Saturday, August 17, 2013

God Is Disappointed in YouGod Is Disappointed in You by Mark Russell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, I'd like to give this a 3.5 out of 5, but Goodreads still only allows whole integers for reviews.

Moving on: I picked up God is Disappointed in You at Comic Con this past July from one of my favorite publishers of non-superhero based comics, Top Shelf.  I like most of what Top Shelf puts out, and often buy new books blindly from the publisher because I can trust that their choices are sound.

This book, like most of their catalog, was pretty good, and I was not surprised to see it on their self (despite the presence of single panel, often tangential cartoons instead of an entire narrative told via comics).  It does what a lot of Top Shelf books do: sheds light on a serious (sacred, even) subject with a deft and witty hand.

The premise of the book is simple: retell the Bible, chapter by chapter, with no chapter being very long.  It was the concentrated, boiled down version of the book.  Mark Russell takes a nuanced approach to the job, breaking down the chapters, focusing on the important, central aspects of each chapter and presenting it in a clear, plain, often funny language.

Russell has a good voice, too.  I often and literally laughed out loud while reading the book, particularly during the early chapters of the Old Testament where things were really strange.  My favorite chapters also altered the delivery of the chapter from just a straight narrative to something more modern.  I think Leviticus was turned into an emailed memo.

The condensed and plain-spoken narrative helped to show the connections and shifts that happen between Genesis and Revelations.  I learned a lot about the Bible, and any claims of sacrilegiousness are really unfounded; Russell knows his Bible, but he is not afraid to laugh at some of the more absurd moments.

All of this said, I felt like the book became repetitive, especially towards the New Testament, where the narrative gets longer and more disjointed.  The premise of the narrative felt like a good trick that I kept seeing over and over again.  Eventually, I stopped being impressed by it.  And finally, I became numb to how expertly he was disseminating the text.

It might be a text that is better read in short bursts, like the Bible itself, rather than in a few prolonged sittings.  I often found myself thinking that this would have been one of the most shared blogs had he published it electronically first.

Another issue I had was with Shannon Wheeler's cartoons.  There were times the cartoons seemed to link up nicely with the narrative, and I then it seemed like the two were working in harmony.  Other times, especially in the New Testament, the cartoons seemed to try to be offensive, which is not the point of the book.  One cartoon in particular, where Jesus on the cross takes a phone call, was so incongruous that I found it distracting.  Several times I wondered what was the purpose of the cartoons?  The book stood alone without them, and rarely did they add anything to the text.

This is not to say that Wheeler was unfunny.  In fact, some of the cartoons were genuinely hilarious.  However, none of them were particularly necessary.

All in all, God is Disappointed in You is a good book and worth the cost.  It's funny, and I learned some about the Bible (which is nice).  However, I find that it works better as a book that is read in short, disconnected bursts, like Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

PastoraliaPastoralia by George Saunders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading a dense (albeit, a sometimes funny) book about the fundamentals of science, this George Saunders collection was like literary candy.

Like most of Saunders' work, the stories were genuinely very funny in a sort of bizarre way.  The first work in the collection was a novella in which the central characters are reenactors in a natural history museum.  The characters are meant to act like some sort of primitive version of mankind and are never allowed to break character.  Despite this very bizarre conceit, Saunders writes a touching tale in which a woman has a breakdown as her life falls apart around her, and how her coworker is left to deal with this.  It's a great examination of the mundanity of work life in the least mundane setting possible.

The thing about Saunders is that he can do that: filter the common and the everyday from the bizarre and unusual.  There is a universality to his work, all of it wrapped in a sugary package of prose.

That said, I liked this work less than other things I've read by him, namely The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. I was really hoping form something that blew my mind life the aforementioned book, but this one just left me flat towards the end.  While I wasn't quiet bored by this book, by the end I found I was struggling to get through the last few stories.

But, not a bad book by any means.  Even the stories in which I started to lose interest were readable and entertaining.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of ScienceThe Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 I am no scientist, but I like reading about science. I make for a difficult audience for science writers in that my understanding of all science is flawed, primarily theoretical, and wanes more than the moon (Who gave us the moon, indeed, Bill O'Reilly).

So, once again, I found an interesting looking book at the store with a title and book jacket description which piqued my interest. Angier's books promised to get me up to speed with all the developments in the scientific community, fostered by testimonial evidence culled from hundreds of interviews and other personal sources with which the writers was familiar.

