Friday, September 30, 2011

a perfect song for a friday


And every other day ... (Thanks, Mary)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

freedom

Today is the last day of a job I've held almost eleven years. My freedom is voluntary and change is good, but it's still an adjustment.

I'm still going be as busy (if not busier) than I ever was, but now I have to report directly to me. That's how I want it. I'm a good boss, and who knows, I may even give myself a promotion.

I've been experiencing growing pains, but I also can't help but feel the load lightening. And this song has been playing in my head off and on all week ...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

cell phones have taken all the mystery out of life

This occurred to me the other day as we were waiting for my cousin (who is notoriously late) to meet us for breakfast. She called with an update, letting us know that she was parking the car and would be with us, inside where we were already seated, in just a few minutes. She was only being courteous, which I appreciate, as more and more simple kindnesses seem to disappear every day.

But it got me thinking. Before cell phones, she would have run just as late, and we would have sat the same amount of minutes, holding our table.  She just got to make her excuses before sitting down, in real time.



So what had changed? We could no longer debate about how late she was going to be. Now we knew, down to the minute. As the one doing the updating, my cousin was able to feel less late, because she was keeping us informed — maybe trying hard to get somewhere is the next best thing to already being there.

What about all of the other mindless little updates that having a cell phone compels a person to share? The "I'm on the bus, three stops away, I'll be home in five minutes" update that delights all the surrounding passengers on the bus (not), while alerting the person you are calling to — what — snap to attention? Put some clothes on? Go back to watching television?

I know that cell phones are indispensable. They are great to have in an emergency, like a car breaking down. They are also handy to have in a doctor's office waiting room, where you can fling as many angry birds as you want across the screen until your name is called. But they are also undoubtedly the core offender in our too much information age. So before I make that call, as I'm walking in the door, to tell someone I'm meeting, "I'm just walking in the door," maybe I'll stop, and put the phone back in my bag and sneak up on them, looking for that look of recognition, and even surprise.
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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

slow cooking, slow living

I bought my first crock pot the other day. I've never been very cognizant of casseroles or "home cooking." I learned to cook spaghetti and other Italian dishes from my Sicilian grandmother, breakfast from my dad, and salads and veggie dishes from my mom.

No one in the family did any traditional American dishes like macaroni and cheese. Our go-to comfort food was always some form of pasta. But prompted by an online recipe for slow cooker beef and my other recent efforts to make things in my life as easy as possible, I decided it might be fun to try some slow cookin.'



And it has. I made a slow cooker beef recipe last week that fed us all for a dinner and about two or three lunches. Tonight was slow cooker pork chops. I can hardly consider it a recipe or even cooking — I just layered (frozen) pork chops in the pot and covered them in honey ginger marinade — seven hours later they were fall-off-the-fork delicious. I can't even post a picture because they're all gone, but take my word for it, they looked as good as they tasted.

Now I have to start looking around to see if I can find some Italian-themed recipes as well. It would make Grandma proud.
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Monday, September 26, 2011

an impromptu son et lumiere

At first I thought the sound was thunder, but it was too loud and too insistent. We checked out the back porch for rain anyway and then saw blue light reflected on the apartment building across the street. We then ran around to the front porch and there they were &mash; fireworks. I'm not sure exactly why. Our fellow residents had myriad theories. It could be the Hollywood gang that has been shooting around town all week. Or the Breakers Hotel having some sort of bash. I don't really care what the reason turns out to be. It was a nice treat.

photo

Sunday, September 25, 2011

some times enforced fun can be ... fun

There were noxious fumes scheduled in the next-door apartment over the weekend, so with a little cash incentive we took off for Orlando to visit our cousin and have a little fun ... house.

Funhouse mirror

It's time to play the music ...
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Saturday, September 24, 2011

born for the buffet

The kid loves making her own choices. She must have been up to the breakfast bar three times. If more kids dined buffet-style, maybe they wouldn't consider Mac and cheese and chicken nuggets as their only meal out choices.photo

Friday, September 23, 2011

an english country garden — rose cottage

Article first published as Book Review: Rose Cottage by Mary Stewart on Blogcritics.

Rose Cottage, by Mary Stewart, is set in post- WW2 England, in 1947. Heroine Kate Herrick is a war widow. Her husband was a pilot who died in the last days of the war and left her a wealthy young widow. She has been living in London ever since, working at a friend's florist shop, but she is adrift, unsure of what her life will be like. She hears from her grandmother, who is recovering from a recent illness. Her grandmother would like to move from England back home to Scotland. She asks Kate to help pack up Rose Cottage, where Kate, one known as Kathy, grew up.




Kathy has a controversial back-story. She was born on the "wrong side of the blanket," to a a young mother who never told her anything about her father. When a sour spinster aunt joined their household tensions rose so much that Kate's mother eventually left, purportedly running off with a Gypsy. Kate was raised by her loving grandparents. As soon as Kate steps foot in the village where she grew up she is pulled back into memories of the past. She is also no longer "Kate," but becomes "Kathy" again, the name by which everyone in the village knew her.


Rose Cottage is a cozy old-fashioned romance, with a few mysteries for Kathy to unravel. Can she find out anything more about her mother, who ran off with a Gypsy when she was just a child? Who was her father? Who has been sneaking around the cottage, stealing family papers, digging holes in the garden, and visiting her Aunt's grave in the local cemetery? Are the local "witches" correct that ghosts from Kathy's family's past may somehow be involved?

"I am not myself afraid of the dark," said Miss Mildred, "but I don't like meeting strangers in it."

The characters are all very likable, and even if some of the answers to the questions are more obvious than others, Stewart writes so well that the reader is more than happy to pour a cup of tea and cozy up with Rose Cottage, in no rush to get to the finish to find out who done what.

Stewart also deftly sketches the upstairs/downstairs realities of Kathy's life pre- and post- war. She captures Kathy's nostalgia for her childhood home and life in a small village.

"Why is it that one always regretted change? Things were not made to stay fixed, preserved in amber. Perhaps the only acceptable amber was memory."

It is not just nostalgia that captures Kathy's imagination as she returns to Rose Cottage, but village life. A simpler life may present challenges — nosy neighbors and feelings of isolation — but it can also be very freeing, with a life based on the rhythms of the land versus London's workday bustle. But is Kathy just taking a temporary vacation into a past world or is Rose Cottage really changing her?

It's hard to believe that the book was written in in 1997. The post-war rationing and other day-to-day aspects of life in an English village are so well drawn that I felt sure while I was reading the story that it was was written in the late 1940s. I had the same feeling while I was reading Rose Cottage that I get when I read an Agatha Christie mystery — where she details the English gentry life of the time — just without all the bodies in the library.

Rose Cottage is a lovely little mystery with a dash of romance. Mostly it is a step back into time. Like Kathy, you won't be sure whether you ever want to leave Rose Cottage.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

free fallin'

I don't really get the '50s meet the '80s and skater kids and go to the mall, but it's a great song. And it totally captures my current mood.

I'm free falling into the next phase of my life. It's out of my control, out of anyone's control. Being free is wonderful and scary, too.

O.K., the skater shots in the air make sense in the video, but the escalator still confuses me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

slow love - finished at long last

I took my time reading Slow Love by Dominique Browning and even longer writing the review. I'm really glad I read the book, as I find quite a few parallels to my own life and issues that I'm dealing with currently.

But as much as I enjoyed and could relate to Slow Love, there were also some speed bumps. For such a smart lady who writes so well, I wanted to throttle her every time she self-deprecatingly admitted she was still obsessed with her on-again, off-again boyfriend that she dubbed "Stroller." He comes through, loud and clear, like a jerk. A creep. And a liar. Certainly no one a smart woman would want to grow old with. He can't even commit to committing whether to decide whether or not to commit.

9th & Constitution

Life is full of detours. But as I read Slow Love it was harder and harder to understand why Browning kept returning to a relationship that clearly wasn't a real relationship. Stroller's only redeeming quality (that I could see) was that he was a Yankees fan. But that didn't make up for the fact that he still behaved like a first-class jerk,
"... He invited me on a very special trip to Fenway Park for a Yankees vs. Red Sox game. I was flattered ... until I realized he really just wanted me to do the driving. When we got to the stadium, Stroller deposited me in my seat somewhere far away in the bleachers ... and then left. He settled himself next to an old friend somewhere behind home plate."
And she stayed with this guy after this incident? And even drove him back home? Yankees or not I would left him to find his way back to N.Y. Later she explains why Stroller resisted spending time with her sons and she was barred from ever meeting his kids, "Alas, one grows accustomed to the complications of (so-called) adult relationships." Not a good enough excuse, sister.

She knows that spending time with a high-maintenance/low output person is not what she should be doing, "I have come to dislike anything that demands constant attention, whether it is dogs, dishwashers, or, finally, men. I like things that are independent, and that need you only because they want you, not because they'll have a breakdown without you." But knowing is not the same as doing, and it takes her a long time to finally break away from the toxic relationship.

