When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student, into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

My Review

This is one of those books that is so hard to review because there is just no way that you can do it justice. The author says it all absolutely perfectly, precisely, and poetically, so any words on my part are like fluorescent lights compared to the perfect gold of autumn sunshine. However, there is so much Truth and beauty to process and internalize from the pages of this book that I must attempt a review regardless of the inadequacy of my words. There were several passages though, that resounded with such power that I will quote them directly.

It seems almost an oxymoron to say that a memoir written by a dying cancer patient is one of the most powerful, positive, uplifting, and hopeful records of life that I have ever read, but it is the truth. Paul Kalanithi’s grasp of the meaning of life and death is so full, nuanced, and inspiring; he so eloquently describes his life journey as a son, reader, student, friend, philosopher, doctor, husband, and finally patient and father. All of it motivated by his desire to live a meaningful life and to discover what makes a life meaningful.

His interest in and search for meaning was sparked by literature. He felt like a bosom friend when I read, “I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, has something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans that undergirded meaning…Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the riches material for moral reflection.”

But Paul Kalanithi didn’t just stop at reflection. He wrote, ““If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?” And so he lived. He challenged his mind and body, he formed relationships, he worked hard and played hard.

His reading also introduced him to an idea that stuck with him through many years and that ultimately led him to choose neurosurgery as his career path over literature and writing:

“The mind was simply the operation of the brain, an idea that struck me with force…Of course it must be true – what were our brains doing, otherwise? Though we had free will, we were also biological organisms – the brain was an organ, subject to the laws of physics, too! Literature provided a rich account of human meaning; the brain, then, was the machinery that somehow enabled it. It seemed like magic…I began to see all disciplines as creating a vocabulary, a set of tools for understanding human life in a particular way. Great literary works provided their own set of tools, compelling the reader to use that vocabulary….I couldn’t quite let go of the question: Where did biology, morality, literature, and philosophy intersect? [Medical school] would mean setting aside literature. But it would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.”

I was completely fascinated by his experiences and descriptions of medical school. He illuminates the ironies and conflicts in balancing science and sensitivity in the practice of medicine. One of my favorite descriptions related to working on cadavers: “You would think that the first time you cut up a dead person, you’d feel a bit funny about it. Strangely, though, everything feels normal. The bright lights, stainless steel tables, and bow-tied professors lend an air of propriety. Even so, that first cut, running from the nape of the neck down to the small of the back, is unforgettable.”

I would describe Paul Kalanithi as a hero, but that’s certainly not what he was going for. However, his integrity and sincerity are truly bold and valiant in today’s world of instant gratification and self-interest. His words give the best sense of his convictions:

“Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them…Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action.”

“I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal.”

“The heroic spirit of responsibility amid blood and failure. This struck me as the true image of a doctor.”

“In my life, had I ever made a decision harder than choosing between a French dip and a Reuben? I still had a a lot of practical medicine to learn, but would knowledge alone be enough, with life and death hanging in the balance? Surely intelligence wasn’t enough; moral clarity was needed as well.”

“The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”

I went back to teaching this year after 10 years as a stay-at-home mom. There have been feelings of doubt, guilt, euphoria, and everything in between. I have had to make decisions and judgment calls regarding how to prioritize my time, how to balance my family and my students, how to keep and strengthen relationships with my children while also being effective as a teacher – both situations in which I can impact lives for good or ill. It was cathartic to read and relate to Kalanithi’s struggle to find the same balance in his life between medical school, family, research, and then ultimately illness and death. He wrote, “Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job – not a calling.” Both Motherhood and Teaching are my callings; this book has inspired me and strengthened my resolve that I can bring meaning to my life and to others through doing what it takes to fulfill my callings, no matter the sacrifice and inconvenience to myself.

Most powerful was the feeling of kinship Kalanithi inspires not just between him and his readers, but between the human race as a whole: “…it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer and eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them.”

All of this wisdom and Truth Paul Kalanithi shares as his body and mind are attacked and destroyed by cancer. It brings such an urgency to his message, while at the same time his words are full of peace and dignity even in the face of death. He is honest and open about his struggles in each stage of his life, including at the end, but that just makes his message and decisions to put others above himself more inspiring. The epilogue written by his wife solidifies the beauty of the love that they shared as a family and that they now share with the world.

Please read this book. No matter your life circumstance or experience there is something in these words for you.

Age Recommendation: This book deals with the theme of death beautifully, respectfully, and with reverence; however, some of the facts may be too emotional for younger readers. For that reason, I would recommend this book for 17 and older.

Appropriateness: There is some swearing in the book, but not a distracting or disturbing amount. Some vague, mild, reference to sex, but nothing graphic or disturbing. There is some medical procedures and description, but it’s all scientific so even when described in some detail the intent is not to be disgusting.  There are emotional themes which ought to push us out of our comfort zones a little, but the intent is pure and good.  If any of these aspects would deter you from reading the book, please don’t let them. This is a “must-read.”

Book Club Discussion: There are so many topics and questions that could be discussed in relation to When Breath Becomes Air including the importance of literature, doctor and patient responsibilities, terminal illness, dealing with death, sacrifice for goals, and finding balance.

