Shades Of Words


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The Legend of Tarzan

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The Legend of Tarzan

I have fragmented memories of watching the 1999 Disney animated movie when I was too young to question the politics of the story. Based loosely on Edgar Burrough’s adventure series, any interpretation of the movie will be fraught with problems inherent to colonial literature – racism, imperialism, the savior complex etc. The Legend of Tarzan is a retelling of the tale that tries commendably to cater to modern sensibilities of the 21st century.

It’s firstly not an origins story. The audience is introduced to Tarzan, already living the life of an English lord. It’s been eight years since his discovery and return from Africa. We learn of his childhood in the wild through flashbacks. He is now John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, married to the feisty Jane Porter, living a quiet retired life in his English manor. He is requested to accompany Captain George Williams (played by Samuel Jackson) on a diplomatic mission to Congo for a friendly visit to King Leopold’s territory. The covert purpose is to investigate a suspected slave trade encouraged by the government of King Leopold.

This is where history meets fiction – as a Captain George Williams did indeed go to Congo, discovered and reported on atrocities committed by the private militia on the Congolese people. In the movie, there is a larger plot afoot – King Leopold plans to mine the diamonds of Africa and couple it with underground slave trade to become the richest kingdom in all of Europe. This strategy is masterminded by Captain Léon Rom (played reliably and effortlessly by Christoph Waltz) who is driven by ambition and pure evil. To achieve this he needs to deliver Tarzan to Chief Mbonga, the tribal chief who owns the diamond regions.

Tarzan and Jane’s down-the-memory-lane trip turns sour pretty soon as their host village is attacked and Jane is kidnapped. The movie now follows the predictable path; Tarzan must rescue his Jane and save the people of Congo from Rom’s devious plans.  And so he does, swinging gorgeously from vine to vine, fighting apes and jumping across trees through the forests of Congo!

The very buff and good looking, Alexander Skarsgård plays an understated, brooding version of Tarzan, rightly so for someone who has spent more time in the wild then in the company of men.  Jane Porter is the only significant female character in the story and Margot Robbie plays her with aplomb. Jane’s character often mocks the traditional role. When the villainous Rum asks her to scream, she throws her head and retorts – “Like a damsel in distress!” She does do a commendable job of putting up a fight, but for the sake of convention and the box office, she is gloriously rescued by Tarzan.

The Legend of Tarzan tries hard to be politically correct – not an easy task given the original material. The choice of adding a black man as the partner to Tarzan’s journey is very deliberate, as is reference to slave trade, and the colonization of Africa. Somewhere buried in the script there are references to civil war and the cruel treatment of Indians. The movie addresses a lot of political hot topics with a brushstroke without delving into the details.

In the end, in spite of all its ambition, The Legend of Tarzan remains a silly adventure romp.


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Good Evening, Mrs. Craven

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I often find that great stories are not just about the writing, the plot or the characters, but what they tell us of the human condition.  That is what really pulls me into the pages and makes me think about what I have read long after I finished the book.  Stories about ordinary women in extraordinary situations are my personal favorite, which is why I am in love with Good Evening, Mrs. Craven.

The author, Mollie Panter-Downes was a columnist for The New Yorker during the Second World War. Over the years she contributed war reports in the form of Letters from London and several short stories. Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is the compilation of these stories. The focus on these stories is not on the battlefields, the soldiers or the war machine itself, but the effect of war on the home front in England.  These are the stories of women who may not be sitting in trenches in the line of fire, but are still acutely aware of the danger the war brings – both emotional and physical.

The collection is a mix of the comical and the tragic, of the optimistic and the hopeless. These short, sharp stories give us a window into what would have been the condition of hundreds of civilians as the years of the war swept by. The stories are arranged in a chronological order, with each story being darker than the ones before.  And all the stories are very, very English. There is not a touch of histrionic to be found anywhere; an entire nation is facing Armageddon but the stiff upper lip only just quivers.

With the declaration of war so many people in small villages across England found themselves playing hosts to families, friends and strangers escaping the air-raids of London. Outwardly a sense of righteousness prevails with the noble act of providing help to those who need. In the hearts there is the natural apprehension of strangers as portrayed in In Clover where a lower class poor mother and her children find refuge at the fancy Manor House in the village. All attempts at gentrification fail and the gentle folk are confused when the ‘lucky’ family gives up on the better life and decides to go back. All the good intentions cannot make up for the loss of privacy and the annoyance of guests as in Mrs. Ramsay’s War who finds her cottage and life taken over by kin of her friends. Mrs. Dudley, In Danger cannot believe her state of happiness when her evacuees leave.

