Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Love, Cancer Style

Cancer books don't have to suck

I love John Green.

Since I taught high school for so many years, my classroom library had 2 copies of Looking for Alaska (which I loved!), a copy of An Abundance of Katherines (which was fun), and at one point I had a copy of Paper Towns (which was okay).  Students checked these books out so often that I had a waiting list for them.  I even showed the Vlog Brothers Catcher in the Rye segments to my 11th graders to hear John Green's witty banter and literary insights for Holden Caulfield.  I laugh at it every year as my students sat blurry eyed and a bit overwhelmed by Green's diatribe.
Last year when Amazon.com publicized advanced orders for John Green's, The Fault in Our Stars, I ordered my signed copy the first day.  Then, Time magazine called it one of the best books of 2012.  It arrived at my house with John Green's green scrawled signature.  I read it in a day.

And . . . I didn't like it.

I kept my thoughts to myself knowing that the Nerdfighters I had in my 10 Honors English class would be disappointed in my reaction to a book I knew they would love - which they did.  They LOVE, LOVED it.  Many of them wanted to revive Augustus Waters and marry him.  When I read it the first time, I only saw John Green's face every time Augustus spoke.  I didn't buy the sappy romance between Augustus and Hazel.  I thought the inclusion of Peter Van Houten, the deeply flawed author of Hazel's favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, both silly and annoying.  When my Augustus Waters lovestruck teenage students asked me, "So, Mrs. Thiegs, what did you think of The Fault in our Stars?" I felt my face pucker wanting to tell them something different than my honest opinion.  Somewhere in the gene pool, though, I was not granted with the "sugar coat it gene" which would be quite helpful in not alienating people when I tell them what I really think.  I told them that I didn't like it.  I told them why.  They looked at me crestfallen, and replied, "You just don't get it because you aren't a teenage girl." True. I am not a teenage girl, but I loved Looking for Alaska, and that is totally YA angsty and wonderful.

I've watched as The Fault in our Stars has achieved best seller status.  I read a report that a movie is in the works. I have seen it over and over again on "The Best of 2012" lists from various sites.  I didn't get it until . . . I reread it again for my book club.

I erased my previous opinions of the book and read it with an open mind - not the mind of a 16 year old girl (because I am not 16, nor would I want to be again), but I was able to really focus on what draws readers into the story.  Hazel, Augustus, Hazel's parents, and Isaac are really cool characters, and John Green showcases his brilliance all over the place in this book.  The second time through, I appreciated his delicate touch with this being a cancer book that is anti-cancer books, because as Hazel mentions, "cancer books suck." Still the two main characters, Hazel and Augustus have this "Imperial Affliction"- the big c - and they are both able to see into the world differently than other teenagers.  They meet at a cancer support group and romance ensues.  Their romance is not a typical teenage romance because they are both cancer patients, Augustus is the healthier of the two when they first meet.  Although Hazel pushes him away when she starts to fall for him, telling him that she is a grenade, ready to blow up all those around her who love her, Augustus can't help loving her anyway, and she can't help loving him.  Which might be the reason for the title, The Fault in our Stars.  It is a fault that we can't help loving who we love, or that innocent, really cool kids sometimes get horrible cancer.  The dizzy hand of fate touches us in numerous ways that we can't always control.  Augustus, being the totally mature and amazing guy that he is,  even arranges through the Make a Wish Foundation, to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet the author of her favorite book (a cancer book that is not a cancer book called An Imperial Affliction written by Peter Van Houten).  She needs to find out what happens to the characters, and she needs to hear it from the author.