Other book recommendations: If you are interested in When Breath Becomes Air then I think you would also likeThe Alchemist by Paul Coelho, The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

 

 

Reclamation

Reclamation (Eruption, #2)Reclamation by Adrienne Quintana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads):

Jace Vega wakes up three years after the eruption of Mount Hood where she and the man she loves, Corey Stein, tried to use time travel to release Victor Trent’s powerful hold on the world. But life is even greater turmoil. The future seems to be unchanged and Corey is missing. Nothing about her other relationships feel right.

As Victor Trent continues to amass power, using information terrorism Jace knows she doesn’t have much time if she’s going to stop him. Jace’s reawakening begins a race to the place where it all began: the Point of Origin. If she can only remember where it is.

My Review

I waited so long for the conclusion to this story and it was completely worth it. I actually re-read the first book in the series, Eruption, right before beginning Reclamation and that was a great choice. I enjoyed reliving the suspense of the events in Eruption, and the refresher on all of the details was helpful. Reclamation picks up exactly where Eruption ends, and I loved being able to put one book down and immediately pick up the next without interruption.

I love the smart prose, imagery, and powerful description in the writing. I am so impressed and fulfilled by the author’s ability to weave current events, social issues, social media and technology, psychological examination, and even spirituality into a seamless, colorful, and thoughful storytelling tapestry. And she does it without being preachy; rather her keen expression and description says just enough and leaves the intellectual work up to the reader. There is plenty of opportunity for that “aha” moment as you connect the text and characters to your own life, while at the same time the thrills and suspense of their lives keep you turning pages as fast as you can. The sequence of events flows naturally, and all of that is accomplished while presenting a complex science fiction plot involving volcanoes and time travel.

I loved the main character and narrator, Jace Vega, in the first book with her smarts and maturity and her flaws. She continues to evolve, learn, and change in Reclamation, but she stays consistent, believable, and lovable. I really grew to care about all of the characters and their relationships. Even the “villain” has a “human” side that makes him relatable in some sense.

For me, there is really a lot of pressure on the endings of books with complex and plots and deep characters such as in the Eruption series. Even when events and suspense are so well paced throughout a book, endings can ruin it all if they are rushed or do not tie up all the loose ends. But that was not a problem in Reclamation. The ending was timed well; I had no unanswered questions; it made sense within the flow and the events of the story, and most importantly it felt complete and good. Such a satisfying ending will keep me pondering these books and the layers of lessons and meanings for days to come.

If reading were a meal, Eruption and Reclamation would leave you full and satisfied, and dreaming about the next time you could savor those unique and perfect flavors.

Age Recommendation: The complicated plot and some of the themes will be best understood by mature readers, likely 16 and older.

Appropriateness: There is nothing objectionable in this series. Clean language and high moral standards along with plenty of excitement and tension. These books would give plenty of material for book club discussions regarding coping mechanisms, the purpose of tragedy and suffering, our reliance on technology, and the consequence of choices.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like the sound of Reclamation and Eruption I recommend you also read The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, Graceling by Kristin Cashore,  The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale,  The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.

The Perfect Mile

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve ItThe Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

There was a time when running the mile in four minutes was believed to be beyond the limits of human foot speed, and in all of sport it was the elusive holy grail. In 1952, after suffering defeat at the Helsinki Olympics, three world-class runners each set out to break this barrier.

Roger Bannister was a young English medical student who epitomized the ideal of the amateur — still driven not just by winning but by the nobility of the pursuit. John Landy an Australian who trained relentlessly in an almost spiritual attempt to shape his body to this singular task. Then there was Wes Santee, the swaggering American, a Kansas farm boy and natural athlete.

Spanning three continents and defying the odds, their collective quest captivated the world and competed with headlines from the Korean War, the atomic race, and such legendary figures as Edmund Hillary, Willie Mays, Native Dancer, and Ben Hogan. Neal Bascomb delivers a breathtaking story of unlikely heroes and leaves us with a lasting portrait of the twilight years of the golden age of sport.

My Review

I am a runner and I love it. (Though that hasn’t always been the case. You can read more about my conversion to running here.) So I was naturally interested in this book since it’s all about runners. But there is also historical significance in learning more about this event along with what was going on in the world at the time it took place. I was fascinated by the view of amateur and professional athletics in the 1950’s, and how much athletics have changed since then.

This book also introduced me to true heroes and role models of our day, and the writing is superb. The author paints pictures with words of people and events so that they come alive and are so relatable. I was just as nervous and engaged reading about the races in this book as I was while reading the Hunger Games.

And when it comes down to it, this book is less about running and more about working hard with what life has given us to make something of ourselves and to contribute to the world in which we live. The 3 main running figures in the book sum it up best:

John Landy: “Running gave me discipline and self-expression…It has all the disappointments, frustrations, lack of success, and unexpected success, which all reproduce themselves in the bigger play of life. It teaches you the ability to present under pressure. It teaches you the importance of being enthusiastic, dedicated, focused. All of these are trite statements, but if you actually have to go through these things as a young man, it’s very, very important.”

Wes Santee: “Hard work pays off. You have to be just as disciplined to run a business as you do to train for an athletic event. You have to eat right, still have to get up early and work more than others.”

