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Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been?

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I've been to see The Queen.

Helen Mirren is dour and spectacular as Elizabeth II, and James Cromwell is absolutely believable as Prince Philip. Sylvia Syms and Alex Jennings are less physically believable as the Queen Mother and Charles, respectively, but certainly capture the essence of their parts. If Helen McCrory's portrayal of Cherie Blair is true to life, then I must say the PM's wife is not very likeable.

Michael Sheen is Tony Blair - and I mean he is Blair. His lips were a shade too red, but otherwise Sheen embodies Blair as the young, optimistic, charismatic PM who has to drag the royals into the modern era, while maintaining a veneer of protocol at all times.

The movie is convincingly cut with television clips from the time - i.e., Diana's death in 1997 - and for me, part of the appeal of the film is reliving the emotions and events. It's hard to believe that this August will be the tenth anniversary of her death, and the intervening time has given us enough perspective to see just how massive was the reaction to her death.

I think that at the time, many people felt Diana's death and the subsequent reaction, both on the part of the royal family and that of the public, were defining - and redefining - moments for the monarchy. A decade later, however, not all that much has changed. The last few lines of the movie are thus prophetic, not only because Blair reassures the Queen that she and "the institution" will survive the anti-royal backlash that coloured the public sentiment in the first few days after Diana's death, but also because she warns him that one day, the public won't love him so unconditionally, either.

Above all, the movie showed a human side to the monarchy, and convincingly portrayed Elizabeth as a woman with a sense of humour. Also, it was kind of like watching The West Wing with nicer accents. Definite recommendation.

Oh, and in passing, if you haven't seen Stranger than Fiction, rent it. It's great.

Rapid Reviews

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Just to prove that my brain didn't atrophy over the last six weeks:

Just for Laughs gala with host Craig Ferguson:
I have never seen the Late, Late Show hosted by Ferguson, but I think I'll start PVR-ing it (for the technophobes, that's "taping" without the tapes). Ferguson is hilarious, and smart and dirty. My kind of guy, in other words. Best line - when the audience didn't react to his mention of his time in rehab, he said "no, no, it's a good thing - but you're all drunks, I gather. That's right, this is an intervention. Me against you. Canada, I'm worried about your drinking."

Highlight of the gala: Demetri Martin. I've seen his 'Trendspotting' bit on The Daily Show, and it's OK, but not pee-your-pants funny. Last night he was the funniest thing in the show. Then again, maybe that's because half his jokes are, apparently, written for English teachers. To whit: "I went shopping and I was trying stuff on and the salesperson said 'if you need anything, I'm Jill.' Wow, I thought - I've never met anyone with a conditional identity before. Who are you if I don't need anything?"

"If some one asks you if you're ticklish, it doesn't matter what you say - they are going to touch you."

And of course, the line that slayed me (and I think one other person in the whole place): "It's weird how 'finger puppet' is OK as a noun."

Vancouverite Tim Nutt was great, too, although his impact was dampened by the fact that the reviewer of another show gave away half his punchlines. Since I had no idea who was in the gala line-up, I didn't know not to read the review. Local guy Joey Elias looks amazing, 70 lbs lighter - and thanks to his diet, he has a whole lotta new material. Always good.

Saturday we're off to another gala, this time with host John Cleese, which brings me to review #2...

Wine for the Confused, with host John Cleese
DVD: This was a present from TB and Irene (along with a Jane Austen action figure (she comes with a writing desk and a quill pen)). Since our trip to the UK this winter, Dr. T and I have become wine afficianados. This DVD was good - it's essentially a two-part Food Network show in which Cleese and the cameraperson drive to a few vineyards near Cleese's house in California.

We did learn some interesting things about grapes and glasses and fermenting - and best of all, Cleese turned me on to Chardonnay. I am a red wine drinker, with a definite penchant for strong grapes, such as Shiraz. I have not been keen on whites since a rather unfortunate night in my teenage years. I have drunk whites when there's nothing else going - I typically quote Alberto Tomba on these occasions: 'white is what we drink when the red is gone.'

Cleese, though, managed to convince me that Chardonnay is the heavy hitter of the white grapes. So, based on that and on Malcolm Anderson's recent review of a couple of wines, I went off to the SAQ and picked up a few different Chardonnays. Favourite so far is the Toasted Head, which is kind of peachy, with a lot of vanilla and spice. The Beringer's Founder's Estate is OK, but not a must-have. We also liked the Oyster Bay from New Zealand.

We've also rediscovered rosés, thanks to Malcolm Anderson. He reviewed a Côte du Rhone recently, and said that it wasn't as sweet as rosés typically are, so we tried it and really liked it. Then we discovered that Jacob's Creek does a Shiraz rosé. Suffice it to say that we have a few bottles of that one tucked away for future consumption.

And finally...

Recommended Reading:

I blazed through three more Sophie Kinsella's: The Undomestic Goddess (thanks for the recommendations, Jessica and Pat), Confessions of a Shopaholic and Shopaholic Takes Manhattan. So far, this author is four for four. Every single book has been a one-nighter, because I can't put them down until I'm finished. As with the first one (Can You Keep a Secret), these three have their predictable moments; but frankly, I'm a sucker for a formula in the hands of an entertaining writer.

Speaking of entertaining writers, I finally bought Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, and got through that pretty quickly, too. It's his story of his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail from bottom to top, heavily interspersed with stories he's uncovered from hikers and historians. After the disappointment of Made in America, I was relieved to rediscover the Bryson that I loved in A Short History of Nearly Everything.

I also enjoyed:
Robertson Davies' Tempest Tost, a short Leacockesque novel about an amateur production of The Tempest;

Libby Purves' Mother Country, which relies on the old American vs British culture clash but which is worth reading, especially for the peripheral characters;

Nick Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree, which if nothing else made me feel a lot better about how many books I buy. Talk about confessions of a shopaholic!

Oh, and another thing

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In the last few days, we have also managed to accumulate a few more CDs for the collection, including:

Worth a look On An Island, David Gilmour. For diehard Gilmour/Floyd fans, this is a good album. Gilmour experiments a little, including a very bluesy sound on one track, but delivers the trademark Gilmour sound - especially on vocals and, of course, guitar. The best track for my taste is the title track, which is the first single. On the other hand, it took a couple of listenings for me to decide I really liked the song; the album as a whole strikes me as a 'grows on you' deal.

One motivating factor is price - we picked it up for $14, which for a new album from a very marketable name is a steal.

One complaint - the packaging. It's pretty, and somewhat innovative, but it does squat to actually protect the CD, it's not likely to stand up well under travel conditions (in the car, in a backpack, etc.) and it doesn't fit well or extract easily from the standard CD rack.

Recommended! Chemical City, Sam Roberts. Aside from the sense of obligation as a Montrealer to support Sam Roberts, I really like the music. The first album, We Were Born in a Flame was great - each track sounds different, the lyrics are good, the music is catchy. Granted, there's nothing terribly alternative going on; the music is all MOR radio accessible. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The new album starts with a great riff in the lead track, 'The Gate,' and continues on a similarly catchy, fun tone for the rest of the album. In keeping with the philosophy that included lyrics like 's-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-m is here to stay' on the first album, this one includes a track titled 'An American Draft Dodger in Thunder Bay.'

Not as cheap as the Gilmour album, but slightly more practical packaging (what the heck is wrong with the good ol' jewel case, anyway?). Both albums include the lyrics, which I always count as a plus.

Bulletin

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In the absence of actual, substantial, thoughtful reviews, may I offer the following bullet points:

Recommended! Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy. Great book, fun to read, accessible, especially if you grew up with traditional English nursery rhymes, even more so if you're into detective fiction.

Worth a look Bill Bryson's Made in America. Follow-up to his history of the English language in the mother country, this one looks at the evolution of American English. A former Brit living in the States, Bryson has personal experience as well as exhaustive research on his side. Gets a little repetitive and cursory at times. Definitely not as fun to read as A Short History of Nearly Everything, but not trash.

Worth a look The IT Crowd. Newish UK sitcom. Geek humour - is there anything better?

Recommended! Schick's Intuition razor. I've already converted Dina and my sister to the cause. No gel! No foam! No ouchies! It's fast, it's painless, it's shower-friendly and entirely manual (no power, therefore no power source required). Buy one and shave, dammit. You look like a gorilla.

Not even at gun point. Maybelline's new Lash Stylist mascara with the comb applicator. It sucks.

Zarquon!

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We managed to squeeze in three movies this past weekend; two on DVD and one at an actual cinema. So, in brief...

