Monday, December 30, 2013

The Fault in our Stars by John Green

“Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.” John Green, The Fault in Our Stars


A young friend loaned me this book a few months ago, and I read it and immediately liked it. As time has passed, this book has built a snug little fort in my mind.  I cannot forget it.

John Green tells the love story of Hazel and Augustus, two teens with terminal cancer, whose lives are circumscribed by the disease's capriciousness, but whose minds are not.  They meet in a support group, and each is drawn to the other's intellect, wit, and, yes, looks.  Each has a physical beauty that cancer cannot capture, even though it took Augustus' leg and Hazel's lung function.

They fall in love with each other slowly, gradually, within a short period of time. As Hazel says, “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”   They don't have much time together, but the days spent in Augustus' basement and a trip to Amsterdam together stretch out into delicious eternity.  What makes this book "pop," is the character's spot-on dialogue and philosophical wrangling with larger questions about life, death, time, love. Everything, essentially.  Especially, the situation they share~death's presumptiveness, rather than life's~bonds them.

Let me stress here: The Fault in Our Stars is not a sad book. I cried at the end, but that just may be me, because the main theme is joy.  Joy in reading, friendship, travel, and humor (making cancer the butt of its own joke).  Hazel and Augustus (and their appealing blind friend Isaac) live fully in this book. 

The Fault in Our Stars shows the infinite in the finite, and it succeeds in a most appealing way.  All any of us have is each day and its circumscribed minutes. To find joy in these meted out portions is an art; focusing on now, not then, is the craft. Hazel and Augustus are masters at this craft and can teach the reader, if she is not too afraid to listen.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Best two books read this summer

Summer of 2013 has been a blur, but that's only natural since time speeds up as we age, and heat makes my brain go foggy. Speaking of age, my trousers are rolled up to my knees, readers. (My first and only "Prufrock" reference, I promise.)  In the recent humidity, I've been grasping for books as life preservers, temporary rescue from the hot commonplace. I read some duds, some good ones, and two excellent ones. These are And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini and Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel.


Hosseini's latest fiction is his best. Darting back and forth in time, the chapters in Mountains read more as short stories linked by character than a traditional novel.  In 1952, a poor Afghan family gives a daughter away to a rich dysfunctional, family, and multiple inter-continental story lines emerge.  California, Greece, Kabul, Paris~the settings and plot twists intertwine to make a rich tapestry of story.  Each chapter presents a character's flaw and the humanity required to overcome said defect.  As in The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini presents a hopeful portrayal of people at their worst trying to become better.

Likewise, Susanna Daniel's Stiltsville presents a character faced with life-changing choices whose reasoning provides the novel's moral structure.  The setting is Miami in the last part of the 20th century, with the heart of the story occurring in a stilt house rising from the azure waters of Biscayne Bay.  In 1969, Atlanta girl Frances Ellerby attends a Miami wedding and meets her future husband (whose family owns the stilt house).  With this chance meeting, the course of her life changes, and Frances lets marriage and Miami consume her. She loves the water, sand, and banyans (deliciously  described by Daniel) but always seems somewhat set apart from her surroundings.  Is France's thrumming separation a byproduct of being raised in Georgia or foreshadowing deftly wrought by Daniels' first person narration? Read Stiltsville and find out.


I know these books are keepers because I've been revisiting the settings in my mind.  The heat of Kabul and Miami, captured through words, living on in imagination. The books end, but the ideas and images do not. This alchemy is why we read.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

You aren't that special, you know. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

This is my second post about a Meg Wolitzer novel. (See 5/8/09, The Ten Year Nap.)  Though I don't like to write more than once about an author, I couldn't help but include her latest book because it struck me as emotionally appropriate for my generation.

The Interestings follows a group of art camp buddies from age 15 through their early 50s.  Each has been told by someone that he or she is special and has "talent."  In some cases, the teenagers' parents have encouraged their talented children. In other cases, like that of main character Jules, friends have made a a camper feel unique and gifted for the very first time.  In all cases, this special state of being an artist defines these young people, gives them purpose, and, eventually career goals. 

Fast forward to the post-college years, then to to being married with young children, and on to the characters' forties and  fifties. Then, back to the camp years.  Wolitzer deftly and comprehensively collapses time when describing the lives of the four main characters; in addition to Jules, there is petite actress Ash, brilliant animation artist Ethan, and brooding musician Jonah.  Jules is the least economically advantaged one of the bunch, attending the camp, enchantingly called Spirit-in-the-Woods, on scholarship.  She has a wry, down-to-earth quality which captivates Ethan from then on--even when he ends up marrying the charismatic Ash.  Jonah is a slightly less important friend, appearing now and then in the plot, more as a cultural touchstone regarding political and epidemiological changes over the decades.

Throughout the course of the novel, each of these characters answers this question: did I ever really have talent?  In Jules' case, not long into pursuing an acting career in New York, an acting teacher convinces her to give up. For many years afterward, Jules chases the magical theater feeling she's left behind, finally making peace with it.  In Ethan's and Ash's cases, both are very successful~but was it talent or good connections that allowed them to "make it?"  In Jonah's case, talent long submerged since the camp years, starts bubbling up back up and cannot be stopped.