‘But happiness was beginning to steal over her. She gave up trying to do anything, and went out into the hall and started drifting aimlessly from room to room, luxuriously listening to their emptiness. She couldn’t remember when she had last felt so happy”

For some the war is a much needed respite from the dullness of their existence. The war has opened up opportunity to be useful, to be wanted. Meeting at the Pringles focuses on the petty politics of the village committees set up to help with war efforts. Issues of leadership and organization are discussed with firm politeness and only the English genteelness kept the rivalries and jealousies at bay.

Even as other’s find purpose, there is still a lot of loneliness to go around.  The Waste of it All finds Frances desperately holding on to the memories of her husband before the war – a man she was briefly married to and now only knows through long letters. She has learned to live her life without him and replaces with a borrowed family. Only when the illusion breaks, does the revelation of wasted years bite her. My personal favorite is Goodbye, My love in which Ruth prepares for her husband’s imminent departure for military service.  Nothing and no one can comfort her or prepare for the moment of farewell. It takes all of her strength to put on a brave face.

Not all stories are about women. For men war is time for serving the country, fighting for freedom, for glory and even getting shot is better than being left behind. In It’s a real thing this time a retired Major Marriot keeps hoping for being called in for duty. He keeps hoping that the war gets worse and it gets ‘real’ and his country needs him. In the last pages of the story, his neighbor finds him keeping vigil at the night sky waiting for enemy paratroopers.

‘He shifted the gun from one arm to the other and looked  up again at the sky. Mrs. Trent could see in the half-light that he was smiling sweetly ….The Major looked up for the falling body of a German soldier like a lover watching for a sign from a stubbornly closed window”.

In Year of Decision, Mark Goring who has spent most of the war at a desk job,  can’t help feeling happy at the chance of going to an overseas appointment  and seeing some action.

The beauty of the stories is in the subtlety, in the thoughts between the lines and the haunting presence of war. The only way to understand is to read them.


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Midnight Riot: London’s Wizarding Cops

10327417Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot ( Rivers of London UK Edition) suffers a bit from an identity crisis. It tries to be a fantasy-fiction story, a police procedural, a London guide, a commentary on race and a murder novel all wrapped in one and it fails. There is so much going on in every single page, that I would often not remember how I arrived a particular point in the story and whether it was significant.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Peter Grant, our hero, the wizard in making (don’t get your hopes high people, this is NOT anything like Harry Potter) is a newly graduated Police Constable in the Met (the police force, not the NY museum). His main function includes standing in the cold London air guarding scenes of crime. The story starts at the death of a William Skirmish who is bludgeoned to death by a wealthy British producer for no apparent reason. On the scene of crime, Peter Grant is accosted by a ghost (yup, you read that right) who gives him a tip on the crime. This tip brings Grant firmly into the center of the magical world of London, with Chief Inspector Nightingale (The Wizard) as his guide. This murder embroils them in similar crimes and a hunt begins for the entity causing them all.
While trying to stay on top of the case, our wizarding coppers are also dragged in a property dispute between Mother and Father Thames.The Gods of the rivers of London are mythical creatures personified in people who drowned in them. Magic exists but is a more ambiguous concept and it’s hard to know how much power anyone really possesses. A lot of time is spent referencing the history of London rivers, old magic articles and theories, but instead of being entertaining, these snippets of information appear like wiki entries. I learned more about the underground rivers of London than I  would ever want to know.
The plot is generally all over the place. Nightingale and Grant are called on to investigate several other crimes and these diversions take away from the central storyline. All characters are very two-dimensional and because there is so much happening on the page that it’s hard to spend time with anyone character long enough.
Lot of emphasis is laid on explaining magic through science – you see the fallacy, right? If magic could be explained through science, it wouldn’t be magic anymore – it would just be ‘how things work’. The intention is great and they do ride the ‘energy in the universe is constant’ wave for some time before hitting a roadblock and hitting unexplainable phenomena. Why do rivers have spirits? Why some people can feel vestigia and others can’t? When Peter asks those questions, Nightingale (his mentor and teacher) basically shrugs his shoulders and says “dunno”. As a reader, that is extremely disappointing.
Also, there is much ado about everything – Nightingales’ age , impact of magic on technology, the magical effect of vampires – there is a lot of build up to all these questions but the reveal is extremely underwhelming.
There is only one thing going for this book – humour. The dialogs are sharp, the wit dry – very similar to watching a sitcom. The humour is literally what endured me through the 250 odd pages. But I doubt I will pick the second book in the series.


