Category Archives: Books

How do we deal with loss? Review of ‘The Fault In Our Stars’

The Fault in Our Stars is a well-written, superbly-acted film that deals with some of the big questions in life: how does loving someone with a terminal illness affect our own life and theirs, how do we want to be remembered after our deaths, will we be remembered at all, and does it matter one way or the other?

The Fault in our Stars film poster
The Fault in our Stars film poster

Teenagers Hazel, Gus , and Isaac all have different forms of cancer. Hazel has thyroid cancer that  has migrated to her lungs, making her cart an oxygen bottle everywhere. Gus had cancer resulting in the amputation of a lower leg. Isaac has had one eye removed due to a tumour, and will soon lose the other eye. They all meet at a teen cancer support group. Gus declares that he wants to live an extraordinary life and be remembered after he is dead. Hazel thinks this is grandiose nonsense:

“There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”

A relationship starts to bloom  between Hazel and Gus, but Hazel tries to warn Gus off investing too much emotion in her. She anticipates that her death will be like a hand grenade, damaging everyone around her. They swap favourite books, and Gus finds that Hazel’s is about a kid who dies of cancer, and the bookends in mid-sentence. They contact the author, an American living in Amsterdam, and arrange a trip to Holland to meet him. Instead of answering Hazel’s questions about the end of the book, they discover the author is a nasty drunk who kicks them out of his apartment. (They don’t know it just yet, but the author’s book is based on the death of his own daughter from cancer.)

They return to America, where Hazel’s condition worsens, Gus’s cancer returns, Isaac has lost his other eye, and the three write eulogies in preparations for each other’s funerals. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the film, I won’t reveal who dies first, or in what circumstances.

The notion that loving someone exposes us to hurt is not new. There is an old saying that, “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” The film puts it a little differently. One character says, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world…but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.” After watching the film, I thought about how loss is inevitable. I have two kids in their twenties. Both practice sports that carry a  risk of death. Perhaps I’d be happier if they did basketball or karate or surfing, or some other fairly harmless activity,  but as a parent, I can’t control what my adult kids do. And I can’t spend my life worrying that they might get killed. The possibility of loss is just something we all have to live with. The characters in this film fight over how exactly you face loss. The dialogue is superbly written, and the acting is excellent. If you go to see it, watch the facial expressions of the main characters, and listen carefully to the dialogue. You might want to go see it twice. I did. So, has anybody else seen it, or read the book? What did you think?

Note: this is my blog site. For my site about thesis editing services, go to the  RichardSnowEditing site.

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Yossarian slept here: when your father betrays you

Catch-22, original book cover, from Wikimedia
Catch-22, original book cover, from Wikimedia

Would you feel betrayed by this? Imagine that your father, a famous author, wrote a novel that was clearly based directly on your own family, that it was negative in tone, that it described all his dissatisfaction with his wife, and that he included slabs of conversation that you (the daughter) actually had with your father.

That’s what Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, did in his novel Something Happened. Heller worked on the novel for 13 years. When his daughter read the proof, she was shocked.  In the book, the writer talks about his unnamed family members, recounting their faults, and how unhappy he was with them all. He talks about his efforts to intellectually out-fox his daughter. One chapter was entitled, ‘My Daughter is Unhappy’. His daughter, Erica asks, “was this a statement or a goal?”  When she asks him why he’s done this, he replies, “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” What more devastating retort could a father make to his daughter?

In addition, Heller had an affair, which involved flying his lover in the same plane as he and his wife when they went to speaking engagements, and booking the lover into the same hotels. Yes, that’s right- he was carrying on with the lover under the same roof as his wife. When his wife Shirley employed a private detective agency and confronted him with documentary evidence such as credit card bills and photographs, he denied it, and told the rest of his family that Shirley was going crazy and needed a psychiatrist. When Heller was in hospital, Erica walked in on the lover at her father’s bed. Heller calmly introduced them. (The daughter by this time already knew the lover’s name and what she looked like.) After that, Heller reverted to denying the person ever existed. This is strange behavior indeed.

