The Fault in Our Stars Review!

In which Mary and Jessica talk about John Green’s latest book, The Fault in Our Stars. Mary has been patiently waiting for Jessica to finish this review all week, so let’s get down to it. (Oh, and there are no real spoilers to be found here. Ahoy!) Mary first:

Mary – Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of scripture. Not in the whole Bible or Qur’an way, but in the way that we come to sometimes find works of literature that are scriptural to us. That is, works that we want to keep coming back to, that we can keep using to find new insights into ourselves, that keep revealing new meanings and layers. I have a huge amount of books that fall under this heading for me, at least to some degree. Maybe I am being more capcaious with this term than I should be, and in fact many of the things I think of as scriptural are more comfort books. But, I am an ardent re-reader, and I prefer to think of my re-reads as somehow productive to my formulation as a person and as a reader.

What falls under this category? Austen’s works are this way. Harry Potter. Bishop’s poetry. Stevens’ poetry. Yeats’ poetry. 100 Years of Solitude. Deerskin. Heaney’s poetry. A.R. Ammons’ poetry. Paper Towns.

Just look at that amazing cover. - Jessica

For Hazel Grace, the narrator of The Fault in Our Stars, scripture comes in the form of An Imperial Affliction, a book written by the mysterious and reclusive Peter Van Houten. (Jessica – I’d like to mention here that AIA is not a book from the real world. It exists only in the world of tFioS. More on this below in my bit.) Hazel is a terminally ill cancer patient who has been given a few more years to live via a miracle cancer drug named Phalanxifor. She meets Augustus Waters at a cancer support group, a boy who has been sick with osteosarcoma and has had a leg amputated, and the book then traces their relationship.

Which brings me to John Green. The Fault in Our Stars is a great book, but for me it is not scripture. I gave TFiOS five whole stars on my goodreads, and I stick by that. It’s so well written. It’s smart. It’s funny. It’s sad. Somewhere, though, I had a disconnect. I didn’t cry, and when I finished it I knew I would probably not open it again for a long time, if at all. It’s a book about loss, pain, desire, deprivation, love, desperation, autonomy and so much else. I encourage anyone and everyone to read TFiOS; it’s definitely worth at least one reading.

Maybe the problem, for me, is Hazel. Hazel Grace? I don’t know. I don’t particularly love Hazel. Something about her really irked me. Since I finished TFiOS I’ve been trying to puzzle out why I don’t like her, and it just eludes me. Does that make me a terrible, horrible person? To not really be able to identify with the cancer kid? I loved Gus. But Hazel. Oh, Hazel. Is it that I’ve e-stalked John for years and I’m too familiar with his voice to be comfortable with him so intimately inhabiting a girl’s voice? Or, is it that I knew from the start that she was terminal, and so I didn’t want to let myself get too attached? I don’t know.

There are moments of TFiOS that are so good it almost makes me want to re-read it. I loved the exchange about the literal heart of Jesus. And then, this moment of Hazel’s internal monologue is amazing:

“it occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again”

It reminds me of a badass Dickinson poem, which I am now going to quote here to end this ramble just because it’s awesome, encompasses a lot of themes of the book (I think), and you can’t have too much poetry even in a book review:

984.

Satisfaction – is the Agent

Of Satiety –

Want – a quiet Comissary

For Infinity –

.

To possess, is past the instant

We achieve the Joy –

Immortality contented

Were Anomaly –

Disclaimer: Mr. Tinley has nothing to do with this review.

Jessica – More than writing reviews for books, I like talking about books, I like conversations about them. So first let me react to Mary’s review. I’m sorry for this being a rambly mess, but I am writing it late at night, desperate to finish so Mary doesn’t vivisect me. (Guys, I don’t even know what vivisect means or if Mary could do it to me, but I’m scared.)

I’m fascinated by Mary’s concept of scripture. It really brings home for me a similar feeling – Paper Towns was/is scripture for me, The Fault In Our Stars is not. For me, though, I think it’s just that the themes of Paper Towns were much more relevant to me. My experience reading TFioS was pretty different from Mary’s. Difference No. 1: I was more irritated with Gus than Hazel, though that is mainly because he insisted on calling her Hazel Grace. *shudder* Difference No. 2:  Around page 100, I started to cry and I didn’t full-on stop for fifty straight pages. At that point I put the book because I knew (in the way that people know things that may be wrong) that if I kept reading the book in my state, I wouldn’t stop crying for the rest of it. So the next day I picked it up and read it until I start to cry again. A few hours later I did the same thing. I read TFioS in these controlled spurts and I wonder if I damaged my own reading of the book. By so tightly controlling my emotional level, did I lose some of the engagement I might have otherwise had?

In the end, I don’t regret reading TFioS the way I did. Maybe it did lessen its impact, but I reserve the right as a reader to read a book however I want, in whatever emotional states I want. Which brings me, in a slightly roundabout way that may involve an intellectual leap or two, to An Imperial Affliction. As much as TFioS is about teenagers with cancer, and the “loss, pain, desire, deprivation, love, desperation, autonomy and so much else” that come with that, there is also a strong plot and thematic line about Hazel (and through Hazel’s influence, Gus) being hugely influenced by this book and having to deal with all of those things, loss and pain and autonomy, as fans, as readers, as consumers. Along with the cancer-related themes are themes relating to writing and reading, to producing art and consuming it. Of course, John Green is a great writer and the cancer affects how they feel/view AIA and AIA affects how they feel/view their cancers and their lives, but I think it’s also worth teasing out some of the differences there.

Though of course, that’s not a job for me, at least not here. That’s a job for the reader. That’s a job for you.

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Poem of the Moment, “At a Certian Age”

At a Certain Age

By Czesław Miłosz

We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
Was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom.
It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half-opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”

.

For Jessica and my long-put-off but recently remembered country challenge (books of the world challenge? I don’t know), I picked up a volume of Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry today at the library to conquer Poland. Milosz is one of those poet’s I’ve known about for a long time, hazily, but have never gotten too involved in. He’s an important influence on bunches of poets I adore (Heaney and Ted Hughes, for example), and I’ve read a few poems. Then I opened Facing the River (1995, the Ecco Press) and the poem above more or less slapped me in the face. Oh how I love it. The line breaks, I think, are what makes it spectacular. I also am obsessed with the shift at the end of the poem from the communal we into the singular voice. Maybe what makes me love it so so much is that I definitely read it as a poem of old age (Milosz was 83 or 84 at the time of this poem’s publication), and old age poems have become (usually) the poems that I love the most.

A year in review and a year in anticipation!

Happy New Year! This is going to be quite a post. I thought I would go ahead and ramble a bit about my 2011 reading successes and failures, and then put down in writing what my goals are for 2012.

What I Read in 2011:

First off, I signed up for two challenges as I remember it– the 50 books in a year challenge and the lowest level of the people of color challenge. For the 50 books in a year challenge I wanted to make sure that I read entirely new books, rather than re-read books I was already friends with. I succeeded in all those challenges! Whoo! Links go to Amazon so you can check out these hunks of awesome for yourself.

1. The Inferno by Dante, translated by Robert Pinsky
2. Labyrinths by Jorge Louis Borges
3. Sunstroke: Selected Stories by Ivan Bunin, translated by Graham Hettlinger
4. The Innkeeper’s Song by Peter S. Beagle
5. Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire, translated by somebody I don’t remember because I borrowed this from the library and then returned it and can’t remember what it looks like.
6. The Narrow Road to the Interior by Matsuo Basho
7. Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction by Derek Attridge
8. Melodies Unheard by Anthony Hecht
9. The Legends of the Saints: An Introduction to Hagiography by Delehaye
10. Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello
11. The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O Factor by Bruce Smith
12. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
13. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
14. Book of All Saints by Adrien Von Speyr
15. Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
16. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
17. The Folk of the Air by Peter S. Beagle
18. The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (Why is it that I inexplicably feel the need to include certain author’s middle names? Turner is like this. And David Foster Wallace. And a lot of southern authors from the late 1800s [George Washington Cable, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Thomas Nelson Page…])
19. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
20. The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
21. A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner
22. Rooms are Never Finished by Agha Shahid Ali
23. The Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin
24. Danger on Peaks by Gary Snyder
25. Life Studies by Robert Lowell
26. What Narcissism Means to Me by Tony Hoagland
27. Truth Barriers: Poems by Tomas Transtromer translated by Robert Bly
28. Selected Poems by Tomas Trastromer translated by Robin Fulton
29. Invisible Strings: Poems by Jim Moore
30. Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves
31. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
32. Black Zodiac by Charles Wright
33. Swann’s Way (Remembrance of Things Past, Vol. 1) by Marcel Proust, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff
34. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
35. Horse Lattitudes by Paul Muldoon
36. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
37. Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver
38. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
39. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
40. The Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound
41. Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire by Helen Vendler (also known as the book written in the 80s that said everything I wanted to say in my thesis about Stevens… Sigh…)
42. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
43. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
44. Yeats and the Poetry of Death: Elegy, Self-Elegy,and the Sublime by Jahan Ramazani (also known as the book written in the 80s that said everything I wanted to say in my thesis about Yeats… seriously dudes? Sigh…)
45. This Is Water by David Foster Wallace
46. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
47. The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa
48. Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
49. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
50. Pegasus by Robin McKinley

