Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Did you attend Nazi Confectionary College?

If you've ever wished you could hire someone for a good argument, or dispute the health of a parrot, or felt the irresistible urge to get from point A to B via a funny walk, you can thank John Cleese.  His memoir So Anyway . . . chronicles his life from his upbringing in a small English seaside town, to his worldwide fame as a comedian in Monty Python's Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers.

Cleese was born when his parents were already in their 40s.  He describes them as overprotective and suggests this was the reason he was somewhat reserved and "unmanly" during his youth.  The family surname had started out as "Cheese" but his father changed it when he enlisted in World War I (although Cleese says this didn't stop him from being called Cheese during his school years).  His father was calm, patient and kind but his mother could be unpredictable, difficult and anxious.  Therefore, he had a hard time with his relationships to women throughout his life.

The book details his early days at a boys school, where he was a day pupil rather than a boarder.  Eventually he discovered a love and talent for cricket, which helped him find his place in school.  He eventually went to Cambridge, originally to study science but later switching to law.  Before he started his university studies, he taught history to elementary school boys, an experience he greatly enjoyed.  While at Cambridge, he became involved in the Footlights committee, a theatrical group, and really got his start writing and performing comedy.  He still intended to make a career in law, but  after meeting Graham Chapman, he changed direction.

He goes on to describe his years in television and his collaboration with other entertainment greats such as his fellow Monty Python actors, Peter Sellers and David Frost.  He also discusses his meeting and work with his first wife, Connie Booth, known to TV audiences as the long suffering maid Polly in Fawlty Towers.  The book basically ends as Monty Python gets started, but there is an afterward where Cleese discusses the reunion shows that the surviving members performed in 2013.  They were unsure of the reception they'd receive, but the fact that they were able to sell out all the shows is a testament to the enduring fondness the public has for the zany antics of the Python crew.

This book is an interesting look at how a comedy legend got his start.  It is told in an amusing, self-depreciating way, and is quite entertaining. Perhaps the details of his career leading up to forming the Python group are a bit too long, but overall, for anyone who is a fan, this is a pleasant visit with someone who feels like a somewhat eccentric uncle.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of So Anyway . . . from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Monday, October 19, 2015

I'm repelled by what I see

We seem to think that an obsession with weight and dieting is a fairly modern idea.  The reality series The Diets That Time Forgot shows that our counterparts from as far back as the Victorian era were trying all sorts of things to get rid of unwanted pounds.  This 6 part series takes a group of 9 overweight people and divides them into groups to test out diets from the past to see which, if any, are effective.

The three time periods are:

1) The Victorians, which are on a mostly meat-based diet

2) The Edwardians, who can eat whatever they want, but must chew every mouthful 32 times


3) The 1920s, who are on a strict limit of 1200 calories per day

The 9 volunteers are sequestered in a beautiful stately home re-titled "Sir Roy's Institute of Physical Culture" for this program.  Sir Roy Strong, the former head of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is the leader of the project, assisted by various experts in things such as health, physical exercise, movement and other aspects of wellness.

There's an added degree of difficulty:  as well as conforming to diets from the past, the contestants from each time frame must also wear the clothing from that era -- this includes when they are exercising or otherwise doing anything involving physical exertion.  That alone makes gives the 1920s team something of an edge, as their clothing is looser and the women don't have to deal with corsets and stays.

The first episode introduces the contestants to their new way of eating during the 24 days of the experiment.  The Edwardians, who must chew every bit 32 times, also find out they must tip their heads back and let the well-chewed mess slide down their throats -- whatever is left, they must spit out.  Charming!

The second episode starts the contestants on the exercise ideals from their time periods.  The
Victorians were concerned with balance, posture and breath control, while the Edwardians first attempted to isolate and train various muscle groups using weights.  The 1920s group got a more games-based, PE approach.  This is also when the strange ideas that supposedly aid in weight loss began, starting with cold baths and immersion in cold baths.  It was thought that the shivering would help in weight loss!

