The Epistolary

It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that when I started a new mini-project-ish-thing a couple weeks ago, I plugged it on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and in a few emails, but completely forgot to mention it on, y’know, my blog.

So, anyway, The Epistolary. Go check it out. It is not in the nature of that project to have much in the way of updates, but there may be a few, and it is likely that there will be more activity over there than over here in any case.

Cerin Amroth has moved

The kidblog, Cerin Amroth, can now be found at www.cerinamroth.org. Movin’ back to hosting things myself, so I figured I’d grab the domain name since it was still out there. If there’s anyone left who doesn’t just get there by clicking a link from Facebook, update your feed.

This blog also migrated, but that should be transparent.

Yes, You Still Have to Read the Books

Once upon a time, I thought I was going to be that guy. The one who didn’t read A Song of Ice and Fire, but only watched the HBO series, so that I could provide that perspective, crucial at dinner party conversations, of someone who had only experienced the television version. That was my plan. Its chief advantage, in my mind, is that it saved me the obligation of reading thousands of pages of text that I had started once but put down.

Then early last year the iBook version of A Game of Thrones was on sale, and I didn’t even know where my physical copy was any more, so I figured, what the heck, I’ll give it a try. A few months later, I had read all five books in succession. I then waited patiently for the first season of the series to be available on DVD to watch that, but having done so lacked the patience to wait for season two, and finished watching it recently by … other means.

I love me a good fantasy literature conversation. And I also groove on a good aesthetics-of-film-adaptation chat. So it’s been good times lately, all in all, but for those of you who thought like I used to think, I am here to tell you that, sorry, you do still have to read the books. The HBO series is very good. But if you enjoyed it, you should know you are still missing far too much to ignore. Being “that guy” just isn’t worth it.

Not speaking in absolutes here, but in relative terms, the most helpful way to think about it is that the television series is melodrama, and the books are naturalism. This is understandable. In a TV series you want to end each episode on, if not a cliffhanger, at least on an interesting plot-beat that makes viewers want to tune in the following week. You want an explosive ending. And, within your budgetary limitations, you favor action over dry conversation. To its credit, the series avoids one of the conventions of melodrama: black-and-white villains and heroes. That wouldn’t have fit A Song of Ice and Fire at all, so they rightly avoid it. But in most respects the series works to elevate the level of drama.

An example: in the books, when Daenerys goes to the warlocks’ tower, it’s out of curiosity after an invitation. They have dire plans for her which she escapes, after having visions, but all this occurs in the middle of her time at Qarth. In the series, her people are killed! Her dragons are kidnapped! And in the season finale she enters the tower alone and rescues them!

Television imposes natural limitations on the numbers of characters you can have, because each one has to have an actor, preferably one that can stick around for a season or two (until George R.R. Martin has them ruthlessly killed, of course). As a result there are fewer coincidences in the show, and more paths crossing. The whore who Theon visits in Winterfell shows up at King’s Landing, and fills the shoes of a handful of minor characters. Arya serves as cupbearer to Tywin Lannister, who she doesn’t even meet in the books.

That last one an example of crossing paths working really well, actually — their scenes are nowhere to be found in the book, but the series’ writers get a lot of mileage out of them, not only creating tension, but also conveying all sorts of details about those characters that comes across in the books in completely different ways. It’s probably the kind of scene that Martin wishes he had thought to include in the books.

When I say the books are more naturalistic, I mean that most of the time, Martin seems to be tracing the paths of his characters through the world he has created, and thinking, dispassionately and concretely, about what would happen to them in the circumstances they find themselves in, and then following that thread where it leads. In other words, while he includes plenty of instances of dramatic tension, in a battle between “wouldn’t it be cool if” and “this is how my world works,” the internal consistency of his world wins out every time. I happen to believe that he will round out this series of books with a suitably sweeping, loose-ends-gathering, perhaps even melodramatic ending, but in getting there he has been perfectly content to kill off characters, major and minor, and to introduce new characters when efficiency might dictate to keep it simpler, and sometimes to include whole chapters for little reason more than to introduce us to a new corner of his world.

