Post Script: Maggie Smith Biography

9781250081483_p0_v2_s192x300If you are a Downton Abbey fan, you may skip to Michael Covenly’s chapter 21 on “Harry Potter and Downton Abbey” in his biography of Maggie Smith.  As I revelled in the memory of the scenes recalled throughout the series and Maggie Smith’s role as the Dowager, I suddenly cringed when Covenly mistakenly identified Lady Edith as the youngest daughter of the Earl and Lady Cora.  Had he missed an agonized mother’s line at Sybil’s  deathbed – “My beauty, my baby…” ?  Was he only watching Maggie Smith scenes?

Nonetheless, the rest of the book documents Maggie Smith’s career with long summaries of her dramatic roles.  Covenly has more to say about her numerous roles than her life, and her resume is amazing, from Desdemona to Diana Barrie to Spielberg’s Wendy, and remember Mother Superior in Sister Act?  Throughout her career, Smith has earned six Oscar nominations (winning two), 16 BAFTA nominations (winning five) and seven Golden Globes (winning two). In 2003 she won an Emmy award for her lead performance in the TV movie My House in Umbria.

She supposedly had a long running feud with the great Laurence Olivier – sometimes on stage, and her first marriage  to fellow actor Robert Stephens, with whom she had two children, seemed to mirror a Noel Coward play.  In 1975 she married her old friend, writer Beverley Cross, who “she began to say she should have married in the first place” and stay married to him until his death in 1998.

Her audience today knows Maggie Smith for her more recent roles – the Dowager Countess, Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter series (Smith was instrumental in the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry), or Muriel in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Covenly includes those in his book.  But he is also careful to remind the reader where Smith started, and reading about her journey makes her all the more amazing.

Covenly notes – “At all stages of her career, Maggie has, for the most part, remained curiously invisible to the public, She rarely appears in charity shows, seldom lends her name to committees or educational institutions…It is as if she hides away, nursing her gift, and then bursts forth in a new role…”  So, it is no wonder she barely gave an interview to the author.  The book reads like a complete catalogue of Maggie Smith’s performances but seems somewhat lacking on the personal side – except for the author’s suppositions and conclusions.

I enjoyed the book – after all, now I know more about where to look for Maggie Smith in past productions.  Covenly protects Smith’s mystique yet offers glimpses into who she might really be – and she comes across as “what you see is what you get.”

In looking for explanations of Covenly’s references, I came across a 2004 interview by Susan Mackenzie for The Guardian – neatly summing up Smith’s background and comic timing (Covenly claims Jack Benny, the master of comedic timing, commented on Smith’s facility with the delivery of a line).  The interview preceded both Harry Potter and Downton Abbey, but offers a good and short background to the complete biography.  You might want to read it to prepare…You Have to Laugh



Can You Ever Really Know an Author?

With J. K. Rowling’s latest contribution to crime fiction – The Silkworm – headlining the New York Times Book Review, Adam Kirsch’s essay in “Bookends” in the same section – When We Read Fiction, How Relevant is the Author’s Biography?  questions whether knowing the author’s life (and previous work) affects our reception of new work – is it

 “a mere distraction from what really matters, the work?”

Although he does not cite Rowling, focusing instead on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, the one with a life clearly available for scrutiny, the other not so much, my expectations of a new book by J.K. Rowling are probably higher because of Harry Potter.  And, like Rick Nelson, who faced a jeering audience when he failed to perform their old favorite songs, Rowling’s foray into adult crime has left me wanting to return to wizards and magic. To be fair, I have only read the first in the detective series, and maybe the second is better.

IMG_0348Shakespeare, on the other hand, will always be a favorite, and I agree with Kirsch:

…the unknowability of Shakespeare  is a key ingredient in his greatness… {he} stays one step ahead of  us, always knowing more about life and human nature than we do…”

Soon I will be getting reacquainted with the Bard at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City through Twelfth Nigh, Measure for Measure, and Comedy of Errors, and I know my high expectations will be met.  Jane Austen will be there too in an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.  Maybe we can all have tea together.



The Goldfinch

9780316055437_p0_v3_s260x420After reading Donna Tartt’s 771 page novel – The Goldfinch – I’m torn between wanting to read it all again and trying to forget it. Maureen Corrigan from NPR calls the story “Dickensian” in her review – Dickensian Ambition and Emotion Make ‘Goldfinch’ Worth the Wait  – and following Theo from his precarious childhood to his final words as an enlightened adult does have notes of David Copperfield, but with the modern-day horrors of drugs, alcohol, shady friends, criminals, and shallow wealth.

The story revolves around a real 17th century painting (now housed at the Frick Gallery) of a small bird chained to a ledge.  Tartt conveniently offers a replica in the book, and the painting as well as the world of art and antiques play important roles in Theo’s life. Theo rescues this painting, a favorite of his mother’s, as he escapes from a terrorist explosion in the museum.  Although he survives, his mother dies, and a mysterious old art dealer gives him a ring and a contact before he too dies in the explosion.  Throughout the story, Theo manages to keep the painting hidden, and it becomes a source of solace when he can look at it, but eventually art theft, thugs, and greed become part of his adventures.

