Book Review – The Fault in Our Stars

I didn’t think I’d ever want to review  a thing, but I reviewed a Mad Men episode and it didn’t kill me (smile.)  So, when I stay up late to read and then steal moments the next day to finish a book, I know I’m rather captured by it.  The book is The Fault in Our Stars   by John Green.  Soon, it’ll be a major motion picture by 20th Century Fox.  The trailer is here.

The set up is utterly non-charming.  Two ordinary mid-Western kids with cancer meet at a teenager-focused cancer support group.

The story, though, is utterly charming, as you’d expect it to be since it starts at a rather low point.  Because, naturally, the kids are not ordinary at all and are funnier, smarter, and infinitely wiser than normal healthy teens.  Maybe because they have cancer?  Or maybe because they just are funnier, smarter and infinitely wiser human beings and as we all know – only the funnier, smarter and infinitely wiser die young.  So tragedy mixed with some comedy leads to these amazing children named Hazel Grace Lancaster, 16, and Augustus Waters, 17.

Let me start with – I couldn’t help but love this book and be moved by it (I laughed, I cried).  But still I have two big quibbles.  The first is the cancer narrative which Fault seeks to deconstruct.  (Wow.  Fancy words there.)  I mean, they do make fun of the “bravely fighting cancer patient who becomes all wise and patient to their last dying breath” meme, but at the same time, highlight it completely in their main characters.

The fact is – and if we really think hard about this, we know this – there are some truths to sickness and dying that hold, call them the “Noble Truths of Sickness and Dying.”  One is – we’re all dying as we live.  Every day is one day closer to our death and there is no way around it.  Two – any one of us can have a disease in our body right now at this very instant.  It may not have risen to the point of being diagnosed, but we’re all vulnerable to this process because we are human.  It takes time before cancer is diagnosed – the cells have to get to that critical mass.  So even in the midst of our healthiest, we could have a cancer that could make us sick or kill us and just not know it.  That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?  At least it is to me.

Three is – we die as we lived.  We don’t automatically get braver, more patient or wiser (funnier, more compassionate, smarter) because we’re sick or dying.  If we’re petty before we’re dying of cancer, we’re probably still counting the grudges when we’re on our deathbed, even if we were hoping that cancer would erase our less than attractive personality characteristics.  And four – we’re alive until we’re dead.  Death is both a process and an event.  But until we are actually completely dead as in no brain activity or beating heart dead, we’re alive in some way, shape or form.  The process of death has a somewhat predictable course (I say somewhat because everybody is different and not all deaths occur the same way), and in that process, you can and often do lose consciousness towards the very end.  Even with loss of consciousness, though, until the body is dead, you are still here  At least in some way, shape or form.

These truths are real and I discovered them working in hospice with patients and families. The truths offer a way to think about our own deaths that is both sobering, perhaps a bit scary (what?  I could be sick and not know it – oh my god!), but ultimately comforting, too.  And yes, they are a wake-up call to live our lives right now.  Don’t hesitate  to do the things you really, truly want to do.  There’s no point in that.

So what do these truths have to do with the book, soon-to-be movie?  Just that amazing teenagers, although of course they exist, aren’t necessarily just so due to cancer.

I know it’s hard to write about the other kind of normal, annoying teenager who gets cancer.  And probably nobody would want to read about that kid.  There is one character in this book who fits this fairly closely, but she’s dying of brain cancer, so her nastiness is attributed to this, not to just being a jerky teenager with cancer.  We never find out (she’s a minor, although important, character) if she was a jerk prior to getting brain cancer.  I like to think that this was the case, but who knows?

So, everything is heightened in a story about two “cancer kids” falling in love – they have a big adventure in a foreign country as one of their cancer “perks” (Augustus’ wish that he hadn’t taken advantage of yet).  They drink amazing champagne and eat a romantic dinner before making love for their first, and perhaps only, time.  No backseat fumblings for our protagonists.

And that brings me to my other quibble about this book.

No adult can really write teenagers all that well.  But the problem with teenagers writing a book like this – most of them aren’t good enough writers yet and they’d bungle writing the parents and other adults.  Perhaps it’s better to be left with the polished adult author writing a first-person narrative of a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer.  She’s a very sophisticated thinker, our Hazel Grace.  Almost preternaturally so.  Almost as an afterthought, the author gives Hazel a girlfriend who is a more normal teenaged girl.  And in some ways, Kaitlyn, the friend, would have been more interesting to me as a cancer kid, but see, she would be too oriented to what she was wearing and who she was dumping this week (in other words – too shallow), to be interesting to the author.  She’d be the annoying cancer kid and that wouldn’t do.

So we get an author who has fallen in love with his main characters, and they are wittier, smarter, able to use metaphors accurately, more romantic and charming, than any teenager you know or are ever going to know.

And that’s fine.  It makes for better reading and a lot of great quotes, too.  I suspect the filmmakers had a breeze writing the script because the book offers up lots of great scenes and snappy dialogue – sort of like Tracy and Hepburn but in teenagers with cancer!

