MoneyballsbnI became a fan of Major League Baseball in the summer of 1996. I was 11 years old. I had watched my brother play tee ball and coach’s pitch, and I had played softball in our tiny little town, and when I caught a Braves game on television one night, I knew enough about baseball to follow the game. The first batter I saw walk up to the plate was Chipper Jones, and he hit a home run, and I was hooked.

When I went to college in 2003, I suddenly found it difficult to be a baseball fan. There was no time to follow the game as closely as I had, and I knew no one else who loved the game, and so I found other interests that replaced my love for baseball.

A few years ago, I decided to come back. I missed following the game, and I decided one day that a girl shouldn’t have to give up the things she loves just because she’s alone in her passion. (And, of course, thanks to Twitter, I’ve found fellow baseball fanatics.)

But in that decade that I wasn’t obsessively following baseball, a lot of things happened. Of course, Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire’s short-lived, single-season home run record. And the use of performance-enhancing drugs sharply declined. And people hit fewer home runs, and all these other stats became more important. And the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino. And the average payroll across MLB increased A LOT.

After hearing Billy Beane’s name thrown around enough, I decided to read Moneyball to try to fill in that decade-long gap in my baseball knowledge. And the book was a joy for me to read. Michael Lewis does a great job getting inside Billy Beane’s head–what is it that made him fail as a ballplayer? What is it that makes him so great as a GM? Why are the metrics so important during a regular season and suddenly less important during a postseason run? And how can we change the way we look at the way the game is played and the ballplayers who are playing it?

This book has a lot packed into–not just the story of the 2002 Oakland A’s, but also the story of the draft that year (which I was sad to see was left out of the movie), and the story of Billy Beane’s draft and career in the minors and MLB, and the story of Bill James, the first real sabermetrician.

Michael Lewis handled the story incredibly well. I was absolutely captivated, and the book was a quick read (which I find is a rarity in most nonfiction I choose). I can see why this might be one of the most important books about baseball ever written.

Book Challenge #13 & Movie Challenge #2

Thank God for Christmas break and a new apartment with no internet. No, really. I have done so much reading and movie-watching, and it’s wonderful!

Book Challenge #13: Read a book by an author I love that I haven’t read yet

preludesnocturnesThe Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes, Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is, far and away, one of my favorite authors. I had read the first issue of The Sandman years ago, and I’ve owned the trade paperback of volume 1 but had never gotten around to reading it. Before Gaiman became famous for his novels and works of short fiction and episode-writing for Doctor Who and his marriage to Amanda Palmer, he made his name known in the comic book world with this critically-acclaimed series.

In Vol. 1, a man named Roderick Burgess acquires a grimoire that should enable him to capture Death. Instead, he ensnares Death’s little brother Dream (also known as Morpheus), whom he imprisons for about 70 years. When Dream is captured, he is no longer reigning over the dream and nightmare realms, and of course things go horribly awry.

morpheusWhen Roderick’s son Alex finally releases Dream, he immediately punishes Alex and then goes on a quest for his tools. Dream teams up with John Constantine to find a small, but powerful, bag of sand. He ventures to hell to fight a demon in order to get his helmet back. And, with a little help from old members of the Justice League of America, he finds Doctor Destiny, who has used Dream’s ruby amulet to take control of the dreamworld and attempt to bring about the apocalypse. (Also, Morpheus is kind of attractive in that 80s, early-Neil Gaiman, comic-book sort of way.)

The editor, in the introduction to vol. 1, states that this is the weakest of the collected volumes, that Gaiman was still trying to find his voice. But I still found it wonderful. It’s almost like there’s this band that you’ve loved for years, and you discover their unreleased EP that they recorded in someone’s garage, and you still think it’s wonderful. This volume of the comics is really, really good, and I know Gaiman’s voice well enough to hear it in the voices of Morpheus and his sister Death. And I’m eager to get my hands on the rest of the series now.

Movie Challenge #2: Watch a movie made more than 50 years ago

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)

take me outI found this on sale at B&N a year or so ago, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a musical about baseball! Frank Sinatra plays a young second baseman to Gene Kelly’s veteran shortstop on a championship baseball team in the early 1900s. In the off-season, Sinatra & Kelly do vaudeville acts, and the movie begins when they’re late for spring training in Florida. Shortly after they arrive, the teams learns that the old owner has passed away and left the team to a distant relative who wants to see the team. They immediately assume it will be an old, fat man who thinks he knows more about the game of baseball than they do. Instead, the new owner is a beautiful woman, played by Esther Williams. She immediately clashes with Gene Kelly, and young Frank immediately falls in love with her but has no game, so he doesn’t no how to talk to her about anything other than baseball.

