Tag Archives: war

Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

After Patrick Rothfuss, I have really high standards for “epic” fantasy. GRRM has set up a series that is often seen as the current epitome of epic fantasy – with the fear that he and it, like Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time, will continue until the series inadvertently outlives the author. It made for a natural follow-up while I was still in an epic fantasy mood – and the recent series in on our to-be-watched list.

Writing-wise, it’s not nearly as captivating to me as Rothfuss was. Oh, it’s not bad – there are moments that suck you in, and the concept of the world (a land where seasons last for years) is intriguing, but it’s more about the characters than the world right now. And looking at it relatively impartially or analytically, the characters are basically just stereotypes. Stereotypes with feeling, of course, and well-crafted stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless. The most interesting characters so far are the ones who don’t quite fit the stereotype, or the ones that you hope don’t: Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love the Starks, as you’re supposed to, and I despise the Lannisters, as you’re supposed to. But that’s almost one of the problems: you’re so clearly supposed to. They are all painted with such broad strokes that it’s too obvious what you’re supposed to feel. I gasped with horror – out loud, even –at certain plot points (I won’t spoil them for you) and felt a smug satisfaction at others. But I also felt like hissing every time certain characters appeared and cheering for others. It’s like a melodrama.

There’s not a lot more I can say about it without spoiling things or having read the rest of the series – because, after all, it is the first in a series. It’s entirely possible that some of the things that I felt were lacking in this book (world-building, mostly) will be more fully explored in later books. I’m definitely hopeful that the Wall and the Others will be more fully explored later – they’ve been hinted at so far, and briefly met, but this book didn’t really deal with them at all. (One of the reasons that I think Jon Snow is a more interesting character is because his storyline deals less with the “game of thrones” part of the world and more with the fantasy elements.)

I don’t own the second book, and I have at least two dozen unread books around that I do own, so I am not sure when I’m going to get to the rest of the series. It probably won’t be too long, though – especially if the rest of the series is also filmed, giving me more of an impetus to read the rest.

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Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir

It has been enough of a break for me from Alison Weir that I was able to pick up The Wars of the Roses a couple of weeks ago: after I’d finished reading Ian Mortimer, I was still in a medievalist mood, and the Wars of the Roses themselves are much less controversial than The Princes in the Tower.

The book itself is really in two parts. The first half(ish) deals with the founding of the Lancastrian dynasty: Henry IV’s usurpation, Henry V’s military might, and Henry VI’s early reign. The second half deals with the conflict that we now consider the Wars of the Roses.  The first half, which sets up the personalities and motivations, is much stronger than the second, and much more interesting to me.  The second half is very battle-heavy. It’s justifiable that that part is battle-heavy, since it’s kind of the point of the book, but I personally found the setup more interesting than the conflict itself.

One person that I developed a massive dislike for was Margaret of Anjou. Some of that is my own Yorkist sympathy, but a lot of it is her complete misinterpretation/misreading of the culture and prejudices that she married into. She was already hated by the English people and nobles when her marriage ended the war, gave France a few traditionally English provinces (although not Calais), and brought no dowry to England itself. She then compounded the hatred by creating her own faction at court, essentially siphoning power away from both Henry and any nobles (like York) that she didn’t like. By the end, she was trying to ally with both Scotland and France – England’s most prominent enemies.

The other fact that I found interesting – and that I hadn’t known before – was that Elizabeth Wydville and her family were originally Lancastrians. Her first husband, and I think her father, had both died in the service of Henry VI – and yet she married Edward IV.

In part because of the emphasis on battles in the second half of the book, I don’t feel like I got to know Edward IV as much as I got to know his father, or even his brother George (Duke of Clarence), who was instrumental in the various machinations around the return of Henry VI.  Gloucester (Richard, later III) was also relatively shadowy, but I think her feelings for him were made pretty clear in The Princes in the Tower.

The main thing I took away from The Wars of the Roses was a renewed interest in Henry V and, by extension, Shakespeare’s history plays. Studying Henry V was one of the more memorable aspects of my Shakespeare class at university, and I happen to have full-cast recordings of all of Shakespeare’s plays. It was really interesting to listen to (and sometimes read along with) the various parts of Henry VI and “fact-check” to some extent the play with Weir’s book, and vice versa. I did the same with Henry V – and given my recent Ian Mortimer reading, I plan on reading 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory in the very near future.

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The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt

Part One: Reaction

I finally finished The Children’s Book. Saying “finally” makes it sound like it was a struggle, though, which the actual reading of it wasn’t. In fact, I would go so far as to call it “captivating” or “engrossing” – and that’s why it took me so long to read. It was not the kind of book that I wanted to read in short snatches. It’s a book that requires attention.