Luckily her times and frustrations with Stroller aren't the main feature of Slow Love. Browning details how she fell apart after she lost her job as editor of House and Garden magazine. I am leaving a job I have held for 10+ years and I could completely relate to her rudderless feeling. Browning struggles to find meaning in days without the set schedule that a regular job provides, and how much looking for a new job can take out of a person, "No one seems to understand how much time it takes to actually find work. Between that and falling apart, I've got my hands full."

Browning had to restructure her life, but in this age of multiple foreclosures her money problems did seem a bit on the pale side. She is darn lucky she had a second home to sell, which makes downsizing a challenge, but not the disaster that so many in this country are currently facing. But she does have some great observations on what having a home can mean to people, "Our sense of home has become portable. That may be one reason we invest our possessions with so much more meaning — they, rather than rooms and gardens, have to carry the memories."

As she starts to adjust to her out-of-work schedule she realizes that maybe she doesn't want to go back to the rat race, not completely. She starts to find a way to work out of her home, "There were days, in my climate-controlled office life, when I didn't even know whether it had been muggy or cool, or if it had rained. ... there is something unsavory about having been so cut off from the natural world that I am surprised by the golden hue in the slant of the light at four in the afternoon, on a weekday, no less."

Slow Love is definitely a paean to "stop and smell the roses," a reminder that life is short and that we surround ourselves with so much, but never leave ourselves the time to truly take it in. I also liked her de-stressing exercise, "I start doing a trick my friend Caroline taught me. I make fists with both hands, and then unclench them and relax them, holding my palms out in release. It feels fantastic, a letting go. After all, one way to complete a project is to drop it." That's right, just drop something. Say no.  Why is that so hard for so many of us to do? Or not do?

Another aspect of her downsizing her life was her battle to reduce the amount of books that she had. As a bibliophile from a long line of bibliophiles, getting rid of books really hit home for me. I keep mentally checking off books to give away to the library, but it is so hard to put into practice. I especially like how she justified letting go of her too-many cookbooks: "I long ago decided that this sort of book is not meant for cooking. It is, instead, food pornography." So let someone else drool over those recipes you are never going to cook, give them away.

Browning also succinctly sums up what a lot of us are going through at the moment, with both aging parents and children to care for, "Sometimes I feel like I am the fulcrum of a seesaw on which my children are going up in their lives, and my parents are coming down." Boy oh boy can I relate to that feeling.

Sometimes Slow Love is a little hard going. Browning jumps about in time in her narrative, from her past with Stroller, to her houses in the greater NYC area and Rhode Island. So in one chapter you feel she is making headway, and then in the next she seems to have backslid again. It is a bit disconcerting and confusing. It makes you wonder where exactly are we in her narrative of slowing down.

But Slow Love is a great reminder that we all need to look at our lives from time to time, to see what they are really about, and what is important to us. For some it may be digging in the garden, or playing some music, or spending time with our children or friends and lovers. But it never hurts to slow down and take the time to read a book, and then think a bit about what you just read.


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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

walking to school

Walking to school shadows

Green Lizard

Walking to school shadows

Monday, September 19, 2011

the mistress of nothing by Kate Pullinger

Sally Naldrett is lady's maid to Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, who is suffering from tuberculosis. She gets one day off a month and usually spends it going to London to see Egyptian artifacts at the museum. She avoids all male advances, even multiple proposals of marriage, because she feels dedicated to "My Lady" as she calls her employer, but it is clear as one reads The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger that Sally enjoys her situation.

Many opportunities are available to her, uncommon to someone in her position in 1862. She travels with Lady Duff Gordon and has a certain amount of autonomy in her mistress's household. Sally's dreams really come true when Lady Duff Gordon's condition worsens and she is ordered to leave England for two years for the warmer climes of Egypt. They travel up the Nile, visiting ancient temples, but Sally and Lady Duff Gordon (and Pullinger) seem more interested in the people of Egypt than its antiquities. They soon settle into The French House, in Luxor.


"The 'French House,' Luxor, " from A Thousand Miles up the Nile, by Amelia B. Edwards, 1890. p 452.
"My lady had come to Egypt to evade death, but in Egypt I found life."
Sally has been in service since the death of her parents in a railway accident when she was very young. She wears hand-me-down clothes from Lady Duff Gordon and lives at her beck and call. She cares for her employer and is worried about her health, but she is also thrilled at the prospect of taking the trip of her dreams. She can barely believe her luck. The Mistress of Nothing is told from her perspective, in the first person. As their travels progress, Sally gradually becomes more of a companion and nurse to Lady Duff Gordon than lady's maid, with the two women, on the surface at least, becoming closer, relaxing the class separations between them while living in a strange country. They both discard their restrictive European clothing, especially their stays and tight voluminous dresses in heavy fabrics, in favor of lighter, looser, Egyptian garments more suited to the climate.

