This epic novel set in 11th century England has sat on my to read list for years, intimidating me with its length and subject matter. At the very surfThis epic novel set in 11th century England has sat on my to read list for years, intimidating me with its length and subject matter. At the very surface it is a novel about the building of a cathedral but that is just an excuse to tell the story of a few key families over the course of a generation. This focus on characters and their relationships is ultimately what rescues what could have been a boring story about architecture and creates an epic which brings to mind some of the best writings from authors like James Michener.
The plot revolves around a relatively small collection of characters and their families and Follett sets the characters up along an almost Manichean good versus evil dividing line. On the good side there is Brother Philip, a Benedictine monk and prior, Tom Builder and his family, Ellen and Jack Jackson, outlaws, and Aliena and Richard the children of Earl Bartholomew. On the evil side there is the Hamleigh family, Bishop Waleran Bigod, and Alfred Builder.
This all good verses all evil opposition between these opposing factions is one of my two primary complaints about the novel. William Hamleigh is one of the most foul, evil, irredeemable characters I’ve encountered in literature in a long time and Brother Philip is one of the most moral, kind, and good and this extreme dichotomy took away from the believableness of those characters and ultimately the plot of the novel over all. It also took away some of the suspense of the novel because one could always guess what actions each character might take. Finally, it impeded the character development of all of the major characters. Only Aliena and Jack Jackson exhibit any real character growth over the course of the novel. Except for some relatively radical shifts that mostly happen off screen, the rest of the characters are the basically the same throughout the entire novel.
The second major complaint I have about the novel is how repetitive and formulaic the plot is presented. Each part of the book follows the same story arch with a character from the good side wanting to accomplish something for the betterment of themselves or Kingsbridge, Hamleigh or Bishop Waleran scheming against them resulting in a conflict and ultimate resolution. By part five and part six of the novel there is no doubt about what will happen or the ultimate outcome.
Despite these major flaws I still give The Pillars of the Earth four stars. This is because Follett’s writing style is just descriptive enough to immerse the reader into the world of 11th century Kingsbridge without becoming a burden on the reader. Even though it becomes repetitious, Follett’s ability to construct and pace the plot of each section and of the novel overall kept me on the edge of my seat and wanting to read on without falling my feeling like a driven horse being wipped on like I do when I read an author like Dan Brown.
I highly recommend this novel to all readers who enjoy epic family stories from authors like Michener and Clavel, readers who enjoy reading historical fiction, and readers who enjoy epic fantasy from authors like Tolkien and Jordan. The Pillars of the Earth blends elements of all of these types of novels beautifully....more
I really want to rate this book higher. McCarthy's use of language, terse prose that somehow manages to paint vivid pictures in the mind's eye. But II really want to rate this book higher. McCarthy's use of language, terse prose that somehow manages to paint vivid pictures in the mind's eye. But I could not get over the constant and unrelenting violence. Almost every form of human depravity imaginable is inflicted upon or by the main characters and every act is evoked with the McCarthy's skill for description.
The most interesting character in the novel is The Judge, a towering amoral sociopath. The literary character that he comes closest to is Jack London's Wolf Larson in The Sea Wolf. He is large, immensely strong, staggeringly intelligent, and prone to philosophical musings. And like Wolf Larson, The Judge is amoral exposing a nihilistic philosophy closer to Howard Roark and other Randian Übermensch than even Wolf Larson dares to utter.
However, even this most interesting character feels one-dimensional in the telling of the story. This may be because of the lack of internal dialog. The point of view is third person objective so, except for the wonderful use of language, the entire novel reads like a news paper article. The events are told in a straight forward manner without any discussion of emotion, motivation, or desire from the characters doing the actions. As a result I'm left with the question "what is the point of all of this?" And perhaps that was McCarthy's intent, to show the pointlessness and dehumanizing aspects of this sort of extreme violence and depravity.
For me the whole book comes across as little more than a high class slasher/horror book set in the old west. It reads like Hemingway but the story is straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie and that is simply not something I enjoy nor can I recommend it. Go read The Road instead which strikes a better balance between violence and beautiful writing.
Inferno is one part mystery, one part action and adventure, one part pedantry, and one part travel guide and all four parts are woven together to creaInferno is one part mystery, one part action and adventure, one part pedantry, and one part travel guide and all four parts are woven together to create a fast paced story whose crisis is nothing less than the survival of the human race.
