Why You Should Give “The Fault In Our Stars” A Shot

The Fault in our Stars

Let’s consider this a break from a state of Lebanese depression.

The new “it” movie that everyone’s talking about, based on John Green’s novel of the same title, is The Fault In Our Stars. Teenage girls have already lined up in theaters to weep their eyes out, jokes ensued. Others have already dismissed the movie as yet another teenage drama they will not bother with.

And here I am to tell you that “The Fault in Our Stars” is something worth giving a shot to. No, it’s not because it’s an epic love story that transcends time and place as movie or novel tag lines tend to say, but because it’s such a simple story in itself, told in a remarkably real way, that it can’t not resonate with you.

Popular culture has always found a way to turn cancer into a simple matter that entails losing one’s hair, vomiting in a bucket because of the chemo and ending up unscathed at the end. The truth of things, however, is anything but.

As someone whose mother battled the disease and survived, I know how it is to see someone get weakened by those treatments, seeing them waste in front of you because of the drugs saving their lives. As a medical professional, I know how it is to deliver cancer diagnosis to people. I know how it is to see children in front of you wearing a Superman cape as they exit their chemo sessions. It’s not Hollywood, it’s real life that happens every day right next to your workplaces and homes, in locations you don’t give a second look at.

The Fault in Our Stars” gets cancer. It may not employ the most precise of medical jargon all the time, but its portrayal of cancer is one that I wouldn’t feel horrified reading. It tells the story of the disease the way it is. There’s no sensationalization, no glamorization, no poetic justice. It’s not full of errors, cliches and whatnot. It shows cancer the way it is: a disease that ruins lives, leaves people impaired and takes away loved ones. But a disease that doesn’t put life on pause.

The might of “The Fault in Our Stars” is in how it communicates the topic of cancer in the way that it does.  Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters are not the cliche Hollywood fiction power couple going about their days as they await to be cancer free. They are not a saccharine representation of thyroid cancer or osteosarcoma. They are not people who just exist with cancer. The cancer stories of Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters are as real as a story of a relative you’d tell to a friend over coffee. This authenticity when it comes to the disease at hand is unparalleled. I’ve personally never seen it in fiction before. And it’s heart-warming to read.

It’s easy to dismiss “The Fault In Our Stars” as another cliche love story aimed at hormonal teenage girls and their pockets. Sure, marketing the movie and book as an out of the box love story is the surest way to ensure profitability, get girls and their tear ducts functioning in hyper-drive, but the story in itself isn’t just about love. It’s the story of two people who might as well have been patients at the hospital I’m working at and who could have been battling osteosarcoma or thyroid cancer.

The book also deals with the issue of teenage sex in a way that is so casual and yet so intimate at the same time. It tackles sex as it is: a reality. That’s a rare thing to read or watch currently, in a culture of either over-sexualization or lock it away and don’t talk about it. The book finds the middle ground between the two extremes and handles it exceedingly well.

The Fault in Our Stars” is not a perfect book. Given the mania around it, it’s also beyond easy to dismiss it as a current fad that will fade away when the mania subsides, and perhaps it will. But as it currently stands, regardless of young love, death and getting susceptible people to weep uncontrollably, “The Fault In Our Stars” deals with old themes in a very new way. You may look at it as sick people in love, rendering it meaningless and silly. Or you can look at it as the lives of people who happen to be sick. I chose the latter because those lives are so realistically written they could easily jump off that page.

The Fault In Our Stars” is not an easy read or an easy movie to watch. It may seem contrary to popular belief to believe so, but I – for one – had dismissed it straight out of the bat a few months ago when I first started hearing about it. I was very glad I gave that book a shot. It’s not a literary masterpiece but its topics are crucial for discussion. It’s the closest you’ll ever get, hopefully, to see such diseases in their most realistic forms. Such things exist. Be part of them, even if in fiction.

I’ll be reviewing the movie later this afternoon.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – J.K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith), Book Review

The Cuckoo's Calling - J.k. Rowling Robert Galbraith
If there’s any proof to the power of a name, it’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. Released back in April under the name of Robert Galbraith, a man who supposedly served in the military and has turned an author, the book managed to get good reviews and sell a few thousand copies.

Flash forward to July and to a mishap at a law firm, the person behind the Robert Galbraith pseudonym is revealed. It took the book 15 minutes to run from the bottom of the Amazon charts to the very top. That is the power of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

The Cuckoo’s Calling has since been much better received than her previous outing “The Casual Vacancy,” a book I thoroughly enjoyed but can understand not being accepted by all.

