Tag Archives: World War II

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity US coverI have spent a good portion of my life avoiding all literature and movies that take place during World War II. I’m an emotional and empathetic person, and I just can’t deal with it!  I was forced to read Night in middle school, and to watch Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan before I was out of school.  I can’t take it! It’s too much abject and terrible misery happening all at once, all over the world. So I’ve actively avoided anything set in the period. Until recently. I realized as I began this novel that it was the 4th WWII era novel I’ve read in as many years.  It seems I can tolerate the time period if the war is in the periphery rather than the main event.  First, there was Atonement, which pretty much ruined my life while I was reading it.  Fuck You, Ian McEwan.  You kill me every time you cruel, heartless bastard.

In the last two years, I’ve read The Book Thief (amazing, amazing book.  READ IT!) and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (also very good), and now this.  These books were about women, which might be why the bulk of the violence is on the outskirts of the story.

Code Name Verity is the story of two girls.  Maddie and Julie.  Maddie is from the North of England, and she starts the war working in her grandfather’s motorcycle shop.  But she gets the itch to be a pilot, and as war efforts continue to require more and more people, she gets her chance.  She ferries broken planes and healthy pilots around the airbases of England in the Air Transport Auxiliary.  Her friend Julie is Scottish, well-bred, and is involved in Secret Ops.  Forgive me if I get some of these military names wrong; I have no capacity for remembering the difference between Special Forces and Secret Operations, etc.

The girls encounter each other several times throughout their work on airfields.  Their first meeting is when Julie and Maddie help an injured German pilot land his plane on their runway–by pretending he’s safely made it back to France.  Two things are really striking about these characters, given their time and place. 1-They are girls who are capable, skilled, and efficient at jobs almost exclusively reserved for men.  Maddie is a mechanic and a pilot; Julie becomes a spy.  2-They are incredibly close and good friends.  There are a lot of female friendships represented in literature as catty and jealous.  I know a lot of women who feel more comfortable with men than with other women.  Consider a character like Bella Swan from Twilight. She has almost zero female friends, and 99% of her life is caught up between two dudes.  Of course, there are a lot of problems with Twilight; I won’t go into all that.  The point is, seeing a strong and loyal female friendship is rarer than you might think.

This book is a little bit of a ‘mind game’, as the NYT blurb on the cover indicates.  The first 1/3 of the book is Julie’s narrative.  She is writing on borrowed scraps of paper after being caught in occupied France. She has been tortured by the Gestapo, and she is writing her story to delay her upcoming transfer to a concentration camp.  It’s bleak and manic, describing in detail her ill-treatment and her guilt over giving up information to the Nazi’s.  She tells the whole story of her relationship with Maddie, from its inception.  From Maddie’s point of view.  Maddie is on her mind constantly, because the Gestapo have showed her pictures of Maddie’s crashed plane and the charred body in the cockpit. The UK cover shows a more accurate depiction of the book, but I wonder if I would have read the book if it had had this cover?

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But there are twists and turns once we reach the middle of the book.  Both girls are so capable and so honest with their written accounts, that you start to believe that things might work out.  But this is Nazi-occupied France, and I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that it doesn’t all work out.  As much as I was hoping for a miracle at the end, there wasn’t one.  But the bittersweet ending makes you appreciate even more the truly bad-ass nature of these two girls, and of everyone just fighting for survival at that time.  People surviving the Blitz, the French resistance living in constant fear, the beleaguered and eternally-ruined souls of everyone who took part in the Nazi party and in the Gestapo.  Everyone was just…surviving, if they were lucky.  I really am not someone capable of dealing with this level of misery! If I think about it too much, I can’t get out of bed in the morning.

Before you have me committed for manic depression, I’ll snap myself out of it.  I had mixed feelings about the end, because the girls were so honorable and so easy to look up to, but anyone born in that time was just going to experience their fair share of misery.  Now that I’ve calmed down about the ending, I can look back and say that I really enjoyed the book. It was worth dealing with the pain to see such capable, smart, emotional, and brave women as main characters in a story.  No man to save the day; they rely on themselves.  The book also makes sure to make every character–even the Gestapo interrogator– a real human, with flaws and doubts and pleasures and pains.  Books that portray Nazi’s as superhuman monsters aren’t helping us avoid making the same mistakes in future. I think this book was really successful at taking a totally inhuman, alien concept like being a P.o.W. in a Nazi stronghold, or like hiding with a family in the French Resistance, and makes it seem real and comprehensible.  It gives life to an era I (fortunately) didn’t see.  I really enjoyed it, even though it required a lot of chocolate to recover from.

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The Bletchley Circle

The Bletchley CircleThe Bletchley Circle aired on PBS during April & May, though it aired in the UK in 2012.  Just a few weeks ago, iTV announced that they would be making a second series of the show.

Like Sherlock, this series (season) consists of only 3 episodes, 1 hour each.  Really, it’s more of a miniseries, and I was entirely prepared to describe it that way until I learned about a second season.  Miniseries don’t have further seasons, so I guess it is a drama series.

