July Book Haul

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I have been a slow reader this month because I have just started a 9-5. When I have bought books this month, I have gone for books with short snappy sections because of my short attention span.

The result is the prettiest book haul I have seen in a while.

Forgotten Women: The Scientists

Forgotten Women The Scientists

I picked this book up at the gift shop on the way out of The Museum of Science and Industry. Zing Tsjeng has compiled ’48 unsung scientific heroes whose hugely important, yet broadly unacknowledged, discoveries have transformed our understanding of the scientific world around us.’

The book lives up to the blurb.

It caught my attention because of the art work and the quippy writing. Tsjeng’s book is far from a fact file that you have to plod through, in fact the streamlined style of dedicating a few pages and a beautiful illustration to each woman makes the book an easy read.

It is the sort of book where you can just open it up and start from any page.

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Nettie Stevens

‘”How could you think your questions would bother me?” she once told a nervous student. “They never will, so long as I keep my enthusiasm for biology; and that, I hope will be as long as I live.”‘

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Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner

‘ […] she believed that anyone could become an inventor as long as they put their mind to it: “Every person is born with a creative mind,” she said. “Every person has that ability.”‘

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Helen Rodriguez-Trias

‘As a medical resident, she founded Puerto Rico’s first health centre for the care of newborns, which led to a 50 per cent decrease in the infant mortality rate of children at University Hospital.’

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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

‘In her memoirs, Payne-Gaposchkin said that she was often asked by young women for careers advice, which she was happy to give: ‘Here it is, valeat quantum. Do not undertake a scientific career for fame or money… Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask for no other.”

The Little Book of Shakespeare

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The Little Book of Shakespeare is a handy guide to every play the Bard has ever had published, and some that were forgotten in time. It reads as the paper back version of Shakespeare’s Wikipedia page: no stone has gone un-turned in the creation of this book. It is the perfect gift for someone studying Shakespeare at GCSE, A Level, or degree level. The contents page is split into three sections: The Freelance Writer (1589-1594), The Lord Chamberlain’s Man (1954-1603), and The King’s Man (1603-1613), which makes for a comprehensive guide.

Love has gone into every page. The five contributors (Stanley Wells, Anjna Chouhan, Gillian Day, John Farndon, Jake Kingsley-Smith, and Nick Walton) have included feminist readings, on screen and on stage adaptations, sources, themes and relevant quotes for each play. On top of that, the book is a beautiful read.

Of course, I made a b-line for King Lear (written 1605-1606).

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Talking Heads

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Bennett’s Talking Heads is a collection of his first six published monologues, as well as the six he wrote years later. I first heard about Talking Heads years ago when I watched the BBC produced The Outside Dog in a high school Literature lesson. Julie Walters plays Marjory, the wife of the man suspected of several grisly murders. I was surprised to find that a lot of Bennett’s monologues explore the difficulties that middle and old age women face, which I do in my writing.

The monologue style makes for an interesting read. In these down to Earth narratives Bennett interweaves intrigue into the most boring subjects. He gets pages and pages out of Muriel’s venture into the work canteen during her lunch hour in Soldiering On. Despite the object of the speaker’s fascination often being common place, these monologues are never boring, just relentlessly real and gripping.

In A Cream Cracker Under The Settee most of the monologue is filled with just that: after a fall in the living room Doris fixates on a cream cracker she has just discovered under the settee. Unable to get up and unable to call for help, Doris vows to tell her council appointed cleaner about it the next time she comes over.

You would be forgiven for thinking Bennett’s monologues do not focus on the big issues of today. But they do: his characters deal with death, loss, and suffering all within the short compact package of a monologue. Doris cannot accept the limits of old age, Muriel’s inflated sense of self worth is shrunk to the size of a pea next to her life threatening illness, and Marjory battles with the burden of knowledge.

LINKS

Forgotten Women: The Scientists

The Little Book of Shakespeare

Talking Heads

 

 

Banana Bread

Easy to make moist banana bread

This moist banana bread recipe is a classic that keeps everyone happy. The more bananery the better. Here are the ingredients:

  • 140 grams butter
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 50 grams icing sugar
  • 140 grams caster sugar
  • 2 ripe bananas
  • 2 large eggs
  • 140 self-raising flour
  • Optional: banana chips for decoration

This recipe is so bananery I would not recommend using more than two bananas.

