I read books; I write about them too, to help me remember.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (H.P. Lovecraft)
Simultaneously a bit of a bore (so many words about the urn taxonomy in Curwen’s catacombs!) and a real page-turner. HPL’s aesthetic signature seems to be flabby anti-exposition promising wonders that you know will never be revealed, but whose lurking absence is the reason for the whole affair — at least for me, the vague hints of Deep Time and dark wisdom are the primary engine of ‘adventurous expectancy.’ It works except when it doesn’t, and as unforgivably repetitive and purple and repetitive as the prose is, you (I) can’t help but wonder with each pageturn if this isn’t the moment when it’s all revealed, when the veil is pierced and the awful truth spoken. Stupid to fall for it, really. The big loser? S.T. Joshi, whose hagiography seems more embarrassing the more Lovecraft you actually read, as you realize he’s celebrating an imaginary philosopher-Lovecraft rather than the often turgid but powerful storyteller who’s actually, y’know, there on the page.
Saga, Book 3 (Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
More hijinks, more seemingly superficial oddness eventually revealed as part of a plan to emotionally cripple the reader, and then that ending, which I read alone in our living room and then cried aloud: ‘Oh no…’ If they manage to finish the story it will, I think, prove to be one of the best comics made in my lifetime.
Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)
A wonderful challenge.
Marcus’s pitiless Stoicism demands rejecting the flesh itself, a demand I reject in turn: while the Stoics’ logos certainly works as a hippie-friendly animismetaphor, a creationist metaphysic tends to generate a creationist (i.e. at some level anti-human or anti-agency) ethic; no thanks. We are bodies making minds. Thank God Marcus’s austere philosophy is leavened with a conscientious humanity. I don’t love him, but I admire him; or I admire the effort of will and imagination which this work represents.
(This modern translation makes me want to read an archaic one, which I mean as a compliment.)
Game of Thrones (George RR Martin)
Third time’s a charm — I’d already devoured this unique potboiler twice, the first time maybe in 2002(?) and the reread two or three years ago, before being driven back to the books once again by the godawful final season(s) of the TV show. This is the volume most faithfully adapted by the show, and of the so-far five volumes it’s the lightest on ‘mythology’ and lateral ‘worldbuilding,’ so it’s no surprise that it held fewer surprises than expected and was, frankly, a little thinner than I remembered. Still, after a couple hundred pages of scene-setting it kicked suddenly into fifth gear and became the multifarious whodunit whose memory I’ve treasured for well over a decade.
Martin’s historical consciousness and generous humanism are his strengths — he writes a hell of a scene too, have you heard? — and his books neatly illustrate the grownup principle: ‘There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive.’ True for people, true for nations, and Martin moves effortlessly between those two scales throughout the second half of the book, telling the story of a small group of (ig)nobles whose actions, constrained and compelled and compulsive and at every moment totally believable, will devastate a continent.
The books improve through the third volume before slowing (though perhaps not worsening) during the overambitious Feast/Dance interregnum, but Game of Thrones itself is already an extraordinary work of fantastic-historical storytelling — if not yet the genre-busting work it would shortly become, partly because this first volume is so clearly incomplete. The introduction of Stannis, the wildlings, and the politics of Essos in the second volume lifts the series to another plane, if I remember right; in the meantime Book the First is ‘nothing more’ than a smartly conceived, expertly executed, breathlessly exciting bit of story.
Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful Dead’s Long, Strange Trip (Joel Selvin and Pamela Turley)
Behind the (Improvised) Music, ex-hippie edition. Turns out the Grateful Dead’s money squabbles and ego trips and sexist wagon-circling are as tiresome as everyone else’s. I skimmed, then read the sections which sympathetically but unenthusiastically treat of Anastasio’s involvement. Selvin’s handling of the poisonously arrogant Lesh is appropriately angry, his Weir-worship sweet but eventually grating. For me the big revelation here is Mickey Hart, who comes off as both smart and wise — a rare combination. I tend to think two rock drummers is one too many, and that the Dead’s peak began (as far as I’m concerned) when Hart stepped away from the band for a few years, but this book has me revisiting those opinions. Maybe Hart wasn’t the problem. Maybe I need to listen more closely in future.
Anyhow: not recommended except as a source of revealing anecdotes. I do wonder what the Deadologists think of this one.
