism, yes, but one which slightly counts against it.

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There are a good number of conspiracy theories detailed here and as usual, the Kennedy killings stand out amongst the most compelling ones. This is largely because of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder two days after JFK’s assassination in 1963 but also because of Oswald’s Cuban links, the Kennedys’ mafia connections and Bobby and Jack’s anti-CIA stance.

Others seem much less credible. Bearing in mind their personalities, the official verdicts on Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Elvis and Kurt Cobain’s deaths all seen very believable. Yet rumours about their supposed murder or alleged survival continue to persist.

Some issues are more complex. Most of us would reject the most outlandish theories about the September 11th attacks in 2001. But some elements do remain unexplained.

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Otherwise: do Freemasons run the world? Well, they may be involved in some localised corruption but, basically no, they do not. Do extra-terrestrials exist? Probably, somewhere, but not here. Was M15 spying on Harold Wilson? Some in M15 definitely were, but even so, the former Labour Prime Minister was undeniably overly paranoid about it.

Hardest to credit, are the enduring rumours about Princess Diana’s demise in 1997. As the famous Mitchell and Webb sketch highlighted, a car accident is surely one of the least assured ways of efficiently assassinating anyone even ignoring the fact that it’s hardly credible the Duke of Edinburgh had either the power or the motivation to arrange it anyway.

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This is nevertheless a compelling compendium of contemporary conspiracies incorporating everything from the most credible to the completely crazy.

CHRIS HALLAM

Book reviews: Matt Haig

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Matt Haig is fast becoming one of the hottest British authors around.

Last year’s *How To Stop Time* – the captivating story of a man who ages at an incredibly slow rate, living from Tudor times into the 21st century – was one of the bestsellers of last year. It is set to become a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch. https://bit.ly/2twITK8

Haig has also received acclaim for his non-fiction work, *Reasons to stay Alive* which detailed his own personal battle with severe anxiety and depression as well as for his earlier novels, *The Radleys* and *The Humans*. He writes equally well for both adults and children. His next book, *Notes On A Nervous Planet* is out from Canongate shortly. It’s one of the grownup ones.

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Anyway, in the light of Haig’s recent success, Canongate have decided to re-publish three of his earlier perhaps less read novels written during the 2000s.

*The Last Family in England* (2004) is Haig’s first ever book for adults. The name is actually something of an oddity, ignoring the story’s chief selling point: that it is set in the world of dogs. Operating within their own complex network of rules and organisations, unbeknown to their human “masters”, the canines battle to keep the fragmenting strands of human society together. It’s an amusing but also a powerful read.

As then title perhaps suggests *The Dead Father’s Club* (2006) is an altogether darker affair with a plot focusing on a boy who suspects his uncle of having murdered his father (who has died recently in a car crash) so as to marry the boy’s newly widowed mother. And he has his reasons: his dead father’s ghost has come back and told him so. Indeed, it also tells him a few other things. But can it be trusted? If this sounds like an updated version of *Hamlet*, well, in a way, it is. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Finally, *The Possession of Mr Cave* (2008) is even bleaker still, a harrowing story set against a backdrop of murder and suicide.

But don’t be put off. These books are all worth your time. And Matt Haig is certainly a writer to watch in the future.

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What happened next: the Seven Dwarfs

sevendwarvesthanksgiving1The years after Snow White left the forest to marry the Prince proved to be difficult for the seven dwarfs.

Speaking at their annual meeting, Doc identified two clear threats to the mine’s future. First was the obvious demographic time bomb: all of the dwarfs were ageing, male and childless. Secondly, production was suffering from the fact that only three of the seven dwarfs – Happy, Grumpy and Doc – were actively working regularly. Sleepy was often absent on account of his chronic lethargy, Sneezy was almost perpetually off sick. Dopey, meanwhile, frequently simply forgot to turn up for work. Bashful suffered such from such chronically low self-esteem that he could rarely be dragged out of his room.