The show follows 4 women in 1950s London.  All four worked at Bletchley Park, the center of code breaking intelligence for the Brits during WWII.  Due to the Official Secrets Act, everyone had to hide their involvement in wartime divisions, etc., until something like the 1970s.  So these characters lead normal, horribly dull lives. No one knows that they’re code-breaking savants and were very important to wartime efforts.  They don’t get any recognition, even from family and friends.

It’s no wonder that Susan GraySusan Gray, the main character, is desperately in need of something to do. She has a dull husband and 2 kids, and is chained to the stove like any good ’50s housewife. After hearing reports on the news about a string of unsolved homicides, she can’t help but see some patterns in the details.  At first, she tries to go directly to the police, but she can’t work out all of the specifics of the crime without enlisting her 3 friends–whom she hasn’t seen since the war ended–to help her read the patterns. Gray would, if born today, end up an engineer, a statistician, a math professor. She’s exacting, efficient, a little too meticulous, a little boring.  She’s played by Anna Maxwell Martin, who I recognized from her roles in Bleak House (Esther Summerson) and North & South (Bessy Higgins).  I think AMM does a great job of portraying someone totally trapped by gender norms, who allows her life to be decided by feelings of what she should be doing.

In her determination to solve the puzzle and find the murderer, she enlists her three wartime compatriots:

Bletchley Circle MillieMillie, the free-spirited, world traveling, modern woman. She lives on her own, she’s tough, she takes care of herself.  You can tell how modern and independent she is because she is the only one who wears pants.  She is my favorite, obviously.

Bletchley Circle LucyLucy is the youngest and most naive.  She is very useful, though, because she has an eidetic memory.  Unfortunately, she also has an abusive, douchebag husband.  Lucy is maybe the most reluctant of the four. The violence they encounter during this investigation is probably worse than anything she’s ever imagined.  After all, they didn’t even have CSI back then–not even the original CSI.  They weren’t used to seeing dead bodies dissected and splashed about.  She explains that it’s also worse for her because her memory allows her to see bad things over and over again in perfect and horrible recollection.  That would not be my superpower of choice.

Lastly, there’s Jean.

Bletchley Circle JeanShe is the bossy older one, and she’s a librarian.  She looks and seems everything dowdy and unattractive at first.  There’s a quiet, assiduous power about her, though.  She is integral to the group because she has contacts in other libraries and with other intelligence workers that they use to dig up info on their killer. Jean is more reserved and less emotional, but she’s competent and hard-working.  She’s a Hufflepuff, in essence.

The ladies use their code-cracking skills to see other patterns in the killings–the girls were all on a journey, which they eventually narrow down to one specific train from St. Pancras.  He must be on the train too, then.

They discover over the three episodes that the man is a necrophiliac (they don’t use this word, but it’s made clear that each of the victims is raped after she’s killed).  They realize he has struck before, in other areas of England, and always pins the crime on someone else.  Shortly afterward, he does the same thing with his victims in London, but the girls (especially Susan) are adamant that the police have the wrong man.

It all comes back to the war. They discover the real killer is a man who was trapped underground during the blitz–trapped underground with a dead woman.  God only knows what he did with her body while he was down there, but it’s clear he’s trying to relive that with his victims.

As with any good mystery (as opposed to a police procedural), the authorities refuse to listen/believe what is truly going on.  The girls are on their own.  Susan, in particular, ventures too far in her search for the killer.  All the girls end up in peril, but Susan is alone with the man twice. He follows her home, threatens her family. I won’t say more about what happens next.

Primarily, I think this was a show about women.  In some ways it reminded me of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was originally titled Men Who Hate Women. You have these horrible murders, all perpetrated against young women by a man.  You have strong female character(s) determined to stop them.

Of course, they’re radically different in setting and style, but the theme of misogyny and violence toward women is a commonality.  The Bletchley Circle shows the lives of very smart, capable women.  In their best circumstances, they are under-utilized and bored as housewives/waitresses/librarians.  More often, they are ridiculed by other men, criticized or hit by their husbands.  Even Susan’s husband, who is the most empathetic man in the show, doesn’t understand why Susan can’t just stay home with the children like a good wife would do.  Everywhere they look, they’re told to conform to what society believes they should be and do.

At the same time, these four women work together remarkably well, care about each other, and are deeply committed to solving this crime.  To saving other girls from this horrendous fate.  Not to sound totally ridiculous, but it is about women protecting women.

The people who worked on this show did a great job recreating a particularly bleak time in English modern history.  While America was having a huge economic boom in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the Brits were still whipping out their ration books and dealing with economic crises left and right.  It was a really austere place and time, even when you don’t consider the losses of the war (people, but also entire buildings and neighborhoods destroyed in the blitz).  The show captures the dull lives, the last lingering period of tradition before the upheaval of the ’60s.  The director even said they avoided sunlight when filming. They wanted to capture the lack of saturation, the lack of bright color that seemed to pervade the national consciousness during that time.

