Category Archives: Reading

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary is one of Hunter S. Thompson’s best books – a novel based in part on his own time as a journalist in Puerto Rico. It’s a great story and this movie should be pretty good too. Also, there will be lots of rum.

‘No guarantee of justice’

The Atlantic is doing a series of five articles in the lead-up to the premier of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, adapted from the work of George R.R. Martin. The first post is by Alyssa Rosenberg and it treads ground well-worn by Adam Serwer of The American Prospect. Nonetheless, Rosenberg captures some of the uniqueness of Martin’s moral universe as distinct from other examples of the fantasy genre:

The cruelty of Game of Thrones, much like that of The Wire, isn’t transformative—it’s revealing. Just as trying to reduce crime by creating a safe zone for drugs will get a good cop fired, there are grave consequences for Arya Stark, the noble girl who steps outside her sphere to challenge her world’s expectations for how girls should spend their time. Conformity is no certain refuge either: In Baltimore, adhering to an agreement earns an informant a beating, while in Westeros, Arya’s sister Sansa learns that lying for a prince won’t keep her safe. And there are terrible consequences for those who see the truth more clearly than others, whether it’s a plot that gets you thrown off the police force in The Wire, or an encounter with an ancient evil that leads others to think you’re mad—and to kill you for it—in Game of Thrones.

The Wire‘s Omar Little might warn us that “It’s all in the game.” The Game of Thrones‘ black sheep nobleman Tyrion Lannister might tell us that “all dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.” But whether in David Simon’s reportage-informed fictional America or in George R.R. Martin’s fantastical realms, on HBO, there is no guarantee of justice.

Rosenberg also puts Game of Thrones in contrast with contemporary fantasy stories like Harry Potter and Twilight (I’ve never read either books and only experienced the Potter movies). Hopefully the HBO series is as faithful to the books as it appears, but I think Rosenberg’s treatment is likely right. It is a brutal world that Martin has created and while there is “no guarantee of justice” in the sense of the good guys winning and the bad guys getting their just desserts, there is most certainly a uniformity of system to the world Martin has created. Things happen because of the course of events which proceeds them, not because we might wish it otherwise and certainly not because Martin obliges himself of deus ex machina to achieve justice.

To put it differently, Martin’s series is incomplete. The fifth of seven books is slated to be released early this summer. I don’t know how the final three books will end. I don’t know if Martin knows either. But to the extent that there may be justice as Rosenberg seeks it, I would expect that it would only come on the full time line of Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire. It may well be the case that things which appear as injustices in the first book lay the groundwork for justice in the seventh.

Regardless, I think the series presents some of the most interesting and compelling narratives in the fantasy world, fueled by the cold realities that life in Martin’s universe is hard for his characters and not everyone is going to get out alive. He  pulls the rug out from under his audience numerous time in A Game of Thrones and I expect the HBO adaption will seek to do the same. Maybe that’s not what people like Rosenberg want (I find it hard to tell if she’s making a normative judgment about the lack of justice in the HBO series). But I’d hope that this series attracts a critical, thoughtful audience like The Wire and not the same crowd that flocks to Twilight films.

Matterhorn

I just finished reading Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It’s a novel about the Vietnam War and the actions of Bravo Company of the fictionalized Twenty-fourth Marines in fictional locations in the real Quang Tri province of Vietnam. It’s a phenomenally well-written book whose characters and story grabbed me in a way I hadn’t experienced in a war novel in a long time. I highly recommend it.

I’ve written a couple posts about the moral reality George R.R. Martin created in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin’s commitment to the rules of his fictional world is strong in the face of any desire for protagonists to win, to avoid suffering, and to survive. Adam Serwer of The American Prospect made the point that Martin’s series is analogous to HBO’s The Wire:

Like The Wire, the impulse to pick heroes and villains gives way to despair over the dumb, arbitrary cruelty of the system all the characters remain subject to. One’s talent for working the system is more important than commitments to abstract principles, and characters who adhere to society’s rules aren’t necessarily good, and those who reject those values altogether aren’t necessarily evil.

