Tag Archives: history

World Without End

As promised, as soon as I finished “The Pillars of the Earth,” I requested the stand-alone sequel at my library: “World Without End.” Three weeks later, I had it in my hands.

Follett published this book 18 years after the publication of “Pillars”–and I am so glad he chose to write a sequel. And that the sequel is 1,014 pages long. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I invest emotionally in what I read, so the longer it goes on, the better. If a story is over after a brief 200 pages, I feel like I have been from the womb untimely ripped. Like my relationship with that book didn’t have time to fully mature before I was torn away from it. You get the idea, quoth I.

I loved this book. The same disclaimer still applies (rape and pillage, and the occasional gratuitous violent hunting scene or punishment-of-a-thief description)–but overall it was extremely enjoyable reading. I knew what to expect of the writing style, which helped me get into this book faster: it’s an exciting narrative peppered with interesting historical tidbits, the plot is always on the move, and Follett spares us no measure of suspense, drama, and action. I’m not surprised that before plunging into historical fiction, he wrote spy thrillers. The writing won’t earn him a Pulitzer, but it’s top notch popular fiction.

The story takes place in the 1300s in the town of Kingsbridge, in the same location and two hundred years after his first novel. Many of the characters are descendants of the original cast from “Pillars.” At first, it seemed to me like the characters were very similar in occupation and persona to the ones in “Pillars”–the smart businesswoman who has a frustrated romance with a talented and innovative builder, the corrupt lord who rules by fear and tries to become the Earl of Shiring, the scheming monk who wants to become a bishop and uses his powers for evil, etc.–however, there are enough variations on their bare bones characteristics to eventually make their personalities distinct. Also, it’s not like there were a million occupations to choose from in those times–no web developers or massage therapists or corporate cubicle jobs. The way I see it, your basic choices are:

1) Nobility (king, lords, earls, knights)

2) Church (monks, priests, nuns, bishops)

3) Peasants (tenants, laborers or serfs)

4) Merchants/craftsmen (builders, masons, wool traders, innkeepers, etc.)

5) Outlaws

OK, there are a few other categories–let’s not forget the prostitutes, bailiffs, the occasional lawyer, and some other random occupations. But the choices were very limited, and frequently not even choices.

There are unexpected twists in the plot, and I love how Follett doesn’t kill off the main characters I had come to love via the Plague (all together now: “Thank you, Ken!”). I was really nervous about that, but I guess he loves his characters as much as I do and couldn’t bear to just finish them all off. In fact, I was more than a little nervous knowing that the Plague was going to play an important part in the story, since I have no desire to read detailed descriptions about people coughing up blood, getting disgusting lumps under their arms, etc. Well, I’m happy to say that the Plague part wasn’t so bad! As in, he didn’t use it as an excuse to write a series of horrific and elaborate medical passages designed to raise my hackles and give me gooseflesh. Hooray!

It is fascinating to learn about how the political system worked, how justice was administered, how the Church related to the State, and all the minutiae of daily life in the 1300s. Even though Follett doesn’t hide the ugly parts of life in that time, there is enough romance in the air that it almost makes me want to live in the Middle Ages . . . except not, if I really think about it. I mean, the women didn’t wear any underwear, and that would just feel weird. A little too breezy, if you know what I mean. Plus, I like my spice cupboard too much to give it up–I guess only the rich could afford expensive and exotic spices such as ginger or cinnamon. No Dhal Makhani or Pad See Ew were being made in England back in those days, which would cause me to rip my own hair out and immediately abort my time traveling project.

One thing that impressed me is that the Middle Ages are just so dang long! Follett could write a third book taking place 200 years later and still be in the Middle Ages! Any history buffs who can tell me when the Renaissance took over? . . . and then I remembered I’m currently on something called the ‘internet,’ which houses a site called ‘Wikipedia.’

Oh, the things I forget sometimes.

Looks like in England the start of the Renaissance is dated by the beginning of the Elizabethan Era, in 1558. So Mr. Follett, how about a 3rd book?

You haven’t heard the last of these books, by gum–my next project might be watching the miniseries and reviewing that. Has anyone seen it? Thumbs up or thumbs down? By the end of this you’ll have Follett coming out of your ears–that’s the plan.

Dinosaurs, pillage, and ping pong tables

I was going to call this post “What I’ve been reading,” however that sounded sooooo boring that not even I wanted to read it. But yes, you have stumbled on a book review–and not just that, but a multi-book review with possibly the longest introduction/disclaimer/amendment known to mankind. I promise dinosaurs, pillage, and ping pong all come into it . . . kind of.

When I was a young thing, my family watched “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” There is a scene in the movie during which the villain gets flattened by a steamroller, but then peels himself off the floor, picks himself up and keeps going. I found this scene disturbing and terrifying, to say the least. I was afraid to go down the dark hallway to the bathroom by myself, I was afraid to go to bed, I was afraid both to open and to close my eyes as I lay in bed; this image tortured me for days and days. Images are powerful, whether they come to you via books, music, movies, or any other medium. My Mom told me once “Be careful what you put into your mind. Because once it’s in there, it’s there forever.” I have always taken that very seriously, and that is why I never watch slasher or horror films, never saw “The Shining” or “The Exorcist,” and try to be careful with what I read.

I’m a little more careful than some because I’ve always had an imagination that tends to run wild. I’ll give you an example–when the movie Jurassic Park came out, I was about 9 or 10 years old. We didn’t even see the movie, but just having seen the posters of dinosaurs and understanding the basic storyline of the movie haunted me. While we were staying at someone’s house during a summer trip to the States, I totally freaked myself out: right outside the window in my bedroom there was a huge mass of trees, which I interpreted as a Jurassic jungle. On the ceiling there was a smoke detector that blinked red from time to time, and which I convinced myself was a red dinosaur eye. I kept picturing gigantic velociraptors crashing through the window. Or worse–hearing their talons on the floor because they were already in the room with me. Needless to say, I got little sleep that night.

And that brings us to sex. And books. Sex in books. It presents a problem for me–I don’t like reading about it! Especially if I feel the author is being gratuitous and trying to rile up the reader–I can’t stand that. It kind of disgusts me, to be honest. For me, it can ruin a book that I might have otherwise loved, like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, which I had to stop reading despite it’s extremely engaging plot and excellent writing style.

Can’t you just see a prim librarian face saying in haughty tones: “It offended my sensibilities”?

I’m sorry that I just sported a prim librarian face–I’ll try to keep that to a minimum.

To me, sex is a wonderful and precious part of marriage that I hold in very high esteem. I mean heck, I’d been looking forward to it since I was 16, and I distinctly remember praying the same prayer that many a young Christian virgin has uttered: “God, I really want you to come back and take us to heaven . . . but do you think you could wait until I get married so that I can have sex?”

Hey, just keepin’ it real around here (though I’ve probably just scandalized the socks off some innocent bystander–sorry, Innocent Bystander). And yes, it’s a good time, but it’s also pure and beautiful and something to be treasured. So the point of this whole rambling paragraph is: I don’t like reading books that violate what I consider to be its sacred nature.

I’m getting to the point, don’t worry–no more sermonizing: I’ve recently read two excellent books that I would have recommended to you all immediately–if it weren’t for the sex! Both include some rape as well; it’s very hard for me to read about rape and I don’t want to recommend books that will be a dark spot in any of my readers’ hearts or minds. However, I also didn’t want to hide the fact that I read and enjoyed these books. As an English major and consummate reader (I always carry a book with me, wherever I go), I love talking about what I’m reading, and sharing what I think about the plot, characters, and writing style. I struggled for weeks with whether or not to post about these books on my blog. Finally, I asked for a college friend’s advice, and she recommended that I simply write a disclaimer. So I breathed a sigh or relief, and realized that I could write exactly what I thought (misgivings and all) as honestly as possible, leaving it to the reader to choose whether or not to pick up the books. And honest writing is at the heart of good blogging, I think.

So with that GIGANTIC explanation (hello? hello? anyone still with me?), here goes!

The Pillars of the Earth

I really enjoyed this book . . . but I have to warn you with two key words: rape and pillage. Rape and pillage.

I mean, it’s the Middle Ages in England, so what can you expect?

It’s popular writing–good, very readable, though not at the Nobel prize-winning level. But, I would argue, it’s popular writing at its best. There is depth, there is history, there is character development. This is not a shoot-’em-up thriller that flies by and that you forget about 2 days later–this book will make an impression that stays with you.