This wasn’t the greatest show in the world.  There were parts of the plot that were thrown in and then cast aside without much explanation.  The resolution didn’t make things precisely clear.  The bad guy ends up dead, but it’s not clear to the audience that the women have enough evidence to prove he was the one who killed those other girls.  I found myself wondering if they would be believed when they told their side of the story.  And what happened to the man falsely accused of the crime? Last we heard, he was scheduled to hang for it.  Now what? I suppose I’m supposed to have good faith and just assume it all worked out, but the justice system isn’t like that and I worried that despite the killer being dead, the nightmare was far from over.

On the other hand, I think it was a unique and interesting story.  I like period dramas as a rule, I like women protagonists as a rule.  If this had stretched for 10 episodes, I might not be as fond of it, but I’m definitely up for another 3-4 episode season (series).

Spies of Warsaw

Spies of WarsawBBC America aired this 2-part miniseries in April, though it aired in the UK in January.  The miniseries was based on a spy novel by Alan Furst, and takes place in Poland (obviously) and throughout central Europe in the late ’30s. David Tennant plays Colonel Mercier, a French aristocrat and spy. Janet Montgomery plays Anna Skarbek, an official with the League of Nations and Mercier’s love interest.

I can’t say I loved it, to be honest.  I think there are a number of reasons for this –some my own preferences and some general problems with the miniseries–and I’ll run down them briefly.

First, I’m not crazy about the subject matter.  Almost all thoughts of World War II make me so upset as to be nauseous. The only thing that terrifies me more than Nazi uniforms are Hitler Youth uniforms.  But this is my own personal preference, and doesn’t reflect on the quality of the series.

Second, the format left something to be desired.  This was two 2-hour episodes; 2 full movies in other words.  I think there could have been a lot more tension built around the characters’ fates if it was split into maybe 4 parts.  I wasn’t entertained enough by it to focus solely on it for two entire hours.  And this isn’t just my attention span that is the problem–each episode of Sherlock is 90 minutes long, and I’m riveted for most every second.  I couldn’t fathom picking up my iPhone and doing solitaire while watching that.  I spent good chunks of my viewing time for Spies of Warsaw playing a geography game on my phone.  Hey, anyone need to know where Guinea-Bissau is? Because I’m hoping that knowledge will bring me the big bucks in life.  The point is, it was too long and moved too slowly for 2 hour blocks at a time.

I think that the miniseries has something in common with Parade’s Endwhich was on HBO a few months ago.  Each dealt with the lead-up to war.  Each featured a smart, strong male lead convinced that war was coming.  Both protagonists struggled to make their compatriots understand the catastrophe Germany was about to unleash upon Europe.  Stylistically, both featured long (long for a modern film audience) shots of not much action, interspersed with more tense and action-filled scenes.  Each had good acting and good writing, and yet each suffered from the problem of not quite connecting emotionally with the audience.  And I’m not enough of a film student to comprehend what about each fails to really move me.  I liked Parade’s End a lot at times, but with Spies of Warsaw, I found it difficult to care much about what was happening.  I think my apathy came partially from not having a vulnerable or relate-able main character.  Mercier sees what his coworkers do not, he’s a great spy, he cares about people, he is too good and too capable.  It takes away from the tension of what might happen to him, because even in moments of distress and danger it seems impossible that he won’t come out of it just fine.

I will say that these two miniseries (plus Casablanca) have utterly convinced me that love affairs are really difficult in situations of World War.  Note to self.

David Tennant’s acting is great. I’ve seen him play serious before (Hamlet, for example) and he’s really good.  The female character, Anna, has almost no personality in it, so they didn’t give Janet Montgomery much to work with. In response to finding out her new boyfriend is a spy, she…doesn’t say anything, really.  I would have liked both characters to be far more flawed, unsure, stumbling along through ridiculous times.  It does an audience no good to think of anyone existing at that time as a paragon.

I remember watching a great but horribly violent movie, fittingly titled A History of Violence.  Viggo Mortenson plays some sort of ex-mafia criminal who starts a new life in a small town and is completely reformed.  When someone tries to rob his restaurant, instinct kicks in and Mortenson’s character kills the robbers in self-defense.  From that moment, his past starts to come back to haunt him. His wife (Maria Bello) finds out who and what he was, and she has an incredible reaction.  Vomiting, shouting, running out of the room, and then they have this crazy, scary, exciting sex scene.  It’s a real and varied and unnerving response to finding out your beloved is not who or what they said they were.  When I think about Anna Skarbek’s character, I don’t expect the same reaction, but it almost seemed like there wasn’t one.  She finds out her new beau is a spy and she….just kind of accepts it and moves on.  I suppose you could argue that everyone in the series is someone other than who they pretend to be.  After all, if you were inclined to disagree with Germany (or Russia, for that matter), you wouldn’t be inclined to advertise it.  Perhaps Anna is used to it, but I found it off-putting that she had such a monotonous emotional landscape.

To her credit, she does get properly angry with Mercier later when she thinks he ordered the French to turn her defector ex-boyfriend over to Stalin.

