BOOK REVIEW: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


This is an oldie (originally published in 1989,) but I just got to it and must say that it’s one of the most skillfully crafted novels I’ve read in some time. One indication of this is that it is both highly readable and often nonlinear in storytelling. Stories that jump about in time have to keep the reader in a rapt state of attention and need to be written with multiple cues as to where one is in the timeline. Otherwise, if one misses a time transition, one is lost — and then the reading becomes a tedious slog. Irving maintains one’s attention through masterful revelation. The reader is always asking questions that are teased out until (at the optimal time) a revelation is made, but by that time one has a new slate of questions – all of which are resolved by book’s end.

The story revolves around the relationship between the titular character, Owen Meany, and the narrator – who is also Meany’s best friend, John Wheelwright. Owen Meany is a fascinating character mentally, physically, and spiritually. Mentally, he is at the top of his class and is often the smartest person in the room even when the room contains adults. Conversely, physically he is the tiniest kid in class and never grows out of that position, and he has a strange and grating voice that also isn’t cured by puberty. Spiritually, he is not only a person of iron-clad faith, he also believes he is God’s instrument. [Faith and doubt is a major theme of this novel.] The close relationship between Wheelwright and Meany is fire-forged by the trauma of Meany hitting a foul ball that careens into the temporal lobe of John’s mother, killing her instantaneously (and, perhaps more crucially, the relationship survives the the revelation that Owen believes he is God’s instrument.) It should be pointed out that Owen is also devastated by the foul ball killing. John’s mother, Tabitha Wheelwright, is as much a mother figure to him as to John, both because Owen’s mother is ambiguously not right in the head and because Tabitha says she will pay for anything necessary (beyond the scholarship he is sure to get) to allow Owen to go to the Gravesend Academy. (John comes from money but Owen is from a struggling blue-collar family, and so Owen couldn’t go to the prestigious school otherwise – even though he is academically much more suitable for such an educational environment.)

One fascinating aspect of character development is that Irving keeps the reader in Owen Meany’s corner. This is no small feat as the boy can be a bit of a pill, being a self-important know-it-all with a Biblical level of faith and (in some cases) dogmatism, as well as – oddly enough – a palpable disrespect for his own parents. One way this is done is by making Meany relatively reasonable, moral, and consistent – i.e. even when he is irksome it is usually in opposition to even more irksome forces. The other way that the author achieves this is by showing us that all the likeable characters in the book stay in Owen’s corner, as well. The most telling example of this is when John admits that he secretly hasn’t forgiven the batter two before Owen in the lineup for a play that allowed his friend to get to bat [while Owen, himself, is exonerated.] When John’s grandmother, who initially finds Owen to be painfully annoying, becomes Owen’s benefactor and primary maternal figure we know that there is something about this guy.

As kids who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, Owen and John enter adulthood at the height of the Vietnam conflict, and the story climax revolves around there diverging paths. Neither is a fan of the war, but Owen believes he has been called by God to participate for a very specific purpose. Therefore, he ends up in the bizarre situation of struggling to get sent to war while the Army finds him unfit for combat because of his diminutive stature (and his friends and family think he’s lost his mind.) The climax and conclusion tie up all the loose-ends generated by the book, including a few that one may have dismissed as purposeless “quirky behavior.”

Interspersed throughout the book are flash forwards to the “present day” (mid / late 1980’s.) These were the least appealing part of the book to read, though they did serve a purpose. For the most part, these sections consisted of John Wheelwright ranting about American politics or discussing his troubled relationship with the church he attends or the school at which he teaches. Ultimately, I saw these as a way to show John’s loathing for the American government and America because he believes they stole the genius of Owen Meany from him and from the world. As I was reading them, I wondered if they weren’t Irving’s way of getting across a loathing for the Reagan Administration and the Iran-Contra Affair. However, these parts also created an evocative lonely feel because one notices all the characters with strong individual identities are absent. This is not to say that the character of John Wheelwright / narrator is ill-developed, but he is a bit milquetoast compared to Owen or even characters like Hester or Grandmother. John’s obsession with national and institutional entities rather than individuals makes one feel the loss at points throughout that John has felt since Owen’s demise.