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Pride & Prejudice

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The 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice surprised me greatly. Having been an ardent fan of the faithful BBC adaptation starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, I strongly believed that no other interpretations were required. I avoided watching Keria Knightley’s Miss Bennet for years until the movie showed up on my Netflix recommendation. I am so glad I gave in.
As an adaptation Debora Moggach’s screenplay remains true to the novel. Key turning points and interactions are verbatim from the book. In other places, extensions and improvisation on text adds immense value to the original plot. For instance, Lizzy’s reaction to Charlotte’s engagement is more frank rather than the contained polite one in the book. The first exhchange of dialogs between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy more pointed and sharp – as Austen had intended if not so much written in words.
More than the screenplay, I believe Joe wright brings out the darkness that lies repressed in the pages of the novel. The desperation of the Bennet’s middle class is apparent in the sweaty flutterings of the mother running around an unkempt middle class establishment. The girls are all pretty but they are definitely lacking in urban sophistication – the gap between them and the Bingleys/Darcys painfully apparent. And has Mr. Bingley not always appeared a little dimwitted – so easily persuaded by his friend and sister to abandon his love. In the movie there is no pretentsion – he is decidedly a simple, bumbling good looking idiot. There is some caricturization of all main characters – as if the layer of Victorian proprietary protecting them has been stripped away. The country dance halls are loud and noisy, the village streets muddy and the dresses of the Bennet not always starched clean.
The English countryside is used to its complete picturesque advantages with the camera often sweeping across meadows and hills. The weather is used to accentuate the mood of the storyline.I love the fact that Darcy’s first proposal is in the rain instead inside the Collins’s cottage. The cloudy foggy day adds to the tormented exchange which again does the job of bringing out the undercurrents of passion only implicit in the novels. Lady Catherine De Bourg’s interview with Elizabeth in the middle of the night is truly outrageous and slightly improbable but it adds beautifully to the urgency leading to the ending.
As in the book and in the 1995 adaptation, Elizabeth of this version also goes through a change of heart when her eyes first fall on the grand facade of the Pemberly estate. Future financial security weighs big on the Bennet girls.  It’s also interesting to note that a similar observation is made when Jane confesses her feelings for Mr. Bingley. “Handsome and conveniently rich”, Elizabeth quips to her sister.
In matter of perfmonaces Keira Knightley shines. It is truly her movie – there isn’t much for anyone else to do. Macfayden’s Darcy is more wooden than repressed. I really did not see him as a ‘hero’. All the other big names of British cinema do well to bring the story together.
I highly recommend watching this version. The tone of the movie might bother you a bit but this is a beautiful retelling of a classic with all the focus on the subtext.


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The Marcus Didius Falco Series

Marcus Didius Falco is a private informer and the protagonist of Lindsey Davis’s mystery series set in Ancient Rome. Emperor Vespasian has come into power and good imperial agents are required to hide royal crimes, curb corruption and sniff out political scandals. I first came across Falco and his exploits in ‘The Silver Pigs‘ where he accidentally falls upon an imperial minting fraud. The investigation kick starts with the death of a Senator’s young and impressionable niece . The story is not a murder mystery but more of a government backed investigation. Falco’s inquiry  takes him into the desperate neighborhoods of Ancient Rome and across the channel to the edges of Roman empire in cold and dry Britannia. Nefarious plots to overthrow the Emperor are discovered and the investigation gets more bloody. Along the way we are introduced to a cast of characters that will continue to be central to Falco’s investigative efforts. There is Petronius Longus, an employee of Roman police force who is often the reluctant inside source for information for Falco. Helena Justina is the sharp and witty daughter of the Senator who predictably forms Falco’s love interest. She also brings some diversity into a vastly male cast of characters. Falco’s garrulous family makes several excursions only to add to the length of book and its feeble attempts at humor.

While there is a lot of fodder for a great novel ‘The Silver Pigs’ fails to deliver. The flaws are plenty, the biggest being the first person narrative. I believe Davis was inspired by the film noir detectives who presented their sordid lives to the viewers in their ironical, dry style. Falco tries but is never convincing. He tries too hard to push his intelligence, charm and wit down our throats. The first rule of writing is to show and not tell. Unfortunately with Falco, the story appears to be a really long monologue. All your impressions of people and places are made through his lens of humor and satire none of it which is funny. This becomes painful in fight sequences where Falco explains every motion of his body as he punches around thugs.

