I think that I’ve got a man crush on John Green, a bookish bromance if you will. Seriously, Mr. Green has got it going on. In 2006 he was awarded the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award, which celebrates the “best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit”. Among other things, he’s worked for NPR, and penned numerous New York Times bestsellers. Did I mention the many projects undertaken with his brother Hank? These include the annual online video themed VidCon gathering, the Project for Awesome Charity, and smash hit YouTube channels like Vlogbrothers and Crash Course. We’re talking digital dynasty. These cats are off the hook.
The Fault in Our Stars left me deliriously smitten, eager to share my feelings, and absolutely stoked for the April 15, 2013 gathering of The Monday Evening Book Group. I did have, however, one minor quibble with the novel, which, as it turns out, was shared by several group members. The claim being that the work’s young adult protagonists did not express themselves in authentic teen voices. That is, they seemed wise beyond their years. On the other hand, I found Hazel Grace and Augustus utterly engrossing, their circumstances incredibly compelling. Some ventured that the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune dogging our young cast, may have acted as a crucible, forging character and wisdom out of synch with years lived. In any case, the narrative hypnotized me, reeled me in, minor flaws soon forgotten. I laughed and I cried. It left me feeling by turns reverent and sucker punched.
A few members described the work as a bit schmaltzy. I can see it, but I must admit that, from time to time I do like me some cheese. Besides, the novel works on so many levels, wrestles gracefully with a plethora of profound questions. I was particularly struck by Mr. Green’s homage to the wonder of words and writing. The clever concoction of a book within a book, tasty allusions dissected, metaphor explored.
Speaking of metaphor, I was delighted by Mr. Green’s recognition of its potential value as a reframing tool. It’s true, reality is often perceptual in nature, and therefore, how we choose to look at things offers a measure of control over our lives. Hazel Grace, speaking about Augustus and his habit of dangling an unlit cigarette from his lips, gives a fine example of this sort of psychological ju-jitsu. As she explains:
“It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.”
Flowing from such talk about language and life, a group member ventured the notion that fiction generates a reality of its own. Building on this line of reasoning, another postulated that novels often inform life. Hazel Grace expresses just such sentiment when she allows that:
“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”
No doubt about it, life does often imitate art. In recognition of this, it seems as if Green is encouraging readers to question dogma proffered by the lords of literary and conceptual creation. This, I believe, in recognition of the fact that the fundamental duality of existence renders most advice relative at best. Such contrarian thought pervades the Fault in Our Stars. Whether it’s challenging the banality of folk wisdom expressed in the form of the so-called encouragements, poking fun at organized religion, or challenging such luminaries as Shakespeare and Maslow; nothing is to be taken at face value.
Perhaps it’s such slaying of canonical cows that caused a number of attendees to question the work’s suitability for young adults. I think that’s a fair concern, as the novel definitely encompasses some serious subject matter. On the other hand, I think the work is better seen as a cautionary tale, concerned with the consequences of choice. It’s about the need to do our own work, and blaze unique life trails. Further, it seems that Green encourages us to recognize the value of humanity and fellowship in making such choices. Or as one group member summarized this sort of thinking, “intimacy trumps accomplishment”. Seen in this light, The Fault in Our Stars might be fairly likened to a healthy dose of much need chicken soup for the teen soul.
As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
More John Green
Our next gathering is slated for May 20, 2013, and will feature Thomas Cleary’s The Essential Koran. If ever a subject was ripe for discussion, well, this is it. We’re also talking about, without any question whatsoever, the most challenging reading selection the group has undertaken. I spoke with several Muslims about this event when it was in the conceptual stage, and they all agreed that the only way to really know The Koran, is to read The Koran. I think that The Essential Koran is a decent compromise. Even better we have scholar Ann Davran coming in to offer a bit of illumination on the subject. I look forward to seeing you there.