[Book Review] Will Grayson, Will Grayson

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In today’s world of information, exposure and judgement, going unnoticed might seem to be the high school equivalent to heaven. One’s clothes, one’s body, one’s very thoughts are judged by the harsh society that inhabits the very grounds in which the development of personal qualities should be done. No institution seems to repress diversity with more efficiency than schools: we go in as potential artists and come out as an employee of Chaplin’s Modern Times factory. Students are faced, at early age, with a question that is highly unfair: is giving up on being yourself better than to feel punished for being who you really are?

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green and David Levithan, paperback by Puffin, 336 pages long) is bold enough to address that issue. The book tells the story of two boys, both named Will Grayson, who end up meeting by chance and affecting each other’s lives more than they ever imagined possible. Each Will Grayson has his own personality: one is a shy boy trying at his best to go by unnoticed while having a friend who feeds on attention; the other is a boy filled with anger at the world and trying to start a relationship with a guy he met online, Isaac.

Each Will Grayson was written by one of the authors: Will Grayson number one, by John Green, and number two (always written will grayson, without any capital letters on his chapters), by David Levithan. The idea, which might sound confusing at first, works splendidly well. Both authors impressed me for different reasons: John, by the constant quality of his writing, though there aren’t as many beautiful lines of his in this novel as there are on his other works. David Levithan shocked me at the complexity of his Will, who curses and spits, kicks and crumbles, but never gives in to the temptation of giving up on himself. Levithan seems to have tailored the words so they would fit his character perfectly – all the insults and shocking confessions of will grayson are even more compelling than those of John’s Will Grayson, which is a remarkable fact of its own.

With one Will so obsessed with fitting in and the other so desperately trying to be different, one might guess the book would risk being good by going cliche and leaving characters to fight against each other until the climax. Quite on the contrary: much like in real life, all these teenagers are able to learn from each other’s experiences and turn them into knowledge and wisdom. The secondary characters were so well built they deserve as much attention as the two Wills: my favorite character in the book, Will Grayson #1’s friend Tiny Cooper, is an overweight gay boy who doesn’t care in the slightest about anyone else’s opinion and has a self-confidence enviable by the vainest of people. Great main characters  give you a good premise; add great secondary characters and you’ll have the final touch for a good novel.

There is, however, one thing I disliked: the ending. I won’t spoil anything in this review (how annoying is it when people tell spoilers in book reviews?), but all I can say is that David’s last chapter sounded a bit like that final speech north-american movies seem to love so much, the one in which the main character stands up in the middle of an agog crowd and changes everyone’s lives with their words. I’ve always found those speeches more awkward than inspiring, more surreal than moving. The rest of the book had moved so incredibly well and in such a creative way I was left expecting a bolder finale than the one I got.

This is still, however, a nice book. Maybe it won’t touch the hearts of those who have always fit in, but it certainly gets it right for those of us who didn’t. Living in a society that encourages only small differences as a form of keeping reality from radical change, embracing our singularities may seem like a herculean and suicidal mission, but it is just the first act of courage needed in order to give our lives some purpose. If living isn’t faced as an endless attempt at building, constructing, changing ourselves and our whereabouts, it isn’t living at all. It’s killing time.

[Book Review] The Fault In Our Stars

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I have finished reading this book more than a month ago and only now have I gathered the courage I needed to write this review. Without spoilers, here’s why.

The Fault In Our Stars (John Green, 2012, Penguin, 336 pages) tells the story of a couple of teenagers, Hazel and Augustus, and their friendship, which begins after they meet at a support group for children with cancer. From there on, to use an expression that appears in the book, everything is “a roller coaster that only goes up”.

This is not your typical sad book. Yes, it’s sad – don’t go anywhere near it if you don’t want to cry. But what sets it apart from others is that this isn’t a story about disease, it’s a story about love. It’s very easy to gather a legion of fans by writing about a couple which is cute and does cute things together and has their lives dramatically changed and cries endlessly and will always love each other (I feel sick simply by writing this generic description). But what did they feel? What did they think? What did they question, what did they learn, where did they start and who did they become?

John Green answers those questions and manages to treat death as it is: natural. Painful, yes, but natural. Both Hazel and Augustus know – and it is clear to us, from what is written, that adults do not understand them – how much it hurts to see decades of future, a future that had been promised to you from the day you were born, maybe being taken from you. Stolen, even, by this disease without an easy cure. The pain is so great that depression goes unnoticed.

And that is where Green excels every expectation and delivers a work of art. His reading of human nature and his ability to empathize are only comparable, from what I’ve read, to Nick Hornby’s. There are no writing skills – though his are remarkable – capable of surpassing lack of content, which implicates that a great part of the perfection that is this book is attributable to the author’s delicate perception of his object of study, people.

