Saturday, March 30, 2013

Book Reviews-Pardon Me, You're Stepping On My Eyeball, Blood on The Leaves

Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball
by Paul Zindel
As I mentioned in the review of Zindel's book The Pigman, Paul Zindel was an author who primarily wrote for young adults, but really didn't write down to them. Although his characters didn't always have mortgages, resentful ex-spouses, demanding bosses, ungrateful kids or more typical adult concerns, the books generally have characters, who despite not being adults do have concerns that adults often have- whether or not they're having sex, if they're normal or not, the relationships they have with their family and friends, and how much they hate their obligations, which instead of being paid work is usually school and doing what their parents tell them.
So you probably shouldn't be put off by the young ages of the main characters. It doesn't really matter. On the surface this has some similarities to The Pigman. There's two teenage misfits, a houseparty that goes drastically wrong and some quirky kids and bullies but that's pretty minor. It's a much darker tale and one that surprised me in some ways. There's very real anger and even some ugly domestic abuse that came out of left field. If this book was being written today that last would almost certainly be handled differently. I hope so at least.

This book tells the tale of two high school weirdos and their encounters with each other, their dysfunctional families and their struggles to move forward in life. It's dramatically not a love story although there are some hints of that. Both the hero and heroine are in a special needs class.

Louis Mellow, or as he prefers to be called, Marsh, is an intelligent high school student who spends his days writing down lists of all the things he hates and why he hates them. He idealizes his absent father, whom he calls Paranoid Pete and hates his whiny mean drunk mother, whom he refers to as Schizoid Suzy. Marsh always carries a baby raccoon that he rescued in his jacket pocket.  Marsh can be quite disruptive in class. He enjoys telling people outrageous stories about his adventures with his father and their supposed lecherous dalliances with women and girls all over the continental United States and beyond. According to Marsh Paranoid Pete is locked in an insane asylum and about to be executed! Marsh doesn't tell this part to most people and can be cruelly dismissive or insulting to anyone who doesn't believe his stories. 

Edna Shinglebox is a girl at Marsh's school that Marsh decides he likes, just because anyone who has the nerve to walk around with a name like Shinglebox must have some heart. Edna actually suffers from social anxiety and gawkiness. Her hair gets caught in escalators and she makes involuntary head jerks when she gets nervous, which is often. Her parents think she's going to die an old maid. Her mother is extremely sarcastic and cutting. Her mother is trying to fix Edna up with anything of the male persuasion, weird or not. Marsh wants Edna's help to rescue his father. Edna's not sure if she likes Marsh but after he insults her a few times she finds the backbone to stand up to him and change how she approaches life in general. She also rather quickly figures out the truth behind Marsh's stories and must decide if she wants to help. I can't say for sure of course but from the outside looking in I would think that Zindel wrote an extremely realistic young girl character. The common humanity that we all share shines through.

Everyone has problems here, whether it's the overweight diabetic teacher who also knows why Marsh has issues and refuses to tell Edna or the rich girl who knows that the football player only likes her because she lives in a large house suitable for parties, or the malodorous psychic who wants to give Edna advice. The ending is at best bittersweet but also leaves room for growth, which is all you can ask for in life. Worthwhile reading. Edna's anger is awesome to see. This is also a very funny book. The title comes from the advice Marsh got from his father to not let anyone step on his eyeball.

Blood On The Leaves
By Jeff Stetson
Is justice delayed justice denied? Honestly what do you feel when you read about a 85-90 year old man being arrested and charged with war crimes for what he supposedly did in World War Two? Do you think the soldiers in the Mahmudiyah  or My Lai rapes and massacres got off easy? Does someone today have the right to hold someone accountable for what they did 50 years ago? What do you think when you read about someone suing an insurance firm or art gallery for actions they allegedly took during the Holocaust? Often people's feelings about this depend on whether they are the party seeking justice or the party with something concrete to lose, whether it be money, liberty or life. That's just human nature. 

One thing that is unfortunately true is that there were and are a great many people walking around, primarily but not exclusively in the South, who enforced segregation not reluctantly but with relish. And some of these people used violence to do so whether under color of law or on their own, albeit with the silent assent of a great many racist whites. Many of these people were never brought to justice and likely never will be. The FBI is closing the books on several of these cases. And let's be honest, for years the FBI did not consider these cases to be major priorities anyway.

But imagine if there were someone who felt that there was a debt that must be paid, no matter how much time had passed or whether the criminal had started a family and moderated his views. This is the premise of Blood on the Leaves, a book of fiction that is much a mystery and action set-piece as it is an essay of what true justice means. 

In Mississippi a number of elderly unrepentant white racists who were suspected or acquitted of killing Black protesters or citizens during the civil rights movement are all winding up dead often in the same way that their victims did. A black professor, Martin Matheson, just happens to be giving lectures on various people that escaped conviction for their crimes during the sixties and seventies. He gets national attention. Matheson includes graphic photos of their victims along with pictures, names and current addresses and phone numbers of the perpetrators. The powers that be try to shut this project down but nothing stops Matheson for long. Nothing that is until there is some physical evidence linking Matheson to one of the murders. Matheson will be prosecuted by Mississippi's only black deputy district attorney, James Reynolds, who both understands and resents his role here. Matheson will be defended by Todd Miller, an old school white liberal with his own demons to exorcise. This is a surprisingly good courtroom drama with the requisite number of twists and turns. This was Stetson's first novel. At one point this was going to be made into a movie starring Jaime Foxx. I don't know if that's still a possibility.

Friday, March 29, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones: Season Two Recap and Season Three Anticipation

HBO Game of Thrones Recap-Season Two
Another year has come and gone. Hopefully you're a little bit wiser, a little bit wealthier and ready to watch the 9 PM Sunday premiere of HBO's Season 3 of Game of ThronesIf you don't watch the show and are curious all I can say is that the show combines a feeling of The Sopranos meets The Wire in Middle Earth with a very strong Shakespearean/Dickensian/Dune overlay. There are scores of characters. The good guys don't always win and your view of who the good guys are may change dramatically over time. There are fantastical elements (walking dead, clairvoyance, ice demons, dragons, scarily intelligent and huge guardian direwolves which reflect and anticipate their human partner's emotions) but the magical elements don't dominate the story though they will become more important later. No this story is really about the ugliness and glory of humanity. 

A war of succession, called the War of Five Kings, has broken out on a continent quite similar to Europe at the Middle Ages and Renaissance level of development. A Lannister King unjustly executed the head of House Stark so Houses Stark and Tully (they're in-laws) have risen in revolt. House Baratheon claims (correctly) that the Lannister king is a product of incest and thus has no right to the throne. It also launched a war against the Lannisters. House Tyrell once supported the younger rebel Renly Baratheon but when the elder Baratheon brother Stannis had his brother Renly murdered, the Tyrells threw in with the Lannisters. The Arryns and Martells are staying out of the war. House Greyjoy spurned an alliance from House Stark and attacked House Stark, for whom it holds a special disdain. Across the sea, House Targaryen, recently deposed and thought virtually powerless is reconstituting itself around the leadership of a teen girl, the last Targaryen. She has dragons. She thinks herself the rightful Queen. Unknown to everyone, powers in the North are stirring. Both the wildling hordes and the more dangerous White Walkers intend to invade the realms of Westeros. They are opposed only by a ragtag bunch of outcasts, criminals and disinherited sons known as the Night Watch.

