Category Archives: Entertainment

Changing the Channel

Forgive the recent interruption in your regular scheduled program of nonsense; it can be blamed almost exclusively on the addition of proper television to our household. Where previously we survived on a diet of Netflix and Hulu, we are now the proud owners of 6 million pointless channels and 3 or 4 acceptable ones.

BBC America is, of course, my favourite treat. It’s a little lacking in its Russell Howard and a bit urgent in its Gordon Ramsay (and, inexplicably, Star Trek: The Next Generation), but it does keep the lads from Top Gear on my screen almost 24 hours a day.

I am also an avid fan of the ability to record almost every channel at once. This comes in handy when I can’t work out where in the channel list I’ve ended up and find myself stranded, flopping about like a helpless fish, somewhere between the pay-per-view porn and the mountain of movie channels all showing the same three films.

But what I mostly want to discuss with you people is your advertising. At first I was astonished by the pointy fingers, because in England one is not allowed to call one’s competition names in the pursuit of sales. “We’re better than [insert relevant brand]” is a definite no-no where I hail from, although I’m already sufficiently indoctrinated that I can no longer work out why.

Then I became fascinated by the content of the adverts themselves. My all-time favourite U.S. advertisement was for a Wendy’s fish fillet burger, featuring numerous helicopter shots of icebergs and glaciers, gleaming frostily in the Arctic sunshine. This did not suggest an irresistible taste experience to me; I was, rather, left wondering if fish fillets are cold and a bit crunchy.

I thought nothing could possibly top that advert for absurdity… until this week. It began innocently enough, with various shots of husbands staring lovingly at their wives as they displayed the tics and oddities with which the husbands fell in love in the first place. One wife is startled by a horror movie, for example, while the husband looks on fondly.

I believe the idea of the set-up was to advise us all to keep appreciating the little things about each other, even when many years have passed. A heart-warming sentiment, I think you’ll agree. But then the television began bellowing at me:

“AND THAT’S WHY YOU NEED TO BUY OUR ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION PILLS, SO YOU CAN KEEP APPRECIATING THE LITTLE THINGS.”

I was so surprised, both by the sudden change in direction and by Viagra being advertised on my tellybox – in the middle of the afternoon, to boot – that I burst into a giggling fit that ran unchecked for many minutes. I thought I had seen it all. I had not – but I’ve got 6 million channels now, so I’m sure I will have soon.

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Puzzled

At risk of outing myself as a nerd, for the purposes of this post I must reveal myself to be a fan of puzzles. Any kind will do – crosswords, logic puzzles, sudoku, they all have the same appeal. My glee was tangible when I discovered bumper puzzle books on sale in Walmart for $1 each… until I got them home.

I suspect my fellow countrymen mostly share my mistaken belief that we have a full understanding of American culture, thanks to our constant exposure to tellybox programmes, movies and other forms of US entertainment. However, I am now discovering how much is left out of our transatlantic education, which makes any type of question-based puzzle problematic.

I have no idea which football teams sport which colours, what the defining feature of any particular state is or what catchphrases to attribute to which of the myriad celebrities I’ve never heard a whisper of. I’m even flummoxed when asked to name a bean that serves as a salad bar staple, because a) we don’t eat many garbanzo beans in England and b) a salad bar where I’m from tends to be resolute in its offering of lettuce, tomato, cucumber and a bit of onion if you’re lucky.

The problems don’t end there. I stared at a fill-in-the-blanks style puzzle for several irritated minutes, before realising that the word I was trying to cram into the box wasn’t fitting because I was adding extra vowels to it. My brain is set up to recognise “colour” as a potential box filler, not “color”. And what is a “Halloween maze box”, for Christ’s sake? It turned out to be “bale”, which I’m still not convinced I understand. I am going to assume they meant “harvest maize cube”, which is what it would have been in an English puzzle book. Sometimes an extra vowel is not a bad thing.

