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One of my favourite friends was visiting last week and I was very excited because I was meeting her after many years. Time flew by after she arrived and before we knew we were at the airport, saying goodbye. I didn’t want to go home after that as I felt it would be too depressing, and so to cheer myself up, I went to the bookshop instead. What is the point of going to the bookshop if we don’t buy a book? 😁 This one, ‘The Poet’s Dog’ by Patricia MacLachlan caught my eye first and I couldn’t resist getting it – who can resist a book about a poet and a dog? I have been reading it for the past two days and I just finished reading it.

The story told in ‘The Poet’s Dog’ goes like this. Teddy is a dog. He is the dog of a poet called Sylvan. As Teddy describes it –

“I’m a dog. I should tell you that right away. But I grew up with words. A poet named Sylvan found me at the shelter and took me home. He laid down a red rug for me by the fire, and I grew up to the clicking of his keyboard as he wrote. He wrote all day. And he read to me.”

At the time the story starts, there is a blizzard, and Teddy finds a boy and a girl outside, who seem to be lost. He helps them and gets them inside the house. We know about Sylvan at this point, but Sylvan doesn’t seem to be in the house. What happens after that – who are these two children? What happened to Sylvan? Do these three, the girl, the boy and the dog, survive the blizzard? – forms the rest of the story. I don’t want to say more, because I want you to read the story and experience the pleasure and joy it offers, for yourself.

The Poet’s Dog‘ is a beautiful book. It is about love, friendship, family, loss, grief, and finding love again. It is also about this beautiful furry bundle, which has a heart of gold, and which offers unconventional love, which we call a dog. Teddy is such a charming narrator and we see the whole story unfolding through Teddy’s eyes. I loved the characters, Flora (the girl), Nickel (the boy), Sylvan and Ellie (Sylvan’s student). The book had bigger-than-normal font with generous spacing between lines. Patricia MacLachlan’s storytelling style and dialogue were beautiful and spare and stylish and such a pleasure to read.

The Poet’s Dog‘ is just 88 pages long, and I loved it so much that I was sad when it ended. It is a beautiful, poignant book and one of my favourite reads of the year. If you have dog babies at home, you will love this book.

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When I discovered that Dr. Rebecca Verghese Paul has published her first book, ‘Una Bo, the Magic Tree of Love’, I was excited and couldn’t wait to read it.

Filgard the wizard passes through the land of Darae. He sits down to have his lunch of bread and cheese when a boy approaches him. Filgard calls him by his name, Podero, and asks him how he can help him. Podero is surprised that this stranger knows his name. They sit down together and talk. Podero tells the wizard that he has always dreamt of having sweets, because he has heard his parents raving about them, but unfortunately, since the war, sweets were impossible to find and to make. Filgard asks Podero what he would do if his dream comes true and he gets sweets now. Podero tells him that he would be excited and he would call his brothers and his friends and would share the sweets with them. The wizard closes his eyes and a blue glow envelops him. Suddenly a small plant sprouts out of the ground and before their very eyes it grows two leaves and then four and then many and before they can imagine it grows rapidly and becomes a big tree! And hanging from the tree are not fruits but all kinds of delicious sweets! Podero goes to his village and tells everyone about it. Everyone comes and looks at the tree in wonder. The wizard tells everyone that the tree offers beautiful sweets and treats to everyone who asks for it with love. The wizard also says that Podero will be the guardian of the tree from now on and he leaves and continues on his journey.

What happens at Darae after this magical tree arrives? Does the tree make people love each other more? Or do the gifts offered by the tree make the people greedy and jealous? Does the fame of the tree spread beyond the village to distant towns? Does it bring unwanted attention? What happens to Podero? Is he able to realize his dreams? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

Una Bo‘ is a beautiful love letter to sweets and a beautiful ode to the power of love. The book is beautifully written, exquisitely produced and gorgeously illustrated. The artwork by Ada Konewki is beautiful. The story ends with something equivalent of a cliffhanger and now I can’t wait to find out what happens in the second part. This is a great book to present to your younger ones at home and read to them aloud during storytelling sessions or at bedtime. The Kindle version of the book comes with a free audiobook which is beautifully narrated by the author and is a pleasure to listen to. I loved reading the book and listening to the audiobook.

