Quasi-Review: A Song of Ice and Fire

This quasi-review contains spoilers through the first part of book five.

I can’t really review George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga until it’s complete, but I’ve been wanting to talk about why I’m reading it in the first place, what I’ve found compelling about it, and why I’m afraid I’m going to ultimately wind up disappointed.

First of all, there’s the general writing style. I tend to be very picky about writing, as longtime readers of this blog probably know. I like prose to flow, to either be so lovely or clever I can’t help but notice it or to be completely unnoticeable. A piece of writing should only be enhanced, and never encumbered, by how it’s written. I would not call Martin’s writing beautiful, but it never trips you up, and it is occasionally clever. The only thing I might complain about would be the long lists he likes to include of what people ate at a feast, but to be honest, I enjoy reading those and imagining how all the food might taste.

Structurally, the series is a masterpiece. The detail, the richness, the depth of the world-building is astonishing. It’s a fun mental game keeping track of who all the characters are and what they’re doing, and trying to figure out the politics of all the different corners of the world. One time I was quite thankful to be reading on my Kindle, as I was absolutely certain a character was dead, and I was able to do a word search and confirm it. But mostly I’ve been trying to rely on my memory and Martin’s skill at bringing in references to events and people just as you need to recall them…a spaced repetition approach that I’m finding very effective.

I have only barely gotten into the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons. The fourth and fifth books differ from the others in that they occur simultaneously; this somewhat simplifies the story threads but also allows for some pretty dramatic revelations by keeping certain information hidden from the reader. For example, if we’d been following Quentyn Martell throughout book four, it wouldn’t have been very dramatic when his mission was revealed to Arianne at the end of the book. Similarly, one of the main characters of the first three books is completely absent from the fourth, save for in the mind of his sister, who is terrified of him. If we’d been watching what he was doing the whole time too, we’d know that he was no danger to her at all, and that would have diminished the tension. So while at first I was dismayed that I would be getting “less story”, I ultimately ended up impressed with how the two halves of the world were split into different books; it realistically shows how slow information would flow between the two and adds to the suspense. We’ll see if my feelings change as I continue through book five.

Beyond the way Martin organizes his characters and settings and plots, I’ve been very impressed by the characters themselves. Each chapter is written from a different perspective. There are some characters whose perspectives you never see. There are some characters who are intensely boring. There are some characters who are loathsome, and whenever their name heads a chapter you want to hurl the book across the room. And there are some characters who are good, and who suffer, and you suffer with them. There is one character who goes from loathsome to good, and another who goes from good to something horrific. Regardless of whose perspective you’re seeing, you’re seeing a person. The character is real. For years I’ve considered myself a student of human behavior, and I love that I can see why these characters are acting the way they’re acting. I can see who they are. I can understand them, even if I hate them.

This understanding leads me to a hope that I’m worried is false. You see, I tend towards optimism, and I like to think that people can be saved. As I’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve allowed myself to imagine that the story is building to a resolution that will right many wrongs and perhaps even redeem some characters. There has to be a meaning for all of this, I thought, or what’s the point?

When I first started reading the series months ago, it was on a whim. I kept hearing about the HBO series Game of Thrones, and that made me curious. I got a good deal on a bundle of the first four books for Kindle and dove in.

I fell in love with the Stark family, with Winterfell. Like Arya, I thought Sansa was silly, but I didn’t hate her. I admired Catelyn’s beautiful strength and adored Bran. Ned was my favorite character of all. As things got worse and worse for the Starks, all I could think was that somehow they’d all survive and find each other again and everything would be okay. Bran probably wouldn’t walk again–the setting felt too realistic for that–but then again, this was fantasy, so you never knew what might happen.

Then Ned was beheaded.

I was so upset I literally thought I would throw up.

It was a long time before I started the next book, A Clash of Kings. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. All bets were off. Was A Song of Ice and Fire nothing more than The Calamity of House Stark? Would I be forced to watch them all die, one by one? But I was in too deep. I had to know. Would the truth come out? Would justice be served?

Of course, as the series progressed, “justice” became more and more muddled. You might argue that Joffrey had as much right to the throne as Robert. Neither was descended from the line of kings that had ruled for centuries. They were both “usurpers” in their way. And even the dragon kings were conquerors, laying claim to land that wasn’t theirs. Even as I started to wonder whether true justice could even exist in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, civilization began to break down in the story.

Now it’s not just a matter of whether or not there will be justice for Ned Stark, but whether or not Westeros itself can survive. Will a new king (or queen) be able to mend all that’s been broken? How many more will die in the struggle? What will be left when it’s over?

