Some summer self-improvement

I read constantly. All day, nearly every day, for my job. I read for a living. Because of that, when I’m off the clock, whatever I do, I really do not want to keep reading. It hit me, while I was on a recent flight and trying to find something to fill my time, that something I used to love to do was now almost unbearable.

So as this summer continues and as it starts to wind down, I’m making a pledge to myself: I’m going to read more for pleasure, even if I don’t want to. Once I start reading, I don’t regret doing it. It’s just getting the urge to start. I’m deep into a Tom Holland historical non-fiction book about the end of the ancient world and the rise of Islam, “The Shadow of the Sword.” Next I’m planning to check off a book that’s long been on my list: Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.”

I actually have my boyfriend to thank for this jump start. Sensing that I was becoming listless and in need of a hobby besides coming from and going to work and Netflix, he nudged me back toward my books. I’m also planning to take some time for myself to pick up some basic coding skills (which he’s promised to teach me at some point, but I’d like a head start).

Lately I’ve been trying to be more conscientious about myself and how I use my time. I wouldn’t call it a full-on existential crisis, but merely a renewed understanding that my time is limited and that zoning out to old “Friends” episodes is probably not the best use of it (I’m on season 9 now, though, so almost done). I’m also thinking about possible career moves in the future and am afraid of limiting myself or being pigeon-holed. A hobby might very well one day lead to a new career, or it can help keep me sane. Either way, I’m making this my summer of self-improvement.

I’m reading “A Song of Ice and Fire”

When I’m not working on my dissertation, I’m barreling through George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. You may know it better as the basis for the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

I love it.

Even though I’ve been familiar with the series for a while, it took the television show to get me to read the books. The fifth novel, the long-awaited (for longer-term fans, that is) “A Dance With Dragons,” comes out next week. I decided to try to read the first four before then.

While the novels most definitely fall into “fantasy” territory — their entire world is fictional and includes magic and supernatural creatures — they stand out to me for two reasons. The first is their extreme realism, or as much realism as a fantasy series can get. They have a depth, a moral ambiguity and a complex social and cultural fabric that would be impressive in a mainstream fiction novel, let alone one in which virtually everything stems from the author’s imagination.

The second reason I love them is that they contain what I like to think of as a dog whistle for British history enthusiasts. It’s completely possible to read and love the series without ever thinking about its real-world parallels, but I loved reading it and picking out its historical counterparts. Martin based the series at least in part on the Wars of the Roses, and you can plainly see our own world history in the story.

  • Westeros, the continent on which most of the story unfolds, was originally settled by rural “children of the forest” and subsequently invaded by the First Men, Andals and the Targaryens. I interpreted these to be the Celts/Picts, Romans, Saxons and Normans, in that order. Like the Normans, the Targaryens came from an eastern landmass and brought their own language and culture. Like Aegon the Conquerer, William the Conquerer consolidated independent kingdoms and clans.
  • The southern kingdom of Dorne, the last to join the Seven Kingdoms, reminds me somewhat of Wales.
  • The brother-against-sister civil war in the series is a clear parallel to Matilda and Stephen in English history, and even had the same outcome (the brother defeated his sister, but her son succeeded to the throne).
  • Like the long Plantagenet line, the Targaryens ruled for several hundred years. A dynastic shake-up in the series that occurred roughly two generations before the novel’s present could be a parallel to Henry IV overtaking Richard II.
  • Robert Baratheon and his line appear to Yorkist, overthrowing their Lancaster/Targaryen cousins, and sending the surviving heirs into hiding/exile. By plotting her return to Westeros from across the Narrow Sea (i.e. the English Channel), Daenerys Targaryen reminds me of Henry VII.
  • Henry VI suffered from a mental breakdown, and though he never became murderous, it is easy to identify him with Aerys II Targaryen, the murdered Mad King.
  • Robert Baratheon is a clear Edward IV figure, a warrior-king who eventually fell into excess. His victories in the Trident, where he first won his crown, and against Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion remind me of Edward IV’s Towton and Tewkesbury.
  • Robert’s queen, Cersei Lannister, and their son, the eventual king Joffrey, appear to be a composite of Margaret of Anjou and Edward of Lancaster (Edward VI’s wife and son), and Elizabeth Wydville and Edward V (Edward IV’s wife and son). Like Margaret, Cersei is the real power behind the throne and “scheming.” Like Elizabeth, she’s protective of her children and has to contend with outside interests when her son becomes king. Like Edward of Lancaster, Joffrey’s parentage is suspect and he has violent, cruel tendencies. Like Edward V, he succeeds his father as king at a young age.
  • Robert’s brothers, Renly and Stannis, and Cersei’s, Tyrion and Jaime, display various aspects of Edward IV’s brothers, George and Richard. One is blamed for his nephew’s murder (Tyrion, like Richard) while two openly defy the line of succession (Renly and Stannis, like George and Richard). Another killed the previous king (Jaime, like George and Richard, allegedly).
  • Tywin Lannister is akin to Warwick the Kingmaker, in that his immense wealth sustains the crown, and his loyalties shift based on expediency. Mace Tyrell, a powerful lord whose daughter weds three kings in succession (like the Neville girls wed kings and/or heirs to the throne), is also reminiscent of Warwick.
  • The basic geography of Martin’s world is extremely similar to our own. Westeros is Britain on a larger scale, while Essos is the mega continent of Europe and Asia, and Southros is like Africa. The free cities of Essos are very similar to the duchies and city-states of Germany, France and Italy, while its eastern desert is like the Middle East and the mysterious Asshai is Asia (they even look/sound similar).
  • Northern Westeros is divided from the south by an ancient wall (similar to Hadrian’s), and is home to tribal groups that southerners consider socially inferior — a nod to the Scots. Like England, the Seven Kingdoms also have a distinct north/south dichotomy in terms of wealth and culture.
  • Finally, and perhaps most tragically, Ned Stark reminds me of William Hastings, Edward IV’s honorable friend who ended up on the wrong side after the king’s death and found himself short a head.

