Why Writing Nonfiction Feels Wrong, But Isn’t

 

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My uvula is forked, but not my tongue. That little dangly bit at the back of your throat? Yeah, mine has a bifurcation in it (likely the result of my palate closing late-on in my mother’s pregnancy). The kindest way to describe what this looks like is to say that it resembles a sort of upside-down heart. The way I end up having to describe it, inevitably, is that it basically looks like a tiny ballsack in my throat.

I know about the forked-uvula thing because I was told about it by my family doctor literally every time I visited him when I was growing up. We’d have almost the exact same conversation every visit, verbatim.

Doc: “Say ahh.”
Me: “Ahh.”
Doc: “Hey, did you know you have a bifurcated uvula?”
Me: “Yes.”
Doc: “How did you know?”
Me: “You tell me every time I come in here.”
Doc: “Well, it’s a pretty rare thing. Pretty neat, Michael.”
(an awkward pause)
Doc: “Hey, it’s better than having a forked tongue!”

And every time, this cheered me up. Even when I was sick. Maybe my mood lightened because of the humor of my doctor’s confusion (though certainly not his corny joke); maybe I felt better because of the sheer familiarity of the routine. Most likely what lifted my mood was something different, something bigger than all of that.

Most likely what lifted my mood was the doctor’s sincere interest, his wonderment, at a part of me (even such a small thing as a uvula that no one ever sees, that has no effect on anything, really, whatsoever). As if something about me was worthy of note.


I grew up a good Christian boy, regularly attending church as many as three times a week, listening as patiently as I could to sermons and Sunday School lessons. From the age of nine until the age of twenty-five, when I left the faith, I was relatively diligent in my beliefs. What I’m saying is that I heard a lot of sermons and talks and testimonies and messages. Understandably, plenty of these talks get lost in time, and it’s interesting to note the ones that I remember.

One such moment from my religious past that has stuck with me is a talk that was given to my youth group by our youth pastor, Brad. The talk concerned humility. Trying to drive home the fact that remaining humble is a constant process that requires serious dedication, Brad gave us this little quip that I think has some profound implications: “If I were to give out a trophy to the most humble person in the room, I’d have to snatch it back the minute someone came up here to take it.”

Obviously Brad’s point was that humility is one of those slippery qualities that put you in a Catch-22 situation. If you think you have it, you probably don’t. And this was meant as a way for us young folks to start to think about our actions and our attitudes, to strive even more toward behaving in healthier, kinder ways toward other people. It was meant as a sort of admonishment and encouragement to us, a command to esteem others above ourselves. And this, of course, is a good and noble purpose.

However, I have grown up to be a writer. I have discovered that I feel most comfortable and alive when I am crafting some kind of written work. It is, to borrow jargon from my religious past, my calling. And one of the most important lessons to learn about writing is that the most powerful pieces resonate on a personal level. As all of my teachers hammered into me in college: write what you know.

But I don’t like writing too much of what I know. I don’t like writing creative nonfiction about my own past. For one, it feels less revelatory than my fiction (which, paradoxically, often winds up showing me something true about myself that I wasn’t even aware I was writing toward). Yet I think the worse issue with nonfiction, at least for me, is that it feels terribly unhumble. Writing fiction feels like I’m creating something new, making a thing that wasn’t there before. Perhaps I’ve been trained by an upbringing that urged me to join in the work of the Creator, that told me art and creation were things that proved I was made in the image of God, and perhaps for this reason fiction seems much holier, much safer. With fiction, I create whole realities out of thin air.

Writing nonfiction feels like screaming at the world LOOK AT ME, THESE ARE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME, READ THEM AND BOW BEFORE MY WORDS. It feels uncouth, somehow almost dirty, in a way that writing fiction simply doesn’t. It feels like esteeming myself before others.

It feels like sin.


But it is not.

Writing nonfiction can be poignant or aphoristic; it can be a way to categorize your own life, even only for yourself (like a journal); it can be useful in finding others who have had similar experiences, useful in helping them through those experiences when needed, useful in bonding. Even if it weren’t important in all of those ways, writing nonfiction would still be important simply for the reason that it often does feel less safe, less holy than writing fiction. What better way to stretch yourself in your art than by doing that which is difficult for you to do? What better way to learn?

Above all that, writing nonfiction is important and good and righteous for this reason: it affirms that everyone has some feature that is interesting and worthy of note.

See, you may not have some harrowing drug-recovery story that you think will sell a lot of books. You may not have met tons of famous people or traveled to exotic locations. Hell, I went out of the country one time over a decade ago and I still try to milk those stories as much as I can. But even so, you have something within you that can serve as a story, that can and must be told. As the great Flannery O’Connor once said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

You have important things to say. You are interesting and worthy of note.

As for me, my name is Michael Candelario.

My uvula is forked, but not my tongue.

A List of Books I Read in 2016 (in [Basically] No Particular Order)

 

THE WAY THIS WORKS is simple. I’ve listed all the books I read in 2016. Each has at least a brief review to give you a flavor of how I felt about it. If the book’s title and author are bold and in italics, that means I recommend checking it out. If not, I either didn’t like the book or wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. For cases that are on the line between recommendation and non-recommendation, the review should say how I feel about the book.

nonfiction

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  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century – (Thomas Piketty)
    • One of (if not THE) most anticipated books on economics in the past decade (or more), Piketty’s book breaks down and analyzes the current state of the global economy in relation to the trends of the previous two centuries. Written in a layman’s style, the work is still difficult to parse at times (though not overly technical). Piketty is challenging, accessible, and necessary. In my opinion, this is probably the most important book I read this year, and it should be required reading for anyone wanting to discuss or think about capitalism and economics in the modern age (and perhaps especially in the age to come).

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  • Congo: The Epic History of a People – (David Van Reybrouck)
    • Exactly what the title suggests, Van Reybrouck’s book takes you through the history of Congo (from its arbitrary creation as a Belgian colony, through independence and authoritarianism, up to its current struggles). Written passionately from the standpoint of a Belgian whose father lived in Congo for five years just after independence, the book is an incredibly poignant picture of both the devastation that richer countries can wreak on poorer nations and of the fabled indomitable human spirit.

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  • The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring – (Paul Danahar)
    • Written by the former BBC Middle East Bureau Chief, this work is absolutely essential to understand the complex factors that led to the shakeup of the Arab world. Danahar is incisive and honest, and has a relatively evenhanded and consistent approach to the politics of the area. If you’re interested in learning more about the Middle East and its constantly shifting factions and complex underpinnings, this book is indispensable.

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  • Hitch-22 – (Christopher Hitchens)
    • Admittedly, I liked this book. But I only gave it 3 stars on Goodreads and I am not recommending it here because it misses what I think should be the point of a good autobiography. While it does give a glimpse into the mind of Hitchens, and while it is at times poignant and instructive and wildly interesting, I think it veers too much into the territory of overindulgence. That is, too often Hitchens seems caught up in his own mystique. Perhaps, though, this is an incorrect interpretation on my part. By no means is it a bad read.

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  • Mortality – (Christopher Hitchens)
    • Now this is a far better work by Hitchens. Diagnosed with cancer and knowing of his impending death, Hitchens’ partially unfinished book is incredibly insightful and (I’m using that word again here) poignant. You sense that he is being more honest and open than with his earlier Hitch-22. His reflections on life are applicable, interesting, emotional, and lovely. If you have any interest in Hitchens, this is a must-read. You almost certainly will not finish the book with dry eyes.

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  • Free Will – (Sam Harris)
    • Harris’ booklet on the age-old debate between free will and determinism is not bad, but it fails to really reach any effective purpose. Though the writing is up to Harris’ standards, the arguments he puts forth are sometimes cloudy and inconsistent. My friend Cody has written a more in-depth review of the book here. Overall, this is a decent primer for people interested in the subject, but there are much better and more thorough books out there.

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  • On Inequality – (Harry G. Frankurt)
    • I gave this book five stars on Goodreads for some reason. Looking back now, I can’t for the life of me decide why (other than that it was well-written, short enough to be accessible to the layman like myself, and provided me with a viewpoint very contrary to my own position [which I find important and yet all-too-often I neglect in my choice of books]). Frankfurt seems, honestly, to miss the point of the entire discussion and to settle instead on the semantic debate over whether or not “actual, pure equality among every person” is attainable—which is, of course, something that no one is even advocating.