Method:

  1. The original recipe recommended heating the oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Because the banana bread can take a while, I always set my oven a little higher and keep an eye on it.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together until the mixture is fluffy. I use a stand mixer for this, but a hand held mixer or a wooden spoon will work just as well.
  3. Add in the beaten eggs slowly with some flour.
  4. When the eggs are mixed with the butter and sugar, fold in the remaining flour, baking powder, and mashed bananas. Make sure the bananas are mashed well, as you do not want clumps of gloopy banana in the baked cake.
  5. Butter a loaf tin and line it with baking parchment. (When I got to this stage I found that I did not have parchment paper. Tin foil works just as well providing you butter it.)
  6. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for about 30 minutes. To see whether the cake is done, stick a skewer into the center. If it comes out clean, the cake is done.
  7. When the cake has cooked allow it to cool in the tin for ten minutes before taking it out. If you try to take the cake out of the tin immediately after it has been in the oven the cake will crumble.
  8. While you are waiting for the cake to cool, mix the icing sugar with 2 or 3 teaspoons of water. Drizzle the icing across the banana bread.

Usually I do not make the icing, but in the interest of being more photogenic I decided to this time.

IMG_0123IMG_0131This rates as the best banana bread I have ever made. It was perfect after 35 minutes at 200C.

Why not try the same recipe for cupcakes or mini loafs? For both of these I recommend 15 minutes at 200C.

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Nom Nom

 

The Crucible: The Insanity of Crowd Mentality

Centered around the search for Witch’s in Salem, Miller’s play is an allegory for the Red Scare that gripped America

When testifying in front of the House of Un-American Activities in 1956, Miller said: ‘Anybody in this room might have thoughts of various kinds that could be prosecuted if they were carried into action, but that is an entirely different story.’

The Crucible (1953) is Arthur Miller’s version of the Salem witch trials in 1692, which ended with 19 women being executed for witch craft. The ICAT (Independent Centre for Actor Training) Manchester group performed the play in The Lowry at only £6 a ticket.

ICAT the crucible
The program

Miller’s vision is an allegory for the Red Scare that gripped America in the 1950’s. Fueled by senator Joseph McCarthy, who was so ardent an anti-communist that the growing feeling of dislike towards the Soviets was labelled ‘McCarthyism,’ the Red Scare originated in the belief that American spies gave Soviet’s the information they needed to produce successful nuclear tests in 1949.

ICAT uses a bare stage which emphasises the stark landscape of late 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. Throughout the whole play there are maybe five settings, each adorned with wooden boxes that function as walls, tables, and as the trial begins, seats for judge, jury, and executioner.

Every character is touched by religion in some way. Talk of the devil hangs heavy in the air. In each conversation his fearful name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. In Salem, the belief in mortal sin shapes the social fabric of the town, and influences the hysteria that pulses throughout the community.

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The play begins with Reverend Parris’ (Max Anderson’s) daughter Betty lying unconscious across the wooden boxes. One night ago the Reverend saw the village girls dancing in the woods and, upon jumping out of the bushes he had been hiding in, shocked his daughter so much that she passed out.

Conspiracy theories abound.

Parris is convinced that his niece Abigail Williams (Phoebe Fischer) has something to do with his daughter’s illness. Under the Reverend’s suspicious gaze, something as innocent as dancing turns into summoning the devil, much to Abigail’s denial. Anderson plays the pious clergyman perfectly: his stern expression and unwavering stature form the basis for the man who survives the play, firmly on the side of the uncompromising courts. Sanity appears in the form of farmer John Proctor (Vince Gray) and Reverend Hale (James Ainsworth), but this is short lived.

Hale warns Parris that he should not prescribe any supernatural reasoning to Betty’s unconscious state. Giles Corey (Guy Thompson) enters the scene, and the sanity ends there.

Satire runs throughout the play.

Corey is quick to claim he saw one of the girls flying over a barn the night they were dancing. As talk of witch craft abounds, Corey mentions that his wife reads books, something he will later regret as she is put on trial for witch craft.

The play centers around the one time affair between John Proctor and Abigail Williams. Gray plays a haunted man who wants to right his wrongs, and a man now wholly dedicated to his wife Elizabeth (Julie Hannan). In one tender scene he tells her: ‘I mean to please you, Elizabeth’. He spurns Abigail’s desire to continue their relationship, and in a fit of jealous rage Abigail accuses Elizabeth of doing the Devil’s work. The strands of plot weave together to form the image of a broken community, so fearful and intent on purifying their town that they accuse their neighbours without reason.

Mary Warren (Carly O’Hare) embodies the stress caused by this toxic society, and the desperate search for the truth. Caught between her master John Proctor who urges her to tell the truth and the lying, spiteful Abigail, Mary crumbles under the intense gaze of her suspicious peers. O’Hare fits the bill for a woman in distress: as Mary is pulled this way and that by John and Abigail, her agonised expression shows her torment.