6 Books that were amazing and I’m so happy I put the time in to read: Swann’s Way, The God of Small Things, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Labyrinths, Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire and Yeats and the Poetry of Death. Just, awesome. Ramazani and Vendler’s books really showed me how elegant criticism can be, and they made me think more deeply about what I want to say with my thesis. The other four books are just… delicious.

Books that I regret reading:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
— maybe it’s just not my jive. I don’t particularly like crime/mystery, but I figured I’d give it a shot. The characters felt undeveloped (especially Lisbeth, who felt like a complete caricature), and it was very slow to start. I read it, but I’m not going to read the sequels. I also might have disliked it so much because I read it right after The God of Small Things which was beautiful and wonderful and my second favorite read of the year after One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Pegasus– Don’t get me wrong. This book is… hmm… it’s bangin’. It’s great. I love every second of it. However. It ends on a cliff-hanger. Mid-scene, basically. When’s the sequel coming out? Frickin’ 2014. I’ll definitely read the next one, but I’m sad that I have to wait two full years at least before I get to continue the story. If I had known the sequel is so far off and the way it would end, I definitely would have waited until 2013 at least to read it.
Invisible Strings– I picked this up randomly from the new books section at Alderman Library. Huge mistake. Everything I dislike about most contemporary poetry that’s being churned out.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian— The problem is I don’t <3 middlegrade fiction. Really. Also the drawings really… irked me. I think I’m getting more picky, grumpy, and pretentious with my reading tastes as I get older. Which is sad.

The Great Vast Unknown of 2012—

2012 is going to contain a lot of changes for me. Fingers crossed, I will write (by now this verb should really be “finish writing”…) my thesis and graduate from UVA with a master’s that’s basically useless (perhaps that is winter cynicism speaking). Then I’m either going to find a beautiful job, find a terrible job, live on the street, or get a second master’s in library science. So, I have no idea what kind of time I’ll have for reading for pleasure. But I still want to complete these challenges:

The Unread Book Challenge: As I was organizing my books over break, avoiding writing the thesis of doom, I realized that I have a tremendous amount of books that I keep planning on reading. This year I want to make a conscientious effort to check books off this list. I definitely want to read, from my TBR pile: The Collected Tales by Nikolai Gogol, The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault, The Music of What Happens by Helen Vendler, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (I finally own it! And can read it without fear of a library recall ruining everything), As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and Selected Poems by James Merrill. Bam.

The “I Want More” Challenge: reading more by authors you already love! Well. I love this challenge. I’m signing up for the medium level– which is “give me more” (5-8 books). I wanted to read another novel by Arundhati Roy, but oh wait she hasn’t written another one (yet). I’m planning on hitting up Faulkner, John Green (!!!!!! The Fault in Our Stars I am so excited that you exist so soon!!!!), David Foster Wallace, Charles Wright, and Garcia Marquez. In fact, I already checked Garcia Marquez off the list– having just finished Memories of My Melancholy Whores. Bam!

The Dewey Decimal Challenge: Well, since poetry counts… I’m gonna go ahead and be a boss and say I’m signing up for the master level– that’s 16-20 non-fiction books. Last year I read 17, I think, and I felt like it was a relatively novel-heavy and poetry-light year. So, I’m stoked! Poemz! And Criticism. Right. That too.

