book review: The Fault In Our Stars and Are You My Mother?

The practical reason I’m reviewing these books in the same post is that they are both due at the library. But also, each of them led me to do something I hadn’t done for a long time.

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John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars is as good as you’ve heard. At least right now I think it is– my reaction to it was all emotion. I stayed up til midnight finishing the book, and I haven’t done that for ages. I was a little teary at one point when we were getting on toward the end, and then I read something that made me say “WHAT?” and burst out crying…and laughing…and then crying…and laughing. I mean, loudly, with a bandana’s worth of nose-blowing. I was kind of a wreck until the end.

(I’m not a nerdfighter, btw. I didn’t get much out of Looking for Alaska except “troubled-girl trouble at prep school, blech.” And John Green is so omnipresent on the internet that I have a perpetual “oh, he’ll still be around when I get around to him” attitude. So this was a surprise.)

I don’t know how I’ll feel about the book in a couple of weeks, but wow. And I do think that Hazel and Vera Dietz would be friends, so that’s a good sign.

If you’ve finished the book, there’s an author Q&A tumblr here.

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Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? prompted me to whip out my little notebook and take notes, and I hadn’t done that in a long time either. It was a very thinky book for me. I had hoped that all my little notes would coalesce into a beautiful essay and my life as an English major would come to fruition, but this did not happen. They stayed little notes in my notebook:

  • I have a soft spot for books and essays that fill in with literary history and criticism– Flaubert’s Parrot being a good example. I wouldn’t have liked Are You My Mother? as much as I did if it didn’t include Virginia Woolf as well as the psychoanalysts.
  • The world of psychoanalysis seems so small. Not only in the sense that its practitioners all seemed to know each other (“She supervised him for five years. He analyzed her son.”) or that it is jargony (“I associated to [topic x]” was a phrase that made me recoil), but that it is all focused on this exclusively human, nuclear-family-based storytelling. I guess I am used to always stepping back and looking at social constructions, and biology that includes other species.
  • And yet what a perfect match that is for the pains-taking of Bechdel’s drawing and documentation. I was struck by how many hours she must have spent drawing writing, re-drawing her own journals, newspaper headlines, textbooks. Printed, handwritten, her own, others.
  • Her interest in transitional objects reminded me of Lynda Barry’s explaining what an image is, in terms of a young child’s doll or toy. It is alive, and it isn’t. It is you, and it isn’t. Maybe this is a natural preoccupation for a cartoonist who is drawing herself over and over.
  • omg, the part that casually mentions that uterine fibroids sometimes have hair and teeth? A lot of cartoonists would have gone to town drawing that. I am glad she didn’t.

A few of the connections did strike me as a little forced, particularly in the part about mirrors–though I’ll happily sling Lacan some of the blame for that. And I don’t really get the end. A way out from what? It seemed arbitrary, albeit self-consciously so because in the recursive story of her family and her book there’s no clear beginning or endpoint. BUT. In the heart of the book (around page 194, says my note), I began to feel I was being shown an intricate network of relationships, reflecting and affecting each other. A subtle, fragile system that was much more complex than literary “themes” repeating, and that did not seem self-centered. I think she got somewhere.

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