Fat Books & Thin Women


Reading Journal!

Iris wrote this great post about reading journals and using our blogs to offer something besides straight reviews of novels. I don’t usually use this blog to do much other than review and post about short stories, but lately I haven’t been so much in the mood to review. To say, many thanks to Iris for reminding me that I can use Fat Books for whatever I like.

My reading lately has been a lot of Albanian history interspersed with comfort reading. I mean the Emily Giffin kick that I was on a few weeks ago, The Two Towers (which I just started rereading), and Sue Grafton. Plenty of Sue Grafton.

When I reread The Fellowship of the Ring last year, I had a hard time thinking of it in terms of anything other than comfort reading. It was such a great book to return to when I was sick (seriously, for like a month straight – that’s what happens when you should go to the doctor but don’t) and working on a huge project (a gazillion spelling bees). The Two Towers is just about the same. Reading the first chapter, I was surprised by how clumsy Tolkien’s writing seemed, but after a couple chapters I had slipped into the rhythm of it. I’d been debating starting on the second book of the George R.R. Martin series, but I’m glad I decided to stick with The Lord of the Rings. Gives me what I wanted out of Martin – that sense of a completely imagined and endless world – but with the added benefit of familiarity. Plus, this means that when I fly home (July 31st! [for good this time!]) I can buy A Clash of Kings in paper.

Reading this article on Nancy Drew’s “father” last week, one thing O’Rourke wrote really struck me – that no reader could ever solve one of the Nancy Drew mysteries. When you hit the end of the novel you could look back and say, “okay, I guess everything fits that solution” – but as you read, there was no way you could take the “clues” Nancy found and turn them into anything meaningful. The Nancy Drew books just aren’t the type of mystery designed so the reader can attempt to solve them as he or she goes along. While I was getting close to the end of Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe, with no clue of what “solution” Kinsey was close to finding, or how the hell she had gotten there, I realized that Grafton’s mysteries have the same problem. I keep reading the Kinsey Millhone books because I’m getting fond of Kinsey’s character, but I’m more passive than I was when reading, say, one of Elizabeth George’s books (as frustrating as her books have become). What “clues” Kinsey deals with aren’t clues of the type that might lead the reader anywhere; we just end up waiting for Kinsey to have a flash of inspiration and tell us how she solved the mystery, going from clueless to closing the case in the last few pages of each novel. This is, actually, kind of frustrating for a reader.

In other news, I have a box of books on Albania and stuff relating to Albania on its way to Tirana. I’ll probably post about some of these things as I read them – expect a lot on Ismail Kadare’s novels – although it occurred to me, as I was looking at the nonexistent comments for my review of Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone and this longread on Albanian blood feuds, that exactly zero people, other than myself, are interested in this stuff.

Also, my Kindle had a baby. If I can pose this question to people who own one of the newest Kindles (which is so small I find myself tempted to buy one when I get home – imagine how easy it would be to use even with just one free hand!), how are you supposed to take notes on the thing? I appreciate how much smaller the Kindle got once Amazon dumped the tiny keyboard, but if I had to laboriously select the letters on the Kindle’s on-screen “keyboard”, one by one, using the up and down button, I would never, never take a note. It seems like giving up on the story that you can mark up an ebook just as easily as a real book. You can’t, which is why I coerced my parents into spending $50 to mail a box of books to me in Albania, rather than reading them on my Kindle.

In the same ereadery vein, The New York Times today ran a piece about digital distractions on tablet devices. The piece falls into the camp of NY Times pieces telling us things we already knew, using a small subject sample, but whatever – the idea of people struggling to read novels or other books on their tablets is both painful and obvious. One of the things I like about my kindle, especially since I’m in Europe and can’t access the internet on it (old timey kindle here), is that there are no distractions. I can’t go online, I can’t learn if I have a new email; I’m just reading. A tablet seems like an appealing thing to have for a subscription to the Times, and to play Angry Birds on, but I can’t imagine reading a novel on one. You?



The women of Game of Thrones

Maybe six months ago, I got pulled out of my Macedonia-induced cultural stupor, introduced to this Game of Thrones phenomenon by a billboard for the HBO show near the Peace Corps office in Skopje. (Yeah, there’s HBO in Macedonia! Just not in my house.) My interest in the series was pretty low, though, because (a) I am not a high fantasy kind of person and (b) I hadn’t read much about the first book of the series except for a review taking a critical look at the roles for women.

But in early July, standing in a Barnes & Noble in Florida with my dad, having already picked out copies of A Visit From the Goon Squad and The Blind Assassin and one other title which clearly means a lot to me, given I’ve forgotten what it was, I picked up Game of Thrones from the massive center display, read the first page. Read the second page, put all my other books down on the floor, and read the prologue as my dad did whatever my dad was doing. (He bought Matterhorn that night. See, good taste in literature runs in the family.)

