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My Name is Will, by Jess Winfield

Title: My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and ShakespeareMyNameisWill
Author: Jess Winfield
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 304 pages
Genre: historical fiction / modern fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2 stars. Maybe.

I have conflicted feelings about this book. I wanted to like it, somewhat enjoyed half of it, and could’ve entirely done without the other half.

My Name is Will tells two stories in parallel. The William section, set in 1582, follows William Shakespeare through a tumultuous few months of his life, where he woos women, gets entangled in a Catholic conspiracy, becomes a man, and winds up accidentally married to Anne Hathaway. The Willie section of the book, set in the 1980s, follows a lackluster graduate student through a weekend where he tries to defend an indefensible thesis topic, bangs a lot of women, gets stoned a lot, and winds up accidentally smuggling drugs to a Renaissance faire.

The William section of the book is pretty fun — though a total fantasy hinging on a highly inventive narrative. But whatever, I can deal with that. The writing here occasionally soars, because Winfield has a good grip on rhetoric. For someone who knows what syllepsis looks like and can spot anthimeria at fifty paces, these chapters can be a real treat. Unfortunately, it can never sustain that high quality for very long. There are plenty of bits that drag. Winfield occasionally belabors his history to cram in the backstory that not everyone will have when it comes to Shakespeare’s life, conditions in mid-16th century Warwickshire, or the politics of Elizabeth’s reign. And then it sort of unravels at the end. Events collide into each other with bizarre pacing, and there are a few tangents that most definitely come out of nowhere.

The Willie section of the book… if that were all the book was, it would’ve been a DNF for me. I found Willie to be 3000% unsympathetic. I mean, really, I’m supposed to feel bad for this entitled, lazy-ass grad student, who can’t be bothered to finish the thesis and get the degree his father has paid his way for, because he’s too busy trying to figure out how to nail PhD candidates and spends all his father’s money on weed and mushrooms? Seriously? That is not a protagonist to me. That is someone I want to kick in the shins. I am thoroughly unimpressed by druggie culture, and even more unimpressed by crappy students who give academia a bad name. This made it impossible for me to connect with the character or to care about his story. I didn’t care if he managed to make his drug deal to get the money he so desperately needed because his father (sort of) (finally) cut him off, except insofar as I wanted the arrogant little snot to get arrested.

There were also times in both sections when it felt like Winfield was trying to be gritty for grittiness’s sake. I’m not someone who enjoys crudeness. I know some people appreciate that in their fiction, but I’m not one of them. I don’t need to be reminded every other page that people piss, shit, fart, and are full of pus. I just don’t. Maybe that makes me squeamish or something, but it just puts me off.

And then there were the female characters. Between both storylines, there was exactly one female character who had a purpose beyond being a receptacle for sperm — Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. And we don’t even see that much from her until the last quarter of the book. Every other women in the book, no matter her station, her purported intellect, whatever, just seems to fall flat on her back with her legs spread for William or Willie. It’s beyond ridiculous. Willie’s section in particular is just the pornographic fantasy of an emotionally stunted twenty-something male. Lord knows I don’t mind sex in a book — as I’m sure y’all can tell from the number of romance novels I review — but in My Name is Will, it’s just pathetic and tawdry. I have exactly no interest in the erectile state of some spoiled, entitled loser, but by God will you hear about it in this book. Over and over and over again.

Overall, I think this book is a really big case of YMMV. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would find appeal in the very things that repelled me. The 1582 chapters kept me reading, but this book was very nearly something I could not even get through. There were a few worthwhile moments, and those, I imagine, will stick with me. But this is not one I’ll ever feel the compulsion to re-read.

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Curtsies & Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger

Title: Curtsies & ConspiraciesCurtsiesConspiracies (Finishing School #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk paranormal
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

The second installment in Carriger’s Finishing School Series is every bit as good as the first. Which is to say, not flawless, but thoroughly entertaining.

Returning to the floating school for female spies, we find Sophronia and her peers receiving their first evaluations. Each young lady is tested individually, but the results are given en masse. Sophronia’s ludicrously high marks make her a target for ostracization, even from her nearest and dearest — Dimity, Sidhaeg, and Agatha. Even stranger, the school is planning a trip to London — and stops on the way to pick up boys from their rival university. Suspecting that this trip is much more than meets the eye, Sophronia puts all her skills to use to get to the bottom of a scheme with major implications for the scientific and the supernatural communities alike, and to keep her friend Dimity safe from what she’s sure is an imminent kidnapping attempt.

