Book chat: ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green

The Fault In Our StarsSo I finished John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars on Sunday. I bought it last week in anticipation of a long weekend away as a “treat” to myself, insofar as a book about kids with cancer can be a “treat.”

Also, despite loving my Kindle for years now, I still feel weird paying for e-books? I mostly read review copies or freebies or library loans. I guess that’s a terrible thing to admit . . . I mean, it’s just that they’re digital. Yes, I do pay for plenty of things I cannot physically hold, but I guess I’m just crotchety and still struggling to grasp the concept of paying real money for things that feel un-real.

Anyway. Clearly a post for another day.

The Fault In Our Stars has been on my radar for years due to its reputation as a tearjerker, I suppose. Sometimes I crave a good cry and don’t mind a depressing novel; they can be quite beautiful, after all. Plus, this is penned by Green, Great Lord of the Book/Young Adult World, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books. He’s darn witty and insightful.

Also, I saw him speak at the National Book Festival in 2012 . . . and yeah, he’s totally cute. Just feel that, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that.

Anyway. (Man, I’m a mess today.) Back to the actual book, friends. I have lots of thoughts about it, but . . . they’re scattered, disjointed. I went into this novel knowing it had been hyped into oblivion but is also loved fiercely by many readers — I mean, it’s been rated more than 1 million times on Goodreads.

One. Million. Times.

It’s hard to pick up a book you’ve heard so much about without rampant expectations. Like, for example, I expected to cry — a lot. I mean, the basic plot? Two teenage cancer survivors meet at a support group and fall in love. You know something ain’t going to end well, right? Even the title suggests it.

To my shock, I’ve managed to avoid spoilers all this time — no small feat given its 2012 publication date. And the accompanying movie released in June, which I’m now exceptionally eager to see.

So I won’t ruin it for you, either. Trust me.

But back to my Feelings. I loved Augustus because yeah, I think we’re supposed to. Almost engineered to. He’s cool, thoughtful, romantic, sweet . . . all attributes I typically love in a dude. Gus is also wise beyond his years — something that comes with having stared down death, I suppose — and utterly devoted to Hazel, our narrator, who is herself living with a cancer that actively decimates her lungs. Hazel requires constant oxygen delivered via a tank, her breathing shadow, and Gus accepts this.

Gus accepts her. And not just because her chopped-off locks and quiet confidence remind him of actress Natalie Portman.

Green’s tome is a story of life and death. Of life after death, and living well in the face of impending death. Though we all know we’re mortal beings, some of us must confront that fact much earlier than others. It’s awful, but it’s the truth. The subject matter is understandably heavy, and even in its buoyant moments — those sparkly moments of first love, as light as the champagne the two share — it’s there. The gravity weighing them down, the illness with its claws sunk deep into them both.

And yet, they love. They are. They will be.

The portrayal of Hazel’s parents, who are themselves fighting the good fight along with their daughter, also felt realistic and heartbreaking. Ditto the experiences of Augustus’ parents and the extended Waters clan. Even the peripheral characters — Isaac, a fellow cancer survivor who loses his sight; Hazel’s best friend, Kaitlyn, a fashionable and free teen who serves as her tenuous and final remaining link to the “healthy” and unbound world — serve a purpose and occasionally provide comedic relief.

There is so much in The Fault In Our Stars that felt both beautifully clear and unbelievably obtuse. I fluctuated between getting lost in Green’s deep thoughts and feeling completely discomfited by them. Our young lovers are both enamored with a fictional book called An Imperial Affliction, and learning the fate of its various characters via its alcoholic author in Amsterdam becomes an obsession for them.

I got it, but I didn’t always get it.

Still. Did I like The Fault In Our Stars? Absolutely. I’ve thought of little else since finishing. It was sad, yes — but also many things in between. I cried a little, but not as I expected to — and the finale wasn’t what I’d anticipated, either . . . in a good way? I think. It splintered me, but I’m still standing.

Though Augustus is obsessed with leaving a lasting mark on the world, The Fault In Our Stars is a powerful reminder that though our time here is limited, the impact we make on others — even if it’s merely one other — is more important. Lasting.

Love can only ever lead to suffering, to separation . . . but it’s worth it.

It has to be.


4 out of 5

Pub: 2012 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy purchased by Meg

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You may contribute a verse

Clouds

“The question, O me! so sad, recurring — What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.

That you are here — that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

“O Me! O Life!” by Walt Whitman


I can think of no other statement so profound, so inspirational.

What will your verse be?

Thinking of Robin Williams. I could barely sleep last night. What a talent . . . what a terrible loss.


Blue skies


I wrote an entire post for today, grappling with some of The Big Questions I’ve had on my mind lately. It was scheduled to post this morning. That post was very cathartic, cobbling together my thoughts on life and death. Everything shifted into focus once I’d typed it out.

But then I did something strange, something I rarely do: I made it private. I changed it to “draft” and let it burrow quietly into my blog dashboard, to be seen — and remembered — by me alone. I usually have no difficulty bearing my soul . . . and, to be frank, I sort of enjoy it. Writing is the way I typically come to terms with what I’m experiencing. Writing about everything that has happened of late was a huge relief to me, especially as I’ve stopped writing in a journal.

The relief was in the writing, though. Not in the posting. Not in the validating. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, and I’m not seeking praise or comfort. I didn’t want to bring a total downer of a post into the world.

I simply wanted to record what I was thinking and make sense of it by stringing together sentences — just as I always do. And though I’m pleased with how I expressed my foggy thoughts, I’m remembering a resolution I’ve made to myself: to keep some things to myself. Some things for me. For my family and friends. For my boyfriend. Not to bear my soul repeatedly in every a newspaper column or blog post.

I’m being obtuse, I know — and I’m sorry. I’ve felt so strange and out of sorts lately. I’ve barely been reading, have been focusing just on work — but I know that time will march forward now, taking us with it. That everything will be all right.

Blue skies will be here again.

Snowmen, computers and our beloved uncle


My uncle loved to golf.

One of my earliest memories of spending time at his house, a mere two-minute drive away, featured a plastic golf set. He’d purchased one so my sister and I would have something to play with when we came to visit. Though I don’t have an athletic bone in my body, Uncle Phil patiently showed us the ins and outs of a good swing — and then left us to our own devices. He didn’t micro-manage the process.

Winters always brought us to Uncle Phil and Aunt Jacki’s, where a tantalizingly-large hill perched in their backyard. After getting permission, my parents, sister and I would schlep over with our sleds and saucers (like on “Christmas Vacation”!) and spend hours sailing up and down the battered grass. As a parting “thank you” gift, we’d usually build a snowman in Uncle Phil’s front yard. On one memorable occasion, we drove by days later to find our creation had collapsed. When we laughingly confronted Uncle Phil, asking if he’d pushed it over, he denied it. And he never did ‘fess up.

Uncle Phil was diagnosed with cancer about three years ago. Though we worried we’d lose him several times, he fought bravely and was strong until the end. My uncle’s faith was very strong, and I know he’s with God today. Despite our sadness, we’re grateful he is at peace.

I’ll always remember my uncle for his jokes and our love of photography, something he shared with Mom, Spencer and me. He had frequent conversations about the latest gear with my boyfriend, and it was fun to see him so excited about a new lens or camera body. When Spencer and I would talk about plans, Uncle Phil always had a great restaurant recommendation or weekend getaway spot. He loved food and traveling, another shared passion.

Uncle Phil loved to learn and was fascinated by new technology, around which he based his long career. The IT expert and tech guru in our clan, Uncle Phil was always there to set up a new router or printer. I remember him coming over when we bought our first desktop in 1995 or 1996. He explained “The World Wide Web” to my parents, who then explained it to Katie and me. Things weren’t too plug-and-play back then, so Uncle Phil had to make everything jive from scratch. To a kid yet to develop any computer savvy, it was like conjuring magic.

His faith guided him through his journey, and I’m grateful we were able to see him in his final days. We’ll all miss him very much.


The right words

For someone who spends her days buried in books and writing, I pride myself on having “the right words.” Need help choosing an obscure adjective? No problem. Have a quandary regarding syntax or punctuation? I got you. Editing is a point of pride, and I love nothing more than sitting down to craft the perfect sentence.