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  • A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors – (Annie Liontas, ed.)
    • As are most collections, this is a hodgepodge of hit-or-miss essays by writers on the people (or sometimes things) who have come alongside them and improved their writing in some way. A significant amount of these are, in my opinion, abortive and unhelpful. But an equal amount are genuinely uplifting, challenging, or freeing in some way. Still, this work is probably only of interest to writers (or maybe artists in general).

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  • The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century – (Steven Pinker)
    • Admittedly, Pinker’s book is the first style-guide-type writing book I’ve ever read. Still, I find it hard to believe that another will surpass its importance and influence on my writing life. Pinker doesn’t just give you arbitrary rules about writing. Instead he lays out why those rules exist, why they are sometimes okay to break, and how to judge those situations for yourself. An absolutely essential read for any writer.

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  • Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking – (David Bayles and Ted Orland)
    • This short booklet helped me through a rough and unproductive time. My basic takeaway is the mantra of the book: to paraphrase, your work is that work which no one else can do; you must do your work. Read it whenever you feel down about your art, or whenever you need that extra motivation.

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  • A Brief History of Time – (Stephen Hawking)
    • I debated over whether or not to recommend this one. It’s already so well-known and lauded, and it is (by nature of its accessibility) such an oversimplification of the subject matter. However, I could not bring myself to deny a recommendation to the seminal work of one of our planet’s smartest humans. Plus, it is actually very interesting.

the controversial books**

**I have separated these books by Gerald Posner because of the plagiarism and inaccurate sourcing controversies that have surrounded Posner in recent years. I read these two books before knowing that, and so this alters and colors my opinion of his work. I’ll give a brief review of each book, but the presence of such controversies means that I cannot in good conscience give a recommendation (which is a shame, because he was going to be one of the major recommendations in this list).

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  • God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican – (Gerald Posner)
    • This book about the moneyed interests within the Roman Catholic Church was so well-written, evenly-paced, and researched that it sparked within me a desire to read more nonfiction. If not for the controversy surrounding Posner, this would be my number two recommendation after Piketty’s book.

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  • Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Secret Saudi—U.S. Connection – (Gerald Posner)
    • A fascinating and deeply disturbing discussion on our nation’s questionable relationship with the Saudi royal family, with a dissection of the Kingdom’s entanglement with Wahhabism, Posner’s book is seemingly crucial to understanding modern global politics.

books of poetry

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  • 100 Best-Loved Poems – (Philip Smith, ed.)
    • A compilation of, well, best-loved poems from history, this book is a good way to get oneself into the swing of reading poetry.

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  • High Windows – (Philip Larkin)
    • Larkin was a poetic giant, and this work is one of his best. A master of turns of phrase, he is required reading for anyone who enjoys poetry.

fiction

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  • The Familiar, vol. 1-3 – (Mark Z. Danielewski)
  1. One Rainy Day in May
  2. Into the Forest
  3. Honeysuckle and Pain

    • Danielewski is one of the most experimental writers of our time, having written the wonderful House of Leaves and the (in my opinion) unreadable Only Revolutions. This series—a twenty-some volume work reportedly about Los Angeles—features a more straightforward narrative split between the viewpoints of different characters. Regardless of whether or not his constant experimentation suits you, Danielewski’s mastery of the written word is undeniable. The man can write better than almost anyone I’ve read. The Familiar is a testament to this fact, its prose weighty and complex and beautiful. Highly, highly, highly recommend to anyone who enjoys weird speculative fiction.

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  • The First Law, books 1-3 – (Joe Abercrombie)
  1. The Blade Itself
  2. Before They Are Hanged
  3. Last Argument of Kings
    • Abercrombie is a new name to me, but his story is captivating. Though a bit slow to start, the character development and worldbuilding is very good. This series is not for the faint of heart, as the violence and despair of its world seeps out of every page. That said, the books have that page-turning quality that every writer seeks to employ. I look forward to reading more works by Abercrombie in the future.

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  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – (Philip K. Dick)
    • Moviegoers should recognize this as the basis for the film Blade Runner, and not much else needs to be said. Though his writing is often blasé, Dick is unquestionably a pioneer of modern science fiction, and the ideas expressed in his stories are examples of incredible worldbuilding and philosophical thinking.