The mystery revolves around an elaborate puzzle created by an eccentric genius and Dante fanatic Bertrand Zobrist as a way to taunt his nemesis. Langdon is recruited to solve this mystery and stop the plans of Zobrist before it is too late which drives an adventure which spans Florence, Venice, and Istanbul. As is mentioned several times in the novel, Langdon has an eidetic memory which results in an almost Sherlock Holmes like ability to make huge leaps in logic and insight and come up with the right answer at the perfect moment, except when he does not. In some cases Langdon fails to see or correctly interpret clues that are right in front of his face which creates a dissonance. Langdon has superhuman symbology and puzzle solving abilities yet sometimes misses clues so obvious they cause the reader to scream at the book. Brown created a mystery but withholds evidence so only Langdon can solve it but then makes Langdon struggle over the few clues the reader is given, causing much frustration.
The action and adventure holds up favorably to the best in the genera. There are car chases through crowded medieval streets, cliff hanging chases suspended over fifty foot drops, gun play, and so much more. Dan Brown is expert in weaving the action and adventure in with the other threads of the novel in such a way that it does not become overwhelming.
Unfortunately there is a good deal of pedantry in this novel in the form of long soliloquies and lectures which the characters give to each other and by proxy the reader. A little bit of this philosophical pontification can be forgiven as it helps to explain the motives of the characters or some of the more technical aspects of the story but Dan Brown seems to delight in lecturing his readers and it became tedious.
Finally, Brown devotes a significant portion of the book to the history and vistas of the places where the story takes place. There is hardly a mosaic or fresco which is not vividly described. In some ways it reminded me of the essays on gothic architecture scattered throughout Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As I progressed through the story I could not help but think that this is what an adventure novel written by Rick Steves would be like.
The one thing that stands out to me regarding the writing style is the very short chapters, almost all of which end with a cliffhanger. This approach creates a driving story and pushes the reader onwards like a team of horses being whipped by a mad coachman. Browns descriptions of the places where the novel take place are clear and perfectly capture those places I have personally seen.
Inferno is a great summer reading novel and I recommend it to all fans of action and adventure novels....more
Cutting for Stone is an example of a novel that leaves me in a period of mourning once I come to an end. The story is compelling, the writing is rich,Cutting for Stone is an example of a novel that leaves me in a period of mourning once I come to an end. The story is compelling, the writing is rich, and the characters are fully realized and once I finished the last page I found myself missing them. No longer will Marion, Shiva, Thomas, and all of the rest be a part of my life. Verghese’s writing made me feel close to these characters in a way few authors manage to achieve and it is astonishing to find in a first novel.
Verghese develops the plot of the novel with incredible skill which allows for the exploration and a surprising number of themes including jealousy, betrayal, love, the outsider’s experience, the immigrant’s experience, personal and societal upheaval, cultural differences, and of course medicine. An Indian Carmelite Nun dies giving birth to a set of twins, Marion and Shiva, at a medical clinic in Addis Adaba. The father, Thomas Stone, a skilled emergency surgeon, essentially suffers a breakdown and abandons the twins to be raised by the clinic’s staff. The plot follows the twins from their birth, through their adolescence, and into adulthood upon the backdrop of tumultuous Ethiopia in the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as Marion’s time as an immigrant in the United States.
Verghese’s choice of a first person point of view as told by Marion is key to the intimacy that develops between the reader and the book’s characters; we are able to essentially kibitz on Marion’s entire life. However, not once did I question whether Marion is a reliable narrator. Everything is presented in all of its full glory and gore without spin or excuse. Choosing this point of view also creates a sense of the characters being swept up in the larger events of history yet continuing to live their lives as best they can under the circumstances. Despite the political turmoil of the backdrop of part of the story, this is truly the story of Marion and Shiva and any event, no matter how important on the world stage, is nothing unless it directly impacts Marion. Verghese’s use of language is superb. When given a choice, he almost always chooses understatement over hyperbole; a choice which helps enforce Marion as a reliable narrator. At times his descriptions touch the edges of floridity, especially in the birth chapter, yet this comes across less as the author painting with language and more as the reminiscences of a well educated middle aged man who wants to relive every detail, scent, feeling, and impression from his past.
The aspect of this novel that provided the greatest impact to me is the characters. Of course the main characters are fully realized but what impressed me the most is that even the minor characters come across as real people with individual feelings, desires, and motives. No character in this novel exists strictly as a plot device which is refreshing. Every single character belongs and feels vital to the story, from Shiva down to the cab drivers. However, that does not mean that some of the characters are not inscrutable. Because of the first person point of view, we the readers know no more about the other characters in the novel than Marion does. Thus, Shiva and Thomas in particular, are almost inscrutable. Yet this inscrutability does not take away those character’s humanity so much as reinforce it.
This saga will stay with me as long as I live and I fully believe it will be a proud member of the classical canon in the years to come. ...more
The Yiddish Policemen's Union is what happens if you took a Sam Spade noir crime novel and set it in an alternative history in which the Jews are giveThe Yiddish Policemen's Union is what happens if you took a Sam Spade noir crime novel and set it in an alternative history in which the Jews are given a semi-autonomous state in southern Alaska and the state of Isreal is destroyed at the end of World War II. Sitka is a city of yids on the cusp of being reverted back to the United States and it is full of a dark underbelly of organized crime, drugs, old and powerful families, grit, grime and darkness.
The story begins when Meyer Landsman, a broken and depressed detective is woken to look into a murder which occurred in the seedy hotel which he calls home. Over the course of the novel Landsman and his half Jewish/half Tlingit partner encounter a collection of characters which could have come out of the typewriter of Dashiell Hammett and a plot which could change the world.
The writing style of this book somewhat let me down and is one of the reasons the book does not get five stars from me. The long series of similes and metaphors gets tiresome and the crudeness of many of them tend to come off juvenile rather than erudite. Over all it comes off as a caricature of The Maltese Falcon. A typical example which comes to mind is "Her expression went blank like she pissed herself and is enjoying the warmth." If this were the only example it would be one thing but crude descriptions like this occur several times per page. He also makes very heavy use of Yiddish colloquialisms which sent me to the glossary or the dictionary almost every page for the first 50 pages of the book which started out being pretty tedious but became easier as I became more familiar with the terms.
The biggest problem I had with the book was how slowly it developed. The first half of the book moves so slowly that I found it difficult to force myself to keep reading. It was not until the half way point that the story actually grabbed me and pulled me into the plot. However, had I not had the perseverance to keep on reading even though I was not really enjoying it I never would have finished the book.
Over all, despite its flaws, Chabon has produced a respectable crime noir alternative history novel. If any one of these genres interest you I am certain you will enjoy this book....more
Skipped Parts takes place in the mid 1960s and is told from the perspective of a 13 year old boy who along with his single mother has been banished frSkipped Parts takes place in the mid 1960s and is told from the perspective of a 13 year old boy who along with his single mother has been banished from North Caroline to western Wyoming by his grandfather. The name comes from the fact that the narrator and his new found friend Maury want to learn about sex but all the novels they read seem to skip the truly informative parts.
The plot of the story goes from extreme highs, precipitously drop to deep and dark lows and eventually climb back up to highs again. This my biggest complaint about the book. There is very little in between.
The writing style and sense of humor is where Skipped Parts shined the most for me. The naiveté, strange situations, and frequent segues into the internal short stories the narrator tells himself where he is always the hero provide wonderful comic relief, even in some of the darkest parts of the book.
Because the entire book is narrated by Sam we know from the start that he is not necessarily a trustworthy narrator. Even so, I felt sorry for Sam throughout much of the book because things happen to him, people make decisions for him, and his life is almost completely controlled by others and he rarely understands why. One of the most poignant lines in the book takes place where a major life decision has been made which effects him and which he should have had a say so and he bemoans the fact that while he would have made a different decision, it would have been nice if anyone bothered to ask him what he thought.
I highly recommend this book to almost any reader unless you are uncomfortable with graphic descriptions of teenage sex (Sandlin doesn't skip those parts)....more
Unlike my usual modus operandi, I picked up A Canticle for Leibowitz knowing next to nothing about it. I was not even aware that this book was publishUnlike my usual modus operandi, I picked up A Canticle for Leibowitz knowing next to nothing about it. I was not even aware that this book was published more than 50 years ago. My expectation was that it was a relatively recent science fiction novel which would be a quick read with a good story and a fun plot. Overall, I was expecting something about as deep as Old Man’s War, not completely shallow but certainly not something I could compare to Candide by Voltaire or Confessions by Saint Augustine of Hippo. I was completely unprepared for the what I found.
First of all, despite winning a Hugo Award, A Canticle for Leibowitz is unlike any science fiction novel I have read. There is almost no technology in the novel until the last few chapters and where technology does exist, it is a mere prop. This novel is primarily focused on the human condition and bears more in common with McCarthy’s The Road (generally not categorized as science fiction) then fellow Hugo winner Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Another place where the novel differs from all science fiction I have read is its treatment of religion and faith. God and religion makes an appearance in many science fiction novels but it is usually vague, portrayed negatively (e.g. Stranger in a Strange Land’s Fosterites), cynically (e.g. Dune’s Missionaria Protectiva), made fun of (e.g. Cat’s Cradle’s Bokononism), or simply not part of the story (e.g. Old Man's War). A Canticle for Leibowitz not only portrays religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, in a positive light but actually makes it and theology a center theme in the novel and it is clear that God has a hand in the events and development of the story. It has some comparisons with C. S. Lewis's Narnia series in that respect, though Miller's treatment of how God is involved in the world is much more subtle and nuanced.