As ever, Carriger writes with considerable felicity. The tone of the book is conscious, but not cloyingly so, as was occasionally the case in the Parasol Protectorate books. They’re over-the-top, utterly ridiculous at points, but there’s also a lot about them that feels quite real, particularly when it comes to her depiction of teenage girl social dynamics. Sophronia and her peers act like reasonable approximations of teenage girls — but not like idiots. Everything is life or death — but at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, that’s occasionally literally true as well. Your friends don’t always behave in the ways you wish they would. Signals get mixed, sometimes someone thinks she’s telegraphing one emotion but you’re interpreting another and everyone’s confused. Some people hurt each other intentionally, and some do it by accident. Despite the strange setting of a floating school, the vampires, the mechanimal pet, the intrigues, the kidnappings, and of course the fact that fourteen year old girls are being trained on how to recognize arsenic-laced tea cookies at the same time they’re learning to flirt, there’s also a lot here that’s just very… normal.

And I really appreciate the way this book handles potential romance. They’re curious about boys, but still a little hesitant about them, too. There’s a wonderful frisson of “Not yet… but soon” about it all. Sophronia discovers that she likes the attention of flirting and wants to enjoy that, but she sometimes feels discomfited by the tangle of emotions and hormones that come along with it, too. I hope that Carriger’s taking us someplace more than a standard love triangle, though, because if she’s headed in that direction, I will have to shake my head. Right now, it’s just sort of fun to watch a heroine be allowed to feel things without the pressure of making a lifelong decision based on them.

Carriger also does a lovely job weaving together her two timelines. It isn’t a strict progression, but enough of the characters interweave (and yes, there are a few more lovely cameos here) to make it a real treat. Even better, though, is the way the world itself interweaves, particularly with regard to scientific and political developments. It makes the Parasol Protectorate world more complete unto itself. It’s also unfolding further, both for the reader and for Sophronia. Alliances and sympathies aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem at first glance.

There are, as I said, a few flaws. Though the sense of character is improved from the first book, the POV bobbles a bit in some places, wandering from third-limited into third-omniscient with no real justification. And the moral lesson of the book is a bit obvious — that, as in the first book, Sophronia’s greatest strength is in her friends and allies (friendship is magic, y’all). This despite the fact that the school still seems to encourage competition, resulting in something of a mixed message for Sophronia. I’m hoping to see that play out further, especially since Sophronia does such a good job of yoking together disparate talents from very different individuals. Altogether, I thoroughly enjoyed this installment and I look forward to the next.

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Shakespeare on Theatre, edited by Nick de Somogyi

Title: Shakespeare on TheatreShakespeareonTheatre
Author: Nick de Somogyi
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 213 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? new (review reposted from the ASC Education blog)
Rating: 3.25 stars

Shakespeare on Theatre is a good entry-level exploration of how Shakespeare’s plays comment on the conditions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world. From company structure to architecture, from prompters to casting, from prologues to epilogues, de Somogyi provides a compendium of Shakespeare’s commentaries on the theatre. What’s best about this, I think, is that de Somogyi shows that those references don’t only turn up in the expected places — the plays-within-plays in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, the self-aware prologues of Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, the masque of The Tempest. Rather, the book also explores the subtler and smaller intra-theatrical instances. He reminds us of Cleopatra’s horror of watching a child actor “boy” her greatness on a rudimentary stage, of Macbeth’s metaphor of death as the ultimate exeunt omnes, of Margaret costuming the Duke of York with a paper crown.

De Somogyi also does well to expand his explorations and include  examples from other playwrights, many of them more overt in their self-referential moments, such as Ben Jonson’s various admonishments to the audience, or the appearance of actors Burbage, Condell, and Lowin as themselves at the top of Marston’s The Malcontent. The book includes snippets of poetry and of polemics both pro- and anti-theatrical, giving a broader view of the role of playhouse culture in 16th- and 17th-century London. Throughout, de Somogyi connects the conventions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world to examples of how those conditions have changed — or stayed similar — through to the modern age. It’s also pleasing that he typically off-sets terms like “metatheatrical” or “fourth wall” with quotation marks in recognition of the fact that those concepts, while common to theatre today, would have been alien to Shakespeare’s company and their audience.