If you read fiction, this is a must-read. It is storytelling at its best. Despite excellent foreshadowing that lets the reader know the the book is on a tragic course, how this plays out is full of unexpected turns. The book is emotionally charged and intellectually engaging. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

The Old DriftThe Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel follows three Zambian families through three generations from before there was a Zambia (when it was Northern Rhodesia) into the near future. The nine chapters each correspond to a member of one of the families for a given generation. Throughout the first two parts — i.e. “Grandmothers” and “Mothers” — we occasionally see the lives of members of the three families bump into each other, but in the third (“Children”) we see them become entwined. The families are ethnically diverse. The grandmothers include an Italian and a Brit who married a black Rhodesian. And there is a mixed-race marriage involving an Indian merchant. While the diversity of the novel’s cast makes for some interesting considerations of identity (e.g. how one views oneself versus how one is viewed by others,) it’s not so much central to the story as it is a flavoring of the story.

While we learn in a prologue that the title is a term used by the locals living near Mosi-o-Tunya (Victoria Falls) regarding the Zambezi River, it takes on another meaning as the book’s theme. The thematic meaning has more to do with impotence to fix the country’s problems. In other words, the momentum of Zambia’s “drift” simply can’t be overcome. A central idea in the book is squandered potential. Each of the three grandmothers shows a potential for greatness that is wasted not only because they are women in a patriarchal society. Sibilla is afflicted with a condition in which hair grows over her entire body at an incredibly rapid rate. Agnes is a skilled tennis player until she goes blind. Matha is smart as a whip, but she becomes caught in the orbit of men who are dim.

Each character is caught in this inexorable “drift” that is littered with detritus like poverty, AIDS, technological dependence, and weak governance. By the time it comes to the third generation, they are not only loaded with potential but (to a large extent) have access to resources but they still can’t manage to advance on solutions. In fact, they can’t seem to help but to contribute to the problems they are set against. In a crucial scene, a confluence of the work of the three (Joseph’s vaccination, Jacob’s drones, and an embedded communication device worked on by Naila) all come together in an action that is just what they are trying to create a revolution against. [Not having control or autonomy, but rather being colonized in an entirely new kind of way.] The problem is so amorphous and vast that a consensus of what it even is can’t be agreed upon.

I picked up this book as part of my project to read literature from every country I visit, and I’m glad I did. It’s hard to imagine a book that is more useful for that purpose because it covers so much ground in terms of the history of the country and the lives of a range of Zambians from prostitutes living in shacks to the wealthy elite — not to mention the various minorities.

The book is literary fiction, centered on the characters, but a story does unfold as well as a powerful thematic exploration. The book isn’t easily classified. There is even an element of science fiction in that “beads” [imagine a smart phone built into the human hand, using neuro-electrical energy for power] are an important plot device and are relevant in the resolution of the story. There is this technology being made available to Zambians, free or at low-cost, but they are guinea pigs and have no say in how it works, when it works, or how it’s used. (In a way, that is the story of us all and is not unique to Zambia, Africa, or even the developing world.) This technological dependence is presented as a kind of neo-colonialism, and – in that regard – it’s railed against, even as people are addicted to the tech in the same way people are to their phones today. While “Bead” and advanced drone technology are central to the story, one wouldn’t call this science fiction, per se, but it’s hard to ignore the salience of technology as an element of power (and how that plays into the story.)

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. While it may be particularly intriguing if you have a special interest in African or Zambian literature, one need not have a particular interest for the book to be engaging and a worthwhile read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

LessLess by Andrew Sean Greer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The book’s eponymous protagonist, Arthur Less, goes on an eight-country world tour in order to avoid the wedding of his ex-boyfriend and the emotional turmoil inherent in that event. Faced with a looming invitation, Less isn’t up for the torture of attending, but neither can he decline without a good reason without seeming petty, sullen, or both. And, even if he does decline, he doesn’t want to be around the acquaintances who will pity him, attempt to comfort him, or both. With that in mind, he gathers together a collection of invitations for writing assignments, a writers’ conference, and an adjunct teaching assignment, and cobbles together an itinerary that will keep him out of the country until well after the wedding.