In addition to a long-term suggestion that in future, dwarfs be given more promising names (Doc’s own name was conveniently vocational, but what chance had Dopey ever stood?), Doc proposed a recruitment drive. Within weeks, the mine had five new dwarfs: Botany, Philately, Arty, Greedy and Paranoia.

Doc privately anticipated problems with Greedy and Paranoia while Dopey was forced to admit he had thought there was a dwarf in the group called Greedy already. But with their respective private interests in flowers, stamp collecting and art, Botany, Philately and Arty soon became a credit to the team. That Easter, Arty even produced a long portrait of the twelve dwarfs sitting at a long table, eating supper together. Noting one of the dwarfs in the picture didn’t have a beard, Paranoia began to speculate that one of the dwarfs was secretly female. But it actually turned out to be Dopey.

Greedy betrayed the other dwarfs soon afterwards. Paranoia exposed him: he had privately sold the mine on to unscrupulous developers. The mine was closed almost immediately and converted into luxury flats

Confronted by Grumpy at a meeting, Greedy defended himself:

“It’s simple economics.” he argued, lighting a cigar. “Sure, the mine’s making money now but what about in ten years? It was only a matter of time.”

Some thought Greedy sounded like the evil Queen who had been overthrown some time before. “There is no such thing as society, only individual dwarfs.” He went on. “The state doesn’t owe you a living, you know. You should all get on your bikes and whistle while you look for work.”

In practice, the community was devastated. Some of the dwarfs briefly found employment when Greedy opened a call centre but they lost their jobs again when he relocated it to Mumbai a few weeks later.

His self-esteem shattered, Bashful spent more and more time in internet chat rooms. Dopey spent more time in bed than Sleepy and the other dwarfs noticed his room started to smell suspiciously of acrid smoke. Doc, too, who actually had no formal medical training (his doctorate was in Media Studies), struggled to find work. Even Happy was on Prozac.

The only distraction for the dwarfs was that Snow White had returned, her marriage having failed after the Prince had cheated on her. “There were three of us in this marriage,” she said. The dwarfs weren’t sure about the Prince’s new wife at first but ultimately concluded she was closer to the Prince in age and intellect and probably had more in common with him than Snow White had.

But aside from that, Greedy aside, nobody lived happily ever after.

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DVD review: Inside No.9 – Series Four

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Cert: 15. BBC Worldwide

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Rory Kinnear, Monica Dolan, Kevin Eldon, Emilia Fox, Bill Paterson, Sian Gibson, Noel Clarke, Nicola Walker, Nigel Planer, Helen Monks

Four years after the series launched with the hilarious but increasingly sinister wardrobe-based adventure, Sardines, former League of Gentlemen Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith continue to astound with six more often funny, frequently sinister half hour comedy dramas. As before, all are linked by the fact they involve the number 9 in some way.

Despite the fact its story-line incorporates murder, adultery and suicide, the first episode Zanzibar is positively cheery by Inside No. 9 standards, a breathtaking, star-studded hotel-based farce with strong Shakespearean overtones. The whole thing is written entirely in iambic pentameter and is quite, quite brilliant.

Even so, the series highlight might actually be the second episode, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. Detailing a heartbreaking and seemingly ill-advised reunion between two Eighties comedians, it manages to be both funny and desperately moving.

Like the early Christopher Nolan film Memento, the third episode, Once Removed gradually unravels its clever homicidal story-line by showing its scenes in reverse order. To Have And To Hold, meanwhile (an episode which, it must be said, rarely even tries to be funny) presents an uncomfortable portrait of an unhappy marriage. As usual, there is more going on than meets the eye.

Finally, And The Winner Is… takes a look behind the scenes at the judging process of a major TV award while Tempting Fate focuses on a clear-out following the death of a local hoarder.

These last two episodes are probably the weakest. But this is not a major criticism. Inside No.9 remains head and shoulders above virtually everything else on TV.