I usually yell at people for starting reviews (or reflections, in this case) by explaining why they aren’t qualified to write the review they’re writing, but…you know, I have nothing to compare Game of Thrones to, there’s no useful commentary I can make regarding its place in the world of high fantasy, so I’m not even going to pretend. I am just going to write about the women, because I come out so far from that post that introduced me to the series. (I can’t remember who wrote about the women of Game of Thrones – if you know, let me know.) There are plenty of spoilers in here.

Martin’s world is so strongly characterized, so fully described, so elaborately peopled; and the women aren’t left out of this. Some of Martin’s characters can be labeled as types (Cersei: manipulative, cold-hearted bitch) but they’re never defined by those labels, they are always able to act in honest and sometimes surprising (but ultimately believable) ways.

Cersei Lannister, the wife of King Robert of the Seven Kingdoms, is a woman who initially appears to be little more than a woman cuckolding her husband and subscribing to some old time views on the value of pure bloodlines, but reveals herself over the course of the novel to have more power than any of the men around her. By the close of Game of Thrones it’s clear that she’s the one really ruling the Seven Kingdoms, despite her son’s unpredictable actions after being crowned. Not just that but that, without anyone’s knowledge, she has for years been manipulating those around her, sometimes acting without the knowledge of any others, to edge her way into greater power.

Catelyn Stark, wife to Robert Stark of Winterfell (who becomes the King’s Hand early in the novel), likewise reveals herself to have more depth than the woman who first appears, furious that her husband’s bastard son (Jon Snow) is living with the rest of her family at Winterfell. Apart from that slip, though, she turns out to be a wise mother and advisor to her husband, and even her tactical error of taking Tyrion Lannister into captivity is admirable for the sheer ballsiness of the move.

Daenerys Targaryen, a teenager living in exile with her brother Viserys, the only survivors to King Aerys II Targaryen, who was violently replaced on the throne by King Robert. Easily cowed by her brother Viserys early on, forced into a marriage with Khal Drogo of the Dothraki (horseback riders), she gains a sense of self and of leadership after her marriage to Drogo, eventually ordering the execution of Viserys, who has repeatedly offended and threatened her and her husband. Dany is awesome. She is totally the best character in the book. Killing her last family member! Owning dragon eggs! Learning the limits of compassion and killing a woman she earlier rescued, who she blames for the death of her husband! Awesome, Dany, awesome. If Martin kills her off in the next four books I’m going to be so pissed.

Then there’s Arya Stark. Arya, Arya, Arya. Born to be a lady, doesn’t want to be a lady, close with her bastard half-brother Jon Snow, who gives her a sword, “Needle,” allowed by her father to train in dancing, aka the Braavosi method of sword fighting. Arya is like a Tamora Pierce character transplanted into the high fantasy world, running around hearing secrets, finding secret passages, being mistaken for a boy. It’s not clear, when Game of Thrones ends, what’s happened to Arya, but as with Dany…if Martin doesn’t keep her around, I’m going to pitch a fit.

I tend to think of high fantasy as being the realm of dudes. My reluctance to read Game of Thrones was due in large part to this idea (which I’m still not willing to label a misconception, outside of Martin’s world. Tell me if I should). Even the minor female characters in Martin’s world, though, are notable for their strength, like Catelyn Stark’s sister who opts to sequester herself in a mountaintop fortress with her nutty son, threatening to throw prisoners out of doors in the floor. Women may not garner the notice of the men they stand with, but Martin repeatedly points to the ways in which the women of the Seven Kingdoms wield as much, or sometimes more, power than the men surrounding them. I am so psyched to read the rest of this series.

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 16
August 17, 2011, 5:09 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , , , ,

Favorite female character:

When I started reading Tamora Pierce I was in the ninth grade. One of my friends found the first book in Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, the creatively titled Alanna: The First Adventure, read it in about a day, then loaned it to me. I’m not the sort of person who can’t put a book down – I read so many books at one time that I don’t think of a fast read as an indicator of quality – but, dear god, I could not put this book down. I read it during lunch, I read it when I was in the weight room for gym class…I carried this book everywhere I went.

What makes Pierce’s first series, especially for a teenage girl, is the character of Alanna. Here’s a teenage girl who has a dream and goes after it. Disguised as a boy, Alanna trains to be a knight – the first female knight in Tortall for generations – and though she trains hard, it’s never the sole focus of her life. She has friendships, romances, peripheral adventures; she’s an admirable character, one who accepts her gender but not its limitations.

Alanna is the sort of female character I wish we saw more often, not just in young adult fiction but in fiction generally. Katniss Everdeen rivals Alanna, Hermione Granger comes close for using her book smarts to repeatedly save her male friends, but Alanna was the first female character I found who I could identify with so fully. That’s what is remarkable about Pierce’s character: that Alanna is both someone we can recognize and someone we can aspire to be.

Pierce’s female characters are the perfect counterpoint to Twilight‘s Bella and her ilk. Rather than throwing their lives away for a man, or viewing their purpose in life as revolving around a man, Pierce’s characters put men and romance in their place: sometimes central, sometimes shunted to the side in favor of work/war/other stuff. And unlike Bella, who has a vampire baby eat its way out of her belly, Pierce’s characters know what birth control is and how to use it.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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Reread: Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring


As I’ve mentioned on here a few times – it being the only thing I have to write about, apart from how cold it is here* – I’ve been rereading The Fellowship of the Ring. This was one of those rare reads that happened not merely because I wanted to reread the book, but because it felt necessary to do so.

