28 September 2011

short book reviews

Or perhaps ruminations on a few books I have read or am reading now.

I don't have much time for reading anymore, much is the pity, and I do miss it.  My education very nearly drove the love of reading out of me, by forcing me to read books no one but an academic would read, but I managed to hang on to some of it, at least.  I do look for books that sound like they may be good ones, and take recommendations from acquaintances and co workers.  I often find my tastes diverge greatly from theirs, but I have run into a few gems.

I am mostly ambivalent about the ones I've read lately on recommendations.  Both books I am writing about now have been out for a while, but, as I normally don't read anything written in the last three hundred years, they are comparatively new.  The first is Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth.  I had heard much about it, and I had high expectations.  The book wasn't as good as I thought it would be, though it did have some moments of excellence.

If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is about a priory in England during the Anarchy (the time period in which the Cadfael series is set)  and the various characters involved in building, or attempting to thwart the building, of a new cathedral, while events from without and chaos from within threatens to upset the project every few chapters.  The Good Guys are suitably virtuous and the Bad Guys completely wicked.  I admit I was pleased with the character of prior Philip, who was the ideal monk.  He is portrayed with no tongue in cheek, no dark secrets. He is simply a perfect monk.  His opposite is Bishop Waleran, a scheming corrupt man who believes the ends justify his means.  On the lay side we have Tom Builder, who begins building the Cathedral, and Jack Jackson, who completes the Cathedral, and their evil nemesis, William, a perfectly loathsome character drawn with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  There are also the women, Aliena, and earl's daughter and Jack's love, and  Ellen, Jack's mother, and Tom's wife.

The novel is an interesting portrayal of the building of medieval cathedrals, a topic in which I have always been curious.  The novel also gives an answer to the old question, why would anyone start building one of these cathedrals, knowing they would never see it completed?  The novel's answer is so simple it has to be true, unless one believes in Mencken's dictum that for every complicated problem there is an answer which is simple, neat, and wrong.  The novel's answer to the problem of why would anyone start a one hundred year long building project is simple:  Having a building project you would not live to see completed meant you had a job for the rest of your life.  This is what Tom thinks when he gets the job.

In my mind, Tom, the master builder, should have been the main character in the book.  Tom has been a builder all his life, and once worked on a cathedral before, helping to finish off one in the old Romanesque style, and he dreams to build another.  The fire that destroys the priory's old Cathedral gives him that chance.  Unfortunately, he is killed when William burns the town to the ground, his cathedral barely begun.

Jack eventually takes over.  While Jack is arguably the main character of the book, he is also, in my opinion, the weakest and the most lame.  Jack, it is stated, is an atheist, building a medieval cathedral, and the cathedral he builds is so awesomely beautiful, people gaze at it in wonder.  First problem:  There were no atheists like this in the Middle Ages.  It was simply impossible.  Jack is like a first year university student atheist:  he knows a few things, has it all worked out.  It is relatively easy to be an atheist today, because we have alternative beliefs and explanations that simply did not exist back then.  He disbelief is an anachronism.  

Speaking of Jack as a first year university, his story gets even more implausible.  He leaves the town for about a year or two, travels a little in France, works at a few churches there, ends up in Spain where he reads some of the old works of Greek Mathematics.  He comes back after a year- one year- and takes over the building of the cathedral.  He changes Tom's Romanesque design to the new Gothic style, which he saw once or twice in France.  Oh, and he invents Flying Buttresses.  Seriously.

I am willing to suspend my disbelief in my reading, but a suspension of disbelief does not mean, as the saying goes, that you hang disbelief by the neck until it is dead.  First, men who travel abroad for a single year, perhaps two do not come back having figured out everything there is to know about building the architectural wonders of their age.  Secondly, atheists, in my experience, do not build breathtakingly beautiful churches.  The build Wotruba Churches.
But that is the weakness of the story.  The strength, in my mind, lies is the tale of Prior Philip and his war with Waleran, and how every time he is knocked down, he rises again stronger than before. 

