Pillars of the Earth

I’ve recently discovered that I love listening to audio books. In the past year, I’ve put in more driving hours than I ever cared to drive. Listening to audio books helped more than I thought they would and I decided to take on a monster, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.

I had high hopes for this novel. I didn’t expect it to be a great work of literature, but it was an Oprah book. I’d heard great things from customers and I like epic stories with a huge scope and a full cast of characters. I dedicated 15 hours of my life listening to the novel and there were still 25 hours to go. After an EXTREMELY GRAPHIC rape scene from the point of view of the rapist, I decided that this novel wasn’t for me.

I was going to power through the rest of the novel, but then I found out that there are more rape scene and they are all just as graphic. Now, I think that we shouldn’t shy away from difficult topics just because they make us uncomfortable. They can be used to great effect. But this scene felt more like some sort of porn for entitled men (not to say that women aren’t rapists) instead of a scene about a sensitive issue that should be treated appropriately.

As I didn’t finish the novel, I can’t speak to it’s literary merits and disappointments. All I can say is that it wasn’t the one for me, or for anyone who is sensitive to rape scenes, especially ones that glorify the rapist.

2/5 for what I read

Everything I Never Told You

When I picked up Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, all I knew was that it was a bestseller. After reading Glass Sword, that wasn’t necessarily a winning attribute. Perhaps it’s because my expectations were so low, but it was a lot better and more emotionally compelling than I anticipated.

The story focuses on a family in 1970’s America whose eldest daughter (and the middle child of three) has just drowned. This family is unique in that they are the only mixed race (Chinese father, White mother) family living in a small Midwestern town. This story is told in a fluid point of view between all five members of the family. It examines the family, their pasts, and their relationships with each other.

While the recently deceased Lydia is the focal point and driving action of the story, I found her to be the least interesting character. Personally, the mother and her struggle between what she wants and what is expected of her was what kept me reading. She grew up under a single mother who built her whole image on being the epitome of traditional femininity. From teaching Home Ec to treating her Cookbook as the Bible, her daughter Marilyn rebelled against it by studying science and wanting to be a doctor, a radical idea for a woman in the late 50s. In the midst of this she meets the man who becomes her husband and completely gives up her dreams for his fantasy of the Ideal American Family.

In his novel Looking for Alaska, John Green structures his narrative in “Before” and “After” a pivotal event. In Everything I Never Told You, Lydia’s death should be that pivot point. Instead, it’s Marilyn’s leaving her husband and two small children to try to finish her college degree. This event is what shaped both Lydia and Nath’s relationships with their parents and each other. Every choice and action in the novel can be traced back to this and the affect it had.

While the mystery of the novel is how Lydia died, I honestly didn’t care. It was more of a character study than a mystery novel. I would recommend this novel to anyone who loves a good character study with simple prose. I don’t think it’ll be on reading lists any time soon, but it is well worth the read and bestseller status.

4/5

American Gods

It took me several weeks to read this dense book, but the journey was one of the most fulfilling ones I’ve ever had.

Essentially, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a road-trip story. Ex-convict Shadow is released from prison, hired by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, and travels across the country as Mr. Wednesday’s body man. But anyone who tells you that the plot of American Gods is the most compelling part is lying to you.

American Gods is a true work of literature. The foreboding tone, coupled with Shadow’s apathy, create an atmosphere in which the reader is never completely sure what is going to happen. Shadow gets dragged around the country, but is simultaneously dealing with recently being released from prison and the death of his wife. Due to this, he just wants to be left alone to do his job. At the same time, he can’t help but notice the stranger and stranger (and more deadly) things that keep happening to him and Mr. Wednesday. All of this, paired with the storm motif that runs through the length of the novel, conjures a suspenseful tone that pulls the reader through the whole of the text.

To me, the most beautiful thing about this novel is the theme of cynical hope. (An oxymoron, I know.) Without giving too much away, the despair of a “land without gods” and the new “gods” that America worships (Media, etc) is tempered by the sheer humanity of Shadow. Sometimes, he doesn’t do what serves his interests, like the gods do. Instead, he chooses to be compassionate to others. As an ex-convict, Shadow could have been hardened by the world. Instead, he chooses to be a decent person, even to those who don’t deserve it.

Also, mythology fans will be constantly and consistently surprised by the amount of obscure gods that show their faces in the story. While it was fun to look up the unknown ones myself, a resource guide of some sort would have been helpful. But in a never-ending list of praises, this small complaint is negligible.

This book was one I wanted to read someday, but I chose to move it up the list at a friend’s urging. Like many others who’ve experienced it, this novel made me view the contemporary American society I inhabit in a new perspective.

5/5