Saturday, March 28, 2009

Modernizing the Tate Modern

I was interested to read about the upcoming extension that is being planned for the Tate Modern gallery. It certainly is an interesting shape. It is projected to be completed by 2014, if Boris Johnson can be persuaded to drop his protests over sloping floors. I have only been to the Tate Modern once, when I was taking a class in London. Everyone in my class was informed that they simply could not miss the upside-down- couch-with-the-squealing-lady display. Well, I'm sure it has another name, but that's always how I'll remember it! I must visit again on my next trip to London and see if she's still drawing the crowds . . .

Thursday, March 26, 2009

By hook or by crook, get this book

If you've ever wondered why the English language is as quirky as it is, you would do well to read By Hook or By Crook by David Crystal. Crystal is the author of numerous books about the English language, most notably the excellent and fascinating Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.

In By Hook or By Crook, Crystal takes a meandering journey throughout England, along the way encountering dialects, pub/road signs, and local word usages that he uses as springboards to delve into why we speak the way we do today. Some of the tangents he takes are a bit unusual, such as how a single bee can give directions to a source of nectar to the entire hive, but his writing style is highly entertaining and he does eventually tie the topic back, somehow, to language.

He also throws in some interesting personal experiences, such as his encounter with William Golding at a literary event. I had never heard that Golding was a irritable old grouch-bag, but somehow the news doesn't surprise me! There are also many interesting facts to be gleaned from between the pages of this book, such as that St. John of God is the patron saint of the book trade. Another story which I found fascinating involved the Yale professor who taught parrots an extinct Indian language and then incorporated them into an art exhibit.

Some of the tangents do go on a bit too long, such as the extensive discussion about why the word "swan" appears in so many pub names. Still, the book is quite interesting and written by someone who clearly knows his stuff. I learned a lot from reading the book, and I plan to dip into it now and again to reacquaint myself with the many odd facts that help to explain how our language evolved.

Final Verdict for By Hook or By Crook: Four Gherkins, for being a highly entertaining account of some of the more curious aspects of the English language

Monday, March 23, 2009

It's not just his feet that are cold

The trials and tribulations of three couples are portrayed in the series Cold Feet. The modern series takes place in Manchester and follows the ups and downs in the lives of three couples. There's David and Karen, a couple growing apart as his social aspirations take precedence over the family as frazzled Karen tries to cope with a baby alone. We also meet Pete and Jenny, new parents who are adjusting to their changed roles in life. And finally, there's Rachel and Adam, who, when the series begins, meet by accident (literally) and start dating. Adam finds he has to prove his love to Rachel in a somewhat unorthodox manner . . . I just hope the thorns were removed from that rose first!

The series starts out as a comedy, but there are plenty of uncomfortable moments and misunderstandings that seem always to threaten the relationship of one or other of the couples. I am not a total fan of the series yet. I've just watched season one, and I believe it went to 5 seasons in the U.K.

I must admit, I haven't seen much of James Nesbitt, but he didn't impress me at all in this show. His self-satisfied smirk at whatever was being discussed quickly grew old. Also, the fact that the three couples were constantly spreading rumors that quickly got out of hand grew old as a plot device after the first 3 or so times it was used.

I'll watch some of season 2 in order to find out if it improves, but at the moment, I'm not a huge fan of Cold Feet. The scenes of Manchester are nice, though! I'm also quite impressed with Hermoine Norris, who plays the most sympathetic character I've seen her do in ages, the stressed-out housewife Karen.

On a sad note, I was really upset to learn that last week Sylvia Plath's son Nicholas Hughes committed suicide in Alaska. It must have been very difficult to have grown up as the child of successful mother that you didn't even remember. I hope he's at peace now.

Final Verdict for Cold Feet, Series 1: Two Gherkins, for some funny moments, but mostly drawn-out scenes of unfunny misunderstandings

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On second thought, stay out

Vampires are all the rage these days, and Sweden has jumped on the bandwagon with the film Let the Right One In. This is a tale told from the perspective of a 12 year old boy named Oskar. Bullied at school and ignored at home, Oskar is receptive to the friendly advances made by the strange new girl next door, Eli. Eli doesn't wear shoes or coats, even though it's the middle of winter. She also doesn't go to school. None of these facts bother Oskar. He eventually teaches Eli Morse code so that they can communicate by tapping on the walls.