As of the end of Season Two this is where some of the major characters found themselves.

Robb and Catelyn Stark
As the eldest son and wife of murdered Ned Stark, it's safe to say that these two took Ned's death as hard as anyone, maybe harder. Both had thoughts that immediately turned to bloody vengeance. Robb gathered an army, challenged any doubters to come and have a go if they thought they were hard enough, and proceeded to kick Lannister behind up and down Westeros. He's known as The Young Wolf, which is a pretty cool nickname if you think about it. Despite usually being greatly outnumbered, Robb has defeated every Lannister army he's faced. He's made Tywin Lannister, the top general and leader of House Lannister, look like a tired old man. Rumble young man rumble!!!  But no one's perfect. Robb thought that Theon Greyjoy was his friend and sent him to parley with his father Balon Greyjoy. But Balon Greyjoy had already decided to attack the North. Feeling threatened by his father's preference for his sister Yara, Theon decided to prove himself to his family by attacking and taking Winterfell, the Stark home. He also killed two children and claimed that he had killed Robb's younger brothers. Winterfell could not be held though and Theon's men turned on him. Winterfell was burned and its people slaughtered.

Catelyn gave Robb advice and tried to broker a peace between the feuding Baratheon brothers. This didn't work and Catelyn had to escape with Brienne, a supporter of the late Renly Baratheon and Westeros' only female knight. Brienne swore loyalty to Catelyn Stark, and NOT the Starks in general. This came in handy when Catelyn, worried about the safety of her daughters, Sansa and Arya, in Lannister captivity, released Jaime Lannister, Tywin's favorite son, into Brienne's custody with orders to trade Jaime for her daughters. This didn't go over very well with Robb or his followers.  Catelyn fretted about Robb's marriage to Talisa, a foreign nurse he met. Robb was supposed to marry the daughter of Walder Frey, a bannerman to Catelyn's father. Frey has been supporting Robb's war. Robb put Catelyn under house arrest and sent men to retrieve Jaime and Brienne. But Brienne showed she's no slouch in the warrior department, killing three Stark soldiers with ease. Jaime Lannister is likely the realm's most dangerous swordsman. He can't believe that a woman, especially one as ugly as Brienne, can do the things he does. He spends his days thinking up new insults to call Brienne. 

Arya Stark
Everyone's favorite left-handed action girl, Arya Stark avoided the bloodbath in King's Landing when her father Ned was captured and executed. She left with Yoren, a rough Night's Watch recruiter who swore to take her home. But Yoren's group was attacked by Lannister troops looking for Gendry, King Robert's illegitimate son. Yoren was killed. Arya and her friends were taken into custody. Arya was taken to Harrenhal (for obvious reasons she did not disclose her identity). At Harrenhal Arya ran into the mysterious man named Jaqen H'ghar, whom she had previously saved from a burning wagon. The strange man with the odd diction told Arya that he owed her three lives. She used him to kill two of the people who hurt her or her friends but before she could use him on Tywin Lannister and possibly change the war's outcome, Twyin left for King's Landing. Arya convinced H'ghar to help her, Gendry and Hot Pie to escape. He did this by somehow killing a multitude of guards simultaneously and silently. He then altered his features and told Arya that if she wanted to learn his skills, come with him to Braavos. For now, Arya declined, being eager to rejoin her family. Arya witnessed a fair deal of torture, murder and brutality and believe it or not this was actually toned down somewhat from the books. She also got to match wits with Tywin Lannister.

Bran and Rickon Stark
They have hidden in the crypts with loyalists Hodor, Osha and their two wolves. They have thus survived the burning of Winterfell and are heading North. Bran is still having strange dreams that seem to hint at future events and make it seem as if he is seeing things through the eyes of his wolf, Summer. Both of the younger Stark boys are having to grow up much faster than they should. 

Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister and Stannis Baratheon 
Reluctantly given Hand authority by his father Twyin with orders not to let Cersei or Joffrey muck things up any worse than they already had, Tyrion saw highs and lows in Season Two. Despised and mocked by everyone for being a dwarf, Tyrion showed real leadership ability and even fearlessness in limiting Joffrey's abuses, publicly correcting Joffrey, trying to eliminate the more openly venal administrators around him and successfully defending King's Landing against the Stannis Baratheon onslaught. Unfortunately someone on his own side tried to have him murdered during battle. Although his squire saved his life, Tyrion awoke from his recovery to find that his authority was gone. Tywin was in charge now. Tyrion was once again out of favor.

Cersei Lannister kidnapped and abused the woman who she thought was Tyrion's paramour. She may or may not have given the order to kill her brother. She was on the verge of murdering her son Tommen, believing all was lost, when her father saved the day. Cersei had a strange relationship with Sansa Stark, despising her and bullying her but occasionally giving her what she saw as useful or realistic advice about being a woman.

Stannis Baratheon, despite seeing much of his fleet destroyed by Tyrion's ingenious use of wildfire (napalm) was in the front lines serving up butt-kickings, Baratheon style, to the Lannister soldiers. He was on the verge of victory when he was attacked from behind by the combined Lannister/Tyrell soldiery and forced to retreat. Back at Dragonstone the depressed Stannis demanded to know why he had lost but was shown a vision in fire by his sexy and profoundly weird religious advisor Melisandre which seems to have mollified him somewhat. If there's one thing we know about Stannis though, it's that he does not quit. Ever. 

Sansa Stark and Joffrey Lannister
Sansa Stark spent most of Season Two being Joffrey's outlet for frustration over the fact that Robb Stark was beating Lannister armies like rented mules. Joffrey is more interested in hurting and humiliating women than in having sex with them and regularly had the teenage Sansa beaten and stripped by grown men. Tyrion Lannister was the only man who stopped this. But the fearsome Lannister bodyguard The Hound, never beat Sansa, subtly attempted to protect her from Joffrey and rescued her from a would be gang-rape. Sansa is on the verge of womanhood. She might have been able to tell that the Hound didn't do those things because he's a nice guy. The Hound is most emphatically NOT a nice guy. Despite this, Sansa refused to leave with the Hound when he quit Lannister service and offered to take her home. This decision looked wise when Joffrey renounced his betrothal to Sansa in favor of Margaery Tyrell. But as the shifty Littlefinger explained to Sansa, this doesn't mean that Joffrey has given up interest in Sansa. Without the title of wife to protect her she may be in even worse danger.

Joffrey Lannister continued to be the Lannister we hate the most. When he wasn't mutilating bards for fun, murdering his putative half-siblings, or ordering massacres because peasants laughed at him, he was beating and insulting Sansa Stark. When that outlet was temporarily denied him he transferred his psychosis to prostitutes. When war came he talked a good game but when stuff got real he ran home to his mother and left the leadership to Tyrion. Season Two saw a realization on both Joffrey's and Cersei's parts that Joffrey was truly dangerous and had no qualms about hurting anyone. Varys and Littlefinger continue to plot from the shadows.

Daenerys Targaryen 
The would be queen of Westeros didn't have much of an arc in Season Two. That will likely change in Season Three. In Season Two her dragons were small and more exotic playthings than dangerous pets. Danerys and her retinue spent all season in Quarth, a democratic city run by a council of merchants. Those merchants were intrigued by the dragons but had zero interest in backing Danerys' longshot to retake the Iron Throne. One merchant, Xaro pretended romantic interest in Danerys and claimed wealth. But he, along with the wizard Pyat Pree really just wanted the dragons. Pyat Pree made the critical mistake of forgetting that any dragon is more loyal to its owner/trainer than to the weird looking guy who dragon-napped it. After Danerys had Pree burned alive she discovered the treachery (and penury) of Xaro and had her remaining loyalists lock Xaro and his lover in his empty vault. And her friend who would be more, Jorah Mormont still hasn't made his move. Better go for it in Season Three, Jorah. Faint heart, fair lady, you know the rest.

Jon Snow
Jon Snow joined the Night Watch because he thought it was an honorable thing to do and because he wanted to get away from Catelyn Stark, who hated him. Well he jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Not only has Jon learned that many of the Night Watch men are hoodlums, thieves, exiles and all around bad guys but that Night Watch leaders must make deals with even worse people for information. One such man is Craster, a man who gives information and food to Night Watch members. In return they turn a blind eye to Craster's rape of his daughters and granddaughters and sacrificing of male relatives to the White Walkers. Jon spoke out of school about this and gets the Night Watch team kicked out of Craster's home. He also got a beatdown from Craster. Heading further north Jon joined with a small group of Night Watch rangers who intended to infiltrate the wildling army and assassinate the wildling king Mance Rayder. But the mission went wrong when Jon gets lost and confused by his raunchy redheaded wildling captive, the beautiful and loud mouthed Ygritte who leads him into a trap. Trying to save the mission, Qhorin Halfhand, the ranger leader manipulated Jon into killing him. Now slightly trusted, Jon is taken to meet the wilding king. Jon's best bud Sam, witnessed what looked like a full scale southern march of White Walkers and the walking dead.
I was just recently part of an E! Entertainment circle discussion and interview about Season Three. Spoilers were avoided as much as possible and you know my policy about spoilers here. I can say that the creators have publicly stated that this is the season they were hoping to reach. I can also say that Season Three will continue deviations from the books. In any event I'm really looking forward to this season. There will be tons of new characters introduced. Blink and you'll miss something important. This is HBO's flagship show and in my opinion one of the better shows on television. Of course I don't watch much television so take that with a ROCK of salt. Enjoy the trailers below.



ENEMIES TRAILER  Game of Thrones Pickup Lines (Mildly adult humor)


*This post is written for discussion of season two and unspoiled anticipation of season three.  If you have book based knowledge of future events please be kind enough not to discuss that here. Most of my blog partners have not read the books and would take spoilers most unkindly. Heads, spikes, well you get the idea. Don't be THAT guy.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones: Stark and Lannister

As we countdown to Season 3 of HBO's Game of Thrones I thought it might be fun each Sunday to share some quick reminders/background info on which ruling Houses are involved in war, what power they have or had and how they relate to one another. Obviously I intend to do this without spoiler information and hope that any reader who's familiar with the books will honor that as well. Otherwise I'll just have to cut off their heads. Personally. Because the man that passes the sentence should swing the sword. =) Hopefully, if you watch the show once the new season starts and all the names start to fly back and forth, this might help you recall who's who.

House Stark
The Starks are the first Great House of Westeros introduced in both the HBO show and the books. In the books they get most of the initial POV. This could have the effect of making the reader or viewer identify with the Starks. I certainly did and still do. Although the Starks are unelected nobles they appear, against all modern logic to be the "good" or "nice" nobles. Well as you know, things aren't always as they seem. Legends claim it was a Stark Night Watch commander who married a White Walker woman and then committed various atrocities before being defeated by the combined might of the Starks and Wildlings.
The Starks are rulers of The North, a region which is roughly half of all Westeros and is thus about as big as all the other realms combined. In culture and attitude the North is similar to real life medieval Scotland or Northumbria while in terms of size and weather it is like Canada or Russia. The North often has very long harsh winters. It's not densely populated or super wealthy. Much of The North's economy is based on frantically trying to produce just enough food to survive winter. Men and women are judged less on what they say and more on what they do. Northerners often have the prejudice that they're more plain spoken and virile than Southerners. Oaths are important throughout Westeros but are virtually sacrosanct in The North.

Although there is no class or gender equality, or democracy, The North in general and the Starks in particular appear to have less use for the complex Southern social hierarchies. Eddard Stark often sought advice from people of various classes. Eddard, and many of his ancestors, had a long history of treating people firmly but fairly. Good or bad, you always know where you stand with a Stark. House Stark and its vassals can't produce quite the number of soldiers that some other Houses can but they can rely on extreme personal loyalty in times of trouble thanks to past altruistic or honorable actions House Stark took. Starks can be very prickly about matters of honor and will often act in ways that confuse or infuriate others when honor is at stake.

Most Northerners, including the Starks, share little culturally/ethnically/religiously with the South and the Andal, Targaryen or Rhoynar descended people. They share much more with the First Men (Celtic analogues), many of whom's descendants are now derisively called "wildlings" and kept beyond the Wall. The North keeps to the old ways and The Old Gods. There are fewer Northern knights as knighthood is associated with the faith of The Seven. The Starks ruled as The Kings of Winter/Kings In the North for thousands of years before they bent the knee to the Targaryen invaders. The Starks probably have the oldest ruling line in all the Seven Kingdoms. Traditionally the Starks had few links to the South. Ned's father wanted to rectify that by having Ned's brother Brandon marry Catelyn Tully and Ned's sister Lyanna marry Robert Baratheon, Ned's best friend and ward-brother. As you know that didn't work out as planned when Brandon Stark stormed the Red Keep calling for Rhaegar Targaryen to come out and die.
The Starks boast descent from Bran The Builder, the legendary first King of Winter who 8000 years ago built Winterfell, Storm's End and The Wall, and established the Night Watch. He did all this after the Long Night, a period of night and winter that lasted a generation when the Others invaded the lands of the living.

Because The North in general and the Starks in particular tend to produce men inclined to direct action and not sly intrigue, Lord Eddard Stark was hopelessly out of his depth in the snakepit that was King's Landing and found himself outmaneuvered by rivals and falsely executed by the Lannister King. His firstborn son Robb Stark aka The Young Wolf is currently leading resistance to that King and has formally seceded from the Seven Kingdoms, crowning himself King in the North. He has also allied with his mother's people, the Tullys. Robb Stark is proving to be a surprisingly significant hindrance to Twyin Lannister, the head of House Lannister and the power behind the throne. 
It is difficult to invade and virtually impossible to hold The North. The last person to do it (Aegon Targaryen) had dragons. Even then King Torrhen Stark considered trying to kill the dragons while they slept and continue the fight against the Targaryens before deciding he couldn't risk his people's destruction. The Stark sigil is a gray direwolf on a white field. Their enigmatic words are "Winter is Coming" . The words refer both to the Long Night and the constant struggle against the elements. As was shown when Robb Stark's wolf Grey Wind bit off the fingers of the GreatJon for questioning Robb's orders and right to lead, men of The North respect strength. No Stark will ever ask followers to do something he won't do himself.

