"Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey" by Lady Fiona, the Countess of Carnarvon (Broadway, $15.99)
Like millions of viewers around the globe, my wife and I are fans of a handsomely staged, if occasionally too-good-to-be-true, British TV series called "Downton Abbey." Its next season will begin airing in the fall. We think the star of the show is that extraordinary mansion where the major characters live. To learn more about this dwelling, Highclere Castle, we read "Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey" by Lady Fiona Carnarvon, wife of the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, whose family has owned the estate since the reign of King George III.
In the period depicted in the "Downton Abbey" series, the real-life occupants of the grand estate were George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, and Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon.
The 29-year-old Earl owned five homes filled with beautiful French furniture and paintings by the Old Masters.
The Countess, 10 years his junior and well below his social station, was probably the illegitimate daughter of the fabulously wealthy Jewish banker, Sir Alfred de Rothschild, and his French mistress, Maria Wombwell.
In 1895, the newly married couple took up residence in Highclere Castle, the grandest of the Carnarvon estates. The architect, Sir Charles Barry, was also the architect of the Houses of Parliament. Eventually, George and Almina had a son and a daughter. The son became the 6th Earl of Carnarvon. There was never a risk (as depicted in Downton Abbey) that the title to the beautiful property would pass out of the family.
Almina and George led a gilded life studded with lavish parties. They could afford it. At the time of their wedding, Sir Alfred de Rothschild agreed to pay Almina ¬£12,000 a year, which in today's terms is an annual income of ¬£6.5 million.
Lord Carnarvon may have married Almina for her money, which was common for land-rich and cash-poor titled gentry of the day (for example, the Duke of Marlborough and Consuelo Vanderbilt) yet George and Almina apparently had a good marriage.
But even for people who live in castles, things can change. George, who always drove too fast, was badly injured in a car accident. On doctors' advice, he began to spend winters in Egypt. There he joined forces with archaeologist Howard Carter to excavate in the Valley of the Kings, where they both attained lasting fame by discovering the tomb of Tutankhamen.
Almina took great interest in George's work and usually accompanied him to Egypt but she was ill during the season of his greatest discovery when the long-lost tomb of the Boy King was finally located and when, in 1923, an infected mosquito bite eventually brought down the world's best-known amateur archeologist.
by John French
"Lunatics" by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel (G.P. Putnam, $25.95)
Most of us already know Dave Barry as one funny guy. In his latest book, "Lunatics," the award-winning columnist and novelist is joined by Alan Zweibel, another funny guy currently producing a Showtime series called "Inside Comedy."
In "Lunatics," Barry and Zweibel write about a pair of guys, Jeffrey Peckerman and Philip Horkman, whom one would certainly not consider friends. Considering how they met, the best that can be said is they have a relationship because they're constantly thrown together by bizarre circumstances.
This strained relationship between Horkman, a pet store owner, and Peckerman, owner of a forensic plumbing company, begins at a Sunday afternoon soccer game. Horkman is a referee for the local league and Peckerman's daughter, Taylor, is on one of the teams. After referee Horkman calls Taylor off side as she kicks the tying goal for the league championship, war begins.
In a journey that moves in astonishing directions, the unlikely duo get involved in terrorism, a luxury cruise, world hunger, swimming an ocean in a storm, the Middle East, nudists, U.S. presidential elections, Chuck E. Cheese, Donald Trump's hair, Charo, a riot in Tiananmen Square and more. If you like to laugh, this is entertainment of the laugh-out-loud-until-you-cry type.
For more than 20 years, Barry has written a weekly humor column for the Miami Herald that won him the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1988. He lives in Coral Gables with his family and is the author of more than 30 books. Zweibel, who lives with his wife in Short Hills, New Jersey, was one of the original Saturday Night Live writers and winner of numerous Emmy Awards for his work in TV. Awarded the Thurber Prize for his novel, The "Other Shulman," he's collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award-winning play "700 Sundays."
Dave and Alan, funny guys indeed.
-- Reviewed by David and Nancy Beckwith