Curiously, he seems less interested in that interplay when it comes to characters who “perform,” unless they do so explicitly. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, he devotes considerable attention to the frame story involving Sly and the Players, but none at all to Petruchio’s various performances within the text. Nor does he consider the theatricality inherent in kings speaking to royal courts or to the commons. The deposition scene in Richard II, the fraught peacemaking of King John and King Philip, Richard III’s pretended reluctance to assume authority — these would all seem to be fruitful for what they have to say about the intertwining and overlapping of performing on the stage and performing in life (and about the blending and manipulation of on-stage and off-stage audiences), yet de Somogyi does not plumb them for their potential.

The overall effect of the book is to remind the audience that, as de Somogyi points out explicitly more than once, a playwriting was “a functional craft”. Shakespeare on Theatre goes a long way towards de-mystifying the idea of theatre as sacrosanct art. Modern culture tends to designate it as an emotional enterprise, but the early modern reality was much different. The book peels back the romantic notions and exposes the business of theatre — and demonstrates clearly that Shakespeare was a man who knew the practical aspects both on the production and the financial sides.

The book’s main flaw, in my opinion, is its freedom of conjecture. De Somogyi does not often enough qualify his pronouncements on Shakespeare’s life with the necessary disclaimers. I worry that someone approaching this book with a less solid grounding in the subject matter might take his narrative constructions as true biography. It’s even more concerning that this trend begins on the very first page of the introduction to the book. De Somogyi begins with the admirable opening statement that Shakespeare “was a working man of the theatre to his core,” but from there slides effortlessly into an imagined sequence of events — a lovely fantasy, of a “stage-struck boy” eventually “talent-spotted by a later touring troupe” who grew from an actor with “precociously impressive skills as a textual fixer” into the greatest playwright of the age. There are perhaps even some probabilities mixed in with the inventions, but they are still only conjectures, not evidenced facts. De Somogyi seems to assert things as truth that we cannot know for sure. More imaginative declarations of this type take place throughout the book, along with other generalizations about early modern theatre that I feel could have used some end-noted explanations.

With that caveat, however, I can generally recommend this book as a solid introduction to the interwoven dialogue between play, playing, and playhouses. Devoted scholars aren’t likely to find anything new here, but the book is accessibly written and a comfortable first step for someone who might then move on to deeper examinations like Gurr, Stern, or McDonald. It also might serve as an interesting source of monologue material for auditioning actors. Many of de Somogyi’s selections are the appropriate length, but a different variety than typical guides provide.

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The Care and Taming of a Rogue, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: The Care and Taming of a Rogue CareandTaming(Adventurers’ Club #1)
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Length: 371 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3.25 stars

I don’t like monkeys.

I should just say that from the outset, because the monkey is, well, not an insubstantial part of this book. It’s meant to be endearing, but I find monkeys just inexpressibly creepy. (Now if it had been a lemur, we could’ve talked).

That said, I think I liked this book better on the second go than I remember liking it the first time I read it. That still isn’t a resounding acclamation, mind you, but I felt less distracted while reading than I did the first time. Enoch’s Adventurers’ Series explores the lives of men who have come back from Britain’s imperialist expeditions rather the worse for wear. It’s a fairly good inversion of the cheerful “Rule Britannia” trope. Of course, the focus is still on the effect these things have on the white British people rather than on the conquered, but, you can only expect so much multi-cultural awareness from Regency romance novels, really. Enoch takes a lot of inspiration from actual historical figures, and it does allow her to explore a different section of society than you see in a lot of typical books of this kind.

So. In Book One, Captain Bennett Wolfe returns from an African expedition where his second, David Langley, left him for dead. Langley stole Bennett’s journals and published them under his own name — but with a few revisions that made Bennett look like a bumbling idiot and Langley like a great hero. When Bennett returns from the Congo to find his reputation in tatters, he sets his sights on revenge — but his temper and disregard for polite society’s rules aren’t helping him win his case.

He has a few allies, and among them is Phillipa Eddison, called Flip, an determined bluestocking. Flip has read his previous books and is willing to believe that Langley is perpetrating a deceit upon the public. Unfortunately, Bennett keeps getting distracted by his growing lust and admiration for Flip, and since he’s spent most of his adult life outside of polite society, he takes actions that are decidedly too forward. Flip chastises him for overstepping boundaries, but then spends most of the book doing a really poor job of teaching him better manners. And he’s not helped by the fact that he brought home a monkey who gets into all sorts of screwball-comedy shenanigans.

