Monday, February 24, 2014

best friends forever: a book club review

You know how sometimes you just want to hunker down with a meal of comfort food - something fairly quick and simple, something likely high carb that you know isn't really great for you, but it's just once in a while so you go for it. You know how you dig in, scarf it down in an unstoppable flash, then look around, wonder where it all went and why you couldn't stop, and maybe suffer just a little indigestion? For me, that was reading Best Friends Forever, my first Jennifer Weiner novel. 

I'm familiar with Jennifer Weiner mostly from twitter, where she is frequently to be found defending her works and that of other female writers against such slanderous labels as 'writers of chick lit.' I like her - she's clever and articulate and accessible. She is, despite her live tweeting of The Bachelor, a fairly consistent feminist - in her words, an "unlikely feminist enforcer." Her name kept popping up, though I was not, I thought, familiar with her writing.

Once I started poking around I realized she has quite a sizable body of work, including In Her Shoes which was made into a chick flick starring Toni Colette and Cameron Dias. Oh, maybe if her books aren't supposed to be chick lit, then the movie shouldn't be a chick flick. Yes, the label can be dismissive and reductive, but it is not always derogatory, and Lord KNOWS I do not want to be on the receiving end of Weiner's wrath, but if this isn't chick lit I don't know what to call it. 

Weiner argues that because the central relationships of her heroines' stories are generally between two women - mothers and daughters, sisters, friends - that her stories are substantially different from 'chick lit.' Given that test, Sex and the City is not chick fiction. However, if Best Friends Forever is representative, the central relationship is still just a stage on which to act out the usual female concerns of chick lit, namely finding/keeping a man, body image/being typically attractive, being a good daughter/sister/mother/lover. The happy ending still has to happen, and it's still measured by the standard yard stick. 

The other assertion I've read is that because Weiner addresses difficult subjects and includes darkness in her stories (in this case rape, infertility, revenge, bullying, loss through death and injury, and child hood neglect are all plot points, though never exactly themes)  her stories are more than 'chick lit.' I'll be honest though, the first hint of queasiness I experienced in reading this book was a  passing minimization of domestic violence (which obviously doesn't sit well with me), and from there I was on the alert. Instead of being fully in the story, I had pulled back into evaluating. A willingness to mention heavy subjects is one thing; actually dealing with them head on takes a fortitude that didn't show in this story. 

There's a library's worth of conversation in all of this: How/why do we sort books or movies or music into genres? Does art have a higher moral obligation than simply to delight and entertain? Should stories by female writers be judged on different standards than stories by male writers? Do feminist writers have a duty to deeply explore feminist themes? They are conversations Weiner is actively engaged in, and yet ... I am not fully reassured. 

The truth is, I devoured this story. I bought it on a Thursday and finished it by Sunday morning. I read late into the night and giggled and sighed. I also scowled. I was fully invested in the heroine Addie Downs - recovering fatty, tender-hearted, loving, loyal and good. She was a little too good, but she was still identifiable. I wanted to love the friendship between her and the oh so much less lovable Valerie, her lost and found best friend. I believed the ugliness of the high school bullies, the floundering love of the various parents in the story. I wished I was with Shiney to talk about what we've experienced in our 40+ year best friendship, in our families, in our personal tragedies, in my struggles with my weight. There is humanity in this story. But there is also some skirting of serious issues that left me with ... indigestion. Not every novel needs to be the one of the over-wrought tragedies beloved by Oprah and her book club, but not every laugh can be one of discomfort. I'm fine with fluff. And I'm fine with the tough stuff. I'm not fine with treating the tough stuff like fluff. 

Read Best Friends Forever - definitely read it. Maybe with a bag of chocolate covered almonds and a big glass of a fat red wine beside you. But read it with questions in your mind, with an awareness of what truly matters, and an understanding that a good story is one thing, but a story with value is something more.

* By the way, I've mentioned before that when I read I do it with an eye to learning about writing. At the end of the edition of Best Friends Forever that I read, there was an author's interview with Jennifer Weiner. One of the questions was about the role of the protagonist and his relative importance to the story. In her answer, Weiner revealed that there had been six drafts of the story - some VASTLY different from the final version. I learned so much from that one answer: writing takes real work and commitment. The first draft is not the final story. Let the characters grow and change. Be open to feedback and revision. And write write write. 

