Monday, June 29, 2009

Book Review - Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Published by: Picador
Publication Date: 2007
Format: Paperback, 120 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

The Uncommon Reader
is a short novella by Alan Bennett, the distinguished playwright and former member of Beyond the Fringe. This is a bittersweet tale of finding something you love too late and having the constant drive to catch up. The feeling of all those lost opportunities and not willing to waste a single moment. The book is built around the premise of what would happen should the Queen wander into a mobile library to apologize for the ruckus her dogs are causing and then feels obliged to take a book out on loan. Her first book is a disastrous choice and the story would have ended there had she not picked up Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford on her second visit. A book she picks up because "novels seldom came as well-connected as this and the Queen felt correspondingly reassured." She becomes so engrossed in the book that she even plays sick to finish it. That second book becomes the jumping off point where she becomes a biblomanic in the extreme, promoting the kitchen boy Norman to be her amanuensis (her "enabler" as it were). One book leads to another which leads to another, all with the feeling that she has left things too late...all the books she won't have time to read, all the authors she has met who she had nothing to say to then. Her work doesn't significantly suffer outwardly, but her keepers begin to worry that she is going batty and attempt to curtail her reading at every opportunity, from claiming they thought a book was a suspicious device (they blew it up) to having packages go missing in transit and her Norman being sent off to the University of East Anglia to get an English degree.

The humor and language are wondrous and full of dry wit. The Queen while reading books discovers that while she is meant to appear human she has never truly been human, being set apart. The books she reads make her understand human nature all the more. But as she learns of the humanity all around her you become connected to the humanity she posses and wish for one second that this glimpse into the Queen and her life were not fiction. You also come away with a desire to read more and more and all the books she talks about you want to have read as well so you could be more included in the jokes. But in the end the Queen comes to realize that reading is a more passive activity, that while it helps you find your life you are still an observer, and she is a doer. Her desire to write then ensues, and I will not tell you the ending because it is abrupt and 100% supremely perfect.

I think every anglophile and biblomanic should pick up this book for a wonderful quick read that was written to coincide with the Queen's 80th birthday. Also pay attention closely to all Alan Bennett's little word plays and subtle distinctions in grammar, when the Queen goes from speaking of herself as "One" to "I" you know something is afoot. One also starts to wonder if the Queen herself has read it. And as a final note, I just love that Alan Bennett used a bit of his old friend and fellow Fringer, Peter Cook's miner sketch about Proust dipping his biscuit in his tea and having all his memories come flooding back to him in the book (make sure you adapt a suitably silly accent with proper slurs when you say this). Or as Bennett stated in the book: "The curious thing about [Proust] was that when he dipped his cake in his tea (disgusting habit) the whole of his past life came back to him. Well, I tried it and it had no effect on me at all."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lark Rise to Candleford - Book Versus Series

Spring of 2008 I got hooked on the new BBC series Lark Rise to Candleford. I just could not get enough of the sweet little series set in Oxfordshire where nothing every really went wrong and life was calm and peaceful, but with a dash of humor, especially from Dawn French. After the first series ended I found myself suffering severe Lark Rise withdrawal, how was I going to last till Christmas!?! I decided to take the logical step and read all the books the series is based on, Lark Rise, Over to Candleford and Candleford Green, thankfully all contained in the volume I was able to get my hands on! But the first two books were not exactly as I expected them to be. They had the sweet rural charm of the series but then after a lovely description the author would take all the loveliness away with some backhanded remark. Twister, that sweet old man who all the children loved years later would kill cats for pleasure. Mr. Timmins always dreamed of getting out of the hamlet and leading a better life for his family, 40 years later he died still in the end house in the hamlet. I thought how could this be what my lovely series was based on? The books had a dark ominous air that these "future echoes" imparted. I put down the book and would only read a little at a time because that is all I could take. I finally finished it and I actually am glad I did, and not because it was over, but because the third book was actually the series I knew and loved. All the characters were finally there and all the horribleness of the future was left unsaid.

Flora Thompson wrote these books as an autobiography, only changing her name from Flora Timms to Laura Timmins. They were based on her growing up in rural Oxfordshire and then going on to work in the Post Office. The television series starts with Laura going off to the Post Office to start work, and that is where Candleford Green starts. By her third and so far best book she has done away with the ominous storm clouds of progress and sticks mainly in the then and now. We see the day to day life of a bustling town, not quite a city but not a hamlet. All the wonderful characters from the series are present, from the Pratt sisters who do dress work to Dorcas Lane and Zillah. This book is what I expected of the previous two! The sweet country reminiscences of Laura being in between two worlds.

If you have not yet watched this show I urge you to watch it immediately (it has been airing on PBS and will be out on DVD October 10th). Likewise if you have watched the series and are in desperate need of some more adventures of these lovable characters before season two airs in the US or season three in the UK, I suggest reading Candleford Green. I am also excited for the follow up to Candleford Green, Heatherley about Laura's first job as head of a Post Office in Grayshott, I'm not endorsing this yet though, I have yet to read it and it might be just as sad and depressing as the first two.

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 1945
Format: Paperback, 537 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Summer Part 2: The Miniseries

Unlike most people I think of summer as the time of the miniseries. Most people associate them with cold winter nights in January and February, in other words, when Masterpiece no-longer-Theater airs their classic line-up, but not me. Most likely this is to do with the fact that the first time I watched Andrew Davies' Pride and Prejudice it was mid-July 1996. Unlike everyone else I know who watched it back in February of that year I was too busy finishing up senior year of high school. Soon after finally getting my diploma (held until I returned my cap and gown) I started a crash course in Jane Austen. After all 1996 was the perfect year for Austen, Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility was in theaters as well as Gweneth Paltrow's Emma, and of course, Pride and Prejudice. I would read the book, then watch the accompanying adaptation. I watched Pride and Prejudice in one sitting. It was all I asked for for my birthday that year (VHS of course!) But since then I have developed a veritable fount of miniseries knowledge and information, and I will give you the best of the best (which tend to be Andrew Davies centric), but I have also watched the worst of the worst as well, so when I say watch, think of all that I've seen to make it a must watch. Also for my facebook friends I have made an even more extensive list contained in my notes!