At first, this is exactly what I got, and I really liked reading the alternating perspectives between a shifting mass of scientific voices and Angier. It was a clever way to assert one's own authority: aligning oneself with a multitude of expert voices by co-opting their ideas. The first two chapters on thinking scientifically and probabilities were actually quite good.

As the book progressed through the more hardcore science-y things (like physics, two types of chemistry and so on), the voices of the scientific community fell distant behind Angier's own understanding. At times, Angier was genuinely witty, and at times quite poetic. She seemed to favor clever word twists to drive home a point, and at times I was really impressed by this.

It was, however, a trick that became quickly played out. All the narrative flash was not enough to cover the fact that she all but stopped quoting other scientists in her book. By the end, I found myself getting quite annoyed with her obvious ploys to be clever.

Everything had to be so fucking clever.

By the end, I was drawn to the book far less than I was at the beginning, which is exactly the opposite reaction a novelist wants, particularly thriller and crime novelist who live on the tension of unresolved quarrels. The final chapter, on of my favorite pop science-y things to read about...took me forever to finish, because I was getting so tired of the puns and word-play to science reference ratio.

That said, if you don't know much about science, Angier is good at making common-sense connections between complex idea and layman's understandings. The beginning of the book is particularly good. For that, if nothing else, it's worth a look.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

This is a bit older, as I forgot to publish it before.

I Sailed with MagellanI Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few years back, I had the fortunate opportunity to have lunch with Stewart Dybek (though it's unlikely he'll remember it as much as I did).  He was quite delightful during the meal as we talked about his work, my past delusions of being a creative writer, and my current studies at SIU-C.

So, flash-forward several years, and I finally get around to reading I Sailed with Magellan, his follow-up to Chicago Stories, with which I was more familiar.  Regardless, my brief and pleasant encounter had not prepared me for the deep and profound sadness that threads through this collection of stories (a novel in stories, some would call it, but those people would be idiots).

This collection is more about a place than a person, though a young Polish Chicagoan, Perry, does tend to be in most of the stories, or one of his family members.  What these stories really give the reader is a taste of Chicago at a certain point in history.  More than other authors who use Chicago as the backdrop for their narratives (see: The Time Traveler's Wife, which was terrible), Dybek gets a sense of what Chicago looks like to a native.  There was more than just a parade of tourist locations; this took place in a neighborhood which was at one point filled with various European immigrants, but now has shifted.  This shift, this cultural and ethnic shift, is present in the narrative as much as the change that takes place in the characters.

Chicago, for Dybek, exists now only in memory.  And that, really, is the central point of the book: an exploration of the role of memory in narrative.  Most stories have very little present-day action.  For example, in the final story, Perry's brother Mick stands outside his old house, is asked one question several times, and then runs away (that's not really a spoiler).  The action that is in the present of the narrative is very, very limited.  Most of the story takes place as the narrator seamless drifts from present day observation to long recollection.  Connections are made between how the current situation and what past events lead to it.

It would be easy to label this stream-of-consciousness writing and lump it in with Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, but there is something more here.  There is an overarching sadness at not only the events of the characters, but how the city remembers it's citizens.  Throughout the course of the novel, the characters change quite a bit, both internally (their personalities and characterizations) as well as externally (where they live and what they do), but the city remains mostly static.  Buildings seldom change purpose, and instead are left abandoned when emptied.  Houses fall down and never reappear.  It's a horribly sad reflection on how a city is merely a holding vessel for a constantly shifting mass of people who never stop to see it for what it is. In the same way that a glass will give shape to the water within, so to does Chicago give shape to the characters therein.  

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone.  There is just one warning: don't approach it as if it were a short story collection.  Approach it more like a novel about a city told in a varied, shifting perspective.  But not, under any circumstance, a novel-in-stories.

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My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I have a fondness in my heart for Palahniuk.  I loved Survivor and Choke, and I was fond of both Fight Club the book and the movie (which I thought was beter). I even liked Haunted, though I haven't looked at swimming pools the same since then.

That said, his taste for the bizarre and absurd results in his novels having a sort of "same-y" quality.  That is, a lot of his books start to read the same.  You can expect some visceral descriptions of bodily functions, some bizarre aspect of the character's lives hyperbolized, and a broken structure that bounces through time and space in burst of short sentences and paragraphs.

