"review" · arc · foreign · non-fiction · recommend

{book + tv} the beauty, the sorrow & the abbey

The British television series Downton Abbey peaks all sorts of interests in its viewer-ship. I, for one, am obsessed with the costuming. And then there are the sets. I have also, like many others, taken an interest in the variety of perspectives woven into the show. Not only the ones between and within the classes, but of this latest turn in season 2: of World War I.

At the end of last year I received an ARC for Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow (as translated by Peter Graves, Knopf 2011), I’ve yet to properly finish it and write a review worthy of it; yet I can confidently recommend it just the same. Englund’s rarefied approach to non-fictional historical texts is a refreshing one. He has taken recorded history/primary sources via journals, letters, photographs, etc. and pieced them into a chronological narrative. His sources are diversified so as to cover the personal experiences from as many perspectives as Englund could manage. He is deft in introducing and following a large cast.

A highly original and revelatory narrative history of World War I that brings into focus its least examined, most stirring component: the experience of the average man or woman.

To create this intimate picture of what war was really like, Peter Englund draws from the diaries, journals, and letters of twenty individuals. They hail from Belgium and Denmark, Austria and Hungary, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and Venezuela. Some fight on the Western Front, others in the Alps or Mesopotamia; some never see a battlefield. There is a twelve-year-old German schoolgirl, an English nurse in the Russian army, a French civil servant, an American woman married to a Polish aristocrat—all of whom will be united by their involvement, witting or otherwise, in The Great, and terrible, War.

A brilliant mosaic of perspectives, the narrative reads with a depth of feeling and an evocation of time and place we might expect of a novel, and allows these twenty men and women to speak for not only themselves, but also for all of those who were in some way shaped by the war, yet whose voices remain unheard. –publisher’s comments.

The author himself is not without a voice. He shapes the narratives into an accessible translation of personhood, time, and place. Englund returns the voices from the past into flesh, capturing personality, individual voice.

People behave in unanticipated ways; there is as much base behavior as heroism. Mr. Englund discussed the soldiers who actively tried to catch a venereal disease from prostitutes as a way to evade service at the front. “The most grotesque expression of this can be seen in the trade of gonococcal pus, which soldiers buy and smear into their genitals in the hope of ending up in hospital,” he writes. “Those who are really desperate rub it into their eyes, which often results in lifelong blindness.”–Dwight Garner *

The imagery culled from the front, no wonder these men’s desperate aversion. The juxtapositions (like base/brave) ground the experience of The Beauty and the Sorrow.

Englund quotes directly from his sources in an elegant fashion. He also provides footnotes with contextual information, interesting facts. They enter/read like a person following along with you who is familiar with the greater scope of the events and can interject historical perspective; he explains who particular figures are; makes asides, etc.

One of the things I find remarkably vivid is how no one could really understand what was going on and how it came to be so. Some had ideas, of course. The explanations and motivations vary. And then it is the war, no mistake, and what next? What now? Englund haunts the text with pervasive themes/emotions: fear, confusion, courage, bigotry, helplessness, awe… The chaos and coincidence are breath-taking. Englund provide context, and you may draw from your own history lessons, but none of it lessens the effect of each individuals own limited perspective. The war becomes a human story–the day-to-day, and less a fascination with political maneuvers, propaganda, battle myth, and statistics (although such fascination is involved).

The transition from the old ways of doing war and the new are remarked with some humor and horror. The assinine blundering at great cost to the common people. The criticisms are unmistakable. Englund comes across as one who aligns himself less with the writers of history and more with those who actually suffered it. This and the voices of the individual men and women and children are incredibly compelling.

If you’ve an interest in World War I, avid or no, The Beauty and the Sorrow is one you’ll enjoy. I think you’ll find it an interesting companion piece to Downton Abbey.

*Dwight Garner has written a brilliant The New York Times review of this book, “Mass Slaughter on a Personal Level” (Nov. 2011), please read it and continue to seriously consider adding this book to your lists.

