The Fault in Our Stars

the fault in our starsWhile not usually one for young adult books, I read John Green’s The Fault in our Stars along with my 14-year-old for a summer read. The book has been getting a lot of press (and it is now a movie), and having lost my 6-year-old to cancer 14 months ago, I’m a bit attuned to cancer-related books. However, there are so many bad books out there, I was worried this would trivialize a clearly non-trivial topic.

While everyone’s experience with cancer is different, Green gets it. Sure, I could argue details and teens with cancer will surely find issues to challenge, but this is believable. What struck me was how much he gets how cancer impacts a community, and especially a family. While the two teenagers, Hazel Grace and Augustus, are the ones dealing with life and death issues of cancer, we also see how their parents and friends handle it. Or don’t. Toward the end of the book we hear about all these people showing support on Facebook, but it is clear they have been absent from the daily lives of these teenagers and their families.

As a result, and because of newly shared interests, the cancer community creates its own world. For nearly three years our family was part of that community at a Children’s Hospital, and when we lost our son, we lost that community. The rest of the world, frankly, just does not get it. Green sees this alienation, sees how families respond, and respects that new world.

The title is great, as it a play on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar  where Cassius says to Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Green is saying is that the lives of Hazel Grace and Augustus have been created by outside forces. However, they take that “fault” and refuse to let the cancer rule their life. Their trip to Amsterdam is a slap in the face of the victim mentality they could assume.

Most telling is when Augustus identifies himself with his cancer. “What am I at war with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They’re made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It is a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner.” This reminded me of the time my oldest son was asking my youngest son with cancer, Oliver, about what kind of robot he would be if he could be a robot. As they talked about the traits, my oldest said, of course, that Oliver’s robot would not have cancer. “Yes it would,” said Oliver. “The cancer is part of who I am.” In other words, cancer patients begin to live with, and not against, this horrible disease.

The book also captures the experience of grief, and I don’t think of giving away too much to say that in a book about cancer, there is grief. Hazel Grace describes it as when you are in pain and they ask you to rate it from one to ten. She never said ten. “I called it a nine because I was saving my ten. And here it was, the great and terrible ten, slamming me again and again as I lay still and alone in my bed staring a the ceiling, the waves tossing me against the rocks then pulling me back out to sea so they could launch me again into the jagged face of the cliff leaving me floating faceup on the water, undrowned.”

That is harsh. That is true. And that is why this book is worth reading, whether or not cancer has entered your life. You get a real sense of what it is to live with cancer as a patient and a family. And the cancer community loses people all the time, so they get grief.

If any part of the book could be changed, it is a sexual encounter between two teens that could have been avoided. It adds nothing to a connection that is already there, and does not send the best message to teenagers (call me a prude, but there are other options in life).

As a parent who has lost a child, the book had me early on, when Hazel Grace (who narrates the book) says: “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.”

Not my words, but my feelings.

The Magic Christian

Terry Southern The Magic Christian 1996 editionTerry Southern is an American novelist, Academy-award nominated screenwriter, and even later did writing for Saturday Night Live. He is praised for his satire and humor, and “The Magic Christian” has no shortage of luminaries singing its praises.

Not this reviewer. 

The novel revolves around Guy Grand, a billionaire who likes to spend his money to show how far people will go for money. He says everyone has a price, and he intends to find it. Would you eat a parking ticket for a few thousand dollars? Grand finds out, although whether or not that really says anything about the moral character of the individual is questionable. Would you swim in a cesspool of toxins for thousands? Again, he is trying to push the limits on how far one will go.
This is an interesting concept, but the point is quickly made, and so even this short novel becomes repetitive. Grand sets up a prank, we see the event occur, and then it is done. In between we are part of his conversation with this two live-in aunts and a desperate, socialite. Then back to another prank. While this repetition is tiring, it becomes irksome because many of the pranks say nothing about our moral limits. At the end he opens grocery stores, sells everything at loss in one night, closes it, and does it again. What does that say about anything? The same works for “The Magic Christian” prank, which is the name of an ocean liner he buys and refurbishes as an incredibly high end travel liner. Those lucky enough to get a place, gradually find themselves on a boat with people intended to make them feel uncomfortable, nothing to eat but potatoes, and a host of other problems. To what point? This says nothing about people and their moral limits. It does say something about Grand.
Grand himself is an interesting character. He sets up these elaborate plots for his own humor and often takes part in them, although unknown to others in the crowd. He clearly delights in making people uncomfortable. However, at times he is simply sadistic, which makes this his moral challenging of others questionable. Plus, he has no hesitation is using others, especially the disadvantaged, to meet his needs. He puts circus people on his liner and sends the bearded lady in to the dining room, naked. Funny? Well, to him perhaps, but only it only demeans her and embarrasses others — there is no moral lesson for others here. 
So, could Southern be actually hoping to have Grand stand in as the satirical character? Is he the one we are supposed to see ourselves reflected in? If so, he fails to make that connection, and as such the book fails. As a short story, this could have some potential, but the repetition and the failure to hold to his own thesis creates an incomplete novel.

Underground Nest


underground nestKathleen Maher’s novel centers around the dissolution of the proto-typical American family. Mom, dad, son, daughter. Dad is the breadwinner, a former Eagle Scout and Boy Scout supporter who teaches Political Science. The kids go through the normal growing pains, although the son does follow dad up the Boy Scout ladder. Mom stays home and lives a housewife existence rarely seen today. The daughter rebels — at times.
Not surprisingly, the “underground nest” of the title tells us that just beneath the surface, a nest of hornets await. Zach Severins is the dad, and beneath his perfect surface is an obsession with himself and what others think of him, a tendency to find sex outside of his marriage, and eventually a long-term relationship with a woman who moves in the top circles of Washington D.C.
Eventually, the surface collapses and we watch as Zach’s perfect life is exposed for the lie it is. To avoid giving away too much of the plot, suffice it say that everything unravels. The result is that Zach is forced to reexamine himself and given the chance to redeem his life. The novel ends before we see if a promising beginning is followed through, but I’m not convinced that two years down the road, he would not be in a similar situation.
The story is interesting and Maher moves the plot along quickly and deftly. Where it suffers is in the characters, a group of somewhat two-dimensional people who must have more going on than what we see. As a result, the reader is often surprised at what is happening. After they separate, Zach and his wife, Beth, have an ongoing “angry sex” routine, but from we know of Beth, this seems out of character. Even the children seem to move in and out of anger faster than the normal teenager who finds out their dad has been having an affair.
Still, the novel raises questions about how we live our lives, and takes the side of living the well-considered life. It does so within a scenario many of us will recognize, which makes the possibility of actually taking some away from it all the more likely. 


The Illusion of Separateness

illusion of separtenessSimon Van Booy likes to write about the interconnectedness of life. Small acts by one person can dramatically impact the life of another, and neither person may even be aware of the connection. But that does not make the connection any less important. Recognizing that we are connected to others, and that those connections are important, should make us more conscious of how we live our lives.

In this most recent novel, “The Illusion of Separateness,” (slated for a June release) Van Booy goes directly after this theme, which he has raised in earlier works. This time we bounce back between World War II, 1968, and the present day, between France, and England, and the United States. We meet John, a recently married American pilot shot down over France who then forgets his past; Mr. Hugo, the man with a half-flattened face who chooses to forget his past; Amelisa, a blind woman who creates ways for the blind to experience museum displays, including one with the replica of a plane her grandfather John flew. There are more: Martin, an elderly caretaker at a home for the elderly, who is with the new resident, Mr. Hugo, when he dies. In classic van Booy style, the final chapter ties around to the first, and we find that these two have a connection neither could imagine.

If the book is frustrating at all, it is in the circling of the truth as you wait for Van Booy to connect the stories. You know he will, but he demands patience from the reader as he explores everyone’s story. However, what we see in this circling is that lives exist without the connections being known. We could be the ones living those lives, never aware of how we are connected to others, but still moving froward because of those connections.

“He realized this early on, and realized too that what people think are their lives are merely its conditions. The truth is closer than thought and lies buried in what we already know.”

vanbooyThis is Van Booy’s second novel, and he also has two collections of short stories out (as well as several other projects). His short story background is clear in this novel, where many chapters could stand alone. As the novel unfolds, the connections begin the characters become clearer. But Van Booy avoids any Hollywood style, clunky unveiling of the truth. In fact, the reader is privy to connections the characters never make themselves.

While this seems like a setup for a depressing novel, Van Booy is one of the most hopeful writers around. His other works have explored the theme of love, and he is not afraid to see love as the basis of a good life. Too often, writers focus on love as a setup for failure. But Van Booy appeals to the romantics in the world in that he believes in love.

Van Booy also separates himself from other writers in that he takes children seriously. In one of his previous short stories we see the love of children as the strongest of bonds, and he has not lost that awe of children’s capacity to love and feel.

Early in the novel, we meet young Sebastien, who has discovered the skeletal remains of what was John’s  plane, shot down over France. He thinks about showing this to the young girl he loves, he thinks about the pilot and the photo left behind in the plane, he thinks about what this means in his young life. “The teacher sometimes stops talking, and when Sebastien looks over, she is already looking at him, which means: Why are you looking through the window and not at me? But Sebastien is not looking through the window, but through the scrapbook of things that have pierced his heart.”

