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Paper Towns: Revisited

My sophomore year of college I read a John Green book called Paper Towns and wrote a none-too-complimentary review of it here. Now, two and a half years later, said book has been made into a movie (which is fabulous, by the way, you should definitely watch it – after you read the book of course), prompting me to reread the thoughts I’d had upon finishing the book. In 2013, my biggest problem with the book was its perpetuation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character type. The fact that the entire plot of the book revolved around a girl who everyone thought they knew but no one actually did left a bad taste in my mouth. After leaving the movie theater there was no bad taste, quite the opposite in fact. I thought the movie did an excellent job of destroying the MPDG and showing that the real Margo Roth Spiegleman was nothing like what Q had made her out to be. I would be interested to reread the book and see if I still get a bad taste, and the movie was just that much better at explaining the concept and subsequently unraveling it, or if I find that I somehow missed the point the first time around. I have a strong suspicion it would be the latter. I like to think that in the two and a half years since I wrote that review I have grown immensely as a person, become a better critical thinker (If I haven’t then thousands of dollars and hours were wasted for that Political Science bachelors because let me tell you I have no “practical” skills) and gained more understanding of the world and people around me. What saddens me now is that as this story reaches a wider audience, there might be more people like 19-year-old me who misconstrue the ultimate message of Paper Towns. John recently wrote an article on Medium about Paper Towns press that addresses this issue:

Like, there’s a line in the beginning of the novel: “Everyone gets a miracle.” The male narrator of the story believes his miracle is Margo Roth Spiegelman, the character Cara plays in the movie. Later in the book, the boy realizes that Margo is not a miracle, that she is just a person, and that his imagining her as a miracle has been terribly hurtful to them both. But still, I was asked over a hundred times, “Who’s your miracle?” At first, I tried to fight it, tried to argue that we must see people as people, that we must learn to imagine them complexly instead of idealizing them, that the romantic male gaze is limiting and destructive to women. That’s the whole point of the story to me.

John, I get it now! I understand now that writing about something doesn’t have to mean perpetuating it, that writing about something could bring it to the attention of someone who had never thought about it before. I understand now that the point of Paper Towns isn’t to glorify the MPDG, but to challenge readers (and watchers) to imagine others complexly. This is not a retraction of my previous post – in fact, I still agree with almost everything I wrote, and I’m proud of 19-year-old Megan for thinking about the oppressive societal standards women live under – but a reflection. I’ve heard movie production for Looking For Alaska is moving right along, so we’ll see if I need to write another one of these after seeing its adaptation. I for one hope so.

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Old Classic, New Favorite

At more than a thousand pages, The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the longest and one of the most daunting books I’ve ever taken on – and one of the most rewarding.

I’m not saying it was easy. I started listening to it two summers ago while I was working a desk job, then picked up the hard copy and, with many books in between, finally finished it this past summer while driving home from a week at the beach. But it was worth it.

Now if you know me, you know you’d be hard-pressed to find a book that features pirates, political intrigue, sword-fighting, historical subtext, and a dash of romance that I wouldn’t like, and The Count of Monte Cristo has all these things and more. Being a connoisseur of this genre of novel, I can, with authority, tell you that this one leaves all the others in the dust.

Since I was young I’ve been a fan of the movie adaptation of this book, so I went into this book already knowing the plot. But the movie did not prepare me for the way the story would come alive when I read it. Dumas weaves the stories of so many characters together in a way that’s so intricate that you will audibly gasp when you make the connections, although you might need a character list to keep them all straight – who knew one man could have so many different names and titles??

For me, what made this book so much better than similar ones was the character of Edmund. The story follows him through so many years, through so many changes in his life, and as the reader you see the impact that all of these events have on his character.

He starts out as a young man so full of life and ambition, with everything going his way. His character is so endearing and so likable that I think I fell in fictional love a little bit. But then one little word changes his entire fate, and he’s sent away for life, accused of a crime he did not commit to save the reputation of a selfish man.

You see the changes Edmund’s character undergoes during years in the Chateau d’If. He begins to harden, and you see that no matter what he tells the Abbe, if he gets out he will make the men responsible pay for what he has suffered.

