What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Downton Abbey?

Downton Abbey's Lady Mary Crawley,  Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham and Lady Edith Crawley
Lady Mary Crawley, Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham and Lady Edith Crawley


The answer is… nothing. Nothing is funny about Downton Abbey — or compelling, or even mildly entertaining for that matter. Not anymore, and not for a long time.

Last night, American viewers flocked to season four’s finale with hope in our hearts — despite all that has come before — and we were let down. It was sad, like Lady Edith. So today I’m one of many bloggers bemoaning what Downton Abbey has become, thanks to Julian Fellows and his writing staff. (At least I assume he has a writing staff; finding a group of people who can collectively churn out such awful storylines and dreadful dialogue must take some doing.)

Like anyone who appreciates smart, imaginative television, I go nuts when a series that once captivated me starts to implode. It’s even worse when the season ends without an enticing twist to make me nostalgic: “Well, maaaaybe I’ll give that show one more chance.” Think Homeland, which deteriorated over time, with a plot so frenetic and characters so deliriously overwrought my head is still spinning. Yet a fourth season approaches, and Brody is DEAD, Carrie is about to GIVE BIRTH, Saul is ON A MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE and Dana is STILL VERY RESENTFUL. Anything can happen, right? I’m not ready to let go!

Meanwhile back at Downton, Julian Fellows appears completely out of ideas. Lady Mary Crawley has emerged from mourning her late husband (and cousin) Matthew Crawley, and make no bones about it — her shingle is OUT and she’s open for business. She is dangling not one, not two, but three suitors with the chilly efficiency of… Lady Mary Crawley, the season one version. Aside from her elusive baby George, and her sudden interest in profitable pig farming, Mary has not evolved one bit.

Her hangdog sister Lady Edith is still the unluckiest character England’s fictional aristocracy has ever seen. In the first three seasons, Edith was dumped twice by Anthony – the second time at the altar. She also fell hard for a mysterious World War I veteran, wrapped in more bandages than an Egyptian mummy. He too flew the coop, as NPR’s Linda Holmes blogged, “as quickly as a writer who suddenly realizes he has no idea where this plotline is going.”

At the start of season four, Edith falls in love with Michael Gregson, a London newspaper editor. He’s married but his wife is mad. (Julian Fellows, meet Charlotte Brontë.) While he’s planning a trip to Germany – sure to be a romantic paradise for generations to come! — for a quickie divorce, he and Edith enjoy a quickie of a different sort, and she ends up in a family way.

Of course she does, because she’s Lady Edith.

Alas, Michael disappears on his first night in Berlin after a run in with a band of Nazis(!), forcing Edith to flee to Switzerland for nine months with Aunt Rosalind to (a-HEM), “learn French”. She has her baby there – a girl she puts up for adoption — then returns to Downton, her absence having scarcely registered.

Nearly every other plotline on Downton Abbey is now superfluous. Tom the ex-chauffer remains in a limbo state, wrestling with his socialist conscience while enjoying port and cigars in the Downton drawing room. He flirts with a suffragette and considers moving to America. (I’d offer to help him pack.)

Thomas still schemes, engineering the hiring of lady’s maid Baxter, who he is blackmailing – with what, after nine episodes, we still don’t know. And there’s Bates and Anna, Molesley, James the pretty boy footman, Alfred and Ivy and, um… ZZZZZZ.

And so it is after four seasons: I’m through with the Crawleys and everyone who works below stairs at Downton Abbey. Sunday night simply must have more to offer.

Come to think of it, Baseball — America’s pastime — resumes in April and there’s always a Sunday night game on Fox Sports.

Blimey, enough with the manor born. It’s time to put down the Pimms cups, strap on your athletic cups (not you, ladies) and PLAY BALL!

"Old Baseballs On Folk Art Flag" by Gary Gay.
“Old Baseballs On Folk Art Flag” by Gary Gay.

Getting Busy

Multi tasking woman with eight arms, each doing a chore.My life is pretty busy at the moment. Don’t worry; I’ve not become one of those humble braggarts who respond to each “How are you?” with, “I’m soooooo slammed”. I am busy, though, as I’m sure you are. I’m also fortunate; I don’t have to work insanely long hours or weekends, or endure a brutal Bay Area daily commute. I can generally squeeze in a few early morning gym visits each week, and an occasional night photography class. I’m rarely forced to cancel weeknight plans because of a last-minute work conflict, and it’s been years since I pulled an all-nighter (on purpose, at least).