This is a line which could shoot down most novels, but in Van Booy’s hands, these lines work. He drops them throughout the novel and they flow naturally from the characters themselves. For Van Booy, every life has a story, and every story is important. That alone makes him unique among novelists, and makes his work worth reading.

You can learn more about Van Booy at his website.

Niagara Falls All Over Again

ImageElizabeth McCracken’s novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again, is the complete package: strong plot, well developed characters, and several story lines which tie together well. There are so many ways in which this novel could have gone wrong, the fact that MckCracken pulls it off is a testament to her skill.

The novel is told to us by Moses Sharp, and Midwestern Jewish boy from a small town, who grows up to be the straight man in a highly successful comedy team. From his time on the vaudeville circuit, where he meets Rocky Carter, the driving force in his life, to his retirement from the entertainment business after making countless B-grade movies, we follow Moses throughout. Moses comes from a large family of sisters, but none dearer than Hattie, with whom he plans to go into show business. When that is no longer possible, he faces the choice of taking over his father’s clothing store (as expected), or heading out on his own.

He heads out and McCracken gives us a wonderful look at the vaudeville circuit as it was beginning to die. The hope and despair, the bizarre acts, the ability to improvise, and the dependence on each other, all show through. We follow Carter and Sharp, who resemble Laurel and Hardy in their descriptions (although they too are mentioned in the book), as they go to Hollywood and strike it rich. Professionally. Their personal lives are a different story and they take different directions, but to avoid giving away too much, I’ll leave you to the novel.

While are there are many elements of the book to praise, McCracken’s creation of Moses Sharp is the best. He is an intricately drawn person, especially tricky to do since he is the narrator. But he is an honest narrator and we see him for what he is — a good man with a not always good life and not always exemplary behavior. In other words, he is real.
I’ve praised McCracken’s novel, The Giant’s House, in another post. It is clear that she is a voice to not only read more of, but one we can watch for as she continues to create.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Harold FryArticle first published as Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce on Blogcritics.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frystarts with a wonderful premise. Harold Fry, a man retired from work, life, and love, receives a letter from an old friend. She is dying of cancer and wants to say goodbye, which she does in the letter. Harold writes a short response back, but when arriving at a post office box to mail it he passes along and starts walking. Eventually it is a walk which takes weeks as he becomes convinced his friend Queenie will stay alive as long as he is walking toward her.

The walk gives Harold and his wife left at home plenty of time to consider many things. How did they live their lives, what is their relationship with their son, what is their relationship to each other? Do they love each other? What happened to the romance which bloomed early in their marriage? While the book focuses on Harold’s walk, the reader is watching his wife Maureen’s reaction as much as Harold’s musings.
The absurdity of the walk is one of the reasons it attracts us. Harold is not a walker before this. He is not even in shape and he is not young. He does not love nature and he does love his comforts. Yet he embarks on the walk with no clear intention, no supplies, and a pair of yachting shoes to complete several hundred miles of walking. Along the way he meets a host of characters who serve as foils to his thinking, thus pushing him forward physically and emotionally. It is in his reflections that author Rachel Joyce teeters on the cliff of “the obvious.” Just how many more things is Harold going to reflect on from his past? But just when it becomes too much, a new group of characters emerges as Harold is joined in a now public pilgrimage.
Joyce  has a keen eye for the public and excels as she creates a cast of characters which are all too realistic next to Harold’s quasi-spiritual pilgrimage. While everyone else wants to saint him we begin to see him in a new light — a light which shows his human failings while only making him more endearing to the reader.
In other words, Joyce has created a work in the epic tradition of the quest. From the outset of literature no theme has been more prevalent. From the Odyssey to Huckleberry Finn to to Marilynn Robinson’s , the quest for something more is a reflection of a human longing. Joyce has created a character we admire because in part we want to be him. We want to seek out on a new journey with only our wits to save us (gasp–he does not even have his cell phone). We want to meet physical, emotional, and spiritual dilemmas and push through them. We want to be challenged and then succeed beyond our own expectations. Like any good quest, the Harold Fry we meet at the outset of the novel is not the Harold Fry we goodbye to at the end.
Much of what happens or is revealed toward the end of the book alters your perception of what has occurred, so I’ll resist any temptation to spoil the plot for you. If the book has any success you can count on a movie. Joyce is a playwright for the BBC and much of the book could be dropped on screen as is. This is not a critique of it since as a novel, it still works.