Thursday, July 26, 2012

Top 5 Songs I Love Unironically

My friend Rob just posted this piece about Bruce Springsteen on his Facebook page. It blew my mind. Do kids today really listen to The Boss ironically? Has our post Gen-X pop-cultural dependence on irony really stunted our emotional core to the point where we can't just listen to a song that is beautiful, heartfelt and earnest without sneering at it? Am I really so old now that I don't get this?

The article got me thinking about my own relationship to irony, and I have admit it made me realize that I'm no better than the rest of you. I tend to fall into the same trap. Irony as we currently understand it is , I think, a defense mechanism we all share. It protects us from having to actually feel something real, to be moved by something in a way that might conceivably bring derision. It's safer to stand back and smirk than to open our hearts, let something in and maybe hit a real nerve.

 So, in that spirit, here is my list of my top 5 favorite songs that I absolutely love, and love unironically.  Go ahead.  Mock away.

1 . Bruce Springsteen - "Youngstown"

Since it was an article on Springsteen that started this, I'll go ahead and start with my favorite Springsteen song.  It has become a bit of a joke that Bruce sees himself as the self-appointed voice of disenfranchised America.  But this song from his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad shows why we shouldn't laugh that idea off so easily.  Springsteen -- a real master of narrative -- uses Youngstown, Ohio, to tell the a haunting and elegiac story of the rustbelt and, by extension, the story of the rise and fall of the American working class.  His portrait of a city in crisis -- whose Heartland denizens want nothing more than to work hard and provide for their families but who have been abused and neglected by a nation that has used them and thrown them away -- would be ripe for parody if it wasn't so damn true.  The images Springsteen creates are indelible -- "Them smokestacks reachin' like the arms of God/into a beautiful sky of soot and clay" may be my single favorite lyric ever.  And when he sings "we sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam/Now we're wondering what they were dying for," it still cuts deep.  How many sons and daughters of Youngstown fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wonder?

2. Jim Croce - "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)"

The plaintive guitar, the swelling strings, the heart-tugging jilted boyfriend sentiment...all these make this one of those songs that seems destined for a snarky, tongue-in-cheek Karaoke rendition at a hipster party somewhere in Silverlake.  But stop and think about it for a many times have you (yeah, YOU) been compelled to reach out to an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/etc. just so you could prove to them how OK you were, now that the dust has settled and your broken heart has been crudely stitched back together?  How well did that go for you?  Croce so perfectly captures that ache of trying to let go of something that you know you have to and failing.

3. Louis Armstrong - "What A Wonderful World"

This one is almost impossible to separate from all our ironic associations with it.  It's just so hopeful and naive, most people can't help but snicker.  I'm guilty of this, too: when I was a college radio DJ, I remember playing this over audio of the zombies eating all the Army guys in the bunker at the end of Day of the Dead.

But there is something genuinely touching about its hopefulness and naivete.  It's a call for us to see the world as we might want it to be, rather than as it is.  When I need to remind myself what this really song is, I just think back to what it meant to Bruce Willis's character in 12 Monkeys (yeah, I referenced 12 Monkeys, shut up).

4. Styx - "Come Sail Away"

I don't really know that I can mount a truly articulate defense for this one other than to say, beyond all its goofball charm, I just this find this song to be the sound of pure, unfettered joy. When angels fly, I think this is what the beat of their wings against the clouds sounds like.  And no, I'm not being ironic.

5. Johnny Cash - "Hurt"

This one gets all sort of hipster cred, probably, because its a mashup of Johnny Cash and Nine Inch Nails.  Or maybe that just provokes a backlash.  I don't know.  I don't really get what hipsters like.  Regardless, put all the iconographic meta stuff ("it's JOHNNY CASH...singing NINE INCH NAILS!") out of your head and really listen to it.  Has any song ever more fully captured the sting of grief, regret, and encroaching mortality than this one?  Cash was nearing the end of his life here and was busy taking stock of a lot of things.  The soul his broken voice infuses into this song elevates it way past the frankly sad-eyed Gothboy nonsense it was and turns it into something bare, raw, and utterly truthful.

For another late-era Cash song that makes me want to cry, check out this one.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Top 10 Favorite Standup Comedians

Strangely, around the time I seriously got into horror fiction (when I was about 13 or so) I also became a bit of a standup comedy geek.

Standup has always seemed to be so far beyond anything I could ever imagine myself doing, but in some fundamental way I think the neurosis that drives a standup is very similar to that which drives a horror writer. At best it's a transgressive artform, dangerous, full of anger and cynicism, and it allows us to poke around in our own id in a relatively safe way. Good horror shows us the things we aren't supposed to see, and good standup says the things we aren't supposed to say.

So I just started brainstorming a horror-inspired TV pilot set in the world of standup comedy, and it got me thinking about my favorite standups and what I love about them. I'm not saying these are necessarily the BEST standups. They're just the ones I have the most affection for. Here's my list:

10. Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield's approach feels pretty outdated now, I suppose, but I've had a bit of a soft spot for him ever since I first saw him performing on Johnny Carson back in the 80s. Maybe it's because he was so unrelentingly Jew-ey, which helped make me feel a little less self conscious about being one of the only Jews I knew in Los Alamos. Maybe it was just the googley eyes, which would never fail to crack me up when I was eight or nine.

But I think it's mostly because, as kind of a fat sadsack dork myself, I responded to how he made that very thing work for him.

I also have always loved his personal story : a failed standup who gave it up for years to be a paint salesman, and who then reinvented himself in his late 40s, took on a new stage name, and almost by chance became a huge star because of a single performance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

As I grew older and my tastes shifted toward more overtly edgy material, I began to see past Dangerfield's sometimes hokey one-liners to the seething rage that seemed to boil beneath them. His vicious turn in the otherwise overwrought Natural Born Killers -- where his shtick was stripped down to its raw, ugly core -- cemented his place in my personal pantheon.

9. Steve Martin

In a lot of ways the antithesis of Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin is probably the first standup other than Bill Cosby I really recognized. I distinctly remember being six or seven and listening to my parents vinyl copy of A Wild and Crazy Guy over and over and over again. I couldn't get enough.

What's amazing is, almost three decades later, how well the album holds up for me. Martin embraced outright silliness in a way that almost no other comic has, and he took a scientific approach to it that somehow elevated the material beyond the goofy one liners and the shtick with the banjo and the arrow-in-the-head gag. I still find it to be imminently re-listenable in the way a lot of comedy albums just aren't.

And speaking of Bill Cosby...

8. Bill Cosby

It's a total cliche to say that Bill Cosby was everybody's dad in the 1980s, but it's also pretty much true. Like your dad, he wasn't not terribly cool. But I'd guess that for most of us who grew up during that time period, he was this constantly soothing presence that, if we're willing to admit it, we're still fond of.

Most people associate him with The Cosby Show, but the first thing I think of when I think of him is actually going to the dentist. It was Dr. Lorio's practice up in Los Alamos. He used to have these little radio headsets that he'd give to patients whenever they were getting their teeth cleaned or their cavities filled. It had about five or six stations, mostly light rock or smooth jazz, but the last station was always a running loop of Bill Cosby. I didn't even really know who he was at the time, but I'd lay back while the pretty and buxomy dental hygienist picked at my teeth with her little instruments, close my eyes and just let his low rumbling voice take me away.

It got to the point where I actually looked forward to going to the dentist. Even now when I go and they don't have those headsets I find myself absurdly disappointed.

The amazing thing about Cosby, I realize now, is that he never really tells an actual joke. It's just these precisely crafted long-form stories about his friends or his family that are as touching as they are hilarious. I don't get a lot of belly laughs from his stuff anymore, but when the mood strikes me I can still slip into Bill Cosby, Himself like an old pair of pajama pants.

7. Bill Hicks

Bill Hicks inhabits the exact opposite end of the comic spectrum from Cosby. There's nothing comfortable about what he did. He didn't tell stories. He didn't want you to like him. He wasn't trying to make you comfortable, or even necessarily to make you laugh. He was rage personified, and he wanted to piss you off.

When I was in high school I was a huge Denis Leary fan, but then I got to college and a buddy of mine introduced me to Hicks. I realized that he pretty much did the exact same thing Leary did, but earlier, funnier, smarter, and much much better (something countless other people have noticed, by the way). When I dug deeper into Hicks's stuff, I realized that only maybe two thirds of it is actually funny. The rest is just too blistering and bitter to really get a laugh. Hicks was kind of out of control. But funny or not, it's all genius.

6. Marc Maron

Like most people, I discovered Marc Maron pretty recently through his incredibly popular WTF podcast. I'd seen him before on Conan and Comedy Central, and I even caught a couple of his live shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in LA without really knowing who he was. He was just one of those "that guy" comics that you sort of recognize.

But the podcast, if you haven't listened to it, is brilliant. It's a pretty straightforward interview show, where he sits down with a fellow comic and talks about life and career. But through his own matter-of-fact vulnerability he manages to get these comics to open up about their own pain and personal demons in some extraordinary ways (check out the Todd Hanson and Mike DeStefano episodes to see what I mean). He got Louis CK to cry. He also, over the course of two interviews, famously gave supreme douchebag Carlos Mencia enough wick to completely detonate himself.

After watching more of his actual standup, I realized that that queer mixture of anger, honesty, and raw vulnerability is sort of his thing. He could be insufferable -- a Bill Hicks who wants to talk about himself -- but his generally laid-back delivery makes it all go down easily. He's the sort of guy you think you want to hang out with, but sort of fear you'll either get into a fist fight or it'll turn into a big sensitive man cry-fest before the night's done.

5. Sarah Silverman

I feel bad that there aren't more women on this list. Putting it together really showed me how behind I am in really paying attention to female comics. There are a number -- Tig Notaro, Lisa Lampanelli, Amy Barnes, Paula Poundstone, etc. -- who I know, but when it comes right down to it I'm just not familiar enough with their work to say much about them (Maria Bamford almost made my list, but I couldn't quite justify knocking off Rodney Dangerfield). Bad Scotty. I obviously have homework to do.

So now I'm going to make it worse by saying I have a huge crush on Sarah Silverman (I know, me and all the other hipsters out there). I always kind of melt in the face of really beautiful women saying really awful and offensive things. But fanboy lust aside, I think Silverman is one of the most technically perfect comics around. Her sense of timing is pretty much unmatched, and she's able to layer a single joke with about seven more layers of cringe-inducing hilarity than any male shock comic out there. She's smart, she's no bullshit, and she's fucking fearless.

4. Brian Posehn

I feel like Brian Posehn's kind of guilty pleasure (just check out the dick farting bit in the video above to see what I mean). But, I don't know, the guy's just really fucking funny to me. He's the quintessential big fat metal dork, and so he reminds me of myself and a lot of friends I've had over the years. If I could do standup, I'd like to think I'd be all smart and stuff like Marc Maron, Steven Wright or Louis CK, but I actually think I'd probably be a lot like Brian Posehn.

3. Louis CK

Louis CK's probably the best living standup comic out there right now. He combines the best of everything -- absurdity, observational, surreal, social commentary, smart, stupid, etc. -- into a stream of hilarity that just doesn't let up. I probably laugh more times per minute during a Louis CK bit than I do any other comic. And he somehow makes it all look really easy.

What's weird is how he's sort of become this dad figure like Bill Cosby, but for a younger and more cynical generation. His relentless lack of sentimentality about his kids can make me uncomfortable at times, but it has lead to some of the funniest routines in the history of standup.

2. David Cross

I know I just said Louis CK is the best living standup, but my affection for David Cross goes way back to the early 90s and his legendary Mr. Show with Bob and David (clip NSFW), in my opinion the greatest sketch show ever (it's also where I first saw Silverman and Posehn). This gives him the edge.

As a standup, Cross is as polished as CK and as fearless as Silverman. And he just doesn't seem to give a fuck. He's relentlessly intelligent, calls out bullshit when he sees it, and is not afraid to pick a fight. He also, famously, ad libs a lot of his act on the spot. That blows my mind. Most people know him these days as an actor from either Arrested Development or Modern Family, but if you haven't checked out his standup do yourself a favor.

1. Richard Pryor

Of course. Who else?

Nobody could tell a horrifying and heart-breaking personal story and make you laugh as hard and as consistently as Richard Pryor. Whether he was talking about his abusive father, growing up in a brothel, or lighting himself on fire while freebasing, Pryor had a unique ability to mine into himself in a way that most comics only dream of. There has never been a comic more willing to expose himself on stage, to flaunt all of his personal demons and invite you to laugh at them. And no one was funnier. It's a tragedy that he was struck down with MS so relatively young, just when it seemed he had gotten his shit together. He could still be going.

All that said, this is my first memory of him, and as terrible as it is I still kind of love it.

Honorable mentions:

Maria Bamford
Mitch Hedberg
George Carlin
Lenny Bruce
Richard Belzer
Paul F. Tompkins
Steven Wright
Richard Lewis
Kristen Schaal
Wendy Liebman
Chris Rock
Robin Williams
Rita Rudner
David Brenner
Albert Brooks
Kevin Pollack
Tig Notaro
Patton Oswalt
Greg Giraldo
Patrice O'Neal
Paula Poundstone
Christopher Titus
Stewart Lee
Dave Chappelle
Jim Gaffigan
Erin Foley
Greg Fitzsimmons
Zach Galifianakis
Bill Burr
Laura Kightlinger
Dave Attell
Jim Norton
Mike Birbiglia
Bob Saget
Maz Jobrani
Jessi Klein
Mike DeStefano
Carl LaBove
Donald Glover

Monday, March 5, 2012

Top Films of 2011

Well, I'm two months late on this, but I'm gonna do it anyway.

One BIG caveat: Whenever I've put together these lists in recent years, the process always really shows me how few movies I actually bother to see anymore. I only saw one ("Tree of Life") of the Oscar-nominated films this past year. Many movies -- "Shame," "My Week With Marilyn," "The Artist," "Melancholia," etc. -- that I wanted to see completely slipped through the cracks. So this is not meant to be a definitive list by any means.

But of the films I DID see, these are my favorites.

1. Take Shelter

Every so often someone puts out a movie that seems like pretty much the exact movie I want to make. Duncan Jones's "Moon" was that in 2009. Last year, it was Jeff Nichols's "Take Shelter." The story of a hardworking Midwestern family man (Michael Shannon) who begins experiencing apocalyptic visions and the toll this takes on his exasperated wife (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter, "Take Shelter" is about as moving an exploration of quiet, encroaching insanity as I've ever seen. Neither as narratively crazy nor as hopeless as "Jacob's Ladder" and "Pi" (both movies I love), Nichols's film is no less haunting for its sheer starkness. It's also beautiful to look at. And it's got one doozy of an ending.

2. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Believe it or not, that girl in the trailer above is the younger sister of the Olsen twins. But don't hold that against her. Elizabeth Olsen's performance as the title character in Sean Durkin's debut film "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a powerhouse. She owns this movie from start to finish -- which is an accomplishment, considering she's playing opposite the always amazing John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone"). Durkin's movie is about a young woman (Olsen) who escapes the clutches of a Manson-esque cult in upstate New York. Her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her sister's husband (Hugh Dancy) take her in, but are at a loss to explain her increasingly bizarre behavior (it doesn't help that they only think she's running away from an ex boyfriend). The movie cuts seamlessly between her listless existence at her sister's lake house and her time with the quietly terrifying Hawkes and his moon-eyed clan. Like "Take Shelter," so much of the power of this movie comes from its simplicity. Durkin is an able filmmaker with a sensitive hand, and he knows how to take his time and when to get out of a scene before blowing it. This is one of those movies where what's not said or seen is much more important than what is.

3. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

It was fashionable amongst the snobs to deride this film before it was even released in favor of the Swedish originals, and then to knock it after it came out for supposedly gutting author Stieg Larsson's feminist commentary. Here's a little secret: the Swedish films are MUCH more gratuitously sexed-up than Fincher's American remake, and I always felt Larsson got way too much credit as a progressive firebrand than he deserved. Sure, the feminist angle was there, but the books were always pretty pulpy. What Fincher gets right in his version is the vulnerability of its lead character. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a tough but heartbreaking figure, and she should be. She's not a superhero. Mara doesn't try to soften her edges, but she does show the painful beating heart within her in a way that Swedish actress Noomi Rapace never pulled off. Fincher and Mara defetishize Lisbeth. They allow her to be sexual, but don't get lost in the goth sex-doll dreaminess that Rapace inspired with the first film's devoted fans. The sex itself (and I'm not talking about the rape scene) is pretty honest and real and matter-of-fact here, whereas it's all gloss and steam in the original. As directed by Fincher, the movie itself is a suitably creepy and stylish thriller with at least a little something to say. It bums me out that it tanked at the box office. For those of you who let all the snark and criticism keep you away, I'd suggest giving it another chance.

4. Super 8

I'm perfectly willing to admit that this isn't necessarily a great movie, but it's so perfectly designed to trigger the nostalgia reflex in people like me (specifically geeky thirty-something dudes who grew up with Spielberg and "The Goonies") that I have to give director J.J. Abrams credit. I don't have a lot to say beyond that, but I probably had more fun with this than I did any other movie this year.

5. Drive

I decided to post a clip instead of the trailer because the trailer completely missed what's so great about this movie. This isn't "The Fast and The Furious." Instead it's a moody and ultimately sad character study of an antihero who is basically psychotic, as well as a wildly stylistic rumination of everything that's awesome about the 80s. I was sold the moment the neon pink opening titles kicked in over a glistening nightscape of LA and the drone of Kavinsky's "Nightcall." The plot itself is pretty standard heist/revenge stuff, but there's an actual heart to this movie that I completely engaged with. Neither Ryan Gosling nor Carey Mulligan have much to work with, but what they do they do with aplomb. And the fact that Albert Brooks was snubbed for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar is just further proof that the Motion Picture Academy has lost all relevancy.

6. Margin Call

There's a general wisdom amongst those of us who are trying to make movies that no one wants to see a film where a bunch of people just sit around around and talk. Tell that to Sidney Lumet, Roman Polanski, David Mamet, and first-time writer/director J.C. Chandor, whose "Margin Call" is as tense a thriller as you're likely to see. And it's basically people sitting around talking. A fictionalized look at the financial meltdown in 2008, Chandor's film is likely to provoke outrage in you if you're able to keep up with it. He doesn't waste time trying to explain the mechanics of short selling, securities or collateralized debt obligations (thank God). Instead he focuses in on the people whose selfish decisions lead to the mess we're all in now. This is a classic morality tale in the vein of Lumet's "12 Angry Men" or Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross." It's also (next to "Martha Marcy") the most self-assured debut film I saw this year.

