Self-imposed required reading

I’ve signed up for the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat in March, and have added a bunch of books to my to-read list in anticipation. Cheryl Strayed is the keynote speaker, and I’ve had her memoir, Wild, on my Nook since before my trip to Russia. (I keep wanting to call it “Strayed.”) I haven’t started reading it, because I thought it was more appropriate to read books about Russia while I was in Russia. So I read Moscow Mule and I started Ken Follett’s Winter of the World, which is about World War II.

Kremlin wall art

I’m still reading Winter of the World. In my defense, it’s 700-plus pages (on the Nook, apparently it’s 960 pages in hardcover.) But the truth is, if I were enjoying it more, I’d have finished it by now. Every time I curl up with my Nook, I ask myself why I’m bothering to finish this book. Why not move on to another book already loaded into my device?

Winter of the World is the second part of a trilogy. After I read part one, Fall of Giants, I wrote:

I was never much of a history student. If my textbooks had as much sex in them as Follett injects into his characters in Europe during World War I, I might have felt differently.

He puts the war and its lead-up in perspective, from the points of view of Brits, Germans, Americans and Russians. Perhaps the latter half gets more bogged down in the technicalities of the war, and that’s why I lost momentum, but it’s still a very exciting book with an intriguing cast of characters.

I’m looking forward to part 2, to see what happens to these characters during the second world war.

And that’s the only reason I’m toughing it out. Because I do want to know what happens to the characters, even as Follett’s writing style has begun to get on my nerves. I’d have to take another look at Fall of Giants, or even The Pillars of the Earth to be sure, but I suspect that this book suffered because he was in a rush to get it out a year after the first part.

There are no graceful turns of phrase, and most of the war stuff is pretty pedantic. Maybe I’m just too familiar with the politics of WWII. Nazis vs. Communists. The atrocities committed on both sides. I know exactly what’s going to happen when disabled children are sent to a hospital in Bavaria for “special treatment.” Or when an American soldier gets stationed in Oahu.

Excellent writing and fascinating characters should be able to transcend that, but I don’t think this book has either. Some critics of Pillars of the Earth accused Follett of poorly developed female characters. So to speak, because all the women were described by the size of their bosoms. That didn’t bother me in Pillars, but I’m keenly aware and annoyed by it now.

Star-crossed lovers are separated and come back together with very little drama and uninspired sex. “I’ve always loved you.” “I love you too!” “Now take off your pants!”

And yet, I carry on. Should I bother? Am I going to feel obligated to read part three about the Cold War?

What do you think, readers? What are some of the books you struggled to finish? Which have you abandoned, and how do you know when it’s time to give up?

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