Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry

Rating: **** (4 out of 5)

Review: I am ambivalent about this book. On one hand it is an extremely well-written account of Mr. Fry’s early life and old-style English education, that manages to be both extremely funny and tragic in its sincerity. On the other hand, the author goes off on tangents a lot, and his love for words meant that his writing was either beautiful and poignant or rather painful to read.

Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an honest and spot-on account of what it feels like to be a child, or rather, how it felt to be a child for me. Of course my life was completely different from Mr. Fry’s (being a girl, from another country and thirty years younger) but I recognized the feelings of shame, humiliation, inadequacy, fierce love, confusion, the need to be brilliant and at the same time wanting to fit in… The looking back at our former selves and to try and understand the completely different person I was. It’s amazing how absolutely honest he manages to be, and how he finds the right words to translate highly complex situations and feelings to paper.

I look forward to reading “The Fry Chronicles”, as I’m pretty sure the best part is still to come.

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Dancing Barefoot by Wil Wheaton

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Review: After reading Wil Wheaton’s memoir, Just a Geek, I figured why not go ahead and read his other works too? So I picked this one up.

It’s very similar in tone and subject matter to Just a Geek, even though most of the stories focus less on his relationship with Star Trek and more on his life and memories. Still, the last (and longest) story, The Saga of SpongeBob VegasPants, was a bit repetitive for me because there was already a shorter version of it in the other book.

This a very fast read and Wil Wheaton’s writing is compelling and keeps the reader interested. However, if you’ve read his other book and follow his blog, it will probably just be more of the same to you.

Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton

Rating: **** (4 out of 5)

Review: A little background on how I came to read this book: like many other people, I watched Star Trek when I was little. Because, in that time, tv shows would appear in my country 10 to 20 years after their debut, I managed to watch both the original series and the others in the same decade. However, I was pretty much indifferent to Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton’s character on The Next Generation). And I didn’t watch Stand By Me until much later in my life.

Cut to the year 2007. I had been playing World of Warcraft since its beginning, so when the webseries The Guild came out, I was hooked. And when Wil Wheaton showed up playing Fawkes (the nemesis), I remembered his role on Star Trek and decided to check out his blog and see what he had been up to.

Reading his blog, you can see he has a very honest, no-nonsense way of writing about his life, Hollywood and being an actor. He is involved in a bunch of very cool, mostly geeky things which he writes about extensively.

Now, about the book. It’s a memoir that chronicles his uneasy relationship to Star Trek (easily the project he’s most famous for), his decisions as a teenager that influenced the course of his life, and how it really feels like to be an actor in Hollywood (it sucks). But it’s really much more than that. I admit, I related to his story a lot because I have also made a Big Decision in my life and ever since I’ve felt haunted by the ghost of Proving to Everyone it Was the Right Decision (with the obvious difference that I wasn’t a wildly successful and famous teenager). How badly would it suck to feel that the most professionally successful days of your life were when you were a teenager, too immature and stubborn to appreciate it? How do you deal with that once you finally become a (pretty cool) adult and find that no one wants to give you a job?

In the Hollywood world, you rarely hear about failure stories. Everyone is very careful to project an image of success, even if they’re wallowing in a deep depression. In that sense, reading this is invaluable. It takes courage to break through the mold of what everyone around you is doing.

The only gripe I have about this book is that, in my opinion, he wrote it too soon. It was published in 2004, and when the book ends, it feels like the story is just starting. Since that year, he has achieved a lot of success, with roles on The Big Bang Theory and Eureka (and a bunch of other stuff I won’t list here). It would have felt more complete had he waited a bit beyond his late twenties to write this. Guess this leaves room for a sequel, right?

Recommended for Trekkies / Wil Wheaton fans.

On Writing by Stephen King

Rating: **** (4 out of 5)

Background: In my search for books about writing, this one came up virtually everywhere. I’ve read a few of Stephen King’s books, and I have a mixed opinion of them, but overall I think he’s a great storyteller (one just has to look at how many of his stories turned into truly influential movies!). So it was with curiosity that I set out to read this one.

Review: The author starts by describing episodes of his life that were relevant to his eventual development as a writer, and it ends with King recounting an accident he was involved in while writing this book, in which he was almost killed by a wandering van. In this sense, the book feels like a memoir, with a section on the nuts and bolts of writing in between. This actually works quite well, since everything is written in the same light and funny language which makes the reader feel comfortable, sort of like talking to an old friend who just happens to be Stephen King.

Even though I bought this for the section about writing, I found myself enjoying the memoir parts more. It’s fascinating to see how a specific life experience can lead someone to become what you know them to be, and in that sense this book is invaluable. King writes as if he has nothing to hide, as if he doesn’t care what people will say. And some of his life experiences are really interesting. I found the description of his time working at a laundry, washing hospital sheets, particularly gruesome.

His advice for writers is very much to the point, and mostly makes perfect sense. Good writing has no formulas, and it’s subjective enough to leave room for interpretation, but some things are obvious, like his first advice to “Read a lot, write a lot”, or, the one I found most useful for me personally:

The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.

However, there were a lot of things I just didn’t see eye to eye with the author – which is actually perfectly okay with me, since if I agreed with everything I would probably end up writing things that were too similar to his style. Still, this was a very useful read, not just because it was funny and entertaining, but also because it showed a glimpse into the mind of one of the best storytellers alive today.

What’s Next: When I bought this one I also got a couple of others about writing, and this book gives a few others to check out. But reading this mostly made me want to read fiction… And write!

I haven’t decided yet what to read next… My to-read pile is getting dangerously high, which means I have far too many options at the moment – a great problem to have.

American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson

Rating: **** (4 out of 5)

Background: I first heard of Craig Ferguson when a friend of mine came back from visiting her family in the USA and heartily recommended that I watch his show. Being from a country where hardly anyone even pays attention to American late night shows, where, if you’re lucky, you can catch Conan O’Brien or Jon Stewart on cable with about a month’s delay, I searched Youtube for Craig Ferguson. It didn’t take long for me to get addicted. His fresh, honest, witty style, his unscripted monologues and spontaneous interviews were a great change from the sometimes monotonous and unsurprising world of talk shows. You won’t find any of the politically correct fluff in his show. He’s also not afraid to talk honestly about serious topics. I watch his show everyday, and was absolutely thrilled when my brother gave me this book for Christmas.

Here is a particularly enjoyable clip from his Late Late Show:

Review: Craig Ferguson has always given a few hints at his past life during his shows. He is always candid about his fight with alcoholism, his past marriages and his experiences with drugs. Nevertheless, his book still manages to be surprising, even for someone who follows his work on a daily basis. Since most people only see him being funny, you might think the book is the same – dark, honest, but very funny. I certainly did. And that is true, in a sense, but definitely not in the way I expected it.

The thing is, this isn’t a companion for the show. There are hardly any references to his present life, except of course towards the end. Instead, this is a story that, in my opinion, he would want to tell eventually, no matter where his life ended up. It follows his life chronologically, starting with his childhood in the mean streets of Glasgow, his tumultuous relationship with school and establishment and the beginning of his addiction to alcohol. It goes along as he tries to figure out, as a young man, what he wants to do with his life, trying to make it as a drummer, as an actor, as an entertainer, sometimes succeeding, more often failing miserably. He describes his fatidic trip to America which made him think of the country as the promised land, and made moving there his ultimate dream. We follow him from Glasgow, to London, to Portugal (I smiled when I was reading this part!), to New York, to Canada, to Paris, back to London, and all the way to the promised land of Los Angeles, where eventually, after many more turns of fate, he found his fortune as an actor in the Drew Carey Show and, eventually, as a successful talk show host.

He manages to take the potentially damaging events of his life and turn them into hilarious episodes with a bittersweet taste. Many parts, like for example, the description of his last acid trip, are pure comedy gold that actually made me laugh out loud.

Along the way, he introduces the reader to the “characters” in his life, some very famous, others unknown, who become close to us as we read what they did with him and for him. In fact, my only complaint about his book comes from that. I’m not sure if he’s just being humble or grateful, but he presents everything positive that ever happened in his life as something he owes to the fantastic people in his life. In fact, the book sometimes reads as an extensive thank you note. This may be just my opinion, but I find it very hard to believe that so many people would be so very generous to a (then) exceedingly problematic individual without him showing that he deserves the chances he’s given. And I think it’s quite obvious to everyone that Craig Ferguson is incredibly talented (though, I admit, it might not be that obvious to him), so I found myself at times wishing he would be more proud of himself and his abilities. But, in the end, it’s a testament to the quality of the book that I am actually nitpicking like this.

I confess that I haven’t read many memoirs in my life, and I tend to be suspicious of people who write them early in their life, for reasons that, I hope, are obvious. But I understand that some people write them to come to terms with their past life, to close a chapter in their lives and make room for a new one, while hopefully spreading he message that things can actually turn out ok. I really enjoyed reading this book, not only because it’s very funny and touching, but because its ultimate message is that failing isn’t as bad as we usually think it is. It’s something everyone goes through on the road to success. In his own words:

“He will know from an early age that failure is not disgrace. It’s just a pitch that you missed, and you’d better get ready for the next one. The next one might be the shot heard round the world. My son and I are Americans, we prepare for glory by failing until we don’t.”

I’m glad I read this book at a time in life when I’ve just had to start learning how to deal with things going in a different direction than planned. I hope Craig keeps his position in the Late Late Show for a lot longer, though I’m sure that, with his inquisitive and adventure seeking personality, he will eventually want to move on to another challenge. Still, if you’re a fan of his show, get this book. You won’t regret it.

What’s Next: His other book, Between the Bridge and the River, a novel, is now on my wishlist.

Next on my reading list is Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland and, of course, I am still reading Dune (a hard book to read, particularly since I have a small paperback version and the tiny font doesn’t agree with my insomnia-ridden eyes).