The Fault In Our Stars

SPOILER ALERT:

Lately I have seen John Green plastered everywhere.  Pinterest, people talking about him on Twitter, Facebook, and there is no real mystery why.  On June 6th, 2014, the movie The Fault In Our Stars came out.  You see, this film is an adaptation of John Green’s fifth published book.  It is a story about Hazel Grace Lancaster, a terminally ill cancer patient, and Augustus Waters.  The novel is in first person, from Hazel’s point-of-view.  Even before I got into the meat and potatoes of the novel, Green impressed me with his ability to write in the voice of a seventeen year old female, what with him being a 30-something male.

This novel easily had the potential to fall into the hoards of others like it.  When I was younger I used to read these teen romance novels where the lead female protagonist is diagnosed with leukemia and somehow through the horror of battling this disease she falls in love and miraculously the cancer goes into remission with no death and no unhappiness.  I could not tell you what the title of these books were, or even the author, I just remember there being a slew of them that I devoured like chocolate chip cookies.  The tropes of each novel were the same, the only things that changed were the names of the girls and boys and the town in which they lived.  Every other detail was a repetitive and monotonous recounting of this horrific discovery being turned into a life affirming love.  No one ever died.  Ever.  The Fault In Our Stars could have become another one of these epic and notorious novels that touch upon tragedy, but rather John Green pushed us head first into the deep end and left us to wade through the water to find our own salvation, our own understanding, of what death means.  And with that understanding, he pushed us to see what life means. 

This is what I wrote after I finished the novel last night:

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Gabriel’s Inferno.

It’s official, ladies and gentlemen, romance novels are becoming the new “it” thing in pleasure reading (pun intended).  My latest conquest was Gabriel’s Inferno by Sylvain Reynard.  For the past few months, when I perused the tables at Barnes and Noble, I saw the cover of this book.  Flames licking the edges of the cover with a sultry picture of man and woman embracing.  Picking it up and reading the jacket describe the enigmatic Gabriel Emerson and his fiery affair with student Julianne Mitchell, I thought, “Here we go again, 50 Shades and counting…”  Though I was not a big fan of the 50 Shades Trilogy, I must say I have been curious about why these types of novels are making the rounds.  They are hyper-sexualized relationships, even more so than typical romance novels.  In the name of research (among other things, like the need for cotton candy reading) I picked up the book and decided that it was the next book on my list.  In the first few pages, I snorted derisively at the similarities between Gabriel’s Inferno and 50 Shades of Grey.  Two men, both with biblical/angelic sounding names, influential and rich, complex and smoldering with good looks, and irrevocably broken.  Two women, both young and virgins,  both literary students, both wish for independence and both search for love, while becoming the healing balm for their broken men.

As I continued reading Gabriel and Julia’s story, I began to notice it diverge from the overtly sexual 50 Shades storyline.  In fact, the virgin remains a virgin until the last twenty of so pages of an almost 500-page book.  The focus is on love and it’s healing and transformative properties, more than sex as a healing component (as happens between Christian and Ana).  It shocked me to pick up on religious themes, along with vast allusions to literary heroes and heroines.  Understandably, the main connection was paralleling the story of Dante and Beatrice (you see, Dr. Gabriel O. Emerson is a Dante specialist) and our main characters.  It surprised me at how deeply Reynard went into capitalizing on love as an emotion and not just the physical act.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still long-winded paragraphs describing lover’s embracing and panting in heated excitement, and at one point even discussing a character aptly nicknamed Professor Pain.  A romance novel would not be a romance novel without some light petting.  Especially one that had flames on the cover (come on, people!).

We begin the book with Julianne Mitchell, an MA student at the University of Toronto.  We are given hints that her past is not pristine, that something damaged this young woman, but that she has purity about her, something innate that is good and wholesome.  We are also introduced to Gabriel, or Professor Emerson, and he is strict, demanding, dominant and assertive in his power.  The two characters clash leaving Julia a frightened rabbit running from an angry wolf.  As the story unfolds we find that Julia and Gabriel have met before, that they have a shared connection, along with a shared experience.  This sets up the first confrontation in the plot.  Julia remembers a younger Gabriel, and he does not remember her.  A shared moment in an orchard the changed the young Julia’s life, and she is deeply wounded that her now professor does not remember.