Roger Bannister: “Sport is about not being wrapped up in cotton wool. Sport is about adapting to the unexpected and being able to modify plans at the last minute. Sport, like all life, is about taking your chances.”

All of these factors make this a book that everyone, runner or non-runner, athlete or completely lacking in coordination, should read.

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Age Recommendation: All ages will be interested in this story, particularly those with experience truly sacrificing and working hard toward a goal. The writing is probably best for 16 and older though younger readers with a high reading level would do just fine.

Appropriateness: Clean as a whistle on this one.  Clean language, no violence, no immorality.

This would provide great book club discussion material.  Comparing the  different approaches to running from each of the main runners as well as from their coaches would be interesting.  The different approaches to running could also be discussed in how they relate to the characters view of life.  This book provides great material for discussion on themes such as

1) the merits of athletics

2) the pros and cons to amateur vs. professional athletics

3) what does it take (physically and mentally) to push past barriers? Which is more important – physical or mental?

4) How do circumstances affect our performance in sport and in life? How do we keep our confidence and determination when circumstances all seem to be against us?

5) Why do sporting events and athletes bring out such pride in a country or school?

For more discussion material and for some of my favorite quotes and inspirations from the book see my previous post titled Full of Running.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like the sound of this book you might also enjoy Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Eat and Run by Scott Jurek, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer.

The Winner’s Trilogy, books 1 & 2

The Winner's Curse (The Winner's Trilogy, #1)The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
AND

The Winner's Crime (The Winner's Trilogy, #2)The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary of The Winner’s Curse (from Goodreads)

As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

Book 2, The Winner’s Crime follows Lady Kestrel and Arin as they continue to decipher if they can trust each other, and if they can trust themselves. Their skills in deceit both help and hurt as they try to uncover a shocking secret affecting both their countries.

My Review

I haven’t been so wrapped up in a series since the Hunger Games. I did not want to put these books down. Only necessities like feeding myself or my children could tear me away. It’s just a good thing that I had the sequel on hand and could start it immediately after finishing book 1. But I have now finished book 2, and book 3 hasn’t been released yet!!! Goodreads shows the expected publication date as March 1st. I HATE waiting.

The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime are part of the Winner’s Trilogy. They are the perfect combination of action, intrigue, romance, and engaging prose. I enjoy the excitement, and fairly “clean” and innocent romances of YA fiction, especially when I am looking to just get lost in a story for awhile, but these books surpassed that basic entertainment value and became enthralling. They have all of the thrill of forbidden love, and palpable chemistry between the main characters; then add to that a unique world, and thought-provoking moral and philosophical situations and you get a captivating story.

The setting for these books is NOT a dystopian future, as is so popular in YA fiction these days. The world is completely a fictional one, but there are similarities to our world’s history, particularly to the days of Roman conquerings and enslavements. It is original and refreshing, and presented and described well. It feels as if it could be real.

But let’s get to what really sets these books apart for me. Never have I read a story with so much deceit, lies, half-truths, conspiracy, and stratagem on the parts of both the “bad guys” and the “good guys.” These are smart characters that have had to learn the ways of war, secrecy, stealth, disguise, in order to survive their world. Now they have to face situations that challenge everything they thought they knew and everything they thought they were committed to. I loved the believability of their reasoning, thought-processes as they were forced to examine themselves and their world. And even as the plot becomes more and more intricate the conclusions of the characters stay completely plausible and consistent within the characters motivations and knowledge.

The Winner’s world is one of “grays.” You see multiple sides to every issue and watch as characters try to do the best they can to make choices they can live with amidst a culture and civilization that makes it impossible for all sides to live the way they want. Even when unpleasant events occur because of the choice of one of the “good guys” you can completely see the logic and reasoning behind that choice and why they are still a “good guy” despite the bad things that happened. Definitely makes me glad I am not in the business of politics, war, or revolutions. Though I hope the leaders in those fields in our world are as careful and considerate with their decisions as the characters in these books.

I enjoyed the writing as well. It’s easy and fast to read, just as I like it when I’m completely caught up in a book, but there is also depth and beauty to the ideas and presentation that goes beyond your average entertainment read. These are not literary classics, by any means. This is simply a YA romance series, but it’s one that I am totally loving.

So, I say, “Well done Marie Rutkoski. Now hurry up and finish the third book!!!!”

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Age Recommendation: The are intricacies in the plot as well as moral implications that make these books for 15 and older in my opinion.

Appropriateness: There is deceit, war, murder, torture, and romance described, but none in gory detail so I wasn’t grossed out or disturbed. These could be interesting book club reads as they would give much to discuss about the choices of the characters, whether they are good or bad, justified or not, and whether you would act the same way. The state of the world also provides great discussion material – how is our world the same and different? How do we avoid the problems they are facing? How have we overcome some of these struggles? Are we heading for more?

Book Recommendations: If you like The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime you should read The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, The Books of Bayern Series by Shannon Hale, Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, and Graceling by Kristin Cashore

 

Everything on a Waffle

Everything on a Waffle (Coal Harbour #1)Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary

When Primrose’s parents both disappear at sea in the middle of a vicious storm, she is forced into a new life which includes a new home, new friends, new conflicts and adventures, new insights, and new recipes. It really does take a village in this case to take care of 11-year old Primrose. Some of the townspeople think they know best, like the snobbish and socially awkward school counselor Miss Honeycut. While others truly are just what Primrose needs to keep her hope alive, like her impulsive Uncle Jack, and Kate Bowzer, the owner of the local restaurant where all the food is served on a waffle. But the true joy in this story is how Primrose and her hope is just what the town, and all of us, need to approach the world and all of its challenges with courage, wit, kindness, fun, and love.

