Monthly Archives: August 2013

69% done with A Storm of Swords

Sometimes it’s just the small details that I love about this story, be it a door that turns into a mouth with a warm tear, or a man fighting a piked horseman outside a city wall, or the hot, stuffy air in a litter as a man and wife ride through a city. Martin takes enormous care to bring these details into focus to tell the tale and the effect is that it makes the more fantastical bits then seem plausible.

65% done with A Storm of Swords

The image of the head of a direwolf sewn onto the headless corpse of the king you just killed is so brutal that I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some historical precedence for something similar.

Going all the way back to the very beginning of the very first book, Martin has never placed the characters in an truly safe and happy environment. Most stories have a ‘heaven’ (like The Shire); there’s no peace here.

42% done with A Storm of Swords

Martin raises a tricky theological paradox. A ‘good’ person is one who turns the other cheek and forgives his enemies. This ‘good’ person is then rewarded with the kingdom of heaven because he’s not gonna last long in this world. A ‘sinner’, however, goes to bed every night reciting the names of her enemies to vow revenge. And perhaps she’ll get it too; but will she go to hell just for vengeance?

35% done with A Storm of Swords

Unless you’re Tolstoy, writing a book that’s over 1000 pages long (longer still since this is a series of massive books) even a good writer is gonna have a stinker of a scene now and again.

The whole chapter of Danny buying the slaves had me just wanting to get to the inevitable scene where she’d use the army against the slavers and left me wondering why nobody had ever pulled that ‘trick’ before.

28% done with A Storm of Swords

I love how we sometimes only learn about a character’s motivations until the very last sentence of a chapter. Here, Arya, in the care of Lady Smallwood for the evening, is forced to wear a dress, then after ripping it when she fights with Gendry, she’s forced to take another bath and wear another dress. Only as Arya is riding away, in boys clothes, do we learn Smallwood lost her son when he was only 7.

12% done with A Storm of Swords

I think the reason why this series has grown exponentially in size from just 3 books to a planned 7 is that Martin stays true to the characters and lets them lead the story where ever it might go. Of course this means the story will then go off in unforeseen directions, but that’s the appeal here because if the author doesn’t know where a character may wind up from day to day, then neither will we.

4% done with A Storm of Swords

Cat never gets enough credit in the book (or even the show); she’s the strongest and toughest out of all of them except for Jamie. I love that duality between them, too. She’s the moral ‘good’ and he’s the moral ‘bad’, but they’re two sides of the same coin.

I can’t honestly figure out why I never kept reading after book 2. I must have the dumbs; I love these books.

13% done with JR

I’m giving this one up. I hate to give up on a book, but this novel is going nowhere that I wish to tag along with. Besides, if I’m dreading picking up a book to read then that’s a good indicator that I should just stop.

I give up.

13% done with JR

What I’m having a difficult time with is that Gaddis keeps writing the conversations as these fragments where everyone is half hearing what the other person says or they all talk over each other making it hard to get into any regular flow, such as a stream of consciousness allows for.

I’m also wary of Gaddis being too adolescent with the material, but we’ll see.

8% done with JR

I wasn’t expecting this book to be so funny.

So far it reads like a cross between a Robert Altman film based on a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. Breathless scenes of chaos fade into an equally chaotic scene of ‘very important people’ discussing things they don’t understand. Meanwhile a music teacher is trying to get 6th graders to perform Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Replace TV with the internet and it’s set today.

Brideshead Revisited: Read from July 31 to August 08, 2013

Brideshead Revisited is a beautifully written book about very ugly people. In fact, by the end of the novel I was actually grateful that Hitler was just off-stage, sharpening The Wehrmacht and readying the iron bombs for dropping on all these self-centered, self-indulgent, wearisome British zombies.

Structurally the novel is perfect and if we were ever to wake up one sunny morning mysteriously conferred by God with the gift of being an editor of literature, Brideshead Revisited would be the new War and Peace. Everything from the wonderful framing of the novel with Charles ‘revisiting’ the estate, to the beautiful language Waugh writes so effortlessly in, to even the subject matter of the ending of the British aristocracy – it’s all quite ‘perfect’.

Trouble is, (nearly) everyone in the novel is a priggish snob, a bitter, hateful gossip, a languid zombie of pre-war ‘British-ness’, a dying relic of a hemorrhaging Empire, and all around a collection of nasty specimens exhibiting the worst of privileged humanity. Worse still, the main character, Charles, floats about through life with a detached aire that would make a ghost jealous.

In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë managed to write at great length how people can be cruel and nasty and wicked to each other and yet by the end of her masterpiece we loved everyone (even if there was a sense of Stockholm Syndrome to it all). Here, Waugh does not endear the characters to us in any way – we do not care much about them by the end any more than we began the novel with. They change very little.

In Remains Of The Day, Kazuo Ishiguro gave us a similar setting of England on the verge of war with Hitler and an old manor home coming to terms with the new world order. Yet where Ishiguro manages to make a stuffy, detached, brutally professional and dedicated main character (Mr. Stevens) and his master, the naive and member of the old guarde Lord Darlington, Waugh in this novel just shows us how awful these people all are – how out of touch, how insulated they were and how lucky we all are to have had Hitler drop all his bombs on them for half a decade.

Not that showing us the bad side of humanity is a bad thing and I most certainly do not believe art needs to be life-affirming and every novel needs to be populated with a Tolstoy’s ‘Levin’, however, when we have nothing to sympathize with, not even a shred of decency, then we run the risk of not caring anymore what the author’s intent was (to show the final decay of British upper-class) and just keep turning the pages because the language is beautiful and hoping someone gets a bomb dropped on their head.

