Monday, January 23, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Last week, I posted two second-hand book reviews, and today's book was the first of the two reviews. (Jennifer Hubbard's sophomore novel, Try Not to Breathe) was the second.) Allow me to say that M's raves about The Fault in Our Stars were entirely well-placed and were, if anything, more circumscribed than they could have been.

I'm sure you can find plenty of detailed, thoughtful reviews of this book already, and if that's the sort of review you're looking for, I guess you should look elsewhere.

First off, I'm too tired to get myself entirely organized, having finished the book at 2:40 a.m. this morning. (Note to self: You ought to know better than to say that you're going to read "just a few chapters before bed" of a John Green book. You've read all his other novels and published short stories, and you know you're going to want to follow the character to the end.)

Secondly, my eyes are actually tired this morning - not so much from reading, but from all the crying. Now, I expected to cry, you see, because this book is about a girl named Hazel who has terminal thyroid cancer that has metastasized to her lungs. Experience tells me that in a book with a dying main character, I'm definitely going to cry. (In support of which assertion, I refer you to a pair of such books that I reviewed in tandem in a post entitled "What if you only had a short while to live?" back in October of 2007: Deadline by Chris Crutcher and Before I Die by Jenny Downham.) But I did not expect to cry as much as I did, nor did I expect to use up more than 15 tissues.

I guess I expected to cry a bit for these characters that I came to love, in that way that readers do. I expected my inner teen reader to cry a bit because the book deals with issues of love and of loss in a wonderful way (affirming that it is indeed "better to have loved and lost/ than never to have loved at all" (Tennyson), even though that quote thankfully never appears inside its pages). I expected to cry a bit because I'm a mother of two teen girls, and it's easy to get me to cry over the thought of losing a child. But I did not expect to cry over the thought of lost love, which is what made me cry hardest of all, as I thought about how I'd feel if anything happened to the love of my life. (And oh, I'm going to squish him really hard when I see him this afternoon. And quite possibly burst into tears again.) Yet that is precisely what happened. And although there's a hopeful ending (yes, in a book that contains eulogies and in which you know for a fact that the main character is not long for this world, there's still a wonderfully hopeful ending), and although I already know that Tennyson was correct, the fact that the book hit me so very hard is a testament to the excellent writing and still more excellent ideas it contains.

The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of terminally ill Hazel, who meets a hot boy named Augustus Waters at the Support Group her parents force her to attend. Hazel and Augustus hit it off, and romance follows, even though Hazel tries hard to fend it off, believing that it's better not to form attachments, since she knows she's going to die, and she knows that the people she leaves behind will be hurt when she does, and, well, she doesn't want to be responsible for hurting more people than is absolutely necessary (and even then, as is the case with her parents, she wishes those people didn't have to be hurt). Hazel tells Augustus about her favorite (fictional) book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten, a literary sort of book that accurately describes what it's like to be a teen dying of cancer, and which ends mid-sentence as the main character dies or loses the strength to continue. Both Hazel and Augustus end up loving the book, and chasing down the reclusive author to try to find answers to Hazel's questions about what happened to some of the other characters in the book. Hazel is especially concerned about the main character's mother, wanting a happy ending for that mother. Without it ever being stated, it's entirely clear that Hazel is particularly worried about what will become of her own mother once Hazel dies, since her mother's entire life pretty much revolves around caring for Hazel - it's her mother's full-time job, pretty much, and as an only child, Hazel worries that once she's gone, her mother will be left with nothing.

There is a lot going on in this book - a lot of themes, including the aforementioned ones involving family and romance as well as an examination of what it's like to be sick in today's society, and how ostracizing it can be. The book includes quotations of poems, including "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot, "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens and, if memory serves, a bit of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman somewhere, although I couldn't readily find it. Quotations from Shakespeare (the title is drawn from Cassius's quote in Act I, scene 2 of Julius Caesar: ""The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings") and from the fictitious novel by Van Houton, all of which tie into the plot and themes, sometimes in unexpectedly interrelated ways. Conversations about what happens after death and whether there is such a thing as the immortality of the soul (that I totally remember having when I was a teen, if not in quite as articulate a way as Augustus and Hazel). Thoughts about Big Picture Things - the existence of God (or of some sort of knowing universe), what is it all about, why is there suffering, do you really need the bad things in order to appreciate the good, etc.

The writing is gorgeous - luminous. Numinous, even. The characters are human and real and have their faults and weaknesses as well as their strengths. They are angry and frightened as well as brave and noble. They are funny as well as tragic. And after I've hugged my beloved and taken a few days to calm down, I will probably read this book a second time, because there's a lot in there to savor, and I'm afraid I read it at a bit of a tear in order to find out what happened next.

Kiva - loans that change lives

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dear friends,

This morning, I am writing to you about my cat.

I could be writing to you about my writing, which has been nonexistent this week, though I am feeling the urge to write something this morning, now that M is off to her brother's birthday party and I've got the house to myself for a few hours.