My Review

This is the kind of book I would want to write, but the genius to do so hasn’t hit me yet. I am inspired by the unique and accurate way in which life and people are depicted. I love the vibrant and varied characters and how each of them reveals wisdom to Primrose and to us as readers through both their follies and their successes.

I also love the humor! Parents disappearing at sea and a child wading through the foster system certainly doesn’t seem like the setup for a comedy, but that just makes it all the more impressive when you find yourself smiling all the way through. It’s not a silly humor or irreverent either. It’s a look at the bad things that can come in life through the eyes of a girl who is open to the good in everyone and in everything. But she also calls things like she sees them with the innocence and directness of childhood. She’s wades through major change with youthful adaptability and so perfectly communicates what she learns without ever letting go of the hope and knowledge that anchors her. I loved the recipes that were included as well and how they reveal Primrose’s state of mind. And there is humor and wit found even in the recipes.

Everything on a Waffle makes it into my top 20 list of favorite children’s books for sure.

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Age Recommendation: 10 years and older, though if you had a mature reader 8 years old would probably love it too.  Some of the wit and experience would be better understood at 10, however. And obviously despite it’s children’s book genre I would absolutely recommend it for adults as well.

Appropriateness: I found nothing offensive or questionable at all. There are some traumatic events for sure, but because of the approach to them I don’t think a child would be impacted negatively.  Instead, I think children can learn about hope, attitude, and faith through Primrose’s example. They can also learn how to better understand the adults in their life as well.

This would be a great book club discussion book! Scroll down for a list of discussion questions.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like Everything on a Waffle then you should read A Little Princess and The Secret Garden both by Frances Hodgson Burnett,  Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, Matilda by Roald Dahl, Frindle by Andrew Clements, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard Atwater, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, and Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

Favorite Quotes

“Sometimes you get tempted to make something wonderful even better but in doing so you lose what was so wonderful to begin with.”

“You can be sunk low or as a skunk and still have a joy in your heart. Joy lives like one of those spinning things—a gyroscope in your heart. It doesn’t seem to have any connection to circumstance, good or bad.”

“All my life I had wanted to travel but what I discovered that year was that the things that you find out become the places that you go and sometimes you find them out by being jettisoned off alone and other times it is the people who choose to stand by your side who give you the clues. But the important things that happen to you will happen to you even in the smallest places…”

“The only really interesting thing about someone that makes you want to explore them further is their heart.”

“There’s something about sports. You can be setting fire to cats and burying them in your backyard, but as long as you’re playing team sports, people think you’re okay.”

“I want someone who puts the whole ball of wax at risk. I want the kind of marriage where we would follow each other out into the stormy fatal sea or I’m not marrying at all.”

“You can’t replace one dog with another any more than you can replace one person with another, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t get more dogs and people in your life.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Primrose never doubts that her parents are alive. Did you agree with her throughout the story? Did your opinion change?
  2. Primrose keeps a positive attitude throughout the book even when not so positive things happen.  How does she do it? Why does she do it? Do you think this is wisdom or just naivety?
  3. Which of the adult characters were your favorite? Why? What were their follies? How did they help Primrose?
  4. Miss Honeycut was certainly the least helpful adult to Primrose. How did you feel about her?
  5. Despite Miss Honeycut’s misguided intentions, Primrose seems to keep patience and understanding for her. How does she do this?
  6. Primrose says, “Miss Honeycut didn’t tell anecdotes because she was interesting; she told them because she wasn’t”. Have you ever known someone like that?
  7. Does seeing Miss Honeycut  and the other adults in the story through Primrose’s eyes change your opinion about any of the people you have known in your life?
  8. Was Miss Perfidy “good” or “bad” for Primrose? Do you think they cared about each other?
  9. Do you think Uncle Jack and Kate Bowzer will ever become romantically involved? What evidence did you see to support your opinion?
  10. Have you ever felt changed by traveling to a new place? Have you ever found big changes in even the “smallest places?”
  11. Primrose seems to relate better to the adults in Coal Harbor than to the children her age. Can you relate to that? Is this healthy for her?

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten. The Fault in Our Stars attempts to explore the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.

My Review

After all of the praise I had heard and read for The Fault in Our Stars I expected to cry, laugh, and love the characters, and be wrapped up in the story. I expected smart prose and to have some greater insight about life, love, and terminal illness. I was expecting one of those books that you think about for days and ponder on the wisdom, one of those books that you never forget and that you tell everyone they just “have to read it.”

So my expectations were pretty high. Did the book meet them? The short answer – Nope. It wasn’t a horrible book. I gave it 2 stars and actually debated giving it 3, so I even kind of liked it. I settled on 2 stars because while I liked aspects of it, as a whole it left me unfulfilled. The fact that it got so much hype, undeserved hyped in my opinion, probably affected my rating too. If I had just been expecting an average purely entertaining young adult romance book rather than a life-changer it may have made it to 3 stars.