I will admit that the second time through, knowing the ill fate of Augustus and Hazel, I got teary eyed at the blossoming of their tender love.  I shivered knowing the fate of these characters who I fell in love with this time around, and I cried at the end of the book with the touching words and again the innocence of those who suffer so much for no real reason.
So. . . I am happy to report that I highly recommend The Fault in our Stars.  It is indeed a cancer book that does not suck.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Camp for Rich Girls to Ride Horses

My beach read venture continues . . .
This time I chose Anton Disclafani's book The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.  This book, along with many others on my short list of beach reads appeared on many "must read" lists for summer 2013. Just like A Hundred Summers, Disclafani sets her book in the 1930s where many once rich families face financial ruin due to the Great Depression.  The once gleaming debutantes suffer in the wake of it all.  Rather than taking place at a wealthy New England beach community (like A Hundred Summers), this story revolves around Thea being sent to Yonahlossee, a camp in the High Blue Ridge Mountains for wealthy southern girls to get an education, etiquette training, and large dose of social hierarchical reality.  In Thea's case, she is sent there because she dishonored her family.  Thea's infraction appears as a series of flashbacks once she is settled in the world of privilege, class, and horses.

Honestly, just like A Hundred Summers, I very much wanted to love this book.  But . . . just like A Hundred Summers, something kept me from falling in love.  Thea was too cold.  The girls at Yonahlossee didn't separate enough in my mind (they all seemed cold, even Sissy who was supposed to be Thea's warm, popular friend).  The Atwell family felt somewhat V.C. Andrews-ish, and once again, the chilly characters and atmosphere of the entire novel made me want more warmth.  For a book set in the south, I felt cold much of the time while I was reading it.  Thea came across to me as a smart, manipulative girl who got what she wanted regardless of the price to any animal, person, or person's family.  But, she did have good posture as Mr. Holmes pointed out as one of her distinguishing features.

I wanted to fall in love, but I didn't.  I didn't love Yonahlossee.  I was mostly disgusted with all the characters by the end of the book, and the fast forward final chapter put too much of a tidy family angst bow on everything (woe to all of us).  Yes, this book did have some steamy love scenes, but the teacher in me found it repulsive that they were between a student (16 years old) and headmaster (31 years old).  Not to mention the headmaster had 3 small girls, and the love affair happened while his wife was away trying to save the camp from financial ruin.  Yikes and yucky.

My quest to find a summer beach read that is both loveable and readable continues with Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings . . .

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Hundred Summers

A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams

I scoured the internet to find really great "beach read" books even though I am not technically going to the beach until September this year (a perk of no longer teaching . . . I can vacation in September!).  I wanted something on the lighter side, but still legit - like way better than Nicholas Sparks (way too many people die in his books and the story lines upset me, not to mention that his writing is a bit dull and predictable . . . sorry Nicholas Sparks fans) and way less intense than Khaled Hosseini (who I LOVE but can't really fly through because he develops his characters and crafts to dizzying proportions and I want to savor each word and digest his brilliance slowly).  I found some books that popped up again and again on Amazon.com's best of the summer beach read books, and then Oprah's best of the beach read book list.  I read book descriptions and created a few lists of books that I really wanted to try.  My short list: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Dislafani, The Time Between by Karen White, The Interesting's by Meg Wolitzer, and The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly.  I also have a list of must read memoirs, but I will save that for another entry.  I decided to start my quest for summer beach reads with A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams mostly because it actually has a picture of a beach on the cover.  Okay, it's not the best reason to buy a book, but I also liked that the book takes place in the 1930s and depicts friendship and love and crazy relationships.

I don't know my exact feeling at the end of this book.  True to "beach read" promises of being able to turn and burn pages, I did that with this book.  I loved the almost too perfect main character Lily (also called Lilybird by her equally perfect beau Nick).  I loved the setting in the New England high society where image is everything.  I loved the way Williams developed her characters, and I felt like I did indeed know these people, but I didn't love this book.  I wanted to, I really did.  I know that I am sometimes a book snob, and I have been locked in a literary ivory tower for 15 years, but I like to think of myself as a literary omnivore able to switch into different genres with a single bound.  Even with my open mindedness and my quest for beach reads, I found that I didn't really care about the outcome of the characters in this book.  They were all too much of something.  Lily and Nick (who I rooted for despite their all too perfectness) were too good.  Budgie, I mean really . . . she was so evil that her bones were rotten.  And handsome Graham who was such a stereotype.  I think the ultimate revelation that I didn't love this book stemmed from my apathy in the storm.  I didn't care about it.  I was just turning pages to finish this book so I could move on to . . . something better.  I wanted Dynasty on the beach to be over.

