“The Fault in Our Stars”: A Contemplative Review

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Confession #1: I’ve abandoned grad school for almost two years now. You can now count me as one more statistical drop in the ocean of PhD dropouts that the Chronicle of Higher Education periodically laments about.

Confession #2: One of my guilty pleasures these days is reading low-brow popular literature that would have gotten me laughed out of grad school.

When I was still “on the track to tenure track”, I would have balked at the thought of admitting that I read anything less than award-winning, genre-defining, paradigm-shifting Literature-with-a-capital-L. But in defining this sort of self-imposed restriction of what I could read and who I should be, I think I missed the point of why I loved books in the first place.

Sure, people read books to analyze them, to comb them for scraps of historical fact, to glean whispers of their cultural heritage, to build expansive arguments and defend lengthy dissertations on how the production and consumption of literature mirrors Marx’s theories of capitalistic exploitation. That is what English professors and grad students do for a living. For the rest of us (now that I’ve joined your ranks), books are for pleasure, solace, escape, contemplation, inquiry, reflection. We read to learn, to laugh, to feel, to connect with minds beyond space and time. There is no good or bad literature. Only literature that is (or isn’t) useful for understanding and living our lives better.

I could pick at all the literary imperfections of The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel and Augustus sound too much like wannabe English majors, i.e. extensions of the author. Hazel only quotes the kind of canonized poems you’d find in a high school English textbook (“The Red Wheelbarrow,” really?). Augustus has a fetish for playing out metaphors literally, dangling an unlit cigarette in his mouth because it symbolizes his ability to reject the things that could kill him. While the novel features surprisingly complex characters for a young adult romance (being on the edge of death has a way of making you think a lot of existential thoughts), John Green’s downfall is that he gets too enamored with his own tropes and pretty turns of phrases. Great Tumblr quotes to be found throughout, but as a piece of literature, I found The Fault in Our Stars to be a little heavy-handed in its execution overall. 3 out of 5 stars. This would be my opinion as a critic.

And yet, we should still ask the question: Was it useful? Does the novel help people (teens) make sense of their lives any better? Probably so. Even if the questions asked and answered in the book aren’t new or unique at all, even if the message is far from subtle, even if the revelations of the book are not earth-shattering or even particularly profound (to me at least), it must seem deep to the high school freshman or sophomore who is experiencing love or death or both for the first time. “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities” must mean something special to someone somewhere. Just because I’ve grown past the age to appreciate its sentiment and mindset doesn’t mean The Fault in Our Stars isn’t of value.

Perspectives change. You appreciate different things at different ages. I’ve come to believe that looking for potential value – in books, in projects, in people – is more important than analyzing and critiquing for criticism’s sake.

Petrarch, Canzoniere 19

Animals exist on earth of such courageous

sight that they dare to face even the sun;

others, because they’re harmed by such great light,

do not come out until the sun is setting;

and others in their mad desire hoping

for joy in fire, perhaps because it glows,

learn of its other power, that of burning.

Alas, my place is with this latter race!

I am not strong enough to face the light

of this lady; I cannot shield myself

in shadowed places or in evening hours;

and so with eyes of tears and weariness

my destiny directs me to behold her,

and well I know I follow what will burn me.

(translated by Mark Musa)

I wish I could read this in the original Italian (SLI 2.0?). For my Renaissance Poetry class, we’ve been assigned to read the first 263 poems of Petrarch’s Canzoniere this week and the sonnets pretty quickly start to feel monotonous and run into one another. Laura’s eyes, her gaze, Petrarch’s suffering, his unconsummated desire. We get it. Move on. But every now and then, Petrarch jolts you with an image that just sticks and makes you want to hear the language, to imagine the way it would sound to recite this to a lover, to feel the pleasant rhythm of the Italian as it rolls off the tongue.

Said and Aforesaid

From the Coroner’s Inquest on Marlowe, 1 June 1593 (following a detailed description of the events leading up to the murder of Christopher Marlowe):

“And thus it befell in that affray that the said Ingram, in defense of his life and with the aforesaid dagger of the value of 12 pence, gave the aforesaid Christopher then and there a mortal wound above his right eye of the depth of two inches and of the breadth of one inch, of which same mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then and there instantly died. And thus the aforesaid jurors say upon their oath that the aforesaid Ingram killed the aforesaid Christopher Morley the aforesaid thirtieth day of May in the thirty fifth year abovementioned in the aforesaid Detford Strand in the aforesaid county of Kent within the verge in the room aforesaid within the verge in the manner and form aforesaid in defense and for the salvation of his life, against the peace of the said lady the Queen, her present crown and dignity.”