First with the Austen adaptations:

Sense and Sensibility
- The 1995 Emma Thompson version, mainly because of Hugh Laurie, but also because Willoughby in the newer version looks like a monkey and the clothes are crappy (which they tried to justify with a documentary on the disc but I'm still crying foul).

Pride and Prejudice - The 1995 Andrew Davies' adaptation staring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle created the modern miniseries. As one reviewer said, "Man goes into lake, man comes out of lake, world changes."

Mansfield Park - The 2007 Billie Piper version, and yes it takes big liberties, but it's still a lot of fun, and the Crawfords are superbly cast. Also I won't talk to you about the Frances O'Connor version, there was not slave trading in Jane Austen's novels, it might be historically correct, but Harold Pinter raping slaves? NO!

Emma - The 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version, because I can't bring myself to like the Kate Beckinsale version due to Mark Strong being a creepy Knightly. Also Alan Cumming is perfect as Mr. E.

Northanger Abbey - The 2007 Andrew Davies' adaptation is possibly his best Austen adaption yet! Who knew it was so funny! Also the inclusion of more of the contemporary Gothic literature from Anne Radcliffe and others is sheer genius.

Persuasion - I like both the 1995 version with Amanda Root and the 2007 version with Sally Hawkins. The Sally Hawkins version is more liberal with the source material, but Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from Buffy) as Sir Walter Elliot is perfect! As is Tobias Menzies as William Elliot.

Thackeray, a nice bridge between Austen and the Brontes:

Vanity Fair - 1998 Andrew Davies' adaptation with Natasha Little is perfect in every way and doesn't miss the point of a "novel without a heroine" like the Reese Witherspoon version.

Now onto the Bronte's, who I really can't hate for hating Jane Austen, everyone can have their own opinion (though Mark Twain seemed to have an unreasonable hatred of Jane):

Jane Eyre - 2006 adaptation with Toby Stephens is the first adaptation I have just loved. Plus filmed at the same castle as The Princess Bride!

The Brontes of Haworth - 1973 docudrama on their lives, totally fascinating, plus a young Michael Kitchen (Foyle of Foyle's War).

Elizabeth Gaskell:

Wives and Daughters - 1999 Andrew Davies' possibly BEST EVER adaptation. Michael Gambon won the BAFTA for this and it's not a surprise in the least. Just perfect.

North and South - 2004 adaptation has slow parts, but the ending is perfect. Made Richard Armitage the next Colin Firth.

Cranford - 2007 adaptation, so sad, be prepared for lots of death.

Dickens, of which I've watched alot and enjoyed, but only one I truly loved:

Little Dorrit - 2008 Andrew Davies' adaptation with a perfect cast, and Gareth from The Office in a bizzare cameo (you have to love Mackenzie Crook!)


The Pallisers - 1974 tv series, a little dated, but still fabulous, and there are rumors Andrew Davies is doing a new adaptation!

Barchester Chronicles - 1982, and if you can get through the slow first episode, some of the funniest acting from Alan Rickman ever!

The Way We Live Now - 2001 Andrew Davies, and it shows that David Suchet can act! (I really had my doubts).

He Knew He Was Right - 2004, perfection by Andrew Davies, Bill Nighy, so funny, but you can't top David Tennant in this production nor a knife weilding Claudie Blakley.

George Eliot:

Middlemarch - 1994 and the start of the Davies Dynasty, which he is ironically re-writing to be shot again!

Daniel Deronda - 2004 Andrew Davies, introduces us to Hugh Dancy and somehow was able to make Hugh Bonneville scary!

Flora Thompson:

Lark Rise to Candleford - 2008, perfection and happiness in a world where nothing goes too badly.

John Galsworthy:

The Forsyte Saga - 2002 and perhaps the best miniseries in existence! You will cry till you feel slightly ill, but it's worth it. Also how Corin Redgrave didn't win a BAFTA is beyond me. Don't miss part two, "To Let" which continues the saga. Also lets hope that now Damian Lewis' tv series Life was cancelled they will finish the series with the final chapter.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Book Review - Shannon Hale's Enna Burning

Enna Burning by Shannon Hale
Published by: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: August 2004
Format: Paperback, 317 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Enna Burning is Shannon Hale's follow up to her successful Goose Girl. While Goose Girl does stand fully on its own, the second installment of the Bayern series delves deeper into the surrounding characters and also the consequences of the first book. As we left our cast of characters, Isi had reclaimed her name, stopped a war, met and was going to marry the man of her dreams and had developed the power to hear and coerce the wind. Since then two years have past and we pick up in the forest with one of her fellow animal watchers and her best friend, Enna, the former chicken girl. Enna has left the palace because her mother was ill and has now died and she is helping her older brother Leifer in the forest. She is also seeing a lot of Finn, the son of the woman who took in Isi when she was escaping Selia's masacre. One day her brother Leifer finds a parchment and he gains the ability to talk to fire. The fire starts to consume him and he lashes out in fits of uncontrollable anger, during one outburst Enna is badly burned. Enna at a loss heads to the castle to talk to Isi because with her wind talking she is the only one who might understand what Leifer is going through. But Enna finds a far changed Isi, the wind is wearing her down, she has no rest or respite and does not look as if she can go on. But everything is forgotten because war breaks out with Tira, the country to the South East. The forest born all head to war and Leifer burns, so big and so bright he saves the day, only he dies in the process. Enna is distraught and she finds the parchment on his corpse and she becomes a fire speaker as well.

