Thursday, July 31, 2008

On a Library Thing discussion board some people were waxing lyrical about the book Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. Lazy cow that I am, I decided to see if my local library had the audio book version, and was delighted to see that (bonus!) they actually had a film version. It was filmed in 1995 and directed by Liv Ullmann. The work is a trilogy that spans more than 1000 pages, but I believe the movie only covers the first book. The story is set in 14th century Norway, and describes Kristin's decision to go against her father's wishes and marry a man she loves (who is in disgrace because he already has a mistress and children) instead of the man her father has chosen for her.

In the beginning of the story, we find that although she loved a childhood friend, her father had promised her in marriage to another man. The childhood friend went off to be a soldier and was killed. Heartbroken, Kristin retreats to a nunnery for a year to grieve and avoid the arranged marriage. While in the nunnery, she is sent out to buy provisions and immediately falls in love with a man she sees in town. Who knew a nunnery was the happening place to meet men?

Many secret trysts and intense fumblings follow the initial meeting. It seems rather odd that Kristin, resident in the presumably cloistered and monitored nunnery, has no problem sneaking out at all hours for clandestine meetings with the lover. Eventually, it all comes out, and Kristin, ahead of her time, stomps her foot like a modern, petulant teenager and announces she will too marry the man she loves, no matter what her parents say.

Lots of arguing, mournful looks and wringing of hands follows. Here's the strange part: her father is adamant that she will not marry the older-already-has-a-woman-guy. Then, one night there is a big thunderstorm and the local church is struck by lightening and burns to the ground. In the very next instant, Kristin and older-already-has-a-woman-guy are standing in the burned out church, with family looking on, getting married. Honestly, here is the sequence of events:

1. Over my dead body will you marry him

2. Church fire

3. Wedding

There is no explanation at all for how we got from 1 to 3. This is a somewhat long and slow film, so you'd think they could have added an extra 30 seconds or so for an explanation, but no go.

Final Verdict for Kristin Lavransdatter the film: One Gherkin, for being very slow, not to mention totally illogical
OK, so she's not British, but Irish author Marian Keyes lived in London for many years, so that's close enough for me. Just now I'm distressingly low on audio books from the library, so I had to dig out one of my own for a re-listen. I'm currently enjoying Marian's Under the Duvet: Shoes, Reviews, Having the Blues, Builders, Babies, Families and Other Calamities. This is not a novel, but a collection of previously published articles that appeared in various magazines and newspapers, as well as some new material. The articles are mostly hilarious, and deal with such things as her love of shoes (even though, like me, she has ridiculously small feet and can almost never find any that fit), buying and remodeling a house, and learning to drive. She reads the audio book herself, and gives the stories hilarious inflections and accents that greatly add to the enjoyment of the book. Her family members are make frequent appearances in her stories, especially her husband, AKA "himself." My favorite part (aside from the numerous funny bits), are the appealing Irish turns of phrase that pop up regularly. At one point, she discusses talking with another Irish expat in London, and being glad not to have to explain the meaning of such phrases as "ride me sideways." Well, because she doesn't have to explain it to the other Irish person, no explanations are given, but it does make for amusing speculation!

Another true life story that I'm currently enjoying is the book Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself By Becoming an EMT by Jane Stern. Stern is a well-known food journalist who reports regularly for NPR with her husband Michael. At the age of 52, she was overtaken by a severe form of depression. A not leaving the house, watching Jerry Springer all day, not ever getting dressed type of depression. Seemingly on a whim, she stops in to apply when volunteer EMTs are needed at the local fire station. At first, because of her age and overall poor physical condition, she is not exactly welcomed with open arms. However, she joins the training class and quickly discovers that if she can keep her latte down during the more graphic and bloody slide shows, she has a true interest in the subject. So far, I am really enjoying the story. It's quite amazing to read about how a woman who was so depressed and anxiety-ridden decided to volunteer for what must surely be one of the most stressful occupations on earth. On the other hand, after dealing daily with people who have severed limbs, brains leaking out of their skulls, and "feces that look like coffee grounds", I suppose your own problems don't seem so bad. Right now she is still in the training class, but I'm anxious to find out what happens when she goes on her first call!

Final Verdict for Under the Duvet: Four Gherkins, for occasional London references and many, many hilarious situations!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Although my local public library has thankfully decided to reintroduce sanity to their circulation policies and allow 3-week checkout periods, until recently a book could only be checked out for 2 weeks. The book could be renewed two times, but this wouldn't work if there was a hold on the item (which there generally was, especially when I was in need of a renewal in the worst way).