Believe it or not, I’m not going to write a whole post about the trials and tribulations of my life and how they drove me to what’s become a comforting book to me, but that’s pretty much what got me rereading Fellowship. That and how I was constantly humming the soundtrack to the film of The Fellowship, driving insane the volunteer who had to crash at my place for two weeks while we ran semi-final spelling bees around my town. It seemed the only way to quit humming the damn soundtrack would be to either stream the film (which would kill about a third of my December bandwidth) or reread the book, which I already had loaded on my kindle.

I didn’t stop humming the soundtrack, but I did get a few awesome dreams prominently featuring Samwise Gamgee out of it. And the big thing I was looking for, to escape from my dreary existence of running a noble Peace Corps project (and six spelling bees a day for two weeks), was there in force. What’s interesting to me now that I’ve finished the book is why I turned to Lord of the Rings in the first place for this sort of “comfort read;” because to face it, the book can be wordy and at times hopeless even though I know how things will end up. Why Lord of the Rings and not Harry Potter, if I was just looking for escapism?

It’s all in what Tolkien does so well. The book may be wordy, there may be more songs in there than I really want to read (and more songs in Elvish than I really want to skip over), the descriptions of the fellowship’s journey may at some points seem overly long for the relative lack of action, but all of these things serve in Tolkien’s world creation. What’s so comforting to me about the books is, I think, how complete the world is that Tolkien writes about. I’m hardly the first to observe this, but the depth of history and detail in his works, the sense that behind even a pair of names briefly mentioned there lies a complete history, makes the world of Middle-earth real enough that I can forget, occasionally, my own world of weekly showers and daily spelling bees.

The way the characters speak, sing, move through their world, all points to this history that Tolkien has mapped out. As when Elrond speaks of the Ring’s history at the Council of Elrond:

Of Númenor he spoke, its glory and its fall, and the return of the Kings of Men to Middle-earth out of the deeps of the Sea, borne upon the wings of storm. Then Elendil the Tall and his mighty sons, Isildur and Anárion, became great lords; and the North-realm they made in Arnor, and the South-realm in Gondor above the mouths of Anduin. But Sauron of Mordor assailed them, and they made the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, and the hosts of Gil-galad and Elendil were mustered in Arnor.

When characters begin to delve into history like this, there’s something almost biblical about the tone; the sense of a history so deep that it’s entered into myth and legend, remembered only by a few who are removed from the time of the world. Or, as Tolkien describes Galadriel, and elves:

Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.

It’s this tone that draws me in, my attraction to a world with a history so complete and yet so separate from our own, but also the simplicity that is at the heart of the story. There are characters who falter, who are not at all times good or pleasant: Boromir, Legolas during the early stages of the fellowship’s journey, Galadriel when she confesses how she has long thought of acquiring the Ring of Power, even Bilbo when he nearly fails to give up the Ring at book’s opening. But the story at heart is such a simple one, of the fight against a force that is undeniably bad, that it is comforting to sink into that tale of evil versus a good that is undeniably good for its opposition to Mordor.

As I wrote earlier, that I find the book so comforting is a little curious because it’s not, at heart, a comforting book. I know that Frodo will destroy the Ring with Samwise’s help, that they will return to the Shire, but there is also throughout a sense of the irreparable passing of time, of the way that things will never be the same whatever happens to the Ring, because of the Ring: that Middle-earth will be washed over by Sauron’s forces, or that the Ring will be destroyed and with it the last strength of people such as the elves of Lórien. And that, that is sad; because as we see from Frodo’s first glimpse of Lórien, the world is one that exists nowhere else, and one day soon won’t exist even in Middle-earth:

It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain.

I’ll be rereading the other two books of The Lord of the Rings, of course, but I wanted to write about it because my reading of Fellowship is so linked, now, to what’s going on in my life right now – which though nothing bad, is sometimes overwhelming and exhausting.** And reading these books, even though they are (I know, I know) really one book, deserves and requires more than one post, not least because of questions like how the films influence my reading (the book is, I think, more welcoming to me because of the films; Peter Jackson did such a good job pulling lines from the book that I can see and hear Ian McKellan when I read Gandalf), how that almost biblical tone makes the book feel a part of my history, and how Tolkien’s skill at world creation makes it possible for the book to take on that tone of lasting history that I find so comforting.

And then, too, there’s how the book opens, which seems to me as perfect a way as any can: “This book is largely concerned with Hobbits…”

* By way of example: my toothpaste froze; the bananas I had sitting in my “living room” got that funny refrigerated look to them; when I go to bed I do so with my coil heater a few feet from me, a bottle of hot water under the covers, long johns, and sometimes a hat and gloves depending on the night.

** But, hey! The spelling bee final is tomorrow, the library grant is due on Monday, winter break begins in about two weeks…