Bittersweet

Aug 1, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Book cover for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green
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In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are two smart, sassy teenagers who have managed to stay one half-step ahead of the Grim Reaper. After meeting at a cancer support group, they quickly form a strong bond. Through each other, they experience a world beyond illness.

A Book About Teens (Who Don’t Act Like Teens) That Teens Will Like

If you don’t know who the Green brothers are, you’re missing out. Simply put, they’re good people who are trying to make the world a better place. I regularly direct young adults to the Crash Course channel on YouTube, where John and Hank Green make subjects like history, chemistry, and literature fun and accessible for the masses. I listen to their podcast. You could say I have a major nerd crush on the Greens and their efforts. Unfortunately, that’s problematic when it comes to reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

In my experience, it’s almost as difficult to read books by the people you like as it is to read books by the people you don’t like. I’ve avoided Green’s young adult novels for years now because I’ve always thought, “How could his writing not disappoint? I expect too much.” But I couldn’t ignore all the positive reviews and five-star ratings for The Fault in Our Stars. I gave in and read the book. I’m glad I did, if for no other reason than it was past time I tried one of Green’s novels. I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed, as I always feared I would be.

Don’t get me wrong. There are positive things I can say about this book. For one, Green manages to take on the heart and soul of a teenage girl to write her first-person perspective in a believable way, which is a difficult enough task for grown women, let alone grown men. (Hazel’s friend, Kaitlyn, doesn’t manage to escape stereotyping, though, which is probably why she disappears from the film adaptation of this book.) Then, considering The Fault in Our Stars is about young people with cancer, it can be surprisingly funny, at least if you enjoy dark humor.

Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.

The plot isn’t full of surprises. It’s small and obvious enough that anything beyond a summary is likely to give away major plot points. And The Fault in Our Stars won’t be a thought-provoking commentary on death for most adults. However, the scope of the plot and its themes seem appropriate for Green’s intended teenage audience. I can imagine it’s helped some young people examine or even cope with cancer and death, which makes the book special and important in its own way.

As with all writing, though, The Fault in Our Stars has its flaws. Most of its issues are minor, probably a matter of opinion, but I struggled to accept the dialogue—a surprise, given that the dialogue was what I had assumed I would enjoy most from Green.

The problem lies in how Hazel and Augustus are meant to be more mature than average teenagers because of their experiences. It’s a reasonable enough notion, but how this is executed in dialogue doesn’t work for me. Both characters are prone to world-weary, existential, lengthy monologues that are awkward and contrived.

Teenagers, no matter how mature, do not sound like well-rehearsed Moth storytellers or TED Talk presenters—neither do adults, for that matter. No one is poetic on the fly. Sure, readers don’t want the “ums” and “uhs” and the disjointed mayhem of real speech, but it never feels right to read perfectly formed sentences, either.

Everything gets especially ridiculous when Hazel and Augustus interact with each other, as they do during much of the book. I’ll just leave this quote from Augustus here:

“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

Prince is judging you.

I can almost taste the cheese.

Augustus comes with the additional flaw of being less “wise beyond his years” than self-aware to the point of absurdity.

“I’m just kidding, Dad. I like the freaking Encouragements. I really do. I just can’t admit it because I’m a teenager.”

“Hazel Grace, you are the only teenager in America who prefers reading poetry to writing it.”

Hashtag ThingsTeenagersWouldNeverSay.

Hazel manages to avoid the worst of the dialogue problems, but Augustus is full of this stuff, to the point that I disliked his character. I wish I could say otherwise.

The Fault in Our Stars is far from unreadable, and obviously many people adore it, but I don’t think it’s the best young adult book around, and I suspect John Green can and will produce better work in the future. For the time being, I’ll stick to watching and recommending his videos.

Buy The Fault in Our Stars from Amazon or iTunes
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Quotes from The Fault in Our Stars

Mom reached up to this shelf above my bed and grabbed Bluie, the blue stuffed bear I’d had since I was, like, one–back when it was socially acceptable to name one’s friends after their hue.

People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.