7. The Ides of March

This movie kind of got lost in the shuffle this year, which is a shame because (without having seen most of the nominated films) it seems to me it should have been perfect Oscar bait. George Clooney directed this political drama based on Beau Willimon's popular play "Farragut North," and does a solid job portraying an idealistic (but flawed) presidential candidate, Senator Mike Morris, who seems equal parts Barack Obama idealist and Bill Clinton triangulator. Ryan Gosling stars as Morris's "media guy", a political prodigy whose own idealism is his undoing. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Evan Rachel Wood all turn in strong performances in roles that could have easily been nothing more than stock. Clooney doesn't reinvent the wheel here, but this movie shows that -- with the right star power attached -- Hollywood can still deliver smart straight-forward drama for grownups. That's something to be celebrated.

8. The Tree of Life

What to say about this film? Only Terrence Malick could make a movie that encapsulates all of existence within the story of a kid growing up in Texas. It's gorgeous. It's overloaded. It's wildly, gloriously pretentious. And yeah, it has dinosaurs. It's less a movie than an experience, and you're either going to be on board with it or you're not. I was on board.

9. Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy

Like "Margin Call," Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John Le Carré's "Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy" is mostly a movie about old men sitting in dark rooms talking to other old men. And it's awesome. The knock on it has been that it's boring and confusing. Bullshit. I didn't find it hard to follow (I do want to see it again, however, just to be sure I got it all), and I was never bored. Only a culture bred on James Bond-style histrionics would balk at a spy movie as subtle and smart as this one. Gary Oldman gives one of the finest (and quietest) performances of his career, and the rest of the cast -- from Benedict Cumberbatch (the BBC's "Sherlock") to the great John Hurt -- simply kill this thing. It's a murky film -- both visually and morally -- which is probably why people didn't really go for it. Those people are stupid. After this and "Let the Right One In," Alfredson has established himself as one of the directors to watch.

10 Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I love, love, LOVE the original "Planet of the Apes" series (all of them, from 1968's original through 1972's "Conquest". I like to pretend 1973's "Battle" doesn't exist), but -- knowing how Hollywood screws up these things and considering Tim Burton's 2001 mess of a remake -- I did not have high hopes for this one. But married screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle") are clearly fans of the original series and worked really hard to reclaim the franchise for a new generation. The script is silly at times (the whole smart gas thing feels kind of tired), but overall they do a commendable job of capturing what made Roddy McDowell's Caesar (in "Conquest") such an iconic character. The humans here (James Franco, John Lithgow, and a bunch of other people) are pretty mediocre, but the apes are badass and Andy Serkis's reinterpretation of Caesar further shows that he should pretty much be the only guy allowed to act in motion-capture performances. It sets up a new franchise nicely, and I'm glad to hear that Silver and Jaffa are back to pen the next installment. Fingers crossed.

Honorable mentions: Contagion, Source Code, Carlos, Bridesmaids

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Album Review: Pop. 1280 - "The Horror"

I stumbled on these guys a couple days ago while surfing through some old Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds videos on youTube. The band name immediately caught my attention. Any group who YouTube thinks is related to old-school Nick Cave and who so baldly reference one of my favorite Jim Thompson novels is at least worth a listen.

The album title gave me pause, though. Seemed a little on-the-nose. At best, I figured, they'd be some sort of novelty Misfits knockoff. At worst, they'd be Goth.

What they actually are, to my surprise and pleasure, is a pretty decent punk-influenced indie rock band with shades of mid-80s Krautrock drone, a liberal dose of Big Black-style sonic dissonance, all with just a pinch of early Hüsker Dü. And yes, there's definitely some Your Funeral, My Trial-era Nick Cave in there as well.

I haven't been able to find out too much about these guys. Apparently they're from New York. The end.

This is definitely not going to be for everybody. The opening lyric is "Two dogs fucking..." While that brought a smile to my face, it also fairly accurately describes the tone of the album. The drums and bass clank and churn along with all the propulsiveness of an ill-maintained diesel engine, while the guitars scratch away at your eardrums like the proverbial fingernails on a chalkboard. Meanwhile, vocalist Chris Bug sort of sing-shouts like a bored Meantime-era Paige Hamilton.

Sure, it's all a little monotonous. Monotonous the way a series of punches to the testicles is monotonous.

The standout tracks -- the above-linked "Bodies in the Dunes" and the album-opening "Burn the Worm" -- come early in the proceedings. Unsurprisingly, things sort of run out of steam halfway through. But it's a short record so I never really got bored with it.

