Monday, 20 December 2010

The best of 2010 - books, films and TV

I spent a precious half hour yesterday morning curled up in bed reading the New York Times' end of year cultural round-up. I don't know about you, but I love reading these retrospective features and the way they put the year into context. (I know how hard they are to put together, too - when I worked on a magazine and we had to sum up our 'top 10s' from the year come December, no-one could remember a thing and we had to rack our Christmas party-addled brains to recall what had actually gone on in the industry. There was always something major that got left out and, naturally, people complained about it in January.)

So, anyway, this year I thought I'd put together my own personal roundup. I can't give you any kind of meaningful comment on art, dance or sculpture - I'm just not THAT cultured, I'm afraid - but I can give you films, books and TV. Without any further ado, my top cultural picks from 2010 are:

1). The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. The greatest living writer in my opinion, and still at the top of her game.
2.) The Help by Kathryn Stockett. A gripping read, and a real eye-opener about life in the Deep South in the not too distant past.
3). The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. I love this writer. Black Swan Green is fabulous but this story set in 19th century Japan, though long and complicated, is also rather brilliant.

1) An Education. Entertaining and thought-provoking coming of age story. I loved it.
2) The Social Network. Very clever and laugh-out-loud funny - whatever the veracity of its potrayals.
3. Toy Story 3. Still brilliant - and now the boys know who Woody and Buzz are too.

1) Mad Men. Season 4 was superb - particularly the scenes between Don Draper and Peggy. Still far more nuanced and intelligent than anything else on TV.
2.) The Ugly Betty finale. I always enjoyed this series, and was sad when it was cancelled. But I think they got the ending right (UK viewers, I don't know if this has aired, so I won't spoil it).
3.) Sherlock. I only caught this recently, but thought it was great - make some more, please. So much better than the dreadful Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes film, which I also saw this year.

So what were your favourites? Was 2010 a vintage cultural year for you?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Manhattan at Christmas

I went into Manhattan this morning to meet someone about possible freelance work. I had an hour or so to kill before our meeting, so I took the opportunity to wander the chilly streets of the City, taking in the Christmas lights and decorations. Sadly I didn' t have my camera, but here is a verbal snapshot of what I saw....

A giant Smurf above the front door of Macy's. And lots of fluffy Smurf toys piled up inside. (Smurfs must be having a comeback - I remember my sister having a similar fluffy Smurf in about 1985. These were selling for a lot more than I am sure hers cost).

A giant Christmas tree made of poinsettias in the lobby of a bank building. I was rather taken with this.

Very lost-looking tourists outside the Waldorf-Astoria. (There was a great story about the W-A in the NY Times last week. A couple had their room given away because some Saudi princes were in town. They were furious - they were given instead rooms at the Hilton, but were quoted as saying that it "just wasn't the same - people were carrying pizza boxes in the elevator!" )

A delicious array of fragrances at Saks Fifth Avenue,including lots of Jo Malone, with which I liberally sprayed myself. (I went upstairs to look at the clothes, but was quickly put off by the price tags, and shocked by the rails full of fur coats. Decided I am more of J Crew and Zara type of girl.)

A Christmas market just off Fifth Avenue that seemed to sell nothing but furry hats.

Several groups of Salvation Army people singing carols on street corners.

Two people carrying gigantic bunches of balloons - they looked as if they were about to float and take off. They must have been for an office party, I reckon.

Quite a few people with British accents on the streets, several complaining about the cold. (Wear a hat, woman!)

A schoolbus full of kids brought to see the massive tree at Rockefeller Center, delight lighting up their faces.

It was certainly very Christmassy. I was trying to think about how it compares to London, though, and realised that I didn't see any one focal streetwith huge arching Christmas lights, (like Regent Street for instance. Although now I can't help thinking of poor old Regent Street being full of rioters shouting 'off with their heads' at the royals). On the other hand, New Yorkers do not stint when it comes to trees festooned with lights, huge wreaths and baubles adorning storefronts and wonderfully Christmassy smells - roasting chestnuts on street corners, stalls selling hot chocolate.

And of course, when it comes to home Christmas decorations, Americans far out-class the Brits. Not only on the outside (stay tuned for photos - I hope to get some next week) but on the inside too - according to this story, several rich Manhattanites now hire interior decorators to dress their tree. My interior decorators, on the other hand, were the Littleboys, armed with a bunch of paperclips. And the outdoor decorator was The Doctor, armed with a stepladder and two strings of Christmas lights to be strung around a little fir tree (as opposed to the several thousand strings, together with reindeer and sled combos employed by some of our neighbours). We will, however, be spreading some Christmas cheer with a mince pie and mulled wine party this weekend. I'll be interested to see how those very British delicacies go down......