A Clash of Kings (George RR Martin)
Rereading the series in light of the TV show’s end has been a strange and at times disheartening experience: I keep experiencing this odd deflation, whereby I know a plotline will be tied off before the end of the series, its open questions ‘only’ mechanisms of deferral (not to say distraction) to be put aside before the climactic final movement. In broad strokes I know how the story ends: the reunification of the Seven Kingdoms in the form of a feudal proto-republic, in the wake of Daenerys’s descent into madness and destruction of King’s Landing. Maybe Barristan will be there or not, but his counsel will not prevent her ultimate mistake, so the suspense that slowly builds around Barristan (especially in volume 5, as he assumes control of Mereen in her absence) is all but gone. Knowing Ygritte won’t survive the assault on the Wall doesn’t bother me — but knowing that Varys’s scheming will come to nothing genuinely pisses me off. Not the fact that his plans fall apart, but the knowledge.
All this deforms the narrative of Clash of Kings somewhat. Tyrion’s schemes remain thrilling, not least because Martin clearly loves writing him, and the Battle of Blackwater had me literally shaking with excitement despite knowing precisely how it would go — but Tyrion’s doomed love story with Shae has lost some of its sweetness when set against the subsequent events of his life in the East, in the knowledge that it’s only a passing moment in Tyrion’s life. Jaqen is a welcome dose of weirdness, but Arya’s misadventures at Harrenhall feel like a holding action before her two strange violent mentorships (with the Hound and in Braavos). The boy king Joffrey is diminished by knowledge not only of his coming death (in Storm of Swords) but of the deaths of his successors and siblings. Even the slow-growing wildling ‘threat’ is no longer a mystery — I know they end up allies in the war against the Others…
…and of course, the Others (not glimpsed in this volume) will be dealt with in the final movement of the story as well. Knowing they’re defeated doesn’t ‘ruin the books’ at all — did anyone think they were going to win? — but knowing that they won’t be able even to delay the madness that comes to King’s Landing is frustrating. I imagine GRRM has some plans for them, in terms of what precisely they want, how they’ll be stopped. But I imagine, too, that he told Benioff and Weiss that, implementation details aside, the Others will tax the Army of the West (or ‘of Men’ or what have you) before their final confrontation with an ultimately banal human evil in Cersei. It seems that that’s their narrative function, in the end.
And knowing their function is disheartening. That metatextual mystery was/is a key axis of pleasure with these books, for me.
I’m really looking forward to The Winds of Winter, I am. Martin is a gifted writer and ‘worldbuilder’ with a marvelous imagination and a rare talent for quick and vivid characterization, and I loved this book, though the Theon and Bran sections were less compelling than expected/remembered. (I was way more interested in the Daenerys and Sansa chapters this time than I was five years ago, perhaps because I know their transformations will remain key story drivers, perhaps because I’m a bit more grown up myself.) My disappointment in the TV show comes from the knowledge that it only samples Martin’s work, spoiling its mysteries without providing any compensatory pleasures beyond an able and attractive cast. The books don’t disappoint me at all — the disappointment is that they’re not now able to be what they were, for me or George Martin, nor what they might have been.
But look: it’s still a great book, better than the first, heading with sure steps toward the extraordinary, climactic third volume.
Our Life Grows (Ryszard Krynicki)
A collection of poems by a member of the Polish ‘New Wave,’ born in a Nazi camp in 1943, censored and blocked from publication for years of his life. I read this on a train from Zakopane to Warsaw at the end of two weeks in Poland with my family; it was important for me to hear these notes while in that country.
Wry, wounded, furiously angry, always ‘political’ (meaning: with the world as it is). In the end surprisingly tender — the ‘love poems’ to/for/about his wife find an unexpected simplicity and vulnerability. Beautiful and awful, in every sense.
Lords and Ladies (Terry Pratchett)
I laughed, wept, leaned forward in my chair, stayed up late, and missed my mom. The Discworld is one of my favourite places on — well, near — actually quite far from, but let’s not get bogged down here — Earth, and Terry Pratchett is one of my idols: angry, yes, intelligent and curious, a fallible craftsman but masterful storyteller. Most importantly: an unfailingly generous and humane writer and person. His characters are living breathing people. His world is a world.
I’m grateful to have shared both this planet and the other one, the flat one, with him.
I might just begin the next book tonight, you know. I just might.