The book gives an insight into what Heller was like as a person, and the answer is, ‘not very  nice, really.’ Still, the book is an insight into one of the twentieth century’s best-known writers. It’s well worth reading. Just be prepared to have some illusions shattered. Geniuses can be petulant, vicious and vindictive in their family affairs.

On another note , my novel, Fire Damage, a terrorism thriller, is now available as a paperback, here. It’s also available as a Kindle on Amazon US and UK. It’s based on the real-life Japanese religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. 

Crazy Japanese religious cults: how I got the idea for my first book

Today I thought about why I used the Japanese religious cult “Aum Shinrikyo” as the starting point for my first novel. My ex-wife and I stopped in Japan on our way back from Europe in 1985, and we visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. I loved the place. The train system was fantastic, the country was full of old temples with beautiful architecture, and it was easy to get around even though we didn’t know the language.

Kyoto in autumn, from Wikimedia Commons by Wikimedia user  FG2
Kyoto in autumn, from Wikimedia Commons by Wikimedia user FG2

In between about 1988 and 1997 l learned Japanese on-and-off in evening classes. My ex- and I started home-hosting Japanese visitors and Japanese students from nearby La Trobe University. In 1989 and in 1994, I visited again, only this time on my own. I stayed with Japanese friends.

The year after my 1994 visit, the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. This event was a major shock to the Japanese people. They were not used to domestic terrorist groups engaging in mass killings in Japan. Soon everyone wanted to know: who are these people? The name Aum Shinrikyo means “Supreme Truth.” Their leader, Shoko Asahara, preached a mixture of Yoga, Christianity, Buddhism, and Nostradamus. He believed the end of the world was near. Don’t they all? He declared himself to be Jesus Christ. He used LSD and electric shock therapy on the group’s followers. Some were murdered.  Shoko was also big on conspiracy theories involving the Freemasons, the British Royal Family and the Jewish people. Yep, they were crazy as batshit. But the group had made a point of enrolling students from some of Japan’s top universities. They promoted themselves as the religion for the intellectual elite. After the gas attacks, Shoko and many of his followers were arrested.

When I stated my novel in the mid-1990s, I had a vague idea about a religious group mounting an attack on something in Australia. I asked: what if some of Shoko’s followers evaded arrest, invented a genetically modified virus, and threaten to release it at an international sporting event in Melbourne Australia. I invented a mini-Olympic Games that I called the “Pacific Games.” Setting the book in my own city seemed a pretty obvious thing to do. I could write scenes in Melbourne, and I had learned enough about Aum to visualize what they would do.

Sometimes I look at other writers and ask, “How did they get their idea?” How did Philip Hose Farmer get the idea to write Jesus  on Mars? (You guessed it: Earth detects some ancient Greek letters carved on a doorway into a mountain on Mars. They go inside and who do they find? Jesus and a bunch of guys following first century Judaism. I won’t spoil the plot.)

So, what’s the most unusual story idea you’ve seen in a book, and where do you think it came from?

I’d love to hear from you.

Note: this is my blog site.   For information about editing an academic thesis, click here.

My novel Fire Damage, an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, here : the novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here. For the paperback version, click here.

How many characters spoil the plot?

Last night I saw Prometheus, the supposed prequel to 1973 film Alien, with Sigourney Weaver. Frankly, the plot didn’t impress me, and the film suffered from what I suspect is a common fault in films and books: too many “main” characters. It becomes difficult to emotionally identify with any one character. I felt no real identification with any of the on-screen characters in Prometheus. When I think back over some of the best films, there are usually one or two, maybe three main characters, but that’s the limit. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoohas Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

Poster for 1984, from Wikipedia

Catch 22 has Captain Yossarian. We see the other characters, but none of them gets even remotely equal time with Yossarian.  George Orwell’s 1984 has Winston Smith. As best I recall we never see his lover, Julia, nor his torturer, O’Brien, without him. As a result, we are totally invested in Winston. Even though Harry Potter has Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, and Snape, we know who the main character is. (And Rowling had the advantage of seven books over which to tell her story.) Steel Magnolias had half a dozen, but we are mostly invested in Julia Roberts, as Shelby, who is diabetic, not expected to be able to carry a child, and becomes pregnant anyway. She needs a kidney transplant, gets it, it fails, and finally she has to be disconnected from life support.