House Lannister
House Lannister is the richest and most powerful House of Westeros. It controls the westernmost portion, unsurprisingly known as the Westerlands. This region has a tremendous amount of natural resources, primarily gold mines. House Lannister's investments and wealth have grown over the centuries. House Lannister rules from its capital of Casterly Rock. Lannisters are descended primarily from the Andal invaders. Their House founder was a trickster who conned the original owners out of Casterly Rock. The Lannister King Loren joined with the King of the Reach to oppose the Targaryen invasion. Fortuitously surviving the incineration of four thousand men, King Loren bent the knee to Aegon Targaryen and became one of his greatest servants.

It's neither widely known nor openly acknowledged but Joffrey Baratheon is really Joffrey Lannister. Cersei Lannister and Jaime Lannister committed incest, adultery and treason in cuckolding Robert Baratheon, a man whom Cersei Lannister loathed, in part because of physical abuse and philandering but mostly because he never loved her the way he loved Lyanna Stark.

Although Joffrey is King, the real power in House Lannister and thus in Westeros, is Tywin Lannister, Joffrey's grandfather, Hand, and the land's most ruthless, pragmatic and calculating warlord. Tywin has the total loyalty of some very vicious troops and is wealthy enough to buy many more monsters. It's unclear as to whether Tywin knows of the incest or knew of Cersei's plan to murder Robert Baratheon but it's a certainty that Tywin would permit no one else to judge his children.

Tywin's ruthlessness started decades ago. His father Tytos was a weak lord. Tytos Lannister lavished time on his lowborn mistress, giving her Tywin's late mother's dresses, jewels and finery. Lannister debtors didn't pay their bills. Lannister bannermen regularly disrespected Tytos. Finally, two Lannister vassals openly revolted. But it was the young Tywin who handled the revolt. He put down the revolt by the simple expedient of exterminating all the members of the rebellious Houses-men, women and children. Root and stem. Everyone. These acts made Tywin a dreaded man. After Tytos' death, Tywin had his father's mistress stripped and marched through the streets. House Lannister regained respect. Tywin intends that House Lannister's power continue after he dies. People laughed at his father. No one ever laughs at him. Tywin himself rarely smiles or laughs. Unlike his grandson Joffrey, Tywin seldom enjoys cruelty for its own sake but considers it a tool. Intentions don't matter to Tywin. Results count. He has low tolerance for flatterers or fools. And unlike the late Eddard Stark, Tywin Lannister has no concern for smallfolk. 

Tywin had been former Hand to the Mad King Aerys but resigned after escalating tensions. Aerys was jealous that Tywin was getting more credit for successful administration than he was (and ripped out the tongue of a Lannister soldier unwise enough to publicly say that) while Tywin was deeply suspicious of Aerys' lustful designs on his wife, Joanna, and humiliated at Aerys' insulting rejection of Tywin's suggestion of a Targaryen-Lannister marriage involving Jaime or Cersei Lannister. During the rebellion the Lannisters stayed neutral until the very end, when they pretended to come to Aerys' aid but sacked the city, and murdered the king, his daughter-in-law (Elia Martell), and young grandchildren. Tywin had the Targaryen corpses wrapped in Lannister cloaks and presented to the new king Robert, as proof of his fidelity. His reward for this atrocity was to become Robert's father-in-law.
Tywin strongly dislikes, really more hates, his dwarfish son Tyrion (whose birth killed his mother)  but his children share many of his traits. Cersei has his cruelty and arrogance. Jaime has his military skill and fearlessness. Tyrion has his cunning, leadership capacity and ability to quickly read people. All three have his pride. The Lannister words are "Hear me roar" but they rarely use those, preferring instead the unofficial motto of "A Lannister always pays his debts". This is occasionally used as a reassurance and boast of wealth and rectitude but much more often stated as a barely veiled threat. As Season Three opens, the Lannisters have allied with the Tyrells to defeat Stannis Baratheon but are still involved in an epic struggle with the Starks and Tullys. House Lannister is also said to be hated by Dorne and House Martell because of the rape and murder of Elia Martell. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Movie Reviews-The Man with the Iron Fists, Standoff

The Man With The Iron Fists
directed by RZA
Dave Bautista is a HUGE MONSTER of a man. Lucy Liu and Jamie Chung are sexy. RZA is not a skilled actor. Russell Crowe could stand to drop a few pounds. Those are the impressions I got from watching this film. They are pretty much about all I remember. Look, nobody goes to watch a kung-fu/action movie for the great acting or complex plot lines. That's certainly not what I enjoyed watching those Saturday afternoon channel 4 kung-fu movies all those years ago.  So I wasn't really expecting much from this film. And I wasn't disappointed.

RZA directed this film with an assist in production and writing by Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth ("Hostel"). As a director he's so so but then again most people don't hit a home run at their first at bat. No the major problem here is that RZA can't really act. Or to be more charitable he can't act well enough for you to suspend belief that he's not RZA and instead is the titular character, an emancipated slave, who somehow got shipwrecked halfway across the world in 19th century China, where he works as a blacksmith (and undercover monk) making weapons for various rival gangs who fight each other for, well, they don't really need a reason and you don't either.

Blacksmith doesn't speak much in the film but does give a lot of the voice over. He has a thing going on with the delectable Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) a prostitute in the brothel run by the older, still sexy and proto-feminist Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), a woman who promises her female employees that the day of their liberation is arriving soon. Blacksmith intends to earn enough money to purchase the freedom of Lady Silk. Until then they only see each other. Lady Silk is unavailable to any other customers, no matter what they offer.

As mentioned there are many rivals gangs or clans that battle for supremacy. During one such fight between the Lions and the Hyenas, Gold Lion, an honorable elder, is betrayed by his subordinates Silver Lion and Bronze Lion, and murdered. The duo intend to steal a gold shipment that they were supposed to be protecting. One of their top enforcers is Brass Body (Dave Bautista) who can turn his body to the aforementioned metal. When Gold Lion's son The X-Blade (Rick Yune) hears of his father's traitorous murder of course he swears bloody revenge and runs out looking for the scumbags who did it. Meanwhile a British mercenary named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) shows up in town looking for the gold and women, not necessarily in that order. All of these people wind up in Jungle Village and the sparks such as they are start to fly.
In case you can't tell I wasn't super impressed by this movie. There are several scenes which are not only homages to kung-fu movies but there are seemingly virtual  shot for shot takes of some classic Tarantino scenes from Kill Bill. So if you like being able to watch a movie and pick out influences or shots from other films this could be an interesting exercise. I would have been furious if I had paid for this in the theater. It just didn't have enough energy to work even as a bad kung fu movie. This phrase is almost a cliche now but RZA's performance is wooden. Even when he gets his chance to go on a roaring rampage of revenge you just don't feel very much for the character. He seems bored. Many performances seem muted here, with the exception of Bautista who just needs to flex and beat people up and Liu, who infuses what could have been a dragon lady stereotype with humor and surprising physicality. This is an ok late night movie if there is nothing else on to watch but it doesn't rank with the classics of the genre.

