About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

#61: The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett (New York: New American Library, 1989).

"Set in the turbulent times of twelfth-century England when civil war, famine, religious strife and battles over royal succession tore lives and families apart, The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the building of a magnificent cathedral.

"Against this richly imagined backdrop, filled with intrigue and treachery, Ken Follett draws the reader irresistibly into a wonderful epic of family drama, violent conflict, and unswerving ambition. From humble stonemason to imperious monarch, the dreams, labours and loves of his characters come vividly to life. The Pillars of the Earth is, without a doubt, a masterpiece -- and has proved to be one of the most popular books of our time." -from the back cover of my paperback copy

"Set during the reign of King Stephen and the Anarchy, The Pillars of the Earth hangs a rich and intricately woven tapestry of intrigue and conspiracy over a solid foundation of historical events to explore topics as diverse as medieval architecture, civil war, secular/ religious conflicts, and shifting political loyalties.

"Principal characters include Tom Builder, a stonemason; Philip, Prior of Kingsbridge; and Archdeadon Waleran Bigod. The historical King Stephen is variously abetted and attacked by characters both real and fictional, including his cousin and rival Empress Maud; Sir Percy Hamleigh and his son William Hamleigh; the prior Earl of Shiring Bartholomew's daughter Aliena and son Richard; and Ellen with her son Jack." -from Wikipedia

Opening Line:
"The small boys came early to the hanging."

My Take:
This was the second of three books I took with me on vacation, and the last one I actually read. (Anna Karenina will just have to wait, which seems to be its fate; it still has a bookmark in it from a White Mountains resort, so this clearly isn't the first trip from which it's come home unread.)

Wow. Another sweeping, engaging saga that I got way more into than I'd expected to. I mean, really -- who expects to get totally absorbed in a story about the building of a cathedral in medieval England? Darn it, though, if Follett doesn't make the characters just complicated enough to both compel you on to find out what happens to them next, and keep you guessing. Prior Philip, head of the Kingsbridge monastery where the cathedral is to be built, was a pleasant surprise, character-wise -- probably the most interesting literary cleric I've come across. (Sorry, Father Ralph de Bricassart.) In the introduction, Follett calls him his only cheerfully celibate character, but he's a long way from being saintly; while he may not mind the whole lack of sex thing, he does tend toward both rigidity (who, me? Punny?) and pride. Tom Builder is likewise a good character (fascinating how the author makes a twelfth-century mason seem accessible to twenty-first-century readers by establishing, in the first chapter, that his first wife, Agnes, is his soul mate, and that he truly cherishes not just her but their children), and deposed earl's daughter cum wool merchant Aliena (it's a long road, but hey, it's a long book), forgive the anachronism, Rocks. Out.

Follett's even gone and created one of the most despicable, love-to-hate-him villains I've seen in a while: William Hamleigh, son of the nobleman who insinuates himself into the earldom after King Stephen takes it away from Aliena's father, Bartholomew. A brutish, violent bully who's secretly terrified of the priests and his hideous mother (apparently the miniseries, which I haven't yet seen, hints at some incest here -- ew!), and can get aroused only when he's beating the woman unlucky enough to be in his company, William's definitely an exception to the nuanced-character comment above, but it's still so much fun to despise him and to wait for his inevitable comeuppance.

Full disclosure: I'm neither a builder nor an architect, and some of these details didn't really interest me much. I was happy enough to read about the revelations that come to Jack when he travels through France and Spain in search of a) his mysterious, dead father's past, and/or b) peace from his tortured, seemingly impossible love for Aliena, and sees how differently these places have approached cathedral architecture. And the build-a-defensive-wall-in-a-hurry scenes, well, those were as much adventures (with a hint of the Redwall series I used to read with Twig when she was younger) as they were about building. But some of the more nitty-gritty, how this part gets done passages read, well, like a homebuilders' manual, and I found myself skimming over them to see what happened next. Fortunately, I managed not to miss any important plot developments this way (I think).

All right, an overdue post meets an overdue bedtime. More soon.

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