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.

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: 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: Wiving by Caitlin Myer

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

The first thing that caught my eye about Wiving by Caitlin Myer was the cover—full of color yet muted, the tones spoke to the desire for hope, however stunted that desire may be by circumstance. Next, I noticed the title. “Wiving?” I thought. “That’s unique. This has to be interesting.”

And it most certainly is.

As the author takes the reader on a painful, lonesome (but not altogether lonely), perplexing journey through the first half-century of her life, Myer recounts some of her most painful memories.

A childhood wrought with confusing messages about “a woman’s role”, how any sexual activity—consensual or forced—would ruin the woman’s reputation. Barriers set by the Mormon culture in Utah, meant to enforce the subservience and placidity of women. Familial discord and mental health struggles that impact children and medical negligence. The events that formed the youngest years of the author’s life are harrowing, many of which are part of the quiet scars so many of us bear.

These scars gained in youth form the path Caitlin Myer took through her early adulthood and into middle age, often finding herself in situations that ultimately added more scars to her heart. From wishy-washy, opportunistic, never-going-to-commit boyfriends to emotionally abusive, gaslighting partners, to a marriage so loving it was suffocating, Myer explores different versions of the “wifehood” she was prepared to seek, all the while knowing it isn’t what’s meant for her. After a medical crisis the author fully begins to shake free of the chains in which her upbringing bound her, setting out on a global quest for freedom—whatever that truly means to her.

Told in blunt terms and frank recollections, Wiving is the type of book I immediately texted my fellow survivor friends to say “I HIGHLY, highly, highly recommend this.” The thoughts and insights the author shares regarding the thought processes and ways in which multiple abusive events by various abusers changes one’s mindset, worldview, and self-worth are striking. Never before have I read a book and truly felt that my own thoughts were the words on the page, but Wiving is that book for me.

I wish I knew the words to thank Caitlin Myer for writing this book, as difficult as it may have been to recall such tortuous events.

This book absolutely deserves five stars for the message it shares and the way in which the author tells it. I started reading it at nearly midnight, and only when my eyes burned with exhaustion did I stop…only to pick it up again as soon as I awoke. I completely encourage survivors of abuse (especially an upbringing in a cult, gaslighting, and sexual abuse/assault) to read this book, and then find someone to share it with immediately. Wiving sets the standard for the type of memoir our culture needs.

Stand and Speak

As my friends know, this summer has been a long, hot one for me—and not just because I live in the Ohio Valley.

In early June, I received word that my former teacher had been fired from the school he’d been at since he’d left my high school in 2012. From what I understand, he was terminated because he’d lied about why he’d left his previous job. According to the rumor mill, he’d left my school because he’d been accused of sexual harassment by several students. At the time, I knew he’d left a prior job under similar circumstances. Now, in 2020, that’s three schools he’s left or been fired from for the way he talks to students (and, possibly, his relationship with a few).

This isn’t an easy bit of news for me to receive because, while I witnessed him cross the line several times verbally and my former high school friends have shared they’ve been sexually involved with him after graduation, this teacher was like a family member to me. He made sure I had what I needed as a student, but also as a person, ensuring I received food and medical care when I needed it. In a lot of ways, I’ve told myself that while I may morally disagree with him, that doesn’t make him a bad person.

But since I’ve embraced the part of my past that dictates I’m a survivor of sexual assault, I see him differently.

I wasn’t assaulted violently in an alley by a stranger. I wasn’t assaulted in a way that completely took me by surprise. I was abused for months by a man (not my teacher) I trusted, and it was only in retrospect that I understood it was abuse. Then, at senior prom in 2014, my date attempted to rape me—I barely got away at the last second. My date was someone I’d been friends with since the end of my freshman year. I knew that was assault, but what did I do with that information? I got away, and there was minimal evidence on me—if any—so what could I report? So I reported nothing.

Now, I realize that what happens—and what doesn’t happen—and which words we use to describe these things matter.

