Monthly Archives: July 2012

Requisite Olympic Post

I’m not normally a person that gets super excited about the Olympics. One one hand, I like the multinational aspect of it, but on the other hand, it’s about sport. For the most part, I give it a pass.  Obviously, this time is different.  Every single event could feature scenes from my favorite city in the world. I watched over of bicycle road racing at the gym yesterday. I could not care less about cycling, but when they’re traveling through the English countryside and the race ends in front of Buckingham Palace, I’m happy to watch the whole thing just to watch the background go by.

So, let’s start with the Opening Ceremony.  Even in the past when I have watched Olympic events, I have never cared enough to watch the Opening Ceremony. That parade of nations thing is sooo boring, it negates any excitement you could get out of the rest of the ceremony.  This one was obviously a little different, though I still was bored to tears by the 2 hours of people walking by.

So my first pet peeve is the intro to the ceremony.  Here in the US, we got some rubbish with Ewan MacGregor and some unknown (to me) woman) doing voice-overs of footage of US athletes.  In the UK, however, they got this opening with Benedict Cumberbatch:


Which I thought was much better.
But lets ignore that for the moment. The video was created by the BBC, so the US networks didn’t have a legal option for airing it.  I will forgive them for now.  I cannot, however, forgive NBC for involving Meredith Viera in the thing. She is dumb as a post and seems to think her ignorance is something to be proud of.
Every time she talked, I just wanted her to shut up.

Okay, done with my complaining. What did I think of the ceremony itself?  Well…I think the idea behind it is really smart–instead of the biggest ceremony, you do a ceremony that focuses on something that is thrilling for the people in the stands, but is also choreographed specifically to be good for the cameras. I think you need that expertise in filmmaking, and I think Danny Boyle did a good job.  On the other hand, it definitely had its flaws. I liked the Agrarian start and the quick journey through the history of England, which according to Meredith Viera would teach people who didn’t know what the Industrial Revolution was.  So…people who haven’t yet reached 6th grade maybe?

But after the Agrarian start, it got a little too overly-conceptual.  The NHS tribute and the giant baby were especially weird and disturbing, and in many ways not relevant to an international audience. I haven’t had health insurance for two years, so I would love an NHS here in the states, but that doesn’t mean it was the best venue for that statement. I also think that the section with the boy and girl traveling through the last thirty years of British culture was a bit weird. I love British music, obviously, and enjoyed the cultural references within. At the same time, the digital world idea and the thanking of Tim Berners-Lee was a bit odd. Or maybe it was just due to the awkward and moronic commentary provided on NBC. Well…Bob Costas wasn’t bad, and Matt Lauer mocking Kim Jong-Il was pretty hilarious.

I think it’s very smart and very relevant to make a big part of the ceremony in reference to the cultural influences of Britain, because though they have very much declined as an imperial power, they have continued to be a cultural leviathan.  From the Beatles to Mr. Bean to reality TV, a lot of what has defined the last 40 years of life in America has come from Britain. Literature, in particular, is a huge part of that tradition of cultural exports.  Of course, I was thrilled beyond measure (though not entirely surprised) to see JK Rowling out in the thick of it. There are so many things about British culture that are beloved and respected, and between Paul McCartney, JKR, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Rowan Atkinson, and James Bond, they covered most of them. Also, who else wants a trampoline bed?!

And the torch ceremony itself I really liked. It seems very American to have the biggest name celeb you can lighting the torch, but I liked this more egalitarian approach to the idea. Plus, the actual mechanism whereby it is lit seems very cool to me and was really beautiful. And the fireworks!

Really beautiful!

The parade of nations…what can you say about watching thousands of athletes walk around a circle? It went quicker than normal? All I can say is that the US outfits are the most heinous things in the world. Are we headed to private school in 1994? What’s with the Berets?  Ralph Lauren should be deported.

All in all, I enjoyed it, but it definitely had its flaws.

Also, can I just point out that now that the Olympics are underway, no one seems to be saying that the UK is unprepared. Everything seems to be going pretty smoothly, from my albeit incredibly limited knowledge. I can imagine the traffic and disruption to the lives of residents is pretty massive, but that is what happens when you try to host a 2-week long incredibly huge event of any kind. I think people underestimated two things in the run-up to these games: the organizational power of a society that loves to queue, and the cynicism of the same society. All you have to do is watch Bridge over the River Kwai and you will see how much they excel at getting the job done. Also, Brits love to complain about their own inadequacies, but that doesn’t mean those complaints are based on truth, relatively speaking.  And god help the non-Brit who tries to complain with them (looking at you, Romney).

