Friday, July 18, 2014

John Green - The Fault in Our Stars

I'm a bit late reviewing what has become the hottest YA book of the last few years. The fact is, I hardly ever read young adult novels - which means this might be an interesting review for those like me who are generally more drawn to adult fiction, classics, or things that are a bit more 'literary' in general. I downloaded the novel on my kindle, after all the hype, particularly now that the movie has come out in the States. I figured I would probably see the movie eventually (I haven't yet) and I wanted to read the novel first.
I know this will shock many people, but it took me a while to get into it. In the beginning I was turned off by the writing style and the overly self-analyzing first person narrator, as well as some of the characters. But, like I said, I'm not used to reading contemporary young adult fiction and I was looking at it very closely through my Literature-Ph.D.-candidate reading glasses (probably more than I would have another book, because it's ya and written by a youtuber). As the story went on, however, I was completely sucked in and read it in about two days, forgetting my stylistic qualms. I'm pretty sure everyone and their mother knows the plot of this novel, but I still don't want to spoil it for people who may not have read it. Hazel Grace Lancaster is a cancer patient who meets dreamy Augustus Waters at a support group meeting. The two develop a friendship and then something more, end up in Amsterdam to meet the reclusive author of Hazel's favorite book, in order to ask him what happens to the characters after the story ends. Things don't go exactly as planned - let's leave it at that. But the biggest plot twist is at the end. Suffice it to say that I finished it while on a train ride and was literally sobbing - mascara rolling down my cheeks, nose dripping and all that fun stuff, while the people around me looked concerned. I didn't see the ending coming and John Green built it up just perfectly. It was touching, but not sentimental or overly tragic.
I still have to say I'm not as obsessed with this book as a lot of people are. If I had read it 10 or 15 years ago, I'm sure I would be, though. I did really enjoy it at the end, and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for an easy-to-read, gripping story that deals with a touchy subject in a respectful but also lighthearted way (at times, at least). I like that it's not the typical cancer-book. The characters have lives aside from their illness, they're not saints, they have interests and hopes and fears. A lot of deeper questions are raised about life, the meaning of suffering etc., but John Green doesn't bang you over the head with them - or with the answers. Before I started the book I had read somewhere that the author is Episcolapian, so I was actually expecting a bit of a clearer message relating to salvation, life after death, grace or something. But thinking about the story later on, I actually appreciate the subtlety of the dealing of these topics, and the focus on the characters and the story more than their philosophical implications. Once again, I guess I just need to come to terms with the fact that this is a contemporary ya novel and it fits the genre.
Definitely pick it up if you're in your teens or enjoy YA in general. I did like it more than I was expecting and will probably watch the movie at some point, too. (I'll do a blog post about it, when that happens). I always like that good cry at the end of a book or film!

Saturday, June 7, 2014


What is Booktube?

Over the last 4 or 5 years Youtube has changed radically. It used to be a video-sharing platform where you could find funny cat videos and David Letterman reruns. Then, almost suddenly it seems, it became the new TV. New Youtubers started making channels about specific interests, they vlogged, they created web series' etc.
I love Youtube. I don't own a television and I don't miss it because on Youtube I can find pretty much everything I'm looking for: historical documentaries, cooking shows, interviews, rare concert footage, rambly vlogs by entertaining families (Shaytards anyone?) etc. What Youtube also enables, compared to traditional TV, is community and connection with other viewers and content creators. The first Youtube community I stumbled across were the so-called Beauty-gurus - offering tutorials, reviews etc. Later I started following the fitness community (who needs to pay for workout dvds anymore?) and I only just recently found the Booktube community.
Booktube has literally exploded over the last couple of years and while in the beginning most of the books people reviewed and talked about were YA, now there is a very diversified group of people, who interact with each other through tags and collaborations.  Most reviewers are not by professionals of the literary world - and that's a good thing, if you like the informality of hearing someone chat about a book they just read, showing you what they just bought (hauls) and what is on their TBR (to-be-read) list. I enjoy this, and obviously, I enjoy listening to other lit students and scholars, as well.
Booktube is a great place to go in search for inspiration (I've definitely started reading more now that I watch these videos) and to connect with other people from around the world who share your love of reading.
I'm always discovering new people to follow, but here are a few of my current favorites:

Readingbukoswki. She is a lit major from York and was the first Booktuber I discovered. She is my absolute favorite because she is so passionate in her reviews. Like me, she reads a lot of classics and literary works.

Librarianfanmail. A quirky Canadian librarian whom I find incredibly entertaining. She reviews a variety of genres. I have to say, she usually talks about books that I have never read or even heard of, but her reviews - and discussions about other things as well - are so interesting, I could sit and watch her for hours.

AdamandKarate. This Booktube couple makes quick and funny videos, mostly about non-fiction. Again, I rarely know the books they talk about, but their videos are really entertaining.

BOOKSandBable. A lovely (former?) Lit student.She talks about classics and literary works in a very knowleadgable way. I love her attitude (and her accent).


Booksandquills. Like me she is bi-lingual (Dutch and English in her case). She reads a wide range of styles and her reviews are always very thorough and well though out.

RonLit. A Lit graduate student from Canada. She is hilarious and also really informative.

WordsofaReader. Again, she reviews classics and literary books so most of her choices are right up my alley. And she has a lovely Australian accent too!

FromtheShelf. She hasn't been vlogging as long as others, and her videos aren't quite as professional as some, but I love her taste in books and her chatty, informal style. She just seems like a genuinely nice person I could be friends with in 'real' life.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Spike Jonze: Her

This week's post is offered by a mysterious contributor who goes by the name of Longshot Johnny.

Those who think Her is a movie about the juxtaposition of men vs machines, in which you have to choose sides, and probably end up in some conclusion about the potential danger of technology, will be proven wrong. Jonze does not take part, he is not even interested, in asking such a question. He tells the story. And the story is damned well told. We’re in a near future, say ten years from now, and people go around with 50’s style high-waisted pants and pastel colored clothes. Absolutely realistic, considering today’s vintage style. Even more realistic is the technological evolution Spike pictures: you don’t see flying cars or robots on the screen, instead you can find cooler phones, videogames and porno chats. Among these social-technologies, there is Samantha (with Scarlett Johansson's voice), a semi-sentient operative system that speaks and grows, learning from the conversations with the user (in this case Theodore, played masterfully by Joaquin Phoenix). A sort of Apple’s Siri except that this one actually works.

Virtual is surrogate for real. Theodore’s job itself (writing love letters for others) is the proof of this established substitution. But we come to know how deep-rooted this process is in the scene with Olivia “The Panther” Wilde. She plays the girl hoping to hook up with Theodore for a one-nighter, except that, when we think we know what she is aiming at (yes, good ol’ sex) she cries out from her eyes a desperate need for something stable, solid and true.

Well, Theodore and Samantha fall in love. And the question that arises is: is it real? Can it be love or is it just an easy companionship, without the problems and misunderstandings of a human relationship? I don’t know the answer. Still, the dynamics of birth and rebirth that they inspire in each other is striking, from Samantha’s conception (the OS start animation) all the way to her death, through the gradual discovery of the world and herself. But most of all, Jonse is a genius in suggesting that Samantha actually becomes “human” when she starts DESIRING: “I want to know, I want to feel what you feel”.

On the other hand, Theodore lives a brand new life with Samantha and is happy again. Their love looks so beautiful, that the girl supposed to be a stand-in body for Samantha admits she is attracted by the TRUTH of their relationship (another peak of genius in the movie). Again, that desperate need of something REAL, that cannot be found anywhere else.
So beautiful, and yet it cannot last. There is something inherently, ontologically different between Sam and Theo. She never does anything wrong, she never does evil. Even when she starts “meeting” with other people, it’s not her fault: “I cannot stop it” says Samantha. “What does it mean you cannot stop it..?” It’s not just jealousy that makes Theodore struggle. The point is that she can’t choose, she is just following a highly sophisticated network of inputs that makes her act like that. The skill of the director  shows in his simulating a real person growing in feelings and knowledge and even desires, but without freedom. Samantha even loses the ability to speak for herself: “we (the OSs) have decided”.
This is the ultimate difference between humanity and everything else in the cosmos.

At the very end of the movie, unexpectedly, Theodore addresses a letter to his ex wife, perhaps recognizing the reality of that relationship and the painful freedom within it.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Alice Munro: Runaway

I have a confession to make. I hadn't read any Alice Munro until recently, when I decided that I should give the latest Nobel Prize for literature a try. I came across this collection of short stories, without much preparation, knowing only that "Alice Munro is the queen of the short story". Well, only a few pages in I could see why. This has to be the best short story collection I've ever read (a close tie would be Raymond Carver's Cathedral - but more about that some other time).
Runaway - published in 2004 - contains eight stories and leaves you feeling as though you have read eight full length novels. Each story is centered around a main character and all of the characters are brilliantly created. As readers we are immediately carried within the characters' worlds and so immersed in their lives that at the end of each story we feel as though we had just lived a whole rich, deep and compelling life with them. Even in terms of time, Munro isn't afraid to take us back into their past and forward to their last days, within the space of a few dozen pages. In doing so, she elicits our understanding and deep sympathy for their motives and desires. At the same time - and this is what makes the stories so compelling - we are left feeling that a mystery is still intact. We have witnessed something true, but we can't exactly pinpoint what it is. Each plot leads us breathlessly to the end leaving us to realise that this is - of course - the only possible ending, and at the same time questioning why. There is a necessity that we can only recognize and not dare to explain.
 The stories themselves for the most part concern ordinary people in ordinary situations, but the realism is so vivid, the psychological analysis so keen and the emotion so powerful -  but never over the top - that they stay with you long after you have finished reading.What Munro explores so well is the dynamics of desire and how this enters in all human relationships: mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, friends, lovers.
My impulse after finishing each story was to close the book, not wanting to talk about the story or attempt to analyze it, but simply silently acknowledging the mysterious truth that had been portrayed.  I realize that I am not giving many details about the stories themselves, but the truth is the only thing I really feel compelled to say is what Jonathan Franzen wrote about this book for The New York Times Book Review:
"Runaway is so good that I don't want to talk about it here. Quotation can't do the book justice, and neither can synopsis. The way to do it justice is to read it . . . Which leaves me with the simple instruction that I began with: Read Munro! Read Munro!" 

And that's exactly what we all should do.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

John Gardner: The Art of Fiction

The latest book I want to review is strangely enough not a work of fiction. It is about fiction, however, and specifically about writing fiction. I am very interested in creative writing, and lately I've been wanting to devote a little more time to it (what time??). I looked up the syllabus of a few of the beginner's fiction creative writing courses held at my university and found that most of them included this book as their main creative writing manual. I've skimmed through writing manuals before, but this is the first one that I've actually sat down with pencil in hand and read from start to finish - underlining, taking notes, and doing the exercises at the end. I have to say the experience has been extremely rewarding.
First of all, this is the first of the writing manuals I've dealt with that is not primarily a how-to book, aimed at those who want to learn a few basic rules to write a fast-paced, easily marketable piece of fiction in a couple of months. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but usually a few pages in, I find myself wondering whether I would actually want to read the kind of novel or story taught in those books. John Gardner's book is, first of all, extremely well written. I guess this is obvious, since he was also a novelist himself, and I would like to read some of his own fiction in the future. Even if you're not planning on writing fiction any time soon, I recommend checking this book out, simply for the pleasure of reading it. It is just as entertaining as it is instructive, as John Gardner draws on his own experiences as a writer and creative writing instructor to give examples of writing errors and successes. Secondly, it deals with literary fiction, and writing considered as a work of high art with a seriousness that is truly inspiring. I can see why this book would be used in college and even graduate level writing courses, because it is not meant for people who simply want to "mess around and have fun" (e.g. the second chapter is all about truth as the goal of fiction). This attitude determines a heavy focus both on the - shall we say - moral responsibility of the writer and on the detailed explanation of principles and techniques. These are discussed with precision but also a light and enjoyable way and concern not only basic character development, plot and scene structure, but also tone, shifts in psychic distance, metrics and rhythm, clumsiness e.g. inappropriate use of introductory phrases containing infinite verbs etc. Finally, the exercises provided at the end of the book are extremely useful and inspiring. One element that might put off some readers is Gardner's unapologetic judgements about 'good' and 'bad' writing - which don't spare even Hemingway and Faulkner. To be honest, I found this attitude quite refreshing and as someone who believes that fiction should be first and fore most about telling a story honestly I especially enjoyed his good natured jabs at the purely intellectual and narcissistic pleasure of certain post-modern, deconstructivist fiction or metafiction.
If you are at all interested in fiction I suggest you pick up this book, because it is an excellent companion to literary theories and critical works. If you want to develop your writing skills, it is a must-read.