Enna resolves to not be like Leifer, she will not loose control, she will stick to three key rules: tell no one, kill no one and never submit to the desire to let it consume her. She secretly starts carrying out night raids on her own and setting fire to the Tiran camps, but she is frustrated that the Bayern aren't hearing about this. After killing a man she asks Razo, fellow forest born and scout, for help to keep the final rule she made for herself. With Razo and eventually Finn's help they are able to better target the Tiran from within their own camps. But when they are almost caught Razo and Finn say that they want to stop but Enna hearing of a gallows being erected in own of the towns heads there on her own and is captured by the trap the Tiran's set to get this "fire-witch". After this Enna is drugged and held in the Tiran camp by the charismatic people speaker Sileph. She is conflicted and falls for Sileph, yet when her country is at stake she breaks free and saves Bayern. Only something breaks inside her when she burns that big and that bright.

Isi decides that her and Enna must travel south to find out about the land where fire witches come from, hoping that these desert monks can teach them balance and save Enna from the fever that is killing her from the fire within. They learn that if they each teach the other their gift they could create balance, by both being fire talkers and wind talkers the fire will keep the wind away while the wind will burn off the heat of the fire. Not only is Enna saved but so is Is. With balance restored they all head back to Bayern with a very pregnant Isi and all is well.

The first time I read this book I did no really like it as much as The Goose Girl, but I have since come around. The book delves deeper into the abilities these characters posses and shows that while something may seem great and wonderful there are cons with the pros. I especially liked how the interaction of the wind and fire flows through the entire book yet it is not until the end that we see they must be combined. Also this book is far more psychologically complex, with Enna being a prisoner of war we see first hand Stockholm Syndrome and see how easy it would be to fall for a charismatic tyrant. The fire is also an interesting difference to the wind in the previous book. Fire is so much more of a consuming force, and the feeling to make what was once dead alive again for a brief instant of flame is compelling. You could really see why a pyromaniac might sympathize with Enna's dilemma of need versus restraint and control.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Fairy Tales Re-interpreted Part 1: Shannon Hale's Goose Girl

I don't think there is a way to tell a truly original story. All stories have been told in some form or other at sometime. The key to a good story is how you tell it, how you make it your own, how you make it original. From Bridget Jones being a retelling of Pride and Prejudice to the simplest bedtime story being rewoven for you. Re-imaginings of preexisting texts and stories happen all the time. But the question remains, who does it best? I love Shannon Hale. Her books are imaginative and always entertaining. What I find fascinating is that several of her books' genesis are fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. But these are definitely not your grandparents fairy tales! She often turns the story on it's head, changing the underlying theme or moral without destroying the basic structure, creating a far richer and more interesting world. Instead of stories of obedient and subservient girls we read about strong willed girls, able to take care of themselves, and not waiting in the tower for some prince, especially in the case of Rapunzel. She believes Fairy Tales are wonderful in that they are stripped down of everything superfluous, and what remains after countless generations is the pure, true essence of storytelling, in other words, the best outline to start with. As Shannon Hale said when I saw her speak in Milwaukee promoting Book of a Thousand Days, she doesn't feel a need to retell her favorite stories, she feels a need to retell those that piss her off. She then went on to say that she was working on a new story based on Rapunzel (Rapunzel's Revenge released last August) mainly because she felt Rapunzel needed a refashioning because of her being helpless in a tower and her wanting to dig up Jacob and Wilhelm to slap them around and demand to know what they were thinking. The Goose Girl is based on the tale of the same name...but what does it really share in common with the original?

As written by the brothers Grimm, old Jacob and Wilhelm, a young princess is sent with her waiting-maid on her talking horse Falada to the next kingdom where she is to wed the prince. The princess is weak and subservient, so the maid in waiting takes advantage of her and assumes her identity, relegating the princess to help with the castle's geese upon arrival to the kingdom where the princess would have one day been queen. The waiting-maid, not being an idiot, has Falada killed so the horse won't talk. The princess spends her time with the geese and Curdken, another servant. Curdken thinks the princess is weird because she talks to Falada's head where it's been mounted outside the city, and also because when he tries to tease her she is able to summon the wind to blow his hat away so she can play with her hair in peace. Obviously Curdken thinks this is weird so her goes to the king, who figures out that the goose girl is the real princess. So the king has a banquet where the waiting-maid and the princess sit on either side of the prince. The king then tells the tale of the princess and asks the false bride what she would do to the imposter. She suggests rolling in a cask with nails till death, so off she goes to her death and they are all happy. The prince especially so because he has the prettier of the two and she is nice and meek and patient.

As written by Shannon Hale we have all the plot elements above, we have the Princess, Ani, going with her maid in waiting, Selia, to the country of Bayern to wed a prince she's never seen. On the way the hired men divide into two factions, those for Ani and those for Selia. Selia's men revolt and kill everyone against Selia. Ani escapes and takes refuge in the very German forest while Selia goes onto the capital of Bayern and claims she is Ani. The true Ani heals with the help of some Forest Born and eventually heads to the palace in disguise to claim what is hers. Once she gets there she realizes the extent of Selia's treachery and for fear of her life goes into hiding taking care of the King's geese till her time comes, and cozying up to the King's guard, Geric. Ani spends her time planning to get her horse, Falada, back and then once she has saved up enough money she will buy her way back home amongst some traders heading to Kildenree. Not all goes to plan, Falada has been driven mad and it breaks her heart when they kill him. She requests that the butcher give Falada a proper burial, to which he sticks his mounted head above the Goose Gate, which sickens Ani to the very core. The rogue Kildenreans finally find Ani and she escapes with her life back to the Forest Born who sheltered her. She then finds her top guard, Talone, is still alive and they form a plan to get Ani the hand of the prince. Because Selia is so clever, she has lied about an impending war between the nations so that anyone who could identify her as an imposter will die. Ani now must save her country, and this prompts her to come out of hiding. She rides to the lakefront estate where the army is massing and gets an audience with the King claiming to be her younger sister. She confesses all and it looks like Selia will win, but Selia gets cocky and overplays her hand and the bad guys all die, and Ani gets to marry Geric, because it turns out he is really the prince.