On a final note, there has been a lot of Boris Johnson on TV lately, and can I just say I’m for it? I love him! He has definitely earned his place on my list of Conservatives that I Like.  It’s a hard list to get on.  There’s only one other person on there,  and he is a fictional character from Family Ties.

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TV review: Gavin and Stacey

I don’t think I would have ever gotten around to watching this show if it weren’t for this blog post.  Netflix kept suggesting it to me, because Netflix knows all about my love of British TV, but the cover of the DVDs

makes it look a lot like a weird version of Friends, and I was flashing back to that horrible American version of Coupling for some reason. I just wasn’t into it.

I’m so glad I gave it a try though, because I really enjoyed the entire series.  There are three seasons and a Christmas special, though strangely the special comes before the third season.

The story is about the eponymous Gavin and Stacey, initially, but it expands to include the lives of their entire extended families and close friends, particularly Gavin’s bff Smithy and Stacey’s bff Nessa.  Gavin and Stacey meet online and start to fall in love, and the show begins with them finally meeting in person.  Gavin brings Smithy and Stacey brings Nessa. The four of them get very drunk and the two couples sort of go their separate ways and hook up.  Smithy and Nessa are played by James Corden and Ruth Jones, who created the series.  Gavin is played by the adorable Matthew Horne (who has been in a lot of stuff I’ve never seen), and Stacey is played by Joanna Page, who was Judy (the naked girl with Martin Freeman) in Love Actually.

Things with Gavin and Stacey progress quickly, and they are engaged in a few episodes’ time. Nessa and Smithy have an off-again on-again thing for the rest of the series. We meet Gavin’s family, his mom Pamela and his dad Mick. These two are awesome, especially Mick.  We also meet Stacey’s family, her mom Gwen (who cooks omelets in every episode) and her uncle Bryn (played by the adorable Rob Brydon, who I now love despite finding him annoying in The Trip), who spends the rest of the series making you wonder about his sexuality.

I think if I met a lot of these characters in real life, or if they were presented differently on the show, I wouldn’t like them very much.  Almost all of them smoke (which I hate) and they litter their cigarette butts (which I hate even more). Smithy parks in handicap spots and Nessa is incredibly selfish. Pamela is vapid and occasionally horribly racist.  Or xenophobic, I guess.  Bryn is…hopelessly out of touch.

But the way the show presents them, and the way they interact with each other is so lovely and makes you care and appreciate and enjoy each one of the characters and their relationships.  I really enjoyed this show and it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling a lot of the time. It was also very funny. There were tons of weird colloquial slang words that I have already started to use, and the Welsh accents are fun.

Favorite moments include Gavin’s bachelor party (with annoying appearances by Russell Tovey), Bryn explaining how to use the internet to Gavin, and Pam pretending to be a vegetarian for most of the show.

Unfortunately this show isn’t on Netflix instant, so I can’t re-watch like I did with The IT Crowd. I may have to buy the DVDs for this one.  I highly recommend this show, and plan on watching anything else James Corden or Ruth Jones (Smithy and Nessa) work on in the future.

Book Review: The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

I just finished this 800-page Victorian-era historical fiction novel, which took me about a month to read.  I don’t mean to indicate it’s a bad book; part of the problem is that I haven’t felt like reading much in the last month.  On the other had, if you’re in the middle of a great book you usually feel like reading it all the time.

I did enjoy the book, but it was a hard slog to get all the way through.  Part of that is just the length of Victorian novels, and this one that is meant to imitate a Victorian novel.

The plot is a bit hard to describe, partially because there are lots of time jumps, back, forward, all over the place.  The novel starts with this opening line:

“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.”

So the story begins with a murder, and I can say, without spoiling anything, that it also ends with a murder. Edward Glyver (one of his many names) is the main character, but the important thing to remember about the story is that everyone is hiding something. You can’t trust anyone in the book.

Over the course of many flashbacks Edward reveals his history. He grew up in the West Country with an author for a mother. He has a fairly unremarkable childhood but does manage to secure a scholarship spot at Eton, and a generous bequest from a friend of his mother’s allows him to make his way in the world.  At Eton he meets someone named Phoebus Daunt, a real piece of work who gets Edward kicked out of school and ruins all of his chances to go to university.  He swears revenge, and that sets the scene for the majority of the action of the book.