Although there is an antagonist, there is not necessarily a “good guy.” When reading the story, you realize that you’re rooting for this man who is bent on taking revenge by any means necessary. You get glimpses into the man he was before, but you realize that no matter what happens, Edmund Dantes is gone, replaced by The Count of Monte Cristo.

While Dantes rides the moral middle ground, there are some characters that are truly evil who you have no qualms about rooting against, and then there are some that are truly good for whom you only want the best. Each character has his or her own personality and brings something different to the story. Dumas’ tale is probably the most intricate that I have ever read, and each detail is woven in so expertly that you’ll be guessing until the very end. In an age where less seems to always mean more, take time to get so lost in a story that a thousand pages later you won’t want it to be over.

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Burn Baby Burn

There are an estimated 7.118 billion people on this earth. If the population keeps growing at the exponential rate that it has been in the past few years, the world we live in and the quality of life we experience may be forever changed.

The big question is, how are we going to deal with it? This is the moral and ethical issue Dan Brown explores in his newest thriller, Inferno.

As soon as I heard about this book I knew I had to read it. I’ve read all of Dan Brown’s books, and this one is about a work of literature I really like, Dante’s Inferno, and takes place in a city I’ve always dreamed of visiting, Florence. So on a rainy day off from my job at summer camp I went to the only bookstore in town and treated myself.

Inferno is the fourth Dan Brown book that follows the adventures of Professor Robert Langdon. In this book, Langdon’s studies on Dante lead him to Florence, where he gets wrapped up in the plot of a transhumanist scientist named Zobrist who is obsessed with overpopulation and the plague. Zobrist’s plan is to release a virus that will cause sterility in 1/3 of the world’s population.

As the intricate plot unfolded, I expected Langdon to apprehend Zobrist just in the nick of time, as most protagonists do, saving the world from the virus. That was not the case, however, and that’s what I found to be the most compelling part of the book. Compared to his other books, I think this one falls somewhere in the middle in terms of storyline. However, this is the only Dan Brown book that led me to think about a real issue instead of just appreciating a well-written adventure story. The ending of Inferno leaves the reader questioning his or her morals and ethics, and asking the big questions about the very real problem of overpopulation.

Zobrist is obsessed with the idea of recreating the Black Plague, which he believes is the best thing to happen to humans, and that it was a natural population control. He is so extreme that the reader is left thinking that he’s going to release a plague that will kill a majority of the population slowly and painfully. However, I remember when I was reading and found out that the plague instead caused sterility in a portion of the population, and I thought “That’s not so bad after all.” I was immediately shocked by my own thought, but nonetheless, I could see a sliver of humanity in this solution and the logic behind it. And that’s what makes Zobrist a great villain.

Now naturally I don’t think that we need another plague to solve overpopulation. But this book did make me think about an issue that I hadn’t really given much thought to before, and that’s what I think books are supposed to do. And that, more than the historical knowledge or the plot twists, is what I liked about this book.

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Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The broken toy in a pretty box

I recently finished reading two books, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. Both are written by one of my favorite people in the world, John Green. However, their subject matter is not my favorite.

In each of these books, John uses the character type generally referred to as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). Wikipedia defines the MPDG as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

The protagonists of these books, Pudge and Quentin, are both high school boys who become infatuated with their “dream girls” — Alaska for Pudge and Margo Roth Spiegelman for Q. In Looking for Alaska, Pudge starts at a new boarding school where he meets Alaska and quickly becomes bewitched by her. Q has lived next door to Margo for years, but has only admired her from afar. Both of these girls are mysterious, and although the boys realize that, neither tries to find out why that is. Both are too focused on their own desires and the fact that Alaska or Margo might be interested in them that they fail to see how broken these girls are.

When Alaska dies tragically, Pudge realizes how much he really didn’t know about her. He starts digging and finally sees what he should have seen before — that Alaska was a deeply broken girl that needed to be truly loved as a friend, not put on a pedestal that no girl, no person, deserves to be put on. When Margo disappears, Quentin decides that she’s left him this elaborate trail to follow, when the truth is that she has no desire to be found. He’s so obsessed with the idea that this girl needs him that he can’t see there’s something  legitimately wrong.