The 50 books in a year challenge that I don’t have a link for because I don’t know if it has a home: I want to keep this the same as last year and only count new books that I read. I’d also like to try to have at least five books (10%!) be novels written in the 2000s that aren’t YA. I feel like this is a huge gap in my reading life, and one that I’d like to address. I’ve already read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro which was beautiful. I would like to read 1Q84 by Murakami (but it is a veritable tome and Infinite Jest is already weighing down my purse threateningly), The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin (technically 1999 but whatever), Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry.

Poem of the Week, “Why I Wake Early”

Why I Wake Early
by Mary Oliver

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

.

I am posting a poem because my life should finally be back to normal soon. Classes start next week, and with them I am hoping that I will regain some balance and some scheduling in my life. Poems of the week might actually happen every week! Of course, I’ll be working 5 different jobs, so we’ll have to see.

Anyway! I chose this poem because I am feeling especially grumpy today and I had to get up very early. The only redeeming thing about this morning was the beautiful, bright, warm sun on my face. It almost made the fact that all three of my normal coffee haunts were closed because they had no power (seriously, the universe is out to get me).

“Why I Wake Early” is the title poem of Mary Oliver’s 2004 collection Why I Wake Early. Mary Oliver writes deceptively simple poetry, which is delicious and exactly what suits my mood right now.
Poets.org link: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/265
Poetry Foundation link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/mary-oliver

Poem of the Week, from Eleven Stars Over Andalusia

From Eleven Stars Over Andalusia
by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Agha Shahid Ali with Ahmad Dallal

“10. I want from love only the beginning”

I want from love only the beginning. Doves patch,
over the squares of my Granada, this day’s shirt.
There is wine in our clay jars for the feast after us.
In the songs there are windows: enough for blossoms to explode.

I leave jasmine in the vase; I leave my young heart
in my mother’s cupboard; I leave my dream, laughing, in water;
I leave the dawn in the honey of the figs; I leave my day and my yesterday
in the passage to the square of the Orange where doves fly.

Did I really descend to your feet so speech could rise,
a white moon in the milk of your nights . . . pound the air
so I could see the Street of the Flute blue . . . pound the evening
so I could see how this marble between us suffers?

The windows are empty of the orchards of your shawl. In another time
I knew so much about you. I picked gardenias
from your ten fingers. In another time there were pearls for me
around your neck, and a name on a ring whose gem was darkness, shining.

I want from love only the beginning. Doves flew
in the last sky, they flew and flew in that sky.
There is still wine, after us, in the barrels and jars.
A little land will suffice for us to meet, a little land will be enough for peace.

.

Mahmoud Darwish was a Palestinian poet who passed away in 2008. For more information about him and his work, poets.org has a biography and a few poems in translation. If you speak arabic, his own website looks great (though I am unable to read anything on it). Darwish wrote exclusively (as far as I can tell) in arabic, so if you want to read him in English it has to be via translation.

Agha Shahid Ali was an amazing poet in his own right who passed away in 2001. He is probably best known for introducing (or, well, perfecting? maybe?) the ghazal form in English, but his work is more interesting than just that. His poems blend ethnic backgrounds in a beautiful mixture of free verse and form. I just finished reading Rooms Are Never Finished, Ali’s collection that deals with the death of his mother, and I highly recommend it. “Lennox Hill” is especially awesome. More information about Ali is available through the Poetry Foundation or through poets.org .

The Catcher in the Rye

Sometimes the best books are the ones you just grab off the shelves just because you feel like it.

On Friday I was shelving books in the library where I work, and I had this beat up copy of The Catcher in the Rye in my hands and I just thought to myself– why not? This is one of those books that I’ve never read that I should have read by now (I’m looking at all y’all: Moby Dick, The Sun Also Rises, and The Red Badge of Courage). So, I picked it up with apprehension. On the one hand, The Catcher in the Rye has John Green’s seal of approval. On the other hand, I was really sure I was going to have to drag myself through this novel hating every minute of it (ahem, akin to my experience with The Great Gatsby). But this copy was an old, well-loved, 1951 edition, and, in the end, it was the physical heft of the book that made me take it home.

