Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

I wouldn’t have heard of this book if my son Chris weren’t such a fan of author John Green, of Vlogbrothers and Nerdfighters fame. One evening he convinced me to listen to a video of John Green reading the first chapter aloud, and I was completely hooked. The main character is a sixteen-year-old girl with cancer, Hazel, who is fiercely intelligent and ruthlessly unsentimental. Her voice drew me in from page one, and once I got the book for Chris and he’d finished reading it, I devoured it myself in two days.

If I tell you this is a young adult novel about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love, or that I cried in Starbucks while reading the last few chapters, it will sound sappy. But the beauty of this book is how un-sappy it is, how funny and smart and insightful when dealing with material that could be as slushy and sentimental as the embroidered “encouragements” that the parents of Hazel’s friend Augustus have posted all over their home. (“Without Pain, We Would Never Know What Joy Is,” etc.). It’s also one of those young-adult books that an adult can read and love without needing to make any disclaimers or apologies (“Oh, it’s very good for a teen novel,” etc). Good books should just be good books, period, and this one is.

This book left a huge impact on me for a lot of reasons, and as is so often the case, those reasons had as much to do with where I was in my life when reading it, as with the book itself. I didn’t plan it this way, but I read it on the weekend that was one year to the date after my last visit with my friend Jamie, and of course I was thinking about Jamie a lot as I read it, especially in the parts of the book that describe hanging out with someone who is in the last stages of terminal cancer. I found those passages very true to what I’d experienced a year ago, and I’m sure when I cried in Starbucks I was crying as much about Jamie as I was about — well, whoever dies in the book, which I’m certainly not going to tell you.

It also felt intense to me because it was the first time I’d shared reading a book with my son that was about such intense stuff — there’s death and sex and falling in love and questions about God and the afterlife, and it kind of brought me up short, to realize I now have kids old enough to need and appreciate these kinds of stories. I found myself wondering if this is going to be one of those books that stays with Chris and shapes the way he sees the world, as some of the books I read at that age did for me.

So all in all, reading this book was an intense experience for lots of my own personal reasons, but if the book hadn’t been so intelligent and well-written and the characters so completely believable and gripping, none of that stuff would have gotten unlocked for me. And that is just what books are for, so thank you, John Green.

My streak of reading really incredible books this year, begun with Heft and continued with A Grownup Kind of Pretty, has continued with The Fault in Our Stars, and I’m loving every minute of it. Even the minutes I spend crying in Starbucks. After all, I’m never going to see that guy who was sitting in the chair across from me again, so why should I care what he thinks?

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Filed under Fiction -- general, Young Adult

You Could Believe in Nothing, by Jamie Fitzpatrick

you could believe in nothing is the story of a St. John’s man named Derek, still young but on the slippery slope towards middle age, who has an uninspiring job (so uninspiring I can’t remember if we even find out what it is), a complicated relationship with his father, a girlfriend who’s gone to Ottawa, and a habit (you couldn’t call it a passion) of playing recreational hockey with a bunch of other guys. Oh, and a frequent need to adjust, check, or otherwise talk about his testicles.

I’ve seen this debut novel critiqued for being “about nothing,” but I don’t think that’s a problem, really. You can write a fascinating book with very little plot if you have brilliant language and compelling characters. Fitzpatrick uses language very deftly and creates an absolutely believable picture of contemporary urban St. John’s. The missing piece here, for me, is not plot but character. I think Derek is probably depicted in as believable and realistic a way as are as his street and the various rinks where he plays hockey — I was just never sure I wanted to be spending time with him, much less in his head.

Ironically, at one point in the novel Derek judges a woman he meets as the kind of person who appears to have absolutely no inner life. Ironic, since Derek himself seems to have no perceptible inner life, despite the fact that the entire novel focuses on his thoughts and reactions to things. I’m not sure if the irony is intentional, but the problem at the core of this novel — the only problem I had with it, really, since it’s very well-written and brings its setting to life so beautifully — is that its main character is so shallow and uninteresting that I couldn’t find it in my heart to care very much about his family, his love life, or even his testicles (though they certainly got enough page space). I know that there are people whose lives are dull, uninspired, and entirely without passion either negative or positive — people who, in fact, believe in nothing — but should there be books about them? Especially if the payoff is that there’s no change, no forward movement, no sense that anything has been learned or gained or lost?

I don’t know. I don’t want to be petty here, because this is a very well-done book and I love how the details of setting have been brought to life. I found myself engaged with it at points, but in the end it was, really, a bit like watching a hockey game through that scratchy, smudged plexiglass mounted on the boards in some rinks — I felt distanced from what was happening, unable to be touched or feel any lasting impact. Jamie Fitzpatrick is undoubtedly a good writer, but I wish he’d created a more compelling main character. Or perhaps — given the fact that everything in literature is so subjective — I just wish he’d created a character that I felt more able to connect with. Another reader might be completely captivated by Derek’s story, and any reader should admire what Fitzpatrick does well — picks up on tiny authentic nuances of setting and dialogue to bring the story’s setting vividly to life.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author

Still, by Lauren Winner

Lauren Winner rose to mild fame in certain areas of the Christian world with her memoir Girl Meets God, the story of her conversion, first to Orthodox Judaism (she was raised Jewish, but had to convert to be technically considered Jewish, since her mother was not a Jew), then to Christianity. I really enjoyed Girl Meets God, finding it engaging and well-written, and I liked her subsequent book of essays, Mudhouse Sabbath, a series of reflections on lessons that Christians could learn from Jews about spiritual practice. I didn’t read her book Real Sex, on chastity and marriage, which may be just as well, since we learn in her fourth book, Still, that Winner’s own marriage ended after only five years. Coupled with her mother’s death, the divorce left Winner feeling spiritually adrift and abandoned. It’s out of this experience — a “mid-faith crisis,” as she describes it, that Still emerges.

I’ve read some bad reviews of Still, some of which seem to be bad reviews of Winner herself, criticizing her maybe for getting divorced, or maybe just for putting her inner life on display in such a public way. One thing that most readers of Still, those who like it and those who don’t, agree on that this is no tell-all memoir: Winner decently refuses to air the details of her marital break-up. In fact, for someone who was pretty relentless about exposing the details of her most significant pre-marital relationship in Girl Meets God, she’s extremely reserved here. This preserves both her own dignity and that of her ex-husband, but it leaves a lot of questions hanging. As with the author of Eat, Pray, Love (a book Winner mocks, but also admits to reading twice in a row soon after her divorce) one can be left with the image of a discontented young woman who broke up an acceptable marriage for insufficient reasons.

The thing is, that’s not really what Still is about. Winner is even willing to place a good deal of the blame for her marriage’s break-up on her own shoulders — again, like Elizabeth Gilbert. What the book is about is what you do next — and it’s really not a memoir. There’s very little narrative thread running through Still, and readers expecting a memoir may find it disappointing. Nor is it an uplifting how-to manual on how to hang onto your faith when you’re in the midst of a spiritual dry spell — something a lot of us would like to have. Many of the negative reviews I’ve seen have come from readers who seem to expect the book to be one of the other of these two things, and who find it hard to decide exactly what Winner is doing here, what the point of writing the book was.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir