Blindness by Jose Saramago


Jose Saramago, a Portuguese author, has had a number of his novels translated into English including Baltisar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, The History of the Seige of Lisbon and The Tale of the Unknown Island.  In 1997 his novel Blindness, written in 1995, was translated into English and a year later it was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Blindness is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read, right up there with The Shining by Stephen King.  Unlike The Shining though, which is a supernatural horror story, the terror of Blindness is primarily derived from the darkness and complexities of human nature.  Sort of like a marriage between another King novel, The Stand, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Blindess is the story of a city which is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness,” which inexplicably spares all but one and spreads like wildfire.  At first, the government confines the afflicted to an empty mental hospital, threatening to kill anyone who tries to leave and supplying food only intermittently.  The social microcosm within the quarantined building quickly begins to break down and the criminal element emerges, stealing food rations and assaulting women.  There is only one eyewitness to the growing atrocities:  The character known simply as “the doctor’s wife” pretends to be blind so that she can stay with her husband and for some reason, she remains unafflicted.  Once the entire city has become sightless and the authorities can no longer keep anyone quarantined, the doctor’s wife leads a small group through the streets, describing some of what she sees, but keeping most of the visuals to herself as they struggle to survive.  Blindness is a powerful portrayal of both the very worst and very best of humanity.

Assuming that the translation, done by Giovanni Pontiero, remains true to the original style, Blindness is written in an unusual way.  Paragraphs are pages long and dialogue is not separated by paragraphs or quotation marks.  Capital letters and a comma indicate that a second person is speaking and periods are only used at the end of a conversation.  At first this was a little difficult to get used to, but it doesn’t take long for the brain to get into the rhythm.  I wondered why Saramago chose to write the novel this way and came up with a few possibilities:  Without the conventional dialogue punctuation you sort of start to read everything in your own voice, so the story becomes much more personal and internal, just as it must have been for the characters who were so suddenly left without their primary channel to the outside world.  Also, since nobody can see each other when they’re talking, there is no need to include descriptive phrases like ‘he said with a grin’ or ‘she said scowling,’  only the words are important.  As the story progresses, however, the group meets an author who is trying to document the events and who writes on paper by using his fingers to feel the indentations of the pen where he has already written.  I imagine the author would have forgone the more troublesome punctuation when writing this way so perhaps we’re meant to realize that the book we’ve been reading was written by the blind author.

I loved this book.  Despite the fact that it scared me half to death and that it was at times upsetting, horrifying and repulsive (a friend claimed that it must certainly contain the most references to fecal matter of any Nobel Prize winning work) I thought the book was magnificent — but it’s not for the faint of heart.  In fact, there is a movie out now based on the novel and I hear that it is just as difficult to experience as the novel.  Apparently there is a also a sequel to the book titled Seeing but I have not yet read it.

Blindness is available at noteBooks in trade paperback edition for $15.00.

Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 4:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell


Bernard Cornwell has written over forty novels, most of them historical in nature.  Perhaps best known are his Sharpe stories, which tell of the adventures of Richard Sharpe, a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars.  Cornwell has also written series depicting events during the time of King Arthur, 9th-century Anglo-Saxon England and the American Revolution.  His latest novel, Agincourt, is a stand-alone book written about Henry V and the battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War.

The battle of Agincourt (October, 1415) has been featured in numerous works of fiction (it is the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s Henry V), has been the subject of extensive historical research and analysis and remains a source of pride for the English to this day.  The victory is remarkable because the English army was greatly outnumbered by the French (the exact numbers are a source of debate, but Cornwell uses the generally accepted 5,900 English v. 30,000 French).  It is also noteworthy due to the number of casualties (very few English and a significant number of French) as well as the number of French lords who were either killed or captured.  The English army had just completed a month-long seige of the seaside town of Harfleur, had traveled over 250 miles by foot and were suffering from both hunger and dysentery.  Credit for the victory is given in large part to the English archers.  About 5,000 of England’s 5,900 were commoners wielding longbows.  There were other factors involved, but I’ll refrain from mentioning them for anyone unfamiliar with the history and wanting to read the book.

