A salute to the Williams Sisters

Posted by Lou. The time is 1.53pm here in London, UK.

Wilmbledon fever is in full throttle in London, and as we all go ga-ga over Federer (and Murray, if you're British) I'm once again reminded of the genius of the Williams sisters, and the extent to which they are often overlooked.

Serena has 20 Grand Slam titles and 2 Olympic gold medals, Venus 17 Grand Slam titles and 3 Olympic gold medals. Serena is the reigning champion in the Australian and US Opens, Venus the reigning Wimbledon champion.

They are fearsome competitors, high-achievers off the court (Venus has an honours degree and is CEO of her own successful interior design business!), charitable (Serena helped fund the construction of a secondary school in Kenya!), and - perhaps most impressively for me - constantly speak out against inequity and stupidity on the tennis circuit.

This fearless pursuit of what they believe to be right is best illustrated by Venus having spear-headed the final movement which gained equal prize money for women in the Grand Slams that had doggedly persisted in discriminating against female players (Wimbledon and the French Open). In this wonderful manifesto she argued the case for equality and won.

Here are a couple of extracts:

I’m disappointed not for myself but for all of my fellow women players who have struggled so hard to get here and who, just like the men, give their all on the courts of SW19. I’m disappointed for the great legends of the game, such as Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who have never stopped fighting for equality. And disappointed that the home of tennis is sending a message to women across the world that we are inferior.

I believe that athletes — especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women — should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message: 128 men and 128 women compete in the singles main draw at Wimbledon; the All England Club is saying that the accomplishments of the 128 women are worth less than those of the 128 men. It diminishes the stature and credibility of such a great event in the eyes of all women.

I am constantly being reminded how important female athletes are as role models in this culture of page three girls and reality tv, and hope that the Williams Sisters continue to dominate and to speak out for many years to come.

The Wonder Spot: return of a favourite

Posted by Lou. The time is 8.09pm here in London, UK.

As many of you will know I love Melissa Banks' debut novel A Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Both Bel and Lotte insisted I read it, and I immediately joined the choir. It is one of my absolute all-time favourites, and if you haven't read it for yourself I reckon that you should go track down a copy and read it immediately. So, with this in mind, her second novel The Wonder Spot seemed like the perfect thing to take away on a summer holiday.

The primary thing about The Wonder Spot for me is that the protagonist, setting and world are so similar to AGGtH&F that these short stories could be inserted between those of AGGtH&F with a few name and occupational adjustments to make it fit together. Which is on one hand excellent, and on the other hand a little disappointing. Excellent because it was more of the kind of writing that I loved, disappointing because I had hoped to be surprised and touched in the way I am every time I read AGGtH&F.

For me this one lacked the resonance of the first - it didn't quite draw me in far enough to make me get a lump in my throat and butterflies in my stomach and tears in my eyes. It is much more about the protagonist's relationship with her family - two brothers, mother and father - and I do wonder if it would actually connect more with people in a closer (geographically and emotionally) family situation [yes Bel, that is my hint that you read it and report back].

I very much enjoyed reading it, but wouldn't spread the word and insist upon people watching it as I do with AGGtH&F. Read her debut first, and if you love it read this one like you might watch the bonus features of your favourite movie's box-set, or like you might lick up the crumbs of your favourite cake.

A note on the cover: I like the style of the cover, but hate the giant facial image as for me a book should leave it to your own imagination to develop a picture of the character.

Warm fuzzies farm

Posted by Bel. The time is 8:27pm here in Wellington, NZ.

"Cold Comfort Farm" has been an absolute delight to read. Loved it! LOVED IT! I'm going to put it up there with "I Capture The Castle" and "The House of The Spirits". Instant Bel Classic hot off 'The List', folks!

This is the flat-out funniest book I have read so far (from 'The List') with the resolute perkiness of the main character, Flora, balanced by the determined melancholy or absurd eccentricity of the rural family members she becomes entangled with. It's "Emma" meets "The Royal Tenenbaums" set in the wops, except that I have never read "Emma" but I heard that "Clueless" is pretty much the same and I could reenact that for you if need be.

My only grumble is the inane cover this edition was wrapped in (click on the image for an enlarged view, if you dare). The kooky 90s style illustrations may have somewhat set the tone, but give the complete wrong impression about the era and the various characters.