Pullinger, a Canadian author who lives in London, writes well. The Mistress of Nothing won the 2009 Governor General's Literary Award (Canada). 1860s Egypt is described quite lovingly by her protagonist. It is hard not to get caught up in Sally's excitement as they begin their journey, even when plot turns are obvious from the first few lines in the introduction — Sally, a spinster of 30, will fall in love and have a falling out with her employer. The Mistress of Nothing is a love story, but less between Sally and her beloved, Lady Duff Gordon's dragoman Omar Abu Halaweh, than between Sally and Egypt.

Omar Abu Halaweh, from Wonders and Marvels

To complicate matters, Omar already has a wife, Mabrouka, and a little girl. He explains to Sally that he is allowed to have more than one wife and she accepts this quickly, calmly, meekly. She seems to have easily abandoned her English upbringing, viewpoint, and any cautions she may have had towards men. When Sally and Omar not only have an affair they conceal from their employer, but a baby, all hell breaks loose.
"I'm not surprised Sally Naldrett, to find you capable of this." 

Lady Duff Gordon is cast as a villain-of-sorts in the latter part of the book. She helps deliver Sally's baby with Omar, but afterward wants to see neither her nor the baby. Omar she just gathers closer to her, having him fill in for Sally as well as continue with everything he was doing previously. She insists that Sally is to blame for the affair and that she must give the child up to be raised by Omar's parents and his Egyptian wife and be sent back to England in disgrace, with no references. It is extremely hard-hearted, surely, but how could Sally be so naive of the time she lived in, her place in society, and Lady Duff Gordon's ideas of propriety to be surprised at this outcome? But a good many pages are devoted to her lamenting being shunned and her continued disbelief in her situation.


"Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon" by Henry Wyndham Phillips, oil on canvas, 1851, National Portrait Gallery, London


Lady Duff Gordon's drama — she has had to leave her home and her family, including a three year-old daughter, to die — is a poignant one. It is always there, in the story, hovering in the background, but when Sally is deep in the throes of her love affair and subsequent birth of her baby she suddenly seems incapable of seeing anything from her employer's perspective. Lady Duff Gordon may never see her family again. Her husband has drifted away, trying to distance himself from her illness and impending death. And there is Sally, in love and with a baby, just starting out. It's too much for her. And to make matters worse, Sally has lied to her, concealing her affair and her pregnancy. For someone like Lady Duff Gordon, who prides herself so highly on her own intelligence, she feels duped. Lady Duff Gordon was an aristocrat, but not rich. There may also be a financial aspect to her dilemma that Sally hasn't contemplated.

Omar's wife Mabrouka is offstage for the first part of the novel, living with his parents in Cairo. Since the story is being told from Sally's perspective, Mabrouka is not exactly a villain, but she is a presented as a negative character. But then we meet her. Not only is she sympathetic to Sally and her predicament, but she is a well-rounded enough character to be portrayed as jealous and competitive for her husband's attention. Pullinger had a great chance to really run with a story of unlikely female solidarity. Sally could have healed herself with such a friendship, especially after her illusions of shared intimacy with Lady Duff Gordon have been so shattered. Instead of pursuing this plot thread, Pullinger lets Omar make the rules, but never with any good reason why he will not support Sally, except that he doesn't want to lose such a great position with Lady Duff Gordon. Sally and everyone else in his life go along with him, even when he is essentially a weak character.

When I was traveling in Egypt in 1993 I bought a book, Khul-Khaal, Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories, a collection that focused on five contemporary ('70s-'80s) Egyptian women. The stories featured women who lived both in villages and cities, and how they dealt with women's issues such as motherhood, sex, the after-effects of female circumcision, leaving home to make a career. It was clear in all of the stories that even in the most dire circumstances other women in their lives were able to help them get through whatever challenges they faced. The Mistress of Nothing would have been a far better story if Pullinger let Sally and Mabrouka raise their children together, with neither the "permission" of Lady Duff Gordon nor their shared husband Omar. Sally does make a life for herself in Egypt, but she is still buffeted by circumstance, as she has been all her life.

Sally, Omar, and Lady Duff Gordon were all real people. Pullinger has incorporated quotes from Lady Duff Gordon's letters (which she obviously read very closely), and which are still available to be read today, Letters from Egypt:
"Omar took Sally sightseeing all day while I was away, into several mosques; in one he begged her to wait a minute while he said a prayer. They compare notes about their respective countries and are great friends; but he is put out at my not having provided her with a husband long ago, as is one’s duty towards a ‘female servant,’ which almost always here means a slave."
Sally disappears from the letters mid-June 1864 (to deal with her child?), and Pullinger exercises her artistic license. in her version of their lives But after traveling up and down the Nile with the trio through the compact book, there is no afterword or notes telling what happened to anyone. In Sally's case, no one is quite sure, but Omar did stay in Lady Duff Gordon's employment, as he is mentioned throughout her letters. What became of him after she eventually died? What about Lady Duff Gordon's family in England?

The story, and the book, peters out at the end. As disappointing as the last third of The Mistress of Nothing may be, it is still worth a read, if just for a glimpse of mid-19th century Egypt, and to awaken interest in the real Lady Duff Gordon and her travels in Egypt and Africa.
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Sunday, September 18, 2011

belated crazy birthday buffet

We've extended my birthday celebrations throughout the month — basically giving us excuses to go to some places we haven't gone to in a while, or try some new ones out, etc. Yesterday we went to "the crazy restaurant," which not only has the never-ending Asian fusion buffet that my daughter loves, but carp ponds at the entrance.

I love hot and sour soup.
Crazy Buffet - 1st course

Starting a new dining trend — jello and chopsticks.
Crazy Buffet - Chopsticks and Jello

These buns aren't just pretty, they're pretty delicious.
Crazy Buffet - Dumplings

Checking out the residents.
Crazy Buffet - Carp

Where's my dessert?
Crazy Buffet - Carp
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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Just a typical afternoon shopping trip


Masque, originally uploaded by xoxoxoe.
Forget Missoni, Target is now selling fantasy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

sometimes i wish life was like thirtysomething

I definitely caught some of the show first run, but I always found the character of Hope insufferable. I mean, I always wanted to have a kid, and understand how that completely changes your life, but she seemed the essence of the obnoxious sort of mom who comes barreling at you down the sidewalk with her stroller, brandishing it as a weapon — "Step aside or be run over — baby on board." As if being a mom made her more important somehow. I don't get that.



In fact, most of the characters in thirtysomething, at one time or another, were pretty annoying. But I did love, if not the characters, their home. I loved their broken-down but charming house in Philadelphia. For one, it wasn't New York (where I lived at the time), so it escaped the pretensions attached to life in the big(gest) city. But mostly I loved the house because it was so welcoming. It wasn't the improbable sitcommy situation of Costanza or Elaine or Kramer always coming by Jerry's apartment. It was a big, warm house, a sort of hub for a ragtag group of people who had connections to each other, some close, some dependent on inter-relationships. It was a welcoming house, uptight Hope or not. I could believe that everyone wanted to drop by for a Sunday brunch of bagels and hang out. thirtysomething was a yuppie "message" show, but the '80s were like that.

I always wanted a house, a home like that. A place where my friends and family could feel they could drop by anytime and hang out. Raid the fridge (as well as stock it). Talk about the topics of the day. Drink or just watch television. I'm no longer thirty-something and I don't live in the suburbs. I don't even live near any of my friends anymore. I'm not sure if people I used to hang with are really still my friends. If you haven't seen or talked to someone in over a year are they still your friends? Facebook helps give the illusion of that. At least with the folks who bother to send you a message or "like" your posts.



I know that there are still a few true friends out there. But I don't have a cute Gary who will cruise by on his bike in the way home from work, or a quirky Melissa who will come and dump her latest boyfriend troubles at my door, neglecting to ask how I am. I kinda miss that.

For a while, in the late '80s, early '90s, I guess I had a quasi-thirtysomething thing going with my Brooklyn apartment. I had a fairly open door policy. Friends could drop by if they were in the neighborhood. Of course the Manhattanites rarely found themselves in Brooklyn (horrors!).

What we call today my BFF, my friend Mary, was also my roomie in that Park Slope apartment for a while and then got married but lived just around then corner — we were in and out of each other's apartments and lives all the time. I remember being hit hard with a stomach bug — the kind where just getting back and forth to the john is an effort — and she came over, an angel of mercy, with juice and soup and some trashy magazines. And this was way before texting and cell phones. I do miss that.

When I lived in D.C., my cousin Ann and I made a concerted effort to see each other often. She definitely had a thirtysomething house, where friends and family felt free to swing by often — and they did. The two of us maintained a "Sunday family dinner" date, even after my daughter was born and when our schedules got hectic. Even during her illness. But Ann died about a year and a half go and we left D.C. and that way of life seems finished.

