Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

In the year and a half I’ve run this blog, I’ve found that the more I love a book, the more I struggle to write the book review. That’s the case with The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

I finished this book on January 8, 2021, and I’m only just now writing this review. (Although I blame part of that on the stress of the Department of Education-related investigation that’s monopolized much of the last year for me.) I’m behind on my Lifetime Reading List plans for 2021—several books behind, in fact—and yet…I can’t find the energy to care all that much.

Partially because this really is only a hobby book blog. More so, though, because I think The Fault in Our Stars impacted me in a way I wasn’t expecting. In the past, The Fault in Our Stars has caused me a few issues, as detailed in this post on my other blog (Trigger Warning: I mention sexual assault in that post). However, this time, I think what hit me the hardest about the star-crossed, little infinity love story between August Waters and Hazel Grace Lancaster is that I finally understand how some infinities are bigger than other infinities, as Peter Van Houten explains to the protagonists in Amsterdam.

John Green’s book is powerful, to be sure. I haven’t often been able to read a Y.A. novel more than once, let alone nearly a half-dozen times, like I have The Fault in Our Stars, all but the latest of which were negative experiences for me (for reasons beyond Green’s control, that is). The pure innocence of both Hazel and Augustus alike, as well as their acceptance of the hard-knock life they’re both leading, is inspiring. And, perhaps most poignantly for me as a leukemia survivor, the way Hazel resolves to make the most of the time she has left following the death of Augustus is a vivid reminder of what I’m still doing here.

When I was going through cancer, I was one of thirty-six kids my family of origin and I got to know well during that two-and-a-half year time frame. Four of us are still alive.

Four.

Three of us are now married; two of us have kids. I don’t know how the other one is doing beyond the fact that she’s still in remission. It’s unreal to me that I am one of a fraction of survivors in our group—and one of a fraction of survivors nationally and globally.

I’ve long believed that it’s my duty to live each day I have to the fullest. Life is a gift for all of us, and the fact that I’m alive when so many have died makes that gift all the more precious to me. In that sense, I can relate to Hazel, who knows she will eventually die—like we all will—yet resolves to live her life more fully because she gets to live. Hazel gets to live in the After of Augustus Waters.

Even for folks who haven’t had a life-threatening illness, there’s a universal truth to that.

We’re all alive—cancer or not—because our ancestors fought and survived unimaginable things. When I think of my kids’ future, I can’t imagine it without them asking questions about the COVID-19 Pandemic and how we managed to survive it and stay completely healthy; we’ve done it because we do not leave the house. We’re desperate to some days, but unless we have to go to the store for an essential item (food, home repair, toiletries) or to work (with masks and social distancing), we haven’t been social in months. We haven’t been to the zoo or a museum or plays or even a restaurant. It’s a little cabin-fever-y sometimes (a lot of the time—toddlers are energetic and loud, let’s say) and I definitely miss seeing friends, taking my kids to the zoo, but it’s worth it. And, in the big picture of human history, it’s a small sacrifice, especially when compared to what my great-grandparents faced by evacuating Italy shortly before World War I broke out across Europe. They came to America and to build a life—a family—that made it possible for me to even exist.

We’re all alive because someone, somewhere in time, decided to do more, fight for something, and survive whatever tried to kill them—famine, persecution, war, poverty, disease, and more. If one person had made one different choice, we might not even be here.

And doesn’t that reality give us something unique and all our own to live for, too?

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a five-star book. It’s the type of book that makes the reader think, encouraging the reader to imagine a life with less privilege than they have—and I believe that we’re not all privileged equally, to be clear. Whether we have health or wealth or something else, someone longs for what we have and we may do the same with what they have. Nonetheless, the love story of Augustus and Hazel certainly reminds us to make the most of what we have, exactly where we are…and to love those we know in the time we have together.

The Audacity of Hope

It wasn’t just the struggles of these men and women that had moved me. Rather, it was their determination, their self-reliance, a relentless optimism in the face of hardship. It brought to mind a phrase that my pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., had once used in a sermon.

The audacity of hope.

That was the best of the American spirit, I thought—having the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict; the gall to believe that despite personal setbacks, the loss of a job or an illness in the family or a childhood mired in poverty, we had some control—and therefore responsibility—over our own fate.

It was that audacity, I thought, that joined us as one people.

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (p. 356)

-Reading these words two nights before the 46th Presidential Inauguration was a profound experience. Although Barack Obama’s words above are aged fifteen years, they could be said anew in light of the past four years—perhaps especially 2020—as Americans.

Listening to President Biden’s many speeches yesterday, Barack Obama’s words resounded constantly in my mind. The joyful tears—the tears of relief—and the celebrations that rang in President Biden yesterday are the audacity of hope in action.

