Thursday, October 30, 2008

Podcastapalooza!

At my house it is suddenly raining iPods. After years of unsuccessfully entering sweepstakes to win an iPod, in the past month I've had 2 of them show up. Since I am slightly (ahem) past the demographic that uses iPods for music, I have become addicted to podcasts. I was already a huge fan of the Ray Peacock and This Week in London podcasts, but recently I've discovered even more informative and entertaining podcasts. Here, then, are some of my favorites (all available for free download and/or subscription from iTunes):

Stephen Fry's Podgrams The actor Stephen Fry has apparently jumped on the whole web 2.0 bandwagon with both feet. He has a wonderful website with a blog, videos, podcasts and other assorted information. As he is also continuing to act, write books and appear in documentaries, I wonder how in the world he finds the time. He never exactly struck me as a whirling dervish of activity, but apparently I was wrong. In my favorite section on one of his podcasts, he goes into a hilarious rant against the compliance department, who have the final say on what can and cannot be broadcast on British TV. Just why is it, Fry wonders, that it would negatively influence children to see someone riding in a car without a seat belt, or using a cell phone while driving, but no one thinks twice about letting the kiddies see people being shot in the face? He certainly has a point, and his passion about the topic makes his indignation all the more amusing.

The News Quiz from BBC Radio 4 This program is the same format as the U.S. public radio show Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. The British version is hosted by the delightfully funny Sandi Toksvig, and features a panel of guests amassing points as they attempt to answer questions about news stories of the week. Of course, there are many references to people I'm unfamiliar with, but there is enough common ground to make the program enjoyable over here in the U.S. Unlike the U.S. version, no one seems to win Carl's voice on their answering machine, but I guess you can't have everything.

Russell Brand's Podcast I don't know how I managed it, but the very first Russell Brand podcast I downloaded happened to be his last. I actually only listened to a little bit of it, because I despise Jonathan Ross, and Brand was being rather . . . loud. Then, the news exploded that this very show was going to cause the downfall of civilization as we know it. I went back and listened, and (as I might have known) Ross was the one who actually said the offending words that have caused all the uproar. Then again, there was plenty more objectionable material throughout the podcast, but apparently that sort of language was acceptable and par for the course. At least no one seems to be protesting over anything else that went on during that broadcast. It's a shame (in a way) that Brand, who has made a career out of outrageous behavior, has resigned while Ross will probably keep his absurdly paid position. Jonathan Ross is just annoying on so many levels . . . the main one being that his speech problem makes for very hard going for the listener. During the podcast, even before the furor erupted, at one point he said to Brand, "Wussel, I feew vewy, vewy sowwy fow you." Cringe!!! Please, please, BBC bosses, use this opportunity to get this annoying person off the air for good!

Jon Richardson from BBC 6 Music The podcast contains the highlights of a Sunday morning radio show, with the music cut out. The host has some funny friends who stop by, and the humor is clean and fun.

The Contest Queen Carolyn Wilman is Canada's Contest Queen. She has written a book about all aspects of entering and winning contests and promotions, and she has the enthusiasm to make the subject really interesting. During her twice monthly podcast she interviews newsletter editors, motivational speakers, computer experts, promotion directors and other people who are involved in the world of sweepstaking. Very inspiring and educational for the sweepstakes enthusiast!

Rippercast At the recent Jack the Ripper Convention that I attended, I learned there is a podcast devoted to all things JTR. So far, there have been 30 episodes, so that gives me plenty of information to mull over. There are several experts on various aspects of the case who discuss a specific topic on each podcast.

Well, that's all I've discovered so far. Several of the podcasts have archives available for download, but the ones from the BBC only seem to let you download the latest episode. If anyone has any recommendations for other great podcasts, do please share!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Apropos of nothing

Not that this has anything to do with anything really, but I just noticed this sign on the sidewalk on my way home from work, and found it incredibly sad:

Not that we're a terribly shallow country or anything . . .



Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Wicked Stepmother Strikes Again

The book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale deals with the shocking 1860 murder of a 3 year old boy, and the efforts of a determined detective to solve the case. The murder took place in the English village of Road (now Rode), in Somerset. The young boy was discovered in the privy with his throat cut. The household was typically Victorian middle-class and crowded with family (including grown children, teenagers, step-children, and infants) and servants (maids, cooks, gardeners, nurses, grooms, coachmen, charwomen and an "odd-job boy"). In other words, there was no shortage of suspects.

Enter our hero, Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher. Mr. Whicher did a very thorough job of investigating the case, and came to the conclusion that the culprit was likely the 16 year old daughter of the household, Constance Kent. However, due to the massive press interest in the case, and the fact that it was unthinkable that a young girl of previously spotless character could commit such a horrific act, Mr. Whicher was called back to London. He was vilified in the press and lost the confidence and respect of his colleagues. Although Constance was arrested, because of a lack of evidence and disbelief on the part of nearly everyone, she was released and the case went cold.

This is a very well-known case, and no spoilers are involved when I tell you that after joining a convent, Constance became convinced that she should repent her previous sins. In 1865 she turned up at a police station and confessed that she, unaided, was responsible for the murder of her young brother. After a 20 minute trial, at which she pleaded guilty, she was sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life (20 years) in prison. She stated that her motive was a hatred of her step-mother, who had originally been the governess and had started an affair with Constance's father while his first wife was still alive (I was shocked, I tell you!). The murdered boy was the favorite of his mother, and Constance felt that she and her siblings from the first marriage were being pushed aside in favor of the new family. Naturally, Mr. Whicher was vindicated in the end, but he didn't really seem to benefit from having his suspicions confirmed. After his retirement from the police force, he worked as a private investigator.

The interesting aspect of the book for me, other than the case itself, was the way the author was able to document the societal effects that the case had. Not only was the case a national sensation in the press, but it also marked the beginning of public fascination with lurid murder cases, detectives, and murder mysteries. The case spawned numerous fictional treatments, including "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins, "Lady Audley's Secret" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" by Charles Dickens. Those and other stories might not have included actual aspects of the Kent case, but each was undeniably influenced by the events surrounding the true-life murder.

Final Verdict for The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Three Gherkins, for integrating many interesting topics (true crime, mystery fiction, private investigation) in one fascinating book

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Little Raji James miraculously hasn't ruined this (yet)

Last week was finally the return of the Ray Peacock Podcast. Hooray! It had been on hiatus over the summer, and I had anxiously checked the website (warning! Parts of previous podcasts automatically start playing, and some are definitely not suitable for work!) faithfully hoping for a new series, and I my patience was finally rewarded. Series 4 and earlier episodes are available for download at chortle.co.uk. The podcast is apparently based on a format established by Ricky Gervais, although I've never listened to his version. In the Peacock podcast, comedians Ray Peacock and Ed Gamble mercilessly torment actor Raji James, "an ex-celebrity who used to be on Eastenders but ruined it." The series has had some truly hilarious moments, such as when Raji answered questions that had been submitted on a Dr. Who fan website, or when Ed and Ray tried (unsuccessfully) to help Raji become gainfully employed by writing letters to potential employers. Poor Raji, his life just seems to be on a never ending downward spiral, and luckily, Ray and Ed are here to faithfully document it for us!

Now that I think about it, soon after the Ferreira family trundled onto the square, BBCAmerica cancelled Eastenders. At the time I was rather upset, but in retrospect, perhaps they were trying to spare those of us across the pond from the ruination. Hmm . . .
Final Verdict for the Ray Peacock Podcast: Five Gherkins, for topical British humor

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stories your high school English teacher never told you