That means, lazy reader that I sometimes am, that I had to bring home books from the library and (gasp) immediately start reading them, instead of leaving them in a stack by the bed to "ripen" for a while. Here are the recent materials I've rushed through:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. How many case histories can I keep up with? The answer, sadly, is not very many! This book concerns mainly "lost" girls -- girls who were murdered, abducted, given away, etc. The story mainly takes place in modern day Cambridge, but there were lots of flashbacks to other towns and events, as detective Jackson Brodie attempts to solve several of the mysteries and bring closure to grieving relatives. In the meantime, he reveals his own family tragedy. I listened to the audio version of this novel, and the shifting back and forth in time, along with numerous characters, at times made it difficult to follow (well, probably not if you were concentrating, but I apparently wasn't -- not all the time anyway). This was one of the few audio books that I really wished I'd had the book for, to flip back and review when I became confused. When the narrator said something like, "And then David said, . . ." I would think, "Who was David again?" This audio book definitely requires a lot of concentration to keep all the people and situations straight. I didn't think everything was sufficiently cleared up at the end, but then again, maybe I just wasn't paying close enough attention.

Me of Little Faith by Lewis Black. I adore Lewis Black. I was introduced to him on XM Satellite Radio's Comedy Channel. His sputtering indignation at the absurdities of modern life always left me in stitches. So what could go wrong with reading a book he'd written? Well, plenty. For some reason, his style of communication falls flat on the written page. What is screamingly hilarious to hear him say, provokes no laughter when read. It's just dull. This book was supposed to be about his encounters with religion, from his own experiences as a non-observant Jew to commentaries on other religions. There are some humorous parts, sure, but this is one that would absolutely benefit by having the audio book read by the author. I forced myself to finish it, although the last part of the book includes the text of a play that he co-wrote and starred in many years ago. I did not find it hilarious. I hope he sticks to the stand-up from now on.

Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert. Since I work in a library, I was very interested to read about another librarian's day to day life. After reading this book, I went to my library, fell to the ground, kissed the slightly grubby carpeting, and wept with joy that I don't work in a PUBLIC library. Mr. Borchert is a "Library Assistant" (we are reminded numerous times that he "doesn't have his degree") at a public library branch in Los Angeles. I was horrified to read about the trials and tribulations of the library staff: disgusting items left in the book drop, dozens of children dropped off for hours every day to take advantage of the "free day care" offered by the library, and calling the police an average of 3 times per day. Really, the people that work there deserve medals for going waaaaaaayyyy above and beyond the call of duty.

Final Verdict for Case Histories: Two Gherkins, for requiring more concentration than I was willing to give!
Final Verdict for Me of Little Faith: One Gherkin, for being an unfunny book by a comedian

Final Verdict for Free for All: Two Gherkins, for being a true account of the thankless job of working in an urban public library, but I have to subtract some Gherkins because the author has a bit of a potty-mouth (which I probably would too, working in that environment!)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I had tickets for another "sneak preview" movie last night. This time it was The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. I hadn't seen any of the films in the Mummy franchise, so I came into it without any preconceived notions. Let's see if I can get this right. The mummy-hunting couple, played by Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello, have retired to the English countryside. Their son is on an archaeological dig in China, and uncovers the tomb of an emperor which is brought unopened to a museum. In the meantime, mom & dad are pressed by the British government to return some bauble-thingy to the Chinese government "as a gesture of good faith" (?). Of course, when they arrive at the museum with the bauble-thingy, it turns out to be just the thing needed to release the cursed emperor from his tomb and bring him back to life (sort of). There are some sinister Chinese soldiers who want the emperor brought back to life so he can enslave the world, so they want the aforementioned bauble-thingy. Lots of fighting and gunfire ensues. Now, here's the thing: you've got SOLDIERS, for heaven's sake, plus mom & pop mummy-hunter-secret-agent-types -- and no one can manage to hit anyone else with the 10,000 or so shots they collectively fire. I would spend less time hunting mummies and trying to raise dead emperors, and a little more on target practice if it were me. You would think that would be obvious, wouldn't you?

So anyway, the bauble-thingy is employed and the emperor comes back to life, but he's still kinda encased in stone and not overly mobile. Turns out there's more stuff he has to do to become his fully-realized evil self. Of course, mom & dad and son mummy hunters, along with obligatory cute-but-mysterious Chinese girlfriend have to stop this from happening. Lots of perilous airplane rides, avalanches, Yeti interventions and sword fighting happens before we get to the conclusion.

The scenery is lovely, and the story is fairly easy to follow, even for a Mummy novice like myself. My only problem was the utterly predictable and overly sentimental characters. I really didn't like any of them, so I was actually hoping this emperor guy might get something evil going, but no dice. Oh well, I do love the "sneak previews", and I must admit, they are exposing me to all sorts of movies I wouldn't otherwise see.

Final Verdict for The Mummy: Two Gherkins, for some English scenery, and an eventful few hours

Friday, July 25, 2008

The second season of Big Train was a vast improvement over the first one, mainly in terms of navigation on the DVD. At least this DVD had actual menus and let you move between episodes and scenes. There was also a refreshing lack of mandatory commercials at the beginning.

