Browsing Archives for Books & Letters

Downton Abbey? – Hmmmmm…

February 8th, 2012

Along with what seems like the rest of the country, I too have been watching Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey.  I really liked the first season and was anxious for the second season to begin.  Strangely, I have found the second season to be weirdly melodramatic, sometimes very silly, absurdly repetitive and filled with overwrought acting.  To me, Downton Abbey seems to be an American mini-series disguised as a British mini-series.  There are moments, especially when Maggie Smith is delivering a line, that the show almost seems more like a satire of itself than a serious period drama.  I understand that her character is meant to be something of a caricature, but she seems to be too aware of the cartoonish quality of her role and that makes is all seem like a Monty Python sketch.

What I have always loved about British shows is the stoic reserve, the biting dialogue and the normal looking people (uneven teeth, imperfect complexions, the less than glamorous female actresses) and the fabulous backdrops (imposing estates, lush gardens, rain drenched cobblestones, gloomy cityscapes, foreboding cliffs, boggy peats, luminous forests, small stone cottages with curly cues of smoke rising from the chimney and wind swept meadows strewn with the corpses of a thousand brides).  (Never mind that last one…)  But what I am saying is that this second season of Downton Abbey has somehow been weirdly Americanized.  It’s mostly to do with the writing and the delivery of the lines, the repetition of the storylines (seriously – how may times does the youngest daughter have to have the exact same conversation with the lovelorn chauffeur?)  and what is it with the ridiculous amount of long panning camera shots on characters that are doing nothing other than glowering and/or pouting and/or looking pensive off into the middle distance?  Do I really need another slow pan over the face of the evil lady’s maid O’Brien and her sidekick Thomas the plotting footman?  How many more lingering gazes does the camera need to rest on Lady Mary?  She is a very attractive actress, but I have looked at her for so long that I have come to think that she has the most monstrous eyebrows in the universe.  Perhaps if I had not had to stare at her stricken face for approximately half of every episode, I might still think she had very normal eyebrows.  And could someone please put some blush on the pale kitchen maid Daisy!  She looks like the walking dead!  Why did poor William fall so hard for her?  She looks anemic!  Perhaps she is the inspiration behind my English meadow full of dead brides!

I do love the palpable disdain that the Earl of Grantham has for his middle daughter Edith.  At this point, it is the only part of the show that is keeping me entertained.  Overall, I love the Brits for their reserve, their icy delivery, their gimlet eyed view of the world, their inablity to emote and the way that everything they think, feel and believe is expressed in their playful use of language. I don’t want to stare at a British character.  I want to listen to what they say. And I want them to say it in a garden that is in front of a looming estate that hides a secret room that is filled with dead brides.

Downton Abbey has at least got the looming estate and the garden right.  Now if we could just get those characters to say something interesting.

I know that for some reason, America has fallen in love with this show.  And that is great for PBS especially in this climate of such vitriol towards all things publicly funded.  Still, I think that the popularity of this show has worked against it.  I imagine that I will continue to watch this season, but I am already tired of it.

Except for this dress…

I am not at all tired of Lady Mary’s black evening dress with the velvet ribboned sleeves.

What do you think of the show?

The Calvin Becker Trilogy

February 1st, 2012

I was introduced to the writing of Frank Schaeffer via his book Crazy For God several years ago. I loved the book and wrote about it here. On that post, a reader left a comment asking me if I had read any of Schaeffer’s fiction books. I had not and I tucked that comment away in my brain in hopes that someday it would resurface at just the exactly right moment when I was in need of a new book to read.  Turns out that this winter was the exactly right moment. It took me a while to get a hold of Frank’s fiction books as the local library and local bookstores did not have any copies.  As a result, I bought used versions of the books online which is one of my favorite ways to get a hold of books anyway and have just enjoyed the ever lovin’ heck out of them.

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All three of these books deal with the same family – the Beckers who are Presbyterian missionaries to Europe where their goal is to convert the blackened souls of the European Catholics to their correct version of Calvinistic protestantism. Elsa Becker (the mother) is particularly relentless in her evangelizing of the sooted masses and is always at the ready with her “gospel walnut” or simply a long and loudly spoken prayer in a crowded train or non-stop references to her faith in conversations with every hapless stranger she happens to stand next to in line to bring the lost to her particular version of Jesus.  Her bizarre behavior makes her entire family uncomfortable including her missionary husband who grows more and more frustrated and exasperated with her pretentious martyr-like behavior and occasionally unloads on her in pubic displays that make a family of baboons seem more civilized than this upright and devout missionary family.