There are a lot of mysteries in this novel.  Chiefly among them Edward’s uncertain parentage, but there are also mysterious blackmail notes, at least two other murders, a nosy downstairs neighbor, missing books, a treasure hunt of some kind, and lots of other false names and identities.

It was an incredibly detailed and obviously deeply researched book.  It made a lot of news when the book first came out because Michael Cox received a massive advance, considering the fact that it was a debut novel. An interesting tactic Cox used was to treat the novel like a found work, or a false document. (Like the Blair Witch Project, part of the fun is believing that it’s a real story). This often happened in actual Victorian and late-Victorian novels, where the work was claimed to have been found in a drawer or behind a bookshelf or something. It blurs the lines of verisimilitude and makes for a more intriguing read, whether it’s a period piece or modern. For The Meaning of Night, Cox uses the guise of a modern-day editor to put in footnotes and other historical information.  This is a really interesting idea, because it allows for the reader to at least imagine that the story is true.  If it was actually the product of a Victorian mind, it would never have been published (or probably even written down), as it contains lots of thoughts and actions that would have been unthinkable in the puritanical 19th century.  Edward often partakes in opium and prostitutes, he considers himself an atheist, plus, you know, all the murders. Even as a fiction it wouldn’t have gotten published in that century.  Consider all the incredible controversy around Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was published about 100 years after The Meaning of Night is supposedly taking place. Of course, The Meaning of Night is fiction entirely, and for my part I found the footnotes often quite distracting.  The concept of using the editor is very cool, but the execution isn’t very good in my opinion.

Another problem was the characterization. Edward’s story is really intriguing, and he has a lot of reason to be monomaniacal in his desire to recover what has been taken from him.  His mythical quest for revenge is very understandable (even for a pacifist like me), but what isn’t understandable is how often he takes breaks from it. If you were searching for the truth to your true identity, or uncovering the secrets which might lead you to a chance to be with your one true love and inherit land and title, would you take breaks to go to an opium den, fall in love, visit several prostitutes (sometimes simultaneously) and generally waste about a year of your time? Edward is willing to kill to complete his mission, as we see in the very first sentence, but he seems unwilling or unable to actually focus and accomplish his task as time allows.  He is easily distracted and doesn’t heed advice to not trust those around him.  For someone so dedicated to subterfuge, he is terrible at it, and terrible at recognizing it in others. He’s borderline obtuse at times. At one point, a document is left in a hotel by a man Edward is meeting with.  The man is later killed before he is able to tell Edward what he knows about the mystery at hand.  It occurred to me immediately that the document left at the hotel might be incredibly important, but it doesn’t occur to Edward for ages, like 100 pages.  A lot of the smaller mysteries of the plot, I comprehended far before I was supposed to, which isn’t what you really want from a crime novel. And I’m not usually that adept at figuring these things out, but these seemed fairly obvious because of the clues given in the narrative (especially given the flashback format).

I think the most haunting aspect about the book is actually the story of the author himself.  Cox said in interviews that he has had the plot of the book in his head for 30 years, but what spurred him to actually sit down and write it was the threat of oncoming blindness (very Milton-esque).  He was diagnosed with a rare vascular cancer and died 3 years ago. I can relate to having a story in your heart for a long time without getting the damn thing done, and I think it’s really nice that he was able to finish it and get it published before he became really ill.He even had time to write a sequel.

I just finished The Meaning of Night this afternoon, so my thoughts are still a little jumbled and unformed. It’s an incredibly detailed and well done book, but I have to say that it’s not as engaging as it should be. It’s not the story it should be. There is too much research and not enough of a novelist in Cox.  I don’t regret reading it, especially as it will help me research my own book, but it was lacking something in the emotional arena that I like to get out of a book.  Jury’s still out on whether I’ll read the sequel someday.

The Last Enemy–BBC Miniseries

First, I need to say that I really tried to like this show. I watched it because Benedict Cumberbatch is the star, and I’m obviously a fan of his work on Sherlock. The subject matter doesn’t much appeal to me, but I gave it a chance.  Unfortunately it wasn’t particularly good.