There’s baseball and romance and bad guys betting on the game of baseball and a clambake. It’s really delightful. My friends who love musicals would love it. Also, Frank Sinatra is a skinny, young guy who looks absolutely adorable in his team sweater.

Book Challenge: January 2014

I resolved to buy no new books during the month of January and to read one book each month that I had not yet read but that I already owned (previous to January 1, 2014).

It’s is now February 1. I haven’t bought a single book since before Christmas! I have a few stories I want to download on my Kindle app, and I might order Ransom Riggs’ Hollow City today, but I’m also in the middle of reading four books right now, so I’m not in any real hurry. That part of my resolution was successful, as was my vow to read at least one book I already owned.

I also read 13 books, which puts my far ahead of my goal to read 60 books this year, and I’m halfway through another one that I expect to finish today.

Here’s the roundup for January:

Books I owned previous to Jan. 1:

1) Chronicles of Avonlea, by L. M. Montgomery. I thought I’d read this already, I but I think I actually just read the first story because I remembered none of the rest of the stories. The Anne of Green Gables series are some of my favorite books ever, and I like this glimpse into other aspects of Avonlea and the surrounding communities. Montgomery is quaint and faithful and descriptive, and her writing is a refreshing change of pace from the stuff I usually read.

2) August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts. A PulitzerPrize-winning play that has been adapted to a film starring, among others, Benedict Cumberbatch. My friend John read this book a long time ago and has been raving about it. He gave me a copy about a year ago and has been pestering me to read it. I finally did, and man, is it good and crazy. The play focuses on a family brought together by a death. They’re all dysfunctional, but it’s funny and tragic at the same time.

3) The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams. The second book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy that isn’t actually a trilogy. Funny and quirky and smart and delightful.

4) Dial H Volume 1, China Mieville. I own the entire series (which is only 15 issues), but I had not kept up with reading them. Now that the series has concluded, I read the first volume of collected issues. Mieville’s writing is strange and unique, and I love it, but I also recognize that his writing style is not for everyone. I hate that the series was canceled by DC, but I don’t think it was as successful as they’d hoped it would be. Still, I highly recommend this. It’s funny and weird and smart. 

5) The Umbrella Academy in Apocalypse Suite, Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. This six-issue series is delightful. It’s the story of seven children (most of whom have special abilities) who were adopted and raised as a dysfunctional group of superheroes. When they are older and their father dies, they reunited for the first time in years, with (naturally) disastrous results. I absolutely love Gabriel Ba’s artwork, and Way’s story is unique and wonderful.

Library books:

1) The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson: The first in a series about ghost hunters in modern-day London. An American girl named Rory moves to England to attend a boarding school and gets involved in a mystery involving a contemporary Jack the Ripper. The book blends a little bit of Victorian London into the modern-day city, and I like Rory’s tenacity. This is different than anything else I’ve read by Maureen Johnson, and I’m eager to read the sequel!

2) Zone One, Colson Whitehead: literary fiction/zombie novel. I wished it could have been better. Here’s my review on Goodreads.

3) Just One Year, Gayle Forman. A companion novel to a book I read last year. Features world travel and Shakespearian plays and fate and romance. A nice, light read.

4) The Madness Underneath, Maureen Johnson. The sequel to The Name of the Star featured a plot twist at the end that broke my heart. And now I have to wait who knows how long for another book to be published. Again, this is why I should always wait until a series is finished to read the books. Will I ever learn?!?

5) Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell. What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? Trust me, it lives up to the hype!

6) Bimbos of the Death Sun, Sharyn McCrumb. My friend Shea (who used to be referred to as “my thesis advisor”) recommended this. McCrumb is an Appalachian writer, and this book is a fun, quirky novel about a murder at a sci-fi convention. It took me a few chapters to get involved, but once I finally did, I had a great time picking out the geek references and trying to figure out which sci-fi nerd actually did the deed. I’ll be reading the sequel, called Zombies of the Gene Pool, soon!

Other books:

1) I finished The Knife of Never Letting Go for the fifth time and still found myself tearing up (though not full-out crying) during the final chapters. This is such a beautiful, wonderful book, and I don’t know how many more years it will take until everyone I know reads it.

2) Insurgent, Veronica Roth! FINALLY! I borrowed it from a friend and read it quickly, of course. I found Tris to be a bit annoying at times because I hated the choices she was making, but I also felt like the ending redeemed much of that. I’ve read some reviews that people thought the ending was too predictable, and it’s true that I did figure out what was going on earlier. However, even books with “predictable” endings can be well-written because it’s often more about how the writer gets to that ending rather than what’s there when we arrive. I have Allegiant in my stack of books to read, but first I want to read the short stories about Tobias that Roth has published and then I’ll finish out the series.