My friends and I have spent many hours discussing what we hoped a Biden presidency would mean for our country, and one day in, so many of our hopes are coming to fruition. A responsible reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. A commander-in-chief who understands the value of foreign relationships and allies. A man of science who strives to combat climate change. A man of humanity who will protect immigrants.

A leader who realizes that his number-one duty is to put people first, not just Americans or misguided, self-absorbed interests with short-term benefits and long-term consequences.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama is an inspiring book. I’ve sent many passages to loved ones, sharing how what Obama describes is poignant or reminds me of their spirit…which, in turn, reminds me of what there is within Obama that makes him an incredible leader. As a writer (like his speeches), Obama could be a tad long-winded at times, although enjoyably so. The Audacity of Hope is not a quick read, but it is a necessary read. Throughout the entire book, Obama referenced experiences at home (both literally and nationally) and abroad, and I think that makes the world feel a little bit smaller—like we all really are in this together.

And in that spirit of togetherness, even though our nation feels more fractured than ever (at least, in our lifetimes) the words of Barack Obama ring especially true. Normally, I’d write several more paragraphs explaining why others should read this book, but today, I think the words above are case enough. Americans definitely do have a spirit of perseverance in their dreams, both citizens and citizens-to-be alike. We are not all be as liberated as we deserve to be in the so-called Land of the Free, yet we are certainly brave enough in our hope to make it happen…we have the audacity of hope.

Lifetime Reading List: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

As I stated on my personal blog, Don’t Ask Liv, reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has been quite the experience for me—and not for reasons that are altogether associated with the book.

Last week, I posted “Dear Brutus,”, which explains why The Fault in Our Stars is difficult for me. I’m a cancer survivor, so reading books about cancer is a hurdle; I always worry if the author has done their research about the experience of treatment itself as opposed to merely the types of treatment available. When I first read The Fault in Our Stars in high school, I thought Green was fair about it, saving the most gruesome aspect for the end. Then, I discovered This Star Won’t Go Out by Esther Earl, Lori Earl, and Wayne Earl, which is the story of Esther Grace Earl, who somewhat inspired Green to write Hazel Grace Lancaster in The Fault in Our Stars.

So, for reason of life experience only, I knew analyzing and reviewing The Fault in Our Stars for this Lifetime Reading List project would be difficult for me. I vehemently did not want to read the book, but I’d committed to the project. I’ve only abandoned a few books so far, like The Princess Bride by William Goldman and 1984 by George Orwell. I knew The Fault in Our Stars was something of a sensation for my generation; I knew it was well-written; so why did I hate it so much?

As I explained in “Dear Brutus,”, I despised The Fault in Our Stars not because of the story, but because of event in my life surrounding when I read the book and at who’s recommendation. After writing that post, though, I felt emotionally purged. The next day, I published the post on Don’t Ask Liv then I finished The Fault in Our Stars, reading almost the entire book in one afternoon (I was on page sixty-something). And with my ambivalence toward the book dealt with (for the most part), I now feel like I can evaluate this book more fairly.

Does The Fault in Our Stars by John Green belong on this must-read list? My answer is yes.

Although I’ve historically had mixed opinions about the way Green addressed the cancer portion of the plot, I have to say, there was one passage in particular that captivated me:

People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, p. 106

As someone with a variety of incurable, chronic illnesses, I relate to Hazel’s words here. There are times that the pain is so much that it’s impossible to think about anything, let alone about tomorrow. There have been nights I couldn’t sleep and paced my bedroom, desperate for anything to do but sit and think about the pain—all the while remaining completely unable to form a sentence to explain to my husband what was wrong. This passage is one of several that—I believe—give The Fault in Our Stars a most deserving place on this must-read list because it captures a phenomenon so well that I know I (as well as others) wish our loved ones understood.

Pain is core theme of The Fault in Our Stars—physical pain, of course, as a result of illness; grieving pain, the sorrow of loss; and emotional turmoil, the result of imagining the pain Hazel’s loved ones will experience when she dies. And in each case, John Green beautifully and bittersweetly explores the various avenues of these different types of pain and how individuals may choose to cope or avoid it. As John Green writes via the fictional Peter van Houten, “Pain demands to be felt.”

Universally, I think we all understand that truth, and the ways in which The Fault in Our Stars addresses pain—whether we can relate to the specifics or not—is worthy of much consideration and discussion.

Finding Annie by Katherine Turner

TW: mention of sexual assault/rape

Earlier this year, I read Finding Annie by Katherine Turner, who is a friend and client. I had the privilege of working on Finding Annie in 2019, and reading it again for pleasure was a much different experience than reading it for work.

I wrote the review below at the end of the summer, shortly after I finished reading the book. However, I held off on posting it—I wasn’t sure why. I’ve learned, though, that when I hesitate to do something, there’s a reason, and today, that reason is clear.