I can kind of understand where the hype comes from for this book. Having the story told from the perspective of a 17 year old with cancer provides the opportunity to give some personal and unique insight into what it is “really” like for those with cancer and for their family and friends.
It’s a kinda cute romance with characters that are kinda funny…. but also kind of annoying and inconsistent.

I did not like all of the swearing. Here are these teenage kids that are definitely more mature than their peers and who appear to be above average intelligence as well. And yet they can’t think of any more intelligent ways to express themselves than through profanities. For me it made their likability take a nose dive. Such harsh language just made them prickly, not people I wanted to open my heart and mind to. At one point the teens are faced with a self-indulgent, crass, and outright rude adult, and they are shocked and offended. I, on the other hand, thought the teenagers’ language throughout the book was just as crude, making them just as unlikable as the rude guy. It made their dialogue inconsistent too. One minute they are quoting Shakespeare and eloquently discussing the meaning of life, and then next minute they can’t think of any better way to express themselves than to use the same swear word they had used a zillion times already. Ugh.

Where the book really failed me though was in trying too hard. Reading blog posts from my friends as they have battled with disease and terminal illness themselves or with family members is WAY more inspiring, sincere, realistic, and impactful than reading the several hundred pages of metaphor and philosophical rambling for which John Green is getting paid insane amounts of money. There are a lot of ponderings and discussions from the characters about the purpose of life and their place in it. They wonder what the best way is in which to live life especially when it’s full of so much suffering for you and those around you? Is it better to live big and die big? To leave a heroic legacy? Or is the quiet life, trying to minimize the damage and pain you cause to others the better legacy? What is required to “matter” in the universe? I would say these are all pretty natural concerns for anyone and especially for those who live with the pain of disease and the knowledge that death is close. But as the title of the book indicates, this book is not really about answering these questions. It’s about showcasing “the fault in our stars,” or in other words, “life isn’t fair.”

It’s true – life isn’t fair, and a story of two kids with cancer falling in love definitely gives an effective situation in which to drive that point home. I have read several reviews of the book that praise how uplifting and inspiring it is to see the characters still choose to live and love despite the unfair fate that they know awaits. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the characters’ actions and choices in the same light.

The book is humorous and the characters are not totally bleak and depressing despite the tragedy they live with. They do have their moments of honest and understandable misery, and also their moments of bravery, selflessness, and of course love. Yet, somehow overall they came across as flat and kind of boring. I never could figure the teenagers out. They were exceptionally wise and yet exceptionally full of attitude. They pondered all kinds of deep “life” questions and yet they never could make commitment to the type of person they wanted to be or the life they wanted to lead. They were uninteresting fence-sitters and the events of the story didn’t bring out any new facets to them or develop their character in any way. The author makes it a point to neither glorify or vilify cancer patients in the book, so I guess it makes sense that the characters are unremarkable. Some reviewers call this portraying the characters as “normal,” but without character development I just call it dull.

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Age Recommendation: 16 and older.  The theme of cancer, the language, and the sexual content is definitely not for young readers.

Appropriateness: There was a very noticeable amount of profanity which deterred from the book.  Teenage characters have sex and while it is not graphic in description it happens.  Sex is discussed a few times by teenagers. The open way in which cancer and death are discussed may be disturbing to some. It also could lead to some interesting discussion in a book club setting about life, death, love, and suffering; pretty much all of the important stuff.

Book Recommendations: Obviously I didn’t love this book, but whether you agreed with me or not I do think you might like these books (or at least find them interesting): The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak, Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath

Rebecca

RebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

finished this book for the umpteenth time over 4 months ago, and I loved it just as much as every other time that I’ve read it. So you’d think a review would have been easy, but this is a complicated book to talk about without giving too much away. I tried getting my thoughts in order right after finishing it but with moving into a new house about the same time, taking care of 4 kids, and training for a marathon I just ran out of time and brain power for awhile. Now the marathon is over and there seems to be a brief calm in the storm of house and yard projects so I think I might have enough focus for a review. I’m sure the package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Oreos I just finished off will help me focus too.

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

A young and inexperienced lady’s maid is quickly and surprisingly swept of her feet by the wealthy and charming widower, Maxim de Winter. They are married quickly and return to his estate where the new Mrs. de Winter tries to find her place in a way of life she knows nothing about, and where the memory of Max’s first wife seems to overshadow every room, conversation, and event.  Rebecca’s power from beyond the grave haunts the new, timid bride until all hope for the marriage seems lost. But when the past resurfaces assumptions are questioned and hard choices have to be made.

My Review

This time reading Rebecca I noticed much more how little action there really is in the plot and yet I still consider this one of the greatest and suspense books of all time. So I have to ask myself, what is it that rivets me? What really makes it so great?

Well to start the writing is a work of art. Such intelligent and insightful description without being pompous or overdone. On the first page we read, “Nature had come into her own again and little by little in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers.” Describing an overgrown driveway like this gives not only a visual, but also a feeling. Giving nature a persona, making it a character, continues throughout the book. The descriptions truly give nature power and influence in not just the setting but in the events as well. Nature also plays the role of clairvoyant; it provides omens of the events to come, good or bad.