Ethel and Julius

Mary brings to mind the Rosenbergs. Miller published his play in the year that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed. Thought to have passed atomic secrets to Russia, Julius was arrested on July 17th, 1950. Ethel followed soon after. Shockingly, Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law (David and Ruth Greenglass) testified against the Rosenbergs to lessen their own sentence for the same crime.

Hours before their execution, Julius and Ethel penned a letter to their two young children. One section reads: ‘good cannot really flourish in the midst of evil; (that) freedom and all the things that go to make up a truly satisfying and worthwhile life, must sometimes be purchased very dearly.’

Nothing is won in Miller’s play. The struggling embers of truth die out along with John and Elizabeth. Friends are lost, lovers turn, and the corrupting force of isolated religious superstition ruins all in its path.

 

(Trying To Make) Cookie Monster Cupcakes

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

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I was inspired to create Cookie Monster cupcakes from the fabulous baker at hellotherecupcakes, who has the decoration down to a T. I used the BBC good food recipe for my batch of Cookie Monsters.

After doing some research, I realised that most Cookie Monster cupcake recipes use desiccated coconut to create the fur effect on top of the butter cream. Because I hate coconut, I decided to add blue dye to the butter frosting.

I bought edible eyeballs in case piping my own did not go as planned.

For reference, here is what the BBC good food recipe produced:

My first problem arose when I cooked the batch of cupcakes. The above recipe suggests 50 grams of sugar, 50 grams of butter, and 50 grams of flour. The mixture did not even make six cupcakes, and the five it did make were small.

I tried to decorate the small cupcakes as best I could.

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When I tried to lift him up for a better picture, the cookie fell out of his mouth.

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In the end, I had to put him out of his misery. He was clearly in pain. So I threw away the small batch of cupcakes and started again, this time with 200 grams sugar, 200 grams of butter, and 200 grams of flour.

The second batch was much better and made twelve decent sized cupcakes.

The second problem arose when I realised I cannot decorate cupcakes. It is a lot more difficult than it looks, and while I was trying to smooth the butter cream with a knife I remembered bench scrapers exist, and that I probably should have bought one.

Another problem: the eyes. The shop bought edible eyes made the Cookie Monsters look deranged, so I switched to hand made eyeballs after the third deranged looking cupcake.

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Poor Cookie Monster looking a bit worse for wear

In the end, I did not get the result I wanted. I probably need to improve my piping skills. I bought one of these, and when it arrives I’ll try again.

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This nozzle was listed as ‘NEW GRASS/HAIR/FUR ICING PIPING NOZZLE TIP FONDANT CAKE CUPCAKE DECORATING TOOLS’ which seems very aggressively multi functional, so I have high hopes
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They don’t look as bad from further away

Tips for you…

Quadruple the amount of flour/sugar/butter/eggs the good food recipe suggests.

Purchase a GRASS/HAIR/FUR PIPING NOZZLE TIP from the beginning, and your butter cream will not look as dodgy. Alternatively, use desiccated coconut or blue sprinkles on top of the butter cream.

Use gel dye instead of liquid. Gel has a more intense pigment: I had to use all of the 60ml blue liquid dye I bought at Tesco, and still did not achieve the Cookie Monster colour I wanted.

Bonus…

My friend told me that my Cookie Monster cupcakes look like Nev the Bear cupcakes. So if all else fails, tell everyone that you made a cupcake tribute to Nev the Bear.

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The Best Suspense Movie of The Decade: Don’t Breathe

In the 2013 suspense horror Don’t Breathe the lines of good and bad are blurred

The new Netflix release Don’t Breathe (2016) opens with Rocky’s (Jane Levy’s) bloody body being dragged down the street. This does nothing to dissipate the tension that runs throughout the movie.

Far from the stereotypical horror, Don’t Breathe blurs the lines of good and bad. Director Fede Alvarez does not rely on supernatural horrors, instead he shows us that the most frightening things exist in real life.

Reunited with Levy, who also played the protagonist in his 2013 movie Evil Dead (a contender for the best horror movie of the decade), Alvarez creates a complicated relationship between desire, crime, and ultimately, the will to survive.

Don’t Breathe follows three thieves: Rocky, Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) as they enter the home of an Iraq veteran (Stephen Lang) and attempt to steal his money.

three thieves

 

The thieves are surprisingly easy to sympathise with bar the paper gangster Money, who complicates the robbery by bringing a gun. Alvarez uses Alex to depict the moralistic burglar: he is outraged that Money has brought a weapon, and wonders aloud how it will effect their jail sentence if caught.