The second season of the series features Tracy-Ann Oberman, Chrissie-that-was-on Eastenders. I actually enjoyed the second season more than the first. There didn't seem to be as many absurd sketches in the second season, and the overall time for each sketch seemed more reasonable. Some of the painfully unfunny sketches went on and on during the first season. There were plenty of laughs in both, though, and lots of wacky characters!

Final Verdict for Big Train: Two Gherkins, for some funny moments and recognizable faces!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Poor Ed Robinson. No matter what he does, misfortune and disaster follow in the comedy series The Robinsons. When his girlfriend is promoted and becomes his boss, Ed loses both the relationship and his job in marine reinsurance. He flounders about, trying to move on, but forever feeling he can't measure up to the success of his siblings. Brother George is a time management consultant, and sister Vicky works in interior design. Both of them are overbearing, unpleasant people with little time or sympathy for others. George is married to Maggie, the most "normal" person in the family, but otherwise is friendless and socially inept. Vicky can't stay in a relationship, mainly due to her hostile and hyper-critical personality.

The parents, played by Richard Johnson and the wonderful Anna Massey, criticize each other constantly and are blamed by Ed for all his failures. The series features some unusual aspects, such as Ed pointing out how traits of his can be traced to various Robinson ancestors throughout history.

The show only lasted one season, but ended on something of a cliff-hanger. The writers obviously thought the show would continue. It had some amusing points, but the characters were, for the most part, so unlikeable that there was really no sympathy for anyone.
Final Verdict for The Robinsons: Two Gherkins, for some unusual storytelling techniques, but overall unpleasant cast of characters

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I was listening to the HUGE audio book of Fingersmith when I found out there had been a film made of the story. I was able to get it rather quickly from Netflix, and watched it recently. The film followed the story very well. There was an interesting view of St. Paul's as the film began.

The story takes place in 1860s London and concerns a group of fingersmiths (or thieves). One of the group comes up with a plan to defraud an heiress of her fortune by planting one of the thieves in her household as a maid.
After Sue Trinder (the thief) is installed in the home of Maud Lilly (the heiress), the two develop a romantic relationship. The their "love scenes" are a bit drawn out, but the story has enough twists and turns to make it interesting.

Because the audio book went on for far too long (in my opinion), I preferred the film version.

Final Verdict for Fingersmith : Three Gherkins, for an overall Dickensian feel
Since 2000, the London Eye has dominated the London skyline. Now it's getting some competition from the smaller, but no less impressive Greenwich Wheel.
A Ferris Wheel Is Erected As Part Of London Festival Of Architecture

Gorgeous! It looks like it would give spectacular views over Greenwich and the river. Unfortunately, it is projected to only be open over the summer, and to close at the end of September. Which means I won't get to ride it! Hopefully, like the "temporary" London Eye, this will prove very popular and will become a more or less permanent feature.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I've signed up over at Book Room Reviews to win a set of 14 great summer books. They are giving away at least 5 of these sets of books, so there will be lots of very happy readers this summer! Check it out over at:

The books in the giveaway include The Monster of Florence (Douglas Preston); Barefoot (Elin Hilderbrand); The Preacher and the Presidents (Nancy Gibbs & Michael Duffy); Made in the U.S.A. (Billie Letts); Swine Not? (Jimmy Buffett & Helen Bransford); Off Season (Anne Siddons); Miscarriage of Justice ("Kip" Gayden); A Rose by the Door (Deborah Bedford); Remember Me (Deborah Bedford); Trespassers Will Be Baptized (Elizabeth Hancock); He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (Trish Ryan); Child 44 (Tom Smith); A Summer Affair (Elin Hilderbrand); and Close (Martina Cole).

The contest is still going on, so go enter! I'm going to win, of course, but they're giving away multiple prizes, so there is a chance for others, as well!

Monday, July 21, 2008

I was eating breakfast this morning and reading the newspaper, when a sentence caught my eye: "the couple . . . are organizing this year's U.S. Jack the Ripper Conference in October to be held here in Knoxville." Say what??? Not only is there a Jack the Ripper Conference, but it's going to be held just down the street from me this year??? Goodness, how exciting!

One of the scheduled speakers for the conference is the author Martin Fido, author of the excellent Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper and Jack the Ripper A to Z. Of course, I signed up right away. It will be interesting to hear what the experts have to say, and to speak with other "Ripperologists." Undoubtedly, he main factor which makes the Jack the Ripper case so intriguing is that it was never solved.

In my opinion, one of the most shocking crimes in the U.S. has to have been the murders of Frank Lloyd Wright's mistress Mamah Cheney, her children and four others. This story is told in the book Loving Frank. One day in 1914, while Wright was away, a servant set fire to the house and attacked people with an ax as they tried to flee. The killer was immediately caught, tried and executed. I happened upon a reference to this one day while reading something about Wright, and I was surprised that I hadn't heard of the case before. Not only was it sensational and horribly violent, but Wright was and remains a well-known figure. In celebrity-obsessed America, the more scandalous and disturbing an individual's life is, the more we love him or her.