Have you read ‘Una Bo, the Magic Tree of Love‘? What do you think about it?

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I had wanted to read Joseph Roth’s masterpiece ‘The Radetzky March‘ for a long time. So when I discovered that Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’ were hosting a readalong of the book, I was so excited! Here is the first post for the readalong which covers the first part of the book.

For those of you, who haven’t read the book, this post is filled with spoilers. Please be forewarned.

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of Joseph Roth’s more famous novel, The Radetzky March. What enticed you to readalong with us?

I love readalongs, especially German Literature readalongs. I have participated in many German Literature Month readalongs across the years. I also have wanted to read Joseph Roth’s ‘The Radetzky March’ for a while now. When these two things came together – a German Literature Readalong and Joseph Roth – I couldn’t resist joining.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

I am reading the Michael Hofmann translation. The translation reads quite well. I have loved Michael Hofmann’s translations in the past and I love this one too.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?

I finished reading the first part and the novel is wonderful till now. The edition I am reading has an introduction by Jeremy Paxman and Paxman says this in his introduction –

“The challenge for writers of historical fiction is much more than capturing what things looked like : they have to show readers how the unchanging impulses, lusts and kindnesses of humanity felt in that context. Most historical novels are paper cups full of coloured water made from instant granules. Joseph Roth is a strong black coffee on a Viennese sidewalk.”

I got hooked into the book from that passage itself. I am loving Joseph Roth’s strong black coffee on a Viennese sidewalk.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title. Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

I liked those first lines. It shows the diversity of the Austrian empire, by stating that the main character was Slovene in origin. It also shows that simple people could gain glory by performing great deeds during those times, by describing that Trotta was ennobled. It also shows a distinctive personality trait of Trotta – that he is uncomfortable with fame and prefers to be anonymous. All these things are hinted at in the first few lines and we want to find out more.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”. That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?

I admired what the hero of Solferino tried to do – removing the exaggerated story of the war from the textbook and making it more accurate. It sounds like nitpicking and most people wouldn’t do that, but it showed his scrupulous honesty that he even went to the extent of meeting the emperor in the service of truth. It is hard to imagine what were the ramifications for his descendants – if the hero of Solferino had continued in the army, he would have risen to a high position, his wife would have had a more comfortable life and his descendants would have had it easier. But I also liked the fact that, inspite of Baron Trotta leaving the army, the imperial favour continued to be bestowed on his family for generations – it showed the Emperor in good light.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military. Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?

Carl Josef joins the military because it was probably the in-thing to do those days. It was probably either that or the civil service. And with long decades of peace and with soldiers enjoying a more comfortable lifestyle than civilians, it was probably a preferred career. Is Carl Josef’s life honourable? From the perspective of his era, it seems to be. It is hard to define what honourable means outside the context of a specific time and a specific geography or culture. It means different things in different times and different contexts. It wouldn’t be proper to assess whether Carl Josef’s life was honourable when looking at it through 21st century eyes. But from the perspective of his time, it seems to be. It is not very clear whether Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Demant is platonic or romantic. It feels like Joseph Roth purposefully left that to the reader’s imagination, unlike Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Slama, which is clearly romantic. I personally think, based on what was described in the book, that Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Demant was innocent.

Strauss’s Radetzky March is heard almost as a refrain throughout this section. What is the significance of that?

Maybe it means that time marches on, we all march to its beat, and war is never far away. I am looking forward to Roth telling us more about how the Radetzky March is related to the story.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance. How does Roth critique these?

The military code of honour – I understand why it was there at that time, but when two good people die because of it, it feels silly. It would have been easy to apologize, shake hands, have a drink, slap each other on their backs, and make up. Two good people dying for nothing is a real shame and waste. I loved the way Roth describes it but doesn’t pass judgement on it – he ‘shows’ but doesn’t ‘tell’ and lets us make up our own minds. I also liked the way the difference in life, is portrayed, between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the normal person. When Carl Josef has an affair with Frau Slama, and later she dies and her husband Sergeant Slama discovers it, he doesn’t do anything but just returns the letters that Carl Josef wrote to Slama’s wife. But when there is a suspicion of a clandestine relationship between Carl Josef and Frau Demant, it leads to a duel and two people get killed. It appears that during that time, words like code and honour applied to the privileged class and not to the others. Is that a good or a bad thing? It is hard to tell. On one side two people from the officers’ class are dead because the code of honour was applied. On the other hand, someone like Sergeant Slama can’t do anything when a superior officer has an affair with his wife. He can’t take offence or ask for a duel. He has to just take it lying down. I love the way Roth’s depicts the social order and describes the contrasts between these two incidents.

