Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It's hard to be happy . . .

. . . when you're forced to watch such dreck. I had great hopes for the film Happy Go Lucky, which is set in London and promised to be an uplifting and inspirational look at modern life. Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a young primary school teacher in London who always looks on the bright side of life. She laughs, giggles, and smiles at everything. And I mean everything. Her bike gets stolen? No problem, she'll just sign up for driving lessons. She hurts her back on the trampoline? What fun! We can go visit the physiotherapist (where she wears a pink bra, orange thong and lacy pantyhose, as we all attire ourselves for medical treatment).


Being relentlessly cheerful isn't a liability in itself, but the execution of it is where the problem lies. There are great, long stretches when nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, is happening on screen except Poppy giggling and looking insanely cheerful. She comes across not as someone who is relentlessly merry, but as someone who is perpetually on drugs. She is constantly doubled over with laughter and flapping her hands about -- so much so that it is difficult to understand what she is supposed to be saying when she is speaking. The other characters in the film, some of which are suppose to be grouches and killjoys, come of as "normal" people shocked and a little horrified by this clearly deranged creature in front of them.


The theater where I saw the film was not crowded, but as the minutes ticked off, people began to leave. I held out for about 40 minutes before I also had to admit defeat. I didn't, however, march myself to the box office and demand my money back, as I overhead other people doing as I left.


Although this film is getting good reviews and ratings everywhere, I don't understand how anyone was able to stand to sit through it. Awful.


Final Verdict for Happy Go Lucky: No Gherkins, for an annoying, unintelligible lead character, nonexistent action, and barely any London scenery

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nine little pilgrims

Although it is billed as "a retelling of The Canterbury Tales", Karen Maitland's Company of Liars shares only a few similarities with that famous work. Both works take place in the 14th century and concern a band of travellers, but they are distinct stories.

The band of travellers in Company of Liars has no specific destination. They are merely attempting to stay one step ahead of the plague which is ravaging towns throughout England. The group consists of (my spelling of character's names may be off, since I listened to the audio book):

Camelot -- the narrator of the story, who makes a living selling "religious relics"

Zoffiel -- a magician

Rodrigo & Joffrey -- a musician and his apprentice

Adella & Osmond -- a young couple expecting their first child

Cygnas -- a storyteller with one human arm and one swan's wing

Narigorm & Pleasance -- a 12 year old fortune-teller and her nurse

Each member of the group tells stories to entertain the others, or sometimes just to explain how they came to be where they are. The characters all have something to hide, and eventually, like in a good Agatha Christie novel, they begin to be killed off one by one. It is also wintertime, so in addition to the plague, the characters must struggle with difficult travel conditions, bad weather, lack of food, and the vexing problem of where to bury the bodies of their dead companions (since they don't want to arouse any questions from the authorities about how the unfortunates met their deaths).

There were several surprising "twists" at the end of the story, which made the book all the more enjoyable. The author also includes a section of historical notes, explaining the various plagues that ravaged England at the time and the superstitious efforts of the people to ward off the sickness. There is also a glossary at the very end to explain terms used throughout the book.

Final verdict for Company of Liars: Four Gherkins, for being a fascinating story of life in plague times and for holding the reader's interest until the very end

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mothers and daughters

Royal mothers and daughters are the subjects of a fascinating book by Julia Gelardi titled In Triumph's Wake. The lives of three dynamic queens and their less fortunate daughters are explored in a way that makes history come alive. While the three mothers in the book (Queen Isabella of Spain, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and Queen Victoria of England) were all successful and admired, their daughters were not so fortunate. Gelardi examines the lives of these extraordinary women, the times in which they lived, and the mother-daughter relationships in an attempt to discover why the daughters were not able to recapture the success and admiration of their mothers.

The book begins with the story of Queen Isabella of Spain. For most Americans, she is known mainly as the monarch who financed the voyages of Christopher Columbus when he discovered the new world. In fact, she was an amazing woman who managed in her lifetime to do something that many male monarchs had been unable to do: unify Spain and drive the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula. Extremely pious and devout, Isabella was determined to make the area now known as Spain an entirely Christian area. She invaded Moorish-held areas, and personally appeared on the battlefield to monitor the situation and inspire the troops. In fact, several of her children died at birth due to her exertions while heavily pregnant. Isabella also oversaw some less than commendable events in history, such as the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from Spain, in an effort to Christianize the country and save the souls of her subjects. During her lifetime she was greatly admired and was known as "the Wonder of Europe." This allowed her to arrange advantageous marriages for her children. Unfortunately, of her 5 children, only one (Maria, who married the King of Portugal) was happily married.

