"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Mini Reviews #1: A Trio of Non-Fiction Treats

Hi everyone. In order to get rid of some of my backlog of reviews I’ve decided to release a series of mini-reviews. These will be, for the most part, shorter reviews than I’ve previously written and one post will feature similar books contained within one long post. This way I hope to churn out reviews a bit quicker, as well as reviewing some older books I’ve read without having to worry about going into as much detail as one my regular reviews would require, but still giving you an overall gist of the book. 

Your Voice in my Head by Emma Forrest

Your Voice in my Head is a frank and somewhat eccentric memoir of a young writer’s struggle with bipolar illness. Ostensibly a tribute to her psychiatrist, Dr R., Forrest’s account begins with his untimely death and how this affected her and her disorder.

The book is very much focused on her illness, yet it is neither a self-help book nor a survival manual: no advice is given, but it does help to create a sense of normalcy for those who have experience with mental illness and in particular those with bipolar disorder or depression. The first-hand account of a bipolar sufferer was interesting, insightful and disturbing, with Forrest discussing in detail self-harm and suicide attempts. Forrest’s writing is beautiful and alluring; her descriptions of the disorder are beautifully wrought and resonant:

“Mania flows like a river approaching a waterfall. Depression is a stagnant lake. There are dead things floating and the water has the same blue-black tinge as your lips. You stay completely still because you’re so afraid of what is brushing your leg (even though it could be nothing because your mind is already gone).”

Nonetheless, I would have preferred a memoir of this sort from someone who wasn’t semi-famous: Emma Forrest was already a published author by the time she moved from England to America, and much of her account describes her glamorous celebrity lifestyle in L.A., as well as her famous boyfriends, about whom I became tired of reading.

Your Voice in my Head offers a rare glimpse inside the mind of a manic-depressive, but at the same time it is a little self-indulgent and becomes a little repetitive. It is certainly not a book that everyone will enjoy: the subject matter is disturbing and can be upsetting, and people with no interest in mental illness will not find much of interest here. Nonetheless, Emma Forrest is an engaging and honest writer and her insightful memoir is worth a look, particularly if you or someone you know is a fellow sufferer.

Rating: 7/10

A Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI by Graham Chapman

A Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI (although this is in fact the only volume…it’s getting very silly already, Chapman’s Colonel will be along any moment…) is a fictionalised account of the life of Graham Chapman, probably most famous for being a member of the Monty Python troupe before his premature death in 1989. The ‘autobiography’ covers Chapman’s time at Cambridge and his involvement in the comedy club Footlights, as well as his medical career and through his time as a Python.

The book does have its comic moments but it is rather rambling as well as lacking a coherent narrative and time structure. Further, in true Chapman form the book is very very silly and oftentimes it is tricky to separate fact from fiction. These factors make the memoir quite difficult to read except in short bursts.

Unfortunately there is very little about Monty Python found within the pages, which is perhaps a missed opportunity to unveil some interesting tales of the comedy troupe and its inner workings. Chapman’s stories and anecdotes instead focus largely on sexual antics or things of complete randomness.

A Liar’s Autobiography is not for everybody but for any serious Monty Python fan it is essential reading. It is very silly and strange, but at the same time it is a fine glimpse into the disordered mind of this intelligent loony.

Rating: 6/10

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin

From one Python to another, Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days is Palin’s account of his travels around the world in emulation of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s novel of the same name. The book is a companion to Palin’s TV series, also entitled Around the World in 80 Days – which aired in 1989. In keeping with the novel, Palin decides not to travel by aeroplane, and instead relies mostly on trains and ships. This leads to some frustrating instances for our narrator when several modes of transport are heavily delayed among other obstacles which lead him to trail behind the fictional Fogg for most of his journey.

Palin’s writing is flowing, friendly and personal. He is so likeable and funny; reading about his adventures feels like he is in front of you narrating it first-hand. Palin has a talent for attracting all sorts of strange and interesting people wherever he goes, leading to some fantastic anecdotes and funny situations. The book has lots of lovely high quality photographs of Palin’s travels to accompany the text, adding a personal touch. 

One flaw, which admittedly could not be avoided due to the nature of this particular travel book, is that he hurries through most places in order for him to reach his goal in 80 days. It would have been nice to see him explore places a little more and become more fully immersed in the numerous different cultures – but this is something I shall look forward to in his other travel books.

I had never read a travel book before, but this was a great introduction and I will definitely be reading more of Palin’s books as well as other pieces of travel literature.

Rating: 8/10