It’s Christmas Day, and it’s also the anniversary of when I was violently sexually assaulted. It wasn’t the first time I’d been assaulted—that occurred when I was 15 and I went to hug a male friend and he instead grabbed my crotch. The assault on Christmas Day, though, was different.

I won’t go into details here; that isn’t what this blog is intended to do. (That’s why I have Don’t Ask Liv, a blog for the tougher topics.) What I want to say here is I realized I was holding on to my review of Finding Annie because it was incomplete.

Here’s my original review:

I’ve been blogging here on The Pensive Bookworm for nearly a year, and to date, there remain only two books which I’ve struggled to review—Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Finding Annie by Katherine Turner. Gone with the Wind is my all-time favorite book.

Finding Annie by Katherine Turner, however, vies for that place in my heart. And in many ways, Finding Annie rivals the mastery of Gone with the Wind, and I love it for many similar reasons. The same way that Scarlett O’Hara has gumption, a determination to survive and overcome, Annie Turner of Finding Annie possesses these same qualities, and that’s what draws me to this book over and over again.

Last autumn, I was honored with the opportunity to assist the author by proofreading Finding Annie. As I started reading Turner’s debut novel, I kept thinking, “This book is special.” I recently re-read my beautiful, autographed hardback copy, and I can’t stop singing its praises.

The story of navigating romance after sexual trauma, Finding Annie follows estranged high school sweethearts, Annie and Rob. Annie has returned to her hometown to house-sit for her foster mother for a year; Rob has never left. Although the two haven’t spoken since graduation, their compatibility is palpable from the start. Of course, as is often the case with all fantastic love stories, Annie and Rob’s story is speckled with evidence that they have been crossed by the stars, and it’s only when the truth of Annie’s unexpected departure years ago is revealed that they can begin to navigate their romantic potential together once more.

The truth behind Annie’s departure brings much pain to Rob, knowing that someone he loved cost him a decade with the love of his life. And as Annie grapples with the pain of her past paired with watching the ways in which it impacts Rob (the exact thing she’d tried to prevent and avoid for so long) she begins a journey to find herself. This journey is something that will be incredibly familiar to survivors of trauma—sexual or otherwise—because it’s the journey of Annie discovering who she is now that she’s accepted what happened to her.

It’s that journey that keeps me coming back to Finding Annie every few months, either to read it again or share a passage with a friend. Like Annie, I’m a survivor of a sexual assault, and Katherine Turner flawlessly captured what it’s like to wrestle with the reality of what happened and the reality of where a person would like to be, despite the past.

There is one passage in Finding Annie that I find to be the most profound, and in this passage, the author reveals (through Rob’s thoughts) the exact thing I’ve been trying to explain to my loved ones for years.

A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth as I carried the board game over and started setting it up on the coffee table. The Annie I knew was still inside; she just needed a little coaxing. The road ahead would be far from smooth, but that didn’t make any difference to me.

That’s the thing normal people didn’t seem to understand about people who’d been through the fucked-up kinds of things we had—we were never really over it. We would always have setbacks. They seemed to think we could just flip a switch and be good from then on, but it didn’t work that way.

Finding Annie, page 197

As a survivor of trauma, I can say truthfully that sometimes, we might be broken, but never beyond repair. We’ll never be as “whole” as we would’ve if The Thing hadn’t happened, but when someone loves us anyway—when someone loves us, stands beside us, through the pain we still carry, even though The Thing is long past—we can begin to heal.

Rob’s thoughts continue, and there’s something else he says in this passage I want to bring to attention:

The journey with Annie had always reminded me more of one of the steep mountain roads that surrounded our secluded valley. You moved slowly back and forth along the switchbacks that might seem to be taking you back the way you came, and might seem to be endless, making no real progress toward the top of the mountain. But really, if you just back up far enough to see the whole road, you’d realize you were always advancing incrementally with each pass. And the winding road itself, if you just took a moment to notice, was at least as beautiful as the view from the top.

Finding Annie, page 197

We survivors…we’re like kintsugi—the Japanese art of using a precious powered metal to repair a broken piece of pottery.

If you look up kintsugi examples, it’s easy to see how they were broken, but it’s also stunning to see how they’ve been repaired. And that’s the treatment I beseech of the loved one of survivors. We may never be whole in the same way, but we can be whole again. If you’d just look past the pain—the brokenness—to see all of us, you’d see we can be beautiful this way, too.

That’s the gorgeous message of Finding Annie, too. As Annie finds herself again—practicing emotional kintsugi, so to speak—and as she and Rob begin to find themselves again, Katherine Turner remains flawless on each page. This book is to survivors what The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama was to the American people in 2006—a voice, rising above the din, to give us hope.

To give us strength.

To give us community in our needs, knowing that others on the same path need the same things, and that some of our fellow travelers have had those needs met, so we can, too.

Finding Annie is a five-star-and-then-some book. Finding Annie is the book I ask my friends to read to understand me better because Katherine Turner is so insightful and transparent with the shared plight of survivors, both recovering from trauma and finding a way to love and be loved again.

