Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Monday, March 31, 2003

If Chins Could Kill

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of A B-Movie Actor - Bruce Campbell

"Such is an actor's life. We must ride the waves of every film, barfing occasionally, yet maintain our dignity, even as the bulk of our Herculean efforts are keel-hauled before our very eyes." -Bruce Campbell.

You've very probably seen Bruce Campbell onscreen or flickering brightly (albeit briefly) as you channel-surfed the cable hinterlands at 1 A.M, even it you didn't realize it at the time. He is the ominipresent "blue-collar" working guy of the film and television industry, a solid, industrial-chinned actor who pops up routinely (on such television shows as Xena, Homicide, Ellen; and in roles such as the (soon to be dead) scientest in Congo, a soap opera star in Fargo and, most recently, as the Ring Announcer in the big-budget hit Spider-Man), and has developed a long, somewhat twisted yet steadily successful career in the entertainment industry.

He also is a "cult" hero for his work in several B-movie splatter fests (The Evil Dead series), a well-known speaker on the convention and college circuit and, in If Chins Could Kill, a surprisingly good teller of tales.

If Chins Could Kill is part biography (touching on his misspent youth in the Detroit suburbs and the creation of the "Detroit Mafia", a loose collection of young up-and-coming Detroit movie makers including his friend Director Sam Raimi), part how-to-make-low-budget-independent-films-involving-huge-amounts-of-karo-syrup (used for fake blood), and part philosphical musings on the entertainment industry, movie-making and of his place in the Hollywood foodchain.

Somewhat chaotic in style, and for the most part almost wholly irreverant throughout, the book mainly concentrates on Campbell and the Raimi brothers initial forays into film-making that culminated in "Evil Dead", a low-budget ($350,000) horror flick that, using frugal special effect tricks, cheap actors and a determined crew, managed to create what author Stephen King termed "the most ferociously original horror film of the year". The book is wildly funny at times and provides an excellent guide to any would-be film-makers on how to do more with less (ranging from the creation of a smoothly panning "vas-o-cam" (camera plus board plus vaseline equals smooth pan), to the best formula for fake blood).

If Chins Could Kill suffers marginally from the episodic tone as Campbell recounts his story, most significantly near the end of the book where much of the latter parts of Campbell's career is crammed into a couple of chapters (none of them as fully fleshed out as the early pages). The end of the book almost feels like it was "rushed" through development, instead of being rewritten and "chewed over" properly.

Be that as it may, the first half of the book is a terrific romp through a life in B-movies. Campbell's enthusiasm for his profession, his cynical asides and genuine enjoyment permeate the book, giving you a look at the Hollywood you don't see in the more glossy tomes (Don't believe me? Check out the back cover of the book and just read the blurb If that doesn't give you taste of who you are dealing with, nothing will...).

If you are interested in more, check out Bruce Campbell's own website (with complete filmography, complete with caustic commentary, and excepts from his book).

So as Bruce says "buy the damned book already and read like the wind!"

For more on movies visit The Internet Movie Database.

For fun, try out University of Virginia's Oracle of Bacon (just so you know Bruce Campbell's Bacon Number is 2).

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Letters from MIR

Letters from MIR - Jerry M. Linenger

For 132 days, Dr. Jerry Linenger was away from home, away from his 14-month old son. Away on the longest, most distant business trip it was possible to take: stationed on the Russian Space Station Mir.

Letters from Mir is not notable as an account of his time in space, but it is notable as a heart-felt, sincere testament from a father to a young son. Letters from Mir is what it's name implies: letters from a father to a son, on everyday events, life in space, growing up, the role of fathers....It is, without hyperbole, a moving and expressive book.

The book is also notable for what is alluded to, but not generally focused on: the dangers that Dr. Linenger faced while stationed on Mir. During his time Mir suffered several almost crippling blows, the worst of which was a deadly and life-threatening fire that nearly consumed the station. The disaster's impact certainly permeates through Linenger's later letters as the tone shifts away from the everyday and roams deeper into the paternal essence of a father's love for his son. A short, but terrific book.

I think one reason I identify so strongly with this book is I've been doing a similar project for the past year, prior to having even heard of Letters from Mir, with my other weblog The Dad Chronicles. It's a damn strange world at times....

For Linenger's full account of life on Mir, check out Off The Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir.