The biggest problem with this book (apart from the monkey) is that neither of the main characters are tremendously likeable. Flip does do a little too much of the “I read books and think sensibly and therefore that makes me better than Other Girls” thing, a trope which I’m finding increasingly annoying in historical romances. Being a bluestocking doesn’t have to mean looking down your nose at girls who aren’t (I should know). It isn’t egregious, and Enoch does show that she has female friends and isn’t quite as much of an intellectual recluse as she seems to think herself, which mitigates it somewhat. Bennett, who is supposed to be barely civilised, mostly just comes off as unnecessarily aggressive and a bit of a boor. He makes half-hearted attempts at appropriate courtship, but considering that Flip never actually enforces her supposed ideals about propriety. Their romance is more a collision than anything else, which keeps the book clipping along, but which doesn’t make a lot of intrinsic sense, nor does it have the ring of emotional authenticity. Flip has to help Bennett restore his reputation, but the actual conflict between the two of them — his desire for adventure versus her homebody-ness — is never really addressed, but rather hand-waved so that they can get to the HEA.

So — I would call this a thoroughly middle-of-the-road romance novel, good brain candy, but not outstanding. Not Enoch’s best work, but not painful to read, either.

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World Without End, by Ken Follett

Title: World Without EndWorldWithoutEnd (Kingsbridge)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 1025 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Kingsbridge of the 14th century is a different place than Kingsbridge of the 12th. Two hundred years does a lot for England, and the sense that you get in World Without End is that it’s more advanced yet less imaginative in some ways, more dogmatic but less truly spiritual. Politics are no more stable than ever, but at least they more or less confine themselves to the nobles, rather than tearing apart the countryside in civil war like in Stephen and Maud’s time. There’s a sense of stagnation. Things are the way they are because that’s the way they’ve been, and few people think to question it. Life is more orderly, and less free.

And then the plague hits, and everything changes.

The book starts about twenty years before the plague, when Merthin and Ralph, sons of a knight who’s fallen on hard times, join up with Caris, daughter of the richest wool merchant in town, and Gwenda, daughter of a landless labourer, playing in the woods on a festival day. They oversee an altercation between several knights. The survivor, Thomas, makes Merthin help him to hide a letter, with the promise to deliver it if he should hear of Thomas’s death. The mystery clearly has dangerous political origins, but Merthin can’t learn anything more about it, and Thomas enters the monastery, determined to live a quiet life from now on.

Ten years later, Caris and Merthin are in love, Ralph is struggling to win acclaim as a squire, and Gwenda is pursuing the serf Wulfric. Their trials are, as you can imagine, many. Caris can’t figure out what her place in the world should be, as a clever woman who would like to be a physician but clearly can’t be, and Merthin is finishing an apprenticeship under a master who is jealous of his talent (a descendant of Jack Builder, Merthin has clearly inherited that genius). Unlike in Pillars of the Earth, the enemies are inside the walls here. The prior, Godwyn, is no righteous protector of the city, but a greedy abuser of it, and he has help from Gwenda’s brother Philemon, a sycophantic kleptomaniac. The townspeople and the nuns both find themselves at odds with the monastery under his leadership, and Merthin and Caris in particular have to battle him for the good of Kingsbridge — particularly when it comes to rebuilding the bridge into town following its collapse. From Gwenda, we see the point of view of the lowest of the low — and the main villain in her piece is Merthin’s brother Ralph, no noble knight, but a raping and murdering brute whose shame over his own failures leads him to oppress his tenants.

It’s hard to talk about a lot of this book without giving away major plot points, but suffice it to say that World Without End does a nice job examining the major social changes happening in England in the early- to mid-fourteenth century. Years of famine and poor weather start the trickle, racheting up the tensions between the peasantry and the nobility, and then the plague turns the tables entirely. For the first time, the lower classes have power, in the form of a labour shortage — with fields going untilled and harvests going unreaped, landless labourers can demand higher wages, and even serfs try to negotiate new terms for their tenancies. The plague also up-ends religion in some major ways, making some people doubt the power of God, leading others to give themselves over to fanaticism. I remember how astonished I was back in high school, when my AP Euro teacher explained to us (with the backing of Simon Schama) that without the Black Death, the Renaissance likely could not have happened. This book doesn’t cover enough of a span of time to really see that happen, but you can see the first snowballs of the avalanche.