I would like to see something more in the style of this here, which is the version of "I Capture The Castle" I purchased for myself (and have already loaned out twice):

Fusspot, I know, but fact of the matter is, we do judge books by their covers. And why not - the cover is our best immediate reference for what's going on inside. Let's try not make everything so hideously off-putting, shall we?

"Cold Comfort Farm": Highly recommended. Witty country mouse/city mouse fun, with a black comedy edge. #28 on 'The List' gets a resounding high (four out of) five. Next up: Gertrude Stein's "Three Lives"...

US Military: Gays? No! Neo-Nazis? Yes!

Posted by Bel. The time is 11:06am here in Wellington, NZ.

As the US military continues its 'war on terror' on numerous fronts, resources are stretched and it has become increasing difficult to recruit and re-deploy soldiers in a battle that even middle America is realising may be costing more than it is worth.

One result of this is a slipping of standards. Official policy is that soldiers are not allowed to be members of racists groups, but this expose on Salon has a lengthy interview with a neo-Nazi who details his experiences, and many other examples. Internal reports have tracked the issue for years, but as a spokesperson for 'Iraq Veterans Against The War' states, "The military is attractive to white supremacists because the war itself is racist."

However, not all standards are slipping. The US military is sticking by its policy of firing anybody who dares to be openly gay. The most high profile example is that of Sargeant Darren Manzella, who served twice in Iraq (read more here and here at the Huffington Post for further dismissed soldiers and background on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy). As far as I am aware, if any other kind of company fired you because of your sexual preference, that would be TOTALLY ILLEGAL, but this is not the first time these guys have demonstrated they believe they are above the law.

This is the same army that George Bush pumped over $800 billion into with a final flurry. That's in US dollars, people.
The "base" defense budget, which excludes the expense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has grown 40 percent since 2001 to an estimated $518.3 billion requested for fiscal year 2009. But this doesn't tell the whole story.
If you figure in other military expenditures, such as those incurred by the departments of Homeland Security, Energy, Veterans Affairs, and the numerous defense "supplemental" bills that the Bush administration has relied on to fund its foreign adventures, US defense spending stands at a staggering $863.7 billion.
This exceeds the collective annual defense spending of the world's militaries combined.

[Source: Mother Jones]

How much more is now going to be spent on law suits do you think? Oh well, only a fraction of a fraction I suppose.

Size Zero: a rather unexpected turn of events

Posted by Lou. The time is 3:04pm here in London, UK.

Alexandra Shulman, editor of the British edition of Vogue, has sent a letter to top fashion designers demanding they stop the skinnier-than-skinny trend by providing magazines with more ethical sizes for sample garments.

Her statement that they are having to airbrush models to make them look larger is incredibly disturbing when you consider the size of models appearing on their pages.

Frankly, her letter couldn't have come soon enough.

Breaking news from broken Tehran

Posted by Bel. The time is 1:51pm here in Wellington, NZ.

With nearly 250 photos on this flickr site, click thru for a pretty comprehensive view of the carnage of the streets of Iran in the last few days. Who knows how they are getting uploaded, as this BBC News report says that access to websites has become limited and the opposition newspaper has been closed down.

And just as a wee throwback, here's Ahmadinejad speaking during a tour of the USA last year, informing us all that there are "no gays in Iran".

Better than expected, in the best way

Posted by Bel. The time is 6:50pm here in Wellington, NZ.

You can imagine my glee when I pulled this off the shelf.

After ashamedly abandoning such an adimirably pre-feminist text as "The Vindication of the Rights of Women", I felt pleased that I was now being dished up what surely promised to be a delicious piece of trash. I mean, lingerie! Hellooo!

And "Spending" did indeed deliver the goods. Lots of sex. Sex described both graphically and emotionally - none of this 'cut to a fluttering curtain' business. And lots of money too, fortuitously arriving from out of nowhere and the enjoyment of its luxuries. It's set in New York to boot; not that it is a specifically New Yorkian novel, but basically any reference at all is enough for me.

Most glorious thing of all is that book isn't really trashy at all. No sir! Mary Gordon has written a wonderful novel, rich and vivid, creating a dialogue between her character and the reader that is immediately companionable. The narrative is addressed personally, as if Monica, the vivacious and talented artist who finds unheralded success (and scandal) late in life, was a friend of yours, bringing you up to speed on the latest goss. Perhaps I missed some subtext where she is actually dead and writing to herself, not dead, in the past. Or something. But I don't think so.