All of this makes for a very different experience than the tightly-plotted TV episodes. Not necessarily better or worse, but different enough that you can’t really say that by experiencing one you’ve got the gist of the other.

One way that the television series cannot hope to measure up is when it comes to conveying the extraordinary detail and depth of the secondary world Martin has created. Where Tolkien’s world is mythic, Martin’s is sociopolitical, based on medieval Europe in a way many fantasy world’s only are on the surface. He has his (rather limited) supernatural elements, both historically and in the present, and works through systematically how such things might influence society, and what the resulting culture(s) would look like. And then he fills it in, with geneaologies and economies and religions and political divisions and all the rest. In the television series, most of these details can only be hinted at, referenced, perhaps alluded to in order to give a wink to fans of the books, but they can’t really be conveyed. There’s just not enough time.

Consider Dragonstone, Stannis’ keep on the ocean. If you’re read the books, you know that it was the built by the Targaryens when they first arrived from over the sea, escaping the apocalyptic ruin of Old Valyria. It was their citadel for conquering this new land — that’s why there’s a big map built into that one table. The place is suffused with the magic of the dragon-riders of yore. When Robert gave it to Stannis after the war, it was simultaneously a great honor, as a storied and formidable keep, but also a way to give a rather uncomfortable place for non-Targaryens to someone Robert was certainly uncomfortable with. And it was a slap in the face that Stannis didn’t get Storm’s End, the historical Baratheon seat of power.

That last point is (briefly) touched on in the television series, but Dragonstone itself is a just a moody keep built on rocky cliffs. They make it a dour place for a dour ruler, reinforcing character with visuals, in filmic fashion, but there is so much there that you don’t get to find out about without actually reading all those world details in the books.

Sometimes it’s not just background details that get lost, but crucial matters of motivation and plot. You have to be playing close attention in the final episodes of season two to understand just what Qhorin Halfhand is expecting of Jon before he provokes him to killing him, and if you didn’t already have some context from the books, you’re likely to miss it. And you could hardly be blamed for wondering “who the heck burned Winterfell?” at the end there as well. Everything in there plays out differently than in the books anyway, but it’s downright confusing. No doubt HBO will clear it up in season three, when they’ll be able to introduce Ramsay Bolton. But where on earth was he in season two? The way that he’s referenced but not introduced has everything to do with not having to find an actor for an extra season, the same way that Theon’s taking Winterfell in the first place is only presented after the fact because budgetary constraints limit the amount of swordplay you can fit into your ten episodes, and nothing to do with the best way to present the material. And don’t even get me started on all the tactical complexity of the Battle of Blackwater Bay getting reduced to a couple big explosions and a fight over a fifty-yard section of wall.

Looking ahead to what lies in store, in both the books and the television series, a great illustration of the stark contrast between them is provided by the matter of Jon Snow’s parentage. No spoilers here — we don’t know the answer yet! — but it’s easy to see that the answer to where he comes from will be one of the big reveals later in the story. And as exciting as it will be, in a way, we already know how it will play out in the television version. Come season six or seven or eight or whatever it turns out to be, in episode three and episode eight, we’ll have scenes bringing up the issue of where he comes from, reminding us of his details, and foreshadowing for the finale, episode ten, which will lead with a “previously on Game of Thrones” that includes that conversation between Ned and Robert from season one that no one’s thought about in forever, so we know something to do with that will be coming this episode. And then we’ll find out … something.

Now consider how it is in the books. Readers have been thinking about this for a while, and there are multiple theories. The one with the most textual evidence, and the one I support, involves a detailed reading of certain historical events that so far haven’t even come up in the series, key recollections of Ned’s in one of his POV view chapters before he dies, and a carefully constructed timeline of the events of Robert’s Rebellion in order to rule out other possibilities. All of this is only possible because of the sheer volume of history, backstory, and ancillary detail that you get in the books. When we find out the truth, whether or not it aligns with any particular theory, we can be sure that it will be consistent with all the clues that have been sprinkled throughout the years in these books, and that final “I knew it!” or “Wow, I didn’t see it, but there it is!” will be immensely satisfying.

