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Summer Books: Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry

Moab is my Washpot

Moab is my Washpot

I’m surprised to find that we’re already into the second half of my Summer Books series, shocked to find that I’m writing about an autobiography, and amazed to be giving it a good review.

I should explain that I’m no fan of autobiographies, which are all too often shallow, self-important descriptions of dull lives by bad writers. Yet this week’s choice is Stephen Fry’s Moab is my Washpot – not only an autobiography, but an autobiography restricting itself to the first twenty years of someone’s life – How interesting can that be?

Well, so it turns out, very interesting. The late Linda Smith would undoubtedly criticise me for saying so, but Stephen Fry is a masterful wordsmith: He smiths those words like a true master, and it makes for a great read.

This autobiography is a combination of painfully honest recounting of sometimes shocking childhood tales, insightful reflection, and tangential anecdotes and laced with Fry’s trademark humour.

The candour of the recollections is quite remarkable, and Fry’s defence of his childhood upbringing robust, whilst stopping short of becoming a polemic on the rights and wrongs of bringing up children.

There are times when it feels that the drive behind the book is catharsis rather than entertainment, almost as if listening in to a counselling session with Fry. This, combined with a style of writing which feels almost as if Fry is recounting tales to you personally, makes one feel that one really knows the real Fry, rather than the media personality.

This is certainly the greatest autobiography I have read to date. From the reminisce of Matteo, which is a wonderful tale of unrequited love from the basest to the highest level, to the tale of references to moles when revisiting his old school, which is humorous, exploratory, and somehow both flippant and deep, this book is absolutely great.

It comes very highly recommended, and if you only buy one of the six books I’ve reviewed thus far, this should undoubtedly be it. You won’t regret it.

» Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop

This review has been written exclusively for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

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Summer Books: Never Push… by Guy Browning

Never Push When It Says Pull

Never Push When It Says Pull

The fifth book I’ve picked for my Summer Books series is perhaps the most summery of the bunch so far: Never Push When it Says Pull: Small Rules for Little Problems by Guy Browning.

Guy Browning is one of a very few newspaper columnists whose pieces genuinely make me laugh out loud, thanks to their absurdist satirical view of everyday life. Browning’s How to… column in the Guardian is one of the joys of my Saturday mornings, and this book is the second collection of these columns – a follow-up of sorts to the previously reviewed Never Hit a Jellyfish with a Spade.

The fact that I find each individual column laugh-out-loud funny means that the book is like a little bundle of hilarity, which, whilst good for me, is perhaps not such a good thing if you happen to live with me or sit next to me on public transport – unless, of course, you like the sound of apparently inexplicable hysterical laughter at random moments, and public book readings from some seemingly crazed idiot.

Unfortunately, like most things in life, the columns lose all humour when read aloud by someone who can’t stifle their manic giggling, and so it’s crucial that you, dear reader, become the first person you know to read this book. And, surely, this summer provides the perfect opportunity to enjoy some light humour.

Alternatively, it’s the perfect book for reading at random, in odd moments – after all, each column is only about 500 words, and each is an individual nugget of joy. Read it when you’re stressed at work and need some light relief, read it while relaxing on the beach, or read it on the toilet. All are decent options…

This is the first of my Summer Books which both I and everybody I’ve shared it with have really enjoyed – so I guess it’s probably a pretty safe summer bet.

» Never Push When it Says Pull: Small Rules for Little Problems by Guy Browning is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop

An earlier version of this review was posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in October 2005. It has been extensively rewritten for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

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Summer Books: On Royalty by Jeremy Paxman

Paxman on RoyaltyAnd so we arrive at the fourth review in my Summer Books series, this week examining Jeremy Paxman’s On Royalty.

This, Paxman’s latest commentary on the state and history of our nation, made for a very interesting read. He essentially presents a well-argued case for retaining the monarchy, whilst simultaneously recognising the manifold flaws, improbabilities, and injustices of the system. And, actually, I rather agree with his point of view – which, to some degree, makes for a less challenging and engaging read. I always think it’s always more interesting to read things which challenge your views, rather than things which reinforce them – though often, things which challenge your views end up reinforcing them anyway.

Paxman uses an awful lot of history of our monarchy, and several throughout the world, to flesh out his argument, and there is obvious potential for this to become very dry and dull – a potential that, fortunately, is never fulfilled. Paxman crafts a cogent, coherent, and entertaining argument, presented with the wry, dry humour for which he has become renowned.

The real beauty of the book is in Paxman’s narrative. It would be easy for a title such as these to lose its narrative thread, but by providing a clear argument running throughout the book, Paxman manages to engage the reader and maintain their engagement, even when explaining complex historical events – albeit in a very accessible style.

Paxman provides a robustly constructed, irreverent, and entertaining guide to an institution he argues is simultaneously (and paradoxically) anachronistic, yet relevant and essential to today’s society. To a person like me – relatively poorly informed about British history – Paxman provides a great introduction and makes a clear argument for retention of the monarchy, whilst also allowing his trademark personality to shine through.

I thoroughly enjoyed On Royalty, and would happily recommend it, especially as a ‘Summer Read’: Its humour gives it appropriate summer levity, whilst its recurring themes and central message make it thought-provoking and memorable.

» On Royalty by Jeremy Paxman is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop

This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in June 2007, and has been re-versioned for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

This post was filed under: Summer Books, , , .




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