I’m sure that other similarities exist, but those are the principal ones. Other characters in the series, such as the Stark children, do seem to be relatively independent of exact historical parallels, but the groundwork is there, plain as day. That just makes it more interesting and adds a different perspective to the reading. Note that I’m not sure that those exact parallels are the ones Martin had in mind; they’re just what came to me as I was reading. The series is long and grueling in places — the third book, though the best, is also a beast — but well worth the time and energy for a great story. I can’t wait until next week when I can pick up the fifth book. And yes, I’m a geek.

Paris: Day One

I apologize for not writing for the past couple of weeks. I’ve been suffering from a nasty head cold and have had a lot of schoolwork to complete before the break. I’m hoping I can make up for it now.

This past weekend, I went to Paris to meet up with my friend Lauren, who’s living in Düsseldorf as an au pair. We went to KU together and worked on the Kansan. Lauren had never been to Paris before; I hadn’t been since March 2007. The planning and navigation fell largely to me because I was more familiar with the city. I also had the honor of knowing more French vocabulary with which to butcher the language by attempting to speak it. It was quite an adventure and we had a lot of fun. Rather than write a novel describing it all at once, I’ve decided to devote one entry and one photo gallery to each day we were there. This is day one.

I left Canterbury very early in the morning, taking a commuter train to Ashford and its Eurostar terminal. I enjoyed a much-needed cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant at the station before boarding a train to Paris’ Gare du Nord terminal. Lauren arrived a couple of hours after I did, so I killed time by going across the street to a McDonald’s, where I used the restroom, got something to eat (don’t judge me; the cafes around the station are all terribly overpriced) and made use of the free WiFi to tell my friends and parents that I’d arrived safely.

I’d bought a Metro ticket in Ashford (a wise move, in hindsight), so, after stashing my duffel in a locker at the station, I hopped on and rode down the line to Cité, the stop on the main island in the middle of the Seine. This island has several shops and cafes, as well as the Palace of Justice, the city’s police headquarters and Notre Dame cathedral. I strolled through the gardens on the side of the cathedral and walked across the river. I bought batteries for my camera and located Shakespeare and Company bookstore, which I’d read about in The Independent. We had decided to try to find it.

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Shakespeare and Company is a Beatnik-era bookstore packed with used books of all genres. Burroughs visited it to research Naked Lunch. The owner, George Whitman, lets writers stay and work if they want, free of charge, as long as they give him a photo and personal biography when they leave. Through the ages, these traveling writers became known as Tumbleweeds. According to the article, Whitman is 96 now, but still reads and still collects stories from traveling writers. The bookstore and its former owners/staff have connections to Ernest Hemingway, Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, among others.

After I located the bookstore, I went back to Gare du Nord to meet Lauren. By this time it was mid-afternoon, so we went back down to the island and went inside Notre Dame. After that we headed over to the bookstore.

Shakespeare and Company looks like someone’s bookshelf exploded in it. Books everywhere. The philosophy shelf has Hobbes, Locke, Sartre and Plato. The Beat writers and their contemporaries have a table in their honor — Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” and “The Bell Jar” and an anthology of Shakespeare’s poems, edited by Ted Hughes (aka Mr. Sylvia Plath). The wishing well in the middle of the floor (which used to be a heater, I believe) has coins strewn in it. Upstairs is a little cubby with a typewriter, a cot and a piano, along with more books and a children’s section. By the time we eventually left, I had selected a book — “The Maltese Falcon,” by Dashiell Hammett — to buy to commemorate the visit.

After that we headed down to the Denfert-Rocherau Metro stop, made use of McDonald’s WiFi again and then headed to the flat where we were staying. In summation, it was a lovely yet busy morning getting to Paris, and a lovely afternoon getting a feel for the city.

I’ll keep updating the blog with photos and stories about the other three days. Keep checking back!