Set in what was very much a man’s world, what do you think of the way Roth portrays the female characters?

That is a very interesting thing about the book. There were very few female characters in the first part. I loved both Frau Slama and Frau Demant, but they had very less screentime. I also loved the depiction of the wife of the hero of Solferino, though she makes only a fleeting experience. There is also Frau Resi Horvath who runs a brothel, who seems to be a fascinating character, but she also makes only a fleeting appearance. I hope there is a female lead in the second part of the book.

Do you have any further comments on this section?

My most favourite passage from the first part of the book was this :

“In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in this book took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap. When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.”

I think it is a beautiful ode to the central theme of the book and a poignant poem to a lost world.

I also loved the way the father-child relationship is depicted throughout the story. There is the original Baron Trotta, the hero of Solferino, whose father doesn’t talk much and when he does, tries to undermine his son’s achievements. Then there is Baron Trotta himself, who is a nicer father, but still emotionally distant from his son. Then there is Franz, the original Baron’s son, who though a tough parent, is able to understand his son better and gives him emotional support through his letters and gives him good advice. I loved the way how Roth describes, how fathers change across generations, from being distant and aloof and not capable of real affection, to being able to give emotional support to their children. It was quite fascinating to read.

I can’t wait to read the second part of the book now!

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When I was wondering which book to read next, Paul Johnson’s biography of Napoleon leapt at me. I have had this book for years, and so I thought maybe it was time to read it.

There is good news and bad news. The good news first.

Paul Johnson’s book narrates the story of Napoleon from the time he was born to his last days when he was imprisoned by the British in the island of St.Helena. It describes how he was lucky at times (for example, the island he was born, Corsica, used to be a part of Genoa, but in the year before he was born, Genoa gave away the island to France, and so by chronological fortune, Napoleon was born a French citizen, which helped him to accomplish great things later), but how at other times he accomplished great things because of his talent, ability, hardwork and because he was a man of action and took initiative, without waiting for things to happen. The book charts his meteoric rise from being a lieutenant in the French army, to becoming a captain, and later heading the army itself. By the time he was thirty five years old, he had been coronated the Emperor of France. It is so amazing to read and so hard to believe. There is a description of many of the battles that Napoleon fought and the book touches on how brilliant a general he was in the battlefield. There is a description of his Egyptian campaign and how the history of Ancient Egypt was rediscovered by the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone. There is also a chapter towards the end, on the Battle of Waterloo, which he lost. There are quotes shared in the book by different people – his companions during his journey, writers, his rivals and other contemporaries. Paul Johnson’s prose is spare and breezy, and the pages fly at a rollicking pace. Paul Johnson is also honest and doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions. I also love the book’s cover – it is beautiful, isn’t it?

That is the good news. Now for the bad news.

The book has all the above nice things. But…

I can see you smiling now ☺️ Because you are probably remembering what Jon Snow says to his sister Sansa in ‘Game of Thrones’ – “What did father use to say? Everything before the word “but” is horse shit.” And that is true ☺️