Even so, each evening I struggle to shake off the day and relax. I try to walk home at least one night per week — up and over some of San Francisco’s steepest hills — but once I cross my apartment’s threshold and kick off my shoes, I feel the inevitable pull of… multitasking. Preparing dinner (as Jerry Seinfeld says, take out is still effort), cleaning up afterwards, sorting through mail, and reading and answering emails – there’s not much time left for pleasure reading, or giving a movie my undivided attention. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to restart a DVRd episode of Frontline or Homeland halfway through, because I got so distracted by blogging/tidying/emailing.

Still image from German detective series, Marie's Mind For MurderThankfully, I recently abandoned my to-do list long enough to discover a German detective series, Marie’s Mind For Murder on PBS. Mariele Millowitsch stars as Cologne homicide inspector Marie Brand, a soft-spoken, gentle and sober alternative to Prime Suspect’s brilliant-but-self-destructive DCI Jane Tennison. When Marie is not solving brutal crimes, she’s tending to turtles in her husband’s reptile-specializing pet store, helping colleagues’ children with their math homework (she’s a numbers genius) or completing police paperwork using both hands simultaneously. Her partner, Inspector Jürgen Simmel, sneaks in friends to watch her fill out forms, double-time.

Committing to two hours of Marie and Jürgen each week is a departure for me because the series is subtitled, which makes multitasking impossible. To watch, I have to go all-in. I’ve loved getting completely lost in the smart plots revolving around decent characters (except for the murderers, of course) that are relatable, realistically sized and silicone-free. So far, all the violence has happened off camera – a most welcome change of pace.

Meanwhile the walls of my apartment are still standing. I haven’t been evicted or passed out from household dust inhalation. It’s a miracle.

I’m having so much fun, in fact, that I’ve branched out to The Returned, another riveting subtitled series (French, this time), broadcast on the Sundance Channel. It’s set in a small mountain community that is stunned when a group of residents — who have long been presumed dead — return, entirely un-aged and unaware of their seven-year absence. The episodes have languished on my DVR since last November. You guessed it; I put off watching, because of the subtitles.

Tonight I cooked and blogged, but also managed to carve out some single-focus me time with women’s Olympic figure skating. Yuna Kim just gave such an exquisite performance, I nearly broke down and cried. I’m glad I paused my typing and experienced it live (or, as close to live as prime time NBC coverage can get) rather than via DVR.

Living in the moment, one weeknight at a time. I could get used to this. At least, I am determined to try.

Review: “The Good House”… Is Very Good

Book jacket for "The Good House" by Ann Leary.Sixty-year-old Hildy Good descends from an accused witch, who was executed during the infamous Salem witch trials. It is a story she tells to clients, when she’s looking for a good local hook. Hildy is the most successful real estate agent – or to hear her tell it, the most successful businesswoman – in her hometown of Wendover, Massachusetts. She is also an alcoholic.

It is customary to preface “alcoholic” with the word “recovering”, but readers of The Good House by Ann Leary will have to dig pretty deep to find any hint of recovery going on with Hildy.

The book begins with Hildy grudgingly attending a cocktail party, and sipping club soda. Since she returned from rehab at Hazelton two years ago, she no longer drinks… in public. It turns out she has stashed cases of wine in her cellar, and the trunk of the MG her ex-husband abandoned in her garage when he left her. Nearly every night, she holds a “party of one”.

The book offers plenty of plot twists-and-turns to engage readers: conflicts between locals and out-of-towners, simmering professional rivalries, family friction and tragedy, extramarital affairs and some late-middle-age nookie. Most of it is funny stuff. (Ann Leary is married to comedian Denis Leary, and is damn witty in her own right.) No character is more engaging than Hildy Good.

Readers spend a lot of time inside Hildy’s head, as she equivocates and justifies her drinking habits in ways that are both eye-roll inducing, and heart breaking. She lays out a set of rules that – as long as she abides by them – prove to her that she’s not an alcoholic. She then proceeds to violate them all, in short order.

“Most nights, I just have a few glasses,” Hildy explains. She then recounts that, after the cocktail party, “by the time I had poured the last of the bottle into my glass, I was fully transformed. I was myself.”  All this, without a hint of irony, or self-awareness.

Hildy is prone to blackouts, something doctors warn her is common in the later stages of alcoholism, but she remains in denial. “Is a blackout really a blackout, if nobody is there to see it? Not even yourself? I say no. It’s like a tree falling in the woods. Who cares?”

She claims she no longer drinks as frequently as she did before Hazelton: “Not every night anymore. Not every night, no.” Yet aside from a brief attempt to go cold turkey after an especially humiliating blackout, when her secret is nearly discovered by one her daughters (whose intervention led to her trip to rehab), each day she is chomping at the bit at 5 p.m. (A Hildy rule: No drinking before 5 o’clock. Starting earlier makes one an alcoholic.)

