Friday, April 18, 2008

My Pillars/World Without End critique.

Clearly, I'm not literary critic. To my credit, I did pass AP English senior year of high school, but to my DIScredit, I don't remember actually reading cover to cover many of the books we were assigned that year. I know I read Animal Farm, Metamorphosis, and maybe one other. Truthfully, though, most of the books put me to sleep or I just had so much going on between sports and choir and church, there wasn't enough time left for reading. At least that is how I justified my inattentiveness at the time.

Fast forward to thirteen years after high school graduation. In the last year or two I've read every John Steinbeck book I can get my hands on (although I didn't make it through Tortilla Flats). Anything by Jane Austin reels me in and leaves my family without a mother/wife for a few days until I can devour the book. And, then, there are the books on food politics that I can't put down. Until recently, that is. My mom gave Scott Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett a few months ago and I paused my political reading in favor of Pillars shortly after Scott finished it. It's set in the middle ages (the 1100's) in England and revolves around a few individuals and their families whose lives are intertwined through a series of tragedies and other events. I read it while we were in Mexico for spring break and got through all thousand or so pages in about five days. It was that good. Soon after we got home, Scott picked up the sequel to Pillars, which is called World Without End. Similar to Pillars, World Without End is set in England in the 1300's and follows the descendants of the families from Pillars through their new trials (like new taxes by the king, feudal politics, and the plague). It was another very long but fast read -- I read it in about a week and a half, mostly in the dry bathtub of the hotel room where we stayed last weekend while skiing at Winter Park. What else is there to do when you're staying in one room with two little kids who are supposed to go to bed at eight o'clock? I found the dry bathtub to be a great place to read...with a pillow behind me and towel under me.

Part of what drew me into these two books was a fascination with how people lived in the middle ages. I had never really understood how feudalism worked, with the serfs, peasants, knights, earls, and lords, not to mention the involvement of the Catholic church who (it seems) pretty much ran all of Europe in those days. The action in both books was non-stop and the foreshadowing, though sometimes overkill, made you want to know what was going to happen next. As I read it, I kept offering Scott my predictions on what would happen next. Since he'd already read both books, I was hoping for some clues. Sometimes my predictions were wrong, but most of the time I was right. There were, of course, a few things I should have been able to predict but didn't think of.

Here's what I didn't like about the books. Althought I wasn't offended by it, I didn't love the violence in the book. Clearly, violence existed in the middle ages and it was terrifying and rampant. Reading about it, including all the gory details, was not easy. It did make the book more exciting, I have to say. I also wasn't a big fan of the author's obsession with the female anatomy. His descriptions made me uncomfortable and, at times, seemed unnecessarily detailed. But, like the violence I expect that the inclusion of such details is part of what kept the book moving so fast.

One thing that bugged me throughout World Without End was the difference in some of the details from Pillars. In Pillars, there was not one mention of or hint at homosexuality in the church...something I didn't notice as missing until I read World where, by a third of the way through the book, I'd counted at least five references to homosexuality or homosexual acts between monks or nuns in the church. At that point I quit counting. One reference was all I really needed to be reminded that it happened then, too, but Follett didn't let us off the hook that easily. Another thing that was different was that there were no references to horsebread. In Pillars it seemed that horsebread and watery ale was all the peasants every got to eat. In World there was not one mention of horsebread, although I would think that in the 1500's they were still eating horsebread because they were still growing the same crops it took to make horsebread: wheat, oats, barley, rye, and beans, and none of the rest of their diet seemed to change (cold mutton, salt fish...ick). I realize such an omission is a pretty lame thing to complain about, but I notice details.

Here's what I liked most about the books. I loved the power attributed to women in both books. Although the women were clearly second to men and meant to be controlled by men, Follett gives the leading female characters in both books intelligence, creativity, determination, common sense, business sense, and strength. It's such a strange juxtaposition to read details of women being raped, but also see female ingenuity saving the local economy or even saving the local population from the plague. It's inspiring to read how the leading females take their setbacks in stride and make something of themselves, against all odds. There were a few men in both books worthy of such women, but most of the men were (maybe predictably?) power hungry and not all that bright.

I don't know that I would recommend both of these Follett books, considering how raw and detailed they are, but I can say that they are fast moving and intriguing. Once you start reading one of them, clear your schedule. It might be hard to put down.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good discussion of Follett`s Pillars and World. I Googled Horsebread and it was a real education. I concur with the discussion of these extremely fine books and they were hard to put down. Glad I didn`t have to live during those times-makes you satisfied with `what yo got`, almost.
Charcot

Hillary Dickman said...

Yeah, Follett's intimate view of life during the Middle Ages definitely reminds us of what a breeze life is today. I also Googled horsebread, looking for an actual recipe to try to recreate what the characters in Pillars were eating. Couldn't really find much, although I think it's probably similar to Ezekial bread.

alice said...

i know i'm way late on this, but i found you through a very random google search, hah.

your review sort of clarified something for me. i think that these books should be a required reading for anyone who visits renaissance faires or participates in the SCA. we've all done so much to romanticize and commercialize that time... but i think follet does a fantastic job of dashing those dreams ;)

don't get me wrong, it's still a lot of fun to play at 'medieval faire day' and dress up and all that, but it's good to keep the reminder of how harsh their lives really were in a little corner of our minds.

btw, i think you'd really enjoy sara douglass's "crucible" series. same (ish) time period, same gripping drama, slightly less vivid violence and 'anatomical discussion'... with a dash of fantasy.

Hillary Dickman said...

Hi, Alice! Thanks for the book suggestions. I'll have to make a trip to the library...

namakemono said...

Hi. Found this post by googling for "horsebread" - I love Pillars of the Earth (picked it up by chance in an airport to read on a long flight - which didn`t feel so long with that book!), and have always wondered what horsebread was like - I am looking for a picture or recipe, but no luck so far. I didn`t realise there was a sequel to Pillars - thanks for "telling"me lol.

namakemono said...

oo, oo, ooh - another of my favorite books is on your recent reads list! Animal, vegetable, mineral!! So now I am going to try some of the others on your list, if that`s ok (^-^)

Anonymous said...

I just finished World Without End. It was based on the time period of 1327-1361, not the 1500's. I read Pillars last year, and I gave away my copy, but I believe that time period was the 1100's??
I loved both books.

Hillary Dickman said...

Oh, yep. You're right. I didn't have the books in front of me when I wrote the critique and I must have gotten them mixed up. I'll fix that. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Small correction: There is at least one reference to homosexuality in the church in Pillars. Just before Ellen is kicked out of Kingsbridge, she goes on a rant about the monks buggering each other after hours...

Vanessa said...

Sub prior Remigius was also a homosexual, he was sent to the Kingsbridge Priory as collateral for keeping Waleran's secret. That was so Remigius wouldn't be hanged, I believe.