Our society as a whole has really embraced the whole MPDG idea. Women are constantly being held to standards that they could never hope to reach — be thin but not too thin, have sex but don’t be a slut, be educated but don’t be a nerd, the list goes on and on. Even though Pudge and Q see their illusions shattered at the end of their respective books, simply writing the MPDG character is perpetuating the concept. This is one of the reason’s I like The Fault in Our Star, John’s most recent book, so much more than these. Hazel and Augustus, the two main characters, know what they’re getting into. They may overlook each other’s faults, as many teenagers in love do, but Gus never holds Hazel up to his own unattainable ideas.

I personally liked Paper Towns better than Looking for Alaska, but both books seem to promote an idea that I’m completely uncomfortable with. If you want to read John Green, go for Will Grayson, Will Grayson or The Fault in Our Stars, which no one can go wrong with. These promote much more positive messages and don’t wrap a broken character with a bow of perfection.

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Meeting Cassie Clare: The YA family

I’m a book nerd. Obviously. So what to book nerds do when they find out when they’re going on vacation? They go online and see if any of their favorite authors are going to be there at the same time. At least that’s what I did last summer when I found out I was going to San Diego, and by divine intervention or dumb luck, the author of one of my favorite book series, Cassandra Clare, was going to be in town right in the middle of my vacation.

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Of course I had to go. I made room in my luggage for her most recent publication, City of Lost Souls, and headed west. I somehow convinced my parents to use the rental car and drive me to the “Mysterious Galaxy” bookstore, where a hundred teen girls and tween girls with their mothers packed into the little store. It was the floor or standing room only by the time I arrived.

I knew about Cassie through social media, Tumblr, Twitter and the like, and I am happy to report she is just as sweet and sarcastic as she seems online. She read aloud the “manor scene” from Jace’s point of view, an obvious big hit for those who have read the books. (And if you haven’t, I definitely recommend them if you like YA fantasy.)

She then opened the floor for questions. She talked about her books and what’s coming next for her beloved characters and the Shadowhunter realm in general. She also talked about her personal life, what she likes to read, where she gets her ideas from. These answers held the most interest for me. She said she never reads books in the same genre as what she’s writing, she’ll read something more contemporary, like John Green or a murder mystery. She explained that if she reads something in the same genre she’ll start to worry, “Oh my god, this book has a talking cat, I have a talking cat, I have to kill the cat!” she joked. There are always going to be similarities in books, that’s what makes it a genre, she said.

After her talk, it was time for the signing. We lined up outside in the bookstore in the lovely San Diego dusk and waited. One of the best things about going to nerdy events is that everyone there is a nerd. Some are bigger nerds than others, but everyone, at some level, is a nerd, which means more than likely you’ll have more in common with them than you would the average Joe on the street. In line there was no shortage of talk on Harry Potter, Hunger Games, the Green brothers and nerdfighteria, Doctor Who, Sherlock, the list could go on and on. Name any nerdy fandom you can think of, it was represented there. It’s great to be surrounded by people who love (OK, are obsessed with) the same things you do, without inhibition, and you can just let go and be yourself. I’ve also found people at these kind of events are incredibly nice and courteous, especially compared to say a sporting event. When we’d gone through the line, the girl I had been talking with asked me for my Twitter handle, said “It was so nice to meet you!” and gave me a big hug. We still fangirl together over Twitter occasionally.

Cassie herself was, as I mentioned earlier, lovely. She greeted me when I walked up and asked me where I was from. Her movie was being casted at the time, and they had announced who would be playing Alec earlier that day, so naturally I gushed about how attractive he is. She responded enthusiastically, saying “I met him the other day and I was just like, ‘What’s it like to be so tall and incredibly good-looking?” She also told me she was taking a poll, and asked who my favorite characters were from each series. I replied, “Is it cliche if I say Jace and Will?” She said something to the effect of, Ah, the Herondale boys. Of course not! and told me they were in the lead. She was a sweetheart and posed for a picture with me after she signed my book. It was an overall great experience, and just another reason I love my YA fiction family.

 

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Hell in the Pacific: Delving into the world of nonfiction

Normally people grumble and groan about the assigned readings for class. Not me, not this time. For my American Military History course each student reads two novels of their choosing about, you guessed it, American military history. This post is about my first of the two, Hell in the Pacific: A Marine Rifleman’s Journey from Guadalcanal to Peleliu. (To read my more formal and complete summary and review of this book I did for class, click here)

This book is the memoir of Jim McEnery, a soldier in the 1st Division Marines K/3/5 rifle company (If anyone’s seen the HBO miniseries Pacific, that’s the same company.) He details his experiences on the front lines of three major campaigns in the Pacific Theater during World War II, beginning at Guadalcanal, then to Cape Gloucester and finally to Peleliu.

