Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Lovely February is just about pack up its dirty snow and old chocolate hearts, making way for Spring breaks, shamrocks, Lent, The Walking Dead, and a certain madness that entails endless basketball games.  I assume the "Madness" refers to my state of being after listening to a month-long infinity of either zombie breaths rasping through dirty straw-sized wind pipes or sneaker squeaks sounding from the living room.

Luckily February's departure also means that the A Beautiful Mess blog book club posted a discussion of their February selection today.  I'm very interested to see what people in that creative and crafty world of DIY bloggers have to say about The Fault in Our Stars.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is a sixteen-year-old girl who is anything but normal.  The only typical teenage-girl part of her is her weakness for America's Next Top Model.  Otherwise she is a snarky, thoughtful reader of deep, intellectual novels and poetry who takes college English courses and considers her mom her best friend.  She also has terminal thyroid cancer.  At a support group session, Hazel meets a dreamy ex-basketball player who buys cigarettes not to smoke them but to satisfy an atypical obsession with metaphor.  Augustus Waters also has cancer, but a surgical removal of his leg leaves him in remission.  The two find themselves star-crossed in love almost at first sight.

For me, reading The Fault in Our Stars was sort of a love/hate relationship, but those are strong words, so let's call it a like/dislike situation.  Unfortunately I could not ignore the achingly cliche and romanticized characters in this story.  The brilliantly witty girl who doesn't know she's gorgeous.  The blue-eyed mountain of man muscles with an extensive vocabulary and a blunt sense of humor.  I found them very unrealistic.  The plot, too, was precisely predictable.  Perhaps this was because John Green employed a lot of foreshadowing.

Nevertheless, I found this book very enjoyable and tore through the virtual pages of my Kindle. 
For me, this was not so much a love story between a boy and a girl as it was a story about the love between a kid and her parents. For me the most touching scenes were between Hazel and her mom and dad, not between Hazel and Augustus. I didn't cry very much (I know, I may be a robot) but the parts I did get choked up on always involved Hazel's parents.

About halfway through, it became a much more meaningful read for me when a co-worker showed me an article (from People magazine, maybe?) about Green's inspiration for the novel, Esther Grace Earl, a teenage girl who died of thyroid cancer.  The article explained that Esther had two goals, the first to make a difference, which she definitely did through her foundation for families with kids with cancer.  The second was to kiss a boy, but Esther never found the right boy or the right moment.  Green's dedication of The Fault in Our Stars to Esther along with girls' shared middle name made Hazel and Augustus's love story a fulfillment of Esther's second wish.  This gave the book another layer of purpose for me, making it a sweet tribute to a real and courageous girl.

The book club's March selection is The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, which is another very popular novel from 2013.  I've been wanting to read this one, so this is a great excuse to make it happen.  What about you?  Have you read The Lowland? Will you read it this March?  It's probably a great Spring break read. :)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Review: The Good Body by Eve Ensler

If you appreciate The Vagina Monologues, then you will really love its mild-mannered sister, The Good Body by Eve Ensler.  Though I have not read the script for the Monologues, I suspect the two plays are written in a very similar way.  With little to no stage cues, The Good Body reads like a book written in the first person, each chapter a new voice.  In this one, Eve herself is a character, interacting with the other characters and soliloquizing between each woman's chapter, making it a window into the author's personal journey towards tummy acceptance.

The Good Body is a series of monologues and dialogues that takes on the epidemic of shattered body image and addresses issues with the entire female body instead of one particular part.  Ensler uses real life conversations she's had with women around the world about their bodies as inspiration for the various characters in the play, which range from a young teen at fat camp to an old Indian woman at the gym on the treadmill in her sari.   Most of the characters channel their hate at a particular part of themselves, just as Ensler obsesses negatively over her "post-40s" stomach.  A few of the characters, however, love their bodies exactly as they are and inspire Eve to accept her body as a sacred, hard-working source of life.

In The Good Body, Ensler accomplishes the same stunning sense of sisterhood The Vagina Monologues does by reminding women that most of us have the same insecurities about appearance.  Instead of picking on ourselves and each other, though, we should love and accept the female body in all forms.  Ensler makes us strong in our sameness.  In the introduction, Ensler mentions that most women spend more time thinking about their own bodies than almost any political or social issue.  The Good Body urges women to make peace with their bodies so that we can turn our thoughts to more important matters.  What could we achieve if we gave up the battle between our minds and our bodies and put our energies into other fights?

I'm thinking about reading Eve Ensler's memoir In the Body of the World next.  Have any of you read any of her works, seen her plays, or watched her TED talks?  What do you think of Eve?  I'm finding her to be a pretty inspiring lady. :)

Thursday, February 13, 2014


I know I promised we'd talk about Eve Ensler.  And we are, just not about The Good Body.  I realized maybe we should just talk about her most famous play first and the movement it begat.

Tomorrow is V-Day.  And it’s also Valentine’s Day.  Same thing? Nope.  V-Day is more serious, depressing but also more powerful and meaningful than Valentine’s Day.  On February 14, 1998 Eve Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues, started this grassroots organization to stop violence against women all over the world.  It raises awareness and funds to support amazing activists who work to end rape, battery, sex slavery, genital mutilations, etc.  See?  Much more impacting than a box of chocolates and a cute teddy bear.  And you don't have to be in a relationship to care about it.  (Don't get me wrong, I still love Valentine's Day, and I still want roses like these ones Jarrod gave me.)