“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”

Jul 1, 2013

Heft by Liz Moore

Book cover for HEFT by Liz Moore
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Liz Moore’s Heft is about weights both literal and figurative. It’s about people struggling to survive unfortunate circumstances and bad personal choices. What does one do when the weight of not fitting in, the weight of poverty, or the weight of loneliness sits too heavily? Heft explores how people try to hide pain from others, out of fear of rejection, and how sometimes—just sometimes—that fear isn’t necessary.

The Lies We Tell to Protect Ourselves

Heft is told from two first-person perspectives. There’s Arthur Opp, a former university teacher who, after years of emotional overeating, is morbidly obese and living in a depressing spiral of loneliness, clutter, and agoraphobia. Then there’s “Kel” Keller. Kel is a stressed out, poverty-stricken teenager who has drawn one of life’s shorter straws but hopes to make it big as a baseball player. Both Arthur and Kel are victims of circumstances beyond their control, sometimes as much as they are victims of their own bad choices. For a while, neither of them wants to face this reality. Life, of course, forces them to do so.

Arthur and Kel are connected by the tiny thread that is Charlene, Kel’s alcoholic mother and Arthur’s former student, long-time pen pal, and only love. Like Arthur, Charlene never quite “fits in” to life, and the two have always understood and loved each other through their awkward isolation. As the years pass, however, their relationship deteriorates until they are mere pen pals, safely lying to each other from a distance, even as their lives fall apart. Arthur lies about his employment and weight and spins tales about a busy social life. Charlene lies about her marriage and health and never mentions she has a son.

When the weight of illness becomes too much for Charlene, her lies are the first to unravel. As the truth comes out, Arthur is newly determined to take control of his life, even as Kel is just trying to hold on to the pieces of his.

Following Arthur and Kel as they discover Charlene’s secrets and learn how to cope with the truth—their own and hers—makes for a very good read. Nothing is easy in Heft. Each character is fighting his or her own fight, and you’re never quite sure if they’re going to come out on top. When they don’t, it’s heartbreaking.

The side characters of Heft are worthy of praise as well. Yolanda, the young woman who cleans Arthur’s house and becomes his one real-life friend, provides a nice side plot to the overall story that reveals a lot about Arthur’s personality. And Kel’s friend, the popular, pretty, and affluent Lindsay, is one of the best portrayals of a kindhearted teen girl I’ve seen in a while. (Popular, pretty girls are often portrayed as monsters in books.)

My sole complaint comes down to a matter of technique. Authors who write novels with two first-person perspectives are always taking a great risk. Unfortunately, both Arthur and Kel write ungrammatical, choppy fragments that sound awfully similar, and during the first few pages of Kel’s point of view, I was actually unaware that Moore had switched to a new character at all. The most obvious differences between the two characters’ narratives are in how Arthur, unlike Kel, rarely writes “and,” instead favoring ampersands (&), and how Kel has a tendency to curse, while Arthur does not. (Goodreads reviewer, Jill, has a great theory as to why this is.)

This technical flaw is a pity, as Moore does manage to juggle Arthur and Kel’s personalities—they are clearly two different characters with different ideas, hopes, fears, and so on—but I would have liked to have seen more than cosmetic differences their writing styles. It’s not something that will bother everyone, of course, and none of this is to say you shouldn’t read this book. You should.

Heft closes on a surprisingly positive note, begging for readers to believe in a brighter tomorrow for Arthur, Kel, and all others who believe they face uphill battles alone.

Buy Heft from Amazon or iTunes
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Quotes from Heft

The whole thing smells like strawberries or the sick sweet plastic of a doll.

Normally I don’t skip ahead in my life but this is what Pells Landing does to a person: makes him dream of the future, of a huge rambling house and dogs named Angelo and Maxie and of having a baby boy and naming him after yourself. Of having a real job. Of richness, unbearable richness.

I have always loved aggrieved & unbeautiful women. I have always loved beautiful women too, but it is the unbeautiful ones that haunt me & find me & abide, whose images I see before me when I go to sleep.

Jun 1, 2013

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Book cover for FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel
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In her graphic novel and memoir, Alison Bechdel—of Bechdel test fame—relates the story of growing up in the confusing intensity of her dysfunctional childhood home—and in the family’s funeral (“fun”) business—in 1970s Pennsylvania. When her father, Bruce Bechdel, dies unexpectedly while she is away at college, Alison must face a series of unanswerable, existential questions. Why did her father make the life choices he did? How and why was her relationship with him always so strained? Fun Home is Bechdel’s journey toward accepting both her father and herself.