Rocky’s home life is less than desirable. She needs to steal from the veteran to take her sister away from her alcoholic mother. This desire leads her to travel further and further into the depths of the man’s house, and discover more horrors along the way.

Alex is more of a mystery. His main motivation appears to be quick cash, and the crush he is harboring for Rocky, which Money quickly shoots down.

‘You think just because you jerk off to her Instagram selfies, that makes you a Romeo?’

In Alvarez’ world everything comes together. At least at first.

Alex father works for a home security company, so they can break into the man’s house without a sound. The man is a reclusive veteran who lives on a street full of abandoned houses meaning the three thieves can enter undetected. Coincidentally, the man is blind.

Any hope of a quick burglary unravels when the trio enter the house.

Money gases the old man to sleep in his own bed. Minutes later the old man appears in the living room, asking, ‘Who, who’s there?’

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Money pulls a gun on the veteran

The audience is almost fooled into thinking the man is a feeble pensioner. Until he attacks Money.

Don’t Breathe is heavy on the visuals and the sound effects. There is scarcely any dialogue as the tables turn on the thieves and it becomes clear that they exist within the blind man’s world. Every movement, every breath, is a step closer to death.

The most memorable scene is one in which the vet flips the electricity switch. He then uses objects he has placed around the basement (a fan here, a piece of wood there) to maneuver around, while Rocky and Alex are running scared. In the darkness their eyes are wide with fright.

 

 

Stephen Lang is perhaps better known for his stage work, but might be recognised for his role in Avatar (2009). His role in Don’t Breathe is certainly a delicate one: his clouded eyes and tense shoulders make him look haunted, and as his backstory unravels, they become representative of the monster he is.

Jane Levy is the perfect counterpart to Lang. When his character is horrific, she is horrified. Ultimately, Don’t Breathe is a battle of wits between Rocky and the veteran, with the audience backing Rocky. Her desire for the better life for herself and her sister urges her forward, much to the dismay of Alex.

‘Rocky. The door’s right fucking there. We can leave right now.’

In the moment where she could leave, Rocky stays and shows herself to be a moralistic person worthy of the audience’s respect. As the movie progresses, the blind veteran falls further from the idealised picture of the victimised elderly man, and becomes a villain in his own right.

‘There’s nothing a man cannot do when he accepts the fact that there is no God.’

 

What is most interesting about Don’t Breathe is the power balance between the two opposing forces. It is a fresh take on the prototypical horror movie, in which the death of the protagonist is a foregone conclusion.

 

 

 

Rillington Place: The Man Behind The Murders

Rillington Place shows us the gruesome murders of John Reginald Christie

Rillington Place details the murders of John Reginald Christie, played by Timothy Roth in this miniseries. The 2016 BBC drama, which has just been released on Netflix, is based on true events and accounts for the eight people Christie murdered while he lived at 10 Rillington Place between 1937 and 1953. The three episodes focus on one individual: Ethel (Christie’s wife), Tim (Christie’s upstairs neighbour), and Christie himself.

Who was John Reginald ChristieJohn Reginald Halliday Christie?

Christie, nicknamed Reg in Craig Viveiros’ miniseries, was imprisoned for both minor and major offences over the course of nine years: stealing postal orders in 1921, two counts of larceny in 1924, and for assaulting a prostitute in 1929.

While imprisoned, Reg remained married to the meek and forgiving Ethel, played by Samantha Morton. During this time Ethel had no idea of Reg’s whereabouts, and regularly wrote to the police to ask if he had been found dead.

The opening scene shows the two reunited in a prison visiting room. Reg is shamefaced, and tells Ethel that he borrowed a friend’s car that turned out to be stolen. It is shocking to a modern audience, but perhaps expected of a woman living in the early 20th century, that Ethel is anxious Reg will not want to stay married to her. Reg reassures her that divorce is the last thing he wants, and the pair move into 10 Rillington Place.

The idea of separating  is disregarded almost before it is brought up. Here the audience begins to wonder if Ethel knows the real Reg.

Morton plays a subdued, hushed wife. She is everything the audience expects from a mousy, mild, lower class women in the 1930s/40s. She is so eager to ignore the horrors that happen in her own home that she forgets Reg’s outbursts, and even covers for him.

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Reg is emboldened by Ethel’s silence.

As the three part series goes on Reg becomes increasingly violent. Roth portrays the murderer as a quietly charming elderly man whose age is written all over him: he walks slowly, staggeringly, and with quiet concentration. Later, in the court room, Reg delights in listing his physical ailments before the jury.

