Monday, August 26, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

It is rare that you see a young-adult novel that is simply about people. Even if this kind of novel does make it's way into the dystopian-fantasy-dominated YA shelves, it is usually pushed to the side to make way for fantasy books like Matched, Uglies, and Twilight. (Don't get me wrong, these are good books, too. They are just catering more to what teens want, instead of branching out.) So I was surprised to see the round yellow sticker on the front of The Fault in Our Stars, (Dutton Books, 2012) announcing that this book was a #1 New York Times Bestseller. It didn't have a flashy picture on the cover--instead, two simple clouds announced the title and author. But what was inside was pure gold.

This novel is about a girl named Hazel Grace Lancaster, diagnosed at the age of thirteen with a thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs.  She is hooked up to an oxygen tank almost all of the time that helps her breathe.  Then she meets Augustus Waters, who lost his leg to osteosarcoma. They befriend each other and soon fall in love, before everything falls apart. 

Now, in any one of the novels I mentioned before, both characters would be beautiful/handsome, completely fit and healthy, and then they would fall in love and go through all of these hardships to be able to be in love. (ex. Bella Swan and Edward Cullen of Twilight.) Not one of those people would be hooked up to an oxygen tank or one-legged, because that isn't what appeals to the public. People like reading about these perfect people because they themselves aren't perfect. We like things without flaws. But reading about other people who have faults and imperfections just like us is so much more interesting. And it is those faults that make Augustus and Hazel Grace so much more beautiful than Bella and Edward and their perfect little daughter. This book was honest in a way that I've never seen before. It included the corny things that normal people would say, instead of the perfect way that characters talk in other YA novels. An example:

"As the seats around the gate began to fill, Augustus said, "I'm gonna get a hamburger before we leave. Can I get you anything?"
     "No," I said, 'but I really appreciate your refusal to give in to breakfasty social conventions."
He tilted his head at me, confused. "Hazel has developed an issue with the ghettoization of scrambled eggs," Mom said.
     "It's embarrassing that we all just walk through life blindly accepting that scrambled eggs are fundamentally associated with mornings."
     " I want to talk about this more," Augustus said. "But I am starving. I'll be right back."

These little bits and pieces are what make this novel perfectly human. It shows all sides of people, love, happiness, "corny-ness", heartbreak, and utter sorrow. We all experience this in ways that only a simply human person can. And so, I close this with one simple message. Humans, however much they don't care to admit it, will always relate more to a normal, not particularly special character than some fantastical creature. And that is why The Fault in Our Stars is so successful. It is a book with a simple yet powerful message about what goes on between humans.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

5 Questions with Mr. Dwayne Betts

Some may recall the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Mr. Dwayne Betts' book, A Question of Freedom. I had some questions at the end, and I decided to email Mr. Betts. His answers provide very interesting material to think about after you read the book. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

HF: What audience did you hope would read your book, A Question of Freedom, and why?

MR. DB:  Not sure people write with audiences in mind. About 600,000 people live in DC. Say I just want 10%. Already that's a number most poets will never see for a single book. But let's say I imagine 60,000 people are interested - now will I begin to look at my audience based on race? On class? Based on geography? Already it's hopeless, and I've yet to consider age, sex, whether or not they understand how awesome Tracy Chapman is. Audience, to me, is a gift. You write what you want and maybe you have a few people in mind, friends, colleagues - but mostly I'm writing for me. Selfish as that sounds.

HF: Which was worse: how you felt while in prison, or the physicality of being in prison?

MR. DB: Probably both, but then that wouldn't be answering your question. Let's say how I felt. The physicality, I held up well. Mentally though, prison was a drain.

HF: You now have a book of poetry out; did you write it while in prison? If not, was some of it inspired by your experience there? 

MR. DB: I wrote the poetry after prison. It's hard to say what inspired the poems. Prison. Freedom. My fascination with four leaf clovers. A few poems are just out of anger, one out of love. One because Terrence Johnson killed himself. There is a poem driven by the notion of lifting weighs. One because of George Herbert's "Prayer." I wish I had a better answer but really the poems come from breathing and usually there is no rhyme or reason to the individual breath. Maybe.

HF: Did you ever feel that some of the people you met in prison deserved a less severe sentence, particularly the younger ones?

MR. DB: Most people deserved shorter sentences. The sentences men and women get in the United States are mostly absurd and mostly demonstrate the insanity of our system. I know people with 30,40 years for non homicide and non rape offenses. For robbery. There are people with life for non violent offenses. More than that the sentences are often arbitrary. 30 years in one case becomes 10 in another. The Supreme Court recently said men can't be given mandatory life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles and some of these men, when they went back to court to be re sentenced, were sentenced to 60 years without the possibility of parole. That's obnoxious. Fortunately, some state appeals courts have pushed back on that - but not all. And sadly what I've said doesn't scratch the surface.

HF: Are there things in the outside world that remind you of the time that you were in prison?

MR. DB: Everything reminds me of prison, if I let it. Some things you don't forget, friends still incarcerated being one. So my freedom reminds me of their confinement. I'm going to law school; there is no authentic way for me to think about the law and not think about prison. I get letters from folks. Anyway, prison is a kind of echo that sometimes gets faint, so faint that I cannot hear it. Then, it shouts and I'm reminded it was always present.