In order for me to be invested in the fate of a character, they need to be centre-front. They need to have a problem I can identify with.

So what about you? Do too many characters make it hard for you to get invested in a film or book? What’s your limit? what do you prefer? when you think about the films you thought were “best” films, how many lead characters did they have?

(On an unrelated topic, Piper Bayard and Holmes have an interesting article on spy ships between WWI and WWII. at Piperbayard.wordpress.com)

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My novel ‘Fire Damage,’ an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, at:
The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here:

Aayan Hirsi Ali’s “The Caged Virgin”

This isn’t so much a book review as a few thoughts sparked off by Aayan Hirsi Ali’s “The Caged Virgin.” The book is a collection of essays, but Hirsi Ali sums up some of her positions in the preface to the book.

In regard to Islam she says:

(first)  “… a Muslims relationship with God is one of fear.” (p.x)

(second) “… Islam only knows one moral source: the Prophet Muhammad.”  (p.xi)

(third) “…Islam is strongly dominated by a sexual morality derived from Arab values dating from the time the Prophet received his instructions from Allah, a culture in which women were the property of their fathers, brothers uncles , grandfathers or guardians. The essence of a woman is reduced to her hymen…. A man’s reputation and honor depend entirely on the respectable, obedient behaviour of the female members of his family.” (p.xi)

In the opening essay, “Why Can’t We Take a Critical Look at Ourselves?” she says “…we Muslims have religion inculcated in us from birth, and this is one of the very reasons for our falling behind the West in technology finance and health.” (p.7).

Hirsi Ali repeatedly points out the unequal, and sometimes appalling treatment of women in Muslim countries: girls who have been raped getting flogged in addition (p.72), and an alleged 5,000 “honour killings” of girls every year in Muslim countries. (p.12.)

She returns at various points to the claim that Muslim society has fallen behind the west. I do not recall the page, but at some point she makes the claim that the big advances of the last 100 years have come from the west. She does not explicitly name them, but she might be thinking of things like air travel, immunisation, television, organ transplants, the internet, or many other technological advances. (One might add that some of the blights on modern society like fast food, and the processed manufactured gunk that a lot of us eat also came from the west.)

She refers to a United Nations report (Arab Human Development Report, 2002)  (P.45 of her book) in which twenty-two Muslim countries are examined and which comes to the conclusion that “the (Arab)  region  … is plagued by three key deficits that can be considered defining features: a lack of freedom; disempowerment of women; and a lack of capabilities or knowledge.”

Thinking about this set me searching for Muslim responses to Hirsi Ali on the internet. It was hard to find them at first, because the search engines initially throw up Hirsi Ali herself, including many videos of her interviews.

One site I came across was http://answeringchristians.blogspot.com  maintained by a Pakistani woman. This site is not specifically related to Hirsi Ali, but it contains examples of honor killings by Christians and murder by Christians in Ghana who burned a woman to death for being a witch. The site also quotes the old testament verses about raped women becoming the wives of their rapists. The Old Testament contains some very violent passages.

See   http://answeringchristians.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html  but  you need to scroll down through 6-8 entries.

Another site that does specifically discuss Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel” is http://goatmilkblog.com/2008/04/06/ayaan-hiris-alis-infidel-commentary-by-asma-t-uddin/

It’s hard to summarize his views, but he states that “The drama, deceit, and sensationalism kept me hooked, I guess.” He makes a legitimate point, I think when he points out that Ali never refers to Christian fundamentalists in the US:  “I am not sure where and when she educated herself about Judaism and Christianity, but she seems to have completely overlooked each of these religion’s fundamentalist strains.”

I also found a site that discusses Christian witch hunts in Africa and Papua New Guinea and Hindu witch killings in India: http://www.loonwatch.com/2010/04/witch-hunts/