Confession: I am not a spy novel aficionado.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a spy novel. Maybe that’s part of the problem–I don’t speak the lingo.  On the other hand, I’ve seen Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and at least one other Bogart movie.  And I followed those just fine.  I think they were just better.  Also, I really liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which falls right in there with great spy films.   Spies of Warsaw has the music of a great spy film, and some of the quintessential visuals, but none of the tension.  And tension is everything.  Have you seen Strangers on a Train?  Hitchcock can make a tennis game the most tense and suspenseful thing in the world.  This was no Hitchcock, unfortunately.

They did a great job recreating a bleak and terrifying Central European landscape for this miniseries.  Security checks and random searches, the Poles sandwiched unhappily between the Gestapo on the west and the Russian NKVD (later, the KGB) on the east.  France being still (at this point) a relaxing place nicely separated from all the riff raff on the other side of the Black Forest.  Parties in Paris…but still a feeling of the doors closing in, for the Jews particularly.  The costuming, the set design, and the cinematography all made the world really believable.

I think the fault must lie in the pacing and the writing (two things that I imagine are closely intertwined when writing a movie/mini-series).  There’s not enough tension or enough direction in the plot.  It feels disconnected at times, and the ending is thoroughly confusing.  It tries to make you feel uplifted that they’ve escaped Poland (which is good, obviously) with a bunch of Polish gold to keep it from the Germans (also good).  But they’re headed to France, so the modern audience knows that this isn’t the end; this isn’t a happy ending, even though they almost literally walk off into the sunset.

Also, it is a bit confusing for an American audience to have two Brits with British accents playing a Frenchman and a Polish woman.  I kept forgetting Mercier was French.  Maybe this wouldn’t bother me if the actors were American, because I wouldn’t register their accents as something already foreign.  I doubt it bothered Brits.  Still, when you have David Tennant playing a French man with a British accent meeting an English aristocrat with an English accent, it’s difficult to remember they are supposed to be from different countries.  Others, like the Russian ex-boyfriend has a proper Russian accent.   Tennant explained the action choices in this Joycean quote:

There is actually an internal logic to the concept. Since the main character is French, but the audience is English-speaking, we hear him speak with a sort of a neutral English accent, and anyone else speaking English is actually speaking French, and the other nationalities speak English but with their natural accents, and the Germans speak German with English subtitles – which I suppose makes [the subtitles] French. I can see your eyes glazing over.

I think my brain just glazed over.  Sorry David, I love you and I don’t blame you, but this just wasn’t very good.

Upcoming TV highlights

There are a whole score of new and returning shows on TV this month and next. I thought it might be a good time to discuss them.

First of all, the end of March marked the return of Doctor Who!

The Doctor and OswinAnd there’s a new outfit, a new TARDIS, and a new companion.  If you watched season 7, you already know Oswin.  Can I say already that I love her?  I love her.  She is super smart, she is a conundrum, and she is simultaneously friendly, playful, and not afraid to stand up to the Doctor.  Add to the wonderfulness of her character, she is a real enigma.  The Doctor doesn’t understand her, and he finds anything he doesn’t understand really mesmerizing.  It’s a totally different dynamic than the big brother relationship he had with Amy and Rory.  And I really like his new coat.  I feel like maybe I’m getting my expectations up too high.  Last season was a little disappointing for me, and I don’t want to get too excited and then be disappointed again. But…it’s probably too late.  I’ve seen the first episode and I really liked it, and I love their dynamic, and I’m really excited for what’s coming next.  Dr. Who is on BBC America on Saturday nights at 8 Eastern.

Orphan Black bannerPremiering that same night was the new series,  Orphan Black. Although this is on BBC America, it doesn’t actually seem to be a British show. It is set in Canada, I believe, though it is never explicitly stated.  The ‘main’ character, Sarah, is British, as is her best friend Paul.  Only the actors aren’t actually British, but whatever.  The show seems interesting; I haven’t made my mind up about it yet.  It begins with Sarah (a woman with questionable morals and a shady background) seeing a woman, Beth, who looks exactly like her, jump in front of a train.  She takes over Beth’s seemingly swanky life (wasn’t this the plot to that Sarah Michelle Gellar show, Ringer?), mostly based on the fact that the woman had money and nice clothes.  Remind me to never take over my dead clone’s life based on her clothing quality, because it just doesn’t turn out well.  She has to get to know Beth’s boyfriend (including possibly the most graphic sex scene I’ve ever seen on a non-premium channel), deal with a police inquest over a shooting in the line of duty (oh, Beth was a cop?) and a mysterious safety deposit box full of birth certificates.  Sarah proves herself to be pretty stupid in this first episode.  Her goal is to get her daughter back from whomever is caring for her, and to start a new life.  Her first plan is to steal heroin from her ex and sell it for $20k.  Her next plan is to have her best friend identify Beth’s mangled body as Sarah, and steal all of Beth’s savings.  It never occurs to her that her daughter might find out that Sarah has been declared dead, but of course that is what happens.  She seems to really lack the ability to think about consequences, but we know very little about her back story, except that she is an orphan.

This show is iffy.  Could turn out well, could be implausible and ridiculous.  I’m going to give it a few more episodes before I make a verdict.  It’s on after Doctor Who, Saturdays on BBC America at 9 Eastern.