Isabella's youngest daughter, Catherine of Aragon, was betrothed at age three to Arthur, the Prince of Wales, son of King Henry VII. In something of a contrast to most women of the day, young Catherine and her sisters were given an extensive education. They learned not only such "womanly" arts as music, spinning, weaving and sewing, but also law, religion, history and Latin. Catherine also spoke German and French, in addition to her native Castilian. Because it was known from her childhood that she was destined to become the Queen of England, it is a bit puzzling why no one thought to teach her English. When she finally sailed to England to meet her soon-to-be husband for the first time, she had to converse with him and his family in Latin. Catherine and Arthur were married as young teenagers, and sent to a damp, drafty castle to begin their marriage. Arthur died after only 5 months, and Catherine was left alone (well, except for the 150 servants she brought with her from Spain). King Henry VII, her father-in-law, refused to give her any money, and she suffered greatly, eventually pawning items in order to feed and pay her servants. Luckily for Catherine, King Henry VII died, and his son, Henry ascended to the throne. Henry had always admired Catherine, and so after gaining permission from Pope, they married. Catherine was now the Queen. However, although she gave birth to numerous children, only one, Mary, survived. After nearly 20 years of marriage, King Henry VIII became obsessed with Anne Boleyn and determined to prove that his marriage to Catherine had been invalid. Catherine fought this, never giving up, even after King Henry broke with the Catholic church over the matter. Catherine was displaced and separated from her daughter Mary, eventually dying at the age of 50. Throughout her many trials, Catherine maintained a dignity and strength of purpose that won her the respect of many of her former subjects. In fact, several of them, including Sir Thomas More, were executed in part for their support of Catherine and refusal to go along with the king's wishes.

Moving forward several centuries, we meet Empress Maria Theresa, who at age 24, upon the death of her father, became Queen of Hungary and Bohemia and Archduchess of Austria. At the time of her ascension to the throne, her disparate empire was in chaos: warring factions, an impoverished treasury, poorly trained troops, and many opportunists eager to take advantage of the situation. To make matters worse, Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, was a weak and ineffectual military leader, who had little respect among the nobility. Almost immediately, Maria Theresa was tested as various parts of her empire were besieged by war. Other countries in Europe, whom she was relying on for help and support, had troubles of their own. Only England came to her aid, calling her, "the Joan of Arc of the Danube." With their support, Maria Theresa was able to limit the amount of damage and hold on to most of her lands. Once the military situation was stabilized, the empress set about reforming taxation (moving the bulk of it from peasants to the nobility), education and the army.

Marie Antoinette, the youngest daughter of 16 children, was born "at the zenith of her mother's glory." Her marriage to the future King Louis XVI of France was arranged when she was still a child. She was regarded as intelligent, but frivolous and lazy. Her education was not very extensive, given her nature. At age 14, she left to begin her married life and prepare to become Queen of France. As with Catherine of Aragon before her, she had no close friends or confidants in her new home. At the age of 20, she became the queen and immediately began living the extravagant lifestyle that gained her the enmity of the people. The peasants were overtaxed and starving, yet she persisted in displaying outlandish hairstyles, lavish jewels and decadent finery. Her mother continued to write disapproving and increasing alarmed letters to her daughter until her death in 1780. Unlike Catherine of Aragon, Marie Antoinette had her husband's devotion, but the people she ruled despised her. After a "trial", she was found guilty and executed in the same year as her husband, 1793.

Nearly 25 years later, the woman would would become England's longest-serving monarch, Queen Victoria, was born. Her father died when she was only 8 months old, and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, raised Victoria in near isolation. She had few visitors and almost no childhood playmates. Her future husband, Prince Albert, also had a somewhat unusual childhood. His mother ran off with an army officer when he was only 5 years old, and she never saw her children again. After becoming queen at age 18, Victoria set out to find a husband and was more than thrilled with her marriage to her cousin Albert. Victoria, however, was definitely the ruler. She took great comfort in Albert's counsel, but it was she who held the reigns of power.

Their firstborn child, Vicky, the Princess Royal, was betrothed at age 11 to the 20 year old Prince Frederick Wilhelm (Felix) of Prussia. At age 17, Vicky and Felix married, and Vicky, like Catherine of Aragon and Marie Antoinette before her, set off for a strange land far from her beloved family. Vicky was dismayed at her new surroundings. Her living accommodations were old and far from comfortable, and her new in-laws were uneducated, militarily obsessed, and condescending toward the new princess. A year after her marriage, she gave birth to the future Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was a very difficult birth, however, and the child suffered permanent damage to his arm which rendered it useless to him. Mirroring Marie Antoinette's experience, Vicky was never accepted by the subjects of her new country and was viewed with suspicion. Even her own son, Willy, believed that she was more loyal to England than to Prussia. Vicky's husband, Felix, became ill with throat cancer before ascending to the throne, so that he and Vicky ruled only 99 days. They had spent their 30 years as a couple planning reforms for when they gained power, yet they were unable to implement any of them. Vicky's son Willy immediately entered his parents' home after the death of his father and ransacked it, looking for "papers." Vicky and her son never reconciled. Vicky, known as Empress Frederick after the death of her husband, eventually died in 1901, the same year as her mother, Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria was the only mother who lived to see the suffering and final days of her daughter. The other mothers, while aware that their daughters were living in perilous situations, were spared the experience of watching them reach their final fates. While the mothers were all strong Queens in the countries of their births, the daughters were married off as consorts and were never truly accepted in their adopted countries. Although many centuries separated the mothers and daughters, there were so many parallels that it was as if history was repeating itself. Overall, this was a very interesting and enjoyable book that helped to make historical women "real people" rather than just names in a history book.


