Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"The Fault in Our Stars" By John Green (2012)

You picked this one up at book store last week, and couldn't put it back down. That's usually a good sign.

 John Green again. You DID say that you were probably going to read all of his books pretty soon. You've already reviewed "An Abundance of Katherines," so don't buy it again (this is a problem area for you). "The Fault in Our Stars is Green's newest novel. The narrator and main character is Hazel, and Hazel has cancer. Hazel is sixteen and she has terminal cancer. The fact that you don't want to give away spoilers is going to make this review tough to write, but it's pretty safe to remind you that you cried many a tear while reading this book. You liked the book a lot, but you kind of cried your ass off.

One of the great things about novels is the variety in how they are written. Each novel can have a very different voice and style. History books pretty much have to be written in the third person, but the authors of novels can play around with their style and crawl inside people's heads. George R.R. Martin writes each chapter in the "Games of Thrones" series (A Song of Fire and Ice) from a different person's point of view, though not with a First Person voice. Suzanne Collins wrote The "Hunger Games" series in First Person, Present Tense, which you found made putting her books down very difficult. "The Fault in Our Stars" is also First Person, though not Present Tense. This style of writing feels very intimate, like Hazel is talking to herself almost, and you get to choose to either eavesdrop on her inner monologue, or actually get to become her inside the pages of the book. There have been many examples of Young Adult fiction where a female author writes from a male character's perspective (think "Harry Potter") but this is the first you've heard of a male writing as a female. John Green pulls this off beautifully. How a goofy, 30-something, computer-nerd, dad can convincingly write from the point of view of a 16-year old female cancer patient is truly a testament to the human capacity for imagination and empathy. But he does it well, and Hazel is believable and intelligent and very likeable. As with all good writing, the novelty of the style soon falls away and all you are left with is a wonderfully rich and compelling character, someone you would want to spend time with.

As the story unfolds, it reveals an unflinching look into the life of a young cancer patient, a young woman who is struggling with her mortality while fighting to keep her sense of humor. Hazel is matter of fact about her diagnosis, but she does on occasion reach out to one of her old (pre-cancer) friends, Kaitlyn, for advice, but really to grasp a lifeline back to the world of being a teenager without a death sentence hanging over her head. Hazel often drops pearls of wisdom that resonated with you, and several quotes stood out. Whether or not they come from Hazel herself, they are all filtered through her perception.

"I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?"

"Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin."

“That's the thing about demands to be felt.”

“My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations.”

That last quote is from Augustus Waters. Hazel meets Augustus early on in the story at a Cancer survivor support group meeting, and they get along like gangbusters. She falls in love with him pretty quickly, but not before you did. Augustus is funny, irreverent, smart, and endlessly hopeful. "The Fault in Our Stars" is about the relationship between Hazel and Augustus, how they are changed by it and how they learn to be grateful for the limited time that they know they have together. The couple spur each other on to more and more irreverent reactions to the walking-on-eggshells behavior that people tend to fall into around sick and handicapped kids (Augustus lost a leg to cancer). Some of the funniest moments in the book are when they console their friends who are going through their own dignity-stripping adventures in their fight against cancer. Evidently, no John Green novel is complete until the characters take a trip to somewhere, because these moments of great honesty and humor bring the couple closer and also inspire them to take a once in a lifetime trip together.

In fact, almost everything they do might be described as "once in a lifetime." Death is a guarantee in this book. You knew, as soon as you read the first page, that not everyone was going to make it to the last one. But that is one of the points of the book. These kids know that Death could be just around the next corner, so they feel like they need to drink in every moment, laugh at every opportunity, and suffer very little in the way of bullshit. But Death is a guarantee for all of us, not just those who are diagnosed with some fatal disease. After all, Life itself is a communicable disease, and it's 100% fatal. So shouldn't we all be behaving like Hazel and Gus? Shouldn't we all seek answers to our questions with an urgency motivated by the knowledge that if we wait too long, we may never get the answer? Shouldn't we all love deeply enough that we won't regret it on our death beds? Shouldn't we all remember that guarding ourselves from pain is ultimately a foolish and destructive act? Pain and loss make us who we are, and we only have a short time to figure out who that is.

But, even so, what gives "The Fault in Our Stars" its poignancy is that Death just feels wrong here. The people in the book are kids! They are supposed to feel invincible not fleeting, eternal not ephemeral. Sure the Sword of Damocles hangs over us all, you get that, but it feels wrong when it involves children.

You were almost done with the book (which means you were doing a lot of crying) on the day that news reports began rolling in that the unthinkable had happened in Newtown, Connecticut. A sick gunman had entered an elementary school and murdered 20 First Grade children along with six adult teachers and administrators. No novel can make that disaster make any sense. No message from a fictional dying child can explain to you why very real monsters exist in the world or why they sometimes go after very real children. But "The Fault in Our Stars" did encourage you to remember to value every moment that you have with your kids and to love them fiercely. Hopefully you and they will live long and happy lives together, but there are no guarantees, and the temporary nature of our lives is what gives them such immediacy and such importance. Love is what matters the most, because love is able to give us, to quote Hazel, "Forever within the numbered days." And for that forever we, like Hazel, should be very grateful.

On to the next book!

Monday, December 10, 2012

"The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

Ah, Bilbo Baggins of The Shire, one of your oldest and dearest friends. This one really never gets old.

 You tried to count up the number of times you've read this book before writing this review but you couldn't even guess. In case you have forgotten (but you probably never will) this was the first real book you ever read on your own, forever ensuring your solid status as a nerd and also igniting your deep and life-long love affair with the wonder and magic of books. You were five or six when you first read "The Hobbit" and you've never really gotten over it. Naturally, you read this book to both of your boys on their first days of life. You didn't really need to review this one to remember certain details, you've got it all memorized. You wanted to read it one more time right now, because the movie by Peter Jackson comes out in a day or two and this was your last chance to read it without someone else's imagination fighting for primacy in your head. "The Lord of the Rings" movies were almost everything you had hoped they would be, but you've always been a little bit sad that you don't remember what Frodo looked like in your mind before Elijah Wood's face replaced him in there. So, once more:

"Far over misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old 
We must away, ere break of day,
To find our long-forgotten gold.

The thing that strikes you every time you read Tolkien's work is how phenomenal the writing really is. Even though this book is written with children in mind much more than most of his other works, Tolkien's writing is still outstanding. His best passages aren't descriptions of landscapes or events, but of how those places and trials make the characters feel. When Bilbo and his party cross the river and head up into the valley of Rivendell, Tolkien is able in a few short paragraphs to put you in Bilbo's mind:
"Bilbo never forgot the way they slithered and slipped in the dusk down the steep zig-zag path into the secret valley of Rivendell. The air grew warmer as they got lower, and the smell of pine trees made him drowsy, so that every now and again he nodded and nearly fell off, or bumped his nose on the pony's neck. Their spirits rose as they went down and down. The trees changed to beech and oak, and there was a comfortable feeling in the twilight... "Hmmm! it smells like elves!" thought Bilbo, and he looked up at the stars. They were burning bright and blue. Just then there came a burst of song like laughter in the trees..."
He doesn't describe the scenery or the action particularly impressive detail, but his writing somehow lifts your spirit and makes you feel renewed and enchanted just as Bilbo is feeling those same things. It is extraordinary and it is that quality that keeps bringing you back to these well-worn pages. The book doesn't make you believe in magic. It IS magic.

 One day, while you were in the middle of reading the book, as you and your family drove to the store, you were describing this magical quality of Tolkien's writing to Liz. From the back seat, your seven year old son asked if he too could start reading the book. Of course, as soon as y'all got back home, you gave Nico the better of the two copies you own, and he sat down and started reading it that instant. It's only been a few days, and he is almost half way through. This entire book review blog project has been worth it just for that experience alone. Nothing makes you more proud or hopeful than to see one of your children immersed in one of your favorite worlds. Making nerds is SO much fun!

 As we've already established, you don't really need a review to cover any plot points. Bilbo starts off as a comfortable little hobbit in his warmly domestic hole in the side of a hill, he is immediately ripped from his life of comfort and food and pipe smoking into an adventure that he never imagined. On his way to reclaim stolen dwavish treasures from a Lonely Mountain he meets trolls and elves, a shape-shifter and a creature named Gollum (I wonder if he proves important in a later story?). He fights goblins and giant spiders, he holds court with kings and warriors, and matches wits with a dragon. You're never going to forget those moments, but what you do often forget are some of the lessons that come from these familiar pages. Tolkien weaves subtle morality lessons throughout the book. This time around, maybe because you had this review in mind, you were struck by those lessons more than any other time you've read "The Hobbit".