As interpretations go, the summery above shows the basic structure is intact, and little details like the horse being named Falada, and the manner of Selia's death and other little things here and there are one and the same but fleshed out. But several more supernatural aspects of the original story need to be addressed: Falada talks, Ani does as Selia says, Selia oozes self-confidence and it appears that the princess has the power to control the wind. Shannon Hale chose to quickly address these concerns within the mythology of the world she created. There are ancient legends in Kildenree that speak of people who can talk to animals, and it is said that if you are at the birthing of a foal they are born with their true name on their tongue and speak it only once and if you are present and speak the name back to them, you are forever bonded. Ani did this with Falada, so they can speak (only to each other I might add). But further legends say that not only are there animal speakers, there are people speakers, usually kings and queens who have the ability to sway people to their wills. Ani's mother is a people speaker and uses it justly to rule her kingdom. Unfortunately for Ani, Selia is also a people speaker, and this is Ani's downfall, because Selia is able to talk to people and use her words to weave a spell of her choosing, mainly she should be queen. Even further legends speak of those who could speak to the elements, water, fire and earth, nature speakers. These are the tales that truly fascinate Ani. In her grief over Falada she strains to hear him speak her final word to her "Princess" and instead she hears another voice, the voice of the wind. She slowly realizes she can persuade it and learn from it, using it to help escape and finally defeat Selia. By creating this mythology Shannon Hale has made something that was weird and implausible, plausible within the realm of her book. And Ani is weak at the beginning because she has never had to do anything for herself, she has never had to stand up for anything or anyone, by striking out on her own she becomes the woman who can stand up to Selia and is worthy of being Queen. A worthy re-interpretation, a goose girl becomes queen by her own hand not because she is weak and will do as she's told but because she is strong willed and will rule justly.

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
Published by: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: August 2003
Format: Hardcover, 383 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Your Favorite Books Brought to Life - BBC Minseries News

A new Emma Woodhouse is on the way in the guise of Romola Garai (from the exquisite Daniel Deronda). The new 4 part series will air in England sometime this fall, so it should be stateside by next Spring. The cast also includes Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse, Christina Cole (most known stateside for Hex) and Johnny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightly. Lets hope Mr. Miller's return to Austen is NOTHING like the abysmal Mansfield Park he stared in. But there are high hopes, it is being adapted by the production team that is responsible for the most recent Jane Eyre dramatization.

Get set to return to Cranford! Set for this Christmas the two part holiday episode has the whole cast returning (well those still alive by the end of the series), as well as Septimus, who will finally appear (can you image Lady Ludlow's joy!?!) Jonathan Pryce and Celia Imrie have also joined the cast. To view the official BBC Press release go here.

Book Review - Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
Published by: HarperTeen
Publication Date: June 2007
Format: Hardcover, 328 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

This book is the first in the Wicked Lovely Series by Melissa Marr. I have to say, I'm really undecided about this series, I just started it and I really want to like the series but everything ended up too nice and neat at the end for my taste. The book revolves around Aislinn, a young women still at Catholic school who can see fairies, and not nice Tinker Bell happy fairies but evil degenerate fairies. She was raised by her grandmother who also has the gift, some might say curse. Her grandmother has strict rules and behaviour protocalls that Aislinn must adhere to, they all boil down to don't let the fairies know you know and keep your head down. But what's a girl to do when a fairy starts stalking her? She can only hide out at "best friend" Seth's abandoned train car for so long till she has to face the truth, she's loosing her mortality because of something stalker fairy boy did.

Now stalker fairy boy turns out to be Keenan, the Summer King who has had his powers bound by his mother, Beira, the Winter Queen (think Brea on Desperate Housewives, she has to have been the inspiration) and the world is getting colder and colder because of this. Now the King and Queen have a little wager, the cost, the women who Keenan falls in love with who aren't the Summer Queen, they either get turned into fairy nymphos or get turned into the Winter Girl, who suffers with cold to her very bones and being unable to be with Keenan. Anyway, Keenan thinks Aislinn is the Summer Queen, and of course she is and this accounts for her mortality leaving her, and there's lots of back and forth of destiny versus what the heart of a teenager wants. In the end the wicked witch (Beira) is defeated and Keenan has his Queen in title only, Aislinn's keeping her life as is, Seth included. And we learn the valuable lesson that when everyone is willing to compromise everyone wins, except the witch who must die.

It was ok, I feel cheated that everything ended up well for everyone, all the foreboding and angst, couldn't we get one person dead in the crossfire who didn't deserve it? I do like very bad fairies though. The concept that they aren't nice and sweet is appealing to me, I think that Terry Pratchett did it best in Lords and Ladies, likewise the episode of Torchwood "Small Worlds." The problem here is that while they are evil fairies, once Aislinn starts changing, she seems to think they aren't that bad, basically she ends up wearing fairy enhanced rose-tinted glasses...Also enough with boys who can glow already!
Final verdict...must read more to decide, this series could go either way, but start throwing in some real problems and some casualties, and we might have a good thing going.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On Mourning

Today marks the day I've been away from my cat the longest, and in true macabre Charles Addams fashion, I thought I'd do a little something about the history of mourning. A few years ago I was in New York around the time of Halloween. I had always wanted to go to the Merchant House Museum, and yes, mainly to pretend I was in Upstairs Downstairs, seeing as the house still stands as it was back in the 19th century. But what was fortuitous was that for Halloween the house had an exhibit up on the traditions surrounding mourning in Victorian society. Because of Queen Victoria being in mourning for 40 years the Victorians developed some truly fascinating customs surrounding death, from proper behavior for women and men to clothing and even to bee keeping.