Ian Thomas’ review, “The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, by Peter Englund”, for The Guardian (Nov. 2011)

another review by me likely to come, after I reach that ending Garner promises.


{image: 1– Carnival Films Production filming Downton Abbey, in the foreground:Thomas (Rob James-Collier), 2– Hardcover, Knopf 2011}

"review" · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend

…The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset

Horton Halfpott

or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor

or The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset

by Tom Angleberger (w/illus. by author)

Amulet Books, 2011

206 pages, hardcover.

Loved Origami Yoda* so when I saw Mr. Angleberger had another due, I requested it from the Library…yes, it took this long.

“There are so many exciting things in this book—a Stolen Diamond, snooping stable boys, a famous detective, the disappearance of a Valuable Wig, love, pickle éclairs, unbridled Evil, and the Black Deeds of the Shipless Pirates—that it really does seem a shame to begin with ladies underwear” (1).

It was an odd segue to finish watching BBC’s Downton Abbey: Season One (2010) and begin reading Horton Halfpott. Downton Abbey is a series about both the family and the servants who live in the palatial home called Downton. In Horton Halfpott the invisible workings of an aristocratic estate is also featured—Horton being the humblest member of the staff—a kitchen boy, doomed to wash dishes and polish silver for a mere penny a week.  However, I am guessing that a middle-grade boy would find Downton Abbey considerably less interesting than Horton Halfpott, despite the fact that both harbor “unbridled Evil.” For one, there are yet to be any Shipless Pirates, and, two, it would be highly improper to discuss ladies underwear or heroes’ armpits in Downton Abbey.

So Horton Halfpott isn’t nighttime telly or PBS Masterpiece Theater. Nor was it meant. And while Tom Angleberger cites Charles Dickens as inspiration, the 203 pages of Horton Halfpott is considerably more lightly weighted. The narrator caters to the middle-grader who partakes in juvenile humor, knows about various smells, and cares only to stomach the slightest hint of romance—okay, so maybe not just the middle-grader.

The Narrator is a storyteller eager to share this story about Horton Halfpott, and how “the Loosening” made way for all kinds “Unprecedented Marvels.” The Dear Reader is energetically addressed as one who is sure to find the comedy and the heart in Horton Halfpott’s story; as one who can empathize; and as one who can smile at the appropriately “inappropriate” times.

 “When Portnoy S. Pomfrey solved the Case of the Sultan’s Sapphire, the sultan kindly offered to reward St. Pomfrey with anything he wished. St. Pomfrey asked for the hand of the sultan’s daughter in marriage.

When the sultan pointed out that his daughter was already married with three children, St. Pomfrey said he would settle for the “magnificent carriage” parked behind the sultan’s palace instead.

The sultan was too polite to tell St. Pomfrey that this was really the Royal Outhouse. Instead, he ordered the outhouse set on wheels and shipped to England. St. Pomfrey has ridden in it ever since, always wondering about the lingering odor and lack of windows.”(49-50)

Horton Halfpott isn’t a naughty, mischievous boy protagonist just for the sake of it. And he tries to do what is right, even when everyone else is “misbehaving.” He has to be his own person, and  clever, and brave. And he still figuring out what that means exactly.

“Horton was undergoing a Loosening of his own. […] Perhaps, he began to realize, not every preposterous pronouncement of M’Lady Luggeruck needed to be obeyed. Nor every tyrannical decree of Miss Neversly. Nor every unwritten law of propriety that prevented kitchen boys from befriending young ladies” (140).

The characters are marvelously ridiculous; though not to be dismissed, of course. Many are quite dangerous. The ones who hold the power are most especially threatening. Alas, the adventure wouldn’t be much of one without peril, and the villains wouldn’t be nearly so terrifying if they hadn’t resembled Luther, or M’Lady, or the spoon-wielding cook Ms. Neversly.