Check out the view from above at NASA's Earth Observatory website or get a good look at Mir before it's fiery plunge into the Pacific Ocean in 2001 at Mir Space Station or at NASA's Mir Page. You can also find out about life onboard the ISS here.

Ever wonder where the futuristic flying cars and jetpacks you saw on Jetson's went? Look no further - here you go - and here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Blue Latitudes

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before - Tony Horwitz

"Ambition leads me not only further than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go." - The Journal of Captain James Cook.

So opens Blue Latitudes, author Tony Horwitz's searching and thoughtful examination of Captain James Cook, whose three great voyages to the Pacific from 1768 to 1779 were the grand finale of the age of Discovery. Part whimsicle travelogue, part historical study, Horwitz tracks Cook's path from the lush islands of Polynesia to the shattering reefs of Australia and the mind-numbing waves of the Aleutians.

Cook was born in Yorkshire, England, a child of the peasant working class, who built his sea-going experience first crewing on coal-ships. Horwitz chronicles his rise to pre-eminence as one of England's most famous sailors and possibly the most famous navigator in history (some of his highly accurate coastal surveys were still in wide use well into the 20th century). Blue Latitudes seamlessly blends Cook's voyages with the author's modern-day visits to his many destinations, examining clues to Cook's character and the important legacy he left both Pacific cultures and the West. Horwitz is careful to examine the mixed nature of that legacy, with Cook alternately being seen as the personification of oppression and destruction for the Polynesian cultures scattered across the islands of the Pacific and aboriginal cultures of Australia and the sterling-true British hero and discoverer. Ironically, as Horwitz outlines, Cook was probably one of the most enlightened encroachers on the Pacific, but as the first, his reputation must bear the weight of the destructive forces that followed in his wake.

Blue Latitudes is a fascinating read, not the least for the history, but also for the flat-out humor that permeates the author's misadverntures and wanderings through Oceania. From the drunken festivities of Cookstown Australia's Cook Celebration ("Why do you think Cook ran up on the reef? He was on the piss.") where the Endeavour was nearly wrecked, to his wayward Australian friend recreating Cook's arrival on a Tahitian beach (" 'This is a solemn moment,' Roger declared. 'We're seeing just what Cook saw. Tropical mountains, swaying palms, topless crumpet.' ").

Blue Latitudes is not only a great read, but great fun and thought-provoking to boot. Highly recommended.

Interestingly enough, Cook's own journal, along with that of Joseph Banks the Endeavour's naturalist and botanist, can be found online here in a hypertext version.

For an excerpt from Blue Latitudes, and a first-rate interactive timeline map of Cook's various voyages, check out the Blue Latitudes website.

For additional information on Cook and his voyages, check out the Captain Cook Society website or this site for some good background on the good Captain.

Other recommended reading: Paul Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania - a good read, but at times Theroux's sometimes depressed and caustic take on exotic locales and travel can be grating. He really is an acquired taste.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

The Wailing Wind

The Wailing Wind - Tony Hillerman

I like a good mystery.

I started reading Sherlock Holmes in high school, thrilled with the Hound of the Baskervilles, and then moved onto more hard-boiled characters such as the Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels and others. After reading Gorky Park (centered on a grisly murder in a Moscow park, back in the good old, bad old USSR-days), I developed a taste for mysteries with unique settings. Someone pointed me at Tony Hillerman and I have remained a faithful reader ever since.

Tony Hillerman's books are set on the Navajo Reservation of the American south-west, the Four Corners (where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet). Blending the dusty beauty of the extraordinary landscape with the voice of the Dinah, the Navajo, Hillerman has created a unique and fascinating setting and ethos for his stories.

The Wailing Wind finds his two staple characters, the now retired, legendary lieutenant of the Navajo Tribal Police (who patrol an area in excess of 27,000 sq. miles), Joe Leaphorn, and the younger, slightly more muddled, Navajo traditionalist Sergeant Jim Chee, investigating the labyrinthine connections between an abandoned pick-up truck with dead body, a long-lost gold mine, a two-year old shooting, and La Llorana, the Wailing Women of the south-west.

