Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It was the same with the monkeys in the greenhouse

"I don't know what they got up to in there, but we never had a single cucumber." It might not make much sense to you out of context, but I heard this statement uttered during an episode of the delightful British comedy series Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, and it didn't make much sense when you'd seen the whole thing, either! The series is from the 70s, and apparently only ran 3 seasons. It stars Michael Crawford, better known later on as the Phantom of the Opera, and Michele Dotrice as his perpetually put-upon wife Betty (pronounced BET-eeeeee). Poor Frank does try, but he is always getting into one scrape or another. My favorite episode has been "George's House", when Frank manages to single-handedly destroy his brother-in-law's high-tech house.

The latest edition of Fate magazine contains an interesting article titled Strange Tales from the London Underground. The author points out all sorts of odd creatures that have been observed in the Underground over the years, including ghosts, big cats, and weird inbred types who have lived, apparently mostly unobserved, underground for years. My favorite Underground oddity has to be the story of the "creature" captured in the 1940s. According to the article, the "dirt-encrusted and hair-covered caveman" was "around six feet in height and completely naked. It had a heavy brow, wide nose, and very muscular arms and legs." I don't know what all the fuss was about. I see "creatures" like that every time I travel on the Underground!
Final Verdict for Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em: Four Gherkins, for being a delightful slapstick comedy

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Oh Martin, Where Art Thou?

False advertising! That's what became increasingly apparent as I watched the second and third episodes of the TV comedy/drama Cheers & Tears. The series features a group of mismatched friends and neighbors who embark on a new, but always disastrous, road trip at the beginning of each episode. The false advertising bit comes in by giving the wonderful actor Martin Clunes star billing, but he only appears in the first episode. His character is mentioned vaguely as having left the area in the second episode, and not mentioned at all in the third, although his name still features prominently on the inner sleeve of each DVD from Netflix. Oh well, the series was still enjoyable, but I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn't been scanning the screen looking for Mr. Clunes in the background!

The three episodes in the series are titled The Booze Cruise, The Treasure Hunt and The Scattering. There appeared to be some replacements of other characters as the series progressed, with at least 2 new actors taking on roles after the first episode. In The Booze Cruise, the group heads out to France, with a wagon hitched to the back of the car, in order to buy cheap alcohol in France. The Treasure Hunt involves nearly all of the same characters meeting up for the yearly treasure hunt, and The Scattering takes the group to Yorkshire to scatter the ashes of a family member. There are marital infidelities, broken engagements, car accidents, fires and other assorted escapades before everything is more or less sorted out at the end of each episode.

The characters are, for the most part, pleasant enough, except for the excessively cheap Maurice and the serial philanderer Rob. The wives are all long-suffering and work behind the scenes to make sure things continue to function while the men are getting into one scrape after another. The only thing which seemed a bit odd to me was the too-good-to-be-true character of Dave. He had a swell old time, no matter what happened. His car was totally submerged and probably ruined? No problem! After the alcohol from the French excursion caught fire and was mostly destroyed, was he distressed at having to foot the bill? Absolutely not! No matter what happened, he was cheerful, upbeat and smiling. All that benevolent happiness got on my nerves after a while. Still, he was the most likable male character by far, so I suppose his amiability was supposed to be an antidote to the sour Maurice and the slimy Rob.

Final Verdict for Cheers & Tears: Three Gherkins, for a light, enjoyable series with some lovely English scenery (except for the one where they go to France!)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Snooker, darts and dog shows

Yesterday afternoon I was watching the coverage of the Olympics, when Jim Lampley, one of the hosts of the program, started talking about how many medals Britain has won so far in the Olympics. They are winning many medals in cycling. In fact, something like 25% of the medals they've won have been in cycling. So I was feeling happy that the accomplishments of a nation other than the USA were being praised, when he had to add, "If only [the Olympics] had snooker, darts and a dog show." WHAT? There was no need for the snide comment, intended, it seemed to me, to diminish the accomplishments of the British Olympic team. The only thing reason for it would appear to be that since it is apparently taboo to criticize or question their Chinese hosts, the NBC commentators feel the need to belittle other nations. It was totally rude and unnecessary in an otherwise positive assessment of Britain's success in the games . BOO JIM LAMPLEY. Then again, no doubt he'd had a few nips before going on the air.

I'm listening to Watermelon by Marian Keyes, and finding it to be delightful. Some of the agonizing over whether the boyfriend will call or not and what he meant by such and such thing he said can get a bit tedious. Still, there is enough of her funny dialogue and interesting situations to make the book worthwhile.

I just started reading The Little Lady Agency by Hester Browne. It was a bit difficult to get in to it at the beginning, but I'm starting to enjoy it. It does seem to follow the usual "Brit-Chick-Lit" pattern -- hopelessly inept heroine, terrific and overly-supportive friends, and a muddled love life. Check -- got all the elements so far!