More Than This

Ask me what my favorite book is, and I’ll pause because, for some reason, my FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME isn’t all that popular in the United States. Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go should be the most famous dystopian young adult novel of all time. It’s far better written, way more thought-provoking, and definitely more relevant than The Hunger Games (which I liked a lot, so no offense there). It inspired me to write my M.A. thesis (I even borrowed a quote for the title of my thesis), and it gets better every time I read it (four times now). Ness’ follow-up young adult novel, called A Monster Calls, was beautiful and haunting and award-winning and NOTHING like his Chaos Walking trilogy. Ness is brilliant. He is versatile. And he breaks my heart every flipping time.

I’ve finally finished his newest book More Than This.

* * *

More-Than-This-Patrick-Ness-628x1024“‘People see stories everywhere,’ Regine says. ‘That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.’ She glances back at Seth. ‘We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.'”

* * *

More Than This was released last month, and I’ve been reading it for the better part of a month, only because it’s impossible to read when one is a writing teacher, not because the book wasn’t utterly engrossing.

The book begins hauntingly: “Here is the boy, drowning.” No pretense. Seth dies before we’ve even reached the official first chapter. Seth, our protagonist, wakes up in a desolate wasteland in the town in England where he lived as a child. He is alone, naked, and covered in metallic bandages. The head injury the he sustained before drowning seems to have no bearing on this reality in which he exists now. And he’s got to figure out what’s going on.

He thinks he’s in hell, that this is the afterlife: alone, transported to a place where his life was utterly different. He believes he has to pay penance for the choices he made as both a child and a teenager. Then, he meets Regine, a large, sassy, black girl, and Tomasz, an intelligent, sweet, brave Polish boy. And his understanding–as well as our understanding–of reality completely shifts.

I can’t really say anything more than that. This book is a whole lot of things that have to be experienced on one’s own. It’s terrifying; I wouldn’t let myself read when I was home alone at night. I seriously tried to read as much as possible during daylight hours. This book is unnerving, constantly challenging my expectations of where the story was heading. This books is confrontational, as if it and I were in constant conversation; it kept subverting my understanding of the story and throwing ideas and philosophies in my face. If this book were a person, it and I would have some spectacular verbal fights. And maybe throw a few fists, too. And we would respect each other for our differences.

Terrifying, unnerving, and confrontational are good qualities for this story to have. It’s an existential journey through a desperate world; the characters and the readers will both question reality and push against the constraints of what is and ought to be. It’s a story about people who face a desolate future and know that there has to be more than this; they are the few who get the chance to find out what this is or might be, and they fight to find the truth and to discover what really matters.

That being said, the ending made me angry. I closed the book, closed my eyes, and said audibly, “What are you doing to me, Patrick Ness?” This book affected me differently than all his other books. I wanted a different ending; I wanted confirmation, closure, but the book wouldn’t give that to me. I don’t think the book is capable of giving that to me; everything contained within the story led to this conclusion. I just didn’t want to accept it.

Ugh, this is so vague. I can’t give you any more than this, though. (Did you see what I did there?) This book was fantastic, and Ness is still the genius I always thought him to be. When I read Ness’ books, I have to suspend my expectations, put my trust in his storytelling abilities, and hold on for the ride. It’s worth it every time, for the way he makes me perceive the world in which I live, for the way he makes me hope for better things in the face of adversity, for the way he makes me want to fight oppression and negativity. For the way I get absorbed in a story that engages my mind and my heart. For the way I want to yell at him for what he does to the story and then hug him for making my life better.

Patrick Ness is amazing. I have so much respect for him. And I’m doing my level best to convince everyone I know to read his stuff. Get to it, people!

Reading Roundup: Zombies, Graveyards, and Superheroes

My last reading roundup post got several comments from people thanking me for my reviews. That’s awesome, so I decided that I would post again about some more of the awesome books I’ve read recently. These three books are the three best I’ve read lately.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