Did you know that Ernest Hemingway's transsexual son Gloria died of a heart attack at the Miami-Dade Women's Detention Center? Or that Louisa May Alcott was an opium addict? Or that Charles Dickens horribly dissed his house guest Hans Christen Andersen? These are just some of the startling facts presented in the book Secret Lives of Great Authors by Robert Schnakenberg. Aside from Dickens, there are plenty of interesting tidbits about other British authors, too, including J.R.R. Tolkien's aggressive driving style ("Charge 'em and they scatter!") and Arthur Conan Doyle's deadly serious devotion to ghosts, magic and fairies. While the book provides lots of interesting insights and facts about well-known authors, the veracity of the entire work was thrown into question for me when the author claimed (both in the text and in a highlighted blurb), "Mark Twain once delivered an entire speech on breaking wind to an audience that included Queen Elizabeth I." Now, as QEI had been dead for over 230 years before Twain was even born, that would have been quite a feat -- although I suppose dear old Bess wouldn't have been too upset at that point by subject matter of any speech! I know that Twain dealt with the subject of time travel in at least one of his books, but I had no idea that he was speaking from experience! Poor editing and fact-checking like that make me question how much of the rest of the book can be taken as truth. On the bright side, I did learn a new word from this book: inimical, meaning hostile. Of course, whether or not I will remember it tomorrow is another question . . .

In other news, my name finally floated to the top of the library holds list, and I have recently made a return visit to the Scottish village of Lochdubh in the audio book version of Death of a Gentle Lady by M.C. Beaton. In this episode, Hamish Macbeth narrowly escapes a wedding, is kidnapped, and of course, single-handedly solves the most current of a series of murders that have a way of plaguing the small fishing village. Some reviewers have remarked upon the fact that some recurring characters are suddenly displaying new personality traits. I was startled by the assertion in this book that Hamish had broken off his engagement to Priscilla Halburton-Smythe because of "her coldness." For some reason, I had a hazy thought that it was Priscilla who did the breaking off, but I could be mistaken. She, of course, makes a return appearance in the book, and both she and Hamish are as jealous as ever of each other even speaking to a member of the opposite sex. A strange part of this book was that Hamish's cat, Sonsie, is forever startling people who see it. They always remark that "it looks like a wild cat." That rather begs the question, what exactly does a wild cat look like? Most feral cats I've ever seen look like your basic pet, although usually a bit skinnier -- certainly nothing to be frightened of. Is it supposed to be bigger than a domestic cat?? Maybe this was explained in an earlier novel, but I never did really work out what made the cat "wild." One problem with this version of the audio book was that I didn't enjoy the narrator, Graeme Malcolm, nearly as much as Davina Porter, who read some of the earlier ones I'd heard. She seemed to make each character more distinct, and I would forget that it was one person doing all the voices!

Final Verdict on Secret Lives of Great Authors: Two Gherkins, for enjoyable reading, but questionable facts

Final Verdict on Death of a Gentle Lady: Two Gherkins, for being an enjoyable visit with old friends

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tidying up loose ends

The audio version of This Charming Man by Marian Keyes was a wonderfully entertaining way to spend a long commute. The story of the four women (Grace, Lola, Marnie and Alicia) was so engrossing that I really hated for the book to end. The four women (and others, as it turns out) were all entangled in romances with the charming but despicable Paddy de Coursy. They were all damaged as a result of their associations with him, but there are, for the most part, satisfying outcomes in all cases. The only strange thing is that the character of Lola, when relating her story, speaks in a very strange manner -- almost in a pidgin English style. I don't know if that was to differentiate her from the other "voices", or to make her seem even more of a kooky free-spirit, but it was somewhat grating at times. As is sometimes the case in novels by Marian Keyes, some situations are dragged on a bit to long, but overall, the book was very good. I always hated to arrive at work or at home and stop the story -- always a good sign in an audio book!

I never was able to warm to the new Ruth Rendell novel Not in the Flesh. I was happy to meet up with old friends Inspector Wexford and Burden, but the events in the novel seemed choppy and forced. Wexford's family was only on the periphery of the story, although we did learn that Sheila has a new daughter named (I kid you not) Anoushka (those wacky celebrity names, you know!). Other than that, she, Sheila and Dora sort of skimmed along in the background. This book dealt with two corpses which were discovered in a rural area, and the attempts to identify them and discover how they came to be disposed of where they were. As she has done in other books, Rendell also deals with a timely and controversial issue, in this case the attempts of Wexford to stop female genital mutilation among Somali immigrants. There are the usual odd cast of suspects, including a writer who lives with both his current and former wife (they refer to him as "our husband"). It was just hard to get interested in the story. There was no "gotcha" ending, which was such a thrilling aspect of her earlier novels. I hope for her next book she will be back to her old form!