I think the main reason that this case isn't well-known (as opposed to the Jack the Ripper story), is that there was no mystery involved -- the guilty party was caught immediately and made to pay for his crimes. His motive even turned out to be quite simple: he was crazy as a loon.

While we will probably never know what motivated Jack the Ripper, speculating and pouring over the evidence will keep Ripperologists entertained for many years to come.

Final Verdict for Jack the Ripper A to Z and Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper: Four Gherkins for being well-researched, comprehensive accounts of the case

Final Verdict for Loving Frank: Three Gherkins for being an interesting treatment of an all but forgotten incident

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I have tons of British series just now in my Netflix queue, but sometimes my husband will go in and move something he wants to see to the top (the nerve!). This weekend we watched one of his selections, The Bank Job. Now, I must have been living under a rock, because I don't remember hearing anything about this film. So I asked him, "What's it about?" He started reading off the overview on the little sleeve the disk came in, and he said the two magic words: "London" and "Jason Statham" (well, technically, that's three words, but two concepts -- so I'll count it as two words). I was anxious to see any sightings of London, but the film was set in 1971, so aside from some shots of various underground stations (with the old style gray trains) and Paddington Station, there wasn't really much to show the film was actually set in London. I guess the city has changed so much since 1971 that there really wasn't anywhere to film that would be realistic.

The movie had a lot of plot twists that made it somewhat hard to follow. A high-profile black activist was arrested on some charge (I forget what now), but the government refused to prosecute him because he was holding some naughty photos showing a member of the royal family. The MI5 or 6 (or maybe both, it was difficult to tell -- and what's the dif, anyway?) hatched a plot to steal the photos from the bank safe deposit box where they were being held. A model attempting to enter the country with drugs was detained and given the opportunity to have her charges dropped if she could arrange the robbery of the bank vault. She gets together a gang of small-time criminals to rob the vault, but doesn't reveal the true motive (to get the royal nasties) behind the robbery to the gang of thieves.

So the gang successfully robs the vault and makes off with millions in jewels and cash. However, numerous bad guys and gals had stashed THEIR blackmailing materials in the safe deposit boxes as well, so those people immediately became involved in trying to track down the people responsible for the robbery.

So you have: the robbers after cash (so they think), various and sundry blackmailers wanting their documentation back, government agencies wanting the whole thing solved and swept under the rug, corrupt police trying to protect themselves from exposure, and honest police (greatly outnumbered) trying to solve the whole thing. It was very confusing as to who was after what and why, and there was a lot of beating and killing going on.

Well, on the bright side, Jason Statham did look as gorgeous as ever, and this was, I suppose, one of his "typical" roles. Fans of his will not be disappointed!

Final Verdict for The Bank Job: Two Gherkins, for London atmosphere (if not scenery) and Jason Statham!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Ha! Today's Knoxville News-Sentinel carried a review of the new film Mamma Mia, which I discussed here a few days ago. The newspaper article was accompanied by a still from the film:

My, my, what have we here? The actress Amanda Seyfried in mid-flap (see here for my anti-flap rant). Did I lie? I think not . . . if only the film had been made somewhere cold, like Greenland, perhaps. She could have worn an outfit with weighted sleeves that might have curtailed at least some of the flapping. As it is, I guess the audience will just have to grimace and bear it.

Then again, I really shouldn't have been surprised that this photo accompanied the review of the movie. It would have been hard to get a photo from the film when she wasn't waving her arms around and jumping up and down.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I am a huge fan of the podcast This Week In London. The man behind the show, the incredibly generous Paul Parkinson, is an amazing resource of great information about London. He also makes his contact information available for listeners to get in touch. His podcasts are a wonderful mix of facts about London, humor, and music.

Occasionally, he runs contests related to subjects in his podcasts. Recently, he interviewed two officials with the Docklands Light Railway, part of the London Underground System. He offered a "DLR Goody Bag" to one lucky listener, and hooray! I won! Yesterday I received it in the mail, and here was the haul:
Several very informative booklets about the DLR's history and future expansion plans, a short DVD about the new Langdon Park station, a very sturdy ink pen, some yummy jelly beans in a train-shaped box, and a DLR watch! I love the London Underground, and the DLR portion is great fun to ride. The trains all seem very neat and clean and since there is no driver on those trains, it feels rather like riding a roller coaster. Of course, I know that if I were a commuter who had to deal with crowds, rising fares and delays on a daily basis, the appeal of the tube would likely soon wear off. As an occasional visitor, however, I continue to enjoy the convenience and novelty of riding the trains. Knoxville, sadly, hasn't seen anything other than freight trains in years (although as someone who lives near the tracks, I can attest that the freight trains are still plentiful).

Thanks again to Paul and the DLR, and keep those podcasts coming!