I checked out this book from the library after my thesis advisor referenced it in a Twitter discussion about the Miami zombie. Weird, right? Anyway, I found this book to be a fascinating read. The premise of the novel is that it’s actually a documentary history of the zombie war, and honestly, there were times when I forgot that Brooks was writing a novel and not a work of nonfiction. I’d have to remind myself that, oh wait, the zombie war hasn’t actually happened. The book is written in a series of “interviews” with people involved in every phase of the war, from the initial reports of Patient 0, to the confusion and cover-ups, to the military plans designed to stop the zombies, to the recovery efforts. The great thing about this book is that most of the sections are short, sometimes just a page or two, sometimes up to maybe twenty pages. Either way, I could sit down, read one section, and set the book down to do something else. Usually, that’s what I had to do. The story is heavy and violent at times (as befitting the subject matter), and I don’t think I was ever able to read more than about 40 pages at a time. The only drawback I found to this book, though, was that Brooks attempts, and almost succeeds, to write in many different voices. Occasionally, I had to flip back a few pages to the beginning of the section to remind myself who was speaking and what role he/she played in the war. I’d venture to say that it’s impossible for a writer to capture so many voices well, but Brooks almost manages. I’ve heard, too, that the audiobook version is excellent because so many great people provide the voice for the different speakers (people like Alan Alda…I love him!). I have some friends who are listening to the audiobook right now, and if they like it, I might actually purchase it. Obviously, this book is not for everyone, but if you really appreciate the use of the zombie as social commentary, then I highly recommend it. Brooks really plays up the political and social ramifications of fighting a global war against zombies, and I’d argue that the book is really more about societal tension than fictional monsters.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This children’s novel by Gaiman won the Newbery Award several years ago, so it’s a shame that it’s taken me so long to read it. This last year or so, however, has been a year when I’ve really jumped into the world of science fiction and fantasy, so it’s appropriate that I’m reading so much Gaiman now.

I had a friend telling me a story on Wednesday, and she made the comment, “He was beautiful like death is beautiful. Does that make sense?” To Sarah: absolutely! Gaiman’s stories (and many other things in life, actually) are beautiful like death is beautiful. I think there is beauty in darkness just as much as in light, and The Graveyard Book is a dark, beautiful story.

In the beginning of the book, a man breaks into a house and kills a family. The only survivor (accidentally, of course) is an infant whose name is unknown. A mysterious man named Silas rescues the baby and takes him to a graveyard in town, where the baby is raised by a ghost couple, Mr. and Mrs. Owens. The baby is dubbed “Nobody Owens,” but is called “Bod.” Bod grows up in the graveyard, rarely venturing out into the land of the living and learning the ways of the graveyard (such as how to Fade to avoid capture). Silas is Bod’s caregiver when Silas is in town (and it was a lot of fun, for me, at least when I figured out why Silas leaves town so frequently). Eventually, as Bod grows older, Silas knows that Bod cannot stay in the graveyard forever, and Bod learns of his mysterious origins and of the man named Jack who killed Bod’s family and is still hunting for him.

I find the premise of growing up in a graveyard to be delightful. Highly illogical (I bet it’s hard to find food and good internet connection there), but delightful nonetheless. In Gaiman, I find that I’m very willing to suspend my disbelief, and in doing so, his stories become real and alive and bright and beautiful.

Batman: The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder (writer), Jock, and Francesco Francavilla (artists)

Two weeks ago today, I attended my first comic book convention, HeroesCon in Charlotte. It was wonderful, and the best part, easily, was attending a panel in which Snyder and Francavilla discussed writing this comic book series. (Insert fangirl moment: I’ve met two of the three creators of this wonderful book!!!) My friend Guy, who met me at the convention, brought his copy of the graphic novel, insisting that I read it. I finished on Thursday.

So many readers have declared this book to be one of the best (if not the best) Batman book. I’m not a connoisseur of Batman, having only just begun to read the series when DC rebooted their entire universe last year. (Side note: Scott Snyder is the writer of the current Batman series, and it’s phenomenal! The first seven issues have just been released in a hardcover edition called Batman: The Court of Owls. Check it out.)

I sort of did things backward with this book: sitting through an hour-long panel about the book before actually reading the book. Still, I think that actually made me appreciate it more. I knew how the story would end, and I knew what the best scenes in the book were, so I read it slowly and savored it. I picked up on a lot of foreshadowing in the book, and I peered closely at panels that I knew were important.

Okay, the premise of the story. Bruce Wayne is not Batman here; Dick Grayson has picked up the suit while Bruce is away from Gotham for a while. Dick is a different kind of Batman than Bruce is, and that distinction makes me appreciate both their characters more. Dick is working side-by-side with Commissioner Gordon on solving the mystery of who is behind an auction house that is selling off artifacts from Gotham’s greatest villains when Gordon’s son James arrives back in town. Something is wrong with James–something has always been wrong with James–but Jim has never been able to figure out exactly what. Through the rest of the events in the book, they finally discover what’s going on with James, but I won’t spoil that for you.