It could be me, since the amazon reviews are really good for this book.  I will need to test my "beach read" adaptability.  Next up: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Dislafani.  Both of them take place in summer camps and I can't wait to revisit my own memories of camp life.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A tsunami of emotional turmoil

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

On Sunday, December 26th 2004, I welcomed visitors into my home to meet our three day old baby girl, Raina June.  She quietly greeted her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and our best friends.  Most of the day, she spent rolled in her burrito swaddling blanket patiently looking around her new home.  Every once in awhile she cried gently, and she was promptly handed to me to be fed while our guests engaged in lively after Christmas banter.  I, too, sat quietly most of the day as an endless stream of visitors came through our front door to welcome Raina into the world and celebrate Christmas with my husband and me. I felt overwhelmed by emotions - I was a new mother.  Our new baby girl had so much love surrounding her.  It was Christmas and somehow in the flood of the anticipation of Raina's arrival, the birth, hospital stay and arriving home, I had missed the actual holiday, but I still felt the rush of holiday happiness.  Warmth, new life and holiday spirit washed over me on that December morning.

Sonali Deraniyagala, half way around the world, experienced a different flood on that same morning.  As she and her family quietly basked in the afterglow of their holiday celebrations - her two young boys sat in their resort hotel room playing with their Christmas toys, and she and her husband were leisurely getting up to their morning vacation routine - a tsunami rushed toward their Sri Lankan, nature preserve, beach front resort.  After glancing outside, Deraniyagala felt panic as the ocean met the horizon at an abnormally high peak and was moving toward them fast.  No warning was given.

She yelled at her boys to run.  She shouted for her husband to hurry, and not until he heard her repeated cries to move did he react to the danger.  She did not have time to warn her parents in the room next to her as they ran out of the resort and hopped in a jeep.  All the moments of panic were quickly overtaken by the huge wave as it reached land and swept the jeep and anything else in its path away, away, away.  She remembered turning over and over again and then resurfacing to catch hold of a branch, disoriented, turning in circles over and over as the water surrounded her.

On Sunday, December 26th as we welcomed new life into our family, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her two young sons, her husband, and her parents to the tsunami.

I remember the pictures on the news and how I had to turn it off not wanting those sad emotions or images in my fantasy baby moon land.  I wanted to protect my new baby from even the thought of such a natural disaster.  That could never happen here.  I will keep you safe, baby.  I will never let a wave sweep you away.

But sometimes life doesn't turn out the way you want it to, and Deraniyagala explains her devastating loss and return to life after being the only surviving member of her family in her memoir "Wave."  I choked on Deraniyagala's words.  They caught in my throat and sometimes I found it hard to turn the pages as waves of nausea swept over me - how can anyone recover from such loss?  Her battle with depression, her questions about life, her battle to find a new reality after her entire life was swept away, her desire to die and her overriding feeling of "Why did I survive when all those that I loved died?" . . . I was painfully reminded on every page how delicate life is.  How fragile we all are.  How everything can change in our lives so quickly no matter how successful or happy or careful we are.

I wasn't sure I wanted to read "Wave" because I knew it would be sad.  It was sad.  I ached when I read it for Deraniyagala's losses.  Her ability to tell her story with strength, insight, honesty and raw emotion inspired me. Anyone who reads this book will be inspired by her story of recovery in a tidal wave of so much sadness.

A search for a father, a search for self

After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey

 Our parents create a huge part of our identity.  From their personalities to the environment they make our home, to the way they punish and reward, to the way they are involved or not involved in our lives.  Parents help us to create our sense of self.  But other things help us to reinvent who we are, or become a different version of our selves.