Final Verdict on This Charming Man: Four Gherkins, for being an engrossing, if sometimes difficult to hear, story about how four women overcame violent relationships

Final Verdict on Not in the Flesh: Two Gherkins, for being a rather slow mystery novel that never really got going

Friday, October 17, 2008

Headhunting runs in the family

I've become aware of several upcoming genealogy workshops, and suddenly it's seeming like a good idea to find out about my family tree. My Anglo-obsession has to come from somewhere, and with family names like Hopkins, Montgomery, Arnett and Kennard, I think it must be in the blood. Speaking of blood, I was quite interested to find the Montgomery family crest pictured here, courtesy of the website Clan Montgomery Society International. I had always hoped to discover a family crest that I could display proudly, and what more could I have wished for than a prominently proffered severed head, complete with dripping blood? Oh, I tell you, it's a glorious day!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

No, I can't see you now!

Most professions require good vision, but in the case of police officers, being able to identify suspects and monitor their expression is vitally important. So it is with great alarm that DCI Ross Tanner (played by Clive Owen) receives the news that he is losing his sight in the crime drama Second Sight. He is determined to hide his affliction from his co-workers (as in the photo, where he is ever-so-unobtrusively skimming along the wall!), but his new partner, Catherine Tully (Claire Skinner) notices and promises to help him keep his secret. In return, he will give her glowing reports in her personnel file, which is slightly tarnished.

It was hard to feel very sorry for Tanner, as he was brusque, surly, arrogant and generally unpleasant. Naturally, his new female partner is instantly attracted to him and they begin a relationship. However, without much explanation, she requests a transfer and leaves him. Odd. She does show up at his flat and gives a vague reason for her abandonment, but it doesn't make much sense to the character of Tanner (nor to the viewer).







I realize it is difficult to portray the symptoms of the eye disease that Tanner supposedly suffers from, but I must say the blurry camera effects rather reminded me of what the world looks like to me before I put my contact lenses in each morning. Tanner's disease is supposed to be getting progressively worse, but surely some strong glasses wouldn't have gone amiss. I'm sure he could have said something about his "middle aged" vision problems which would have been more plausible than the fumbling attempts he makes to appear "normal". It is quite amusing that his eye problem is supposed to be quite rare, but naturally one of his co-workers "recognizes the symptoms", because his father suffers from the same condition! What are the odds???

The entire series also takes a strange turn in that in the first episode, a great deal was made about setting up Tanner's group to investigate old "cold" cases. Then after a few episodes, suddenly, they are called to the scene of a murder that occurred the night before. What's up with that???

Final Verdict for Second Sight: Two Gherkins, for elements of modern British mystery, but with some illogical plot developments

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I still don't know who done it!

This past weekend marked the annual Jack the Ripper Conference, held for the first time in Knoxville, TN. As someone with a casual interest in the topic, I wasn't sure what to expect from the conference. I was amazed by all of the scholarly, in depth research and presentations that I was exposed to during the conference. There were talks on the misunderstood Dr. Tumblety, on tracking down the man who took the photos of the Ripper's victims, and even an amusing spoof documentary on Ripper research. Attendees were also treated to what appears to be the earliest tourist photo of a Ripper murder site. The keynote speaker was the renowned "Ripperologist" and author Martin Fido. I was sorely disappointed that he didn't bring any of his books along to sell, but I guess books are heavy things if you have to schlep them around yourself (and airports are involved)! It was very enlightening to be around people who are so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about all aspects of the case. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that many new discoveries are still being made concerning the case. While I'm no further along in my quest to find out "who done it", there is certainly hope that exciting discoveries could be just around the corner!

I was pleased to learn that Ripper Notes, the International Journal for Ripper Studies, is published right in Knoxville! I bought several of the back issues and was impressed with the topics covered and the lovely presentation of the journal. I suppose another subscription is on the horizon, although my poor mailbox is already overflowing!

