Thursday, 31 January 2013

in which cancer sucks but John Green doesn't.



- 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.  And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.


If I say nothing else about this book then I at least need to say that this ^^ is possibly the best quote about books and reading that I’ve seen.

Who am I kidding, though. Of course I’ve got more to say.

I’m still in a funny place with The Fault in Our Stars. I can’t get it out of my head. I keep finding myself thinking back to it, and grinning or getting a lump in my throat; I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads because even though I really loved it, I wasn’t sure if I could give 5 stars to a book that broke me.  I was in tears for 26%. Does that deserve 5 stars?  I’m contemplating upping to a 5 anyway because it’s a week down the line and I’m still thinking about it. It just, it resonated with me on a lot of levels.

There seems to a lot more good YA fiction around these days than there was when I was a young adult, which sucks for the me that was around 10-15 years ago [or, is it just that when I was a young adult I was too busy trying to pretend I wasn’t and so missed it all out trying to be grown up? That’s a definite possibility…] and God, I am so not part of the demographic these books are aimed at but I can’t not read them.
I read an interview recently with John Green [who I love, by the way] where he says something about always being annoyed when adults insult the intelligence of teenagers and that is so on the money and is exactly why someone like me [almost 30 and when did that happen] can still get a hell of a lot out of a book marketed as being YA fiction, because, if well-written it can be just as intelligent and though-provoking and cleverly told and well-woven as any other novel. I think TFiOS is one such book. Hazel and Augustus are two of the most wonderfully crafted characters I’ve read in a long time, and everything about them is so real, not just the cancer of it all but them, as teenagers and as people,

You may or may not know that I lost somebody very very close to me to cancer back in 2005. I don’t talk about it often, because it was a bit shit and it’s easier not to somehow and because I don’t want it to define who I am, and I’m not going to dwell on it now: if you were around back then you know the story and if not, well I don’t want to talk about and you don’t want to read about it but it’s worth mentioning because it feels relevant to my interpretation of and my reaction to this book; I wonder if it’s perhaps why TFiOS has gotten so deeply under my skin. Is it because it’s a genuinely moving book, or, is it because I can relate to it?

I don’t read books about cancer, I put off reading this for a long time. I’d picked it up a few times in bookshops but always put it down, I’d read blogs singing it’s praises [he has a massive massive fan-following our John Green, it’s kind of inspiring] but always thought it wasn’t for me but then curiosity got the better of me. I was reading about this book everywhere and in a completely opposite reaction to the Fifty Shades phenomenon, this time I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I’m still not sure if I’m glad about that or not. I honestly have no clue – even a week after finishing it – how I feel about it. Some of the story is so subtle, so clever that you don’t even realise that’s another of your heartstrings snapped right in two until it’s happened. There’s this one line for example, a simple ‘he’d taken the elevator’ [which means nothing out of context I am aware and I apologise] and I read it and I had to take a really massive breath because wow, that hurt when I wasn’t expecting to be hurt and you totally snuck that in there Mr. Green, and that’s what good writing is about, right? The ability to say so much by saying not a lot at all?

The book tells Hazel’s story and Hazel is incredible. She knows she’s dying, she knows she’s going to die and she’s accepted it. She thinks it sucks, but she’s accepted it; she talks about when she’ll die and not if. She’s dying this kid, and you better just deal with it because I am telling you now and this is not a spoiler: magical cures do not exist in these pages.
And then Hazel meets Augustus at a cancer support group, Augustus Waters who makes her see herself in a different light, makes her see her life in a different light and the slow unfolding of her relationship with him is so raw and so honest and so beautiful that it makes your chest tight. Hazel is adorable and God, I know I’d have been in love with Gus when I was 16 [I love him so much now] and watching them grow together, discovering the depth Green brings to their characters and to their relationship, it kind of felt like an honour.
He’s funny too, John Green -  he had me laughing out loud even though my eyes were stinging but it’s no light-hearted comedy; when it needs to be sad it’s really freaking sad. I’m talking actual sobs, tipping my head back and closing my eyes and counting to ten because I just can’t. I’m talking wet neck people, wet neck. This book is capital letter SAD.

The thing about cancer is it’s fucking awful. It’s ruthless and it’s angry and it’s devouring and it just takes takes takes til there’s nothing left and when it’s taken everything it hangs around and it haunts the people it’s left behind. Green seems to get that, he gets what it does and he gets what it’s like to watch and he does not shy away from it and it gives me goose-bumps even now thinking about the way in which he’s approached it – and how brave because it’s a subject so close to so many, that people see so personally. He did it justice though I think, more than. These two kids, Hazel who is terminally ill and so damn sassy and Augustus who is in recovery and has this mindblowing zest for life falling in love and knowing it’s not going to last as long as they want but being unable to do anything about it and wanting to just make the most of whatever they have is so beautiful. The last quarter or so of the book is perhaps the most painful piece of writing I’ve ever read. 

Let’s be real here.  This book broke me into pieces; I thought I could handle it but I couldn’t and you know what? It wasn’t all because of the memories it awoke, or because I was crying for myself. It wasn’t. I mean yeah, some of it hit home harder because of that, some of it hurt a little more, some of it was harder to read because of how true it was and because I remember what that was like,  but most of all I hurt for Hazel and Augustus and for Hazel’s parents [Hazel’s Mum and Dad are very well-written, which I liked because often in YA fiction the adults aren’t as fully fleshed so well done Mr. Green]; most of all I was just lost in this beautiful awful wonderful heart-breaking story and I’m reminded a little bit of Love Story, which I stupidly read when I was about 14 and God, I thought I’d never be happy again and I still can’t talk about it without crying. [“What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. The Beatles. And me.” And  love means never having to say you’re sorry and the fact that Jenny’s last words were thanks Ollie and who gave you the right Erich Seagal, who? I am still not over it.]

TFiOS is better than Love Story.

I finished reading at 1.30 in the morning with tears streaming down my face and didn’t sleep much and was sad to my very core. And then I got up and went to work and was ok, and thought I was fine, and then a few days passed and I was sat at my desk yesterday and just remembered:

“Hazel GRACE!” he shouted. “You did not use your one dying Wish to go to Disney World with your parents.”
“Also Epcot Center,” I mumbled.
“Oh, my God,” Augustus said. “I can’t believe I have a crush on a girl with such cliché wishes.”

I emailed Helen who was about ¾ of the way through and tried to tell her I had a sad but tried not to tell her why and I realised I wasn’t ok. I was drowning in feelings, so here I am blogging it out and trying to make some sense of how I feel and quite honestly getting nowhere other than it’s a good book and it’s a funny book and it’s a sad book and I don’t know whether I think you should read it or not and cancer sucks.

Thank-you for your time.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

things that go bump in the night




So last night Ian’s at the unit working and I’m in bed reading my book when there’s a massive thud on my bedroom window. At first I think it’s Jasper [hush,  I know, but I was in book-head. I wasn’t thinking properly about real life] but then I hear him downstairs, so it can’t be. And then it happens again.  

Thud.

Loud and solid against my bedroom window. My upstairs bedroom window. My heart starts to race a little bit because it’s dark outside and something is banging on my bedroom window [thud] and all I have for protection is the world’s most skittish cat. Nothing about this is fine and it plays right into the hands of all my fears – I’m not going to lie; when I’m home alone I do jump at every creaking floorboard and jump across the landing when I have to cross the top of the stairs to the bathroom. I am that girl – and I’m just sat frozen for a second, Kindle in white-knuckled hand, staring at the gap in the curtains.

It happens again.

Thud.

My first instinct is to call Ian and demand he come home; he did sign up to be my knight in shining hoody after all and I'm so scared I feel a little sick, but then I think no. It’s 2013 and I am not a damsel in distress. I can deal with this headless zombiefied ghost murderer monster [PROBABLY IT’S VOLDEMORT!] that is trying to break into my house and I can deal with it on my own, thank-you very much, who needs a man – yeah I know, you can just call me Hermione. I slip slowly, quietly out of bed, shiver a little because despite my flannel pj’s and fleecy poncho it’s still cold outside of the covers, and tiptoe towards the window. I get hold of the curtain, I take a deep breath and I pull it back, hard, in one swift movement.

There’s nothing there.

At least, not at eye-level. There are some odd round white marks though, here and there on the glass. Like, like snow. I look down.

There on the street is Ian looking up and waving, a massive grin on his face and my panda hat [complete with bear ears] atop his head. I wave back, and he jumps up and down on the spotthe ears on his hat bouncing with the movement, and grabs another handful of snow from the top of my car, throwing it up at the window and it still makes me jump as it hits the glass, even though I know it’s coming.  He punches the air, grabs another handful and I laugh partly in relief and partly because he looks so damn adorable and I think God, I love that boy.

Friday, 11 January 2013

'That was a joke,' he said. 'You can laugh.'

"'Yeah, it's no big deal,' he said casually. 'The main thing I have is this thing called man-bi-du-lo-facial dys-os-tosis – which took me forever to learn how to pronounce, by the way. But I also have this other syndrome thing that I can't even pronounce. And these things kind of just morphed together into one big superthing, which is so rare they don't even have a name for it. I mean, I don't want to brag or anything, but I'm actually considered something of a medical wonder, you know.'

He smiled.

'That was a joke,' he said. 'You can laugh.'"

Sometimes you pick up a book and you read it and it's really late at night and probably you should be going asleep but you cannot stop reading and then it's 3am and you've finished the whole book in a 4 hour time period and you feel suddenly bereft.

That's what happened to me when I read Wonder last Friday night.

I loved it.

It's a simple premise that follows a well-proven formula: disadvantaged main character overcomes great odds to triumph in the end. It could have been a little saccharine, cloyingly filled with over the top cliches, making the main character into a saint in order to illustrate the horror of the world around him, and, given that it's aimed at children I kind of worried that's what would happen. It doesn't. What this book does is tell a compelling story very effectively, it's honest and it's real and it's both moving and humorous. It's kind of a little like Curious Incident...; it's wonderful.

August Pullman is ten. He was born with a severe facial disfigurement ('I won't describe to you what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.') and after being home-schooled his whole life he's about to start school. He's used to the negative reactions to his appearance: the shock, the stares, the fear but being used to it doesn't make it hurt any less, especially not when you're ten years old and all you want to do is watch Star Wars and hang out with your friends. Auggie wore a pretend astronaut's helmet for two whole years when he was smaller just so people couldn't see him; he doesn't want to be invisible though, he just wants to be ordinary.

The story is deftly and cleverly told through short chapters and the switching points of view of August, his older sister Via and a couple of his peers, a good narrative choice by Palacio I think; it really works. The short chapters keep the story focussed, stop it from getting carried away in the minutiae and keep the reader feeling like they're right there, living the life of a ten year old. It's fast paced because Auggie's life is fast paced. The switching of the narrative stops the story from holding Auggie front and centre and makes him what he wants to be: one of the crowd. It also effectively shows not only how he feels about how he is perceived but how he actually is perceived, and, perhaps more importantly the impact that being connected to Auggie Pullman can have on his peers.

His relationship with his sister, and, her story generally is particularly well handled. The thing I liked I think, is that nothing is sugar coated and, everybody - Auggie included - is flawed. There's a wonderful scene where he has a temper tantrum and storms off to bed, wondering and wondering why nobody has chased after him to comfort him like his Mum always always would. Via yells after him, 'not everything is about you Auggie' and it just demonstrates so well the dynamic between these two characters and their parents, perfectly illustrates the effect that being older sister to a boy who has had 27 surgeries in his short life, who is special can have because some days, to Via, it seems like everything is about August, and that's hard. The advantages that August has, particularly in the form of the treatment he receives from his parents, are readily apparent; it's hard not to feel for Via as much as you feel for Auggie, and it's equally hard not to be moved by the ferocity of her love for him.