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  • Survival of the Fittest: Metamorphosis – (Johnny Pearce)
    • Full disclosure: I know Pearce and read the book at his request. That said, this apocalyptic zombie story manages to ground the reader in real, visceral fears. Instead of the sometimes detached and lofty philosophical ideations of, say, a Philip K. Dick, Pearce deals with philosophy and religion within the context of zombie horror as experienced by normal, everyday people. There is something enjoyable about a horror novel that emphasizes the mundane—somehow this can have the strange effect of heightening the tension.

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  • Louder Than Words: 22 Authors Donate New Stories to Benefit Share Our Strength’s Fight Against Hunger, Homelessness, and Illiteracy – (William Shore, ed.)
    • This collection of short stories—which is as old as I am, coincidentally—contains both some real gems and some very mediocre works. I picked the collection up for a few bucks at a local used bookstore, and I don’t regret spending that money. But, frankly, the fact that original purchasers of the book bought it largely for charity, well, makes sense.

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  • The Wheel of Time series, books 5-6 – (Robert Jordan)
      • The Fires of Heaven
      • Lord of Chaos
    • I have a complicated relationship with the WoT series. Jordan’s pacing is too slow, his worldbuilding is often repetitive, and his characters are largely too similar to each other. However, the world itself is so fascinating, the “magic” element so well-designed, that I continue to push through the slow parts. (For reference, though, I’ve been stuck on book 7 since this summer, so…). I recommend it for fantasy aficionados willing to expend lots of grace and patience.

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  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – (Susanna Clarke)
    • This book defies categorization. Obviously it is fantasy, but it contains elements of both a narrative and a stuffy history textbook (at least, as stuffy as it can be while discussing the fascinating subject of English Magic). In parts wry humor and tragedy, the book is unbelievably well-written and well-designed. It took me two tries to get into it, but honestly I’m not sure why I didn’t immediately fasten my nose to the page. Highly recommended.

graphic novels

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  • Locke and Key, vol. 1-5 – (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez)
  1. Welcome to Lovecraft
  2. Head Games
  3. Crown of Shadows
  4. Keys to the Kingdom
  5. Clockworks
    • Illustrated by Rodriguez and written by Hill (Stephen King’s son), this story is wonderfully paced and beautifully whimsical even in its stark horror. All I will say re: plot is that it revolves around a family mansion and strange keys. I’ve yet to finish the series, as there is a sixth book I need to read, but each volume feels nearly perfectly resolved.

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  • SAGA, vol. 1-3 – (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
    • The writing of Vaughan and the artwork of Staples are perfectly wedded in this amazing sci-fi romp. Told from the perspective of a child about her parents, the story is surprisingly adult, sometimes raunchy, often hilarious, hugely insightful, and always interesting. I do not want to finish the series—I need to finish it. This highlights the main problem with graphic novels and comics—this series is not yet finished, and so I have to pace myself while not going insane with the wait.

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  • Through the Woods – (Emily Carroll)
    • This is a unique compilation of five stories written and illustrated by the author. In the desire to make you interested, I’ll say that Carroll’s story have some of the horror of H.P. Lovecraft, and some of the pacing of those old Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz. However, this is a bit of disservice. Carroll’s style is very much her own, and her stories revel in the horror of the unknown.

webcomics

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  • Darths and Droids – (The Comic Irregulars)
    • Inspired by Shamus Young’s DM of the Rings (which recast the Lord of the Rings series as if the characters were players in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and which I still—to my shame—have yet to read), Darths and Droids does the same thing with the Star Wars series. The current series covers the original trilogy and the prequels, as the writers wish to wait awhile before working on the new sequel-trilogy. Anyway, if you read one webcomic in your life, this probably should be it.

New Book Available!

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Hello there, friends of this oft-forsaken blog. I’ve got a couple announcements for you.

First and foremost, my new book is out! It’s entitled Shamebringer, and it is the first part in a fantasy series called Unblooded. You can purchase it here or by clicking on the picture above.

Also, I have a new website. Check it out if you haven’t already, and let me know what you think.

Thanks for the support!

Work Schedule: A Life Update

Hey there, readers.

It’s been eons. And I apologize for that, but not too profusely. See, things have been afoot in the life of ML Candelario. My wife gave birth to our second son, I got a job selling timeshare, and now I’m staying at home watching the little stinkers while Megan does her Speech Language Pathology wizardry at a couple of local schools.

