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A Natural History of Dragons

For my birthday, I was given A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. As in, Marie Brennan wrote the book. She didn’t give it to me. Unfortunately, with exams and the general hecticness of university, I didn’t get a chance to read it until recently. I guess commutes are good for something.

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The book, fabulously displayed by Eddie the dragon.

It wasn’t what I expected. I was expecting a kind of field guide to dragons with anatomical drawings and such. What the book actually is, is an introduction by the fictional Lady Trent to her life, which, it must be said, revolves around dragons.

Set in a fictional world in where it is apparently the 1800s or early 1900s, the world in which Lady Trent lives has real live dragons. Apparently, she has been fascinated by them since childhood and is now an expert in the field. This book is her first memoir, recalling how her obsession began and detailing her first expedition to study dragons.

It’s a well written book, even if I was a little sceptical at first. Like I said, it wasn’t what I was expecting and honestly, the era the story is based on means that as a woman, Lady Trent is discouraged from following her passions. Of course, she overcomes this, but that is largely due to social status and encouragement and permission from her father and later her husband. In the book, she is aware of her privilege, which I greatly appreciated, but this is a trope that I think I’ve read too many times. I’m ready for stories set in a world where women can follow their passions without society telling them that it’s unladylike.

The mythology of dragons in this book is well thought through and consistent, even down to dragon grieving rituals. As the protagonist and narrator, Lady Trent often alludes to vaguely scientific ways of study and understanding the creatures, as you would expect an expert in a burgeoning field to be.

Overall, this is a good book, even if it took me a while to settle into the world it builds. I found out the other day that it’s actually part of series and I do want to read the next one. But I’m not rushing out to Waterstones right this instant. I can wait. And I think that sums up my feelings about this book. It’s enjoyable, but you don’t have to rush to read it. It can wait a while.

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All the girls love a period film

It is a cliché universally acknowledged that females love period dramas. How many times have we seen films or read books in which a woman reads Pride and Prejudice every year, and don’t you just love the BBC adaptation? So faithful to the book and with the pleasing addition of Colin Firth in a wet white shirt.

Now, I’m not bashing Pride and Prejudice, or even Austen in general. They’re very fine books, and the BBC adaptation is by all accounts very good. But personally, I’m not the biggest fan of Regency drama. In fact I have to say, that when it comes to corsets and crinolines, I tend towards the Victorian era and even then at a push.

So, if I’m not swooning over Mr Darcy or longing for Heathcliff to come striding over the moors, how do I cope? What happens when I feel the desperate, primal need to watch something from a bygone era? Simple. I look to a more recent time.

Sadly, this isn’t a post about how much I love 90s films (though watch this space because that’s a great idea.) Instead it’s my three favourite period dramas. And don’t worry. Colin Firth features twice.

  1. The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)

Okay, so I do believe I just said I wasn’t a big fan of the corsets and crinolines era, but set in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest is only just still in that period. Besides, it’s based on a play by Oscar Wilde and if anyone doesn’t feel like a fusty Victorian, it’s Wilde.

The 2002 film feels far more modern than the 1952 film (shocking, that), and it’s a great way to spend 97 minutes of your life. With Colin Firth in the lead, as well as other characters played by Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench, it’s fairly star studded. Obviously that doesn’t make a film, but it helps.

The film goes out of its way to be funny, not that it needs to go very far from the original text to do so. In fact, all it does is add visual cues, creating jokes that perhaps weren’t explicitly in the original, but I’m sure Wilde would approve of anyway. With clever, witty women, immensely quotable lines, and Colin Firth singing long before Mamma Mia, there’s so much to enjoy in this film.

  1. Easy Virtue (2008)

Again, featuring some excellent actors like Jessica Biel, Colin Firth (yes, again), Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Barnes, this film is set in 1920s England. The prodigal son John is returning to the family’s country home, that is somewhat falling down because a) they have no money and b) there’s no staff left seeing as most of the men died in WW1. But instead of coming home to marry childhood friend Sarah whose wealth would save the manor, John has already married Larita, who is *gasp* older, *double gasp* a race car driver and *faints* American. Her and his mother do not get on.

It’s based on a Noel Coward play and is very funny, very sardonic.  I think it’d probably be considered “British humour”, and if that only vaguely appeals to you, you need to watch it even if just for the butler played by the fantastic Kris Marshall. And the soundtrack. The soundtrack is a mix of genuine twenties songs and modern songs done in a twenties style. Don’t think that sounds awesome? Check it out:

Not a Tom Jones fan? There’s also an amazing version of ‘When the Tough Get Going’

  1. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)

Released the same year as Easy Virtue, it took me a good while longer to discover Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, most likely because Ben Barnes isn’t in it. But Amy Adams, Frances McDormand, Lee Pace and Mark Strong are. And my stars and bonnet, is it a fantastic film.

Set in 1939, Miss Pettigrew is a frequently dismissed governeness, who, ends up working for Delysia Lafosse as a social secretary, despite not knowing what a social secretary is. Delysia juggles three men, fashions shows and parties, all in her pursuit of fame and happiness. Of course, only one of the men truly loves her and this much is obvious. The film follows Miss Pettigrew for only one day, but what a day.

Gorgeously and lovingly accurate to the 30s, the costumes and sets are a joy, and I wish somewhere like The Scarlet Peacock existed (except perhaps with a less sexist owner). It’s based on a book by Winifred Watson, which is equally as excellent, and I can’t help but love it. Not that there’s any reason to not. With two female leads, an engaging plot and the aforementioned attention to detail in the dressing, it’s a fantastic fantastic film.