Final Verdict for In Triumph's Wake: Four Gherkins, for being a fascinating account of the ups and downs of royal life

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Make your own luck

I wanted to post a message today about luck, making your own luck, and being "lucky." I enter lots of sweepstakes, and, although I don't do as well as some "professional sweepers" (Hello Mr. & Mrs. Shanahan!), I am thrilled with the occasional unexpected win showing up. Today I was notified that I've won "The Ultimate Vols Experience" sweepstakes. I don't have all the details yet, but I do know it involves two tickets to the UT-Kentucky football game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, plus the opportunity to go down on the field before the game. As it will be Coach Fulmer's last game, it should be a bittersweet experience.

My philosophy is to enter only for things I personally want, or can envision giving someone as a gift. I have no interest in motorcycles, mountain bikes, a year of free diapers, heli skiing trips, etc. Some people enter for everything, with the intention of selling unwanted prizes to make extra cash. I'd rather focus my energy, and limited time and stamp budget, toward things I really, really want to win.

Many people ask me how I can be so lucky. The answer is to enter, enter, enter! As in the case of this particular sweepstakes, your odds will be best if you can find a local sweepstakes to enter. If you are only competing against others from your own area, you will have much less competition than if you are competing against everyone in the U.S. So keep your eyes peeled for entry forms and drop boxes at the grocery store, convenience store, restaurants, etc. on your daily rounds.

Also, if a sweepstakes or contest has something of a "degree of difficulty", it will discourage those who don't want to put the effort into entering. There is such a contest going on right now, and I encourage everyone to enter it. The Consumer Queen is giving away one of those nifty new Flip cameras (just the thing for creating videos to enter all the video contests currently running -- hmm, I see they come in orange). There are some steps you have to follow to enter, including registering at the site, subscribing to the blog, posting some deals, and so on. The average person might read that be discouraged that it will take time to enter. That is how you "make your luck" -- work a little harder, and the good luck will follow.

Oh, and to tie this in with my British obsession, I have actually won two trips to England. The first was a tie in with the Austin Powers movies from Frito-Lay, and the second was a tie in with the Underworld: Evolution film from Vamp NRG drinks. So it can be done!

Good luck!

When one comes, they all come

We keeping hearing about the "team" and its work in Waking the Dead, so it's no surprise when the entire team turns up to tramp through murder sites. DS Boyd, played by Trevor Eve, is in charge of the team, which also includes a psychologist, a forensic pathologist, and two police officers. The team works on cold cases, and of course, there are no shortage of those. There is plenty of digging up bodies and "running tests" in the lab, but nothing too gruesome.

An odd thing about this series, compared to similar programs, is that we get to learn nothing about the lives of the main characters. They come to work, do their jobs, and go home to . . . what? There are some references to DS Boyd's son (who died at the age of 16) and the fact that Boyd feels guilty about it, but any time it's mentioned, the subject is quickly changed. We never get to see any significant others or the homes of the team members (other than once, when one of them becomes a crime victim). Only the first two of seven seasons (so far) were available on Netflix, so perhaps the characters are more fully developed as distinct personalities as time goes on.



Trevor Eve, the perfect Wallander


Rolf Lassgård, the un-Wallander #1


Krister Henriksson, also not Wallander

As I watched the episodes, it hit me: Trevor Eve would make a fantastic Wallander! When reading the Henning Mankell books, naturally I formed a picture on my head of how Wallander should look. The two actors who have portrayed him, Rolf Lassgård and Krister Henriksson, are both fine actors, but they look nothing like Wallander. And I see from IMDB that Kenneth Branagh is portraying Wallander in a UK version of the books. NO, NO, NO! Haven't I just pointed out that Trevor Eve is all that Wallander should be? Do these casting directors even read the books? {sigh}


Final Verdict on Waking the Dead: Three Gherkins, for being a much more interesting version of CSI

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Old blue eyes

A while back, BBCAmerica showed the drama series Wire in the Blood. I watched it, and although the main character, Dr. Tony Hill, played by Robson Green, was a bit weird, after a while he grew on me. After the first three seasons, however, co-star Hermoine Norris left, and I didn't feel he had the same sort of chemistry with her replacement. Also, I started to feel that it was increasingly odd that the police seemingly couldn't make a move without consulting Dr. Hill.