I strongly recommend Finding Annie to all survivors and loved ones of survivors. Katherine Turner doesn’t shy away from the realities of recovery, and these blunt truths are essential for the sake of community for survivors; for loved ones, they’re vital to begin some comprehension of what it’s like to be a survivor…and what we often need but don’t always know how to vocalize.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it many more times: Katherine Turner is the author our society, our culture, our world desperately needs. Finding Annie is the first book in Turner’s Life Imperfect series, and I cannot wait to read the next installment of Annie’s story. Everything Turner writes is noteworthy, whether it’s about recovery or striving to make the world a better place. You can follow her blog at kturnerwrites.com.

What was missing is something I only realized today:

Finding Annie is the book that broke open the years of repressed pain and gave me permission to call what happened to me what it was—sexual assault. It wasn’t “a guy getting carried away”—it was a crime. And crimes have victims, someone who was wronged, and we can use all the “survivor” terminology in the world, but first, I needed permission to say, “Dammit, I have been wronged!” Katherine Turner’s book gave me that permission.

Reading Finding Annie a little over a year ago set me on a journey that has changed my life in more ways than I can count. When I think back on last Christmas, I hardly recognize my life. The permission Finding Annie gave me to look back on the Christmas Day nearly a decade ago and say, “Hey, I didn’t want that to happen, I asked for it not to happen, then it did happen, and that was wrong” is freeing. As I read it again this summer, Finding Annie gave me the grace to ask tough questions and renew old connections so that I can begin to piece together my life after that assault… I’m grateful beyond words for that.

After I was assaulted, I didn’t recognize myself. I lived in a very numb state for almost two years. How I healed wasn’t what I expected to do—actually, I didn’t even realize what I did as healing at the time—and yet, looking back now, knowing what those experiences were, I see how I was putting myself back together. I was finding Olivia, to borrow Katherine’s terminology. What that person did broke something in me, and I had to piece it back together; I made myself into a kintsugi piece. I just didn’t recognize it for being that until I read Finding Annie and felt Annie’s heartache like it was my own. Then, I read it again, and I realized the heartache was my own.

It’s about four hours now before the exact “time anniversary” of what happened to me almost a decade ago. Back then, I had no idea what would happen to me Christmas Night, and that night, I had no idea where I’d be in a few years. All these versions of me seem so different, and yet, as I write this, I see how each version—the un-penetratively-assaulted, the un-broken, the un-healed—was a step to this version, the Olivia I am now. And, somehow, all those versions led me to connect with Katherine Turner and read her book, a book about a young woman finding herself as she deals with a long-hidden trauma…a book which lovingly forced me to do the same.

Finding Annie is the book we need because of the way Katherine describes and details the healing process, and Finding Annie is the book I needed to find myself.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

As I said in September’s Lifetime Reading List post regarding Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling, I’ve often had mixed opinions about this book. The primary villain—Lord Voldemort—only appears in name. If such a book were released today, I can already imagine the ways in which the Writing Community on Twitter would rip the author up one side and down the other. And if I let this modern, insufferable-know-it-all attitude of the illustrious Random Writers of the Internet win out, I’m tempted to rank this installment poorly.

However, I’m looking at this third installment of the Harry Potter series through a different filter: Does Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban positively contribute to Harry’s story and the Wizarding Universe?

My answer is yes, so I’m awarding this book five stars. (And if you’ve been following my reviews for long, you’ll know that rather than posting a summary of the book, I prefer to share a single aspect that I think merits a substantial portion of the rating I’ve chosen.)

The bonds of friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione are tested to their limits in this book as—for the first time—all three friends face mortal peril together. (I know an argument could be made for the challenges on the way to reaching the Stone in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but a Transfigured chess board will always seem less dangerous than the bloody Whomping Willow and a werewolf to me!)

As the three young friends venture to find the truth about the night Harry’s parents died (or part of it), they’re faced with more challenges in one night than many adult wizards or witches would face in a lifetime, and they overcome them all relatively unscathed. This aspect of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban speaks to the survivalist nature of each primary character. While Harry is inclined to charge headfirst into battle, Ron tends to remain hesitant, though he will ultimately follow his best friend. Lastly, Hermione often surveys the situation and uses logic to deduce the best plan of action. Together, these three characters represent three sides of being a survivor, and I think this topic is worthy of much discussion.

For example, as the “Harry type” of survivor, a person might charge into the fray with little or no consideration for their personal safety, focusing instead on finding the truth or saving as many other people as possible. The “Ron type,” however, only tends to face their foe when someone they love is at risk—he represents the timeless “I did it for you” type of person who sacrifices greatly of themselves at all time. And of course, the “Hermione type” represents the survivor who prefers to calculate and arm him-/herself with knowledge before diving into danger. Each character survives in his or her own way, and shows the reader that regardless of your physical or mental build, all that matters is the determination to do the right thing—which isn’t always the safe thing.