Prior to the events in A Canticle for Leibowitz world civilization is destroyed in the 20th century by a nuclear war which kills a majority of the populous. After the war, the survivors rise up and kill any vestige of the leadership, scientists, scholars, and eventually even the literate, plunging humanity back into a dark age of warring tribes and a medieval level of technology and learning. The only vestiges of learning to survive do so because of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, a Roman Catholic monastic order founded by a Jewish electrical engineer who converted to Catholicism after the war and was subsequently martyred and beatified. The purpose of the order is to preserve as many books, texts, and artifacts from the 20th century as possible in the hope that one day culture will once again be ready to advance in learning and technology. Against this apocalyptic backdrop, Miller takes us on a three part journey across almost two thousand years centered around the abbey of the monks of Leibowitz in the Utah desert.
“Fiat Homo” (Let There Be Man) The first part of the novel takes place 600 years after the war. Literacy is gone and much of the populace would destroy a book and kill the person carrying it on sight. Ignorance and superstition permeate the world, including the world of the monks. During Lenten fast in the desert, one of the novitiates of the order, Frances, encounters an old wanderer who points him to a stone he needs to complete his shelter against wolves only to uncover a treasure trove of artifacts from the 20th century, including some potentially from from Leibowitz himself. Without revealing spoilers, the chapter explores monastic life from Frances’ point of view.
“Fiat Lux” (Let There Be Light) Six-hundred years later, the kingdom of Texarkana and the monks are in the early stages of a Renaissance and Texarkana is on the cusp of empire. A scientist and scholar from Texarkana comes to the abbey to study the carefully preserved memorabilia the monks have preserved for more than a thousand years. The Wander makes another appearance, this time as a hermit and a foil for the abbot to have debate on some philosophical and theological ideas in the desert.
“Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let Thy Will Be Done) Another six-hundred years passed and civilization has recovered and exceeded the technology of the lost 20th century. However, the world is once again about to make the same mistakes.
The abbey, the continuation of the order, the Wanderer, and the fact that despite changes in society the human condition and experience remains largely the same are what hold these three sections of the novel together. The major themes of the cyclical nature of history and the interactions between the religious and non-religious worlds also tie the three sections together.
Of all of the characters, the Wanderer is one of the more interesting. Without saying so, Miller makes it clear that this character is the same person in all three sections of the novel yet no clear explanation for this is given. In the first part of the book he is identified by the monks (who did not actually see him) to be Leibowitz himself. Yet in the second section Miller drops strong hints that this Wanderer is actually the Wandering Jew of Christian legend. In the third section he is merely present, though his presence speaks volumes. Is this character the Wandering Jew? Was Leibowitz himself the Wandering Jew? This character more than anything else in the novel makes we want to go and study more to perhaps bring forth new understanding of this book.
With this character and the rest, Miller manages to pull off a rare feat. Almost every character in the novel feels fully realized. Without resorting to excessive back stories or descriptions, Miller manages to drop hints and symbols which helps the reader to build the back story for the characters themselves and consequently the characters felt more rounded even if they appear on only a few pages. This feeling was enhanced by some of the big universal issues that the characters encounter.
The big universal ideas and symbolism in this novel is too extensive to list without spoilers, not to mention that some of the symbolism flew over my head, particularly in the closing chapters. I suspect a better understanding of Roman Catholic theology might make some of the symbols more clear. A few of the big ideas and issues include the nature of the soul verses the body, the difference between man and animal, the morality of euthanasia and abortion, suffering, conflicts between church and state, the assumed conflict between science and religion (and how the conflicts are not always as great as the scientists believe), God’s hand in the development of humanity, and more. And even when these heavy ideas are addressed, I never had the feeling that I was being preached to. While the point of view is decidedly Roman Catholic in nature, the debates and explanations were provided more as an illustration for the motivations and experiences of the characters then as an argument with the reader.
I have almost nothing bad to say about this novel. The writing is good. The characters are well developed. The content is deep. The only nits I have is that some of the symbology is inscrutable, though that only makes me want to read more about it and translations of some of the Latin and Hebrew, even if only in the appendix, would have saved me a good deal of time looking things up.