I was interested to see what else Robson Green had been in, and was happy to watch Touching Evil. In this series, he plays an officer, Dave Creegan, who doesn't play by the rules. He has no problem with kicking in doors, beating up suspects or even taking the law into his own hands when he feels it's necessary. Creegan recently survived being shot in the head and a subsequent year off from the job to recuperate. In the meantime, his marriage fell apart and his wife moved another man into their house. So perhaps it's not entirely unexpected that he should have his little quirks.

This series has its inexplicable moments, such as when characters disappear and aren't mentioned again. Or when suspects are shown in a bright, blinding spotlight (are the police supposed to be "shining a light on evil?"). Creegan breaks the law nearly constantly himself, but when he hears of a fellow officer doing so, he turns him in (although even then he withholds evidence). I guess since the criminals are much worse, we are to allow the rogue cop leeway in doing whatever is necessary to catch them.

Still, given Robson Green's heavenly blue eyes, I'll buy whatever story they want to spin!

Final Verdict on Touching Evil: Three Gherkins, for being a gritty, modern police drama

Monday, November 17, 2008

Filed under "Too Much Information"

Given my obsession with all things British (which no one in my vicinity seems to share), I was delighted to discover a book titled My Love Affair with England: A Traveler's Memoir by Susan Allen Toth. It would seem as if the author and I would have a great deal in common. I have read many traveler's memoirs, and I was expecting this one to be especially relevant to my interests. Unfortunately, the author put in many of her own experiences and life challenges instead of concentrating on stories about England. While someone like Bill Bryson can do that in a humorous and entertaining manner, Toth's revelations are embarrassing and cringe-inducing. I kept wondering, "Why in the world would she tell anyone this, let alone put it in a book for all to read?" We got to hear about how as an under-prepared teacher she took a group of 10 students to England, and basically turned it into a sight-seeing tour (since none of the students had read any of the books on the assigned reading list). Great if you are a student, but not especially academically challenging.

We are also treated to a long and involved story about how she lived in England for 6 horrific months in 1978. Her nanny turned out not to like the child she was supposed to be caring for, and eventually left early. As a replacement, the author's mother came to England. This led to all sorts of blow ups of the "Mother, I just need to be alone for a while!" sort.

The revelation that definitely left me with the "too much information" screech on my lips occurred in the chapter titled, "A View from Waterloo Bridge." In this chapter, we learn of her impending marriage and her visit to the doctor for a "premarital exam" and a "prescription for birth-control pills." We also get to learn the doctor told her, "You're awfully tight. Don't expect this to be easy." To further entertain us, the author informs us that during her wedding ceremony, "I began to bleed."

You may ask yourself, as I repeatedly did, what any of that has to do with England? I'm sorry to say, I read the book, and I still don't know. Why a book dealing with personal and professional struggles should be called "My Love Affair with England" is beyond me.

When she does talk about England and her travels there, Toth often frequently doesn't have a lot to say which is positive. For instance, she details her daughter's experience as an exchange student in England, with a family who refused to turn on any heat, kept count of the number of cookies in the house, and sent their children to monitor her daughter in case she was stealing food. Then there is the terrible saga of 1978, including a detailed chapter and referred to throughout the book with (one would imagine) a definite shudder on the part of the author. During that awful six months, the author suffered with the cold temperatures, the lack of central heating and the long treks to the grocery store. Oh the humanity!

Eventually, the author remarried (the first guy didn't work out we're told time and again), and her second husband agreed to take on driving duties during their British vacations. Once she was able to get out and see parts of the country that were more off the beaten track, she became more fond of England. However, by that time, the reader is exasperated and bored (if you manage to stick with it that long). She does tend to go on and on about footpaths, walking sticks and gardens.

All in all, the book might have been enjoyable if it had been presented in a different way -- more as a biography with travel stories thrown in (on occasion). As it was, with the title of the book prominently mentioning England, the reader ends up feeling misled. I had expected the book to be mostly about England, not Ms. Toth. Perhaps a better title would have been, "My Love Affair with Myself, with Occasional Trips to England Thrown In."

Final Verdict for My Love Affair with England: One Gherkin, for being a mis-titled and disappointing "travel" book

Friday, November 14, 2008

Do we really speak the same language?

I am an unabashed Anglophile who greatly admires dear old Blighty, but there is the occasional word that does puzzle me while I am attempting to understand British English. So I'm here to ask for help from my fellow Anglophiles (or anyone willing to offer a suggestion) to explain these linguistic oddities of British English to me.

1. The pronunciation of the past tense of eat

I listen to a lot of audio books, many of which are read by British narrators. There seems to be no pattern as to why sometimes they read a sentence as, "We ate (pronounced "eight") dinner at five" and other times they say, "We ate (pronounced "et") dinner at five." Why the disparity? Is it a regional thing? In the U.S., someone who said "et" would not be considered to be very bright (think Ernest T. Bass), so it's always jarring to hear a very refined, lovely British voice say "et." Makes my skin crawl just thinking about it!

