When, not if

The Fault In Our Stars
by John Green

  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
                                     ~ Julius Caesar

Last month I heard author John Green on NPR and immediately added this book to my wishlist (link). And what should I see just a few days later, stacked atop one of my students notebooks but this novel?! “It’s the best book I’ve ever read.” isn’t a bad recommendation, coming from a sixteen-year-old. My copy of this tender read arrived the week of Valentine’s day, a gift from my sweetheart.

Sixteen-year-old Hazel and seventeen-year-old Augustus are in love–not very unusual as teenagers go. But how many teens meet in Cancer Kids Support Group? And how many girls won’t let themselves fall in love because they worry about the effect their death will have on their boyfriend? At that fateful meeting, Hazel squirms under Gus’s intense stare–with her portable oxygen tank and face swollen by a cancer trial drugs she doesn’t feel attractive. Gus, on the other hand, tall, muscular, and oh-so-cute appears to be the picture of health, albeit short one leg. His cancer was caught, amputated, and annihilated. Hazel isn’t so lucky–her prognosis is not if but when. 

Both teens have lived with death hovering close–and they see its shadow on the faces of their family and friends; it stands between them and high school and Friday night basketball games and all things normal. A loner and avid reader, Hazel reads and re-reads An Imperial Affliction, a novel which echoes her life philosophy. Because the book’s ending is unresolved, Hazel writes author Peter VanHouten again and again asking for answers. After reading the novel himself, Gus also writes VanHouten and receives an email from the writer’s assistant Lidewij Vliegenthart promising a meeting should they ever visit the Netherlands.

Gus uses his Wish to travel with Hazel (and Hazel’s mom) to meet VanHouten. While their visit with the author is disappointing to say the least, their days in Amsterdam are anything but. The young lovers tour Anne Frank’s home, share a romantic champagne dinner by the canal, and watch  life spinning around them– on roller blades, bikes, canal boats, walkers. Until, that is, the life in them starts to spin out of control.

No spoiler alert here. I had a hunch at what might occur, but even its realization was unsettling–I spent the last hour reading through a wash of tears, sometimes unable to see to read. (In fact, I might re-read the end when I have some distance.) The best read ever? Probably not. But a solid story, well-crafted, with enough soul to lend it some weight. Thank you, Esther!

Next up: By George by Wesley Stace–narrated by a ventriloquist’s dummy. Puppet? Mannequin? Whatever the case, who can go wrong with a beginning like that? 

Fighting Change

11/22/63
Stephen King

“The past fought change because it was destructive to the future.”

Never in my life did I think I’d read two Stephen King books in one year. You might remember that last spring my book club Chicks on Books read Full Dark No Stars … and that, surprising to me, I loved it. Well, it’s happened again, and this time we decided on 11/22/63. One English teacher friend said it was the best novel he’d read in the past year … and (maybe this time not so surprising) I loved it. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a time travel fan–Time Travelers Wife, Time and Again, From Time to Time–so my standards are high. 11/22/63 didn’t disappoint.

High school English teacher Jake Epping, (okay, King might have had me right there!), still a bit shaky from his divorce,is anticipating a summer free from any encumbrance. Local diner owner Al Templeton, however, has designs on Jake’s time. In what  is apparently his dying wish, he asks Jake to travel back to November 11, 1963 to stop Kennedy’s assassination. Al, it seems, has been traveling back to the early sixties for years, supplying his diner with a never-ending supply of hamburger at fifty-year-old prices. Knowing the portal could be an incredible gift to humankind, Al wants to do more. Forestalling Kennedy’s assassination might prevent Vietnam, the Cold War, and who knows what else? And so disbelieving, humoring, curious, and drawn, Jake takes those steps in Al’s cooler–it is Al’s dying wish, after all–and finds himself in 1958.

And so starts Jake’s journey back and forth in time. And so starts the Butterfly Effect–that condition in chaos theory that contends even a small change in one place can affect large differences in another state. By bits and pieces, patches and random stitches, Jake begins to experience the changes his presence makes. He can prevent a man from murdering a family–but at what cost? He can stop his true love’s horrific death–but to what end?

This is one post that won’t deal with much of the plot. King is first and foremost a storyteller–no long passages of poetic prose here or any avant-garde conventions found in so many contemporary novels. Just a good, satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and oh-so-tender (and tear inducing) end.

* I read this one using my Kindle app–849 pages makes for one thick book! 

I Want To Be Like Essie

The Coffins of Little Hope
Timothy Schaffert

Give me an octogenarian obituary writer–and one named Essie, at that–and you’ve got me hooked. And while it took nearly the entire book to figure out the title (and, quite frankly, I don’t really understand why it was chosen–although the wordplay was clever), I wasn’t disappointed. Essie Myles, twice-widowed, lives in small town Nebraska where she makes a family with her grandson and great-granddaughter. Essie (or Ess or simply S) writes her obituaries with the same attention of an investigative reporter. The novel pivots on Essie’s trying to ascertain whether or not young Lenore has been abducted and killed by her mother’s boyfriend–or whether the girl is merely an invention of her pitiable mother.

Spinning around Lenore’s absence is the story of Tess, a thirteen-year-old whose life is upturned when her long-absent mother returns; of Doc, whose job as editor of the County Paragraph hasn’t fit him since he tried it on after his beloved father died; of W. Muscatine, author of a series of gothic children’s books, who secretly corresponds with Essie while the town tries to ferret out who has leaked the series’ latest installment. If you love characters as Charles Dickens and John Irving love characters, you won’t be disappointed with Little Hope.

Fat goggles

Half-assed
Jennette Fulda

A few years ago I lost some weight and also began faithfully reading several blogs. One of the blogs I discovered was Half of Me, written by one “Pasta Queen”.  The blog chronicled the life of a twenty-something woman on a quest to lose half her body weight; I think I jumped in at around 250 pounds.  The writer was witty, sometimes even downright sardonic. Her voice was crystalline–I felt like I knew this girl after only a few weeks of reading her posts. And I liked her a lot. Fulda is one of the reasons I started exercising and riding a bicycle–the old “if she can do it, I can” thing.

Half-assed is Pasta Queen’s blog-made-book, rather like the book Julie, Julia of the Julie/Julia Project–only this writer has none of the snarkiness of Julie. I put it on my wish list as soon as Fulda wrote about it on her blog, but there it sat. So you can only imagine how quickly I snapped up a Kindle copy when her Facebook page (I am a devoted fan!) announced it available for only 99 cents.  Here the reader has an even more thoughtful look into Fulda’s weight loss–same inimitable voice, but even more revealing as she begins to take off the fat goggles through which she looked at herself and the world for over twenty years.

Fulda has put her weight-loss blog aside and now writes Jen-Ful, a blog with a little bit of this ‘n that. And while I do enjoy her perspective and getting a peek into her life as a free-lance web designer, I do think she lost something special when she set aside Half of Me. One of the reasons was her new battle, dealing with a chronic headache. All the time. Twenty-four, seven. For years. Although I also deal with chronic pain, I don’t have Fulda’s Vicodin and Chocolate  on my wishlist and I don’t know why. But I do know I’ll continue to read her blog because after reading  hundreds of her posts (often daily), I consider her a digital friend.

And now for something completely different …

Full Dark, No Stars
by Stephen King

This read was a step out of my comfort zone in two ways: I don’t read Stephen King (or any kind of horror), and it was my first book on my Kindle app. Let’s get the Kindle app out of the way first. I am a former book store clerk. I once wanted to be a librarian. My husband and I might have more books than hairs on our heads (his, certainly!). I love the smell of musty, inky paper and library glue; the only decorating tips I can offer is to pile crooked stacks all over the floor and tables. In other words, I am a book woman.

So it was with great reluctance and a bit of fear that I downloaded the Kindle app on my new iPad several weeks ago. And there is sat, neat and tidy in the folder I’d created labled “books”! A fellow book woman told me she reads only those books she doesn’t want to keep–and I thought to myself, “Well, what books would that be?!” And then book club agreed to try King’s new short story collection, Full Dark, No Stars. Over lunch one day, one of our members recounted the story “A Good Marriage”, based on the BTK serial murderer Dennis Rader. We were spellbound, and turned to each other almost at once–“Let’s read this for our next book!”

First of all, Full Dark is more murder mystery than what I think of as horror–no real supernatural here. Maybe some psychological horror, but no girl with telekinetic powers and no rabid dogs. Oh, wait–there is one sell-your-soul-to-the-devil scenario … but it’s almost fable-like in its brevity. The first story, “1922” tell the story of a hen-pecked husband who (to use a great deal of understatement!) turns the tables and murders his wife. With his teenage son. And dumps her body in a well. Hmmmm. “Big Driver” tells the tale of a rape victim cum-murderer who takes the law into her own hands. And the aformentioned “Good Marriage” peeks into the mind of a wife who finds that her “perfect marriage” is a sham, her husband, a psychopath.

The stories are compelling, even to one not accustomed to such plot lines–I would say to myself, “Oh this is just gross!”, put the book (oops, my iPad!) down in disgust, and before ten minutes had passed, picked it up again. All turn on the idea of revenge–and, really, what would one do to take revenge on someone who had made your life miserable? Or worse? Just as satisfying was King’s afterword. Excusing himself for hovering around matters dark and dim, he reassures his “Constant Reader” that he believes “most people are essentially good”, like himself. “It’s you,” states King, “I’m not entirely sure of.”  Perfect ending. And besides–it was just plain fun to be scared.