There are so many great things about this book. The idea of a mirror, reflecting duality with both Jim/James and Dick/James. A black mirror, reflecting the darkness of Gotham City, which is basically a character in and of itself. Also, there’s a huge, dead killer whale discovered in a bank, and that’s just crazy and cool.

Anyway, between this graphic novel and Snyder’s current run of Batman, I have become a huge fan of both Batman and Snyder. And this is a really great, literary graphic novel.


I’ve read some other books, too, in between all of these. Expect a post soon about the wonderfulness of John Green, who is one of my favorite persons on the planet. I’m in the middle of two books right now: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bagicalupi (the companion to The Ship Breaker, which I previously reviewed) and Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), which I’m trying to push through because I feel like I need it to end soon. I also have The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore, the follow-up to I Am Number Four, which I need to read soon because A) There’s a long line of holds at the library, and B) the next book comes out in a few weeks. 1Q84 is still standing staunchly on my bookcase, waiting patiently for me. Soon.

A Reading Roundup

I’ve been a wretched blogger lately. Let me be honest: when I was writing my thesis, I got out of the habit. It happens; maybe there are only so many words in me, and most of those needed to be devoted to that glorious monstrosity. I would like to declare that, now that I’m an M.A. without half the responsibilities of a few months ago, I’ll be a better blogger. That might not be true, so I’m not making promises. But here’s the second post of June, so that’s at least some semblance of progress.

I last posted a book review two months ago, when I finished John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Since then, I’ve read quite a few stellar books, so here’s a quick review:

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

I began this novel on a road trip from Williamsburg, VA. My friend Jenna was driving the whole almost-8-hour trip on that rainy Sunday, and I finished the first 200 pages before we arrived home. What a perfect way to begin a book that is, at least in part, the story of a road trip across America. The protagonist of the novel, named Shadow, meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job as an assistant/bodyguard. Shadow, an ex-con and recent widower, joins Mr. Wednesday in what becomes a battle of mythological forces across America. This novel is a fascinating tale of what happens to gods and goddesses when their worshipers immigrate to America as well as the way in which new gods and goddesses form as society evolves. In the midst of searching for the gods of America and preparing for a coming war, Shadow is also on a quest to discover life after the life he once cherished dissolves. I’m a huge fan of Gaiman’s writing style (across genres–in novels, movie/TV scripts, short stories, comic books, and books for children), and this book is beautifully written and incredibly evocative of American culture (from a man who is, natively, a Brit). Hopefully, I’ll soon read the companion novel Anansi Boys, and according to Gaiman’s Twitter feed, he is currently adapting the novel for a script for a television show.

China Mieville’s Railsea

Mieville is one of the three authors I studied for my thesis. He is quite prolific, turning out a book a year for at least the past four years, all of which have been incredibly well-written and thought-provoking and distinct. This novel, his first young adult novel in several years, is a retelling of Moby Dick. Instead of ships, however, the crew travel on trains along the railsea, in a fascinating world that Mieville has created. The protagonist of the novel is Sham ap Soorap, a doctor’s apprentice who longs to salvage the wrecks of trains along the railsea. His captain, instead of hunting a great white whale, is searching for a great Southern moldywarpe, with whom she had battled (and lost) years before. One fabulous aspect of this novel, as my thesis advisor pointed out in our conversations about the book, is that, instead of allowing the beast to act as metaphor (as Melville did in Moby Dick), Mieville jumps straight to the point: each captain is in search of a “philosophy” that drives his or her journeys across the railsea. The moldywarpe becomes this captain’s obsession, but Sham soon discovers his own philosophy after finding a photo memory card in a trainwreck. The results of his search are fantastic and fascinating. One downside to this book, however, is that those not familiar with Mieville’s style might have a hard time with his language use and the sci-fi content of the book. Mieville is part of a movement of sci-fi writers called the “New Weird,” and his novels definitely are not written for every audience (but what book is?). My suggestion: if you want to try reading Mieville, start with his detective novel The City & the City (the book I wrote my thesis on), an work your way through the rest of his books from there.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker

I knew as soon as I picked this novel up that I would love it–the title, the steampunk cover, and, of course, the dystopian premise. Also, even though I haven’t heard much about it (as with, say, The Hunger Games), the novel did win the Michael L. Printz Award (sort of like the Newbery for young adult literature) and was a National Book Award finalist. Prestigious. The book follows Nailer, one of the titular ship breakers, who is part of a “light crew” responsible for crawling through the bowels of wrecked oil tankers to scavenge for copper and other materials to sell. After a vicious storm hits the Gulf of Mexico, where the novel is set, Nailer is scavenging aboard a clipper and discovers a wealthy young girl alive in the wreckage. Eventually, Nailer and “Lucky Girl,” as she comes to be called, must flee the coast in an effort to reunite her with her father’s people and also escape from people who want both Nailer and Lucky Girl dead. The novel, as most dystopian novels are, is an interesting portrayal of society; following whatever disaster wrecked the country, cities have been destroyed and people fight for survival, yet, still, the wealthy remain powerful and the poor remain powerless. Like so many other dystopias, this novel focuses on class consciousness in a prominent way, and I, personally, am glad to see the social commentary take the focus instead of a love triangle in which a girl must both decide whom she loves as well as overthrow a government. In this novel, Nailer and Lucky Girl really do have to fight really hard for survival, and the consequences of that fight are revealed throughout the novel.


Most of the rest of my planned summer reading follows this sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian theme, unsurprisingly. I’m currently about halfway through Max Brooks’ fascinating novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and I’ve just checked out the companion novel to Ship Breaker, which is called The Drowned Cities. Soon, too, I plan to delve into a lengthy novel called 1Q84, which has been both critically acclaimed and bestselling, a rare feat in the publishing world these days. That novel is 925 pages, though, and I’ll be honest and say I’m a bit intimidated by the sheer size and weight of that book. Still, I’m told it’s a worthy conquest. Perhaps in a few weeks, I’ll have more wonderful books to write about!

The Fault in Our Stars

“But it’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person  starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy. But in [An Imperial Affliction], Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.”

-John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

* * *

The above quote occurs early in the fourth chapter of the young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars and is a good indication of how the rest of the book will go. The narrator is Hazel, a teenaged girl who has had cancer for three years. She carries an oxygen tank everywhere she goes, she attends a Support Group that seems highly unhelpful, she loves her parents, she reads poetry from Eliot and Ginsberg, and she meets (early in the novel, at the previously mentioned unhelpful Support Group) a cancer survivor named Augustus Waters, with whom she eventually falls in love.

This, too, is not your typical cancer book. Throw every comparison to A Walk to Remember or Lurlene McDaniel out of the window. Instead, think of the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. In fact, John Green sends Hazel and Augustus to Amsterdam, where they have an incredible moment in the Anne Frank Museum, and I was reminded of why I loved and lamented Frank’s diary so much: I knew how the book was going to end. I got to know the characters, but I, the reader, understood that I could not be with the characters for long, even within the pages of the novel.

The beautiful thing about this book is that you know tragedy will occur. Hazel is very grounded, very accepting of the fact that she has a terminal cancer. She knows there is no cure; she knows the drugs she’s taking are only prolonging her life, not ending the cancer. She can, however, still lament the brevity of life. She can seeks to understand life in the short time she has.

Cancer is not portrayed as romantic, as in other novels. It is heartbreaking and devastating in so many ways. Hazel and Gus, and I and everyone else who’s read this, understand that.

* * *

In spite of the sadness, this book is funny and alive. The dialogue is fabulous–Hazel and Gus are quirky and intelligent, and their conversations often reminded me of conversations I’ve had with my best friend.

Green is also great at metafiction–reminding the reader that this is a novel, not reality. In the book, Hazel’s favorite novel is An Imperial Affliction, which Gus also reads. This novel drives a lot of the plot of the story as Gus chooses to use a “Wish” from a nonprofit organization to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet the author of the novel. Hazel, in all her rereadings of the book, has hoped to discern what happens to the character after the book’s abrupt end. When she finally meets the author–who is a total jerk (to be nice)–he explains:

“But to be perfectly frank, this childish idea that the author of a novel has some special insight into the characters in the novel…it’s ridiculous. That novel was composed of scratches on a page, dear. The characters inhabiting it have no life outside of those scratches. What happened to them? They all ceased to exist the moment the novel ended.”

This tirade, combined with Green’s author’s note that the novel is a work of fiction, serve as a reminder of the power of a story: we can care so much about characters, be driven to powerful emotion, travel around the world just to discover more of the story.

This reminder made it easier on me to finish the book. I don’t remember the last time I cried so much while reading a book. And while I lamented losing characters who had become dear to me, I also remembered that their stories actually did end when I turned the last page, and I remembered that my life continues beyond the close of the book. And while I continue to live, I remember what I’ve learned from stories: that life and love matter, even when they’re oh-so-difficult.

“O brave new world that has such people in it”

Mustapha Mond checked him. “But [God] manifests himself in different ways to different men. In premodern times he manifested himself as the being that’s described in these books. Now . . . ”

“How does he manifest himself now?” asked the Savage.

“Well, he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren’t there at all.”

“That’s your fault.”

“Call it the fault of civilization. God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice.”