Hildy vows not to drive or use the telephone after drinking alone. “What a relief to not have to wake up to all that bullshit to undo.”  But it happens throughout the book, when she blacks out. If she recognizes her descent deeper and deeper into addiction, she doesn’t even admit it to herself.

If you’ve ever known an alcoholic, or someone who abuses alcohol, you’ll recognize some of Hildy’s behavior. In the rare cases when she extends her party-of-one to include a friend, she refills her own wineglass surreptitiously, assuming her friend won’t notice. I’ve seen people do this. Initially I assumed they were being clueless or rude, but later realized their goal was to hide how much they drank. (They were not successful.)

Hildy is also proud of her ability to disguise her delicate, morning-after condition by avoiding eye contact and using breath mints – but those who encounter her day-to-day aren’t fooled. And when her friends mention late-night visits and phone calls she can’t remember, she thinks she fakes it well enough to avoid suspicion. (She doesn’t.)

Of course, as Hildy’s secretive drinking becomes less of a secret, there’s bound to be a crisis – a “jackpot” event that she can neither avoid, nor lie her way out of. You pray that THIS is her rock bottom, and that she’ll finally see and accept the truth that she is an alcoholic, in need of professional help.

It’s interesting to note that Ann Leary is herself a recovering alcoholic, so she knows whereof she writes. The rationalizations and distorted truths that bounce around inside Hildy’s head ring authentic. Reviewers raved about the book when it was published back in March, and I hear it is being made into a movie starring Meryl Streep (who else!) and Robert De Niro.

My suggestion: Pour yourself a glass of wine (not two), sometime after 5 p.m., and get to know Hildy and the eccentric residents of Wendover. The Good House is a wicked good story. (Sorry!)

Buy the Book

A manual typewriter in the window display of Coastal Books in Half Moon Bay, CaliforniaI recently wrote about an alumnae event for my University where I was goosed by Father Time, when a much-younger attendee GASPED when I disclosed my graduation year. No two ways about it: I felt old.

Today, while strolling around Half Moon Bay with some friends, I was again reminded of my advancing years. We stopped at an excellent independent bookstore, Coastal Books on Main Street.  My friends’ daughter Sydney, who is in the third grade, pointed at the manual typewriter in the window display and asked, “Mom, what is that thing?”

It’s true, she had never seen a typewriter – the thing I used to type college applications and construct countless resume cover letters when I first launched myself into the working world. (I take some comfort in knowing that at least my typewriter was electric.) Everyone within earshot over the age of 35 cracked up.

Inside the store, there was more nostalgia, including something called a Personal Library Kit – another relic Haley (aged 6) and Sydney (aged 8) had never seen before. Each kit includes adhesive pockets for the front of books, checkout cards, a date stamp and ink pad, and one of those tiny pencils you can only find at the golf course, or in a little basket beside a public library card catalog.

A Personal Library KitThe kit is advertised as a means of keeping track of books loaned to friends, but I think it’s actually intended to tug at the sentimental heartstrings of those of us of a certain age. In fact, the product description reads, “The Personal Library Kit revives the old-fashioned library techniques for book retention.”

Old-fashioned? I beg your pardon? How could it be old-fashioned, since those items existed when I was at school, which was only… well, never mind how long ago that was. But they were part of an experience that is imprinted on my brain, thanks to years of repetition: choosing my books for the week, handing them to the librarian and hearing the thumps as she pressed the date stamp first onto the ink pad, then onto the checkout card in a crisp, efficient motion.

I can also vividly recall the sound of the plastic sleeve crinkling as the librarian opened and closed each book’s front cover. I even remember the excitement of getting my first library card.  It was made of paper — not plastic — and had my signature on it, not a bar code.

As is my custom when I visit an independent bookstore I like, today I bought a paperback from Coastal Books (The Englishman’s Boy by Guy Vanderhaeghe), even though I own a Kindle. I do this in the hope that someday, when Haley and Sydney are grown, their children won’t ask them, “Mom, what’s a bookstore?”

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud technology and progress. I shed no tears for the obsolete telephone cord, whiteout correction fluid, or Betamax tapes.  I vastly prefer my laptop to my old Smith Corona, and I love the convenience and immediacy of ordering eBooks — but nothing beats meandering through the stacks in a library or bookstore, thumbing through the “staff picks” (which is how I chose today’s book), and walking away with something that invariably feels like a little gift for me, from myself.

So, what’s your typewriter, or bookstore?  Are there any vestiges of bygone days you have a soft spot for?

