Saturday, May 19, 2012

Book Reviews-The Art of A Song of Ice and Fire, Why dogs are better than cats, The House with a Clock in its walls, Mad Kings and Queens

The Art of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire Volume One
Mad King Aerys
As you know I am a A Song of Ice and Fire fanatic so when I received this collection of artwork based on events, people and places in Martin's invented world I was very happy to peruse it. This isn't quite coffee table sized but would make a great conversation piece in your living room or den all the same. It opens with a foreword by Martin himself who explains that the collected art is work commissioned by Fantasy Flight Games for a board game and collectible card series based on Martin's works. Martin is of course a comic book and gaming fan but says that despite that it wasn't without some trepidation that he gave the rights for this project to continue. In part his fears were caused by his proprietary interest in his creations. Martin was also worried that the illustrators wouldn't capture what he saw in his head and perhaps most importantly what the readers imagined. As Martin wrote in the foreword:

Jon and Arya
"The artist must fill in all those missing details and the odds are good that he or she is not going to fill them in the same way you did inside your head when you were giving birth to these characters . You are trusting your children to a stranger, hoping he will treat them gently. Would I know Ned when I saw him? Would Jaime have the same arrogant smile he has in the books? Would the King's Landing on the card match the King's Landing inside my head? All I could do was hope..."
Obviously Martin liked most of the art created for the board game and collectible cards and this book contains the best of it. This was obviously created before the HBO series so if you are familiar with the HBO vision it is fun to see different interpretations of various characters. This contains depictions of characters from all seven kingdoms and beyond as well as events through book 4. If you haven't read all of the books this collection doesn't beat you over the head with spoilers but there might be a few if you look obsessively for them. Basically if you see a character you don't recognize, just enjoy the art. But the majority of the artwork is from the first two books.
Cersei Lannister
One thing which I didn't show here is that Brienne of Tarth, who was Renly's bodyguard and becomes Catelyn Stark's champion, is described in the books as so incredibly homely that EVERYONE who meets her either feels sorry for her or wants to make fun of her. The depictions of Brienne in this collection are closer to what I had in my mind's eye though I do confess to being impressed with HBO's Gwendolyn Christie's interpretation.  

Why Dogs Are Better than Cats
by Bradley Trevor Greive
I picked this up in the bargain section of my local bookstore. This book is exactly what it sounds like. It is a photographic essay giving a multitude of reasons as to why our canine friends are more worthy in every way than our feline companions. I am a dog person and I didn't need any convincing. I can't abide with a pet that won't come when called, jumps on the kitchen counters whenever it damn well feels like it and goes to the bathroom inside the house. So give me a dog over a cat any day of the week.

This is really a fun book that makes its humorous points with appropriate (or wildly inappropriate) pics of dogs and cats at work, play and rest.
Some of the points made include such observations as
  • Far be it from me to suggest that a great number of cat lovers are simply people whom dogs do not like.
  • Not all cat lovers are pudgy masochistic loners who lack the energy and self-respect to have a dog. Some are simply evil.
  • Dogs are social. Cats are sociopaths.
  • If you care for dogs long enough they become members of the family. Cats become destructive housemates with bad breath.
  • Owning a cat is akin to taking a hostage and hoping that sooner or later Stockholm syndrome will kick in.
  • If your cat deposits a bloodied sparrow on your doorstep, he's not giving you a gift-he's sending you a message.
  • People train dogs. Cats train their owners.
I liked this book a lot. I bet that most pet owners -whether they be dog people or cat people-will as will. The author obviously has a lot of love for dogs. He lives with three Great Danes. And it will come as no surprise to you to learn that he is allergic to most cats. The photographer, Rachael Hale, has authored a great many cat and dog portrait books. Ultimately the author reluctantly admits that there may be some good things about cats, but that only a dog would ever find it.

The House With A Clock In Its Walls
by John Bellairs
This book was written in 1973 and was directed towards children. I remember reading it growing up and recently ordered it online to reread and see if it was as good as I remember it. I think it was as good. Although it's a "children's book" it's really sort of not. There are some adult themes lurking about that only become apparent upon re-reading with insight gained over time.

