Thursday, September 26, 2013

How to get your message across

As someone who occasionally has to make presentations, I am always looking for ways to be a more effective communicator.  In the new book Secrets of Dynamic Communication by Ken Davis, the founder of Dynamic Communications International, a blueprint of speech preparation is presented that is designed to not only take away the anxiety of giving a speech, but to also help the presenter become much more effective in presenting his or her message.

Many people dread presentations, and the author points out the familiar statistic that public speaking is second only to death in the greatest fears that people confront.  I liked Mr. Davis' "get over yourself!" advice that the speech isn't about you (the speaker).  The anxiety most speakers face is due to the overwhelming desire to get the audience to like them.  This is where the problem arises:  the point of any presentation isn't to make the audience like you, but rather to impart some information that's going to help or persuade the audience members.  If only we could remember that once piece of advice, I think it would take a lot of the pressure off!

Then Mr. Davis gives concrete suggestions for how to construct your presentation. His main advice: have only one objective for your speech.  Many speakers try to cram in too much into one presentation, include too much irrelevant information, and don't have a clear focus.  The result is that, in one example he cites, 70% of people polled after leaving a presentation had no idea what the speaker had been trying to communicate.

Using the SCORRE method to construct a speech will ensure that your ideas are all geared toward communicating your one objective.  SCORRE stands for Subject, Central Theme, Objective, Rationale, Resources, Evaluation.  I really liked that a section of the book was devoted to each of these areas, and concrete examples were given.  There was also good advice on how to involve the audience, the use of body language, and how to incorporate humor into your presentation.  I think any potential speaker would benefit from the lessons and advice in this book, both in terms of preparing a presentation, and getting over some of the nerves that accompany public speaking.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Secrets of Dynamic Communication from the BookSneeze program in exchange for this review.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Life is a mystery that takes us by surprise

One of the most famous novels of all time comes to life in the stunning adaptation of War and Peace.  This four part miniseries, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy, was filmed in 2007 and stars   as the somewhat spoiled Natasha Rostova, and  as the army officer Prince Andrej Bolkonsky.  The program has been broadcast in Belgium and France, but made its US debut on "Best of British TV" streaming online from Acorn TV in July of this year.  The DVD is available on Sept. 24.

The story begins with preparations for a big party in celebration of Natasha Rostova's name day.  The Rostova family has three children, including boys Nikolaj (who is anxious to go off to war) and young Petja, who idolizes Nikolaj.  During the party, Natasha sees (and instantly falls in love with) Prince Andrej.  Andrej is married, but his not happy with his pregnant wife Lise, and tells anyone who will listen about how he's "trapped" in his marriage.  A Rostova family friend, Pierre, arrives from Paris before the party begins.  Pierre has spent most of his recent time carousing with his dissolute friends.  Although illegitimate, Pierre arrives at his dying father's bedside just in time to be named heir to the estate and to inherit the title Count Bezukhov.  The financial advisor Kuragin, who had been expecting to take over the estate, fumes, but luckily, he has a pretty daughter, Helene.  Helene didn't have much time for Pierre before he became wealthy, but she finds him much more interesting after the death of his father (isn't that always the way?).

While Natasha is entertaining her guests by playing the piano at the party, a messenger rushes in with the news that Czar Alexander has decided to join the Austrian Emperor in declaring war on France.  Napoleon has been marching his vast army toward the east, and the Russian men are all thrilled at the chance to join the battle.  Before going off to war, Prince Andrej leaves his wife Lise at his family estate.  Andrej's father, played by Malcolm McDowell, is a horrible person -- mean, gruff, opinionated, socially inept, and disrespectful toward his children.  He makes sure that Andrej knows it doesn't matter if he's killed in the war -- so long as he doesn't bring shame on the family.

After Czar Alexander and Napoleon declare a truce, Andrej returns home.  His wife has died and that leaves him free to become engaged to Natasha (funny, since before he was eager to leave the prison of marriage behind!).  His father once again shows his controlling nature by demanding that Andrej wait a year to be married.  Things are heating up on the Polish border, and he has volunteered Andrej to go and advise the army there.  Natasha is unhappy, but declares she will wait the year for her true love.