Not that it’s all terrible. Sebastian verges on becoming a wonderful character, but he’s under utilized and Waugh seems to be counting on the fact that we’ll all just be smart enough to see how Sebastian just wants to have fun and not be around miserable people all day long (his family). Yet by the end we have become Sebastian – drunk with Waugh’s language and twisted up on the doorstep of a North African monastery in a puddle of our own urine and vomit, the faint flicker of life somewhere in our out-of-focus eyes that lets the monks know we’re not quite dead yet and that they should attempt to kindly revive our stupor.

Anyway, Sebastian is written out of the book just past the half-way point and isn’t brought up enough again for us to care really what ever may have actually come of him. I think Waugh just forgot to follow the thread of Sebastian being the only likable character in the novel and decided to see how far he could depress the reader.

I might have been able to forgive Waugh a bit more had he been a bit more on-the-nose with his theme of class and ‘caste’, but he even wrote the modern equivalent of an every-man, Hooper, as a dolt. By the end we just have Charles as a middle manager in the Army, dissatisfied and at the same time almost happy that he, partially, ruined an entire family’s life.

Oh, sure, it’s not a bad thing that these types of people are no longer around. The fall of this class of British society is no bad thing for humanity and it serves as a reminder to the rest of us ‘plebs’ how much contempt the upper-classes truly and surely have for us living in the gutter of Rome. We should never forget that there are few noble Levin’s and Pierre’s in the world because most of the well-to-do are the banks in Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ or the cheat who tries to blame a crime on a poor prostitute such as in ‘Crime in Punishment’. The real world is full of contemptible characters who are glad they ‘got theirs’ and will make damn sure you don’t see any of it and want you to just go away and not muck up the pretty scenery with your dirty, filthy, unwashed, and unclean odors.

And maybe I wanted Waugh to just go all the way – maybe I wanted him to side with the upper classes and not leave us with the final note of gleeful revenge at seeing the end come so painfully to those who deserved it. Maybe if Waugh had been full on conservative and not hinted at the popular liberalness I keep harping on about, then I would have not felt so terrible about all this and could pass it off as a ‘Ayn Rand-ian’ warning to the well read about how the rich and conservative want to rule the world.

Alas, that’s not to be. Waugh leaves us with an unclear image of his true intent, paints an ugly picture with beautiful paint, and manages to just depress the hell out of me.

Finally, for as beautifully written as the novel is, I already feel like I’ve forgotten most of it. There is such a fleetingness to the whole affair, a lightness to the events of the story that I had a hard time feeling anything that happened was even important. Even the scene on the ship, with its humor, felt empty and shallow.

Maybe what the book lacked, a book that talked so much about religion, lacked a soul. There was no heart in any of it, just indifference, decay, and unimportance in a world that was quickly to become very important with bombs, armies, firebombings – a clearing of the old undergrowth and dead brush.

In the end, not the most interesting subject matter, and at best, the whole thing was not as artful as others have managed to be with somewhat similar subject matter. Go read ‘Remains of the Day’, ‘War and Peace’, and ‘Wuthering Heights’ instead.

89% done with Brideshead Revisited

Everyone is so judgmental of everyone else, always sizing each other up, tearing each other down (quietly, and with faux-tact), being cruel with a grimace, that it’s hard not to hate everyone.

Sebastian does come out a bit unscathed, however. He’s such a hopeless case, such a lost drunk child, that he never bothered being cruel to anyone. He’s the only decent one of the bunch. Maybe that’s why Charles loves him?

75% done with Brideshead Revisited

Steadiness and unsteadiness.

this section begins with Sebastian a hopeless drunk living in squalor with a syphilitic German leech / criminal. Charles, however, finds himself through painting, his own hand steady as he documents the decay of the great British manors (and manners). At sea, the few still able to stand lurch and flail about in the storm, barely able to shake hands, a comic image of manners lost.

51% done with Brideshead Revisited

Charles is not a very good person. His enabling and empowering of Sebastian to continue drinking and not face any sort of reality is cruel. Granted there isn’t much he could do – leaving would make things even worse; but still.

I keep going back to Tolstoy and what he wold have done. He would have looked for happiness by simplifying their lives, not escaping into liquor and languor.

16% done with The Long Ships

We’ve now moved into the Ben Hur chapter of the saga where Orm and his friends are taken captive by the Muslims and pressed into service as galley slaves.

Orm is quite the character with a great wit and the plotting of the story is pitch perfect. There is a rhythm to the story that makes it feel like you’re watching a epic film and even visually the story takes you directly to the exotic locations.

I love it!

10% done with The Long Ships

Bengtsson pulls a neat trick in creating his characters – he lets them be defined pretty much by their actions with extremely brief but memorable snippets of dialogue.

There is no psychological realism, the characters are all stock, yet they feel alive anyway. It’s a gripping tale as Pillars Of The Earth and I love the use of starfish as a verb.

42% done with Brideshead Revisited

The well-to-do class that Tolstoy wrote about is a far cry from the related lot Waugh explores. Tolstoy envisioned the rich bettering themselves through selfless acts of charity and hard work and liberal politics, Waugh’s characters see the working class as barely alive and not even deserving of a contemptuous sideways glance.

Sadly, Waugh is closer to how the privileged really feel, though they’d never admit it.

29% done with Brideshead Revisited

‘How good it is to sit in the shade and talk of love.’

There is such a strange presence of decay in every corner of the novel. Even when things seem nice it’s always found out that some bit of art or architecture is a copy, periods and even epochs of history are all jumbled together, people close in age feel generations apart. Everyone is weary and longing for something they don’t know for.

It’s quite beautiful