I didn’t forget you during all this, though, potential audience. All this while, I’ve been working on my first novel—a science fiction story that’s been labored upon under the clever working title “Sci-Fi Story,” but which will probably be called Marionette when it launches. I finished the first draft, did a cursory edit on my laptop, and now am handwriting edits and revisions on the printed-out pages. Initially, the novel weighed in at around 85k words. But it has become apparent that I’m going to lose a lot of those words after revision. I’m told this happens.

Anyway, I just wanted to pop up on here and give you all an update. Here are the projects in which I’m currently engaged:

• Marionette—current release date = December 2013
• first novel of Dwarfstory series—first draft to be written during NaNoWriMo = November 2013
• collection of poetry—ongoing, no set release date
• unnamed sci-fi/possibly YA project—doing concept work, will write after Dwarfstory (2015?)

I’m also planning to redesign this website. It worked for a bit as a sort of blog, but now that I’m going to be publishing things in the near future it has become apparent that better organization is necessary. But Megan will probably do that. She’s better at the computahs.

We’re taking a trip out to Texas this week, but I hope to post a poem on here in a few days. I want to get back to regular posts, even if they’re only little updates.

Thanks for your support, and I’ll (hopefully) have something out for you to read pretty soon!

-Mike

Life Update 2/8/13

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(or: It’s Half Past Four and I’m Only Just Now Doing Anything Worthwhile)

So, internet, Mike is back in the writing game. Yes, I know you all missed me dearly and now here I am, ready to start once again doing regular blog updates. Rejoice, world.

Here’s the skinny: my wonderful wife Megan recently graduated with her Master’s degree. Since her degree is in Speech Language Pathology, this basically meant that she was on the job market for all of like five minutes before the openings and interviews started rolling in. Long story short, she now has a job in the school system of a local town. What this means for my family is that I was able to quit my job cashiering at the hospital and focus on writing. So here’s my schedule: three days a week, we have a babysitter come over to watch Asher and I go out to various locations (usually either Starbucks or my parents’ house – or both) and write. The other two days I stay home and play househusband. I say “play” because I lack the mystical quality of housekeeping that so many housewives I know inherently have. I mostly try to keep up with Asher and do laundry, and even that proves too much at times. But oh well. The point is that I am now able to write and get stuff done. So let me tell you about that.

I have made the unretractable vow that my first novel will be published this year on the Kindle store. This first one is going to be a science fiction novel. Current as of this blogpost, I have written about 22,000 words. This is roughly a third of my estimate for how long the finished novel will be (though I could be off on that estimate…). So things are getting done. Furthermore, I have mapped out an extensive plot outline and timeline as well as having short dossiers on my main characters. Guys and gals, I am super-excited about this story. It’s making tons of sense to me and is interesting. Hopefully it will be interesting to others as well. But if not, that’s cool. I’ll learn from the experience and approach the next project with new knowledge. By the way, that dwarf story I was tweeting about a lot last year is on the boards to be the next project after this one is published. It’s still looking like the dwarf story will be a trilogy of shorter novellas, but there is a chance I could combine them into one larger novel. It all depends on the scope of the story and whether or not I think the proposed trilogic segments will have the necessary climaxes/resolutions. Also, it depends on how the market goes for these shorter novellas. I know that recently there has been a spike in novella sales, but I’m not totally convinced that people are going to keep preferring them to novel-length stories. My plan is that after those two projects, and if people are buying my stuff and/or Megan is making enough money for it, I have a few more sci-fi/young adult projects that I’d like to finish. My plan is also to release at least one or two poetry collections or short story collections within like the next five years. Maybe.  Perhaps, after all of that, I will feel comfortable enough to start really trying to work on another project of mine – that environmental terrorism novel that I’ve mentioned before on this blog. That thing is like my baby (disregarding, of course, my actual physical children), and so I’ve been really reticent to start digging in and writing it until I feel my skills as an author are better. But, I also recently had the revelation that writers, y’know, write. You have to start walking if you ever hope to reach your destination. Or whatever trite aphorism applies here.