One of the biggest problems I had with Paul Johnson’s book is that it is critical of everything about Napoleon from the first page. There is venom dripping from every page. For example, at the beginning, he says that Napoleon’s birthplace Corsica was “poor, wild, neglected, exploited, politically and economically insignificant.” On its own, this sentence looks like it is stating the facts, but when we read the surrounding sentences, we feel that Johnson implies that Napoleon didn’t have class and pedigree because he was born here and he just got lucky. The book continues in the same vein throughout. When Johnson describes how Napoleon and his army won battles, he either says that it was because Napoleon believed in action as he was impatient or because he had unlimited resources at his disposal. But when Napoleon lost a battle, Johnson goes on the praise the opponent. When Napoleon escapes from the clutches of his enemies, he got lucky, but when he got caught, it was because his enemies were brilliant. When Napoleon didn’t believe in privilege, but believed in merit, and he promoted people accordingly, Johnson says that this was not Napoleon’s original idea, or he shouldn’t be given credit for it. When describing how Napoleon’s team discovered the Rosetta Stone and deciphered it, Johnson adds a corollary that the Rosetta Stone was later captured by the British, making it seem as if that was the more important fact, and by doing so, trying to devalue one of most of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time. When someone criticizes Napoleon, Johnson looks at them favourably, but when someone says nice things about Napoleon, Johnson mocks him. Most of the battles which Napoleon won are given cursory treatment, but the Battle of Waterloo, which he lost, gets a whole chapter. Johnson even goes to the extent of saying that if Napoleon had lived in the 20th century he would have been prosecuted for his crimes against humanity by an international war tribunal and given the death penalty. He mocks the fact that Napoleon has become a French national hero now and he blames the French government for building a memorial for him. The whole book would have been comic, if it wasn’t tragic, as a biography and as a work of history.

While reading the book, I had to read ‘against the grain’, while reading every sentence, every passage, every page. For example, when Johnson mocks Corsica, I had to tell myself that someone who came from such a humble background accomplished great things and that is inspiring. When Johnson says that Napoleon didn’t have any principles but was an opportunist because he was an atheist but he also wasn’t against religion (Johnson uses this opportunist argument again and again in different contexts), I read against the grain and took it as evidence of Napoleon’s liberal attitude, that he didn’t believe in religion but he also respected people who did. It was hard for me to read the book, because I couldn’t let my guard down and trust the author – I had to separate the facts he stated from the analysis he described and I had to use the facts and come to my own conclusion. Reading against the grain was a lot of hardwork and it made me mentally tired.

The blurb at the back of the book describes it as an unsentimental, unromantic biography of Napoleon. I laughed when I read that. Because this book is neither of that. It is a biased biography dripping with pure venom on every page – it reads like British propaganda against the French. Paul Johnson has written many books which have become bestsellers, including a history of Christianity and a history of the Jewish people and a history of the twentieth century. I don’t know whether they are similarly biased. I have read a few British historians during my time, including John Keay, J.M.Roberts, Arnold Toynbee, Bamber Gascoigne, Simon Winchester, H.G.Wells, E.H.Carr, Norman Davies and have loved them all. British historians have a long reputation of sticking to the facts and trying to give objective analysis of historical events, though they might lean towards the British point of view. Paul Johnson’s book is an insult to all these wonderful historians and their work.

As a palate cleanser, I have to now read a biography of Napoleon by a French historian, maybe by Georges Lefebvre. Hopefully, that is better.

Many of my friends, fellow book readers, tell me that I always say nice things about every book I read, and I never have a bad thing to say about a book. Well, as they say, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven“. I think the time has finally arrived for me to say not-so-nice things about a book, to write a negative review. This is that one ☺️

Have you read Paul Johnson’s biography of Napoleon? What do you think about it?

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Hamlet‘ is the most popular Shakespeare play in my home. My mother used to tell Hamlet’s story to me and my sister when we were young. I used to ask her to tell us this story again and again. I don’t know how my mother discovered the story of Hamlet and where she first heard it or read it. Maybe she studied it in school. I don’t think my mother knew about the Laurence Olivier film adaptation of ‘Hamlet‘, because when I discovered it years later after growing up, I got the DVD and watched it with her. It is interesting though, that the story that my mother told was closer to the Laurence Olivier version and the ending in both the stories is the same. In the actual play, there are more events which happen in the end.