-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

This morning, I finished reading, for the first time ever, Brave New World. Because the novel is such a pivotal text for dystopian literature, I knew I needed to be very familiar with the story. In fact, in reading this book, particular the last few chapters (including the above quote), I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t adjust my theories about dystopian literature to include the overwhelming absence and perversion of religious ideology in dystopian settings. After reading Brave New World (as well as P.D. James’ The Children of Men and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale earlier in the summer), I just don’t think I can ignore the fact that writers of dystopian fiction, in some way, must inevitably deal with religious identity in these futuristic societies.

Finishing Brave New World almost made me sick. When I read of Huxley’s fictional society shoving God out of every aspect of civilization–hiding Bibles in safes, removing the word “God” and the cross and the person of Jesus from the collective consciousness of its people–and when that society managed to finally abolish the very last remnant of Christianity in the form of a boy named John, I was enraged. I haven’t felt so much tension at the finish of a book in a long time (maybe since reading V for Vendetta, even).

Tension can be good, though. Tension involves wrestling with ideas and strengthening one’s faith. I guess I never imagined that writing my thesis on such a dark topic would be easy, but I certainly didn’t imagine that just reading a novel would so strongly affect my mood this early on. I’ll be immersed in this topic until April. I’m just beginning this road to the end.

Once more, though, I’m reminded of why I can choose to study such texts. I serve a loving God whose Kingdom is not of this world. Even if I face a future society from which God is utterly removed, I know Truth and the Author of Truth. The brave new world that I can anticipate is certainly not an earthly world, and it is certainly a place where Huxley’s dystopian civilization with never reign.

Lost and Found, Above and Below

Beginning in August, I’ll be starting the first semester of my thesis writing to finish my Master’s degree. I’ve decided to study British dystopian fiction, analyzing how language is used to shape identity. My theory is that dystopian fiction is often driven by the intense fear of losing one’s own individual identity and the loss of identity on a global scale. I had a meeting a few weeks ago with the professor who has agreed to advise my thesis. Dr. Stuart has a strong interest in science fiction, too (she even occasionally teaches a class in British science fiction!), and she gave me some book recommendations. One of which was Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere.

Now, just for clarity, I’ll go ahead and preface this blog by stating that I won’t be using Neverwhere as one of the primary texts for my thesis. While language and identity certainly play roles in the novel, this work should be classified as fantasy, but not actually dystopian. Basically, I’m interested in how dystopian writers imagine the future of a society that exists now; I’m interested in works of literature that can show a worst-case scenario of continuing culture. Books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which portrays life after an apocalyptic disaster, and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, which shows the results of government gone horribly awry (and a text that I plan to use for my thesis) are dystopic because of these imagined futures.

NOTE: There are spoilers in this post. If you don’t want to know how the books ends, stop reading.

Gaiman’s novel is the story of two Londons that exist simultaneously. London Above, which is the world in which the protagonist Richard Mayhew initially lives, is the London that most of humanity knows–all the familiar landmarks; people working jobs, going to the pub, and living in flats; etc. London Below is the seedy underbelly–literally. If one falls through the cracks (like the gap in the tube station), one lands in London Below, inhabited by such characters as rat-speakers (who speak for the rats in London Below), assassins like the dreadful (and morbidly amusing) Misters Croup and Vandemar, and the fascinating teenage girl named Door, whom Richard actually encounters in London Above and attempts to save. Because of the setting–a contemporary, although fantastic setting–I won’t be able to use this for my theory about dystopian literature. However, I’ll probably be brilliant and throw in a footnote or two to compare it to other novels that I’ve read. 🙂

Mostly, I’m fascinated by Richard’s character in the novel. In London Above, Richard has a completely average life. He works an office job, is engaged to a woman with whom he doesn’t really have much in common, and lives a life that is just ordinary. When he meets Door and saves her, he is inadvertently brought into the world of London Below, and it is there that he finds his true identity. The book, though an amazing exploration of the two Londons, is really Richard’s rite-of-passage. He’s on a quest, he saves a lady, and he earns the title of Warrior by the end of the novel. Then, when he returns to London Above, he finds that the life he once lived is not enough for him. His real identity lies below.

I was about halfway through this novel before I realized that Neverwhere was originally a BBC miniseries back in 1996 before Gaiman adapted it as a novel. There’s a chance that, if I can find the episodes online, I’ll be spending some of my glorious week off this week watching the 6 episodes.

I Am Number Four

It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a book–not because I haven’t read some review-worthy books, but because I haven’t had time or haven’t been able to figure out how to accurately summarize my thoughts.

