“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.

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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!

The One in Which Sophia Whines (Briefly)

The first day of Fall quarter has arrived!

I’ve always been a silly kid who got really excited about class the night before and would pick out nice colored notebooks that matched the mood of the course (this year it’s lime-green for philosophy :D). I’d walk merrily to class, at least ten minutes early to stake out the prized middle seat of the fourth row, and afterwards go home to cheerfully fill up my shiny new planner with paper deadlines and final exam dates. It rarely occurs to me that I’m going to be stressed out most of the quarter until somewhere around the fifth week when I realise my sleep schedule’s all messed up, I haven’t had breakfast for two weeks, and I’ve already gone through a brand-new ballpoint pen from taking so many notes.

Yes, Sophia is an optimist. And she doesn’t get any wiser each time around.

But this time around, I think I already know what horrors await me. Everyone complains about the amount of homework they receive, but I always feel like English majors aren’t allowed to whine about how much reading they have each quarter. “Uhh.. well, this is your major,” people say, like they’ve never lamented about doing math problems or writing lab reports. To a certain extent, I agree; this is how college is so don’t whine, groan, or cry about it. Yet at the same time, sometimes the workload just seems so daunting.

I will try to make this the first and last time I lament about English homework on this blog, but this just seems so crazy that I thought I’d share. Here’s my Fall 2008 reading list for my two English classes (English Literature: 1832 to Present & English Renaissance Drama: 1567 to 1642):

  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford
  • Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam
  • Anthony Trollope, Dr. Wortle’s School
  • George Bernard Shaw, Plays
  • The Penguin Book of first World War Poetry
  • Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
  • Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners
  • Joe Orton, The Complete Plays
  • Caryl Churchill, Plays: 2
  • Carol Ann Duffy, Rapture
  • Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy
  • Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, Part I
  • Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
  • George Chapman, Bussy D’Ambois
  • Thomas Dekker, The Shoemakers’ Holiday
  • Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair
  • Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy
  • Thomas Middleton, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
  • Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, The Changeling
  • John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
  • John Ford, Tis Pity She’s a Whore

Sigh. There goes my social life. Well, it’s off to reading, reading, reading! Wish me luck!