Stand Off
written by Terry George
The first issue I had with this film was actually referenced by the film itself. People in America and the UK and Ireland may technically speak the same language but there are occasions when the accent, cadence and slang may render words, phrases or even entire sentences temporarily incomprehensible. A Belfast man asks an American a question which the American simply can't understand, even when the Belfast man repeats himself. Frustrated the Belfast man inquires "Do they not speak English over there in America?"

Just like with the American it took some time for me to catch on to the accents and what was really going on. Once I did, well the movie was okay but it was nothing to write home about. An American, Joe Maguire (Brendan Fraser) who has familial (and possibly criminal ties) to Northern Ireland, comes to Belfast to run an antique shop for his cousin, who is either off on vacation or doing good deeds in Africa. Maguire does his best to fit in and even starts to make goo-goo eyes at beautiful Ethiopian immigrant Sophie (Yaya DaCosta).

Meanwhile local crime overlord Mad Dog Flynn (David O'Hara) (and there are more than a few setpieces used to show that he really does indeed deserve his sobriquet) is tired of his wife nagging him about his inability to get her pregnant. In fact he won't even admit that he's the party with the parts that don't work and will throw a beating to anyone who suggests so. Flynn has noticed that one of his local loanshark/gambling debtors Jimbo (Martin McCann) has a young son. So desirous of a peaceful situation with his wife, Flynn tells Jimbo that as he can't pay his debt that Jimbo will need to hand over his son to Flynn. If Jimbo refuses Flynn will just kill Jimbo and his wife and take the baby anyway.

Desperate and not knowing what else to do Jimbo decides to rob the local fish market to get enough money to either pay Flynn or more likely get out of town. But the fish market is owned by Flynn. The robbery doesn't work as planned and through a series of comical and not so comical mixups Jimbo winds up in the antique shop with Joe and Sophie as hostages. Unfortunately for Joe the local police, led by detective Weller (Colm Meaney) believe that Joe is the armed robber and hostage taker. Weller also has some family issues he's working thru with his son. Weller is the old school sort of policeman who wants to beat up criminals and arrest them instead of spending time doing what he sees as "social work".

Of course there are some funny kids with hearts of gold and hidden links between many of the parties involved in this situation. This was an ok little film with great location shots of Belfast. But good or great movie? Ehh. Meaney and O'Hara do a solid job carrying this film but they just don't have enough to work with. A Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels this was not. It is nowhere near as action packed as the trailer would have you believe.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones: Tyrell and Baratheon

As we countdown to Season 3 of HBO's Game of Thrones I thought it might be fun each Sunday to share some quick reminders/background info on which ruling Houses are involved in war, what power they have or had and how they relate to one another. Obviously I intend to do this without spoiler information and hope that any reader who's familiar with the books will honor that as well. Otherwise I'll just have to cut off their heads. Personally. Because the man that passes the sentence should swing the sword. =) Hopefully, if you watch the show once the new season starts and all the names start to fly back and forth, this might help you recall who's who.

House Tyrell
House Tyrell rules the south central area of Westeros known as The Reach. The Tyrells maintain order from their capital at Highgarden. The Reach is the most populated, most fertile and perhaps the most beautiful area of Westeros. The Tyrells can usually raise larger armies than anyone else. They also have a strong navy which can be compared to that of the royals and the Iron Isles. The Tyrells are also richer than any other group except the Lannisters. This potent combination of money and muscle makes the Tyrells either a useful ally or a bad enemy to have.

House Tyrell was originally a steward house to The Reach's rulers. When the ruling king perished in dragon fire fighting the Targaryen invaders, House Tyrell decided that further battle would be pointless and promptly surrendered to the Targaryens. For this self-interested practicality (flip-flopping??) House Tyrell was raised to ruling status over The Reach. The fact that House Tyrell was allied to the Targaryens almost certainly delayed the incorporation of Dorne into the realm as the Tyrells and the Martells were bitter and occasionally bloody rivals.

During Robert's Rebellion the Tyrells supported the Targaryens, and supplied many of their troops. Afterwards Robert forgave them. It is unwise to alienate the Tyrells not just because of their numbers but also because The Reach supplies (or can blockade) a goodly amount of the food consumed in King's Landing. The Reach is the continent's bread basket. The Reach is where rules about knighthood and chivalry are taken most seriously. The people of The Reach consider themselves to be quite cultured and civilized compared to other places.

Grandma and Granddaughter
Mace Tyrell is Lord and likes to make sure that everyone knows it. However he is advised (some say manipulated) politically, by his mother Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg in the upcoming HBO Season 3) while much of his military strength comes from his loyal ruthless vassal and top general Randyll Tarly. (Sam's frightening father) Loras Tyrell is not the heir but is Mace's favorite son. Olenna Tyrell dotes on her granddaughter, Margaery. As we saw in Season Two, Margaery's frank discussions with Renly about his homosexuality and her willingness to work around it to try to produce an heir, show that Margaery is familiar with the intrigue, hypocrisies and games common to dynastic marriages.

Loras Tyrell asked Lord Eddard Stark for permission to lead the expedition to capture or kill the Mountain, a Lannister bannerman. Stark thought Loras was too young and inexperienced to lead. Stark denied that request and sent his own people, thereby missing an opportunity to drive a political wedge between the Lannisters and Tyrells and just as importantly, keep his own soldiers close. This proved to be a tragic mistake. Upon Robert's and Ned's deaths the Tyrells supported Renly Baratheon as king. They wed Margaery Tyrell to Renly Baratheon despite Renly's lack of any reasonably legitimate claim to the Iron Throne and his romantic preference for Margaery's brother Loras. After Renly's death, the Tyrells quickly and virtually seamlessly switched support to the Lannisters, betrothing the supposedly still virginal Margaery to Joffrey. The Tyrells like to be on the winning team. The Tyrell symbol is a yellow rose on a green field. Their words are "Growing Strong". This serves as a boast to their enemies. Their words also may remind their allies to keep a watchful eye on them. Margaery wants to be the Queen. Mace Tyrell wants to be the King's grandfather. Neither one of them may be too particular about who helps them achieve those goals.

House Baratheon
Technically speaking King Joffrey is a member of this House as he does not believe the stories of his parentage. But as we and House Lord Stannis Baratheon both know, Joffrey is all Lannister so he doesn't belong here. House Baratheon was originally a bastard branch from House Targaryen. The House founder Orys Baratheon was Aegon the Conquerer's half-brother and Hand. The House intermarried with and supported the Targaryens over the generations. Robert Baratheon could boast relatively recent direct descent from a Targaryen lady, which is what he based his claim to rule when he took the throne. Well he based it on that and the fact that he caved in Rhaegar Targaryen's chest with his trusty warhammer.

House Baratheon controls the Stormlands, a central east portion of Westeros. The Stormlands are so called because of the extremely bad weather that pummels the coast and occasionally comes farther inland.  House Baratheon has traditionally ruled from its capital of Storm's End. The Stormlands warriors and lords tend to be an independent group of hard cases. A strong hand is often needed to control them. When Robert called his banners to support his revolt, many supported the Targaryens instead. Robert had to defeat three separate loyalist armies among his own people. Similarly it was a source of massive frustration to Stannis that when he claimed House leadership and the Iron Throne after Robert's death, many of the Baratheon bannermen, disliking the dour, pedantic and legalistic Stannis, flocked to the charismatic and exciting Renly Baratheon. Brienne of Tarth is from the Stormlands.

