Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review: The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs... for now. Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault. Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

The first thing you need to know about my experience with this book is that shortly after the two-thirds mark I stayed up till 2 AM reading, tears streaming down my cheeks and the box of tissues getting emptier by the minute. The words blurred but I would just wipe my eyes clear and keep reading. And then the other day I stayed up late again re-reading the last third of the book because I just couldn't return it to the library without doing so. It was that good. You have been warned.
My favorite part about Hazel and Gus's story is their voices and personalities. They are unmistakably teenagers with occasional temper tantrums and frequent additions of "like" and "that" to their sentences, but there is a certain mature gravity to them too that I believe stems from all they've had to experience in their short lives. They understand the world in a way that I don't think is typical for teenagers, with their conversations and thoughts going from simple truths to complex concepts and back, but the way Green wrote them felt natural and appropriate. I also enjoyed the fact that parents are very present in this novel. There are so many YA books out there nowadays where the characters might as well be orphans, but not here. It has been said that parents in this book are permissive but I didn't get that sense at all. The kids have rules, they have curfews, and when they push back and get away with it there's not a sense that it's a common-place occurrence. Maybe this heightened presence of family is due to the children being more dependent on their loved ones than your average teenager but the fact remains.
I'm going to break my No Spoilers rule here, so if you don't want to know what happens just skip to the next paragraph. Here goes. I had no trouble suspending disbelief in the first half of the book although Gus being particularly handsome did make me roll my eyes a little (it seems that all love interests with very few exceptions are incredibly attractive), and despite the fact that Hazel and Gus might seem pretentious at times (who in this day and age speaks like that!) I really did like them, but then the trip to Holland happened and the book took on a fantastical dream quality to me. I'm not denying that the Wish Foundation could make it happen, but leading up to Holland everything about this novel is so grounded in reality that Gus getting in touch with Van Houten on the first try and the trip coming together all of a sudden seemed too over the top and even magical, which in this case wasn't exactly a good thing for me. And then they were back home and reality reared its ugly head, and yet I never could get rid of the fairy tale sensation through the rest of the book.
In an interview Green gave to Goodreads he talks about making a particular effort to not write a sentimental novel and I believe he succeeded. Hazel and Gus are very unsentimental characters, they accept their circumstances at face value and make the most of them. They might be angry, they might be bitter, they might be tired, but they don't allow self-pity to rule their lives. Hazel sees reality clearly and speaks her mind, Gus always puts a positive spin on any situation, and they don't treat each other like cancer kids, which gives their relationship a certain levity. This combination of practicality and optimism allows them to have a life that's as close to normal as possible, and because of it their families can keep it together through the hard times. And when those hard times come Green remains unsentimental. He talks about the physical frailty and the hits a person's spirit takes with every defeat of the body, he talks about life continuing even when it ends for some, he shows us what can happen to families when the fight is finally over. Hazel is the perfect narrator for this novel, her no-nonsense voice and straightforward account of events that is not overloaded with adjectives or descriptions put me in the middle of every scene and allowed my imagination to build on the simplicity. There is no need for many words when the imagery is already there.
Oblivion and awareness are a big theme in this novel, with the characters having almost metaphysical discussions about the universe and influencing each other's opinions as the story progresses. Green takes on the common desire to be known and remembered by the world and examines it from the flip side - what if we are loved not widely, but deeply, does that make our lives less valuable than the lives of those with worldwide renown? I don't believe it does, and for all his fame I think Green is of the same opinion.

P.S. Here is that excellent interview I mentioned.

P.P.S. [Jan. 2014] If you enjoyed the book and are ready to shed some more tears for Hazel and Gus you'll get your chance when the movie comes out!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

On Nick and Amy's 5th wedding anniversary the beautiful and intelligent Amy goes missing. There are signs of struggle and Nick is the prime suspect in his wife's disappearance. Before long one thing is perfectly clear: marriage can be a real killer.