I enjoy this book, but I feel like it falls down in a lot of places that Pillars of the Earth doesn’t. For one thing, its villains don’t have the sort of sweeping power that the original’s do. There’s no one with the sort of broad scope and vaulting ambition that Bishop Waleran had. Godwyn and Philemon don’t demonstrate any larger aims — they’re confined to Kingsbridge, and the things they choose to care about are so much more petty, so small, so pedestrian. They’re middle managers, not evil overlords. Even Ralph’s sadism pales next to that of his opposite number from Pillars, William Hamleigh. William at least had drive as an antagonist. He was a brute, no intellectual and no planner, but he had naked hunger and a lust for revenge in him, which made him a more interesting opponent. Ralph is just a thug. His villainy is almost casual.

Caris feels anachronistic in ways that Aliena doesn’t. I don’t know if Follett was attempting to write a heroine that would more strongly appeal to modern female readers, but mostly it just ends up ringing falsely. Her desire for such complete and total independence just isn’t rational inside the world she lives in — but even more than that, it also comes off more as selfishness than as some sort of proto-feminism. I do appreciate that she comes to find satisfaction in her work, as it demonstrates that she’s not totally irreconcilable with her reality, but still, there is so much in her attitude that seems peevish rather than autonomous. She wants people to do as she wishes, but she doesn’t want to give anything back, and she’s hellbent on the idea that forming any sort of attachment to anyone will jeopardize her own sense of self. The secondary female characters — Lady Phillippa, Mattie, Madge — actually give a more realistic view of how a woman could be successful and as independent as possible in the Middle Ages while still being part of her family and community. Unfortunately, as in Pillars of the Earth, we never get any other female POVs, so we don’t get to experience a lot from that angle. I also end up finding the romantic drama between Caris and Merthin tedious, rather than inspiring. Their conflict never really changes, and it takes them rather longer than seems sensible to arrive at the logical solution to their problems.

The book’s views on medicine are also somewhat anachronistic, but I’m more willing to forgive that as cast in the same light as the exceptionalism in Pillars of the Earth. Such wholesale rejection of the theories of Galen wouldn’t start happening in Europe for about another century, though, and it wouldn’t really catch on in the general populace until much later on. The same goes for some of the religious notions that creep in towards the end of the book.

Despite all of that, World Without End is still a cut above a lot of historical fiction. I appreciate how much Follett deals with those outside the aristocratic sphere — townspeople, merchants, nuns, priors, and serfs. Gwenda in particular is a great character: tough as nails, pragmatic, hard-working, and sharp-tongued. Caris’s cleverness is great fun when she’s not being too cantankerous, and through Merthin we get more insights into architecture and principles of building. The world is well-drawn and detailed, breathing in a way that makes it easy to visualise life in a village of the fourteenth century. The book also deals, without much obliqueness, with the idea of homosexual relationships in the medieval period, a topic which gets little treatment, either in non-fiction or fiction. I appreciate Follett’s willingness to combat the erasure. Really it only suffers by comparison to its exemplary predecessor, which is perhaps an unfair mark to hold it against. If you enjoy historical fiction, and if you like a good long epic as much as I do, you’ll enjoy World Without End.

Follett has announced that he intends to write a third Kingsbridge novel, which he will probably begin writing in 2014. I can’t express how fervently I hope that it’s going to take place another two hundred years later, during the dissolution of the monasteries. It would be a perfect way to round out the trilogy — watching how the town deals with the Reformation, factions on each side, trying to protect the books and artwork belonging to the cathedral and the monastery when so many across England were destroyed — there’s just so much potential! I’ll be eagerly awaiting further word.

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The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Title: The Pillars of the Earth PillarsoftheEarth(Kingsbridge #1)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 1989
Length: 983 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

I love an epic. I particularly love a historical epic. And The Pillars of the Earth, set primarily during the 12th century civil war between Stephen and Maud, is about as good as they come.

