I started Simon Garfield’s On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks in January. Two months later, at the end of March, I had gotten through about a quarter of the book. Then, I finished it the first week of April.
To say that On the Map was slow going to begin is an understatement. But, as illustrated by my sudden sprint to the finish, it would also be unfair to characterize the book by its first quarter.
On the Map turned out to be one of those glorious history books focused on various forgotten corners of history that provide an endless and enticing parade of factoids and anecdotes about their particular corner. When done poorly, these kinds of books offer a disjointed view of history that jolts you awkwardly through time and space. When done well, as Garfield does, these books leave you thirsting for more and racing to the library for the full story behind various allusions and name drops.
And Garfield does this genre so, so well. (His previous book was the much-lauded history of typography Just My Type, my copy of which is currently languishing somewhere in my much-maligned storage unit.) He manages to juggle both time and narrative, tracing the arc of cartography (and all its attendant subjects from surveying to exploration) fluidly and clearly from ancient Greece through to smartphones. (more…)
I’ve decided to start a new genre I’m calling “Odyssey Years Reads.” This genre will feature books that deal with the evidently timeless problem facing twentysomethings of what to do with your life, where to focus your energies, and what is really imporant. If in the midst of a twentysomething Life Crisis, Odyssey Years Reads will make you feel better since, even if everything seems to be all at sea for you, at least others in the recent and distant past have felt exactly the same way.
My list of Odyssey Years Reads includes Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer, The Odyssey itself, and, my newest entrant, Lucy Knisley’s marvelous An Age of License.
An Age of License is a particularly aspirational entry in my new Odyssey Years Reads category. It is a “follow your passions and see where things take you” book. It is a “give it a try, what’s the worst that could happen?” book. It is an “overthink everything” book. It is, quite simply, a great book.
In it, Lucy Knisley continues her travelogue series with a jaunt through Europe as she seeks to reconcile her career (comics artist) with her hopes for the future (stability, love, family). Along the way, she attends a comics convention and sees visions of her future as a professional artist, has a fling with a Dutch philosopher and recognizes what she doesn’t want in her future, and spends some time in France with her mother and various friends. Throughout, Knisley tries on different futures through the lens of the people she encounters and constantly questions what she wants for herself.
Coming from such a whimsical artist with such a clear and witty sense of humor, An Age of License is a fairly serious and thoughtful book. But that’s the best kind of Odyssey Years Read: one that manages to tackle the big issues while keeping a sane head. Knisley never goes too far down the twentysomething rabbit hole and tackles big questions with grace, intent, and humor. (more…)
I am still working my way through the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, inspiration for HBO’s A Game of Thrones. According to my Kindle, I still have 14 hours and 23 minutes left, despite hacking away at it for roughly a month.
I am enjoying having the time to contemplate different themes in this set of works, however rather than whipping through shorter books and dashing off a quick blog post before moving on to the next. “A Song of Ice and Fire” gives me a chance to experience what I often long for — a hugely complex story full of vibrant characters that seems as though it will never end.
The series has often been compared to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but I would argue that it is actually more complex. J. R. R. Tolkien was a linguist, a world-builder. I would argue he was less interested in plot than he was the context of the world he created, though there are some who would disagree with me. George R. R. Martin, however, has built a world and then peopled it, creating fantastically complex characters who cannot be easily defined. Out of those characters rise complex plots and twists and turns that, in my opinion, are far more interesting than Tolkien’s work. (For example, as much as I like Tolkien, his women all seem to be elves on pedestals, otherworldly beauties with wisdom far surpassing anything man can achieve. While this is sweet, I prefer Martin’s human women, with faults and fallacies and facets as complex as the male characters’.)
So. This complexity leads to one of Martin’s themes — what is “honor”? This question of honor comes up continually, whether regarding fathering illegitimate children, breaking vows of one sort or another, or murder.
In the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, Ser Arys Oakheart is torn with guilt about sleeping with a princess and breaking his vows of chastity–despite the fact that others have done so–but the fact that he has beaten up a little girl on the orders of his king gives him little shame. Jon Snow is not bothered by forswearing his oath to the Night’s Watch, insisting he “never turned his cloak.” Jaime Lannister is bothered by the fact that he murdered the king he was sworn to protect, but still believes it was the right thing to do. Ned Stark, in contrast, is continually derided as being a man with too much honor, though he apparently fathered an illegitimate son shortly after his wedding to Catelyn Tully and despite the fact that he forswore himself and pledged to be loyal to a family he knew killed the rightful king (two of them, actually).
In light of all of that, what does “honor” mean? It’s very hard to say, of course, but I think that’s Martin’s point. Cersei Lannister certainly doesn’t have honor; but what about her twin, Jaime? They share similarities, of course, in that they are both hiding the fact that Cersei’s children seated on the throne were actually fathered by Jaime, not Cersei’s late royal husband from which they gained their claims. Both make promises they don’t keep. But somehow, one gets the sense that Jaime is more honorable than Cersei.
The root, I think, lies in an idea of a contract. Jaime nearly killed a child. Why? For love of Cersei and their children, who would have been exposed. He killed a king. Why? Because he saw that king turn mad, killing Ned Stark’s father and brother in unspeakably cruel ways. He rescued Brienne of Tarth from a bear pit, at great risk to himself. Why? Because they had an agreement. He frees his brother from a prison. Why? Because he owes him something.