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Book review: The Coen Brothers by Ian Nathan

Published by: Aurum Press

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There are certain questions every Coen Brothers’ fan should know the answer to.

Such as:

Why is The Big Lebowski set during the 1991 Gulf War?

Why is Fargo called Fargo, when it is actually set in nearby Brainerd?

Where does the name O Brother Where Art Thou? come from?

Which non-Coen Brothers’ film starring Diane Keaton helped them get over a particularly nasty bout of writers’ block?

Which is their only remake? (Yes, there is only one!)

Frances McDormand In 'Fargo'

And so on…

Happily, all these questions and more are answered in Ian Nathan’s comprehensive and beautifully illustrated coffee table book which gives an invaluable insight into all of the nearly twenty films they have directed since 1984’s Blood Simple (not to mention, the many others such as Bad Santa and Bridge of Spies which they had a hand in).

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Essential for Coen Brothers’ fanatics everywhere and strongly recommended for everyone else.

Book review: The Year of the Geek by James Clarke

The Year of the Geek: 365 Adventures From The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Universe, by James Clarke. Published by: Aurum Press.

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When did it become fashionable to become a geek? Geekiness is, after all, surely after all, by definition a shameful, untrendy preoccupation. Does this mean that anyone who claims to aspire to be a geek is necessarily a pretender to the nerd throne?

Well, no. Some people blame this trend on things like US sitcom Big Bang Theory and the excellent but now defunct British near equivalent The IT Crowd. But, in truth, this tendency which has resulted in websites like Den of Geek and books like this, has always been there. After all, you can’t get Spider-man without meeting Peter Parker first.

This book takes a chronological approach with a different geek anniversary highlighted for every day of the year. This, it must be said, is potentially of some use to someone who writes professionally on geek issues like me.

May 25, for example, is the anniversary of Star Wars’ US release in 1977. Lord of the Rings’ author JRR Tolkien was born on January 3rd while even the fictional birthday of Harry Potter (July 31st 1990) is noted.

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Some of the anniversaries are arguably not very major (the fourth season premiere of Babylon 5 on November 4 1995 is commemorated – as if any of us would forget this date anyway?) Some are arguably not very geeky (the outbreak of the First World War in 1914) but are interesting anyway. There is some discussion incidentally of each anniversary.

What elevates this book above the norm, however, is the innovative use of infographics used to illustrate a rich array of charts which demonstrate everything from the longevity of respective Doctor Who actors to the box office success of the Star Trek films.

An excellent addition to the coffee table of every socially maladjusted maladroit in the land.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 2

Upstart Crow s2Familiarity, as someone once said, can breed contempt.

Happily, this is certainly isn’t the case with the second outing for Ben Elton’s Tudor sitcom, which aims to tell the story behind the creation of Shakespeare’s plays.

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It’s not a dramatically original idea (the films Shakespeare In Love and Bill have all had a pop at it) but aided by a strong cast, this generally works well. As the Bard himself, David Mitchell does an excellent job of humanising a figure who can sometimes seem like some sort of 16th century superhero. Mitchell essentially portrays him as a likeable clever dick torn between the demands of his work, the acting ambitions of his friend Kate (Gemma Whelan), the roguish charms of contemporary Kit Marlow (Tim Downie), the rivalry of his nemesis Robert Greene who coined the term “upstart crow” to describe Shakespeare in the first place (Mark Heap) and the attentions of his more common but loving Stratford family (Liza Tarbuck, Helen Monks, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox). Noel Fielding also crops up in one episode of this series as another real life figure, composer Thomas Morley.

The 2017 Christmas special is not included here although if you’ve seen it, you will probably agree this is no bad thing.

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A modern comedy classic then? Perhaps not quite, at least, not yet. But this is certainly enjoyable, clever fun with a top notch cast and a welcome return to form for the generally unfairly reviled talent that is Ben Elton.

And, no. The “familiarity breeds contempt” quote is not by Shakespeare. Although on this evidence, the man himself might have claimed it was.

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