A monk named Philip, who believes God has a mission for him, sets out to reform a tiny monastic cell in the woods, but ends up prior of the Kingsbridge monastery, seat of the Kingsbridge bishopric. He initially thinks of Archdeacon Waleran as an ally, but when he realises that Waleran shamelessly manipulated him in order to get himself appointed Bishop of Kingsbridge, Philip vows never to be blindsided like that again. Though an extremely clever man and a capable organizer, Philip begins the book with almost astonishing naivete — not even in general ignorance, but because he, a man whose intentions are always good and peaceful, has trouble conceiving that not everyone is as honest as he is. Just as he’s taking control of the monastery, his path crosses with that of Tom Builder, a genius architect and master mason. Unfortunate circumstances have left Tom out of work: he had been building a mansion for a local knight’s son, William Hamleigh, who was meant to marry an earl’s daughter, Aliena, but Aliena refuses to have the boorish oaf, and with the wedding off, William cancels the house as well. Tom and his family wander in the woods looking for work, but when his wife died in childbirth in the wilderness, Tom decides to expose the infant they cannot care for. (This infant will later end up in the care of the Kingsbridge monks). In the woods, he encounters the outlaw Ellen and her son Jack. Ellen has been living in the forest for over a decade, after she cursed a monk, a priest, and a knight for unjustly hanging Jack’s father, but she falls in love with Tom and decides to accompany him, also believing that Jack needs exposure to civilization. In order to assure Tom of work and their family of stability, Jack starts a fire in the Kingsbridge cathedral, bringing it to the ground — and Philip gives Tom the job of master builder to design him a new and more glorious building. Meanwhile, Aliena’s father gets involved with the first phase of the rebellion against King Stephen, but the Hamleighs get wind of it and seize his castle. William brutally rapes Aliena and disfigures her brother Richard; Aliena later escapes and finds her father in prison. He makes her swear an oath to help Richard recover the earldom from the Hamleighs — but first she has to keep from starving to death. After several failed attempts at other jobs, she takes to purchasing wool fleeces from peasants to sell to the markets — but immediately finds that she’ll be cheated simply because no one will pay a girl what they’d pay a man. Prior Philip comes to her rescue, buying her wool at a fair price and allowing her to get herself and her brother back on their feet.

And this is all only in the first section of the book. Throughout the novel, Philip and the rest have to contend with the scheming Waleran, the murdering brute William, and his insidious mother Regan, among other petty enemies, all of whom want to see the Kingsbridge Cathedral fail. They find themselves in a delicate balance during the civil war and the Anarchy, when Stephen and Maud trade power, and when, more often than not, the rule of law means next to nothing. And for a lot of the book, the good guys lose. It’s hard to get through at points, because it just seems so damned unfair — but there’s always a glimmer of hope, always some way that the clever, resourceful, loyal people will win out over the vicious and mean-spirited, and so, as a reader, you plunge along with them.

Follett is a masterful storyteller. He nimbly balances the need to convey information about the time period with his character building, something that’s not easy to do. The technical explanations can easily drown the human story if you’re not careful. And make no mistake, a reader of Pillars of the Earth will learn a lot, not just about the Anarchy, but about the social history of the Middle Ages, about the ecclesiastical hierarchy and monastic daily life, about masonry and geometry, about fulling and parish guilds and medieval war tactics. Yet somehow, it all feels naturally conveyed, not like a lecture, because all of those details are integral to the characters’ lives. The cathedral is, appropriately, a framework, but the story is about how people live with each other. 

