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Book Review: The Fry Chronicles – An Autobiography

Having now finished the most recent autobiographical offering from Stephen Fry I can say without hesitation that he is an individual brave in his honesty.

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Having now finished the most recent autobiographical offering from Stephen Fry I can say without hesitation that he is an individual brave in his honesty. His thoughts are, or at least appear to be, for the most part unedited. Lengthy passages conveying his hopes and fears and the waning confidence in his own abilities and talent, open this individual to a world of vulnerability. The academic, actor, comic and journalist whom Fry embodies seems to ooze self-confidence and control, yet the picture Fry paints is often that of a lost human being.

Certainly when it comes to matters of his career everything he touches seems to turn to gold. Award winning playwright, television comedian, radio host and author, he turns his hand with apparent ease to each new endeavour. A confident character travelling through life effortlessly is certainly the impression the world gets, but Fry attests that it is never so simple. Admittedly, opportunities do often come knocking, but Fry is always grappling with his own sense of self-worth. He seems to suffer from a deep-seated fear of being uncovered as a fraud, always finding fault within himself and anticipating other will do the same.

Fry shows from the many episodes within the book and indeed from the circumstances related in his previous autobiographical work, Moab is My Washpot, that glazing over the uncomfortable and regrettable moments of his history is not acceptable to him. Instances that other people, in the telling of their own life stories, would rather forget and omit are part of Fry’s life narrative and as such necessarily included. Weaknesses, vulnerabilities, aspects of his own character that he despises, and moments of embarrassment or shame do not get relegated to the back seat; Fry is open about that which makes him human.

He talks of his addictive personality, his abhorrence of his own physical appearance and of his frustration at his laziness, for his health and appearance could be improved if it were not for his lack of drive and desire. Fry cringingly looks back on the character traits of his youth; the spoilt, flashy younger man who came into fortune and happily squandered vast earnings on fast cars, large homes and the latest technological advances.

When reading of his flurrying spending and of his disgust in his past behaviour it is difficult to share Fry’s self-loathing for the picture that is painted is not that of a snotty brat, but rather that of a very lost individual. His purchases, the clubs he joins and his unquenchable work ethic all scream of a man trying desperately to figure out who he is and where he belongs in the world.

For all his success, breakthroughs and moments in the spotlight there is a great void in Fry’s existence. He has friends certainly, he writes a great deal on their goodness, their talent and their kindness. He has family too and colleagues whom greatly appreciate and admire him. The void comes in his lovelessness. That is not to say that he is incapable of loving and caring for friends and family, but rather that he does not appear to factor romantic relationships into his life. One Cambridge roommate appears to slip from friend to lover and then back again without scarcely being noticed, and a momentary pause is given to a pretty makeup artist, but beyond these two instances Fry appears disinterested in love.

Fry has a wonderful conversationalist style of writing that prompts the reader to believe that they are truly privy to his genuine thoughts and feelings. It is a useful tool employed by the author, for he gives the reader more than enough and at times overburdens us with details of cast members, directors, their histories, friendships and even their own anecdotes, that we feel full, satisfied and at times overtaxed. The onslaught of facts, dates and names makes it difficult at first to see the gaps, that he has neglected certain aspects of his life.

We get titbits of the darker Fry; the man capable of attempting suicide and we are told that the world of romance and physical love is closed to him. We accept this information at first; for Fry has revealed so much, but then we remember that we are inquisitive beings and we want to know, why? What was running through his head when he tried to kill himself and what happened to the Cambridge romance that seemingly just fizzled out? Why would romance and sex not be a factor in his life? These questions are posed not to seek out the sordid affairs of his relationships and friendships, or to accuse him of giving up on life, but to seek an understanding of his thought process and his reasoning. These are two things that Fry does not share in this book. He does not open up his heart and his inner self remains closed.

While the overload of industry background and personalities is at oftentimes cumbersome and in need of a good pruning, there are some lovely, enjoyable moments in this book and anyone who is a fan of Fry, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton or Emma Thompson will get a kick out of reading about their Cambridge lives. Rowan Atkinson also hovers tantalisingly within the background. Fry shares his rise to fame and the triumphs and dramas that it affords. We see him moving along different paths searching for his niche; we see that he is a little bit academic, a little bit of a comic, a little bit theatrical. Brilliant and vastly knowledgeable in each field that he enters. The experimentation and journey of self-discovery is honourable, but incomplete without feeling. It is a regrettable loss to an otherwise honest story. Fry ends this chapter of his story with the promise that there is more to tell; his is an addictive personality that just can’t seem to help itself. I can’t help wondering that just like his comical television collaboration with Hugh Laurie, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, that in The Fry Chronicles we get a little bit of Stephen Fry.

The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography
Author: Stephen Fry
Publisher: Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Books

Books

Book Review: Crossfire – A Litany For Survival

Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you

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Stacey Ann Chinn

LGBTQ poet and spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin is a powerhouse of an artist. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Her mesmerizing Def Poetry Jam performance of If Only Out of Vanity.” Her essay “Paradise of Lies,” published in the New York Times. And her hit play “MotherStruck,” set to soon work its way through the festival circuit as a series. Need we say more?) Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you. She is a rare talent that can captivate you in an instant — both by the political gravity of the subjects she so fearlessly and intelligently dissects and her sharp, mesmerizing, and sometimes hysterical turns of phrase. Her “snap-elastic words” can leave anyone who’s ever written for a living marveling (and wishing they had come up with them first).

This same fire is seen throughout Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, Chin’s first full-length collection of poems. Weaving adeptly between verses about the intersection of love, sex, race, gender, feminism, trauma, sexuality, queerness, motherhood, oppression, and so much more, Crossfire is a foot-on-the-gas-pedal kind of eye-opening, from start to finish.