Here is a very interesting blog post from someone who went on the Jack the Ripper walk in London recently. Lots of great photos!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In the middle of things, but libraries rule!

Against my better judgment, I started listening to the audio book of This Charming Man, by Marian Keyes. Her books are always very entertaining, and usually hilarious. However, the main theme of this book (as far as I had been able to determine) is domestic violence. Hardly a subject that lends itself easily to amusing anecdotes. The story is indeed difficult to listen to at times, but the characters and situations are all so engaging, that you get drawn into the story anyway. The novel concerns four women: Marnie, Grace, Lola and Alicia. All of them have at one point or another been involved with the Irish politician Paddy de Coursy, and all have suffered greatly for their associations with him. There is alcoholism, physical abuse, loss of self-respect, and other cringe-inducing situations, but the story moves along nicely and keeps the reader involved. I have a feeling that there will be an uplifting ending, where all the "bad guys" get their comeuppance, so I am hoping I won't be disappointed! I have to wonder what is going on with the author, though. Her last novel, Anybody Out There?, dealt with the emotional devastation of a woman after the death of her husband. After building a strong and loyal fan base with her serious-but-funny novels about the wacky Walsh clan, I am wondering why the move into such dark topics? I hope her next novel will be a bit lighter. I don't think she's written yet about Walsh sister Helen, who was a private investigator last time we encountered her. That would make for an interesting story, I'm sure!

On the book front, I am still struggling mightily with Ruth Rendell's Not in the Flesh. She has always been my favorite mystery author (and with the number of British mysteries I get through, that's saying something!), but this book is just not one of her better efforts, in my opinion. At least not yet -- I'm only part way through, so there's still hope that things will turn around. This novel concerns the discovery of two bodies that were buried nearly a decade ago. Inspector Wexford and his loyal sidekick Burden interview the usual cast off misfits and oddballs in an attempt to unravel both the identities of the corpses and what led to them being buried. Somehow, the novel doesn't really seem to "flow" easily. The sentences are choppy and annoying, and the action is slow and doesn't always seem to have anything to do with the story. I really hope Rendell's not losing her touch as an author (although after that many books, I suppose I can allow her one dud!).

I was pleasantly surprised to read recently that Gavin & Stacey's Ruth Jones gave a shout out to libraries. Glad to see some celebrity support!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Being royal ain't all it's cracked up to be

I'm sure Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire would agree with me. Keira Knightely portrays "G" in the new film The Duchess. The Duchess lived from 1757-1806. In the film, she is shown to be a lively, cheerful, fun-loving girl who married into royalty and high society. Unfortunately, her husband (Ralph Fiennes) was a dull and boring man who only really loved his dogs. Being an upper class male in 18th century England, he could also do as he liked, which meant he cared little for the feelings and lives of others. He behaved in outrageous ways to his wife, while she was expected to smile and accept whatever he did. The film does have gorgeous costumes and scenery, but the story is a bit thin for its nearly 2 hour run time. There are long, drawn out, close up scenes of the Duchess simply walking from one place to another (down the aisle to get married, across a park to meet her lover, etc.). There are some amusing moments in the film, and the audience in the full theater where I saw the film laughed frequently. I'm not sure if the movie was meant to be a comedy, but the general theme of the film (women had no rights or options in those days) had to be lightened up in order to keep the movie from being a total misery fest.


Final Verdict for The Duchess: Three Gherkins, for beautiful costumes and scenery of 18th century England

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Chicago vs. The Gherkin

I enjoy Simon Pegg movies, so it was with great anticipation that I got ready to watch Run Fatboy Run. The film concerns a loser, Dennis, who 5 years previously had left his pregnant fiancee at the alter. Now that she has a rich, successful, hunky boyfriend, Dennis decides that he wants her back. Hunky boyfriend, played by Hank Azaria, also runs marathons, so Dennis, not to be outdone, declares his intention to run in an upcoming marathon. The film is predictable as out-of-shape Dennis attempts, very slowly, to "train" for the big run. The most ridiculous thing is how they attempt to make Dennis "fat". He hunches over and seems to have a rolled up newspaper or something down the front of his shirt to make a laughable pot belly. Does anyone else think it's odd that Renee Zellweger has to "put on weight" to play Bridget Jones, but a male actor can get by with baggy clothes and a slouch? Hmmmm . . .