But sometimes, there are no words. No words that I know.

A good friend’s brother-in-law was killed in a sudden, senseless and violent act this weekend in Philadelphia. Since we learned of his passing on Sunday, my head has felt fuzzy. Kevin seemed like such a wonderful, funny and caring man. He was my partner in her wedding party just four months ago; I can still feel the solidness of his arm when I placed my hand in the crook of his elbow. He was 23.

After a long and hard-fought battle, my great uncle is entering the final stages of cancer. A bright and caring man with an illustrious history, my grandfather’s little brother means so much to our family. Up until recently, I always thought Something Would Happen. Modern medicine would pull through after all. But I know some things cannot be healed. We’re going to see him today.

I don’t have the right words for these occasions. I feel so sad about Kevin; I feel so sad about Uncle Phil. I feel sad about each in their own, distinct way, and grief is a strange and funny beast. We have long days yet to come, I know, and I’m bracing myself for them. But it’s hard to know how to react. Or how to think or feel.

I don’t have the right words for my dear, dear friend. My heart breaks for Kevin, for Erin, for her husband’s family. If you have a moment today to think a good thought, please send it to them. I’m sending everything my own tender heart can muster.

And I know it’s not about “the right words.” Writing Erin after hearing that news was a terrible, terrible thing. I don’t have the right words for my uncle, for my own family — but sometimes, I think, it’s not about words. It’s about presence. It must be about showing love by showing up.

I can show up.

I will show up.

——-

If anyone has any information that may help find Kevin Kless’ killers in Philadelphia, please step forward. A reward of more than $15,000 is now being offered for any information that could lead to bringing justice for his grieving family. I can’t express how surreal it is to see Kevin’s face on ABC News, but I hope the exposure drives home to someone out there how important it is to come forward. If you were in or around Philadelphia and might have been at or near the scene in the wee hours of Saturday morning, please speak to detectives. It only takes one small tip — however insignificant it may seem to you — to help solve this case. Thank you.


Book review: ‘How To Save A Life’ by Sara Zarr

Jill MacSweeney thinks her mother is delusional when she unveils a plan to change their family forever: adopting a baby. The child in question comes with pregnant Mandy Kalinowski, a pretty girl with a hardscrabble life in Nebraska. The MacSweeneys have dealt with their share of trouble and heartbreak, and the serendipitous way in which Mandy and Robin MacSweeney connect online is a flicker of hope in an otherwise dark year.

Jill is a tough teen and only child reeling after her father’s unexpected death, and Mandy’s arrival is another obstacle to her never-ending grief. Feeling alone in the world, Mandy is desperate for human connection — but thinks giving up her unborn baby will free him or her of the life she herself led. Jill’s a little surly, sure, but her mother is a saint. It seems like the perfect opportunity — until Mandy begins to question everything. And her presence will change the MacSweeney family forever.

Sara Zarr’s How To Save A Life was a moving, poignant and realistic look at a family torn apart by a death — but it’s not a (completely) somber tale. It’s sad, yes, and my eyes filled with tears several times. But the overall message is still one of hope — that good things can come from terrible circumstances. That we can go on and rebuild and live again.

At first, Jill is a difficult character to like. She’s angry and sullen and so stereotypically teenager-y, but her attitude is compounded by her all-consuming grief. Her father Mac, the family patriarch, is a huge presence in the book — almost as much as any living character. We come to know so much about him and what he meant to his wife and daughter, and we learn about the way he supported and encouraged the women in his life. Knowing what an adventurous man he was — such a good man — breaks our hearts, too. So we share in Robin and Jill’s grief. We swim in it.

And Mandy, sweet Mandy — oh boy. She’s loopy and eccentric and a little odd, you know? She’s socially awkward and wounded and a bit broken, but she’s still such a sweet and innocent soul. So much has been taken from her, it seems, but much has been given in return. I wanted to wrap an arm around her from the very beginning, leading her wherever she needed to go. My maternal instincts went nutso the more we learned about her, and she was such a fully-realized character. I loved that, despite everything, she remained so hopeful and optimistic.