Mr. SelfridgeThe last weekend in March was a big one for me! Also premiering, on PBS this time, was Mr. Selfridge, a proper British period drama about Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of the eponymous store on Oxford Street.  I had no idea he was American, but apparently he emigrated from Chicago to open the world’s best department store in London.  It just finished airing in England, so kudos to PBS for getting it over here in less than 6 months.  They’re getting better!

Jeremy Piven plays a non-douchebag, which I didn’t approve of at first.  Have they seen Entourage?  I haven’t, I’ll admit, but his suits were too shiny for me to see him as a non-douche.  Right? Look at this picture and then argue with me:

Ari Gold

So, I’ll reiterate that I wasn’t sure about all this, but Jeremy Piven is really good!  It helps that the character is bombastic and grandiose. He needs to act that way because, as we learn in the very first episode, he is in deep trouble with money.  He needs a lot of money, press, and publicity to make his store a hit, so he has to be more confident than he is.

The show follows Mr. Selfridge, obviously, but it is also a Downton-esque ensemble cast of high- and low-class characters. There are: his wife, who meets a (very) handsome artist at the National Gallery; the shopgirl Agnes Towler who works in the accessories department and her struggles with her brother, her father, and her suitor; other employees in the store both friendly and not; Miss Love, the actress and potential mistress for Mr. Selfridge; ruthless investors in the store; and I’m sure there will be more in later episodes.

There were a lot of interesting dynamics between classes, like any British drama worth its name.  Add to that, the genuinely interesting concept of the first true department store.  Most shops prior to this time period, especially in England, did not have displays as we do now.  There were counters, and you would go up and ask to see a specific type of glove or hat, etc.  Or, if you were wealthy, you would have a dressmaker, milliner, etc., come to your house for a fitting in your own home.  The art and hobby of shopping wasn’t the same.  Ready-to-wear clothing wasn’t the same, either.  So seeing this revolution happen in the show is intriguing.  I found the first episode really entertaining and cannot wait for the next episode.  Hopefully the quality stays the same throughout.  My only complaint is that in the intro on PBS, Laura Linney was talking about the show and described it using the following words about Mr. Selfridge: “He was the first person to know what women really want.  They want to go shopping.”

Oh, Laura Linney.  Why?  Why would you say that? Who wrote that?  Blech.

The Spies of WarsawAttention all Doctor Who fans! David Tennant is returning to our TV screens!  For a limited time only!  This is a two-part mini-series on BBC America, about a WWII era spy.  It begins in 1937, in Poland, France, and Germany.  David Tennant stars as Col. Mercier, a French ‘military attaché stationed in Poland. He alone sees the war coming, where his comrades don’t want to admit what is happening in Europe.  I don’t know much about the plot yet, but the NY Times called describes it almost as a whodunnit, more like a Christie novel than Casablanca, which it seems to want to be.  There is a love triangle, but the upcoming War is the real story of the mini-series.  Also according to the Times, despite the weaknesses in Spies of Warsaw, “there is nothing more satisfying than a prewar espionage story that shows, up close and told-you-so, how most of Europe slept through Hitler’s rise.”

It’s playing on BBC America on April 3rd and 10th, but I’m quite certain they will replay it several times over the next month or two.

Although I didn’t watch it, I should mention that the second season of Call the Midwife also premiered at the end of March. It airs every Sunday night on PBS, and is also available on their website.

Also coming soon on PBS is something I’m really excited to see: The Bletchley Circle

The Bletchley CircleThis aired last year in the UK.  Set in 1952, it follows four women who worked as code breakers at Bletchley Park (the main center for decryption/codebreaking in the UK during WWII).  If that wasn’t bad ass enough, it’s also a murder mystery. Police are overlooking a pattern in the killings, but these code-breaking badass ladies in their cardigans are smart enough to see it. It’s only a 3 part mini-series, but it sounds awesome. I love to see women in period pieces that have more to do than just swoon and get married.  The Bletchley Circle premieres on PBS on April 21st.

Looks like it’s going to be a great spring for us anglophiles!

Book Review: The Evil Empire

This book almost gave me an aneurism. I mean…I don’t know that I’ve ever been so angry at the written word.  Of course, I’ve never read an Ann Coulter book, but I imagine it would have the same effect.  So why would an anglophile (like me) read this in the first place?

Well, I got it for free–reason one.  But more importantly, I wanted to challenge myself to see a grittier, more realistic book about the UK and it’s imperial history, which is filled with just as much shameful activity as our own. I freely criticize the American government and our unsavory history, so I should be equally hard on the U.K.  The book seemed like a good way to see things in a different light, and listen to the devil’s advocate.  And maybe if the book was coherent or logical, it might have shifted my worldview instead of just making me incredibly angry.

Here’s the problem with this book.  I’m not sure what it’s trying to be.  Like a boggart who turns into half a slug, it seems to be pandering to two genres and failing at both.  If it’s trying to be funny, it fails.  I’m sure Rush Limbaugh thinks he’s funny, and people who think exactly like him perhaps agree.  That’s the sort of “humor” this book is filled with.  I wasn’t even tempted to laugh even once.  Not even a smirk.