Final Verdict for This Week In London Podcast: 5 Gherkins for great, relevant, up-to-date London content

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

That fact became apparent when I attended a sneak preview of the movie Mamma Mia last night. The film is set in Greece, and features the story of a young woman about to be married who wants to find her father. She invites the three prospects to her wedding, without informing her mother, played by Meryl Streep. Sprinkled liberally throughout the film are the delightful songs of ABBA. Most of the songs are worked in to fit with the plot, but others just seem to be added in for no apparent reason. The beginning of the film is rather annoying, with the mother and daughter both welcoming female friends who have arrived for the wedding. There is a lot of shrieking and screaming as friends are reunited. During the early musical numbers, there is a lot of running up and down steps and jumping up and down in place as some weird substitute for dancing. If the songs had been accompanied by choreographed dance sequences, it would have been easier to take.

The three possible fathers are played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård. Brosnan has the biggest role, and unfortunately, is given the opportunity to sing several songs. He's a wonderful actor and very easy on the eyes, but a singer he's not. Colin Firth, on the other hand, did very well with the few lines he had to sing, so it is a bit puzzling why his and Brosnan's roles weren't reversed. Firth would have been the much better choice in the role that required prolonged singing!

The actress who played the daughter in the film, Amanda Seyfried, had the annoying habit of flapping her hands around and groaning in nearly every conversation she had with another character. The director should have pointed this out and put a stop to it right smartish. Distractingly, she flaps throughout the film.

The mother's two friends are played by the wonderful Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, who prances around in a swimsuit without an ounce of cellulite visible. I hate her! Meryl Streep, as always, was the heart and soul of the film, and she turned out to be a wonderful singer (although if she had kept that annoying clump of hair away from her face, I would have enjoyed her performance more).

The ABBA songs were as catchy as ever, although there were several of them that I didn't remember hearing before. I was also delighted to catch small cameo appearances by ABBA members Benny Anderson (playing the piano) and Björn Ulvaeus (in the group of angels (?) during the credits). I didn't notice either of the female members of the group, but they might have been there, too.

Overall, the film was enjoyable, mainly for the rousing performances of the ABBA numbers (except for the wince-inducing Brosnan songs). The auditorium was absolutely packed by 6:45 for the 7:30 show. In fact, there were nearly some fights over empty seats that people claimed they were "saving" for others. At the end of the film, the main members of the cast performed several ABBA numbers in outlandish costumes, and no one left the auditorium. There was a round of applause at the end of the film, and most people seemed to be smiling as they left. Based on this evidence, I predict this one will be a hit. There was an article in a Swedish newspaper recently that stated Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus are BILLIONAIRES. I guess this film will only add more $$$ (or SEK) to the ABBA coffers.

You can get a glimpse of the crowd (behind the cars) lined up outside the theater before the film. What can I say, Knoxville is a busy, happening town!

Final Verdict for Mamma Mia: Three Gherkins for lively music and a general feel-good experience

Monday, July 14, 2008

Over the weekend, I watched the first four episodes of Season 1 of the dramedy Shameless. I can't say I'm very impressed so far, which means I must be missing out on something. The reviewers over at IMDB love the show, as do those at Nearly everyone gives the series the highest possible rating, and there have been 5 seasons shown in Britain so far. I really don't get it. The series is about a family of 6 kids living in a housing project with their alcoholic, unemployed father. The mother left "some time ago" (and I don't blame her). Oldest sibling Fiona is responsible for keeping things together, and everyone in the family has some odd quirk. Still, I am not charmed by any of the characters, and didn't find the series remotely funny. Maybe it improves over time.

The most outlandish thing (and maybe this is supposed to be the hilarious bit) is that the drunken, incontinent, disheveled father, Frank, is apparently irresistible to women. He moves in with an attractive lady down the street, and neither she nor her teen aged daughter can keep their hands off him. Yeah, I'm screaming with laughter over that one. (?) Then again, the woman in question has agoraphobia and hasn't left her flat in several years, so maybe she just doesn't recognize a loser when she sees one. Still not buying it, though, because one of her first comments to Frank (her new-found love) is about how bad his feet stink. Are you rolling in the aisles yet? Me neither.

The series features a young looking (not that he looks old now, but definitely younger) James McAvoy and his real-life wife Anne-Marie Duff (as the long-suffering Fiona). I will get the rest of Season 1 from Netflix, but if this doesn't pick up, I'm going to pass on the rest of the seasons.

Intermediate Verdict for Shameless: One Gherkin for being an unfunny comedy.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

This week I was able to see The Future is Unwritten, the documentary film about the late Clash front man Joe Strummer. During my formative years, I was fortunate to have a pen-pal from Holland (hey, Rinus!) who sent me tapes of The Clash, U2, Fischer-Z and The Jam when my classmates were listening to the likes of Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon. I can still remember the jaw-dropping impact of hearing The Clampdown for the first time. I immediately became a life-long fan of the Clash and started taking an interest in far-flung places like Chile and Nicaragua. The musical team of Strummer and Jones must surely be one of the greatest creative forces of all time. When Joe Strummer died suddenly on December 22, 2002, I was shocked and saddened. Although I had been and remain a huge fan, I really didn't know much about his life or his career after the Clash.

