August 31, 2012
Readers likely won’t suspect, upon opening this spirited young adult novel, that the epigraph is made up. The source of the quote is An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten, which one would assume is a real book, with the added punch of the title referencing an Emily Dickinson poem. At some point, though, most will come to realize, as I did, An Imperial Affliction is a fictional fiction, right there with the wonder drug Phalanxifor that extends the life of the story’s 16-year-old narrator Hazel Grace Lancaster, who’s diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer. The non-existent novel is not only the source of the epigraph but also Hazel’s favorite book in the story – she describes it as “so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection [for it] feels like a betrayal.” When Hazel begins communicating with the author, I realized he and his novel couldn’t be real.
But who cares. F. Scott Fitzgerald also imagined the epigraph of The Great Gatsby. The function of this literary tool is to set the stage for what we are about to read, hint at the theme or comment on the book’s deeper meaning. In The Fault In Our Stars, John Green prepares us to experience the fickleness of time, how it can offer infinity on the one hand and nothing more than a brief flicker on the other. From there, he snares us into a powerfully engaging story that’s unforgettable and (cliché as this is) un-put-downable. It’s flat out just too hard to break away from Green’s refreshingly honest young characters, Hazel and Augustus Waters, the 17-year-old boy Hazel meets in a cancer support group. Augustus lost his leg to osteosarcoma and is now in remission from the cancer.
Both are far from any morose “why me” attitude, as well as any fairytale hope regarding their illnesses. They’re bold, funny, quirky teenagers in Indianapolis who argue with and rebel against their parents, play video games and fall in love with each other. Their romance provides a magnificent, joyful energy to the story during their texting, phoning and e-mailing, as well as their together-time at their homes and, sometimes, the hospital. They chant “the world is not a wish-granting factory” and carefully lean on each other, knowing their relationship will be lost to cancer as was Augustus’s leg. They travel to Amsterdam to meet Peter Van Houten and afterward, back in Indianapolis, they bravely experience a sad turn of events.
One of the great pleasures about young adult novels is they don’t bog down in detailed life complexities. They don’t burden us with adult worries and cogitate over profound themes. Instead, they exude youthful wonder not yet of age for difficult decisions and adult responsibility. Even here, in the harsh reality of cancer, that wonder exists as Augustus worries about disappearing into oblivion, unremembered and unremarkable, and Hazel worries about how her death will hurt her parents. These are not angst-worthy worries that drag us down, rather active pondering that provokes our own thinking about death. It hits home.
TFIOS is a hugely popular novel, and I’m right there in the fan line. It’s so emotionally engaging and so masterful with tough topics that it gets into your system. “You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories,” Hazel says. Green’s choice is pitch-perfect. On a final note: Hazel and Augustus deliver many great lines like the aforementioned, often in an entertaining, smart-and-bothered adolescent tone. Among them is this simple one, my favorite, that Augustus says, squeezing Hazel’s hand: “It is a good life, Hazel Grace.”
August 12, 2012
Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers in NYC’s West Village is closing next month after 18 years in business. When I shopped there during one of my trips to New York, a bookseller guided me toward selections I might enjoy, and I appreciated his knowledge and advice. I so hate to hear about these closings of independent bookstores for just that reason — we’re losing shopping access to knowledgable booksellers, let alone to stores rich with discovery of all kinds of books, not just the popular ones.
At least with Partners & Crime, we have “100 of the Best We’ve Ever Read”, a list of their recommendations the store’s partners, according to their website, have updated over the years. Last updated March 2010, as of this post, the list includes classics (books by Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle) and crime series selections (books by Charles Todd, Sue Grafton, Henning Mankell, Peter Robinson), as well as best-sellers (The Alienist by Caleb Carr and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, I find interesting, has been translated to a stage production).
Turning to this list certainly can’t replace the joy of turning to the booksellers for one-on-one recommendations. Nevertheless, it’s a great resource to print for future reference. But how do you make a choice, when there’s 100 books and no one to talk to? You simply have to do your own research. I selected three and threw the proverbial dart. Then I checked them out. Here’s the result.
The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter
Published in 1993 and #10 of Dexter’s 13 Inspector Morse novels set in Oxford, England, this crime story centers on a cold case of a missing student. The case returns to the police blotter due to new clues sent in the form of poetry to The Times. The novel’s title is from a Rudyard Kipling poem. Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Honest detection, illicit sex, puns and anagrams galore, Morse’s trademark drinking and dour byplay with colleagues and suspects, plus a plot as agile as Dexter’s best — in short, everything you could possibly want in an English detective story. Bolt the door and enjoy.”