One thread that was dominant throughout Marlantes’ novel was the senselessness of violence in the Vietnam War, both on the level of pointless battles fought for useless pieces of land and the absence of any meaning to who died when. In many cases, beyond the absence of meaning from war, the way certain villainous characters (or if not villainous, at least despicable characters) played the systems they lived in, be they the Marine hierarchy or racial, was determinative of who lived and died, who was honored and who was disgraced. Marlantes is incredibly committed to the rules of his story at both of these levels. It makes for a brutal and sad tale, but one that undoubtedly is closer to reality than most you’ll ever read.

A Feast for Crows

As I was getting towards the end of A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin’s fourth book in the series A Song of Ice and Fire, it occurred to me that the next book in the series would have to run concurrent to the fourth and focus back on the key characters from the first three which were completely absent from the narrative in A Feast for Crows. At the start of Martin’s third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, he included a disclaimer that some of the early chapters of the book would chronologically concurrent to the closing chapters of the second book, A Clash of Kings. Given that, it would make sense (though be far larger an endeavor) for the entirety of the fourth and fifth books to overlap. After all, a significant number of the main surviving characters from the first three books – Jon Snow, Bran Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, and Tyrion Lannister – do not have any chapters told from their perspective in A Feast for Crows.

While I was somewhat pleased with my theory of how things would unfold in the next book, I was surprised that Martin laid out his plan in the post-script pretty much to a tee from what I had thought would happen. Martin writes about why he decided to separate the two volumes by characters and not chronology:

The more I thought about that, however, the more I felt that the readers would be better served by a book that told all the story for half the characters, rather than half the story for all the characters. So that’s the route I chose to take.

I think this makes sense, though it was really hard to go through an entire novel with primarily new character perspectives, with no return to the ones who I’d been following for three full books already. That just means I’m anxiously awaiting the release of the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons. Unfortunately it is now over four years overdue. After plowing through the four published books in a bit over a month, I’m looking forward to the completion of the series. I’m just not sure how many years I’ll have to wait for the opportunity to read the end of Martin’s story.

More on ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’

I want to add a quick thought about George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. As the amount of magic increases in his world, notably in the third book, A Storm of Swords, so does the extent to which the moral rules of his universe become flexible and more likely to be broken. The first book, A Game of Thrones, is essentially devoid of magic. Though the world used to have dragons and wizards, these are long gone from the lives of Martin’s characters, with the exception of a couple brief appearances of zombie-like Others. Martin’s world was at first a brutal and violent one, devoid of romantic influence of standard fantasy elements.

But as the story has progressed, so too has the magic. In magic, Martin has found a device that allows some of the cruelty of the world to be mitigated, some of the negative worn off by magical turns. I’m not sure that it rises to the level of deus ex machina, as Martin has build these magical themes into the very beginnings of the story and only now, in his third book, are they starting to dramatically influence the plot. The magic is actually adding a really great dimension to the books, as to this point it remains subtle, but will clearly be a larger factor in how major characters and forces collide.

The sole irony for me is that what made A Game of Thrones so incredible – its rigid moral universe, free of deus ex machina to benefit its heroes – is slipping away through the evolution of Martin’s story, primarily through the addition of magic, which is to say, fantasy. I’m not sure how much I’m complaining, though I’m certainly very watchful of Martin’s consistency following Adam Serwer’s great post on the coming HBO series.

Update:

OK, nevermind. I just read the chapters on Edmure Tully’s wedding in A Storm of Swords. Martin’s world remains as cruel as ever; magic has not tempered it.

A Game of Thrones

Adam Serwer of The American Prospect has a great post looking at the coming HBO series, A Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy novel series by George R.R. Martin. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a really impressive take on the epic fantasy genre. I’ve read the first two books – A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings – of the seven book series (only four of the seven books have been published) and am part way through the third book, A Storm of Swords. Anyway, I wanted to highlight Serwer’s post, which gets at why one should be excited about the coming HBO series.

One of the producers jokingly described it as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth,” but I actually think it’s more like “The Wire in Middle Earth.” After reading the first two books of Martin’s series, I’m very much looking forward to HBO’s adaptation.