2. The extra syllable in disoriented

Where does it come from??? Why do Americans say "oriented" and "disoriented" and our British cousins add the extra syllable to say "orientated" and "disorientated"? I know Americans can be lazy at times (well, I certainly can), but surely we haven't started a campaign to shorten words to save energy?

3. Where do they get that "f"?

Of course, one of the most puzzling British-isms has to be where in the world they get the letter "f" when they pronounce "lieutenant." The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that at some point in history, people misread the "u" as a "v", resulting in the current pronunciation. Still, if that were the case, you'd think the mistake would have been noted and corrected by now, wouldn't you? (Of course, this also begs the question of where both American and British speakers find the "r" in "colonel", but that is an issue for another post . . .)

4. Why is there no article with hospital?

It's also somewhat jarring to the American ear to hear British speakers leave out the article when speaking about hospitals, as in "She was taken to hospital." I was trying to think if we have anything similar in the U.S., and the only thing I can come up with is "school" ("We went to school"). Both situations deal with a noun that is referring to a large building, containing many people engaged in vigorous activity, but why this should allow the speaker to drop the article is not clear. Well, not to me, at any rate.

Those are the most puzzling ones at the moment, although I'm sure I'll have more to add as time goes by.

On another note, last night I was watching the second season of Waking the Dead (nearly finished, so it will be gherkinized soon), with the subtitles turned on so I didn't miss anything (that darned dishwasher is so LOUD), when the characters started talking about a "quango." Because of the subtitles, I was able to note this down as the correct spelling. Today, I pulled up the handy Oxford English Dictionary my library subscribes to and got this definition:

quango, n. Chiefly Brit. Originally: an ostensibly non-governmental organization which in practice carries out work for the government. Now chiefly: an administrative body which has a recognized role within the processes of national government, but which is constituted in a way which affords it some independence from government, even though it may receive state funding or support and senior appointments to it may be made by government ministers.

Um, yeah, so that's what a quango is.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

From tragedy to triumph

I was alarmed when I happened to see a post on CNN about the demise of XM Satellite radio that happened this week. I have been listening to podcasts and audio books lately, so I hadn't tuned in to my satellite radio for a while. I have been an XM subscriber for several years, after initially winning a radio and year of service. When I first started listening to satellite radio, I was disappointed to see that XM's competitor, Sirius, included BBC Radio 1 on their service. However, I was delighted when the merger happened between XM and Sirius, because they were promising that subscribers would be able to subscribe to "a la carte" options from both services.

I was worried when the postings on the CNN site seemed to indicate that XM died a quiet, unannounced death, and that "all my favorite stations" (to quote some of the more hysterical laments in the comments section) had disappeared. Apparently, this week there has been a big shift and a new lineup of stations for us XM folks. Imagine my surprise and delight when I saw that channel 29, formerly UPOP, was now BBC Radio 1!!! Oh joy and excitement! I was imagining being forced to purchase an expensive package (including a lot of stations I would never listen to) before I would be able to get this station. Never did I expect it would just suddenly show up!

Of course I will miss UPOP, where I first heard the likes of Amy Winehouse, Elbow, Kaiser Chiefs, Lily Allen, Lady Sovereign, Snow Patrol and Muse (I don't get out much), but there are hints on the website that it might make a comeback to Sirius XM at some point in the future. If so, I would like to point out to one Mr. Ted Kelly that long, pointless, meandering phone calls to your friends quickly get old for the listener. Just a word of friendly advice . . .

Now I'm going to go fix my XM radio presets, since I'm sure everything has moved or gone AWOL. I'm looking forward to discovering the new channel lineup! I just hope they haven't gotten rid of Sonny Fox on the comedy channel . . .

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Who was that man?

Recently I found a stack of old cassette tapes, and I popped one into the player to see what was on it. I was thrilled to hear the wonderful voice of Nick Lowe. I have always enjoyed his music, but I was particularly moved by the song Who Was That Man from the Party of One album. This song is about the terrible fire in the King's Cross Underground Station in November 1987. Thirty-one people died in the fire, but one victim remained unidentified for 16 years. The song is very catchy and upbeat, but the subject matter is terribly sad and depressing. It includes the lines:

It was a wild and wet November night
and the rush hour was at its height

King's Cross the venue that
the finger of death was pointed at
Among the crowd was a lonely soul
with a mission in mind and a place to go
Nobody knows where he was bound
when his fateful steps took him underground
Who was that, who was that man?
Nobody loved him all across this land

