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