This, more than anything else, is why I keep reading, despite the fact that by now I’m sure there’s no deeper meaning, no happy ending to come. I have to know how it ends.

A happy dream

I just had one of the best dreams I’ve ever had.

In the dream, I was active in the community and well-known and liked. The dream took place in Augusta, I suppose because out of everywhere I’ve lived, that’s where I truly felt part of a larger whole. (I knew the mayor, and whatnot.) It was my birthday, and I was out in downtown Augusta for a two-part celebration.

I was surrounded by friends. We were all eclectic and fashionable and socially-focused. Some of us, myself included, wore green aprons advocating cycling, with black and white bumper stickers on them that cautioned drivers to watch the road. Brooke was there, and so was my family, and so was David Bowie. (In the dream, you never invited David Bowie somewhere…if he invited himself, though, you could consider your event a success.)

The first stage of the party was something of a rowdy mixer, with hors d’oeuvres and music and dancing, but not so loud that you couldn’t hear people talk. At one point I overheard someone mention my friend Mari, and someone else sniff, “She’s all right, I suppose, but I just don’t understand that line dancing she does.” (Mari is a belly dancer.)

In an action completely out of character for me, I swept gracefully into the situation. “Mari is here tonight,” I pointed out to the guest. “She’s right there. I’d appreciate you not speaking badly of one of my closest friends. And as for you–” I scrutinized her face, then gave up. “I don’t even know who you are, so I’m not sure why you’re here.” Oh snap!

When the warm stage one mixer ended and people started to trickle out, I thought that was the end and was content, but then one male friend said, “See you later tonight.”

“What? Where?” I asked.

“Didn’t the invitation say…?” he trailed off, though not in alarm; apparently people were used to me blanking on details.

“Did I put something about meeting up again at the Bee’s Knees at 8pm in there?” I asked. “That sounds like something I would do.”

“Yes; that’s it exactly,” the guy grinned. “See you then!” For some reason, we kissed on the lips. It wasn’t romantic; it was a signal of closeness and friendship. (This is also out of character for me; I’ve been uncomfortable with mouth kisses between anyone but lovers since childhood.)

And so the party resumed at the Bee’s Knees (though the space seemed larger than the actual area of that restaurant). At one point my parents and brothers and I all got into an old station wagon like we used to have decades ago and took pictures for nostalgia. At another point, I decided to try tap-dancing, and discovered I was actually fairly good, despite having only taken a few tap classes in first grade. I finally woke up just as one of my female friends was starting to organize us all into groups to play games.

What I loved about this dream was how confident I was, how I stood up for my friends and my beliefs. I have always been the wallflower, and I’ve never been one to make ripples. I always stay in the shadows, watching, observing, taking care of others’ needs silently. It occurs to me that anyone can do that. Maybe this dream is an indication that I want something more.

Not her mom

This narrative is drawn from a dream I had just before waking today.


She was small, with tiny features and wispy dark hair, eyes shining dark against skin so pale it was almost pallid. But she was full of energy, hurtling through the hot spring resort so fast it was all I could do just to keep up, let alone right the chaos she left in her wake.

Girls like her always had hangers-on, and she was no exception. First there was the straw-haired boy who’d accompanied the household on this vacation, the son of her father’s valet; the two had grown up together and might as well have been siblings. The second was new, the brown-haired, deeply-tanned son of a local. She’d caught his eye the moment she’d stepped from the train, and he’d been following her ever since.

If you added all their ages, you’d need yet another child to reach twenty years.

I caught up to them in an anteroom surrounded by a cluster of single rooms. The main hallway continued straight to the springs. The family’s rooms were similarly arrayed, but in a suite, allowing both access and privacy. The young mistress was teasing her local’s son, making him blush. I saw the valet’s son watching quietly, from a distance, his head lowered.

“We’ll go to the baths!” the young mistress announced, not noticing me. “But we’ll need towels and robes; our playclothes won’t do. Come!” And she turned on her tiny heel and marched into the nearest single room. In moments she was tearing drawers open and ripping the blankets from the bed.

I don’t know what happened then. I had witnessed many such a scene before, and my duty was always the same: to make amends afterwards. I did not begrudge the young mistress the trouble it took to seek out her victims and compensate their losses. Such work was the reason I was employed by the household. Such work kept me clothed and fed, and let me see wonders and amusements throughout the world alongside the family. Perhaps it was the look on the face of the dear valet’s son. Perhaps it was the careless way with which the young mistress was rifling through the stranger’s belongings.

Perhaps it was because, in my head, I had so casually concocted a group of girls like her.

Whatever it was, very shortly, I found myself screaming.