The novel spans about 50 years of history (from the Prologue set in 1123 to the final chapter set in 1174 or thereabouts) with the building of a cathedral as the central event around which many characters come in and out of the story. I loved learning about medieval society and was particularly impressed with the cruelty of the age–the ruthlessness of the outlaws who ran the forest, the harsh punishment imposed by villages on thieves and other offenders of the law (severed limbs, stonings, hangings, etc.), the helplessness of women, the near impossibility of surviving as an outcast from society, the traveling craftsmen who depended on finding work as they went from town to town to fend off starvation.

There is such a rich variety of characters that cross the almost 1,000 pages: Phillip the prior of Kingsbridge who oversees the financing and building of the cathedral, all while combating the private interests of his bishop, surrounding noblemen, and the monarchs who rotate through the throneroom via seemingly constant warring. Tom, the master builder whose lifelong dream it is to design and build a cathedral. Tom’s wife, who is considered by many to be a witch and lived in the forest alone with her son for 10 years. The noblewoman Aliena, who lost everything when her father plotted against the king, but starts a successful wool business to finance her brother on his way to reclaiming the earldom. There is the Villain (capital-V!) William Hamleigh, who is responsible for much of the rape and pillage. When he shows up, there are inevitably evil doings afoot.

It’s pretty easy to identify when something really bad is about to happen and skim over it. There are many scenes that are definitely gratuitous–when William goes to a whorehouse, for example, it was a little too much to take and warranted a quick skipping of multiple pages. But there is also a richness to the plot, the history, the architectural descriptions, and the different personalities, that made it worthwhile for me anyway. I have good memories associated with this book–it hasn’t ‘come back to haunt me’ so to speak. Plus, there is so much detail about the cathedral worksite and how this marvelous building came together that I’m now fairly confident that if someone were to commission me to quarry my own stone and build a cathedral pronto, I would be fully capabale.

The medley of characters, the grandiose story of the cathedral’s construction, the cross-segment of medieval society–it all combined into a fast-paced, emotional read for me. I was crushed when it ended, just as I am after any great novel that catches me up in its living, breathing world.

I have already requested the stand-alone sequel, “World Without End” at my library; it takes place in the same town of Kingsbridge two centuries later, in the 1300s. I think that’s when the Plague happened. I’m excited to read it–and scared. The Plague was a nasty piece of work, and I anticipate a lot of skimming when pus and boils are involved. Ew.

The Corrections

I picked this book up because Time magazine said that its author, Jonathan Franzen, was one of the great American novelists of our time. The book is fantastic. The level of writing, the naturaleness of the dialogue, and the author’s incredible ability to bring you into each character so that you feel that you are seeing through their eyes and feeling with their heart made this a worthwhile read for me.

The book follows a family of characters: Enid and Alfred who are now in their mid-seventies, and their three children Chip, Gary, and Denise. In turn, we learn about each of their life stories. The stories about Chip and Denise are rather full of sex, and were my least favorite parts. However, I loved the peek into Gary’s family life, and the whole backstory of Enid and Alfred (how they met, got married, etc.). I felt like I recognized Enid and Alfred, and I am almost positive I have actually been to their house, with their big blue recliner, the ping pong table in the basement that for years has just been a place to pile up junk, the stacks of ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazines around the house–I’ve seen it before.

Franzen gets inside the mind of Alfred as he succumbs to Parkinson’s disease and a dementia that slowly takes over his engineer’s mind. I have never read such a masterful portrayal of dementia–you get to see Alfred’s actions from the perspective of his wife and kids (bizarre behavior, random sentences, etc.), but then Franzen spins you inside Alfred’s head, where you can see the train the dementia is following in its strange, almost logical fashion.

You hate and love the characters. You despise them and also respect them. You feel sorry for them but then get angry at their shortcomings–in short, you feel towards them as you would towards a real human being in all his or her complexity.

This book has won the National Book Award, was voted the best book of the decade, and was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English language novels.

And now let us beat a dead horse. Here are your three options:

Option #1: If sex in books doesn’t bother you and you don’t consider it harmful, these books are great. Read ’em!

Option #2: Read the books but skim and/or skip the sex. That was my preferred option. I also chose to skim over (ok, I outright skipped it) a description of a medieval ‘bear versus dog’ fight in “The Pillars . . .” that went on for 3 pages. I didn’t want to read about blood and guts, no sirree, or a pack of dogs slowly tearing apart this poor furry animal.

Option #3: Don’t read them! Continue on your merry way and read some books like Peace Like A River or The Help, which I both highly recommend with no disclaimers.

So read them! Or don’t read them! Amen!