Choosing Sides

Book jacket for Hellhound On His Trail, by Hampton SidesI usually experience a mild euphoria when I reach the last chapter of a really good book. There’s a sense of accomplishment — especially if it’s long or has been a bit of a slog — as well as excitement, because finishing a book means it’s time to start a new one.

I have a general methodology for choosing what’s next on my reading list. I have a fondness for nonfiction, but rarely read two nonfictions in a row. I prefer to switch things up a bit. And while I have a Kindle, which I love, I also have a bookcase that is sagging under the weight of dozens of books I have not yet read. So I try to read at least one old-school book that used to be a tree, for every two eBooks.

Alas, I never seem to make much of a dent in that bookshelf because whenever I pass an independent bookstore, I feel compelled to buy at least a paperback.

It’s like being on a book diet; even if I manage to drop a few books, over time I end up adding back the same number… and then some. And they all go straight to my bookshelf. (Ha! See what I did there?)

Every Christmas, I drag my mom to the Fireside Bookshop in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, with its creaky oak floors and corner dedicated to the picturesque, 170-year-old village of Chagrin. It’s the same bookstore I shopped in as a kid, and I am a slave to its “staff picks”.

I’m not ready for a world where this and other venerable little shops like Book Passage (Corte Madera), Books Inc. and Browser Books (San Francisco), and Copperfield’s (Sonoma and Napa Counties) don’t exist. So, I try to do my part.

Book jacket for Americana, by Hampton SidesThis brings me to today, when I finished reading Americana: Dispatches From The New Frontier, by Hampton Sides. As usual, I felt accomplishment because… well, 30 essays is a lot of essays! Plus, it’s a great collection. “Waiting for Liddy” and “In Darkest Bohemia” are bitingly funny, while “Points of Impact”, featuring the harrowing accounts of 9/11 survivors, sent shivers down my spine.

I’m a little sad to say goodbye to this book, because it’s the last one by Hampton Sides on my reading list.

Is Hampton Sides a great name for a writer or what? He grew up in Memphis and now resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico – but with that name, I always picture him sitting at an old typewriter in a mountain cabin in New Hampshire, or upstate New York.

New Mexico is proud of its adopted son. When I visited Taos a few years ago, I stopped at yet another lovely independent bookstore – Moby Dickens – and asked the kind women who work there for a recommendation. They made a strong pitch for Blood and Thunder, Sides’ acclaimed biography of controversial frontiersman Kit Carson, who lived in Taos (his home is now a museum) and is buried there.

Portrait of Author Hampton SidesOne of the shopkeepers reminded the other that Hampton Sides had visited the store once as part of a book tour. Perhaps reluctant to cheapen his literary reputation, she sheepishly added, “and he is… quite handsome”. Truth. Book jackets do not lie.

My favorite book from Hampton Sides is Hellhound On His Trail, a gripping account of James Earl Ray’s stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination and the manhunt for Ray that followed. I was consumed by that book, and could not put it down. It is remarkably suspenseful, considering the reader obviously knows how the story ends. In fact, Sides has been forced to defend the book as nonfiction, because some readers assume he embellished the facts to juice up the story. In fact, Hellhound On His Trail is a factual account based on painstaking research. The rest… well, that’s just great writing.

So now comes the fun part; it’s time to choose my next book. Unless Hampton Sides publishes something tomorrow, it’ll be either The Reliable Wife or one of the three Ann Leary books on my Kindle that are just aching to finally be read.

What about you? Read any good books lately?

People Who Eat Darkness

 People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman by Richard Lloyd Parry Each holiday season I wait impatiently for the release of the Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, just as I used to look forward to the Sears & Roebuck Christmas Catalog as a child.  Back then I would make a first pass, methodically scouring each page and folding down the corners of those featuring a toy my heart desired.  Then — knowing it didn’t pay to be greedy when it came to Santa Claus — I’d take several more passes, making heartbreaking trade-offs and turning some corners back up, until I had a wish list I figured the fat man wouldn’t reject.

This serious, methodical, war-of-attrition approach to choosing among large lists of things, when most of those things look pretty great, has carried into my adulthood.  It’s definitely my strategy for stocking up on books each year, with the help of the discriminating folks at the New York Times.

The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012 list included a book I’d never heard of; it captured my attention immediately and I downloaded it on the spot.  People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman by Richard Lloyd Parry is the story of the disappearance of a 21-year-old British woman working in Tokyo in the summer of 2000, the seven month search to find her, and the eight year legal battle to bring her killer to justice.

