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.


glee finale

Glee_logo-1-Tonight is the finale of “Glee” and I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m going to be sad to see it end. Well, maybe a little embarrassed. But not slushie-to-the-face humiliated or anything.

Anything you could say to criticize “Glee” would be completely accurate. Yes, it’s WAY cheesy. Yes, it’s basically an hour-long musical every week, which poses the same problem all musicals do (who just breaks out in song like that, really?). Yes, there are plot holes the size of a dinosaur-wiping-out craters, really basic stuff like “how does a high school manage professional-quality productions, complete with stage lighting, costumes and sets at the drop of a hat?” And “are the state requirements to become a teacher somehow not in effect in Lima, Ohio?” and “why did New York City look so much like LA?” “Glee” is guilty of all that and much more, such as questionable guest stars, repeated plot devices and no real concern for the boundaries of space, time and the actual taking of high school classes.

Pilot_GleeBut the “Glee” pilot remains one of the best first episodes of a show I’ve ever seen, hands down. And that’s saying something. I downloaded it from iTunes and brought it with me on my new iPad when I’d been called for jury duty; sitting in that bullpen all day, waiting to be picked or sent home, I put on some headphones and started watching, and couldn’t stop. It was like nothing else on TV at the time in its sheer, unadulterated, so-cheesy-I-can’t-watch-without-crackers, well, glee. I went to a performing arts high school and even we didn’t have a show choir — I was jealous. I wanted in, slushies and all. I loved a lot of the songs they covered, and I found a lot of new artists to listen to, by following the “Glee” versions (handily released on iTunes, of course) to their originals. “Glee” is where I first heard Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Adele.

rachelfinnConfession, though: my enthusiasm waned, after awhile. Somewhere in Season 3 I got bored. I didn’t like the music, the plots seemed more ridiculous than usual. I stopped watching. Stopped, completely. And came back a couple seasons later — something I’ve never done with a show. When Corey Montieth died, I couldn’t help but wonder how “Glee” was going to adapt. As any Gleek can tell you, the Rachel/Finn pairing was supposed to be endgame, in fact, the very focus of the show. Creator Ryan Murphy even had the final scene written, one that would reunite Broadway star Rachel and new glee coach Finn for their happily ever after. Tragically, then, Murphy really was going to have to find a way for the show to go on without its male lead, and without a roadmap to the finish. I couldn’t resist seeing how they were going to pull it off.

NewbiesIt’s been interesting, you can’t deny that. I mean, sure, there was an entire new glee club that got pretty much thrown under the bus for being uninteresting, and the New York City plotline bounced around from one crazy week to another. (Rachel’s boyfriend is a male escort! Santana’s on Broadway! Rachel’s bored of being the lead in “Funny Girl” after a few dozen performances, despite this being her life’s ambition! And wait, we’re all back in Lima, for some very flimsy reasons!) It was downright silly, but it was fun. One of the best things about “Glee”, after all, is that it knows how to laugh at itself, with self-mocking asides and self-referential nods to the absurdity of it all.

But “Glee” was also more than itself, in some very important ways. This show unflinchingly addressed the problems and pressures that young gay men and women face, including bullying, peer pressure and the threat of physical violence. Later seasons addressed transgender rights, as well as domestic violence and hate crimes. The not-such-a-surprise double wedding of Brittany & Santana and Kurt & Blaine was really a celebration of everything “Glee” had done before to give a voice to those who are too often silenced by hate.

640_glee_finale_group_shotSo, this season I’ve watched as the remaining episodes have dwindled down to just this one, and I’ve already been misty-eyed more than once. “Glee”, flaws and all, tugs at my heart a little. It’s heavily laced with nostalgia and it delivers a whopping overdose of schmaltz, and I’ll be watching tonight with a box of tissues ready.

 




post hoc, ergo propter hoc

Wednesdays on NBC  (9-10 p.m. ET)My husband and I have been doing a rewatch of The West Wing lately, which isn’t surprising since the show is how we met. It’s certainly not our first rewatch individually — each of us has seen the series several times, I’m sure. It’s our first rewatch together, though, and for me, at least, it’s been awhile since I last visited the Bartlet White House.

It was a great show, for so many reasons — the cast, the writing, the score, the setting. It ran for seven seasons and while I felt there was a bit of a slump in the penultimate year, by the end I would have eagerly signed on for a President Santos sequel. All good things come to an end, though, and in retrospect, maybe it ended just when it was supposed to.

Watching it now, I can’t help but feel there’s an almost naive optimism to the show that doesn’t entirely gel with the horribly divided, much more cynical political landscape we’re living in right now. It’s always possible I’m the cynical one, but it’s hard to imagine anyone in government being that idealistic anymore. Bartlet’s presidency was its own little Aaron Sorkin-esque Camelot, and you can’t keep the magic going forever. You know, Matt Santos was modeled after then-Senator Barack Obama. In the final episode of the show, we’re left hopeful, excited and eager to start anew. That’s how I felt in 2008, but sadly not at all how I feel about the landscape today. Am I more disappointed because this fictional show gave me real-life expectations that were unreasonably high? Maybe, but I think that oversimplifies how defeated I feel every time I see another bill trying to encroach on women’s rights, learn of another brutal regime we’ve chosen to sell arms to, or hear another politician trying to legislate hate. I wasn’t asking for a utopian made-for-tv world, just something a little easier to live with than this.

Having said all of that… this probably won’t be the last time I’ll rewatch The West Wing. Like a nostalgic alum, I’ll keep coming back for homecoming and reunion, checking out the old dorm, driving the new-show kids nuts, remembering when. I might be a lot more cynical about politics, and a little more pragmatic about the world we live in, but I’ll never fall out of love with Josiah Bartlet, Toby Ziegler, Leo, Sam, CJ, Josh, Donna or Charlie. In that sense, I’ll always be a Wingnut, and proudly so.