Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Four Books You Should Hear About (Cancer, Russian gods, Fascism, and Faeries)

(As I write this, the sound of gentle wheezing rises from my lap: the baby boy is sleeping there. He looks awfully angelic. I know that if I transfer him to his bed he’ll wake up, so I’m leaving him in place even though the ergonomics of my typing are a bit awkward).

My Recent Reading

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

Front CoverI read this book while in labor. I probably should have stuck to lighter, more cheerful fare, but the vivid storytelling kept me going between contractions. The Fault in Our Stars is a highly acclaimed, well-written YA novel that is currently being made into a movie. It’s the sort of story that is guaranteed to bring forth adjectives like “real,” “gritty,” and “honest.” The teenage protagonist, Hazel, is afflicted with a deadly cancer. Convinced that Hazel is also suffering from depression, her mom insists that she attend a support group. There Hazel meets the love of her young and threatened life. As the two teenagers grapple with love in the face of death, they scorn the sentimental nonsense with which the adults around them treat cancer, and in the end, a sort of wry and existential courage is all that they can believe in.

This book is an extraordinarily believable portrait of how a brave, intelligent young person might respond to suffering and death. Hazel rejects the trite religiosity that is offered in her support group and in a church funeral. Such a portrayal of Christianity is unfortunate, but alas, it is realistic-- many kids have never been given anything better by their churches and youth groups. As an adult, I found The Fault in Our Stars a compelling but tragic story. Initially, I felt that I would not hand this book to any but the most mature teen. Reason one: the story makes existentialism and unbelief appear the intelligent choice. Reason two: young Hazel and her boyfriend sleep together. However, I may not be giving enough credit to young readers who are grounded in their faith. Perhaps there is no reason why they would not respond the way that I did. Perhaps this book ought to be read the same way we read books like the Iliad: as a truthful portrayal of non-Christian life that can help us to better understand our non-Christian neighbors.

Enchantment by Orson Scott Card (1999)

Front CoverThis was one of my “nursing books,” picked up because of a review by Jenna St. Hilaire.

Imagine that you are a Jewish, Russian-American graduate student who has traveled to Kiev soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain in order to study Russian folk tales. One day, you find yourself involved unexpectedly in a Russian version of sleeping beauty that takes place in the 900's A.D. In fact, you are the one who kisses the princess and are now expected to become king of a land where everyone despises you for your inability to wield a sword.

The storytelling in this book is great fun. I found myself actually forgetting that the characters were fictional, and trying to think of ways to help them defeat Baba Yaga before it was too late (sleep deprivation due to an infant may have contributed to my break with reality). I loved the way the Orson Scott Card played with the culture clashes between worlds. The conflict of values was quirky, original, and unusually well-done. The characters themselves were also a pleasant break from fantasy stereotypes. My complaint is that the ending doesn't really jive with the rules that Card created for his world. In addition, the protagonists are far too willing to simultaneously practice Christianity, Judaism, and Paganism. That doesn’t actually work, people! Overall, though, this is a fun and engaging read.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2001)

I did not like this book at all until I was partway through. It made me realize how American and relatively Victorian I am (don’t bother reading The Shadow of the Wind if you are prudish). My new realization is that I only like novels if I can identify to at least some degree with the protagonist. I couldn’t identify with the main character of this book until the halfway point.

Part coming of age and part mystery, this Spanish novel is set during the fascist rule of Franco. The protagonist, a boy named Daniel, finds a gripping novel by a forgotten author. Oddly enough, a mysterious figure who calls himself the devil has been tracking down that author's books in order to burn them. This figure wants Daniel’s book.

As Daniel slowly grows up, he navigates the mysteries of women and sex, the perils of being on the wrong side of an oppressive police force, and the tragic story behind his favorite book. Eventually, the many threads of Daniel’s tale coalescence into an absorbing conclusion. My ultimate feeling is that even though all the sexual discussions and crudities of the book grated heavily on my sensibilities, the author actually handles sexuality more realistically than many writers do. Love-making changes the characters' relationships irrevocably and even results in pregnancy.  Although I would not wish to spend time with most of the characters in real life, I feel that they taught me something about humanity (and that is the goal of literature, is it not?).

The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (2012)

In a world in which the fey folk and humans live side-by-side, nine Changelings (half-caste children called “Peculiars”) have been mysteriously murdered. A young Peculiar named Bartholomew finds himself marked with strange faerie writing that translates as the number "ten." Meanwhile, a dapper, foolish, good-natured young member of Parliament finds himself attempting to stop the murders and save a mysterious woman who has appealed to him for help, even though doing so is shockingly embarrassing.

Steampunk, faeries, British slums, gothic atmosphere, and desperate adventure: who could dislike this book? The characters are fantastic and the story is unconventionally absorbing. Although technically a Young Adult novel, the language is quite maturely wry:

“The watchman sat in his hut against the side of the church, fast asleep in the wavering glow of a lantern. Grave robbers had come and gone, finished their business hours ago and were well on their way to the physicians in Harley Street, and to certain faeries of delicate diet.”

I am not sure that younger readers would enjoy this story as much as older teens and adults would. The darker details could be quite disturbing and much of the humor difficult to grasp. I, however, loved it up until the last page. On the last page I was rendered quite upset because the story did not end. Alas, I had not realized that I will have to turn to the sequel before I can discover whether or not the heroes are able to succeed in their rescue attempt. 

1 comment:

  1. Lots to digest here. You've definitely been busy! I have never read during labor, but it's a wonderful idea. I may put it to use come June. I am fascinated by The Fault in Our Stars, and disappointed. Existentialism and unbelief abound in YA fiction. It's so de rigueur. Every. single. book. must mock religion unless it's Buddhism or published by a Christian publishing house. sigh.


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