There was a great deal of concern over how someone could not be missed in our modern society. No family, friends, coworkers, landlords -- no one reported this man missing, or identified him. (Although, as an aside, one look at the horrifyingly gigantic list of Unidentified Victims over on the Doe Network site should serve as a reminder that not everyone is missed in this world.) Over the years, I would search the Internet, trying to find out if the man had been identified yet. I had even posted a question about it on the Stumpers-L list (now known, apparently, as Project Wombat), a listserv of difficult reference questions that are asked of librarians. I got no replies to my question. A few years ago, I was delighted to see that "Victim 115" (the unidentified man) was finally identified in 2004 as 73 year old Alexander Fallon. After his wife died, he began living a transient lifestyle in London, while his family remained in Scotland. His children had apparently lost touch with them, which is why they didn't suspect their father was dead for so many years. It's fantastic and amazing that the mystery could be solved after such a long time, and that the family was finally able to find out what had happened to him. On my last trip to London, I took some photos of the memorial plaques in King's Cross Station, but it was dark and my camera cheap, so they didn't turn out all that well:








Next week, November 18, will be the 21st anniversary of the King's Cross station fire. As someone who is quite fond of the Underground (which I understand is pronounced "chewb"), I will certainly have a few moments of silence on that date in memory of the terrible tragedy.

While I was searching online for better photos of the King's Cross memorial plaques than the ones I'd taken, I came across this fantastic site: London Remembers. It is a website listing memorial plaques, gardens, statues and other remembrances across the city. You can search by the name of a person, or choose an area of London off a map and get a listing of all the memorials in that area. I could spend several decades browsing through that site!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The tragic story of John Bauer

When I was living in Sweden back in the early 1990s, I noticed a commemorative stamp series honoring the Swedish artist John Bauer. I had never heard of him before, but I was intrigued by his drawings of trolls, forests, maidens, and of course, moose. John Bauer is best known as the illustrator of "Bland Tomtar och Troll" (Among Elves and Trolls), a yearly Christmas fairytale book. On my last visit to Sweden, I made a pilgrimage to the wonderful John Bauer Museum in Jönköping. When I got there, I discovered that the bulk of Bauer's work had been loaned out (naturally) for an exhibition in Germany. Still, there was a great deal of biographical information and sketches that helped to paint a portrait of the man whose tragic story touched my heart.

John Bauer was born in the Swedish city of Jönköping in 1882. He studied art at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, and met his wife, Ester, there. The young couple quickly discovered that they had differing interests. John wanted to be out in the forest, to gain inspiration for his fairytale illustrations. Ester wanted to live in the city and attend parties and social events. Eventually, the couple split up. After a while, however, they decided to give their marriage another go. In 1918, they boarded the ship the Per Brahe with all of their belongings to make a new life in Stockholm. During the voyage, there was a storm and John, his wife Ester, their two year old son Bengt ("Putte") and 21 others drowned when the ship sank. Ironically, there had recently been a highly publicized and deadly train wreck, which is why the Bauer family decided to travel by ship. There is also a persistent belief that the trolls and fairies who were John Bauer's inspiration did not want him to leave the Småland forests, and therefore caused the storm which kept him forever there with them. November 20 will mark the 90th anniversary of Bauer's death.

John Bauer's trolls are not scary, menacing types but rather curious and sometimes endearing forest dwellers. The baby troll, "Humpe", figures in some of Bauer's most famous works. His illustrations have influenced generations of artists and helped to shape the impression of the fairytale forest that we all carry with us.

While I'm on the subject of interesting museums in Småland, I want to also mention the fascinating Grenna Museum, which houses the Andrée Polar exhibit. In 1897, S.A. Andrée and two other explorers set out for the North Pole in a balloon (as you do). After only two days, they crashed on a remote ice floe. Unable to make it to safety, they survived for three months but eventually perished. Their remains were not found until 1930. Found with them were photographs, diaries and equipment which create a very moving and fascinating account of their doomed journey. Highly recommended!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Coffee? Tea? Bromide?

"British Intelligence" is a highly questionable concept after watching the 1990s TV series The Piglet Files. Peter "Piglet" Chapman (so named because all the other animal code names beginning with "P" were already taken) is recruited into the British spy organization MI5 due to his expertise with electronics. He is not allowed to tell his wife or anyone else that he is now working for the secretive organization. The MI5 that Piglet joins turns out to be dazzlingly inept, with missions frequently spent watching the wrong house or following the wrong person. Luckily, the enemy agents, "the Russians", seem to be just as hopelessly inept as their British counterparts.

I am not sure if it was part of the plan to make the agents look even sillier, but I was really amused by all the "high tech" gadgets that Piglet attempted to introduce into the agency:



The unwieldy size of most of the "gadgets" would surely render them pretty useless to agents in the field. It's also interesting to note that cell phones were not yet on the scene when this series was filmed. That actually led to a pretty funny moment when Piglet, racing to reach the pay phone, was spied by an unamused elderly lady breathing heavily into the receiver. Most shows on TV today seem to involve mobile phone conversations, and little else!