Part three brought the contestants into the great outdoors for events such as the "paperchase," where some contestants would leave a trail of small bits of paper through the woods that the other contestants had to follow.  The 1920s contestants were also introduced to "naturism," which involved exercising in the nude.  Not surprisingly, not all the contestants were eager to give that a try.  There were also fads with different types of "bathing," including air bathing (a favorite of Florence Nightengale, who was all for fresh air, no matter what the temperature) and sand bathing, which theoretically causes you to sweat out the calories while being buried in sand with only your head left exposed.

Episode four looked at the "great insides" and how the various groups attempted to manipulate their bodies into expelling, rather than turning excess calories into fat.  Some of the ideas introduced here included abdominal massage, saunas, vibrating belts, and colonic irrigation.  Phase five involved increasing the contestants' self-reliance and motivation.  The groups worked together in an orienteering challenge, which involved setting up a a camp and preparing wild game.  There are also some temptations set out to see if anyone will take the bait, and, not surprisingly, there are some cheaters . . .

The final episode shows some extreme measures that have been employed throughout the ages to try and achieve quick weight loss (some things never change!).  Some things that are demonstrated are "slimming pills," electric current, and hypnotherapy.  At the final weigh-in, we get to see which of the three diets was the overall winner based on the total weight loss of the teams.

It was quite interesting to see how diets and weight-loss ideas haven't really changed much over the years.  While the contestants were able to lose some weight, I doubt that any of them would want to stick to the regimes they were given during the program.  Still, I'm sure the overall ideas of nutrition and exercise were useful to them in the outside world.

A warning for those who might be interested in watching, this series contains some nudity, bad language and scenes of skinning and preparing wild game.

Final Verdict for Diets That Time Forgot: Three Gherkins, for being and interesting look at weight-loss strategies from days gone by

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Be intentional with your money

Nearly everyone is looking for ways to make some extra money.  Blogger Crystal Paine has taken the lessons she's learned about generating extra income and collected them into the book Money Making Mom.  She stresses that having more money won't solve all your problems, but it will give you the freedom to live, save, and give on your own terms.

While on the Internet, it's easy to become enthusiastic when reading about how others have been successful at creating their own businesses, but this book stresses that you have to find an idea that utilizes your own unique talents.  There are questions to help you discover the areas in which you excel, as well as worksheets to help you identify your strengths.  Even though someone else might have made a success of selling a particular product or service, if your talents don't lie in that area, you risk losing time, money and motivation on something that will never be profitable for you.

Another chapter gives the pros and cons of various business options, including multi-level marketing, home-based vs. online vs. brick-and-mortar businesses.  Once you've identified the best business model for your idea, then there are helpful options in terms of writing a mission statement, marketing and networking.  Still stuck for ideas?  There are some suggestions for starting your own business such as blogging, pet care, virtual assisting, mystery shopping, etc.  Each option is defined, then there are useful websites or books mentioned that will allow further exploration to determine if this is a good option for you.

Once your business is up and running, there are also things you have to do to ensure that things run smoothly.  Suggestions are provided for time management, overcoming fear of failure and dealing with negativity from others.  When you're finally running a successful business, the author also gives you ideas on how to give wisely and generously.  A list of resources, including websites, books and podcasts is included at the end of the book.

I think this is a very inspiring and informative look at ways to start a business.  I really like the variety of ideas on identifying your talents and how to go about setting up a business that help you to consider aspects that might not first be apparent.  Anyone looking to make some extra money could find many valuable ideas in this book!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Money Making Mom from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Chruchill's trial is also our trial

Sir Winston Churchill is rightly regarded as one of the premier statesmen of the 20th century. His unflinching leadership during the second world war inspired his country during dark times and gained him the admiration of people around the world.  The book Churchill's Trial takes a look at the career and driving forces behind this leader, from World War II and beyond.

The book is divided into three sections which reflect the three major forces that Churchill faced during his career:  the war years, the struggle to maintain the British empire, and the rise of socialist policies following the war.