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The best part of book club is book club. As much as I LOVE reading, reading and then discussing the books with a group of intelligent, funny, diverse women is a hundred times better.

It was such a relief to be among the ladies again tonight, to be settled into comfortable furniture, eating delicious food, drinking our wine, and sharing our thoughts. Tonight dinner was drawn from the 'single woman' theme of the book and so included popcorn and a cheese plate and ice cream - and of course the wine. But the main course - a fabulous dish-your-own Glory Bowl a la 'Whitewater Cooks' was simultaneously satisfying and comforting and nourishing. It had whatever ingredient the book was missing. 

As one would expect in a meeting of 7 women, there were those of us tonight who have had personal experiences with some of the tougher issues mentioned in the book. I take it as a great sign of our growth as a club that everyone present was comfortable sharing about those experiences, and an even greater sign that the listeners were grateful for being shared with.

This is what women's relationships really look like, for me. Being honest. Laughing. Talking about things that have happened. Hearing each other, being moved, and moving on. I was reminded as I drove home - filled up with friendship and appreciation for the ladies - just how very much female friendships mean to me, and just how terrible I am at being the one to keep them alive. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

the fault in our stars: a review

"Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death."

So begins John Green's novel The Fault in our Stars, and so begins my enthrallment with Hazel Grace Lancaster, Augustus Waters, the author John Green, and the whole sweet tragic violent comic tale.

John Green was unknown to me until STG introduced me to him as one half of the Vlog Brothers - one of the many YouTube channels STG follows. Ya ya, a vlogger (snickerYouTubeFamoussnicker) who writes, I thought. That doesn't make him a real writer, I thought. I'm sure his books only sell to the geeks (the Vlog Brothers inspire an army called 'nerdfighters' - I'm not kidding) who follow him on YouTube and Twitter, I thought. 

And then The Fault in Our Stars was published, and got rave reviews, and debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for children's chapter books (more on that in a minute), and has stayed on the list for 62 weeks thus far. Nerdfighters can't account for that; incredible writing, taut story-telling, recognizable characters you want to cheer for, and a brilliant turn of phrase can't even account for that. The Fault in Our Stars is one of those rare books that combines all the things you look for, and something more - or in this case several somethings more - that elevate it into ... a lesson free from pedantry, a fable without moral, a melody you can't quite place but want to hum along to. It's the kind of book that gets re-read and cherished. 

The Fault in Our Stars is classified as a young adult novel, but it's so much more than the silly label applied for the convenience of marketers and librarians. I enjoy young adult novels that don't speak down to or preach at their audience. I loved the Hunger Games trilogy, still enjoy rereading some of the stories of my youth, and don't consider the YA label a reason not to consider a read. However, I will admit that I rarely expect them to encourage me to consider things newly, to present ontological and philosophical puzzles to ponder, and to send me to the dictionary to clarify vocabulary. The Fault in Our Stars did all of that while remaining utterly accessible and readable. 

For those of you wondering just what the book is about, the first-person narrator Hazel is the star of the show, living with incurable cancer and falling in love for the first (only?) time. Hazel's sweetheart Augustus (Gus) is a heartthrob who lost a leg to cancer. Cancer is appropriately inescapable throughout the story. While all Hazel, Gus and their friends want is to be normal children, they know that can never be. Once a cancer diagnosis is delivered, life is never the same. So they joke about the 'cancer perks' that come with being visibly ill, tease each other about their particular physical limitations, preserve what dignity they can. And, they are teenagers. They want freedom from their parents, except when they don't; they want to borrow the car; they explore their sexuality; they make snarky, funny, borderline inappropriate comments. I don't want to talk about the plot - it's a short novel packed with movement with exquisite pacing I have no interest in undermining. 

One caveat: John Green does not shy away from the 'civil war' that is cancer attacking the body it feeds on. Cancer is completely invasive in a body and in this novel - the story wouldn't exist without it. I recognized in his writing some of the moments I witnessed in supporting a friend as she died of cancer - her wish that people would talk to her about something else, how determined she was to preserve her curly red hair, how annoyed she was her last Christmas to only receive pyjamas as gifts, the battle to be more than her diagnosis in the eyes of her friends and family. I watched and listened and helped her plan her funeral. But I have not faced cancer as a mother, or as a daughter, or as a lover. I found Green's handling of it honest and appropriate, but for those people who have had cancer attack even closer to home, it might be a difficult read.
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