In Season Two, Stannis Baratheon had Renly Baratheon murdered via magic (literally) conceived by his religious and sorcerous advisor Melisandre. Many Baratheon bannermen then chose to support Stannis but after his defeat at Kings' Landing it remains to be seen if Stannis will keep their loyalty. Stannis firmly believes himself to be rightful king of all Westeros. He doesn't care if he has one man following him or one hundred thousand. Stannis is skilled at holding grudges. After Robert became king he gave Stannis the island of Dragonstone to rule instead of the much richer (and more militarily valuable) Storm's End. Dragonstone was out of the way and had fewer sworn bannermen. As Robert was now king, Stannis thought that the Baratheon capital of Storm's End should be ruled by the Baratheon heir and next older brother, that is to say Stannis. Stannis felt insulted and took this very personally, especially since he had provided critical service to his big brother during the war, including leading fierce resistance at Storm's End to an almost year long siege by Mace Tyrell. Stannis may have been reduced to eating shoe leather, among other less savory things, but he didn't give up. In a world of hard men, Stannis prides himself on being among the hardest. He doesn't boast. He just goes to work. Nevertheless he resents not getting what he sees as his due. As the quintessential middle brother he's resented things since childhood.

Robert probably didn't like Stannis very much but Dragonstone also had some former Targaryen supporters who needed a firm leader like Stannis to watch over them. On the other hand, if Renly hadn't been at Storm's End he may not have had support to challenge Stannis and would have had to be content with being named Stannis' heir. Stannis has no sons. House Baratheon has traditional rivalries with House Tyrell and House Martell. The House words are "Ours is the Fury" . This boast conflates the region's constant deadly storms with House Baratheon's martial spirit. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Book Reviews-American Conspiracies, World War II: Saving the Reality

American Conspiracies
by Governor Jesse Ventura
I like to look into the hidden nature of things. I'm certain that not everyone on this planet means to do good. And when the same events continue happening (like say political leaders assassinated by lone nuts who conveniently are killed or incarcerated without trial shortly afterwards) I like to look for a pattern. So I am probably among the target audience for this book.

If you think that the federal and local governments and corporations that run this society are too inept, self-interested or selfish to successfully pull off a conspiracy to elect your Aunt Mabel dog catcher, much less start wars and murder Presidents, if you think that anyone who believes that there are evil people in government like there are in any other institution is a "conspiracy nut", if you think that governments and corporations are generally organized and run by altruistic people who honestly have your best interests at heart, then this is most definitely not the book for you. Reading it will raise your blood pressure to dangerous levels. I wouldn't care to be responsible for that. Take the blue pill and go back to sleep.

But if you're ready to look into some strange happenings, if you are an open minded person, then this book might be right up your alley. Take the red pill, start reading and prepare to have your mind blown.

I was already familiar with many of the nefarious, and ahem, shady, dealings which Ventura discusses because that's how my mind works. But let's be clear. This is not a book that suggests that some amorphous "THEY" (Jews, Rosicrucians, Scientologists, Freemasons, Mafia, Aliens, Templars, White people, descendants of Jesus, Skull and Bones, etc) are the cause of all evil and are even now listening in to your phone calls, reading your email and blog posts, and looking through your financial records. Although honestly there probably are some government officials doing just that.

No this book takes the literal definition of "conspiracy"  (an agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful or subversive act) and looks at some occurrences in American history and the present day where conspiracy does seem to have occurred, been possible, or is openly accepted to have taken place. We dismiss anyone who raises questions but we have seemingly forgotten just how much acknowledged evil the US government and/or corporations have done. If you had been around in the late forties or early fifties and were writing tracts claiming the US government was deliberately exposing unwitting individuals and communities to radiation or disease, you would have been called a communist or subversive. But we know the government did do that. If in the sixties or seventies you managed to sneak on a television variety show to yell that the US government was running a mind control/behavioral modification/torture program that used former Nazis, few people would believe you. But we know that the government did that too. And we know that the government lied about the supposed casus belli of the Vietnam War as well.

So there is really no reason to take this government at its word about anything. And Ventura doesn't. This book is heavily footnoted. Ventura has presumably used his SEAL, political and veteran status to talk to some people who may not have wanted to speak (and most who didn't want to be identified) and share his knowledge of how the military industrial complex works. But this is no tome. It's short quick reading and is written in a conversational style. It's designed to get you interested and go do your own research. Ventura even suggests further reading.

Conspiracies discussed include but are not limited to the Kennedy assassinations, MLK, Malcolm X, the possible real story behind Watergate, Jonestown, AIG and the Goldman Sachs connection, stolen elections of 2000 and 2004, the aborted coup against FDR, drug connections between contras and the US government, BCCI, and many many more. You may not agree with everything Ventura lays out here. You may think he's paranoid. But when he discusses his own tense and not quite willing "debriefing" with CIA analysts who were "interested" in how he had gotten elected to be governor, you'll know he's 100% behind everything he writes here. And if the fact that Senator Robert Kennedy was shot from behind in the back of the head, while Sirhan Sirhan was always in front of him and couldn't have fired all the bullets that were discharged, doesn't at least make you go hmmm, you need to check your "spidey-sense".

World War II: Saving the Reality
by Kenneth Rendell
World War II was the last major conflict in which the majority of European nations lined up on one side or the other and threw down. It also was the bloodiest war in human history. Fortunately such bloodshed has not been seen since though some people have certainly tried. This war has always fascinated me for a number of different reasons. The war started with bolt-action rifles in widespread use and ended with the dropping of nuclear bombs on cities. That's pretty heavy. 

On the other hand it was a war without satellites, without the internet, without computers as we know them today, with several other technologies that we take for granted now only in their infancy or still considered science fiction. More people who lived during that time are dying every day. In ten, maybe twenty years at most they'll all be gone. So all we'll have is memories, family tales, books and movies. But there are some other things we'll have, documents, letters, and photographs created by the people of that time. And those are, to anyone interested in history, worth their weight in gold.

The book's subtitle is "a collector's vault" and that is precisely what it is. I picked this book up for cheap in the bargain section for $13. That was quite a deal off the list price of $50. But if I had known about it when it first came out I may have paid full price. Well no. I am probably kidding about that. All the same there's a LOT here for the price. The director of the Museum of World War Two wrote this book. Noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote the foreword. The book contains suitably aged looking replicas of letters, photographs, posters and portraits from various people in the war. This includes such things as African-American veteran Prentiss Hill's letters to the woman who would become his wife, Dorothy Hill, (The Hills are especially thanked in the acknowledgements) propaganda leaflets, top secret letters from General MacArthur, wartime cartoons, Roosevelt's letters to Stalin, instructions on how to load and cock single shot pistols designed for use behind enemy lines, photographs sent home by soldiers and many many more documents from the time. And these things are not just laid out with no text. There's tons of detailed text and photographic explanations. French women who married after the Allied liberation had no silk so they had to use wedding dresses made from US paratrooper parachutes. Fascinating. My maternal grandfather was a WWII veteran but unfortunately he's passed on. So this book provided some insights I was too dumb to ask about back in the day.
This is a must have book for any WWII history buff. The museum is located 20 minutes west of downtown Boston and schedules visitors in advance.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pakistani Muslims Riot Over Blasphemy Charges

Here we go again. Let's just be blunt. There are a lot of things the US Founding Fathers and later judges and politicians got wrong when they created the legal and social standards for our country but refusing to create a state church and generally enforcing a separation of church and state wasn't one of them. I am not religious. The issue with most religions is that many creeds feel that they have a monopoly on "truth". I totally get that. I disagree but as long as they don't bother me I won't bother them. But in some countries, and Pakistan is one of them, there isn't quite a relatively robust separation of church and state. Religion may not run the state but it has entirely too much influence.