100_0181

DSC00389

IMG_4098

We all grow up, and that unfortunately means that we also grow apart, either emotionally, or merely geographically. We've been here in Florida a little over a year so far and I'm still finding my way socially. I don't work outside the home, and I'm needing to be on hand more and more for an aging mother. It hasn't been easy to start a whole new real-life social network. I'm gearing up for another big change, leaving a job I've held for over a decade, and I'm not sure if I will feel even more isolated when that ends, or if I will finally be able to get out more and meet some new people.

The apartment where we live is certainly big enough to entertain. There's a doorman, so the act of dropping by might be a tad more formal than the days when someone used to ring my buzzer in Park Slope and I'd throw them the key inside of a sock or glove out the window, but it's still doable. I'm always up for a Sunday brunch or just yakking about a book or a movie. I like that.
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

if you blink you may miss them ...

... but these films are worth a look. They all happen to be British too, coincidentally.

Anne (Garai) may be surrounded by people she can
no longer trust, but she still looks great.
"Peace at any price." Is Anne Keyes (Romola Garai) a paranoid flighty actress who is emotionally over-reacting to the death of a dear friend, or are her fears that she may be surrounded by people who are Nazi collaborators true?


Glorious 39, from 2009, is a beautifully filmed piece about an aristocratic family right before the start of Britain's involvement in World War II. Anne's father, Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy), a member of the House of Commons, is a loving father. But he has friends who visit him with very different political viewpoints, the excitable Member of Parliament Hector (David Tennant), and the sinister Balcombe, (Jeremy Northam).

The film is full of wonderful actors: Julie Christie, Eddie Redmayne, Charlie Cox, Christopher Lee, Corin Redgrave, Jenny Agutter and Hugh Bonneville. There are some strange set pieces, especially one set at a pet crematorium, a bit of a heavy-handed reference to concentration camps. Apparently there was panic at the time that household pets would have to be abandoned if war came to England, so people preemptively had them put down. Yikes.

I didn't care for the opening and closing "present-day" bookend scenes, but Anne's story set in 1939 was definitely interesting and involving. Most movies focus on the good guys and the bad guys. This is a movie about people who didn't want war, but weren't protesting peace, either. They were actively trying to bargain with Hitler. I wish there had been some follow-up with the characters, however. What happens to someone who didn't support the war once war finally came and all "negotiations" were off? Glorious 39 tries to be too many things — a period piece, a message picture, a Hitchcockian thriller. It isn't necessarily completely successful, but it's interesting. And Romola Garai is beautiful and vulnerable, especially in a scene towards the end of the film, in a red dress.


Hey lady ...
In a complete change of pace, a World War II spoof from 2001, All the Queen's Men is about a British mission to sneak into Berlin and steal the Enigma, a machine used by the Germans to send coded messages. A team is recruited by the pompous Col. Aiken (Edward Fox) to parachute near to Berlin and infiltrate the factory where the Enigma devices are produced. The brilliant strategy to prevent their detection is for the men to be in drag — the factory workers are all women.

The ragtag team includes Matt Le Blanc as an American secret agent whose missions never quite come out all right, Eddie Izzard as an officer and drag queen who will train the guys how to walk and look like women, James Cosmo as the dim but good-hearted sergeant Archie, and David Birkin as multi-lingual whiz-kid Johnno.

They are truly a bunch of misfits and are lucky to have a German co-conspirator in Romy (Nicolette Krebitz), who both provides a love interest for Le Blanc and saves their butts on numerous occasions. It's silly and old-fashioned, but also sweet and surprisingly touching, showing how the Germans, especially children, suffered as their city was blown to bits. And Izzard is wonderful and looks fabulous entertaining the German troops.

Peter (Firth) and Don (Baldwin) bond over whisky
Another comedy, Relative Values, from 2000 and based on a play by Noel Coward, is set in 1950s England. The Countess of Marshwood (Julie Andrews) learns that her son the Earl is bringing home his fiancée, a Hollywood star, Miranda Frayle (Jean Tripplehorn).

Being Coward, it also turns out that Miranda is actually the sister of Moxie (Sophie Thompson), the Countess's beloved maid, and the sisters are not on good terms. Colin Firth plays an amused and trouble-making cousin, Peter Ingleton, who is both starstruck and enjoying the further complication in the person of Miranda's visiting ex-lover and co-star, Don Lucas (Billy Baldwin). As if that isn't enough to recommend this comedy of manners, Stephen Fry plays the family butler Crestwell.