As time has told, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling is incredibly well-written and worthy of the base four stars. However, it’s this theme of survival exhibited by Harry, Ron, and Hermione (and Sirius Black, but more on him later!) that adds that fifth star for me. I love seeing stories of (as Dumbledore once put it) “moral fiber” and grit, especially in Middle Grade/Young Adult books. By showing our youth that, yes, kids can accomplish incredible feats, we empower them…and that’s exactly what this book does.

Other Harry Potter posts on The Pensive Bookworm:

As We Wait…

 Last night, my uncle texted me. “State of Emergency in Louisville??!!!!”

“Its scary as hell, Uncle Joe,” I replied.

My husband and I live in New Albany, Indiana, which is directly across the river from downtown Louisville. It would take us about fifteen minutes to reach the Federal Courthouse in Louisville, from which we’re awaiting news from a grand jury if an indictment will come down for the three police officers who killed Breonna Taylor earlier this year.

As of 8 AM this morning, I’ve heard on the news that concrete barriers and additional chain link fencing have been placed throughout downtown Louisville in anticipation of the grand jury’s decision. When Nick and I were in Louisville last week (for the first time in months), it was strange to see buildings we frequented in college boarded up and inspiring to see many with signs stating “WE STAND WITH BREONNA” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

This year has been full of uncertainties globally. In my community, the one thing that’s had us the most confused is why it’s taken so long for the grand jury to make a decision about the people who killed Breonna. The evidence hasn’t changed; the circumstances haven’t changed. If the police acted completely according to protocol, and if the obligation to follow protocol would be their defense, why has it taken so long for a grand jury to say “What happened is unfortunate, however, we find that the police officers should not have charges drawn up against them”?

In my opinion, the lengthy delay in bringing the case to court and the debate regarding potential charges says that something is amiss. I think the delay is not simply subtly acknowledging that, but the reality that the act of publicly declaring “This shouldn’t have happened, the officials were at fault” goes so strongly against the norm.

As I often do when what is happening in the world is more than I can process, this week, I’ve turned to literature for comfort. Yesterday, I turned to the words of Martin Luther King, Junior, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”* which he wrote to eight of his fellow clergymen who had expressed disapproval for his involvement in protests during the Civil Rights Movement. It was discomforting to read his pleas for a better America for people of color when, more than half a century later, the events of which he writes so closely mirror what we’re seeing on our streets this year, as well as the reactions of many, often condemning the hundreds of nights of protest.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 221)

Our country is divided. I’d challenge any person—American or not—to say that America is united right now.

What perplexes me, though, is if we all value human life—because we’re Christians, because we’re pro-life, because we’re spiritual according to whichever deity we prefer, because we’re “just kind like that”—how can a single person condemn the demonstrations taking place throughout our country?

“Well, Olivia, you have to remember the vandalism and violence.”

Okay, let’s consider the vandalism and violence on behalf of some Black Lives Matter-associated protestors. But first, I want to ask you to consider something in your life.

Have you ever lost your temper—yelled, thrown something, slammed a door—with your partner or child/children or roommate for not completing a chore, even though you’ve expressly asked them to do the thing on multiple occasions?

Did you justify, even briefly, your reaction because you were frustrated?

Hold on to your answers as we move back to what’s happening in America’s streets this year with another quote from Dr. King.

If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides—and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 230)

I will never agree with the violence some protestors have demonstrated this summer. As I’ve said, it was shocking for me to drive through Louisville and see how many buildings are boarded up or that have fencing surrounding the perimeter.

The rage some protestors have displayed this summer is not without cause. Rather than condemning the anger we’ve seen and ignoring the inciting incidents, we must join together to prevent further rage—not by locking up protestors, but by working to eliminate their reasons for the rage.

Let us make our streets—our homes!—safe for every person.

This rage that often has predated the riotous behavior is not exclusive to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—among the dozens of others—in 2020. This rage predates 2020.

Strides toward desegregation were made in the 1950s and 1960s. That work is commendable, and it remains unfinished.

Even if our businesses and schools are no longer segregated, there is still a prevalent segregation in the mind in American society. We see this mental segregation in statements like “If they would just ______”

“If they would just follow the rules first…”

“If they’d just obeyed what the officer said…”

“If he wouldn’t have been out after sunset in a dark hoodie…”

“If he wouldn’t have tried to defend himself…; he should know to trust cops…”

Some Americans are quick to make these “If” statements, followed by “Then they would be okay/safe/alive” or “Then ____ wouldn’t have happened.” However, those same Americans aren’t as quick to ask why someone might not want to obey an order given, sans explanation, or why someone might think they’re safe to walk in a hoodie in their own neighborhood, or why someone might not trust cops simply because they wear a badge.

