Old book, new review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

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Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Author: Ken Follett
My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Is it worth reading? Yes. For more conservative readers, there will definitely be some sections to skip over (sex, rape, violence etc.). However, despite these flaws, Follett’s world is so captivating and the drama of the cathedral’s construction is so captivating, that if you love being sucked into a new world, you’ll find much to enjoy.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

This September, Ken Follett will be releasing a new book — the first since he completed the Century Trilogy (which I’m currently reading). Out in September, A Column of Fire is the third book in his Kingsbridge series.

I decided to revisit book one in the series, The Pillars of the Earth, in a new review of the 1989 epic.

First, this book is no joke. At a whopping 1,000+ pages, it’s no quick read. This is not a Harry Potter-1,000 pages that vanish all too quickly. It’s a sizable commitment. But that shouldn’t scare you away, and here’s why:

 

The weird and ugly

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. But there’s definitely some disturbing content. If you’re particularly sensitive to these topics, you might want to skip on Pillars.

Graphic sex and rape: There is a lot of sex throughout, and most scenes are pretty descriptive. I found it easy to skip over them (no major plot points lost), but the amount of detail felt unnecessary. I didn’t pick up a romance novel. Be warned: One rape scene is particularly disturbing and graphic.

Plot devices: As another reviewer pointed out, sometimes the plot felt a bit methodical: Things are going well, HUGE PROBLEM, solution is discovered at the last second, repeat. It’s no surprise that Follett started out writing thrillers.

I eventually came to expect that if things were going well, it was only a matter of time until things got crappy again. Nothing is sacred. No one is invincible. Even though I knew exactly what Follett was doing, I couldn’t. Stop. Reading.

Corruption and violence: Medieval England is about what you would expect — violent, cruel, every man for himself. There are accusations of witchcraft, misogyny in its worst forms, and evil, oppressive leaders. The injustice was so despicable at some points that it took my breath away.

Despite the ugliness depicted throughout Pillars, the stories rang true. Even today, evil exists and abounds. Nothing irks me more than a story that untruthfully depicts human nature.

Now, some of the characters were almost a little too evil, and much of the sex was highly dramatized. But overall, Follett does a good job of presenting flawed, believable characters who develop throughout the story.

 

The beautiful and good

Religion and the Church: For Christian readers, one important thing to keep in mind is that Follett does not believe in God. This is part of what drew me to the book in the first place. It’s totally fascinating to me that someone who doesn’t practice Christianity would write a book about the construction of a cathedral.

Yet somehow Follett creates multi-layered, three-dimensional characters who struggle with their beliefs and wrestle with discerning how God would have them live — something Christians experience daily.

For the most part, Follett was respectful of the church (even though he doesn’t subscribe to faith himself) and Prior Philip is still one of my favorite Christian characters.

World building: This is Follett’s true triumph. The world that he weaves is beautifully intricate and surprisingly real. The layered, rich world-building alone made it worth skipping over all the negative parts.

I’m amazed at how Follett has the ability to capture life in a different time and place, so that you really start to believe you’re immersed in medieval England. I was completely sucked into a different time and place.

Every time I read a Follett, I learn something new about history and people. I know everyone doesn’t love learning (so tragic), but when you read Follett, it doesn’t feel like learning. That’s the beauty of it.

I do wish the book had included a diagram of a cathedral. I’m not familiar with cathedral architecture and terms, and I ended up searching cathedrals online so I could visualize the descriptions of the construction.

 

Why I’m not interested in World Without End

This brings me to why I haven’t read the sequel, World Without End, and why I probably won’t be reading A Column of Fire.

It’s important to note that World Without End was written 20 years after Pillars. Several friends who have read both books (and many Goodreads reviews) point out that much of Follett’s political and personal philosophy seems to have shifted in the years since Pillars was published.

Whereas in Pillars we had Prior Philip — a believer in God, but also a strong, courageous, and flawed character — World Without End seems to be exclusively populated with religious figures who are evil and corrupt.

As a person of faith, I just can’t bring myself to read it. I’m not trying to be naive — I know that throughout history (and today) many religious institutions have been controlled by the corrupt. (Spotlight is one of my favorite movies!)

But why devote the time to reading a 1,000-page book that will likely just make me frustrated?

Life’s just too short and there are too many other good books to read.

 

Have you read The Pillars of the Earth? What did you think? Have you read the sequel?

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett | Review

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Title: Commonwealth
Author: Ann Patchett
My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: General Fiction
Audiobook note: I highly recommend the audiobook! Hope Davis has this fascinating voice—equal parts smokey, crackly, and hilariously sarcastic—that makes listening to Commonwealth pure pleasure. Each character has a unique vocal fingerprint. I remember thinking while listening, “I could never have brought these characters to life in my head as well as she does.”
Is it worth reading? If you enjoy stories about family dynamics and the power of love that can transcend generations, then Commonwealth is your kind of book. Patchett is a master storyteller who knows how to write a sentence so smooth, you’ll want to stop random strangers and say, “Just listen to this!” While Patchett is perhaps best known for Bel Canto, I actually liked Commonwealth better. Don’t tell anyone.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

This is my first Ann Patchett novel. I’ve seen her books around for years in libraries and bookstores, but it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve started picking up “adult” novels and moving away from Young Adult.

I also have to confess—the main reason I gave it a shot was because of the cover. The book description didn’t appeal to me. But the dust jacket had this glorious texture and something about the cover design made me stop every time I walked into a bookstore.

(Yes, I’m one of those people who pick up books, stroke the cover, flip through the pages, and then repeat before finally giving in.)

