On Reading the Novel “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

“What do you think might have killed these men, Gared?” Ser Waymar asked casually.  He adjusted the drape of his long sable cloak.  “It was the cold,” Gared said with iron certainty.  “I saw men freeze last winter, and the one before, when I was half a boy.  Everyone talks about snows forty foot deep, and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north, but the real enemy is the cold.  It steals up on you quieter than Will (a character in the book), and at first you shiver and your teeth chatter and you stamp your feet and dream of mulled wine and nice hot fires.  It burns, it does.  Nothing burns like the cold.  But only for a while.  Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it.  It’s easier just to sit down or go to sleep.  They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end.  First you go weak and drowsy, and everything starts to fade, and then it’s like sinking into a sea of warm milk.  Peaceful, like” (4).

And so begins the widely acclaimed, bestselling novel Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, the first of five books in the series A Song of Ice and Fire.  Many people recognize this fantasy series for the HBO televised adaptation that has been making headlines in the entertainment industry for five seasons now.  As widely spoken about as this story is, I don’t know too many people who have actually read the book, let alone the entire series.  No wonder, really, when you stop to consider the 805-page novel that makes up the first book alone.  I seldom have the time to read longer novels like this, but I have taken on the challenge to read the first book with a group of booktubers (YouTube vidbloggers who post reviews of books) during the month of March.  They are calling it the “Game of Thrones Readalong,” with a group discussion forum in Goodreads for those wanting to share thoughts on the book.  What better time to read this book than now, with a group of bookworms to share my ideas with.  So, I thought, why not.  I enjoy fantasy literature like this, and I have heard a lot about the story from friends.  Mind you, I have never seen the TV series, nor have I read any reviews about the book.  In fact, I am coming into this series with a clean slate, if you will.

This passage told by Gared, one of the Night Watchmen of the northern Wall, is found in the prologue of the book and seems to set the undertone for the story.   Using a wide array of vocabulary that seemingly fits the “cold” theme, Martin creates a plausible world around the wintery setting of what he calls simply “The North.” From the very beginning, the story is not an easy one to follow.   In fact, the first 100 pages or so are set in the northern reaches of Winterfell, the home to House Stark.  A very diverse cast of characters are introduced from the get-go, which makes it difficult to keep up with who’s whom, but the more often they are mentioned, the easier it becomes.  Enter King Robert and his family for a royal visit to the keep, though, and the character cast is made even more difficult to follow.  And so it is that the first conflict in the story is revealed, the setup of political intrigues so intricately crafted, that you can’t help but feel compelled to read further on in the story.  Don’t forget the introduction of our story’s antagonist from the parallel story of Daenerys, her marriage to the Khal Drogo and the backstory of her tempermental brother.  This gives the book a flair, in my opinion, that is seldom matched by other books in the genre.

Now, I have heard a couple of rumors about this book — the first being that Martin has a habit of killing off his characters, especially likeable ones.  After all, it seems to be one of the most talked about series at the moment, what with season five of the fantasy drama being released in April of this year.  But, I never really understood the sense or value of this — murdering off characters — until I started reading the book for myself.  If murdering a character in a story is not an effective narrative device, I don’t know what is.    In fact, the first attempt at murder has been directed toward Bran of House Stark, the seven-year old son to Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard, who happened upon the adulterous Queen Lannister and her lover in an abandoned tower of the keep during their visit to Winterfell.  Here we are, reading about Bran’s endeavors to climb the abandoned keep so that he may take in a view of his home one last time before departing to the southern kindgom with his father, when he overhears the Queen with her lover in seclusion, whispering ill tightings and foreboding plots while making love in the tower, a graphic and lustuous scene, no doubt.  Wanting to take a closer look at the two mysterious voices, he glimpses and recognizes the Queen, whom Bran reveals to the reader, but he does not tell us who the man with her is, even though he recognized him, too.  This was most certainly intentionally left out by Martin for foreshadowing purposes.  Suddenly caught, Bran slips from the ledge and falls, only grabbing hold at the last minute.  With an intent that borderlines malevolence, Martin goes on to write:

“Take my hand… before you fall.”  Bran seized his arm and held on tight with all his strength.  The man yanked him up on the ledge.  “What are you doing?”  The woman demanded.  The man ignored her.  He was very strong.  He stood Bran up on the sill.  “How old are you, boy?”  “Seven,” Bran said, shaking with relief… The man looked over at the woman.  “The things I do for love,” he said with loathing.  He gave Bran a shove.  Screaming, Bran went backward out the window into empty air.  There was nothing to grab on to.  The courtyard rushed up to meet him (85).