Final verdict for The Piglet Files: Three Gherkins, for being an amusing, if somewhat dated Britcom

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Never thought I'd see the day

There have been a lot of historic and exciting things happening in the U.S. over the past few days. It's impossible not to get caught up in the feelings of hope and optimism that are sweeping the country. However, as everyone knows, it's all about ME in this world, and so here is the event that has rocked my world recently:

I honestly never though I'd see sub-$2 gas again in my lifetime. As recently as a few months ago, in September, gas was $4.99 a gallon in Knoxville!! What event could possibly cause the price of gas to drop 62% in just a few weeks??? When the price spiked to nearly $5 a gallon, there were howls of outrage and promises to investigate possible price gouging, but I have no idea what would case gas to have such a sudden and dramatic price drop. Not that I'm complaining, and I'm sure it will be short-lived, but still . . . it's the first of many things I don't understand!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

If they needed a thrill, couldn't they have gone to London?

Deviating a bit from all things British today to discuss the book For the Thrill of it: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder that Shocked Chicago by Simon Baatz. The book chronicles the infamous 1924 murder of 14 year old Bobby Franks by older teenagers Richard "Dickie" Loeb and Nathan "Babe" Leopold. I was familiar with the case and had read a great deal about it, so I was interested to see if this book would add anything new to the story.

The book goes into great detail about the murderers, their lawyers and various aspects of the trial. Leopold and Loeb were two affluent, bored teenagers who had always been presented as being geniuses. The author of this book points out that Loeb, especially, was not academically gifted but was pushed unmercifully by an overbearing governess. He graduated from both high school and college while still very young, but at the expense of developing social relationships with his peers. Similarly, Leopold thought himself intellectually superior to his fellow human beings, but this was mainly his way to cope with being a social outcast. He continually claimed to be able to speak many languages, but the author points out that no one ever actually tested this claim.

The two teenagers developed a friendship and began acting out their most secret fantasies: Leopold's was to become a willing slave (to Loeb) and Loeb's was to become a master criminal. In order to continue their physical relationship, Loeb coerced Leopold into becoming his accomplice in a number of petty crimes. Eventually, they worked out a plan to commit the "perfect crime", which would include kidnapping, the collection of a ransom, and the murder of the victim. Since they believed they were so intellectually superior to everyone, especially the police, they did not expect to ever get caught. Incredibly, despite planning their crime for many months, the body of their victim was discovered within a day, and they were unable to collect the ransom. Adding to their downfall was the fact that Loeb could not shut up. He gave "tips" to journalists and generally inserted himself into the investigation.

Not surprisingly, they were caught and eventually Loeb confessed. The families begged famed lawyer Clarence Darrow to save the boys from hanging. There was a great deal of information included about the trial, experts on mental illness, and the lawyers who argued both sides of the case. The two defendants had pleaded guilty from the start, in an effort to request leniency from the judge. It worked, and after a three day rambling summation from Darrow, the judge sentenced the two killers to life in prison, rather than hanging.

An interesting fact that came out in the information about the trial was that Loeb had supposedly confessed to 4 other serious crimes, called "A, B, C, and D", but never identified or explained. It was also pointed out that Loeb was depositing money in the range of $500 - $1500 in a bank account every month for a year before the murder. The source of this money was never accounted for. So even though this book presents an exhaustive account of the crime and its aftermath, there are still unanswered questions.

Something strange which struck me was that even with all the planning of the crime, the murderers did not select a victim. Instead, they just cruised past the local school at the time students would be walking home. Their plan was just to kidnap the first boy they saw walking alone. They nearly had to abandon their plans when all of the children stayed in groups. Unfortunately, Bobby Franks did eventually come by alone. Even though he was related to Richard Loeb, they carried out their plan of kidnap and murder.

Leopold insisted throughout the questioning that he felt no remorse for the crime, as he was not subject to the same laws as common men. He also said that any crime or act was permissible, because the pleasure such activities gave him outweighed any negative effects on society. Surely statements like that greatly endeared him to the public!

The one thing I was most interested to find out in the book was how the author dealt with the death of Richard Loeb. In 1936, at the age of 30, Loeb was murdered in prison by a fellow inmate. The author, while providing copious citations throughout the book, tells the story of the murder on one page without any footnotes. He seems to follow the same line as most other sources have taken: that Loeb made unwanted advances toward another inmate, who killed him in self-defense. However, trutv's Crime Library gives another version of the events. Loeb continued to receive a monthly allowance from his family while in prison, and according to this source, he was generous in sharing this money with other inmates. James Day, Loeb's killer, felt that he wasn't getting his fair share of the money Loeb was doling out. I was hoping the author might explore this aspect of Loeb's death more fully. As the Internet source points out, Loeb was unarmed, his throat was cut from behind, and his body showed nearly 60 wounds. Um, overkill much? Additionally, after his initial arrest, Loeb claimed to be totally uninterested in sex, according to the author of the book. Of course, he could have undergone changes in prison, but it never seemed right that such extreme violence would be necessary in a case of self-defense.