So, by all means, enjoy the series. It’s a great adaptation. But there’s a difference between taking a dip at the shallow end of the pool and swimming in the ocean. You still have to read the books.

The Ryan Pick

I realize it’s not fashionable these days to be relaxed by campaign events, especially VP picks, but Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan has set me at ease.

First, and most obviously, I don’t think it was his best pick, politically speaking, and therefore it (very slightly) increases Obama’s chances of re-election. Romney was on better footing when he could draft off of the natural tendency of voters to blame the incumbent for their current woes, keeping the focus on his opponent. Now the Obama campaign can shift the focus to Ryan and his budget plan, and engage in some good old-fashioned scaremongering about how he wants to take away everyone’s Medicare, which has the added benefit of being more or less true.

But I was also set at ease because of what the pick means for if Romney does win. On the campaign trail he’s transmogrified from a moderate, sensible, New England Republican into a cookie-cutter national GOP mouthpiece, so people wonder, quite rightly, just who he’ll be when he’s actually sitting in the Oval Office. And I’ve always suspected that he’d go right back to governor-of-Massachusetts mode, and social conservatives would grumble, business leaders would cheer, and he still wouldn’t be my choice over Obama, but he wouldn’t be a catastrophe, and if we’re lucky he might be able to pull off a Grand Compromise or two.

Romney picking Ryan reaffirms my hunch. Ryan is a longtime political operative and a thorough policy geek. He’s a number-cruncher. I’m sure he has plenty of votes putting him on the wrong side of social issues, but being a socially conservative crusader is not his thing. And while I happen to think that some of his core assumptions render his solutions for fixing the country’s budget and economic path highly problematic, I give him credit for presenting concrete and even unpopular proposals for addressing real problems. Ryan is the pick for a technocrat, not an ideologue.

Plus, the propect of a Biden-Ryan VP debate gives me something to actually look forward to in an otherwise hideous election season.

The Best Of Polytropos

Pardon the stroll down memory lane, but I’m tidying up the blog a little, and thought it would be nice to have a succinct “best of” list from when I blogged regularly to link to. Here it is. Let me know if you think anything is missing.

The End of an Era

Thanks to the modified calendar, Ella and Dominic both started school this morning. I walked them both down the street to the predictable chaos of first-day logistics. Yesterday we visited the school to drop off supplies and meet their teachers. Dom has Ms. Pendergast, the same teacher Ella had for kindergarten, which we’re happy about.

Ella’s response to it all was no surprise, having been through it several times before. She got a little case of cold feet the morning of, and was relieved that since I was taking a kindergartner in I got to go past the lobby drop-off point and walk all the way to the classroom, and didn’t have to say good-bye to her until the base of the steps leading up the second floor. There were a few tears but I knew she’d be fine as soon as she got to her classroom – between three years under her belt at Mount Vernon and soccer last spring, she was pretty much guaranteed to have a few friends in her class no matter which teacher she ended up with.

I was much more curious to see how Dominic handled it all. I can tell he’s had Starting a New School on his mind a lot, and was dragging his feet this morning (appropriate snarky response here: “How could you tell?”). But while he’ll fall on his back and kick his legs like a toddler when asked to help pick up the living room, when it comes to emotional matters of substance, he remains, as he himself put it, Ferb-like. And that held true this morning. I’m sure he appreciated that I was able to walk him to his classroom, but I’m not sure he really needed it. When it came time to say goodbye there were no tears – he was perfectly ready to get down to business.

Of course, I know for a fact that he’s going to be exhausted when I pick him up later today. And I also know that he’ll be flabbergasted at how crowded and noisy the cafeteria is, and may spend lunchtime with his hands over his ears rather than eating his lunch, and even if that’s not the case there’s no way he will eat more than a quarter of his lunch in the allotted time. But I have a feeling he’ll have a smoother time getting used to it all than Ella did three years ago.

Once everybody else starts their school year in another month or so, they’ll get in gear with soccer practices and swimming lessons and maybe we’ll bite the bullet and shell out the big bucks for piano lessons this year, too. Quite a change from their abbreviated summer, which consisted of a whirlwind two-and-a-half-week vacation bracketed by sweltering weather at home and a ton of board games and reading.

But now, for me … freedom. Last year I had a modicum of it, when Dominic was in preschool for a few hours each morning, but with all the commuting, that amounted to enough time to exercise and do a little reading, or maybe run some errands. But today I dropped the kids off, went to exercise, and am now sipping coffee at St. Elmo’s, typing away, with another three hours ahead of me before I have to pick them up. It’s rather dizzying. Lots of people have been asking me just what I’m going to be doing with this time. The answer, more or less, is “Writing of one stripe or another, at least for now, while remaining receptive to other possibilities as they may arise.” Preparing for that has largely been an exercise in plotting out what I will not be doing with this time, to wit, checking email every ten minutes, reading my RSS feeds, reading novels, checking Facebook, browsing on longform.org, playing games. Systematically removing those activities will either drive me to some productive writing, drive me to find something else to do with that time, or drive me insane. Time will tell!

Rambling Thoughts Upon Catching Up With A Song of Ice and Fire

I’m finally caught up with A Song of Ice and Fire. I pity all of you who had to wait years in between the first five books, because there is precious little that divides one from the other, that rewards any sort of pause in the narrative, and there is much that punishes those long breaks, when it comes to keeping track of all the names and places and heraldries and intrigues. Of course, now with a couple more books to go and who-knows-how-long till the next one, I’m in the same boat.

Warning: spoilers aplenty.

Like Tolkien’s, George R. R. Martin’s greatest accomplishment in his works is the secondary world he has created, intimidating and wonderful in its breadth and depth.  But unlike Middle Earth, there is nothing mythic about Westeros and its environs. It is medieval history and economics writ onto a world with only a dollop of the supernatural.

Especially in the later books, SoIaF reminded me of an extended campaign of Amber: The Roleplaying Game. Bear with me here. The Amber setting also had a certain element of court intrigue, but that’s not the main thing. If you ever played Amber and your games were anything like the ones I was involved in, at a certain point all the players have their own individual, sometimes-intersecting but often solo plot threads going, and there are a host of supporting characters, many of whom are more powerful than the characters the players represent, and the whole business starts to take on a life of its own. When I ran an Amber game in full swing, my preparation before game night would consist largely of running down the list of players, considering their plans and likely actions, and then running down the (long!) list of supporting characters and putting myself in their shoes and wondering what they would do in the circumstances they were in. Gameplay was just a matter of following those threads and working out the inevitable implications of the characters and their actions — it had a life of its own, and didnt need (some sometimes resist) attempts by move the overaching plot in a Direction by any sort of narrative fiat.

I imagine Martin finding himself in a similar situation. Daenerys finds herself atop the Pyramid in Meereen — what would she do? She couldn’t simply walk away from all that, it’s not in her nature, so what then? All of book five basically unravels that thread. Same for Cersei finding herself behind the throne.  I can’t imagine Martin planning for Jon to die the way he did — and I’m still a little bitter about it, actually — but I can easily see him sitting down, considering who the people are around him and what the situation is on either side of the Wall, and realizing that because of who he is — his father’s son, to the bone — he’s going to piss people off trying to do the right thing, and it’s not going to end well for him.

Arya. I was fiercely devoted to her from almost the minute she was introduced, which in these books is not a very healthy approach to take with any character. Somewhere in the middle of book three I vowed that I would stop reading if Martin killed her off — and part of the strength of these books is that that, as with anything else, was definitely a possibility. If you started reading thinking that a certain character “had” to survive or that a certain outcome was “inevitable,” you should have been disabused of that by the end of the first book, and Martin is inclined to issue periodic reminders just in case you forget the lesson.  What has actually happened with Arya is interesting but makes me a little nervous — what if, rather than simply killing her off, Martin is concocting an even greater cruelty by simply obliterating her identity, piece by piece, on her road to being Faceless?