Philip is incredibly clever and generous of heart, but he’s also somewhat dogmatic and more than a little prideful. He struggles with that, knowing he should learn better humility, but finding it incredibly difficult — which, as any gifted student can attest, is a real challenge when you know you’re a mile smarter than anyone around you. By contrast, Tom Builder is quietly confident and incredibly smart, while being completely illiterate. He yearns to build something beautiful, something to last the ages, but he struggles with the secret of having abandoned his infant son in the woods — and as the boy grows up in the monastery, Tom has to try not to give himself away. He also has a blind spot where his older son is concerned, as Alfred is an unabashed bully, and moreover, not remotely talented. He’s a competent workman, but not intelligent or imaginative; all that he is comes from brute strength, which he has no compunction about using on those smaller and weaker than him — including his sister Martha and stepbrother Jack. That leads to conflict in the family, as Ellen tries to call Tom out on his favoritism. Jack is a strange boy at first, poorly socialized, but he soon proves himself a genius as well, who quickly takes to the intellectual challenges of building. And then there’s Aliena, an incredible woman who pretty much everyone falls in love with, but who rejects all advances. Follett does a nice job conveying the psychological reality of a rape survivor in a world with even less sympathy for that condition than our own. Aliena builds a tough shell around her, but triggers still leap up to surprise her, and they definitely continue to affect her life for years afterwards. Aliena is a Scarlett O’Hara figure in a lot of ways. She comes from privilege but suffers incredible trauma, then has to claw her way back to some semblance of stability, and every time she thinks she’s making advances, something slaps her back down. She keeps going, though, putting her shoulder to the wind and braving her way through every challenge. She also has the misfortune of being a supremely intelligent woman in a world that doesn’t reward that: her brother Richard, while not a fundamentally bad person, is listless and lazy, suited for nothing but soldiership, ungrateful for the assistance he receives and embarrassed to have to take it. The last POV character, interestingly enough, is William — and I do find it interesting that Follett gives us so much insight into his head. He’s not even the prime mover among the villains — that would be Waleran. He’s all muscle, brute force, and senseless violence, a pustule of indignant fury and irrational resentment. I suspect a lot of the reason for making him a POV is to heighten the tension for the heroes. The reader frequently knows that something terrible is about to happen, and the terror of wondering how the Kingsbridge set will defend themselves drives much of the novel.

The book sometimes falls prey to accusations of historical inaccuracy, and there are a few — a very few, and they’re pretty nit-picky details (the name Francis would have been unlikely for a Welsh peasant; sugar was not yet widely available; British squirrels don’t hibernate; etc). Many of the things I suspect most people would take as inaccuracies are actually the result of common misconceptions about the medieval period. Many of the characters have attributes which in the 12th century would have been extraordinary, but not impossible. There was more of a middle class than high school history classes let on. The economic power which Aliena wrests from her society would not have been the norm, but it would not have been even particularly uncommon. Many women took over businesses after husbands, brothers, or fathers died. What makes Aliena more unusual is that she managed it at such a young age without having married first. And we do see that it’s a struggle for her, and we see the traps that religion and economy lay for her — but still, there were women who did as she did. The brilliance of Tom and Jack is likewise unusual, but clearly there were men of such prodigious intelligence and talent. Even Ellen isn’t impossible, and I do thank Follett for not attaching any overt pagan religion to her. She’s anti-Christian and makes oaths “by all the gods”, but there’s no pretense of making her a Druidess or anything. Her curses are firmly grounded in folk superstition. It’s unusual that as many characters in the book would be bilingual as they are, but Follett at least gives plausible explanations in each case. On the whole, this book offers more authenticity than it doesn’t.

There are only a couple of things that ding this book down from being a solid 5 stars, for me. One is is that the delineation between good and bad is a little too neat. While the POV characters are fabulously complex people, they and their opposite numbers still come down very solidly on either side of the morality line. Philip, Tom, Aliena, Jack good; William, Waleran, Alfred, Regan bad. While Follett does a lot to explore various psychological and emotional realities, no one’s really presented as morally grey. I also think that more female characters could use detailed attention. Aliena is, as I’ve said, fantastic, but she’s really the only woman whose head we get a look into — and she’s the POV for fewer pages than any of the other main characters. Ellen, also fantastic, is off-screen for too much of the book, and she’s never a POV character. Regan is barely more than a stock villainess, Martha is broadly overlooked, and no other female characters rank higher than tertiary status.

Overall, The Pillars of the Earth is just flat-out a masterpiece. It’s beyond engaging, it’s absorbing. Follett makes England of 900 years ago seem real and vital, full of believable people, relatable despite its differences from the world we live in now (and, in some cases, he makes it apparent how little people have changed in nearly a millennium). Reading a thousand-page book is always an investment, but it’s one I very seriously recommend that any fan of historical fiction make for The Pillars of the Earth.

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Shakespeare’s London: Everyday Life in London 1580-1616, by Stephen Porter

Title: Shakespeare’s London: Everyday Life in London 1580 to 1616
Author: Stephen PorterShxLondon
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 286 pages
Genre: historical nonfiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

Shakespeare’s London is a thorough and detailed look at the English metropolis during the early modern period. While other books have taken similar approaches, none have honed in quite so specifically on a particular place at a very particular time. Porter uses not just Shakespeare’s life but his time in London as his fenceposts, and this allows him to delve deep and narrow into a moment in history.