I could be writing to you about the weather - how we got a snow storm, and I spent an hour outside shoveling heavy, slushy snow from my sidewalks and driveway, cleared the cars, and shoveled a path for my next-door neighbors, since I know this snow is far too heavy for them to deal with.

I could be writing to you about The Artist, which was absolutely marvelous and should win Best Picture at the Oscars and Best Actor for Jean DuJardin (yes, he was better than George Clooney in The Descendants, and that's saying something), with nominations for best original score, best actress (or supporting actress) for Bérénice Béjo, best director (possible win) for Michel Hazanavicius, best costuming, and best set design. Plus some others. Maybe they can give an Oscar to the Jack Russell terrier, too. M and I saw it yesterday afternoon, and it was tremendous. As in "Oh my God everyone everywhere should see this movie, it's so wonderful!" tremendous.

Instead, I am writing to you about Kismet, who has developed a keen interest in studying the finer properties of gravity, as well as examining the mechanics of work, in the scientific term. F=ma, and all that. At least, she appears to taking mental notes about precisely how much force is required to knock a variety of objects off a variety of surfaces and onto the floor. She has twice cleared M's nightstand of all objects, ranging from movie ticket stubs to eyeglasses to metal bracelets to books. She has done the same with my nightstand, and has attempted the same feat on a variety of objects in a variety of additional locations. Despite being scolded roundly on all occasions, she seems to believe that this sort of behavior warrants an award of kitty treats. I can only conclude that she has decided to become a kitty scientist, possibly with an eye to becoming a mad scientist and/or evil overlord.

Do drop me a note and tell me how you are and what you're up to.

Kiva - loans that change lives

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Second-hand reviews

The first is from M, who as many long-time readers know is an avid reader. She's now 17, and she's continued to read lots of novels despite her heavy course-load in high school. She has gotten more selective over the years, as one does when one reads a lot. She doesn't like stale ideas, or things she thinks have been done to death, or lazy writing. (She finds that last item particularly inexcusable, and has been known to rant about lazy authorial choices (e.g., no actual conflict and no casualties in Breaking Dawn - seriously, wind her up and watch her go on that one) and about lazy writing (hackneyed terms, clichés, talking down to the audience, poor grammar - again, you should hear her once she mounts that particular soap box. She once ranted for nearly 15 minutes over a book she stopped reading when the first-person narrator referred in narration (not dialogue) to her mother as "Mom" instead of "My mom", as in "When I got home, Mom was standing on the porch.")

Long ramp-up, but suffice it to say that M's recent read has NONE of the things that might set her off on a rant. Not that anyone who has read John Green's writing would expect lazy authorial choices or poor grammar, of course. But M loved THE FAULT IN OUR STARS from start to finish, and has already spoiled the ending for me (but I don't mind, because it allowed us to talk about her take-home from the book, which was where she found the hopefulness in the ending of a book about a main character with a terminal illness). She loved the snarky voice of the narrator. She loved the romance in the book that develops between the female main character (a departure for John) and a boy that she meets in a cancer support group. She loved the humor and the pathos and the fact that it made her cry, but mostly she loved how it made her think. She loved it so much that she forced it on her step-mother, who stayed up most of the night reading it. (She also loved it.) She loved it so much that she hesitated in returning it to me, despite having swiped it from me when I brought it home last week because I bought it for myself. Now that I've got it back, I'll be reading it, and probably writing a bit about it here. But for now, M's rave will have to suffice.

The second of my second-hand reviews comes from my Aunt Martha, an avid reader and former librarian, who has for the past several years served as a patron of the arts by allowing me the use of her townhouse in Waterville Valley for a writing retreat. Angela De Groot has come along with me on all of them, and Jenn Hubbard (known to many of you as has come on most. And on one of those retreats, she started what would become her latest novel - released into the wild today: TRY NOT TO BREATHE.

Jenn sent a signed author copy to my aunt and uncle, who are thrilled to have been able to share their lovely home with us, and are still more thrilled to find themselves publicly recognized in the Acknowledgments of Jenn's book. Aunt Martha spent Tuesday reading Try Not to Breathe, and she raved about it during a phone call on Wednesday. She called it "a real page-turner", and praised the writing, the characterization, and the plot. That she knows what the real-life waterfall that served as inspiration for the one in the book looks like is just a bonus. Again, I have to wait to read this book myself - I'll be getting my copy at Jenn's official

If you're curious what the book is about, it's about a boy who tried to commit suicide and failed, and his developing relationship with a girl whose father tried suicide and succeeded. The Kansas City Star reviewed it yesterday, and said wonderful things about it, if you'd like just a bit more info (no spoilers).

Kiva - loans that change lives

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Daniel Radcliffe on success (and fear that it won't last)

In yesterday's post, I mentioned Daniel Radcliffe's interview in PARADE Magazine. The wise Mr. Radcliffe had this to say as well, on a slightly different (fear-related) topic:

You've had enormous success for someone so young. Do you fear that it won't last?