When Gabriel finally comes to his senses and acknowledges the moments shared between the two lovers some six years earlier, he transforms from an angry “devil” into a loving and caring man who wants to “worship” Julia, body and soul.  The idea of love as a transformative and healing power is a beautiful and poetic one, however, the book slowly spins into an overly verbal proclamation of the virtues of love everlasting.  Both have their secrets, both have had negative experiences, including abusive relationships and drug abuse, but because of their love for one another Beatrice and Dante end up entwined in their own Paradise.  That is surely the divine comedy of this novel (yes, pun intended, again).  Because reality is, folks, that you can love someone with all your heart, but responsibility for the bad and the good within oneself is solely based on that person.  Julia cannot be Gabriel’s baptismal water and Gabriel cannot be Julia’s.  There is no Virgil (well, technically yes, in this book there is, but not in the same capacity) helping Dante climb through the circles of Hell ever-reaching for his beloved in Paradise.  When it seems like all the secrets come out, there is shoddy patchwork to tamper down the edges of the relationship, making the fabric of their love last only a little while longer.  Similar to 50 Shades, it seems a melding of bodies and mouth act as a cure for all the wrongs in need of mending.  However, Reynard at least tries to explain their physical relationship in terms of giving concrete credence to the abstract idea of love.  Not just lust (which, surprisingly, Reynard discusses in detail in the book).

My biggest fault with this story, however, is how much Reynard idolizes love and soul-mates.  Love is something profound, and something cherished, don’t get me wrong, but the dialogue between the two protagonists borders on clichéd obsession.  Too many “beloved’s” and “my Beatrice’s,” among other overly sappy language.  Additionally, the moment Gabriel becomes Julia’s first is so over the top with description (not of the act, but the emotion) and lengthy exclamations of everlasting love that I felt the need to roll my eyes and hold off fake gagging for effect.  Seriously, though, whose first time was in Italy, by candlelight, a mature man preparing everything unthought of including Advil and warm baths, cranberry juice and lubricant?  Let alone wearing $100+ of lingerie.  Ten bucks say most of your first times were far from the aforementioned.  And if not, way to go girl or boy!

Though sometimes readers want to melt into a world where love conquers all, it is a slippery slope to believing that these fairy tale romances happen.  Again, don’t get me wrong, romance has its own forms for different couples, and they understand love in their own language, thus making their individual fairy tales come true.  What concerns me is the young girls reading these novels, believing that their first experience with love (in action, thought, or word) will be these monumental and prophetic moments, when in reality, first times disappoint most girls and most boys are just happy they got laid, and rarely does love have anything to do with the union.  Our youth blinds us to the realities of love, to what it means when someone says they are “in love,” and the sacrifices we make on its altar.  Because love is part compassion, part empathy, and a whole lot of understanding and forgiveness.  The love between two people is baptismal water, cleansing us of our previous sin, but it is the love you give, not the love you receive that wipes you clean.  Along with love of self.  You should never look to someone else to fix you, it has to come from within.  And I fear that the impression readers will be left with is that finding (the mostly unattainable idea of) a “soul-mate” will somehow fix all the cracks and flaws in their personality, which will wipe clean the slate and somehow give them re-birth, when in reality, the true transformative power of love comes from loving oneself.

This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America

I know what you’re all thinking: how can she go from writing about the Fifty Shades trilogy to drugs?  Truth is, I have a diverse interest in books.  Not only that, but when it comes to public policy, my focus is on drug policy and reform.  I find it thoroughly fascinating, which could speak volumes about me, but I prefer to think of it as a problem of the people.  Much like the Fifty Shades trilogy brought BDSM out of the closet, shows like Intervention have brought drug abuse out of the dark and into the public spotlight.  Whether it is a member of the family who secretly smokes or snorts his or her problems away, or towns ravaged by methamphetamine, drug use and abuse affects various facets of life.  As such, people should give drug policy a more thorough look.  And that is what this book sets out to do.

Within the pages of this book we are given the basic history of drug use in America, from the creation of cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines, and what it meant to the burgeoning pharmacy companies, to the present day and the ruling status of Big Pharma in government policy.  Ryan Grim does an excellent job of engaging readers through personal accounts, statistical evidence and some very thorough and surprising conclusions formed from the data presented.  Within the first three pages of the book, Grim comments, “Little tells us more about the state of America than what Americans are doing to get high.”  When I first read this statement, I sought out a highlighter and emblazoned it with a vibrant orange.  This statement, simple and short, encapsulates the very essence of the book.

The country’s love affair with mind-altering substances has been a rocky one, at best.  Always looking to the next best high, the creation of variant chemical compounds has been the leading business for Big Pharma since the early days when advertisements claimed heroin and cocaine  genuine medical cures.  When the country was going through Prohibition, drinking declined considerably as opiate usage steadily rose, because individuals believed alcohol consumption was more negative than smoking or ingesting opiate compounds.  This example provides a vast insight into how America has danced with drug policy throughout the ages.  A more recent example within the pages of this book comes from the drug prevention program D.A.R.E.  Statistical evidence showed that children who went through the program did not in fact benefit from its “Just Say No” slogan, but provided intrigued youth adequate information to experiment with gateway drugs such as marijuana.