Less is a novelist of some renown, which is to say one of his books was highly regarded — though his others were far less so — and he long-lived in the shadow of one of America’s great men of letters with whom he had a long-term relationship. The comedic tone of the book is set by the hapless nature we see in the character. He finds himself a secondary figure in the high-brow world of American literature, but is never completely at ease and confident in that space. Of course, when he sets out traveling in Mexico, Europe, Morocco, India, and Japan, he finds himself even less at ease than usual.

There are various mishaps along the way that make this book comedic in nature, but it also has a nostalgic melancholy about it. Not only did Less’s relationship break up followed rapidly by his ex-boyfriend becoming engaged, but one thing will happen during his travels that he can’t escape – he will turn 50. This milestone causes him to reflect upon what he might have done differently, but also causes him concern that he hasn’t enough life left to make a good go of living – either as a writer or as someone who would like to be in a relationship again.

I won’t get into the ending in detail, but will say that I was pleased to see that it didn’t just peter out into Less’s return home, but rather leaves the reader with some food for thought via the turn of events one learns about.

Needless to say, I’d recommend this book for fiction readers – particularly literary fiction readers, though it is light, readable, and short for literary fiction. This book won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A young couple falls in love in an undesignated Middle Eastern country, but when violence flares out of control they are forced to flee. The novel follows this couple as they cross through various “doorways,” moving from one country to the next, trying to find someplace where they can settle into a peaceful life.

What makes this love story so intriguing is its exploration of the varied ways in which individuals cope with the challenges of refugee life. The male lead, Saeed, is close to his parents, who are professionals, at the beginning of the story. He’s been raised in a middle-class devout but moderate Muslim household. Saeed seeks out his own people and takes solace not only in Islam, but in the culture of his countrymen more generally. His girlfriend, Nadia, is on the outs with her family because she moved out on her own and she was too modern and progressive for the tastes of her traditional family. She’s a non-believer, and the religion and culture with which she was raised are objects she is more than willing to put in her rearview mirror. (To make it interesting, Nadia wears the burka, not because she is devout, but because it’s somewhat successful at keeping the guys from pawing her. This makes her appear devout, when she is anything but.) Nadia tries to assimilate into whatever community she finds herself. What begins as a comfortable “opposites attract” set of differences becomes an ever-widening chasm as the two are exposed to the stresses of refugee life.

This book is written in a sparse style. It does a lot of telling versus showing. However, that seems to work because some of what it does show the reader is so visceral that some straight-forward exposition of the character’s feelings forms a palate cleanser. The story is specifically vague about how the characters move from place to place. This is clearly on purpose to capture the nature of refugee travel, which is so different from the looking out windows and snapping photos that ordinary travelers do. It also allows the author to portray the refugee routes as portals that open and close on different locales as authorities on either end shut them down. They aren’t the firmly established transportation corridors ordinary travelers move through, but rather ephemeral windows of opportunity.

There are little vignettes about individuals apparently unrelated to the story in each chapter. Through them, I think the author just wishes to convey the global nature of this phenomenon. I didn’t find these bits added much, but the also didn’t take up much space or time, and so didn’t detract from the story.

I enjoyed this story. It reads clearly and quickly, and has a nice tight theme and story arc. I’d recommend it for fiction reads, particularly those interested in a story about being a refugee in the modern world.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk

The Man Who Spoke SnakishThe Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I read this book as part of my continuing effort to read at least one book from every country to which I’ve traveled. Kivirähk’s book came highly recommended for Estonia on a list by diplomats who were asked to provide a book that offers insight into the country where they served. At first blush, this book seems like an odd selection for such a purpose because it’s a fantasy novel (rather than the character-centric literary fiction that typically offers deep insight about the culture from which the book’s characters reside.) However, I came away from this book feeling that I had learned something about the Estonian national character, if while immersed in a question which has much broader applicability.