The plot is very reminiscent of 1984; it all revolves around government forces spying on everyday people, vast conspiracies kept from the public, etc etc. Benedict plays math genius Stephen Ezard, who returns to the UK after a long absence because his brother has just died.  The action revolves around him, his former girlfriend, his brother’s widow, and a cast of political figures and assassins.  There are lots of intertwining plots, all of which revolve around evil government actions, from incredible surveillance databases to genetically engineered viruses. All of this in the name of protecting the civilians from the threats of terrorism. The show technically takes place in a Britain of the not-too-distant future, and it’s easy to see (especially as they have increased their security measures for the Olympics) how that level of surveillance could become a reality.

Benedict does a really good job playing someone who is incredibly smart but not particularly capable at human interaction–sound familiar?

There are a couple of other really good actors in the show. Anamaria Marinca, a Romanian actress, plays Yasim Anwar, who is both Stephen Ezard’s love interest, and his brother’s widow.  I don’t think she’s been in much else, but I thought she was really good in this. Robert Carlyle, from Trainspotting, and most recently Once Upon a Time, is also in it.  He plays some sort of assassin with a secret bunker very similar to Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State.

The concept of the show is interesting, but it does make me wonder about the UK.  Between this and Orwell, I just don’t really get the obsession with government invasion of privacy. It’s not something that really is an issue in the US, or at least not in my opinion.  In the UK, they definitely have way more cameras, from private security cameras to the public CC TV cameras. Those are everywhere.  It never bothered me when I was there–in fact it was comforting when I was walking alone at night to know that anyone that tried to rape/kill me would be caught on camera. In these conspiracy stories it’s always the government going beyond surveillance to use their knowledge for nefarious purposes. Nineteen Eighty-Four is more about the total takeover of an entire culture by Big Brother. The Last Enemy is subtler; the voting public is sold on the idea of new ID cards and further surveillance because of the threat of international terrorism.  They have no idea the lengths to which the government is already going to track people.  But the endings are similar–re: not happy.

Truth be told, the show is incredibly depressing. It doesn’t end well, for anyone. And the public is none the wiser, just like in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Depressing endings don’t always mean bad stories, just look at Casablanca.  But this show is no Casablanca. It’s too convoluted and I had a hard time keeping track of who was who, and what part they all played in the conspiracy.  The show was too complicated and there were too many characters. I didn’t have the energy or the memory to care about all of them.  The themes weren’t very clear and all of the complications to the plot just made it lack emotional punch in the end.  So, all in all, mediocre at best. Unfortunately. It is available on Instant Netflix, but I would only recommend it if you’re a real fan of conspiracy theory/government control/electronic surveillance oeuvre works.

Trip to England–what to see?!

After my last post, which turned out to be far more controversial than I expected, I’ve decided to go for a less contentious topic.

I am going back to England for the first time in 3 years, and am in the midst of deciding what to see.  I’ll be going in August, so thank god the Olympics will be over and the crowds might have dispersed a bit.

There are certain things that I think every tourist should see, and certain things I think are overrated.  So I’m going to share my personal recommendations, but would also love some ideas for attractions and events that are off the beaten track.

I’ve already made a post outlining my favorite parts of the UK, and I do hope to go back to some of them. But first things first, what’s worth seeing if you’re new to London, only there for a short time, want to see as much as possible, etc.

My top 5 recommendations to See/Do:

1-Parliament and Westminster Abbey

The lines are very long in the summer, but I have to say it’s worth it. These are, arguably, the two most important buildings in the country, and they are right next to each other. One has seen the coronation of 36 different monarchs, dating back to William the Conqueror in 1066. The other has seen the gradual shift of power away from the monarchy (and the clergy) to the hands of the Lords, and then to the hands of the Commons.  I was particularly happy to see Poet’s Corner inside Westminster Abbey, where writers from Geoffrey Chaucer to Elizabeth Gaskell to Ted Hughes are interred or memorialized. I do, however, recommend going in the off-season or early on a weekday, if possible.

2-British Museum

My favorite part about (most of) the museums in London is that they’re FREE. Not because I don’t value learning or museums in general, but because this takes off the pressure to see everything in one day, in one go.  Which means if you have 20 minutes, you have time to see the Rosetta Stone, the second best collection of Egyptian artifacts (Cairo is, logically, a bit better), pieces off the Parthenon, as well as the same artifacts that inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats to write some of their most famous poems.

3-Albertopolis–

This is an area of South Kensington so called because almost every important building you see was created by Prince Albert, or in his memory. If you don’t know, Albert was Queen Victoria’s husband. He urged the purchase of this area of London with the profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851, and tons of public buildings were erected on it. It’s a major cultural center and there is truly something for everything. Attractions include the Albert Memorial, the Science Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Royal Albert Hall.