The behaviors that the bereaved were expected to participate in were delineated by your sex. Men only had to be in mourning a short amount of time, literally weeks with just a black crepe armband, so that they go off and marry again so their children wouldn't be motherless and they wouldn't be lonely. Whereas women were expected to be in mourning for two years! The first year and a day, they were in "full mourning" where you weren't allowed to mix in society and wore only black without ornamentation, the next nine months, called "second mourning," you were allowed some jewelry. The final three months you were in "half mourning" and could switch up your clothing with a little lavender and go round to your friends house and a few gatherings deemed socially appropriate. Of course this two years in mourning lead to a great demand for nice and fashionable widow's weeds, because if you are bereaved, at least look good. Also some women, like Victoria, chose to stay in mourning the rest of their lives, and what's the point of that if your clothes are hideous.

"Telling the Bees" is a tradition that is still practiced by some bee keeper's today. You had to tell your bees of the death immediately upon the passing of a family member. Sometimes there were elaborate bells you chimed as you walked out to the hives, but the important thing was that you went to them and whispered the name of the dead to them, and then tied a piece of black ribbon around the hive. If you did not do this the bees would swarm and leave. Also, oddly enough, this has been documented to happen.

Other random, bizarre and disturbing facts of the day:

There were professional mourners, those provided by the undertaker to stand about and add an air of dignity. I believe Monty Python parodied this quite well.

If you were a suicide you were to be buried at a cross roads with a stake through your heart, to stop your ghost from wondering, but smacks of vampirism to me.

Who people were depended on length of mourning, sister, brother or child. You had to mourn children the least, probably due to infant mortality of the day, because then you might be in constant mourning.

People had a great fear of being buried alive, due in fact to several real incidences. In supposedly comes the inventor Bateson. Bateson is said to have invented a belfry, that was a small bell on the top of a coffin which had a rope attached to the deceased hand, so if you were in fact still alive, just go a ring it and up you come. There is a funny scene in the movie The Great Train Robbery dealing with this.

Corpses for medical research did not legally exist at this time and the "Resurrection Men" came in to fill the void. For two guineas a cadaver of a recently deceased person could be "obtained". If you were caught exhuming a body the punishment was seven years transportation. But if the other person on your person didn't have any clothes on you were usually let off because they didn't think you'd dug them up or were apparently smart enough to just leave the clothes behind. The movie The Doctor and the Devils written by Dylan Thomas deals with this.

Oh and lets not forget photography of the day! People rarely had money to spend on pictures, so when a loved one died, they usually spent money on a picture to remember them by. So yes, those are dead people in the pictures with your ancestors. Occasionally called Post Mortum Photographs.

For more interesting information of this time period, check out the book What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist - The Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England by Daniel Pool

Friday, June 12, 2009

Time to Vamp It Up!

In honor of the return of HBO's True Blood this Sunday I thought it was time to pay a little respect to the show and the author behind this newest vampire obsession, Charlaine Harris. True Blood, the show about a telepathic barmaid in Northern Louisiana and her run-ins with the supernatural world became a cult hit for HBO when it first aired last year. But this show and the success that it has given a house mom in Arkansas has been a long time in coming. Charlaine Harris has been writing since 1981, but while a great writer she did not start to receive any undue attention until 2001 when she introduced Sookie Stackhouse in the book Dead Until Dark. But even her Southern Vampire series took awhile to firmly establish itself, not even being released in hardcover till book four in 2004, a sign that the publisher has higher hopes for it. Personally I believe that with the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2003 and then the end of Angel in 2004 the world needed a new Vampire outlet, and here was Sookie Stackhouse. Her books went from being USA Today Bestselling Author to New York Times Bestselling Author, till finally last month, Dead and Gone debuted in the coveted number one slot on the New York Times Bestsellers List, which I am sure is due to the show and the increased exposure of this great quirky little series.

I first picked up the books in 2004 and I was instantly hooked. The books narrated by Sookie have created a very interesting and believable supernatural world co-existing with ours. A world where vampires no longer hide their existence because synthetic Japanese blood has made it possible to sustain their "lives" without taking lives. Sookie is an interesting first person narrator in the fact that she is able to read others' minds, so we hear all that Sookie hears and feel all the Sookie feels. The ninth book in the series came out last month, and Sookie has lost a little of her pep (characterwise, not series wise, the series keeps getting better and better). She has been through a lot, seen a lot of death and lived through many a trauma and many fights with Weres, Shifters, Vamps, Fairies and Humans. I think also that's what makes Sookie so interesting, while she does have a paranormal power she is a flawed human thrown in amongst the chaos. The series also shows us that sometimes it's the humans who inflict the worst pain on each other, from Rene in Dead Until Dark to Arelene in Dead and Gone. The books have a great wicked wit and show a bit of the humor among the horror of life.

Now onto the show. Back in the Fall of 2006 Charlaine Harris did a book signing at Booked for Murder here in Madison, and even that far back she had seen the script for True Blood and had met with Alan Ball, of Six Feet Under fame. So her time to be in the spotlight was already approaching. The show premiered last fall, and I have to say, I hated it the first time I watched it. The first series is loosely based on the first book, Dead Until Dark, and it was this flexibility with my beloved books that annoyed me. Jason and Lafayette were dead right, but everyone else acted or was entirely different to what I expected, especially Tara. I found the show overly dramatic and criticized Ball for doing a vampire show while openly admitting to never having watched any other vampire dramatizations, even Buffy! So I didn't watch the show after the pilot, wasn't planning on watching the show, yet everyone else I knew was, and that's how I gave it a second chance. I kept repeating to myself to remember that I love the book The Princess Bride just as much as I love the movie, though they are nothing alike, and if I can divorce the two I can enjoy it. And enjoy it I did. The show for the sake of television has to be more of an ensemble piece then the first person narration of the books. Also the character of Tara, while nothing like the books, is totally fascinating and interesting in her own way. I like to view it as someone in the Sookie Stackhouse discussion group I belong to on goodreads said: The show is basically what would happen if Sookie sold the rights to her story. The show is not how I view the books, but it's quality entertainment.

So go check out season one now on DVD, season two starts Sunday, and there are nine wonderful books and many short stories out there for you to devour. Be warned, the show appears to be following the overall story arches of the books relatively closely, so if you don't want to be spoiled as to what's happening in the show, maybe don't read them just yet.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

That Devastating Air of Attractive Mystery - Gene Hunt

So last night season two of Ashes to Ashes came to a close. Thankfully this is not the last we will see of Gene Hunt (and if you read my previous post, you'll know of my love for this man), as Ashes to Ashes will be back for a third season, even if just a short miniseries or special if they don't get the full 8 episode pickup, like they are doing with Torchwood. The Gene Genie WILL return! This season felt more up and down than last season to me. The through line of stopping police corruption just didn't seem as interesting as Alex trying to solve her parents murder in season one. But I do have to say Alex was far less annoying dealing with the rose scheme then dealing with her mommy issues. But I had two main problems with this season. One, the chemistry between Gene and Alex, and two, what is really happening to Alex and how will it connect with Sam.

Overall I felt that the chemistry between Gene and Alex was not working this season. Gene and Alex have come to some symbiotic relationship where they need and trust each other, but there isn't a spark! It's like the Moonlighting effect, where the chemistry went right out the window once they hit the sheets, only we didn't get any hitting of the sheets! What happened to the promise we saw when they were trapped in the file room or where Gene muttered he'd dreamed of giving her CPR. The reason this show has worked better than Life on Mars is the fact Gene has an equal who is female, who he has feelings for...only it felt like someone squashed those feelings. You can have attraction and mutual respect and admiration! This seemed more like a "buddy" movie, like they forgot Alex is female and they were writing for Sam again.

Now as to the what is really happening to Alex...I felt there was a lot of biding time till something happened (ie the last two episodes). Alex seemed almost totally aware of what was happening (knowing they got the bullet, etc etc) or totally loopy, like she was forgetting her other life, but they didn't bother to explain this or anything, which was odd. After the knowledge gained last season that Gene Hunt is real in some sense I thought they'd be quicker to establish some link to truly figure out what Alex, Gene and Sam have in common. But they spent most of the time on Project Rose! Thankfully in the last two episodes they brought some closure and some new questions. Project Rose was solved and Alex awoke from her Coma...but what about Gene? It now looks like the table is reversed and Alex is now in a coma in 1982 and Gene needs her back...this could be very interesting. But don't you think they could have done this at the beginning of the season instead of basically having a season of Alex is found and she wakes up? Because the next installment looks like we will get answers, unlike this season of just waiting.

As a final send-off for Gene Hunt, till whenever he will grace our screens again, I give you the best of Gene Hunt:

Episode 1: The Audio Quatro is back in business and hanging around SoHo strip clubs.
Episode 2: One kick ass car chase and Gene is inducted into the Masons, bizarre (shirtless) rituals and all.
Episode 3: Gene stands his ground against Super Mac and gets "transferred" to Plymouth.
Episode 4: Gene shoots a dog in the head, which sounds really sick, but is really awesome, because how many times have you had to watch the show where there's the dog during the break-in where they don't know what to do, so Gene skipped the laced steaks or the running away and streamlined the endeavor in pure Gene Genie fashion.
Episode 5: Criminal tied up and dumped in back of truck headed to France.
Episode 6: Gene's search warrant, looking suspiciously like a crowbar.
Episode 7: Gene's handle during the raid on the Docklands building site: Papa Bear!
Episode 8: Gene as a children's TV show host in Alex's subconscious, but what a subconscious! Children watching "Jackanory" watch out! As Gene says: 'Shut yer gob! Or I'll come round yer houses and stamp on all yer toys.'

For more Gene Hunt check out Season 1 of Life on Mars on DVD now! Season 2 coming this fall...

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Knights of Good

If you consider yourself a geek yet have no idea what The Guild is, consider your title revoked. The Guild is the funniest web based show online today. But is The Guild for you? If you are into MMORPGs, watch it! If you are a fan of Buffy, watch it! If you are a fan of Dr. Horrible, watch it! If you like a good laugh, watch it! The Guild is about a group of people who play an MMORPG (Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game) together. If you've never played an MMORPG, they are online games, the likes of WoW (World of Warcraft) or EQ (Everquest) or DoA (Dark Ages of Camelot). Basically the show puts it best when comparing it to a first person shooter: "[We] kill things too only with prettier outfits." These games immerse you in their world wherein you find friends and form guilds together all for the purpose of exploration and kicking ass. Of course, speaking from experience, the line between real life and game life become blurred, often resulting in total addiction to the game and referring to other players by their character's names. And here is where The Guild comes in. The Knights of Good is a Guild of six people who play online together, Codex (The Healer), Zaboo (The Warlock), Bladezz (The Rogue/Theif), Tinkerballa (The Ranger), Vork (The Guildmaster) and Clara (The Mage who oddly plays by her real name). The first season revolves around Zaboo showing up at Codex's house and declaring his undying love for her (even though they've never met before). This results in Codex calling an emergency meeting IRL (in real life) where they come together and work through their problems culminating in a boss fight with Zaboo's mom. Season two picks up right after Codex gets evicted because of Zaboo's mom and what happens when the guild starts mingling more in person and less online, sometimes out of necessity because of server shut-down!