Dystopias has been popular lately and by the time I was about two thirds in I decided that Gillian Flynn gave us one too. So what if it's not set in a post-apocalyptic future of an alternate universe and the people aren't genetically modified or lorded over by a small group of despots. This is a dystopia of a modern-day family set in a dying Midwestern town succumbing to the economical depression, and the characters are just like you and me, shopping at big box stores and plotting their spouses' death. Alright, almost like you and me.
This is a deliciously twisted story about two of the most dysfunctional people I've ever heard of, and it made me think about my marriage on a few occasions. "Do we do that?" Or worse "We do do that!" That's how this book is, it's so well-written, so grounded in the reality we know from the cream-of-something casseroles to the energetic true-crime show host who is the spitting image of Nancy Grace, so full of the little details that make the story come alive, that it's easy to believe that what happens to the Dunnes isn't just the stuff of novels, that it's based on me, you, all of us, really.
As I read the book I marveled at Flynn's skill in bringing together two thoroughly unreliable narrators, a mystery, a character study, a look at our society, secrets piled on top of one another, and an ending that left me sitting there with only one thought in my head: "Bloody hell". She pulled this off with voices that rang true despite all the falseness, a world that I know exists, and a pace that never slowed down enough for me to forget to wonder what would happen next, because even when the original mystery was solved I knew that the story was far from over. (I would've known it even if I didn't see how many pages were left in the book.) All this convinced me that at any given moment in the novel I was exactly where Flynn wanted me to be, and that kind of sensation of intention all the way made for a very reassuring experience when on the whole this book was anything but.
It's easy to sing this novel praises (I really do see what all the hype is about) but what really stayed with me was the look at family that's so unflattering and uncomfortable that most don't think about it that way. How much do we really pretend to be better than our true selves when we court? How "sustainable" is the pretense, to use Amy's word? What happens when the illusion's gone and two people end up staring at each other, horrified? And how often are we horrified as opposed to thrilled? So many questions to think about, and I applaud Gillian Flynn for asking them and for packaging them in a novel that's very difficult to put down. If you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for?

P.S. If you don't feel like thinking about serious questions or have already read Gone Girl, or don't have the time to get sucked into it right now here's a great interview with Gillian Flynn. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Three extraordinary women whose determination to tell the truth about their lives forever changes a town, and the way women - mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends - view one another.

Lately I have been thinking about how different the country where I grew up is from the country I call home now. Sometimes it's a minor detail, like air conditioning, and sometimes it's something so vast the more I consider it the more I understand that what I know is just the tip of the iceberg. This book make me think about the vast things, and I'm still reeling from it. I know it will stay with me for a while.
It is a testimony to Stockett's skill that she breathed enough life into this story to make me wonder how much of it really is fiction. She made the world of Jackson, MS in the 60s feel so authentic it's almost palpable with its sweltering summers, women so sweet and proper in public and positively vapid in private, and tragedies unfolding behind closed doors while the world is shown a flawless hairdo and a perfect outfit. The book may be set 50 years in the past but deep down inside people are the same everywhere, regardless of the date on the calendar, and Stockett making this book primarily about people is what made it resonate with me and other readers the way it did.
This novel had a lot of opportunities to be less engaging than it was, but fortunately the author avoided them all by changing points of view, incorporating elements of mystery and keeping up tension through subplots, as well as creating characters who were much more than initially met the eye. In fact, Stockett's tendency to defy expectations with her characters was my favorite part of this book. I loved the revelations of Lou Anne, Minny, Johnny Foote, and even Skeeter's mother (in a lot of ways that woman is so much like my mother it's scary). My favorite though was Celia, who in the naked intruder chapter proved that underneath her facade of pink manicures and extra tight sweaters there was a woman who knew how to stand up for herself and those dear to her, and who knew what was right, regardless of the conventions of the day.
Mother-daughter relationships get talked about quite a bit. It's no wonder, they are complex and there is a lot of ground to cover, and it may seem like everything has already been said, but in this book Stockett took the subject to a whole new level. I haven't heard a lot of people discussing this aspect of the novel but for me it was even more prominent than the subject of civil rights. So many mother-daughter relationships are shown here, some made me cringe, some warmed my heart, and the fact that the sweetest ones were the ones not between the natural parents and children made them bitter-sweet. It means so much to teach a child that they matter, that they are loved that broke my heart to read about mothers completely oblivious about this. I almost cried when Aibileen started teaching Mae Mobley that she was kind, smart and important, and I fervently hoped that this fictional child would remember the lessons into her adulthood. It's amazing to me how well Stockett showed the touching moments in this novel, she must have incredible powers of observation in addition to her undeniable talent as a writer to be able to portray them as she did.
There are so many reasons why I loved this book, the characters, their voices and their growth, Stockett's storytelling, the way the narrative flowed, and the thought-provoking subjects are just a few. Yet when I finished the book I couldn't stop wondering why in the world would the maids not talk about families they worked for in the past instead of their current employers. Why would they tell about the women who had the ability to ruin their lives instead of women who weren't in the picture anymore?
Yes, I understand, this is what was hurting most at the time, these were the "white ladies" mistreating them most recently. And yes, if they talked about the past there wouldn't be the same sense of immediate danger permeating the book, the tension would be gone. And yet it doesn't make sense to me from the point of view of caution. There was so much talk of horrible consequences should anyone find out, and how the names of people and the town itself would be changed to protect everyone. Did nobody think that should the society ladies read the book nine out of ten would recognize themselves and their friends? These Southern belles might be shallow and mean, but I find it implausible that Skeeter and the maids wouldn't give them the credit to not all be that oblivious and downright stupid.
So there I was, feeling let down at the end of an otherwise excellent book. Even new beginnings for the three protagonists only could do so much to fix things for me. Am I glad I read this book? Definitely. Did it make me think more about the world around me? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, but when they finish it I would ask them whether they also thought the author cut this particular corner.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Some of my favorite things about The New York Public Library Schwatzman Building

