Oh Sean Bean, we hardly knew thee.
I never read fantasy; I'm pretty much a literary snob. The last couple of years, I've read almost entirely heady stuff by renowned authors such as David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Julio Cortazar, and Haruki Murakami. Congrats to me, right? It's not that I look down upon anybody who reads pop fiction; it's more that pop fiction rarely concerns itself with anything besides the machinations of plot, and as a reader, I'm interested in authors who deal with life. "Fiction is about what it means to be a human being," said David Foster Wallace, and his quote essentially sums up why I read what I read.
All that aside, my wife got me to read A Game of Thrones, and I found it both entertaining and addictive. George R.R. Martin has that pop quality to his writing that makes it hard to not turn the page, an ability that is lacking in a lot of literary fiction. There are supernatural elements, such as dragons and magic, but the book is focused on the struggle for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, and is in essence a political thriller rather than an escapist jaunt through a land of swords and sorcery. The universe itself is, like all high fantasy, reminiscent of Tolkien, but unlike Middle-Earth, you get the sense that good will not necessarily triumph over evil. The bad guys aren't all bad--Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf, is the best character--and the books ends by killing off the noblest character (which pretty much everybody knows by now). This work, however, is overly long, and it's only the first book in an unfinished five volume series. And I wonder how much satisfaction readers of the series will have if the saga is ever completed. Martin likes to kill his characters, and the eventual crisis that will resolve the story is telegraphed (the Others, a race of supernatural beings only hinted at, will certainly invade Westeros and drag everyone away from fighting over the Iron Thrones), so you have to consider why Martin has dragged out his tale over so many gigantic books. I have no problem with enormous books (Infinite Jest is one of my favorites), but if you're going to write one, make sure you have something important to say. I'm not sure if the material warrants its enormous scope.
Straight Man is the story of William Henry Devereaux Jr., a middle-aged professor in a small Pennsylvanian town. It's a pretty hilarious novel--Henry threatens to execute a goose every day until he gets the English Department budget--centering around Devereaux's various mid-life problems. His colleagues bicker among themselves, his daughter's marriage is in trouble, and he finds himself attracted to three women, only one of whom is his wife. Among these issues, Devereaux has to deal with the return of his estranged father, a looming budgetary crisis, and his inability to urinate. Somehow, Russo resolves all these plot threads in a satisfactory manner. Henry is a funny narrator who is easy to empathize with, which is quite a feat, considering how mid-life crisis stories tend to be depressing. This is a book about coming to terms with one's circumstances, and in its own way, it's fairly uplifting. Russo was an English professor, so you have to wonder how much here is totally fabricated. All in all, a good book and an easy read.