Even the phrasing of most of the clues foxes me. For example: “Non-southpaw”. What? The answer was apparently, “Righty”. Righty then. I have literally no idea what either of those things means; the crossword questions in this slightly parallel dimension are as slightly parallel as everything else. I don’t use the right slang, nor do the same phrases spring to mind, nor do I recognise the same foods, geography and popular culture, nor do words always mean quite the same thing. I think, for now, it’s best I stick with the wordsearches, and the odd bit of sudoku – even I can’t mistranslate a number.


Blogger Challenge: My Life in Books

I have been ordered by my brain twin, Pignut, to pick up a challenge that’s doing the rounds of the blogosphere. The idea is to choose five books that have had profound influences on your life: one from childhood, one from your teenage years, two from adulthood and a guilty pleasure.

Two of our four bookshelves. The one in the foreground has two layers of books.

Not an easy challenge when reading is one’s most-loved pastime. I owned more than a thousand books before moving to America, not to mention the hundreds I’ve borrowed, nicked, Kindled and lost. I have so many favourites it’s taken me a week to convince myself not to just list them all; I have, however, finally managed to pick my five.

The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark

It was a toss-up for favourite childhood book between this and Black Beauty, which I’d read about six times by the time I was five. I can’t quite put my finger on any particular influence it had on me though, other than a love of horses and a long-standing confusion as to how an ostler could have lasted five years without a drink. Surely he was really bloody thirsty by the end. The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, on the other hand, was an almost constant companion during my formative years. It’s about Plop, an owl who is, as the title suggests, a bit iffy about night-time, and his long-suffering parents’ attempts to enlighten him.

On his nightly adventures, he meets various other characters who show him positive aspects of the dark, such as fireworks, camping and astronomy. I found it endlessly funny and profoundly comforting – and it’s probably the reason I became a bit nocturnal. These days it seems only to be available in picture book form, which is a shame because most of the lovable text is missing.

The Lord of the Rings

I first read this when I was quite young but, much like Joey from Friends putting books in the freezer, I was so upset by Shelob that I weepingly gave it to my mum to look after. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I began to appreciate the sheer depth of its wonders, and it remains my favourite book to this day. It has inspired me to imagine and attempt to realise my own worlds, and the stories within them, and ignited a general love of fantasy that has influenced my reading choices ever since.

My proud display of Tolkien hoarding

Such is my appreciation, and also Hubby’s, that, between us, we own seven different copies of the trilogy. The fact that Peter Jackson’s dabblings in Middle Earth are also my favourite movies does nothing to hurt.

American Gods

Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors; if you have not yet read his books, you may perhaps have seen adaptions of his work in Stardust and Mirrormask. Endlessly inventive and two sidesteps from the norm in terms of style, his books take you to worlds you’d never thought to imagine. I also have a soft spot for Neverwhere, about a man who gets trapped in an alternative London where Earl’s Court tube station is literally the court of an earl and The Angel, Islington is literally an angel, living near Islington. Good Omens, which he wrote with Terry Pratchett, is arguably the book I should have chosen as far as life influence is concerned; it was, after all, in response to my blogging of a passage from it that Hubby and I first spoke.

 

But, for good or for worse, American Gods is the first I read and the first time I was dragged into Gaiman’s mad genius mind. The premise is that gods and mythological creatures only exist because people believe in them, and the book focuses on the old-world gods that immigrants to the US brought with them. Because belief has declined radically since that time, the gods, too, have diminished. And they’re not particularly happy about it.

World War Z

Less a book about zombies and more an examination of psychology, sociology, geopolitics and the general human condition, World War Z uses the concept of a worldwide zombie outbreak as the backdrop for a thought-provoking examination of how humans really would react in such a life-or-death situation. It’s told as a series of interviews, each with a different survivor, each one with their own experience of the outbreak. Some of the behaviour exhibited by individuals, officials and whole governments is utterly reprehensible, but in all cases understandable, and gives the shining moments of heroism, no matter how tiny, even more impact.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in humanity’s foibles. Ignore the zombies, if they aren’t your thing – it’s not that hard to do, because they are secondary, at best. The horror comes from actions of their prey, making this a social commentary that hits the mark on every level. It was suggested as something I might like several years ago by Sparky Malarkey and, since then, I’ve read it several times and we often listen to the audio book on long road trips.

The Farseer Trilogy/The Tawny Man Trilogy

A bit of a cheat wrapping six books up in one, I know, but you can’t really have one without the rest. It’s also only a guilty pleasure if you’re a bit sniffy about fantasy novels, which I know a lot of people are.

It is, however, the best written piece of fantasy I have ever come across, aside from, of course, Tolkien. Unlike the majority of authors within the genre, Robin Hobb refuses to rely on the traditional bestiary dreamed up by Tolkien and invents an entire culture without a single reference to orcs and cave trolls. Her concepts of magic and race are a far cry from the norm and her story is unique. The books are each the size of doorsteps, but I devoured them within a couple of weeks. Admittedly, I stayed up till about 4am to do so.

(Honourable Mention: The Other Hand

I’m sneaking this one in because I only read it a couple of months ago and its influence is therefore new. Written by Chris Cleave, it’s the tale of a London journalist and a refugee from Nigeria – and that’s all I will say about it, for fear of ruining its impact.

What I will say, however, is that it is incredibly touching and beautifully written and there are sentences in that book that will stay with you forever. It will also make you cry, several times.)

 

And in summary…

The books I love best, as you can see, are the ones that pull me into a world that’s not my own, one where I can lose myself in mythologies, cultures and ideas. I’m not entirely sure what that says about me, other than that I sort of wish I was a wizard.



The Youth of Today

A weekly treat for me is accompanying Hubby to college and waiting patiently in the car, accompanied by a vast array of potential pastimes, until he has been educated for the day and can ferry me to the supermarket.

It’s always an amusing opportunity to people-watch, despite Hubby’s penchant for parking as far away from every other car as possible, but this week’s trip was almost exciting: in the car next to ours was a dead body.

For half an hour I watched her, growing increasingly concerned and wondering whether or not I should tap on the window and ask her if she’d demised, and in all that time she didn’t budge an inch, simply sat motionless, head hanging, hair covering her face.

Another quarter of an hour later, just as I was contemplating a stealthy wander around her car so I could take a look at her face before calling 911, she finally moved. Her head bobbed up and her hand appeared, and all became clear.

For almost an hour, she’d been playing about with her mobile phone, presumably texting the world at large and playing a few games of Angry Birds. She then drove away, scuppering my theory that she, too, was waiting for somebody.

Lost in the social possibilities of technology, oblivious to the real world, for extended periods of time without a break or body movement: it’s nice to see that some things are the same on both sides of the Atlantic.


I Wear a Stetson Now. Stetsons are Cool.

What a wonderful example of serendipity: Doctor Who, one of my favourite televisual delights, will be following me to the prairies for the next season. He wears a stetson now. Stetsons are cool.

Hubby is jealous of our Doctor Who tradition, as he can’t think of an equivalent this side of the ocean. For those of you who have never heard of the show: it’s one of our longest running series, having first aired the day after JFK was shot. You might be wondering whether the title character is now in his dotage, but actually he’s in his late twenties. The Doctor, you see, is a Timelord, which means he can regenerate when badly hurt. Every so often the series receives a reboot in the shape of a new actor, with new quirks and traits, and new companions to travel all of time and space by his side.

Matt Smith: new Doctor, best Doctor

Every time this happens, the nation mourns. Until last Christmas, the Doctor was played by David Tennant. He was much-loved and, on hearing of his imminent sort-of-death, we all swore we’d hate the new Doctor. Most of England scowled at footage of his successor, Matt Smith, muttering that he would never be a proper Doctor and that we’d probably have to boycott the show.

David Tennant (left): used to be the best Doctor

We do this every time. Five minutes into Matt Smith’s first episode, we adored him and had forgotten all about our beloved David Tennant, except to declare that he can’t have been as good as we remembered because Matt Smith is the best Doctor there has ever been.

All of us have our own Doctor: the one we watched first, the one we mourned first, the one we quickly forgot all about first. For me, it’s Sylvester McCoy, who, in hindsight, was barking bloody mad. My granddad actually managed to despise him for his entire run, thus entering the history books as the only recorded case of Doctor Hatred that lasted past the first episode.

