The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follet, 1989) is a novel about the building of a cathedral in the 12th century in England. The author uses this physicalThe Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follet, 1989) is a novel about the building of a cathedral in the 12th century in England. The author uses this physical structure to center the novel's diverse characters, who include artisans, peasants, priests, monks, bishops, landowners, lords, and others. I appreciated this strategy for how it allowed Follet to write a story set in the 12th century with such a wide-ranging perspective. Without something like building a cathedral, most of those kinds of characters wouldn't have moved in the same spheres, and thus the story would have been solely about monks, peasants, or lords.
The story is set in a fictional town, but takes place during the Anarchy, the period in English history between the death of the King Henry I's only legitimate son and the murder of Thomas Becket. The events in English monarchical history come into occasional contact with the events and characters in the novel, eventually proving to be the major point on which the novel turns.
The novel is full of details about life in 12th century Europe, which I loved. Last year I read A Distant Mirror (a non-fiction account of life in 14th century Europe), and the parts I enjoyed the most were the details about life: what people ate, what they wore, their holidays, etc. Anyway, The Pillars of the Earth seems to be very well-researched in its attention to details in the lives of monks, peasants, and lords.
The intertwined stories were also fun to read: love stories, tragedy, palace intrigue, mysteries, and revenge are all present. This novel is long, but it was a fast read. In fact, I couldn't put it down. I was really drawn in by the humanity in the stories that revolved around the building of this cathedral.
The author conceived of this book as being primarily about cathedral-building, and some of the book's most vivid details are about architecture and building strategies. In fact, one of the characters travels to continental Europe and experiencing a life-changing revelation when he sees the innovations in cathedral architecture in France.
I admit, though, that some of the architectural details got a little beyond me, and I skimmed some of those sections. One of the main characters, the cathedral builder, waxes poetic in his love of architectural design, and the descriptions of the various cathedrals in the book go a little over my head. But I did appreciate them as a way to build the characters.
There was a lot of violence in this book, reflective of life at that time, I'm sure. The main bad guy just seems to hang around forever, since the book spans a lot of time. The bad guy goes from being a bad teenage boy, to a really bad man, to a tired but still bad old man. And he's still the bad guy. This thread in the book was kind of exhausting because his threat was constant throughout the book. He harasses the other characters throughout the long, long novel, and sometimes I wanted to just clip him out of the story. Just because I was sick of him cropping up. But I digress. The violence was pretty graphic and kind of disturbing: the depiction of a rape really stuck with me, which I didn't really want.
Overall, though, this was a really engaging novel, especially if you have any interest in European history or architecture.
Recommended if you have lots of time!
[I did watch the first disc in the TV miniseries adaptation of this novel. I enjoyed the actors and the production seemed to be good, but having just read the book, I couldn't handle the elimination of so many details. Perhaps if I watched it again later, I could appreciate the TV series as a stand-alone item, without constantly saying to myself, "Well, that's not how it was in the book!"]...more
I've always meant to read something by Graham Greene, and I saw the 2002 movie adaptation of this book, so I thought I'd read it, though I barely remeI've always meant to read something by Graham Greene, and I saw the 2002 movie adaptation of this book, so I thought I'd read it, though I barely remember the film. The Quiet American, published in 1955, was condemned in the US as anti-American, as you can imagine, since the story deals with the earliest meddling of the United States in Vietnam.
The main character and narrator is Fowler, a jaded and cynical British journalist who has lived in Vietnam for quite some time. Pyle, the young, idealistic American who arrives at the beginning of the story, pushes most of Fowler's buttons, but they form an uneasy friendship. Uneasy because of their differing political beliefs, but also because Pyle falls immediately in love with Fowler's Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong and is determined to win her for himself.
Others have described how the book is both a story about a love triangle, and at the same time a metaphor for US and UK involvement in southeast Asia. Fowler represents the aging and jaded colonialist UK and Pyle is the idealistic and go-getter USA. Both desire Phuong (Vietnam), but for different reasons. Pyle admits that he sees her as a child and wants to protect her. Fowler's desire for Phuong is more complex, but they each offer something that the other needs. She needs material comforts; Fowler needs her body and her presence.
I really enjoyed reading this book, for both stories. I found it eerie that Greene published this book in 1955, which means he wrote it earlier than that. He managed, however, to predict and foreshadow the disastrous US involvement in Vietnam that didn't openly happen until ten years later.
I also enjoyed Greene's descriptions of his three main characters: Pyle, Fowler, and Phuong. Fowler's quiet resignation, Phuong's complete inscrutability, and Pyle's set-my-teeth-on-edge fervor are all represented in a spare style. This is a very short book, but each word carefully contributes to setting the scene, the characters, and telling the story with as much efficiency as possible.
This novel is about the freshman year in high school of a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian named Arnold Spirit, Junior. He's lived on the Spokane IndiThis novel is about the freshman year in high school of a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian named Arnold Spirit, Junior. He's lived on the Spokane Indian Reservation his whole life, but, after discovering that his freshman geometry book was used by his mother thirty years previously, he has a bit of an awakening. With the encouragement of a teacher, he decides to transfer schools from the reservation school to the white school in a nearby town.
He's seen as an alien by his new classmates and as a traitor by his old ones. Eventually, though, he begins to create a new life for himself, playing basketball and making friends.
One of the blurbs on the book jacket said that it's a rare book that can make you laugh out loud while you're weeping on the inside, but this one does. I'd have to agree and say that this book is hilarious because it's so typically high school. But it's also heart-breaking as Arnold watches his friends and family fall apart from alcohol abuse and poverty.
I really enjoyed this book, and I'll definitely read some of Alexie's other work. Oddly, the only exposure I've had to Alexie has been through his films: he wrote and directed The Business of Fancy Dancing (2002) and wrote the story on which the film Smoke Signals was based (1998). He's a great and fascinating writer, though, so I'll be exploring his work more....more
This book, as the narrator/protagonist says, is a murder mystery. I'd add that this is a touching and charming story of a family, as observed and descThis book, as the narrator/protagonist says, is a murder mystery. I'd add that this is a touching and charming story of a family, as observed and described by a fifteen-year-old autistic boy.
I was afraid that I'd find this narrative device to be contrived or too precious, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself won over by the narrator's attempts to live in his world, when his world is often overwhelming and confusing to him.
When he finds the neighbor's dog dead one night, Christopher is initially accused of killing the dog. Later, when he's exonerated, he sets about solving the mystery himself and, in the process, digs up some more mysteries that end up changing his safe life.
I really enjoyed this book, and found the author's use of the autistic narrator touching and effective. It was a quick read, but definitely worth it....more
I read this because I’d been intending to do so for several years now. I never really knew what it was about, but I had the impression that it was anI read this because I’d been intending to do so for several years now. I never really knew what it was about, but I had the impression that it was an example of literature that had filtered down to the masses, possibly because it won a prominent prize.
My reaction to this book was fairly neutral. Her writing is lovely, luminous, and evocative. Even though I’ve never been to southern India, where the story is set, it almost seemed as though I could picture it, feel it, and smell it.
The story itself is incredibly melancholy: a pair of siblings, twins, reap the consequences of witnessing a family disaster which leaves everyone alone, lonely, and scarred.
The presentation of the story was what I found difficult to accept. First, Roy uses several writing tools that seem kind of overused and trite to me. First, she capitalizes words to call Special Attention to them. Since this book is written from the perspective of the children, perhaps this makes sense, since children tend to attach Special Attention to particular words and actions. I found it a little bit childish, though, since my friends and I use this device constantly in a tongue-in-cheek way.
Second, I found her tendency to combine two words to be irritating. This doesn’t seem to be an example of portmanteau (spork, smog, etc), however, but rather using this device for more descriptive nouns. For example, in one instance the children describe their great-aunt as having “armfat.” I had to suppose that it’s also a device to underline the fact that the story is narrated from a child’s perspective.
Overall, as I said, the writing is lovely and once I got used to the quirks of her language use (and understood their purpose), I accepted them too.
