A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (The Tales of Dunk and Egg #1-3) – George R.R. Martin. After a month or so of more serious themes, I read this just for fun. Three novellas set about 100 years before the Game of Thrones series, these stories tell of the relationship and adventures of Sir Duncan (Dunk), the hedge knight, and Egg (later to be King Aegon), his squire. Their adventures are alluded to in a couple of the Game of Thrones books, but I don’t think they really have any connection with the larger plot. If anything, they just serve to give a bit more historical context to the more recent years of Targaryan rule, and the important families of Westeros.
The Hedge Knight tells of their initial meeting and the beginning of Egg’s service as Dunk’s squire. It also sets the stage for a coming conflict over who will be the next King. The Sworn Sword primarily focuses on the repercussions for being on the wrong (i.e. losing) side in a battle in the game of thrones, as well as emphasizing the ways one can be led astray by not questioning or verifying the details of a story told to you. I thought this was the weakest of the three stories, not for those themes, just because it was a weaker story. The Mystery Knight delves deeper into the divisions that can linger when the game of thrones continues even after a war has “settled” it.
Just fun reading for fans of the series, useful for a bit of background and context, and nice that the stories really focus on Dunk’s point of view – an average guy and good person, the lowest ranking main character I can think of in the series with the exception of Ser Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight.
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide – Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. After reading several novels about oppressed and refugee women, I figured why not turn to a non-fiction book as well! The book does a very good job of humanizing the plight of women in large portions of the world, and is at its strongest when it is featuring a specific woman’s experience in the broader context of their society. When the book veers off into statistics and more abstract preachiness, I found my eyelids starting to droop. Some reviewers have lamented the first world paternalism in parts of the book, and, yes, on occasion it does turn a bit patronizing, but overall it allows the women to tell their tales in sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inspiring ways.
The thing I particularly liked about the book was the frequent introduction of various woman-focused charitable enterprises that are worth looking into. It can be so hard to narrow down the world of non-profits, so that you are giving to groups that are really making a difference. The vast majority of the groups featured in this book are started by local people, usually by women, and work on-the-ground in their communities to make a real, substantive difference in women’s lives. The appendix listing all of the groups discussed in the book was particularly useful as a way to re-visit the options after finishing the book. There are a lot of groups listed there, but the ones that are of particular interest to me include:
The Cider House Rules – John Irving. I thought I was going to really like this book, but I found it to be just okay. Of course, I identified with the book’s strong pro-choice message, and I really liked Dr. Larch, but I found the other characters difficult to get attached to. Homer seemed weird and kind of cold to me, and Wally and Candy were a bit flat. Larch and Homer’s disagreements over abortion came across sounding too preachy on both sides. And I was super surprised when 15 years passed completely in a page turn – what could have been some of the most interesting inter-personal dynamics were just skipped over entirely. That 15 year passage also makes it seem really odd to me that Dr. Larch continued to lay all his hopes and plans at Homer’s feet. Okay, maybe keep hoping, but a back-up plan might have been a good idea to consider 5 years into the gap.
It’s been a while since I watched the movie, but I think it did a better job making Homer more relatable and his return to the orphanage more realistic. After 15 years on the orchard, his return in the book felt less like an inspired calling, and more like a middle-aged move to a new chapter in his life and the realization that he’d wasted his life on a dead-end relationship and work that was less meaningful. The latter could be a strong message in another book, but here it just fell flat for me.
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman. A pretty charming book, essentially a modern-day fairy tale. Bod, short for Nobody, is adopted by a ghost couple living in the cemetery up the street from his house on the night that his parents and sister are murdered. He is taught and protected as he grows up by the community of ghosts, as well as more mortal beings like vampires and werewolves – they may be more long-lived, but they aren’t eternal. The danger that brought death to his house when he was a toddler looms for Bod just past the cemetery gates and eventually comes a-knocking at the end of the book.
It was really an enjoyable read, although I did find the chapter where Bod enters the ghoul gate to be a little boring. It’s basically a fantasy-driven coming-of-age story, that’s just fun to read, even if it is at times disjointed. The whole book definitely relays the message that death itself is nothing to be afraid of, with the cemetery coming across as a neighborhood filled with eccentric, but caring people. The ending was very touching as Bod heads out into the world to live Life.