The fiction portions of the book are only average.  The main character, Thomas Hook, is an English archer who has been outlawed for hitting a priest.  He travels to France and finds himself fighting for the Duke of Burgundy against the French king in Soissons.  During the battle he manages to save a French novice and narrowly escapes the traitorous massacre thanks to the voices in his head (he later decides the voices are Saints Crispin and Crispinian…the significance appears later).  Eventually Hook and the novice, Melisande, make their way back to England and Hook finds a place under Sir John Cornwaille’s command in King Henry’s army as Henry prepares to invade France.  Hook’s point of view serves as a familiar vehicle for the historical action.  The fictional characters move the story forward and make slow parts more engaging.  Cornwell is also very good at writing humor into fiction.  The wise cracks were unexpected but enjoyable.

I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the descriptions of the seige engines and the tactics of war.  The violence seemed a bit gratuitous (there were an awful lot of eyeballs getting popped and sliced) though I guess that’s probably accurate.  I would recommend Agincourt for its great descriptions of 15th century armor, weaponry and tactics. (Cannons were beginning to play a major role in battles during this time, and their volatile unpredictability makes for some grisly situations.)

Agincourt is available at noteBooks in hardcover for $27.99

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 6:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Featured Author — David Baldacci

David Baldacci is a lifelong Virginia resident who received his BA from VCU and his law degree from UVA.  He practiced law for nine years in the northern Virginia area before writing his first novel, Absolute Power, in 1996.  Since then, Baldacci has become one of the nation’s most prolific and successful novelists, having published 17 bestselling novels.

Baldacci is best known as a writer of political intrigue, but the first of his books that I read, Wish You Well, was an exception.  It is the story of a brother and sister, who, after experiencing a terrible tragedy with their family in New York in the 1940s, are sent to live with their grandmother on her farm in the mountains of southwest Virginia.  The story is poignant, humorous and charming and follows the young characters as they experience a coming of age in completely unfamiliar rural Virginia.  Their strength of character is revealed when faced with issues of drought, poverty, racism and environmental exploitation.  Baldacci’s mother and maternal grandmother were raised in the area, and it was the oral storytelling about their lives that provided him with the material for the novel.  Though the people and places are fictional, there are many specific references regarding day-to-day life in the region.  Those who have lived in the mountains will appreciate the familiarity.  This remains my favorite Baldacci book so far.

I then decided I should try some of his political suspense so I read Simple Genius, not realizing it is actually the third in a series.  I didn’t care for it, though perhaps if I’d read the previous books in the series I’d have been more familiar with the characters and they wouldn’t have seemed quite as flat.  But I also found the plot to be static and rushed.  The s0-called twists and surprises were unimaginative and lacked pizazz.  I don’t even feel like there was enough meat in the book to write a quick synopsis and since I dislike writing synopses anyway, I’ll skip it.

Luckily I didn’t let Simple Genius deter me.  I read The Camel Club, which is the first book in a separate series and really enjoyed it.  The difference between the two books is like night and day, almost as if they’d been written by two different people.  The Camel Club is the story of a group of eccentrics in Washington DC who gather regularly to discuss possible conspiracy theories and political corruption.  During one of their secret meetings they witness a murder at the hands of government officials and decide to take it upon themselves to uncover the details.  We’re also introduced to an aging secret service agent who is assigned to the case and members of a terrorist organization who are planning to attack the president and whose connection to the murderers is unclear.  The characters are so much fleshier and the plot significantly more intelligent and complex than in Simple Genius.  This is not usually a genre that I prefer, but I’ll probaby at least read the next book in this series.

In an effort to round out my Baldacci reading, I wanted to read his first novel, Absolute Power, since many say it is his best, and it was made into a movie starring Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood (haven’t seen it yet…Baldacci himself says it’s VERY different from the book).  But I wasn’t able to get a copy of Absolute Power so I checked out The Christmas Train instead, since it appeared to deviate from the politial intrigue norm.  I enjoyed the book, but felt that it was more of a character study than a plot-propelling page turner.  The book is about a reporter heading to Los Angeles from Washington DC by train during the holiday season.  He hopes to write a book about the journey and meets all kinds of characters with stories to tell, including a retired priest, a fortune teller, a young eloping couple, a movie director and most surprising…his long, lost love.  The book was quaint… it was sweet…I don’t feel the urgent need to recommend it, but I’m glad I read it.