Pierre has married the scheming Helene, although the marriage is not happy.  He wants to spend his time visiting the serfs on his vast estates and helping them to have better living conditions.  Helene's life is a series of parties and social events, and her shameless behavior leads the normally docile Pierre into a duel.  Natasha visits Helene and criticizes her for not doing more to stop the duel.  Meanwhile, Helene's brother, the slimy Anatole, has been forced to marry a peasant girl by Andrej, his superior officer.  Because of this, both Helene and Anatole have reasons to want to see the relationship between Natasha and Andrej destroyed.  Events at the front have kept Andrej away for more than the original year, and Natasha begins to despair that they will ever get married.  This makes her an easy target for the handsome, but unscrupulous, Anatole.

Eventually, the peace is once again broken and the French invade Russia and begin their march toward Moscow. The wily Russian General Kutuzov knows his men are out numbered, so instead of engaging the French in battle, he has them constantly retreat and burn anything that might aid the French.  He knows that as the French are drawn further into Russia, without adequate supplies, the will of the French to fight will be greatly reduced.  His attitude enrages the Czar and most of the soldiers, but he has no will to see his army massacred.  As the French advance, terrified citizens flee from Moscow.  For some reason I never really understood, Pierre demands to be taken to the front to see the war firsthand.  Of course he's something of a spectacle in his dapper clothes amongst all the chaos and misery.  He is on hand when Andrej is wounded in battle, and so agrees to help Andrej get back to Moscow and Natasha.

The story continues with fortunes lost, old loves betrayed, new loves met and unpleasant people getting their comeuppance.  Napoleon is sent back to France, never having achieved his dream of "bringing culture and civilization" to Russia.  Oh well.

I had never read the novel before, but I did have the impression that it was filled with so many characters it was hard to keep up with everyone.  The film wasn't quite that bad, although the extra feature "War & Peace by the Numbers" does state that there were 15,000 extras used in the filming.  There were an awful lot of troops seen marching on both sides!  The extras also mention that the beautiful interior shots were filmed at the Russian imperial palaces of Peterhof and Pushkin in St. Petersburg.

I must admit, I had a hard time with all the Princes, Princesses, and Countesses.  It was a bit strange that Andrej's father made such a fuss about Natasha being from a low-class family, when she was a Countess!  Of course, he wouldn't have been happy with anyone, but surely the Rostovas weren't much lower on the social scale? All the houses looked quite splendid, everyone had servants, and they were forever packing up and moving back and forth between country and city houses. It was all a bit confusing and hard to figure out the pecking order.

Overall, the settings were beautiful and all the battle scenes were impressive. I thought the historical information was presented in an interesting manner, and I really enjoyed the Russian General Kutuzov, who was able to win the war by retreating.  A brilliant military strategist, for sure!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of War and Peace from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for War and Peace: Four Gherkins, for being a spectacular look at a classic novel coming to life

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Though cowards flinch and traitors fear

The war may be over, but former DCS Christopher Foyle's talents are still required.  He's retired from the police force, but British Intelligence convinces him to work for them in Foyle's War, Set 7.  Michael Kitchen is back playing the investigator and Honeysuckle Weeks is back as his assistant Sam.

The new series of Foyle's War will be premiering on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS on Sept. 15.  Viewers can also stream the new episodes immediately after they're shown on PBS, as well as all 22 previous episodes from Acorn TV.  Sign up at Acorn TV now and get your free month of access so you can get caught up on all of the back stories from DCS Foyle!

In the first of 3 episodes in Set 7, The Eternity Ring, poor Foyle is basically ambushed as he arrives back in England from an extended trip to America.  A figure commands him to follow him to security headquarters.  Once there, Foyle is informed that his former assistant, Sam Wainwright, has been seen passing information to a known Soviet spy.  As proof, they offer a photo which seems to show Sam handing an envelope to the man.  The recently married Sam is now working as a secretary for a nuclear scientist and his wife, Professor and Mrs. Fraser.  A worker at the Soviet embassy has recently defected, and some papers he was able to smuggle out seem to indicate the existence of a previously unknown spy ring, known as the Eternity Ring.  The MI5 agents pressure Foyle into investigating both Sam and the Eternity Ring in an effort to keep their Soviet counterparts in check. 
Meanwhile, Sam's new husband Adam is in the running for a vacant seat as an MP for the Labour party.  In a parallel story, a former police offer who had worked with Foyle, Frank Shaw, also returns to England after being held prisoner by the Japanese during the war.  Frank, as was the case with most returning soldiers after the war, discovers that society has changed and he no longer knows where he fits in.  His family has learned to get along without him, his former house has been destroyed, and when he attempts to get a job again with the police force, he is told in no uncertain terms that the police force has no need for former army officers in its ranks.  Feeling frustrated, Frank lashes out at a totally innocent person.  Foyle, of course, in his calm and patient manner, is able to solve the mystery of the Eternity Ring, although in the process, he manages to get Sam fired from her job.  Luckily, when he's pressed to continue working for the Intelligence Service, he's able to demand that Sam also be hired as his driver again.

