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.

Who Will They Come for First?

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller

After finishing The Fault in Our Stars by John Green*, I’d planned to read Gone with the Wind—my all-time favorite book—for my Lifetime Reading List analysis/review project. However, I had just begun reading The Fault in Our Stars when the uprising in Washington, D.C., started to unfold on January 6, 2021.

Over the past four-plus years, many have compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, which I agree is an insult to Hitler, who at least had an organized plan. Really, thinking about Hitler now reminds me of what Ollivander said to Harry when describing Lord Voldemort: “Terrible, but great.” Hitler accomplished horrific feats that should absolutely never be forgotten. Equally important is the manner is which Hitler built his empire; Hitler began with a state in chaos not unlike the way Trump has fostered the current climate in the United States.

Given the Amsterdam portion of the plot of The Fault in Our Stars, I considered reading The Diary of Anne Frank next instead of Gone with the Wind. What happened in D.C. seemed only to confirm that to be a wise choice.

I am reminded of Martin Niemöller’s poem by the events of the past week. Many government officials have said it’s essential that Trump be impeached (again) for his actions that led to the attempted coup on January 6, stating a precedent must be set to protect our country. I agree and am looking solemnly forward to watching the proceedings this afternoon. If there are no consequences for Trump’s actions, that gives legal grounds for any future dictator-wannabe to do the same; for the sake of our nation, we cannot let that happen.

As I write this, I haven’t started The Diary of Anne Frank yet—I’ll do that later today. I’ve read the book once, when I was twelve or thirteen. I didn’t really connect with Anne Frank at that time, and I think that’s because while she was writing of “typical” adolescent experiences through the filter of the Holocaust, I didn’t yet know much about the Nazi regime or what a “normal” teenager thought. The latter is due to my upbringing; by the time I read the book, I’d already lived thought leukemia, sexual abuse, and food insecurity, not to mention a plethora of emotional abuse. However, in the decade-plus since I bought my copy of The Diary of Anne Frank, I’ve learned a great deal about the Holocaust, and I’m now more capable of empathy—a result of personal growth and becoming a mother. Additionally, after living my most “normal” life throughout the chaos of 2020, I think I have a new (admittedly, quite limited) perspective into Anne’s life in the annex, trying to feel and act as normally as possible because life in the annex was her new normal.

Throughout 2020, my husband—a mechanic, and thus, essential worker—continued to work every day, despite COVID-19. Unless someone at their shop gets COVID-19 or is directly exposed, they’ll remain open. As a freelance editor, I’ve always worked from home while taking care of our toddlers. The majority of my friends live across the country (or at least a couple of hours away), so my social life wasn’t disrupted much; I was still able to see my best friend regularly, as she lives alone and worked from home all year. Nonetheless, living across from Louisville, I heard of and saw things this summer that I never imagined would happen in my lifetime following the murder of George Floyd and unlawful shooting (read: also murder) of Breonna Taylor, as well as so many others.

My mistake was imaging such things wouldn’t happen in my lifetime. History repeats itself when we don’t learn from it, and I had no reason to believe we had learned from the mid-twentieth century’s events.

In my town, we only caught a little of the ripple effect of government sanctions following the Black Lives Matter protests. We had a curfew, briefly, and we occasionally heard gunshots. As a woman who has only ever lived in “nice” parts of town, this was jarring for me. Every day, I opened the news to see another injury or death, either in a protest or gun violence in Louisville. For the first time, my eyes were opened to the war we’re living through. I saw the ways in which the mainstream media treats gun violence against people of color as “normal” and “routine,” an occurrence which is to be expected. I saw the way police officers attacked peaceful—loud, but peaceful—men and women in broad daylight. I started paying closer attention to and memorizing the names and faces of the men, women, and children, like Tamir Rice, who were slaughtered in “justified” police shootings.

Then, last week, a group of white people stormed the Capitol, built gallows, and seemingly had far more nefarious plans for Democratic leaders.

And nothing happened.