The other flaw is the meandering plot. It digresses so often that you read chapters and chapters without making any headway in the solving of the mystery. Fast paced these novels are not. Davis has clearly put in a lot of hours researching the minutiae of life in Rome. The writing is eager in describing every little detail of Roman architecture, culture and life. Only in some cases does it organically fit in with the story while in most cases it feels text bookish. One of my favorite descriptions of Rome are when Falco and his client, Helena, are on the run and escape into the by lanes of Rome at night.

The third flaw which I find the hardest to overcome is the writing itself. I know there is problem with the quality when I mentally start scratching off words and rewriting sentences as I read along. Dialogues are often accompanied with tone descriptions of ‘gasped’, half-grinned’, ‘said satirically’, ‘snapped’, ‘snapped back’ that it gets exhausting after a while to keep up with the emotions with each statement. It’s hard to point but there is something off about the writing in general. It’s too elaborate yet casual as if Davis is not able to find the right form representing the period. It reminded me of  Amish Triphati’s ‘Shiva Trilogy’ and his struggle to keep the language relevant to the period of the novels set in ancient India .

I don’t know why but I still went ahead and bought a couple of books in the series from a bookstore near my house just to see if there was any progression in characters or writing. ‘Scandal Takes a Holiday‘ is a much later novel and the most useful thing I learnt from it was about piracy during Ancient Rome. More overly complicated and meandering plots and more inane writing.’Alexandria‘ is the only one that I enjoyed. It is actually a more traditional closed door murder mystery with a definite list of suspects and motives. The writing is more taut. The location is of course Alexandria, beautifully described but not overtly so. I would still make it 100 pages shorter!

I have only read only 3 of the dozen in the series and feel equipped to pronounce some sort of judgement. It may definitely cater to a certain type of reader and maybe even certain reading mood, but in a market inundated with murder mystery novels I think I am done with my experimentation with Falco and most definitely will not be reading another one.


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Is it too late..

….to make up for the dismal blogging year that this was for me. For all my ambition at the beginning of 2015 ( scroll down the page to see), I have written exactly 2 posts. It’s not that I did not have things to share – I did. I read a lot of good books, saw many interesting movies and TV shows – but writing hasn’t come easily to me.

Blogging is hard. It requires discipline, will power and most importantly – ideas. To blog daily would need absolute determination and endless supply of content. To blog a few times a month you need some few hours of quite and peace every week.

I have managed to do neither. What I am now attempting to do is to close this year respectfully with a few intelligent entries. And of course, my brain is in a funk and I find myself looking at a blank screen.

Writing after a break of six  months is hard. Physically hard. I struggle with putting words together in a meaningful way. I have to rack my brain and look deep inside to find the right phrases.

I find myself asking questions – why should I do this? There are millions of blogs out there with better content and more readers than me. Why continue? Should I just shut this down?

Every time I ask myself – does it matter? My inner voice comes back with a resounding yes.

For me blogging has been extremely personal – a way to put my thoughts on paper and to make notes on passing time. A memorycatcher of sorts. The lesser I blog the more memories I lose. That’s why its important to keep trying.

Do you know why you want to blog?


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Georgette Heyer’s Frederica

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Reading “Frederica” was one of the best things that I did this month. It satisfied the literary snob in me with its language and character development, but it also engaged the over-worked, hassled mom in me who doesn’t have the time for complex plots.

The Heyer novels specialize in Regency Romances and while they give an insight to Georgian lifestyles and fashions ( quite deliberate on the fashion!) they don’t intend to do more than entertain. The plot line is fairly simple and predictable – in this case a rich and arrogant Marquis has to undertake the guardianship of a precocious set of distant cousins.The eldest of the four cousins is Frederica, who though not as pretty as her younger sister, is charming,witty, clever and unpretentious. Extremely different from any sort of gold-diggers that Marquis is used to. Of course they are going to fall in love, but it’s how that happens is extremely entertaining with several laugh out loud plot lines. What also sets this apart that the real focus of the story is not the actual love story, but the relationships of all the characters. The Marquis relationships with his older,interfering sisters, Frederica’s dynamic with her siblings, the parallel sub-plots of other couplings and most interestingly the Marquis’ transformation from a careless bachelor into a family man who becomes a father-like figure to Frederica’s underage brothers.

As a feminist, I do have several issues with the way women are represented here – the dumb-blonde-beauty stereotype, the not-pretty-but-clever stereotype, the end-goal-of-women’s-life-is-marriage stereotype, the arrogant-masculine-jerk hero stereotype – but I won’t because I think it would be assuming that these books have a larger significance.

For the few hours that I poured over this book, I was successfully transported into the glamorous life of aristocratic England and that was a good diversion:)

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