In the US or most of what's referred to obliquely as "The West" if I want to make a movie or write a book mocking Jesus or making fun of Moses or criticizing Muhammad I can do so. I may be insulted or mocked in turn but generally speaking no one is going to try to burn my house down. Police won't charge me with blasphemy. No one will try to shoot my wife or children. You can't say the same about Pakistan. In fact you don't even have to have been convicted of committing "blasphemy", just have someone in the majority group (Sunni Muslim) accuse you of having committed blasphemy and the lynch mob is ready to go.

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Hundreds of people in eastern Pakistan rampaged through a Christian neighborhood Saturday, torching dozens of homes after hearing reports that a Christian man had committed blasphemy against Islam's prophet.
Blasphemy is a serious crime in Pakistan that can carry the death penalty but sometimes outraged residents exact their own retribution for perceived insults of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and people of other faiths, including the nation's small Christian community, are often viewed with suspicion.
The incident started Friday when a young Muslim man accused a Christian man of committing blasphemy by making offensive comments about the prophet, according to Multan Khan, a senior police officer in Lahore.
A large crowd from a nearby mosque went to the Christian man's home on Friday night, said Khan. Police registered a blasphemy case against the man after the crowd gathered and demanded action, the officer said.
Fearing for their safety, hundreds of Christian families fled the area overnight.Khan said the mob returned on Saturday and began ransacking Christian homes and setting them ablaze. He said no one in the Christian community was hurt, but several policemen were injured when they were hit with stones as they tried to keep the crowd from storming the area.
But Akram Gill, a local bishop in the Lahore Christian community said the incident had more to do with personal enmity between two men — one Christian and one Muslim — than blasphemy. He said the men got into a brawl after drinking late one night, and in the morning the Muslim man made up the blasphemy story as payback...Only in Christian cases will violent mobs punish the entire community for the perceived crime of one Christian...Two prominent politicians were assassinated in 2011 for urging reform of the law. The killer of one of the politicians was hailed as a hero, and lawyers at his legal appearances showered him with rose petals.
Unfortunately in places like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or other portions of the Muslim world freedom of speech and freedom of religion are not considered to be important human rights. They are often though to be dangerous foreign imports. Well the world is a big and often ugly place right? It's full of countries that don't have US values and don't want US values thank you very much. Why should we in the US or the more rational parts of the planet care what a bunch of Pakistani morons do? Well we should care because injustice anywhere in the world is wrong and should be challenged. Although the particulars are different the underlying human evil is the same. The majority seizes on a flimsy pretext to bully, humiliate and occasionally kill the minority. On that level it's no different than what might have occurred in 1920s Alabama or in several other places or times around the world. In-group, out-group: the names change but the game is always the same.

We should also care because the sorts of people who think that blasphemy is a serious crime are not content with either staying in the backwaters of Pakistan or having blasphemy laws only apply in similarly benighted places. No. Not only are some Muslim immigrant communities in Europe aggressively seeking to have blasphemy laws reinstated there, some majority Muslim countries are attempting to create an international standard blasphemy law.
Although I think every human being on the planet is of equal worth, more or less, every idea isn't. Blasphemy is incompatible with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the freedom to think what you want to think or say what you want to say. Although I think for simple politesse it's usually best not to insult people needlessly the fact remains that some people (a small violent minority?) in the Muslim world tend to take almost any statement about Islam that's not cloyingly complimentary as an insult. This is no good. There is no reason in my view to grant Islam deference that I wouldn't grant other religions. And a rioter's veto is not a reason. Pakistan's ambassador to the US was accused of blasphemy. It's insane. Blasphemy is a stupid idea promulgated by stupid people. The idea that your God needs the state to protect him is asinine. 

Obviously there are plenty of people throughout the Muslim world who recognize this, perhaps even the majority of Muslims. I think that most people are basically good. It's important that we stand firm against blasphemy laws and shine the light of truth on to what is essentially state sponsored bullying. I think that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and other such places need an Enlightenment or Reformation. But only Muslims can lead this. Until then it's critical that we reject and prevent blasphemy laws from taking hold in the West. I have no desire to write or say something that some loon finds objectionable and then have my life or home damaged. The people that support blasphemy laws don't seem to realize that they are doing far more damage to Islam's image than any "Islamophobe" ever could. How often in the Mid-East or South Asia do you hear about Christian mobs attacking Muslim minorities because they said something about Jesus? Exactly.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Kwame Kilpatrick Convicted in Federal trial

This is not exactly news which ought to surprise anyone but former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of 24 counts of racketeering and extortion and other crimes.  He could face 20 years in prison. I'm not jubilant nor am I sad. It's just really disappointing because he was someone who could have done a lot of good for the city of Detroit and maybe even the state of Michigan. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he got caught up in the trappings of power and more interested in how he could enrich his friends, family and business partners than how best to serve the citizens of Detroit. Coming on the heels of a soon to be announced emergency financial manager for the city of Detroit, this conviction doesn't bode well for those who argue that the city can get out of the horrible political and financial situation it finds itself facing.

Kilpatrick's hardly the only black politician to get taken down by the feds and he won't be the last. You would think that corrupt black mayors, representatives, and senators would learn that unlike NY banks and financial institutions, the Justice Department and federal prosecutors, do not in fact, consider them to be too big to jail.

So if you know that the police are constantly following you as you drive down the expressway, even though that might be unfair and irritating, do you obey the speed limit or do you step on the gas, speed up to 90 mph and start weaving in and out of traffic? I know what my answer is. And I know what Kilpatrick's answer is too..

But some people always have to learn things the hard way. A hard head indeed makes for a soft behind.

Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his longtime friend Bobby Ferguson have just been convicted of racketeering and extortion, marking an end to a more than decade-long public corruption investigation. The three faced a combined 45 charges accusing them of racketeering, extortion, bribery and mail fraud, among other things. Kilpatrick was convicted on 24 of 30 counts, including five counts of extortion, racketeering, bribery and several mail, wire and tax fraud charges. On three counts he was found not guilty and on three there was no verdict reached.

Ferguson was found guilty on nine of 11 counts, including racketeering and several counts of extortion. He was found not guilty on one count and there was no verdict on another. Bernard Kilpatrick was convicted on one of four counts. He was convicted on a tax charge. There was no verdict for Bernard Kilpatrick on the racketeering charge and he was found not guilty on two other charges – attempted extortion and a tax charge.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones: Targaryen and Martell and Arryn

As we countdown to Season 3 of HBO's Game of Thrones I thought it might be fun each Sunday to share some quick reminders/background info on which ruling Houses are involved in war, what power they have or had and how they relate to one another. Obviously I intend to do this without spoiler information and hope that any reader who's familiar with the books will honor that as well. Otherwise I'll just have to cut off their heads. Personally. Because the man that passes the sentence should swing the sword. =) Hopefully, if you watch the show once the new season starts and all the names start to fly back and forth, this might help you recall who's who.