Most fantasy writing takes the term literally, painting an alternative universe readers might prefer to dwell in, hence the ab-flex male protagonists and their female companions in armored bikinis. Martin offers no such comfort. The world he creates resembles less a world of magic than a world in which magic has ceased to exist. The lives of the poor are full of toil and famine, the lives of nobles are naught but blood and iron. Honor is suicide, while treachery offers a small hope for survival. Undefeated warriors die from minor wounds becoming infected, cowards quietly flee fields of battle with their lives and honor intact. Martin’s world is populated by some obvious Shakespearean analogues and fantasy archetypes, but the latter ultimately end up subverting type in ways that prove interesting beyond simply defying expectations. Everyone loves Legolas. But what if a child caught Legolas sleeping with his sister and he decided to toss the kid off a cliff to keep him quiet? And so on.

Like The Wire, the impulse to pick heroes and villains gives way to despair over the dumb, arbitrary cruelty of the system all the characters remain subject to. One’s talent for working the system is more important than commitments to abstract principles, and characters who adhere to society’s rules aren’t necessarily good, and those who reject those values altogether aren’t necessarily evil.

Martin has created a bleak fantasy world where there are monstrous deeds and few actual monsters, which is to say, one enough like our own that few of us would want to actually live in it.

The thing that really grabbed me in the first book, A Game of Thrones, was that Martin constructed a world built upon a clear set of moral rules. It is a coherent system that Martin doesn’t take time mucking up after he sets its physics in motion. One of the things that turns me off from a lot of fiction, particularly epic fiction, is the reliance of deus ex machina to preserve heroic rewards. In A Game of Thrones Martin takes no pains to use his authorial powers to save characters from the world they exist in. Heroes die. Villains win. Justice does not prevail. I can’t think of another contemporary author, excepting maybe Brett Easton Ellis, who so pointedly refuses to make everything alright regardless of the trajectory they’ve set their characters on.

Martin continues to preserve his hermetic system in A Clash of Kings, though I do think he slips in a couple points and adds his own power into the system he’d created. I’m not sure how realistic it is in his world for a 10 year old girl to kill grown men and seize castles, while master warlords fall to substantially lesser foes. Martin achieves some of his authorial power through adding more characters and dimensions to his universe, so it’s not entirely fair to blame him for working outside the system entirely, but mostly for changing it in ways that allow what might otherwise be seen as unrealistic or unpredictable. I’m being pretty hard on Martin, but that’s only because I was so impressed by the first volume of his series.

One of the things that I most look forward to with HBO’s interpretation of A Game of Thrones is how they handle the presentation of information. Martin shifts perspective often, with each chapter told from a different character’s perspective. Much of the perspectives that Martin shares with readers are through a character’s internal monologue. Deductions are made, theories are tested, and emotions are hidden. So much of Martin’s books are about the political decisions they must make, which range from palace intrigue to military strategy. Presenting this aspect of A Game of Thrones will be particularly challenging, though I think if Serwer’s analogy to The Wire holds, then HBO will succeed in presenting complexity and depth in such a way to as to garner a dedicated following that includes me.

Reading List

I’m headed to Japan next week for ten days and I’ve got quite a library going on my Kindle app on my iPad and iPhone. I continue to work through Rick Perlstein’s tome on Barry Goldwater, Before the Storm. I’m also just starting Yves Smith’s Econned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism. I just got Matt Taibbi’s new book, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America. I think Econned and Griftopia are going to be the last books I read on the 2008 financial collapse for a while. Lastly, I joined President Obama and Oprah and most other Americans who still read novels and picked up Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I haven’t started it yet, but it will probably be the first thing I aim to complete on my trip to Japan. I’ve read a lot of non-fiction lately and even when reading well-written, fast-paced non-fiction, it’s nice to mix in fiction from time to time.

Kindle vs. iBooks

iBooksKindle

Ever since I got my iPad, I’ve been reading a fair bit through the iBooks app. Though the iTunes store has a really limited selection of books, the picture quality is incredible, so incredible that it actually makes me want to read more. I’ve quietly suffered through the lack of selection in the iTunes store for about six months. While I’ve found it so limited that it’s borderline useless when it comes to finding books I actually want to read, it’s still saved me on a couple trips where I’ve finished my physical book and not wanted to scrounge for a semi-tolerable airport novel.

It wasn’t until this week when I happened to be looking for a book that wasn’t on the iTunes store on Amazon.com that I realized I should give the Kindle for iPad app a try. Amazon offers a free version of the Kindle for iPad, iPhone and Mac (along with other platforms that don’t interest me). The Amazon library of books available for Kindle is orders of magnitude larger than the iTunes library. Amazon is generally slightly cheaper than Apple, too.