It is wonderful that the corset is not an Enhancer, but a tormentive restriction that creates the greater horror that is M’Lady Luggertuck. “Imagine being pinched like that day after day, year after year. It could make a nice lady into a mean one. So imagine what it would do to a lady like M’Lady Luggertuck, who was a nasty beast to start” (2). Better is how the corset comes to symbolize repression and indignity in varying degrees for all the characters (and greater society). [Don’t worry, it’s subtle enough.]

One thing I love about the narrative is how the narrator will reference another story—nothing Literary I assure you.

(You’ll notice that forks were not mentioned. Faithful readers will remember that M’Lady Luggertuck had had a fear of forks ever since the events recounted in “M’Lady Luggertuck Hires a Tattooed Nanny.”) (55).


“Old Crotty soon discovered that someone had ransacked M’Lady Luggertuck’s writing desk! This upset M’Lady Luggertuck greatly, since she had several letters in that desk that it would have been best if no one else had ever read. (See “M’Lady Luggertuck Meets a Handsome Frenchman.”)” (66)

There is plenty of comedy and adventure in the course of a mystery of a stolen diamond, and the narrator is keen to engage the reader in it. I think you should oblige him or her. You can save Downton Abbey for another time.


Horton Halfpott had me thinking of Kate McMullen’s fantastic chapter book series Dragon Slayers’ Academy (Grosset & Dunlap); we read this series to Natalya when she was in early elementary school–fun for the whole family.

Don’t let this be only a boy’s book, girl’s will appreciate–at the very least–the character Celia, a independently thinking girl who is quick, and owns a bicycle.

*my review of Origami Yoda.

and Darth Paper Strikes Back comes out late August 2011! yay!

Book’s website.

"review" · cinema · foreign · recommend

sherlock, downton abbey, and luther

The following are three British television series Sean and I have recently discovered; made easy as they were available via Netflix streaming. I list them in order of viewing, Luther being newly arrived to Netflix.

I would also recommend Doctor Who and Torchwood as well. Torchwood is currently running a pretty intense season. And we can’t wait for the summer break to be over for more Doctor Who.

Sherlock (2010) :  the British television series as created by Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. James Watson are no longer confined to historical London, they’ve been translated into present-day context. Holmes is as savvy with technology as everything else. And Dr. Watson is a veteran of a different war, this one in Afghanistan. Dealing with internal and external wounds from the war Watson (Martin Freeman) needs work and a flat-mate, and something to occupy his mind. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) rather carelessly offers to split a place and it isn’t long before he pulls Watson into his sleuthing–because really, who else can put up with him? And Watson is actually very intelligent, though much more quietly so.  Lestrade (Rupert Graves) is present, of course, and Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs). Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) appears thinner, and a sly comment is made toward his success in dieting. And Moriarty seems to be behind most of the mayhem, and in a wonderfully imagined way.

The mysteries are good, but it is in the filming and the acting that viewers are compelled to follow the series. I was pleasantly distracted by the transitions between scenes, each movement a well-constructed match in which to fade, or would blend be the better word, bleed?  The lighting, the tilt-shift, the angles, the cross-cutting. Brilliant editing work. The addition of text is a really nice touch and not over done. The text popping up like bubbles at the press conference is a source of humor and the text as mind-reader is a useful tool in reading what Holmes is reading when examining a dead body. The soundtrack is good–can’t let that go unsaid.

Benedict Cumberpatch and Martin Freeman

Cumberbatch proves more than capable as the arrogant “sociopath” (as he is now labelled). He pulls off the simultaneity of oblivious and all-seeing beautifully. I found Freeman the much more compelling actor, in part, I think, because I hadn’t seen him play the straight man. Watson has his own demons, his own worries and yet, even as he is bewildered by Holmes, he is intrigued by what Holmes does, he can’t help but be involved. Freeman is so sober and quiet and emotive in a way that charms and steadies the course of the series. Watson has ever been the means by which the story of Holmes is told, but in Sherlock he has a story of his own as well. Watson and Holmes relationship makes the series, it develops in a comedic and dramatic way that wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without the caliber of acting offered.