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
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Oh, what a dilemma. Sex with Hugh Grant vs sex with Colin Firth. What is a girl to do?
Funny moments, and Renee Zellweger, although she cannot walk (!!!) has her moments as a comic actress. I found Shirley Henderson distracting because of her role as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter series (I have the same problem with Miriam Margolyes in the new Mystery! series).
Seriously, though, what is up with Zellweger and her inability to convincingly move like a human being?

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
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I did see this on the "big screen" ages ago, but since (a) Dr. T had not seen it and (b) it features Johnny Depp, who is on my list, I was happy to watch it again. Depp is perfect as Captain Jack Sparrow, and I was glad to have a second viewing, which helped me appreciate Jonathan Pryce's performance - altough Steve has ruined Jack Davenport for me.
In short, this is a fun movie with some easy-to-ignore plot problems (as Steve mentions, there's a presumably undead pirate underwater somewhere; also, Captain Jack is seen in his prison cell by moonlight near the beginning of the film, which in retrospect shouldn't have happened). It's Johnny Depp. All is forgiven.

...and finally...

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
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Let me begin with my credentials - I have seen the really low-budget TV series, and own it on DVD. I have read the books - all of them - several times. I have heard the radio series that started it all. I have listened to the audio book, as read by the author. I have played - albeit rather unsuccessfully - the computer game. I know the answer, if not the question.
Having said that, it is my firm belief that you cannot be a HHGG purist - HHGG has existed in too many incarnations, and your first exposure to the series partly determines your appreciation. My parents, for instance, listened avidly to the radio series eons ago on CBC. Then they bought me the first book. My kids, however, know the TV series best.
There are many, many things that I liked about this movie - for instance, Zooey Deschanel is a much better Trillian than Sandra Dickinson was in the TV series; and I loved Mos Def's interpretation of Ford Prefect - he was just kind of, well, alien. Stephen Fry is lovely to listen to, and OH MY GOD Alan Rickman was made to be Marvin.
On the other hand, I was not thrilled with the romantic subplot - it's not vital to the story, and at the risk of contradicting myself and all that "can't be a purist" stuff, there's no record of such a romance in the other versions.
Nonetheless, I was very happy with this particular incarnation, as were Dr. T and the boys, both of whom very grown-upedly sat through the movie with us. Colin has already extracted a promise from us that we will get the DVD when it becomes available.
I originally set this at 3.5 stars - the extra star is partly for the Vogons, who were priceless, and partly for the opening sequence with the dolphins, which is worth... well, perhaps not the price of admission for four people at a downtown cinema on a Saturday afternoon, but close.

The trend continues

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I feel oddly compelled to post today, if only because posting today will continue the pattern into which I seem to have fallen...

So, just to make it worth your while:

Brief reviews

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Mark Haddon
This is a great book, with a compelling narrator who is so realistic that people have been fooled into thinking that Haddon himself is autistic. In fact, Haddon did work with autistic children, and he obviously has a good writer's gift of observation.

In brief, I laughed, I cried, etc., etc. Mind you, I bought the book primarily because (a) I had heard things, (b) it had a neat cover (I know, 'don't judge a book by its cover,' but really, who among us doesn't? It works as a metaphor, but actual books can definitely be judged by their covers.), and (c) the title is an allusion to a Sherlock Holmes story, 'Silver Blaze.' Yes, the book was great, but there was a significant lack of references to Holmes, although there was a curious incident, in the night-time, involving a dog.

Definite recommendation.

Read another review of this book.

The Jane Austen Book Club
Karen Joy Fowler
I've been trying to remember which book this book reminds me of (aside from the obvious parallels with various Austen novels), and I can't! The premise is that six people - five women and one incongruous man - form an "all-Austen-all-the-time" book club. The women are of various ages, marital statuses and sexual orientations, and each one hosts one of the six club meetings.

Fowler manages to incorporate enough nuances of Austen characters into her own to let you know what she's doing, without the echoes drowning out her own story. After all, as 'Bride and Prejudice' demonstrated, Austen's characters and themes are universally recognized, if not universally experienced.

As any good Austen story, there are plenty of giggles, if not guffaws, and a few sardonic narrative grins. The narrator is the most interesting facet - this is a first-person narrative, but plural - "The six of us - Jocelyn, Bernadette, Sylvia, Allegra, Prudie and Grigg - made up the full roster..." So the implication is that the narrator is part of the group; however, the narrator's identity is never revealed. Every member of the group is discussed in the third person. I spent the second half of the book playing process-of-elimination, trying to figure out which of the six could "be" the "I" behind the "we."