If it’s trying to be an honest book, it fails even harder. The worst thing you can do with a humor book is not be funny (check), but if you claim your book is in any way factual, you can apparently fill it with complete and utter lies and errors from cover to cover.  You can spread absolute bullshit throughout, and you can also make me not want to live on this planet anymore. Well done Steven A Grasse.

I wrote notes on almost every page. Partially I was making notes for this review, so that I could point out all of the inaccuracies.  But I also needed to vent some of my anger.  Here’s a shot of one particularly offensive and ridiculous page.

 

 

 

Notice that I was particularly irritated by Grasse referring to corsets worn during the time of Shakespeare (1564-1616) as Victorian. For future reference, everyone, Victorian means it took place roughly during the time of the reign of Queen Victoria.  Which was some 250 years after Shakespeare died.  Presumably he meant Elizabethan, which is more correct.  Grasse also goes on to explain that Americans would prefer a Tarantino film to the overrated works of the Bard ‘any day of the week’.  At this point my head and desk made abrupt contact.

I found a blog dedicated to all of the inaccuracies of this book.  The writer seems to have given up halfway through, and I can’t say I blame him or her.  This book, once you comprehend just how racist and hate-filled it is, even as a joke, is hard to slog through. It’s a chore. It’s depressing. It makes me hate America and Americans.  And I am one.  It makes me ashamed of us.  Can I say again how much I hate this book?

Back to the inaccuracies, because you need to comprehend just how bad it is.  I made notes on almost every page with all of my thoughts on what was wrong about what he was saying–not theoretically or ideologically wrong, but factually wrong.  The errors fell into a  few categories:

Logical fallacies:

In a chapter explaining how England created global warming, Grasse explains that England ‘designed’ the Industrial Revolution around engines that ran on coal, which ruined our atmosphere.  He says they could have ‘just waited a few years until solar power hit the scene’.  Were they supposed to jump in their coal-powered time machines so they would know that solar power was on the way?  Also, whose to say we would have developed solar technology without the advancements that coal tech brought?  I’m not a big fan of coal either, but it’s ridiculous to talk about it as if they could have known what would happen or would have stopped doing things like building railroads that brought fresh food to inland areas and allowed for quick transport throughout the country.  We certainly haven’t stopped using coal or oil.

Apparently, England ‘Sliced North America Across the Middle’ and are standing in the way of an alliance between Canada and the US by making us dislike each other.  I must have missed when this happened.  Also, I apparently missed when Mexico ceased to exist, because Grasse doesn’t mention it as part of North America.  Also, apparently, after we formed NAFTA, the Brits ‘formed their own special club–the European Union’.  Wrong!  NAFTA was signed in 1994.  The EU started as the European Economic Community (EEC) after WWII ended (first six countries signed in 1957).  Another problem is that the UK was not allowed in the first two times they applied (de Gaulle was a serious douche, in my opinion) and didn’t join until 1973.  But even that was twenty years before NAFTA.

Out-and-out nonsense:

Apparently, ‘They Relish Collecting Taxes’ based on the evidence that William the Conqueror created the Domesday book to tax his citizens.  Does Grasse know that William was French (Norman, technically)?

Grasse argues that the UK propagated the English measurement system which is, apparently, evil and is ruining the world.  No explanation is provided for why we are one of the few countries that still use it.  The UK does not use it anymore.  Also, he blames the destruction of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998 on the UK because some parts were made with metric specs that should have used English measurements.

Grasse spends a page attacking the Rhodes Scholarship.  For the record, Cecil Rhodes did some very evil stuff in the name of Queen and Empire.  The fact that a few US citizens are paid to go to Oxford does not make up for that fact, but it might do something to mitigate it.  It certainly isn’t a reason to attack England.  Also, Grasse seems to be unaware or to ignore the fact that there are a few awards that try to make up for the misdeeds of their namesakes.  Alfred Nobel, anyone? Part of his inspiration for creating his award was being described as ‘the merchant of death’ after he invented a kind of explosive and sold it to military organizations.  Same thing.  Where is Grasse’s book on the evils of Sweden?

Ridiculous factual errors:

Grasse has an entire chapter about how the Brits worship a ‘Giant Clock God’ as a symbol of state authority.  He calls Big Ben the Great Clock and claims the British worship it as a symbol of the state authority over their lives.  One problem.  Big Ben is the bell, not the clock.  Another problem, you make no sense, Grasse!

Grasse writes that the large stones in Stonehenge represent Scotland, England, and Wales while the small stones represent the rest of the world.  These countries did not exist when Stonehenge was created, so I really have no idea where he got this crap.

Grasse writes about WWII that ‘We all know the stories of how the British joined the rest of the Allies to fight fascism abroad in the second World War.’  Grasse is implying that we (the US) were actually fighting the war already.  This is utter bullshit.  France and Britain declared war on Germany two days after the invasion of Poland in 1939. We didn’t enter the war until we were attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Now, no one had declared war on Japan yet at that point, but we all declared it together as Allies.  Britain and France had already suffered a ridiculous amount of casualties and damages in the fight against Germany, while we were trying to ignore what was going on. This really offends me that Grasse implies that Britain was reluctant to fight.  He also claims Britain didn’t contribute as many soldiers to D-Day as we did, that they ‘didn’t do their share’.  Nevermind that it was a U.S.-led effort and nevermind the fact that their forces were depleted by being in the combat much longer and being a much smaller country. By the way, our troops (my grandfather among them) comprised about 70,000 men and the UK had about 60,000 that day.  Given the differences in population between the two countries I would say they did more than their share.

An apparently very different understanding of the word ‘evil’:

There are so many tiny things that apparently Grasse just doesn’t like that he seems to think are reasons that England is evil.  Evil is a serious word. You cannot apply it to your dislike of Cricket or Elton John, Oasis or the inability to dance.

On top of all of these errors and this misinformation, there is a pro-Christian, pro-heterosexual vein of thinking that makes me rather ill. This is the real problem with the book.  Even if none of what he is talking about is true, he is spilling hate-filled nonsense disguised as humor, and underneath it all is some really obvious intolerance and degradation of women, non-Christians, and homosexuals.

For example, one of the reasons England is evil is because ‘They Are Secretly Pagan’. Evidence?: Long after the Middle East was basking in the glow of sane monotheism, Druid priests led early Britons in pagan ceremonies.  Another reason is because of ‘Harry Potter, Boy Occultist’.

There is a chapter entitled ‘British Men are a Little Limp in the Wrist, if you Get my Meaning’.  Seriously.  It starts with this ridiculous paragraph:

I have nothing against homosexuals, nor have I found homosexuality to be any more prevalent in the UK than it is anywhere else.  I do, however, believe that upper class British males exhibit a peculiar chumminess and an aversion to hard work that could be characterized as, shall we say fey.

I see.  Nothing against homosexuals, except they have an aversion to hard work.  He goes on to blame the Stonewall riots in New York (in the 20th century) on Victorian laws against homosexual behavior.  Huh?  Sodomy was against the law (a felony, in fact) in the US until 1962, by the way.

I know that most of what is in this book is not intended to be taken seriously.  But Grasse spent all of this time writing it down, and you don’t spend this much time writing and editing a book filled with stuff you don’t believe.  I concede that he saved considerable time by not researching any of it or caring if his facts were even remotely correct.  But still.  He believes this deep down.

In the Introduction, Grasse more or less says that his inspiration for writing the book came from taking business trips to the UK and having people criticize the US to him.  Not only did they have the nerve to criticize the Iraq War, but they didn’t want to talk about the movie he came to promote.  How rude! So in a patriotic and egomaniacal temper tantrum, he wrote this book.  Well, now I’ve read it, so you certainly don’t have to.

I’ll leave you with one critic’s take on the book: It’s “as if every bar bore in Philadelphia, where the author hails from, got together one night and wrote down every half-assed insult they could remember about Britain, somewhat handicapped by the fact that none did high school history past sixth grade.

W./E.

Despite some terrible reviews, I decided to give this film a chance because I really find the whole abdication scandal of Edward VIII very interesting, and this did have a very different spin on it than all of those History Channel specials talking about how Edward was a Nazi sympathizer.  I think a lot of the terrible reviews come from people who dislike Madonna, or dislike her as a filmmaker.  Because while it wasn’t a great film, there were parts of it that were nice (the music, the visuals, the costumes).  It certainly doesn’t deserve the same Rotten Tomatoes rating as Showgirls.

The film follows two similar stories.  One is that of Wallis Simpson, an American woman who was married and divorced twice before the King of England decided he wanted to marry her (actually she was still married to the second guy when they really fell in love).  The PM, the British people, his family didn’t want Edward to be with her, and he ended up giving up the throne so that they could be together.

The other story is of a very wealthy American housewife, Wally (Abbie Cornish), married to a workaholic philandering abusive doctor in Manhattan.  She was named after Wallis Simpson, and she jokes that her parents ‘wanted her to marry a Prince’.  That probably influenced her in marrying her dreadful husband.  She is drawn to the story of Wallis and Edward, because of her namesake and her similar situation, so when there is an exhibit and a Sotheby’s auction selling many of their personal possessions, she goes every day to …well basically to imagine herself living out Wallis Simpson’s life.  She meets a security guard there, who is really a Russian intellectual, named Evgeni (Oscar Isaac).

The 1920s half of the story is infinitely more interesting than its modern counterpart.  Wallis Simpson’s abusive first husband makes you sort of immediately sympathize with her and excuse most of her behavior. I found both actors who portrayed Wallis and Edward (Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy) to be really charming and believable.  You understand immediately why Wallis is fearless, is a survivor. You also understand why Edward would be drawn to her when he’s surrounded by sycophantic socialites.