Hooray for little movies — and the DVRs, etc. that enable us to catch them from time to time.
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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

love and law, 18th century style

Article first published as DVD Review: Garrow's Law Series 2 on Blogcritics.

Garrow’s Law is a wonderful British legal series. It is based on real-life barrister William Garrow (1760 – 1840). Actual Old Bailey cases from the 18th century are used in the series, as well as Garrow’s own controversial love life. He was involved in a relationship with Lady Sarah Hill, wife of British Peer Sir Arthur Hill. They eventually married in 1793, after having two children together.



In Garrow's Law, Series 2, Garrow (Andrew Buchan) and friend and solictor John Southouse (Alun Armstrong) take underdog cases, frequently going up against rival lawyer Silvester (Aidan McArdle). A recurring theme through Series 2 is Garrow’s relationship with Lady Sarah and the scandal it creates. Garrow must defend himself and his reputation – his career may be on the line, as Sir Arthur Hill (Rupert Graves) has accused his wife Lady Sarah of adultery, and Garrow is accused of “criminal conversation” with the lady.

The cast is first-rate. Buchan (Cranford) may have a baby face, but he is very convincing as the sharp-minded and allergic-to-corruption young legal maverick. His relationship with Lady Sarah (Lyndsey Marshal, Rome, Being Human) is also convincing. They may not have acted on their feelings (yet), but passion is always simmering below the surface in their exchanges. Marshal spends much of Series 2 on edge, as her husband slanders her reputation and tries to separate her from their infant son. She believably portrays a woman who is beside herself at the thought of losing her child. Armstrong and McArdle also lend solid support, as does Michael Culkin as Judge Buller.

Garrow, a true pioneer of law, is credited with originating the phrase "innocent until proven guilty." The series tries to bring to life not only the practice of law of the period, but issues such as adultery, slavery and homosexuality. The series' production values are impeccable, from the sets and locations (some filming is done at Edinburgh University’s Old College) to the costumes and dialogue, which has the flavor of the speech of the time while still being completely intelligible to a modern audience.

Especially wonderful is the lighting of the series. Candlelight and natural light filter in through windows, adding not just authenticity, but beauty.



Garrow’s Law is a wonderful series and may finally make me a fan of shows about lawyers, a genre I usually try to avoid. Not since Rumpole of the Bailey has there been such an engaging lawyer. Happily, a third series is already in the works. Garrow’s own story and the back-log of fascinating cases should hopefully be rich enough to keep scriptwriters busy for a long time.

Series Two included four episodes:

Episode 1

Based on the real-life Zong massacre, 133 slaves are thrown off a slave ship after its captain claims the water supply was running too low to last everyone until the ship got to port (actually untrue). Liverpool Assurance asks Garrow to prosecute the ship's captain for “loss of cargo.” Abolitionist Gustavus Vassa (Danny Sapani) helps Garrow to gain a true perspective of the inhuman conditions endured by the slaves.

Episode 2

Captain Jones (Andrew Scott) is accused of sodomy, a capital offense (an actual case, which was the first public debate about homosexuality in England). Garrow must sort out the truth in the accusations swirling around the man, while at the same time fighting off the accusations of sexual misconduct that have started to become attached to himself and Lady Sarah.



Episode 3

Captain Baillie (Ron Cook) brings a series of complaints to the Admiralty, highlighting the ill-treatment of sailors at Greenwich Hospital. Coincidentally, Sir Arthur Hill is Under Secretary of the Admiralty, which turns around and accuses Baillie of criminal libel. Garrow must defend Baillie, while also trying to prove how deep the corruption goes, making an even bigger enemy of Hill than he was already.

Episode 4

Garrow is once again in court, but this time he is in the dock, finally having to answer Sir Arthur Hill’s accusations of adultery with Lady Sarah. Garrow finds an unlikely ally in Silvester, but must fight for his career and his future and Sarah’s.

Garrow’s Law, Series 2 includes four episodes on two discs, with the following extras: a short featurette – "William Garrow: Fact and Fiction," stills from behind-the-scenes, and filmographies of the cast.
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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

alfred hitchcock and the three investigators

On a recent trip to the local library with my daughter I was browsing the teen section while she was picking out books and DVDs, and ran across a blast from my past, The Secret of the Crooked Cat.

When I was 8 my dad gave me my first Nancy Drew (The Spider Sapphire Mystery), and I sped through them, getting most of the books through the local library or our bookmobile in the summertime, which is also where I discovered a few years later the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series.


