Wolf Hall: book review

whallI’ve only watched one episode of Masterpiece’s “Wolf Hall” mini-series so far — I’m saving the rest for a binge-watch at the end. Damian Lewis is so perfect for King Henry I can’t believe I didn’t think of him before. Mark Rylance isn’t how I pictured Cromwell exactly, but he’s wonderful as well. It seems like a marvelous production. Despite that, though, it’ll never match the experience of reading Hilary Martel’s novel for me. Wolf Hall was one of the finest, most engrossing books I’ve ever read.

Reposting my earlier review here…

The hardest book review to write is one for a book you loved. It’s difficult not to gush, to come up with useful analysis, even look for weak areas, when all you want to do is ramble on and on about how exceptional it was. Talking about Wolf Hall is like that for me.

Mantel turns the character of Thomas Cromwell on his head, leading us away from all we’ve previously been told of him. Not a villain here at all, he is merely a man, and a fairly good one. He is an ambitious man who strives and reaches for more, but one who is compassionate, feeling, and deeply thoughtful. A commoner from the worst of beginnings, he manages to rise to high office on merit, and no small amount of intelligence, alone. He lives, he laughs and he mourns, and mostly he builds for the future. Reading every line, even when it is not Cromwell speaking, feels like you are reading his mind, hearing things as he would have, seeing as he would have seen, and feeling as he would have as well.

Wolf Hall takes place during the heady years when Henry VIII pursued Anne Boleyn, then split the church in order to take her as his wife. Throughout these pages, Anne is a palpable, throbbing presence, always felt if not all that often seen. (“She says yes, yes, yes, then she says no,” one man describes her aptly in her absence.) And Henry himself is captured so perfectly, as both prince and man —

“The king has two bodies. The first exists within the limits of his physical being: you can measure it, and often Henry does, his waist, his calf, his other parts. The second is his princely double, free-floating, untethered, weightless, which may be in more than one place at a time. Henry may be hunting in the forest, while his princely double makes laws. One fights, one prays for peace. One is wreathed in the mystery of his kingship: one is eating a duckling with sweet green peas.” (p. 392)

But it is not only the famous Mantel brings to life, it’s also the lesser beings, the people of London, of York, of Whitehall and Putney, Calais and Essex. People of the court, people of the streets, people of the kitchens of the great halls of England. The sounds, the smells, the atmosphere, it all seems to be contained on these pages.

The details, the atmosphere, the craft in which words are spun and tales are told, all of this combines to make Wolf Hall a work of literary art. I devoured every word and longed for more, and cannot recommend it enough.


LeVar Burton on the end of “Reading Rainbow”

LeVar Burton gave an interview on NPR yesterday about his thoughts on the end of Reading Rainbow, which I posted about a few weeks ago here. Burton, who speaks a bit at first about his years with Star Trek: The Next Generation and about how science fiction was his first reading love, says about Reading Rainbow’s cancellation:

Truthfully, I’m sad because I believe that the job is not done yet. Every couple of years, there’s a new generation of kids that are learning how to read, have cracked the code, and are now making that decision. And it’s sad to me that “Reading Rainbow” won’t be there for them.

I think it’s safe to say he’s not alone.

(Burton also takes some calls from listeners and also talks about his future plans, including a new series for PBS called “Science of Star Trek”, which sounds interesting.)

“Reading Rainbow” reaches its end

PBS’s Reading Rainbow, hosted by LeVar Burton is going off the air after 26 years, from a lack of funding and from a change in policy. Apparently, the higher-ups think that kids need to be taught how to read, while teaching them to want to read is a “luxury”.

From NPR:

The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, he explains, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling.

Why am I not surprised the Bush administration’s DoE is behind this? I also can’t help mentioning that the company that bought full production interest in Reading Rainbow three years ago, Educate, Inc., also counts  Hooked on Phonics amongst its holdings.

Linda Simensky, vice president for children’s programming at PBS, says that when Reading Rainbow was developed in the early 1980s, it was an era when the question was: “How do we get kids to read books?”

Since then, she explains, research has shown that teaching the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority.

Research has directed programming toward phonics and reading fundamentals as the front line of the literacy fight. Reading Rainbow occupied a more luxurious space — the show operated on the assumption that kids already had basic reading skills and instead focused on fostering a love of books.

Any thought about maybe using our schools to teach, though, instead? Because we instituted “No Child Left Behind” and that’s just phenomenally successful, I’m told, so I’m assuming the kids are learning to read there; I would have thought then we’d be able to afford the “luxury” of spending a little time encouraging them to do so. But then again, it’s always a luxury, isn’t it, spending money on public television… I’m sorry, but does that way this is worded choice rub anyone else the wrong way? It’s as if they’re syaing, look, we’re willing to spend the money to teach your poor illiterate ghetto children to read, so they can do the low-paying job in the service industry they’re eventually going to have, but shelling out bucks just so they enjoy reading? That’s a luxury. You can live without that.

LeVar Burton, Reading Rainbow‘s host, didn’t think so. “”I think reading is part of the birthright of the human being,” he said in a 2003 interview. “It’s just such an integral part of the human experience — that connection with the written word.”

I know times are tough, and if this was just an across-the-board funding cut, I’d be understanding. But I think it’s a completely wrong-headed shift in policy, and a premise I don’t accept as true. Reading Rainbow is a wonderful show that teaches kids not just to enjoy reading, but to see the value of reading — and nothing is going to make a child, or an adult, learn something faster than the desire to do so. As Eric Christensen put so well, in the article’s comments:

I grew up with Reading Rainbow. It was great to see WHY it was fun to read. I think it encourages kids to want to know HOW to read. Sometimes you want to know the end goal so you’ll be excited about the path to get there.

What book would you read for the first time again?

Sharing this great post from PBS’s Booklights. The question asked was, what book do you wish you could read for the first time, all over again? Since Booklights is a site for education and parents, many of the answers are children’s or young adult books.

Me? It’s hard to pick, of course. I’d be tempted to say The Mists of Avalon, just to fall in love with it all over again. But it’s strange to look at that book this way, though, because I got more from it on re-reads than I did the first time, really.

A lot of the books listed here do ring true for me as well. The Harry Potter books, of course. And I loved The Secret Garden but in the end, if I had to pick just one, I’d say Burnett’s A Little Princess instead. It was the first hardcover book I owned, and loved, a gift from my oldest sister — the first book I really remember making me love books, and love reading.

What book would you pick to re-experience?

The First Time Again
Posted by Susan on August 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM on the PBS Parents: Booklights blog

Last week I asked this question: “What children’s book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?”

The question struck more of a chord than I ever could have imagined. Between responses on Booklights, Facebook and Twitter, my question was answered over 600 times! Being a curious person, I had to find out which books were mentioned the most. The numbers listed next to the titles refer to how many times that book or series was mentioned.

The top ten children’s books readers would most like to read again for the first time are:

Anne of Green Gables.jpg10. The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (7 times each). I’m a huge L.M. Montgomery fan, I’d love to read some of her books again for the first time. In the Anne of Green Gables series, the one I’d pick is Anne of the Island.

9. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (8 times) At least half the respondents on this book said they prefered the French version.

8. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (10 times) The trilogy His Dark Materials was mentioned only once. Interestingly, the majority of the votes were specifically for The Golden Compass.

7. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (11 times). I just found my old dog-eared copies of these terrific books. What wonderful memories!

Secret Garden.jpg6. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (12 times). I actually just read this for the first time last year. I wish I had discovered it when I was a child.

We’ve reached the halfway point, and are starting to climb into the big numbers.

5. The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe and the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (19 times). Oh, the magic of discovering what’s in that wardrobe! Who can forget that?

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (22 times). A perfectly written book. It’s amazing what an effect Harper Lee has had on so many generations. I read this book in high school, although I recently had a mom (who hadn’t read the book) try to convince me that it was appropriate for her third grader.

Wrinkle in Time.jpg3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle (25 times). This book ranks high on every children’s book poll I see such as: “What’s your favorite book from childhood?” or “What’s your favorite Newbery book?” The answer is always A Wrinkle in Time. Interesting side note: did you know that this book was rejected by over two dozen publishers before it was finally accepted?

The numbers jumped way up for the last two, both of which are series.

2. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien (38 times) Great, great books. I remember my first time reading these very vividly. Frodo was climbing up Mount Doom and my mom came in and asked me to clean up my room. I recall telling her in a passionate voice that I had read hundreds and hundreds of pages just to get to that point and I couldn’t stop. I had to know what happened next. Fortunately, she took pity on me.

And the books that were mentioned the most… (drum roll, please):

All Harry Potter books.jpg1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (41 times) As a die-hard Harry Potter fan, I couldn’t agree more, but I was surprised that Harry beat out Frodo.

I was on the edge of my seat for every single Harry Potter book. Whenever I thought I had figured it all out, Rowling took her story in another direction and surprised me every time. She made me gasp, cry and laugh in a way I never have while reading a book. It was an unforgettable ride.

But as much as I loved that thrilling, spine tingling first time, it was in the re-reading where I discovered the true magic. Rowling planned out all seven books before the first one was even accepted for publication. All the books are full of subtle, deftly hidden clues and wonderful misdirection that are a delight to discover. For more about the joy of reading a favorite book over and over, check out Jen’s excellent post on the subject.

Now, on to the runner-ups. Although they didn’t make the top ten list, here are the children’s and young adult books that were mentioned multiple times. They’re in alphabetical order by author.

Read more…