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

John Green and the power of reading generously

John Green’s the sort of guy you expect to be profound.

When my boyfriend and I went to see him at the National Book Festival last Saturday, I knew we’d stumbled into something. At 20 minutes to his scheduled speaking time, the giant tent we were all sweating under was rapidly filling. We couldn’t get any closer than the hinterlands to the right of the stage, but that was all right; there was palpable energy before Green, a popular young adult author, took the stage. I was just glad we’d made it.

Spencer laughed, looking around at the crowd of female teens and 20- to 60-somethings alike. When Green appeared, the tent exploded in cheers and screams — and I turned to grin at my boyfriend. I’d told him little about Green beforehand; just that he was the one author I absolutely had to see this year. “I forgot to mention he’s good-looking,” I added.

In person, Green — the author of books like Looking For Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines — is as effortlessly funny, cool and nerdy chic as you’d imagine. He spoke about writing, life and love — all topics the audience savored. One of his best moments came as an audience member asked him about a quote from one of his works: “Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.” Green explained he couldn’t take credit for it . . . that his now-wife was the mastermind behind that philosophical gem.

Definitely endeared him to me.

Talking about the gifts readers and writers exchange, Green joked, “You give me two gifts. One is money,” he laughed, “and my family appreciates that.” And the other? The gift of our generous reading. That’s what struck me most about that morning — this idea of approaching a work with an open mind. That’s what he most hoped his readers would bring to the table: this generous spirit, especially with The Fault In Our Stars; the willingness to give a book a chance.

Ignoring the hype. Ignoring negative reviews. Coming into a novel with a desire to take it for what it is — and to enjoy it simply on its own merits. If we’re biased from the start, we open a new book and think, “‘I’m going to hate this,’” said Green. “And when we’re finished, we say, ‘Well, I did it! I hated it.’”

I’m guilty of this. After a book generates buzz, either positive or negative, I’ll occasionally pick it up to see what the fuss is all about. I expect it will be terrible and, surprise! It’s terrible. I’ve wasted my time, annoyed myself and often warn others away from it.

But other times? I surprise myself. I pick up something outside the realm of my “traditional” reading and am shocked to find . . . I like it. Like graphic novels. I recently guest-posted at The Estella Society about this very topic: trying something for the first time with the expectation I’ll hate it, and then shocking myself. Having to admit I actually loved it. That’s sort of how I was with audio books, too — hesitant or even disdainful, but now a complete convert.

And I want to be more generous with my reading. I often find myself dissolving so completely in my book snobbery that I’m not capable of expanding into anything new, and I don’t like that about myself — especially when I get on my high horse with others. How often have I recommended Green’s books themselves, especially to those who think they’re “too old” for young adult fiction?

So that’s my goal for the rest of 2012 — and beyond: reading generously. Giving things a chance. Getting out of my little bookish hole to expand, expand! Trying something new without expecting to hate it. That might mean I’ll be selecting books outside my “normal” scope of literary of women’s fiction, but that will make it all the sweeter.

Because as we speak, I’m halfway through three books: The Worst Hard Time (non-fiction about the Great American Dust Bowl); Paper Towns (John Green, young adult!); and The Paris Wife, my current audio, which is historical fiction based on Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage.

See, I’m diversifying. I can feel it!

Book review: ‘Looking For Alaska’ by John Green

looking_for_alaska Beginning John Green’s Looking for Alaska, we know two things: the entire novel exists in a “before” and an “after.” Reading this from page one, I was immediately filled with a sense of foreboding — everything was leading up to the “after,” and I was terrified of what that would mean. When the shoe eventually dropped, so to speak, I was prepared for it — but, then again, I wasn’t. This isn’t a book that hits you all at once . . . Alaska, this enigma, washes over you in waves.

Our hero here is Miles “Pudge” Halter, a young man who leaves his family for Alabama, where he enrolls in Culver Creek Boarding School. Pudge — a nickname devised by Chip, or “the Colonel,” his new roommate and eventual best friend — leaves the general ordinariness of his adolescence in Florida seeking “the Great Perhaps,” and brings his penchant for memorizing the famous last words with him. Despite his parents’ warnings, Pudge immediately worries he’s fallen in with “the bad crowd” at Culver Creek — the kids dashing down to the Smoking Hole with contraband cigarettes, sipping on Strawberry Hill wine and generally getting up to mischief.

But any of those fears melt away when he meets Alaska Young, a brilliantly beautiful but mysteriously moody young woman who rooms just a few doors down from the Colonel and Pudge. With Takumi and Lara, the five friends spend the first semester of Pudge’s life at Culver Creek reading, loving, learning and attempting to get back at the Weekend Warriors — the crew of rich kids who attend the school during the week, but are free to return home to their mansions and extravagant lifestyles on the weekends. The regular students hate them — particularly Alaska and the Colonel. And all signs seem to point to making them pay for the slights the Warriors have committed against Pudge and the others . . . until things fall apart.

I’ve heard so much about this novel in the past year or so, it was really hard for me to actually sit down and read it. I knew that my expectations were really high, and I was worried that I was dooming myself to not enjoy it from the start. Still, after reading Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, I was interested in his unique storytelling and awesome descriptions — I had to read Alaska. And I’m so glad I did. It’s for moments like this one:

If only we could see the string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can’t know better until knowing is useless.

Or this:

When adults say, ‘Teenagers think they are invincible’ with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we are never irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they are old. They get scared of losing and failing.