Similar in style to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, the illustrated mysteries follow three teenage boys as the solve mysteries, mostly with a supernatural angle. I didn't realize it at the time I was reading them as a kid, but the plots share a lot of similarities to Scooby Doo. As I breezed through The Secret of the Crooked Cat there was even a line at the end,
The robber snarled, "Go to the devil, Carson! All of you! I'd have gotten away except for those stupid kids!"
Oh well. Not exactly high literature, but they were fun to read (and re-visit). I liked the hero, Jupiter Jones, and his friends, who were basically a bunch of misfits who happened to be super-smart. Talk about revenge of the nerds.



Jupiter is overweight, an ex-child star, and an orphan (his parents were killed in a car accident) who lives with his Aunt Mathilda and his uncle, Titus Jones, who runs a junkyard — a very handy place for Jupiter to find bits and parts to use to create all sorts of fabulous gadgets to employ in his investigations. He is called the First Investigator, and doesn't let his friends forget that. It became quite annoying actually, while reading the book as an adult, as the boys refer to each other as "First," "Second," and "Records" quite frequently.

Second Investigator Pete Crenshaw is athletic and resourceful. Jupiter may be the idea man, but Pete usually puts them into action. He and "Records and Research," Bob Andrews, make up the composite Doctor Watson to Jupiter's Sherlock Holmes. They are also reader stand-ins, reacting to the crime at hand as any kid might. Jupiter's eccentricities set him apart from even the normal super-smart geeky kid.

The Three Investigators books were a fun diversion, filling the mystery novel gap between Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, who I discovered one day after raiding my mom's bookcase, looking for something new to read. I was soon devouring The Hollow, The Moving Finger and The Labours of Hercules.

I also loved the Hitchcock connection with The Three Investigators. My parents were big fans of the slow-speaking, brilliant British director and I had already seen The Birds and North By Northwest as well as Alfred Hitchcock Presents on television. Some of the episodes are still indelibly etched on my brain, such as Lamb to the Slaughter, written by Roald Dahl, which had my grandmother in stitches about the clever murder weapon, Ambrose Bierce's Civil War story The Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge, and the scary and paranoiac Revenge.



Another Hitchcock for Young Readers selection, right next to The Secret of the Crooked Cat, was Alfred Hitchcock's Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense. This is a short story anthology, aimed at an older teen audience than The Three Investigators series. I was pleasantly surprised at how absolutely creepy the stories were, and completely enjoyable for adults, too. Among the 10 authors featured are  Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Lady in the Lake) with a very sinister story, "The Bronze Door," as well as Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley), and Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

The short stories include:

1. "The Triumph of Death," by H. Russell Wakefield - A creepy old lady, Miss Pendleham, lives with her companion Amelia in an Elizabethan-era house that may be haunted by dangerous ghosts, who may also be Miss Pendleham's ancestors.
2. "The Strange Valley," by T.V. Olsen - Three Sioux Indians see a strange creature in the valley of the Little Big Horn in the middle of the night.
3. "The Christmas Spirit," by Dorothy B. Bennett - A nurse discovers that what modern medicine can do may pale in comparison to a preserved bat wing charm.
4. "The Bronze Door," by Raymond Chandler - A man purchases an antique door that may help him remove some current pests from his life.
5. "Slip Stream," by Sheila Hodgson - Did the pilot and co-pilot really see something on the runway?
6. "The Quest for 'Blank Claveringi,'" by Patricia Highsmith - A scientist is eager to determine if there are indeed giant man-eating snails on a remote tropical island. He should probably think twice about that.
7. "Miss Pinkerton's Apocalypse," by Muriel Spark - an actual flying saucer, Spode, according to Miss Pinkerton, causes some brief but amusing panic.
8. "The Reunion After Three Hundred Years," by Alexis Tolstoy (Vampires - Stories of the Supernatural) - an old woman tells her grandchildren about her romantic past and her brush with some very unpleasant ghosts.
9. "The Attic Express," by Alex Hamilton - A man becomes very obssessed with his model train set.
10. "The Pram," by A.W. Bennett - A policeman tells the story of an undertaker who had no respect for the dead.
11. "Mr. Ash's Studio," by H. Russell Wakefield - A writer of ghost stories discovers that his latest inspiration, a mysterious painting and art studio, may be closer to is subject matter than he was hoping for.

I'm hoping that on our next library trip I'll find some more of these anthologies. Not only is it a fun bit of reading nostalgia, but a rediscovery of the short suspense and horror story, something which I haven't indulged in for quite some time. Thanks, Hitch.

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