25 August 2011


OK, it's been almost a week since I finished A Dance with Dragons, and as expected, I am feeling rather bereft. Not to the point where I'm dressing up my cats in tiny embroidered doublets...actually, that's a good idea...JULIE CAN BE THE STARKS AND BRAINS CAN BE THE LANNISTERS OMG

I really, really loved these books. I loved the intrigue and the magicks and the politics, the thousands of years of history and the dozen or so cultures & religions and the Russian-novel-multitude of characters. And the geography: first book ever where I kept consulting the map on the frontispiece because I wanted to know exactly where everything was. And all the descriptions of food. And the shifting points of view that give the narrative its scope. And the pervading shades of gray--with the exception of brutal Gregor Clegane and the chilling Ramsay Bolton (who I seriously brainstormed ways to TRANSPORT MYSELF INTO THE BOOK AND KILL), there's not an entirely evil person in the bunch.

I can keep raving, but yeah, you get it. So instead I'd like to address two criticisms I've heard of the series.

1. The writing's not very good.
Huh, you really think so? I mean, sure, no crazy Pynchon/Lethem/Harkaway-style verbal pyrotechnics--and I speak as a devotee of such--but I think it's a few levels above competent, myself. Certainly clear and effective, and I found the descriptions of place particularly evocative. But de gustibus non est disputandum, of course. There have definitely been books whose writing I found intolerable that were fĂȘted by folks with taste...like last summer's vamp brick The Passage, the prose of which I found "overwrought but flat," and the could-not-be-more-overrated-if-you-ask-me-but-nobody-did The Magicians, which I thought was actually poorly written. Twitter was all jazzed about the release of the sequel earlier this month, and all I could think was "Really? You want more of that?" I FELT LIKE I WAS TAKING CRAZY PILLS.
On this point I will not attempt to convince you, simply say that this was not my experience, and if you haven't read the books it may not be yours either. (Nor do I feel I put my Lit Cred in jeopardy by giving ups to GRRM's prose.)

2. The women characters are not sufficiently empowered.
This, on the other hand, is just wrong. I'm mostly reacting to this Tumblr post (whose author is reacting to another article on female characters in sci-fi/fantasy and problems thereof), in which she claims "i don’t think any of [the women] ever talk to each other (except to be REALLY FREAKING NASTY), or have an identity independent from which dude they are sleeping with/mother to. sad story." In regards to the first charge: I cannot quote chapter and verse from the first book (the only she's read), but a) I do not believe this is true, and b) it is definitely not true throughout the series. It gets all Bechdel-test up in there, let me tell you.
As for the second, well, since I'm quoting here, Keryn (who is a stranger to me) pointed out: "it’s not just his women who are defined by their relation to others, it’s just about everyone in the book. The whole series is soaked in concerns about lineage and legitimacy, and I’d argue that the representations about sex and gender need to be read in that context too." I would further argue that the overarching dynamic of Song of Ice and Fire is redefinition: of culture, of society, and of individuals. Everyone is re-learning what it means to be a Stark or a Lannister or a Targaryen, a knight or a king, a man or a woman.
Even if your only criteria for Strong Female Character is Violent and Lots-of-Sex-Having (which, snoozers), hang out with Ygritte or Asha Greyjoy or the Sand Snakes for a while. Then we'll talk.

18 August 2011

Home stretch.

Guys, I am about to resurface from A Song of Ice and Fire in less than 100 pages, and though I am going to miss everyone like CRAZY and remain on tenterhooks for the next few years until The Winds of Winter comes out (although then I'll get to read them all over again in preparation! yay!), I will kinda enjoy digging into the other books on my to-read shelf. Because there are 21 right now--on the shelf, in person, not counting the other 150 on my to-read list on Goodreads. BOOKS!!!

I have managed to squeeze in a couple non-Martin reads recently, though, and they both deserve mention. First, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a wonderfully written though very, very sad (I refuse to think about the imaginary animals right now, because I will cry again) novel about the lives of three children destined to be used as organ farms and their idyllic but doomed days at a boarding school called Hailsham. The strength of this book was voice, voice, voice: a first-person narrative, elliptical and episodic in the extreme, so good at capturing the way we tell stories, especially of our childhood. I would have read it in one night, but I started it at 10 p.m.

And a book I read as research for Gold Mountain (my romance-in-progress) but recommend to anyone interested in East Asian history or the historical bizarre: God's Chinese Son is a well-written guide to the Taiping Rebellion, a Chinese civil war (wow, it is sad that you have to use an indefinite article for that) that lasted 14 years (1850-1864) and killed a mind-staggering twenty million people. The Taiping were southern Chinese rebels inspired and led by Hong Xiuquan, who failed the Confucian civil service examination several times and then became convinced he was Jesus' younger brother, destined to overthrow the "demon" Qing dynasty. It's an often unbelievable story of culture clash (as when the British, French, and Americans, in turn, send out tentative feelers to these fellow Christians only to realize that 1) the Taipings' beliefs are heterodox in the extreme and 2) they believe Hong is ruler of the world, and hence don't recognize the sovereignty of the foreigners' nations) and madness (towards the end of the war, ensieged in his Heavenly Capital of Nanjing, Hong tells a dumbfounded general complaining of low food supplies that he should have been stockpiling manna for just such an eventuality), solidly written in present tense, an unusual but effective choice for non-fiction.

01 August 2011

Memento Mori (Muriel Spark)

I seem to have not written at all about the last Muriel Spark novel I read, 1963's The Girls of Slender Means, which was quite silly of me, because it's lovely. And with her well-deserving-of-classic-status The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) and Memento Mori (1959), it forms a sort of stages-of-life triptych. Girls and Prime advertise the ages of their protagonists in their titles. Memento is more subtle, since we don't all learn Latin anymore, but it's a unique novel in my experience because all its main characters are over seventy.

Unsurprisingly for a book about the elderly, mortality is first and foremost, as first one then others of an interconnected group of friends, enemies, frenemies, and acquaintances receives crank telephone calls consisting of four words: "Remember you must die" (memento mori translated--a medieval maxim and a CRAZYTOWN genre of art). Few of them take the advice, all too busy living in the past, still fretting over who stole whose boyfriend fifty years ago. Spark does a wonderful job mingling the pettiness of old age with flashes of bona fide wisdom-of-experience. It's a funny, mean, and tragic novel.

And CHECK OUT THIS COVER from the 1964 Time magazine edition, by French illustrator Tomi Ungerer (who I know from children's books, but apparently also does erotica. THE FRENCH, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN):

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