Cormoran Strike is a British war veteran who, having lost a limb in the Afghanistan war, has returned to his homeland to work as a private detective. He is the bastard son of a famous rockstar. He burns through secretaries faster than the cigarettes which never exit his lips and the latest addition, Robin, doesn’t seem like she’ll last. He is down to one customer and even lower on funds. Creditors are knocking on his door and he doesn’t think he’ll last that long in the profession of his choice. Until his door is knocked by John Bristow, the brother of Lula Landry, a supermodel who jumped to her death on a cold January night three months prior to the events of the book.

Bristow is convinced his sister’s death wasn’t a suicide. He is alone in thinking as such. Many think his pursuit is that of a bereaved man who can’t seem to let go, including Strike whose only reason to take on the case is the money in it. What he will find, however, is a world of dysfunctional families like his own, celebrities, models, designers, film producers, paparazzi and tabloids, the likes of which he had never seen before.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – J.K. Rowling or not – is a great book in itself and a return to basics for the author. She is here doing what she has proven she does best: work with a mystery, compose a plot that works flawlessly and build on characters that are engrossing in their insecurities, flaws, pursuits and aspirations.

The detective work is excellently mapped. Each witness leads to the next in a systematic way that keeps the flow of the logic with which Cormoran Strike is working intact. The book’s spine is decent, running at 469 pages. But it never feels redundant. On the contrary, it moves at a breakneck pace despite it dwelling on all the different theories, alternative explanations and scenarios of the detective work at hand. This proves to work – simply because Rowling has this capacity to get you invested in the pages she has set forth.

The theme of the book – celebrities and fame – aptly summarized with quotes from infamous books preceding each of the book’s five parts, is not exactly new. However, Rowling’s take on an issue which she knows very well is witty and is considered social comedy at times, especially with her intelligent use of different speech methods to convey how different characters behave, giving each of them – especially the ones you are led to believe are shallow – depth.

I hope the revelation that Galbraith is indeed Rowling means we’ll see more novels of Cormoran Strike. Because underneath the detective work, the cut-throat aspect of many of the novel’s facets, lies a story – like Rowling’s earlier offerings – of characters, of blossoming friendships, growing trust, hardships, heartbreaks, of growth. I’ve read many detective novels. This is one of the better ones.

A

Get Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code & A Sneak Peek into Inferno For Free

Dan Brown DaVinci Code Book Cover

I just noticed that Dan Brown’s most famous book The Da Vinci Code, which is still banned in Lebanon, is available for free until March 24th as an e-book from all major retailers online.

So if you have never read the book and are in the possession of an iOS or Kindle-enabled device, this is your chance. The offer is valid for U.S. and Canada but if you have a U.S. iTunes store or Amazon account, you’re good to go.

If you don’t have a U.S. iTunes account, here are the steps to do one:

  1. Sign out of your current iTunes account,
  2. Go to the U.S. iTunes store and try to buy a free app.
  3. Set up a new account using a different email from the one you already have and choose payment as none. Billing address and phone numbers can be anything.
  4. Verify your account.

Amazon has a similar approach. Just go to Amazon.com and set up an account.

This will allow you to buy free stuff, including books and music, that are available on the U.S. iTunes store only.

You can find the book on iTunes here and on Amazon here.

This free version of the book also contains an exclusive sneak peek into Dan Brown’s upcoming book Inferno. It includes the prologue as well as the first chapter. It seems the book will be centered around an organization called “The Consortium.”

Inferno will be released on May 14th and I’ll read it and review it then.

The Casual Vacancy (Book Review) – J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, is the negative film of her previous work: the Harry Potter series. It is set firmly in Muggle land. It is as disenchanted and grim and dark as it goes. And worst of all? It is gut-wrenchingly real.

Set in a small English town called Pagford, The Casual Vacancy opens with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a fair-tempered man on the town’s Parish council and a role model for many, especially Krystal Weedon, a deeply troubled teenager living in the poorest part of Pagford: the Fields.

For many, Barry’s death due to an aneurysm is a sad event that wouldn’t cause a ripple. But for some citizens of Pagford, Barry’s death represents the opportunity to change: to get the Fields off of Pagford’s back and onto that of the bigger town nearby and to shut down the rehabilitation clinic that has become an economic burden on them.

The deeply divided Parish council members represent their deeply divided families. Parminder Jawanda, a general practitioner coping with the death of closest ally, requires much more from her youngest daughter than she’s willing to give. The pressure from her parents, coupled with ridicule from her peers, lead Sukhinder to cut herself to seek relief, in the corner of her bedroom where no eyes can see her self-mutilation.

Collin Walls, a deputy headmaster with a serious case of paranoia and Barry’s best friend, is horrified at everything that goes on and immediately comes up with the most cataclysmic scenarios of which he is front and center. He wants to fill Barry’s shoes and continue his work but he knows deep down that he’s beyond unfit for the job. His son, Fats, doesn’t help in easing things for his dad. On the contrary, his eerie approach to life makes things harder for everyone around him. Honesty was his currency – he believed it frightened people when you were honest because most of them are filled with embarrassment and pretense.

Andrew Pierce can respond to his father’s blows very aptly – but only mentally. He has to endure mental and physical abuse from his father, a corrupt man, day in day out against his young brother, Paul, his mother, Ruth, and himself. His bloody cheeks and swollen eyes are always caused by his clumsiness as he falls off his bike. Always.

Howard Mollison, a beyond overweight snobby man, wants to get his son Miles to replace Barry on the council and finally secure the majority vote he needs to go through with his plans. He sees in Pagford as the elite place in the entire country. And he considers himself to be the first citizen of Pagford, a belief that is shared by his wife Shirley. Samantha, Miles’ wife, is unhappy with the slum that her life has become. She seeks relief in fantasies about her daughter’s favorite boy band and finds refuge in the idea of her beyond the confines of the small town she has become to hate as her husband pursues goals that would further cement him on the cobbled streets she despises walking on.

And Krystal Weedon, living in a toxic environment of drug use and prostitution and child abuse, has to cope the best she can to give her three year old brother, Robbie, the life that he deserves and which her mother, Terri, cannot begin to provide with her relapsing to shooting up needles into her arm whenever she faces the simplest difficulties and bringing men to have sex with right in front of her son as a form of payment for the crack her veins crave.

The Casual Vacancy is black comedy. It is a book that will feel humorous – a sort of satire of all our communities – until it really sinks in when you delve into the misery of it all and once it goes deeper into breaking the facade that people give to others in order to keep their image poised. Even the villains of the book, the Mollisons, have people with whom you can sympathize and who, after a gin or two, will get you to laugh even in the book’s bleakest moments.  The Casual Vacancy turns into a comic tragedy – one that feels so real that the reading becomes riveting and you unable to put the book down. The pages keep on turning and your mind keeps on consuming this suburban life, this lack of magic, this reality of it all.

The Casual Vacancy is the story of small community, one that most of us hail from. A community where you know who the “town whore” is and you still see people smile out of courtesy, as if they are clueless, when she passes by. A community where you know who the poor people are and you feel disgusted when they pass by, despite you preaching about moral responsibilities for ears that would listen. A community where drug addicts are ostracized and where those who are the worst possible candidates for a certain position end up winning and where mothers and fathers treat their children badly without them even knowing.

It is the injustice of it all – one that even culminates in the not happy ending – that makes The Casual Vacancy so believable. There isn’t a moment on those pages that feels odd. If anything, some of what happens there may be too morbid. But it still beats against you like the pulse of blood behind a wound. The Casual Vacancy is a brave book by an author who was brave enough to leave her home turf into uncharted territory. And she excels at it. It is a joy to read how many parallel plots can be unleashed simultaneously without them even getting remotely tangled – except when J.K. Rowling wants them to.

The Casual Vacancy is a deeply moving novel and morality, mortality and the importance of responsibility by an author that understands these elements very well. But where Harry can apparate to wherever he wants (except Hogwarts of course because you should have read Hogwarts, A History by now) and flick his wand to solve some impeding problem, the well-developped characters of The Casual Vacancy have to settle for the mundane to get by in their densely-imagined, well-crafted and exquisitely written world, not very unlike ours. It is the story of all the casual vacancies in the hearts and souls of these people as they strive for normality and for acceptance.

9/10

What We Know So Far About J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy”

This year’s most anticipated book release drops this Thursday. The project has been under tight wraps from the moment it was announced, reminiscent of the supreme amount of secrecy surrounding J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter releases. Don’t you miss those?

The Casual Vacancy is 512 pages thick. The idea of it was conceived on a plane where Rowling thought “local elections” and the idea wrote itself out. She says it was the sort of idea that hits you and you know it will work. It was the same with Harry Potter.

The title was initially “Responsible.” But when Rowling stumbled on a newspaper with the words “casual vacancy” in it, she immediately knew that it fit her story better. She has been writing the book since Harry Potter was done and considered publishing it under a pseudonym but she figured it would be much braver if she published it under her own name.

And it is her name alone that’s causing this book to be a success even before it is released.

The Casual Vacancy opens with the death of a parish councillor in the village of Pagford. Barry, the councillor, had grown up on the Fields, a nearby estate that’s drenched in poverty, with which other citizens of Pagford, notably the middle class, have lost patience. If they can fill Barry’s seat with one more councillor sympathetic to their disgust, they’ll secure a majority vote to relinquish responsibility for the Fields and hand it over to a neighboring council.

The battle for the seat starts. And it’s not a simple election as one can conceive, it is the story of a town at war. Pupils at war with their teachers, sons and daughters with their parents, the rich with the poor…. It is the battle of different classes. The chairman assumes the seat will go to his son, against whom are a cold GP and a deputy headmaster with ambivalence towards his son, a self-possessed adolescent whose subversion takes the form of telling the truth.

The Fields’ most notorious family is the Weedons.

Terri Weedon is a prostitute, junkie and a victim of abuse. She is struggling to stay clean to stop social services from taking her three-year-old son away from her. But it is her daughter, Krystal, who will take up the mantle of being the mother. But the death of Barry, the only adult whom Krystal considered as a friend, leaves her alone and struggling in the poverty that she lives in.

Anonymous messages will then start appearing on the parish’s website, exposing the laundry of the people living there and the town sinks into paranoia and tragedy.

The novel is written from multiple perspectives. So it invites the reader to delve into the head of different characters. Some journalists who were offered the chance to read the book said that this differing perspective made them think the book was closer to a comedy until it really sank in and they were hit by the severity and tragedy of it all as they delved into the Weedon’s minds.

The book is about the middle class of Britain. It is a representation of what J.K. Rowling says a “phenomenally snobby society.” And she has laid it bare. It is the story of heroin addiction, teen sexuality and economical problems. So it is as an adult book as it can get without it being Fifty Shades of Grey. The book is so unlike Harry Potter, in fact, that even the language used is one that would definitely shock any Rowling fan.

Some quotes from the book are as follows:

  • “The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed.”
  • [A lustful boy sits on a bus] “with an ache in his heart and in his balls.”
  • And there’s a reference to a girl’s “miraculously unguarded vagina.”

The Casual Vacancy has already sold more than one million copies in pre-orders and will be the year’s top selling new release. I will review it as soon as I finish reading it upon its release this Thursday. But I have high expectations.

(Sources: 1 and 2)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky) – Book Review

I started reading this book this morning. I am reviewing it in the afternoon. If this isn’t a testament to exactly how “captivating” it is as a read, I don’t know what is.

It’s 1991. Charlie is a fifteen year old boy about to start his freshman year of high school. And he’s terrified. Especially after one of his friends commits suicide a few months earlier. The only way he manages to cope with the looming idea of what awaits him is to write letters to a “friend” who doesn’t really know him, with no return address and no way to trace back the letters.

The letters he sends are, more or less, diary-like entries: elements from his every day life that he feels are important to share, events that he feels are shaping his life, changing him and making him grow up. During his freshman year, he meets Sam and Patrick, two seniors, who accept him in and show him the life that they’ve been living. Be it driving in Sam’s truck through a tunnel with her standing in the back feeling in the fresh air to experimenting with LSD and pot at parties to opening up to sexual experiences.

Sam and Patrick, and later on their other friends, open Charlie’s eyes to a wide range of opportunities in life that he’s unfamiliar with. They call him a wallflower: a person who listens, observes, doesn’t talk about things and understands them. They make him feel included. They make him accepted. His advanced English teacher, Bill, realizing Charlie’s brilliance, starts giving him extra readings to do, shaping up this young man’s life. And in doing so, the new additions to Charlie’s life help him cope with the dark past that he is oblivious to and which lurks under his skin, ready to surface at any moment.

Published in 1999, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a much deeper book than it seems to be. It is easy to categorize it as a simply a teenage trashy book simply because of its general mood. But when you know that this book is one of the most challenged by parents in the United States, you are forced to reconsider. Why do parents feel The Perks of Being a Wallflower is “dangerous” to their children? Because the themes the book deals with are gut-wrenchingly real and they are dealt with in such a brilliantly realistic manner. Drugs, pregnancy, abuse, sexuality – all of these topics that matter to teenagers are approached in the book in a way that isn’t complex. The writing is very simplistic, approachable and easily comprehensible. At the same time, the book runs deeper than the easy language it boasts.

It is a coming of age book, like the story of its protagonists, that is candid. Charlie shares his stories with remarkable honesty, pulling you into whatever emotional state he conveys in his letters. When he’s happy, you can’t but smile. And when he goes into dark phases of depression, you can’t but empathize. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a collection of Charlie’s most important moments and his realization of the need to live those moments as much as you can, be it a shortcoming or a victory.

As Charlie discovers that he likes girls that are unconventionally beautiful to books that require him to be a filter not a sponge to the realization that truly loving someone is about wanting to see not hurt at all, even if it means being apart, you see him grow on the pages in front of you and transform from an insecure kid to a growing young adult. And as he comes to the realization that in order to reach his full potential in life he needs to stop being a wallflower, you can’t but share his infamous sentence and say it out loud: “And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”

Teenagers should read more of this and less of Justin Bieber related things.

8/10

Fifty Shades Trilogy: Fifty Shades Darker – Book Review (EL James)

After the torture read that was Fifty Shades of Grey (my review), I braced myself for the second book. A sane person would have stopped reading but being the masochist that I am, I wanted to know if these books, which are still selling like hotcakes, actually had anything more to them than the sex scenes upon sex scenes which filled their pages, ultimately becoming useless and skippable.

The second book in the Fifty Shades trilogy, titled Fifty Shades Darker, doesn’t stray away much from its predecessor. But as the title suggests, it runs deeper into what the first book lacked: a tangible story.

Fifty Shades Darker picks up where Grey left off: Ana had left Christian after he beat her in one of his sexual escapades. She then starts to sink in to despair, as is typical for similar characters in other books (Yes, Twilight comes to mind). Luckily enough, that doesn’t last a whole book. A few pages later Ana encounters Christian and ends up in his arms again without much struggle. This time, however, their relationship won’t be the same. New boundaries need to be set and new rules need to be instilled. As the story progresses, Ana starts to become fearful about the prospect of Christian leaving her for someone else when he gets bored of her and the “vanilla” relationship they have. On the other hand, Christian finds in Ana a reason for living (the billions upon billions that he has are not enough) and is equally fearful about her leaving him.

As their “relationship” grows, one of Christian’s ex-subs who had never lost her fixation on him returns with a vengeance while Ana faces trouble at the publishing house she’s working at with her overly flirtatious boss.

That’s book two in a nutshell.

Is it better than book one? Only slightly. Fifty Shades Darker delves deeper and goes darker into what made Christian the sadist BDSM-loving person that he is but those insights into the character’s personality are so diluted by the overly abundant sex scenes that they eventually become irrelevant.

Ana is still as useless a character as she was in book one. Even the “improvement” to her relationship with Christian don’t rub off on her – no pun intended – to give her some spine. In fact, she even melts further into the man she’s in love with, becoming more and more useless with each passing page. She “flushes” at every turn of the page. Her infamous “oh my” is blurted out countless times. Her Macbook Pro is still called the “mean machine.” Everything about her is still the same – except much staler and when her being as stale as it can get in Fifty Shades of Grey, that’s saying something.

If you’re the person reading Fifty Shades for the sex scenes (I’m not judging), you won’t be disappointed. As I said, Fifty Shades Darker doesn’t run short on them. Among the places that get a taste of Ana and Christian’s undying libido there’s a pool table, an elevator, their corresponding apartments and a boat’s deck, just to name a few.

Fifty Shades Darker manages to go a few shades deeper than its predecessor but that’s nowhere near enough to turn this erotic “thing” a novel worth reading. The characters still use the same cues for sex. Whatever plot that takes place is as predictable as it can get and that’s without even going into the overly repetitive writing style which gets even worse on this.

Why did I read these? Yes, I read all three books a few months ago. Well, horrible as they are, they were still better than the medical school material I had to study.

3/10