This has been such a pleasant surprise. The Catcher in the Rye  is fantastic. I love it. If I was a good reviewer like Jessica, I’d review it. Even though it’s a classic. Instead, I’m gonna just quote one of my favorite parts, about the Museum of Natural History. This is a long quote, but I promise that it’s worth it.

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving the same blanked. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or  you’d have a substitute taking the class instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way — I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”

This is poetry. This makes me understand why professors get all bent out of shape when someone says that poetry and prose are opposites. I love the way that this pivots, how you get all the detail about the Museum of Natural History and then it gives you the list of possible changes in a series of “or”s. Stasis followed by flux. And the images!! I don’t know. I just love it.

The Catcher in the Rye has also made me sad in a way– this is a novel for a younger person. This is a novel I should have read 5 years ago. I feel like the teenager who picks up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about because they missed it as a kid. I mean, I obviously still love it, but I think that if I’d read this a few years ago it would have been more powerful in my life. Maybe I’d be a prose person instead of a poetry one. Oh my god, maybe I’d be writing a thesis on Virginia Wolfe (like everyone else in my program, it seems like) instead of on Yeats and Stevens. So, as a  newly minted grown-up (hah, it feels like a joke as I type it out), I love this book, but I wish that I’d found it earlier.

It’s the exact opposite of my experience reading Anna Karenina at 15. 15 is too young to read Tolstoy. Let me just put that out there right now. And I fully support 8 year olds reading books marked as college reading level and beyond, it’s not that. Tolstoy is just so… dogmatic and subtle. Maybe it was just the type of teenager I was, but I hated that book. I literally did not finish it, and I never do this. I am a book conqueror, people. I want to go back to it and see what I can get out of it now, but I am afraid that it will defeat me again. Or that I’ll still detest it.My mom had a similar experience with Moby Dick, she read it last year and loved it after reading it in High School and hating it.

Are there any books that you tried to read too young or ended up reading too late? Are there certain books for certain parts of your life? If so, is there a list compiled somewhere that I can follow?!

Poem of the Week, “Stray Paragraphs in February, Year of the Rat”

Stray Paragraphs in February, Year of the Rat
by Charles Wright

East of town, the countryside unwrinkles and smooths out

Unctuously toward the tidewater and gruff Atlantic.

A love of landscape’s a true affection for regret, I’ve found,

Forever joined, forever apart,

outside us yet ourselves.

.

Renunciation, it’s hard to learn, is now our ecstasy.

However, if God were still around

he’d swallow our sighs in his nothingness.

.

The dregs of the absolute are slow sift in my blood,

Dead branches down after high winds, dead yard grass and

undergrowth—

The sure accumulation of all that’s not revealed

Rises like snow in my bare places,

cross-whipped and openmouthed.

.

Our lives can’t be lived in flames.

Our lives can’t be lit like saints’ hearts,

seared between heaven and earth.

.

February, old head-turner, cut us some slack, grind of bone

On bone, such melancholy music.

Lift up that far corner of landscape,

there, toward the west.

Let some deep light in, the arterial kind.

Sorry for the wonky formatting, but where the lines are actually matters (as in, some lines are intended to not be flush left), so I thought I would try to preserve that in this e-text version of Wright’s poem. However, that means that it HAS to be double spaced for indentation to work on wordpress (counting each line as a separate paragraph), which pretty much distresses me. Imagine it single spaced!! There are periods on the lines between stanzas to force double spaces to preserve stanza breaks. Eesh.

Charles Wright is a poet I’m only beginning to really appreciate. He’s from Tennessee! Before I came to Charlottesville, I’d only read Black Zodiac. I thought it was good, but wasn’t in love enough to go and buy more. Well, people here are a little crazy about Charles Wright. I read Littlefoot for a class I had last semester, and then I picked up Appalachia from the library purely out of curiosity. Man, Appalachia is crazy good. I am wild about it. This poem is the opening one of that collection. Maybe this piece resonates with me right now because I’ve been in a seminar on Hagiography this spring, which makes me excited about lines like “Our lives can’t be lit like saints’ hearts / seared between heaven and earth.”

If you think this poem is the cat’s pajamas, I suggest reading more of Wright’s work. Poets.org and the Poetry Foundation have several poems available to read online. I really love Littlefoot, 19, which is super-short.