In Invisible Monsters, which I understand has been "remixed" and released with a less linear structure and more chapters, we get more of this.  The main characters are caricatures which don't fully actualize until late in the novel.  In fact, the twist, which Palahniuk over-uses more than M. Night Shamlamananahna (or however it's spelled), was both unsurprising and hardly emotive.  By the time I find out the shocking secret about Brandy and Shannon, I don't care.  The characters are entirely unrelatable and horrible people (which I know is the point), so when one dies in the very beginning of the novel, I never fully care that, when introduced to her earlier in her life, that she will end up dead.

Maybe that's the point: that underneath it all nothing is real and we are all horrible people.  There certainly is some truth to that, and Palahniuk does a good job showing what most people already know to be true: people, on average, will just try to kill everyone is left to their own devices.  And there is certainly some truth to the idea that nothing we see is real (to say any more would give away too much of the plot).  But even if that is true, the ending left me flat.  I didn't care.  I didn't buy the character's motivations.  I just felt "meh" at the end.

But the narrow end of this wedge of critical cheese is whether or not I would recommend reading the book.  If you liked Diary and Lullaby or are just a massive fan of Palahniuk's work (there are some fanatics out there), then yes.  Hope to it.  Otherwise, read Fight Club, Survivor, Choke and Haunted.  Those are better books.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Trouble with Zombies in The Walking Dead

Zombies are a great metaphor for ceaseless, senseless violence.  An expert in all things pop-cultural, Simon Pegg has an excellent introduction to Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead Volume 1, in which he makes the case for the extreme metaphorical malleability of zombies.

Unlike other supernatural undead creatures in fantasy fiction, there is no clear consensus as to the properties of zombies.  Unless you are reading Stephanie Meyer, vampires are always pale night dwellers who drink human blood and can be defeated by a quick stab to the heart with a wooden stake.  They generally represent things like sexual desire, coming in through the windows at night and draining people of their innocence.  Zombie, though, are much simpler and thus more problematic as metaphors.  As the title of the above mentioned comic and TV show simply puts it: zombies are the walking dead.  Reanimated corpses that simply consume until their brains are completely destroyed.  

Beyond being dead and needing a brain, there is not much consensus as to what a zombie can do.  Some can run, some just stumble along; some have increased senses, some are essentially mindless killing machines; some are unnaturally strong, some can be wrestled down by an average man or woman.  And this is not necessarily across media, but within one work.  

For example, take arguably the most popular piece of zombie fiction, AMC's adaptation of Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic.  In the first season, some of the original camp has made their way to the top of a building in Atlanta (a department store, if I am not mistaken).  There are two sets of glass double doors between the Rick and company, and the horde of undead (and it is a horde) outside.  Eventually, the horde pushes through the doors and gains access to the building.  It's not shown exactly how they gain entrance, but it can be assumed they pushed hard enough to either crack the glass or to rip the door off it's hinges (or break the locks, though that seems less likely, since locks are meant to precisely not do that).  

Later in that same season, when T-Dogg (may God watch over his soul) dropped the keys to Merle's handcuffs, leaving him trapped on the roof, he barres the heavy metal door with a chain.  When the company returns to the roof to rescue Merle, the chain remains unbroken and the door on it's hinges.  Apparently, these doors are more difficult to break.  Or Merle, who cut his hand off, escaped before they could.  When T-Dog was explaining himself to Daryl, there was a note of concern as to how well the door would hold up.

In the second season, Lori flips her car when she madly searches for Rick, Glenn and Hershel.  While passed out, a couple of zombies find her trapped in the car and attempt to make a meal of her.  One finds a hole in the tempered glass of the windshield and pushes so forcefully against it that his face rips off and the glass starts to shatter further.  Again, this is not just any glass, but the treated glass used for windshields, which is meant to take quite a beating.  That the zombie has pushed through is fairly impressive, not just as a feat of strength, but also a sign of how determined they are to reach living flesh.  

In this season, what remains of the small groups has made their way to a prison.  Behind two chain link fences, the survivors can leave in relative safety from the walking horde of ever-consuming zombies that stumble around the edges.  This, though, is problematic: the zombies have shown that, as a horde, there are few things that can stop them.  Their hunger for flesh supersedes their pain tolerance (which as dead things, is remarkably high).  They will just push and push and push until they get where they want to go.  Especially if there is something tasty living thing to eat on the other end.  It would seem to me that the horde would bunch up at the entry point and the sheer mass of the zombies pushing against the fence (a chain link fence, mind you, which does not secure the doors deep into the ground) would cause it to break.  The glass of the department store and Lori's car window couldn't stand up to the walkers, but suddenly a chain link fence can?  As this video shows here, even the weight of one heavy set teenager who makes bad decisions in his life can bend the support posts of a fence.  The combined weight of several dozen zombies unceasingly pushing against a similar fence, even one fortified against outbreaks, would eventually bend.  