But what really makes this for me is that the Kindle syncs reading across up to six devices. I can start reading in the morning on my iPad at home, contine reading on my iPhone while I’m riding the bus to work, then pick up the book again on my Macbook Pro while I’m eating lunch at my desk at work. By contrast, while I can have the iBooks app on both my iPad and iPhone, it doesn’t sync across devices.

I do prefer the interface of iBooks over the Kindle app. The finger swipe page turning in iBooks is a lot slicker and more familiar than the Kindle app. I also like the built-in note, highlight, search and dictionary functions better on iBooks.

I guess I would say that if Apple dramatically ramped up their available catalog for books, while slightly lowering their pricing and adding multi-device syncing, I would prefer it to the Kindle app. But for now, the Kindle app is likely to be my electronic reader app of choice. Syncing and selection are simply too important for defining what an effective alternative to physical books is to be ignored. Hopefully Apple is paying attention and working to improve iBooks to the point where it is really competitive and not just the first choice of company loyalists like myself.

RTW & Books

Travel author Rolf Potts is currently in the midst of a round-the-world trip in which he isn’t carrying a single piece of luggage. The No Baggage Challenge is sponsored by travel clothing company ScotteVest and the travel site BootsnAll. Potts is wearing clothing that is both flexible for the various climates he is visiting, as well as full of pockets that allow him to carry everything needs to make his trip. The blog has become a must read for me, as it’s both well-written and full of very high-level videos from the trip. For background, check out this post about why Rolf is traveling with no luggage and this one explaining how he’s managed to pack for a six week trip with no bags.

As he’s traveling without bags, it’s not surprising that Rolf is forgoing any physical books. I’ve always traveled with books. Reading while I travel is actually one of my favorite things about traveling – as I’m able to devote more attention to what’s in front of me when I’m not at my desk or in an apartment with laptops nearby. Now Rolf is still able to read digital books on his iPod, but his latest video includes an interesting comment about how he’s missing physical books (from 0:56 to 1:22 of the video):

One interesting thing that happened while I was at a safari lodge in South Africa is that I was, I walked past this giant bookshelf full of travel books. And up until that moment I didn’t really miss travel books, but there was something about the physicality of seeing those books and taking them off the shelf that and looking at them and smelling them that made me realize that I missed books, maybe in the physical sense more than the reading sense because I can read books on my iPod. But something about seeing an old school bookshelf sort of got to me.

I can relate to this. I spent 2007 and 2008 working on political campaigns. I was based first in Washington, DC and then Anchorage, Alaska. In both places I was renting furnished apartments month-to-month. Other than my computer and clothes, I had basically nothing of my own where I was living for the better part of two years. I’m a big reader and I did accumulate a pretty respectable stack of books over that time period that moved with me from the District to Alaska, but this was just a small fraction of my library. As time went on, I found myself developing a deep longing to be back in an apartment filled with not just my furniture and artwork, but especially my books. This went from being a slight twinge to, towards the summer of 2008, I’d say a pretty strong nesting desire to be surrounded by the hundreds of books I’d read for work, for pleasure and for education over the last number of years. In many ways, it was the strongest pull towards home that I’d felt in my adult life. Whether the desire to be around my books was a proxy for something larger or the real desire in itself is something I can’t answer, but the phenomenon intrigued me.

I’ve never really traveled without a physical book. On my last trip to the west coast (last week), I went on the plane with only my iPad (and a magazine for the periods of the flight when electronics were prohibited). But beyond the iPad, in my luggage I had a copy of Huey Long’s autobiography, Every Man A King. I’m traveling to New England this weekend and plan to only bring my iPad for reading, so we’ll see how it goes. I have bigger plans to rely on this alone when I go to Japan later this fall, though if I get really adventurous, I may just try going with my iPhone.

One question I have is how usable electronic versions of travel books are – I’ve never used a travel guide on a mobile device, but I have to imagine that they exist and are functional.

Of course, the natural question following Rolf Potts’ experience in South Africa is will I miss physical books if I end up traveling for a week or two without them? I doubt the time frame is long enough to really experience the sort of withdrawal he references above.