However, I’ve got one for you now. I Am Number Four has received a lot of attention in the young adult realm lately–mostly because it’s just been made into a film. And, like the good reader that I am, I promised myself that I would read the book before seeing the movie (even though Civil Twilight’s song “Letters from the Sky” is on the soundtrack!).

All right, the premise: it’s science fiction (yay!). The title refers to the novel’s protagonist. He is an alien from a planet called Lorian. He and eight other children, along with each of their Cepans (like Watchers…sort of) and the pilot of the spacecraft, managed to escape Lorian during a global war in which the Lorians’ enemy, the Mogadorians, killed the Lorians to take over their planet. The Mogadorians had used up all the resources and their own planet and needed a new home.

The novel follows the fourth child and his Cepan, Henri. Every few months, Four and Henri move to a new small town in an effort to keep Four’s identity secret. Four changes his name each time (he goes by John Smith during the events of this novel). The numbering of each child is important. The Mogadorians have come to Earth to track down the nine children. Once they kill the nine, they can then begin to take over Earth (a planet much larger and more suited to the Mogadorians’ needs). But there’s a curse on the children for their protection: the Mogadorians can only kill the children in order of their number. (I don’t recall whether the number represents birth order or something else. That wasn’t clearly explained.) Every time one of the kids dies, each of the remaining nine gets a ring burned around his or her ankle as an alert that one of their number is gone. The novel opens with Three’s death, which is why Henri and Four must move yet again.

They arrive in Paradise, Ohio, where John soon meets a beautiful girl named Sarah and befriends a sci-fi geek named Sam. From there on out, it’s just what you’d expect from an alien-pretending-to-be-human, coming-of-age tale. John’s in love for the first time, has a best friend for the first time, experiences the arrival of his Legacies (his special abilities as one of the nine–he’s fireproof and able to employ telekinesis), and struggles to decide how to tell both Sam and Sarah about his true identity. And, of course, the Mogadorians find him. Fighting ensues. People discover his secret. Enemies in his high school become allies in the fight against the Mogadorians.

I expected this book to be epic. My favorite parts of this book, as I also expected, were the backstory: how Four and Henri arrived on Earth; why they left to begin with; folklore, history, and tradition associated with Lorian. In general, what I love most about science and/or speculative fiction is the ability of an author to create another world. And Pittacus Lore (a pseudonym that I’ll discuss more in a moment) sets up an interesting world.

But the execution of this story was merely good. I expected something phenomenal, and I didn’t quite get that. At times, the dialogue seemed a bit off, a bit too adult-trying-to-be-teenager. At other times, minor details in the story weren’t explained enough, and in science fiction, the beauty is in the details. For example, when the Mogadorians arrive, Four flees his school and goes back to his house. His girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend Mark (and, therefore, Four’s high school enemy) is sitting at his kitchen table on Four’s Cepan’s computer. It’s never explained why he’s there or how much he knows, but suddenly, Mark is fighting alongside Four and his friends. I was seriously bothered by the inconsistency in Mark’s attitude.

Nonetheless, the story kept me (mostly) interested. I read the book in a few days, and I’m looking forward to the movie. It may be one of those books that works better visually than textually. And I’ll definitely read any sequels that come out. But I’m not dying to know what happens next, as I did with the Hunger Games trilogy or the Chaos Walking trilogy.

One last thing about this book: Pittacus Lore is a pseudonym (obviously). The name will somehow come into play with the history of Lorian–there are references in this first book. I assumed, at first, that Lore was a new author on the scene and just established a pseudonym to go along with the content of the book. However, I searched him on Google after I noticed the first textual reference to a character named Pittacus, and I discovered that Pittacus Lore is actually a collaboration of James Frey and Jobie Hughes. (In fact, in the book, Henri creates new documents for Four to use in the future. Two of those names are “James Hughes” and “Jobie Frey.” Clever.) James Frey is the author of A Million Little Pieces, the “memoir” that Oprah chose for her book club several years ago that was later revealed to be a total fabrication. Frey had written a novel and published it as a memoir, sparking loads of controversy in the publishing world. It turns out that not only is Frey still publishing under his own name, but he’s also working on tons of projects using a variety of pseudonyms. Pittacus Lore is just one of those. This discovery about the real author may have had something to do with my disappointment with the book. I despise a lack of integrity, and no matter how great the writing or the story is, I already had a bad opinion of Frey.

All this to say, I would recommend this book. Just know that it has a few issues, and I wouldn’t rank it among the absolute best young adult novels I’ve read.

Here’s the trailer for the film. I’ve already spotted some differences between the book and the film, but I’m looking forward to seeing it nonetheless: