The Fault in Our Stars

At the end of the first chapter of The Fault in Our Stars, I was literally laughing out loud over a joke about the "incorrect use of literality," shared between two cancer kids -- one terminal, one in remission -- shortly after a scene in which the two bond over one's philosophical answer to the other's stated "fear of oblivion" and both learn that a third friend is about to lose a second eye to cancer.

Hazel Lancaster, sixteen, has incurable thyroid cancer, with an "impressive and long-settled colony" of cancer cells in her lungs, but to Augustus Waters -- mahogany hair, "aggressively bad posture," and a slight limp from a prosthetic leg nicknamed Prosty -- she looks like "a millennial Natalie Portman." But what really brings them together is a joke about their Support Group director's well-intentioned prayer in which he describes the cancer-ridden children as "literally in the heart of Jesus."

"I thought we were in a church basement," says Augustus. "But we are literally in the heart of Jesus."

"Someone should tell Jesus," says Hazel. "I mean, it's got to be dangerous, storing children with cancer in your heart."

Three years (and one near-death experience) removed from high school, Hazel knows she will die soon, and this certainty has shrunk her world to her three best friends: her two parents and Peter van Houten, the reclusive author of her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction. To do otherwise, she feels, is to become a human "grenade" -- the fewer people who love her now, the fewer lives she will shatter when she inevitably goes. But Augustus has other ideas, and soon the two are on an international quest to Amsterdam -- oxygen tank, Prosty, and parental chaperon in tow -- to meet van Houten himself.  

Hazel's beguiling voice is utterly believable as a thoughtful, prematurely somber teenager who borrows from Shakespeare, Eliot, Dickinson, Anne Frank, and the fictional van Houten in telling the story of a romance of "the young and irreparably broken." But it's the crackling humor between the two lovers that makes them most human. "You have a choice in this world," says Hazel, "about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice." This book, already a bestseller, is every bit as good as its reputation and easily one of the best of this or any other year.

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysely Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.

The Promise of Hope

Killed last year in the infamous terror attack at Nairobi's Westgate mall, Kofi Awoonor was a national treasure in his native Ghana.  His career began in 1964 with Rediscovery, and this magnum opus serves as a tribute to his entire long journey charting his beloved nation's course through his accomplished poetry.

Winter Mythologies and Abbots

A pair of linked stories finds that, as translator Ann Jefferson relates, "[Pierre] Michon's great theme is the precarious balance between belief and imposture, and the way the greatest aspirations can be complicated by physical desire or the equally urgent desire for what he calls glory."