Friday, October 28, 2011

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin (1998)

It doesn't usually take me over two weeks between books and posts, but I've been spending my time reading the exceedingly hefty, 1,000+ page, A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin (1998) -- the second addition to his exceedingly popular Song of Ice and Fire series. In A Clash of Kings Martin continues his fantasy series that satisfies the non-fantasy reader.

At the start of the book, the formerly united kingdom of Westeros is divided into factions supporting four or five different kings. Who can keep track! The children of Ned Stark are equally divided: His oldest son, Robb, is leading an army as the King of the North; Sansa is locked away at King's Landing and still betrothed to the evil Joffery Lannister; Asha is posing as an orphan boy and on the run from the Lannisters; Jon Snow, the bastard son, is becoming an invaluable member of the Night Watch; and the crippled Bran and young Rickon are holding Winterfell.

Martin doesn't seem to be much of one for happy reunions or easy solutions, so things generally get more complicated for all our characters as the book progresses instead of easing up. But we wouldn't have it any other way, George!

Once again this book is filled with impressive set pieces, and awesome kills, and Martin's famous disregard for killing off main characters gives every near-miss a hint of finality. Martin also continues to keep the magic reigned in -- and when he lets some sneak out it is used to such good effect that an anti-magic/dragon reader like me doesn't mind at all.

I'm going to take a little breather, but the wonderful John has already lent me the third volume, so A Storm of Swords is on the horizon. If I don't post for a couple weeks, you will know what's going on.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of its Golden Age by Paul Zollo (2002)

I received a copy of the 2011 reprinting of Paul Zollo's 2002 release, Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of its Golden Age through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Zollo clearly has a passion for the early days of Hollywood, and although the book has some flaws, that passion and the book's exhaustiveness make it a worthwhile read.

The book is divided into three parts: a history of Hollywood written by Zollo (going all the way back to the dinosaurs!), a collection of oral history "memoirs," and a written tour of existing and torn down hollywood landmarks. By far the most engaging section is the collection of memoirs. Zollo interviews stars (Steve Allen, Jonathan Winters, Karl Malden, Evelyn Keyes), extras, bartenders, secretaries, one of the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, cinematographers, businessmen, housewives, and lingerie models. Coming at these memories from so many angles makes for an encompassing look at the city and the phenomenon called Hollywood, even if many of the memories are clouded with nostalgia, age, and sometimes bitterness and frustration.

Zollo's subjects are arranged by the year of their birth, ranging from 101 to 62 at the time of their interviews. Each subject is given a brief introduction by the author and then allowed to present his or her own story, without the inclusion of Zollo's questions. The memories include rosy pictures of streetcars, safe streets, and lots of orange groves; kiss-and-tell episodes of famous stars (apparently Anthony Quinn has a huge penis); and grumpy old men reactions to the way kids act these days. While some of the interviews are more interesting and informative than others, they all capture the voice of their subjects. And if they don't always shed light on the way old Hollywood really was, they certainly give a complicated picture of how it was remembered.

The book is nicely indexed (yay!) but has a few more typos than I could overlook, particularly for a reprinting. Still, if you are interested in Hollywood, oral history, and the world of yesteryear, this might just be the book for you.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Before dark they encountered laboring up the western slope of the mountain a conducta of one hundred and twenty-two mules bearing flasks of quicksilver for the mines... The others of the company hardly turned to advise themselves of what had occurred. They fell from their mounts and lay in the trail or slid from the escarpment and vanished. The drivers below got their animals turned and were attempting to flee back down the trail and the laden packmules were beginning to clamber white-eyed at the sheer wall of the bluff like enormous rats. The riders pushed between them and the rock and methodically rode them from the escarpment, the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling burst of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites and all its forms grouping below and racing in the stone arroyos like the imbreachment of some ultimate alchemic work decocted from out the secret dark of the earth's heart, the fleeing stag of the ancients fugitive on the mountainside and bright and quick in the dry path of the storm channels and shaping out the sockets in the rock and hurrying from ledge to ledge down the slope shimmering and deft as eels. (194-195)

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985) is one of those books that it seems everyone on earth has read but me -- and I love reading! And Cormac McCarthy! And violence! So I made the executive decision to move it up to the top of my pile. And although this is the most densely violent and biblically overwhelming book I have ever read, I don't regret one word.

In the mid-19th century, a 14-year-old kid (known as "the kid") leaves his unhappy home in Kentucky and heads west. After a series of violent and drunken exchanges, he finds himself joining a gang of Indian hunters led by an ex-soldier named John Joel Glanton* and a freaky, well-educated, gigantic, hairless man named Judge Holden (who is possibly the best ambiguous villain in all of literature). Apart from sections at the beginning and ending of the book where we closely follow the kid, much of the novel gives us the experiences of the collective group of men and their fight against Indians, Mexicans, white people, each other, and more than anything else, nature.