Arya and Jon reuniting was the one scene I was most looking forward to at some future point in these books. And as “fitting” or “inevitable” as Jon’s death might be, the fact that it’s no longer possible saddens me. Maybe she’ll reconnect with Bran, though who can tell what he is becoming or has become. Seeing Sansa again doesn’t carry quite the same excitement, or Rickon for that matter, since he was so small during the idyllic pre-book-one time.

Tyrion. I haven’t seen the HBO version yet but lots of people who have say that he’s their favorite character in it. And he’s right up there with Arya for me as well. Everyone who reads these books has, whether they realize it or not, a CHI — chapter heading index — that scales from one to ten based on their excitement/anticipation when they see which point of view of the next chapter is going to be from. And these numbers can of course change over time. On a scale of 1 to 10 Arya and Tyrion always rate 9 or 10, Bran 7 or 8, Daenerys down around 3. Davos a solid 7, perhaps inflated since he’s so infrequent. Jaime, who was “WTF error number not found” when he first came on the scene as a POV, is now for me a solid 8. Jon’s a 7, Samwell 5, Sansa 4, Theon 3.

But yeah, Tyrion.  The smartest guy in the room no matter the room, which Varys appreciated, which is why he tried to send him to young Aegon. But for every time Tyrion’s mouth saves his ass, another time it’ll get him in trouble, and wherever on that roller coaster he actually ends up at the end of all this, it’ll have been quite a ride.

I must confess that, thinking about it a little more, where book five left things was unsatisfactory in a number of ways.  Bran’s and Sansa’s plotlines don’t make any headway in the latter half, not even a nod toward the end to see where they fit in. Stannis’ fate is reported in a letter, so we don’t get an end-note on either Theon or Asha’s experiences either. Part of me thinks that it was left as possibly-unreliable reportage because there might be more going on there, but I thought that about the Knight of Flowers getting grievously wounded and there was no there there either. For Victarian, Brienne and Jaime, Samwell, we have inklings of what’s in store for them but nothing approaching a neat resolution. Book five ends swimming in loose ends, and the thought of having to just leave them hanging there for who knows how long is maddening.

A word on the supernatural — what there is of it. The Others are obviously a big honkin’ something-or-other. And then we have our polar forces — Day/South, represented by the Lord of Light, whose followers appear to have an undeniable ability to peer into their fires and see things happening from the past/the future/afar, though no particularly ability to interpret what they see. Night/North, represented by the greenseers and the Old Ways and, increasingly, Bran, where the chief power is the ability to project & control animals (“wargs”) and in some cases other people and even trees. Then you’ve got Melisandre’s creepier powers, the Faceless Men to some extent, and of course the dragons. I’ll be curious to see where it all ends up, since there’s clearly a sense that the arrival of the dragons has triggered an upswing of magic in the world. But what I’m most curious about is the relationship between the magic of the North and the Others. The red priests fear the night; the greenseer tells Bran to embrace it. Melisandre clearly perceives the Other that she’s facing off against as a power beyond the wall, but does that refer to the Others or to the greenseer/Bran? And are those two related, and if so how? I was expecting a big reveal on that front toward the end of book five, but instead we got nothing from Bran since mid-book.  Grrr.

Man oh man is the North screwed. With Jon gone, wildlings and crows will fall on each other. Melisandre’s presence doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. The Boltons now hold sway. And our little ray of sunshine? And Arya-who-is-not-Arya in the hands of effin’ Theon. I can see it now, though, Martin’s going to pull a another Jaime on us, and by the end of book seven we’ll kind of like Theon in spite of ourselves.

Of course, only after writing all of this does it occur to me what Thoros of Myr did to/for Beric Dondarrion, and that with the red lady up there we best not write Jon Snow off completely. That thought is as intriguing as it is creepy.

Davos is still out there, searching for … Rickon, was it? Another ray of hope.

Though it does say something that my thought process coming off the book consists of desperately rooting around looking for things to be optimistic about!

At any rate, I am happy to finally be at the point where I can geek out with everybody else about these books. They’re not perfect but it was a hell of a ride.

