Look At Me I Read Some Books!
The Calling – Barry Blanchard
I suspect that in future years I will credit this book with inspiring a renewal of my passion for mountaineering. As I have said elsewhere, Kiss Or Kill was the first climbing book I ever read and I essentially got into climbing to become the sort of person Mark Twight was. Sometime in the last three years that drive has gotten lost. Anxiety, fear, and laziness have overwhelmed my hopes and dreams many times. I have grown resentful and jealous and my depression has made several major resurgences. Reading the first few chapters of Blanchard’s memoir was like stepping back in time and reliving my original aspirations. These chapters concern his attempt on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat with Kevin Doyle, Mark Twight, and Ward Robinson, and what struck me, more than the cold and misery and danger, even more than the glory and ferocity, was the love. I think Blanchard knew this and shoved these chapters, far out of the greater chronology, to the forefront, so that his postscript, about how he and Kevin Doyle supported each other through some of their dark nights of the soul and how the meaning of life is love, would seem like a return to the source. Whether this was his or some editor’s decision, it is masterfully done. I can think of some climbing books that are as powerful (Kiss Or Kill, The Great Days, Touching The Void) but none more so by any kind of margin.
In some ways The Calling is more about all the people Blanchard climbed with than it is about himself. No matter the intensity of the climb he is describing, the partnership is what takes center stage. This is what gives the memoir its extraordinary human warmth; there are so many climbing books that read as either tragedies or litanies – everything that went wrong or everything that went right, and while some of the best climbing books ever written fall into the category of the former, in repetition they become meaningless; they start to feel like war memoirs and one begins to wonder why we do this is the first place. Additionally, to write a story composed primarily of triumph without it devolving into the old historian’s complaint: one damn thing after another, is extremely difficult. I, for one, can barely write a trip report for a successful climb in anything other than bullet points. Throughout the book Blanchard and his partners face appalling danger and difficulty but the most memorable passages are of passion and humor. At one point he relates some friend of his’s theory of Freudian psychosexual degeneration, how climbers enter an expedition in the sexual stage, talking incessantly about their significant others back home, before reverting to the anal stage, where the composition of everyone’s bowel movements becomes the primary concern, and then finally, when all hope of sexual satisfaction and ever taking a solid shit again have passed, the climbers enter the oral stage and its endless fascination with all the things they want to shove through the holes in their faces. Even in my limited experience on climbing trips in the Cascades, this theory seems frighteningly accurate.
The World of Ice and Fire – George Martin
Usually I really dislike reviews that think they need to give a summary of the work they are reviewing (this is what wikipedia is for), but with regards to George Martin’s latest tome, some clarity needs to be reached regarding what exactly he created before I can proceed to value judgement the shit out of it. Unlike his Song of Ice and Fire novel series, The World of Ice and Fire is written as an in-world artifact: a compendium of world history written by a “Maester Yandel” for the “King Tommen,” with whom readers of Martin’s novels will be familiar. Despite this slightly campy premise, the work does not suffer greatly from a series of annoying, self-referential, asides, as one might expect. In other words, Martin is giving us a prehistory for his series that, while not providing any Ah-Ha moments regarding major mysteries from the novels, avoids the unreliable narrator trap that its premise might suggest. None of this, however, should be taken to mean that just because the book is not as bad as it could be, it is particularly good either.
In addition to major and persistent redundancy and derivation problems, Martin was unable to resist the temptation to be inappropriately clever, punning Lucifer as the devil and alluding to Thomas Hobbes’ famous Leviathan quote about life being “nasty, brutish, and short.” And these were just the two I could remember off the top of my head, again and again I rolled my eyes and almost asked aloud, “really? are you kidding me?” Peter Jackson has said regarding his initial goal of making The Lord of the Rings a different sort of fantasy film, that what they could never do was wink at the audience in the manner of so many fantasy films, admitting to their own ridiculousness and inviting the viewer to play along. In addition to its more serious flaws, The World of Ice and Fire has entirely too much winking.
Of my two more serious critiques the more straightforward is that Martin tells the same story over and over again. Children + Giants – First Men – Andals – Targaryens – Robert’s rebellion, the details vary from region to region and I could tell he was trying to shake things up and avoid openly repeating himself, but by the end of the second third of the book it felt like I had read the same story seven times. There are all kinds of problems with Martin’s basic grasp of history, how static he seems to think family lineages and lands to be, how little his idiosyncratic seasons seem to impact the plot, but what it all amounts to is that his history tries to be historical and falls just a little bit short. Tolkien didn’t give a shit about being historical; he drew mountain ranges conveniently around kingdoms and neglected even the bare bones of demographic and economic realism, and it didn’t matter because no reader expected it to be otherwise; Middle Earth was a place of legend, its events could be just as meaningful as Moses parting the Red Sea while making about as much sense. But Westeros is not Middle Earth, Westeros has the look and feel of a real, historical place. In most respects Martin did this very well, his world has all the particularities, the contingencies, the random insanity of the real world, but it’s just a little too cohesive, too comprehensible. The Stark line has lasted for thousand of years and they comprise only one nuclear family? Each of the seven kingdoms is ruled by one of seven families, each with a clearly defined symbol, colors, motto, and epic castle, all of which relate to an appropriate theme? These flaws are visible in the novels and it is to Martin’s credit that they are not more glaring in this work, but they are there to be seen regardless.