Churchill's work during the war is well documented, but I was more interested in reading about his attitudes following the war.  Apparently, he believed that the countries in the British Empire would want to stay part of the empire "by principle and sentiment."  Surprisingly, countries in the British empire contributed nearly a third of the soldiers and suffered nearly half the casualties of British forces in World War II.  Certainly, the point can be made that Britain might not have been on the winning side in the war without the assistance of so many soldiers from the empire.  At the same time, Churchill didn't believe that these countries had the ability to govern themselves.  While this put him at odds with the United States, he held firm in his belief that Britain could best govern these countries, and that the people were incapable of doing it themselves.  He was also of the viewpoint that maintaining order was the most important thing ("harsh laws are sometimes better than no laws at all").  While his viewpoints might seem at odds with modern ideas, the author does believe that British influence had a great impact on the establishment of modern democratic India and that, in the long run, the Indian people as a whole are better off than they might otherwise have been.

During Churchill's lifetime, the Labour party was formed and governed Britain.  He fought their ideals of nationalization for the rest of his life, even though he was to lose this battle.  Churchill believed that Capitalism unequally shared the wealth, but that Socialism was more than happy to spread misery to everyone.  He was also concerned that when problems arose in a Socialist society, that leaders would resort to a "Gestapo" to keep order.  His opposition to Socialism was so staunch that he refused to work with any Socialists in cabinets or coalitions, except when the stresses of World War II required him to set his principles aside.  He was gracious in defeat in 1945 when his party lost to the Labour party, but he was concerned that the British nation was changing in character (for the worse, of course!) due to the hardships caused by the war.  At the same time that he opposed Socialism, Churchill did see the need for social and economic reforms, and even supported some of these reforms.  However he disliked the thought of big government and feared that it would not be able to better serve the needs of the people than the systems of rule that had come before.

The book ends with some of Churchill's writings and speeches.  Overall, the book is an interesting look at a well-known leader that helped to shape modern Britain.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Churchill's Trial from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Monday, September 28, 2015

Some people don't appreciate their good luck

Poor Julia Conley.  Her previously unknown Aunt Regina has died and left her a house in London.  Why do these things never happen to me?  The book That Summer follows Julia as she heads to London to get the house ready for sale and what happens when she uncovers a mystery at the house.

Julia has lived most of her life in New York City.  Parents are from England, but after the death of her mother when Julia was a child, her surgeon father relocated to NYC.  Julia grew up with only a few vague memories of her mother.  When the story opens, Julia has recently been laid off from her finance job in the city, and despite her best efforts, has been unable to find another position.  The letter from England informing her of her inheritance couldn't have come at a better time.

She packs up and travels over to London to inspect the house.  It's old and has been somewhat neglected.  It also turns out the Great Aunt Regina was something of a hoarder, with boxes of papers and receipts stashed in every room.  Julia soon notices a portrait in the living room of a woman in mid-nineteenth century dress.  The painter turns out to be someone she's never heard of, Gavin Thorne, who was an associate of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

As Julia begins to attempt to sort through the mess in the house, she's "helped" by her cousin Natasha.  It seems Natasha, daughter of her mother's cousin Caroline, is only too eager to help.  Natasha also brings along her friend Nicholas Dorrington.  Nicholas owns an antiques shop, and Natasha says he'll be able to help identify any valuable items.  As they get to work, Julia soon discovers a painting hidden away in the back of a wardrobe.

The action set in the present day alternates with the story of Imogen Grantham.  Imogen's story takes place mainly in the 1840s.  She was a young, isolated girl living with her widowed father when she met Arthur Grantham.  Arthur seemed dashing a refined, and the young Imogen was thrilled by his proposal.  When her father died, it seemed only natural for her to marry Arthur.  Arthur's first wife had died, leaving him with a young daughter and (unfortunately) a sister-in-law, Jane, who lived in his home.  It soon becomes apparent that Jane doesn't appreciate having a new female in the home.