It’s also a book that requires research. I almost wish that I had read it on my Kindle, for two reasons. First, I made notes. I almost never write in books, but I found myself annotating this one. Of course, the problems with that are that, one, you’re writing in a book, and, two, you (I) can almost never find the notes again. Looking at it in hindsight, I should have invested in some Post-Its. Next time….

Second, I started needing to read it next to my computer. It would usually only take a few paragraphs – a few pages at the most – before there was something I needed to look up. A dictionary (I use the OED, because I am a pretentious dictionary snob) and Wikipedia (not an encyclopedic snob) were my constant companions. Also manybooks.net, by the end. My reading/rereading/research list has grown exponentially because of this book. I was already interested in the late Victorians/Edwardians because of Forster, but this book has only spurred me on.

It is an absolutely beautifully written book. The language is beautiful and the structure is beautiful. There are one or two places where Byatt almost seems to be showing off her vocabulary – I doubt Dobbin would have known the word “exiguous”, although one of the Wellwoods might have – but those moments were few. There were any number of sentences that I noted just to want to remember them, and only one that was incomprehensible.

I will say that I found it a bit hard at first to keep track of the characters and their connections, especially the various children. That’s true in real life when you meet a lot of people at once, though: it takes ages, at least for me, to match up personalities or faces with names. Once I got a handle on who was who, and who belonged to whom, I was fine.

It’s not an easy book to read, of course. It’s quite dense and full of information and ideas. But it’s absolutely worth it.

Part Two: Analysis

When I told people I was reading this book, the first question was usually “What’s it about?” That’s a really difficult question to answer for a book like this. Most people, when they ask “what’s it about” really mean “what happens?” If you had to summarize the book in a sentence or two, what would you say? On that level, it’s “about” a group of upper-middle-class families in the 1890s through World War I. But that doesn’t even come close to what this book is about.  It’s so thematically rich. It’s about artistry, education, family, secrets, the line between fact and fiction, relationships, the time period, social unrest from a privileged perspective, and, most of all, creation.

Creation is, in some ways, an obvious theme. Olive Wellwood is a writer, Benedict Fludd and Philip Warren are potters. Most of the adults are involved in creating things in some way, whether it’s writing or puppetry or the ideas involved in, say, the Fabian society, as well as the more basic creation of children. Even Prosper Cain, one of the more practical adults in the book, is involved in creating the Museum.

But even more than that, the telling of stories – the creation of stories such as, but not exclusively, fairy tales – is a major part of everyone’s lives. They’re more relevant, at least for a while, than reality. Certainly when they are revealed as stories instead of reality – Humphry’s revelation to Dorothy, the staging of Tom Underground, the theft and destruction of Tom Underground when Tom is at school – it is a shattering betrayal, worse than the betrayal of adultery or a simple lie. The stories shape the identity of the recipient as well as the creator, and then when that is taken away, identities are altered or destroyed altogether. I’m sure it is no coincidence that the book jumps forward from the ultimate story/reality betrayal – the breaking of a core created identity in the staging of Tom Underground – to World War I and the actual, physical destruction that accompanies it.

I could go on and on about the act of creation and the tension between reality and fancy/fiction (Dorothy is the most obvious manifestation of this, but Tom and Olive and Griselda also show it). I could also write an essay about fairy tales included within this book – but this is a blog post, not an academic essay.  (Seriously, the incidence of fairy tales is unbelievably huge.)

There’s also quite a lot in the book about love. Sex is present, but it is rarely described in connection with love. Love is, instead, a mental process, an ideal. Desire can be a part of love, but love can exist without desire and desire can exist without love.  (Connected with that, how creepy is Humphry? *shudder*)

And, of course, it’s a book very definitely set in its time. The founding of the V&A is a backdrop, of course, but the social ideas are a pivotal point. Dorothy wants to become a surgeon. Charles/Karl flirts with socialism and anarchism – his dual name even reflects his struggle between his upbringing/class and his ideals (even if the near-constant use of “Charles/Karl” got a bit annoying). Hedda becomes a suffragette. The families are almost all a part of the Fabian society. Class issues are discussed through Elsie, for one. In addition to exploring the philosophical ideas behind creating things, the book explores and instructs about the time period.

I’ll end this (brief) analysis with a quotation from the book. A group of the characters goes to Paris for the 1900 Exposition and Philip sees the work of Rodin for the first time. Here’s his reaction:

It was so strong that it would destroy him – how could he make little trellis-men and modest jars  in the face of this skilled whirlwind of making? And yet the contrary impulse was there, too. This was so good, the only response to it was to want to make something.

This is how I feel after finishing this book. It’s so good that I can’t write anything to compare to it. But its use of fairy tales makes me even more determined to get back to finishing my novel (which revolves around fairy tales). Its setting in the late Victorian/Edwardian era made me more determined to get back to Forster research (new book is out this weekend, I think!). Its conclusion in World War I made me even more interested in the events and writing around that time. I know I will never be able to write as well as Byatt, but I can’t not write after reading something like this.