And this is why sentences in early modern English are so very, very, very long. At least it gets rid of any ambiguity… Right???

Burning the Midnight Oil

“… until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.”

– Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Prometheus Unbound

I am currently in the middle of writing an essay, but I just had to post this quote. Sometimes, even when you’re busy scrambling to finish a paper or take a test or just get through the reading so you can go to bed, you come across a passage that makes you pause and just go, “Wow.” And then, if you happen to have a blog, you hurry to copy it into a post so that you can preserve that serendipitous feeling of finding some sort of glorious treasure hidden in plain sight. :]

In other news, this time tomorrow, I will be officially free of UCLA library books for the first time in over a year! Super exciting. But perhaps not as exciting as winning this! Let’s hope I get these papers done, do well on my finals, and finally get to the fun business of graduating.

Real Souls

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“I will call the world School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read — I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School — and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity.”

– John Keats (Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, Feb-May 1819)

It is at least somewhat comforting to think that identity is shaped by what one learns from suffering. Our souls are shaped by experience and how we react to those experiences. Perhaps like the Velveteen Rabbit, our souls become battered through time, tired, dirty, and worn down by life and love. But by the time we are old and wrinkled and discarded for something more appealing, we too can say that we are Real. And the lines on our faces will tell people that we have learned to read the heart and have found our souls.

Notes from the Seventh Grade

Yesterday, I was in a hurry to go to a meeting/movie night for the English Honor Society so I grabbed a mandarin orange and ran out the door. The sun had already dipped just below the horizon and streetlights were lit up prematurely in the blue-grey of dusk. As I peeled and savored the bright fruit, I remembered an old poem that I had first read in the seventh grade – Gary Soto’s “Oranges.”

It’s a simple poem about young love, “the first time I walked/ with a girl.” On a cold December evening, the narrator takes this girl, whose face was “bright/ with rouge,” to a store and buys her a chocolate by trading in an orange because he didn’t have quite enough money. Like I said, simple. Seventh grade note-passing Pokemon-loving simple. But somehow, the words have always stuck with me.

I remember my literature teacher going on and on about the imagery. “Fog hanging like old/ coats between the trees,” she would quote. “Imagine that. Isn’t that beautiful?” At the time, I didn’t think that much about it. I liked the story and thought it was cute, but I didn’t see what the big deal was about the fog.

But now, when I see the misty fog as it hovers over Wilson Plaza, I imagine them to be coats, waiting to be worn by some fairy queen. And that evening, while I ate my orange, I remembered the words:

I peeled my orange

That was so bright against

The gray of December

That, from some distance,

Someone might have thought

I was making a fire in my hands.

I remember reading once that you meet your most important, most memorable books before the age of 12. To think that one’s reading career ended before high school seemed too sad and impossible to me, but to a certain extent, that statement seems to be true. The books that you like and the person that you will become are inevitably shaped by what you were exposed to as a child. When I walk to class, old lines of poetry come to me and a tiny orange becomes a bright orb of fire between my fingers.

Poetry makes the world more beautiful.

Bookaholics Anonymous

I have a confession to make. I am inexplicably obsessed with the musty smell of old papers bound up in leather covers. I love holding a book in my hand, flipping through its creamy pages, and feeling history beneath my fingertips. However environmentally unfriendly it is, the physicality of owning a book is an experience that cannot be replaced by e-books or the Kindle.

But then again, I am a bookaholic. My desk in my dorm room is covered with tall stacks of books and my book shelf is completely filled with anthologies, reference texts, poetry, plays, and fiction (and a DVD collection). I also have two bookcases at home that contain the rest of my growing book collection. And yet I keep buying more and more books like an addiction. 

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This weekend, I went to the LA Times Festival of Books and bought The World According to Garp (John Irving), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon), About a Boy (Nick Hornby), and I’m a Stranger Here Myself (Bill Bryson). 

I also bought a very nice copy of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court from a booth that sold rare and fine books. It’s really nicely bound with gold lettering and beautiful script on each page. I was also looking at a leatherbound copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but it was unfortunately out of my price range. 

(Perhaps even more exciting though was the fact that I got to see Kristin Chenoweth from Wicked in person!)