And I’m so glad I did. Commonwealth didn’t disappoint.

Here are some things I loved:

Chronological leaps

Commonwealth spans over five decades, and many chapters end on a cliffhanger … and  the next chapter picks up in the past or future, and you’re left dangling. I could tell from scanning Goodreads reviews that this was a major drawback for some readers. It was infuriating. But I loved it.

The story was bit of a puzzle. You only got a small piece each chapter, but by the end I can assure you (most) everything fits together.

Patchett’s writing style

Before reading Commonwealth, I didn’t know it was possible for a novel to sound like music. Each sentence flows perfectly into the next—a delight for readers and listeners.

Nothing turns me off of a book quicker than bumpy, unreadable sentences. If the plot is compelling enough, sometimes I will stick in it just to find out what happens (see my The Light Between Oceans review), but for the most part, sentence flow is a sticking point.

The fallout of broken promises

So these families are pretty screwed up.

Bert Cousins kisses another man’s wife at her daughter’s christening party for crying out loud. Their children spend the rest of their lives trying to reconcile the brokenness that seems to be the core of their existence. Their ex-spouses must find a way to move on.

Commonwealth is a story of the search for something whole and true.

It’s a harrowing reminder that our relentless search for meaning and purpose can lead us down paths we never intended to take … ultimately hurting those we love the most.

I love that Patchett doesn’t glorify Bert and Beverly’s unfaithfulness. She simply tells a story and lets the reader decide how to feel about it.

Love’s power to heal

Commonwealth could have been a really depressing story.

Instead, it’s strangely hopeful.

Despite the heartbreaking loss, sorrow, betrayal, and disappointment the Cousins/Keating families experience, Commonwealth ends with forgiveness, hope, and a deep love that transcends each person’s faults.

This is the truth Commonwealth offers us:

We are all broken. We hurt each other in selfish and cruel ways. But love has the power to transcend the ugliness in this world.

Our brokenness can be mended.

4 tips for reaching your 2017 reading goals

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I am a firm believer in New Year’s Resolutions.

Sure, we could technically make new resolutions any time, but let’s be honest: who really does?

The turning of the new year signals the turning over of a new leaf. There’s something good and fresh about taking stock of the previous year and making the conscious decision to start something new.

Maybe you have a goal to read more this year, but do you have a plan of action?

Here are a few tips to make your 2017 reading goals a reality:

Make it official with a Goodreads Reading Challenge

A little friendly accountability never hurt anyone, and this one is a lot less painful than blasting your weight loss goals all over Facebook.

On your Goodreads.com account, you can create reading challenge goal and track your progress. Plus when you sync to your social media, you can see your friend’s reading goals and cheer them on. Goodreads also does a cool end-of-year recap that shows your book stats for the year.

Here’s mine from 2016:

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Note: Goodreads did not pay for/endorse this shoutout. I’m just legitimately obsessed.

Hit up your local library

Don’t be like me and buy tons books off the Internet that won’t fit in your tiny apartment.

Throw on your adulting pants and make a trip to your local library instead!

If you haven’t visited the library since you were in elementary school, you’ll probably be surprised at the amazing resources your library has available (like eBooks you can borrow for your Kindle, Nook, or iPad).

My library is pretty small in size, but is connected to a huge network that gives me access to almost any book I want. My online library account even allows me to place a book on hold and sends me an email when it’s arrived and ready for pickup (talk about enabling my laziness). Many libraries will also email you when your book is almost overdue.

If you’re not a book hoarder and don’t have tons of book options lying around (kudos to yo minimalist self), using your library is a budget-friendly way to add variety to your 2017 book list.

Two words: Audio. Books.

Ok, technically audiobook is one word.

But let’s not be held back by minor technicalities.

Audiobooks are, in a word, wondrous. Every time I’m in my car, I’m listening to an audiobook. When I’m cleaning my house, I’m listening to an audiobook. Basically, audiobooks make mundane tasks less mundane, and you’re chipping away at your reading list while you work. Or drive. Or just lay around.

Another library plug: Some offer subscriptions to online streaming services like Hoopla that allow you to borrow audiobooks and play them through an app on your phone.

Borrowing regular old books on CD from your library is another option, and it’s cheaper than Audible. But hey, if you have $14.95 to throw around every month, more power to ya.

Listening to audiobooks is a great way to power through your reading challenge and mark more books off your list. Besides, if you have to be in the car, why not make that time productive?

Don’t set yourself up to fail

Do you have a full time job? Are you a full time student?

Do you have a social life?

Does your body require petty things like food and sleep?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you’re probably not going to read 150 books in 2017. If you read at the pace of drying paint, you’re probably not going to read 70 books.

Whatever your goal, don’t plan to read the entire Game of Thrones series, five Stephen King books, and the entire Charles Dickens canon. Mix things up. Read a short novel and then tackle the 1,000-page monster. Give yourself mental breaks and avoid being too rigid.

In a nutshell: Be realistic with yourself about your free time. If accomplishing your reading goal makes your friends wonder if you got abducted, your resolution has stopped being positive.

 

I believe the reason many people scoff at resolutions is this: At some point, they committed to a resolution that failed miserably.

And failing is a sucky feeling.

You can avoid feeling sucky by doing yourself a solid and making a realistic goal. You can even undershoot a little and feel amazing when you surpass your goal.

Whatever your reading resolution is for 2017, you can achieve it if you plan well. Reading is one of the most productive and enriching experiences you can give yourself.

So get out there and conquer the world! (Or at least that book you’ve been putting off reading)

 

What are your reading goals for 2017? Leave a comment below!