A Cathartic Journey Toward Acceptance

Fun Home is immediately relatable as Bechdel capitalizes on the things so many of us have experienced: the family member who obsesses, the secrets we sense swirling around us in childhood but never quite understand, the awkwardness of puberty, and the mundane moments that take place in our own back yards.

Weeding comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Bechdel alternates between stories from her childhood and early adulthood. Her childhood is all about confusion—the confusion caused by her parents’ distant, dysfunctional, and mysterious relationship, yes, but also just the simple confusion that comes from having a child’s understanding of the world.

Oven comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

I could read and look at comics about Bechdel’s childhood all day. One after another, they are a delight.

Unfortunately, Bechdel’s reflections on her college years are not so neatly portrayed. It’s as though she were unable to distance herself from them in the same way—understandable, perhaps, but also less enjoyable. Whereas her reflections on her childhood are poignant and witty, her reflections on young adulthood are all about searching for an answer. Suddenly, what’s “nonlinear” seems more disjointed, as though Fun Home is less of a planned memoir than it is a cathartic personal project.

Lesbian comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

At nineteen, Alison Bechdel comes out as a lesbian to her parents. It’s a recent revelation, even for her, but one she knows has always been true. Her father, Bruce, is surprisingly accepting, while her mother is concerned and disappointed. Then a secret, the secret, is revealed: Alison’s father is gay, too. Bruce has tried “fixing” himself many times over the years but has always “failed.” All at once, so many things make sense—and so many others do not.

As if coming out and learning of her father’s deeply closeted status wouldn’t be enough to shake Alison, Bruce is killed in an accident a few months later. Chillingly, Alison and her mother wonder if it was an accident at all.

Suicide comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Alison’s story is interesting, but she does such a good job describing her father that I would have much preferred a book about him if I couldn’t have a book that was just about her childhood. You see, Bruce Bechdel is heartbreaking—and fascinating through that heartbreak. In his life story are all the people who’ve forced themselves to live a lie in order to survive the society around them.

Memoirs eventually require authors to come to conclusions about their experiences and themselves. These conclusions can fall flat or come out hackneyed and overly dramatic. In Alison’s case, she attempts to understand her father and her relationship with him through a filter of literature, the one interest they always shared. The result is sort of a pretentious mess, which usually seems to be the case when anyone tries to make life more profound by bringing up the classics.

Ulysses comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Also, if one more writer uses The Great Gatsby to try to make sense of life, I just might to lose it.

Gatsby comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

I like the humor and candidness found in Fun Home, especially when Bechdel discusses her childhood—and I’m not about to suggest she’s come to the wrong conclusions about her own life, by the way—but her memoir doesn’t quite resonate with me by its (eloquent) end. Even so, Fun Home is well worth a read.

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May 1, 2013

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Book cover for BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver
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When Samantha “Sam” Kingston dies in a car crash, she finds herself reliving the same day, her last day, over and over again. In her efforts to get time and her life back on track, she finally sees how much pain she and her friends have caused others. Will she be able to fix what she’s broken?

Mean Girls Meets Groundhog Day

Sam is a bully, a mean girl. With her friends, she rules the popular roost of Connecticut’s Thomas Jefferson High School. It hasn’t always been this way, though.

Sam knows what it’s like to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder, to be the butt of the joke, and she knows how precarious her position at the top is. It can depend on something as seemingly unimportant and random as a girl grabbing her hand and asking her to join in on a practical joke. Knowing this is what makes Sam all the more desperate to remain on top, no matter what it takes. If that means calling girls “sluts” or “bitches” or “psychos,” so be it. If it means sabotaging others, cheating on tests, and lying, she’s in.

The way Sam and her friends bully their fellow classmates is real and raw and had me cringing over things I remember happening in my own high school. Author Lauren Oliver is fairly quick to get to the root of bullying, that it always goes back to some personal fear or pain. Teens spread rumors so no one will notice their own flaws and secrets. That’s an important lesson for young readers who may be used to seeing the black and white view of bullies versus “nice kids.” It’s more complex than that, and Oliver embraces the complexity.

