Monday, February 17, 2014
After all the crying that accompanied my reading of The Fault in Our Stars, my husband told me I had better read something light next. I've had a sample Lauren Graham's Someday, Someday, Maybe on my kindle for ages so it seemed like the perfect book to read next. I love Lauren Graham. I was a huge Gilmore Girls fan. I used to babysit on Tuesday nights during college and started to catch some episodes or parts of episodes after whatever else I was watching that night. However, it wasn't until I was working at Soap Opera Digest that I watched the whole show from beginning to end. I must have watched the early episodes at the same time as the current episodes but I can't exactly remember. I just know I've seen every episode at least once and just loved the whole premise. I tried to follow Graham to Parenthood when it started in 2010 but didn't get sucked in although it's supposed to be fantastic, so I'm thinking of watching it next year (once I'm done rewatching Buffy and Angel and watching all of Fringe). And yes, this is supposed to be a book review blog, but I'm also a bit of a TV junkie.
Which is appropriate, given the subject of Someday, Someday, Maybe. The novel focuses on 26 year old Franny Banks, a struggling NY actress in the mid-1990s (not so coincidentally the time that Lauren Graham was a struggling NY actress). Franny is the daughter of a teacher from Connecticut whose mother passed away when she was in middle school. Due to this loss, Franny dove into acting as it was a place where she could pretend to be someone else. Despite having a serious college boyfriend and the possibility of a teaching career, she moved to NYC and gave herself a three year deadline to find some sort of success. She isn't someone who dreams of being a huge Hollywood star; she wants to be a successful theater actress who eventually can host an evening at the 92nd Street Y in the city.
At the start of the novel, her three year deadline is quickly approaching and she has little to show for her work. She has been accepted into a well known acting class and she had one commercial job, but little else has come to fruition. She works as a waitress for a comedy club to make ends meet but still struggles to pay her third of the rent in a Brooklyn apartment that she shares with two friends - Jane who is trying to become a producer and Dan, who wants to write science fiction or screenplays. Her father wants her to come home and become a teacher. However, Franny is determined to make it.
After a showcase through her acting class, she is approached by two possible agents: one a total character who has worked in the biz for years and the other a flashy agency. While she prefers the older agent, the flashy agency books her in a job almost immediately. She signs with them, even though as a reader, one knows that this wasn't the best move. At first, she gets auditions, but an offer for a bit role in a zombie movie that includes being topless really throws her off. And then the calls start drying up. She can't even reach her agency. In the meantime, romantic tension develops between her and Dan and she is on the verge of losing her comedy club waitressing gig while being desperate for money. She begins dating one of her classmates, a gorgeous actor who has already "made it" to some extent and develops a bit of a rivalry with one of her classmates, Penny.
Through a variety of circumstances, Franny of course, realizes what she really wants out of her career and possibly out of her love life as well. Towards the end of the novel, she begins to make the right decisions and starts to be recognized for her unique talents and looks. The story ends with hints at the good things to come for the plucky up and coming actress and while I don't need a sequel, I would have liked a bit more of a definitive ending to her story. However, I suppose ending on a hopeful note is the next best option. And besides, if Franny really is modeled after Lauren Graham, she got the career in the end and has done quite well for herself! Someday, Someday, Maybe is a good vacation read - light but not dumb and quick to get through. Throw it in your bag if you're heading somewhere warm this winter!
Washington Post Review
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Monday, February 10, 2014
Oh, John Green. Why are you one of the greatest voices of our generation and why do you make me so so sad? Let me back up. Several years ago, some of my female students raved about John Green. I'd never heard of him, but I like to be aware of what my students are reading so when the 8th grade English teacher chose Paper Towns to read in the spring, I took a copy and devoured it. John Green was a bit of a cultish author at the time. He was known but not voraciously read except by a select group of students, typically girls with fangirl tenancies. However, my 8th graders devoured the novel. I will never forget taking the bus on a school trip that spring and looking back to check on the kids and just seeing most of them curled up reading the novel. That image has stayed in my mind and definitely pushed me to keep exploring Green's writing.
I can't remember if I read An Abundance of Katherines or Looking for Alaska next, although I had a feeling that I waited on Alaska because my kids warned me that it was so sad, which it was, although in the end, I think I ended up liking it better than Katherines. When The Fault in Our Stars came out in 2012, I had read about the new Green book, but frankly I wasn't very interested. My mom was in the process of being diagnosed with Acute Myelodysplasia and would need a stem cell transplant. We had no idea how that was going to go so I was not exactly in the right frame of mind to read a book about teenagers with cancer. Of course, cancer has touched most of our lives in one way or another. Many of us had older family members who faced cancer, which of course is difficult and sad, but it's a whole different ball game when the sick person is a kid.
Now, of course, the film of the book is coming out this summer. So many people told me that I had to read this book. And then I saw the trailer. And I cried. Literally over a movie trailer. After seeing it, I opened the book on my kindle (I've had it since last year), read the first line and wanted to start the book immediately. Of course I had to finish The Hollow City first, but that made me push through it to jump into Stars (I may have rushed through the end of Hollow a little too much, but it was worth it).
The Fault in Our Stars is John Green's first novel with a female narrator. Hazel Grace Lancaster is a 16 year old with thyroid cancer who also faces issues with tumors spreading in different parts of her body and fluid accumulation around her lungs (my mom faced this a few times and trust me, it's very scary). Hazel needs oxygen all the time. She doesn't have much of a life outside of her parents. She has been out of school for three years and having already received her GED takes college classes a few times a week. Her parents want her to have as normal a life as she can and push her to attend a cancer support group so she can meet kids facing the same issues she is. During one of these sessions, she meets Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor, former basketball star and amputee (his leg was removed during his fight with bone cancer). Augustus is immediately drawn to Hazel. She returns the attraction, but is a little more hesitant. However, they continue to bond, especially after Hazel shares her favorite book with him. An Imperial Affliction is Hazel's obsession: a book about a girl that has cancer which ends...well without an ending, really. For ages Hazel has written to the author, a recluse who never wrote anything else and who lives in Amsterdam, desperate to learn what happened to the characters. He has never written back, but Augustus persists and tracks down Peter van Houten through his agent. Thus begins a lively correspondence between the author, Augustus and Hazel. van Houten refuses to answer Hazel's questions about how the characters ended up over email or the phone but he invites them both to Amsterdam for an in person sit down.
Hazel's medical conditions make travel difficult, but even after a week in the hospital due to fluid accumulation around her lungs, her doctor approves the visit. Augustus surprises her by using his wish (from a company like Make a Wish) that he has held onto since his amputation to get them a trip to Amsterdam. At the same time, Hazel starts to pull away from Augustus. She learns that he has already lost one girlfriend to cancer and doesn't want to put him through such a loss again so while she is fine with being friends, she is hesitant to move forward to a more romantic relationship. Regardless, along with Hazel's mother, they fly off to Amsterdam, thrilled to have the chance to meet van Houten.
As much as I would love to go on and on about the Amsterdam trip, I hate to spoil things here... which is a bit ridiculous since I'm going to write about the ending in a little bit, but there's something magical about reading about their trip that I wouldn't want to ruin. Let's just say the trip is life changing for both Hazel and Augustus. Van Houten isn't quite what they were expecting and it seems clear that Hazel will never get the answers that she so desperately wants. She is aware that the book ended abruptly because the main character, Anna, probably died or got too sick to keep narrating, but what Hazel is really concerned about is what happens to Anna's mother. Did she marry a man she was dating? Did she have other children? What happened to Anna's friends and her hamster? It becomes clearer that Hazel is very aware of her own shortened lift span and fears what will happen to her own parents and her friends when she is gone, especially her mother, who has devoted years to her care. While dealing with van Houten is emotional and also a moment that fires Hazel up, the real magic of the trip lies in the further development of Augustus and Hazel's romantic relationship. Who knew Amsterdam was such a romantic place? Or that the Anne Frank museum could be such a lovely setting for a blossoming relationship.
Of course, the trip to Amsterdam changes everything between Augustus and Hazel in a few different ways. It would have been unrealistic for both teens to miraculously be cured and go on to live a happy life together. The Fault in Our Stars follows classic novel plotting: Amsterdam is the high point and everything goes downhill from there.
Time to discuss the end... please do yourself a favor and go read this book. Then come back and join me in talking about the ending. It is such a beautifully written, poignant, funny, smart and devastating novel that deserves to be read by anyone. So please, go read it and then come back here.
Needless to say, SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW...
Like I said, it would have been unrealistic for the story to have a happy ending. John Green wouldn't cop out like that. He wouldn't give into the commercial desire for a book that ends perfectly happily. And trust me, that's a good thing. I vacillated for a while about who I thought might die. But really, Hazel is the protagonist of the novel and I doubted that it would be her unless there was a shift in narrative voices. It worked in (SPOILER) Allegiant, but that book had multiple perspectives so killing off one of those voices was okay. Plus, Augustus was technically healed. He had been cancer free so having him get sick and die was a not entirely surprising twist. He confesses at the end of the Amsterdam trip that he got a PET scan (an imaging test that looks for traces of disease in the body) and that he "lit up like a Christmas tree." And from then moment on, the book is obviously going to be devastating. And it is. Green doesn't hold back in describing Augustus' decline and how Hazel copes with his dying. Cancer is a messy, devastating disease. Having an front seat to my mom's treatment and recovery really gave me a personal perspective that made this difficult to read. Around 85% into the book, I started crying and could not stop. I must have read the first page of one chapter around that point over and over. Fortunately, even after the tragedy, the story still ends in a somewhat hopeful place. Sort of. Hazel's prognosis isn't good and the fact that the book ends on an abrupt note echoes van Houten's An Imperial Affliction. Hazel probably will get much sicker or eventually die (she wouldn't even be a good candidate for a lung transplant - I kind of kept hoping Augustus or Isaac - who lives - would leave her their lungs and insist she use them to replace her own lungs. I know, wishful thinking, right?) but unlike Anna's mother, Hazel is left feeling more secure in what will happen to her parents after she dies. So in the end, she knows life will go on after she dies. And really, what more can you ask for?
Please read this book. I hope you did before you read this last paragraph, but seriously, it's a lovely, wonderful book and I know you'll love it.
John Green's Website
NY Times Review
The Atlantic Review
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Wednesday, February 5, 2014
In 2011, I read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. In all honesty, I don't remember much about the book and I read it before I started this blog so I had to turn to the internet for the plot. Essentially, in the present time, Jacob Portman visits Wales to investigate his grandfather's mysterious past (after the old man's death). He ends up meeting the Peculiars, children with special powers, who are protected by a ymbryne (a witch of sorts) in a time loop (where one day happens over and over to act as a sort of haven for these children). He ends up back in 1940, where he learns that he is also a Peculiar, one who can see "hollows" or "hollowgasts". Again, I don't really remember all the details here but hollows hunt Peculiars and are controlled by Wights, creature who appear human but have white eyes. Jacob gets to know the other children and becomes attached to them to the extent that when he learns they are in trouble, he knows he can help. Apparently Peculiardom is threatened by these Wights who want to use the Peculiars in dreadful experiments. Jacob is able to save his friends from an encounter with a hollow but when they return to the time loop, they find that Miss Peregrine, their ymbryne has been kidnapped. The children attempt to rescue her, leading to a showdown in (or around, I can't quite remember) a submarine. At the end, they rescue Miss Peregrine, find she is stuck in bird form and they need another time loop or they will all start ageing forward and eventually die.
Thus begins The Hollow City. The children row their way from the island they lived on to the mainland, threatened by bad weather, rough seas and attacks from wights (in the form of soldiers). I think they are currently in the 1940's. Once they make it to shore, they are still chased until they manage to find another loop with the help of a set of Peculiar fairy tales that suddenly come in handy. They wind up in Miss Wren's loop and meet her strange menagerie, but Miss Wren has gone off to London to investigate the disappearances of her fellow ymbrynes and the attacks on other loops and Peculiars. Without another ymbryne to change Miss Peregrine back, she will become stuck forever as a bird and revert to an animal state. Most of the children decide to forge ahead to London, not knowing what they will find there. Along the way, they continue to be chased. They wind up with a band of gypsies for a bit, are captured by Wights in disguise as soldiers (it is the 1940s) and end up taking a first class train to London. There, they need to follow clues in the fairy tales to find Peculiar pigeons that will guide them to Miss Wren. Of course, London is being pummeled by the Blitz at the same time, making their journey even more dangerous. Along the way, they encounter other Peculiars, including some who survived an attack on one of the London loops. With their help, they are able to get into a strange loop, dominated by a carnival where Miss Wren has been hiding out and gathering Peculiars from around the world to build an army.
There, the children learn the extent of the Wights' plan. All Peculiars have a second soul, from which their power emanates. The Wights are removing the second soul (this part reminded me a lot of severing the link between children and daemons in The Golden Compass) and using it to feed hollows so they can gain access to the loops (any "normal" without a second soul who attempts to go through a loop will wind up insane). I don't quite understand what the Wights' endgame is. Maybe I missed something in there but I'm sure all will be revealed in the third book. The Hollow City was entertaining even if the whole book seemed to be kids on the run (sort of akin to Frodo and Sam in The Two Towers and The Return of the King). It dragged a bit in places and as I said earlier, I really wished I remembered the first book in the series better or that I had waited to read them until all three were out, but I'm interested in continuing. By the end of this book, Jacob has come to terms with and learned more about his power (he can tame hollows to some extent) and is on the run with Emma and a talking dog (Addison, I think) to try to free the rest of their friends and save the ymbrynes and Peculiardom.
The most intriguing idea behind these novels is that they are inspired by vintage found photographs that sprinkle the books themselves. I put a link to an article about the photos below. The cover of all the books and the images inside are all photos that the author started collecting at flea markets about three years before he started writing Miss Peregrine. He wasn't sure what to do with them, initially considering something like Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, but his editor suggested using them to write a novel. Eventually he worked with other found photography collectors to gather even more images. For the first novel, he looked at 100,000 photos, pulled out 300-400 that he wanted to use and narrowed that down to 44 that appeared in Miss Peregrine. The pictures are strange and sometimes disturbing but Riggs manages to weave the images into the story in a way that makes a lot of sense even if I sometimes didn't want to look at the pictures for too long. I'll definitely read the third book, especially to see the images, although I hope there isn't as long of a gap between novels this time around.
Found Photos Article
Ransom Riggs' Website
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