Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Reader Response: The Fault in Our Stars Pt. 1

This is a free-form reader response exercise for John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, done as an assignment for my Teen Materials class in Library Science grad school. I've been on a reading binge instead of a writing binge lately anyway, so this will be a nice way to approach things I think.

** spoilers everywhere **

Before Reading

This will be my first John Green book. I know his novels are very popular, but don't know what any of them are about. I have seen some of his excellent YouTube videos on history. It was a personal revelation when I found out that John Green from YouTube was the same John Green from bestseller lists, so I'm excited to see how he does in a longer, text-based format.

My guess about this book from the title alone is that it's about natural evil, i.e. bad stuff in the world that isn't the result of human action. It's a theology term. And, considering teen popularity, it's probably about teens. I will be curious to find out if the title has been lifted from some pre-existing poetry. Sounds like it could be.

Chapter One

Ok, yes, the first paragraph reveals that death is a major theme here and it's an older teen thinking about it. Is it weird that I'm more curious which book is being read "over and over" than about the source of the death thinking? Going to be disappointed if I don't find out its title!

The second paragraph fills things in. The narrator has cancer and has a somewhat hostile attitude toward the people involved in their treatment and counseling. Since the others are adults, this sets up a well-meaning but missing-the-point role for adults vs. the teen who is dealing with reality. I can see how this would be an appealing place for teen readers to start. No gender indication so far. I had to write "their" as a pronoun above, so readers of both sexes will likely start out identifying with the author. My baseless assumption is male.

I liked the quotable "But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying." This turns it into a more universal issue, and is straightforwardly true besides. I was then disappointed by the follow-up saying that "Cancer is also a side effect of dying." I couldn't make sense of it, and at this point I can't tell if it's the author being less-than-smart on this point or the narrator. Hoping for the latter because I would rather pass this off as teen immaturity than author silliness.

Ok, less detailed reader response now that I'm past the first page.

The narrator's hostile attitude extends to the idea of a support groups, living with a focus on dying, and church settings. A comment about waiting for the relief of death was especially revealing. I took that as a hint that this book is going to be about breaking free from this mode of living even when death is looming. After all, the narrator is already talking about death-depression being a universal condition so maybe this book is really aimed reminding everyone about their mortality followed up by encouragement to live anyway. Would explain the popular appeal.

So, the narrator is Hazel. Probably a girl, then. I can't remember if Hazel is a dual-gender name, but a friend wrote a novel which included a little girl named Hazel, so I'm going with that. I've never met a Hazel. Sixteen years old? I flipped back to check the first paragraph: "seventeenth year." Interesting. So she's identifying with the one-higher ordinal number 17 instead of the usual cardinal number 16. She's making her life feel a tad longer.

"And then began the circle jerk of support" ...so this won't be a moralist-approved book. No wonder teens like it! It is, incidentally, a very good metaphor for Hazel's view of the support group.

The boy, Isaac, who lived in fear of losing his sight before (or instead of) his life was an interesting contrast. Sure, Hazel and the others are probably dying, but they're still able to experience life in a more or less full way.

I liked the dig at alternative medicine because I have a great personal distaste for the snake-oil-to-the-desperate cottage industry.

The scene with Hazel's mom was a good read. Her mom is smart, and cool, but obviously coming unhinged. And Hazel was able to empathize with her perspective. This made me like Hazel more than anything previously.

"Mom pulled into the circular driveway behind the church at 4:56" ...another almost subliminal hint that Hazel is hyper-aware of time passing. Nicely done.

Bam. Oxygen tank out of nowhere. It's obviously been there the whole time but I wasn't including it in my imagination because, heck, I don't use one. I found it especially interesting that both the tank and Hazel's general appearance were held back until this part of the chapter. I wonder if this technique helps readers identify more closely with her by filling in the gaps with assumptions like the one I made about her not having tubes to help her breathe. I'm not identifying with her, but that could just be from the age gap and the way she's written as a teenager.

I have no idea what "Mahogany hair" is supposed to look like. The flirting scene was, well, the way things can go. Now I know Hazel likes boys. Hot, impolite ones anyway.

Augustus' optimism made me imagine how this book is going to go: he and Hazel go on some kind of life-affirming adventures with the expectation that she's going to die. But then she gets better and he dies. Locking in my prediction now.

I liked Hazel's little speech about eventual oblivion for everything, then an encouragement to ignore this and live life. Confirms my suspicions about her attitude and, probably, the cathartic message of this book.

Hah! I think I have my answer to the repeatedly-read book. I immediately looked up the title. Nope, not a real book. Interesting. And a maybe little sad that John Green couldn't think up a real book to shine a spotlight on.

Hazel's existentialist speech is followed-up by a particularly nonsensical Christian prayer. Yeah, mainstream religion is not being held out as a satisfying answer in this book. Desperate sensuality is then shown as an answer, but not a celebrated one. Not wasting time before going on a date, however, is a suggested route. By the end of this chapter, I know Hazel is an intellectual who has been drifting and has now maybe found a partner (besides her favorite book's author) to experience her immediate future with. Good. Would I keep reading if this weren't assigned? Maybe not. The main reason I would continue is to find out what happens on this movie date. Will something there hook me farther? Maybe. I feel like I already have the whole kernel of this book, which isn't a bad thing for a first chapter to accomplish. Guess I'll see!

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