The second episode, The Cage, Foyle is called to investigate when a seriously injured man, apparently Russian, shows up at a hospital and dies soon afterwards.  The Russian's last words were "ten eye." The next morning, the doctor who treated him dies, too, apparently of a suicide.  Foyle's investigations take him to Barton Hall, a highly guarded estate in the country.  Foyle is given a restricted tour of the place, but feels there's something not right about what's going on there.  Meanwhile, election day is coming up and Sam's husband Adam is out knocking on doors.  He comes across a distraught woman, whose daughter Evelyn Greene has disappeared.  The police aren't doing anything to find her, so Sam asks Foyle to investigate this as well.  Officially, Foyle is now working to recruit new agents into MI5, so he identifies ones who are rejected, but just might be of use to him in some undercover operations.

The final episode, Sunflower, concerns the use of former Nazis by British Intelligence.  A "Professor Van Haaren" is actually a high-ranking Nazi officer named Karl Strasser.  He has been given a new identity as an art professor and put into a safe house by the Intelligence Service, which values his expertise on Soviet spy networks.  Recently, Strasser feels that someone is following him, and he's worried for his safety.  Foyle is assigned to investigate the threat.  During his investigations, he discovers that Strasser, much to his claims to the contrary, didn't actually spend his war years behind a desk, but was a participant in the killing of British and American prisoners known as the Sunflower Massacre.  The US Intelligence agents are anxious to have Strasser turned over to them in order to try him on war crimes charges, but the British don't want to lose such a valuable "asset."  Sam's husband Adam
is approached by a man who was forced to sell his farm to the government during the war.  He was told he could buy the land back at "current market value" after the war.  The land was recently re-appraised, and somehow managed to double in value during the war.  Adam investigates what's going on, and Sam helps out by using all the tools at her hands as an insider at the intelligence service.  Both Adam, as an MP, and Foyle, working for the Intelligence Service, are confronted by a variety of lies, crimes and even murders committed by agents of the government all in the name of the "greater good."  Lots of disillusioned idealists by the end of this episode! I was surprised to see a nearly unrecognizable Tamzin Outhwaite as the landlady, Mrs. Stevens!

There are many interesting extras included with this set.  The first disc contains a handy short re-cap
of what occurred over the course of the first 6 seasons of the series.  Each disc also contains an introduction by the series creator and writer Anthony Horowitz.  It's very interesting to hear how he was able to incorporate the issues facing people in Britain after the war (food rationing, housing shortages, problems soldiers encountered on returning home, etc.) into the series.  The final disc also contains 4 behind-the-scenes features, covering everything from the origins of the series to the style of the characters to a background on the Sunflower Massacre.  There is also a photo gallery from the series.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Foyle's War: Series 7 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Foyle's War: Series 7:   Four Gherkins, for being the welcome return of a beloved investigator

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Are you moving, or are you staying?

I have long been a fan of the "Shopaholic" series by Sophie Kinsella, so I'm always thrilled to find any other books she may have written.  A Desirable Residence was originally published in 1996 under her real name of Madeleine Wickham.  This story is interesting and engaging, and deals with much more serious topics than Becky Bloomwood's maxed out credit cards!

Perhaps seeing the coming housing crisis, the author has her main characters, Liz and Jonathan Chambers, stressed out by mortgage payments.  In their case, however, it is because they are paying on two mortgages at the same time.  They were both working as teachers and living with their teen aged daughter Alice in the family home. Then the opportunity arose for them to buy Silchester Tutorial College, and Liz (the much more decisive of the pair) decided that it would be a good move for them professionally.  It involved moving across town, and they thought there would be no problem in selling their current house.  However, months have gone by and there's been no interest in their old house.  The young real estate agent is even suggesting they drop the price so low that it won't even bring in enough to cover the existing mortgage.  Liz thinks her prayers have been answered when an older, more assured agent, Marcus Witherstone, takes an interest in the property and suggests an alternative:  perhaps the Chambers should rent out the house for a while to at least have some cash coming in.  Luckily, he knows some prospective tenants:  Ginny Prentice and her actor husband Piers.