I remember this class I took at the University of Minnesota which was about the construction of self and how our memory plays a key role in who we believe we are, what we know about ourselves and our identity.  It was an Honors Seminar with a long gray haired professor and only 8 girls.  Every week, one of us was assigned to lead discussions and to bring in some sort of morning snack.  It was an 8am class and I remember the other girls struggling against the early wake up time.  They seemed slug like, puffy and gelatinous in the morning.  I, on the other hand, am a morning person - biking to class, feeling the cold Minneapolis wind on my cheeks and coming to class fresh and crisp.  Even in my sharp morning mood, I was almost a mute in this class at first while the slugs could talk and analyze and discuss and quip.  At that time in my life, I had issues with speaking in classes.  I was worried that every word I spoke would be dissected by others, made fun of, that my voice wasn't important or that my thoughts were ridiculous.  It was this class that helped me (forced me) out of my quiet prison.  Every day, I would go into our dark little classroom which was held in a side conference room of one of the beautiful old halls at the UofM with a goal of speaking at least 2 times during class.  On the days I had to lead discussion, I would craft careful notes and speaking points, knowing that I had to speak way more than my goal of 2 times.  Somehow through my class centered on identity and memory, I cautiously began to emerge as a new version of myself.  Someone who spoke in classes and didn't care if my thoughts were perceived as silly or wrong.  My thoughts were part of me, and I mattered.  I realized during this class that I had been told to be quiet so often in my life - from my parents, to my teachers, to adults that finally I started to listen, and this class somehow helped me break out of that. I decided that the voice in the back of my head telling me to talk and move forward regardless of how I was raised or socialized was the voice I needed to listen to and in some ways it is that voice - the one that tells you to find a new truth is the same that Michael Hainey had to turn way up to complete his quest and write his memoir, After Visiting Friends (A Son's Story). 

After Visiting Friends centers around Michael's search to find the truth about his father's death.  He follows his instinct that he never knew the whole story, that something didn't seem right, and he does not relent until he tracks down every lead, every angle, every possibility that could help him recreate not only the story of his father's death, but also the story of who his father really was.  His mother didn't talk about his father's death or his father after he died.  Michael recalls, "After he died, silence descends.  Silence and fear.  My twin poles: My binary black holes.  I live in fear of upsetting my mother, of even uttering my father's name.  I believe that even by saying his name, I might kill her.  Or she might kill me."  Turning to his mother yielded heartbreaking silence, so he searched on his own for the truth and uncovers the code of newspapermen, marriage, and friendship.  He finds a way to himself and finds the courage to tell the story that might hurt those involved.

I picked up this book because Amazon.com named it as one of the top books of 2013 (so far) and one of the best memoirs of the year (so far).  I agree.  At first I had to get used to Michael's storytelling - bits and pieces of the past blended with his present day searching for his father.  He reconstructs how things could have been based on his searching, interviews, tracking down bits and pieces from the morgue reports to the obituaries in various papers, to relatives and past coworkers of his father, and he constructs his own truths based on the evidence he uncovers.  I was engrossed in his search for his father, and his search for himself.  Everyone tells him along his journey how much he looks and acts like his father and at times (like when he goes to his father's high school reunion) people who knew and loved his father seem comforted by his presence because he is so much like his father.

I cried a little at the end of this book because Hainey has a beautiful style that slowly unfolds his journey home - his discoveries and how he chooses to internalize and externalize them.

We all search for our self - whether it is finding a new voice in an Honors Seminar class, connecting with our past,  re-inventing our futures . . . we have a deep need to find truths and a deep need to turn away from the truth of how we have been shaped into the people we are.  Some of us are brave enough to tell the stories that have shaped us, like Michael, even if it did take the cajoling of Jan, the prophet and morgue worker, to help him realize how important his story is to tell.  After his visit to the morgue, Jan calls him almost an entire year after and says, "We are waiting for you to tell this story. . . There is a new person in you, trying to be born.  He's just barely peeping out of the box.  Are you going to slam the lid down on his fingers, or are you going to throw the lid off that dark box and come out fighting?" Hainey finds the courage to throw the lid off the box and tell his story much to the benefit of anyone who reads After Visiting Friends.