Yes. But it's reality, not fear. It will happen, and I have accepted that. In a way it's a great relief that I will never, ever do a film as successful as the Harry Potter series. But neither will anybody else. [laughs] Or it will take them a long time.

If this success lasts longer, great. If it doesn't, so be it. I've had enough fame to last a lifetime. As long as I'm happy with the work I'm doing, I don't mind. The thing I've realized this year is that all that matters at the end of the day is that I'm happy with my life and the people around me, the people I love. That, ultimately, is all I care about.

Kiva - loans that change lives

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Daniel Radcliffe on fear

Our local paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, includes PARADE Magazine in its Sunday issues. The January 8th edition featured Daniel Radcliffe, who was interviewed as he finished his run on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business . . . and was ramping up to host SNL.

And in his interview, he said a little something that resonated with me, perhaps in part because I'd been thinking about what Steven Spielberg said in Entertainment Weekly. Here you are:

At 17, when you played the deranged, sometimes naked stable boy onstage in Equus, or this past year starring in your first musical, did you worry that the critics would be gunning for you because you're a young, successful movie star?

[laughs] I knew they would. But I've worked out recently that I don't do very well without fear. There needs to be a part of me saying, "You can't do that--that's going to fail," for me to prove myself wrong. What I've learned, particularly this year, is that all actors--no matter their status or brilliance--still feel like fools.


Yes, like we're conning people and we're not really any good at it. What I learned is that acting is to a large extent about trying to stave off self-doubt long enough to be natural and real onstage. I'm at the point in my career where I should be learning a huge amount from every job I do, and unless something's going to give me that, I'm not really very attracted to it.

Kiva - loans that change lives

Monday, January 16, 2012

Steven Spielberg on fear

Steven Spielberg has a reputation as a movie director, which is just another form of being a story teller. Mostly he's taking other people's stories and interpreting them, with the help of a cast and crew.

Back in early December, he was interviewed in Entertainment Weekly, and I've been meaning to post this excerpt ever since I read the article. Here it is:

I read somewhere that you were nauseous every day while making [your first short film] Amblin'. True?

Yes. I've always had shpilkes (Yiddish for "nerves").

You didn't have a career yet - what were you worried about?

It's not even about the career. I have shpilkes now and I have a career. I think it's my fuel, basically - my nervous stomach. That's what keeps me honest, right? And a little bit humble, in the sense that when I make a movie, I never think I have all the answers. I think I've stayed collaborative my entire career because I don't have all the answers. I come onto the set - whether it was my first movie, The Sugarland Express, or Lincoln - and it cuts me down to size. It's a good feeling to have.
I know a lot of writer friends who feel this time every single time they embark on a new manuscript or a new round of revisions, and oftentimes it seems to catch them off-guard. I really like Spielberg's take on it - that the nerves fuel the creative process. Don't you?

Kiva - loans that change lives

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Over at Guys Lit Wire

A review of Filthy Shakespeare, about which I've written before here on my blog. Only I never got a really long comment from the author over here, and I sure did over there.

Kiva - loans that change lives

Friday, January 06, 2012

The Second Paragraph

In April of last year, I started learning tai chi. On Mondays, I went to a 12-week class where I learned something called the 10 form (sometimes called the 8 form) - basically a competition form, consisting of a series of moves performed symetrically on both sides. For the same 12 weeks, I also attended a second tai chi class, where I started to learn the Yang form of tai chi. I was hooked long before my 12 weeks were up, and joined the gym so I could continue studying tai chi - usually going to 3-4 classes per week.

The Yang long form is separated into three sections, each of which is called a paragraph. I am one move away from completing the form through the end of the Second Paragraph - it's a right heel kick that I need to learn, since I know all the moves before it and the three or so (depending on how you count them) moves after it.

Can't wait for tonight's class.

Kiva - loans that change lives

Wednesday, January 04, 2012


I finished a draft of a new picture book at the end of 2011, and I've embarked on revisions in the new year.

Let me say this about that: It's tricky.

Which reminds me that I will be on faculty at the NESCBWI Conference this April, with a presentation entitled "It's Tricky to Rock a Rhyme: Real Tips You Can Use". And yes, I totally swiped those first six words from Run DMC.

(Check out how young Penn and Teller were there!)

Kiva - loans that change lives

Monday, January 02, 2012

Starting the year out right

For the past few years, I've had a personal New Year's tradition.

On the first day of the year, I make sure to spend a bit of time doing the things I most want to do during the year. I won't tell you what all of them are, but I am happy to say that yesterday included time with my loved ones, a nice walk, some tai chi, cooking, a bit of cleaning, organizing, and financial stuff, some writing, and some reading of poetry.

Kay Ryan's marvelous "Chinese Foot Chart" clean took my breath away. You can read the whole thing at the Kenyon Review blog (I've omitted the first six lines here), but here's how it ends:

. . . We are no
match for ourselves
but our own release.
Each touch
uncatches some
remote lock. Look,
boats of mercy
embark from
our heart at the
oddest knock.

What a lovely way to start the year, boats of mercy embarking from my heart . . .

Kiva - loans that change lives