My husband and I had the chance to go see David Baldacci earlier this month.  He spoke at a local church and talked about what it was like to write his first novel, how he deals with being a celebrity, his typical writing methods and research processes and told a number of humorous anecdotes.  He’s an excellent speaker, very funny and answered questions from the audience.  He also spoke about the Wish You Well Foundation, an organization founded by Baldacci and his wife in an effort to increase family literacy.  There was a book signing afterwards but the line was very long and we were asked to please refrain from engaging him in coversation at all so that the signing could go as quickly as possible.  It was a reasonable request considering the size of the crowd, but if I wasn’t going to get to talk to the guy it wasn’t worth the wait, so we left.

Baldacci’s latest novel, First Family was released on April 21, 2009.

The Collected Short Stories by Jeffrey Archer


The Collected Short Stories of Jeffrey Archer is the compilation of his three acclaimed collections of short fiction:  A Quiver Full of Arrows, A Twist in the Tale and Twelve Red Herrings.  Though he’s a bestselling, prolific writer, this was the first I’d read of Jeffrey Archer, and though I enjoyed the book I doubt I’ll be reading anything else of his.  Maybe it’s because short stories overexpose a reader to an author’s methods of story and character development that I feel like I’ve gotten my fill of what he has to offer.
I appreciated Archer’s attention to creating individuals in each story.  He always spent time on the main characters’ backgrounds before launching into the heart of the various narratives.  It was easy to keep the protagonists separate from one another as each had his or her (mostly his) own eccentricities.  Nearly all of the stories take place in England in the 1990s and involve the likes of duplistic socialites, saavy businessmen, ruthless killers, jilted lovers and Oxford men.  In flavor, they are all VERY British and a smidge sexist.  (Are all English men really such philanderers?  It was a recurring theme.)  One story was written almost entirely in the language of cricket and I have to admit I didn’t follow that one very well.  It also seems that Archer is of the opinion that a story isn’t any good unless it has a surprising twist at the end.  Because it came to be expected, the “surprise” endings sometimes fell flat.  The ones that still managed to surprise me ended up being my favorites.
Short stories are great for vacations…car trips, plane rides, lying on the beach…you can finish a quick story and then go do something else.  Archer is a good storyteller so I’d recommend this collection if you’re going to be somewhere that may call for a quick fiction fix without commitment.  It’s pretty pulpy-feeling so don’t expect great intrinsic value, just to be disctracted and entertained.
Jeffrey Archer’s novels include Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, Shall We Tell the President?, Sons of Fortune, Kane & Abel, The Prodigal Daughter, First Among Equals, A Matter of Honor, As the Crow Flies, Honor Among Thieves, The Fourth Estate and The Eleventh Commandment.

Published in: on April 26, 2009 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead


As the fourth person in the family to read this novel I gave this one a 4 out of 6 on the “Christmas Bag” scale.  The comments of the previous readers (my parents and my husband) were mixed and rather lukewarm so I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did.  It’s always nice to be surprised.

Coal Black Horse is the story of Robey Childs, a fourteen year-old boy who lives with his mother on their small farm in the West Virginia mountains during the time of the American Civil War.  His father has been away fighting for many months.  His mother has a premonition of his father’s death and sends Robey, her only child, to bring her husband home before he can be harmed.  The novel follows Robey as he sets out as an innocent boy and tells how he is forced to mature quickly as he learns difficult lessons about human nature, death and the horrors of war.  Through a stroke of luck or fate, he acquires a magnificent coal black horse which proves a great source of strength throughout his journey as he searches for his father.

Robey’s search takes him to Gettysburg, just a day or two after the battle there and the descriptions of the battlefield are really amazing…I don’t recall having read anything of this era that compares.  Olmstead seems intent on portraying the scenes of war as grisly and macabre, but also as beautifully human.  He refrains from romanticizing, but acknowledges that for many men and boys, war was the greatest, most magnificent adventure.  In addition to the factual descriptions of the instruments of war (weapons, soldiers and officers), attention is given to the effects of war on the people around the destruction.  The scavengers, extortionists, deserters, bereaved, bystanders and tourists…all are included to complete the portrait of a country gripped by anger and fear.  It’s the rare moments of compassion within the novel that give both Robey and reader hope that humanity will survive and remember how to forgive, love and trust.   

I have heard criticisms that the descriptions in the book are tedious and occasionally unnecessary.  I did not find that to be the case at all.  Once I was engaged in the story, which didn’t take long, the descriptions were very compelling, always relevant and really, the spirit of the book that carried the plot from one drama to the next.  Olmstead writes with a truth and poignancy that brings the reader as close to the war-ravaged people as is possible.

Coal Black Horse is a winner of the Heartland Literary Prize.  Robert Olmstead is the author of five previous books (River Dogs, Soft Water, A Trail of Heart’s Blood Wherever We Go, America By Land and Stay Here With Me.  He has hinted at a sequel to Coal Black Horse.  The trade paperback edition, which is available at noteBooks for $13.95 includes an interview with the author and a reader’s guide.

Published in: on April 8, 2009 at 9:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz



It’s always kinda fun to start reading a book you know absolutely nothing about.  This one has a pretty gold Pulitzer Prize Winner sticker on the front and three pages at the beginning just chock full of praise so I wasn’t too scared of the unknown.  This is the fourth book I picked out of the “Christmas Bag o’ Books” and I’m giving it a 4 out of 6 rating.

Reading this book was a bit like bungee jumping…or maybe bullriding…you just kind of hold on and hope for the best (despite a foreboding sense of doom) while the story races at constant, breakneck speed towards the end, never stopping to take a breath or make any sort of apologies.

The protaganist, Oscar, is a sweet, geeky, overweight young Dominican, living in New Jersey with his mother and older sister.  He is a hopeless romantic and desperately longs for both a girlfriend and to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien.  His constant misfortunes and his family’s long history of bad luck is the focus of the story, and whether those misfortunes were their own doing, or the responsibility of a legendary Dominican curse.  Though the story starts with Oscar, it jumps around to focus on his sister, his mother, his grandparents and great-grandparents whose bad luck started during (and because of) the dictatorship of the tyrant Trujillo.

Usually I am a meticulous reader.  I like to know who is talking and who the narrator is.  If there’s a word I don’t understand, I’ll typically look it up.  If I get confused about chronology, geneology or phrenology, I don’t hesitate to go back in the book and read parts again.  It bothers me to be lost.  BUT, in the case of this book I just let all that go.  It became apparent rather early on that being meticulous was going to seriously undermine the author’s intent.  It all comes together in the end, anyway.  There are entire phrases in Spanish and certain Spanish words used over and over again.  Some sentences even start in English and end in Spanish.  I didn’t let these slow me down and by the end of the book I think my very limited Spanish proficiency had doubled.  (Since my previous Spanish came primarily from Dora the Explorer and since the Spanish in this book was predominantly slang, pejoratives and curse words, I now possess a rather interesting Spanish vocabulay.)

There are also footnotes throughout the book.  At first these felt like reading speedbumps, especially since some of them take up more space on a page than the actual text.  Eventually though, I found myself looking forward to them.  The footnotes tell another story.  While the fiction races along above, the footnotes tell the history of Trujillo’s long dictatorship and the effect he had on his own country as well as the world, always in relation to what was going on with the fiction.  It was a great history lesson.

I also really enjoyed how both fiction and non-fiction were peppered with geek references in homage to Oscar.  There were Tolkien shout-outs a-plenty, but also references to comic books, Japanese animation, role-playing games and science fiction movies.  As a proud geek myself, these references were fun to read.  There were a few that were over my head, making me think that maybe Diaz is a bigger geek than me, and that I like him for it.

From the back of the book:  “Junot Diaz is the author of the short story collection Drown, and his fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review and The Best American Short Stories.  Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and raised in New Jersey, he now lives in New York City and is a professor at MIT.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is available in trade paperback at noteBooks for $14.00

Published in: on March 25, 2009 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Loving Frank by Nancy Horan


This past Christmas my mother decided to try something new.  She bought thirteen books from her bookstore, put them all in a bag and on Christmas day, after presents were all opened, she passed the bag around and told everyone to pick a book.  We could choose whichever book we wanted, it didn’t really matter since theoretically we’ll each end up reading all of them anyway.  Once we’re done with a book we are supposed to write a quick note in the back about what we thought and give it a 1-6 rating.  (1-6 so that someone can’t be lame and just rate a 3, not saying if they liked it or not.)  Then you’re supposed to trade with someone or see what’s been returned to the bag and pick another book.  The hope is that everyone will read most (if not all) of the books and next year at the Thanksgiving dinner table we’ll be able to sit around and talk about them.  It seems that she did a pretty good job putting together a varied collection and I thought I’d include those titles as I read them over the next few months.  One of the books I’ve already read and reviewed — Three Cups of Tea — and in my notation in the back I gave it a rating of 5.  Loving Frank was the first book I pulled out of the bag and I gave it a score of 4.5.

Loving Frank is a work of historical fiction based upon the true facts of the love affair between architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Martha (Mamah) Borthwick Cheney in the early 1900s told from Mamah’s point of view. 

Succinctly:  I loved the book.  It pushed all of the right buttons for me.  It was a detailed and interesting period piece, it was about architectural history and it was a good love story (passionate and compelling but not mushy).  I credit my enjoyment of the book largely to Horan’s ability to build a complete framework of historic facts around which to flesh out her story.  Whenever possible she used factual details, even including excerpts from real letters, newspaper articles and lectures.  The interview with the author at the end of the book goes into greater depth regarding her research and sources and her excitement at discovering the existence of letters written by Mamah Borthwick to her friend and colleague, Ellen Key, essentially giving Mamah a true voice and personality.

A main theme in the novel is the Woman Movement (as it was then called).  Mamah is an active supporter of the movement, even prior to the starting point of the novel.  We see how her views of gender equality effect her decision to leave her family to be with Frank.  Through the years she challenges and modifies her own ideas regarding the roles of women.  As a character, Mamah changes and becomes more fulfilled, though the fulfilment comes at a price.

The novel is perfectly written.  I couldn’t put it down.  (Though I guess it’s not the type of book that would usually be considered a page-turner.)  Horan’s early 20th century world is so textured and artistically visceral that it’s very easy to become immersed.  I certainly hope this will not be Horan’s last. 

And then there’s the ending…

If you have any intention of reading this book and do not yet know the facts surrounding this portion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life I’d strongly discourage you from doing any research about it until afterward so that the ending can be just as tragic and surprising as it likely was when it actually occurred in 1914.  The ending definitely shocked me, and again, I give credit to Horan’s storytelling.  She refrained from overindulging in foreshadowing as authors are often wont to do.  It was a complete surprise.

Published in: on February 4, 2009 at 5:33 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Every work of fiction has a “personality,” a way of speaking to a reader, a conversational tone or feel.  It makes sense that the tone of most books are a reflection of the author’s own personality.  Some books seem aggressive, some timid, some somber, others jovial.  Often, the plot also plays a role in determining the book’s personality. 
I found The Story of Edgar Sawtelle‘s personality to be especially remarkable.  The book is even-tempered and unassuming; almost matter-of-fact but with a hint more warmth.  Even though the plot traverses through tragedy, surprise and moments of excitement, the book presents the whole story with a pure, quiet simpleness that results in a sense of truthfulness.  If you read through a surprising plot twist and it makes you feel angry or sad or nothing at all it’s because that’s how YOU feel, not because the book has manipulated you to feel that way.
While I was in the middle of the book someone mentioned to me that this new author, David Wroblewski, was being compared to John Steinbeck and I thought “YES!”  That helps me put into words the unusual personality of this book – Steinbeck’s raw openness, unashamed and often unemotional – that feeling that has come to be described as “American” in literature.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is VERY “American.”  It’s essentially an American Hamlet story complete with love, betrayal, ghosts and revenge, but these dramatic topics are tempered under the comforting blanket of everyday life in heartland America.  The title character is a boy living with his parents in Wisconsin on a farm where they raise, train and sell a fictional breed of dog known for its exceptional companionship.  Even though Edgar is mute, he helps train and care for the dogs, using sign to communicate.  When Edgar’s father’s brother shows up, tensions rise.  Edgar’s uncle (Claude) has different ideas about how to do things and seems to still be holding a grudge against his older brother.  After Edgar finds his father’s body in the barn, with no apparent cause of death, he begins to suspect his uncle and is determined to find a way to prove it.
Completely separate from the Hamlet theme, but integral to the story is the giant red barn on the Sawtelle property.  A great deal of the action takes place in the barn and it could even be described as being one of the main characters.  The barn witnesses betrayal and murder, is a home for the Sawtelle dogs – where they are born and trained, and is a guardian of the history of the dogs’ bloodlines and of the Sawtelles themselves.  It is, of course, iconically American.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was one of those books, when put down, left me feeling both happy and sad.  Happy to have experienced such a great piece of literature and sad that it was over.  The book’s unassuming personality allows you to take exactly from it what you want, which is incredibly satisfying.

Published in: on December 17, 2008 at 4:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Featured Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Around here, in Southwestern Virginia, we like Barbara Kingsolver.  She and her family are a recent, permanent addition to the SWVA area.  She grew up in the Kentucky Appalachians and, until a couple of years ago, spent her winters in Arizona.  Back in 2006 Kingsolver came to Floyd and spoke at the high school.  She read from her latest book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and signed copies of her book of essays, Small Wonder.  Always interested in supporting local economies, Kingsolver asked that the purchasing and selling of copies of Small Wonder be handled by a local bookstore rather than by a corporate chain.  My mother was ecstatic.  As the owner of noteBooks, the town’s only bookstore at the time, and a fan of the author, it was an exciting event for her.  My mother got signed copies of the book for all of her daughters and it was in this way that I was introduced to Barbara Kingsolver.

I read Small Wonder (published in 2002), and I enjoyed most of it.  As is probably the case with most collections, whether they be of essays, poetry or short stories, there are going to be some that grab you and others that just aren’t your cup of tea.  In this collection, Kingsolver writes about her wordly travels from the eyes of a nature-and-people-lover.  She reminisces about her childhood and touts the benefits of supporting local farmers and living off the land.  She writes, with heartbroken sincerity, about humanity’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  She also discusses environmental dangers threatening parts of the world, both near and far.  But the two essays that I enjoyed most were the letters; she wrote one to her daughter and another to her mother.  The entries are beautiful, raw and I sincerely believe any female who is, has been or ever will be a daughter or mother should read them, especially if, like me, laughter through tears is one of your favorite emotions.

The next Barbara Kingsolver book I picked up, about a year later, was the novel The Poisonwood Bible(1998).  One of my sisters had long proclaimed it her favorite book.  There must be others who feel the same way, as it remains her best-selling book and was a New York Times Bestseller.  The Poisonwood Bible is the story of a missionary family who travels to the Belgian Congo in 1960 and the ways in which the experience changes each of them.  The book is written from the various points of view of each of the four daughters and their mother and spans over three decades.  This book made me keenly aware of Kingsolver’s extraordinary relationship with language.  The narrators thought and spoke in very different ways and the methods in which words were manipulated sculpted poignant characterizations of each one.

The next book I read was one of her first novels, The Bean Trees (1988).  It was obvious this book lacked the worldly sophistication of the previous two, but I think I enjoyed it more.  It was very real…very human, simple but vividly organic.  It must have been somewhat autobiographical since it told of a young woman from Kentucky who found herself living in Arizona and the observations of the differences between the two regions permeated the story.  It’s also easy to see Kingsolver’s developing passions of nature and personal relationships which continue in her later works.  A sequel to The Bean Trees was written a few years later.  Pigs in Heaven is on my short list of books to read soon.

When I told my mom that my next review was going to be a feature on Barbara Kingsolver she said, “Well, you HAVE to read her latest one.”  I actually didn’t even realize there WAS a latest one (luckily for me I have a mother who is so with the times).  As it turns out Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) is my favorite Barbara Kingsolver yet.  In this nonfiction book she expands on some of the issues she touched on in Small Wonder, namely the wastefulness of corporate agriculture and food shipping, how the United States has somehow gotten twisted up in our way of thinking about food and our relationship with what we eat, perhaps because Americans lacks a distinct food culture of our own.  The book documents the year in which her family vows to eat only foods that they either grow or raise on their own or which can be purchased locally.  I found the whole book to be very conversational (funny!) and not at all sanctimonious.  It is especially relevant in our area because we are fortunate to have local farmers to buy from and good soil in which to grow food ourselves.  The book also serves as a basic how-to on getting started on your own garden and recipes to use throughout the year.
Barbara Kingsolver has written twelve books, all of which are available or can be ordered at noteBooks.  Incidentally…Mom still has 42 copies of Small Wonder left over from the author’s visit to Floyd and she’ll happily sell you a copy at 40% off!

Pillars of the Earth / World Without End by Ken Follett

I’m a big fan of the epic fantasy genre but I never realized how similar fantasy novels are to historic fiction.  Take away the elves, dwarves and impending magical catastrophes, add a loosely factual historical framework and George R. R. Martin becomes Ken Follett.  The novels of both authors are rife with political intrigue, multiple complex characters and storylines, blushingly graphic sexual content and really mean bad guys.  They’re satisfyingly obese tomes that can be week-long companions until closed for the final time with a contented sigh.

For that reason, and also for my love of English history, I thoroughly enjoyed both Pillars of the Earth (written in 1989) and World Without End (the sequel, written 18 years later in 2007).  It’s true that the books could be read in either order since the stories take place centuries apart, but I’d recommend reading Pillars first because there are a few references to the first in the second which will make more sense read in that order.

Both novels take place primarily in the town of Kingsbridge, England.  Pillars of the Earth is set in the 1100s during the time period known as “The Anarchy” between the sinking of the White Ship and murder of Thomas Becket.  The book tells the story of the newly elected Prior, Phillip, and the master builder, Tom, who is hired to build a new cathedral after a fire claims the old building.  Tom’s stepson, Jack, continues the project incorporating the new gothic styles he discovers while in France.  Prior Phillip and struggling wool merchant, Aliena, doggedly pursue their goals while villians Bishop Waleran and Earl William connive against them.  The story spans many years and readers follow entire lifespans of characters and their children.  The characters and their individual stories are fictional, of course, but the intricate details of the Catholic church’s power, the English feudal system and the incredible process of architectural design and execution are factual and incredibly interesting.

In World Without End, Kingsbridge has a new prior, an aging cathedral, a growing town and new heroes and villians in the 1300s during the start of the Hundred Years War.  One of the biggest differences in the two novels is that Follett supports the fiction more substantially with facts and actual political events in World Without End.  Also, where architecture and the building process were the focus of the first novel, a large part of the second novel tells of the plague sweeping through Europe and revolutionary hospital practices used to try to prevent the spread of the disease.  In both books the disparity between men and women is shocking and there were a few chapters that made me want to stand up and punch the first male I could find in the mouth.  It’s really amazing that such inequality existed, not only between the sexes, but also between classes.  The frustration of poor laborers was palpable when reading the book as they tried again and again to change their lot through hard work, only to be beaten down repeatedly at a lord’s whim.

Ken Follett has written many novels and he’s probably most widely known for his World War II books but I think these two are really singular and I’d recommend them to just about anyone.  I believe Pillars of the Earth remains his bestselling work.

Published in: on October 12, 2008 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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