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Whether or not the Simpsons movie could have been described as 'long awaited' is up or debate - I mean, anytime I want to watch my favourite yellow american family, all I have to do is switch my TV on in the evening and they're normally there. So what is the need for a movie? I set about to find out...
The basic premise of the Simpsons movie is very much an amalgamation of various Simpsons TV episode plotlines spread over a feature-length stretch of time. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.
There are bad things happening in Springfield - an environmental crisis in fact. Naturally, Homer's gung-ho greedy laziness doesn't exactly do anything to fix the situation - in fact, the opposite - the Simpsons become rather unpopular, flee town, and eventally return to save the town from doom!
As I said, a patchwork of various plotlines from the series. But it's more than that - for a start, the jokes come thick and fast, and thankfully this is Simpsons at its best. As well as being mercilessly sharp and clever regarding current issues, it's jam packed with cultural references and there's a giggle around every corner, be it slapstick, satirical or surreal. Homer's interaction with the legendary 'Spider pig' alone would have been enough to get people watching this movie!
An interesting touch here is the visuals. The animation here appears to be done using computers and in 3D, rather than the classic hand drawn look we're used to. I've heard some people criticise this change - think of the Futurama intro sequence - however I don't think it looks bad at all. In fact I like the super-smooth animation, and it makes complex action sequences on the big screen all the more possible. As far as I'm concerned it still looks hand drawn, just really slick at the same time.
I really enjoyed this movie, it's touching, funny and clever. However ultimately there is very little to distinguish it from the Simpsons TV show and I feel a similar amount of desire to rewatch it as I would a normal episode.
Well, okay, I tell a lie. There is ONE thing in particular on this DVD that you'll never find on a TV episode. When you're watching, just watch for a scene that ends with Bart up against the window, with no clothes on, right in front of the Flanders family... and you'll know what I mean! Dear me... but oh, how I giggled!
Directed by Richard Linklater and released in 1993, Dazed and Confused is an excellent teen movie set in the mid 1970s.
The first thing you notice about the movie is how brilliantly it captures the sense of the era. I mean, it actually feels like it could have been shot at the time it was set. This may have more to do with its low budget than anything else, but still along with the well-picked 70s soundtrack it creates a great atmosphere throughout.
The film centers around a big group of schoolkids in America. Unlike some teen films, where everyone seems to be the same age (in reality their late 20s!!), the characters are from a variety of school years from juniors to seniors - the interaction and hierarchy is entertaining and a central part of the movie.
There's an excellent performance from Matthew McConaughey, who plays Wooderson, a kid who graduated high school long ago but still hangs round to impress the girls with his car and er, well, his moustache.
The main character, if any, is probably Mitch, played by Wiley Wiggins. Graduating Junior year and facing a year as a freshman - which seems to involve being routinely beaten and picked on by the seniors - Mitch gets his first experience of a night-long party with booze, drugs and girls. Wiggins performance is great, and I'm sure his story will stir up nostalgia in many blokes about their 'awkward' early teenage years!!
For the most part however, the movie hops from character to character, and the mischief they get up to. Nearly every one of the many characters in the movie is very memorable and harks to some teenage stereotype or another.
This film might not be for some people, as the storyline is virtually non-existent. It basically follows a short period of time, there's no plot arcs, no big events. This is not a movie of high drama, however it potters along at a nice pace, and in my opinion it's a great film despite this.
Overall, Dazed and Confused is an absolutely fantastic teen movie. It's chilled out at points, riotous at others, and it's full of brilliantly portrayed characters. Watch out for a young Ben Affleck as the school bully!
One of the more recent books in the excellent Horrible Histories series, Loathesome London covers the history of England's capital as well as more general topics about life in Britain over the past 2,000 or so years - "the bad old days" as author Terry Deary puts it!
Unlike most Horrible Histories books, Loathesome London does not specifically cover any one period in history, although the main focus of the book is London in Medieval times up to the late 19th century.
Rather than a history book per se, this book is more of a collection of stories and anecdotes. Sort of like a 'best of' compilation, Deary has compiled an entertaining bunch of gruesome facts and grim tales.
'Cool for Criminals' is a particularly dark and witty section, including a run down of the various notorious London criminals over the centuries, as well as examples of "quaint and cruel criminal activity through [London's] history" - including body snatching, pickpocketing and highway robbery. I was particularly tickled by the story of Jack Collett, who robbed people on the road dressed as a clergyman, and Jenny Diver, a pickpocket who devised a pair of artificial arms so that she could surreptitiously steal from rich ladies in church!
There's a whole section called 'Awful to animals', that covers cruel pursuits such as bear baiting, bull baiting, cock fighting, dog fighting, horse baiting and badger baiting. I think this section would give kids a great insight into how views have changed over the years, and is supported by quotes on the subject from writers at the time.
It's not all grim though - not only is the writing style light hearted, there are also several asides that are more concerned with odd and amusing quirks of London life than anything else. There's a great section about Cockney Rhyming slang, accompanied by an illustrated dialogue between a Victorian Cockney gentleman and a policeman that doubles up as a quiz. 'London's Lousy Jobs' gives a few examples of some rather undesirable jobs that have been carried out over the ages, including the ambiguous sounding "Pure Finders", who spent all day picking up dog droppings from the streets to sell on to Tanners.
Overall, Loathesome London is another entertaining addition to the Horrible Histories series. Although it may be less useful for school than some of the other books that cover specific eras in history, it is still a good read with plenty of information that will captivate children and grow their interest in history.
Michael Moore's documentary 'Sicko' presents a damning deconstruction of the American healthcare system.
It begins with an exploration of the ideologies that founded the privatisation of healthcare in America, and shows that the reasons behind privatisation - the belief that the right to choose your doctor would improve standards in medicine - had inadvertently priced healthcare outside the means of average working people in many cases.
As a British person, some of the counter-arguments that people have come up with throughout the years to a nationalised health service seem ridiculous and absurd. Michael Moore alludes to the fact that whenever a nationalised health service is proposed in America, certain interests tend to view it as sinister by design. Words like communism and socialism are bandied about in lobbyists speeches, and the inference is that doctors will be paid less and the quality will go down.
Whilst I don't think the NHS in the UK is perfect by any means, it's great that nobody gets left behind or has to make the decision that one man had to make in America after an accident with a band saw that cut off two of his fingers - which one would he pay to reattach!! (he couldn't afford both)
Another elderly man was unable to retire, because he had to work to pay for himself and his wife's medication. Moore visits many people whose lives have been savaged by the costs of privatised healthcare, and each of them has a poignant story to tell.
Moore goes full throttle on the medical insurance companies, showing case after case after case where people have had to sue to get the coverage that they've paid for. He also gets help from various insiders, one man whose job it is is to look for any tiny indication that the condition presented is pre-existing, and a woman who reveals the list of conditions that would be grounds to deny you any insurance whatsoever. The list is long, ranging from Asthma to Cancer. By the end of this list, you start to wonder how anyone gets insured at all!
I wish Michael Moore had gone into more detail really, of what really happens to those Americans who don't health insurance, become sick and then attempt to get health insurance - where do they go, and how do they fare? Are they just forgotten about?
Moore then tries to show how alternative healthcare systems work around the world. He visits Canada, the UK, France, and then latterly Cuba. To a certain extent, whilst he's in these countries, he doesn't go out of his way to acknowledge any of the issues and problems that we have within nationalised healthcare - waiting lists, for example, or a shortage of beds.
However, I think the main reason he visited and features these countries is to challenge American perceptions that standards would plummet, that doctors wouldn't be paid well, and that they would have no choice over the treatment that they receive. He makes this point well, and it would seem useful in presenting the other side to the American audience, who may have never heard of or experienced such a system in action.
To be honest, after watching the movie I had a new found gratefulness for the system we have, many of my relatives it would seem would have been left behind by the American system, whereas in the UK they have received on the whole more than satisfactory treatment and recovered from some quite serious illnesses.
The history lesson given by Tony Benn on the Beverage Report , which explains our ideology behind universal healthcare - that nobody gets left behind - fills me with pride. The fact that Winston Churchill, one of our most popular statesmen ever, was not re-elected after he'd led England to victory after the Second World War over this issue, speaks volumes about the values of the generations before us.
