Book Review 8/30 – Making History, Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry is a funny man. More or less importantly (I haven’t really decided yet), Stephen Fry is a rather clever man.

While I have long enjoyed watching Fry & Laurie re-runs and clips of QI in the inter-webz (you may have heard of it), I was tragically unaware that Mr. Fry (or Sir. Fry as he will undoubtedly become at some point in the next 30 years, thus invalidating this blog post lest I account for the change in title here) was a writer of books, a creator of literary works, a wordsmith. This ignorance of mine was remedied in the early hours of June 27th when I stumbled from my kiwi friend’s terrifyingly high loft-bed and made my way down to Wellington’s “Cuba Street” for a spot of shopping. Unprepared to shell out 200$ for a shirt, I turned to my great shopping-solace, the NOVEL (*note: capitalization intended to convey great importance). After browsing around a bookstore for roughly 45 minutes (such that the hour was no longer early), I centered my attention on the book “Making History” by Mr/Sir. Fry and walked out of the shop 20NZD poorer and 380pages wealthier.

Okay, dropping the poor (or just plain sad) attempt at british-style humour (I can be influenced by Oscar Wilde too, Mr. Fry!), I turn to a review of this book. First off, the Washington Post reviewer featured on the cover has it right… the novel is terrific. In between stolen minutes of reading (my brother’s wedding is next week, his fiance’s shower was this weekend, his friends and I are all crammed into his little appartment etc. etc.), I talked about the story non-stop. Truth be told, I epically failed in my many attempts to convey the sheer coolness (a little in-joke, read the book for further details!) of the story to friends, family, and one random person that I set upon in the grocery store.

In lieu of summarizing the plot (which really cannot and should not be done for fear of ruining the splendid punch line), I will confine myself to talking about the three elements of the book that most entertained me.

(1) Life as a graduate student: Mr. Fry makes an unintentional mockery of this blog by laying the life of a graduate student out in a wonderful array of well-spun prose and striking little comedic scenes. Here’s one that made me giggle (The Scene: our hero – Michael Young – is sitting in his PhD supervisor’s office waiting for comments on the final draft of his dissertation.)

Perhaps you know how a PhD thesis works. You deliver it to your supervisor and he passes it to an examiner who in turn sends it on to an assessor from outside your university. The two examiners agree that the work has reached the required standard and, at a simple but affecting investiture in the Senate House, you are ordained Doctor by the Chancellor or his benevolent proxy. After a little toad-eating and bum-lapping in the right directions you become a fellow of your college, a lecturer within your faculty and a permanently tenured academic. Your thesis is published to acclaim; you let it be known to radio producers and television journalists around the English-speaking world that you are in the market for expert pronouncements when something touching your field arises in the news; a well-judged series of textbooks aimed at the lucrative schools market relieves you of any financial worries; you marry your best girl in the medieval splendor of your college chapel; your children turn out blond, intelligent, amusing, and more than averagely proficient at skiing; your students go on to become Prime Minister and are good enough to remember their best beloved history don when handing out such Chairmanships of Commissions, Knighthoods, and College headships as lie within the Royal Gift: in short, life is good…

“So then, young Young, have you sought help?”

“I’m sorry?”

“For your drug problem.”

(2) Freakishly well-timed relevance to my own life: Whether life imitates art or art imitates life, “Making History” sure as heck seemed to strike a strong imitative note with my own goings on. After spending my first day in Wellington engaged in a fierce battle with a “free-thinker”/”radical” type about the merits (or in his mind, complete absence thereof) of using scientifically informed methods to logically assess the effectiveness of an online deliberative protocol that he had recently designed, the following passage seemed… annoyingly accurate:

Half of my friends from school have – in sharp contradistinction to my own previously explained failure in this regard – successfully rechristened themselves Speeder, Bozzle, Volo, Turtle, Grip and Janga, pierced any spare folds of flesh they can and pinned them with gold, silver and brass and hit the road. They march down the high streets of southern towns in antipollution masks, hoisting skull and cross-bone banners: they’ll fight against the car, the Criminal Justice Act, highways, the felling of trees, the raising of power plants… anything. They want to be the ones locked out; they like to be thought of as dangerous; they enjoy their exile.

And they think I’m a dick.

I went to visit Janga last year, in Brighton, one of the places where she and her Traveler friends congregate, and I could tell, oh yes, I could tell that these free souls thought me quite the little dick. Were I a real dick, mind, and a nasty dick at that, I would say to you at this point that they had no objection at all to my buying them drink after drink after drink in the pubs, that is posed no moral problem whatsoever to send me out to the minimarket at eight in the morning to buy their milk and bread and newspapers. I would say too that it is possible to be a waycool eco-warrior without smelling of dead bag lady. I could add that anyone can be a hero on the dole. But that kind of argument is beneath me, so I say nothing.

(3) Readability: Some books are serious and important and must be read for the advancement of one’s intellectual standing in a world of generally well-read and well-spoken academic types. Other books are silly and well written and make us laugh despite our own vested interest in remaining seriously invested in the aforementioned “intellectually stimulating and well-regarded” class of literature. My favorite books have always been those that transcended these arbitrary (perhaps imaginary) boundaries and provided intellectual stimulation but not at the cost of fluidity, humor, and readability. As a born and bred literary omnivore (you have absolutely no idea how many books don’t get reviewed here for fear of tarnishing my e-reputation), “Making History” satisfied my craving for a well-balanced diet of style and substance. In the process of reading I learned a whole lot about world history and an equal share about not-world-history, I smiled along with descriptions of the absurd life of the graduate student, and I turned the last page feeling good about myself, good about the book, and strangely interested in quantum theory (and many other things that I know next to nothing about). For this final reason, “Making History” is strongly recommended and comes with the APGC Seal of Approval.

ps. I am beginning to realize that I have absolutely no future as a literary critic… mostly because I am unable to finish books that do not interest me and unable to do much more than gush when the stories do strike my fancy. Ah well, the dream of becoming a princess lives on (**winks suggestively in the presumed direction of Prince Harry)

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