You probably know Hamlet’s story, but if you don’t, here is a brief summary. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. His father, who is also called Hamlet (it used to be a famous quiz question – What is the name of Hamlet’s father?), has recently passed and his mother marries his uncle, his father’s brother Claudius, and Claudius is now king. Hamlet is uncomfortable with the whole situation and is very unhappy with the haste with which his mother married his uncle. Hamlet’s friend Horatio and some of the guards in the castle spot an apparition in the middle of the night. It looks like the dead king. They alert Hamlet to it. Hamlet joins them the next night. The apparition appears again. It asks Hamlet alone to follow in its footsteps. When they move to a private part of the castle, the ghost tells Hamlet that it is the dead king’s spirit. It also tells Hamlet that the king didn’t die of natural causes but his brother Claudius killed him. The ghost asks Hamlet to take revenge. What happens after this? Does Hamlet take revenge? Are his plans foiled by his uncle, the new king? What happens to his mother? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

The first thing I loved about ‘Hamlet‘ is Shakespeare’s prose. It sizzles in every page! It is beautiful, poetic, gorgeous, lush. It is pure pleasure to read. We don’t want to rush through the pages, but we want to savour every sentence, every word, and sometimes read a particular sentence or passage again and again. There was a time when I used to get intimidated by Shakespeare’s prose. I could understand specific lines, phrases and passages, but if I tried reading a few pages, together, it was hard to understand. It was written in Elizabethan, after all. But all that has changed now. I can understand better now and follow Elizabethan English as if it is spoken in my own time. As it is said in Ecclesiastes 3 : 1–8 :

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”

I think this is my time to read Shakespeare properly, from the beginning to the end, and enjoy the Bard’s prose and appreciate its beauty.

It is also delightful and lots of fun to spot all the famous lines and quotes, and the words Shakespeare invented, as they leap out of the page – words and phrases like ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be‘, ‘Murder most foul‘, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy‘, ‘Brevity is the soul of wit‘, ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks‘, and the famous ‘method to his madness‘ phrase, ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t‘. There is, of course, that most famous line of all, probably the most famous Shakespearean line ever, which starts as ‘To be or not to be, that is the question‘. The monologue that follows that is as stirring and as inspiring as it was when I read it the first time. It is one of the greatest monologues ever written and spoken. It still gives me goosebumps.

I read recently in another book (if you are curious, it is in ‘On Cricket’ by Mike Brearley), this passage about Mozart –

“I read recently of Mozart’s support for democracy, not in politics itself, but in the music of his operas. How so? Mozart gave his minor parts complex characters, with complex music. They are not just pawns, either in the plot (content) or in the music they are given to sing (their form). He shifted music away from a hierarchical tradition. Rather than there being a totally dominant top line, with others in unison beneath it, supplementing, harmonizing, fitting in, in short, serving the dominant tune, Mozart gave each instrument and voice a unique line of its own.”

This holds true for Shakespeare too. He is quite democratic too because he gives beautiful lines to all characters, lines which are unique to their personalities. He doesn’t differentiate between them – whether they are major or minor, young or old, good or bad. One of my favourite passages was spoken by Polonius, the father of Ophelia and Laertes, when he gives advice to his son who is leaving for a distant land, to work and live there. It is so beautiful and inspiring. It goes like this.

“There – my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!”

I used to hate Polonius because I felt that he was trying to breakup Hamlet and Ophelia, but after reading these lines, and other things he says (he also speaks the ‘method to his madness‘ line and also says ‘Brevity is the soul of wit‘), I realize there is more to him than meets the eye.

Even more interesting are the lines that the villain of the story, Claudius, speaks. He speaks one of my favourite Shakespearean lines ever –

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions.”

I first heard this line when my English professor from college quoted it and it moved me so much that it has been seared in my memory. I have quoted it to so many friends since. I always thought that it was a line from ‘King Lear‘. I was very surprised to discover that it was from ‘Hamlet’. And surprise, surprise, it is spoken by Claudius! Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother follows this up later with lines which express a similar sentiment –

“One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,
So fast they follow.”

Claudius’ insightful lines don’t end here. In another place he shares his thoughts on justice and the law. It goes like this –

“In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law.”

It made me remember one of my favourite lines on justice and law from a book called ‘A Frolic of His Own‘ by William Gaddis

“Justice? – You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”

It is one of the most incredibly powerful first lines in literature, and I wonder whether Gaddis was inspired by Shakespeare.