In “Tsunami Rising,” she writes of the “weeping white women” who stood behind Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement only once a rich white actress co-opted it — a heartbreaking address dripping with explanation and patience we don’t deserve, and a tired, frustrated anger that we do.

“We are unable to process our pain with you,” she writes, “Because we are exhausted from centuries/of holding you and your children.”

In “Zuri-Siale Samanaya” — named for her daughter, with whom she often records “Living Room Protests” — Chin reflects beautifully on raising a child who is both following in her activist footsteps but coming into her own as an individual:

I can hardly wait
to hear your voice
I expect us to rumble
to create generational bruises that will have to be survived

In “Raise the Roof,” Chin’s worries that this power will not be enough to carry her daughter safely through a world intent on silencing the voices of Black women are heartbreaking.

Every day I have to drown my fears
for my child/born Black and a girl in a country
in which her safety does not matter
to anyone with power

Among the book’s other standout gems are a reflection on 9/11 titled “September in New York” and a hilarious and incisive retort to the misogynist who harassed her on Twitter (aptly titled “Tweet This Motherfucker”). But really, there is no plateau in Chin’s collection of poems. Each page of Crossfire: A Litany For Survival is fire, soul, and just damn good writing.

When artists like Chin bare their souls to put the revolution to paper, it’s up to us to truly listen.

Crossfire

by Staceyann Chin
(Haymarket Books)

Crossfire: A Litany For Survival will be published as a paperback original on October 1, 2019 by Haymarket Books.

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Books

Book Review: The Disaster Artist – My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made

I cannot recommend The Disaster Artist highly enough. It might be one of the best reads I’ve had in a very long time.

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In 2003, the world of filmmaking was shaken to its very foundations. Bursting onto the scene and blinding the city of Los Angeles and Hollywood like a renegade supernova, was a film that went by the insipid title of The Room.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made is a book all about the making of that film. For those who haven’t seen The Room, the basic synopsis boils down to a ‘love triangle’ plot, between a banker, Johnny, his fiancée, Lisa, and the best friend, Mark. There’s romance, betrayal, drama and finally tragedy. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong.

The final instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy might’ve won all eleven Academy Awards that year, but it was The Room that still managed to be the talk of the town (and eventually, the world) amongst many filmgoers.

Don’t be mistaken, The Room wasn’t a sleeper hit or master class in filmmaking. In fact, it was the complete opposite. A train wreck so disastrous that it’s still being watched, studied and talked about, to this day. “So bad it’s good” and “The Citizen Kane of bad films” are quotes often thrown around whenever The Room is muttered.

What makes The Room so bad? Well, to put it bluntly, everything. From the acting to the directing, to the sets and continuity, is a consistency of abysmal filmmaking. Yet despite its terribleness, there remains a kind of loveable charm. Most of this charm seems to stem from the man who helmed the project, the weirdly fascinating and enigmatic, Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau was responsible for acting as the lead character, Johnny, writing, directing and producing The Room (Orson Welles, eat your heart out).

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book, The Disaster Artist, doesn’t start at the premier of The Room in Los Angeles, 2003. It starts instead a year earlier, with a lunch between Greg and Tommy, a lunch so bizarre and off-the-wall, that it almost reads like sketch comedy. It’s a day before official production is about to begin on The Room, and Tommy with genius-gusto, decides to offer Greg one of the lead roles in his film, as Mark, Johnny’s (Tommy’s character and fictionalized version of himself) best friend. A plan so flawless, until Greg reminds Tommy that the role is already cast.

In the next chapter, we are taken back to 1998 in San Francisco with Jean Shelton and her acting class, where Greg relates his early origins into acting and his dreams of “making it”. It’s here that he meets the one-and-only, Tommy Wiseau, for the very first time. They’d later on become acquainted with one-another, after Tommy steals the show by giving one of the most ludicrous renditions of the famous ‘Stella’ scene from A Streetcar Named Desire ever witnessed.

“Most bad performances are met with silence. This was something else. There were murmurs. There were giggles. Everyone in that basement studio knew they had just witnessed one of the most beautifully, chaotically wrong performances they would ever see.”


 – The Disaster Artist

What follows throughout the book is parallel storytelling, or intersecting storylines. One side focusing on the making of The Room, and the haphazard tyrannical way in which Tommy went about acting, directing and interacting with the cast and crew. The other, on the growing friendship and relationship between a young, Greg Sestero and not-so-young, Tommy Wiseau, both bonding on their dream and love for acting (and in particular, James Dean). Each storyline is as equally entertaining, funny and at times touching as one another.

The Disaster Artist is a book that doesn’t quite feel like it’s written from someone with journalistic prose looking-in on The Room, or the life of Tommy Wiseau. Instead, it’s a book written by someone who lived and breathed these experiences and moments. The final result is a raw and believable account, with a striking amount of humility and sincerity. The praise in this regard goes solely to Greg Sestero; he is quite possibly the best—and only—person capable of telling this story. His perspective is paramount to understanding the making of The Room, and Wiseau.

In terms of the content itself, there are many reasons why fans—or even those unfamiliar with The Room—might want to pick this up. For years, people have been baffled about almost every aspect of this film and the mysterious man behind it. From, “How did Tommy manage to get $6 million to fund this film?” to something as simple as “Just where in the hell is Tommy actually from?”

You don’t have to be familiar with the film itself, or even know a great deal about the players such as Tommy Wiseau to find this book enjoyable. After all, driving the engines is a timeless story, full of great characters and great moments.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It might be one of the best reads I’ve had in a very long time.

The Disaster Artist

by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
(Simon & Schuster)

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