I texted my friend, “If the protestors were black…I don’t need to finish this sentence.”

I’m reading The Diary of Anne Frank next because I want to know a little more about the type of reality my kids could grow up in if we don’t save America. I want to see, through one adolescent, eyewitness account, what life was like under strict, nationalistic, cruel rule. Because it’s no longer unfathomable that such a reality could become ours in the twenty-first century. In fact, it never was unfathomable.

Because it’s already happening, it’s been happening—and we have to learn from not-so-distant history to prevent its repetition.

How do we do that?

We speak out. We do not say, “That sucks for them. I’m glad it’s not me.” We say, “If it can happen to her, it can happen to me,” and we work as hard as we can with the gifts that we have to stop it. Because even if it doesn’t happen to us—or if we can reasonably assume it won’t, because we’re white, or male—there will be another “her.” There will be someone else’s best friend, sister, wife, husband, daughter, son, mother, father—someone else’s somebody—someone else’s favorite person—that it will happen to eventually. While some might say never to live in fear, I say otherwise. We should live in fear because there is a very clear threat to our communities and our nation. We should take the words of Martin Niemöller to heart, as well of those of Dr. King—“Injustice anywhere is a treat to justice everywhere.”

We are being threated—that’s no longer a question. The question now is simply, “When will you speak up?”

*Analysis of The Fault in Our Stars will be posted this Friday, January 15, 2021, here on The Pensive Bookworm. My review will be posted the following Friday.

Lifetime Reading List Review, Part 1 – 2020

When I started the Amazon/Goodreads 100 Must-Read Books in a Lifetime list in January of this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Skimming the titles, I recognized several, either because I’d already read them or they were the commonly-used books in films about high school or college—you know, the “coincidental” book the protagonist is reading in their literature class that just so happens to teach them something about the primary conflict in their story?

Originally, I set out to read 25 titles this year—I wanted the whole 100 books to be read within four years, finishing in December of 2024. But this is 2020, and in addition to the global exhaustion we all experienced this year as a result of COVID-19 and, in the U.S., the nightmare of our current politics, the justified protests begging The Man to understand that Black lives do, in fact, matter, and many ups and downs in my personal life, I made my last post here regarding the list on The Pensive Bookworm in September. Partially, I stepped away for the last quarter of the year due to the presidential election (by the way, Biden won), but also because I was just plain exhausted. Even reading for pleasure wasn’t giving me a reprieve—how could I write and analyze what I was reading, too? Nonetheless, I’ll be back to my trek through the list come January.

For now, though, I’ve compiled a quick summary of the 16 books I did manage to read from that list this year. (In the header of each section, I’ve hyperlinked my analysis of the book, whereas the review for each is linked on the “Quick Review” portion.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes

Favorite line: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Reason it belongs: Reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a reminder that magic does exist—that’s the power of love and friendship.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban J.K. Rowling

Quick Review: 4/5 stars

Would I read it again? Of course—it’s Harry Potter!

Favorite line: “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?”

Reason it belongs: This is a book about survival by perhaps unconventional methods, and it’s a story that shows readers of all ages that, regardless of your story, you can survive what you may have once considered insurmountable.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes

Favorite line: It’s a close tie between two lines.

  1. “I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.”
  2. “Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”

Reason it belongs: The Great Gatsby is a beautiful, bittersweet reminder for us to pursue the things in life we truly want, rather than the things we’ve been taught by society that we first “need” to acquire before we concern ourselves with happiness or love.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes.

Favorite line: “If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.”

Reason it belongs: It’s a cautionary tale, exploring the dangers of ignorance—especially when ignorance is the result of determined effort in denial, rather than exploration.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes! I can’t wait to read this with my kids when they’re a little older.

Favorite line: “‘You have been my friend,’” replied Charlotte. “‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’”

Reason it belongs: The friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur is innocent, pure, and sacrificial; this book contains a tale of unconditional love.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Quick Review: 3/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes! As I was compiling this list, I actually wondered when I’d find the time to read it again soon!