The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland
The detectives on this crime case are Chief Inspector David Brock and his female colleague Sergeant Kathy Kolla. This is the first book in Maitland’s Brock and Kolla series set in London. In 1994, The Marx Sisters was shortlisted for the prestigious U.K. CWA (Crimes Writers Association) John Creasey Award for the best first crime novel. Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “Two Scotland Yard detectives investigate the murder of Karl Marx’s great-granddaughters (via an illegitimate son) and the theft of the unpublished manuscript of a fourth volume of Das Kapital, in this engrossing mystery from an Australian writer making his American debut.” Kirkus Reviews wrote: “A clever, flavorsome debut with a particularly deft knack of pulling the rug out from under you in between chapters, just when you think you’re safe.”
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
A testament to the expertise behind the list, Josephine Tey is little-known and, according to this Guardian columnist, deserves to be rediscovered. Josephine Tey is a nom de plume for Elizabeth Mackintosh,who also wrote under the pen name Gordon Daviot. Her six Tey novels were written during the 1940s and ’50s. Here’s a plot summary from the back of the book:
“Miss Lucy Pym, a popular English psychologist, is guest lecturer at a physical training college. The year’s term is nearly over, and Miss Pym — inquisitive and observant — detects a furtiveness in the behavior of one student during a final exam. She prevents the girl from cheating by destroying her crib notes. But Miss Pym’s cover-up of one crime precipitates another — a fatal ‘accident’ that only her psychological theories can prove was really murder.”
Book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote about Elizabeth Mackintosh in The Washington Post, saying this about the Tey novels: “Each of the six seems as fresh today as it must have when it first appeared: elegantly written, populated with interesting and sometimes eccentric characters, witty but also laugh-out-loud funny, engaged with far deeper themes and ideas than one is accustomed to encounter in most mystery novels.”
According to Yardley, another Tey novel, The Daughter of Time, is “by far her best known.” It seeks truth about the crimes of England’s King Richard III. Not on the 100 list, but I’m thinking it’s one to inspect for future reading.
August 2, 2012
Fifty years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense published A Pocket Guide to Vietnam, 1962, introducing American military personnel to the country in whose jungles they would be fighting. “Do learn and respect Vietnamese customs,” it advised, as well as “…you are in a land where dignity, restraint and politeness are highly regarded.”
Reissued by the Bodleian Libraries, the guide is available for purchase as new, versus finding a manhandled used version. An advertisement in the New York Review of Books brought the guide to my attention, but as I researched it online — looking for a “peek inside” so as to virtually browse its content – along the way, I discovered another book: Fragments by Jack Fuller.
Originally published in 1984, this novel is about a seasoned sergeant (Neumann) and an inexperienced soldier in his unit (Morgan, the narrator) who become friends as they live the tragedy and confusion of war. Fragments received wide acclaim from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Boston Sunday Globe. The kind that makes me sit up and pay attention. Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times (2/13/1984) wrote:
“Jack Fuller…has written an ambitious, tightly controlled novel that makes the usual semi-autobiographical account, filled with lots of closely observed details and colorful characters, seem flimsy and discursive in comparison.”
That’s quite a statement, when you consider the excellent Vietnam novels that came before this one, specifically, Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters (1977) and Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and Going After Cacciato (1978), a National Book Award winner. All are still in print and considered definitive novels of the war written by veterans.
The preview of Fragments on Google Books allows access to the entire introduction, which further convinced me to read the novel. The introduction is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler, who served in Vietnam 1969 – 1971. Here’s an excerpt:
“I found myself teaching the contemporary novel to my Master of Fine Arts fiction students. This was the fall of 1985, and that summer I’d spent a remarkable long August day sitting on my new screened porch, with the haze and the lush greenness of the subtropics all around, reading Jack Fuller’s novel. I hardly noticed the bombast of a thunderstorm come and go and then the sunlight return and blaze on and finally fade. I was enthralled with this book, and though the real setting all around me was much like the South Vietnam that he and I separately shared, the world of Fragments was even more intensely realized.”
Jack Fuller was drafted into the United States Army and served in Vietnam between 1969 and 1970 as a correspondent for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a veteran newspaperman who spent the majority of his career at the Chicago Tribune in the roles of reporter, editor and publisher. In 1997, he became president of the Tribune Publishing Company, retiring in 2004. His personal papers are now kept at The Newberry Library Special Collections, where you can read his full biography.