Not all of these decisions make sense unless you assume that Jaime has essentially entered into a contract with these people. In the case of Cersei, Jaime has pledged himself to his sister. He’s never touched another woman; he’s faithfully made decisions that have been in her best interest. He has no such contract with the child, who has to be sacrificed. One can argue that King Aerys broke the contract with Jamie when he grew insane. Once a king proves himself to no longer be worthy of protection, in other words, the contract between him and his guards is broken. Aerys did not hold up his end of the bargain. In contrast, Brienne and Jamie are linked by unified oaths; he had to return to her. In the case of Tyrion, one falls back on the Lannister saying: A Lannister pays his debts.
Each character falls back on his order own moral code in many ways. For Sandor Clegane, the only thing he feels guilt about (presumably) is killing Mycah, Arya Stark’s young friend. But when one assumes that Sandor Clegane is in the business of protecting children, it all makes sense. He killed Mycah in the service of then-Prince Joffrey, a child who later proved to be damaged beyond saving. His later actions with Sansa (protecting her a great deal) and Arya (protecting her, in his own way) show his true character. What Jon Snow says about the wildlings–that they have “their own sort of honor”–is ultimately true of Sandor as well, even though Sansa can’t see this and constantly insists that he is “no true knight.”
No one would argue, of course, that these characters are solely good. But Martin is making a bigger point than that, I think. That the nature of honor, and indeed, humanity, is far more complex than usually portrayed in stories.
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women was disappointing to me. I chose it because the premise sounded ripe and fascinating — fictionalized biographies of interesting women who time and history forgot. Bergman’s stories run through time, intersecting and diverging with each other while jumping through narrators.
By the end of the book, I expected to have learned new snippets about interesting historical women. Instead, I found myself somewhat numbed by the book and vaguely dissatisfied.
But I think this lack of satisfaction was actually part of Bergman’s plan. In her afterword, she writes, “the world has not always been kind to its unusual women.” This is both sad and true and Bergman’s story collection ends up feeling the same way. I finished the stories and felt somewhat let down. Not as a reader, but as a woman. These are not happy stories about exceptional women defying convention. These are hard stories of women “whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes.” They never got their due in life and don’t receive it now, even in fictionalized form. (more…)
In 2015, I decided to be more thoughtful and intentional with my reading choices by signing up for two Reading Challenges, one from Popsugar and one from Book Riot. Since I’m just wrapping up the first quarter of the year, I thought I’d touch base and see how I’m doing.
- A mystery or thriller (Popsugar): The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
- A book set in a different country (Popsugar): Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario
- A nonfiction book (Popsugar): A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders
- A book a friend recommended (Popsugar) / A romance novel (Book Riot): Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire (recommended by Brittany)
- A book you can finish in a day (Popsugar): The Culture Clash
- A book with a color in the title (Popsugar) / A book written by a person whose gender is different from your own (Book Riot): The Devil in the White City by Eric Larsen
- A book with magic (Popsugar) / A book published this year (Book Riot): A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
- A book by an author you’ve never read before (Popsugar): The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King
- A book originally written in a different language (Popsugar) / A book published by an indie press (Book Riot): The Museum Vault by Marc-Antoine Mathieu
- A book set during Christmas (Popsugar): The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
So far, so good. I’ve been making good progress, but neither of the challenges have noticeably changed my reading habits. I’m still mostly slotting whatever I’m reading into the categories provided, but I hope as the year goes on, I’ll do more scrambling to top off the harder, more unusual categories.
How is your year of reading going?
It took me ages to start my full reread of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, better known as the inspiration for HBO’s A Game of Thrones. The series is nothing short of epic, five books and 4,272 pages of battle scenes, incognito heirs, queens in exile, twincest, secret shadows, knights on the run, and a mysterious supernatural threat to the Seven Kingdoms. Winter is coming.
This is not an easy series to wrap one’s head around. It is complex in the best possible way, and author George R. R. Martin demands a lot from his reader. You are meant to keep track of how one bannerman associated with one character in one storyline connects with a boy associated with another character in another plot; to remember hair colors and eye colors and what they can mean when they appear in unexpected places; to retain dozens of exotic-sounding names and peoples in a storyline happening half a world away from the rest of the tale; and to remember enough of what you are told about this world’s history to recognize the impact of it on the events currently unfolding. You’re meant to understand the rudiments of at least three religious belief systems, and evaluate and potentially accept the presence of various sorts of magic potentially derived from various sources. (more…)
I hardly know where to begin with V.E. Schwab’s fantastic A Darker Shade of Magic. The book is a delightful mix of the historical and magical, telling the story of three parallel Londons that exist on top of each other, like sheets of paper, and the few magicians who are able to travel between them.
With this logline, A Darker Shade was actually far different than I expected. I went into the book thinking it would feature three different historic Londons and magicians who traveled through time between them. I suspect my assumptions stemmed somehow from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a book with a somewhat similar premise.
Instead, A Darker Shade features one historic London (set during the Regency in the early 19th century) and two entirely magical places that share the name of London, but nothing else. While not what I expected, this bit of inventiveness allowed the book to veer tidily from the historical into the realm of the fantastical to good effect. (more…)