Some Americans will quickly say what “they” should do, without first checking their own privilege—the safety that is guaranteed one group does not extend to everyone. If it did, statements like “If they’d just obeyed what the officer said…” wouldn’t be spoken as rampantly.

The segregation mentality will finally be vanquished when there is no longer a “they” and only an “us” remains.

I do not agree with the vandalism—smashing of store fronts, taking bats to cars, or anything else—exhibited by some protestors this summer.

I do understand it.

The vandalism is only one piece of a much bigger picture.

The thousands of people who have peacefully protested, who have only struck back when provoked/attacked, must be recognized. Moreover, the reason that brought them to our streets must be recognized. In Dr. King’s letter, he wrote:

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 228)

When peaceful protests are met with violence to shut the protest down, when the peaceful protestors are provoked, intimidated, and antagonized, such occasions should be viewed for what they are: the creators of the tension enforcing the way of life that facilitates the tension to continue. And as we await the grand jury’s decision regarding the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor, I am sickened by the reality that the determined plea of Dr. King, more than half a century ago, may yet remain a whisper into the void of so-called justice in America:

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 229)

The safety of non-whites in America is long overdue.

When I told my uncle last night that what’s happening is “scary as hell,” I wasn’t referring to the barriers being placed to protect the privileged.

I was referring to the reality that the suits are barricading themselves inside their places of business in anticipation of what they decide “justice” will be for a young woman who was calmly sitting in her apartment then violently killed in a case of “Whoops, wrong address.”

It’s scary as hell that the people who will decide this piece of history are afforded protection at work while the victim of the circumstance was killed as her boyfriend sought to protect her home from an unexpected invasion.

I think it’s a shared experience for us all that, whenever someone knocks on our door to pitch us a pest/bug treatment or an attempt to share the Good News, we’re irritated, and probably startled (who of our friends doesn’t text before they show up unexpectedly anymore?!). But imagine that, instead of knocking and handing you a pamphlet on termite prevention, the door is rammed, broken, and the entire pest control team is suddenly in your living room…when they meant to go to the house next door.

We’d be furious. We’d call corporate; we’d want to be heard. We’d complain about the company on Yelp, making sure everyone knows how aggrieved we are. We’d say their name every chance we got, right?

That’s why we say their names—we want justice for them, justice that extends beyond a potential indictment. We want justice in the manifestation of change.

We will keep saying their names.

Rayshard Brooks, age 27.

Daniel Prude, age 41.

George Floyd, age 46.

Breonna Taylor, age 26.

Atatiana Jefferson, age 28.

Aura Rosser, age 40.

Stephen Clark, age 22.

Botham Jean, age 26.

Philando Castille, age 32.

Alton Sterling, age 37.

Michelle Cusseaux, age 50.

Freddie Gray, age 25.

Janisha Fonville, age 20.

Eric Garner, age 43.

Akai Gurley, age 28.

Gabriella Nevarez, age 22.

Tamir Rice, age 12.

Michael Brown, age 18.

Tanisha Anderson, age 37.

And so many more.

And if you didn’t take the time to read those nineteen names—every single one of them being somebody’s somebody—you are part of the problem.

For today, I will leave you with these words of Dr. King:

We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages: they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 234-235)

P.S… I would like to thank my friend, Jason Fruits, for helping with the brainstorming behind this post.

*All quotes from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” are taken from 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, Second Edition as compiled by Samuel Cohen (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007) for the purpose of starting discussion using historical documents. I do not intend to and will not profit from their use.

Lifetime Reading List: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

As I’ve said before, anytime I re-read a Harry Potter book, I wonder what new aspect of the story I’ll enjoy. When I set out to re-read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban yet again, I was struck by the amount of emotion J.K. Rowling was able to evoke from me, particularly regarding Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.

Friends since boyhood, Remus and Sirius were torn apart by the circumstances surrounding the death of James Potter, betrayed by the fourth member of their group, Peter Pettigrew. However, Sirius alone knows of Peter’s betrayal, and after more than a decade in prison, he’s determined to finally correct the record.

Unbeknownst to Harry Potter, this quest sets the events of his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry into motion. While Remus becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and Sirius hides throughout the grounds of Hogwarts and neighboring village of Hogsmeade, the pair remain foes until the penultimate scene in which Harry and his two best friends learn the truth alongside their professor.

This plot contains a vital—yet often forgotten—lesson. Things are not always as they seem. Remus Lupin, who’d been one of the closest friends of both James and Sirius, was not privy to the information that changed the fate of the entire Wizarding World and allowed Peter to betray them all. Remus readily believed the story put forth by the Ministry of Magic explaining the events surrounding the murder of the Potters, quickly assuming Sirius had double-crossed their friend, never giving a second thought to Peter, who was renowned for his rat-like nature.

