Posted in Fiction

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

In The Fault In Our Stars, John Green skillfully maneuvers the beautiful thin line between comedy and tragedy.   I never expected a novel about teenagers with terminal cancer to be so funny.


The novel’s narrator, sixteen year-old Hazel Lancaster, is scared out of her mind even while she faces her disease head on.  She meets Augustus Waters at a cancer victim support group meeting in a church shaped like a cross.  Their little support circle is located in what Hazel and Gus refer to as the “Literal Heart of Jesus”.  The leader of the support group has difficulty with the difference between “literal” and “figurative”.

While the novel centers around Hazel and Gus, along with their friend, Isaac, I enjoyed the fact that Hazel and Gus’s parents were intricately involved in the novel.  Here, Green walks another line between portraying the parents as quirky and weird (as many parents are to teenagers) but also as caring, involved and just as courageous as their children.  Hazel’s dad seemed to be the one I related to most.  During a conversation in which he is comforting Hazel, he says:

You are amazing.  You can’t know, sweetie, because you’ve never had a baby become a brilliant young reader with a side interest in horrible television shows, but the joy you bring us is so much greater than the sadness we feel about your illness.

In a deeper conversation, he explains to Hazel:

I believe the universe wants to be noticed.  I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because universe enjoys its elegance being observed.  And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it – or my observation of it – is temporary?

Hazel responds with “You are fairly smart” and her dad responds with “You are fairly good at compliments”.

As Augustus deals with his cancer, in a particularly poignant moment, Hazel describes his crying as a “sob roaring impotent like a clap of thunder unaccompanied by lightning, the terrible ferocity that amateurs in the field of suffering might mistake for weakness”.

Hazel and Gus’s romance develops as they embark on a literary quest that takes them to Amsterdam as a result of Gus’s Wish (granted by an organization that makes wishes for younger cancer victims).  Their quest becomes a metaphor for the questions they are really dealing with: the meaning of life in the face of horrible circumstances and suffering.  However, their quest is so real and funny that I didn’t take it for a metaphor until I finished the book and thought “Oh, wait, that was a metaphor.”

In determining favorite books I’ve read this year, this one will rank up there near the top.

Posted in Essays, Fiction, Non Fiction

Intelligent playfulness at its best

Kurt Vonnegut’s collection of writing Armageddon In Restrospect proved to be as thought-provoking as I thought it would be – and as funny.

Most of his writings here are fictional stories revolving around American prisoners of war in Dresden, Germany during World War II.  One of my favorites was “Guns Before Butter” in which three POW’s discuss their first meal when they get home much to the confusion of their lackadaisical German guard.  The POW’s write down the recipes in notebooks and draw pictures of their first meal.  I would have to go along with the private who wants a stack of twelve pancakes with fried eggs in between.  He wants chocolate syrup – I’d want maple.

Another story set in medieval England has Elmer and Ivy and their son, Ethelbert, deciding how to act when Elmer is forced to be tax collector for Robert the Horrible.  A trap Ethelbert sets for a unicorn brings all their problems to an end.  From a literary standpoint, I would put this one at the top of the collection.  It’s amazing how well-developed the characters are in spite of the brevity of the story.

Vonnegut has grown on me over the years.  I read Slapstick probably over twenty years ago and was mildly entertained by it.  I’ve been exceptionally impressed by the short stories I’ve read both in this collection and in Bagombo Snuff Box.   In the story from which the title of this book comes, a doctor states that “I think you’ll find that most of the really big ideas have come from intelligent playfulness.”  I think “intelligent playfulness” is the best way to describe much of Vonnegut’s writing.

Posted in Books in General

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Fall “To Be Read” List

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books on my fall “To Be Read” list.  I have to admit that I did a decent job of getting through my summer TBR list.  I only missed one:  Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.  Guess which one is first on my fall list?  I also have an abundance of authors from Indianapolis, IN, one of the handful of cities/towns I consider home.

1.)  Bleak House by Charles Dickens:  I was less than thrilled with Hard Times so I think I’m a little hesitant to get started on this one.  My copy has a great preface by Vladamir Nabokov, though!

2.)  Armageddon In Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:  I just started this one.  So far, it’s typical Vonnegut (an Indianapolis native) – very funny.  

3.)  The Fault In Our Stars by John Green:  Another YA novel that I’ve seen all over the blogosphere.  As he’s from Indianapolis, also, I thought I’d give him a try.

4.)  Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes:  A book I read as a kid that I’ve decided to re-read.  A nostalgia read-along is being hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

5.)  Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: As mentioned previously, Vonnegut is an Indianapolis native.  I’m going to re-read this one in honor of Banned Book Week at the end of September.

6.)  Awaken Your Senses by J. Brent Bill and Beth A. Boorman:  Brent led a book group I attended when I lived in Indianapolis.  He has written several books about Quaker traditions that I’ve found fascinating.  I’m looking forward to reading his latest book.

7.)  The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson:  This is another book of Robinson’s essays of which I’ve found to be very thought-provoking.

8.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

9.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

10.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Posted in Non Fiction

The Beauty of Existentialism

At best, I am an amateur philosopher.  I’ve read a few things.  I have a relative who teaches philosophy at the college level.  I’ve learned quite a lot from her.  Existentialism continues to fascinate me with thought-provoking writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Soren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus.

While I don’t consider myself an absolute existentialist, I’ve found many of it’s ideas to be generally applicable to life.  Briefly, existentialism says that the objective world around us (the natural, material or circumstantial world) has no meaning except for what we as individuals subjectively give it.  I’ve run into many who seem to think that existentialists are people who don’t believe in an afterlife or heaven.  From my understanding, that’s not a defining factor of existentialism.  Some, like Dostoevsky or Kierkegaard, may have believed in an afterlife, while others, like Camus, most likely did not.

This brings me to the most recent book I’ve read, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl.  It comes recommended by Ben at A Minimalist’s Bookshelf.  Frankl, an Austrian phychiatrist, spent time in Auschwitz and other concentration camps in Europe during World War II.  His story of this time and how he was able to survive is horrific and inspiring at the same time.  Thoughts of his wife and the goals of publishing the results of his professional research were two ways he was able to give meaning to the meaninglessness of the world around him.  Two reasons for him to keep going when it didn’t seem reasonable to do so.  He compares and contrasts the prisoners who made and kept some sort of meaning to life with those who did not.  He admits that there are moments when he or others in the camp were simply “lucky” or that the hand of “fate” gave them the chance to go on.  However, he seamlessly weaves these two ideas together into a palpable worldview:  the idea that humanity can choose its own attitude and meaning in the face of whatever circumstances “fate” may throw its way.

Because philosophy can become so cerebral that it seems shifting and vague, I enjoyed Frankl’s writing because he could bring the abstract into something concrete.  I think this paragraph in response to the question “what is the meaning of life” beautifully pulls existentialism into real life:

I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms.  For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.  What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.  To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?”  There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent.  The same holds for human existence.  One should not search for an abstract meaning of life.  Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.  Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.  Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.