House Targaryen
House Targaryen originated in the East when it was part of the Valyrian Empire. Valyrians had access to greater technology and magic than the people of Westeros. They had dragons and though they did not conquer Westeros, they ruled almost the entire eastern continent. Eventually there was a cataclysm known as the "Doom of Valyria". The peninsula of Valyria sank into the sea. Many dragons were lost and the various eastern subject peoples rebelled/declared their independence. However there were both Valyrians and dragons that had survived. House Targaryen had established itself on the island of Dragonstone before the Doom. Roughly a century or so after the Doom, the Targaryen leader, Aegon Targaryen and his sister-wives decided to conquer Westeros. They only had a small army. But they had dragons. Aegon and his two sisters were skilled dragon riders and warriors, as you may remember from Season Two's discussion between Tywin Lannister and Arya Stark. Aegon's dragon Balerion was known as the Black Dread and was said to be so large that entire towns were in complete shadow under his wings when he flew. Some Targaryens had some immunity to heat or fire.
With one exception, Aegon and his sisters destroyed or subdued any king who refused to recognize Targaryen overlordship. The Targaryens eventually gave up their foreign gods and accepted the faith of the Seven. Their dragons shrunk and eventually died out. The Targaryens kept the practice of polygamy and royal incest. Brothers married sisters, aunts married nephews, and uncles married nieces. This was a religious and cultural abomination to most Westerosi but the Targaryens rarely concerned themselves with the opinions of lesser people. However this non-forking family tree caught up with House Targaryen as more kings showed signs of instability. Three centuries after the Targaryens crowned themselves as rulers, their mental frailty reached its nadir under Aerys the Mad, a rapist and tyrant, who murdered Eddard Stark's father, brother and several other men when they challenged him to account for his son Rhaegar Targaryen, who had kidnapped Lyanna Stark. The realm erupted in revolt. The war ended with Jaime Lannister murdering the Mad King, Robert Baratheon killing Rhaegar Targaryen and taking the throne for himself, and the Lannisters murdering Targaryen women and children to forestall any future succession threats.

There is one Targaryen still left alive. She has dragons, though little else.
Daenerys Targaryen believes herself to be the rightful ruler of all Westeros, though she has never seen it. She was conceived in the rebellion's final month and has been on the run ever since. Dragons are the nuclear weapons of Westeros warfare. Few people would dare to oppose anyone who controls full grown dragons. The Targaryen words are "Fire and Blood" which is exactly what they have traditionally given anyone unwise enough to challenge them. Time will tell if Daenerys has inherited her ancestors' cruelty and majesty or their unsteadiness (her parents were siblings after all)

House Martell
One House resisted the Targaryen conquest. It wasn't the proud Starks or the wealthy Lannisters. It was the Martells, the rulers of Dorne, Westeros' southernmost region. Dorne is culturally and ethnically dissimilar to the rest of Westeros. They do things differently in Dorne. Dorne practices equal inheritance regardless of gender and has a strong tradition of female warriors and leaders. This is likely because House Martell was raised to ruling prominence by the invading Queen Nymeria, a Rhoynish warrior leader who was fleeing Valyrian expansion. She took a Martell King as her husband. Together they conquered Dorne.

When the Targaryens invaded, House Martell avoided open battle where the dragons could be successful but led a long guerrilla struggle that eventually forced the Targaryens to withdraw. The Targaryens invaded again and failed. Finally, the Targaryens smartened up and arranged marriages between themselves and the Martells. Dorne joined the realm peacefully. House Martell became a reliable supporter of the Targaryen dynasty.

Dornish people can range widely in skin tone. Martin has described Dornish as having skin shades similar to paler northerly folks or being "tanned","olive skinned" or "brown skinned". Dorne seemingly shares some features with Moorish Spain, Wales, North Africa, Italy or Palestine. It will be interesting to see how HBO, which has been willing to cast people of color, will cast Dornish actors. I think people like Ioan Gruffudd, Antonio Banderas, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Thandie Newton, Jean Reno, Freida Pinto, Naveen Andrews, and Wentworth Miller could all conceivably be a Dornish type. 

Elia Martell was the wife of Targaryen heir, Rhaegar Targaryen. During the sack of King's Landing it was Lannister bannermen, primarily The Mountain, who raped and murdered Elia Martell and her babies. House Martell has a well deserved reputation for neither forgiving nor forgetting. Elia Martell was the sister of Dorne's ruler, Prince Doran and his hotheaded younger brother Prince Oberyn. These past Lannister atrocities are why Cersei Lannister was opposed to Tyrion sending her daughter Myrcella to Dorne for betrothal and safekeeping. Dorne has ancient rivalries with The Stormlands (Baratheon) and The Reach (Tyrell). The regions have warred and raided for generations. Dorne is physically isolated behind mountain ranges and has more trade with the east than with the rest of Westeros.

The Martell sigil is a spear joined with the Sun. The Sun was the sigil of Nymeria and the Rhoynar while the spear was the sigil of the pre-Nymeria Martells. The Martell words are "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" which refers to the fact they joined the kingdom because they wanted to, not because Targaryens made them. As far as House Martell is concerned, no one can make them do anything.

House Arryn
Like House Martell , House Arryn rules over an isolated portion of Westeros, The Vale. The Vale is a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by mountains.

Before the events in A Game of Thrones House Arryn was ruled over by Jon Arryn, an older Lord who had fostered Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon as youngsters. When the Mad King killed Ned Stark's relatives and friends (including one of Jon Arryn's nephews), he ordered Jon Arryn to send him the heads of Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon. Arryn refused and called his banners. The realm erupted in revolt with Houses Stark, Tully, Arryn and Baratheon uniting to overthrow the mad king. Robert Baratheon became King and appointed Jon Arryn as the Hand.

The widowed Jon Arryn married Lysa Tully, Catelyn's younger sister. He was significantly older than she. After many miscarriages, Lysa bore Jon a son, (Robin in the HBO series, Robert in the books) who is roughly six years old at the story's beginning. Upon Jon's death (and presumed murder) his son becomes the Lord of The Vale.
Because of Robin's age, his mother Lysa wields all authority as regent. The boy is sickly, weak and uncomfortably close to Lysa, who has refused to wean him. She has also declined to let Robin be fostered anywhere, which is the usual practice for noble youth. With the war, one would have expected that House Arryn would come to the assistance of Houses Tully and Stark, but so far Lysa has refused to call the banners.

The Arryns rule from their mountainous Eyrie, a place that is virtually impregnable to attack. It's hard to get to the Eyrie but it's easy to leave. There is a "Moon Door" which opens to a six hundred foot drop to the mountainside. Lysa and especially Robin seem to have grown fond of "making bad men fly". There has generally been peace in The Vale, with the notable exception of the Mountain Clans, poorly armed groups that rob and kill travelers, but who generally avoid direct conflict with the better armed and organized Knights of the Vale. The Arryn words are "As High as Honor". These words hearken back to their legendary founding as well their mountains, chivalry and religious dedication.