These examples are just a few of the mind-blowing informational facts that Grim writes about.  Entertaining and informative, Grim provides a very even-handed, although nowhere near neutral, understanding to drug policy and use in America.  Through his words he can enlighten those in the dark on these topics, and bring a fresh perspective to those experts, in however you wish to define the term.  For anyone who has an interest in drug policy, this is a great introduction into a very tumultuous world.

 

The Fifty Shades Trilogy.

What better way to start out my book review blog than to review what is fast becoming a sweeping phenomenon.  The Fifty Shades Trilogy is by far the most erotic and nauseating series of romance novels that I have read.  It explores the kinky relationship between Christian Grey (from which the title comes) and neophyte to the BDSM world, Ms. Anastasia Steele.  As it plainly states on the back cover, this book is an erotic romance.  It explores the world of sadomasochistic relationships, focusing on dominate and submissive personality types and whether real love and real relationships can come from these beginnings.  I feel like I am giving these books too much credit on being of literary value.  As negative as that sounds, most lonely women are reading this trilogy for one of two reasons: other women are talking or they are simply pent-up sexual beings that need a release, if you get my drift.

The first of the three books (Fifty Shades of Grey) introduces readers to young adult and recent college grad Anastasia Steele.  The opening scene sets up the situation to which she irrevocably ties herself to ultra-buisness man, Mr. Christian Grey.  As a favor to her best friend, Ana agrees to do an interview with the mega-millionaire for the graduation edition of the school newspaper.  From the moment she tumbles head over heels into his office (quite literally) the two are doing the dance of love, in and out of bed.

Book two introduces complications to the bittersweet relationship: Christian’s psychotic ex submissive, an over-powering and over-sexed boss, and internal struggles of our two main characters.  Whenever the circumstances seem on the verge of eminently tearing apart our star-crossed lovers, a crisis arises allowing each character to realize their true feelings for one another, and to admit to true intentions.  Amongst the graphic and frequent depictions of sex (vanilla or otherwise), the relationship between the two main characters lacks any real substance.  It reads like two horny young adults, repeatedly getting their jollies in the guise of true love.

By the end of the third novel we see Ana in a completely new light.  Literally.  She no longer resembles the person we meet in pages 1-20 in book one, but rather she is a completely different person who wears make-up, Louboutin heels, and lace lingerie, all at her husbands behest.  It’s sad to see.  An intelligent, albeit naïve, young woman who has much to experience from life turns into a prolific submissive by succumbing to the physical and mental direction of her over-protective, and frankly abusive, husband.

What concerns me most with this set of novels is that young women and teenagers are reading these depictions of love and sex and many, who may be yet unexperienced, might come away with the idea that this is a real, and good, relationship.  Christian Grey, although handsome and powerful, smart and successful, is cut from the cloth of an abusive individual.  He demands Ana obey him, not just in the playroom (“red room of pain”), but also in her behaviors outside the bed, and he demeans her (at times asking her if she is stupid, calling her childish, etc) when she does not obey him.  Though we are led to believe that Ana has a voice in the relationship (she does NOT sign his contract and does NOT become his submissive, but rather is Christian’s first girlfriend and real relationship), her efforts seem to be wasted.  She still, for all intents and purposes, becomes Christian submissive to his dominant personality (frequently in the novels by giving in and shutting up when she should in fact take a stand).  And sex is the weapon of choice for both Christian and Ana.  They each use their sexuality and it’s effect on the significant other as ways to control situations.  The last scene of the trilogy has Ana succumbing to Christian’s desire for rough and kinky sex by kneeling on the floor awaiting her husbands orders, although we are led to believe this is her showing her love for her husband.

While these novels were erotic, and frankly eye-opening, it’s hard to wrap my head around the message being presented to all of the young readers.  And not even just the young, but those who are still lonely and looking for love.  This is not a great depiction of what to aspire too.  The most it has to offer in terms of real lasting gratification (pun intended) is an introduction and greeting into the closeted world of BDSM.  And, if you are into that thing, more power to you.  A series has come along that has opened the doors for discussion.  But fellas, don’t be Christian Grey.  And ladies, don’t be Anastasia Steele.  Just maybe use their action as a tutorial for “kinky fuckery” if you’re in to that thing.