 

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The Regeneration trilogy, by Pat Barker

I am so fascinated by World War I. I’m not sure entirely why (other than Rilla of Ingleside) but I love the stories that come out of those four years. The stories, the poems, the personalities….I don’t know as much, or care as much about the military strategy of it, but I am fascinated by the people involved. So this trilogy, revolving around Dr Rivers, the psychiatrist who treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, is kind of perfect for me.

Regeneration, the first book in the trilogy, I read during my MA. And I devoured it. I loved the style, I loved the people, I felt deeply for each of the patients and the other characters. It made me want to reread everything of Siegfried Sassoon’s that I could find, to read more about Robert Graves, to study Wilfred Owen. At a distance of a year-plus, I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I do remember the love.

The Eye in the Door, the second book, is a bit grimmer. I am not sure if ‘grimmer’ is the right word, when the first book is set in a mental hospital, but emotionally, there is less hope in The Eye in the Door. Billy Prior, one of the patients from Craiglockhart, is starting to dissociate, and the disillusionment that is so prevalent in the “war poets” and post-war writing is stronger in this book than in either of the others. Betrayal is an important theme. Memory is an important element – both the loss of memory associated with shell-shock and dissociation, and the juxtaposition of pre-war memory and current events. It’s possible that one reason that I didn’t like this one quite as much as the other two is because it forced Billy’s pre-war memories into the story, in an attempt to preach about the horrors of the home front. And there were horrors on the home front, as there are anywhere that has been affected by war.

The Ghost Road, on the other hand, I loved. It starts with an epigraph from an Edward Thomas poem – Edward Thomas is a ‘war poet’ that I wasn’t familiar with before, but I’m going to investigate him further; apparently he was a friend of Robert Frost, and may have been the impetus for ‘The Road Less Travelled’. And the book integrates more of Rivers into the story, which is something that I found slightly missing from The Eye in the Door. The memories – Rivers’s, this time – fit better with the story; they provided insights and metaphorical connections instead of flat background.

The Ghost Road also has one of the few passages I’ve ever wanted to actually mark in a book. It’s kind of an obvious thing, but coming from Billy Prior, and in the context that it does, it really makes an impact. Billy’s writing a diary, in a way to keep track of his sanity and that of the other soldiers in France, and he comments on the prevalence of writing in the huts: letters, diaries, poems. And then he says,

Why? you have to ask yourself. I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe.

He recognizes the irony, of course – that in war no one is ever safe. And the reader does too – anyone who knows about Wilfred Owen, a prominent figure in this book and one of Billy Prior’s fellow soldiers, knows that he died in battle on Armistice Day. Many of the ‘war poets’ didn’t make it home. Turning yourself into a first-person narrator is not going to give you a magic shield against bullets or gas. But the need is still there. This is one of the reasons that we tell stories; we are trying to keep our own stories going as long as possible, to make some kind of a mark on the world so that people will want to keep knowing about us, to keep ourselves from fading from sight even before death.

This trilogy is, in one way, kind of like a Ron Howard movie. It’s based on true events – many of the characters are real people – so you know what’s going to happen, for the most part. But you can’t stop reading, you can’t stop hoping that it will happen differently this time. They wouldn’t really kill off characters that are so important in the story, would they?  They wouldn’t really be sent into battle in such horrible conditions? Or, even more chillingly, they wouldn’t really let a guy with half his face blown off live that long, would they? But they do, in every case.

(I also will say that one thing that I liked about The Ghost Road was the presence of Henry Head. I found him fascinating during Casualty 1909, where they actually show the beginnings of his nerve regeneration self-experiment, which they bring up in this book, and I like that connection between one thing I love (this trilogy) and another (Casualty 1900s).)

I whipped through the final two books of this trilogy in, essentially, one afternoon/evening. I find the period so captivating, and the characters so captivating, that now all I want to do is read more WWI-set literature. Maybe I’ll do Birdsong next, and mark that off my list too….

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A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, by Marc Morris

I like the thirteenth century. To be honest, I like the period generally called “The Middle Ages” but especially the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. I know quite a lot about the general events of these few centuries. I am always looking for more, though; it’s the nature of the obsession.

I’ve been wanting to learn more about the Edwards for quite a while, too. Edwards I and III are so pivotal in English history; I felt a little bit guilty that I didn’t know their life stories off by heart. So I got this biography of Edward I a while ago, and picked it up last week.

And I couldn’t put it down. It’s a period that I’m interested in, sure, but the book itself is captivating. Morris takes the narrative chronologically through Edward I’s life, focusing in a big way on his international presence. The Crusades, Scotland, Wales, France, Castile….Edward I was a busy king. His military and financial motivations are described in amazing detail, and you understand the complete justification that he felt about attacking Wales and Scotland.