The last of my major critiques has to do with scope. The scope of The World of Ice and Fire is massive, covering as much of the world and its history as it would be conceivable for a scholar in Oldtown to know, but in actuality the universe Martin invented for his novels is somewhat less vast and the close reader will see the gaps. Martin’s history of the Targaryen regime, if nearly as incomprehensible as parts of The Silmarillion, is well developed, as are his histories of the other seven kingdoms and the Free Cities. Beyond that, the book tends to cover places Daenerys went while padding out the periphery with Lovecraftian mythology. And I don’t just mean squid deities. The edges of Martin’s map are filled with direct, shameless, Lovecraft references: an island of Leng where the inhabitants commune with Old Ones; a K’Dath of fabled horror; numerous ruins of unknown origin and sinister appearance. After reading this I am now expecting the series to conclude with Daenerys and Drogon battling Cthulhu and a horde of cosmic cats for the Iron Throne.
One final note regarding the illustrations: Some time ago I watched an interview with Martin where he talked about wanting some really good art for the book, or rather, he really didn’t want it to be another “big book of bad art.” In general they did ok, it wasn’t Alan Lee but there were exactly zero cringe-inducing images. While the majority of the illustrations were somewhere between pretty and pretty blah, there were a few standouts, Philip Straub’s Dragonstone endpaper, Arthur Bozonnet’s portraits of Baelor the Blessed, Jordi Gonzales Escalmilla’s Andals in the Stormlands, Jose Daniel Cabrera Pena’s Sword of the Morning, and Philip Straub’s festival city. My issue is with art direction, not art quality: all of the women look like supermodels. I know most of them are supposed to be related and the Targaryens are notoriously beautiful, but with that much inbreeding it is simply absurd for them to be so consistently hot. And it’s not just facial structure and nice dresses, the artists unerringly chose these striking runway poses. I’m not sure if those were just the models they had to work with or if these guys just don’t know how to paint a normal looking woman. Also: eyeliner and tans, they haven’t always been in. In any case, I found it weird and somewhat distracting throughout.
Five Dialogues – Plato
By the time I graduated from high school I had read four Shakespeare plays but had never touched Plato. I’m pretty sure this is a good 40% of what is wrong with public liberal arts education. Plato’s thought is foundational for western philosophy, and for western ways of thinking in general. You can’t understand Christianity, among other things, without it. I am firmly convinced that instead of four years of “English” classes, high school students should take at least one of philosophy. Anyways, I first read the Five Dialogues (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Phaedo) four years ago in my freshman year Ancient Philosophy seminar and have re-read it in parts several times since and now finally in full. For a modern reader, the experience is an odd one: you start with the Euthyphro, a lighthearted, strangely comedic, introduction to the Socratic method, and then progress to the Apology, which might be the single most important philosophic text ever written. Socrates’ doubt of his own knowledge is less famous than that of Descartes, but, in my view, far more profound. Descartes is playing a game, sitting in front of his fireplace in a bathrobe, pondering this crap because he has nothing better to do. When Descartes wonders if he can really know anything for sure he’s playing lets pretend, which is revealed when he argues his way absurdly from “I think therefore I am,” to “the existence of God is a necessary fact.” For Socrates it is not a game, he might have been making fun of Euthyphro but his trial is as serious as it gets. He genuinely believes that all his knowledge, and therefore all of everyone’s knowledge, is made suspect by its limited nature.
As great as parts of the dialogues are though, Greek logic can be kind of messed up. In high school I took a theory of knowledge class (don’t ask) and one of the first things we were told was “the word is not the thing,” meaning that there is no intrinsic connections between the words we use for things and the things themselves. From a postmodern, poststructuralist perspective this is a kind of simplistic view, but it is an important foundation, and one that we do not share with many ancient peoples. Plato seems to believe that if something makes sense grammatically it must be true, i.e. Elephants and Elephant Seals must be related, so he can say the most absurd things and all the other people in his dialogues just nod their heads and say, “of course Socrates, it must be so.” It was kind of funny reading my original margin annotations, i would get so mad at these guys, I one point I just scribbled, “SHUT UP YOU FUCKING YES MAN.” The pinnacle of his absurdity might have been when he argued for the immortality of the soul on the basis of the soul being connected to the living and the living being the opposite of the dead.