If this doesn't sound funny, let me assure you that it's because of my inability to capture the awesomeness of the show. There's something for everyone from blackmail to keggers to fights, and if you ever were or still are a gamer, it's even funnier. I've played Dark Ages of Camelot (Corde, Rogue), City of Heroes (I Heron, Knife Expert and I could fly), Star Wars Galaxies (Micah, Bounty Hunter/Entertainer) and EverQuest II (Pettigrew, a Rogue Rat and member of Sodalitas de Veritas), and let me say, this show perfectly walks the line between making fun of someone but not being mean about it. Felicia Day, who stars in and writes the series knows where this humor is coming from, she is also an online gamer, being a WoW person herself. So do yourself a favor and check this out. You can watch it online at The Guild's website, on X-Box live through their exclusive deal with Microsoft, or you can get the first two seasons exclusively from Amazon. Watch for the third season sometime this fall.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Spinal Tap, Unwigged & Unplugged

So, the last time Spinal Tap was on tour, I was a little too young at the time to see them, being in Catholic grade school. Therefore any chance to see them, even if not in full "Tap" glory was a chance for me to cheer. I personally thought the show was awesome, despite what some reviewers have said. The show was full of energy and fun, and the lack of costumes really did not matter. Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Sir Christopher Guest wrapped up their "Spinal Tap, Unwigged & Unplugged Tour" at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee ("Gateway to Racine") Sunday night. The show got underway about ten minutes late, which was easily made up for by the fact they did a full 2 hours 20 minutes set encompassing all their different personas and a total of 27 songs, interspersed with videos and a question and answer section. Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest took a back seat to Michael McKean who visibly radiated happiness and enthusiasm. But I do like what one reviewer said of Christopher Guest, he's like the evil genius of the group, just sitting back and plotting. While not being a traditional "Tap" show, I don't think that if they were to cover all the songs they did a Tap show would have even been possible. If David, Derek and Nigel broke into songs by The Folksmen, it would have been odd to say the least. But by having them just be themselves they were able to become the characters, and their was no feeling that you weren't their watching Spinal Tap. It was beyond fascinating just watching how Christopher Guest visibly morphed before your eyes, his posture, diction, facial expressions took on each and every different personae, the most easily recognized being Nigel, sneers, accent and all.

Spinal Tap were witty and funny, some parts working really well, others falling a little flat, particularly Harry Shearer's own "All Backed Up" about Elvis dying from constipation. They had two audience participation numbers, as in an audience of one (and no, it did not involve the rubber glove Michael McKean hopefully brought out each time). They had one pair of 3-D glasses and asked the audience member to come forward and put them on. There was actually no 3-D to speak of, just them playing their guitars in her face during (Listen to the) Flower People. They also mentioned Clam Caravan was supposed to be Calm Caravan, but it was a typo, which they don't think Nigel even noticed. They also discussed censorship, recently on NPR and Leno, as well as the Bitch School video back in the day for MTV and then even the first airing of Spinal Tap on Saturday Night television, including the original, extremely hilarious memorandum including such advise as - "the cucumber scene must be removed" (as Harry Shearer then said, but it was a zucchini!) During the Q&A Guest did admit he is thinking of a Spinal Tap sequel, as well as doing a little of Corky's dance for the audience. Overall the Tap songs did well acoustically, you were not really able to tell that it wasn't electric, they were so adept at playing their instruments (except Guest wasn't very good at the Didgeridoo, but I expect he wasn't meant to be, whereas McKean was better at the keyboard then their keyboardist, who was more interested in "stunts" then quality work). I did not like the Jazzy version of Big Bottom or the Blue-Grassy, Rap, Jazz Fusion version of Sex Farm, but they were still enjoyable. The highlight for me was when McKean dueted with his wife, Annette O'Toole (aka Martha Kent) on the song they wrote together, "A Kiss at the End of a Rainbow". The song was so sweet and perfect and had a large quantity of to audience in tears, and I'm still mad Annie Lennox won the Oscar.

The audience seemed to enjoy it as well, which even the reviewer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentential begrudgingly states. I heard many people muttering afterward that they wouldn't have missed this for the world. Even Michael McKean said after the 2nd encore, before starting the 3rd (consisting of Heavy Duty, rarely performed on this tour judging by other reviews), that our enthusiasm was definitely making it onto the audience shots of the DVD they were filming (with the very large slightly distracting cameras). The audience also seemed to embody no particular similarity, with teens to retirees making up the audience, including some true weirdos (like the guy next to us who was clearly on something). I also have to say that the theater did a stupid thing by holding all floor seat tickets at the box office to avoid scalping and then not opening the box office till one hour before show time. Luckily due to error my tickets were sent and as it turns out, luckily the other people who were going with me got sick (their tickets were at will call, and they probably would have given up, which is my theory as to why, except for our 3 seats, the entire seventh row was empty, when I know they were sold.) All in all a wonderful concert experience with the kind of fun camaraderie that is seen at the end performance of A Mighty Wind. If I could change one thing about the entire show, I would have had an intermission, some of the audience was visibly tired and there was alot of rushing to the bathrooms and the bar by many audience members.