Something else that has changed recently: I just applied to graduate school. If I am accepted, I will be starting this fall with the goal of obtaining my Master’s Degree in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition. I think that this will do two things: firstly, it will allow me to better my understanding of the English language and thus hopefully will improve my writing; and secondly, it will give me the option of teaching at, say, a community college – and therefore will give me a way to actually make some money should it arise that my writing career doesn’t earn me millions. In any case, it will certainly be a good thing to do in this economy and in this job climate.

Okay, so those are the major changes in my life at this moment. Did I mention that here in about eleven weeks Megan, Asher, and I will be welcoming a fourth member of our family into the world? Because that’s happening (good lord, eleven weeks!). So life is really good right now and yet also really busy. Funds are tight, since Megan only gets paid once a month and so we’re kind of in no-man’s-land since I already quit my job. But it’s okay. For the first time in a while, I am actually happy with the direction my life is taking, profession-wise. I feel like I am working on a project that is worthwhile, that I am pursuing a goal that is both attainable and meaningful, and quite frankly that I’m doing something that is fun. Which is a new experience for me. I mean, I haven’t hated every job I’ve had, but I sure haven’t been doing anything that fulfilled me.

For you guys and gals out there (all ten of you who might read this blog occasionally), this also means that I am going to try to update this here blog at least once a week. I feel like it’s an important thing to do – that it offers an outlet for any future fans of mine to connect directly with the author of books they read. So I have to start providing that now, I think. Expect a review of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash sometime in the following week.

Ooh, I almost forgot. At the same time that all of this is going on, a close friend of mine and I are co-writing a screenplay. It’s an adaptation of a short story that a more distant friend of ours wrote some years ago. Actually, it’s really more like my friend is writing and I’m just sort of helping out with the story, providing another brain for him to bounce ideas off of. I can’t reveal any more information at this time, but it’s pretty cool. I think the movie is going to be rad.

And… that’s it. Other than all that, though, life is simple. I guess. Thanks for reading, and get ready for my first published novel to be released!

Book Review: A Song of Ice and Fire, Part Two (A Game of Thrones)

*Author’s note: This is the second in a series of reviews on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

**Author’s second note: Some minor SPOILERS are in this review, so read with caution.

FIRST IMPRESSION

When I began reading A Game of Thrones, it was after hearing its praises sung by numerous individuals whose opinions on literature I trust to be similar to my own. What was funny was that the book was recommended from people in so many different areas in my life. One of my fellow Creative Writing classmates hailed Martin as being one of the best living fantasy authors (and yes, Kindle Store, these books are fantasy – not science fiction). Another individual, one of my coworkers, extolled the intensity and depth of the world that Martin wrote about. I heard the book’s title being discussed in hallways as I walked past, and there were rumors that HBO was starting a television series on Martin’s epic tale. So it seemed fated that I would end up reading the books.

When I did, I have to admit that the first novel – A Game of Thrones – didn’t grab me right away. As I said in the last review, the sex scenes seemed really over the top and kind of creepy in that old guy staring at a young girl kind of way. But, I had to admit that the world itself was very interesting. All the Houses of Westeros had their “words” (or family motto), colors, castles, etc. And Martin makes sure to delve into all of the history behind practically every character. This was really fun in a nerdy sort of way, yet I also felt that the story was moving too slowly for my taste. See, I had gone into the thing expecting a fast paced, battle-filled, gritty epic. And while parts of A Game of Thrones are like that, most of it is concerned with setting up the characters and the multitude of plots for the rest of the series. Once I realized this, I started to like it more. The title is apt, since Martin is primarily preoccupied with the complexity of Westerosi politics. And might I add that the depth to the political intrigue in this novel is reminiscent of our own world’s politics. There are plots within plots within plots.

By the end of my reading of A Game of Thrones, I was thoroughly interested in reading the next books, but part of me still hoped for a change of pace. I still feel that the first novel is mainly a setup for the remainder of the series, and because of this it is probably my least favorite of the books (though it vies for that spot with A Feast for Crows, the fourth book).