What a moment!  The images of this young boy climbing the tower, of his innocence in only wanting to say farewell to his home, of the vertigo he experiences as he plummets down into the courtyard — these are what leave readers wanting more.  As Martin writes at the end of the book in his acknowledgments, “The devil is in the details, they say.”  Indeed, they are.  In fact, the intrigue of this scene doesn’t just come from the shove from the window, but more in the way Martin leads up to it.  He tells us earlier in the chapter that Bran has a habit of climbing things he shouldn’t be climbing and that his parents and guardians are always scolding him for doing so.  Suddenly, he falls from a ledge with no witnesses, making the whole drama surrounding the Queen to look like an accident waiting to happen.  Add to this intrigue the fact that he might live to tell about it, and you have good drama in the works.  Moments like these are what keep readers begging for more.

The second rumor I have heard, which has been reinforced by the South Park parodies during season 17,  is that Martin likes to add steamy, sensual details to his story.  I’ve only just finished the first 100 pages in the book, yet there have already been two sex scenes, if you will.  Albeit soft-core in nature, they are still visually gripping and erotic, an element I wasn’t quite expecting to find in a fantasy-based world.  Does it ruin the story?  No.  If anything, it helps create a more realistic and vulgar landscape, where people are quick to take what they want and indulge in their passions.  As I see it, this is also fitting to the feudal-based system, where pompous, hedonistic aristocrats live fanciful lives filled with pleasures (enter King Robert), all superficial traits to mask a deeper and harder truth –the reality of this realm.  These fleeting moments are written with clarity, further making Martin’s acknowledgment a suitable one for the story.  His fantasy world is a world of sin and hardship that is only made worse with the foreboding reminder made at several moments earlier in the story: “Winter is coming.”

I have divided this book into three sections, each at 200-page increments marked by sticky notes, with the intention to read one section each week.  At this rate, I should finish the book by the end of March, which happens to be the goal for the “Game of Thrones Readalong.”  A hat-tip to The Book Fox (click the link to check out her YouTube channel) for recommending this readalong.  I’m curious to see how Martin’s story unfolds.

Am I really “reading” an audiobook?

1188223_microphoneWith a busy semester work load ahead of me, my son demanding more of my attention, and my regular household responsibilities — the usual routine stuff — I find that I have little time for some of the more personal pleasures in my life, such as this blog; but, I imagine this is the case with most writers. It is about time management and priorities, after all. If I am not able to create, I can at least consume. Several months ago, I discovered the Overdrive Media Console app, which allows one to borrow and download audio- and eBooks from his or her local library, if such a service is rendered. When it comes to reading, I will always prefer a physical paper or cloth book over an eBook, but the audio format is proving to be most valuable during this busy time.  In fact, these book types are helping to fill what is otherwise a void in my reading habit. With my earphones jacked into my Samsung, I can listen to the audiobook while I do the dishes, for example, or while I drive the car to go to class (a word of caution here, though, as it is easy to be distracted), instead of listening to the radio which offers nothing worth listening to. I have also listened to my audiobook in the evenings, while I was bringing my son down for bed. I have found that there are many moments in my day which are lost to mundane tasks that can otherwise be supplemented with the narrations of an audio book reader. As a result of this discovery, I have read four novels in just under a month, which is quite an incredible feat for me.

