“The Green Man” by Kingsley Amis

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"The Green Man" by Kingsley Amis. Cover by Brian Frowde.

“The Green Man” by Kingsley Amis. Cover by Brian Frowde.

“The Green Man” by Kingsley Amis, 1969

Finished October 2, 2012

I started this book several times over the years, and never managed to get very far. I’ve finally gotten through it, and gotta say, I should have left it alone. Amis was a famous writer (as his son is now), and the blurbs describe this book as “devilishly cunning” and “hugely enjoyable,” so I suspect time and geography does not dispose me to it. But without a doubt, the reviewer who called this “superb sexual comedy” must have lived a very sad life.

Maurice Allington owns an inn not far from London. He lives there with his second wife, Joyce, and his teenage daughter, Amy, from his first marriage. His ex-wife had died in a “street accident” a year and a half earlier, and Maurice is unable to make a connection with his child. But that is because he is a selfish drunken snotty jerk. After reading this book and finding the character of Maurice to be entirely unsympathetic, I read up on Amis and learned that he was pretty much exactly like this character: A perpetually drunken adulterer. So perhaps in his own mind Amis was writing an admirable fellow, but I was hoping he’d get eaten by bears and save his friends and acquaintances the agony of his continued existence.

Anyway, the Green Man Inn used to be a home owned by an even more unpleasant fellow, a sort of dark magician by the name of Dr. Thomas Underhill. He spent a lot of time raping young girls, and had plans to survive past death. Maurice starts spotting ghosts on his property, and in between bouts of sleeping with his friend’s wife, having stilted conversations with his family members, and drinking ridiculous amounts, he begins to explore the history of his house.

His research leads Maurice to the conclusion that Underhill had certain items and writings buried with him, and he somehow convinces his mistress to help him dig up the grave. Hang on, this is sounding way more interesting than it was. I need to point out that his interactions with people seem so cold and analytical and lacking in even a speck of empathy or fellow-feeling, or emotion of any kind, that even the sex scenes are a chore to read. Perhaps the constant inebriation numbed the writer to the point that he couldn’t really feel anything. Or maybe he was just a cold and selfish ass.

In the grave Maurice finds what he is looking for and he establishes a more stable connection with Underhill. I’m never clear on why he does this, outside of a passive sort of curiousity. At this point, God shows up. No, really. A young man appears in his study, and we soon realize that it’s God, there to drink some Scotch and give Maurice a bit of advice. God makes mention of how he realized his powers at some point, and sometimes it’s a pain, and there are rules he has to follow. When talking about mistakes he has made due to his lack of foresight, he says, “Well, then I was stuck with those decisions and their results in practice. And I couldn’t go back on them; one thing nobody’s ever credited me with is the power of undoing what I’ve done, of abolishing historical fact and so on.” I found this part slightly interesting. Then God tells Maurice that the Church can help him out of the situation he is about to get himself tangled up in, and vanishes.

When Maurice realizes that all Underhill wants to do (in his corporeal form as a giant monster man made out of branches and leaves) is to kill his daughter, he brings in the Parson to perform an exorcism. Underhill begs to be spared but Maurice ignores him, and the evil old pervert winks out of existence. Joyce leaves him after realizing what an irredeemable ass he is after he involved her in a sort-of threesome with his mistress/her best friend, and he goes back to drinking and thinking about maybe someday being a better person. Although the thought clearly wearies him. He truly is looking forward to death as an escape from the trivialities of life. Ugh.

I can imagine this book would be interesting if written by someone else. There is nothing terribly original about the story. Amis plays around with time distortion and hallucinatory images a bit, but the overall feel of the book is very much like the late 60’s and early 70’s. Drab, full of earth tones, too much booze and cigarettes, and annoying, self-indulgent soul-searching. So freaking dreary, like a cold, damp overcast winter afternoon that just won’t end. And you are stuck wearing wet socks. Not recommended, unless you like that feeling.