I was drawn to the book first and foremost because I taught English in Japan in the early 1990’s to escape a recession that was decimating public relations (my chosen profession at that time) in New York, and to save money for business school tuition.  I was posted to a small rural town more than one hour by bus and train from Kyoto, where I was the only Westerner for miles and therefore the object of some fascination. 

Lucie lived in bustling Tokyo among many foreigners, and worked in a Roppongi district hostess bar.  Her brief experience in Japan was very different from mine, but I suspect there were still similarities. 

As he describes the last day of her life, the author explains what it’s like to be a foreigner, walking down any street in Japan.  I experienced this, and I’ll bet Lucie did too.

“The crows flap and complain as Lucy steps outside.  As she does, she experiences the small daily shock of reentry that every foreigner in Tokyo knows.  A sudden, pulse-quickening awareness of the obvious: Here I am, in Japan.  Every morning it takes her by surprise – the sudden consciousness of profound difference… Even after years and decades have passed, you never get over the excitement, the unique daily thrill, of living as a foreigner in Japan.”

A similar observation:

“In twenty-first century Tokyo, people rarely stared openly at foreigners, but always one was conscious of being an object of an unaccustomed attention from the rest of the human population – not outright gawping, neither unambiguous affection nor disapproval, but simply the discreet registering of difference.  In Japan, you become a citizen of a new nation – that of gaijin, the foreigner.”

People Who Eat Darkness is not just a mystery or a thriller.  It’s also a commentary on the stark differences between Japanese and Western cultures that can take gaijin who travel to Japan completely by surprise.   This was another reason I bought – and was riveted by – the book.  For example, it dives deep into the discrimination against Korean nationals –like Lucie’s killer Joji Obara – in Japan.  They may have been born and educated in Japan and speak only Japanese, been raised on Japanese food, and even amassed enormous wealth, but they are treated as a lower caste of society. 

It is also an examination of the slow-moving Japanese criminal justice system.  In Japan crime rates are low, and the vast majority of suspects confess before their cases ever go to trial, thanks in part to some rather heavy-handed police tactics.  Judges and the public are accustomed to these confessions – and the motives expressed while making them  — to the point of being flummoxed by the case of Obara, who refused to own up to his crimes despite overwhelming circumstantial evidence.  The outcome of the trial was – and still is – shocking.

Finally, People Who Eat Darkness is the story of a family – most specifically a divorced couple, Lucie’s parents Tim and Jane – so toxic and bitter it will both infuriate you, and break your heart.  The Blackmans had divorced acrimoniously nearly a decade before Lucie’s murder, and continue to undermine and lash out of each other to this day.  There was no attempt at unity in the face of so much loss and pain. 

After a few chapters reading about the Blackmans, I suspect you’ll feel the urge to give your own parents a big family hug.

I thought I vaguely remembered the case of Lucie Blackman, but as I read People Who Eat Darkness I realized that my recollection was more than a little fuzzy. (According to Lloyd Parry I am not alone in confusing Blackman’s case with the grisly murder of another British woman working in Japan, Lindsay Hawker, a few years later.)  

Maybe my misapprehensions were due to time passing, or the US media not being thorough in reporting the story.  Or perhaps, so soon after a year in Japan that had left me slightly jaded about the culture and customs, I unconsciously built a memory that was biased and lacking in nuance.

Regardless, I feel fortunate that the book jumped out at me from the New York Times Books section last December, and that it passed my exacting screening process.  If you’ve ever lived in Japan, or have a keen interest in its culture, People Who Eat Darkness will resonate with you.

Lean Times

Lean In Book JacketIt’s been lean times this week.  Or perhaps I should say Lean In times, because in the past seven days or so I not only read Sheryl Sandberg’s book by that name, but also saw the author speak at City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco.  Look out Richard Engel, I was embedded in the mommy wars (not to mention the gender wars) and now I’m reporting back.  Hot off the presses: It’s hell out there.

There has been plenty of fuss and hype around Lean In – neither of which are entirely deserved.  I don’t think it’s in line for a Pulitzer, but I enjoyed the book and zipped through it fairly quickly.  It provided food for thought regarding possible patterns (good and bad) in my thinking and professional choices.

The book is also great fodder for conversation, as it seems that nearly everyone has read it, or is about to read it, or has heard about it.  So to a point, I understand what all the fuss is about.

But… What IS all the fuss about?  Lean In has provoked strong reactions, particularly among women.  Some might even call it polarizing.

Criticism tends to fall into three buckets:

  • Sheryl Sandberg writes only for women who aspire to sit in the C-suite of a large corporation.
  • She thinks the only way for a mother to lean in is to work full-time outside the home.
  • She lives in a bubble, with vast resources to hire nannies, housekeepers etc. How dare she lecture the rest of us on ambition for leadership? If I had her wealth, I could have it all too!