Final Verdict on Jim Lampley: 0 Gherkins, for being a rude, insensitive jerk (I knew I'd have occasion to inflict the "0 Gherkin" wrath one of these days!)

Friday, August 15, 2008

No Argument Here, I'm Middle Aged

Well, I have to admit it, I've officially entered middle age. Oh, I had been noticing the signs for a while now. The increasing frequency of gray hairs (so many that I've given up on yanking out the offenders) and the sharp pains in my knees whenever I try to make an effort at the gym were all flashing neon signals that I wasn't as young as I used to be. However, this week the final nail in the coffin of my youth was firmly hammered into place. After waiting for weeks, I finally got the audio book version of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer from the library. This book and series, about youthful vampires in the American northwest, have been all over the bestseller lists for a long time. The local newspaper carried an article about the anticipation and excitement surrounding the release of the latest book in the series. So I was anxious to jump on the vampire bandwagon and find out what all the fuss was about. Suffice it to say, after about 15 minutes of listening to the audio book, I had to give up. Maybe it was the youthful voice of the narrator, or the subject matter at the beginning of the book (a teen aged girl leaves her mother's house in Phoenix to move in with her father in the small Washington town where he lives), but this book held absolutely NO interest for me. I could not get worked up about the narrator's nervousness about her first day in a new school , or her excitement about the old pickup truck her father had purchased for her. The book must get more interesting once the vampires arrive on the scene, but I just didn't have the patience to wait for them to flap into the story. Oh well, I can console myself with the fact that there are many more audio books just waiting for me to discover that will be more "age appropriate" for me and my aching knees. I won't assign it any Gherkins from my own Gherkin Scale, since I didn't finish it, but I can assign it 0 Gherkins for anyone over the age of 18.


On the other hand, I did really enjoy the latest adventures of Mma Ramotswe in The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith. Someone wrote a review of the book in which he or she said the author was particularly nasty to the character of Mma Makutsi in this book, but I didn't find that to be the case. I thought her actions were in line with how she's always been portrayed in the other books. Now, the only problem is that I have a long wait (probably) for the next book in the series. Although it does look as if the DVD based on the first book in the series, The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency will be released in December.


Final Verdict for The Miracle at Speedy Motors: Four Gherkins, for being a reliable, heartwarming visit with old friends

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Please don't boo the Bernstein

One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Dan Bern (aka Bernstein) has produced a hilarious video about his experiences getting booed out on the road:


Lookin' good as usual, although he has some strange hair goin' on . . .

Is he the first person to get booed in Boston? Probably not. Would he get booed in Knoxville? Likely, but as so far he's given K-Town a wide berth, we'll probably never know.

I won!

I had a wonderful win recently. Red Room was offering a summer contest inviting people to write a post about their favorite summer read. Five winners would receive 14 bestsellers:


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)


Child 44 (Tom Smith)

A Summer Affair (Elin Hilderbrand)

Close (Martina Cole)

I was thrilled when I found out that I was one of the winners. My entry can be read here. The books arrived today, and they are lovely!



I had been anxious to read The Monster of Florence, Child 44 and Miscarriage of Justice, and even though I had finally gotten the first book from the library, I'm thrilled to add all these books to my personal library.

Red Room is an excellent resource for writers and readers of all sorts!

Suffering greatly . . .

Due to the Olympics, I've had no time in the past few days to indulge in books or DVDs. Oh, how I'm suffering, but I figure the Olympics only come around every four years, and my book/DVD pile never seems to diminish, no matter how hard I work on it. I was happy to see Great Britain win the gold medal in women's cycling.

Last night I went to another sneak preview film, this time Tropic Thunder, the new Ben Stiller/Robert Downey, Jr. movie. The film is about a group of spoiled, self-absorbed actors who are filming a war movie in Viet Nam. When their director, played by Steve Coogan, is killed, the actors continue on, unaware that not everything happening is part of the script. Robert Downey, Jr. has the most interesting role, that of an Australian actor playing an African-American soldier. He must constantly remain "in character", much to the annoyance of his fellow actors. The most annoying this is that his chosen "accent" is extremely difficult to understand. Subtitles would have helped! I'm also not generally a Tom Cruise fan, but he turns in an excellent performance as a rude and crude movie producer. He's unrecognizable at first, but as his scenes get longer, he's easier to spot. His dance moves over the final credits prove he's still got the "Risky Business" moves down! The most disappointing thing about the film is that it seems to go out of its way to avoid offending African-Americans and gays (as well it should), but shows no such compunction about ridiculing disabled or obese people. Those two groups, it seems, are still ripe for mockery. Those scenes aren't hilarious. The rest of the film, however, is amusing, although the people taking the tickets were telling patrons the film's rating was a "strong R", and they were checking ages at the door. I'd never seen that happen before.