One way to raise awareness is to host or attend a V-Day event, most commonly a performance of The Vagina Monologues. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of The Vagina Monologues.  This play is a series of monologues celebrating women's hardships and strength in them.  Some of them concern many women’s insecurities about that body part; some of them bring up darker, more serious issues of violence and abuse.  Eve Ensler says she wrote the play because she was “worried about vaginas”.  She was “worried about the shame associated with vaginas” and “what was happening to vaginas”.  This play is uncomfortable.  It will gross you out.  It will make you sad.  It will scare you.  You will feel something.  And it's something you need to feel.
If you haven’t had the upsetting yet eye-opening and amazing experience of seeing this play that The New York Times has called “probably the most important piece of political theater in the last decade”, you need to.  Truman State has two showings of the play this weekend, February 14 & 15 at 8pm. If you live in Kirksville, you should go. If you live in Kansas City, UMKC will be performing The Vagina Monologues on Tuesday, March 4. In St. Louis, Washington University also has performances this weekend on February 13, 14 & 15 at 8pm. If you happen to be living in Durham, North Carolina, Duke is showing it February 26 at 7pm. If you are a dear friend living in Muncie, Indiana, you have to wait until March 25 & 26, but you still get to see the play. There. I think that safely covers my entire readership. :) 

Happy V-Day, guys.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The very successful Missouri-based DIY/lifestyle blog A Beautiful Mess has started a book club!  I read their first selection, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  While Emma of A Beautiful Mess posted some thought-provoking responses to the discussion questions she posted, I won't be responding to the questions since I don't want to spoil the book for you.  Instead I will give you a review so you can decide to read The Interestings yourself and then take a look at their discussion.

Wolizter's novel follows the lives of a group of teenagers who met at an art camp in the 1970s.  There's Ethan Figman, animation wizard; Jonah Bay, talented son of a famous folksinger; Ash Wolf, aspiring feminist actor; Goodman Wolf, Ash's architect brother; Cathy Klipinger, dancer with a womanly body; and Jules Jacobson, funny girl.

Jules, Ethan, Jonah, Cathy, Ash, and Goodman spend a summer at camp together and form an important bond.  Before this, Jules was an awkward teenage girl mourning the loss of her father.  After she meets these five kids, her life shifts directions.  That summer Jules discovers creativity and a love for the arts, but more importantly she discovers a wealthy, stylish family, Ash and Goodman’s.  Ash, Goodman, and the Wolf parents devour Jules, command her attention, sway her morals, and engross her until she cannot tell where they begin and she ends, as symbolized in an scene where an aerial photo is being taken of the all the campers lying on the ground creating giant letters with their bodies.  Jules feet touch Goodman’s head, and Ethan’s feet rest on Jules head, creating a seamless limb of the larger being created by the campers.
After that first life-changing summer, the group of friends remain as close as possible.  Jules takes the train from her boring, ordinary New York suburb into the glittering NYC to spend weekends with the Wolf family and Ethan, Jonah, and Cathy, who all live in the city.  They support each other’s creative pursuits: Cathy’s dance, Ethan’s animation, Jules’ and Ash’s acting.  Couples develop within the group, one ultimately changing the lives of all six of them.

Meg Wolizter’s writing is so naked and her imagery fresh and creative.  Two main themes in the novel are the relevancy of the arts and jealousy.  The book focuses on a group of people who each have talent, some greater than others, and shows how that affects their career choices.  In some cases, like Ethan’s and Ash’s, money allows them to pursue their talent as a profession and acquire fame, respect, and more money.  Cathy and Jonah have truly great talent but ultimately choose different fields career-wise for various reasons.  Jules and Goodman both struggle to find and develop their talents, and Jules finally turns her attention to another field.  This brings us to the second theme of jealousy.  Jules, having given up acting, struggles with her envy for her friends Ethan and Ash and the success they experience in the arts.  Jules’s jealousy taints her marriage and career and keeps her from seeing her life as full and happy.

The themes of art’s usefulness and jealousy spoke to me personally.  I seem to be reading a lot of books that speak to me personally, such as The Bell Jar.  This should make obvious sense since I am the one who decides what I read, but as a former English major, this is still a new phenomenon for me. But this one I actually didn't pick out.  I didn't know anything about this book before I blindly checked out the DIY blog's book club selection from the library, so I'm happy that I found it relevant.  The question of art’s importance in today’s job market is an ever-present concern for liberal arts graduates like me.  Where do we use the artistic skills we were praised for in high school and college in the “real world”?

Some of the criticism I found while scrolling through the comments of A Beautiful Mess’s discussion post labeled Jules as a selfish complainer.  This is true.  Jules is selfish and allows her envy to consume her at times.  Ash and Goodman are selfish too, but it is manifested in different ways than Jules.  The characters’ selfishness and other imperfections make them real.  It makes them human and raw and ugly at times.  But the humanity makes the novel worthwhile.  There is a section in Part II where Jules and her self-pitying get to be quite annoying, but in Part III, the plot starts to come full circle, foreshadowing is fulfilled, and you’re left with great imagery and themes to meditate on.

This passage is an example of the great insight Wolizter has for the problem artistic people have when finding their purpose in life.  I loved this advice Ethan gave Jonah after he confided in Ethan about his wasted musical talent.

The book club's February selection is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which was getting a lot of hype even before its film adaptation was announced for this summer.  You should join me in reading this one!!  A Beautiful Mess will be posting discussion questions at the end of February, and I will be reviewing it later this month as well.

Tomorrow I'll be posting about Eve Ensler’s The Good Body, so stayed tuned for that!  (Two posts in a row! I know!)