“Who do you think you are?” I roared, hooking the girl by the shoulder, spinning her around, and flinging her down on the bed. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Those dark eyes were wide. It was not a look I had ever seen on her face before. Shock, certainly. Fear, perhaps. “I–I was just–we needed–”

“If you needed robes and towels, you have plenty of your own in your own rooms,” I shrilled. “Is this your room, young mistress?”

“M-m-my–”

“Is it?”

“I-I-I–”

“Do the things in this room belong to you? Did your mother and father check you into this room? Is your prize possession, the braid of unicorn mane, to be found in this room?”

“No,” she said finally, in the smallest voice I’d ever heard come out of her tiny mouth.

“Then what gives you the right to come into this room and take whatever you want?”

She had no answer. Her face was turning pink.

“And what gives you the right to ignore your lifelong friend as if he doesn’t even exist?”

What?” she tried to say, but a sob caught the word in her throat as her eyes filled with tears.

“Have you ever thought about anyone but yourself?” I seethed. “Have you ever thought about the people whose things you’ve taken without asking, whose property you’ve destroyed just for your own pleasure?”

She started outright bawling. “You’re not being fair,” she sobbed.

“When have you ever been ‘fair’?” I countered.

“Why are you being so mean?”

And I broke. Whatever had been driving me on was gone in that instant. Her dark eyes, overflowing with tears, reamed accusatory holes into my heart that I could not deflect.

“Oh, sweetheart,” I murmured, and my eyes brimmed over as well. I slipped my hands beneath her tiny form, lifting her from where she’d lay stunned and motionless on the bed, and drew her into a gentle embrace. “Shh. Sweetheart. I’m sorry. I just…I love you so.”

She made a pathetic noise that I could only imagine signaled her bewilderment.

“I know. I know. I know I’m not your mother, and I never could be…but sometimes I feel like I am, I really do.” She shook quietly in my arms. “And I just…I don’t want you to be a bad girl.”

Blind spot (UPDATED)

UPDATE 12/3/11: I mentioned this blind spot to my friend Ed while visiting Augusta yesterday, and he said, “It’s not just the normal blind spot that everyone has? The one that’s caused by the optic nerve?” I quickly covered my left eye and tested my right, and lo and behold, the blind spot is there too. It’s not new. It’s not a symptom. It’s perfectly natural.

What a relief!

The original, outdated, panicked post is below.


I recently got new prescription eyeglasses. The change was long overdue. Days later, I’m still adjusting to the clarity and “3D HD” sensation I’m getting from being able to see properly again. I hadn’t realized just how much my eyesight had changed, or how much I was compensating for it.

With my vision now corrected properly, other problems with my sight can therefore be attributed to my pseudotumor cerebri, the intracranial pressure at the back of my eyes that has been threatening to blind me. I’d thought that the pseudotumor symptoms had receded for the most part, and maybe they had; maybe I’m truly not feeling as much pressure as before, and my field of vision certainly isn’t going completely white anymore. But yesterday I noticed something, something I’m not sure I would have spotted without my new clarity of sight.

A blind spot.

There is a place to the left of center on my left eye where things disappear. If I don’t cover my right eye, its peripheral vision compensates. If I do cover my right eye, then look at something with my left and slowly track my eye to the right, eventually the item in question will disappear into a blurry haze. As I continue moving my left eye to the right, the item will reappear in the periphery. In other words, there’s an area left of center on my left eye that isn’t seeing anything.

I first noticed it when I realized I should be seeing more of my computer monitor in the background while watching TV than I was. I covered my right eye and it vanished completely. I was then able to reproduce the issue with the blinking blue lights of our wireless router; it was as if they weren’t there at all. After that I made the tip of my pointer finger disappear.

I suppose a visual field test might have revealed this issue, but I haven’t had one in over a year. At my eye exam, I did have photos taken of the backs of my eyes, and those showed a blurriness that indicated the pressure there has not receded. My neurologist told me to continue taking the medicine he prescribed, diamox, which is technically glaucoma medicine and a diuretic, meant to hold the fluid at bay.

The neurologist is the one who told me in no uncertain terms that I had to lose weight in order to avoid losing my sight. Now I’m seeing the truth of that. I had weight loss surgery, and I’ve lost over 40 pounds so far, but that’s apparently not enough yet.

And now I’m scared. Will more blind spots form in the meantime? Will sight ever return to them, or are those spots dead forever?

Conrad’s cold pack

I just discovered that someone sold Conrad-branded cold packs with his cringe-inducing pun, そんなはずがアラスカ, printed on them. Here is a picture from an eBay listing for the item:

Photo of Conrad cold pack from eBay
This line, そんなはずがアラスカ, is a play on the phrase そんなはずがあるっすか?, which basically means “That couldn’t be the case.” Literally, it’s more like “Could you really have that expectation?” What Conrad is doing is changing the very last part, the part that asks the question. He leaves the introduction of the topic, “the case” or “that expectation”, and then changes the question part to–wait for it–ALASKA.