Interestingly, Ms. Sandberg seems to have anticipated most of this blowback because she seeks to defuse it in the Introduction, and throughout the book.  She acknowledges that it isn’t intended to address every problem any working woman might encounter, regardless of her occupation or title.  And she’s just short of apologetic about her wealth and privilege.  She knows we all can’t have nannies, housekeepers and the flexibility that comes with being the COO of one of the fastest growing companies in America.

Sheryl SandbergShould all that make her experience and insights less valuable?  I don’t think so.  The main gist of the book is how to battle gender bias – not how to overcome poverty or bust out of the working class.  (That said, I agree that it might have been more impactful if she’d included anecdotes from junior corporate workers, or women in slightly less glamorous roles than in the Treasury Department, or at Facebook or Google.)

As a single professional woman without children, specific parts of Lean In resonated with me, such as how/if to negotiate pay.  Ms. Sandberg tells a great story of being offered the COO position at Facebook – a role that she really wanted, so she was tempted to accept the first offer.  What if she asked for more money, and Mark Zuckerberg hired someone else instead?

The men in her life were horrified, and eventually helped convince her to negotiate (successfully).  I may never be offered a COO role, but like most of my female friends I have felt this near-paralyzing fear of negotiating better terms.

The inverse relationship between likeability and perceived success/acumen also hit home.  If a man is successful at work, colleagues usually see him as likeable.  They want to be on his team.  If a woman is successful, she may get credit for her skills – but she’s also often seen as less likeable and even aggressive.

My friends and I agree; the likeability gender bias is rampant among women, as well as men.  I work in fairly well-balanced organization, gender-wise, but our senior leaders are not judged equally — by pretty much any of us.  If a man at that level is reserved or cool, that’s OK.  He is still really smart.  No one says “He’s smart, but…”.

However with female senior leaders the “but” is usually followed by, “she’s cold” or “she’s aggressive” or “she lacks empathy”.  We all (male and female colleagues) seem satisfied if the men are myopic, and heads-down humorless. If they actually have a sense of humor and are engaging too, we tend to gush.  But female leaders are supposed to be smart AND warm AND nurturing just to earn a place at the table.

Lean In includes a chapter about mentoring that I think every woman should read BEFORE she decides to mentor-up.  Both Ms. Sandberg and Condoleezza Rice (who interviewed her last night at City Arts & Lectures) say that they are regularly approached by complete strangers, who ask them to be their mentors.

It might seem impressive to claim someone so famous as a mentor, but wouldn’t it be better to have the support of someone who really cares about you and is invested in your future to help guide you?  You know, someone who actually knows your first name?

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the last few chapters of the book, which were prosaic and filled with more platitudes than substance. (“Men need to lean in at home, and women need to lean in at work.”)  All that stuff is fine, but if it were that easy women would just buy their husbands the book and be done with it!

As it is, there’s still a long way to go before women claim their share of leadership positions in business and government – and here is where I get excited about the book, and the movement.  Sheryl Sandberg has money, fame and altruism working for her, as well as the Facebook platform to promote her global community, www.leanin.org.

Instead of the end of a book, it feels like just the beginning of an important and (hopefully) fruitful conversation.

An Off Season For Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey -- Mary, Matthew and babySeason three of Downton Abbey is finished, and I’m sad.  Oh not to worry, I’ll find another way to spend my Sunday evenings until Mad Men resumes on April 7 and Homeland returns… whenever.  Actually, I’ve got the blues because the show I once loved to dish about at the water cooler on Mondays has gone so decidedly downhill.

Downton’s season one was fantastic.  The writing was clever and there was some significance to the plot.  It was historical fiction on par with films like The Other Boleyn Girl or Chariots of Fire. When enjoyed with a big glass of wine, it allowed us to close out the weekend by learning a little something about post-Edwardian Britain, without trying too hard.

By midway through season two, though, Downton began to lose its way.  World War I was over and it seemed the writers didn’t have a clue where these characters were going.  Some plotlines rushed by so fast, if you blinked you might have missed them. (Spanish Flu Hits Downton!)  Others – like Daisy wearing a hair shirt over misleading William about her feelings for him — dragged on at a glacial pace.  If I close my eyes I can still hear her whine in her Yorkshire accent, protesting for the hundredth time a visit to William’s father at his farm:  “But I didn’t love him!  It would be dishonest!”

I hoped for better things from season three, but was disappointed.  It felt as if writers wrote each episode on the fly.  They killed off Lady Sybil, seemingly without a plan for her heartbroken husband Tom Branson.  He got a new set of tails and forged a warmer relationship with the family, but he remained not-of-the-manor-born.  There was so much they could have done with the former chauffeur, but in each episode Tom always felt like an afterthought.

In season three, we once again had laborious plotlines like Bates in prison.  Fans of the show knew he’d be released.  He wasn’t about to be shived at the hands of his mumbling, wacked-out cellmate – whose hatred of Bates was never adequately explained.   When Bates was finally sprung, the rationale was so flimsy we viewers collectively rolled our eyes.  Disgusted?  Yes, but also grateful to say good-bye to watching him wait in the chow line for his bowl of gruel.

I can see another such storyline on the horizon, with Lady Edith and her besotted editor.  He’s married.  His wife is in an asylum, and he can’t divorce her.  Resolving this could take some time.  Of course, that could be a good thing for Edith.  Once the Grantham girls get married, they usually get pregnant… and then somebody has to die.

In the last two seasons of Downton, writers introduced random maids and footmen, as if these grand old houses had a revolving staff.  OK, it made some sense pre- and post-WWI when young men were either leaving for, or returning from, battle.  But over time it seemed more like a lazy plot device.

Hey, we need more sex in this show.  Let’s introduce a pretty young housemaid for Lord Grantham to make clumsy passes at!

Hey, now that Sybil is dead we need to do something about mopey Tom Branson.  Let’s introduce an over-sexed new housemaid no one has ever seen before, to make not-so-clumsy passes at him!

What’s more, this was pre-organized labor right?  Weren’t servants a dime a dozen back then, as big estates like Downton toppled like dominoes?  Last night Edna purred and pranced around Tom, within spitting distance of Mrs. Hughes, and I wondered why on earth it was so hard to sack a useless housemaid?  It took nearly the entire two-hour episode, until at last Edna claimed she couldn’t complete her chores for the day because she had a lunch date with Branson in the local pub.  That did it.  I thought Carson would have a stroke.

Breathe deeply, Mr. Carson.  In through the nose and out through the mouth.

Writers also took to inexplicably introducing annual family traditions that viewers who had watched the show for more than 10 years (Downton years, that is) had never heard mentioned.  I am of course referring to the annual town vs. manor cricket match, which came out of NOWHERE.   An enormous fuss was made, yet we never even learned which team won.

Likewise, there was the heretofore unmentioned yearly journey to Duneagle Castle in Scotland, to visit “Shrimpy” and his shrew-wife Susan MacClare, Marchioness of Flintshire.  FLINTshire, I kid you not.  The name fits; she is a cross between Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, and Mrs. Danvers from the film Rebecca.

During so much of Downton Abbey’s season three, I was left asking myself… what was the point of all that?  Why do I care if Shrimpy and his wife — who I had never heard of until last night — don’t get along?  They are moving to India soon anyway.  If a justification for daughter Rose’s relocating to Downton was needed, wouldn’t that have been good enough?

I can’t say I’m sorry that Matthew’s character died last night.  He’s one of the better actors on the show, but his story was going nowhere — and his role as peacemaker between Edith and Mary, and Lord Grantham and Tom, would eventually have worn thin.  It wasn’t a surprise – we’d all read that Dan Stevens did not sign on for Season Four.  But I thought the final scene, with Mary holding her baby while waiting for Matthew to return to the hospital, was pretty poignant.

I’m also intrigued by the potential for mature romance between Matthew’s mother Isobel Crawley, and Dr. Clarkson.  Isobel gave Clarkson the brush off last night, but I get a whiff of perseverance from the good doctor – and she’ll need consolation over the loss of her only child.

Hopefully Downton Abbey’s writers will use this hiatus to breathe new life into a once-entertaining show.  I’m skeptical, but still there’s enough left to bring me back for season four.  Until then, nothing else to do but hope… and prepare for Mad Men.

Zou Bisou Bisou to you!

A Few Home Truths About the Homeland Finale

Homeland IIWell, the suspense is over (sort of).  Homeland’s second season concluded with some lovey-dovey mushiness between Brody and Carrie, several pretty impressive pissing contests (Quinn vs. Estes, Saul vs. Estes, both of which Estes lost), and a few seconds of unexpected pyrotechnics. Those didn’t work out too well for Estes either, come to think of it.

Overall I give Sunday’s season finale a solid B grade – this despite Carrie’s and Brody’s Sam-and-Diane stuff, which has never really drawn me in.  But an episode that is Saul-heavy is pretty much guaranteed above-average marks from me.  Mandy Patinkin is amazing; his scholarly glasses and sensible clothing, his witty jousting with Estes, his perfectly timed f-bombs (To Carrie: “You’re the smartest and the dumbest f—in’ person I’ve ever known”) and his shaking voice at poignant moments (like when his wife told him she was coming home) can counteract a multitude of other sins.

Sins such as…

  • I still cannot get my head around the death of the Vice President, and Carrie’s ability to overlook Brody’s role in it.  She barely MENTIONED it, even.  That was completely out of character for her.  At the Veep’s memorial service, Carrie seemed completely blasé.  In fact, she kept looking back at Brody and raising her eyebrows like, “This guy was such a tool, am I right?”  She had known Walden was not a stand-up guy for some time, but I can’t see her just shrugging off his murder by her boyfriend.
  • What was Brody doing at that memorial service anyway?  He hated Walden (obviously) and clearly did not plan to stick around the Senate or seek another political office.  He told Carrie he wanted to be a builder or a teacher.  So, what was his intention… if not to plant a bomb and blow up the place, and everyone in it?  More on this later.
  • Where did Brody’s suicide vest disappear to?  When last we saw it, it was on the top shelf of his bedroom closet where is wife could easily find it.  (Back then I thought his lack of imaginative hiding places was a bit cavalier.)  But on Sunday night, Brody arrived home to find the contents of his closet placed in piles on the bedroom floor, as his wife kicked him to the curb.  I thought he would freak out and start sweating – Nick Brody is a sweater when he’s nervous – but he was completely unfazed.  How does one dispose of a suicide bomber vest?  Maybe you use it to blow up your car at a future date.  Again, more on this later.
  • After a massive explosion nearly leveled Langley, the suspension of my disbelief got pretty shaky.  First off, Carrie was once again knocked unconscious.  It was presumably her third concussion that week, and she was still running around like one of Charlie’s Angels?  The NFL would have benched her for the season, but Brody let her get behind the wheel.  Yikes.
  • And what about that car?  It was parked at Langley, but it showed neither a ding nor a speck of dust.
  • Why did Carrie have a stash of cash and a fake passport, birth certificate and driver’s license in a bunker-like storage unit?  When did she determine she might someday need to flee on foot across the border to Canada?
  • I hated the scene between Brody and Mike, when Brody essentially told his friend he could continue his affair with Jess and look after his kids because “he wouldn’t be able to” for a while.  Creepy, to start with.  Also just awkward.  I read somewhere that the scene was pretty heavily edited at some point before it aired, and it felt like that to me.

After weeks of painting Brody as a softhearted romantic, writers spent much of the finale trying to recapture the intrigue from Season One, i.e. is Brody a bad-guy terrorist, or just a victim?

There was something about his car keys that every conspiracy theorist on the internet seems to have picked up on, but I totally missed.  Apparently he passed his car keys to someone outside the memorial service.   He could have been a valet, a co-conspirator of Brody’s or a follower of Abu Nazir’s who wanted to set Brody up.  At any rate, some Homeland fans suspect that this shady keeper of the keys was behind the explosion at Langley.

If Brody wasn’t set up, how did all the networks wind up with his taped suicide confession?

So many questions to be answered in Season Three… we hope.

Here’s a new plotline I’d like to see.  I think it’s safe to assume that Carrie will spend at least the first few episodes of the coming season trying to clear Brody’s name, while others seek to destroy him.  (How she will accomplish her part from within the walls of the CIA is anyone’s guess.)   Meanwhile, Brody will stay in Canada.

QuinnWhat about a Quinn/Carrie hook up?  At the proverbial water cooler, a colleague made a great point: Writers must have bigger things planned for Peter Quinn.  Rupert Friend is a fairly well-known British actor (check him out in Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont) and too fantastically handsome to waste.  What’s more, Quinn clearly has a soft spot for Carrie, since he refused to kill Brody in part to spare her pain.

Bye-bye Sam and Diane, bring on a love triangle!

A Poem for Homeland

Homeland Poster








It’s crunch time at the CIA
The end is just one week away
And you know there’ll be hell to pay
Or so it stands to reason.

Carrie’s eyes still bug profusely
Sanity she clings to loosely
As things with Brody get more juicy
Since Jess gave him his freedom.

Estes wants to take down Saul
Who knows his secrets, after all
His drone strikes and covert cabals
Will he fire Saul for treason?

What’s more, just to be versatile
Will Dana finally crack a smile?
Her potty mouth and teenage bile
She’s less girl, than demon.

Let’s not forget that sneaky Quinn
What a wild card he has been
Will he kill Brody? Where and when,
Will his plot reach completion?

What kind of closure will we see?
Resolution or more tease?
To set us up for Homeland Three
Guess we’ll find out… next season.