But, this begs the question, am I really reading? This is a point I feel I have to ask myself, because it is not the same experience listening to an audiobook as it is to read the words off of the page for myself. Yet, the narrations are read out loud, using vocabulary from the text that is otherwise often excluded from any normal conversation or dialogue, words that one typically only finds in written form, so the narrator remains true to the text of the book. Another point about audio books worth mentioning is that I am just as involved with listening, taking in every word, the same way I would be committed to visualizing with my eyes the words that emerge from the page. The added advantage to this is that I can do other things, tasks that don’t require so much of my mental capacity to concentrate, while “reading” my book. A level of concentration is still needed, though, to register and process what I am listening to. In some cases, I miss certain points in the reading that I have to backtrack to in order to follow along with the narration, a part of listening to an audiobook that I don’t see any differently from jumping back a page or two to reference a point previously mentioned. This is one of the only drawbacks that I am noticing about “reading” an audiobook — that other senses are always competing for my attention, something that you may know from my previous posts can be problematic, what with my absent-mindedness, especially while driving. In fact, I drive a lot slower when I listen to an audiobook than when I do not. I usually reserve the audio book for any type of extended driving I have to do. If I am on the highway, the audio book comes out; it stays off if I am driving in town. The last thing I need is an accident.

The dangers of listening to audiobooks aside, I don’t feel like retention for what I am “reading” is a problem, as I am focused on the book being narrated, the reader’s voice often compelling and pragmatic. I have found myself adventuring with genres of books that I previously invested little of my efforts into. My focus in reading has often been with fiction, but I do not feel the same elation from listening to an audio work of fiction as I do with actually reading one. This is partly because of the figurative nature of literature that I enjoy so much, savoring an author’s use of symbolism and metaphor the same way a taster might relish a gourmet delicatessen. Non-fiction, the books I find myself listening to more, delves into another literary form on its own, one comprising of fact and personal account. While these works can take on creative twists in their own way, the primary purpose is to convey information about their given subject matter, so an author’s tone and use of syntax is arranged differently. I don’t think a book like The Satanic Verses with its fragments and colloquialisms would work as effectively in non-fiction form (or in an audio format, for that matter). After all, the poetic license afforded to a work of fiction like Rushdie’s novel is what gives fiction its unique appeal, something I feel I enjoy more when I have the chance to sit down and explore it more thoroughly, flipping back to previous pages to encounter the beautifully written prose over and over again. With audio books, this is not as easy to do. “Reading” an audiobook is solely for the sake of listening and learning in my opinion. Since the beginning of the year, I have read: two biographies — one about Jack London, the other regarding Carl von Stauffenberg; one band biography about Metallica; and a survey on the cultural history of rabies. The next in line is the autobiography on Gandhi.   All of these books have been easy to read because they are presenting information in more of a chronological manner. Fiction gets easily lost in the mental traps of its protagonists, so much so that it is easy to lose place, especially if multiple points of views are being expressed. I don’t know how an audio work of literature, say The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, would “read” if I were to listen to it. I don’t know that I would want to experience a classic work like this in audio form, anyway.

I guess I answer my question. While I am listening to someone else read aloud what has already been written, I am still encountering those same grammatical forms that distinguish writing from the dialogues of conversation. My concentration is still focused on the material as it is being presented to me, whether it be from the monologues of one reader or the voice-overs of each “character” in the book, much in the same way a radio theatrical production was done in the olden days — a form of reading, I might add, that I don’t really like, nor should the book include any musical score set to fill the space between chapters or to heighten dramatic effect. I prefer a single reader over many — a quietly edited book, if you will — since this is what mirrors my own mental voice as I read a physical book. When I allow my eyes to skim across the lines of words on a page, taking in their meaning and relating these words to one another, I don’t imagine the voices of children or women playing out their roles; rather, their voice is my own. Nor, do I imagine some underscore of violins amplifying the dramatic mood of a scene. The only thing that occupies my mind while I read are my thoughts. I am glad to have this technology to allow me to enjoy a good book, even if I do not really have the time to do so in any other form.