If this doesn't really sound like your cup of tea, then by all means stay away. But if you, like me, occasionally seek out music that stirs your bowels as much as it does your heart, then you might want to give it a listen.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Book Review: "A Song of Ice and Fire" by George R.R. Martin

The Kingslayer

I have very much the same defensive angry nerd reaction to fantasy as I do towards science fiction. When a friend or someone else I respect recommends that I read something ("A Song of Ice and Fire") or watch something ("Battlestar Galactica," "Firefly," etc.) that falls into either one of these two genres, my back immediately gets all up in a fighting stance. What do you mean, I'll like it? I'm not THAT guy. Why would you think that? I mean, sure, I had a mullet in high school and I was in the marching band and I didn't go to any of the school dances and I played Dungeons and Dragons for way longer than I'm comfortable admitting...but really? "Battlestar Galactica"? Come on! My favorite movie is "Apocalypse Now." I rocked so hard at death metal concerts in college that this one time I needed surgery afterwards! I used to have a mohawk, for fuck's sake! I shoot guns sometimes! I interviewed the drummer from Slipknot! I hung out on the guy from Coal Chamber's tour bus! "Firefly"? Whatever. You might as well suggest I should dive into the "Star Trek: Voyager" DVD set. No fucking way. I'm not gonna watch some bullshit about spaceships and robots, and I sure as shit am not gonna read some nerdy crap about swords and princesses and dragons and whatever else. Give me a good gangster movie any day of the week. The mullet is long gone. I haven't played a video game in years. I've had hot girlfriends. My ears are pierced. So no WAY I'm that guy!

I say all this to explain how it is that I've finally come to the sad realization that I really, REALLY need to get over myself.

Over and over again I've found myself having to eat crow once I actually do sit down and watch or read one of these things. I finally gave "Firefly" a shot last year. Brilliant. "Battlestar Galactica"? One of my favorite shows of all time.

This whole "Game of Thrones" phenomenon seemed way beyond me for the longest time. I'd been told of it ("really, Scotty, you'll like it..."), but I'd managed to pretty much avoid the whole thing. And then HBO had to go and make a show. And all the critics had to go and rave about it. And all the sudden everyone had to tell me, again, how brilliant the books are. How gritty and dark and real. Seriously, Scotty, you'll like it.


I watched a YouTube teaser trailer for the first season of "Game of Thrones" with deep suspicion. This sure looks like bullshit nerdboy fantasy to me, I thought. Why is that blonde chick wearing furs? Oh crap, that's the dude from "Lord of the Rings". Jeez, now they're sword fighting. That other chick sure looks like a princess. I don't know...

But the critics kept raving, and the friends kept recommending. But read the books first they said.

Damnit, so now this is going to have to be a commitment.


Finally, back around the end of November, pretty much on a whim I decided to download "Game of Thrones" as an audio book. Thirty-three hours, it was. I could listen to it, an hour a day, at the gym. At the GYM. That's not too dorky, right? And if I don't like it I can just delete it from my iPod and pretend this sorry mummer's farce never happened.

If you're in the know, you can probably guess from that last sentence how things turned out.

I cruised through "Game of Thrones" in about a week. The whole "hour at the gym" thing fell apart when I then found myself driving around in circles for another five ("just one more chapter...") When I finished I had an actual panic attack that I hadn't yet purchased "A Clash of Kings." It took about a half-hour to download from Audible. Unacceptable. It was three in the morning, so I actually sat there and stared at the little spinny icon thing on my computer until it finished. And then, at 3:30 a.m., I put on my headphones and started right up again.

It's about two months later, and I'm about a third of the way through "A Dance With Dragons." I almost feel like I'm emerging from some sort of solitary confinement, all haggard and bleary eyed and grateful for human contact (sort of like Reek emerging from Ramsey Bolton's dungeon...). I've had countless dreams about being on The Wall with Jon Snow and facing off against the Wights on the Fist of the First Men with Samwell Tarly, as well as several fairly embarrassing ones about Danaerys Targaryan and one really horrible one in which I was consumed by Wildfire while Varys the Eunuch stood by and laughed. When people talk to me in regular American accents, I don't quite know how to respond. I haven't even touched the HBO show yet. I'm actually a little terrified to watch it. If they screw it up, I might cry.

This is maybe my favorite series of books ever.

What Martin manages to do with "A Song of Ice and Fire" is what all good fantasy should do, but what most that I've tried to read (which, admittedly, is not all that much since I got bored with the "Dragonlance" books in elementary school) don't: immerse the reader in a whole-world experience that, over time, begins to feel more real than his or her own. I feel -- between the books themselves and all the extra hours wasted on A Wiki of Ice and Fire filling in the blanks -- that I probably know at least as much about the history and mythologies of Westeros and the lands of the East as I do about the Greeks, Romans, medieval Brits, etc. I can close my eyes and picture the geography of the Seven Kingdoms as clearly as I can that of North America.