The downfall of the movie for me are the showpieces that Moore enacts to prove his point. A visit to Guantanamo Bay with suffering 9/11 rescue workers in search of treatment seemed over provocative and unnecessary considering that he'd made his point sufficiently within the first half hour of the film. Don't get me wrong, Moore doesn't play up the 9/11 connection to exhaustion, however I still think this part could have been left out. I feel that he potentially put this part of the movie in because this connection would have a certain resonance with an American audience, however I also think that the more conservative voices within America that may have been swayed by the facts of the case could potentially see this as politicisation and sensationalism.
Additionally,Moore's suggestion that the Guantanamo Bay residents were getting better treatment than the 9/11 volunteers seems a bit callous now, after allegations of inhumane torture of the inmates there.
All in all, Sicko is an informative, entertaining and poignant documentary. What it's most successful at doing is challenging some of the negative perceptions of universal healthcare, and highlighting the positive. Moore's approach is fast-moving and exciting, although at points veers into hyperbole, and in the case of Guantanamo Bay, shows himself to have insufficient understanding of the actual conditions there to make the point he made.
I never actually managed to catch the Sopranos when it was first aired on TV - however, I heard so many good things about it from friends and critics that I felt almost obliged to buy this DVD when it was released.
Now, after watching every series of the Sopranos from start to finish, multiple times, it's now my opinion that it's one of the best TV dramas ever made. The Sopranos is a gangster drama that follows the life of Tony Soprano, a mob leader in New Jersey.
One of the great things about The Sopranos, is how It differs from your average gangster movie. The Sopranos is not about gangster clichés, Tommy guns and heists. The show is more focused on the lives of the various characters in it, from Tony's dysfunctional family to his group of trusted companions Big Pussy, Silvio, Christopher and Paulie.
As well as introducing Tony and his pals, and following their individual misadventures as they try and get by in modern gang life - that seems to mostly consist of drinking all day in Tony's club 'Ba-da Bing', (it ain't what it used to be...) - the show explores Tony's own psyche, with the help of his long-suffering psychiatrist Dr Melfi. This moves to uncomfortable territory for Tony, a 'man's man' who hates vulnerability, and includes his relationship with his mother, a slightly sinister (not to mention unpleasant and grumpy!) figure played perfectly by the late Nancy Marchand.
The Sopranos manages to seamlessly intertwine multiple stories to excellent effect. The storylines are often slow burners rather than high-drama, and the show has a satisfying lack of cliffhangers and other cheap plot devices. Instead, The Sopranos slowly immerses you into it's New Jersey underworld setting, and soon you find that you're developing emotional attachments with most of the characters.
The shifting relationships throughout the series are intriguing and the dialogue is in my opinion some of the best ever written for TV, in fact each individual episode is of the same high quality as a five-star feature film.
This DVD comes with the standard selection of extras, including commentaries and a couple of short interview featurettes - although these are nothing really special, this is the kind of show that you'll get so into, you'll actually want to watch them anyway!
Overall, The Sopranos is a fantastically well acted and well written drama, and this DVD set of the first season is a brilliant introduction to one of the most involving and entertaining shows I've ever seen on my TV!
'The Vile Victorians' by Terry Deary is part of the excellent 'Horrible Histories' series, a set of books written to get children interested in history with an irreverent writing style, and by highlighting the more gruesome aspects of life at the time.
The first section of the book is 'Vile Victorian Timelines'. This section gives a run down of important historical events, the twist is that they are categorised into 'the good', 'the bad' and 'the ugly'.
Another section of the book covers Queen Victoria. It's full of various facts about the monarch that you may not have heard before - for example, who her favourite and least favourite Prime Ministers were (she called William Gladstone 'half crazy and, really in many ways, a ridiculous old man'), and all about the seven assassination attempts she survived. I found that whilst this section gave a great insight into Victoria's life, it was written in a format that was as funny and engaging as, for example, a Roald Dahl book.