These people who are, in fact, the best part of the book. From Hazel’s religious obsession for a fictional book to Augustus and his videogame character suicides, every tiny thing is there on purpose; every detail adds up to creating complete, thorough personalities. Emotions aren’t there for the creation of climaxes or making readers cry: they are there because this is what real people, flesh-and-boned creatures, feel. And what are characters but depictions of us?

And the writing, oh, the writing. The pace is perfect, the phrasing is perfect, the choice of words is perfect. John’s latest is quite possibly his best, simply because it takes his skills to a whole new level. There are so many metaphors and symbols all over this – the book author, the videogames, the cigarettes, the endless saga of fictional war stories, the use of the words “Augustus” and “Gus” – I would dare say this will become a classic. Much like Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Green manages to make a book that is not only delicious at first, but discoverable at each read, a book other books should be written about and accessible to all audiences, who will the touched by the metaphors even if they aren’t clear at first. I have always felt that the smallest details could sometimes do a better job at telling a story than a hundred pages might. I’m not the biggest crier when it comes to books, but this remarkable author, with his words well chosen and feelings well exposed, made me randomly sob because of beautiful sentences lost between chapters, as diamonds to be found in a sea of pearls.

To use a line from the book, “my thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations”; I would be able to go on about this forever and would still never do it justice.  The main reason, now that I think of it, is probably that, like love, everything that changes our hearts is partially unexplainable and surpasses all boundaries to become a personal experience. This book, as all good books, feels like more than reading. It is pure living.

[Additions to my bookshelf] March 15th, 2013

I have recently left my internship and, as a present, the wonderful people who work there gave me a gift card to my favorite bookstore, Livraria Cultura.

As the money was given to me and could be used at a bookstore only, it fits on Rule #2 and I’m allowed to buy books!

Here are the ones I have bought so far (yes, a very generous gift):

1. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy – The links are all to the actual edition I chose. I’m not a big fan on tie-in editions, but in this case I decided to buy the movie cover because a) it was cheap; b) it’s a gorgeous cover and c) tiny-but-gorgeous Aaron Johnson as Vronsky. Judge me if you want!

2. Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan – Basically because of John Green. I have not the slightest idea what the book is actually about, but having loved An Abundance of Katherines (review here), Looking For Alaska (review here) and The Fault In Our Stars (review on its way), I trust Mr. Green and anything he touches.

3. Van Gogh, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith – After Anna Karenina, this was the easiest one to choose. The edition I bought is hardcover, (decently, it seems) translated to Portuguese (which is, after all, my mother language), with colored illustrations and about 1,000 pages long. And it was considerably cheap – 80 reais, about 40 dollars, which is the original price. A bit heavy to carry around, so it’ll wait for vacations.

4. The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight, Jennifer E. Smith – I had never heard about it, but after seing it at the bookstore decided to search for reviews from people whose tastes were similar to mine. I was happy to find out there was a positive review on The Infinite Curio, one of my favorite literary blogs, so I decided to give it a shot. (Also: CHEAP. It costs 16 reais in Brazil, around 8 dollars, and books, even paperbacks, haven’t been that cheap for a while).

4. Wonder, R. J. Palacio – To be quite honest, this was a shot in the dark. I hope I like it, especially since I bought it on hardcover. But I have been hearing a positive buzz surrounding it, so I guess it must be good.

5. The Duke and I, Julia Quinn – Two friends of mine like this author a lot and told me this was a great place to start. It seems to be the first of a series and, according to one of them, every book focuses on a member of a large family, but gives glimpses on the lives of previous couples (a bit like Meg Cabot’s Boy thrilogy, I guess). It also caught my eye that these are basically Jane Austen meets Sophie Kinsella, which must mean a good read. I had to import it, though, and my copy will only arrive in May!

For now, that is all, but there’s still some money left. I’m open to suggestions both on what else to buy and what to read first!

[Book Review] Looking For Alaska

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I believe I have fallen in love with John Green.

Yes, I am quite aware – as Inkheart, a perfect book filled with metalanguage, taught me – that authors aren’t their characters and that we tend to fantasize about them, even though they are real, flesh-and-bone creatures just as you and me. And yet I can’t help bonding with them, feeling like I know them a little, thinking of them as friends and, when one of them writes something this precious, giving them a place on my heart.

I can’t imagine how anyone might possibly dislike Looking For Alaska (John Green, paperback by Penguin USA, 221 pages), the brilliant tale of how Pudge meets the Colonel, Alaska and Takumi, characters as special as their names would suggest. It follows my favorite topic for storytelling: people, simply people. A story set in high school, this is much, much more than your typical teenage book: the plot is so rich and the characters, so complete, that the reader is just as crushed by the events in it as the ones living the story themselves.

After a “Before” (the first half of the book, named that way by the author himself) that will make you fall in love with every single character, the “After” (don’t worry, I won’t ever intentionally give spoilers on this blog, I promise) is the cherry on top of the cake for Looking For Alaska. Unexpected, strong and well thought of, I hadn’t read such a good plot twist in a while; the simple idea of dividing the book in two parts is brilliant itself, for it divides not only the story per se, but also the tone in which it is told and the behavior of the characters around what happened.

If the story is already good by itself, John’s writing must also be praised. He understands the world he is describing well enough to create successful, credible dialogues, much superior to so many authors who only seem to reproduce a mirage of this generation. Every character has many nuances and, by the time you think you have gotten to know them, John slaps you on your face with the perfect white glove of short, simple, shocking lines. No flourishes, no unnecessary adjectives, no pretentious glamour, and yet worthy of study and reflection, filled with symbols (the cigarettes being my favorite), with color and warmth, with Alaska’s poetry and Pudge’s biographies, with every element that makes a classic. A classic just as I dare say this book will one day be considered.

Personally, I must say that this story seems to have shaken my heart and put it back on its place with a more desperate, more active pumping; one of my favorite things about reading is how words – simple, tiny, ink-on-paper words – can affect the reader in ways the author never expected. There was a passage in Looking For Alaska, after the, well, “After”, that made me close my eyes, take a deep breath and repeat the line again and again and again in my head: “We are all going”. If I had the opportunity to hug Mr. Green, I would do it, not only for being a brilliant nerdfighter, but for writing lines that broke my heart, which is just what you need of your literary friends every once in while. To break your heart so it can be fixed.

Pudge, a skinny boy who loves famous people’s last words, wouldn’t be disappointed to see this book as part of his biography. Perfect in its simplicity, it is as beautiful a daisy as Alaska’s favorite flowers and a great propeller of readers into the Great Perhaps.

[List] Books read in 2012

2012 is coming to an end and I am quite proud (yes, I don’t keep my expectations too high) at the amount of books I read this year! My college being at strike helped, of course, but I still had to study a lot even when I had no classes, which means a good part of the 29 books I managed to read is still on me, I guess.

Here is the list, with a rating on the side of each title:

  1. Nas Profundezas  (The 39 Clues, Book 6), Jude Watson – 5/5
  2. The Tennis Party, Sophie Kinsella – 3/5
  3. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson – 5/5
  4. Watchmen, Alan Moore – 5/5
  5. Matched, Ally Condie – 4/5
  6. Do Contrato Social (The Social Contract), Jean-Jacques Rousseau – 5/5
  7. O Manifesto do Partido Comunista (The Communist Manifesto), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – 4/5
  8. The Red Pyramid, Rick Riordan – 3/5
  9. I’ve Got Your Number, Sophie Kinsella – 5/5
  10. Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer – 4/5
  11. O Ninho de Cobras, Peter Lerangis (The 39 Clues, Book 7) – 4/5
  12. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins – 5/5
  13. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins – 5/5
  14. One Day, David Nicholls – 5/5
  15. Mr. Maybe, Jane Green – 1/5
  16. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger – 5/5
  17. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald – 5/5 (Can I give it a 100000/5?)
  18. The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien – 5/5
  19. Runaway, Meg Cabot – 4/5
  20. A Dança do Universo, Marcelo Gleiser – 5/5
  21. More Baths, Less Talking, Nick Hornby – 5/5
  22. O Código do Imperador, Gordon Corman (The 39 Clues, Book 8) – 4/5
  23. An Abundance of Katherines, John Green – 5/5 (Review here)
  24. Ein Kater schwarz wie die Nacht, Henning Mankell – 3/5 (Review here)
  25. A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – 5/5 (Review here)
  26. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde – 5/5 (Review here)
  27. Jinx, Meg Cabot – 5/5 (Review here)
  28. Hush, Hush, Becca Fitzpatrick – 4/5 (Reread, review in 2013)
  29. Crescendo, Becca Fitzpatrick – 3/5 (Review in 2013)

Any thoughts? How many books have you guys read in 2012?

[Extra! Extra!] Christmas presents

As pointed on The Rules, I can only obtain new books in very specific occasions, one of those being as presents. It is perfectly acceptable, then, that I take this magical, snow-falling-somewhere-other-than-Brazil-where-it’s-currently-unbearably-hot season, and make the most of it by transforming every single gift I can into books. And my friends and family, knowing me, are always sweet enough to help!