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“Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon” by Michel P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers

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“Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon” by Michel P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, 2001

Finished March 9, 2012

I visited Arizona and the Grand Canyon in March, and I got the impression everyone who works in the area has read this book, which is subtitled “Gripping accounts of all known fatal mishaps in the most famous of the World’s Seven Natural Wonders.” Each chapter covers a different way people have died in the Canyon: falling, dehydration, flash floods, drowning, airplane crashes, rock falls, poisonous creatures and plants, lightning, explosions, suicide, and murder.

I started the book while I took a break from the winter weather (a huge disappointment for a Canadian such as myself who was just trying to get AWAY from ice and snow) in front of a fire in the lobby of one of the main hotels on the edge of the Canyon. One of the first stories in the book recounted a terrifying situation in which a woman fell to her death from the edge just in front of where I was sitting. It made me pretty cautious for the rest of my visit.

The authors make the point that many deaths happen because people seem to think that a National Park is kind of like Disneyland, where everything is made safe for them and they don’t need to exhibit any common sense. Hence the stories of people walking right up to the edge, or hiking without a map or water, or rafting without a life jacket in the icy waters. At my first stop in the Grand Canyon I went to a fenced in lookout. Beyond the fence was a spire of rock about 3 feet square on the top, and beyond that was another, slightly larger spire. There were footprints in the freaking snow on these freaking tiny little icy, sloping plateaus. Was the view 20 feet out really worth risking your stupid life? So yeah, that was proof enough for me, as if I needed it, that humans can be remarkably idiotic.

The book really is gripping and well-written. I bought it for my even-more-morbid-than-me sister, but I couldn’t put it down. I wish there were photos in it though, of some of the more famous people and incidents. Not piles of festering guts or anything, but at least a photo of the vanished couple from 1928, Bessie and Glen Hyde. The authors discuss the last photo taken of them, and it would have been nice to have seen it. Particularly since they describe the wife’s body language as “shouting despair and lack of confidence – or worse.” Very thorough, and oddly entertaining. Recommended.

A Feast for Crows, by George R.R. Martin – SPOILERS

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A Feast for Crows, by George R.R. Martin, 2005.

My sister gave me a copy of this book way back in 2005, when it first came out. But when I picked it up and read the first chapter I was annoyed to realize I couldn’t remember ANY of the characters. I had already reread the first book so I could refresh my memory for the second book, and reread the first and second books before reading the third, and I was damned if I was going to reread them all again so I could read the fourth book. I decided to wait until George R.R. Martin had published all the books before trying again.

And then the fantastic tv show came out, and I started again. I had to buy a new copy, because the nice one my sis got for me has vanished into the ether. And now I realize that I was unfamiliar with the characters in the first chapter because they were brand new. Sigh.

So, to the forth book in this monumental series. Martin wrote this installment as a giant book which he had to divide in half. It is split along character and geography lines, so no Tyrion, Daenerys, Bran or Rickon, and very little Jon Snow. We get a lot of Brienne instead, some Sansa, Cersei (ugh), Jaime, Sam, Arya, and Iron Islands stuff. Plus the few characters we meet in Oldtown in the first and last chapters.

Brienne is by far my favourite character, and I so hope she has a happily ever after. Martin has a habit of killing the characters we love the most though, so I’m not overly hopeful. Her last chapter ends with her in an extremely precarious position, seconds away from an extremely unjust death.

Shall I point out again that this blog will be chock full of spoilers? It’s more a place for me to put down a breakdown of books I’ve read, so don’t read if you want to be surprised by the books themselves. And this is a fantastic series, so step away now if haven’t read this book yet.

I guess I’ll do up a little synopsis for each main character.

Pate: the Oldtown novice who steals his Maester’s key to earn a gold piece from a mysterious stranger. He wants to buy some girl’s maidenhead, and thus presumably put her on the prostitution market like her mom has planned. Pate hasn’t thought this through, methinks. He appears to die at the end of the prologue, but is there in the last chapter, chatting away with Samwell. So THAT’S sinister.