The method of plot development is also very unique. As I said, not that much actually happens in the book. There are a few events that occur, but the true conflict in the story is rooted in something that happened in the characters’ pasts. To reveal that past and to develop how it affects the present there is so much storytelling that happens within the head of the first-person narrator. Her own misconceptions provide the plot base for pretty much the whole first half of the book and then a major revelation and her having to realign her misconceptions is essentially the plot for the second half. That could sound pretty boring – a story happening inside a character’s mind much of the time – but Du Maurier masterfully builds tension through description that makes the pages come alive and characterizations that resurrect ghosts.

Some of the most intriguing characterization comes from the contrast in the narrator and Rebecca. Just their names give insight – the first name of our plain, quiet, unassuming narrator is never given. After she and Max are married she is Mrs. de Winter and we are given no other title with which to identify her. She is the narrator and main character, but the title of the book is “Rebecca.” Rebecca is the name we all know and love, or dread depending on the perspective. Just this little detail in the use of character names reveals so much about the characters themselves as well as the book’s themes.

Ah, and the themes in this book! This is where it becomes difficult to not give too much away. My previous post discussed one theme – choices and consequences and how misconceptions affect both. Mrs. De Winter spends so much time living out “what if’s” in her mind, playing out elaborate scenarios which have such detail that we as readers and the narrator take them to be reality.

The theme that makes this book unique and, so I’ve been told, even controversial in some book clubs, is determining the morality of the character’s actions. Do their motivations matter? Should the choices of others be taken into consideration? Is justice served at the end? Not only do we analyze the character’s choices and the resulting consequences, but we get to ask ourselves how we feel about them. We know what is wrong and right according to law and our conscience. Do the events of this book go against that knowledge? Is your heart reacting differently than you think it should? I have spoken with some who were uncomfortable confronting these kind of “greys” in the moral spectrum, but they are what take this book beyond being just a beautifully written and suspenseful romance and into the realm of a Classic.

Age Recommendation: High School age and older. Definitely for mature readers. I wouldn’t say the writing is difficult to read, but it is more “old-fashioned” and intelligent than your average work of fiction. The themes and events of the book also need a discerning mind.

Appropriateness: I would recommend it for any book club or high school and college English class, but as I said, there are some who have found it more controversial. But that just gives even more material for great discussion! No offensive or off-color language that I remember. No detailed sexual content, just married couple kissing and some reference that indicates a married couple were intimate.

Book Recommendations: If you like Rebecca I recommend Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel both by Daphme Du Maurier. You may also like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte,  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak,  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and Eruption by Adrienne Quintana.

If you have already read the book….

Here some of the ingenious aspects and insights that I loved reading Rebecca this time:

  1. On page 36 The narrator talks about wanting to bottle memory and I could so relate! There are just those perfect moments that you wish you could somehow keep forever just the way they are. How would it be to uncork the memory at some later date and have it to relive all over again? But isn’t that the irony?  Those moments are so perfect because we are completely IN them.  We are present, not worried about the past or future, just there. I can relate to the narrator’s melancholy that comes afterward as well, when you realize you can’t bottle the memory and it will fade. The joy and sadness combined make the moment that much more powerful.
  2. On page 44 the narrator describes how traveling changes you.  You leave something behind whenever you a leave a place while at the same time part of that place comes with you and makes you a different person than you were before.  I love that about traveling.  And I love that reading books can have the same effect.
  3. In Chapter 15 Mrs. De Winter goes to visit Maxim’s grandmother.  She compares the elderly to children. They can both be a hassle and tiring, but we try to be polite anyway. She points out though, that we can remember being children and so can better understand them; maybe that gives us more patience.  We have not been old yet and so may not be able to relate as well. But as Mrs. De Winter thinks about how the grandmother may have been as a young lady, it gives her more sympathy.  My grandmother is declining with alzheimer’s and I could completely relate to the thoughts and feelings expressed.
  4. It’s fascinating how reading the book for the first time you can get caught up in the idea that Maxim must still be in love with Rebecca. The way Mrs. De Winter perceives all the events, descriptions, and interactions sure makes it seem that way.  And Rebecca played her deception well. But when you read it again know the truth there are so many hints and clues to the true nature of Rebecca and Maxim’s relationship.
  5. I have always been amazed at the clear picture of Rebecca that is painted for us and for Mrs. De Winter. She is dead from the start of the book and yet we learn more about her than we do of the narrator.  Of course because she is dead, all we know about Rebecca comes from people’s descriptions of her beauty and talents, and from the things she left behind. Her handwriting, her clothes, her coat, her smell, her habits as described by the staff, and her style still left at Manderley give Rebecca presence and influence even beyond the grave.  However, none of these things reveal her character and so we can be misled just like Mrs. De Winter.

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Rebecca – just a little taste

Rhododendron – you’ll never look at them the same after reading this book.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”  These words are like an old friend. They set the stage for the beautiful mystery that is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.

We moved to a new house a few weeks ago so reading has been a luxury I’ve given up the last month or so in order to do packing and unpacking. But tonight I wanted to escape into a story for awhile.  Maybe because my focus has been on our house recently I was drawn to a story in which a house plays such a significant role. You could say that the Manderley estate is one of the characters in Rebecca.  It’s the first thing we are introduced to; it’s the first chapter and the first line.