Here are the books I have been given this Christmas:

books 11. Alice im Wunderland, Lewis Carroll (given by Priscilla, who I met in Germany)

2. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (given by an aunt, with my sister’s help)

3. Pelos Olhos de Maisie (What Maisie Knew), Henry James (also given by my aunt)

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4. Theodore Boone: the abduction, John Grisham (given by my sister, Victória)

5. Looking for AlaskaJohn Green (sort of given by my dad, since he gave me the money)

6. Paper Towns, John Green (also sort of given by my dad)

Here are the books I have given as presents to other people:

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1. 30 Minutos e Pronto (30-Minute Meals), Jamie Oliver (given to my mom, who loves cooking books, but hates spending too much time on the kitchen)

2. Quem Poderia Ser a uma Hora Dessas? (Who Could That Be At This Hour?), Lemony Snicket (given to my sister)

3. Jogos Vorazes (The Hunger Games), Suzanne Collins (given to Priscilla)

And, as a bonus, I got one of my favorite Christmas presents ever from Rebecca: a poster with a marvelous quote by nerd-fighter and awesome-writer John Green about us, nerds:

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That’s, in my opinion, the best way to close 2012 and give 2013 a big welcome: by being enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness.

A late Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, everyone!

[Book Review] An Abundance of Katherines

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All of us want to be remembered. Yes, even you, denying it with your head and thinking “No, not me”. It’s natural to want to matter, whether it’s in an ambitious, I-want-to-conquer-the-Universe sort of way, or simply by longing to be loved. Mattering is better than being famous – it’s being assured that we are actually doing something, even if it’s just being who we are, and that our lives are not going to waste.

Colin Singleton (brilliant surname for a brilliant character, as a matter of fact) is a child prodigy who isn’t sure as sure of his importance to the world as he used to be. His father has big plans for him, plans that require him to study everything and anything, learning many languages and memorizing facts. On his leisure time, however, Colin has found a hobby: dating Katherines.

And that’s where An Abundance of Katherines (written by John Green, 215 pages, paperback by Speak) starts: Colin, smart kid with a promising future, has just been dumped by his nineteenth Katherine. A lover of anagramming and languages, he seems to have quite a hard time making these nine letters work for him. This time, however, the heartbreak is mixed with insecurity and doubts about whether he’ll ever have his “Eureka moment” or not, about the possibility of mattering to the rest of the of the world like his childhood promised him to.

So begins an adventure with Hassan, Colin’s fat, Muslim friend, who is one of the highlights of the book. Hassan is funny – hilarious, even -, easygoing, charming and wears his characteristics as an armor (much as Tyrion Lannister, from Game of Thrones), preventing others from putting him down and giving him the confidence that Colin lacks. Hassan also seems to constantly bring Colin back to the rest of society, preventing him from becoming too self-absorbed or getting lost inside his own mind. On their road trip without a destination, they meet Lindsey, a not-so-typical girl from Gutshot who was supposed to show them Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s gravestone and ends up helping them in ways they hadn’t predicted (I know, how vague of me, but I promise I’d spoil the book if I said to much).

The story is centered on Colin’s search for a mathematical function that could predict exactly how relationships will work based on a Dumper/Dumpee variable – and, let’s face it, someone who has dated nineteen Katherines has some experience to analyze the subject. That’s all just an excuse, though, for John Green to, in a very Nick Hornby-ish way, reveal in unpretentious sentences big revelations about relationships, love, intelligence, friendship and (why not?) life itself. Green, more famous for his The Fault In Our Stars, has an easy to read, light, humorous writing style, filled with references and footnotes about many topics, including History and Physics (though he does say the  wave-particle duality was Einstein’s work, when it was actually de Broglie’s, most of the information is fascinating to anyone who enjoys “fun facts”). It has many dialogues, making characters grow on the readers’ hearts and develop in a very credible way. A very, very nice read.

If you enjoy books without great action, but with beautifully written characters and feelings, this is your book. I haven’t yet read The Fault In Our Stars, but I can promise anyone interested on getting started with John Green that they most likely won’t regret it. I hadn’t read anything so modern, simple and enjoyable since David Nicholls’s One Day. It’s the definition of a great story by a great storyteller. As Lindsey would say:

‘That’s how I remember things, anyway. I remember stories. I connect the dots and then out of that comes a story. And the dots that don’t fit into the story just slide away, maybe. Like when you spot a constellation. You look up and you don’t see all the stars. All the stars just look like the big fugging random mess that they are. But you want them to see shapes; you want to see stories, so you pick them out of the sky.’

This book is, in my opinion, a star to pick out of the sky.