Also, in the prison, Rick and the other survivors manage to lock the fence using carabiners and chains (not particularly strong chains at that).  At one squeeze point in the prison, there is a sliding chain link fence (probably the weakest of the fencing options) held closed by just such a contraption.  Now, assuming they did find climbing grade carabiners in the zombie infested wasteland of Southern Georgia, these would be able to hold, for brief periods, around 21 kN or 4,725 lbs.  As this article from Boy's Life notes, though, carabiners are not made to withstand constant pressure and are more for safety sake, such as when rock climbing.  In the prison, these are as good as fortified steel doors, tightly padlocked shut.  

Which, then, is it?  Are zombies so focused on eating humans that they will literally walk through doors to get at anything alive?  Or can you simply hold them off with a good fence, some chain and some carabiners?  As metaphors, they certainly can still be useful.  What The Walking Dead needs to remember is what their zombies can do.  This is why the Twilight books upset so many vampire fans: they bucked convention when it complicated the plot.  That is, it would be hard for Bella to meet Edward in high school if he couldn't go outside in the day time.  In a similar vein, if a horde of zombies can push through anything, then they shouldn't be stopped simply by latching a gate shut.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The White TrailThe White Trail by Fflur Dafydd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book for my sister as a Christmas present this past year.  I was studying in Wales at the time, and as I like to get books for her, I felt something particularly Welsh was a good fit.  That was really all I knew about it.  After she finished, she passed it along to me.

So, to say I was surprised is a bit of an understatement.  I really knew nothing of this book, this author, or the original story that it re-imagines.  What I found was a really engaging story by a really talented author.

The whole series, New Tales of the Mabigonion, is a collection of medieval Welsh fairy tales reshaped for a modern audience.  That is, the old characters are given a modern face-lift with new settings, new jobs and new(ish) stories.  Their core, however, was meant to remain the same.  The core of the story - the moral of the tale, if you will - remains the same.

What I was most impressed by was Dafydd's voice.  There is a poetry and ease of narration to the book.  Some of the descriptions are elegant and well-formulated, the word choice is immaculate, and the narrator easily slips and moves through time and space.  I felt like the narrator was genuinely concerned for the central character, Cilyiad, and that the narrator did a good job of showing the lost befuddlement which he seemed to walk through life covered in.  In short, the story was quite engaging and quite well-written.

I have two concerns: 1) The book had a lot of Welsh names in it which I was not really sure how to pronounce.  This is my own fault, mind (it's not the author's job to know that I can't read Welsh names), but a pronunciation guide would have been helpful.  I'm sure that, even to some native Welsh, Gwelw is a hard name to pronounce (and that was one of the shorter ones).  Yes, I get that the book was to be connected to the original tale and I am sure the names were left unmolested.  I understand that choice artistically; I just would have liked a little help is all.  2) The book was not very long, I found myself tearing through the book, due in part to the author's style and in larger part to the generous margins and spacing.  At £8.99 (or roughly $14), I felt like I was owed more to read.  With George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones books, I was given over 800 pages for about $9.00 (¢1.125 per page).  It might have been nice for the publisher, Seren, to lump some of the books together and package them so that the reader gets more for the dollar (or pound, as the case may be).

In the end, though, I was neither too put off by the use of old, hard to pronounce names, nor the price per experience.  I was really pleased, pleasantly surprised even, by the book, and I would read more from this series and from Fflur Dafydd.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Thing About Feminism

So, today on Twitter, thanks to @, the hash tag #TellAFeministThankYou was trending.  For the most part, the tweets associated are fairly benign, with honest thanks given to women and men who have, in a personal way, taught people that it was okay to be a woman and not to accept less than anyone else gets.

Then there are, as there always are, trolls who look to derail the conversation with knowingly offensive rhetoric (or maybe not knowingly, but that is ever worse...).  Such as:

And probably my personal favorite asinine comment so far today:

What I love about these frankly idiotic tweets is how far off they mark they land.  It seems to me that the underlying argument here is that feminism, in arguing for equal rights for women, has undermined other's agendas/natural rights/what-have-you.  It would seem feminism can be blamed for the unnatural act of speaking a woman's mind, wearing pants, divorce, abortion, failing families, etc. etc.