What really holds Looking For Alaska together, for me, was Green’s way with words — and the way in which everything at Culver Creek seems to operate under strict, serious edicts. Until the “after,” life is black and white. Pudge loves Alaska completely, unreservedly, despite his inability to understand her. The Colonel cautions Pudge to “never rat” out the other kids at the school, no matter what offense the other side has committed, and they regard that as a law. Pudge knows that his friends’ incessant drinking and smoking is wrong, but he can’t justify not participating. Unlike in Florida, Pudge needs to be accepted here. He needs to fit in. He chokes on the cigarette the first few times, sure, but then he gets the hang of it. Easy. Black and white.

Of course, in the “after,” nothing is easy. Everything is a mystery. Life continues on for the friends, but none of it is making sense. The pieces don’t fit together — and things fall apart. It’s up to them to make sense of it all — to understand, as Alaska states, the way out of the labyrinth. Even if it takes them, perhaps, their whole lives to determine it.

This novel is powerful — powerful, serious and enveloping. While I never really felt like I was a part of the pranks and adventures, I was definitely content with going along for the ride, though it made my stomach hurt. The structure of this novel — every section serving as a countdown to the “after” — really put me on edge, unable to calm myself down. Everything I read seemed a clue pointing me to the after, where I knew the gravity of whatever happened would be extreme. As the days trickled down and the after approached in earnest, I actually flipped ahead twenty or so pages to see what was going to happen. I really, really had to know. The waiting was the worst — and I figured that the knowing couldn’t be any more terrible.

I don’t know if I was right. But I do know that Looking For Alaska is one of those books that will return to me for quite some time — the tendrils of smoke rings rising up unexpectedly, pulling me back toward them. It raises questions of death and dying, of survival, of loving and of loss. Of how to figure out the things which seem maze-like — impossible. How to move forward. How to seek our own “Great Perhaps.”

And, because I love poetry (and so does Alaska), I’ll leave you with the lines running through my head the entire time I was reading Green’s novel:

“The Second Coming” (1921)
By William Butler Yeats

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 014241221X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Blog
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘An Abundance of Katherines’ by John Green

abundance_katherines In my typical fashion as of late, I admit that I grabbed John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines initially because of the cover — and because I was looking for some different young adult fiction, particularly YA without a good-girl-gone-bad main character or something with warring best friends. While I’m not opposed to those plotlines persay, I wanted something different. And hey, this was written by a guy. I’m in.

Former child prodigy Colin believes he’s all washed up — and has a string of ended relationships with girls named Katherine to prove it (nineteen, to be exact). With his exceedingly high IQ and love of anagrams, teenage Colin has spent his young life pushed to read more, learn more and be more by his well-meaning parents, but after the latest relationship with Katherine XIX ended with her unceremoniously dumping him, Colin knows he needs to try for more than just academic success. Plus, he’s having no luck discovering his “Eureka!” moment.

After his best friend finds him sulking face-down on the carpet, Colin and Hassan set out on a road trip: Colin to clear his head; Hassan to put some ideas into it. Hass has spent the last few years on his parents’ couch watching “Judge Judy,” opting out of a college education or job in favor of potato chips and not-doing. A trip to nowhere in particular may be just what they need — especially one without any Katherines in sight.

Though the boys set out to be free and on the road, they don’t wind up on the highway for long — their adventure from Chicago ends up in Gutshot, Tennessee, where they discover Lindsey Lee Wells sitting idly in a general store and flippantly decide to take a tour of a nearby cemetary. Lindsey, of course, is their guide. The boys wind up staying with she and her mother Hollis after Hassan and Colin are offered a small job, and trio (complete now with Lindsey) begins interviewing local residents of Gutshot about life in the town. Their documentary comes to mean a great deal to all of them, though each for different reasons.

And will time begin to heal Colin’s aching, Katherine-demolished heart? I initially found it pretty crazy to actually believe that someone could date nineteen women with the exact same first name (and same spelling, as Colin forcefully asserts) but by the center of the novel, it stopped really bothering me. We all have a “type” — people we just seem to be drawn to, no matter how much we may struggle against it (I can’t stop dating military men, for example). And the Katherines all taught him something about life and love, even by their absence:

You can love someone so much, he thought. But you can never love people as much as you can miss them.

And Colin has some other big realizations, too — though as a reader, I’d sort of understood this all along:

“I don’t think you can ever fill the empty space with the thing you lost. … That’s what I realized: if I did get her back somehow, she wouldn’t fill the hole that losing her created.”

An Abundance of Katherines was my first experience with John Green, and I’m sure it won’t be my last. He’s an exceptionally gifted writer who integrated so many ideas in his small book, I was thrilled to be traveling along in the Hearse with the boys. While the math problems began to make my brain hurt about halfway in — I’m a lover of words, not equations — I was still interested to see how, and if, Colin could come up with his great idea. The appendix in the back of the book helped make sense of these problems.

I loved the relationship between Hassan and Colin, and though I didn’t completely understand Colin as a person, I could certainly relate to feeling as though your childhood was filled with such promise — and your adolescence feels strangely, painfully, ordinary. Lindsey Lee was also a really fun character and I cringed a bit over her relationship with TOC, but all’s well that ends well.

Full of quotable quotes and other anecdotes, I definitely recommend this one to lovers of literature — not just young adult. Also a great read for young men, which can sometimes be tough to find in the YA market.

4 out of 5

ISBN: 0525476881 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Blog
Personal copy purchased by Meg