Eventually, Oskar works out that Eli is a vampire and just as much of an outcast as he is. There is an adult that lives with Eli (murdering people to supply her with blood), but their relationship is never really explained.
Some, but not all, of the vampire folklore elements are confirmed in this film. Eli has to be protected from bright sunlight. She also has to be "invited in" or there will be dire consequences (for the vampire). There was no mention of a dislike of garlic or turning into a bat, although Eli did mention that she moved from place to place by "flying."

The most bizarre aspect of the film was the dislike that cats have for vampires. I'll admit that I'm not up on my vampire history, but what is the deal with vampires and cats? There are numerous cats in this film who all instantly recognize vampires and are driven to immediately fling themselves on the offending creatures. Now, honestly, can anyone see a cat behaving this way? If there were really a sudden invasion of vampires, I doubt my cats could even be bothered to wake up and notice it. If they did happen to encounter a vampire, I'm sure their strategy would be to hide under the bed! Still, cats have saved humanity before (Bubonic plague, anyone?), so I guess it's only natural that they should continue to take their responsibilities seriously. After all, if humans were wiped out, who would open the tuna cans???

All in all, the film had some gory moments, but it was basically a "wish fulfillment" film for teens. Adults are clueless, or absent, or exist merely to serve the needs of the kids in the film. Bullies exist, but they eventually are dealt with severely. You can even leave your miserable surroundings and head off into the sunset if things get too bad. There were plenty of head-scratching moments, but to paraphrase someone over at the IMDB, "Expecting logic from a film about vampires is asking too much."

Final verdict for Let the Right One In: Three Gherkins, for some scary moments and heroic cats, but an overall illogical story

Friday, March 13, 2009

1976 called

We are quickly approaching the date of the Eurovision Song Contest, and so I'm anxious to hear the entries from the United Kingdom and Sweden. Sweden doesn't just have one show to pick their winning song to send on to the competition. Oh no. It's now a 4 part show to determine some of the finalists, plus a "second chance" show, then a final to choose the actual song which will compete. The final show is this Saturday. According to an informal poll on the Swedish Television website, the favorite to win is E.M.D. with Baby Goodbye. Oh I hope not. The song is OK, but the performance is just too cringe-inducing.

And what is with the song Snälla, Snälla by Caroline af Ugglas? With all those competitions, how in the world did this train wreck make it to the final round?? Didn't anyone think that the object was to send a song that actually might have some sort of appeal? If this one wins, I predict Sweden might get a few sympathy votes from Norway or Denmark, but that would be all.

Another puzzling finalist is Malena Ernman. What in the name of heaven is going on there? The entire thing is such a horrible mis-mash -- English lyrics, French (I think) lyrics, pseudo-operatic warbling, bizarre choreography -- the horror never ends.

Hey Agnes! 1976 called. They want their gold lamé bodysuit back . . .

My favorite performer of the bunch is Sarah Dawn Finer. She has the best voice, but unfortunately, the song is nothing to write home about. I like the poppy dance tunes by Alcazar and Måns Zelmerlöw, so that means they probably have no chance!

The British gossip site Popbitch is predicting Norway will win the Eurovision Song Contest this year. I don't know what they're smoking over there at Popbitch, but somebody needs an intervention.

In two bits of British celeb news, the Sun is reporting that Peaches Geldof is going to be the subject of a reality series produced by BBCAmerica. You have to wonder who at BBCA thought this would be a good idea. No one in the US knows (or, I would hazard a guess, cares) who she is, and she isn't exactly a ratings topper in the UK, either. On the other hand, the US media is bending over backwards to fawn over Russell Brand. His book was released in the US a few days ago, and he's making the publicity rounds. He gets several favorable mentions in this week's Entertainment Weekly magazine, plus he's going to be featured on NPR's Weekend Edition tomorrow.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Grannies aren't like they used to be

If you've had a full enough life, I suppose there's nothing scary or depressing in getting older. Such is the case in No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside. This book is written from the perspective of a 60-something Bridget Jones. Marie, the narrator of the book, is turning 60 and has decided to keep a journal. She is very happy about the upcoming milestone. She feels that at 60 she has earned the right to a quiet, calm life. She will no longer feel guilty about not learning Italian, or refusing to join a book club, or doing any of those other activities that are expected of "active seniors." Throughout the book, she makes reference to her wild younger days -- frequent drug use and "sleeping with a Beatle" are two of the events she mentions. In an effort to show how "hip" she still is, the narrator often includes the texts of the latest spam emails she's received. This, along with very detailed descriptions of her interactions with her baby grandson, detract from what might have otherwise been an engaging book. She does live in Shepherds' Bush, but she describes it as a very depressed area that's "full of hoodies."