Obviously, this is wrong, particularly the evils in society that are blamed on feminists, like divorce and abortion.  To claim that feminism causes divorce and leads to women wanting abortions fails to remember that abortions and divorce have been happening for quite a bit longer than people have called themselves feminists.  Or maybe we can retroactively declare anyone who wanted a divorce is really a feminist.  Henry VIII is thrilled, I'm sure.  He held the tenets of feminism close to his heart.

That's an interesting point here: the tenets of feminism, like those of the Occupy Movement and wide-reaching philosophies, are often misunderstood, and actually a difficult thing to discuss.  There are a lot of different feminists and each prescribes to a different type of feminism.  There are feminists that are interested in equal pay for equal work; there are feminist interested in reproductive rights for women (both nationally and internationally); some are more interested in other forms of subjugation, such as the use of burkas in some Islamic communities; some are interested in recognizing that motherhood and maternal work as an equal and valid form of contribution to society (since most things valued in capitalist society have a direct monetary value, this is a worthwhile cause); and so on and so on.  It simply is invalid to blame all feminists for what any one feminist believes, just like it would be wrong to blame all Americans for what one American has done, or all Republicans for what some Republicans believe, etc.

There are as many central tenets to feminism as there are feminists, but the core value is equality.  No feminist worth her (or his salt...but, for the sake of brevity, I will generally use "her" as a pronoun here, where that encompases all feminist of any gender) salt honestly argues that women are superior to men, and that the patriarchy should be substituted for a matriarchy.  There are some who make such obviously asinine claims, but their connection to the feminists is tenuous at best (much like the KKK's connection to the "American Dream" is tenuous, or the connection between German nationalism and the Nazis).  Feminism is interested in shedding light on the inequalities faced by women, and how those inequalities could be balanced.

Now, I'd like here to state, for the record, that I don't necessary count myself a feminist.  It's also important to remind you dear readers that this is not a binary opposition; that is, because I don't count myself a feminist doesn't mean I associate myself with anti-feminists (or that I am against feminists).  I am uncomfortable with the label is all.  I consider myself more of a secular humanist (or a Humanist) or an egalitarian, since my interest in equality has less a focus on gender and more on the indifference between people of all stripes.

That said, I can respect and appreciate what the feminist do.  After all, when we argue that one section of society needs to be treated fairly, that sheds light on some imbalances felt across gender, racial or religious lines.  For example, by raising the debate that women are not treated fairly in the work place, it also raises the question of who else might not be treated fairly (such as racial or sexual minorities).  After all, if society can accept that women should have an equal voice, then similar arguments can be made for others.

Equality for one is equality for all.  (Did someone famous say that?  It sounds like something someone smarter said.)

Actually, it's only by recognizing are enforcing differences that the turmoil mentioned in the tweets above really rises to the surface.  It was by treating black people as inferior people that lead to the slave uprisings and the disputes central to the Civil War; had men offered women equal voices long ago, the Women's Suffragists would not have had to rise up as they did.  In fact, a lot of problems in the world would simply dissolve if, as a common people sharing one planet, we recognized the rational ability of all people.

That sentiment above can slip down the slippery slope of bad rhetoric towards some sort of social relativism, where people will wrongfully claim that if everyone is equal everyone's opinion is equally right.  To be sure, such a relativistic claim would lead to the anarchy of too many cooks in the social kitchen.  Luckily, like all slippery slope arguments, there is no basis for it.

Again, what I am stressing here is that all people have the ability to think critically and analytically about the given problems in society.  That does not mean that everyone is equally trained to do just that.  I've spent the better part of 26 years in school (i.e., my whole life save those first five lazy ones where I learned to walk and talk outside of any institutional support).  I've studied the English language extensively, and can speak with great authority about literature in English.  What I can't do, though, is explain why I universe works the way it does.  Any argument or solution I pose to the problems of the universe is invalid because I cannot buttress my claims with well-reasoned supports.   The same is true of profoundly difficult economic theories, the traces of history, higher order mathematical issues, and so on.  Certainly, in day-to-day conversations, I can talk about why supply-side economics is problematic as a national economic model based on the populist research I've done, but that hardly makes me an expert and hardly supports my bid to be Chief Economic Adviser of the Universe.