Happily, I am making another visit to Botswana to visit the charming Mma Ramotswe in the audio book version of The Miracle at Speedy Motors. It's turning out to be as sweet and heartwarming as all the other books in the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series.

Final Verdict for Tropic Thunder: Two Gherkins, for some funny bits (and a Brit-connection in Steve Coogan), but unnecessary belittling of certain groups

Friday, August 8, 2008

Vanni, Vinci, Vigna

I was very excited to see that I had finally clawed my way to the top of the library holds list, and that The Monster of Florence was waiting for me to check out. Although not a British-related, I was extremely anxious to read the book. It is the story of a series of murders that happened in Florence, Italy from 1968-1984. The book started out quite promisingly, informing me of the startling fact that since young Italians generally lived at home with their parents and married relatively late, it was quite common for courting couples to have sex in cars parked in lonely, out of the way spots. Since this was common knowledge, it was also not unusual for the couples to be spied upon by "Peeping Toms." The Peeping Toms were in turn spied on by people who took photos of their skulking behavior and then blackmailed them to avoid potentially embarrassing revelations. While all of this voyeurism was going on, a serial killer was stalking the courting couples, shooting them and mutilating the females. Unfortunately, deciphering the Italian characters, whose names are as confusing as those in any Russian epic, turned out to be a dauting task. There were Stefanos and Salvatores, Vincis (numerous), Vignas and Vannis, Natalinos, Niccolos and Narduccis, and the double-threats of names like Pietro Pacciani and Francisco Ferri. And those are just the names of the people! Throw in the town names, which are similarly confusing, and it makes for a very difficult story to follow. The author of the book, an American journalist named Douglas Preston, moved to Italy and became very interested in the Monster case. He and an Italian journalist, Mario Spezi, investigated the story and eventually wrote articles and books on the case. The second part of the book concerns the odd harassment that Spezi experienced by publicly challenging the official police explanation for the crimes. The police, unable to solve the crimes, had concocted a weird conspiracy involving corpse switching, Satanic cults, and human sacrifice. The journalist Spezi makes a very convincing case when he names the suspect he believes is responsible for the crimes, but that person is still free (and oddly, apparently no longer killing), while several societal mis-fits (the author describes them as "quasi-illiterate inebriates of marginal intelligence") are currently serving long prison sentences for the crimes committed by the Monster.

I recently finished listening to the audio book One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson, a follow up to the novel Case Histories. The events in One Good Turn take place two years after the end of Case Histories, and involve the same characters. I enjoyed the newer book much better than the first one, mainly because this story didn't jump around so much between past and present events. One Good Turn takes place in Edinburgh, and involves murder, guilty consciences, loneliness, immigration, and betrayal. After the climax of the story, there were several small chapters which attempted to tie up all the loose ends. The ending seemed to leave open the possibility for another novel featuring former detective Jackson Brodie and a possible new relationship.
Final Verdict for The Monster of Florence: Two Gherkins, for some interesting insights into the case, but overall confusing story

Final Verdict for Case Histories: Two Gherkins, for being an interesting mystery set in modern day Britain, but with generally unlikeable characters

Monday, August 4, 2008

"Free" is my middle name

Imagine how excited I was to see that Beautiful Britain magazine is offering a free sample issue to everyone who signs up. They also have back issues on their website available for viewing as .pdf files. I read a charming interview with the author Bill Bryson about his work with the Campaign to Protect Rural England. I'm anxiously awaiting my sample issue, but I feel another subscription coming on . . .

I finished reading Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself By Becoming an EMT by Jane Stern over the weekend, and it was very entertaining. I enjoyed the first part of the book, when Stern was attending the EMT training courses, much more than the second part of the book when she actually was an EMT. It was fascinating to read about her experiences, and how becoming an EMT at the age of 52 helped to pull her out of a chronic depression. Still, I marvel at how someone who was fearful and anxious in general, and claustrophobic in particular thought it would be a good idea to become an EMT. Dealing with blood, stress and terrifying situations on a daily basis, not to mention having to ride in a small, boxy, enclosed ambulance as part of your job description would seem to override any impulse to follow through with the training. Yet Stern perserveres, and although she has plently of missteps along the way, she ends up becoming an accepted member of the local rescue team. Although I have to wonder at how this was achieved, especially when, on her first call as a certified EMT, she attends an elderly lady who has fallen and broken her hip and manages to kick the patient in the hip!

Final Verdict for Ambulance Girl: Three Gherkins, for starting out strong, and offering an insight into the interesting world of EMT training