It's set in mid 20th century Michigan in the fictional town of New Zebedee. This town is very closely modeled after Bellairs' hometown of Marshall, Michigan. Marshall has one of the state's largest historic districts. Reading the thinly veiled descriptions in the book makes you want to go visit. I've only been through the town once but I would like to go back for a proper visit one day. The hero of the story, a chubby, fretful boy named Lewis Barnavelt is suddenly orphaned and comes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan. Jonathan Barnavelt is the quintessential absent-minded professor type. He is up at all hours of the night. He seems to have a dread of and fascination with clocks. And he's always seemingly searching for something in his own house: knocking on walls and looking in closets and so on. And that's not the only weird thing Lewis notices. Windows appear and disappear in the house and sometimes windows or mirrors show things that are distant in space or time.
When Lewis does a little spying of his own his uncle catches him and explains to him that magic is real and Jonathan is indeed a warlock. He's not a very good one though as he only has a bachelor's degree from Michigan Agricultural College (Michigan State). Snicker...

His next door neighbor and good friend Mrs. Zimmerman is also a magician and a far more powerful and skilled one than Jonathan. She has a Ph.D in the field. Anyway Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman spend a lot of time together but that's not why Jonathan is nervous. The house Jonathan is living in formerly belonged to Issac and Selenna Izzard, a husband and wife pair of wizards who were much more powerful than either Mrs. Zimmerman or Jonathan, and apparently of decidedly malign intent. They had a plan that involved bringing about doomsday and this among other things required the hidden titular clock which Jonathan is trying to find. But they both died in mysterious circumstances before they could complete their plan.

When Lewis foolishly dabbles in magic to try to impress one of the "cool kids", he inadvertently resurrects Selenna Izzard, who starts to finish the work that she and her husband started. His uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman must test their strength against Selenna's and try to stave off the end of the world. This book was illustrated by Edward Gorey and is almost worth reading for the art alone. Fun stuff. I love the descriptions of the stained glass windows, staircases and hidden rooms. This is great gothic writing and brings back fun memories.

Mad Kings and Queens
by Allison Rattle and Allison Vale
The major problem with absolute power concentrated in one person is that if that person proves to be a raging lunatic paranoid with daddy or mommy issues who delights in causing harm to others just because, the state can't properly function. Or even if the state does still function, a lot of people end up dead for no other reason than pure caprice. This is bad for business and ultimately bad for the health of the state. Over time most countries gradually realized that perhaps there should be some limits on the power of the monarchy. From there it was a short leap to start codifying law that applied to everyone and of course once that was done people started to ask well who made you king or queen anyway? And for the most part countries got rid of hereditary monarchies or just kept them around for tourist attractions.

But not so long ago of course many people really did believe in the divine right of kings and had no understanding of or belief in the doctrine that political power comes from the assent of the people. Political power came from the fact that the ruling king or queen was descended from the hardest of the hard men and tended to surround themselves with many other killers who would, on command, execute anyone that started talking about the rights of labor,  free speech, social democracy or that all men were created equal. 

This kind of attitude tended not to lend itself to the concept of sharing and whether through the practice of inbreeding (cousins marrying cousins, uncles marrying nieces) or pure bloody practicality (it's a tough neighborhood out there) a great many royals were downright malicious, savage, insane or sometimes all three. This book looks at 40 of the craziest or most evil of the rulers or nobles in Europe -from the 13th century to the 19th. It's fun reading if you're into that sort of historical walk through the park. I am so I greatly enjoyed this book. Truth really is stranger than fiction. Queen Isabella, called the She-Wolf of France, was so angered and humiliated by her husband King Edward's gay affairs and other insults, (King Edward chose to save his male lover instead of his wife when a Scottish Army approached) that she returned to France, raised an army to invade England and upon success, had the king's male lovers publicly disemboweled and castrated. And then she really went to work on them. Isabella arrested and imprisoned the king. When he took too long to die by starvation she sent men to his prison to execute him by jamming a red-hot spit up his back passage. You probably didn't want to get on Queen Isabella's bad side. Then there was Henry VIII, who made sodomy a capital offense, executed his wives when he got tired of them, if they didn't bear male heirs or if he caught them running around.
King Charles II
Ivan The Terrible murdered his own son and oversaw the depredations of the Oprichniki, who raped, tortured and murdered thousands, by their Tsar's command. Charles II of Spain proved to be a example of what happens when family trees don't fork. Via a long line of previously mentioned cousin to cousin and uncle to niece marriages, Charles was actually more inbred than a child born of sibling incest. He had a massive misshapen head, was unable to chew, had a tongue so thick that speech was virtually impossible and was discouraged from walking until he was an adult. And those were his lesser infirmities. Before he died he asked for his first wife and parents to be exhumed from their graves so he could look upon their faces one more time. Nice. This is not a super detailed book. It just gives you a rough sketch on the important qualities of each ruler or noble it investigates. Again, some of these people did live in very nasty areas and playing nice probably would have gotten them dead with a quickness. So it goes.
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