 

Pre-release, Then and Now

In 1991, this is how I got an early to listen to something from R.E.M.’s new album:  My friend Ed had a friend Joe who lived in Lansing, which, as a college town, was the place that record companies would release stuff early to see how it did.  So they played “Losing My Religion” on the radio in Lansing before they did anywhere else, and Joe recorded the song off the radio onto a cassette tape.  Then he made a copy of that cassette tape, which Ed received when he drove to Lansing to see Joe.  Then Ed came back to Grand Rapids and went to the coffee shop at Calvin College, where he plopped down a Sony Walkman that actually had a tiny speaker on it in the middle of the table.  And so we who were lucky enough to be present for it gathered around to listen to the song, which we repeated, transfixed, at least five times in a row.

I remember that around this time, R.E.M. did an interview where Michael Stipe was asked just how long they thought this band of theirs would stay together.  He answered “not forever,” but Peter Buck interjected that he thought it would be cool if they lasted until the year 2000 so they could do a big new millenium concert.  And then break up maybe.  I remember that seeming an impossibly long way away.

Now, in 2011, I heard about the latest R.E.M. pre-release from my friend Jonathan thanks to his Facebook update.  (He had happened by that 1991 listening party and was delighted at his good fortune, as I recall.)  Though I missed the live stream on NPR yesterday, they are still streaming it all day today, so I’m listening to it right now on the speakers in my living room which are wirelessly connected to my computer in the basement.  When I leave home in a few minutes I’ll be able to listen to it again by hooking up my phone to my car stereo and streaming from the same website while driving down the street.

In 1991, listening to that song over and over on the tinny Walkman, I felt like it was changing my life each time I heard it.  And I still know every twist and turn of every track on that album like the back of my hand.  This new one is good, better than anything they’ve done in a while, but even if Collapse Into Now objectively blows Out of Time out of the water, there’s no way it could ever make the same impression on me now that that one did back then.

The new ways to get it, and to hear it, are super-duper cool and amazing.  1991-me would be thrilled to learn that someday such thing would be possible.  But 2011-me is thinking he’d trade away all that tech for the ability to feel about an album the way he felt in 1991.

Fifteen Year Tattoos

Admittedly, they are a couple years late.  Suanna and I celebrated our fifteenth anniversary in 2008, so we should have been getting our third tattoos then.  As with the ten-years, a good part of the delay was deciding what, exactly, we wanted to get engraved on our bodies in perpetuity.  And then it was a matter of finding a time when Suanna could get off work a little early and when Adam Jeffrey, who did a splendid job on our second tattoos, was working from the Alexandria branch of the Great Southern Tattoo company and available to do our thirds.

Getting tattoos for every five years of our marriage seemed like a great idea in our twenties, and while there have been plenty of people skeptical of the notion — “But you’ll be covered in them when you’re 80!”, as if that was a bad thing — we remain cheerfully committed.  Suanna’s seem to get bigger and more complicated each time.  I think I’ll keep mine low key until year 50 or so, when I’ll put down the big bucks for my dream tattoo:  an Amazon with a laser rifle riding a saber-toothed tiger, across my whole back.

Great Southern hadn’t changed all that much since the last time, though it was the differences that stuck out.  Uncle Charlie had a few fewer teeth.  Adam’s beard was longer.  All the tattoo artists had iPhones.  The last time, Ella was eighteen months old and charming the socks off everyone there.  This time she ignored everybody and spent her time playing a game on the iPod or reading Magic Tree House #1, with me not quite getting my mind around the fact that she didn’t need any help whatsoever to read it.  Dominic, who looked at comic books the whole time, didn’t even exist the last time we were there.

To get back on track we’ll come back in three years for our twentieth anniversary.  Not sure what I’ll get yet, but I’ll make a point of deciding well beforehand.  Ella will be nine, Dom will be six, Suanna and I will have known each other for more of our lives than we haven’t, and Uncle Charlie will still be there to greet us when we walk in the door.  Here’s hopin’.

Oh, and the tattoos, of course:

Suanna’s is a willow branch, designed by Sara Fynewevermuyskens.  Mine is a triskelion, a motif from a variety of cultures though I first came across it researching medieval Brittany.  I just think it looks cool.