Monday, 13 December 2010

A very special story

First things first: this is not a sponsored post. I've been asked by PRs to review many products this Christmas, and I've turned them all down. They are usually things either totally inappropriate for the Littleboys - eg. tights(!) - or things that would be impractical to ship to the US, where the PR in question clearly has not realised that I reside.

I would rather, instead, write about a Christmas gift that I truly admire and have bought on several occasions. And one with which I have something of a personal connection.

Let me tell you a story first. Almost eleven years ago, I started a new job on a magazine. I sat down at my new desk, and smiled at the girl opposite, and it was the beginning of a firm friendship. While at first we bonded over the usual things - office gossip, tipsy work nights out - our friendship outlasted the workplace, and long after she moved to another magazine we would still meet up for lunch, coffee and a heart-to-heart over a glass of wine.

It was during one of these heart-to-hearts, in late 2003, that I announced to her my secret news. I was leaving the company, going travelling and then setting up as a freelancer with a view to starting a family. And then my friend announced her own secret news. She was also leaving; and planned to start her own business.

I was pretty surprised by this, and thought it was an incredibly brave move. But she then explained her absolute gem of a business idea - the creation of personalised books for children, using not only the child's name, age and other details but their photograph throughout the book as the hero or heroine of the story. The idea, she said, had come from books that her grandparents had lovingly created for her as a child, cutting and pasting the photos - now, with digital printing, it could become a reality on a much larger scale.

And so Itsyourstory was born. Six years later (my friend somehow having also found the time to have three children and move the entire family to Somerset) the business is going strong, with a range of 18 books to choose from as well as other products such as calendars, party invitations and letters. There are stories suitable for all ages and all occasions - birthdays, Christmas, even a super-hero story. In every story, the child is the star, and all kinds of information about their life - from their best friends' names to their favourite food and TV show - can be included in the tale. You simply go online to upload your child's photo and all the details, and the books are mailed out to you.

The Littleboys will each be getting an Itsyourstory book this Christmas, and I am confident that they will absolutely love them; you see, I've already seen the combination of delight and amazement before on nieces and nephews' faces as they open the books and realise that they are the main character. So, if you're short of a present either for your children, a relative or friend's child, pop over to the site and take a look (you can also follow them on Twitter). My friend has even set up a 20% discount for readers of this blog, valid until January 31st (although if you want it for Christmas, last orders must be made by this Friday, December 17). All you need to do is type the voucher code NAPPYV20* during the first stage of the order process on the website. I can guarantee you'll love the books. And you'll be supporting a very special friend of mine at the same time.

*excludes P&P.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Gallery: White. (And the birthday boy)

Unlike the rest of you back in the UK, we haven't had any snow yet in New York this year. Well, there were a few flurries on Monday, but it didn't settle - much to my relief, as the Doctor was away at a conference and I didn't much fancy digging out the driveway by myself. (I'm pleased to see, though, that there have been 12 inches in Vermont. Roll on ski-ing).

So, when it came to selecting a picture for this week's Gallery, I had to choose some photographs from February, when we had our biggest snowfall of last winter. It was a real powder snowfall, and when the sun came out after the blizzard, everything sparkled. And I thought I'd choose a picture of Littleboy 2, too, in honour of his fourth birthday today. He would have loved snow on his birthday. Ah, well.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

It's a little bit funny.....

I made a discovery yesterday.

Americans don't use the word 'bit'. At least, not when they're talking about something other than the thing that goes in the horse's mouth.

I had a friend round, and her son was helping the Littleboys construct a marble run. Littleboy 1 was acting as the foreman, and was rather bossily ordering the other two about. He kept asking them to get him a 'red bit', a 'yellow bit' and so forth. At one point I had to intervene, and (being shamefully less good than my five year old son at actually following the instructions) I then asked him if "that bit goes there?"

"Oh," said my friend. "I've finally worked it out. Bit means piece."

She had thought we were referring to some technical marble-construction terms, and explained that, to her, bit was, well, getting the bit between your teeth. And thinking about it, Americans don't tend to say "It's a bit strange." They would say something was 'a little strange'. (US readers, If I'm wrong here, do let me know...)

It's strange how these little bits (ha!) of information can still surprise you. I remember being astonished last year to discover that Americans don't say they are 'cross' about something. It's mad, or angry. I found this out because someone was saying how cute it was that her son picked up British expressions from Thomas the Tank Engine. So, saying that I am a little bit cross about the fact that Littleboy 1's basketball lesson was cancelled today without our knowledge, would presumably be either quaint or completely meaningless to them. (I am more than a little bit cross about that, by the way. But I'll get over it).

Still, I feel as if I am being constantly educated. Today, for instance, I have been informed sternly by sons that 'dreidel' - a Jewish Hanukkah toy that they have been learning about at school - is not pronounced to rhyme with sidle, but cradle. At least I have the boys to put me right......