Marcus, married to the beautiful but high-strung Anthea, is engaged in some shady real-estate dealings, and looking for a distraction.  Liz, stressed out about money and wondering if buying the college was a mistake, is also eager to forget about her problems for a while.  It's not surprising when the two of them begin an affair.

Meanwhile, Alice is having a rough time of things.  She doesn't understand why her parents have made her leave their lovely old home for a poky flat at the tutorial college.  Her best (and really only) friend Genevieve has moved away, and she's feeling extremely lonely and isolated.  So much so that she often sneaks back to her old house and hides out in the garage, smoking.

When Ginny and Piers move in to the old Chambers house (accompanied by frequent house guest Duncan), it's not long before they discover the stowaway Alice in the garage.  Far from being angry, they are friendly and welcoming to the lonely girl.  Unfortunately, Alice takes their openness as an invitation, and starts spending more and more time with them, unbeknownst to her parents (who are pretty taken up with their own problems anyway).  Piers, who hasn't had an acting job for a while, is being considered for a part and this is the main concern for him and Ginny.

So all of these people go about in their own little bubbles, until invariably, they all collide in unexpected and disruptive ways.  I really, really didn't like the self-absorbed and flighty Liz.  She had no problem in uprooting her family (seemingly on a whim) to buy the college, and then left the great majority of the work to her husband.  I found it hard to believe that the young couple, Ginny and Piers, had no problem with Alice showing up on their doorstep pretty much any time they were home.  But, for the most part, it was really fun to try to figure out where this train-wreck was headed!  Because with so many secrets going around, some dirty linen was going to get aired in public before it was over!

I really enjoyed the book, and the story really held my interest.  I'm looking forward to reading more of the "Wickham" books while I wait for the next installment of the Shopaholic series.

Final Verdict for A Desirable Residence Four Gherkins, for being an inside look at several dysfunctional families whose lives intersect in unforeseen ways

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

If I may permit myself the vulgarity

You know how it is.  You just want to be left alone to spend some time with your beloved prize pig, but what with the various demands of running an estate, things never seem to work out.  That's the situation Clarence Emsworth, the owner of Blandings Castle, finds himself in during the mad-cap escapades of The Blandings.  This series, based on the stories of P.G. Wodehouse, stars Timothy Spall as the pig-loving aristocrat and Jennifer Saunders as his sister Connie.  In addition, Clarence's perpetually broke son Freddie Threepwood and the long-suffering butler Beach add comic touches to the wacky household.

Episode One begins with only two weeks until the Fat Pig contest, and wouldn't you know it, the pigman Wellbeloved gets sentenced to spend a few weeks in jail for public drunkenness.  It turns out the magistrate who sentenced him isn't exactly impartial, as he also has a chubby pig entered in the contest.  The poor Empress, Lord Emsworth's pig (who has won the competition 2 years in a row), is pining for her pigman and just won't eat for anyone else.  Luckily, the Lord's flighty niece, Angela, has taken up with a cowboy newly returned from America (much to her mother's dismay), and he knows a secret trick for communicating with pigs.

Connie, Lord Emsworth's sister, has had enough of the slack ways at the castle and decides it's time to straighten things out in Episode Two.  She does this by hiring a secretary named Baxter, played by David Walliams (at his smarmy best).  There's not much time to get everything sorted out, because Connie's old friend Veronica Schoonmaker and her millionaire husband (and five dogs) are on the way for a visit.  Freddie, Lord Emsworth's son, sees an opportunity to make money, and quickly orders several tons of dog biscuits that he hopes he can convince the wealthy visitors to buy.

The Blandings Fete is coming up in Episode Three, and Lord Emsworth is definitely NOT looking forward to making a speech to the assembled guests, no matter how much Connie insists that it's his duty to do so.  A visit from two London Fresh Air Children, sent from the dingy capital to enjoy some unspoiled countryside, soon adds more chaos to the house.  A nearly unintelligible, but perpetually irate, Scottish gardener is also a thorn in Clarence's side, with his plan to install a gravel path on some perfectly harmless mossy ground.