But the final annoyance was the constant jumping back and forth in time, alternating between the present (when the twins are adults) and the past (when they’re children, and when the disaster happened). I’m not always opposed to alternating between past and present, as it’s usually employed with enough haziness that the reader is kept mostly in the dark about the climax of the story. In this case, however, the author’s excessive use of foreshadowing meant that I had figured out the dimensions of the family disaster when I had read only about a third of the book. Then, it was a matter of simply waiting for the impending doom.
Because of this excessive foreshadowing, the event, when it finally happened, wasn’t a traditional “climax,” since I’d been reading snippets about it throughout the entire book, and had guessed its nature in the first part of the book. Perhaps that was another conscious choice on the author's part, but I felt that it made reading the last two-thirds of the book into a bit of a chore. I mean, if I already knew what was going to happen, why keep reading?
I did think it was worth reading, even if it was just to keep up (catch up?) with cultural trends. ...more
I read Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002) in only a few hours. It’s a young adult story, one in the creepy-and-weird, Gothic vein of Edward Gorey.
CoralineI read Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002) in only a few hours. It’s a young adult story, one in the creepy-and-weird, Gothic vein of Edward Gorey.
Coraline is a little girl who, while bored, discovers a locked, clearly magical, passageway out of her parents’ apartment into a weird, opposite world. In this world, she has “other parents,” her neighbors are weird versions of themselves, and nothing is what it seems to be. After escaping from this weird and scary place, however, she learns that her “other mother” has imprisoned her real parents in a strange, magical half-world and it’s up to Coraline to discover how to free them. She has to go back to the “other mother” and make a deal to release her parents.
I loved how Coraline is a smart, funny little girl, but she’s also clearly a little girl, and not some kind of unrealistically grownup version of a little girl, like some literary characters. She’s a little bit childish and she can be irritating and petulant. That made me like her more.
I haven’t seen the movie Coraline (2009), but I can see how Gaiman’s intensely detailed descriptions of the weird, creepy other world could be transferred to a movie screen. I loved how he seemed to revel in describing the deformed, doughy, scary, soulless beings that live in the other world, beings that Coraline has to steel herself to fight and outwit.
I’d definitely want to give this to a young reader, or recommend it to older readers. ...more
Another winner in the summer reading series, this book entranced me with its incredibly evocative descriptions of southern Africa.
The main character,Another winner in the summer reading series, this book entranced me with its incredibly evocative descriptions of southern Africa.
The main character, Precious Ramotswe, opens a detective agency with her inheritance. This first book in the series gives some background on her character and details her first few cases.
I really liked this book; the characters are lively and drawn with such fascinating detail. The landscape is also described so clearly that it almost becomes a character in the book as well. In fact, that is one of the most engaging parts of this book. The role that Africa (and specifically Botswana) plays in this book is both intriguing and beautiful. The author makes the physical setting of the book into a major player in the mysteries that Mma Ramotswe solves.
The main character, too, is complex and fascinating. She's self-assured, but not without her moments of self-doubt.
I'm fascinated with the ability of this author to evoke the sights, sounds, and people of Botswana in just a few words. I was also impressed that this white, male author has so much creative vision that he could draw the black, female main character with such insight and strength. She's not perfect, but she's fascinating. And his descriptions of southern Africa's landscape make me want to visit someday.I look forward to reading the rest of this series. ...more
This book (by Stieg Larsson, 2005) was, after a slightly slow start, the very definition of a page turner. As in, I kept turning pages to the neglectThis book (by Stieg Larsson, 2005) was, after a slightly slow start, the very definition of a page turner. As in, I kept turning pages to the neglect of other important things like eating, sleeping, and going back to work after my break.
I really enjoyed this book, but it’s hard to know exactly how to “review” it here without giving away too much about the story.
It’s a mystery story, so in a nutshell: a disgraced journalist is hired by an aging millionaire to investigate the 1960s disappearance of his niece. And lots of intrigue ensues.
I really appreciated the pacing of the book. As mysteries go, it’s not the kind of mystery that is intended to plant clues for the reader to discover. Rather, it’s a mystery in which the reader is pulled along as the characters uncover the facts.
There are some themes and scenes that are disturbing, to be sure. Some violence, a lot of men who hate women (which was the original title in Swedish, by the way), and one fun scene in which the victim of a sexual assault gets her revenge. That scene, while disturbing, also makes you want to cheer as she exacts her revenge, which involves a taser, handcuffs, some blackmail, and some serious rage. Good for her.
Some of the Swedish names and places made me stumble, because I have no idea how to pronounce Swedish (on a related note, I was listening to The Phantom of the Opera on librivox.org yesterday and I had to skip a couple of chapters because the person reading had NO IDEA how to pronounce some of the French names of characters, and it became incredibly distracting).
I really liked the small touches and details in this story. For example, the main character, Mikael, kills time by reading mysteries. Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, and Agatha Christie, and others popped up occasionally in the story.
I also felt as though I should have had a map of Sweden next to me as I read the book. The characters do a fair amount of traveling around Sweden, and it was only after I finished reading that I hunted down a map. It helped.
Anyway, if you haven’t already read it, I’d definitely recommend it. It’s a good summer read....more
You may have noticed that I’ve slowed down my breakneck pace on this book list. That’s because this selection took a particularly long time to finish.You may have noticed that I’ve slowed down my breakneck pace on this book list. That’s because this selection took a particularly long time to finish.
I dove into the fray of slightly more serious literature with my most recent choice on the summer reading list: Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). This novel, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was touted as more accessible than his One Hundred Years of Solitude, which dabbles in the domain of magical realism. In my summer reading list aims, I had decided I wanted to read more 1) fiction, written by 2) male, and 3) nonwhite authors. So this one seemed like a good choice.
In reading the reviews on amazon.com, I was struck by the resounding enthusiasm for this book; the vast majority of commenters were deeply moved by this love story. Let me begin my own review by saying that I was moved as well–almost moved to the point of not finishing the book. That’s how much I disliked this novel. In fact, if it hadn’t been for my religious adherence to my summer project, I probably wouldn’t have finished.
This novel, after the first chapter*, frustrated me, annoyed me, set my teeth on edge, and made me laugh out loud at some of its more ridiculous excesses. It is, in a nutshell, the most overwrought, affected, maudlin, soppy, and excessively romantic book I have read in years, maybe ever.
The story is fairly simple: weird, maudlin young man doesn’t meet beautiful, strong young woman but falls in love with her anyway (from a distance). Girl and weird young man engage in long courtship via letters, dried flowers, and coy glances. Young woman eventually realizes how weird and soppy young man is, breaking away in one quick blow. Girl marries promising young doctor and is happy. Maudlin, creepy, overwrought young man proceeds to have 600+ affairs, but never marrying and continuing to harbor a creepy obsession for girl. Fifty years later, her husband dies. Creepy old man attends the wake to tell woman that he still loves her. She is justifiably angry and ejects him from the house. After a couple of years’ worth of love letters, while he wears her down and they have their first conversation, and fall in love (albeit a sort of tired, end-of-the-road love). The end. Look, I’ve got no problem with romance. I’ve seen Amelie about a hundred times and I’m always a little teary-eyed when she gets together with her quirky man at the end. And I even saw The English Patient and enjoyed the star-crossed lovers’ ill-fated adventures. Because those two stories have at least a few shreds of HUMOR and HUMANITY (yes, Amelie had lots of humor and humanity). Love in the Time of Cholera, however, couldn’t find a sense of humor with both hands. The characters are just caricatures.
To be fair (and balanced), some of the book’s beauty lies in the descriptions of its setting, theorized to be Cartagena, Colombia (I say theorized because it’s not explicitly identified in the book, but others have deduced this). Marquez’s descriptions of the city and the surrounding countryside are very evocative; you can almost feel the heat and humidity. I also enjoyed the description of the familiar affection, as well as the darker side of dependence, in the long-term relationship between the doctor and his wife. Some of the scenes of growing old together were touching, as were the scenes of her grief after his death.
Otherwise, I found myself alternately irritated and repelled by the character of Ariza (creepy young/old man). As a young man in the days of his arms-length courtship with his beloved, and later in his love-from-afar days, he gave me what is called in literary circles the “heebie-jeebies.” He follows her around, writing her 60-page love letters. He composes a waltz for her on his violin, then plays it, WHILE WEEPING, in a GRAVEYARD! In order to experience his beloved more closely, he obtains a bottle of perfume that might be something she might have bought, and in an effort to be closer to her, he ends up DRINKING it. He doesn’t sleep, he can’t eat, all for the love that tortures his soul. Blah blah blah.