Favorite line: “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

Reason it belongs: Atticus Finch is like a literary fortune cookie—full of wisdom, but contained in something trifling that is fleetingly enjoyable. (I might have a different opinion of this book if I’d had a more innocent and carefree childhood; alas, this is who I am.)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Quick Review: 3/5 stars

Would I read it again? Maybe in several years, when my kids are old enough to read it.

Favorite line: “You don’t forget the face of the person who was your last hope.”

Reason it belongs: The Hunger Games reminds us how easily a society may be desensitized to violence if allowing it to occur ensures their survival.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Definitely. This is my favorite installment of the Hunger Games trilogy.

Favorite line: “At some point, you have to stop running and turn around and face whoever wants you dead. The hard thing is finding the courage to do it.”

Reason it belongs: This book is an incredible “f— you” to President Snow and the Capitol, and because of that, it’s an inspirational tale and a reminder that if one person has the courage to say “I’ve had enough,” many others may follow—sometimes we just need that first voice to give us “permission” to speak.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Quick Review: 4/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes, but only because if I read Catching Fire again, I’d feel weird if I didn’t read the whole trilogy.

Favorite line: “They’ll either want to kill you, kiss you, or be you.”

Reason it belongs: Mockingjay explores the different ways people respond to war and tragedy, pain and suffering, loss and love—the characters are vivid and realistic and encourage the reader to identify with one or another, giving the reader insight into how they might respond if the world as they know it implodes.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Quick Review: 4/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yeah, I feel like I missed some of the story because I was so shocked by the concepts and the world in which I read it (hey there, 2020!). I think I need to read it again, especially if I ever watch the series (which, from what I understand, is quite different from the book).

Favorite line: “When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.”

Reason it belongs: In the United States, I whole-heartedly believe The Handmaid’s Tale is a must read to remind us all exactly why a separate of church and state is essential, that even if you believe your religion is the “correct” religion, you shouldn’t force it on people who aren’t ready to accept it or in the same spiritual place you are.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Absolutely. The characters were so bold!

Favorite line: “I’d cry, if only I had the time to do it.”

Reason it belongs: Through the stories of the maids and the ways in which their struggles open Skeeter’s eyes, this book shows that suffering and ignorance both come in many forms.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Quick Review: 2/5 stars

Would I read it again? No, but I would like to see it performed.

Favorite line: “…Who could refrain/That had a heart to love, and in that heart/Courage to make love known?”

Reason it doesn’t belong: It’s a play. Plays are meant to be performed.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Probably not. I’d rather see it performed.

Favorite line: “Don’t waste your love on somebody/who doesn’t value it.”

Reason it doesn’t belong: It’s a play. Plays are meant to be performed.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Quick Review: 3/5

Would I read it again? Probably not. I might see it live…maybe.

Favorite line: “Listen to many, speak to a few.”

Reason it doesn’t belong: It’s a play. Plays are meant to be performed.

1984 by George Orwell

Quick Review: I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

Would I read it again? Nope. (And I’m already dreading Animal Farm, which is also on this 100 Books in a Lifetime list.)

Favorite line: None. I couldn’t stand this book and kept wondering what nonsense I was reading. I think Orwell had an excellent point, but he failed to make it well.

Reason it doesn’t belong: The writing is difficult to follow. I think The Handmaid’s Tale is a better cautionary tale about a state having excessive power. Having survived Donald Trump’s time in the White House, I think that’s an experience that teaches us more about misinformation and state-controlled media in the twenty-first century.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Quick Review: I couldn’t bring myself to finish this one.

Would I read it again? Oh no. Nope. Zero chance.

Favorite line: None. Nothing about this book amused me.

Reason it doesn’t belong: This book is terrible.