I was only able to read a chapter and a half tonight, but the beauty of the prose and the genius description in just those few pages completely pulled me in. “Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers.” Talk about perfection in verb and adjective usage. Du Maurier was an artist; she knew how to paint a picture with words.

This book makes it into my top 5 favorites. I have read it so many times I’ve lost count, and I can’t wait to get lost in its pages again. I’m looking forward to having a forum this time in which I can share the greatness of Rebecca with others, so I will keep my actual book review for after I finish, but this book is just SO GOOD right from the start that I had to share some love now. If you haven’t read Rebecca pick it up and let’s journey through it’s intricate characterization and haunting beauty together.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I tend to gush about the books I love, so here comes the gushing. This one is definitely in my top 10 all time favorite books, and probably even makes it into the top 5. Read it. It will make you and your life better.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads (with some of my own edits): January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb…. “ I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends and their book club – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This book boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all. Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.”

My Review

This enchanting historical fiction is so well-written and in such a creative way. My husband and I (before he was my husband) wrote letters to each other for 2 years while he was a missionary, and I love the unique element that brought to our relationship. Getting to know each other through words, through time and through distance is special. This book is written completely in letters between the characters; it’s how Juliet falls in love with her Guernsey friends before she ever meets them. As a reader you fall in love with them all right along with her, in that unique way that comes through sharing letters. You don’t just read about people in this book; you meet them. They come alive and you experience their journey with them rather than reading about it like a spectator.

Each of the main characters takes a turn as narrator when you read the letters written by them, but there is one major character that you don’t “meet” so personally as she never writes a letter. But the writing is so masterfully done that she feels just as real and warm as any of the other Guernsey residents. I was awed by the author’s ability to help me love and care for a character who is only “present” in the past.

The time period is just after WWII and a lot has been written about that time period. But this one is different. Even if you are a WWII expert, don’t pass this one by. One of my favorite historical aspects of it was learning more about life after the war, particularly for those in Europe whose homes had been bombed, who were living in rubble and with very little to help them rebuild their lives. And I had no idea that the island of Guernsey even existed before reading this, and I certainly had no idea it was occupied by the Nazis. Now I want to visit Guernsey just as much as I’d like to see Prince Edward Island or Hogwarts for that matter, all because of the beauty of this book.

Even though war and the pain that it brings are a theme of the book, it still winds up as uplifting and fun. I laughed, I cried, I pondered. I learned and relished every word. I love every theme it presented including the history, the romance, the strength of character, and the power of books and reading in our lives. I have read the book twice so far and I guarantee there will be a third reading. And a 4th, and 5th…

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Age Recommendation: The themes will be best understood by a mature readers. The aspects of war could be too harsh for some as well. So I say this book is for 16 and older.

Appropriateness: There is some profanity. Fornication and homosexuality are in the book but they are not focused on at all. Their mention is so brief and not graphic in the least. So if these things are offensive to you, I still don’t think you would find the book offensive. This is a perfect book club read.

Book Recommendations: If you like this one you should try Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Little Prince

This is one of my all time favorite books…Ok I’m going to take the leap and say it IS MY #1ALL TIME FAVORITE BOOK.  So to review it sufficiently will require a little of my personal history, biographical info about the author, and some interpretation and analysis. It will be just like high school English class all over again! (Get Excited! Get Get Excited! I say G-E-T..Sorry little high school flashback there.) But the book is just that great!

(Side note – I highly recommend the original English translation. The newer translations just lose some of the beauty and poetry of the language.)

It’s not easy to give athe_little_prince summary of The Little Prince. It’s one thing to tell what happens and another to explain what it is about. I can summarize the happenings by the end of this paragraph. It will take pages to attempt to express what it means to me. The story is told by a pilot who crashes in the Sahara desert, cut off from all civilization. As he is trying to fix his plane he hears a little voice request, “Draw me a sheep.” That is how he meets the golden-haired “Little Prince” who came to Earth with a flock of birds from his small planet. Over time the pilot learns of the other planets the Little Prince visited and more of the Prince’s own precious planet, and of the vain little flower that prompted him to leave it. In the process the pilot is reminded of what is essential for happiness.

Growing up I had a fascination with all things French and this book is just so FRENCH. My dad lived in France and Switzerland for 2 ½ years as a missionary so he spoke French fluently and introduced us to French foods and culture. He read to us Asterix and Obelix, Petit Nicolas, and of course The Little Prince. As a 9 year old I thought the grownups and their quirks were funny, and I found it refreshing to finally have someone give us kids a little credit for knowing important things too, to have someone finally understand how “tiresome [it is] for children to be always and forever explaining things to [the grownups].”  

planetThe idea of the Little Prince on his quaint little planet, barely bigger than a house, with volcanos to clean out (both the active and extinct since “one never knows…”) was as magical to me as any fairy tale. I fell in love the Little Prince, with his independent spirit and his desire to have friends and to care for them. I felt sad for him, being betrayed by his flower and having to leave her, then to have to leave the fox, and finally the pilot, but I respected his selflessness. I worried about those pesky Baobab roots, and I wanted to hold and hug the Little Prince to keep him away from the bite of the golden snake. But then I believed he made it back to his star so it was a happy ending after all.