I did learn an interesting fact from reading the book. Marie, while staying at a friend's country home, deals with the instability of somewhat unreliable plumbing. She relates the story that the designer Laura Ashley was staying in a country house and got up in the middle of the night to use the loo. Unfamiliar with the layout of the house, but unwilling to turn on a light and possibly disturb her hosts, she fell down the stairs and eventually died from complications from the fall. What an epitaph -- died looking for a toilet! I can totally relate!

On another literary topic, a researcher has authenticated a portrait of William Shakespeare, the only one known to have been painted during his lifetime. Bill Bryson, in his excellent book Shakespeare: The World as Stage points out that the images we have of Shakespeare all appeared years after his death. This recent discovery may provide the best evidence yet for how Shakespeare actually looked.

Final Verdict for No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club: Two Gherkins, for some amusing events in a Londoner's life, but an overall bland story

Chief Inspector Wexford comes to life

One of my favorite mystery writers is the amazing Ruth Rendell. Even though she continues to put out about a book a year, the quality of her work has remained high. For the most part, I am generally shocked and surprised by the endings of her books. The bad guys generally get what they deserve, although there's plenty of suffering among the good guys up until that point.

I was thrilled to discover that many of Ruth Rendell's stories have been filmed and were shown as the Ruth Rendell Mysteries between 1987 and 2000. It appears that not all of the episodes have been released in the U.S. yet. I recently saw two episodes, "Going Wrong" and "Harm Done."

In "Harm Done," we are treated to a vintage Rendell story, with several seemingly unrelated threads woven into an unexpected conclusion. In this story, Chief Inspector Wexford must deal with teen aged girls abducted by a middle aged woman and then released, a three year old girl missing from her upper-class home, a pedophile released from prison into a lower-class housing estate, and domestic violence counselors and victims. Inexplicably, Wexford behaves irrationally and is overbearing and harsh with his subordinates at work as well as his family. This is never really explained, but perhaps if the shows involving Wexford were viewed in order, this progression to short-tempered grumpy old man might make sense.


"Going Wrong" on the other hand, doesn't involve Rendell's long-suffering Wexford. This story deals with a bored rich girl, Leonora, who becomes involved as a teenager with bad boy Guy. Leonora finally tires of Guy's illegal activities and decides that going off to university will be a good time to break off the relationship. Five years later, Guy reconnects with Leonora and wants to rekindle their romance. By now, he is the owner of a legitimate and successful business. Both Leonora and Guy are involved in new relationships, but they continue to meet on a weekly basis. It soon transpires that Guy is obsessed with Leonora. Although Leonora is engaged to the bland William, she continues to see Guy. It is a bit hard to believe that Guy would continue to pine for the somewhat plain Leonora, when he is involved with the gorgeous and patient Celeste, played by Inday Ba.

Eventually, Guy decides to give up his obsession and devote himself to Celeste, but of course, by then it's too late. Some events he put into motion in the grip of his obsession come back to haunt him. Although the ending was a typical Rendell twist, the entire story was way too long. It was three separate episodes, each an hour long. The sections dwelling on Guy's obsession with Leonora were really drawn out and could have been cut down.

As I usually do, after watching the episodes, I looked on IMDB to see if I might have seen any of the actors in other programs. I was especially interested in finding out about the actress Inday Ba, since that is an unusual name. I was very surprised and saddened to learn that she had died in 2005 at the age of 32 from complications of lupus. She was born in Sweden, the daughter of a Swedish mother and a Senegalese father. She moved to London to pursue her acting career, but just as it was taking off, she was diagnosed with lupus, while her mother contracted leukemia. The symptoms of lupus can be exacerbated by stress, and having a parent undergoing treatment for cancer is surely extremely stressful. Inday and her mother worked on a documentary about her illness called "The Wolf Inside." She certainly was a beautiful and talented actress, and it's a tragedy that modern medicine wasn't able to save her. Unfortunately, the only thing I knew about lupus was that it was also responsible for the death of author Flannery O'Connor at the age of 39.

Final Verdict for Harm Done: Three Gherkins for being an interesting multi-layered tale with a satisfying ending
Final Verdict for Going Wrong: Two Gherkins for Going Wrong too long!