What feminism suggests is that women should not be excluded from any conversation simply because they are women.  A well-trained woman is equal to a well-trained man when the chips are down.  And thus by extension, the reverse (or any other well-trained person of any persuasion).

Everyone should thank the feminist, as well as any other group which struggles for the acceptance and equality of minorities, for paving the way toward equality for everyone.  It would seem to me the only ones resisting that notion are people who sit in power now and would like to hold it without explaining why.  Or in other words, lazy bullies.

Thanks feminists.  Keep doing what you do so well.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the interest of full disclosure, I really like the HBO series of the same name, and have seen all of seasons 1 and 2, eagerly awaiting season 3, before I read the first book. Generally, that's not how I like to do things, but...well...these books are long.

But, I finally got around to reading the first book of the series, and I honestly was not much surprised. The book and the TV show are very similar, though, like in most things, the book offers more detail in places, and a different, often shifting perspective. The major plot points are all there and all the same. So, in the end, I was not surprised.

That said, I liked the book. What I think Martin has done with this series is marry the mystery novel to the adventure novel, and he's done so in perfect harmony. There is a lot of intrigue as to what has happened before the novel starts and a lot of clues that the reader has to follow to piece together some sort of agenda for the characters. This book is one hard-boiled detective away from a Raymond Chandler novel. And it's none the poorer for that. A lot of adventure novels, like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Hobbit, lack surprise. Certainly, we all hold our breath and wonder how the assembled armies at Helm's Deep are going to survive the massive onslaught of orcs, but most adventure novels end with the characters winning. The book would have taken a much darker, nihilistic turn had the Rohirrim and Elvish armies had been slaughtered, leaving only the intrepid Hobbits to stand against the combined forces of Sauron and Sauroman. In these fantasy novels, the point is not so much the struggle, but the toll that struggle takes on the characters. Frodo is a changed Hobbit at the end of that quest, like Bilbo before him. The loss of innocence is the greatest loss of that adventure, and now he can never go back.

In Game of Thrones, the adventure is there (armies, fighting, etc.), but there is also this looming mystery: why did John Arryn die? What about the Baratheon bastards frightens the Lannisters? How long has this plot been going on to seize the throne? What are these dragons? The reader has to put these things together while reading about the adventure of the Seven Kingdoms. And again, there are plenty of those: Robb leads the Northern Armies, Arya trys to escape the city once her family's favor collapses, John's struggle against the Others, Tyrion's escape from the Eyrie, and so on. What is not clear is why all of this is happening.

Another of Martin's strengths is how fully realized his characters become. In the end, these characters were not just flat stereotypes fulfilling roles to advance the plot; these were well-rounded characters who I felt almost friendly toward. I could identify with Ned's struggle between honor and friendship, I could understand Tyrion's conflict between family and doing the right thing, I felt Robb's hesitance at leading an army all he wanted to do was be a kid. Martin has a way of connecting and humanizing characters, even though they all fight with swords, live in castles and exist in a world where dragons, magic and giants are all real things.

But, all of this aside, the book was not the most elegantly written. For all of it's strengths, and there were a lot, Martin's style left a lot to be desired. He often just told you how character's felt rather than developing these feelings through action. There is an odd focus on the clothing worn and the decorations on armor. There seems to be a lot of superfluous sex scenes (particulary with Daenerys and Drogo and even more particularly near the end of the book). But these minor issues did not really get in the way of my enjoyment of the book. That is, though I felt like the book could have had a more sophisticated syntax and style, I didn't feel that Martin's style detracted too much from the text (unlike in the books of Dan Brown, where I felt like he has tons of interesting ideas and stories, but the writing is so bad I couldn't stomach the narrative).

I know that fantasy novels aren't for everyone and that my soft-spot for the genre leads me to like this book more than some might (after all, when I was a kid, I almost exclusively read D&D novels), but I would still suggest this novel to anyone. Not just fans of books with knights and dragons, but anyone who likes a good story. Underneath all the armor plating and intrigues of court, this is just a good story about how people's conflicting desires will often put those around them in horrible situations.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Women, Body Image and Game of Thrones

In Columbiana, Zoe Saldana was an assassin who went on a solo killing spree, massacring hundreds of crime lords in Latin America.  In Tomb Raider, Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft raided crypts using her ninja abilities and two blazing guns.  Carrie Ann Moss in The Matrix helped Neo overcome the robot apocalypse both in reality and the virtual world.  Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry and Anne Hathaway all played the anti-hero/villain Catwoman (one better than the others, but that is a conversation for later), traipsing about on screen in skin tight clothing.  Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow, Jennifer Garner as Elektra, Emily Browning as Babydoll in Suckerpunch.  All of these women were strong, brave women who used there mental and physical strength of overcome adversities.