Of the 16 books I read this year, at least 5 don’t belong (in my opinion). Three of those (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth) are simply because they’re plays, not books, and the same way most people wouldn’t read a film script and expect equal entertainment value, these works should be enjoyed by performance, rather than in print. The other two—1984 and The Princess Bride—were books that I absolutely could not bring myself to finish. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that it’s exceptionally rare for me to not finish a book, but in the case of 1984 and The Princess Bride, I just couldn’t, and you can see my reasons for that in my analyses and reviews of each.

Looking ahead, whenever I do manage to finish all 100 books, I’ll make some suggestions of titles that could replace the books I don’t believe belong on a “must-read” list. As always, I welcome discussion about these books and civil debate in the comments below. 😊

In the meantime, here’s to a happy, healthier, healing new year.

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.

Judging Books by Their Cover

There was a post of r/peopleofwalmart recently, captioned “If coronavirus was a person” and had a picture of someone dressed in exceptionally ill-fitting clothes. At first, the shock value had me giggling, because they looked so ridiculous. But as I scrolled down through the comments, someone had said, “There has to be some sort of mental illness at play here.”

They’re probably right.

I live pretty close to Podunk, USA, and I’ve seen some rather interesting fashion choices, especially at WalMart. I try not to judge; for all I know, what someone is wearing may be their only outfit. I’ve seen some horribly tacky items donated to Goodwill, so maybe they were bargain shopping and didn’t have a lot of fashionable options for their size. Who knows? I don’t.

In a world that is growing increasingly dependent on shock-value humor, often at someone’s expense, I am even more aware of the example I’m setting for my children.

We can’t judge a book by its cover, and we shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance.

This lesson seems so obvious, so simple. But in practice, we know that it isn’t. We gravitate toward people who are like us, either in socio-economic standing, or beliefs, or appearance. And when we encounter someone who is strikingly different, we often pass a snap-judgment.

However, since I’ve grown to be more active in the indie author portion of the Writing Community on Twitter, I’ve noticed a lot of incredible books that have lacking covers. I can think of a couple of my own self-published works that need a face-lift, but then I am quick to say, “But the cover isn’t the important part. It’s the story.”

If I’m that quick to defend my work (and I think we all are), then I need to work even harder to employ the same mindset toward other people.

It isn’t the attire that’s the important part. It’s the person.

Just like I don’t know if the book with the stunning cover will be dreadful to read, or if the book with the lackluster cover will be captivating, I don’t know what goes on in a person’s heart, their mind.

I don’t know their story.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the person in the Reddit post I saw, and I do wonder if the commenter who noted the possibility of a mental illness was right. Neither one of us know. But if it is, we shouldn’t be making jokes about them. And if a mental illness isn’t at play and that person just wanted to rock the bizarre fashion choice, then all I have to say is I aspire to their self-confidence!

Until we start reading, we don’t know if we’re going to like the story.

Until we start talking, we don’t know That Person’s story, either.

It’s our job to take care of one another and do all we can to leave the world a little more beautiful, a little kinder, than we found it. So if we’re willing to give a book with a drab cover a chance, let’s give the people who are different than us the benefit of the doubt, too.

Book Review: Girls in Pants by Ann Brashares

Of all five books in the Sisterhood series by Ann Brashares, Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood is absolutely my favorite (although the first book is a close second, review here). I feel that the arcs for each character are true to their personality as well as the lives of readers. The experiences of Bridget, Tibby, Lena, and Carmen show tremendous growth for each young woman when compared to who they were when the series began, and their challenges are significantly more captivating that those of the prior installment, The Second Summer of the Sisterhood (review here).

After two years of friendship and the shared loss of their friend Bailey, Tibby and Brian finally find themselves in uncharted romantic territory. It’s refreshing to see Tibby struggling with a different sort of intimate relationship. Although the reader has seen Tibby struggle to share her deepest fears and pains with her fellow Sisters, the way Brian understands Tibby and wholly accepts her is inspirational. I like the message Brian brings for younger readers who may be as relatively inexperienced in dating as Tibby, and I enjoyed watching Tibby discover the softer portions of herself.