The next time I read the book was for French class so I read it in it’s original French and I loved it even more, probably because the syntax in French is so much more poetic and beautiful but also because I was older and was able to pick out the deeper meaning. Also I learned more about the author in class and knowing his story definitely gives the book more impact.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a pilot and loved it. He flew in war and in times of peace and received many awards and recognitions for it. He wrote the The Little Prince while in New York trying to convince the US to join WWII; the dedication in the book makes a lot of sense when you realize he was worried about his friends in France who were suffering the deprivations of war. When I found out Saint-Exupery actually crashed in the Sahara desert during a flight it gave me a new perspective on The Little Prince; he truly knew what being stranded in the desert heat without water or help in sight was like, and yet he chose to write about it with the wit, tenderness, and innocence of a child’s perspective rather than the drama, suspense, and worry of an adult. I like his outlook on life. The most interesting fact of all about the author is that he mysteriously disappeared over the Mediterranean, much like The Little Prince’s body disappearing from the desert sand.  If you want to know more about Antoine de Saint-Exupery go here.

I have now read The Little Prince in French and English countless times and each time I am filled with a range of emotions; I laugh, I cry, I ponder. The book is often categorized as a fable or parable because the funny and tender anecdotes actually reveal the foibles and follies of humanity, as well as our strengths and purpose for living. Jesus Christ in the New Testament counseled to become as a little child, and this book advises the same. Keep the hope and faith that allows children to be fascinated by the world and to find joy in the smallest things, like shapes in the clouds or the comfort of a loved toy. Keep the ability to love, forgive, and befriend that comes to children so naturally. Spend time on the things that matter; look outside yourself, be brave and seek to understand and experience all the beauties this world has to offer, work hard to contribute to world around you, and develop relationships built on trust and sacrifice.THe Little Prince

It is so much more fun and so much more powerful to learn these truths as you follow the Little Prince’s journey, so if you haven’t read it before, do. Do it now! You will make a lifelong friend and “You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…In one of the stars [the Little Prince] shall be living. In one of them [he] shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.”

(You can find more of my favorite quotes from the book below.)

Age Recommendation: It is written as a children’s book with whimsical illustration so children will enjoy it. Probably 8 and older. But the true meaning of the story is for adults. The book dedication reminds us that “All grownups were once children though few of them remember it.” So I would say this book is for children and for the grownups who remember.

Appropriateness and Themes: Nothing to worry about here; the book content is clean and innocent as can be, but provides so much discussion material. This is a fantastic choice for book club, family read aloud, literature classes, and just for fun. Here is a list of discussion questions:

  1. What makes a career/hobby/pastime valuable? to yourself? to others?
  2. What does it mean to “tame” someone/something? Who/what has tamed you? Who/what have you tamed? How did you do it?
  3. What are the essential things that are invisible to the eye?
  4. How do adults lose the ability to see the elephant in the boa constrictor or the sheep in the box?
  5. baobabWhat baobab roots do you deal with in your life? What do you do on a daily basis to pull them up before they become a huge tree and take over?
  6. What experiences in your life have been as rewarding as the drink from the desert well for the pilot and The Little Prince?
  7. What reminders to you have in your life like the singing of the well and the stars serve as a reminder for the pilot?
  8. The Little Prince says, “Only the children know what they are looking for. They waste their time over a rag doll and it becomes very important to them; And if anybody takes it away from them they cry.” “They are lucky,” the switchman said. What do children teach us about connecting to people and things? What are they looking for that the adults lose sight of? What distracts the grownups from looking out the window as the train/life goes by? How do we get that knowledge and skill back?

Favorite Quotes

“I am looking for friends. What does that mean — tame?” “It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”  “To establish ties?”“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world….”

 

“People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”

 

“When a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey.” 

 

“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…” “They don’t find it,” I answered. “And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…” Of course,” I answered. And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”

 

“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”

 

“I do not much like to take the tone of a moralist. But the danger of the baobabs is so little understood, and such considerable risks would be run by anyone who might get lost on an asteroid, that for once I am breaking through my reserve. “Children,” I say plainly, “watch out for the baobabs!”

 

On our earth we are obviously much too small to clean out our volcanoes. That is why they bring no end of trouble upon us.”

 

I must endure the presence of two or three caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.” 

 

I myself own a flower…which I water everyday. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week…It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars.”

 

“Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”

 

“It is much more difficult to judge oneself than to judge others. If you succeed in judging yourself rightly, then you are indeed a man of true wisdom.”

 

“Why are you drinking? demanded the little prince. “So that I may forget,” replied the tippler. “Forget what?” inquired the little prince, who was already sorry for him. “Forget that I am ashamed,” the tippler confessed, hanging his head. “Ashamed of what?” insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.“Ashamed of drinking!”

 

That man [the lamplighter] would be scorned by all the others…Nevertheless he is the only one of them all who does not seem to me ridiculous. Perhaps that is because he is thinking of something else besides himself.”

 

“The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep. If anybody wants a sheep, that is a proof that he exists.” 

 

One never know where to find [the men]. The wind blows them away. They have not roots, and that makes their life very difficult.” – said by a flower

 

“What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…”