Image source: McNally, Victoria. “Recording your Audiobook, part 1: Setting up.” Bookworks: The Self-Publishers Association. 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

Longing to read when books keep me from doing so…

Stack of booksBookstores are dangerous places for avid readers.  If you’re anyone like me, then you have a long list of books you’d like to read.  Compound this list with the new books you check out from the library or the books that arrive by mail from your late night online shopping spree, and your monster-of-a-list keeps growing.  I told myself at the start of the year that my resolution would be to read 10 books before I purchased anymore.  I tried, I really did, but I only read 8 books before I started purchasing the next to be lined up.  Like so many others, I face a dilemma.  My problem is not that life keeps me from finding the time to read; rather, my rate of consumption does not match the rate at which books accumulate on my shelves.  You see, I am a book addict.

Sure, I find myself working a lot more these days, now that I have to commute to my place of employment;  I also want to spend time with my family whenever I’m not working; I have to invest into the garden, too, since Spring is upon us; and I have to sleep from time to time.  This last one is usually forced on me, as I find myself rereading a lot of pages from the books I have started just before dozing off.  If only reading worked like osmosis.  But, these are not issues in the same way that other books are.

I always manage to find time to read.  One solution to compensate for life’s callings has been to listen to audio books.  I simply tune in to an audio book from the Overdrive Media Console while on my way to work.  This simple app allows me to download audio MP3 books from the library I check out books from, and I listen to them on my hourly commute to work.  It’s great because I get to read a book almost every week, depending on its length.

No, where the real problem lies is when I finish reading a physical book.  The decision on which to pick up and read first is almost always a daunting process. I can never decide on which book because I own so many.  Quite a few of the books I pick up with the intention to read get placed on hold for more immediate books that I have come into contact with, either from the free BargainBook box at the library or from what I buy at the various bookstores I frequent.  There’s a used book store I like to visit that almost always contains a gem-of-a-book whenever I shop there, which I always feel pressured, self-imposed no doubt, to read once I bring it home.

Some books are more engaging than others, though.  I usually read multiple books at any given time to compensate for those that require more attention.  I like to read short stories, so I’ll read a story here and there (one over a cup of coffee in the morning, perhaps).  I have several collections of essays that I enjoy reading through.  I have been reading The Oxford Book of Essays off and on for well over a year now, but I don’t feel pressured to read it in its entirety.  They’re essays, after all.  Then, there’s the book I read just before I go to bed.  This one takes the longest to work through for some reason.  I have my books I simply want to read to savor and enjoy; my poetry books that I like to read when time permits for such leisurely reading; my books I need to read for work; my books to help advance myself professionally; my books for the personal research I’m doing.  Looking at it like this, I think I need to focus my reading habits a bit more.

But then, there are books like this one.  I am very excited to start reading this one book, the book I ordered from Amazon before I finished my reading resolution for the year.  Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands by Rizzoli exlibris publishing, 2013, finally arrived by post and what a beautiful book it is; so much so that I want to share some of its more enticing features with you:

The book cover is by Thomas Cole from The Voyage of Life: Childhood (1842) located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Eco book cover

The images throughout the book (shown below) are rendered in the most pristine quality, making their colors vibrant and an absolute pleasure to behold.

Eco page example

Here is another example of the beauty this book reveals.  This marvel of a work is from Gustave Dore The Celestial Rose (1867), out of The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, canto XXXI.

Eco page example 2This book will most certainly be a real treat, and I will likely move it up my reading list to start it right away.

I love books like this one by Eco, but they don’t help me make headway with those other books I’ve been collecting over the past couple of months.  No, these books, like so many others before them, will be placed on hold, so that my curiosity about legendary lands, places I’d often read about as a boy, may be sated.  Books like these only further my dilemma, but it is a dilemma I can learn to deal with.  I may be slow and methodical in the way I read, what with all of the other obligations keeping me from working through my reading list; I may also find myself curious about newer books that are being published (or older ones that were once forgotten), but I love to savor a good book, regardless of what life throws my way.  That, and I love to be surrounded by books, knowing full well that there will never be a dull moment in the near future.  After all, there’s always a good book to be read.