What I think is this – we all die with our to-do lists undone, and the laundry not yet folded, and our journals left off in mid-sentence.  I have a friend (who was also my hair stylist) who died of a heart attack about a week and half ago.  Right after dinner.  I hope he enjoyed his last meal, although he couldn’t know it would be that, of course.  And I’m not being snarky or cutesy when I say this, I’m being sincere.  He loved good food and was a gourmet chef, so I hope he had a great meal that Sunday night.  He’d probably be highly disappointed if it was just a bowl of cereal, right?  Like, that was it?

But plenty of people do die with “that was it?” and we can’t live our lives with high drama (or great meals and amazing champagne) all of the time.  A lot of life is ordinary, and a lot of death is, too.

Cancer, for all it’s horribleness, is a gift.  It gives the bearer of it usually some time, although never enough.  In that time, you can throw in some drama, some novelty and perhaps, if you’re lucky, some romance.  That’s the best thing about  The Fault in Our Stars – the characters know they are time limited and so they pull out the stops, and they live and love, even knowing they are “grenades” about to go off.

It should never take cancer to teach a person to live in the midst of death.  But then again, we are always living in the midst of death.

We are all grenades about to go off.



The Mom Chronicles Part 2 – The Virgin Edition


Yesterday, I posted this picture above with the title “The Face of Alzheimer’s Disease” and invited people to guess who in the photo had the disease.

First, this is a photo taken in August 2002, at least by the date scribbled on the back of the actual photograph.  From the left are my Uncle Gene, Aunt B, my mom, and then far right in the booth, my Aunt Nancy.  Both Nancy and Gene (who were married) are now deceased, so I am using their real names.

It is my Aunt Nancy who had Alzheimer’s Disease.  By 2002 she definitely had it, and in looking at this photo, although difficult, there is a blanker look in her eye than with the others.  There is another photo that was taken on the same day just of her and it’s much clearer to see, unfortunately.

Nancy was 11 years older than my mother and my Aunt B is eight years older.  In this photo my mother is about 68 and is sitting between her sisters; I think this is probably a lunch for her birthday which is in August.  This coming August my mother will be 80.  Quite an accomplishment and one she didn’t expect would happen, as she often tells me.

We don’t see any of the signs of Alzheimer’s in Aunt B or my mom, which is good.  Nancy had the beginnings of it probably by her mid-60’s to early-70’s.  Sadly, Uncle Gene grew increasingly concerned about her and her ability to get along without him; at one point, he looked into assisted living for her, but never pulled the trigger.  And then he up and died suddenly with no arrangements having been made.  But as she was deteriorating rapidly by then, my cousins decided to try and go with home care, so she’d have the familiarity of surroundings.  She died a few years ago, peacefully we’re told.  By the end, she really knew nobody.

My mother was the youngest sister.  There was a brother, too, but he died very young before she was born.  I have called my mom the “oooops” baby of my grandparents, but she might also have been the “grief” baby of them, too.  Losing their little “Tommy” was devastating to both of them.  I never heard a lot of talk about my dead boy uncle by anybody, which looking back on it seems strange in a way, but also just ineffably sad.

She was born in 1934, pretty much at the height of the depression.  But as a baby it didn’t affect her the same way it affected her much older sisters.  Both Nancy and B made real sacrifices during the depression and then in World War II. My mother, however, became a teenager in the very late 1940’s, after the end of the war.  Nancy and B were both war brides and both of my uncles, Gene and Marshall, served.  Uncle Marshall, B’s husband was in England and lived through the London bombings.  Uncle Gene, however, was sent to Chicago and made prosthetics during the war.  His skills as a tool and die maker were ones he used after the war and he ended up in business for himself.

One of the family dynamics that existed was that Aunt Nancy became my mom’s “second” mom.  My grandmother was back in college, getting her degree in public health nursing and then was working, so Nancy took care of my mom to help out Grandma.  My mother has said often that she felt a lot of mother love from her sister, as well as some “smother” love, too.  It probably will not come as a surprise that Aunt Nancy became a kindergarten teacher and tried for years to have her own kids, only to adopt two daughters who are close in age to me, making her a much older mother than my own.

When you’re the youngest, and by so many years, in many ways you are like an only child.  You don’t rub up against siblings close in age, you don’t have to learn sharing or taking turns or all of the myriad of little lessons that families with close-in-age kids have.  So I think it is fair to say that she was spoiled and probably coddled a bit.  I can imagine her older sisters enjoying fussing over her, dressing her up and playing with her much like a living doll.

She was cute and there are some pictures of her and Grandpa that are adorable; she with the braided pigtails and he of the gruff and somber mein.  Being the father of three living daughters brought him great joy but losing his namesake son had to have brought him such sorrow.  I hope my mother loving her Daddy helped in his grief.