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Word Lens: Magic in Action

I am here today to talk to you about magic. Honest to god, modern day sorcery. Well, it’s actually technology but for once, I’m not sure of the difference. So I have a friend who I’m going to call Gask (because that’s his name) and he messaged me saying that there was an app I should try out, and so I did. And I marvelled at it for five minutes. And now I’m going to tell you about it.

Word Lens (click here for the iOS version and here for the Android version) is a mobile phone app that allows you to point your camera at text in a foreign language and have it translated straight away, on the screen. The words literally change from one language to another in front of you. (Check out this promo video for an accurate portrayal of how it works.) You know what that means? No more having to go to online dictionaries to figure out if that sign in a shop window means they’re shut. No wishing Google translate would work quicker when presented with a menu that you don’t understand. No more carrying “pocket” dictionaries around when abroad so you can understand train timetables.

This is magic. This is like a TARDIS translation circuit for your phone. This is having a babelfish in your hands. In my relatively short life there have been many technological advancements and this is the first one that has ever made me speechless.

I mean, it’s not actually witchcraft. Looks like it, but isn’t. According to my technological advisor, (otherwise known as Gask) the Word Lens app uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) which reads text using your phone’s camera and interprets it. The app then separates each word, translates it and replaces what is already there. Gask could have stopped there in his explanation and I would still have been blown away. But apparently the cleverest part of the app is that the removes the old text, blurs the background and applies the new text in the same size in real time (aka pretty much instantaneously). This means that the coding and graphics rendering must be super efficient.  

It’s not a perfect app. It uses a local translation library, meaning it’s as if the app looks up each word in a dictionary, which does mean that sentences don’t always make sense. Kind of like how if you translate whole paragraphs with Google translate, coherency and some meaning is usually lost. (Don’t use Google translate for coursework, guys. Teachers can tell. Because it’s not good.) The other thing is that the languages (Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Russian) are all translated to or from English. You can’t point it at Spanish and have the Russian translation come up. I mean, that works for me, because English is my native language, but obviously that isn’t the case for everyone.

However, the app is really easy to use and it’s genius. It has a normal dictionary built in as well, and you have the option of putting your flash on, so the words you’re trying to translate are easier to see. It is also free and just for the sheer joy of having magic on your phone, it’s worth downloading. It’d be useful for when you’re abroad as well. But mostly download it because it’s magic. And it is always worth having magic in your life.

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How to be German

Wie Man Deutschen Wird by Adam Fletcher is a book based on a blog and contains 50 easy steps to becoming German. You can buy it here.

Tempted though I am to leave the post there, I feel like I should explain why you should buy it. And I’m going to do this in list form because I can. So there.

  1. It’s well written. The writing style is fantastic. It’s as if the author is talking directly to you, and I can well imagine that it’s how Fletcher actually speaks.
  2. It’s funny. While fun is being made of Germans and German culture, it’s in a friendly, gentle, teasing over a beer kind of way, rather than a crash, bang, wallop on the piñata that is Germany. (I think that metaphor rather escaped me. Ah well. Leave better metaphors in the comments.)
  3. It’s true. While I read this book, I kept looking like an idiot in public, because I couldn’t stop chuckling in recognition. Although some of the points I have not come across, a lot of them are exactly my experience in Germany, and it made me want to show the book to every German I came across, going ‘see this point? That’s exactly what you’re like. This is your nation in 68 pages.’ In a good way.
  4. It’s bilingual. A reversible book, you can read it in German or in English. I’d recommend doing both, or at least flipping through the alternate side as the graphics are different for both and they’re fabulous.

I think those are my main reasons why you should read it. Any non-German currently living or who has lived in Germany, will get a kick out of recognising your experiences and realising that it’s not just you who has noticed. Any non-German who has never lived in Germany will enjoy it anyway, because of reasons 1 and 2. Germans will like it because it’s largely complimentary, and who doesn’t want to know how outsiders view your country? (Don’t answer that.)

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Liebe Mauer

So, as I may have mentioned once or twice, I’ve borrowed a lot of DVDs from the Ilmenau library. Most of them have been American films or TV programmes, and while there is the option to watch them in German, I have pretty much firmly stuck to my mother tongue. However, this weekend I watched Liebe Mauer in German.

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You can tell from the cover it’s a happy film.

Liebe Mauer is a love story set in Berlin, 1989. As many of you will know, something kind of important happened in Germany in 1989 – namely the fall of the Berlin Wall. Liebe Mauer begins a couple of months before die Wende and the Wall is a big part of the story, as Franzi (played by Felicitas Woll) is living in West Berlin when she falls for Sascha (played by Maxim Mehmet), an East Berliner who works as a guard along the Wall.

At first glance this seems like a typical love story, and to a great extent it is. However, with the backdrop of the film being predominantly East Berlin, it’s interesting from a historical point of view, as well as being an enjoyable film. It also makes a change from Goodbye Lenin! and The Lives of Others, which are two films set in East Berlin (though Goodbye Lenin! is mainly set in Alex’s fictional GDR) that I have watched several times, as I’m sure many students of German have.  Like The Lives of Others, Liebe Mauer focuses more on how the regime affected those within it, rather than the ins and outs of life in the GDR.

I have to say, it was nice to watch a film set in this time period that had such an unequivocal happy ending. And the build-up to the climax of the film which is the fall of the Berlin Wall was subtly done, with the date being innocently pointed out a few times throughout the film. I’m not exactly equipped to say whether this was a masterpiece of a film, but I enjoyed it. Though I am loathe to compare a love story to Romeo and Juliet, there are echoes of that play within this film, which are only emphasised by one of the main characters quoting the Shakespeare’s work.

So yes, it’s a love story with a happy ending set against a backdrop of an interesting and unique historical period. What’s not to like?