Any of us who have ever been encouraged by a parent, teacher, or friend, knows the power of being told we have "talent."  It often defines us: we become the dancer, writer, actress, musician, singer, etc., for years. Our interesting talent sets us apart and makes us special from the mediocre rest.  But, when we pursue our talent to its logical conclusion, as Jules does, what then? Our talent didn't feed or clothe or support us.  So, was it a waste after all?  What if we were really hacks and our family was just being nice? Wolitzer answers this last question definitively in this book: it doesn't matter.  Having been defined once as an artist, whether you were any good or not, gives you the opportunity and aptitude to appreciate art forever.

The Interestings also posits that friendship, the long-lived kind originating in childhood, is its own kind of art.  Knowing someone from childhood or young adulthood, Wolitzer says, is powerful.  Those relationships that last might get thorny or messy but will ultimately be as rich as tapestry.  Perhaps, long-lived friendships are the ultimate art.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

11/22/63 by Stephen King

The past has teeth.

If you're not sure what this phrase means, read 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and you will see how the recalcitrant past bites those who try to change it. King's novel, a masterpiece of time travel nuanced by nostalgia, is a full-size exploration of character, action, reaction, and repercussion.

Jake Epping teaches English in a small-town Maine high school in 2011.  Through the dying owner of the local diner, he finds a time portal back to 1958 and soon embarks on a quest to alter the fates of several local people and one national figure: John F. Kennedy.  He literally spends years in the past (which only equal several minutes in the present), creating a decade-appropriate persona and planning and meeting kind and not-so-kind folks along the way.  The setting jumps from small towns in Maine and Florida to Jodie, Texas, where Jake ends up teaching high school English while he waits for the day to kill off Lee Harvey Oswald. 

The main theme of 11/22/63 is that certain patterns are entrenched in our lives and will not change. Jake teaches English in both present and past; likewise, people he meets are similarly named and fated, whether in 1960 or 2011.  For example, on an early trip through the time portal, he saves a young girl from a paralyzing accident in 1958 and checks for repercussions in the present day. From what he can tell, her alternate life turns out much like her real life, except she seems to have achieved more when paralyzed. 

However, try to circumvent more fates, and the past becomes more wolf-like, hungry for blood. Dead batteries, wrecks, muggings~the past stops at nothing to keep from being altered.  King's concept of reality (explained to Jake by the eerie "yellow card men" outside the time portal ) is that of a puppet jerked around on strings of occurrences. When a past event is changed, it multiplies into alternate strings, which then become tangled. And even just by stepping foot into the past, Jake creates an alternate string of events which affect everything from that time forward.  Changing such a major event as John F. Kennedy's assassination might create a snarled knot of threads, riotous enough to strangle the puppet of reality altogether.

Patterns and the intransigence of time: two lovely themes.  How often do we ask ourselves those weighty words~what if? What if I hadn't gotten in the car that day, gone to a different school, spoken up instead of sitting mute? My life might have been totally different.  But would it have been that different?  Perhaps, the quotidian simply resets to some personal default: similar people, places, things no matter where you go or what you do.

Instead of finding patterns dull, I now see them as comforting signs, that I am where I am supposed to be. Attend to these patterns, these recurring themes, and you might just start to see what animates your puppet.

Does Jake Epping save the President on November 22, 1963? Ohhhh, you'll have to read the book to find out. Let me just say, having led the reader to that murderous point for the entire novel, Stephen King will not disappoint you. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett




A few people have asked me, what happened to my book blog~why had I stopped writing it?  Don't worry. I'm still here, and I'm still reading. (My husband can vouch for that.) It just that it takes a while to find a best book, but State of Wonder by Ann Patchett certainly fits the bill.


I've read three of Patchett's other books: Bel Canto, Run, and Truth and Beauty, and State of Wonder is  better than these. Maybe it appeals to me because of the medical/pharmacological plot.  (I do love tales of pharmaceutical intrigue!) A Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company wants to keep tabs on its well-paid drug researcher in the Amazon, who is far less forthcoming about her progress than desirable.  The company sends another scientist to find her and report back, with disastrous results.  Instead of canceling the drug altogether (because of projected millions to be made), the company CEO sends yet another employee, Dr. Marina Singh, into the wild.  The story of Dr. Singh searching and finding her erstwhile teacher/pharmaceutical savant is captivating.  The Amazon jungle bubbles with snakes, mosquitoes, cannibals, and unforeseen surprises of a more human variety.  The setting and character development of State of Wonder remind me very much of another best book~Barbara Kingsolver's African tale, The Poisonwood Bible.

The theme of travel as a route to self-knowledge has always fascinated me: it is irony at its richest.  Indeed, Marina learns more about herself on this journey than she would have had she stayed in her beloved Minnesota.  Sometimes, you have to go far away to discover what lies nestled in your very own cerebral cortex.  Marina learns that long-gestating fears can be birthed in the most remote of locales, resulting in longed-for peace and homecoming.