Happy New Year, everybody! Kicking off 2013 with a little post about one of my must-see destinations on the trip to New York City last November. I wouldn't have missed it for anything and hope you enjoy the highlights tour.

Often referred to as the "main branch," landmark building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street is a popular tourist destination and the lions flanking the entrance are arguably as well known as the Statue of Liberty itself. Its non-circulating graduate-level collections were initially formed from the consolidation of the Astor and Lenox Libraries, and have evolved into one of the world's preeminent public resources for the study of human thought, action, and experience - from anthropology and archaeology, to religion, sports, world history, and literature. Only children under 12 can check out books from this branch - they have their own Children's Wing.
I was extremely fortunate during my visit and had the opportunity to see the Charles Dickens: The Key to Character while I was waiting for the guided tour, and later caught a glimpse of Dickens' original writing desk and chair, complete with the lamp he used (you can see it in the very back of the research room in the picture on the left). The tour guide told us that during an official visit many years ago a prominent politician was invited to sit in the chair and true to his nature of never doing anything half-way the gentleman put so much force into the task that he broke the seat and had to be extricated. The chair was repaired and since then it and the desk are kept behind closed doors with strict orders that nobody should sit in it.
The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is renowned for the extraordinary comprehensiveness of its historical collections. It houses some 15 million items, among them priceless medieval manuscripts, ancient Japanese scrolls, contemporary novels and poetry, as well as baseball cards, dime novels, and comic books. The collection is multi-lingual and the collections in the Dorot Jewish Division and the Slavic and East European Collections are particularly extensive. The guide was telling us that the first book to ever be checked out of the library when it was first opened to the public in 1911 was a volume in Russian called Ethical Ideas of Our Time, a study of Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoi. The Slavic collection received an enormous influx of materials after the Russian revolution of 1917 when the newly-formed Soviet government was short on funds and decided to sell the Tsarist library. They extended the invitation to bid to the NYPL and the library sent their chief librarians to Russia to examine what was available. The librarians acquired a large number of books and manuscripts at very reasonable prices and now The New York Public Library’s holdings of Slavic and East European materials extend from early 14th century illuminated manuscripts to the latest imprints with hundreds of thousands of titles available to researchers.
My last stop was in the Children's Wing where the library was holding a showcase of the original toys that inspired A.A. Milne in his creation of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. He bought the bear for his son's first birthday and from there the collection grew. Now I want to read the Pooh stories again...