But Martin goes much further than just that. Everything you've heard about how gritty and morally ambiguous these books are is absolutely true. My biggest problem with fantasy (and science fiction) are always the stock characters and the emphasis on high romance and heroics (I know, I know, I'm painting with too a broad brush and forgetting everything from "Blade Runner" to "Beowulf." I get it. Settle down). There's none of that here. Instead, we're given a world so rich as to be almost overpowering, rooted in the darkest sort of reality and populated with characters who either can't distinguish between right and wrong or who simply don't give a shit.

This is what I captured my grim cynic's heart about "Battlestar Galactica" when I finally sat down to watch it. Martin does it even better, and with an ear for dialogue and an eye for truly excruciating detail that the writer in me can only admire with awe and envy.

The story is so incredibly dense that I'm not even going to try to summarize it. I'll also do my best to avoid major spoilers, but if you haven't read the books or watched the series, beware.

Here are a few of my thoughts on each book:

1. "A Game of Thrones" (1996)

Oh, Dany...

The first book is one of the shortest and probably overall the simplest of the series. Even so, it's pretty sprawling. We're introduced to so many characters that, at times, I felt a little shell shocked (and, as I learned later, we only meet about half of the people who are going to matter here).

The book grabbed me from the prologue, where we see our first Other, and Chapter One, where we meet Bran and get to know the Starks of Winterfell. Right away, I could tell this wasn't exactly fantasy fiction the way I've come to understand it. Sure, there are swords and Knights and Lords, but it reads more like historical fiction crossed with a good James M. Cain novel or Dashiell Hammett murder mystery. The sense of dread that Martin builds is as powerful and ominous as in any respectable horror story.

This is fantasy by way of film noir. Heroes don't really exist in Martin's world ... but villains do. We come to love Eddard Stark and his unbending sense of honor, but about halfway through the book we want to slap him upside the head for his confounding obtuseness. Everyone else falls somewhere in the middle...except for Cersei and Jaimie Lannister, of course. Holy God. Are there any two characters more vile in the history of English letters? I can't think of them.

And then, of course, there's Tyrion. How can you not love Tyrion?

Defining moment: What Cersei made Eddard do to Lady. If I ever wished I could actually murder a fictional character, it was her in that moment.

2. "A Clash of Kings" (1999)

After the genuinely shocking conclusion to "A Game of Thrones," Martin takes us through the fallout in "Clash" at a leisurely (some might say grueling) pace. His War of the Five Kings very clearly shows how rooted his imagination is in actual medieval history rather than Gary Gygax-esque mysticism. I felt like I was experiencing, in real time, the Wars of the Roses that tore England apart. So far, there's still very little beyond the setting that is in any way fantastical. The dragons have barely been touched upon, and the Wights are still a complete and utter mystery. We have Bran's visions, but it's too early to tell what any of it means.

What I loved about this book is how deftly Martin sets up and then follows through with all the labyrinthine political and military conflicts. Everything that transpires -- from the North's rebellion, the courtship of Highgarden, to the invasion of the Iron Men -- feels completely logical and utterly true. Nothing is simple, allegiances aren't what they seem, and as the war progresses we begin to comprehend the full scope, horror and devastation of this sort of conflict. There is nothing heroic or romantic about any of it.

It's in this book where Tyrion really starts to come into focus as a character. The story of his first wife, Tysha, is heartbreaking, but it's not until we meet his father, Tywin, and see the two interact that we really start to understand the demons that drive the little man. But he's unquestionably a genius, of the most diabolical (and still lovable) sort. What he did with the Chain and the much as I hated myself for it, I couldn't help but cheer.

Martin also very deftly dives into the gender roles of the day through his depictions of what happens to Arya Stark and her sister Sansa. Arya can only survive by pretending to be a boy, and Sansa is punished every day for being a girl. The abuse Sansa suffers at the hands of the Lannisters is nauseating. If I hated Cersei in the first book, I really hated Joffrey in this one. But the way Arya consistently gets the better of those who underestimate her is, by contrast, exhilarating. She's the most badass little 10-year-old in all of fiction, as far as I'm concerned.

At this point, I found the chapters focusing on Jon (on the Wall) and Dany (far in the East) as frustrating as they were entertaining. They're both interesting stories in their own right, but I got so wrapped up in the War for the Iron Throne that every time we cut away to either of them I was tempted to just skip that chapter and get back to Westeros.

Defining moment: what happens to Winterfell.

3. "A Storm of Swords" (2000)

Long as it is, in some ways "A Storm of Swords" feels less like a book in its own right and more the very extended conclusion to "Clash". When we pick things up, not a whole lot has changed for our major characters (save for Bran and Rickon). Jon's still on The Wall. Dany's still in the East. Sansa's still in the clutches of the Lannisters. Arya's still wandering the Riverlands, trying to find her way back home. And Robb, Catelyn, Stannis, and the Iron Men are still waging their bloody war against King Joffrey.