There is lots of stuff in Shakespeare’s play which is new to me, because they were not there in my mother’s version nor in Laurence Olivier’s version. For example, there are two characters called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who come in many scenes. I don’t remember them at all. In the end, one of the characters says “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” There is a play and a movie with this exact same title. I want to watch them and find out how they are connected to Shakespeare’s play. Also, in the play, there is a scene where Hamlet is going by ship to England and the ship is attacked by pirates and many things happen after that. We don’t view these scenes first hand, but they are narrated In a letter written by Hamlet. I can’t remember any of this. Also, in the story I am familiar with, Hamlet dies in the end and the play is over. In Shakespeare’s original version, there are more things happening after that. In the essays which are included in the edition of the play I read, the editors talk about the different versions of ‘Hamlet’ and how some scenes in one version are not there in another version, and how some of the film adaptations have eliminated scenes involving some of the minor characters, and how the ‘complete’ version of the play as presented in this book was never enacted during Shakespeare’s times. It was very fascinating to read.

One of my favourite parts of the book is the scene in which Hamlet gives advice to the actors who are enacting a play in Elsinore castle. I was so inspired by this scene, that once I even wrote a story based on it. Those lines go like this –

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

A little while later, Hamlet’s advice continues like this –

“Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o’erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.”

For a tragic story, there are many cool, stylish and humorous dialogues with Shakespearean puns in the play. For example, this one :

Polonius : “What do you read, my lord?”
Hamlet : “Words, words, words.”
Polonius : “What is the matter, my lord?”
Hamlet : “Between who?”
Polonius : “I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.”

And this one :

Polonius : “My honorable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.”
Hamlet : “You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal…”

And this one :

Guildenstern : “Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.”
Hamlet : “Sir, a whole history.”

And this one :

Rosencrantz : “What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?”
Hamlet : “Compounded it with dust, whereto ’tis kin.”

And a page later :

Rosencrantz : “My lord, you must tell us where the body is and go with us to the King.”
Hamlet : “The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing –”
Guildenstern : “A thing, my lord?”
Hamlet : “Of nothing.”

Towards the end of the play, Horatio speaks these legendary, moving lines –

“Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Those lines always make me cry. They made me cry this time too.

The edition of the book I read has a beautiful, insightful introduction (I read it in the end, because it was an analysis of the play), two essays on how ‘Hamlet’ has been performed on the stage and adapted for the screen, the various text versions of ‘Hamlet’ and the differences between them, and an essay on the sources from which Shakespeare borrowed the story of his play. There is an excerpt from one of the sources and it was very fascinating and interesting to read. Shakespeare’s version is, of course, better. As the editor says in the essay :

“From the extensive similarities between ‘Hamlet’ and this German play, we can see that Shakespeare inherited his narrative material almost intact, though in a jumble and so pitifully mangled that the modern reader can only laugh at the contrast. No source study in Shakespeare reveals so clearly the extent of Shakespeare’s wholesale borrowing of plot, and the incredible transformation he achieved in reordering his materials.”

There are many film adaptations of ‘Hamlet‘. I have seen only one, the 1948 version, directed by Laurence Olivier. It is beautiful and brilliant and though it cuts out some of the minor characters and the scenes in which they appear, it is mostly faithful to Shakespeare’s original. It was the first Shakespeare film adaptation to win an Oscar and for a long time it was the only one. Here is the link to the ‘To be or not to be‘ monologue from the film, enacted by the peerless Laurence Olivier.

One of my friends, who majored in film studies, tells me that there is a Russian film adaptation of ‘Hamlet‘, in which the script was translated to Russian by Boris Pasternak and the film was directed by Grigori Kozintsev, and this version is even better than the Laurence Olivier version. It is hard for me to be believe that there is a film adaptation of ‘Hamlet‘ which is better than Laurence Olivier’s. But I trust my friend and hope to watch Grigori Kozintsev’s version sometime.

There is a contemporary novel version of ‘Hamlet‘. It is called ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle‘. It is the debut novel of David Wroblewski. It is beautiful and it is one of my favourites. If you like a reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays set in the contemporary era, this is a great book to read.

So, that’s it. That’s the end of my long rambling on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet‘ ☺️ Hope you liked it.

Have you read ‘Hamlet‘? Have you watched it enacted on the stage? Which is your favourite film adaptation of this play?