For those of you who don’t read Japanese, here’s a romanization that will make everything clearer.

The original phrase: sonna hazu ga arussuka?

Conrad’s version: sonna hazu ga arasuka.

Just a slight sound change, and the whole meaning is different! Yet similar enough to be punny.

Of course, this joke fails, because it doesn’t make any sense. Alaska? What? When Conrad makes this joke in Kyou Kara Maou, Yuuri is horrified that such a cool, handsome guy like Conrad would make such a terrible pun…

Conrad is pimp.
…but he reminds himself that everyone has to have a flaw somewhere.

Here’s the kicker, though. In Japan, when a joke falls flat, people basically respond by going, “Brr! It’s cold!” I don’t know why this is, but in my head I equate the cold, frosty scene after a bad joke in Japan to the crickets and tumbleweeds we evoke here in the US. And this, my friends, is why it’s so hilarious that Conrad’s terrible pun is printed on a cold pack.

Conrad’s jokes: guaranteed to cool you down.

Update

I had weight loss surgery on September 26, and my recovery is going well. I haven’t written about it here much because I’m not sure how much I want to make public, and also because I’ve been focused on doing the things that help the weight loss and won’t sabotage anything: getting enough protein, exercising (mostly walking at this point), being careful not to lift too much weight, shopping for the right foods. I feel I’ve hit a decent stride, though, so I wanted to at least let everyone know that things went fine and I’m okay.

My days are quiet. I get up and get ready in the morning by taking several pills: calcium, multivitamin, my heart medicine, my pseudotumor cerebri medicine, and potassium. I then set out the iron and additional calcium to take separately later on in the day. I don’t weigh every morning, just when I feel like it. After I’ve showered and dressed, I have the whole day to fill. My main priorities are getting enough exercise and food. After that, I’ve been enjoying a lot of Netflix these days. Thankfully, though, now that I’m feeling a lot more like myself, I have a web design project to keep me busy.

I’ll be checking in with my surgery doctors today to let them know how I’m doing, and I’ll see my regular doctor tomorrow to get him up to speed. Next week is the neurologist, to ask if I can stop taking the medicine for pseudotumor cerebri. Basically that medicine is a diuretic, and now that my stomach is tiny I can’t drink nearly as much water as I used to. I’m interested to know if the blindness-causing pressure behind my eyes–the reason I was in such a rush to get weight loss surgery–has abated any now that I’ve had it and lost some weight.

The 38 pounds I’ve lost so far have helped my sleep apnea. Lately I’ve found sleeping with my CPAP obnoxious, so I’ve slept without it the past two nights, and I’ve felt far more refreshed in the morning. Sean says I haven’t snored, and I haven’t felt any more tired during the day than during any other normal surgery recovery day. I honestly didn’t think the sleep apnea would be resolved so quickly, and I guess I shouldn’t assume it’s completely gone just yet, but this is a very hopeful sign!

At some point I’ll have lab work done and see if my cholesterol is any better, as it should be eventually. My blood pressure should also improve, though that’ll be hard to gauge, since it’s artificially lowered by my heart medicine.

All this weight loss and feeling good has sort of warped my self-perception, so I’m sometimes surprised to see that I’m still obese when I look in the mirror. It’s a long process and I have a ways to go yet. But if I keep my positive outlook, I know I can see this year and the next through, and at the end I’ll be where I want to be: fit and healthy :)

Walking the walk

I do a lot of thinking about social issues, but when it comes down to it, I wonder just how much effort I put into bettering the world around me.

I haven’t volunteered since it was a required youth group activity at church. I rarely donate to charitable groups. I think about sponsoring a child in a developing country, but I’ve never done it. I’ve pondered taking in foster kids, but again, nothing. But more than this, I’m not sure that I’ve ever taken a real stand against the prejudice I encounter in my life.

I spend a lot of my time not making a fuss, trying to smooth things over, maintaining the status quo. I like it when people are getting along and I’m uncomfortable when other people are uncomfortable. Since pointing out prejudice would make people uncomfortable, I rarely do it, except maybe online (a space where for some reason I’ve always felt bolder, stronger, even though I use my real name).

Lately I have found myself championing more issues on Twitter and Facebook, and I’ve been donating to various causes on Philanthroper. I think these are steps in the right direction. But I also think it’s important that I learn more, so I can make some educated choices and find the best ways to give.