For years, I’ve said that it’s good to say what you mean and mean what you say, and when it comes to abuse of any kind and assault, there is nothing wrong with being explicit. There is nothing wrong with stating boldly exactly what happened and how it made you feel. There is nothing wrong with using words that express your anger, or your pain, or your confusion. Additionally, there is no rulebook that states when you should say what or how you should say it. You don’t have to start at the beginning, or the end, or by stating what you want to see happen or what you wish had happened instead. Speaking up in some way is all that matters.

As a society, I know we like to say that it’s okay if we never speak up. As a survivor, I understand the struggle in finding my voice in order to speak up.

But also as a survivor, I feel that we need to remember that when we keep our mouths shut about our experiences or what we witness happen to others, we are doing all the people who will follow in our footsteps a disservice. And I think it’s okay to take some time to find that inner strength to speak up.

But as I hear stories of what’s unfolding at my former teacher’s latest school, I’m sickened. All I keep thinking is that I should’ve been far louder, more proactive, and bothered administration about investigating him. I reported this teacher once, and the principal at the time did very little about it. Why? I’ll never know.

But now, this teacher has been at a new school for seven classes worth of students. It’s a much bigger school than the one I attended, so I assume he had more students there.

How many of them did he harass?

How many did he sleep with?

How many were groomed to his liking, so that by the time they graduated and they wouldn’t be breaking any rules, they were able to slide into his bed where a girl from the previous class just vacated?

The words I used back then were facts, stating what I’d seen happen. But I should’ve also used words to express my feelings: his statements about girls’ bodies made me feel inadequate, his frequent use of innuendo confused me because I didn’t know a lot about sex at sixteen years old, and his annual bedding of one of my friends made me feel like I had a big “I’m next, aren’t I?” neon sign over my head.

Even now, I feel like an object in the eyes of men, and I’m confused about how men in positions of power view their subordinates. I wonder just how I managed to escape his advances, if tradition were to hold. If he hadn’t left my school during my junior year, would he have started trying to get me into his bed my senior year? When I graduated? Or was he already trying all along, I was just unaware because I didn’t understand sex or recognize predatory behavior?

Or is it possible that I really was different to him, that I mattered like a family member to him, the same way I viewed him as an uncle, one for whom I bought Father’s Day presents?

I realize now that I shouldn’t be left with so many questions about someone who I should’ve been able to trust. Until now, I never really understood that line from the film Freedom Writers (2007), when Andre tells Ms. Gruwell, “Why should I give you my respect to you? Because you’re a teacher? I don’t know you. How do I know you’re not a liar standing up there? How do I know you’re not a bad person standing up there? I’m not just gonna give you my respect because you’re called a teacher.”

I’ve always been skeptical of authority, but now…I realize that just because someone carries a badge or has a license in something or is in a position of trusted authority, that doesn’t mean they’re worthy of my trust, either as their student or as the parent of their student.

Because now that I’m a mother, I see all these men who I trusted and who abused that trust so much differently.

I deserved better than what they gave, and I deserved better than the way the powers that were handled the situation when I cried “Wolf!” while providing pictures of the damn wolf.

All of us survivors deserve better than we received.

Likewise, all of the people who have yet to set foot on this path deserve better than the society we currently live in.

So what do we do? What can we do about it?

I don’t have that answer. Each situation is unique, but we all have one thing in common: we can all communicate, whether that’s with words or sign language or writing. And as long as we find a way to use those words, either to help bring charges against our abuser/attacker or to heal ourselves so that we can use our experiences to help others, then we’re doing something.

When we were being abused and attacked, all we had to do was survive. We did whatever it took, accepted whatever we had to in order to persevere. And now that we’re on the other side of it, I think it’s our duty to make the world a little easier for those who are still trying to survive. After all, isn’t that what we wanted?

Finally, to all the educators, lawyers, and policymakers who have the power to protect us when something does happen, it’s your duty to listen to the words we use, even if they’re messy, jumbled, and overwrought with emotion. It’s your job to hear our truth, rather than embrace your own preconceived notions. And once you’ve heard us, it’s your job to do something with our words to prevent the same tale from having to be told again, and again, and again.