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When I was wondering which book to read next, James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton leapt at me. At less than 200 pages, it wasn’t too long, and so I read it in a couple of days.

This book covers all the important events in Isaac Newton’s life, starting from his birth in a farm, when his father was no more, how he ended up in school, how he went to Cambridge University, how his career progressed from there, how he discovered the law of gravitation and the three laws of motion, how he invented Calculus, his spats with famous scientists of his time including Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz, how he became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and later became a member of the Royal Society, how he later got the King’s patronage and headed the Mint, and what happened after that.

James Gleick’s style is natural and breezy and the book moves at an easy pace. It is very accessible to readers who find books on science challenging or who avoid such books. If I remember right, there is not a single equation in the book. I loved the depiction of the intellectual fights that Isaac Newton had with Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz. My teenage self hated Robert Hooke and backed Newton in the first fight. But my teenage self also backed Leibniz against Newton in the second fight 😁 (Mostly because Leibniz’ system of Calculus is what we use now, because it is far superior to Newton’s system, which is cumbersome.) After reading this book now, I find my older and more mature self backing Newton in both the disputes. I don’t know whether it is because Newton was the aggrieved party in both the disputes, or whether it is because the book is biased and leans towards Newton. I need to read more on this. The book also doesn’t shy away from some of the darker sides of Newton, like when he becomes the head of the Royal Society, and he runs it like an autocrat.

An interesting thing in the book which I couldn’t stop thinking about was Newton’s relationship with his mother. When Newton was born his father was no more and his mother was a widow. When he was three years old, his mother married a rich man. This rich man wanted a wife, but didn’t want an add-on kid. So according to the arrangements made, Newton was left with his grandmother who brought him up, while his mother went to live with her new husband. Years later, when Newton was ten years old, the rich man died, and Newton’s mother returned back. She was wealthy now as she had inherited her husband’s money. The first thing she did after coming back was send Newton to school which was in a nearby town. Newton ended up boarding with the apothecary in that town and worked part-time there, while in school. When Newton was sixteen, his mother summoned him back home, and asked him to get started on his work as a farmer. Newton hated farm-related work and did badly. Then his mother’s brother stepped in and helped Newton get into Cambridge. Even there, Newton’s mother refused to sponsor Newton’s education properly – he joined as a student in the lowest category. The students in this category “earned their keep by menial service to other students, running errands, waiting on them at meals, and eating their leftovers”. Later, it appears that Newton and his mother kept up a correspondence which was polite and familial, and when his mother suffered from a serious illness, Newton left his work and came back home, and stayed with her till the end. It is a very interesting story of a family. Newton’s mother doesn’t come through with flying colours at all, in that story, because she avoided taking care of him when he was a child, but tried to make him take up responsibility and become a farmer when he became a teenager. This probably led to Newton being introverted, solitary and reclusive all his life – he was never attracted to women, he never married, and he never had close friends, except maybe one or two people in his later life. But his mother also sent him to school and later sent him to Cambridge. If she hadn’t done that, Newton would have stayed in the farm and would have been a careless, below-average farmer. One of the greatest scientists of all time would have been lost in the depths of an English farm. So was Newton’s mother a good parent or a bad parent? What do you think?

One of the amazing things that we discover through the book is that Isaac Newton was an ordinary person with respect to socio-economic circumstances. His father was an illiterate farmer. He was expected to become a farmer too. He didn’t have access to books the way we do. Even when he joined Cambridge, he had one notebook. In those days, paper was valuable, because it was probably handmade, and it was a luxury, if you had one notebook. This was the world that the young Isaac Newton lived in. Living in this world, Newton discovered gravity and invented the beautiful, complex field of Calculus. Calculus was so far ahead of its time that most people didn’t understand it. It is a challenging subject even today, nearly 350 years later – I struggled with Calculus when I first encountered it. As James Gleick describes at the beginning of the book – “I don’t know what I may seem to the world, ” Newton said before he died, “but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” An evocative simile, much quoted in the centuries that followed, but Newton never played in the seashore, boy or man. Born in a remote country village, the son of an illiterate farmer, he lived in an island nation and explained how the moon and the sun tug at the seas to create tides, but he probably never set eyes on the ocean. He understood the sea by abstraction and computation.” It is amazing how someone who had so little could accomplish so much. It is so inspiring. It offers hope for the rest of us – that we don’t need so much. We need just one or two fresh notebooks, some pens and pencils, some textbooks, some solitude and quiet, lots of intellectual curiosity and passion, and an inclination to work hard. If we have this, we can accomplish one or two things. I get goosebumps just thinking about this.