There’s a lot of Mean Girls to be found in this book—enough that I sometimes wondered just how much Before I Fall was inspired by that film—but it ultimately goes to much deeper, darker places, to the twisted and truly cruel games some are willing to play.

Freshman year Lindsay somehow found out that Juliet hadn’t been sent a single [rose for Valentine’s Day]. Not one. So Lindsay put a note on one of her roses and duct-taped it on Juliet’s locker. The note said: Maybe next year, but probably not.

When Sam finds herself caught in her own version of purgatory / Groundhog Day after a fatal car accident, she at first doesn’t take the hint. She continues to plow her way through people, doing and saying as she pleases, regardless of the harm she might cause. Sam eventually sees the error of her ways, though, and tries to fix all she’s broken or helped break. Deep down, she knows this is the only way she and those she’s hurt will find peace.

I like the book up to this point, but the conclusion muddles Oliver’s messages. What Sam decides she needs to do to make things right makes no sense and would actually have lasting, negative consequences. She decides to sacrifice herself for another person. Because doing that won’t cause any lasting damage, right? Worse, the resolution, if it can be called that, leaves many other problems hanging. There’s no resolving all the slut- and virgin-shaming. Issues concerning drunk driving, eating disorders, date rape, predatory math teachers, and more hang as loose ends. And Sam never even begins to get her friends, who have always joined in on the bullying, to change their ways.

Sam maybe couldn’t fix all the problems mentioned in the book, but some of the issues Oliver raises here are huge, and it doesn’t feel right that so many are never properly addressed. If we aren’t going to censor YA novels—and I absolutely do not think we should—then authors of these books have some duty to address the more complex subjects they let surface in their writing.

In a similar vein, there’s a boy, Kent McFuller, in all this, because it’s apparently impossible to write books for girls without some romance. Kent’s my other complaint. (The characterization of boys in Before I Fall is extremely lacking.) Kent’s thankfully not “the bad boy” Sam shouldn’t want but “can’t help” but want; in fact, he’s the really kindhearted boy. The problem, instead, is that he shouldn’t like Sam at all. It takes an absurd amount of cruelty—of abuse—for Kent to even remotely consider disliking Sam. If we’re going to complain about the young adult books where nice girls go for bad boys and put up with their abuse, I feel obligated to complain about the young adult books where nice boys go for bad girls and their abuse.

Before I Fall is a pretty good book, even if Oliver creates a big story with lots of problems that aren’t ultimately set straight. The characters and dialogue go a long way to salvaging everything, and there are still a few valuable lessons to be found here.

Buy Before I Fall from Amazon or iTunes
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Quotes from Before I Fall

Popularity’s a weird thing. You can’t really define it, and it’s not cool to talk about it, but you know it when you see it. Like a lazy eye, or porn.

She starts rolling another spliff, carefully balancing her life studies packet on her lap to use as a tray. (Side note: so far I’ve seen the life studies packet used as (1) an umbrella, (2) a makeshift towel, (3) a pillow, and now this. I have never actually seen anyone study with it, which either means that everyone who graduates from Thomas Jefferson will be totally unprepared for life or that certain things can’t be learned in bullet-point format.)

This is pretty much the answer to every problem you encounter in suburbia: plant a tree, and hope you don’t see anyone’s privates.

Aug 17, 2012

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Book cover for TIGER LILY by Jodi Lynn Anderson
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Told from Tinker Bell’s perspective, Tiger Lily is the story of a young girl struggling to understand herself and cope with the looming unfairness of womanhood. When she meets Peter and the lost boys, she believes she’s found where she belongs, but what will she give up to join them? Should she have to give up anything at all?

Anderson Embraces Complex Subjects in Peter Pan Reimagining

Jodi Lynn Anderson’s beautiful, poignant writing style carries you away to the jungle island of Neverland, a place where mystery and magic live and where some faces are ageless. Most of us won’t have found Neverland intriguing since early childhood, but I think even skeptics will like this one.

Retelling a children’s story in a way young readers will love it isn’t necessarily difficult, but Anderson goes beyond retelling Peter Pan. She re-imagines Neverland and its characters in a way many readers of all ages will enjoy (and maybe feel a little dread over). It’s no small feat to recreate Peter Pan in a way that doesn’t conjure up Disney characters or various actors; however, Anderson achieves all this and more in Tiger Lily.