It also covers her bishopophobia - yes, Victoria had a fear of bishops - and her childhood temper tantrums! Statements like 'the Queen did not grow to five feet tall - she made up for it by being about five feet wide later in life' are an example of the irreverent writing style found throughout the book.
The book has a large section dedicated to childhood in Victorian times, beginning with a grim but amusingly written run down of infant mortality. The section also covers jobs for children, including working in the mines, with the help of a short story, Chimney sweeping, nail making, as well as 'a day in the life of a parlour maid'. I particularly enjoyed the section about schools - not only does this section cover what life was like for the kids (including school punishment, and what you could be punished for) but also in an interesting twist what life was like for the teachers!
Some of the asides scattered around the book are particularly funny. 'Vile Victorian Names' lists 'Lettuce', 'Murder' and 'Tram' as Christian names given to newborns in 19th century Britain! 'Vile Victorian Food' includes examples of meals eaten in Victorian times, such as 'Mice in batter' and 'Squirrel pie' - as well as some recipes to try at home, fortunately these recipes are significantly more appealing!
As with most Horrible Histories books, the book is full of entertaining cartoons drawn by Martin Brown, which do a great job of making the reader laugh whilst getting the point across. There's even a great 2-page cartoon strip that does a great job of explaining the charge of the Light Brigade.
Last year I was planning a trip to Canada, and picked up this book when I spotted it in WH Smith for £15.99. The cover appealed to me as it has a beautiful photograph of a lake set amongst pine forests and a backdrop of white tipped mountains...sentimental, but appealing!
The book is divided into sections by area, and then further divided into individual attractions. I
found it handy that each section was colour coded with a little tab at the side of the page, which made it easy to flick through and quickly find the section I looking for.
The history section at the start of the book gives a quick but informative overview of Canadian history throughout the years, paying particular attention to Canadian culture, literature, music and cuisine. This section is an enjoyable read, and I was surprised at how little of it I knew!
The book is great for people who want to plan a Canadian holiday but haven't decided which part of Canada they want to go to yet. The pictures of the landscapes and monuments give you a great feel for the surrounding scenery and the places you definitely don't want to miss.
Once you've decided on where you want to go, the book gives details and recommendations of restaurants, museums, hotels, shopping centres and other attractions that you can plan an itinerary around. Whether you're a culture vulture or just like to shop on your holidays there's plenty of detail there to give your trip a head start.
Something that is quite handy is the 'Canada through the year' section, which gives you a run down of all the major events and festivals during the different seasons and month to month. I found this really useful in planning when to go, as I decided to plan around the (excellent) Montreal Jazz Festival.
I didn't really need the 'Survival' section at the back of the book as I went during the summer - however, the tips on how to deal with the winter weather, especially driving on the icy roads, and what you should have with you 'just in case' I would imagine would be very useful if you were visiting in the winter. There are also tips on how to deal with bears... "Keep still, speak to them in a low voice, and put your luggage on the ground to try and distract them" - yes, this book could be a lifesaver!
I guess the one downside to the book is it doesn't provide specific sections for people on a tight budget, families with children or the elderly , but most of the information you need is in there so it doesn't seem worth knocking it down a star.
As I said at the start, I think this book is best for people who don't really know where in Canada they want to go, who are trying to make their mind up, it might not be suited to those who are on an absolute shoestring budget, who might fare better with the Lonely Planet book.
I picked up this book for my little brother from WH Smiths. I'd heard great things about the Horrible Histories books, and thought I'd give them a try - I wasn't disappointed.
Tudor history is often remembered from school as a series of kings, queens and dates to recite, however only the first 20 or so pages of the Terrible Tudors is explicitly given over to the monarchs. The rest of the book focuses on the people and life at the time, and is helpfully divided into sections such as "Terrible Tudor Schools", "Terrible Tudor Food", "Terrible Tudor Clothes" and "Terrible Tudor Life for Women".
The book is almost like a condensed encyclopaedia of the most important aspects of Tudor history that your child/children would need to know in order to pass a test. It has a timeline of the key dates as well as a description of the most important royal figures, clashes and rebellions, as well as solid explanations over the struggles about the national religion.