I highly recommend this book to fans and non-fans of science fiction alike....more
An excellent read with a gripping plot; actually there are three plots. There are some parts of the story that get a little tedious and I will admit tAn excellent read with a gripping plot; actually there are three plots. There are some parts of the story that get a little tedious and I will admit that I did have some trouble with the names.
The writing style had a couple quirks that I found a little distracting and I can not blame the translation. The first is Larsson's use of third person omniscient point of view. The vast majority of the story is just in third person and I found it somewhat jarring when he entered the thoughts of some of the characters, particularly minor characters. The second quirk is Larrson's ham fisted use of foreshadowing which I found a little amateurish.
Over all I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a plot driven narrative with little character development but a lot of twists and turns....more
I was afraid that this book was going to be a lot like most middle books, long, boring, and nothing gets resolved; however, I was pleasantly surprisedI was afraid that this book was going to be a lot like most middle books, long, boring, and nothing gets resolved; however, I was pleasantly surprised. I started out merely being interested in the characters in the first book but by 100 pages into this one I truly came to care about them. The plot moved at a pretty good pace and over all it was an enjoyable read. The only major problem I had was the excessive amount of details added about editing and the craft of journalism. While it proved interesting, it started to distract from the rest of the book.
If you enjoyed the first one, I highly recommend this one. You will also want to have a copy of the third book handy because you will want to continue the read immediately....more
A good ending to the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet's Nest manages to get Lisbeth out of all the trouble she found herself in at the end of theA good ending to the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet's Nest manages to get Lisbeth out of all the trouble she found herself in at the end of the last book. If the first book was a murder mystery, the second book was an action adventure and the this book was almost a spy novel.
One of the major critiques I have about all three novels is that they were not edited well. The first novel spent too much time delving into Swedish industrial politics. The second book spent too much time delving into Swedish journalism. This book spent too much time on Swedish politics. The job of a book editor is make sure the book is coherent and flows well. A good editor would have either cut some of the more tedious parts of the book or found a way to make it flow a bit better. I suspect the untimely death of Larsson caused the editors to be a bit more hands off then they otherwise would have been.
A major critique I have over this book in particular is how the author berates the reader with the theme of misogyny. More so then in the other two books, Larsson beats the reader upside the head with one caricature of a character after another and subplots whose only purpose seems to be to introduce yet another way for a man to be a misogynist. It became distracting after awhile.
Of the three, this was my least favorite but I do not regret having read it and recommend it, particularly if you have read the first two. ...more
Rarely do I read a book written within the last 30 years and think have the feeling that it is a book that will survive as a classic, particularly witRarely do I read a book written within the last 30 years and think have the feeling that it is a book that will survive as a classic, particularly with a book that is usually categorized in the science fiction genera.
First I'll address the genera categorization. Yes the novel takes place in the near future but that is the extent of its scifi nature. If the The Handmaid's Tale is scifi, so are other "serious" and critically acclaimed novels like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Unlike most traditional scifi which focuses on space travel or some advanced technology or aliens, this novel could just as easily be an alternative history along the lines of Roth's The Plot Against America or take place in the present day. In short, even if you hate scifi, you should probably give this one a try.
The novel takes place in the near future in the country of Gilead, an extreme Christian fundamentalist theocracy that has committed a successful coup and taken over the U. S. In this country women have no rights, any religion or Christian denomination except the state religion is outlawed and punishable by death. Even reading has been outlawed for women. Population growth is exceptionally low so any woman who isn't part of the elite who is fertile becomes a handmaid, assigned to one of the elite's families for the sole purpose of bearing a child, inspired by the story of Jacob in the Bible. The novel is a memoir as told by one of one of these handmaids.
The narrative jumps around in time sometimes even in the middle of a chapter. This could be confusing but Atwood weaves these flashbacks into the story expertly and in such a way that they enhance the experience and avoids confusion. In fact, she expertly introduces these flashbacks to both heighten the sense that the novel is a reminiscence as well as introducing facts from the past at just the right time.
The one aspect of this story that I enjoyed the most was Atwood's careful crafted use of language. Hardly a page goes by where there isn't a subtle pun, double entendre or some other cleverly constructed sentence that forces me to think and enjoy the use of the language, almost like poetry. In a lot of ways Atwood's writing style reminds me of Vonnegut's, short, clipped, and colloquial.
In fact, there is only one aspect of the novel that I did not like. The epilog felt tacked on and, even though it answers a number of questions, it does not add to the story and instead takes away. If the novel just ended before the epilog I think it would have had more impact.
I highly reocmmend this novel to anyone who enjoys speculative fiction, well written novels that have a poetic play with language....more