Monday, June 13, 2011

The Pillars of the Earth

Yes, I know I'm a bit late to the game with this review. I buy books like this from the Los Alamos Friends of the Library's second-hand bookstore, which has them at the right price, like a dollar.

I struggled through far too many coincidences, cardboard characters given the sheen of the detail and repetition needed to fill 973 pages, numerous rapes, all written identically, and technical details (Jean Gimpel gets an acknowledgement) to prove that Ken Follett has done his homework. And then tied with a pretty bow that puts the unadulteratedly evil villain at the head of the bunch that killed Thomas Becket.


I was most surprised at how badly it was written. My automatic editing function, a necessity for blogging, kept going into overdrive, rewriting awkward sentences, correcting words badly used, and removing anachronisms in which the characters spoke or thought like twenty-first-century people. Making a good book would have taken much longer.

It seems to me that James Michner, who did this encyclopedic sort of thing, was better, but I would have to reread one of his books to verify that.

I did want to fact-check the ending (no prizes for Follett there), so I read some history, which was not too far on the shelf from T. S. Eliot's collected works. So I read "Murder in the Cathedral" too.

It's much better and covers the same material (less the technical stuff, at which Gimpel is better, and not as much about women's roles) in less than 50 pages. Better character development and devoid of those unbelievable coincidences, too.

Update: Speaking of T. S. Eliot, here's someone who is no longer intimidated by "The Waste Land," thanks to modern electronic gizmos. I guess I like my poems better open-ended.

And, in a similar vein, Bloomsday is sometime this week. I'm never quite sure of the date.


Paul Guinnessy said...

The Richard Harris stuff is better, and try "The Doomsday Book" which feels a bit out of date now (as SciFi) but has some good descriptions of the period.

Cheryl Rofer said...

This is a period that fascinates me. I think that in the hundred years between about 1160 and 1260, a direction was set that has been played and replayed, most recently in the US, starting with the 1950s or 1960s. Societal progress, followed by religious repression.

I've thought of writing a book about it, but original sources are few enough that the book would have to be a novel. And I'd be making up a lot, like all the other novelists do, so it would be as much about me as whatever actually happened.

Ah, for a time machine!

joel hanes said...

Agreed. Given the book's popularity, I had expected much better writing.

Early Michener (Hawaii, The Source seems to me to succeed where Follett's Pillars does not -- later Michener not so much.

joel hanes said...

You've read Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, I hope.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Absolutely, Joel!

A Distant Mirror and Jean Gimpel's The Medieval Machine were the two central books that set my big question about those times. How could things have been going as well as Gimpel describes in the twelfth century and then come apart so badly in the thirteenth?

I think that the answer is precisely the kind of politico-religious backlash we're seeing now. That's a long story, although I don't know I could stretch it to 973 pages.

Cheryl Rofer said...

More from me on the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.