The most interesting -- and, to be honest, genius -- twist that Martin gives us is to finally introduce Jaime as a POV character. We've come to revile both him and Cersei over the course of the previous two books. Now, we get to see the world through Jaime's eyes. And suddenly things become much more complicated.

There's not too much I want to say about this book (in many ways, it's my favorite) because there's little I can say without giving anything precious away. It's by far the darkest of the series (and that's really saying something). What I will say is this:

1) Brienne of Tarth is a badass. And I really want to give her a hug.
2) We finally start to get a sense of how Dany and Jon's stories are going to relate to the larger drama.
3) The Red Wedding. Fuck me...
4) I kind of like Little Finger, despite myself.
5) Tyrion rules.

Beyond that, suffice it to say that, if this is in any way similar to the way the Wars of the Roses played out, I thank the Seven that I wasn't born until a millennia later.

Defining moment: The Red Wedding. Fucking hell. I haven't experienced anything near that upsetting since I read "American Psycho" while delerious with pneumonia.

4. "A Feast For Crows" (2005)

To understand why this book is so weird, you need to know a little about its publishing history. Originally, "Feast" and "A Dance With Dragons" were meant to be one book. The manuscript was so long that Martin's publisher insisted he divide it into two books. Instead of making the obvious choice of simply cutting it in half, he decided to separate them by character and location and then extensively rewrite both (this also lead to the long publishing delay that made so many of his fans howl with rage, apparently).

I understand why he did it the way he did, but unfortunately the result is that "Feast" is probably the weakest of the series. It's still good, but most of the characters we've come to really care about are either dead or are off somewhere out of sight, barely mentioned. Instead of Jon, Davos, Cat, Bran, and Tyrion, we're given Cersei, Jaimie, and Brienne as our main POV characters, with little jaunts off with the Dornish and the Iron Men. We do get a bit of Arya and Sansa, but they're mostly in the background (I'll get back to Arya in a minute).

We're mostly left with the dust settling from the War of the Five Kings. As is the case with most wars, the conclusion isn't nearly as satisfying as we might have wished. That's okay, because what Martin sacrifices in heroics and epic valor, he more than makes up in some truly chilling psychological realism.

After four books, we finally get to peak inside the head of Cersei. Whereas Jaimie becomes more sympathetic the more we get to know him, Cersei grows -- if possible -- even more vile. But she stops being evil for the sake of being evil. What Martin gives us is a truly unsettling look into the mind of an utterly damaged sociopath. Even scarier, we start to comprehend the cruel and twisted logic she uses to justify her increasingly horrifying actions. Cersei is someone who simply cannot exist without an enemy. Even when there are none to be found, she has to create them. And there's more than a little "Mommy Dearest" to her relationship with Tommen. To say any more would be to spoil some truly bone-chilling stuff.

For the first time, Arya's story feels a little superfluous. I'm not sure where Martin is going with this, but to be honest it's straining credibility. Again, I don't want to say much more.

I'm also not sure about the Lady Stoneheart subplot. It's interesting, but I have to admit that at this point it it feels like Martin's reaching. We'll see.

Try as I might, I just can't seem to care about what's going on in Dorne. I know it's going to be important, but we're four books in and it just feels too late for Martin to introduce this whole new culture and host of characters, particularly at the expense of the ones we're waiting to come back.

Defining moment: Cersei burning the Tower of the Hand.

5. "A Dance With Dragons" (2011)

I'm only about a third of the way through this one, so I don't have too much to say about it yet. So far, at least, it seems to be an improvement over "Feast." I'm glad to be back with Tyrion, Bran, Jon and Dany -- particularly now that Jon and Dany's stories finally feel intrinsically tied to the whole story.

Defining moment (so far): Tyrion's plunge into the Rhoyne while battling the Stone Man. Or maybe Bran's first meeting with the Three Eyed Crow.

Can I just take a moment to bitch about the audio books? The first three were fantastic. But apparently there was a change in publishers, and even though they brought narrator Roy Dotrice (an English actor) back they've completely changed the pronunciation of names (Petyr Baelish and Catelyn Stark, most eggregiously) and the character voices. Arya and Dany now talk like withered old crones. Mellisandre sounds like Corky from "Life Goes On." The worst is Petyr. Dotrice had previously given him the silkiest, sleaziest drawl, barely above a whisper. Now he talks with Tywin Lannister's bluster.

WTF Random House?!? Why make these changes? Are you just trying to put your own stamp on the books? Then sack up and get a different narrator altogether. At least then the new voices would make sense.