Hillerman weaves modern culture with mythic lore, seamlessly making the leap from the intricate Navajo belief system to 21st century police work, building a very believable and reasonably involved mystery. The two overwhelming elements found in all of Hillerman's 15 novels are his unabashed appreciation for the land and his ability to evoke it so strongly that it literally represents another ongoing character in the story, and his ability to bring the reader into the belief system of the Navajo, replete with the religious ceremonies, cultural observances, and the dreaded presence of evil, often manifested as skinwalkers or Navajo witches. In particular he does an excellent job developing the characters and reflecting the directions and thinking that leads them to solve their particular puzzles in their own particular ways, Leaphorn with logic and pattern, Chee with the intuition and understanding that his training as a Navajo hataalii (shamen or healer) has developed.

The Wailing Woman is not the best of Hillerman's work. I would rank it as a middle-of-the-pack read, but as Hillerman is damned fine spinner of yarns, I would still place it head and shoulders above much of the rest of the detective fiction littering the store shelves. For fans of the series, it is like visiting an old friend.

Interested in learning more about the Navajo? Visit Explore the Navajo Nation. You can also drop by Tony Hillerman's website here for some interesting background on the books.

Find out about Navajo sand painting (and here as well), traditional Navajo rugs, and legendary figures such as Coyote and the Flint Boys.

You can check out some of the wonderous scenery of the sacred land of the Navajo at Flight Over Four Corners , a National Geographic website.

Tuesday, March 4, 2003

By the Sword

By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions - Richard A. Cohen

It is telling that swords are so often named. Excaliber, Charlemagne's Flamberge, Beowulf's Hrunting, the Sword of Damocles ....

How many other weapons or objects for that matter, carry the weight or significance of a sword? In the 600-odd years that firearms have made their noisy presence felt, few, if any, of them carry the aura or mystique of the blade. The sword carries a power, elegance and personality within it, reflecting the user. The sword is, above all, a personal weapon, wielded up close, not remote or distant, whether on a battlefield, a dueling ground or a piste, it reflects the personalities behind them. Swords have always been symbols: of power, of choices, of status and honor, of elegance, skill, romance and justice. And of death and resolution.

Richard Cohen, Olympian and five times U.K. National Saber champion, has written a book that amply demonstrates that, while the pen maybe mighter then the sword, the sword has an abiding fascination and magic. By The Sword is a memorable and evocative history of swords, swordsmen (and women), duelists, swordsmiths, swashbucklers, fencers and beau sabreurs throughout the ages.

The book covers the earliest known history of the sword and fencing, stretching from ancient Egyptian wall murals and bloody gladiatorial Rome, to the heavy blades of the medieval European knights. Cohen paints a global picture, examining the samurai of feudal Japan who, when testing their blades, used criminals and peasants but for the honor of their swords, disdained testing them on murderers and those suffering from skin diseases. Cohen looks at the European culture of the sword, dissecting the age of the Musketeer's and beyond with a discerning eye to detail and the people behind the blade. The book covers virtually ever facet of the sword including the hidden alchemy of metallurgy, the evolution of the design of the sword, it's impact on fighting styles, the formalities (and legalities) of the duel and dueling culture (Ever wonder why you shake hands with your right hand? It demonstrates good faith as it was your sword hand), German schlager fighting, the rise of fencing as an Olympic sport, and modern fencing technology and styles.

Cohen brings an authoritative voice to the proceedings, if somewhat marred on occasion by the usage of technical terms that may be obscure to non-fencers. The book is filled to the brim with rich snippets of sword lore (Fencing elephants for example. Read the book if you don't believe me) and vivid historical personages. Take for example such personages as the cross-dressing La Chevalier d'Eon, who's prowess with a sword was superceded only by the public uncertainty over his/her sex (a matter not settled until after d'Eon's death), or the deadly female duelist (and opera singer) Julie d'Aubigny, La Maupin, who scandalized Parisian society with her bisexual affairs and topped off her reputation by dueling three men at once (and defeating all three) during a masked ball at the Palais-Royal. George Patton, d'Artagnan, Descartes, George Washington, Basil Rathbone and countless others, famous and infamous, populate these pages, helping to make By The Sword a fascinating read and one of the very best history books I have read in a very long time.

For more information on fencing, or to learn to fence, check out U.S. Fencing or Fencing Online.

Learn how they stage elaborate sword fights and the art of fight choreography for theater and film here, or if you just prefer to watch the swashbuckling action, click here.

Interested in Japanese swords? This may be the site for you.

Now please excuse me, I've got some buckles to swash.....