After the death of his mother, Theo’s life bounces from wealthy Park Avenue to seedy Las Vegas and back to New York City, picking up a Russian friend, Boris, along the way – as well as a drug habit that almost ruins his life. Tartt’s supporting cast of characters include villains and do-gooders with long descriptions of their lives and influence.  Pippa, Theo’s love interest, bounces in and out of the story, promising a happy ending that would be unrealistic.    The drug scenes were agonizingly detailed, and more than I wanted to know; at times, the horrors of Theo’s life were unbearable,  yet I kept reading through all 771 pages, appreciating Tartt’s philosophical quips and the convoluted story that kept twisting into another plot.

With one random act of violence, thirteen year-old Theo’s life is shattered, and you can’t help wondering what his life would have been like if he and his mother had not decided to run into the museum to get away from a sudden downpour.  As the action follows Theo and the painting, you will wonder how either survived but they both do.  Tartt ends with Theo’s soliloquy, “Life – whatever else it is – is short…fate is cruel but maybe not random…”   In short, make the most of it.

If you decide to commit to reading this long book, and it does take a commitment to read 771 pages and struggle through Tartt’s description of Theo wasting himself on drugs, don’t be intimidated by its length.  Before you know it, you will be caught up in the adventure and find it hard to put down.   In researching Tartt’s writing, I found her acclaimed first novel The Secret History – a murder mystery – now on my list to read.

Related Essay:  Holden Caulfield Redux

The Cuckoo’s Calling

9780316206846_p0_v3_s260x420Would I have read Robert Galbraith’s detective mystery – The Cuckoo’s Calling – if I had not known J.K. Rowling was hiding behind the words? Probably not.  But having loyally followed her from Harry Potter to her less stellar adult book, Casual Vacancy, I curiously wanted to know what this prolific author would do with a mystery.

The storyline follows a familiar formula. The grizzled war hero detective, Comoran Strike, and his trusty secretary/assistant, beautiful and young Robin, are on the case of a murder that the police have closed as a suicide. The victim is a model with a past and a shady boyfriend.  As the duo fend off red herrings, other characters and the setting offer a distinctive British flavor.

Galbraith/Rowling reveals the clues through endless conversations between possible suspects and Strike.  The tough Colombo-like detective (he is missing a leg, not an eye) with a soft-spot for his bright adventure-seeking new secretary, solves the case about halfway through the book, from crucial but mysterious clues that only he can decipher. What was the significance of the drops of water on the stairs and the victim’s missing note, written on a blue slip of paper?  How did the search for a birth father change the victim’s life?

“The dead could only speak through the mouths of those left behind, and through the signs left they scattered behind them.”

The clues drop out fast, and you might want to use Strike’s note-taking method to keep them all straight.  If you enjoy solving a crime as you read, the author happily gives you all the pieces, and dutifully reveals all in an Agatha Christie wrap-up at the end.  The murderer is a surprise but you might figure it out.

In the book’s last lines, Rowling may be sending fans a message with Comoran’s quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.”

I cannot rest from travel:  I will drink
Life to the lees; all times  have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those 
That loved me, and alone; on shore and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name…

Not as clever as Harry Potter’s magical escapades, but The Cuckoo’s Calling had enough to keep me reading to find out whodunit, and wonder if Rowling/Galbraith has created the beginnings of a detective series.  Comoran Strike and Robin make a good team.

A Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

After delivering seven magical books about Harry Potter, Rowling had raised high expectations for fans with her new book – A Casual Vacancy.  Harry is a hard act to follow, especially when the magic is missing and only the Muggles remain.  If you can forget who the author is and imagine she is a gritty British version of Jonathan Franzen, the disappointment is easier to digest.

The story centers around the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, chair of the parish Council (equivalent to a small town mayor), and the rippling effect on the lives of those who knew him in Pagford.  The little town problems of petty jealousies and back-stabbing gossip are matched against drug addiction, child neglect, self-mutilation, prostitution, and rape.  Rowling also adds profane language – just to be sure you know this is not a children’s book.

The slice of humanity represented in the flawed characters includes universal antagonisms between the haves and have-nots, those who long for the good old days and the young who cannot change the world fast enough, the struggle between social responsibility and self-preservation.  Rowling’s strength is in her descriptive back-stories, introducing you to small-minded people you already know; this is a small town and secrets are hard to keep.  The foil is Krystal Weedon, the deprived teenager desperate for a better life – the life that Barry was about to launch her into with an interview with the local newspaper – before he unexpectedly died of an aneurysm. From the other side of the tracks, Krystal’s struggles are overwhelming: a drug addict mother and a life of poverty and filth.  The possibility that she will be saved kept me reading, but she was the doomed tragic heroine.

People can be cruel, and Rowling brings out the worst in them, as she exposes their weaknesses and dares them to be civil, in the wake of the one dead man who seemed to have kept the monsters at bay.  As the story marches slowly past Barry’s funeral, facades fall aside and the race to fill the dead man’s Council seat is on.  The action escalates to a brutal exposé of small town politics with teenagers hacking into the Council’s website, creating chaos and feeding the misery, while seeking revenge for parental injustices.

The story is divided into seven sections; by the fourth section, I could not imagine that life could get worse but I was wrong. With little comic relief, the story heads nonstop into a Shakespearean tragic ending – dead bodies and ruined lives.  The small town goes on being small-minded.

Rowling clearly makes her point that she can write stories for adults, and over 500 pages of A Casual Vacancy raise serious social issues that adults need to address – all in an unsympathetic view of the human condition.  If I had not known about Harry Potter, I may not have missed the hope and possibilities that are deliberately avoided.