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Inspired by Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, as a child I dreamed of having an enormous grand library with the books piled up to the ceiling. I will probably never own a house big enough to house such an ambitious library, but I still dream of having bookshelves line every wall of my future home (which I imagine to be cottage-like and cosy with the rooms painted gold like in Bridge to Terabithia). To this dream, I have added the desire to own tasteful artwork and fine wine. 

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My research (and thesis) advisor is a fellow bookaholic. He has five or six book shelves in his (tiny) office filled with books about Shakespeare, Renaissance culture, and other topics related to his research. One meeting while we were talking about purchasing books out of print, he told me that whenever he goes to England, he would peruse the bookshops there and sometimes he would find really rare books for only £20 or so. He is currently registered at the British Museum as the owner of the earliest edition of this one 16th century book and owns some very nice editions of rarely printed plays such as John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize. My professor has so many books that he can’t put them all in bookshelves at his house (his American literature collection lies in sad little stacks in his garage – sorry AmLit majors :D). Shelves and shelves of books, rare book collections, books categorized by genre and author (I’m an organization freak). This could be me in thirty years!

In addition to my new Mark Twain acquisition, my fledgling special books collection includes autographed copies of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and most recently Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia. Next week, I plan to get another book autographed by David Sedaris. 

I have caught the book bug (worm?) and I’m loving it. 

It's nice to see that reading isn't dead at all.

It's nice to see that reading isn't dead at all.

Also, happy belated 445th birthday (April 23) to Mr. William Shakespeare! Even though that might not be your real birthday… But I’m sure you don’t mind that we think of you as the literary St. George. 🙂

Permission to Go Insane? Granted.

The smell of brand-new books waiting to be opened and annotated. The fresh pages of notebook paper. The bright-eyed students eager to bury their heads in books, neglecting the beautiful sunny day outside. Spring quarter has arrived! After a difficult but rewarding winter quarter, Sophia Literaria is ready to… go through the torture all over again. 🙂 With the GRE out of the way, I decided to take on extra (22) units this quarter, resulting in the following reading list:

  • Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • shakespeareglobeShakespeare, As You Like It
  • Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
  • Shakespeare, Sonnets
  • Shakespeare, Richard II
  • Shakespeare, Henry IV, part I
  • Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus
  • Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
  • Shakespeare, Hamlet
  • Dryden, All for Love
  • Inchbald, The Mogul Tale
  • southerne_oroonoko_Colman the Younger, Blue-Beard
  • Southerne, Oroonoko
  • Bickerstaff, The Padlock
  • Rowson, Slaves in Algiers
  • Gay, Polly
  • Colman the Younger, Inkle and Yarico
  • Sheridan, Pizarro
  • Steele, Conscious Lovers
  • Lillo, London Merchant
  • Williams, Craft of Argument
  • Booth, Craft of Research
  • Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction

Not to mention secondary works, the books I’m reading for my independent research project, submissions for Aleph, and articles for my Information Studies seminar. Lovely. No wonder I indulge in television and comic books/manga in my spare time (the less words the better!).

200px-delirium_sandmanBut the truth is I love being crazy busy. I love the challenge of making sense of a hard passage, the adrenaline of filling up a bluebook during a midterm, the sense of achievement when all those late nights pay off, and the satisfaction of turning in a paper that you’re actually proud of. Maybe I drive myself crazy with work because I like the affirmation at the end of the quarter that, despite all the pain and frustration, I still adore English. Even after struggling (and complaining) through The Faerie Queene all winter quarter, I can still say that there’s nothing else I’d rather be studying. Literature is my soulmate. 🙂

Brownie points if anyone can guess what three classes I’m taking based on this list (One of them is really easy, but let’s see how specific you can get)! AND extra brownie points if you know where the last picture is from!

An Unforgiving Art

First entry of the new year! My schedule this quarter is pretty packed – I’m taking three English classes, continuing my work with Aleph, and embarking on an independent research project on early modern authorship. My GRE prep course also starts in less than two weeks so things are going to get hectic in Sophialand. 

One of the classes I’m taking is on the history of literary theory and criticism, which has been really interesting so far because it discusses the types of ideas that got me interested in literature in the first place.  I love literary criticism and the debates it has over genre, language, and the nature/purpose of fiction and poetry. 

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Anyways, I was reading Horace’s Ars Poetica last week and this section really caught my attention:

“In some things, a tolerable mediocrity is properly allowed. A mediocre lawyer or advocate is a long way from the distinction of learned Messalla and doesn’t know as much as Aulus Cascellius, but he has his value. But neither men nor gods nor shop-fronts allow a poet to be mediocre. Just as music out of tune or thick ointment or Sardinian honey with your poppy gives offence at a nice dinner, because the meal could go on without them, so poetry, which was created and discovered for the pleasure of the mind, sinks right to the bottom the moment it declines a little from the top.” 

Horace’s opinions of his own profession strongly reflect my own views about studying literature and working in academia. There is no room for mediocrity in my career plans… which I think is just a little scary.

(P.S. Ushered for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. Simply phenomenal. If you ever get a chance to see the “Cellist Twins” Pei-Jee Ng and Pei-Sian Ng in concert, do it! They’re mindblowingly awesome. :))

A Long December

December has not been very kind to bloggers, or at least not to this particular blogger. With term papers to write and finals to take, I have unwittingly neglected my blogging duties this month. Unfortunately, I’m about to board a plane in T-minus 4 hours for southern China where I shall be traveling (namely in Hong Kong, Guilin, Beihai, Sanya, and Shanghai) for the next three weeks, so I probably won’t be able to get any decent blogging in before New Years.

There are still two weeks before Christmas, so I’ve decided to compile a quick list of things to give your fellow bookworm for the holidays:

oxfordrhymingdict1. For the poetically inclinedA rhyming dictionary. A gift that is both practical and entertaining, a rhyming dictionary is a must-have for anyone dabbling in poetry or song writing. You can use it to find that elusive phrase that will complete your couplet or it can be really fun just flipping through it and finding words that you never knew could be used in a rhyme. This is the ideal gift for anyone who loves words (especially phonetics). I would recommend the Penguin Rhyming Dictionary, or if you have a little more money, the Oxford Rhyming Dictionary (warning: some words will only rhyme if you put on a British accent).

2. For the ambitious bookwormWar and Peace, newly translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. First published in hardcover last year, this book just arrived in paperback form on December 2nd, in time for the holidays. I actually haven’t gotten a chance to read this translation yet (sadly, my first experience with Tolstoy was with the inferior Constance Garnett version), but I would vouch for any Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. They have previously translated several works of Dostoevsky (including The Brothers Karamozov and Notes from Underground), Dead Souls by Gogol, a number of short stories by Chekhov, and Anna Karenina. The couple have a knack for maintaining the original linguistic style of the work, a feat difficult in translation because translators often impose their own mannerisms or cultural language onto the original. Translation is never as good as the original, but since not all of us have time to learn Russian, this is probably going to be as close as you can get to a true Tolstoyan experience.

3. For the intelligent dreamer – The Sandman (Vol. 1-10) by Neil Gaiman. I was first introduced to this comic book series in my sophomore year of high school and four years later, I still find myself fascinated by the questions that the series raises. The Sandman, “a comic book for intellectuals” as Norman Mailer has described it, has this wonderful dichotomy of past and present, reality and fantasy that manifests itself in its artwork (which varies stylistically from story to story) as well as in its melding of classical mythology with modern life. Although I would probably criticize certain segments of the series, I found the conclusion extremely powerful and thoughtprovoking. The spinoffs, however, I would not recommend except for Endless Nights, which I think is closest in tone to the original series.

westerncanon4. For the general reader – The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom. There are many people against the idea of a canon as well as people who simply cannot stand Harold Bloom. However, regardless of how you might feel about his critical theory, his enthusiasm for great literature is always palpable and that love for good books is especially contagious for the general reader. This book acts as a reading list and a guide for some of the greatest works in the Western tradition and will definitely whet your appetite for the likes of Shakespeare, Dante, and Chaucer.

5. For the nontraditional gent or gal – Write a short story featuring the recipient as the main character. If you plan on traveling, do a little literary tourism and explore the haunts of fictional characters (i.e. Sherlock Holmes’s digs in London) or the abodes of famed authors (i.e. Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West). Invite your friends to a reenactment of a scene in a beloved book (such as the Mad Hatter’s tea party or the Neverfield ball). Buy tickets to an author’s talk or poetry reading or even a play. If you’ve given your literary friend a book year after year, this is the year to change it up and form some lasting memories.

Let me know if any of these literary gift ideas helped! 🙂

As for my winter break reading, I shall be catching up with my Kafka (short stories only) while I am in the Orient so I shall let you know my thoughts upon my return. Also, I’m contemplating adding a travel category, but I think I’ll probably keep it oriented towards literary tourism or maybe places of historical or artistic value. I shall ruminate upon this some more…

Until the next time I have internet access, adieu. Happy Holidays!