Recommended, especially if you've read an Austen or two, and even more especially if you liked 'em.

Read the NYT review.

Shake Hands With the Devil
Romeo Dallaire
(not smiley appropriate)
Ok, here's the thing. I feel morally obligated to read this book. This book is well-written. This book scares the bejeezus outta me and I cannot open it right now. I've managed to read up to the end of the first day following the explosion of the President's plane. I know what's coming.

This book is an exercise in frustration. Every step of the way, Dallaire details the attempts he made to avert what was increasingly inevitable.

This book is a tear-jerker. I was sobbing by the end of his preface, for goodness sake.

This book is, above all, terrifying. The human race can be a cold, bloody-minded monstrous thing. Dallaire writes about a military observer's visits to Rwandan schools about a month before the genocide began:

"At one school, he noticed the teachers undertaking an administrative exercise: they were registering the ethnic identities of their pupils and seating them according to who was Tutsi and who was Hutu. This struck him as bizarre, since children in Rwanda were not require to carry identity cards. As he visited other schools, he discovered that the same procedure was taking place. We mistakenly assumed that this was just another example of ethnicity at play in Rwanda."

Recommended, but be prepared to feel compelled to hug small children at random.

If you have time, there's a transcript of an address by Romeo Dallaire to the Carnegie Council, as well as tons of other material - both pro and anti-Dallaire - widely available for perusal.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

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by Bill Bryson

I really, really liked this book - although it's not 'nearly everything.' This is a great history of the progress of scientific thought, particularly scientific thought in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It gives readers a really good, layman's terms, idea of what we think about the universe, the planet and the life thereon.

The Da Vinci Code

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by Dan Brown

Well, first of all, kudos to my Dad for sending my Mum to Scotland, ostensibly to visit my gran, just to find me a paperback copy of this! I have managed to avoid The Da Vinci Code thus far simply because I have been waiting for the paperback, for a couple of reasons - first, because $30+ for a hardback seems a little extravagant for a novel, and second, because I tend to read in bed, or at least in semi-prone positions on the couch, and hardbacks are heavy.

The Perfect Elizabeth

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by Libby Schmais

I picked this up on a whim because the title intrigued me and the book was on sale at Chapters for about $5. The jacket blurb starts with "This modern-day Sense and Sensibility is a witty story about two sisters: Liza, a would-be poet who spends miserable days as a legal secretary; and Bette a graduate student writing her dissertation on Toast in the English Novel."

Naturally, I figured this was the perfect book for me.

It turns out the only perfect thing about this book is the second word of the title. Granted, I finished the book in two sessions, but only because it pissed me off so much that I couldn't sleep, so I kept reading.

Always time for a quickie

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Some very brief reviews based on this summer's reading:


Tricky Business (Dave Barry)
This is Barry's second work of fiction (the first was Big Trouble, which I have not read). Dr. T and I are big fans of his non-fiction, as our bathroom library attests. Tricky Business was good, and felt very much like a Barry book - but the violence was often gratuitous and occasionally way too graphic.


The Devil Wears Prada (Lauren Weisberger)
This was the first of two paperbacks that I preordered, then waited for ages to finally get my hands on. This one was not worth the wait - while it definitely struck a chord in terms of working for an unreasonable, self-absorbed crazy woman, the writing is not as good as one would expect. The repetitious dialogue, in which the author conveys nervousness by starting every sentence with "um," was particularly annoying.


The Murder Room (P.D. James)
The second pre-order - this one was worth the wait. James still manages to create a golden age detective story while convincingly incorporating modern elements - the cell phone in the trunk is particularly eerie - and she manages to trick the reader. It's not who you think it is... and that's all I'll reveal. As for Dalgliesh, James does address the issue of his personal life, but it does not overwhelm the plot of the mystery.


England, England (Julian Barnes)
Barnes has a vicious sense of humour and a good sense of history, as I originally discovered in his History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters. This time he tackles the sceptered isle and its historical, literary, mythological import, and the result is funny, although it tends to focus more on the interoffice politics than on the satirical observation of the nation as a whole.


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie)
Inspired by the course I taught this spring in Detective Fiction, I picked this up second-hand, and I'm glad I did. Christie is a great mystery writer, and while this book features neither Poirot nor Miss Marple, the narrator is likeable, the plot well laid out, and the solution twisted.

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