The Future is Unwritten features numerous people who knew Joe Strummer throughout his life reminiscing about him and his place in musical history. As other reviewers have commented, the lack of identification of the people who are speaking is annoying. Other than immediately recognizable people such as Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon and Steve Buscemi, the identities of the speakers and their relationships to Strummer are often not clear.

Former bandmates Mick Jones, Topper Headon and Terry Chimes are all featured, although the still gorgeous Paul Simonon didn't take part in the project. (An aside: Oh for an extra £30,000 to buy one of Simonon's beautiful Thames paintings!) The first part of the film is a strange whirl of short comments, still photographs and cartoons. If you didn't have ADHD before you watched this, I had the feeling it might induce the condition. The second part of the film slowed down and featured more people sitting around campfires (apparently a passion of Strummer's) and reminiscing.

Strummer ultimately comes off as an extremely conflicted individual. Someone who worked very hard for musical success, but felt guilty for abandoning his "everyman" roots. After the break-up of the Clash (blamed variously on the evil machinations of former manager Bernie Rhodes, on the stress of non-stop touring, and on Mick Jones' out-of-control rock-star behavior), he was still under contract to the record company and felt constricted musically and creatively. He had many years when he dabbled in acting and writing film soundtracks, and eventually he did release more albums. He was never able to recapture the success of the Clash, however.

I was most interested in the clips featuring Clash drummer Topper Headon. He came off as the most sympathetic and human character from the group. His hurt and bewilderment at being dismissed from the group (for drug problems) is still palpable nearly 25 years after the fact. I was also fascinated to hear his description of how he came up with the music for "Rock the Casbah", dabbling in the studio when the other members of the group were chronically in-fighting.

Overall, it was a very sympathetic and moving portrait of one of the great influences from my teenage years. The Clash were moving in very experimental and diffuse directions by the time they split up, but their songs remain very timely and important, today more than ever. We still need Joe Strummer's voice in the world, and it is a terrible tragedy that it was silenced so soon.

Favorite Joe quote from the film: "I think it says in the Bible, there's a time to dance to techno, and there's a time not to."

Final Verdict for The Future is Unwritten: Four Gherkins, for wonderful, timeless footage of The Clash

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Any Anglophile is of course besotted with the offerings of British telly. We get the occasional gem on PBS. BBCAmerica on rare occasions decides to depart from its "all repeats all the time" format to actually show something worth watching. These examples, are, sadly, few and far between. What's a poor Anglophile to do? Well, there is a wonderful alternative available. The Telly website offers the ability to subscribe to a service which will allow users to watch live British TV. It is a bit expensive to set up, but then there is a relatively inexpensive monthly fee of around $100 to watch 40 British stations on your computer. The user is also responsible for paying the yearly British TV license fee of around $280.

The great thing is that you can try out the service for 24 hours for $20. I did this today and it is wonderful! You only need to download the free SlingPlayer software and soon you're up and running! There is an online menu that makes browsing all available programs very easy. I was viewing the broadcast over a wireless network, and I had absolutely no problems with it. The entire process was amazingly quick and easy. Now to start my savings account to pay for the full subscription . . .
I happened upon a mystery film by John Le Carre called A Murder of Quality. Set in a boys' public school, the old spy Smiley is called in to try to solve a murder. The isolated and insulated school community is a hive of gossip, back-biting and blackmail. The wife of a new teacher at the school is beaten to death, but shortly before her death she had written to a relative to say she feared her husband was going to kill her. It turns out the woman was not well-liked, so there was no shortage of possible suspects.

There were an awful lot of characters, including several middle-aged women with short dark hair who were indistinguishable from each other. That made the plot difficult to follow at times. However, there were lovely scenes of the English countryside and the beautiful old school. The film features a very young (and to me, unrecognizable) Christian Bale.

Final Verdict for A Murder of Quality: Two Gherkins for lovely English scenery, but a somewhat confusing plot

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I found the British sketch comedy series Big Train on Netflix without knowing anything about it. I was surprised to see Simon "Shaun of the Dead" Pegg and Julia "Nighty Night" Davis pop up in the cast. As with many comedy programs, some of the sketches were funnier than others. Among my favorites: the red coated fox hunters who are frustrated firefighters, and the runner who cannot quite grasp the concept of reacting to the starting gun. Some of the other sketches seem to go on forever and not be particularly funny, such as the one where Hall and Oates are deployed to a housing estate to "help" the bemused residents. The real problem with the DVD was that there was absolutely NO navigation on it. The only option was "play all." There were, I believe, 6 episodes on the disc. If you didn't watch them all in one setting, there was no way to jump forward to later episodes. The "disc menu" button only took the DVD back to the annoying commercials at the beginning of the DVD. There was also NO WAY to skip past those. Fast forwarding worked briefly, but eventually the DVD just froze up and refused to play. Very frustrating!