Our family tends to be homebodies, and books like State of Wonder remind me how transforming trips can be.  Every day stress cues are gone, and you can focus on what's in front of you and learn. (I just don't want to go to the Amazon jungle~malaria is best experienced textually rather than biologically.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jeneration X by Jen Lancaster

We're smack-dab in the middle of summer, and if you have nothing to read, may I suggest Jeneration X: One Reluctant Adult's Attempt to Unarrest her Arrested Development... by Jen Lancaster? Gut-poppingly funny, it goes so well with the season's Crystal Light and chlorinated hair. 

Lancaster has turned her unapologetic, self-deprecating memoirs into quite the cottage industry. Her first, Bitter is the New Black, detailed her humbling, yet humorous, journey through unemployment.  This latest installment (#6) is my favorite because her humor, always nodding at nostalgia, full-on nails the peccadilloes and foibles of those of us born in the 1960s and 70s, the Gen X-ers.  I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard when reading.  The usual "Jennsylvania" (title of her blog) themes are included: husband and pets and laziness, but Lancaster's upped the ante this time with nuggets particular to those in middle age.  Her trip to the mammography clinic is endearing, if anything because Lancaster is proud she fit into the regular machine and didn't need the super sized one.  She tests a skirted swimsuit (the wetsuit of middle-age), gives an uncomfortable bra the heave-ho, and decides spying on the neighbors is not a thrill but disgustingly t.m.i-provoking.

Reading Jeneration X, I felt like I was having lunch with a favorite friend. (I love listening while someone else does all the talking.) Lancaster knows how to dole out a story, one delicious bit at a time, and then hit you with a self-truth, so funny and true, you can't help but love her.  To wit:

Almost as soon as I discovered a deep and abiding love for Panang Thai Curry, I discovered that I can't digest it. Maybe I don't have a tolerance for so much spice or it may be that I ruined by colon from years and years of running Artificial Red Dye #7 through it. Regardless, I need to case and desist with the Panang Thai Curry because I'm murdering myself from the inside out. [Lancaster's husband finally calls the restaurant and tells them never to sell this dish to his wife. She closes with this lesson:]
Reluctant Adult Lesson Learned:
Being a grown-up means not staying in an abusive relationship...even if it's just with your colon.

In fact, the whole book, which I devoured like my own Panang Thai Curry sans ill effects, was a wonderful affirmation that life in one's forties is much the same for all of us. We become our own mothers and fathers and start taking better care of our bodies and minds.  Although, in Lancaster's (and my) case, it may be a little too late to keep sharp if your mind is comfortably ensconced in the 1980s. Her anecdote about becoming enthralled with the heretofore ho-hum song "Hysteria" by Def Leppard made me want to kiss her. I too heard this song on the radio a few months ago and can't get enough of it. I even created a Pandora station around it. Me love Def Leppard?  What is happening?

It's just part of being Generation X, baby.

p.s. My friend T.M. and I went to a book signing by Lancaster a few months ago in our town. She is an engaging, composed speaker and very generous with her time. I highly recommend seeing her if you have the chance. Also, the assembled group of fans was gracious, unassuming, and not fashionable in the least. (My highest compliment, folks.)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Just for Liberal Arts Majors--The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides


So what do you do with an English major?


I must have heard this question fifty times circa 1989, my senior year of college.  I didn't know the answer then, and I wasn't alone. Plenty of liberal arts majors were asking themselves that kind of question in the 1980s.  I still don't know the answer--I've had three careers (roughly) of middling success, which have led me no closer to the English major's pot of gold.

One of the reasons I love Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Marriage Plot is its similarly foggy main characters.  Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are Brown seniors in the early 80s who make up a traditional love triangle.  Madeleine, the English major of the trio, tries to stretch her love of literature to accommodate the hip critical theories taught in class.  Leonard, a brilliant manic depressive, and Mitchell, a Religion major smitten by Madeleine, are both bolder in intellectual and career plans than she is.  As Madeleine finishes her senior year, she's a little lost: she starts to think her thesis on "the marriage plot" in 18th century novels is stodgy, irrelevant and reflective of how uncool she is compared to her peers. Her upper crust childhood of chintz and sanity slightly shames her, and she finds herself drawn to mysterious, charismatic Leonard.  Hot college passion ensues, and, for once, Madeleine doesn't feel old-fashioned.  But the flames dampen when Leonard is non-compliant with his medication, preferring mania over depression. To thicken the plot, the characters make some very bad choices.  Should Madeleine marry the pharmaceutically reformed Leonard? No!  Should Mitchell keep believing Madeleine will one day love him? Hell no!  But these characters choose the bumpy road, and the wiser reader enjoys the ride.

Perhaps, the most compelling lesson of The Marriage Plot is that many bad choices can be fixed. One can dissolve a rotten marriage, resolve infatuation, and even craft a career from English courses.  Madeleine decides to pursue a PhD in Victorian Studies and become a professor after all, a job which seems highly suited to her passion and background.  The story ends by showing the lost finding their way, if only jaunt by jaunt.  There's truth to this pattern: college graduation forces us out into the world, and we stumble and make mistakes.  But we can correct these choices, sometimes several times, and in this way we move through the years. By middle age, you find that you've made a life.

What does one do with an English major? You know, I really don't think it matters.