New word: nugatory: of no value, worthless

Final Verdict for For the Thrill of it: Three Gherkins, for being a very detailed look at one of the "crimes of the century"

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Whose idea was this?

I was interested to see in this article that Princess Beatrice is studying for a BA in the "History of Ideas." Now, I know the child will never have to get a "real job", but what, exactly, do you suppose a degree in the History of Ideas prepares you to do out in the world? And what self-respecting university is offering such a degree? I haven't seen any job announcements saying, "A BA in the History of Ideas or related subject is required."

How very odd. I realize it's been a few years since I darkened a college advisor's office doorstep, but I remember being told, in the strictest terms, that I'd never get a job with a degree in something as useless as English. Times surely have changed!

Monday, November 3, 2008

These witches need more dance lessons

Häxdansen (The Witches' Dance) is a Swedish TV miniseries from 2008. The story takes place the small Swedish town of Bosjö, which apparently did quite the business in witch burning in the 17th century. The story goes that 11 "witches" were burned at the stake in one day, which must have been some sort of record or something. Anyway, fast forward 300 or so years, and some idiot has decided to build a football (soccer to you and me) field on the very spot where the witches were burned. Naturally, before they burned up, the witches cursed their tormentors, and all the future generations of their families. That is how the story starts out . . . suitably creepy and atmospheric for this time of year, don't you think???

In my innocence, I thought that a show about a cursed town that had been involved in witch burning might be -- oh, I don't know -- scary. Not this show. The main problem was that it really didn't know what it wanted to be -- comedy, drama, horror, suspense. It seemed to try weakly to be a bit of them all, but didn't really succeed in any of those areas.

The story follows the women who make up Bosjö's soccer team. The team is trying hard to move up in the rankings, but dealing with infighting, indifference from sponsors, and a hostile men's coach (who doesn't appreciate sharing the soccer field with the women's team). At first, it is a bit difficult to keep up with all the players, but we are soon to learn that we need only concern ourselves with a few of them:

Sara, who can't decide if she wants to be an artist or author, although at the time we meet her, she's doing the author thing;

Sussie, her sister, who has a respectable job in a bank, where on an almost daily basis someone comes in and has a shouting match with her over her penchant for sleeping with every male she sees;

Linda, who has been Sussie's best friend since childhood, although she is a frequent "bank scene maker";

Nadya, who is in a relationship with a stable, responsible man and has a child, yet she embarks on a relationship with:

Li, who can't decide if she likes women or men;

Ellen, who is the team's useless goal keeper. She sits at home every night playing online computer games. For some reason, she decides that Li is going to become her best friend.

There are also the coaches, Kristina and Henke, who try their best with the team that gets continually worse with every game it plays.

Sara, doing her author thing, discovers that every 11 years, something terrible happens in the town of Bosjö. Naturally, this is the year when something wicked is on the way (or so she suspects). She hooks up with an "author", played by the adorable and sadly misused Shanti Roney, who helps her investigate the story. After only a few appearances, he is outed as a fake, and disappears from the screen. What he actually added to the story is not clear, since Sara could have discovered the witches' curse thing on her own (she was on the Internet often enough).

The other weird plot twist is that Linda and Sussie, who seem to be intelligent enough women, both become involved with a real slime-ball named Patrik. He manages to convince both women that he is part of a large, secret organization that directs its members to perform "fun" tasks. Once a year, the members of the group get together and tell each other how they carried out their assignments. The things he has the women do are dangerous and sometimes illegal (putting dye in the city water works, stealing the jerseys of the men's football team, setting a newly unveiled sculpture on fire, etc.). Naturally, he films them performing the tasks and proceeds to blackmail them in order to force them to continue. It is unclear as to why the women would go along with such nonsense. Linda is not having a romantic relationship with him (although Sussie naturally is), so what is she supposed to be getting out of it?

I had hopes that Patrik would be revealed to be the devil, and there would be a big scene where he would be banished back to his fiery abode. No such luck, although he does get a sort of comeuppance in the only (extremely brief) scary few seconds in the entire show. Nothing horrible happened in the town, unless you want to count the 0-11 record of the women's soccer team. Of course, it was originally shown on TV, so I suppose the show's creators might not have wanted to get too graphic with the frights, but it didn't stop them from having some revealing love scenes!

I only saw this program advertised on a Swedish DVD website, so I have no idea how it was originally marketed. Maybe it was never presented as being scary. At any rate, I was disappointed that the program didn't make more use of the potential for frights. You had witches, curses, an evil human . . . I didn't even mention the fire at the insane asylum! There were many ways that the story could have played out, but the end result was not very impressive.

Final Verdict for Häxdansen: Two Gherkins, for occasional promising plot twists, but an overall disappointing series