There are no frustrations with this biography – well, not in what it does present. The frustration that I felt came at the behaviours and mores of the thirteenth century: the xenophobia that led to the difficulties in Ireland (they’re barbarians, so we can’t let them use their laws! but they’re barbarians, so we can’t let them use our laws! No wonder the politics were messed up for so long), the greed combined with xenophobia that led to the expulsion of the Jews, the tension between family and politics (he’s my cousin/friend, but also my overlord, except that I don’t want him to be, etc.)

The one thing lacking in this book (for me, a romantic and a feminist) is more description of Edward’s personal life. We get quite a lot about Edward’s friends and alliances, but not quite as much as I would have liked about his relationship with Eleanor or with his second wife, Margaret of France. They’re not completely ignored or anything, but for such a passionate relationship (Eleanor) and one of the best-known memorials except for the Taj Mahal (the Eleanor Crosses), there’s not really a lot about Eleanor. And there’s almost nothing about Margaret of France – the alliance where they marry is mentioned, and then she vanishes until “by this time, a child had been born.” Presumably she must have had some presence in his life, for them to have had several children, but she’s essentially invisible in the narrative.

But it’s not really a flaw of the book; it is not pretending to be a comprehensive study of Edward the husband and lover. It does claim to be the story of “The Forging of Britain” – the story of how Britain began to be the political and geographical entity it is today. And the narrative does that. Edward I conquered Wales, took over Scotland (against the will of its current nobility), agreed to hold the first regular Parliaments, held the first Parliaments with commoner – or less high nobility, at least – participation, participated in overseas wars that a different country started (….in the Middle East….couched in pseudo-religious terms……sound familiar?). Almost everything that defines Britain as it is today began in the reign of Edward I, and the book does an exceptionally captivating job of describing it.

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Remembrance Day

I am fascinated by World War One, and have been for years. I am not a military historian: the troop movements and strategies and big-picture things like that do not interest me at all (at least not for this time period, not yet). I am much more interested in the little picture: daily life things, both in the trenches and at home.

One of my favourite books ever is Rilla of Ingleside, the last of the Anne series, which focuses on the Canadian home front. Politics and strategies and “big picture” events are just a background to things like soup tureens and green hats and Dog Monday and falling in love. It’s about how the people live and deal with the war. It honours the soldiers without over-glorifying the war. (You could argue that Walter’s role in the book is that of a “glorious sacrifice”, but I don’t think that they sugarcoat it too much. Walter’s enlistment is a huge dilemma for him, Anne and Rilla both struggle with feelings of resentment toward him both for enlisting and for dying, and the trauma of casualties and capture permeate the whole second half of the book. Yeah, everything gets wrapped up shiny with a bow, but I really hate the assumption that literature must be tragic to be true.)

One of my favourite poems of all time is also a Canadian World War One poem (I think the Canadian thing is a coincidence) – “In Flanders Fields”, by John MacRae. This poem does glorify the sacrifice of war, and is kind of similar to Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” in terms of blatant recruitment attempts. But it doesn’t have to be only that. I like the poem because it reminds me that life goes on during and despite war. I also think that the last stanza doesn’t have to be limited to military meaning. “The torch” can be any number of ideas, not just military continuity.

MacRae is not the only “war poet” that I like, though. I love Sassoon and Owen and Rosenberg – anyone who can shine some light on “daily life” of men in the trenches – what they experienced, what they felt, and how they reacted.

World War One is so fascinating to me, I think, because of its ‘transition’ status. It so often gets overshadowed by World War Two (and rightly so, many times; WW2 was horrifying on so many levels) but it really paved the way for a lot of the 20th century. It was the first “world” war, affecting people on nearly every continent. It was the first to use some of the “modern” military equipment like tanks and airplanes. It was also one of the first that recognized PTSD (shell-shock) as a legitimate condition to be treated (granted, there was a lot of misdiagnosis and under-treatment but that definitely still happens today). And let’s not forget that it led pretty directly to the conditions for WW2 – even at the time, people called the Versailles Treaty a 20-year cease-fire instead of a lasting peace.

From a literary point of view, it was the first to really accept daily life/common man poems, not just heraldic glorification of soldiery, as part of the canon. Look at Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” against anything by Sassoon or Owen: the difference in tone is dramatic and far more than would be expected simply from the passing years. It also developed the first cracks in the literary culture that eventually led to “modernism” (and that word is a post in and of itself, not to mention a PhD. For someone else.)

World War One changed the world in so many ways, which is why I think Remembrance Day is such a moving holiday (for me). Memorial Day in the US is so often just another day off, or the de facto start of summer; Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day is still a way to support soldiers and others who serve without necessarily supporting war, as well as remembering others we’ve lost from the world.

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