LOOKING BACK (note: SPOILERS)

The reason I have to qualify “least favorite” with “probably” is that I have realized there is so much more complexity in the first novel now that I’m almost finished with the fifth. Sure, the direwolf being killed by the stag in the beginning of the novel is not a very subtle example of foreshadowing. But when you look back and realize that the two people Arya spies discussing an overthrow of the Iron Throne are Varys and Magister Illyrio, and that they are plotting to reinstate Daenerys Targaryen in place of Robert, you start to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Martin is a master at planting tiny little details that you forget about in the midst of the overall plot, and then all of sudden making you realize that there was a purpose to it all along. Combine that with the fact that he does this with almost every detail in the series, and you begin to see why people rave about him.

This book also starts to setup the characters, and along with that the fact that Martin will kill any character he pleases at any given time. Take Daenerys’ storyline: Martin explores and builds the world of the Dothraki, giving pages and pages away to the development of Daenerys’ and Khal Drogo’s relationship, and the ends up just killing off the Khal and changing the course of the entire story line. This is tough to do as a writer. You tend to get really attached to the characters and the story, and changing it on a whim like that is sometimes heartbreaking.

Of course, everyone’s favorite dwarf also plays a big role in this book. Tyrion Lannister’s capture and trial by Catelyn Stark is was pushes the two houses to the brink of war, and thus is the impetus that leads into the next book. But Martin also cleverly uses Tyrion to show the vileness of his father Tywin and his sister Cersei. You can tell from the treatment of the characters which ones we are to consider the bad guys and which ones we’re supposed to root for. But as I said in the first review, no one is without serious flaws (even noble Ned Stark is foolish and naïve). Though I guess a few of them have no redeeming qualities (I’m looking at you, Cersei, Tywin, Joffrey, and Viserys).

Overall, I’d say it’s a good start to a great series. If you’re interested in reading this book, though, make sure you go into it understanding that the pace is sometimes slow because Martin is laying down the foundation for the rest of his novels. Give it time; let it grow on you. I’m sure you’ll end up liking it.

OVERALL SCORE: 8/10

Book Review: A Song of Ice and Fire, Part One (An Overview)

The back of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons showcases, along with all the usual laudatory blurbs, a quote from Time that proclaims Martin to be the “American Tolkien.” There are some obvious parallels between the two authors. Tolkien spent much of his adult life working to elevate the genre of fantasy from the depths of childish stories in which it was drowning. In the same vein, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series adds a decidedly adult spin to stories about dragons and medieval clans. In this way, the two authors both have sought to craft out of the stuff of our childish fantasies stories for adults to enjoy.

However, I think calling Martin the “American Tolkien” does a disservice to both authors. It sets the reader up for disappointment, because the style and essence of Martin’s writing could not be more different from that of Tolkien. Also, both men had markedly different approaches to and reasons for writing. George R. R. Martin has said that his approach to writing is like a gardener – he weaves stories and plants the seeds of ideas within them, and then allows those ideas to develop. He sort of lets the story go where it will. For him, writing is about the characters and their development. And, admittedly, Martin is ridiculously good at having characters go through believable progressions. Despite all the fantastical elements that the reader just knows aren’t true (the dragons, the magic, the very world), it feels like you are reading about real people. As an aspiring author, I can tell you that this is almost unfathomably difficult to pull off.

Tolkien, though, had a much different approach (at least, from what I can tell). I’m not a Tolkien scholar by any means, but I did grow up amidst the Lord of the Rings movie hullabaloo – and I have read the Silmarillion. Slogging through the dense narrative of that book and watching hours of DVD Special Features on the languages Tolkien created have left me with a distinct feeling that Tolkien was out to create a mythology. He wasn’t really about the story itself, per se. Rather, it seems to me that his main goal was to craft languages, cultures, and religions – and to do this in a writing style that mimicked the feel of ancient texts. It was supposed to feel like the reader found a piece of writing detailing the histories of Middle Earth. One of my friends (who is, by the way, a huge fan of both authors) recently made the claim that if Tolkien were alive today no publisher would take him on as a client. This is entirely possible. His works, while brilliant and amazing and highly deserving of the heaps of praise they’ve earned over the years, do not make for great stories. DISCLAIMER: I have not yet completely read through the LOtR trilogy (though I have read the Hobbit and the aforementioned Silmarillion). Don’t get me wrong: the history in Tolkien’s work is rich, deep, enjoyable, interesting, etc. etc. ad nauseam. But the characters are simply talked about by the narrator – they are not experienced by the reader in the same way that Martin’s characters are.

While the above paragraph will probably draw harsh criticism from Tolkien fans, the point I am making is: the authors could not be more different. I said earlier that few (if any) publishers would want to take on the task of publishing Tolkien if he submitted his work today. Martin, however, has achieved every writer’s dream. His seven-book series consistently tops the best-seller lists and has been picked up by HBO for television adaption. Indeed, the show is in its second season already and is making the big bucks. Why is that, though? Why do we all love Martin’s work so much?

Apart from the reasons I’ve already mentioned regarding Martin’s dedication to character development and story, I think the series is so successful because he’s a genuinely good author. He writes about fantasy in a way that is somehow believable and enjoyable. We build attachments to his characters, we become engrossed in the plotlines (the many, many, many interwoven plotlines), and we fall in love with the numerous cultures and religions of Westeros and beyond. The man can world-build like nobody’s business, and he does it through dialogue and not just dry description. We also love them because it is surprisingly difficult to predict the next plot-point. Not only is there a vast number of narrative lines told from the perspectives of multiple characters, but Martin does not always adhere to conventions. Just because someone seems to be a main character, and just because Martin’s spent a few thousand-page books developing that character, there is no guarantee that Martin is not going to kill the person off on the next page. And this makes the story more believable – but more importantly, it makes it exciting.

But let’s be honest: these works are not going to please everyone. I’ve talked with numerous people who have tried to read the books and have left off, disgusted. Set in a time period that somewhat mimics our own medieval days, Martin’s story does not pull any punches. Women have virtually no rights, they are consistently (and with detail) mistreated both physically and sexually, and the men pretty much use the women for their own entertainment. On the one hand, this is an example of Martin’s “going where the story wills” – he doesn’t make a character’s speech easier on the ears just because it is offensive. There is a substantial claim that Martin is just being true to the time period. On the other hand, the sex scenes (which to me are too detailed and could use a bit of cutting-away) often read like the fantasies of a dirty old man. Regardless of intent, it is creepy to be reading something and at the same time realizing that what you are reading is a rape or sex scene imagined by an old man in a basement. And while I don’t want to commit the fallacy of equating the narrative with the author’s views, the way the scenes are handled constitutes, to me, an odd voyeurism that sometimes leaves me feeling icky.

Another reason I’ve heard people give in defense of their dislike of the series is that the world is so big that the story moves very slowly. If this is your opinion, you are entitled to it and it is likely that nothing I say will change your mind. The pacing is sometimes slow, but there is always something important going on. Characters are developing, plot “seeds” are being sown, the world is being painstakingly built, the plot lines are converging, etc. Sometimes there is very little action, but that is fine by me. Those of us who like the series tend to be the kind of readers who want to know all the ins and outs of the story – we want to understand the political motivations of one faction or another, we want to learn about all these intriguing and novel cultures, we want to have our emotions tugged and pulled, and we want to grow attached to characters. The going might be slow, but the reader is always doing at least one of those things.

Finally, something that attracts me to the story (if “attracts” is really the correct word) is based on my own theology. As a Calvinist, I believe in something called Total Depravity. Without getting into too much detail, this doctrine essentially says that man is depraved in all parts of his being and incapable of good apart from the working of God. Even though we may do good things, this doctrine says, we do them for wrong reasons – reasons that bespeak a profound ugliness within our nature. So one of the things I really appreciate about this series is that Martin captures that. I don’t know Martin’s religious beliefs, and I certainly don’t think he was trying to provide an examination of Calvinist doctrine when he began writing his novels. But what is great is that each character in this book has his or her own set of serious flaws. Whether it’s oathbreaking, sexual immorality, murder, pride, or even just being a colossal asshole, Martin’s characters are – to the person – depraved. And this makes for a better, more believable story than just “here are some bad guys and here are some good guys… the good guys win.”

I say all that to say this: Martin’s series is phenomenal, but it is not something akin to Tolkien. The two might both have tried to take fantasy into the realms of adult literature, and both might also have two middle names that start with R, but the comparison really must end there. If you go into the Song of Ice and Fire series thinking it to be the American version of what Tolkien did, you will be sorely disappointed. Not because Martin is a worse author, but because he has his own unique brand of genius.

COMING NEXT WEEK: PART TWO (ON A GAME OF THRONES)