Porter is nothing if not comprehensive. The book wends its way through many aspects of early modern life, particularly with regards to economic realities and social conventions of the common citizens of London. Porter devotes a lot of time to industry and mercantilism, and not unjustly, since trade formed the basis for London’s explosive growth in following centuries. He discusses the various neighborhoods and their relative statuses at length, and the pictorial sections of the books include a number of illustrative maps (though, since they are early modern in origin and scaled down to fit the page, these are not always easy to read). Throughout the book, Porter liberally mixes primary source accounts in with his narrative, adding valuable details to the picture he’s painting. I particularly appreciated that during the heavily economic sections of the book, since it gave the real human interest factor back to what would otherwise have been a rather dry summary of trade deals and market fluctuations.

Major events to do with monarchs and nobles only get coverage for how they affected the bulk of the populace. One of my favorite examples has to do with King James’s influence on the cloth industry. England had always done quite a lot of trade in both heavy broadcloths and lighter linens, but typically sold them overseas “in the white,” undyed. English dyers just weren’t as adept as those in other countries, nor could they dye as cheaply, so although finished cloth fetched a higher price, England had chosen to rely on its strengths and focus on creating a huge output of undyed cloth. In 1614, King James decided, on the advice of a wealthy alderman (who, coincidentally, lent the king money), that the country would, from then on, only export dyed cloth. The Dutch responded by banning imports of dyed cloth, since that was one of their major industries. James then banned the export of wool, the main raw material which the Dutch used. This trade war did not go well for the English, who did not have the expertise to turn out quality material in high enough quantities to match previous sales of undyed cloths. In 1617, with the entire industry in England threatening to collapse, James changed his mind, with the Privy Council declaring that it was ‘now his Majesty’s pleasure and resolution not to disturb the trade of whites with any further essay, but to leave the same to the train and course of trade now in practice and according to the use before the former alteration’ (116-117).

The book also does a good job of tying the social history into the world of the plays. Porter frequently refers to various plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, illustrating how the temporal reality of London found its way into so many stories on the early modern stage. Playwrights like Dekker and Middleton often put London itself right up onto the stage, and Dekker was also a pamphleteer, whose observations about the world around him tell us much about life in the era. Shakespeare may never have written a city comedy, but that definitely does not mean that his London was absent from his plays. Porter relates the conmen and petty criminals of London to Mistress Overdone’s customers in Measure for Measure, and he suggests that “Shakespeare’s metropolitan audience at The Winter’s Tale no doubt smiled at the pretentiousness of the newly-rich shepherd and his son’s shopping list for their sheep-shearing feast,” based on recognition of the produce and spices traded out of London to country burghers (120). He points out that the Boar’s Head tavern in Henry IV was likely the same as that in Great Eastcheap, near to where the Lord Chamberlain’s men then played in the winters. The diseases and pestilence mentioned in so many of his plays were those that the people of London lived with and feared spreading. Any Shakespearean reference to apprentices reflected the vast population of young men in the city who, while vital to the economic structure, were also apparently prone to lethargy and rioting. Shakespeare’s London clearly lives in his plays, no matter if they’re set in Italy, Egypt, or Bohemia.

My biggest criticism of Shakespeare’s London is that I think this book could have benefited from a different organizational structure — perhaps by sub-dividing chapters or by simply having more chapters. There are only eight in the 250-page book, and so each one has a lot of topical ground to cover. As a result, sometimes the sense of storytelling is rather haphazard — and as someone whose attention span often struggles with nonfiction anyway (even when I enjoy the topic!), it led to more than a few moments of nodding off while reading. A few chapters get a little “info-dump”-y, while others seem to have a strong narrative which then gets derailed. The best example of that is when the section on printhouses and print culture comes in the middle of a chapter which is otherwise about demographics and the early modern life cycle. The information is both interesting and useful, but it sort of comes out of left field. Printing also doesn’t get a mention in the index (which seems to focus more on proper nouns than on broader topics), so if you picked this book up specifically looking for information on that subject, it would be difficult to suss out where to find it. Information about the playhouses and playgoing culture is also scattered through a few different chapters.

On the whole, though, Shakespeare’s London is chock-full of fantastic, detailed information, much of it straight from the original sources. I think it’s most comparable to David Cressy’s Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England: a compendium of information, almost overwhelming at times, but providing a detailed window into the lives of everyday citizens who just happened to live four centuries ago. 

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