The story is told from Tinker Bell’s perspective. But Tinker Bell—like all faeries, we’re told—is mute, and so while the occasional first-person opinion surfaces, the majority of the book is told from Tinker Bell’s semi-omniscient point of view. She can have no verbal communication with the characters she’s observing.

Tinker Bell is obsessed with watching the unpretty, proud native girl known as Tiger Lily—and with good reason. Tiger Lily is a walking mystery. She’s a girl who was found orphaned in the woods and raised by the Sky Eater tribe’s shaman. She’s a girl who doesn’t quite know how to be the person others want her to be, or even what kind of person she wants herself to be. She’s an intense character, and her village senses and reacts to the darkness of her personality. Sometimes they are in awe of her. Other times, they fear and hate her. They are her family, but they don’t understand her. A part of them doesn’t want to understand her.

Tiger Lily’s tribe particularly doesn’t understand when she nurses a shipwrecked Englander back to health. Sky Eaters hold a belief that coming into contact with Englanders makes them age and die as other non-Neverlanders do. When Tiger Lily’s efforts are discovered, she is harshly punished for her transgression.

It’s through these events that Tiger Lily eventually meets Peter Pan and the lost boys. They are an infamous bunch in Neverland, rumored to be psychotic murderers of mythic proportions. But the gossip is mainly that—gossip. Peter and the lost boys who follow him are only teenagers hiding from pirates, trying to survive the island’s wilderness.

In Peter, Tiger Lily finds a kindred spirit. He may be boisterous, while she is quiet, but they share a wild restlessness and rivalry that is both good-natured and stubborn. They also share an intense feeling of fear due to their own private circumstances. Being brave and proud, neither fully reveals this to the other. They fall in love slowly and awkwardly—innocently. This is where most young adult books settle the romance with nice, neat bows, but Anderson isn’t here to tell anyone a love story—at least not a typical one for young adults. She’s here to remind readers that life is rarely so nice, rarely so neat.

This is one of a very few young adult books I would give to young women without millions of disclaimers, such as, “Don’t you ever do this for a boy,” or “You know not all girls behave this way, right?” Beyond the fantasy elements in Tiger Lily, there are important life lessons that are applicable to real life. Some of these lessons are obvious and seen in many books, but others are more subtle and less common. And Anderson actually covers a couple of topics—(trans)gender equality and the effects of colonialism—that few young adult authors would dream of tackling, much less in the speculative fiction genre.

Anderson should also be commended for avoiding two tropes she could have easily fallen victim to with this story: what internet and TV lovers might call Mighty Whitey and Noble Savage. Tiger Lily’s tribal life isn’t played up to the point of becoming a spectacle, and there’s no Great White Savior to be found here. A lot of Peter Pan stories of the past and present have—accidentally or not-so-accidentally—drawn attention to racial stereotypes. Initially, I was sad to see Anderson make Peter an Aryan’s dream—defining his looks was something Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie, consciously avoided—but I later understood Anderson’s reasoning.

Fairy tales often have blatant good and evil themes, but in Tiger Lily, decisions made with good intentions don’t always yield positive results, the bad guys sometimes have a reason for being bad, and sometimes love doesn’t save the day. Sometimes love isn’t enough, or it isn’t what you thought it might be. For a short book that makes use of a very old story, Anderson covers a lot of new ground. Many fantasy readers will love this, and it would make for a wonderful gift for teens.

Buy Tiger Lily from Amazon or iTunes
Follow Jodi Lynn Anderson on Facebook and Twitter

Quotes from Tiger Lily

“I think we could be good friends,” he said, falling into step with her. “It’s perfect because I wouldn’t fall in love with you, like I do with the mermaids. Girls always seem so exotic. But it would be okay with you, because you’re more like … you know. Not like a girl.” He shrugged.

Human hearts are elastic. They have room for all sorts of passions, and they can break and heal and love again and again. Faerie hearts are evolutionarily less sophisticated. They are small and hard, like tiny grains of sand. Our hearts are too small to love more than one person in a lifetime.

An unspoken rivalry threaded their relationship, in which Tiger Lily thought that if she could keep up with him, she could hold tighter to him.

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