As the truth is revealed to Harry, Ron, and Hermione alongside Professor Lupin, a great deal of fraternal love is also apparent. The same way Harry’s father was sure his friends would be with him until the end, the allegiances Harry shares with Ron and Hermione are emboldened, drawing some excellent parallels between father and son. In many ways, Rowling exemplifies how shared experiences can bond a rag-tag group for life, creating connections that run much deeper than they may appear to others, or even those of one’s family.

Although I’ve been known to say that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one book that I feel could easily be removed from the series (primarily because Voldemort, the antagonist of the series, only appears in name), I do appreciate how the weight of Harry’s adventures in this third installment impacts the remainder of the story.

I’m reminded of the adage “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” In other words, the bonds we choose are stronger than those with which we are born. For the way the friendships of Harry’s father influence Harry’s story (and the lessons therein which, I believe, readers should seek in their lives), I agree with the placement of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the Lifetime Reading List. Additionally, now that I’ve read the first three books of this series with said list in mind, I understand why Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was omitted…but more on that later. 😊

I’ll post my review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban next Friday, but for now, check out my other posts about Harry Potter here:

Lifetime Reading List: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Book Review: Dear Professor by Donna Freitas

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley and am leaving this review voluntarily.

Dear Professor by Donna Freitas is a quick read. I finished the book in a single sitting, lasting less than an hour, and instantly sent a recommendation to a friend for her to read this book as well. For those of us who are recovering from any sort of abuse or assault or interpersonal trauma, I think Dear Professor is a must-read.

Donna Freitas frankly and eloquently describes her thoughts and feelings toward her former professor, who stalked and harassed her in her twenties. Now, two decades later, this open letter details her rage and entirely justifiableunforgiveness for the man who drastically changed the course of her life. Her fantasies about justice and concerns about speaking her piece to him once and for all are honest, and while society might call her sentiments “ugly” or “unkind,” as a survivor of abuse and sexual assault, I can only beseech Freitas to SAY IT AGAIN FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK!

I wholly believe that what Freitas says in her open letter includes many thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and concerns for all of us who have experienced trauma, especially cases which were followed by a lack or miscarriage of justice. As I read, I found myself rapidly highlighting passages, saving sentences for my journal and therapist that so perfectly put words to things I’ve felt for a decade. The author’s words gave me not only spot-on descriptions for my experiences, but also a sense of camaraderie—that even though I’ve never met Donna Freitas, I know she understands how I’ve felt and now feel, and that I’m not alone in a single piece of my journey.

I strongly recommend this book for survivors, and also the loved ones (partners, parents, siblings, friends…) of survivors. The diction throughout is masterful and raw, and every page is a much-needed, positive contribution to the current conversation about survivors’ rights and experiences.

If I could give Dear Professor a standing ovation, I would; alas, a five-star review will have to suffice.

Book Review: Before the Crown by Flora Harding

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley and am leaving this review voluntarily.

When I first saw Before the Crown by Flora Harding on Net Galley, I hurried to request an Advance Review Copy (ARC). As followers of my blog are aware, I am a huge English History buff and have slowly been making my way from the Protestant Reformation to present day. Additionally, I believe that Queen Elizabeth II is the granddaughter of Henry VIII via his liaison with Mary Boleyn, who bore Catherine Carey, confirmed grandmother of the current English monarch. While I haven’t watched more than the first episode of Netflix’s The Crown, I was quickly certain that Harding’s book was a must-read for me.

I began reading Before the Crown voraciously, excited to read my first-ever historical fiction book about a modern figure. However, within a few chapters, my interest waned. As interesting as the courtship between then-future Queen Elizabeth II and Phillip Mountbatten was, I found myself longing for a bit more historical context (more about the Second World War that defined their youth beyond rationing, for example) and a little less dialogue. For that matter, as I continued reading the book, I felt that I was forcing myself to finish it—the back-and-forth conversation and alternating perspectives (occasionally with overlap in action as the point of view alternated) didn’t hold my interest.

The one thing, though, I did appreciate about this book is the context it gave me for various figures in the Windsor Court, which is certainly helpful as I begin watching The Crown and try to recall who each character is and why they behave a certain way (i.e., regarding their role within the Court).

As far as my enjoyment of the book is concerned in association with the elements of history included in the period, I’m giving Before the Crown by Flora Harding three stars. Perhaps if I was a bit better versed in Windsor history, I would’ve liked the book more. My personal preferences (less dialogue, more context) also prevents me from awarding any additional stars, but I’ll concede that it’s well-written for what it is.

Book Review: Vagina Problems by Lara Parker

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley and am leaving this review voluntarily.

As someone who has never shied away from calling it like it is—no matter what “it” is—Lara Parker’s Vagina Problems caught my attention instantly. It’s a catchy title, to be sure, but as I am someone with vagina problems, I wondered how Parker’s story and mine might be alike.