I really enjoyed reading this book, for many reasons. My grandpa was in the Navy during World War II, so the Pacific Theater has always held a specific interest for me. Reading this book has rekindled my interest on the subject, and I learned a lot about the reality of island hopping in the South Pacific. I’d never thought about what it was like between campaigns, but it wasn’t a bunch of R&R for those boys. Maybe when they were on leave in Australia, but McEnery talks about his time off at Pavuvu after Guadalcanal. The exhausted Marines come ashore looking forward to simple amenities like electricity and running water and instead are greeted with rats mud.

Another aspect that made this book so great for me is that McEnery (with the help of Bill Sloan) is a fantastic narrator. He inserts his feelings into his retelling. I’d heard the phrase from the war, “the only good Jap is a dead Jap,” but McEnery’s story made this concept so much more real. The Japanese soldiers during WWII were cutthroat and would die before being captured by our boys. The wounded would set off grenades if any American came to help them, taking themselves with it. McEnery gets to the point where he can kill a Jap without a second thought, but it doesn’t make him inhuman. He retains a human connection that is so important in a war novel. Part of the way he retains that is by expressing his emotions in the situation. He doesn’t pretend that he, along with the rest of the boys, wasn’t scared shitless sitting in those foxholes, not knowing if they were going to make it through the night. Surprise attacks, buddies dying right before his eyes. McEnery is painfully honest, and this honestly helps the reader continue to perceive him as a person and not just a mindless killing machine.

Everything is told from a grunt’s eyes’ perspective, not a history book. In movies I’m used to seeing gore and war, but hearing the descriptions straight from someone who was there and witnessed it firsthand is different. McEnery tells everything in such detail, every reality of war, from combat to malnutrition to mentality. Jim McEnery was one of the few soldiers who witnessed the killing of Captain Andrew “Ack-Ack” Haldane at the Battle of Peleliu. “Then Ack-Ack’s head vanished in a flash of red, and a shower of blood blew back in my face.” I wasn’t familiar with Capt. Haldane’s story, and I’m fairly sure I audibly gasped when I read that sentence. For me, Jim McEnery’s recounting just drove home the weight of what these men went through for the security of my country. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a truthful account of what the Marines faced in the campaigns of the South Pacific. The book contains strategic summary (for comprehensive purposes), but is mostly a personal narrative. This means that there’s bias, but it’s stated as such and the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. It’s an easy read logistically, but I can guarantee it’ll make you think, and thank the men who went through hell so you don’t have to.

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Once Upon a Time…

Everyone loves a good fairytale. It doesn’t matter how old you are, there’s just something about kings and queens and castles and magic and happy endings that just leave you with a good feeling and a smile on your face.

And that’s exactly what 22-year-old Chris Colfer’s debut novel The Land of Stories does.

You may be wondering, how did a book of fairytales revolving around a pair of 12-year-old twins end up on the reading list of a 19-year-old girl?  (Even if this girl readily admits some of her favorite books are teen fantasy in which the main characters are bow-and-arrow wielding teenage boys.)

Usually when choosing a book I read the description and judge it based on my interest in the plot, but this one was purely authorial based. I love Chris Colfer.

Now if you’re thinking that name sounds familiar, it could be because of his role on the tv show “Glee” as the beautiful face and voice of Kurt Hummel. Even though I don’t watch “Glee”, I know all the music because my friend watches it, and when she learned Chris was writing a book she pre-ordered immediately. After she was done she passed it my way, and the rest is history.

The Land of Stories follows what happens to the twins Alex and Conner when they fall through the pages of a book and into the world of fairytale creatures. We meet familiar characters that then take on different personalities and come alive in unexpected ways. All the classic fairytales are beautifully (and sometimes painfully) intertwined with the story of Alex and Conner to make a wonderful new adventure.

This novel has just the right amount of romance and action-adventure to appeal to boys and girls alike, all culminating in a happily-ever-after of course. This book was a blast to read, I recommend it to the kid in us all!

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