The story’s main tension comes from Mandy’s decision-making — will she really give up her baby? Will she tell Robin and Jill the actual circumstances she faced back in Nebraska? How will she remain active in her child’s life — especially without legal permission? As Jill and Robin became more and more attached to Mandy, I started to get antsy. Was she who she claimed to be? Was Mandy going to break off another piece of their glued-together hearts?

Seeking those answers was what propelled me along, even when How To Save A Life was a sad and difficult read. I ultimately ended the book on a (very) high note, though, and liked the delicious ambiguity of the ending. When I realized how some of the many problems could be solved, I felt an intense sense of relief. Sara Zarr is a powerful writer with the ability to bond you to her characters, and I’ve never forgotten Sweethearts, the young adult book that launched me back into the genre as an adult.


4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1557289727 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Raven Stole The Moon’ by Garth Stein

On the day she leaves Seattle for Wrangell, Alaska — site of a terrible tragedy that occurred years before — Jenna Rosen has snapped. It’s not enough that it’s two years to the day since her son Bobby drowned; she must also be stuck at a party with associates she despises, putting on a happy face while attendees whisper about the Rosens as her husband, Robert, schmoozes and acts like she’s insane for not being “over it.”

It’s also that time has marched forward for everyone but Jenna, pushing them all toward a new life — a new world — when her own resolved issues stay firmly on the surface, like raw wounds. Though everyone believed Bobby drowned in an accident on Thunder Bay, his body was never recovered — and Jenna is unable to find any peace or closure over his passing. To her, her 6-year-old son has still vanished. And something pulls her back to Alaska, setting off a chain of events and bringing to light pieces of native folklore she never thought possible.

Garth Stein’s Raven Stole The Moon is a contemporary novel set against an interesting backdrop: the beliefs and ancient folklore of the Tlingit people. As Jenna traipses through Wrangell and meets an interesting cast of characters — including Oscar, a dog who suddenly follows her everywhere, and Eddie, a man who befriends and shelters her, no questions asked — we begin to learn of a supernatural phenomenon which is intriguing and spooky. What did happen to Bobby?

I’m one of the few people in the world who has not read Stein’s The Art Of Racing In The Rain, so his writing style was completely new to me. Characterized by short sentences, his prose comes out in a staccato-like rhythm that took a little getting used to. It certainly wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t accustomed to getting the stream-of-consciousness-like details the author shared with us. Told in third person but focused primarily on Jenna and her viewpoint, the book hammered out important tidbits in a style pretty distinct to Stein.

After I hit roughly the 60-page mark, I was hooked — completely drawn into the tale and desperate to find out what happened to Bobby. Stein gives us just enough detail to sustain the mystery without dragging it all out too long, frustrating readers who must go hundreds of pages without new information. As we learned more and more about certain spirits known to inhabit Alaska and meet David Livingstone, a native shaman, I could feel goosebumps erupt on my skin.

I didn’t find the book to be the “horror” story some claim, but nor is it a tepid tale of family or forgiveness. It’s something in between. Relying plenty on religious and supernatural elements and requiring the reader to suspend disbelief for a sizeable chunk of the story, Raven Stole The Moon was a riveting novel — and even though I didn’t particularly like Jenna or Robert, I was unable to put the book down. It’s pretty rare that I’m so apathetic to two of the main characters and still enjoy the novel. Why? Because though I didn’t feel for them, I felt with them — and I knew that, in the wake of their son’s death, how could I judge them? I couldn’t. And didn’t. I just read their story through as unbiased a lens as I could.

Originally published in 1998, the book maintains a sort of innocence before the dawn of Google searches and iPhones. As Jenna disappears from the lush, dull world she inhabits in Washington, we’re able to remember how much easier it was to “go off the grid” before we were all accessible 24/7 via devices we keep in our pockets and palms. Stein notes in the afterword that he could have changed the timeframe and updated these references but chose not to, and I agree with the decision to keep the book firmly rooted in the late 1990s. It made me feel — dare I say it? — nostalgic.

Fans of contemporary fiction with a heavy mysterious, supernatural element will find plenty to enjoy here, and probably much for discussion. Though I was happy with the book’s resolution for the most part, those closing pages? Makes me wonder . . .


4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061806382 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publicist