Carmen is working through a new challenge. While in the first book Carmen resisted accepting her father’s new wife/step-children and in the second she basically repeated her mistakes point-for-point with her mother’s new boyfriend, now Carmen is spending the summer watching over Lena’s Grandma Kaligaris. By watching Grandma’s silent depression and longing for life back in Greece, Carmen discovers the truth behind some of her deepest fears and insecurities. Finally, Carmen experiences growth, and for that, I am grateful.

And while Carmen experiences emotional growth, Lena finds herself fighting for what she wants.

I cannot find words to express my celebration for Lena’s journey in this book! After denying herself what she wanted for the past two summers, when Lena’s father informs her that she will have to pay for art school on her own, she sets out on a mission to do just that, meanwhile working to still receive his blessing. As she fights for what she wants, the reader receives an interesting perspective into the value of family in Greek culture, something I found particularly fascinating as a woman of Mediterranean descent in a very patriarchal family.

Bridget spends her third summer returning to where her transformation from lovestruck-teen to heartbroken young woman began, this time as a coach…who happens to be working alongside the man who broke her heart two years ago. But this time, she learns that although the Pants may have the Sisterhood magic, it’s up to her to decide how her destiny will unfold.

The element of Girls in Pants that I most enjoyed was simply the way this book hearkened to the summer that started it all, but with so much changed for each Sister. I felt like The Second Summer of the Sisterhood was more of a do-over of the first book, especially in regard to Carmen and Tibby. The plots of the second were too similar to the first, but in the third installment each Sister found herself finally learning from her mistakes and experiences.

If you didn’t care for The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, this third book is certainly worth reading. I feel that the second book is the weakest, and Girls in Pants sets up the action for Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood in a fantastic, page-turning way. I have nothing but praise for Girls in Pants by Ann Brashares.

Due to the mature content of the first two books and its vital nature to the plot of the third, I suggest this book for readers age fifteen and older.

Book Review: A Simple Favor by Darcy Bell

I read A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell in a few short sittings, but I can’t quite say it’s because I loved the novel. It was fast-paced with several twists, yes, but after having read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn a few years ago, A Simple Favor seemed to be far too similar to be anything less than predictable. It’s not my favorite book (or even in the top twenty), but there were several stellar qualities that warrant this four-star review.

First of all, I loved the character of Stephanie. As a stay-at-home mother, I related to her struggles for connection and genuine female friends. Furthermore, I’m someone who simply doesn’t think evilly. I remember telling my accountant this year, “I always worry about getting audited, but then I remember, I wouldn’t know how to commit a white-collar crime of any sort, so I remind myself I don’t need to worry. If anything ‘bad’ happens, it truly is an honest mistake. I have nothing to worry about,” and we shared a laugh. I feel like that’s a sentiment Stephanie could relate to, and I think that’s why I found myself identifying so strongly with her character.

Emily, on the other hand, was a complex character of whom I’d love to do a psychological profile. Complex from the start, her desire to be around her son, Nicky, directly contrasts with her cursing, hardened, formerly-career-driven, part-time-thief persona. Emily is my favorite character in this book because Darcy Bell so cleverly addressed the maternal desire in a woman who was a dangerous, double-crossing, utterly ruthless woman in every other aspect of her life. Frankly, I’d love to see a prequel novel of Emily’s life before she met Sean, her husband. How did Emily become this thick-skinned yet maternally soft-hearted woman? That’s a story I’d like to read!

I watched the film A Simple Favor starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively this week, and – as is often the case – it was far from the original print version of the same story. If I look at the book and film as separate works entirely, I thoroughly enjoyed the film while the book was only so-so in regard to my emotional investment and personal entertainment. I liked the film’s ending so much more than the book’s, but you’ll have to read/watch to see what I mean!

A Simple Favor by Darcy Bell is an excellent read for fans of psychological thrillers, best friend betrayals, and stories about complex mothers. However, if you’re a fan of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, I’d suggest skipping this one; it simply pales in comparison.