Also, all the above women overcame these adversities while looking amazing.

Halle Barry doing her best with a terrible movie.
Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft listens...and waits.

Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity, either missing a punch or with a wicked follow through.
Despite all being extremely attractive, these women have nearly impossible body shapes, especially considering the impossible physical tasks they undertake.  Compare any of the gymnastic women in these films to the actual gymnasts that compete in the Olympics, and the difference are startling.

Shawn Johnson and some thighs that could kick ass.  
Furthermore, let's compare these women in real-time.  First, this clip from one of the Tomb Raider movies in which Lara Croft fights a robot:  

Compare that to the above pictured Shawn Johnson performing some routines at various gymnastic events (meets?  games?  I don't really know much about gymnastics):

Unlike Hathaway in the Batman movie or Moss in the Matrix trilogy, Jolie at least wears industrial work boots, which are more apropos for fighting robots.  That aside, it is hard to believe that she could perform the string of back flips and other aerial maneuvers with her body.  Johnson is all tightly packed muscle and needs to be in order to do what she does.  And she is not an anomaly.  Look at any woman athlete, such as female boxers, soccer players, and so on.  The evidence is there: physical activity requires a certain body shape.  One which female action heroes simple don't have.  

Men, in the same role, are never shown to be anything but rippling sacks of muscle.  Just look at Tom Hardy portraying Bane:
It looks like he's smuggled grapefruits in his shoulders.
Bane was strong, stronger even than Batman.  So, Tom Hardy, who got beefed up for the MMA movie, Warrior, was the obvious choice seeing as he was built like a Mac Truck with a head.  Robert Downey Jr. in Iron-Man and The Avengers bulked up.  Chris Evans did the same for Captain America.  Chris Hemsworth was already massive when he was cast as Thor.  Matt Damon put on muscle for The Bourne movies.  The same for Daniel Craig in the Bond films.  And the list goes on and on.

This is a hot topic among gender studies scholars, and I want it to be clear that I am not one of those people.  There could be a lot said here about the objectification of both women and men, who these ideal bodies are hardly realistic, and what this phenomenon does to the minds and esteems of men and women, boys and girls everywhere.  I'm sure someone more familiar with the scholarship could make far more cogent answers to the above queries.

Instead of that prickly conversation, I want to look at Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones (note: I have only read, or rather am reading, Book 1 of the massive set, so what I am pulling from is the TV show; though, in my experience, the TV show draws most of it's characterizations from the book, so I imagine there will be a lot of parallel).  Compared to the women above, I find her extremely interesting.  Watch this clip below where she beats the Knight of the Flowers in a head-to-head melee: 

Played by Gwendoline Christie, who stands at 6'3" and was at one time a gymnast, Brienne is portrayed in the show always in full armor and as a physical presence.  She is impressive as a warrior, both technically proficient and strong as an ox.  Throughout the two seasons currently on air, she beats the best knights out there, kills dozens of guards, and lands a job that would honor any knight.  She is physical power embodied.  She would need to be in order to pick up Loras Tyrell and slam him to the ground or, as she does later, to be the only guard watching over Jamie Lannister , the famed and feared knight who is called Kingslayer, as the two make their way to King's Landing.

There have been others like Brienne on TV, such as Xena the Warrior Princess, though women like this are few and far between.  What is different about Game of Thrones is that Brienne is not the only woman who challenges the concept of femininity.  Several of the other characters equally shun the roles society has defined for them.  Arya, the Stark's youngest daughter takes up sword fighting in the Braavosi style and refuses to give into the role that highborn life has forced on her (in a really interesting turn, Arya is often confused for a boy, and constantly is fighting for people to see her both as a young warrior and a young woman).  Daenerys proves, more than her hot headed and petulant brother, to be the last dragon in the world, and when he marriage to Drogo (a massive man in his own right) fails to procure her a crown, she takes on the charge all her own.  

How these portrayal alters the discussion above regarding depictions of femininity and idealization are for better gender scholars than myself.  For me, it's refreshing to see strong female characters that are also built like strong women.