Shades Of Words


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Wolf Hall

Though it has taken me four weeks to get through this novel, it is in no way a reflection of its quality and content. It’s just a really thick book!

 This mammoth novel takes us back in history when Henry VIII was shaking the very foundation of the Church in his bid to marry Anne Boleyn. Fun times, huh?

Now so much has been written about one of the most reformative and turbulent period of Tudor rule that it is difficult to leave your own mark and bring some freshness to it.

But Hilary Mantel achieves that with aplomb. Let’s start with the writing style. When you are reading a story that’s a few hundred years you expect to read big complicated sentences and you expect to read it in past tense. Mantel twists convention on its head, and we have a post modernistic third person narrative in present tense. It tends to throw you off in the beginning but finally draw you in making you actually feel involved. The language at times is so casual that it is not believable – but you still like it because it somehow makes more sense.

Something that I found confusing constantly was the use of “he” for Cromwell throughout the book. Very rarely, would that pronoun be used to refer to any other character. After a hundred pages, I confirmed the ground rule – if there is a “he” it refers to Cromwell. This saved me from re-reading several paras again.

Now what truly makes this different from the other versions is the choice of protagonist – Thomas Cromwell. History and literature has not treated him well. Though he was the primary force behind England’s church reformation, he made several enemies as his role as Chief Minister for Henry VIII, as he stripped nobility and the priests of their excessive powers. His role in Queen Katherine’s marriage annulment and Anne Boleyn’s beheading truly made him unpopular with the general public.

But there are two sides to every story. Mantel presents Cromwell in the most humane light as yet. Wolf Hall is his story.  In this version of Cromwell’s life, we see how he escapes an abusive childhood to make his own life abroad. We see how time and circumstance make him jack of all trades. We see how he becomes a part of Cardinal Wolsey’s office and how he learns the intricacies of politics. We see how he comes to attention to the King with his bold but sensible comments. The pace of the growth of his power is astonishing. The more interesting parts of the story are about Thomas Cromwell, the man himself. Mantel does an excellent job in building out these little character details – his relationship with his wife, his love for his daughters, his multi-linguism, his knowledge of the law and religion and most of it his willingness to give everyone a chance at their life.

Mantel does not intend to and neither are we fooled in believing that Cromwell is the good guy. Nor he is a victim of circumstances. In fact, he is like anyone of us. Trying to make a living. He is an ambitious man and he wants security for his future generations. The only way to do that is to make the King happy. Everything else follows.

 All the other players of the Henry – Anne saga remain the same :  Henry Tudor, Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer and Duke of Norfolk. Mantel is brilliant at character sketches and event the smallest characters are drawn out with much detail.

Ofcourse, most of this is speculation, but, a very worthy speculation at that.

More than passing knowledge of Tudor history is expected and I did find myself googling up a lot of history.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Wolf Hall. It has been one of the most satisfying reads in recent times for me. If 550 pages don’t scare you, then do pick this up.

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The Adventures of Merlin

I love mythological-historical-fantasy dramas with lots of action. And I dont mean Xena: The Warrior Princess type.

I don’t recall how or why I wanted to watch Merlin, but one day I found myself trying to locate the “The Adventures of Merlin” on Netflix. And from then on I was hooked

This BBC production gives its own twist to the legend of Arthur and Merlin. But legends have so many versions that we really cant hold it against this show. So in this interpretation  of the story, Uther Penndragon, Arthur’s father, is alive and kicking, as the King of Camelot. He is a stern and a wise ruler, his only fault, being is his blind hatred of magic.Merlin, a young warlock, arrives in Camelot to live in the care of Gaius, the court physician. But magic is outlawed in Camelot. That means that Merlin is forced to live a life of secrecy.

The most interesting part of the show is the relationship between Arthur and Merlin. Merlin, as we all know, is destined to be Arthur’s trusted friend and ally. The show has on its own take on how this friendship could have become. Arthur is a brave young lad – a better person than his father , but he has this whole arrogant front that he maintains because he knows he cannot befriend people below his station. But his willingness to put his life on the line time and again for people he cares about makes him a true hero. Merlin, who is initally put off by Arthur’s bullying ways learns to respect him for his kind and pure nature. Merlin is employed to be Arthur’s manservant and this marks the beginning of their inevitable friendship.

Another of my favorite parts of the show is Merlin’s struggles with himself to keep his identity secret . He is not exactly modest. He is a powerful sorcerer and he knows it. And he wants credit for being that, which is not possible in Camelot.

How can we forget the dragon? The last magical dragon imprisoned by Uther ( why he did so is beyond me , since he hates all magical things) who becomes Merlin’s advisor. Is he just a good counsel, or does he have another role to play?

 

The other two key characters are Lady Morgana, who is Uther’s ward. In the original series, she is Arthur’s half sister. Lady Morgana is clearly a witch in making and her love-hate relationship with Uther  makes her very unpredicatble. Then there is Gwen ( Guinevere) – yes, the future Queen of Camelot. Only in this version she is Morgana’s maid servant. Will she become the Guinevere of the legends ?

Bradley James and Colin Morgan have excellent on screen chemistry and play off the role of two hot headed young men very well.One would not expect a African American Guinevere, but Angel Coulby does this part really well. She potrays Gwen as a strong minded woman who is righteous and could be the future queen.

Anothy Head gives an amazing performance as Uther. I love characters who do grey really well. You would want to hate Uther but Head makes him likeable.

Like most myth-fantasy shows, this is has monster of the week and the general mytharc stories. So far they all have been really entertaining. As this is based in the middle ages, the costumes, the sword fights , the sets..all of it is huge fun to watch. I would recommend this to anyone who loves mythology and magic.


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Evenings to Remember

I have to say one thing about being in the US of A, it give us time and opportunities to explore the interesting things.
I, in my life never thought , that I will go and see a live ballet peformance. That too the famous “Swan Lake” by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The St. Louis Ballet Company

Now to appreciate ballet there are few pre-requisites ( something that we realized after the 3 hr performance).
– A passing knowledge of the dance form itself. While it looks mesmerizing and you know dancing on your toes is extremely painful, you really wish you know the what that jump or the twirl or the folding of the hands meant. Because I am sure like any other form of  dance-drama these  movements have meanings that add to the story telling

– An appreciation of instrumental music. I am not a big music person. I can never ‘just’ listen to music. Understanding instrumental music – whether Indian or international as always been a challenge for me. To understand ballet you need to understand the music – the music determines the mood of each performance. The story is narrated thru the music

So , I have to admit, a lot of the art of the ballet was lost on me. Because I can appreciate dancing in general I was able to appreciate ballet’s grace,elegance and discipline. The costumes and sets were perfect. There was an etheral quality to the peformance. However,before I attend any other ballet performance I would probably need some education.

I have attended very few live concerts and when we heard that Mark Knopfler would be in town to promote his new album “Get Lucky”,  we booked our tickets – 3 months in advance. Its kind of surreal to have really enjoyed Dire Straits all through your younger years and then to see the band perform in front of your eyes. Ofcourse its not Dire Straits anymore , but 3 of the original band members were there…so there. The concert was at the grand Fox Theater in St. Louis – one of the more magnificent of the Fox properties. I know I am going back there as a tourist.
The crowds went crazy when MK and band walked on to the stage. He started the performance by belting out the first song of the Get Lucky album – Border Reiver. A lot of music in this album seems to have Scottish and Irish influences.  I personally feel that Get Lucky is an awesome album.

I also loved Sailing to Philadelphia , probably, more than Sutlans of Swing and the band was generous enough to sing quite a few songs from that album including the title track. The crowds was enthusiastic and almost every song got a standing ovation. The thing about watching a legend like MK perform in front of you is that it makes you realize that the genius is real. We all have our favorites but I was especially emotional when he ended the concert with “Piper to the End” .

Everytime I hear a Mark Knopfler song, the magic of that evening comes back to me.


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Lost in Translation – Canada ,France and US

I have to confess that I am making no concerted effort to read books from different countries. Hence I am making measly progress. And out of desperation I am counting US and Canada into my list.

From US, I give you Old School. My review is here

From Canada , I give you prize winning “The Blind Assassin”. My review is here

From France , I give you The Cairo Diary. Review is the next post.


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Old School

I thorughly adored this book. Old School is such a lovely story and its likeable at so many levels that I know its one of those novels that you will want to re-read several times.

The protagonist of this story is 16 something boy studying in one of what appears to be America’s private boarding school. The story is narrated in first person by him and is basically the story of his last year at school. Now there are lot of cliches that Tobias Wolff could have gone with when he wrote this book – class differences at school, bossy professors, benevolent professors, buried secrets, scandalos affairs,  scholarships won and lost, summmer affairs, expulsions …and so on. But instead he chose a completely different way of storytelling , imbibing all of the above, but in such unique and engaging way that every page was a delight. Wolff uses literature as the main theme for this coming of age story. Guaranteed to delight to any booklover,Old School is a tribute to the art of reading and writing.

Our hero is a scholarship student and is of Jewish origins – two facts he tries to hide as he attempts to fit in. He is on the editorial board of the prestigious school paper Troubadour and is part of the literary elite in the school – the only kind of snobbery the school practices. One of the highlights of the senior year is the practice of inviting 3 renowoned authors. Senior year students are invited to submit their work for review by the visiting writer. The writer picks the favorite work and the student then gets the chance to have a rendezvous with the writer himself.

These events define the main parts of the novel, each describing how the various students and our narrator in particular prepares for the visit of three eminent writers – Robert Frost , Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway.

Wolff was spot on the first reaction of an impressionable mind on reading “The Fountainhead”. I remember the first time I read ‘The Fountainhead” and how, just like our hero, I looked down at the whole world with contempt for the next 6 months. I felt so above it all. It has taken some years to probably imbibe  some of the theories of objectivism and to realize how right and wrong Ayn Rand was in some of her views – though the world she created were too extreme to be real.Wolff is obviously not a fan of Ayn Rand. I do not know if he has ever met her but his presentation of Ayn Rand was simply a caricature. Although, it was funny in its own way.
When our speaker’s literary hero , Ernest Hemingway, is scheduled to arrive as the third and last author for the year, the school goes in a writing frenzy. It is a big deal. It’s at this stage where the narrative climaxes and the story takes an unexpected turn.

The writing is fluid and easy to read. The book is heavily marked with references to literature , especially Hemingway. I, unfortunately , have read very little Hemingway and at sometime just did not get these pointers. However , it made me want to read more of him. There are also elements of parody, especially in the pieces of writing submitted by the students. These parodies are inevitable – every student tries to become the writer he is trying to please !

If you if have always wanted to write, then do read this.