The book revolves around the tension between the forest people and the those who’ve moved to the villages. The main character is among the last of the people who live in the forest. Among the traditional skills he learns is how to speak a language called “Snakish,” which is not only the language of snakes, but which also serves as a kind of lingua franca (common language) among many of the species of the forest. A central question of the book is whether this man will be the last to speak Snakish – representing mankind’s expulsion from the natural realm. He is a boy at the beginning of the book, and as he’s learning Snakish, the only other speakers are advanced in age. In essence, the book explores whether the old ways will survive, and – in particular – the ways of humans living in nature instead of thinking themselves above it.

The villagers are enamored with all things foreign. They are passionate converts to Christianity. They gaze admiringly upon knights and monks. They take up any new technology that is introduced. (Needless to say, the time of the story is ambiguously pre-Industrial revolution, when agriculture and feudalism prevailed.) While the villagers look upon the forest people as backwards, just as people today might assume the forest-dwellers to be more superstitious and simpler, what we read is a twist in which the forest people find the villagers to be superstitious and woefully out-of-touch with the ways of nature. The villagers live in fear of nature because they have separated themselves from it, and – following the newly introduced Christian beliefs – they believe they are above nature and that all other creatures are under their dominion to do as they see fit. Of course, nature doesn’t yield easily to the desires of man, and the villagers are forced into the contradiction of thinking themselves superior to nature while at the same time being terrified of the creatures who live in the forest and – for that matter – the forest itself. The simple dichotomy of good and evil that foreigners have introduced is also in contrast with the more nuanced and, arguably, more sophisticated views of the forest-dwellers.

What the reader sees in this story mirrors what we have seen in our world, which is that mankind’s culture continues to leave a progressively bigger mark on the natural world – but not without a cost. On the other side of the coin, aboriginal ways are dying out. In a way, it’s the story of human development shrunk down to the scale of a few characters.

This is an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it for all readers. The story is intense and keeps one reading, but it’s thought-provoking at the same time as it entertains.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cold Days by Tibor Cseres

Cold DaysCold Days by Tibor Cseres
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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During the Second World War, there was a massacre conducted by the Hungarian military in the Yugoslavian town now called Novi Sad (known as Újvidék under the Hungarians.) The operation was meant to be a cleanup of Yugoslavian partisans, but the casualties were primarily innocent civilians. The novel is called “Cold Days” (i.e. literally translated from the Hungarian “Hideg Napok”) because the killings took place during a cold snap in January of 1942. Cseres bases his novel on this real world event, but he tells the story through the lens of four fictional military men who are sharing a cell for their respective actions in Novi Sad.

The novel weaves five narrative lines into an overall arc. Four of these are the personal stories of each of the four soldiers during the massacre and the time leading up to it, and the fifth takes place later when they are all together in the cell. The four characters have no connection before being placed in the same cell—or so it seems. At most, the officers know of each other. The five lines come together in the end and the reader sees how the four lives are no longer in strict isolation, but are connected by the events of that day—in some cases more severely than others.

Captain Büky is the highest ranking of the prisoners and is a straight-laced military man except that he takes issue with the order than keeps married men from bringing their families to station at Novi Sad. Prior to the massacre and some killings that instigated it, it’d been a routine assignment. Lieutenant Tarpataki is a new assignee, and his principal trouble is that he arrives to find that he hasn’t been assigned housing or a billet. Lieutenant Pozdor gets his men taken from his control by the police chain of command and is left hiding out trying to avoid being assigned some remedial task. Corporal Szabo is both the only enlisted man in the group and the only one who is directly involved with the violence, though a Cpl. Dorner takes the lead and Szabo is a follower.

If that cast doesn’t seem like the kind of villainous blackguards one expects of a massacre crew, I think that that is part of what the author is trying to convey. Run-of-the-mill men stumble down slippery slopes into treachery during times of war. Sometimes the worst go unpunished, while others take the fall. The author also shows that sides can matter little when it comes to such events. Anyone can suffer loss when events tumble out of control as they did in January of 1942 on frigid day in Novi Sad.