The authors (Terry Deary and Neil Tonge) have a compellingly humorous writing style, and are not afraid to skirt around the grotesque to shock and excite their young readers. The result is a pleasantly down to earth and enjoyable account of Tudor History. The authors seem to be acutely aware and utilise kidology to mask their educational text as a collection of fun and gruesome facts and stories that kids will WANT to read.
It's packed with amusing text boxes that are filled with useless but highly interesting information. Many of these contain information that will rarely be found in a conventional history textbook, but that's really appealing especially to children, like 'Tudor School Rules' - "No scholar shall wear a dagger or any other weapon. They shall not bring to school any stick or bat, only their meat knife."
Another example is the 'Rogues Dictionary', which is full of definitions for Tudor slang words at the time. After I've finished this review, I think I'll "couch a hog's head"... (which means go to sleep!)
Alongside the main text, the book has great 'How to' sections, for lazy Sunday afternoons, for example recipes for authentic Tudor meals such as eggs in mustard sauce and 'Jumbles' (knotted biscuits), as well as instructions on how to make mock Tudor ruffs made out of doilies and quills, though the latter will definitely require parental supervision!
Martin Brown's cartoon illustrations are featured throughout the book. They're excellent and perfectly suited to the irreverent nature of the writing, something children will enjoy. They're drawn in a sketchy style and are accompanied by dryly witty captions that adults will giggle at as much as children will!
"Mad Men: A term coined in the late 1950's to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue"
Mad Men is an American drama series that has recently been shown in the UK on the BBC. It's written and produced by Matthew Weiner, who was also responsible for the final three spectacular seasons of The Sopranos. So we've got him to thank for the controversial non-ending in Season 6! The show takes place in the early 1960s, and centres around the employees of an Advertising company in New York called Sterling Cooper.
Mad Men offers a dual perspective of the tail end of the 1950s boom. On one side picturesque abundance, on the other a seedy underbelly of unfulfilled wishes. This sense of affluenza is expertly evoked in the title credits, which depicts the "successful businessman" falling to his doom from a skyscraper, passing adverts for pin-up girls, nylons, liquor, cigarettes and Cadillacs.
One of the best things about Mad Men is the setting, which seems really authentic and is executed brilliantly. Everybody smokes, everybody drinks - in the office of course! Mad Men does not ignore the racism and sexism that was rife at this time, African-American characters in the show are restricted to certain roles, for example housekeepers, bellboys and lift attendants. Men are men and women are either pin ups, homemakers or secretaries.
The series is full of cleverly devised moments, where it becomes clearly apparent that the show takes place in a different world to our own. There is one hilarious and memorable moment, where the office acquires a new machine - a photocopier - the huge device is soon surrounded by a host of comically bewildered staff.
Don Draper is probably the closest the series has to a main character, a 'strong silent type', played to perfection by Jon Hamm. I don't want to spoil anything, but let's just say that Draper has a mysterious past which over the course of the first series he is forced to confront. Throughout the series, Don's distant relationship with his wife Betty is put under increasing strain by his disconnected and adulterous nature.
Peggy Olson is the 'new girl', a secretary who has just joined the company at the start of the series. Peggy is young and naïve, and from the moment she is shown to her desk has to cope with the overtly bold (and by todays standards, completely inappropriate) advances of her male colleagues. Peggy grows and changes throughout the season, and soon reveals an ambitious streak.
Pete Campbell is a young, well educated clean-cut salesman, and one of the most intriguing characters in the series. He is incredibly ambitious, and when he wants something, he gets it, no matter who gets hurt as a result. There are several points that reveal Pete as a slimy, self-interested, backstabbing type. His character, however, is much deeper than that, and I soon found that I empathised with him as I watched him suffer in quiet desperation from the expectations of his well to-do family.
There are tonnes of other great characters in the show - but I won't list them all! The dialogue in Mad Men is written expertly and subtly, and I soon found myself being drawn in to the characters fascinating and often messed up lives.
The Mad Men Season 1 DVD comes with commentaries for each episode, which are fairly interesting and give an insight into Matthew Weiner's vision. There are also a handful of short documentaries featuring the writers and ensemble cast of the series.