The communal near-death slog across the harsh landscape of Northern Mexico and the (now) Southwestern United States is broken up with visceral explosions of violence against groups of Indians (lots of warriors, but also women, children, and old folks), who they scalp when they can; and groups of Mexicans (many of whom welcome them as heroes for killing the Indians that have been terrorizing their villages but soon learn that the gang are not the most well-mannered guests), and who they also scalp because other Mexicans pay them for every scalp they bring in and a Mexican scalp must look enough like an Indian scalp to get them paid.

Between the thirst-filled journeying and the blood-filled fighting, there is room for some philosophy, a small amount of extremely dry humor, and a whole boat-load of amazing descriptions of the Western landscape that make me want to put my English major hat on and start doing some linguistic studies.

This book probably isn't for everyone -- the violence can be off-putting and the style and language, alternating between seemingly straightforward descriptions and breathless spirals of clauses and vocabulary, is dense and tough to crack. For readers with a tough stomach and a little patience, though, the payoffs are amazing. Definitely one of the best things I've ever read.

*Archives note: I once did some research for a patron trying to find a mention of Glanton in historical records we have for an early Presbyterian church in San Antonio. The theory was that the pastor of the church spoke out against Glanton and his gang from the pulpit and had his house shot at in retaliation before the gang was run out of town. My research was sadly inconclusive -- I found several versions of that story, but none that mentioned Glanton.

**Personal note: This is 100% a book of dudes, and I think this is what happens to some men when there aren't any women around. You can see a slightly less intense version of the same behavior in Fraternity Houses and certain military actions.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter by Ambrose Bierce (1892)

I'd never read any Ambrose Bierce before, but how could I resist the cover of this collection featuring his novella The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter (1892) and seven other short stories from the 1880s and 1890s? I just couldn't. And I'm glad I couldn't because Bierce has an amusing cynicism, beautifully written prose, and a sense for the perfect twist that make his stories very readable 120 years after they were written.

In the title story, a young monk is sent with some of his brothers to an isolated village in the Alps. He soon encounters a beautiful young girl who is shunned by the villagers because her father is the hangman. The monk thinks this injustice is ungodly, and tries to comfort and protect the young girl but is reprimanded by his superiors. The monk is sent up a mountain to a lonely cottage to search his soul and rethink his attraction to the doomed girl, but his life is set on a tragic course and things don't end up turning out very well for anyone up on that mountain.

Bierce hates phonies and is at his best when his naive narrator reveals the hypocrisies he sees around him (and the double-sidedness of his own monkly nature):

I looked about me to see if the child of the hangman were present, but I could not see her anywhere, and knew not whether to rejoice that she was out of reach of the insults of the people or to mourn because deprived of the spiritual strength that might have come to me from looking upon her heavenly beauty.... The wheaten bread was brought in immense baskets, and as to drink, there was assuredly no scarcity of that, for the Superior and the Saltmaster had each given a mighty cask of beer. Both of these monstrous barrels lay on wooden stands under an ancient oak. The boys and the Saltmaster's men drew from the cask which he had given, while that of the Superior was served by the brother butler and a number of us younger monks. In honor of Saint Franciscus I must say that the clerical barrel was of vastly greater size than that of the Saltmaster...

At the table, surrounded by their beautiful wives and daughters, sat many knights, who had come from their distant castles to share in the great festival. I helped at table. I handed the dishes and filled the goblets and was able to see how good an appetite the company had, and how they loved that brown and bitter drink. I could see also how amorously the Saltmaster's son looked at the ladies, which provoked me very much, as he could not marry them all, especially those already married.

We had music, too. Some boys from the village, who practice on various instruments in their spare moments, were the performers. Ah, how they yelled, those flutes and pipes, and how the fiddle bows danced and chirped! I do not doubt the music was very good, but Heaven has not seen fit to give me the right kind of ears...

But the women seemed to dislike the beer, especially the young girls. Usually before drinking a young man would hand his cup to one of the maids, who barely touched it with her lips, and, making a grimace, turned away her face. I am not sufficiently acquainted with the ways of woman to say with certainty if this proved that at other times they were so abstemious.

The rest of the collected short stories are all perfectly crafted with biting twists. My favorite (and probably Bierce's best known work besides The Devil's Dictionary is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) -- a Civil War story about a prisoner being hanged that has some of the most visceral and beautiful descriptions of dying that I've ever read [and to save me doing a bunch more quoting, just read the whole thing here. It is very short and totally worth your time]. In fact, since all of Bierce's work was published before 1923 it is all in the public domain and readily available for your online reading pleasure!

[Book nerd alert: my copy is a 1955 Avon Publications book. If you think the front cover is cool, then just feast your eyes on the back cover.]