Arthur is kind to Imogen, but he treats her as one of his possessions -- something to be acquired and showed off in public, but pretty much ignored at home.  Imogen becomes terribly bored.  When Arthur decides to have Imogen's portrait painted, he hires Gavin Thorne, a young up-and-coming artist.  Due to the long process of having a portrait painted, Gavin and Imogen spend a lot of time together.  Before long, events take a predictable turn . . .

The present-day sleuths quickly suspect that the painting found in the wardrobe is by Thorne, but it is one that is unknown in the art world.  Thorne only produced a handful of paintings, and he seemed to disappear, reportedly to Australia, never to be heard from again.  Julia and the attractive Nicholas also become close as they attempt to sort out whether the painting is indeed by Thorne.  But does Nicholas have ulterior motives for wanting to help Julia???

I enjoyed the back-and-forth stories in the book, although I thought the resolution of the historical one was left a little vague.  It seemed somewhat rushed at the end.  But maybe that's just sour grapes coming from someone who's still waiting to inherit a house in central London!

Final Verdict for That Summer:Three Gherkins, for being a two-pronged London mystery

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On your marks, get set, BAKE!

The Great British Baking Show is back!

Armchair bakers, rejoice!  The drama-filled Great British Baking Show returns for its second season on PBS on Sundays beginning September 6.  It will air from 7:00 - 8:00 PM (but check your local listings to verify the broadcast time).  All of the favorites from the first series are back, including Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry (the Doyenne of Baking).  Episode one looks ready to get off to a delicious start, when all of the challenges involve cakes (don't watch on an empty stomach!).

The 13 amateur bakers will be challenged each week in three categories.  The Signature Bake generally requires the contestants to bake a tried and true recipe in a given category.  The Technical Bake gives ingredients, but not much in the way of instructions.  The Showstopper Bake involves creations of jaw-dropping complexity and creativity.  It is no surprise that the winner of last season's show was a carpenter!

The 10 week series will be sure to have plenty of drama, tears and stress as the bakers compete to be crowned Master Baker of the week, as well as to avoid elimination and to move on to the next round. The Great British Bake Off (to use its UK title) has won several awards in its five seasons, and so we can hope that more seasons will be shown here in the US!  

If you miss the Sunday night broadcast, there are numerous ways to catch up!  The episodes will be available for streaming through your local PBS station's website the morning after the original airing, and can also be streamed through Roku, Apple TV, Xbox and apps for iPhone and iPad.  Additionally, for those who are brave enough, you can visit PBS Food to see recipes (in case you're feeling creative), video clips, or just to learn more about the contestants.

I'm really looking forward to another season of this great series!  You wouldn't think there would be that much drama in the kitchen, but it's amazing to see how well the contestants (if not always their creations!) perform under pressure.  

Monday, August 31, 2015

Bless this bag of Cheetos

Just what is a Jackwagon, you may be asking yourself?  As comedian Tim Hawkins points out on the back cover of his book Diary of a Jackwagon, it's an old term referring to military vehicles that were repaired with spare parts and were therefore unreliable.  He uses the term to refer to himself, as someone who is lacking in achievement and who frequently messes up.

The book is a collection of "comedy journal" entries that Hawkins has kept over his 20 year career as an entertainer.  He offers his humorous observations on topics such as marriage, homeschooling (which he and his wife participate in), aging and society.  Each chapter ends with some "Tweet Thoughts" -- Twitter postings he plans to unleash at some point.

The observations are pretty funny and he seems like a down-to-earth and self-effacing kind of guy.  However, the material does seem to get slightly repetitive (his wife is great and he doesn't deserve her, things are different from how he grew up, he's kind of a doofus, etc.).  He also puts a Christian spin on many topics. There are tons and tons of appreciative quotes from a variety of people on the back of the book and covering the first 4 pages (overkill much?).  Still, it's an enjoyable enough read for those who like their comedy topics clean and kind!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Diary of a Jackwagon from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review