Monthly Archives: January 2013


Couple of nights ago, I sat at my computer doing some work while the Thriller took a break from studying and turned on the History Channel. What I heard for the next 30 minutes was a bizarre tale — totally new to me. I was surprised to have never heard of it before, so I had to dive in and research him. Perhaps you know about this guy, so this won’t be new. But in case you haven’t, read on…

This is the ultimately tragic story of the famous magician, Chung Ling Soo (1861-1918). It is a fantastic tale, in more ways than one.

Why fantastic? Well, see…Soo was not Chinese at all, for starters. His real name was William Robinson, born to Scottish parents in New York City. He was indeed a talented illusionist, but uncomfortable with performing in front of people as “himself.” He struggled with connecting with an audience. So, much like his real Chinese counterpart, magician Ching Ling Foo, he adopted the Cantonese persona of Chung Ling Soo. This enabled him to retreat into silence while doing his act, relying only on his amazing talent as a magic master to wow audiences everywhere.

He claimed to have never mastered English, and gave interviews through an interpreter (even though he did not speak Chinese…whaaa?). No way would that fly with today’s media. But the public of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century ate it up. The guy was a hit. He traveled the world with his act, which thrilled audiences and featured his wife as his assistant (she was also American).

Soo’s most famous trick was the “bullet catch.” An assistant would load a rifle with a bullet in full view of the audience, then aim it at the magician and shoot. Soo would catch the bullet in his teeth, wowing the shocked crowd. Actually, the barrels of the guns were modified so as to expel a burst of gun powder, but not fire the bullet. In an article in the Guardian, I discovered that magicians of the time thought the trick was cursed, because several performers had been hurt or killed. And unfortunately, such was the case with Mr. Soo:

On that early spring evening in 1918, the theatre was buzzing as Chung Ling Soo prepared to perform the trick. The rifles were loaded by his assistants; they took aim with the muzzles pointed directly at the magician. The command to fire was given, the sound of two shots was heard, and Chung Ling Soo fell to the ground. But he was never to get up again. Within hours the greatest conjuror of the age – friend to Houdini, and a man who claimed to have performed for the emperor of China himself – would be dead from the real bullet that entered his body and pierced his lung, causing massive haemorrhaging.

Yikes. It was reported that, after an entire career feigning to know only Chinese, his last words were spoken in perfect English: My God, I’ve been shot. Lower the curtain.

And with that, the “marvellous Chinese conjuror” was no more. Bill Robinson died from his wounds the next day in a London hospital.

A very interesting account of his 1909 Australia tour is here. Bizarre, sad, fascinating. We got it all here at RtB.

Happy Saturnday!


Is there anybody in there? 
Just nod if you can hear me 
Is there anyone home?
  ~ Comfortably Numb (Roger Waters, David Gilmour)

So check out the numbers from this week. Odd…

RtB usually gets between 100 and 250 hits a day. (Out of the 2.4 billion internet users on the planet, that’s my share. I am a worldwide phenomenon.) But look at the stats from the last three days. Hmmm. *scratchy head*  *underarm sniff*

Was it something I said?

By the way — I’m totally happy with my tiny little readership. I don’t — and won’t — advertise in order to get views. Those of you who are my Facebook friends already know I rarely plug a blog post through a share. So I write almost every day to feed my sad addiction to writing, comments or no. Are writers depressing? I think so, sometimes. But hey…maybe it’s not what I’m saying, but rather, what I’m not saying. Have I lost my audience?

I remember a day when I was jacked up about research. Then I started the doctoral work and became so incredibly, completely, abysmally fed up with research, I began writing about more personal, “everyday” subjects. Maybe that’s my downfall; I’m just not informative anymore — no longer your one-stop location for articulate and compendious thoughts. Yesterday’s laundry.

Or people could just be busy. :-D

Right, then. I shall awaken my inner philomath. Release the Kraken! Ready, steady, go.

Of fat men, little boys…

…and the smell of karma.

Are the sins of our forefathers coming back to haunt us? I woke up to read that North Korea is now testing nukes that, according to their plans, would be aimed at the US. From the article:

The North’s National Defense Commission said the moves would feed into an “upcoming all-out action” that would target the United States, “the sworn enemy of the Korean people.”

It’s interesting — and scary — to hypothesize about what might have happened here if August 6th and 9th, 1945 had not happened in Japan. There are many theories — all of which heavily depend upon whom you ask. Many claim we did not know the long-range effects of radiation (debatable), and that it was much more effective using a bomb to end a war than to start one, which the North Koreans seem hellbent on doing today. Others believe that it was the only way to keep Russia under control, as it was crucial to the United States to keep the Soviet army out of the war.

I still wonder, though: was vaporizing millions of innocent non-combatants a “necessary military move” in order to end the war? I covet your opinions.

