Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Pillars of the Earth review

Coming back from spring break, my ride and I had a few hours to kill before picking up his roommate at the airport. We spent the entirety of it at Barnes and Noble. I wandered half the store, picking up anything that caught my eye. One of the books I wrote down to find at a library later (poor college student) was Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.

I'll admit I grabbed it for the cool, architecture-y cover and extra-fine paper, but then I read the foreword by the author himself. Follett explained that even though he usually wrote thrillers, he had become fascinated by cathedrals over the course of his life, and wanted to write a book about one being built. He wasn't a Christian, having grown up in a strict Plymouth Brethren church and disliked it, but that didn't dissuade him from visiting cathedrals in every city he visited.

He certainly did his research. I still needed to look up some of the terms to understand the different parts of the cathedral, but the picture he puts together gives a good idea for the scope of such an enormous and intricate building. His dislike of the church also didn't keep him from writing a very well-fleshed out and godly monk, who was my favorite character in the novel. (I go to a Plymouth Brethren church, by the way.) I appreciated his ability to find Prior Philip's perspective and make it equal to those of the non-Christian characters in the novel.

We also follow Tom, the man whose dream is to build a cathedral; fierce and beautiful Aliena, a noblewoman fighting to regain her place; the unconventional Jack, who follows in the footsteps of his stepfather, Tom; the malevolent Bishop Waleran Bigod, master manipulator; and William Hamleigh, the ascended bully with an agenda.

Overall, I liked the book, but there were some disappointments. Most doorstoppers I read (Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, Neal Stephenson) have a TON of plot in them. It only makes sense, for such a large book. Pillars of the Earth kept me reading, but I was surprised that a thriller writer didn't put in some more twists and turns as to character motivations and turns of event. Part of this had to do with tying in actual historical elements; another factor was using the point of view of one of the villians, William Hamleigh. Thus, we would see dastardly plans being planned, and then we wouldn't be surprised when our good guys reacted to them. This actually did more good for the book than bad, but still, I wanted more surprise and thrill than was present. There was one big mystery that lasted for the whole course of the book, but it was more in the background than anything else. Bringing that forward could have helped pull readers along for the 60 in-story years and 900+ pages.

I had nothing to complain about with the writing itself -- and not much to praise, either. The prologue did an excellent job of hooking the reader, but other than that the writing was straightforward, though with a decent amount of differentiation between character voices. With such a big scope, I could have wished for more beautiful, memorable words.

Another thing that disappointed me personally was the amount of sex in the book. Apparently this is standard fare with Ken Follett, something I didn't know going in, so I was unprepared. This goes back to the dastardly villain thing; William Hamleigh rapes multiple women over the course of the book, mostly to show the readers exactly what kind of person he is. It's effective at that. I found it excessive -- it's quite graphic in almost every instance. Your mileage may vary. There's also a fair amount of violence, but since it deals with war and medieval England, I found it justifiable.

Still, villains are fought, futures are wrought, and all the characters we've been rooting for and against get endings worth reading about. For reasons previously stated, I won't be picking up the sequels. Still, I'm glad I read it.

Sunday, June 23, 2013


I'm trying to catch up on the episodes of Writing Excuses I haven't been listening to for the past year. If you want to write genre fiction, or any fiction, you should listen to this podcast. Anyway, every once in a while they do an episode of "microcasting," where instead of 15 minutes on one subject, they answer a variety of questions in one 'cast. Since I didn't have one really solid idea for a post this week, I decided I would micropost.
"You should really be wearing shoes back here," my boyfriend told me.
"I'll be fine," I said. I have a hobbitish tendency to refuse shoes during the summer, and my feet are pretty tough as a result. Consequently, I wasn't afraid of walking through the timber to help find firewood for the bonfire on Friday. However, timbers on old farms have often been dumping grounds for junk, as I should have known.

After stepping on what was probably a shard of a broken toilet, I hobbled back to my boyfriend's house, leaving nice splashes of blood on the leafy ground. Even after bleeding though one layer of bandages, I didn't think it was all that serious, so we gave it another layer and I sat around the fire for a couple hours, and only sitting, as my boyfriend insisted. When I got home, my parents gave it a look and decided I should go to the emergency room. I now have four stitches, a pair of crutches I only needed for two days, and some Finding Nemo and Iron Man stickers the nice people at the ER gave me. Today I've mostly regained mobility, though I'm still walking a little on the side of my foot, but the stitches aren't supposed to come out for another week. Oh bother.
When I need a respite from people, I tend to archive-binge on my favorite webcomics. I've added a new one. Order of the Stick is now on my list of comics to follow, and next time I need to be anti-social for a couple of days, I know where to look.
Sometimes you need to tear down something old so you can rebuild. On the other hand, sometimes you can just slap some paint on it and it will be fine. Both of these philosophies have been key as my family's been fixing up our old house. Today we tore out half the front porch, and the roof above it is sitting precariously on temporary posts as we tear out the rotting supports beneath. My mom has a vision of a new, pretty porch railing and flowers planted in front of it.

Looking at our house, it's easy to get discouraged about the amount of work we have to do. Weekend after weekend is spent tackling some project that usually leaves the house a mess, and we know that soon there'll be yet another project that will make it look like we're actually tearing the house down, not fixing a pocket door or putting sand paint on the ceiling or wiring upstairs. But we've come pretty far. I found some pictures a while ago of when Dad and I took down the old cabinets in the kitchen prior to knocking out the crumbling, icky plaster. Now we have a blue and white kitchen with a Bible verse painted on the wall. Eventually we will refinish the old wood floors and put in carpet and finish painting and rebuild the front steps and fix all the screen windows and get air conditioning and tile and fix the hole in the attic and reroof and put stairs up to the attic and clean up the basement and string the stairs to the basement and plant more flowers and get new siding and....