Due to sexual content, I don’t recommend this book for readers under the age of sixteen.

Lifetime Reading List: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

 I feel like I’ve started so many of these posts lately by comparing what I thought of a book in high school with my reaction now as a twenty-four-year old. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is no exception.

What a difference ten years makes!

I read Fahrenheit 451 as a freshman or sophomore at the recommendation of a class mate. I was so confused by the mechanical hound that none of the rest of the book made any sense to me whatsoever. Thank God, the edition I bought last month to read this year included an introductory essay that addressed some point of confusion I’d had in high school, and I was able to start the book on much steadier reading legs.

At its core, I believe Fahrenheit 451 is equally a call to action as well as a word of warning. Considering the current state of affairs in the United States of America (I don’t know enough about international politics to comment about anywhere else), I am certain that this book by Ray Bradbury needs to be widely read and discussed. This book answers the question What will happen when people place entertainment (television) over knowledge (literature)? People grow shallow and disconnected, and those who choose to pursue critical thinking, philosophy, deep spirituality, and history are viewed as dangerous rebels.

From where I’m standing, I daresay we’re already on that path.

As an author, I have plenty of bookworm colleagues. As an editor, I’ll occasionally get really excited about a manuscript that I know has the potential to be an amazing book. But as a person, a Millennial, I’m an odd duck.

Sure, my peers of course know how to read, but it’s not something they do anymore than they must. Namely, those that are still in college/grad school might read their assigned books, but personal “reading” has been reduced to checked social media or maybe perusing an article from Buzzfeed that’s mostly pictures and captions. Rarely am I able to discuss a new novel with anyone, and if they’ve even heard of it, they quickly say “Oh, that’s a book? I just saw the movie.”

Sigh.

Even considering the Harry Potter series—that is, one many people know—it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a film of such popularity nonetheless leaves the audience wanting additional details. Namely, details that are in the books but not the films. There were many scenes and jokes left out of the Harry Potter films, but also pivotal plot points that hearken to real-world issues and were symbolically addressed in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World.

For centuries, humans have shared stories utilizing the written word. Since antiquity, we’ve had performance-based entertainment (Theatre of Dionysus, anyone?), but until recent years, the written word was still held in high esteem. This new reality is one that Ray Bradbury seemingly foresaw, and it’s a shame that more isn’t being done to alter the status quo.

Although we don’t exactly live in a world where books are outlawed as in Fahrenheit 451, I can’t help but wonder if we continue on our current trajectory of conformity (not to mention the eradication of cultures in the name of unity), how long will it be until censorship takes on a life of its own?

As one of my high school classmates said, “It’s not ‘censorship,’ Liv. It’s censorshit.”

She would be one leading the charge to protect books, I have no doubt of that. And for that matter, so would I, because as thought-provoking and captivating as Fahrenheit 451 may be, it is one book that created a world in which I never want to live.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is most certainly a book—and its warning—every person should embrace.

Tudor Theory #1

As a result of equal parts procrastination and feeling ill, I spent the majority of yesterday watching documentaries about the Tudors. After staring at various paintings of Henry VIII in said films, I feel the need to address something that I first strongly believed after reading the well-researched (and entirely plausible) historical fiction novel Cor Rotto by Adrienne Dillard (see my review here), but even more so given some of the stories that have been in the media this week regarding Henry, Duke of Sussex (a.k.a. Harry) and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

I strongly, wholeheartedly, believe that Henry VIII fathered Catherine Carey, and is the great-some-odd-grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II, and thus (plus two generations) also Harry.

When I look at portraits of Henry Tudor and compare them to virtually any image of Harry, the resemblance is striking – much like that between Catherine Carey and Elizabeth Tudor (QEI). Of course, DNA testing has never been done and we may never know if Catherine Carey was the daughter of King Henry VIII or Will Carey, husband of Mary Boleyn. We know that Mary was Henry’s mistress at the time Catherine was conceived, but she was also married to Will. We know that Henry and Elizabeth both seemed to favor Catherine above the other ladies of the Tudor Court, and it’s been suggested by historians, authors, and researchers alike, such as Adrienne Dillard (see my interview with her here), that at least Elizabeth suspected she was more than merely a Boleyn relation.