Aeron: aka Damphair, the prophet of the Cthulhu-like Drowned God of the Iron Islands, has a revelation. He’s going to call for a Kingsmoot to find a replacement for the recently deceased ruler, Balon (he was the grim dad of Theon and Asha). The whole place sounds grim, in fact. Cold and wet and grey. Just like home. Except the people here aren’t near as dour as these Viking-like islanders. Anyway, the gathering happens, speeches are made, and Damphair’s worst fears are realized: his brother Euron Greyjoy, called Crow’s Eye, carries the day. Damphair beats a hasty retreat, and Euron and the Islanders take their ships south and start kicking arse.

Dorne: This southern desert region was the home of Prince Oberyn, who was killed in the last book by Gregor Clegane. Clegane is still dying horribly from the poisoned weapon the Prince used. Cersei sends a skull south to appease the Dornish people, but it is suggested that the twisted former Maester and practicing necromancer Qyburn has in fact turned The Mountain That Rides into a giant, unstoppable, heavily-armoured zombie warrior. So that will be interesting in a later book. Anyway, Oberyn’s daughters, known as the Sand Snakes, are furious and want to wage war on King’s Landing, but his brother, the ruling Prince Doran, imprisons them. He seems ineffectual, and runs into big problems with his daughter Arienne, but we learn at the end that he has long term plans involving his son and Daenerys. Poor Arienne thinks he plans on passing his crown on to her brother Quentyn when it should go to her, by Dornish law. She hatches a plan to kidnap and crown (in Westeros) Princess Myrcella, who is betrothed to her other brother Trystane. Between Arienne, Myrcella, Cersei, Asha, and Daenerys, the rulers are leaning heavily towards the feminine. Even Sansa is part of Petyr’s plans for rule of the Seven Kingdoms. But most of this falls apart in this book. Arienne is caught, her lover, Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard, is killed, and Myrcella get’s her head and face badly sliced by Ser Gerold Dayne, aka Darkstar. Arienne is imprisoned for a while but eventually gets an audience with her father. She learns that instead of doing nothing, he has been working towards vengence for years against the people responsible for the overthrow of the Targaryens and the slaugter of his sister and her children.

Cersei: Oh Cersei. Her own worst enemy and so tiresome. Her dad was killed by her brother Tyrion, so she has a bounty on his head. This is bad news for dwarves in the kingdom. She continues to rage and alienate everyone, from her brother/lover, her uncle, and everyone who could possibly make her position as Queen Regent at all secure. She thinks she is so clever with her little schemes, but she paints herself into a corner. Everything flies apart catastrophically, and she ends the book imprisoned by the now militarized (thanks to Cersei) church, accused of “murder, treason, and fornication.” She’s guilty of it all, of course. She writes a desperate letter to her brother, who is off ending the seige at Riverrun peacefully, but it seems he is done with her too. I can’t imagine any reader will feel sorry for her. She’s obsessed with a prophecy from her childhood, and everything she does to avoid it just makes it that much more inevitable.

Brienne: Big, ugly, loyal, determined, tragic Brienne. She helped bring out Jaime’s humanity and made him a likable character, unthinkable in the first book. They have a wary fondness for each other that I really hope is given the chance to develop. It’s sweet and sad how they defend each other when apart. Brienne contiues her exhausting quest for Sansa, but switches her focus to Arya when she learns that the younger Stark girl was in the company of Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound. Arya left him to die of a festering wound in the last book, and we are initially led to believe he has recovered and is rampaging in an insanely brutal fashion. It turns out that the savage Biter has claimed his distinctive Helm. He is killed by Gendry (I was wondering where King Robert’s bastard had gotten too), but only after he eats a good chunk of poor Brienne’s face. Man, her life is just so damn unfair. She and her companions, Ser Hyle and Tyrion’s former squire Podrick, are being strung up by followers of Lady Stoneheart when her chapter ends. The zombie Catelyn Stark only wants vengence after the Red Wedding (such a painful scene in the last book), and when Brienne refuses give up her quest (which Catelyn started her on!) in order to kill Jaime Lannister, they are condemned to be hanged. Hell. It’s just not right. It seems Brienne may capitulate with her last breath, mainly to save Podrick. On a side note, even though the Elder Brother told Brienne that Sandor was dead, I know he is the huge limping gravedigger living with the brothers. The Elder Brother was obviously speaking metaphorically. I hope Sandor is enjoying this little oasis of peace, because I suspect he’ll have to strap on a sword again when his zombie brother goes public. I was hoping he and Brienne would hit it off. But Martin is not about giving the readers what they want. He’s all about sticking the knife in and twisting it.