Any lover of art will relish this book, as the descriptions of paintings and the painting processes are detailed and evocative. My art history is pretty weak (or specialised rather: quiz me on the pre-Raphaelites and Dada/Surrealist movement only. Bit of Kahlo and Posada too.), so I didn't recognise any of the 'great Masters' referred to in the novel, but it didn't matter. As with the descriptions of food and locations (hotels in Italy, upstate beaches), everything is brought beautifully to life.

But it's not the objects that are the stars of "Spending", but the people and the relationships. I've already written way too much, so I'll just say that I loved how family ties and an intimate couple were portrayed in such an honest (and warm) way.

Dance like nobody's watching. Or like there's over 600,000 views on youtube.

Posted by Bel. The time is 11:27am here in Wellington, NZ.

The last video I posted totally took the piss out of people who remove themselves from the moment by putting a lens between themselves and what's really happening, experiencing the action secondhand and only attaching significance to that of which they have permanent records - usually digital and easy to distribute.

But in this case I say 'bully for you', because I am so glad someone captured this.

Marilyn: The Dance Musical - as shit as it sounds

Posted by Lou. The time is 11.09pm here in London, UK.

I got free tix* to Marilyn: The Dance Musical so thought "what the hey!" and went along with fellow musical buff Sherie and, well, we both despised it and thus I shall now proceed to pull it apart in detail.

Oh man, it was shite. I don't even know where to start. During the first number I realised that it was going to be a piece of rubbish - in one dance routine they attempted to "set the scene" of Marilyn's upbringing via interpretive dance. Our whispered conversation perhaps sums it up best: "this is absurd" "yes". You know what? Just skip it. Just skip it. It didn't in any way inform us of Marilyn's upbringing (other than containing a nod to her mother's psychiatric instability) and served no point other than to be tacky.

I must now mention the biggest issue I had with the show - the casting of Marilyn. Good gawd. They cast an expressionless dance who was characterised by being very tall and very lean, to the point of gangliness. Now, obviously I do not believe that women should be defined by their appearance. But we're talking about Marilyn Monroe. She was fundamentally defined by her appearance. She is an icon of the ages. Her career, her persona, her life were defined by the image of Marilyn Monroe. Yes, there was a whole lot more to Norma Jean (I shall mention this in a moment), but her legacy starts with and centres upon the image that was Marilyn Monroe. The dancer playing her did not in any way whatsoever evoke this image - seeing her in Marilyn clothing, seeing her going through the motions of "sultry" moves, watching her dance to the soundtrack of Marilyn's own voice with images of the real woman beamed larger-than-life over the stage, just served to distance the subject matter from the theatrical embodiment.**

So back to the show - the second number was worse than the opening one. Perhaps a low point in the history of theatre. As we listened to the wonderful sultry tones of Marilyn singing a playful song full of sexual innuendo the on-stage action veered far too far into the arena of vulgar and crass with a hideous overt and thoroughly unerotic scene of oral sex. It was actually embarrassing. Not racy, not risque, just embarrassing - and totally missing the point. As Sherie put it, it completely missed capturing her sensuality, instead going straight to sex.

Which leads me on to the other huge problem with this show - it completely failed to capture anything of the person. There was no sense of her career - nothing of the accomplished performer, actress, and comedienne. Nothing of her intelligence, nothing of the way she was used or the way she herself used the Marilyn Monroe image. Nothing about her well-known issues - her difficult nature, her addictions, her apparent emotional and potentially psychiatric unbalance. All we proceeded to get through the show was a series of passive relationships in which she - like so many women before her - was portrayed as an object defined by being the weak player in the lives of men, culminating in a downright offensive scene in which she lays herself out on a bed for JFK sacrificially, as if obligated to give her body over to the President.

Sherie mentioned that it was so weak and superficial that it was as if someone had just looked up the rudimentary facts on wikipedia and turned them into a show. (The baseball player, the "geeky" playwright, the supposed affair with a President, a suicide.) But reading her wikipedia page is far more interesting and reveals a quote from third husband Arthur Miller that tells more about Marilyn Monroe in one sentence than this show managed in 90 minutes: "She was a whirling light to me then, all paradox and enticing mystery, street-tough one moment, then lifted by a lyrical and poetic sensitivity that few retain past early adolescence."

Having failed to portray or evoke anything of the icon, the star, the seductress, the careerwoman, the messed-up-lady, the piece ending in her "suicide" was only a satisfactory ending in that it meant the end to a torturous hour and a half of seeing a great woman's life massacred.

I suppose I should also comment on the dance itself seeing as it was a dance show (the "musical" part was slightly misleading in that no-one actually performs any live music - it is all recordings (the best part of it, really)). As Sherie is a dance teacher I'll just regurgitate her verdict: there were some nice moments and the dancer portraying Di Maggio was great, but everything else was weak, the choices were all wrong (including an inaccurate dance style being used), and the choreography of Marilyn was totally oppositional to who she was. This was evident to even me and goes back into the incorrect physicality of the dancer - all long limbs and flexibility and sharp lines in en pointe ballet-shoes seems totally at odds with The Blonde Bombshell who to this day epitomises sultriness and sensuality.

Not recommended.

*I know people who know people

**I would hate for that to read as if I mean that long, lean female forms are inherently unsexy - I mean, rather, than Marilyn - like it or not - was defined by her curves, and you subsequently can't attempt to visually portray her without the curves. It's not just the curves themselves, but what they mean - how they shaped people's perceptions of her, and subsequently how that would have shaped her view of the world. It's just not able to be expressed via such a totally oppositional physicality, and I refuse to believe that they couldn't find a dancer with curves.

Possession: my minor contribution to the book review section

Posted by Lou. The time is 6:00pm here in London, UK.

Whilst Bel has been ploughing through The List I've been limping through one novel - Possession. I liked it, but I found it difficult to read due to my dislike of convoluted/ old-school/ pre-modern poetry. I actually ended up skipping the poetry excerpts and sticking to the main story in an effort just to get through it, and enjoyed it much better for that.

Even though I had seen the film and thus theoretically knew the storyline, I still found myself drawn in and desperate to know - in this way sampling the fanaticism of the contemporary characters. I could also sense that there are many other layers to the novel that I was not appreciating - intelligent nods and winks to literary mechanisms, literary academia and 19th century writing that entirely passed above my head. (Thankfully I was able to appreciate the critical analysis of the concept of "biographers", so didn't feel entirely dense.) To be able to incorporate those for the more sophisticated reader and still manage to keep the story alive for a pleb such as myself without appearing pretentious or smug is quite an achievement.

I wouldn't necessarily go out and recommend this book to a friend, but I do think that those poetically-minded and/ or more literary than myself would dig it (and probably already did some time ago).

(In accordance with Bel's habits I have used a picture of the version I read - one of the irritants of amazon is not having a choice of book cover. I would never normally buy the film edition of something.)

Now tell me the story of Frankenstein's creator

Posted by Bel. The time is 4:13pm here in Wellington, NZ.

After just referring to her, I realised I never actually blogged my book review of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" - i.e. the book by Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter. I know!! Funny old world aye.

This was mostly a good read because it changed so many of my perceptions of Frankenstein - i.e. the ye olde movie monster with bolts staggering around moaning!!

This book is a story within a story within a story, ultimately revealing the monster as an eloquent and misunderstood creation, whose murderous misdeeds are very nearly redeemed by his sufferings.

I thought there were similarities to Hamlet - both the inability of the lead character to take decisive action and in the weird borderline incestuous relationships that took place - tho I guess back then it was thought of as ok to marry your cousin who was brought up with you as a sister!

I did find myself skim-reading a lot of the old-fashioned prose, but I was stunned when I went back and read the introduction and learnt that Mary Shelley had written this at age 18 - a year after eloping with the (married to someone else) poet Shelley and then miscarrying his child.
Hence the need for some biographical research. No insult intended, but sounds like it would be faaar more interesting.

(Except that, of course, I can't read any books that aren't on 'The List'. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was #7).

Confession: I broke The List

Posted by Bel. The time is 3:50pm here in Wellington, NZ.

So. The List. I have vowed to read every book upon it. I have hit trouble before, but I told myself that "Middlemarch" just wasn't good 'summer reading' material, and that I would come back to it. (I will!)

But now, for the first time, I have actually admitted defeat. Last week I got out "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" by Mary Wollstonecraft and - and I just couldn't finish it. I couldn't. Imagine... an academic text... All those fancy words, those convoluted sentences, those references to things that only make sense to other academics... Right, now imagine something like that that has been written 200 years ago. Yah huh.

Lordy me, Mary Dubyah, I'm am totes on your side, and I am glad you were repping it for us sisters back in the day - but oooeee that was some complex shit to be trawling though. Especially as I am someone who reads late at night or snuggled up on the couch, and the chances of me dropping off to sleep mid-sentence are HIGH.

The basic gist was that women should have the same chances in life that men get, particularly in the field of education (Mary was a prototype feminist, not that she knew it at the time). She felt that if all women were trained up for was marriage and to be feeble, gentle wee girl-brides dependent on their menfolk, that actually did more damage than good - and was deterimental to the male poplace as well.

The strange thing was that her diatribe was addressed solely to men, not to her fellow womenkind, and is so heavily framed within the patiarchy of the time. Wollenstoncraft refers to her own gender as 'the sex' throughout "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" (okay okay, throughout the bits I read, and I assume the rest), which may be in part an idiosyncracy of the time, but is also indicative of the male-centric society in which she had to operate.

I think I am going to make up for this by reading a biography about this trailblazer - maybe I can find one that encompasses her daughter's life also? Betweeen the two of them there are a few tales to tell! (Hopefully in a slightly more comprehensible English for my lazy brain.)

PS The image supplied is not of the exact same edition that I read (ATTEMPTED TO READ) as I usually strive for, but I thought this one, where she appears to be peering out judgementally was a good approximation.

A romp through the seasons

Posted by Bel. The time is 3:26pm here in Wellington, NZ.

Even though I know I shouldn't, I am inclined to judge a book by its cover. And so when I pulled this edition of "Three Junes" off the shelf, my hopes dropped a little. To me, this cover says 'I'm chick-lit, but trying to be a bit classy' and 'oh aren't divine lunches out at our summer house by the vineyard just the height of sophistication rah rah rah', to which I say 'vomitous'.

But Julia Glass sure taught me a lesson. I enjoyed "Three Junes" so much, relishing the rich storytelling and vibrant characters, having them swirl in my head even when I wasn't reading.

This book is mostly set in New York (swoon!) and in Scotland, telling the story of a family with three very different brothers and the people that intersect with their lives. The novel is split into three parts - apparently the first part was written as a stand-alone short story, which won awards, and I can just imagine the author wanting to come back to the characters and see where their lives lead. It picks up again five years later, and another five years after that, but each time from completely different perspectives, but with just enough overlap to make you feel like an exclusive insider.

In dealing with the subject matter of families, and life and death, and time passing, you would think I would file this under my 'trashy epic' category, but not so! Such tenderness and sincerity rings true in the writing, managing to avoid the usual cliches. If you are looking for a read which is not particulary challenging, but still won't treat you like an idiot and gives you something to sink your teeth into - this is a good place to start. Don't get put off by the cover!

Tank Man

Posted by Lou. The time is 5:51pm here in London, UK.

Interesting commentary from the photographers who captured the Tank Man 20 years ago as he staged an act of defiance against the very tanks that had spent a day crushing bodies in and around Tiananmen Square.

I assume that nobody knows who he was due to the fact that he was probably taken away and shot out of sight of lenses, presumed to have been "just another" person killed in the main bloodbath by friends and family who will never know the role he played in history.

Footnote: I only just found out that Tiananmen translates as "gateway to heavenly peace". Is that the most tragically ironic thing ever in the history of language?

Has anybody got a towel?

Posted by Lou. The time is 9:27pm here in London, UK.

I love Family Guy. Love it. I could watch it morning, noon and night. I could eat, sleep and breathe it. And I very firmly believe that Seth MacFarlane and I should meet for carnal pleasure one day soon.

Well, I love Family Guy even more today after scoring this sweet Emmy consideration DVD*, which had me laughing out loud at the characteristically blunt humour:

Seth, you've got my vote. Even if it is only a metaphorical one. Pop by for dinner some time. 

*let's just say that next time you're fired from a job you really should remember to update your professional memberships

And New Zealand sinks that little bit further...

Posted by Lou. The time is 10:34am here in London, UK.

In a move further deteriorating any sense of National Pride I may have ever had, the New Zealand government has decided that women who become pregnant on a temporary visa must leave the country irrespective of personal situation, and despite the fact that being born on New Zealand soil alone does not entitle the baby to citizenship.

And I thought the UK Home Office was bad...

Will they have immigration officers poking them with sticks and throwing tomatoes as they board their exit flights? And do the Baby Daddies have to leave too?