Considering the well-researched depictions of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Anne and Mary Boleyn, Catherine Carey, and Elizabeth I that I’ve read, I can’t help but think they would all be overjoyed to know that their line was, somehow, still on the throne today. I like to think that Henry VII would be happy to know that his efforts throughout his turbulent life had world-changing effects. I think it would probably make Henry VIII squirm to know that through his (probable) illegitimate daughter, his blood still wears the Crown (and the image of him squirming about that makes me laugh). I pity Katherine of Aragon because it was her marriage bed that Mary Boleyn slipped into and it’s Mary’s great-granddaughter that is on the throne today, not Katherine’s (Katherine deserved better than she got, but more on that later).

More than anyone else, I choose to believe that Margaret Beaufort would be at peace to know that everything she did from such a young age (probably) ultimately benefitted her family.

Of course, that’s all based on pure speculation, and I won’t pretend to be the most well-researched Tudorphile out there.

In regard to fact, however, I like to think that Mary Boleyn, would be proud that someone, undoubtedly, of her line is on the throne and that perhaps she has finally achieved her father’s approval.

The Golden Rule of Reading

I am not a fan of social media for a lot of reasons (mostly because I think I’m as crotchety at heart as they come). However, as I’ve developed as a reader and nowadays as an author, I’ve implemented a new policy in my household:

If you love the book, thank the writer.

I mean personally – send a specific thank-you note (even if its digital) to the author via Direct Message, or a tweet that is completely 100% about their book and your gratitude (no coffee mentions, no “long day #relaxing” etc.). Use those limited characters on Twitter to give the author a shout-out and a heartfelt thank you for the sweat, tears, expletives, and broken-nails-on-a-keyboard effort that they put in to the book you just finished.

Fortunately, with Twitter and Goodreads, it’s incredibly easier than ever to connect with authors. Some of my favorites – Adrienne Dillard, Judith Arnopp, Julie Lawson Timmer – have honored me with many conversations about their books in addition to our shared interests. I’ve talked to authors about how their character impacted me or taught me something – about life or myself.

Me. I, Olivia Castetter, have bonded with authors in different countries. Me, the girl who read in the bathroom in high school because I didn’t have anyone to sit with (until my history teacher found out and I started eating in her room every day) and who memorized the Dewey Decimal system for fun. Me, the girl who has been laughed at for reading because “that’s not what fun girls do” (also, G, if you’re reading this right now by chance, how many times have you talked to one of the Kardashians you worship?).

The way I figure it… If we have time to post pictures to Instagram of our coffee, pets, new clothes, and sushi rolls, we certainly have a few minutes to send a thank-you to someone who gave us hours of enjoyment. An author puts months or years into a book that entertains us for a few hours over a matter of days (or an afternoon in a hammock!), it is the least we can do to send them a message with a few details about why their hard work is appreciated.

As a mom, I know there are many times in the course of a week where I wish my hard work was thanked. I sweat over if my kids appreciate what I do for them. As a housewife, I know my husband is grateful for all that I do, but sometimes I do wish for a few more words of affirmation (we’re working on that). I think that’s something all of us struggle with: feeling like our work is thankless.

That’s why I call this the Golden Rule of Reading. Thank the author, the way you wish to be thanked.

I’m not a believer in juju or karma (certainly not the inaccurate version of the latter so often colloquially used). However, I do believe in making the world a brighter, happier place wherever I can. If that means taking ten minutes to thank an author, then that is time very well-spent. I have hidden from my kids in the bathroom more times than I care to admit, and more than once I’ve used those 10-15 minute breaks to send an author a message.

And every time, the response includes the phrase “You just made my day!”

How many days could be made if we all thanked the author every time? How much of a morale boost would that be?

How many more smiles would that be in the world?