Samwell: How is this guy still fat? He spent the last two books tramping through frozen forests and fighting White Walkers and bad Brothers, and most of this book puking from seasickness. He says he’s a bit thinner near the end but everyone still calls him fat at first sight. Poor kid. Jon Snow sent him to Oldtown with ancient Maester Aemon, Gilly and her baby (although it turns out to be Mance’s baby instead, to save him from Lady Melisandre’s magic), and Dareon. The singer’s job is to recruit for the wall, but he decides to desert in Braavos. Sam does his best to beat the crap out of him, but Arya actually does him in at the end. Sam and Arya actually meet and talk, but she doesn’t reveal herself or seem too interested in what her half-brother might be up to on the Wall. Anyway, Maester Aemon, who is over 100, dies before they reach the Citadel, but he is cheered by the news of dragons and his niece kicking arse across the sea. Sam finally makes it and speaks to Archmaester Marwyn. Aemon wanted to send a Maester to Daenerys, and Marwyn decides to go himself, immediately. He tells Sam to become a novice, and to say nothing of what he has told him. Sam feels an instant dislike for Pate, who we know is supposed to be dead, or something.

Arya: What the hell is she up to? She arrives in Braavos, and takes shelter in the House of Black and White, home of the Many-Faced God, where people apparently go to commit suicide. She learns something of poisons from the woman she calls the waif. But she hides Needle from the kindly man rather than give up all that she used to be. She goes out into Braavos and works for a shellfish monger, returning to the temple during each new moon with three secrets to share. She has a knack for blending in, and is slowly picking up the language and the culture. But when the waif and the kindly man determine she is clinging to her old life, they put something in her milk that makes her blind.

Jaime: He trys and fails to talk sense into Cersei, before she sends him to Riverrun. He gets a gold hand made (sounds heavy. He’d do better with a spring-loaded jobby like Ash makes in Army of Darkness) and practices left-handed sword-fighting with the creepy tongueless executioner Ilyn Payne. And he punches a dude who says insulting things about Brienne. He’s a bit tortured about his sister, and the fact his brother killed his dad, but at the end he seems quite prepared to wash his hands of the mess. And he’s a better diplomat than the rest of his family combined. But everyone just keeps calling him Kingslayer. Hard to shake that off.

Sansa; She is still stuck at the Eyrie with Petyr Baelish, who shoved her crazy murderous Aunt Lysa out the moon door in the last book. He told her to pretend she is his bastard daughter, Alayne, and her chapter headings even go by that name later on. Her cousin, the sickly Lord Robert, is annoying as hell. She seems to be able to handle him ok though. Better than anyone else can, at least. Petyr seems to be continuing to weave his plans quite successfully. He has all the skill and awareness that Cersei so sadly lacks. In Sansa’s last chapter the household abandons the Eyrie because of the onset of winter, making the long trek down to  the Gates of the Moon. Petyr tells Sansa that he has arranged a marriage for her, and after a complicated explanation involving who begat whom he reveals that at the wedding he will reveal her as Sansa Stark, and she will claim Winterfell and the North.

I think that’s everyone. Wow. No shortage of characters and histories to remember in this series. Martin must have a good filing system to keep everything straight.