The best scene in the novel occurs fairly early on.  It is the scene where the boy Jack decides to burn down the old Cathedral.  there is a long description of him sneaking in after the monk's prayers, finding his way into the space between the ceiling and the roof, and debating whether or not he should.  (his motivation, by the way, is that his family is starving and Tom needs work. If they needed Tom to build a cathedral, they wouldn't be starving any more.)  He lights it up, and then realizes he has no way out.  He dodges the flame, and ultimately escapes through the broken tower of the cathedral.  What makes the scene, is the following chapter, where Follett makes exquisite use of the "meanwhile..." clause, and shifts the perspective over to Prior Philip in his study.  Philip, the newly elected prior, has been going over the books of his monastery, and has been making his plans for the future.  He will rationalize the way rents are paid, update the farming techniques.  In a few years, he should have the monastery on a sound financial footing.  He plans on making the monastery profitable- for in the increase of God's Kingdom on Earth, of course- and then, when the financial situation is brought into control, and the monastery is growning, then he will try and fix up the old Cathedral.  Should take less than ten years all told.  What was that sound?  Must be some young monk slamming a door.  At any rate, next, Philip will... and so on.  I just loved the delicious irony of Philip's beautiful and carefully constructed plans being presented to the reader just as they were, literally, going up in smoke, though Philip knew it not.

The book was recently turned into a tv movie, but I didn't much care for it.  It had none of the book strengths and all of its weaknesses.  The book had good chunks, and not so good chunks. I neither recommend or condemn it.

The other book I've started to read, also at someone's recommendation, is A Game of Thrones.  I had heard much about it, many good things, rather like I heard many things and much praise of the Da Vinci Code.  It seems I never learn.  Currently, I am about 150 pages in.  I'll give it another hundred, and then decide whether or not to continue, or set the book aside.

My issues with this book are few, but significant.  The book is well written, I admit it.  What we have here, so far as I have read, is a large cast of characters, most of whom are lining up for a position to take the throne, or benefit from someone else taking the throne, set in a world of the Perpetual Middle Ages type.  My main problem is that I simply do not care about any of the characters I have encountered thus far.  It does not matter to me if any of them take the throne, or hold the throne, or get stabbed in the eye, or eaten by a dragon. This is a world in which there are no real good guys, and no real bad guys, (or, more accurately, everybody seems to be a bad guy, more or less) just ambition and power. 

Another thing which I am starting to dislike is the amount of sex in the book.  It is not graphically described, and is rather casually mentioned, but it is a constant. (Follett, I should note, had a couple of far more graphic and laughably bad sex scenes in Pillars.)  It is frequently perverse, though described as normal.  So far there has been threatened incest, actual incest (twincest, actually) ephebophilia (a young girl of about twelve or thirteen who originally thought she would eventiually marry her brother is sold by her brother to be the wife of a much older man. On her wedding night the man, against her expectations, instead of taking her roughly instead caresses and excites her to the point that she begs him to take her), and an orgy.  None of this is presented as being wrong, just the customs of the people.  After all, they consented, and that's what really matters, right?  Right.

It may be that the sexuality is being used as a place mark to show the morality of the characters.  It is the truly loathsome- or more loathsome than usual- characters who indulge in the worst. I suspect that is the case here, although it may also be that this is a kind of philosophical product placement, an attempt to normalize aberrant behaviour by presenting it as normal, natural, cultural, just one of those things.  I should also point out that,as far as the charge of ephebophilia is concerned, it was common in the Middle Ages for young girls to be handed in marriage, with or without their consent, to much older men.  Daenerys may simply be trying to make the best of it.  I may find out should I continue.

Certainly, the author is pulling out the stops to make his characters loathsome.  He sets up little scenes where it seems like something will be reconciled, only to twist the knife.  When Jon, the bastard, goes to say farewell to his gravely injured half brother, the mother of the brother, calls Jon back as he is leaving, using Jon's name for the first time, and instead of reconciling to him in their shared grief, tells him that he should have been the one who is lying at death's door.  Again, at the wedding of Daenerys (the girl I mentioned earlier), as she is about to leave with her new husband, her brother calls to her, and, instead of bidding her farewell and wishing her some joy, threatens her with worse punishments than he has ever given her before if she does not please her new husband. 

So the characters are, it seems, intentionally despicable.  Perhaps he plans to make it so we enjoy the miserable ends.  A dangerous game for an author to play, but  Martin seems to have pulled it off for many readers, at least.  The books are very popular, and have been turned into a television series.  I'll give it another hundred pages.

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