4-The Royal Parks–

I can’t narrow it down to just one, but there are lots of parks in London. The Royal Parks refers to the areas technically hereditary property of the crown. These were hunting grounds for the monarchy back in the day. My favorite’s include Hyde Park, St. James’, and Regent’s, but really the point of these parks is just to have some green space in the city. It’s a really green city, with small parks and squares dotted around everywhere. On the first proper Spring day, you see people in droves, sitting in the grass with their shoes off, reading or sleeping or eating picnics. It’s lovely.

5-The South Bank.

None of the individual attractions of the South Bank are my favorite things in London, but if you add them together, along with the view of the Thames, the street performers, and the Saturday flea markets, it’s an awesome atmosphere. Skip the lines and just spend the afternoon walking. If you start from the Tower Bridge, you can walk past City Hall (called Darth Vader’s helmet b/c of its shape), past the reconstructed Globe theatre and the Tate Modern museum (worth a glance, even if you don’t get modern art), past Waterloo station and into the ‘culture complex’ which contains the National Theatre, galleries, festival halls, dining, the British Film Institute, past the Eye, the aquarium, and all the way to Westminster Bridge with its infamous views.  After that long walk, take in dinner and then hit a show at the National, or walk a few blocks to the Old Vic.  Trust me, that’s a good day right there.

Honorable mention–St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Millenium Bridge, Chancery Lane and the Royal Courts of Justice, Kensington Palace, Hampstead Heath.

My top 5 to AVOID:

1-The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace

I think the palace is worth a look, but I fail to see the attraction of crowding around tons of people to watch a very sophisticated shift change.

2-A show in the West End

When people talk about London theatre, I’m always interested. I took a theatre course while I was there, with the Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington. It was awesome.  But we went to see real theatre, not the musicals on the West End. I admit that I dislike musicals in general, but that is not the only reason this is on my list.  First of all, they are too expensive. About the same price you would pay for a Broadway show in NYC.  But if you go instead to the Old Vic (or the New Vic), to the National, or to smaller theatres in Soho, you can see amazing plays with some real substance for much less money. If you’re under 25 (I think it’s 25), you can get tickets for free or £2-4 online to see shows at the National. And you can see big names there. I saw a play at the Old Vic with Richard Dreyfuss; I saw one at the National with Gary Cole, who I love.  You can see 3 or 4 of these plays for what you would pay to see a West End musical like Billy Elliot or Oliver.  Plus, a lot of the West End shows are just a London cast of an American musical, and why not just see that at home if you’re so inclined?

Piccadilly Circus

This is the London equivalent of Times Square, and appeals to me just as little as its American counterpoint.  A bunch of tourists taking pictures of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not building and the Anteros sculpture.  Tons of shops with trite souvenirs for sale.  Pass.

4-Madame Tussaud’s

I don’t really mind MT’s, and I had to go get my picture taken with the Beatles, but the lines are so incredibly long that it is in no way worth it.  It’s also a bit pricy, after you wait for several hours to get in.

5-The London Eye

I do like the London Eye, so it hurts me to put it on the list. But if you go to London anytime between April and September, the lines are incredibly long.  It’s nice to get to see the city, and they offer some cool private party options if you wanted something special, but for the money and the lines, it’s not worth it just to go on a Ferris wheel. If you’re there in the off-season, then go for it. Otherwise, give it a pass.

Honorable mentions–Harrod’s (way too crowded, way too expensive, not even owned by a Brit anymore). Trafalgar Square (soo crowded.  If you’re going to go, go in off-hours or in the winter. Tower of London (the Tower is worth a look, but no way was I going to wait in the line to see the Crown Jewels).

So, I have seen all of these things, and am going back to a city as a tourist where I used to live.  I’m not sure what to see or do.  There are things I missed the first time around. I never got to go inside St. Paul’s cathedral.  There are things I want to see again–The Camden market, for example.  Decisions! I have a lot more money this trip than during my time there as a student, so I plan to eat some good food and enjoy myself a bit more this time.

I’m also really pleased to say that, this time, I’m going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival! So excited.  I cannot wait to see the next big star doing some sort of weird anti-establishment play like Hamlet if he was a transvestite prostitute whose pimp was killed by his business partner, etc. Plus, Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world and I am so thrilled to go back.

If anyone has any suggestions for what to see, where to eat, what crazy performances I should see in Edinburgh, I’d love to hear them.