Episode Four finds Clarence with a full house again.  Freddie has brought home his new "wife" in the form of Portuguese dancer Paquita, but he tries to keep their relationship a secret from his aunt Connie.  Cousin Gertrude is staying, but she's pining for her unsuitable boyfriend, the accident-prone Rev. Bingham, who also comes for a visit under an assumed name.  With a society ball on the horizon, Connie has thoughtfully arranged a German dancing master, Herr Schnellhund, to give Lord Emsworth some lessons.  With all those comings and goings, who is responsible for the missing silver?

Just when he thought he was home free, Clarence is dismayed when Connie re-hires the dreadful Baxter to resume his secretarial duties in Episode Five.  It seems that Clarence has misplaced a very important letter from their sister Julia, and an exasperated Connie needs an expert to sort out the mess in the study and find the missing letter.  Meanwhile, Freddie is in hot water yet again, and brings the sister of the man he owes money to home with him to fetch the cash.  She, inexplicably, takes a liking to the butler Beach.  In the meantime, Clarence's grandson George tries to find live targets for his shooting practice.

Connie is thrilled when the widowed Lady Littlewood comes with her son for a visit in Episode Six, but it soon becomes apparent that she is looking to become the new lady of Blandings Castle.  Freddie swears off women, until he catches a glimpse of the gorgeous new "pigman," Monica Simmons.  It will take the combined efforts of Beach, Connie and Freddie to expose the devious Lady Littlewood's plans before she takes over and throws them all out.

The characters are all very likable and the situations are amusing, but of course the main attraction of this series is the witty dialogue by P.G. Wodehouse.  Some of my favorite quotes:

"This is no time to be slacking in custody." (concerning the jailed pigman)

The poorly pig, the Empress, is "flapping her palsied trotters."

"He's so crooked he could hide behind a spiral staircase."

"Apparently, he suffers from being an American."

"I shall eviscerate you with a small, blunt spoon ill-adapted for the purpose."

"The posteriors of the goddess have been ravaged!"

"Her non will be plussed off the scale!"

"It bloats the bowel and dulls the mind."

"You look like an ostrich goggling a brass doorknob."

"I suggest you disembarrass yourself of the table nappery."

"I did not creep.  I manifested silently."

"Would you excuse me?  I have to blackmail my father."

"That is just noise leaking out of your face."

"My brother has never been with us, but somehow his physical presence endures."

"Do you bash the shuttlecock from the feathered end?"

I really enjoyed all the performances and the beautiful country scenery in the series.  And we can only hope that the regal Empress will get her own spin-off show!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Blandings: Series 1 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for The Blandings: Series 1:   Five Gherkins, for being a very funny and light-hearted look at what really goes on inside a stately home

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Making lemonade out of lemons

Overcoming rejection isn’t easy.  Although we all face it at one time or another, our reactions to it can range from crippling insecurity and overprotectiveness to a “leave him/her before I’m left” approach to relationships.  The author Tracey Mitchell, in the book Downside Up, attempts to show how rejection can actually be a positive influence on a person’s life, by weeding out the negative people and situations and allowing for a much more confident individual to thrive.  There are plenty of ways to be rejected, and the author gives many stories, both from her own life and those of others, to illustrate this.  She herself grew up without a father, and this led to some abandonment issues in her own life.  She also points out numerous examples of self-fulfilling prophecies – people who fear rejection will often attract only people guaranteed to reject them.  There are many ways to begin to turn all of this negativity around.  The main thing the author stresses is to really work on making sure your internal dialogue is filled with only positive, encouraging messages.  When you are talking inside your own head, there’s no one to tell you if your attitudes and perceptions are incorrect.  She also encourages a lot of list-making of positive attributes and affirmations, and keeping those handy for times of stress or self-doubt.  She frequently gives Biblical references to support her ideas.  Each chapter ends with a list of 10 chapter principles which summarize her advice, along with Words of Wisdom, a Power Quote and a Plan of Action.  I liked her upbeat, positive advice, and the practical suggestions she gives in her Plans of Action for creating a more confident attitude.  Of course, as with most self-help books, it’s all situational, and her advice wouldn’t be useful in all situations. On the whole, I found plenty of good ideas and ways to help overcome negativity and pessimism, and I’ll try to keep them in mind if the “gloomies” come for a visit!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Downside Up from the BookSneeze program in exchange for this review