I really, really hope to see this series return. Yes, I know Freeman is busy with The Hobbit, which I have to say, I am even more eager to see, having witnessed how marvelous a range Mr. Freeman is capable of.

IMDb link. Wiki page.

Downton Abbey (2010) : British television series created and principally written by actor and writer Julian Fellowes. (wiki)

When the Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley’s “heir presumptive” goes down with the Titanic, life at Downton Abbey suffers unrest. A new heir will be named, an unfamiliar distant cousin. Robert Crawley’s eldest daughter Mary was to have married the previous heir and now her future is in free-fall. You see, her mother’s fortune (as a New York heiress) had become legally tied to the estate and title. All of her money would now go to a perfect stranger, leaving only respectable dowries for the three daughters–an unfair turn to Countess Crawley–and her mother-in-law, the Dowager. The servants are cast into uncertainty as well, and the arrival of a new valet for the Earl adds even more conflict. In this historical drama, events unfold on the grand scale, the suffragist movements, the threat of war, the decline of the aristocracy. The smaller scale dramas seem to play microcosmic role, while still entertaining their own intrigues.

Reasons to watch Downton Abbey:

Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: can anyone else portray absurd and dead-serious in the same breath this successfully? Oh, and the other actors aren’t too shabby either. I especially enjoyed Brendan Coyle’s performance as the valet John Bates. Truly, this is a well-cast show. Even as you hate the more villainous characters, you can’t help but appreciate how well played they are.

Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery (as Lady Mary) .

The costumes and sets. The clothing is easily one of my favorite reasons to watch this series.

It is easy to become invested in one or more of the characters. And it is lovely how the servants and not intertwine both in encounters that inform one another’s trajectories, but also thematically. The narrative would also cleverly keep the viewer on their toes. It was nice having the whole first season in one piece so as to not have to wait for next week! I am already on edge to watch this coming season.

Downton Abbey has become a phenomenal success for several reasons. I think it a wonderfully accessible historical drama with a something for everyone, not just its expected fans. I am sure you could find a reason to seek this series out, and I think you should.

IMDb link. Wiki page.

Luther (2010) : a British television series created by Neil Cross.

John Luther returns to his job as a Detective Chief Inspector for London Metropolitan Police Service’s Serious and Serial Crime Unit after being investigated for his part in a serial killer’s demise. Did he allow the killer to plummet to his death? Yes. Did Luther have a psychotic break? He certainly appears to still be reeling. His marriage disintegrates, the crimes are taxing, and he makes a very dangerous acquaintance.

Creator Neil Cross has said that Luther is influenced by both Sherlock Holmes and Columbo: the nature of Luther’s intellect and its application to solving crimes is comparable to Holmes’, whereas the show’s use of the “inverted detective format” (wherein the audience is aware of the identity of the criminals but not of how they will be caught, as opposed to the conventional format of the audience discovering the criminal as the characters do) was inspired by Columbo. (found on wiki)

Idris Elba as John Luther.

Luther is very good at solving cases; the only reason you can see his boss wanting him back and continuing to put up with him. And really, who doesn’t find Idris Elba attractive, even in the outright tormented figure that is John Luther? To say that Elba is riveting in this role is to sell him short. He carries off the strain of Luther’s existence in a confounding way. And Cross’ detective is as confounding as his story-line. It feels manipulative that you cannot anticipate the characters or the story-line (whether episodic or on the whole); and then you adjust as the drama enacted is really the reflective to Luther’s psychological planes. He isn’t predictive, which creates real suspense, and has the viewer returning with interest compounded. Luther creates a truly exhilarating experience. And then there are the cliff-hangers at the end of every show; with an incredible season finale to leave you hankering for the next season; which is a 4 episode summer run. Yep, we set to hunting it down immediately. If you like crime-police shows, are a fan of House, MD or Lie to Me, or Sherlock Holmes or Columbo…and if you would like to see what Idris Elba can do as the lead.

IMDb link. Wiki page.