I loved James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton. It is written in spare and breezy prose, the technical content is not too challenging, and the book is very accessible for a general reader.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Cathy Rentzenbrink’sA Manual of Heartache‘ through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) favourite books post. I read it yesterday in one breath.

Cathy Rentzenbrink lost her brother when she was a teenager and she grieved for years and was depressed too. When she came out of it, she wrote her memoir about her experience called ‘The Last Act of Love‘. When people asked her whether they could give her memoir to loved ones who were grieving or who were depressed and whether it would help them cope with their grief and depression (or whether it would sink them more into a deeper spiral of grief and depression), Cathy Rentzenbrink decided to write a second book which offered readers advice on how to help loved ones who are grieving and how to cope with grief and depression and tough situations themselves. This is that book.

Cathy Rentzenbrink describes her book, beautifully, like this –

“I think of this book as a verbal cuddle, or a loving message in a bottle – tossed into the sea to wash up at the feet of someone in need…This is my far from perfect guide on how to be alive in this cruel but beautiful world.”

Cathy Rentzenbrink starts the book by describing what kind of unpleasant situations can happen in one’s life, leading to heartbreak and heartache and grief and depression. She differentiates between heartbreak and heartache thus :

“Perhaps heartbreak is what happens on impact, and heartache is what we are left with as time passes, once the dust settles, when we are able to look up and around us but are still shrouded in sadness.”

She describes such heartbreak inducing events, as grenades which explode in our lives. She describes what happens after the grenade explodes :

“That’s what the grenade moment does. It separates the old life from the new and there will forever be a divide. The blade has come down. Life as we knew it has been detached, truncated. What lies on the other side is both unknowable and unthinkable.”

But, she also offers a glimpse into the future, for those of us who have walked into a grenade explosion.

“There is a world on the other side of the guillotine. It’s not the one you know and the undamaged version of you is lost in time. But there is a life to explore and a new version of you is waiting to walk into it.”

In the initial chapters Cathy Rentzenbrink describes how we can help our loved ones who have had a heartbreak. One of the things she says, which I loved, was that we should avoid saying stuff like ‘Everything happens for a reason‘, or ‘Time is a great healer‘, or ‘What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger‘, or ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.‘ (She expands a little more on ‘Time being a great healer‘ – “I’ve never understood the notion of time being a great healer, because all I ever tried to do was grit my teeth and wait for time to pass or try to distract myself from it, but I missed the point. Time itself doesn’t have magic properties; it’s what you do with the time that matters.“) Because listening to these things doesn’t improve the emotional condition of the person who is grieving. She says that a better way of making loved ones feel better is to just be present for them, offer them unlimited kindness, and listen to them when they talk. I think this is one of the most beautiful pieces of advice given in the book and this is one of my favourite parts of the book.

In the rest of the book Cathy Rentzenbrink describes what we can do when we are grieving or are depressed ourselves. She describes how we can accept grief, how we can cope with it and feel better, how we can chase away depressive thoughts and invite happy thoughts, how we can keep a gratitude journal to make us feel better, how small acts of love and kindness help us in small but significant ways, how we can change unhappy thoughts to happy ones, how to cope with the fear of dying, how reading and writing can make us happier and help us cope with emotionally tough situations.

The advice that Cathy Rentzenbrink offers is practical and easy to follow, and if we put some thought, we can figure it out ourselves. But it is nice to see all of this insightful advice, together, inside in this slim book.

I have seen posts by friends and readers asking for book recommendations which will help a loved one cope with grief, loss, and depression. I was always at a loss when I saw those posts. Now, I think I have found the perfect book which might help them. This is that book.

Have you read Cathy Rentzenbrink’sA Manual for Heartache‘? What do you think about it?

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