Set list (broken down by band, because I'm horrible at remembering set list order):

Spinal Tap:
The Colors of My Life to open and close
Hell Hole
Clam Caravan
Bitch School
The Majesty of Rock
Big Bottom
Sex Farm
Saucy Jack (Finally finished and debuted! The musical about Jack the Ripper. You can get it on their website for free)
Heavy Duty - encore

Spinal Tap (Early Tap Ephemera):
(Listen to the) Flower People
All the Way Home
Cups and Cakes
Rainy Day Sun
Gimme Some Money - encore

A Mighty Wind (The Folksmen):
Never Did No Wanderin'
Loco Man
Blood on the Coal
Corn Wine
Start Me Up
The Good Book Song with Annette O'Toole, Michael McKean's Wife
A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow with Annette O'Toole, Michael McKean's Wife
A Mighty Wind

Old Joe's Place - encore
Waiting for Guffman:

This Bulging River (Not included in the movie because it made Corky Cry)
A Penny for Your Thoughts with Judith Owens, Harry Shearer's wife

Harry Shearer's Elvis - All Backed Up

Videos shown:
Taps Original Appearance from 1979 - Rock and Roll Nightmare

Corky St. Clair Dancing
Back from the Dead Fan Video - really lame
Stonehenge and Trolls - This video was awesome and made Stonehenge funny in a new way!

Tonight We're Gonna Rock You with Lego's - The audience went wild for Lego Derek

Cheese Rolling - The Original Spinal Tap Trailer, with a young Jake Gyllenhaal

Miniature Build Your Own Stonehenge
Black "How Much More Black Could it Be" Nail polish
2 Harry Shearer CDs
1 Christopher Guest CD
Spinal Tap Tote-Bag
Big Bottom Underwear
Spinal Tap Sweatshirt
Various T-Shirts:
The Kingsmen
Eat At Joe's
Tour T
Isle of Lucy '67 Music Festival - The Shirt I got
Shark Sandwich

Nigel's Green Skeleton T

Monday, June 1, 2009

Return to Labyrinth

This past month saw the penultimate release of the Return to Labyrinth manga series by Tokyopop. I remember back in 2006 when the first volume was released I was really excited, but as is often the case the reality rarely, if ever, lives up to the expectation. I found the comic ill conceived and just not what Labyrinth is to me. So three years have passed, and I thought, hey two new volumes, I should give this another try. So now that I've read them...well...they're entertaining, they just aren't Labyrinth.

For girls of my generation Labyrinth is the movie of their childhood. David Bowie as Jareth, well, there aren't really words to describe who or what he is in this movie, let's just say, I still have the poster on my wall. Every girl has probably thought in passing about being Sarah. So as it is, if Labyrinth were to continue on outside the boundaries of the film, there are a lot of high expectations. Labyrinth means something different to everyone and I personally feel that the comic actually does a disservice to the movie and the girls of my generation who revere the film. This book seems to have been thought of with the sole purpose of making more money out of the Labyrinth franchise. The end result is enjoyable, a sort of Monty Python meets Alice in Wonderland feel, but it's NOT LABYRINTH! Just because the idea of Jareth as manga sounds like it will work and looks visually interesting does not mean it should be done.

The comic's plot is about Jareth still being obsessed with Toby, which I don't buy, because Toby was just a way to get to Sarah. Toby must then enter the Labyrinth, get a posse of friends (BTW Skub, could he be anymore of a Dobby rip off?), similar to his sisters, and take his place as king because Jareth is doing poorly. The first installment ends with Jareth proclaiming Toby his successor and then disappearing. The only thing I really liked was the Queen of Cups and her daughters, members of a rival kingdom, predominantly wet. In installment number two Toby is still trying to fit the Goblin King mold while the Queen of Cups trys to "help." What I did like is the idea that Moppet (one of Toby's new friends) is basically a part of Sarah that has been siphoned off and made to be Jareth's slave, a cool concept and a way he actually would try to get back at her. Also the psychological profiling of Jareth having created the Labyrinth as a kind of armor (mainly to keep the Queen of Cups out) is fascinating. By volume three Jareth is up to no good in the human world messing with the not quite complete Sarah, having lost her ability to dream (and is now apparently able to shrink at will, having a car half the size of her front door, that's just lazy perspective). Toby is now king and The Queen of Cups, Mizumi, is up to no good (having thrown Toby in an Oubliette till he agrees to play ball). One daughter (Drumlin) is already "dead" with the other soon to go (and they were the only ones I liked!) And now the waiting game, I'm guessing it will be awhile till the final installment comes out, and for something that isn't the greatest to start with, I'm not exactly holding my breath.

The most annoying fact of this comic is that the author, Jake T. Forbes seems to truly love the world Jim Henson has created (the fraggle Traveling Matt shows up as well as the red demons from the episode of The Storyteller, "The Solider and the Death") but he just got it so wrong! Labyrinth is about Sarah NOT Toby, though he seems to be trying to rectify this. Also Jareth exists in Jareth's world, not outside, he IS the Labyrinth, one cannot exist without the other and he's not handling this right. Plus they could have set this at any time during the existence of the Labyrinth...why didn't they go back in time like they are doing with The Dark Crystal Mangas so that canon would not be affected and fans less annoyed.

Final thoughts, the writer Jake T. Forbes says that he was strongly influenced by Terry Jones of Python fame, and his script for Labyrinth, which is evident when you read Return to Labyrinth. But Terry Jones himself has stated the fact that the script that was filmed was in no way connected to his. Therefore basing the comic on this fact is ill researched and thought out. All in all, better if you don't think of it as Labyrinth, just go watch the movie again.

Return to Labyrinth Volume 1 by Jake T. Forbes and Chris Lie
Published by: TokyoPop
Publication Date: August 2006
Format: Paperback, 208 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Return to Labyrinth Volume 2 by Jake T. Forbes and Chris Lie
Published by: TokyoPop
Publication Date: October 2007
Format: Paperback, 192 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Return to Labyrinth Volume 3 by Jake T. Forbes and Chris Lie
Published by: TokyoPop
Publication Date: May 2009
Format: Paperback, 192 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

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