Sylvester McCoy: weird bleeder

Hubby now has his own Doctor, of course, but it’s not the same. Particularly as he managed to go backwards before he went forwards, replacing David Tennant with Christopher Eccleston before coming back to David Tennant in time for the Matt Smith regeneration. David Tennant is doubly his Doctor, you might say.

I hadn’t really thought about it until he explained his envy, but the US doesn’t work quite the same way when it comes to long-running shows. In England, we appear to have mastered the art of refusing to let things die: Blue Peter, Coronation Street, Eastenders, Emmerdale, Antiques Roadshow and many others have been gracing our screens since before I was born. In the US, a ten-year run seems to be the maximum, according to Hubby (whose knowledge I trust, as he does love his tellybox).

Matt Smith: definitely the best Doctor

Perhaps this is a product of the BBC being our first broadcasting company. They can pretty much do whatever they like (as long as the licence payers are happy about it) and what they seem to like is 50-ish years of hokey science fiction that made our parents hide behind the sofa in terror when they were wee.

Whatever the reason, the upshot is that England has several shows that have gone on for long enough to have been absorbed into our culture in general. No matter our age, we all have our own Doctor, and, for a high percentage of Brits, we discovered him in childhood. It’s a similar story with other shows: we all have our own specific Blue Peter presenters (and dog), we all think of the Queen Vic in Eastenders as belonging to someone in particular.

Lots of Doctors: none of these are the best Doctor

But Doctor Who is the best example of all. You can watch it on BBC America, which will happily be running only a week behind the UK when the new season begins in the spring, and I strongly recommend it, but you might need a bit of a primer first, as it’s got terribly complicated over the years:

1) Matt Smith is the best Doctor ever, as previously affirmed. He is a Timelord, hundreds of years old, and each iteration has his own personality. Matt’s is the best. Yes. We know him only as the Doctor, we have never been told his real name.

2) The Doctor is not only a Timelord, he is the last of the Timelords. His arch enemy, the Master, keeps popping back up, but he’s a crap Timelord because he’s naughty and just wants to take over things willy nilly. The rest of the Doctor’s race was destroyed in the Time Wars, fought against the Daleks.

3) Talking of Daleks, you’re not allowed to laugh when you first see one. We are all aware they look like bollards with a plunger and a whisk taped to them, yes, but wait till one comes at you shrieking “EXTERMINATE”. You won’t be giggling then. You’ll be behind the sofa with my mum.

Amy Pond: best companion to the best Doctor

4) The Doctor travels with a companion at almost all times. Currently, his companion is Amy Pond, the first one not to drive me up the wall since I forgave Billie Piper for her “singing career” and allowed her to charm me as Rose. Some companions end up as loved as the Doctor they travel with; Sarah-Jane, for example, now has her own spin-off. I doubt any companions will ever be as loveable as Matt Smith though. He’s the best Doctor ever.

5) The Doctor travels in a Tardis, which looks like a 50s police box, which in turn looks a lot like a telephone box and/or portapotty, depending on your reference point. It’s bigger on the inside. There’s a swimming pool and a library in there somewhere (at one point they were in the same place, but that wasn’t on purpose).

Inside the Tardis. See? Bigger.

6) The Doctor does not kill people. He’s never armed, unless you count his Sonic Screwdriver and his rather brilliant brain. He commands a healthy respect out there in the universe: several invading alien armies have recently fled in terror when they spotted him on the Earth. He sees himself as our protector, as he has a soft spot for the human race.

It’s sometimes cheesy, was made on a shoestring until recently and the humour is very, very English, but it’s meant to be that way, the stories are always amazing and Matt Smith is the best Doctor ever. Seriously. So, if you’ve yet to spot it on your tellybox schedules and you’re feeling a bit adventurous, you could do a whole lot worse than making Matt Smith YOUR doctor.


Harry Potter and the Inevitable Teabag

I have just returned from watching the latest Harry Potter installment. I bring back an observation for you:

I will award 10 cool points to the first person able to name a British movie that does not feature a cup of tea.