When the 20th century equivalent Wallis is abused and cheated on, however, you just wonder why she doesn’t just leave him.  She complains he made her give up her career when they got married, and she does cliché housewife crap like secretly take IVF drugs to try to get pregnant.  All I was thinking was why doesn’t she just leave him, get her job back (or a job), and have a kid on her own.  Or something. Do something. It doesn’t make me empathize with her, it makes me dislike her.

As I said before, the film is really visually appealing, particularly the period half of the plot.  There were also a few really interesting scenes that made me think about what it is to be a woman.  Wallis (the original) talks about how people have never called her beautiful. They’ve called her attractive, which is the polite way of saying she has done the best she can with what she has.  She also says something like…if I couldn’t be the most beautiful, at least I could dress better than anyone else in the room.  It is so sad and so true that so many women feel that the best they can hope for is to have people notice the effort they put into their appearance, even if they never feel confidence spring out of all that effort.  And the really sad thing is that a woman like that is probably better off than most women who don’t put in any effort, because they are too busy despising themselves for having chubby ankles or non-photoshopped ab muscles.  But I digress!

I did find myself being bothered by some of the glossing over of facts.  I mean, Edward and Wallis did meet with Hitler in 1937, and Edward gave a full Nazi salute during the visit.

The film sort of palliated this whole incident as rumor and malicious gossip, but there’s …there’s a fair bit of evidence that Hitler, at least, thought that Edward was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. I read an article that said the FBI was conducting surveillance on the couple, and that there were suspicions that Wallis had an affair with a Nazi, to whom she passed secrets.  Of course the FBI haven’t released any of these files, to my knowledge, so it’s still all conjecture. Still that puts a rather unpleasant spin on what the film calls an incredible love story.

Not that the movie is trying to paint it as a fairy tale, especially for Wallis.  It’s very obvious that the abdication crisis meant that neither Wallis nor Edward would be able to be together without giving up a lot of their lives.  In fact, they were never allowed back to England again–Wallis came back for Edward’s funeral in 1972, but they were never brought back as a couple.  They both were sort of miserable (in the film) because though they could now be together, they couldn’t really live their lives.  Edward’s brother, the new king George VI, wouldn’t take his calls or allow him to return home.  Tabloids (and apparently the FBI) followed them everywhere.  And, as the film points out, after such a monumental sacrifice, it was impossible for either of them to end the relationship, even if it soured. They were rather stuck together.

The film also really deifies Edward as a doting, loving husband and a genuinely good man who was forced to choose between his country and the woman he loved.  Some of that may be true, but it also makes you wonder about that choice.  If you consider that his abdication came in the mid 1930s, when the entire continent could already see that another horrific war was coming. In that same year, Nazi Germany invaded the Rhineland, radical forces took over Japan, Italian forces started to expand into neighboring territories, the Spanish civil war began, Italy, Germany, and Japan became de facto allies–this was all during one year! It was a full 3 years before WWII officially began, but it’s as clear as day what was going on.  This is the moment that Edward decides to leave his post, his country, his duty.  To leave it to his poor brother, George VI, played recently by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech.  As a younger brother, George (known as Bertie by his family) had never expected to have to be king, and here was the responsibility heaped on his shoulders less than 1 year after his father had died, with a world preparing for an epic disaster. Not to mention his speech impediment and his discomfort in the public arena. In the movie and in real life, Edward doesn’t seem to have put much thought into what that meant for his brother, his family, his country. That’s not a man that I think I could love.  I’m not one for duty, traditionally, but in situations like that your responsibilities are not only to your own happiness.  And the film just…glazes over these facts, painting Edward as someone who wants to help in the war and contribute something, but isn’t allowed to.

So the film is naive at best.  It also seems sort of…self-indulgent.  I’m not enough of a film buff to really describe why I got this impression. I don’t have pretentious words to describe the choices directors make in setting up shots or whatever. I found the period half of the movie interesting, even if it was unrealistic.  The 20th century part of the movie was just …pointless.  Predictably, Wally eventually leaves her abusive psychotic husband–though I must point out that she only leaves him when Evgeni comes and takes her away from their apartment to his own.  So, really, she gets rescued.  And he takes her back to his apartment in Queens or Brooklyn or similar, and he has one of those apartments that is meant to look Spartan and bare, and be the opposite of her posh Upper East Side place with her husband.  So there’s exposed brick and a grand piano and lots of second-hand paperbacks.  But in reality, people pay thousands and thousands of dollars for their apartments to look exactly like that.  So it’s bullshit.  Then the two of them, again, predictably, start dating and she’s so much happier that she abandons her Chanel dresses and starts wearing newsboy caps and playing pool at bars.  Okay then.  Because if you change men, your wardrobe changes immediately too.  Or maybe I’m just supposed to believe she was really hip the whole time and now her true self can come out.  Either way, I found it nauseating.

I think you could make a really amazing film out of just the period parts of this movie, and that it would be 1000 times better for eliminating the modern equivalent altogether.  It’s an interesting subject, especially when you consider if he had not abdicated, whether England would have had a Nazi sympathizer for a king and a pacifist for a PM.  How would modern Europe look if that had happened?  That’s a far more interesting topic than one silly housewife and her need to compare her life to the woman she was named after.