Am I totally calloused? Incapable of appreciating a love story? I think not, pointing to my examples above. I think that my negative reaction to this love story is that it seems poisonous and unhealthy. I realize that this story is set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when times were different. But even taking that into account, I didn’t enjoy the specter of this strange, creepy, maudlin man hanging over the whole story. One example: his last affair, when he was more than sixty years old, was with a fourteen-year-old girl.
One of the reviews I read said that that Ariza was like Humbert Humbert, the main character in Lolita, in the sense that he would charm the reader into feeling sympathy for him in spite of his general creepiness. Well, I certainly wasn’t charmed by Ariza (or Humbert for that matter, though the writing in Lolita was lovely). I found myself hoping against hope that the woman, who did appeal to me as a character, would retain her strength of character and recognize him for what he was: possibly dangerous. But since it’s a love story, she didn’t, although as I mentioned above, their pursuit of affection in their old age is charming in its way. In short, I wouldn’t recommend this book, unless you’re already a huge fan of the author or have a weakness for Latin American literature or overwrought romance stories. According to my friend with the master’s degree in Spanish and Latin American literature, two more easily accessible and enjoyable books by Marquez are The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
*Interestingly, the first chapter has almost no bearing on the rest of the novel. ...more
This was an engaging, absorbing, and quick read that I was surprised to find that I really liked. Historical fiction is such a gamble; you never knowThis was an engaging, absorbing, and quick read that I was surprised to find that I really liked. Historical fiction is such a gamble; you never know what you're going to get.
I've always found the story of Leah, Rachel, Jacob, and their brood to be fascinating, and I'd forgotten that this story of Dinah (Jacob and Leah's daughter) even existed in the Bible. Dinah is quite a minor character in the scope of the Old Testament, but the fact that she's mentioned at all speaks to her importance (relatively few women made the cut into the Bible).
Diamant managed to make this story dramatic without being melodramatic, sad without being tragic, and she provided enough historical/period detail to make it feel more real than the original. She also managed to write this entire book with almost no detectable project or religious persuasion, not an easy feat.
The book is extremely female-centric, to be expected, I suppose, from a book named after the menstrual tent of a tribe of desert nomads. I was surprised, and perversely pleased, to find that these characters never seem to subscribe wholly to the conversion narrative that was the flavor of this story in my childhood, church-going days. That is, Jacob's wives simply add his god to their arsenal of gods and goddesses, and when the time comes, they give all the gods their due. The way I learned it was that every person who came in contact with the nearly-angelic Jacob instantly saw the superiority of his god, and immediately left their old ones behind.
That narrative never really rang true to me, and though this story is largely imagined, I somehow feel that Jacob's wives' pragmatism is more realistic.
I found the reimagining of Dinah's rape to be fascinating, and without giving too much away, highly preferable to its predecessor as well as entirely plausible.
Recommended for a quick foray into Biblical fiction, if you're ready for a glowingly female-centric rethinking of the Bible....more
I read it and was so annoyed with it that I could barely finish it. It's a morality play, pure and simple, and while I can usually handle morality plaI read it and was so annoyed with it that I could barely finish it. It's a morality play, pure and simple, and while I can usually handle morality plays disguised as novels ("Sense and Sensibility," for example), the reading is easier when it contains a sense of humor.
I thought Jane Eyre lacked any sense of humor, and was one heavy-handed moral lesson after another. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I read this, but I couldn't help but like the crazy Mrs. Rochester the best of all of them. ...more
I read this during a recent cold-war-spy-literature binge. I enjoyed the story, but the ending was certainly abrupt. I'd like to read more of le CarreI read this during a recent cold-war-spy-literature binge. I enjoyed the story, but the ending was certainly abrupt. I'd like to read more of le Carre's work. I liked the detail about the British spy agencies during the Cold War: the vocabulary and lifestyle detail makes the book more intense....more