The books take place in gorgeous surroundings such as Portofino an Italian beach resort where the Beckers vacation every summer and Zermatt, a Swiss ski resort where an adolescent Calvin Becker encounters a hotel maid who is willing to tutor him for free in the pleasures of her flesh as she delivers his hot cocoa to his room every morning.  And speaking of sex, when Calvin’s mother is not attempting to convert a Speedo clad, well oiled Italian on the beaches of Portofino, she is usually instructing her children in appropriate sexual behaviors giving them at the same time too much information about her own sex life with their father as well as insisting that they must suppress every sexual urge they have until their wedding night. Unfortunately for her adolescent son, her endless instructions both whet his sexual appetite and prove to be impossible to follow.  As a result he spends most of his time lying, manipulating and sneaking around his mother’s strict parameters and probably having bigger and riskier adventures than he ever would have if his parents had just been sane.

My favorite of the trilogy is Saving Grandma which deals with the arrival of Ralph Becker’s (the father figure) invalid mother to the Swiss mission. Grandma Becker is not a Christian and regards her son and his missionary family as bearing “shit eating grins” as they try to convert her to a relationship with Jesus with their oh so kind and humble facades that she believes to be complete bullshit.  The trajectory in this story caterwauls like a glass marble in a house perched on a pointy mountain-top, rollicking back and forth between absolutely absurd scenarios as Elsa Becker tries at once tries to “save” her loud, sick and foul mouthed mother-in-law and also strategically and in her typically martyr like way, to hasten her demise.

But you CAN’T read Saving Grandma without reading Portofino first! It is a great story in itself and sets up the characters and why would you want to miss a beach vacation with a bunch of fundamentalists?  As my Arkansas relatives would say, these books are a hoot and a holler.  You will be hooting with laughter and hollering in pain as you watch Calvin Becker navigate the insanity of his fundy fam.

Death Comes to Pemberly

January 5th, 2012

The instant I heard PD James interviewed on NPR regarding her latest book Death Comes to Pemberley, I knew I was going to have to go to great lengths, possibly even murder, to lay my hands on a copy. Fortunately, the CD saved me from committing any such grisly crime by purchasing the book for me for Christmas. Having never read a PD James book, but being somewhat familiar with her mysteries via Masterpiece Theater, I figured that if anyone could pull off a Jane Austen murder mystery, it might be her. James is a highly awarded author and a popular one as well, plus she loves Jane, is British and it would seem that these two things might work together for the good of those that love Jane Austen and are called for her purposes.

Did I enjoy the book?  Why yes I did! In fact, I read it almost non-stop.  Was I appalled by James’s interpretation of two of my favorite characters of all time, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, her description of Pemberley and the way she involved most of the principal characters of Pride and Prejudice in her murder mystery?  No, I was not. I generally enjoy it when one artist toys with the work of another. But I must say that as a devoted Austen fan, I was also not entirely pleased with this re-visioning of the work of Austen. I imagine that any devout fan of Austen will experience moments of deep regret and other moments of immense satisfaction while reading this book. It is fun to revisit Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and see them enjoying their married life, raising their children and caring for their estate and their employees. Throughout the book, one is reminded of their great love story and it is fun to think about it again in a new context.

Sadly, all the female characters of Austen’s story are largely insignificant in this book. While the men take firm control of the narrative, hauling bodies around, guarding suspects, attending trials, crashing through the underbrush to find evidence and agonizing over their allegiance to one another, the women can only worry, fret, wring their hands and toss and turn in sleepless nights. The absence of Elizabeth’s perception and wit is especially noteworthy as the story unfolds.

In her interview on NPR, James confesses that Pride and Prejudice is not her favorite Austen book. Instead she cites Emma as the Austen tome most dear to her heart and at the end of Death Comes to Pemberley she weaves in her favorite story in a manner that actually brought tears to my eyes. And though it is a moving moment in the story, the reason I was swallowing back a lump of emotion had nothing to do with the story line. It was more the naked affection of P.D. James for Austen in her determination to bring in her favorite book that caused tears to sting my eyes. For it was not the act of a great writer that joined Pride and Prejudice to Emma, it was the act of a devoted fan and that was something I could relate to on a deeply emotional level.