I'm currently listening to the audio book of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. I had never read anything by this author, but the audio book is satisfyingly hefty, so I figured it would keep me busy for a while. If only I can keep ahead of the "overdue" notices from the library! The story is set in 1860s London in a den of "fingersmiths" or thieves. Sue Trinder is an orphan who is raised by the kindly (well, to her) Mrs. Sucksby. One of the transient thieves comes up with a scam to defraud a young heiress of her fortune, and needs Sue's help. So far, the story is quite interesting and evocative of smoky, dirty, bustling Victorian London. I could do without every other sentence commenting on how "pale" or "pink" people's cheeks are, but otherwise, it's an engrossing story.

Final Verdict on Big Train: Two Gherkins for some funny bits, but loses Gherkins for the useless DVD navigation
I finally made it through the first season of William and Mary. It did turn out to be an enjoyable series, although there were enough illogical aspects to the story to keep it from scoring really high on the Gherkin Scale. Throughout most of the series, the character of Mary is loud, rude, obnoxious and childish. They do say opposites attract (midwife and undertaker -- get it?), but why the mild, pleasant William would continue to pursue a relationship with her is a puzzle. At one point in the story he decides to get out of the undertaking business, since he never wanted to do it. Mary pitches a fit, and he smiles and immediately decides to give in to her demand that he remain an undertaker -- even though 5 minutes later she is storming off in a huff and threatening to break it off with him. There's not a lot of realistic character development or interaction, but I guess I can suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the London scenery that occasionally is allowed to peek through! The character of Rick also became more and more enjoyable as the series went on. I especially anticipated seeing how far his hair would be standing up in each scene.

Final Verdict: Three Gherkins, for an interesting story, and occasional lovely London scenery -- and Rick's hilarious hair!
Netflix came through rather quickly with the Ian Curtis biopic Control. It was based on the novel by his widow Deborah Curtis called Touching from a Distance. I had read the book a few years ago, although I wasn't very familiar with Joy Division. In the book, Ian Curtis is portrayed by his former wife as a very difficult person: belligerent and irrational, forever starting fights and smashing things up. In the film, he was portrayed as a very serious, clean-cut young man with a steady job. Not the same sort of impression I got from the book, but probably neither portrayal was entirely accurate.

Certainly Curtis had an interest in music and attended concerts by hot bands of the day, but it seemed that he sort of drifted into the band that eventually became Joy Division. Perhaps that's partially why he became alarmed and increasingly depressed as the band became more successful. His epilepsy and relationship problems contributed to his eventual suicide, but it was never really explained what exactly he was hoping to achieve by joining the bad. He was apparently the main songwriter for the group, but as with many lead singers, it seemed that he became the group. In one scene in the movie he refuses to go onstage and the crowd reacts to a replacement singer by starting a riot.

The film is done in black and white, which adds to the overall gray, depressing impression that is conveyed by the town and life that Curtis is leading.

Final verdict for Control: Three Gherkins, for the English setting, plus references to the early 80s music scene

Final verdict for Touching from a Distance: Three Gherkins, for the insight into the music industry and a unique view of an artist.
Certainly not my usual favorite fare, but I did have free tickets to a sneak preview of "Hellboy 2" last night. It probably would have helped if I had seen the first one, but I went in to this one not knowing anything about the story. It didn't begin on a good note, with a kindly fatherly-type reading the young Hellboy a story about how the humans and the . . . creatures (?) came to a truce to share the earth. It was very confusing, and I had thoughts of leaving at that point. Thankfully, it soon got better, or at least somewhat easier to follow. Lots of conflict and over-the-top fights. There were some funny parts that kept the story going. Of course, I can't totally dismiss the film, since Hellboy has an unexplained and overwhelming fondness for cats. How can you not have a soft spot for him after that?

Of course, before the film started, I had to go to the concession stand. Each of the lines was 5-6 people deep, and the concession attendants weren't exactly working quickly. When the guy in front of me finally reached the counter, the girl asked him, "Would you like to try a combo today?" The guy said, "Hmm" and proceeded to scan the listings of all the various combos and items for sale. He hemmed and sighed and pondered for ages. It was all I could do to stop myself from grabbing up a handful of straws and thwacking him on the back of the head. We had only been in line about 20 minutes -- wasn't that long enough for him to have made his decision already??

And while I'm on the subject, what is it with the ladies who, after receiving their change, have to snap, zip, buckle and flap in their purses for 15 minutes? I don't have a problem with the process, but could they possibly move 6 inches to the side while they do it, so the next person in line could step up and begin their order? Apparently, they cannot. C'mon people, I'm in line at the concession stand. I'm about to inflict a heavy blow on my body in terms of fat, sugar and caffeine. Please don't add to the burden by causing me undue stress. Let's have a little compassion!

Final verdict for Hellboy II: 2 Gherkins (for cats, but no connection to England!)
As a "cat mom" to three house cats, I sometimes can't devote as much time as I would like to my pursuit of all things British, what with waiting on them paw and, erm, paw (as opposed to hand and foot). Today was no exception. The Domain of the Kitties is in the basement, although of course they have the run of the house. Food and litter boxes are downstairs. Today, Kitty #1 (hereafter known as K1) decided to leave a little "gift" on one of the rugs downstairs. He does this about 3 or 4 times per year, always in the same place, and for no discernible reason. So I set about picking up, vacuuming and spot shampooing, while K1 looked on coolly. I'm sure in these circumstances he's trying to send a message, although I haven't yet worked out what it is . . .

Right, on to the food. I cleaned the food bowls and topped them up with food. Then I set about cleaning the litter boxes. With my back turned to the food bowls, I heard that distinctive gagging sound, and turned just in time to see Kitty #2 (K2) barf into his food dish. *sigh* I've had cats all my life, but not until the recent three have they been strictly indoor cats. I had no idea that they had such delicate little stomachs. In fact, soon after acquiring them, I grew alarmed at the frequency of the bouts of vomiting (in the cats, not myself), and packed them off to the vet. The vet's verdict? Cats vomit a lot. Hmmm, I can honestly say I never knew that!

Then it was on to cleaning the food dish AGAIN and replacing the food, and finishing with the litter boxes. As soon as I did, naturally, Kitty #3 (K3) jumped in and used it. As that was his only transgression of the day (that I know of), I wasn't too upset. K3 likes a fresh box.

K1 is a "Type A" kitty, if there is such a thing. He's constantly slamming doors (then yowling to be let out), knocking things over, jumping up on high shelves (and as he weighs nearly 20 pounds, this makes quite a thud), chasing poor K3 (who clearly wants to be left alone), etc. We got him after having K2 and K3, both relatively quiet, mild-mannered cats who had lulled us into a false sense of security. Oh, we've learned the hard way that all kitties don't fit into the lap-kitty mold.

K2 likes nothing better than eating and napping. Definitely not from the same mold as K1! He does have one strange quirk. Two or three times a day, he must engage in an activity that has come to be known as "sucky t-shirt." He will get into the lap of the nearest person (usually yours truly) and proceed to . . . suck on your shirt.

It must be a cotton-based shirt, preferably a t-shirt, or he will give the offender a disgusted look and flounce off, affronted. We think that he must have been taken away from his mother too soon when he was young, and is reliving his kittenhood by simulating nursing behavior. It does leave the t-shirt wearer with a large wet spot on the shirt, and it will wear out the fibers, but it is better to just give in and immediately put on a t-shirt upon entering the house in the evenings.

K3 is very sweet, but the definition of a "scaredy-cat". He is prone to hiding behind the washer or under the bed at the first hint of thunder. Other than that, he's very mild-mannered and calm. We had a leaky faucet in the bathtub once, and since that time, he's become very fond of water faucets. He will follow anyone to the bathroom and jump on the sink and look hopefully at the faucet. I usually have to turn on a stream for him to get a drink before I can get past him to brush my teeth. This is the cat, by the way, that refused to drink tap water from a bowl, resulting in a urinary infection and the vet's recommendation that he only be given bottled spring water. Water in a bowl on the floor: bad. Water coming out of the tap one drop at a time: priceless!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

With the upcoming release of the ABBA-inspired film Mamma Mia, everyone will soon be humming songs such as "Take a Chance on Me", "Waterloo" and "Dancing Queen." A few years ago, an adorable short video, The Last Video,was produced showing the four ABBA members as puppets, performing their hits and trying to get a record deal from a slimy record producer played by Rik Mayall. My husband assures me that most of the dialog spoken in the video comes from ABBA lyrics. It's a very cute video and even features a cameo appearance by Cher.

Speaking of Rik Mayall, I recently had the pleasure experience of reading his "autobiography", Bigger than Hitler-Better than Christ. It might be OK to read a few pages, put it down for several months, read a few more pages, etc. Reading it straight through quickly gets repetitive. If you are a Rik Mayall fan (as I most assuredly am), you will recognize his writing/speaking style. A typical passage:

". . . you know how sometimes you've got to go out and you've got to put on a raincoat in case it's raining. Well, it might have been raining but it wasn't raining on the place where I came out of my front door because that was the place where it wasn't raining. If you went down the street, it might have been raining but the thing is, I wasn't there. I was back where my house is. So the whole thing about the raincoat is that it's not important because -- you know everything that I've just said, right, well forget that because it's not important either, okay?"

And so on. Which goes to show that you can use a lot of words and say absolutely nothing (wonder if he was paid by the word?). I still love Rik, though, for the People's Poet, if nothing else!

About Me

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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