I was most excited to see that Hank Azaria's character worked in, of all places, the Gherkin! There were a few lovely exterior shots, followed by Dennis entering the lobby. Since I've never been inside, I wonder if this is really the lobby? The film really lost points (or Gherkins) with me, however, when Azaria's character mentioned his plan to leave London for . . . Chicago!?! OMG! As if anyone who lived in the greatest city and worked in the greatest building would vacate them for Chicago? The film lost what little sense of reality it had going for it at that point. Other than that glaringly obvious plot flaw, the film was a fun enough way to spend an evening, and the occasional London views were lovely.


Final Verdict for Run Fat Boy Run: Three Gherkins, for lovely scenery of London and a special guest appearance by the Gherkin itself!

Friday, October 3, 2008

In the kingdom of craziness

Stephen Fry stars as solicitor Peter Kingdom in the lovely British series Kingdom. The series, shot in Norfolk, includes beautiful scenery, eccentric townspeople and and a wise, gentle main character. Peter is ably assisted by his efficient secretary Gloria, portrayed by the wonderful Celia Imrie. He is happily settled with his classic car, model trains, and little yappy dog, when his batty sister (Hermoine Norris) checks herself out of an institution and decides to move in with him. She proceeds to trash his home, paint the room he gives her black, destroy legal documents, and shred important papers. With each disaster, Gloria becomes more frustrated and alarmed, while Peter Kingdom just smiles and shrugs at his sister's little quirks. It wouldn't take me long to change the locks and call the police should such a person show up on my door, but he allows her to get by with all sorts of nonsense. Each episode of the series concerns a different case that is being brought by someone in town, and the Kingdom legal firm's efforts to sort everything out. Along the way are the never-ending complaints against the council brought by Sidney Snell, who finds himself retaliated against in imaginative fashion.

The scenery is beautiful and quaint, and there are enough humorous moments to keep the tone quite light most of the time. It's another wonderful series that makes you want to pack up and move right into the DVD!

By the way, is it just me, or does anyone else think Hermoine Norris looks much, much better as a blond?

Final Verdict for Kingdom: Four Gherkins, for being a charming series with endearing characters (well, except for the psycho sister!)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

We ARE TOO amused

Earlier this week I went to a sneak preview of the film Flash of Genius, starring Greg Kinnear. It is the story of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper in his basement. The major U.S. auto companies had been working on the idea, without success, for many years. He took his design to the Ford Motor Company, which was extremely interested, but they convinced him they needed a "working unit", plus all his notes, in order to get governmental safety approval. Once Ford had all the information to begin manufacturing the product, they convinced the inventor that they were no longer interested. That began a decades long battle by Bob Kearns, the inventor, to get Ford to acknowledge that they stole his idea. There were predictable ups and downs before we got to the typical Hollywood ending. The film reminded me a great deal of A Beautiful Mind.

How, you may be thinking, does this relate to my British obsession? I'm glad you asked. Guess, just guess, what the theater had in the bathroom (no need to be gross, it's good, I promise you)? Big fanfare: A Dyson Airblade Hand Dryer! Oh, the joy and amazement that little gadget caused me! It was invented by the British genius Sir James Dyson, so I got my Brit fix after all! The machine is really amazing. After washing your hands, you simply stick them in the machine (no need to touch potentially germy buttons), and slowly pull them out. You can actually see the water pooling in the bottom of the unit as it is rolled off your hands. When you pull your hands out, not only are the absolutely, completely dry, but they are also very soft. It was all I could do to pull myself away from the dryer to go to the film! Other hand dryer manufacturers and paper towel makers should be very, very afraid right about now.






The future of hand drying technology!

Final Verdict for Flash of Genius: Two Gherkins, for being an enjoyable, if predictable, story of how one man took on big business

Final Verdict for the Dyson Airblade Hand Dryer: Five Gherkins, for being a wonderful and practical addition to modern life!