And while the discussion of nukes is sometimes a volatile issue, and definitely political, there is also the humanitarian side of the debate with regard to the ubiquitous collateral human suffering associated with attacks of any kind — be they with bombs or bayonets. Therefore, *making sign of the cross*, I sanction it for this day.

But since I’m 10 minutes late for the shower and the snowy roads, I must fly. Have a good day, fiends — think on these things.

Don’t need it.

A school delay, that is. Don’t need it, even thought it seems like everyone else is getting one.

I wonder how many people (staff, not students) go back to bed and sleep for another two hours. Not this gal — ever. Once I’m up, I’m up, unless I’m sick or something, which rarely happens. Delayed schedules always take a toll on the kids, too. People are ever-so-slightly off their pins, and it manifests as listlessness and general apathy. Ain’t nobody got time fuh dat.

No, I say. Let’s get going and have done with it. Off to work! Off to work! Go, you chicken fat, goooooooooooo!

Review: Les Misérables

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Les Mis on stage. Several years, in fact. (2006?) Still, the story in my mind has strong legs; I know how I feel about it, and I’m familiar and comfortable with the emotions it evokes, and it’s been pretty reliable for me every time I’ve seen it.

So it wasn’t without some reservations that I went to see the film yesterday with my good pal Tom Hanks, whose cinematic take I covet at all times on all movies. Don’t get me wrong — I looked forward to it with great excitement, and I must say, it delivered on several fronts. Other fronts…not so much, and I remain rather surprised.

Let’s address this issue at the get-go. I’ve read countless reviews and general opinions on Facebook with regard to Russell Crowe’s lack of vocal prowess and “unprofessional” sound. I think they’re all missing the point. Sometimes, you just need to forget your foofoo preconceived notions about Javert having a booming, operatic baritone. Yes, yes — that’s how he is portrayed in the stage version; I’ve yet to see a production that didn’t hold to this model, and I’ve seen LM on Broadway several times. Say what you will, but the man never sang a single note out of tune, and his raw, untrained delivery only intensified (in my mind, anyway) his shortcomings and insecurities as a lonely, bitter man masquerading as a law-enforcement thug. I thought it was fine, risky, believable casting.

Of course, this is not to say that I don’t take issue with any of the singing. Surprisingly, my biggest annoyance was with Hugh Jackman himself. While his role as Valjean was superbly acted (I was absolutely transfixed during all of his scenes), his 5-mile-wide vibrato and my-goodness-that’s-harsh interpretation of the beautiful “Bring Him Home” was really off-putting. Instead of hovering in an artfully controlled falsetto in the upper range all the way to the bridge, he sang the entire song in a “transcending tone” — half falsetto, half full voice. Not a gentle note in the bunch: disappointing for the second most heart-wrenching song of the show (first being “On My Own”). Yet, I must admit — his flawless character more than balanced out the occasional “what the HECK note is he singing?” moment.

The female singing was delightful. Anne Hathaway as the sad, hauntingly beautiful Fantine, tried juuust a bit too hard sometimes, with her actual delivery upstaging the melody and lyrics. I fought the urge to say, “Somebody please get this girl a Kleenex — for her NOSE.” (Not near as intense as Jane Fonda’s scene in Klute, mind, but plenty realistic.) Her acting, however, was a machete through the chest. Amanda Seyfried’s light, almost straight-tone soprano was perfect for the lovely Cosette, and Samantha Barks, whom I’d never heard of, broke my heart as the tragic Eponine.

The children (young Cosette and the waif boy, Gavroche) were superior.

A real high point for me was listening to the men on the barricades. What strength! What tenors, yo! And, occasional shaky Whitney-type jaw vibrato aside, the always-dreamy Eddie Redmayne was perfect as Cosette’s love interest, Marius. I didn’t know he had such a striking, powerful tenor voice. Nice.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter? Meh. Same old same old, and Tom and I agreed that for a moment there, the film almost took a Tim Burton detour. Not nearly as playful as the Thenardiers of Broadway, but they didn’t have to be. They were funny in places.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the live recording (the singers were recorded on film actually singing their songs, as opposed to lip-synching them with a track, a la Sweeney Todd), but it was impressive, to be certain. Make no mistake: it is difficult to sing this music, and the fact that each character pulled it off in a live setting — and the movie finished production in under nine years — is astonishing.

Bottom line: I was amazed, delighted, overwhelmed with sadness, and completely entertained. Not all of the music in this show is easy to listen to; one has to work to love it. But Tom Hooper’s vision played well, in my opinion, and made most of the scenes perfectly palatable, even and especially for audience members unaccustomed to watching opera. It’s an important film based on classic literature, and you should see it if you haven’t already. Or maybe see it again, which I might.

On the Rat-O-Meter scale of five cheeses, I give Les Misérables: