All Creatures Great and Small

What I think I’m doing here: Passing along my enthusiasm for the recent TV adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small and feeling some feelings.

When I was little my mom would read me stories from the series of illustrated books James Herriot wrote for children. Memories of Blossom the runaway cow or Gyp the silent sheepdog are symbolic shortcuts back to the safe harbors of bedtime stories. My mom passed away a number of years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, but when I had children of my own I bought used copies of Only One Woof and The Market Square Dog and Blossom Comes Home, hopefully creating new memories, new harbors. To be an adult is to live a life where “everything has to be parried” says Knausgaard in Spring. If you’re lucky, like I was, you have opportunities as a child to simply accept and take in, and part of what I took in were stories of a vet at work in the Yorkshire Dales.

So, I am the sort of person primed for what the recent television adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small has to offer – a certain nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, long tracking shots of rolling green fields, the comfort of knowing that James will always do the honorable thing (always), and the web of family and community that Skeldale House promises (a safe harbor for its characters, and for its readers/viewers). Even if it was absolutely terrible, I would probably tune in – my adult defenses are no good here (so fair warning for what follows). But, I’m pleased to say it is actually quite good – strong performances, excellent production values, good writing – it works.

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Charles Portis and Chekov’s Gun

Charles Portis’ Dog of the South has a sort of Arkansan Wodehouse vibe to it (this is not a slam, I think Wodehouse is a comic genius). While I like comic novels (I will fight for comic Dickens as the best Dickens) I am not usually a “laugh out loud” sort of reader, more of an amused half-smirk sort of reader. But, when Dr. Reo Symes, defending the unjustly overlooked salesman/writer of With Wings as Eagles (one John Selmer Dix, MA) states that “Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse” I found myself, yes, laughing out loud (later: “He said that all other writing, compared to Dix’s work, was just ‘foul grunting'”). But, while I appreciated Dog of the South, I liked it a little less than Gringos, which I also read earlier this year (I read True Grit a few years ago, and loved it). There are a lot of common threads between Dog of the South and Gringos – a distinctive voice (Portis’ superpower), a south-of-the-border setting, lots of talk about proper maintenance of one’s vehicle, and wandering, slightly off-kilter, southern, male narrators – so I wanted to think through why I liked one more than the other.

It may seem strange to compare Wodehouse’s Edwardian-dreamland country house comedies with a story of a man chasing after his stolen car and unfaithful wife through Central America in the early 1970s, but the comparison is not too far fetched. Ray Midge, hapless protagonist trapped in a state of arrested development (“I had accumulated enough hours over the years for at least two bachelors’ degrees but I had never actually taken one”) is the southern American cousin to Bertie Wooster, the perpetually youthful narrator of Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves stories (although Ray’s familial wealth is received in the form of an American Express card and Ford Torino from his father). Just as in Wodehouse, Dog of the South is filled with verbal fireworks and most of the action is to be found in the conversation between characters. The difference is that the dialogues take place in a 1963 Buick Special on a dirt road in Belize rather than in the drawing room of a country house and are punctuated by exchanges regarding the development plans for a private island in Louisiana (“How about a theme park? Jefferson Davis Land … Every afternoon at three Lee would take off his gray coat and wrestle an alligator in a mud hole”) rather than discussions of who is marrying whom among Bertie’s numerous upper-class friends and relations. There’s even a stand-in for Wodehouse’s abundance of aunts, in the form of two elderly missionaries, Nell Symes and Melba, who run the Unity Tabernacle mission in Belize (“This remarkable lady had psychic gifts and she had not slept for three years, or so they told me. She sat up in a chair every night in the dark drinking coffee.”).

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Plotting with Paddington

What I think I’m doing here: a little criticism in the “how does this work?” vein – taking something I like and figuring how and why it works (or doesn’t) – usually with a pretty narrow focus on one or two elements. In this post: the movie, Paddington. Spoilers follow etc.

I watched the 2014 movie, Paddington, a few weeks ago with my kids. I enjoyed it, and my kids enjoyed it, and we seemed to enjoy it for the same reasons (not necessarily a common occurrence): it was funny, tenderhearted, and charming. And yet, I found myself drifting towards boredom at various points when the villain of the story, Nicole Kidman’s deranged taxidermist (the estranged daughter of the explorer who Paddington goes to London to see), took center stage. As these were ostensibly the most exciting parts of the story (tranquilizer darts! daring super-spy-style wire drops from the ceiling!) I thought it was worth thinking through.

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