Sigh. I love this house. This old, stupid house.
Before I get out of my car to work in the mornings, I pray that I'll be a good worker and a good witness. I don't really know how to do the latter. Labor comes naturally to me. Reaching out to people doesn't. I'm used to school and church, where most everyone is nice and we all have something in common -- Jesus. At work, most everyone is nice, too, but most of the other people I know don't wrestle with custody issues for their kids or have cheating boyfriends or no teeth from former meth addictions. I listen to them talk about these things - I think that's a good first step -- and when they ask about my life, I tell them. And when I mention having a good family and supportive parents, I'm told I'm lucky. I know I am, now.
I've been telling myself I'll do this for two weeks, but now I'm telling the Internet so that it'll actually happen. On Wednesdays I intend to review the books I've been reading here for the blog. They will be pretty random, things that caught my eye in the library, but I hope they'll be enjoyable and interesting. Maybe I can point you at some good books.

That's it for microposting today. The only problem is it's hard to come up with a relevant concluding sentence with just the right kick, humor, or both. Oh well.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Storytelling and the Man of Steel

On Friday, I went to see Man of Steel. Just in the last year or two, I've been getting into superheroes and comics, though I'm still largely ignorant of the vast canonical body of story available. I'm also a sucker for a character who represents hope, and I loved the old Superman movie with Christopher Reeve, so I was looking forward to absorbing some more superhero knowledge and storytelling.

About halfway through the movie, my inner critic took off its suspenders of disbelief and started nagging at me. It wasn't that it was unbelievable -- you know, for a superhero movie -- but I had stopped enjoying it and wanted to assuage my disappointment by complaining.

There was a lot more angst than hope, and a lot more explosions than anything else. Like, literally half the movie. By the end, I was exhausted just from watching it. I complained about that for a good long while, but eventually I turned on other aspects of the movie. Superman didn't do much growing and changing over the film, and whenever they needed to hint at that growth they threw in a flashback that showed him dealing with those issues when he was younger. In a depressing, angry, tense way, of course. And it was weird how the whole first half of the movie felt like a beginning, or beginning stacked on top of beginnings, almost up until things started exploding.

I vented these kinds of complaints to my boyfriend for a while, but talking about it raised some questions for me about stories and movies in general. Were the things I didn't like really bad, or just different? Should I be looking at things differently, or is criticizing a movie with a writer's expectations legitimate? And is it fair to be angry at a movie for not meeting my character expectations? Is it bad for an adaptation to change a familiar character if they can make a good story? If it is, is it worse to stay true to a character and make a mediocre story?

It started me musing about storytelling conventions in general. On the whole, I like tropes. I like how they provide a framework our understanding knows how to use, as well as the potential for introducing different ideas through familiar channels. There's always the possibility for new ideas, but when channeled through what we already know, these differences make the stories exciting, dynamic, because our emotions are engaged but we are met with the unexpected.

But when presented with something really different, we often react negatively. Sometimes that different thing becomes popular. Sometimes that different thing was disliked for a legitimate reason. I was trying to explain why the latter half of the movie was bad accordingly. I explained to my boyfriend the scene-sequel concept.
Me: After scenes with a lot of action and intense stuff, you need a calmer scene. Then it can go back to action.
Boyfriend: Why?
Me: ......
It's a simple answer, but it threw me for a loop. I eventually answered it was so that we can absorb the information and consequences of a scene and so the characters can recover and get ready for what's next. I still think it's a good system. But is that the only way to go? After I thinking about it, I guess it doesn't have to be.

I didn't really like Man of Steel, but I think it was still good to watch it. They did pull off some neat stuff. They packed a ton of story into two and a half hours. Just watching how they did that was interesting. And it was good to find so many questions waiting for me. I still haven't come to many conclusions. Well, other than don't go to a movie the night before you have to wake up early for work, but that one should have been obvious.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Interrupted rhythms

I consider myself to be a happily disorganized person. I prefer this to expending lots of effort to keep everything orderly and planned. It may not be the best system, but I can usually juggle projects with minimum fuss, and it works for me. Lately I've realized how the preservation of rhythm is one way I keep things straight without active work.

Sometimes at school I would get busy enough that I would forget which day of the week it was, but after a few second's consideration I could remember because today I had my lit seminar, and that happened on Tuesdays only, or I slept in this morning so that made it a Thursday. Rhythm from the days of the week and the habits that accompanied them kept me going so that I rarely missed anything.

I don't have that anymore. I also don't have nearly as much to do, but it's still messing me up.

For example, this last Sunday morning I had work. (Hooray, gainful employment.) Work is going to make me miss church about every other week, but I've only had the job for a week and it's not going to be regular anyway, so that rhythm is not in place. The Sunday before that, I was coming back from a wedding. The weeks didn't feel normal, so no weekly reminders, so no blog posts. (Sorry about that.) Plus work and new exciting taekwando classes are leaving me bodily exhausted, so I don't want to do anything but lie around and maybe read. This has not been good for my novel.

Still. Taekwando, twice a week. ...... that may be my only starting point, since I work most days but with unpredictable days off, my younger brother needs to share the vehicle with me on different days, my family takes on sporadic house-improving projects, and I don't have any other regular responsibilities.

Does this mean I'll have to start making a weekly schedule for writing and regular tasks, just to make sure I get stuff done?

I hope it doesn't come to that.