It's a harrowing read at times, I'm not going to lie: August Pullman does not have it easy and there's one scene where he cries, 'why am I so ugly, Mommy?' and it just made my chest tighten.

What? I'm not crying, there's a tree in my eye.

Jen found the ending to be patronising. I can see why, although I can think of more patronising books [yes, the boy in the striped pyjamas, I am looking at you. Jen do you remember how angry we were at that book?!]  and yes, I guess, the ending is the weakest part of the book, and it did feel a little much maybe, like Palacio was tying up the loose ends and trying to make sure the reader really really got the message [which I had, from the start actually] but it didn't take away from the rest of the book for me and let's be real here: a below par ending can ruin a book for me quite easily.  I guess though, this book is aimed at children and I think perhaps it's pitched just right for them; it could have ended differently and it could maybe have ended better but above all what we have here is a book that matters. 

A book that I would give a healthy 9/10 because yes, it's harrowing and it's emotional but it's also kind and it's inspiring and it's really quite extraordinary; it makes you want to wrap every single character in your arms and hug the life out of them; it makes you want to be kinder, and better; it makes you feel and it makes me want to say to people, young and old, 'you should read this book.'

Monday, 7 January 2013

Book of the Year: 2012

Here we are again, another year over [and now I have John Lennon in my head, whoops] and another load of books I've read and a to-read pile that is still much higher than it should be. I am glad my to-read pile isn't an actual pile. I think if it was I'd be on the cusp of needing planning permission.

Anyway, here you go, have at it - my top 5 reads of 2012, which if you haven't read then you should. Probably.

1. Crush by Richard Siken. It's actually ridiculous how much I love this book, how many times I read it last year, how I carried a copy in my bag for months because I didn't want to be too far away from it, how it's now on my coffee table and I sometimes just have to open it at random and marvel at how the pretty pretty words still just get me right in the chest. Ridiculous. I did blog about it when I read it earlier in the year [here] so I shall refrain from waxing lyrical now but basically, in a nutshell, best book of 2012. Hands down. And who thought I'd ever say that about a poetry collection, right?

2. Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell because Jen is made of amazing and I love her and I am amazingly proud of her and because Jen aside, it's actually a damn good book and THE SEQUEL IS OUT THIS YEAR AND YOU ALL SHOULD BE AS EXCITED AS I AM [hint: a lot excited.]

3. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, which I read towards the back end of the year and which I thought was just stunning. The use of language in this book is just incredible, I just, I really really loved it.

4. The Siege by Helen Dunmore which broke my heart and made me cry and filled me with a kind of hope. Set during the siege of Leningrad, in the grip of winter, it's a dark story of survival that got under my skin to the point I felt guilty for having enough to eat but at the same time it's a moving, wonderful love story. It deserves to be read, but you need to know it's going to hurt.

5. What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang. The 2012 Hunger Games for me I think. Could not put it down. Not happy about having to wait for the next in the series. I want more and I want it now. Please.

Special mentions to The Giver and The Borrower and Jen's poetry collection and the Stephanie Plum series [for making me laugh out loud on a train.]

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

Happy New Year!

I can't quite believe it's 2013! I don't quite know why, but it seems like a funny year somehow, like a date from the future that years ago when I was a child seemed so far away. I don't know why it should seem odder to me than 2012 but there you go; the inner workings of my brain have always been a mystery.

I'm not a fan of January, so much. It's a funny month, the excitement of Christmas has gone and it's just cold and damp and still dark outside so early and everybody is recovering from the over-indulgances of the festive season: tummies are full and purses are empty. If December is the party then January is the hangover and I never much cared for hangovers.  Speaking of Christmas, what a lovely time. I say lovely, I was struck down with the plague between Christmas and the New Year [not the actual plague - it's 2013 people, but the norovirus which I don't mind telling you felt like a plague at the time, woe is me] so it could have been better, but the before and after were lovely. Low-key, but lovely. Ian and I had a carpet picnic on Christmas Eve which involved pyjama's [and mine were festive yes, thank-you very much] and plates of food which we ate with our fingers sitting cross-legged on the rug, and Poirot's Christmas and Snowballs - made from Advocaat not from snow - and lots and lots of giggles. It was just the two of us and it was perfect. Best Christmas Eve Ever.

And now it's New Year and it's a time for reflection and planning and resolving and yes, I have made a couple of resolutions. Some that are for myself, secret resolutions that I shan't share in case I jinx them, some that are less resolutions and more hopes, wishes, dreams because God, isn't it nice to have something to hope for, to aim towards? It's a bit of a trope really the whole New Years Resolution thing; everybody makes them, hardly anybody keeps them and the whole idea is probably totally over-used but still, new year new start and all that and why not, what's wrong with trying to better yourself?

That's the point I think, for me at least. I want to better myself. I want to be more. I'm 30 this year and whilst I am not having the breakdown about it that I have witnessed in a few of my friends, I am aware that perhaps turning 30 is also turning a corner. It feels like the age when one has to really grow up, which is a horrific concept and I am still waiting for Peter Pan. I am aware that there are things I'd hoped I'd have done by now, and that I'm not quite in the place in my life I'd thought I might be, and whilst some things are past and lost and some things are out of my control, it feels like as good a time as ever to seize my destiny [not really seize my destiny though, because hello, really? I just wanted to use that line in an actual sentence.] I do want to 'be better' though.

I want to be fitter, healthier because yes I am a New Years Resolution cliche, whatcha gonna do?! I want to eat better because I don't eat well at all. Some days I just don't eat. That's bad. I want to be fitter, not to lose weight but to be toned and to have the better general health that comes with regular exercise.

I want to save money, because last year I didn't - last year, financially, was really tough for us, I don't want this year to be the same.  I plan to set up a Christmas savings account, and I also plan to pay regularly into my ISA. I want to live more frugally, to make better choices, to cut back in some areas so as to go forwards in others.

I want to make more of my family and my friends. I lost my Grandpa in 2012, which sucked and I regret so much that I didn't make more of him. I miss him every single day and it kind of makes you realise that life is just so fragile. You just never know. I want to spend time with my parents, my brother, my Granny, my sister-in-law, my niece etc. I want to be a better friend. I can just about count on one hand the friends that I class as 'close' (which i love actually because I'd rather have a handful of really close friends than a whole load of 'friends' you know?)and I want to be a better friend to them, better than I have been because those people? They deserve it.  I want to see them, speak to them, write to them. I want to make sure each and every person that counts, knows it. I want to make memories I can hold onto forever and take photographs that I'll always be able to look at. I want to spend 2013 with the people I love around me, and I want them to know why they're there: because they matter.

I want to pamper myself. I'd like the odd massage because, not gonna lie, I am tense. I do not know how to relax. I am snappy and stressy and I don't sleep when I am supposed to sleep and most of the time my entire upper body just hurts. My back is knotted up beyond belief, all of the time. A massage on a semi-regular basis would be nice. I'd like the odd day spent in my attic with a good book and a big bag of jelly beans, guilt-free. I'd like coffee dates and lunch dates with a glass of wine where I can make like I'm Carrie Bradshaw and duvet days where I can make like i'm a hermit crab just because. Days that are unashamedly about me because it's so easy to get up and go to work and do the same thing day in and day out and let months go past without ever focussing on who you are. It's ok to be selfish every now and then.

I want to properly reinstate Friday night date night because my boyfriend is the most awesome awesomer to ever awesome and Friday night date nights were the best thing. Also, double dates? I'm up for that. Yes. I'm looking at you, you know I am.

I want to have fun and I want to be happy and I want to be able to look back, this time next year with money in the bank and my best people by my side and say 'yep, 2013 was a pretty good year.'