By the time my mom was ready for college, it was UCLA; she pledged Kappa Delta, a sorority on campus and lived at the house.  It was at a mixer that she met my dad who was a fraternity man on campus, a rather big man on campus actually.  My dad was already the President of the Associated Mens Students and ran for President of the student body (he didn’t win.)  But at 6′ 5″ he was an imposing presence and you didn’t ever forget meeting Bob (my dad’s real name.)  I’m sure mom didn’t – they dated and got pinned, engaged and then married – in that order.  It was probably 1953-54.  My mother had finished her junior year in college, so she was 20 and my dad 24.

Wow.  They were young.

And inexperienced.  And . . . inexperienced.  Right.  I have often wondered how people channeled their libidos during this time and looking at their ages at marriage – that’s how.  They got married young.  So sex was part and parcel of at most, engagement, and often people just waited until marriage.  I’m not saying everybody during this time were virgins, just that my parents were.  Kindof sweet, actually.

I shouldn’t know this, of course. 

The fact that I do is really terrible and has a lot to do with my mother and her issues, because I guarantee you, my father would never have said a word to me about this.

When I was hurtling into teenage-hood, my mother decided to have the talk with me, but she chased it with an appointment with a gynecologist, to put me on the pill.  I was 17 and yes, I was thinking of having sex with my boyfriend, kindof, sortof.  I hadn’t done it or anything, and I hadn’t really considered all the logistics to it, even though I’d taken the sex-ed class and seen how condoms went on bananas.

She knew what was up, though, because my boyfriend was . . . black.  A very nice young man, and one of the few black students at our school.  His mom, too, was a social worker like my mom, but they worked in different parts of the same agency and didn’t know each other.

In her unacknowledged racism, cloaked by concern for me, she made an assumption.  She leapt to the conclusion that we’d already done the nasty and that I might already be pregnant.  So she sat me down and gave me the “there’s no percentage in being a virgin” talk, and oh by the way, you’re off to see the doctor tomorrow at 2 pm.

Why would a mother give THAT talk to a teenaged girl?  Well, see, it had everything to do with her marriage to my dad, the two virgins thing.  In this talk she decided I was now old enough to know the truth – that sex had been awkward, then horrible,  never got much better, and she was married to the guy by then.  Better to “get that out of your system” before you get married, she said.  Virginity was an old, tired concept and of no use to anybody, especially the virgin.  (By the way, it’s obvious isn’t it that my parents were divorced.  By the time my mother was 29, that marriage was long over.)

I think she was hoping that if we’d done IT, that we’d used condoms and that even if that wasn’t perfect, there was still time to get me on the pill and prevent a mixed-race baby.  Like I said, even if she’d deny it to her dying day, the fact that C. was black had more to do with this little talk and appointment than anything else, of that I’m convinced.

But anyway, I dutifully went off to the doctor and got on the pill.  And two weeks later, well, hey I was on the pill now, right?  So . . . as I told my mother many years later, sex was on the radar, but her actions put it within the crosshairs, to mix a a couple of of metaphors.

Not that this guy was going to be a keeper, for soon after the big event with a couple of other events under our belts, we broke up.  And, by the way, he was a virgin, too.  As sweet as the movies think it is, it’s also the awkwardest thing ever, too.  No matter how many sex-ed classes you take.  But at least when you’re both virgins, you share the awkwardness equally.

The break-up was inevitable because C. turned 18.  Which maybe wouldn’t be a big deal to most callow youth (I was 17 1/2 and just months from being 18, too), but being one of the few black kids in a mostly white neighborhood and attending a mostly white school, he was smart enough to get that any parent who had a daughter under 18 would be more inclined to throw the “stat rape” book at him. (I think that might have been part of the talk his mother gave him.)  So he dropped me pronto.  As far as I know, he stayed away from high school girls entirely after that.  And soon after, he disappeared from school entirely, not walking graduation that spring.  I later heard he joined the Marines.

That’s a long way around to saying that my mom was a product of her 1950’s upbringing and did the right thing but by the time her daughter was 17 (in 1975), the right thing had radically changed and we were in the sexual revolution big time.  As a divorced woman, she had had a chance to take advantage of this revolution, too, and I think it is probably a measure of some of her true motherly concern that I not end up being unhappily married to somebody just because sex was the driving force towards marriage.  Her fate didn’t have to be my fate, in other words.  Oh yeah, and she didn’t really want to be the grandmother to a mixed-race baby, either.

I’ve often wondered whether I would have lost my virginity then to that guy, had I not had a rather big push towards it by my own mother.  I really don’t know. What I do know is that I planned on going to college, and not just a commuter campus, so I planned on moving away far enough that I had to live in a dorm in 1975, we were talking co-ed dorm.  I knew I didn’t want the scarlet V carved on my chest for all the world to see, so it’s more than possible that I did what most any teenager would do under the circumstances – I took advantage of the situation and the person for my own ends, which probably coincided with his ends, too.

It’s not a proud thing to admit that you used a person and let them use you, too.  At the time, it didn’t feel that way, but looking back, my motivations certainly weren’t pure.  As neither were my mother’s.

Maybe none of ours ever are.