‘I’ve been suffering from fibrositis, interitus… last year I had a nervous breakdown.’

This depiction of Reg has triggered controversy from those who knew him at the time of the murders.

Roth’s depiction of Reg makes his murders seem all the more sinister. When the newly wed couple Tim (Nico Mirallegro)  and Beryl (Jodie Comer) move into the upstairs apartment, Reg takes the opportunity to ingratiate himself to the newcomers. Playing the role of the semi-parental, concerned couple, Ethel and Reg put money on the electricity meter for their neighbours, and look after their new born Geraldine.

Beryl and Tim

Tim and Beryl’s story arc is not for the faint-hearted.

There is little respite for the women in Reg’s life, or the women in 1930s/40s London at all, it seems. Reg prays on the difficulties that lower class women face: the need to earn quick money, the need to cure ailments without paying for doctor’s fees, and the need for an abortion.

Embodying the kindly older man, Reg invites Muriel Eady (Sarah Quintrell) to 10 Rillington Place, assuring her that he has a remedy to cure her bronchitis. At his home, he instructs her to breathe in a mixture from a tube and pumps carbon monoxide into Eady, gassing her to death.

Rillington Place is a gritty, often times depressing, account of early 20th century London society which places trust in the elderly, feeble Reg. It is only when the trusting girls enter his home that they discover his deviant nature.

At an hour a piece, each episode realistically depicts Ethel, and Tim, and even Reg. They are so jam packed that the episodes are like mini movies, and when they came to an end I felt for the characters, because they are 3D and fully formed, rather than the overabundant 2D characters in most TV dramas.

Ocean’s Eight: Transcends Gender Bias

Far too many critics focus on the gender-swapped cast

After reading some reviews for the new installment in the Ocean’s franchise, I was worried that this highly anticipated film would be another case of Ghostbusters (2016), a film that tries to emulate the original and fails horribly, dragging the gender-swapped female cast down along with it.

After seeing Ocean’s Eight (2018), I am convinced that too many reviewers focus on the cast being all female, as opposed to the original all male case in the Steven Soderbergh directed movies. Gary Ross takes on the role of director for the 2018 installment, and his style of directing brings a different dynamic to the films.

The Soderbergh directed Ocean’s films all follow a pattern: lovable rogue Danny Ocean assembles a team of talented misfits and relieves an unlikable antagonist of their most prized possession. Ocean’s Eight follows much the same premise.

Debbie Oceans (Sandra Bullock) has just been released from jail after serving five years after a con went wrong. Her then boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) handed her over to the police to secure his own freedom.

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Out of jail, Debbie contacts her long time partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) and the pair find a bunch of A to Z list celebrities to abet them in their goal of stealing a £150,000,000 Cartier necklace from around Daphne Kluger’s (Anne Hathaway’s) neck at a gala. This is where the similarities to the Soderbergh directed films end.

Blanchett is not used to her full potential. The audience (and critics alike) are disappointed as an actress whose repertoire ranges from Elizabeth 1st to Bob Dylan functions mainly as a plot device. She gives Debbie a place to live, she warns Debbie that her desire for revenge against Becker will lead her right back to prison. It seems that Ross’ chief focus for Lou is to wear gregarious clothing.

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Bullock plays the cool and collected Ocean masterfully, and when she tells Lou that she is not going back to prison the audience is sure she has a trick up her sleeve.

Many of the star cast did not get enough screen time. All of the individual characters come across as almost fully formed people in their own right. The time constraint means that the audience is left wanting more. Nine Ball (Rihanna) is seen furiously tapping away at her keyboard, but not much else.

Nine Ball

Amita’s (Mindy Kaling’s) relationship with her mother is an interesting one, but the audience only ever sees this dynamic as a motivation for Amita to become a criminal. Tammy (Sarah Paulson) portrays herself as the clean-cut mother, but her shed stocked full of stolen goods says otherwise. Snippets of personalities are typical of the Ocean’s franchise, and are perhaps representative of a world where people work together for a month to make a quick buck.

And of course there are moments where the audience has to suspend their disbelief. Why would eight women, some of them entirely straight-laced, agree to steal a necklace worth £150,000,000? Why does Cartier agree to loan the necklace to Kluger for a gala event? Why does the fraud investigator in charge of finding the stolen necklace (James Corden) meet with Debbie and agree to frame Becker?

All in all, Ocean’s Eight stays true to the Ocean’s franchise. In typical Ocean fashion Debbie outsmarts her ex-boyfriend, steals the jewels, and splits the money between her partners.

Being a criminal has never looked so good.