If you get the opportunity to get hold of this DVD, you shouldn't pass it up. It's been very well received and critically acclaimed, for good reason. The dialogue is witty and sharp, and the depth of the characters that is explored over the series is of a quality higher than most shows on at the moment. It's definitely worth a watch.
The USA is such a huge country, with so much going on, you would think it would be impossible to write one book that covers the whole lot in adequate detail. The Rough Guide to the USA does just that.
I've always had a great interest in the USA - it's such a diverse and fascinating country. I bought this book in the hope that it would make it easier to plan my holiday to New York, and also to give me further ideas for holidaying in the states. Thanks to this book, I now have multiple USA holidays that I'm considering for the future.
The scope of the book is impressive. There is a comprehensive section for every state in the USA, as well as for every major city across the country.
Despite purporting to be merely a 'Rough' guide, the detail that this book goes into is no less than comprehensive. The book is essentially divided by locations, and every sentence seems to reference one or two locations or attractions, including street addresses, opening times, web addresses and phone numbers. Each section also contains a summary of highlights in that area - handy when trying to choose the location of your next holiday without having to read the book cover to cover!
The book is also jam packed with sub-sections, including asides about cuisine, architecture etc., each of which offers a quick fire list of highlights covering either the specific area or the whole country. You can be sure wherever in the USA you're going to you'll be able to find the best place for a burger, to catch a show, to party all night long and somewhere to rest your head at the end of it all.
Although the book is full of detail, and refers to thousands of different places to go, the text itself is not bland. The book is actually a pleasure to read - I doubt I will get the opportunity to holiday in every single US state, however I have read through the whole book. The descriptions of the different things to do are in-depth and interesting, and there are also amusing anecdotes and frank opinions.
The Rough Guide to the USA is well presented, laid out in a way that is easy to follow. Each section has a little coloured tab on the side, which means that it's easy to flick through to the one that you want. Although the book is essentially 99% text, the author also somehow found space for some nice colour images, which add a bit of variety and prettiness to the mix. If you crave visual stimulation, a good compliment to this book would be one of the DK Eyewitness books, which would cover less ground but give you more eye candy. But if your budget only stretches to one book, get this one - it'll tell you far more.
When I got this book for Christmas, my heart sank, as I don't like chicken soup... and soul is something that Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye may have, but not me!
So, the book sat on the shelf unread for several months, until one night I really had the urge to read something new, and this book was the only one left, my last resort. Grudgingly, I picked it up and took it into bed. I won't lie to you - some of the stories are corny. But, and this is a big but, they're corny in the way that Judy Garland is in the Wizard of Oz. Corny but touching.
Chicken Soup for the Soul is a collection of 101 short stories and poems with a range of themes from courage to random acts of kindness. It's divided into 7 sections, for example 'Learning to Love Yourself' and 'Overcoming Obstacles'.
Each story within a given section seems to have a moral or message for you to meditate on, that is always made clear and easy to understand. As an example, in one of the stories, a little boy (who you find out at the end has a disability himself) challenges a pet shop owner's view that a limping puppy is worth less than the other 'healthy' puppies. In doing so, you also see that the boy realises his own worth. Other stories deal with other themes such as loss, parenthood and finding peace through tough times.
I read the odd story each night for a few weeks. I didn't read them in order, which was a quite nice feature of the book, that you can pick and choose which title picks your fancy depending on your mood on a given day. The stories don't take long to read, they're only a few pages but I found I settled into them quite easily despite the lack of continuity.
The stories are uplifting and comforting and quite often a little bit sad. Whilst reading a couple of them I got a bit misty eyed and nostalgic. A lot of the stories focus on closeness between people and as a side effect of this I noticed over a few weeks I had started phoning and seeing friends and family more often than usual.
I've recommended this book to equally cynical friends and quite a few of them have noticed little changes to their normal behaviour from sleeping better to re-evaluating what they do for a living and what gets given priority in their lives.
Overall I found this book to be an enjoyable read and feel as though it has had a subtle but profound effect on how I choose to live my life. I don't know whether it would be suited for everyone , like I said it is corny and the truly hardened may not be able to get past that. Likewise I wouldn't recommend it as a self help book for people who are going through grief or very traumatic situations as it isn't specific to any one issue. It certainly wouldn't do any harm though, and as a general feel good book, it's great!
I started learning German two years ago when I was planning a weekend break to Berlin. At first, I was only going to learn a few phrases, as my holiday was only two days long. However, whilst on holiday, I enjoyed the city and the language so much that I decided to learn a bit more.
I picked up this book because in school I'd only really been taught French, so I needed something really really basic to start me off. The book covers all the areas you'd expect, for example having a meal out in a restaurant, buying things in shops, getting a ticket for a train etc. Some people don't seem to like the 'For Dummies' books because it assumes in the title that you're, well, a bit thick. In this case, I found it to be quite comforting. There's nothing more demotivating than being an absolute beginner reading a text that's too advanced for you, something I've encountered before with language books!
I found the book to be a great help starting me off, and getting me past the first few phrases that I learnt. The book also contains little boxes with grammar tips and cultural facts, the latter of which made for an amusing diversion after a long learning session! I found the book went quite in depth with grammar, sometimes it was a bit much, but as I've progressed I've been able to look back and pick it up reasonably well.
The book comes packaged with a CD, and includes audio conversations. Although I found these useful to an extent, I also used the German Pimsleur Language Programme CDs, which I found to be much better at developing oral skills in German. The audio CD is good for going back over sections that you've previously read about to reinforce them in your mind, and of course you can listen to it in bed, or whilst getting on with other things!
This book is good for absolute beginners who want to learn some cornerstone German phrases and grammar, and also people who may have learnt German in the past but want to refresh. It's a bit big to take on holiday with you, but it'd be good for the couple of weeks before you go!
I picked up this book having read and enjoyed several other of Bill Bryson's books, especially 'Notes From a Small Island' and 'A Short History of Nearly Everything'. I've been a fan of his witty humour and accessible writing style for several years - perfect bedtime reading!
'Shakespeare' is a book about, well, William Shakespeare. Sort of... you see, you soon realise that most of the things we know about Shakespeare are myths and assumptions - including even the spelling of his name, that he never spelled the same way twice! The few things that we do know, are very small pieces of information gathered from official documents.
What I enjoyed about Bryson's approach is his relentless honesty about how little we actually know about Shakespeare, and his careful consideration not to move into assumptions just to make the book sound more interesting. This might sound as if the book's really dull... but it's not!! It's absolutely packed with facts and details about Elizabethan life during the time Shakespeare was alive, and gives a good insight, if not into the particulars of Shakespeares life, but into the world he lived in. For example, the established modes of dress, what we know of the conventions of the theatre, the average wage of 'the commoners', how writers relied on patronage... each page is packed with intriguing nuggets of information!
Bryson explores the different schools of thought about Shakespeare, right down to whether he actually wrote certain plays, and supports each with evidence. Whilst he leaves you in no doubt to his conclusion, he isn't heavy handed with it, and gives a rounded view. He presents each idea in a way that is thoroughly enjoyable to read.
I guess calling the book 'Shakespeare' is a bit misleading, as in his quest to glean every last piece of information that may slightly relate to the man, Bryson goes into quite a lot of detail about Shakespeare's peers. So, if you want to learn a bit about Marlowe or Ben Jonson for example, or even the rather nasty sounding Robert Greene, they feature quite heavily too. I enjoyed reading those bits particularly, because I've never read any of their plays and it spurred me on to look some of them up in the future.
A trivial perk of the book is Bryson's round-up of all the words and phrases that Shakespeare invented, that still hang around today - such as 'Beggar all description', 'Be cruel to be kind', and 'Pomp and circumstance'. The list really does go on, and I wouldn't be surprised if I've used some Shakespeare's very own words in this review!
Overall, Bryson paints a satisfyingly human picture of Shakespeare and his time. Whilst you might not learn anything new about the man himself, it may give you a renewed interest into Elizabethan England, which he makes sound much more interesting than any history teacher has ever managed to, and a greater appreciation of the obstacles he had to overcome to reach adulthood, never mind become a respected and famous playwright, actor and businessman!