Books Reviewed: Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, by Ken Follett

These would have to be two of the best books I’ve ever read. Both concern themselves with a fictional English medieval village – or town, as it later becomes – called Kingsbridge. Ken Follett, perhaps more famous for his World War II spy thrillers such as Eye of the Needle, effortlessly transfers his skills to the historical epic. His talent for suspense does this genre no harm. Both books are superbly plotted and well researched.

Pillars of the Earth is set in the 12th century, an amazing time which saw the birth of Western civilization as it clawed its way out of the Dark Ages, yet still riven by rampant Feudalism and, in England’s case, a drawn-out civil war. The central plot-line concerns itself with the building of a great Gothic cathedral. 1000-plus pages of cathedral building? you ask dubiously. Fear not, there’s not a boring page in the entire opus. A host of characters, spanning two generations, drives the plot along. One can only read with delight the manoeuvrings and scheming of its heroes and villains. I kept thinking of a game of bridge or five hundred: you get to see all the cards, then watch them as they’re played, expertly, one by one. Rarely will you see characters you like so well suffering so much and rarely will you clamour so hard for the nasty people to get their just deserts.

World Without End is a worthy sequel, set two centuries later. It lacks the brilliant “heart” of the first book, for by this time the cathedral is built. There is a bridge, and some cathedral renovations, both symbolic of wider events just as the cathedral was in the first book, and some people have criticized WWE for these less inspiring constructions. The criticism is, however, unfounded. If anything, WWE is even more intricately plotted than PotE and I, personally, found it a fraction more entertaining, thanks in no small part to the arrival of the Black Death half way through, and also the confidence I had gained from reading the first, in knowing that Follett was an author who ‘delivered the goods’. So many books start off with a promising idea or two but finish lamely because the author never quite worked out how to finish everything off. I don’t know how much Follett worked out in advance or made up as he went along, but it all fits together fantastically. What a truly terrifying time in which to live (or die, as a third of them did). Whilst WWE has many similarities to the first book, it is not repetitive. I read them back to back, no problem at all. My only quibble is that WWE has more sex in it than it really needs – not all of it; indeed, it’s an integral part of the lives and loves of these well drawn-out characters and many plot developments hinge on their fulfilled or unfulfilled desires – but there are only so many times Merthin needs to recall ‘feeling up’  Caris next to a pillar.

Both books celebrate the struggle of mind, reason and ability over superstition, violence and jealousy. Apparently, Pillars of the Earth was a ‘sleeper’, its sales starting slowly, largely overlooked by critics at the time. Word of mouth ensured its rise to the top of the bestseller list, and you’ll now find it in most bookstores ‘Top 100’ section. For very good reason.

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Mag 7.8 Quake in China, Estimate Over 8,500 Casualties

Evidently, God isn’t too keen on having the Olympics in Peking this summer either.

A 7.8 temblor is a really big one – anything over 7.5 is – and so I’d expect the number of casualties to go much higher. China is not known for robust building codes, if you catch my drift.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, damage there has been to the Olympic Village.

UPDATE: The above article has been updated, and the quake estimate has gone up to a magnitude 7.9 – truly epic – and it was 600 km from the Olympic Village, so no reported damage there… yet. A 7.5 EQ in China once killed and/or injured over a quarter million, so this could get really hideous. Fortunately, China’s government is marginally better at handling this sort of thing than, let’s say, Burma’s.

UPDATE II: Hugh Hewett is on the case, complete with links for disaster relief donations. Here’s the incident map:

As you can see, this happened in a remote central region, and nowhere near Peking.

Gallery Updated

Make sure to click over and see the updates to the 1.618: Gallery. There’s some fine art there.

1.618 – the forgotten pic.

I had reason to dig into the archives of this morning, and rediscovered this gem.

Explanations and memories here.

Hide the letterbox, Mr Packer.

James Packer – son of the man who did something or other with cricket; ask someone who really cares – has come to a parting of the ways with the L Ron Hubbard Appreciation Society.
I remember my own flirtation with that crowd. Two or three years later I was still getting mail from them.
Today at least they might have progressed to email. Ah, the simple joys of the Delete button!

The Electronic Age has its other blessings too, of course.

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