A blunt memoir of the harrowing journey to receive adequate medical care as well as an explanation for health issues spanning nearly half the author’s life, Vagina Problems is the book I quickly declared a “must read,” even posting about it on social media—“This book is AMAZING,” I said. “As a chronic illness gal, THIS is the book we need to rally around! If you have a vagina, enjoy vagina, or love someone with a vagina, READ IT”!

Vagina Problems is the type of book that makes the reader laugh; Parker is relatable and so incredibly human as she tells of her troubles, both physically and in her personal life. Vagina Problems is a book that will make the reader positively enraged because women still face so much uncertainty in the medical community, as well as disbelief. (Why are women so readily disregarded, told to “drink some wine” or declared “emotionally unstable” whenever we have a problem a man can’t readily fix?!) And Vagina Problems is exactly the book everyone who cares about vaginas (or, if they’re a misogynist and don’t care beyond the pleasure a vagina can provide) must read.

Lara Parker’s story of living with chronic pain—both as a struggling professional and someone who faces oh-so-many do-gooders who think they can use a cup of herbal tea to solve what medicine cannot—is the story of every single woman living with chronic pain and/or vagina problems. From struggling to be believed that yes, this pain is so much more than cramps to fighting for her right to proper medical care and compassion to trying to accept the reality that, unless something drastic changes, the way of life of a chronically-ill person won’t change, Parker is never afraid to share exactly how she feels or thinks. This is the sort of transparency we need in reading memoirs because it’s the type of storytelling that tells the reader we aren’t living through This or That alone. It tells the reader there is someone out there who gets it. And for potential readers with chronic illnesses or vagina problems, or both, I know you’ll appreciate this.

But I want to address the less-likely readers out there—those without chronic illnesses or vaginas.

As Parker addresses, both the medical community and our society know so much about male genitalia. However, very little is scientifically known or addressed about vaginas, vulvas, clitorises—a woman’s genitals. Even less is commonly known about the problems many women face with their genitals, and Parker’s book opens the door for this conversation. These are things we need to be talking about—as women, mothers, friends, spouses, girlfriends, yes, but also as the non-vagina-possessing counterparts. (I could say the same for heart disease in women versus men, but I’ll save that for another day.)

The reality that one’s organs could permanently influence one’s way of life is mind-boggling to all those who haven’t experienced it, and often, I think that’s why some folks will discount those experiences. “Oh, is it really that bad?” Yes, yes, it is, and we need to be educating ourselves and (as kindly as possible) others that there are many hidden, invisible-to-others ailments the human body can experience. Parker has plenty of experience with those, and her book is the perfect starting point for anyone who is curious about chronic illness or any long-term affliction.

And I say “any” because, as I read Vagina Problems, I was often reminded of my trauma.

Recently, I was diagnosed with Complex-PTSD, for many reasons—one of which is the repeated sexual assaults in my teenage years. My best friend and I have discussed these incidents. Once, she shared that it was hard for her to come to me with her problems because “They just don’t seem so big compared to what you’ve faced.”

I understood, and I do, but that doesn’t matter. I told her that if she’s in pain about something, that’s all that matters. I’m here for her, because I know what its like to not have anyone here for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple romantic squabble or a family crisis—if she’s in pain, I want to know. I may not be able to help, but if I can, I will.

The way Parker described the “barrier” between herself and her friends sans-vagina-problems, I feel a similar barrier in my social circle. I have challenges that my friends simply cannot—and may not ever—understand, and that can be isolating. It can be isolating to be crippled by something unseen, even temporarily. Moreover, it can be infuriating to be crippled by something that you can’t just show someone for them to fix. If I walked into a doctor’s office with a limb missing, they’d be on it like duck on a June bug. If I walked into happy hour naked, my friends would notice.

But if I walk into a room feeling like a part of me is missing, or that I’m completely exposed for all to see? Not everyone picks up on that.

Vagina Problems by Lara Parker is a fantastic book that depicts the life of someone with chronic, incurable pain, and the focus is on the physical. However, so much of what Parker said throughout reminded me of my emotional pain that I want everyone I know to read it, simply because she put words to things I’ve been struggling to describe for years…things I’d imagine many of us struggle to verbalize.

The quality of Vagina Problems that makes it truly remarkable, though, is the fact that I could sing its praises for hours and still have more to say. Everything about this book is helpful, even the aspects that aren’t strictly positive. I want to take my gynecologist a copy and discuss the ways I’ve felt that way in the past—both in his office and other doctors’ offices!—and ask how doctors and patients can be working together to change the narrative for women everywhere.

Vagina Problems by Lara Parker is a five-star book, a must-read for everyone, and a book I can’t wait to share with my daughter in fifteen years or so, so that she enters womanhood fully-equipped, both for the “What if?” for herself as well as with compassion for other women.