This book is translated from Hungarian. It’s sparse and simple writing, and readability is high. It’s a short book of only about 120 pages.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in tales of the horrors of war. It may have interest to history as well as fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa

Death in the AndesDeath in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Three men disappear from a small mining village in the Peruvian Andes. The army sends two investigators, Corporal Lituma and his adjutant Tomás, to get to the bottom of the apparent murders. Suspects include Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) guerilla-terrorists and a number of locals. For some of the locals, there’s another possibility, the various demons and deities attributed to each of the mountains in the Andes.

“Death in the Andes” follows the time that the investigators spend in this remote village. There are two major story lines taking place at once. One narrative arc revolves around the investigation and day-to-day living in a tiny town under primitive living conditions. The second story line comes by night as the deputy, Tomás, recounts his love affair with a girl who was out of his league in almost every way—except, perhaps, with respect to virtuous living. The girl was in a relationship with an abusive gangster at the start, a condition that Tomás found untenable. His love-driven reaction creates all manner of drama, and that drama serves as the only entertainment to be had in this remote village.

The book is literary fiction, but it’s not purely about the characters. As suggested, there’s a strong narrative element. While the book is in a realist genre, i.e. nothing in it feels like it couldn’t happen in our universe, the fact that the story takes place in an area of the Andes where the Shining Path is strong and mother nature is harsh means that there’s plenty of tension and suspense.

This is book is translated from Peruvian, and it seemed to me that the translator did a fine job of capturing the feel of the rural Andes. A few Spanish terms are used for terms like terrorists and avalanches to create a feel of a unique character of these concepts relative to this place. However, there are only a couple of these terms and so context is sufficient for the reader to readily keep them straight even if one is not gifted in picking up foreign terminology.

In general, the book is quite readable. The most challenging part of reading it is when Tomás is telling his story because you have a three-way conversation going on over two time periods at once. (i.e. Tomás voices himself and his girl as he tells their story, but then Cpl. Lituma chimes in periodically with questions—or, more commonly, commentary.) However, the author uses dialogue tags throughout to avoid confusion. One just needs to be attentive in one’s reading of these sections.

I enjoyed this story. I picked up this book both because Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 and I like to read something by winners, but also because I’ve trekked in the Peruvian Andes and translated literature often offers one a unique form of insight into a place. This was no exception.

I’d recommend this book for readers of fiction. If one is looking to broaden one’s horizons into literary fiction and /or translated fiction, this book is a good place to start. It offers humor and intrigue as well as deep characters and an infusion of geography and culture.

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BOOK REVIEW: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian WoodNorwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Norwegian Wood is about a quintessentially normal and likable guy named Toru Watanabe who has a thing for women who range between eccentric and completely off their rockers. The story is delivered as a flash back as an adult Watanabe mulls over his college days, during which all of these relationships took place.

At the center of his various relationships is his love for Naoko, who had been the girlfriend of Watanabe’s high school best friend until said friend committed suicide. Naoko is a beautiful girl in a fragile state–haunted by her former boyfriend’s suicide and probably a little unstable of her own nature. On the other hand, Watanabe begins a platonic relationship with another girl, Midori, who is sane, but a bit of a wild child and not devoid of her own neuroses. While, of the two, Midori is better for him, he cannot bring himself to take their relationship to the next level as long as Naoko is around—even though Naoko is institutionalized. A third woman, Hatsumi, is dating Watanabe’s college best friend, and she seems to represent the sweet, stable woman who Watanabe doesn’t seem to attract. Incidentally, Hatsumi eventually commits suicide. [Warning: this book is rife with suicide and probably has the highest rate of suicide of any novel I’ve ever read—fortunately it’s a relatively small cast of characters and so this amounts to only a few deaths.]

The character development and story are both excellent. Though I will say the character of Naoko is underdeveloped, but I suspect that is on purpose. I couldn’t tell whether Watanabi had reason to be so madly in love with her, or whether that was his curse. (I suspected the latter.) In contrast, Midori is tremendously likable, and– despite her kookiness–she is the kind of person almost anybody would be drawn to at least as a friend—though some might find it trying to be in an extended romantic relationship with her.

Murakami intersperses humor into this book with its overall somber tone. A lot of this is in the form of dialogue between Watanabe and Midori, or Watanabe and Reiko (Reiko is Naoko’s roommate at the institution and is an older woman for whom Watanabe holds a measure of affection as well.) (Among my favorite quotes is [paraphrasing], “I don’t like being alone. No one likes being alone. I just hate being disappointed.”) These flourishes of humor both add to the readability and the realism of the story.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who enjoys literary fiction. Not that it’s hard to digest literary fiction. It’s very readable, but if you need something beyond realism to hold your attention, this is probably not the book for you. Unlike some of Murakami’s speculative fiction, this work is quite centered in realism. [Though, it does have a fairly high body count.]

There was a movie adaptation made a few years back. I haven’t seen it, and so couldn’t tell how closely it follows the novel, but from the trailer suspect it’s as close as can be expected.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The title of this novel about the doomed love affair of two cancer-riddled teens says a great deal, and—while lifted from Shakespeare–it’s well-chosen. The lead character is a sixteen-year-old girl named Hazel who has lungs that, as she puts it, “suck at being lungs.” She meets a boy, Augustus, at support group who is in remission, but who had a leg amputated in the process of achieving his momentary cancer-free status. Hazel takes an immediate liking to the handsome and charismatic Augustus (i.e. “Gus”), but remains standoffish because she is–to use her own words–“a grenade.” Meaning that she is going to die young, leaving her loved ones devastated. She has enough guilt about the fact that she will do this to her parents, but is unwilling to subject Gus to the same fate. Augustus, however, is an ardent and skillful wooer and eventually wears Hazel down with his winning ways and selfless acts.

This isn’t a typical read for me by a long shot. It’s written in the language of YA fiction, and it’s brutally depressing in places. Neither of the aforementioned characteristics usually draw me in. However, despite its sad subject matter, the book has a sense of humor that is essential to keep the story from crushing one’s will to continue reading. Of course, the fact that all the major young characters are dying is a cloud ever-present throughout the book. I will say it’s the most viscerally emotional novel I’ve read in some time. The only books this depressing that I’ve read recently were nonfiction works on Pol Pot era Cambodia and the Holocaust.

The strength of the book is its characters. They may be atypically intelligent, clever, and well-spoken teens, but they are intriguing, likable, and well-developed characters. Besides Hazel and Gus, there is a secondary character named Isaac who has a form of cancer that isn’t highly lethal but which does claim his eyes. Hazel and Gus are in one way polar opposites. Gus, the former star athlete, is ever concerned about his legacy, but the less ambitious Hazel believes that everyone fades into oblivion rapidly. These divergent perspectives of similarly doomed youths give one insight into the varied approaches to experiencing one’s mortality.

Another intriguing character is Peter Van Houten, a one-time American writer living in Amsterdam and the heir to a fortune off which he lives as a professional drunk. Van Houten wrote a single book about a person who dies young, which turns out to be based on his own child and is Hazel’s favorite book. Gus reads the book to please Hazel, but becomes genuinely intrigued with its ambiguous ending. Van Houten is an unpleasant character, but his book is a focal point of the storyline. The couple takes a trip to Amsterdam to try to get answers about the novel’s abrupt ending, and this experience proves to be the pivotal point in their relationship. Van Houten–jackass as he may be–does end up passing on some useful wisdom to Hazel and Gus.

I rate this book highly for being readable, captivating, and gripping. I would recommend it for those who don’t usually read YA, though the language and focus is decidedly geared toward a YA audience.

It should be noted that the film adaptation will come out this summer. For some reason they filmed it in Pittsburgh instead of the story’s real setting—and my one-time home—Indianapolis, Indiana. I’ll try not to hold this against it, too much.

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