Perhaps the most over-arching message of the book is that there is always more than there appears, so never underestimate people. Gandalf is always telling Bilbo there is more about him than anyone expects. The wizard saw the promise inherent in Bilbo and expected great things from him, but the dwarves saw in him only a small and pitiable disappointment. You've noticed that both situations are great motivators in life. When someone you respect fully believes in you, you find that you can do the great things they imagine, but when strangers or adversaries predict your failure, when they try to doom you to mediocrity, you are also often inspired to achieve surprising feats of greatness. And sometimes, you yourself are you own adversary. The adventuresome Tookish part of Bilbo (from his mother) is always surprising his homey respectable Baggins part. One of the greatest joys in life is when you, like Bilbo, are able to surprise yourself.

Once you have surprised yourself, you often feel like a new person. As he prepares to enter the secret passageway in the side of the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo quips to the dwarves, "Perhaps I have begun to trust my luck more than I used to in the old days." And then Tolkien interrupts to define the old days, "-he meant last spring before he left his own house, but it seemed like centuries ago-". You love that illustration of how much someone can change in a very short amount of time. Like when you get married. Like when you have a child. Like when you have a child with Down syndrome. At some point we all go through life-changing adventures (for lack of a better word) and it is important to stop and take a moment to realize that we are no longer who we once were. Some times you really can think of your life from just a few months ago as "The Old Days". Tolkien reminded you of that and you enjoyed taking a moment to marvel at how far you yourself have come.

But what is the point of all these adventures? Of all this personal growth? Tolkien isn't arrogant enough to guess, but he does promise that there is a point. As Bilbo emerges from the long terror of the forest of Mirkwood, he has overcome a great deal. He and his friends have lost the trail, they are starving, and they are attacked and captured... twice! Bilbo's path to this point in the story has taken twists and turns that neither he nor the very wisest sages could have possibly foreseen. But what Bilbo never discovers, yet Tolkien tells you in the text, is that this twisted path was the only way Bilbo could have gotten to where he needed to be. All other paths lead to ruin and failure. The eastern exit of the forest was in such disrepair that he would never have made it to the Lonely Mountain or Smaug. Had Bilbo followed the path that wizards and elf lords had suggested, the story would have ended in disaster. But somehow the adventure continued. The story didn't end in disaster.

There is powerful hope in this revelation. This hope reminded you why you love this book so much. "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" have one underlying theme, someone is taking care of us all. We are in good hands. Someone is writing our story too, and it does not end in tragedy. No matter how long the journey there and back again takes us, no matter how many battles are fought or how many struggles the characters have to overcome, there is always the underlying truth that everything will be all right in the end, that Good can be trusted to overcome Evil. Light is stronger than the Darkness. We must each do our best and we must fight for what we believe is worth fighting for, but we must never lose hope that our story ends well.

But your favorite moment in the book was not until just before Bilbo heads to his first meeting with Smaug. Bilbo stops at the bottom of the tunnel leading into the heart of the Lonely Mountain. He is surrounded by vapors and oppressed by heat and his ears are filled with the terrifying sounds of a huge monster breathing in its sleep somewhere nearby. Just before Bilbo steps from the tunnel into the lair of the dragon Tolkien says that, "Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel, alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait." Doing great things is not really where bravery and honor lie. It's deciding to do them that makes heroes. In some ways, stepping out on a stage in the first place is more amazing than delivering a perfect performance. This small moment reminded you, not only to allow yourself to be brave, but to recognize the bravery in others all around you every day. The bravery it took for your cousin to join the Marines, or for your other cousin to come out of the closet. The bravery of your wife telling her story of sexual abuse online for other victims to read and take solace in, or of your niece to decide to keep her baby when she is still so young.  The bravery of your friend in singing in front of people on Sunday mornings, or the bravery of strangers who smile at you in the grocery store when they would rather crawl under a blanket and cry. Every day, whether you know it or not, you are surrounded by heroes who have fought their greatest battles alone in darkened doorways.

This is why you love to read. This is why no movie, however great, will ever compare to a good book. Tolkien gives you hope, he restores your sense of wonder and joy. He encourages your love of your fellow human beings.

Yes, you love this book because it was the first one you ever read. But the more you read it, the more you realize that you may also love it because it is one of the best you will ever read.

On to the next book!