There’s a certain Slant of light
by Emily Dickinson
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
SOURCE: Poetry Foundation
“I wanted more time so we could fall in love. I got my wish, I suppose. I left my scar.”
I can’t read the line above without tearing up. I don’t know… I do know that I absolutely loved this book in a way I haven’t loved a book in a long, long while. I treasured it. In fact, John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars might just be one of my all-time favorites. I’m not alone, by the way. Included on countless “best of” lists, TIME magazine even hailed it the number one piece of fiction of 2012. So, for your own sake, don’t dismiss the genre. Sure, I snuck pages by nightlight in the wee hours, half expecting my parents to catch me and faux-grumpily demand I go to sleep. But the thing is, Green’s work speaks more honestly, wholeheartedly, and (best of all) humorously about both the complexity and simplicity of love than anything I’ve encountered in, well, a long, long while. I wish I could read it again for the first time.
The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster. Hazel is bookish, bright, and sweetly sullen—an unaware beauty and terminally ill. Diagnosed three years earlier with Stage IV thyroid and lung cancer, Hazel is on borrowed time. While a (fictional) miracle drug, Phalanxifor, has indefinitely shrunk her tumors and extended her life, she has come to terms with her unjust fate. Depressed and lonely with only the companionship of her slightly smothering parents, it isn’t until she meets Augustus Waters, a seventeen-year-old hottie in remission, that she starts to feel truly alive.
Their mutual attraction is instantaneous. Across a circle of attendees in a support group meeting, tall, muscular, puddle-eyed Augustus stares at Hazel and she stares back. Better yet, in conversation, they each match the other’s wit and irreverence. She’s into poetry and he’s into metaphors. When he asks to see her again, she requires he first finish her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, the only book she’s ever read that accurately conveys what it feels like to be dying. It’s so deeply important to her, and he intrinsically understands. Still, despite his ongoing persistence and their endless, amusing banter, she keeps a comfortable distance. He makes it difficult, though, with his genuine charm, goofy grin, and utter devotion. After all, it’s hard to resist a crush who says things like “you are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are.” [Sigh. Swoon. Stomach flip.]
But her caution, of course, is warranted. Hazel is duly aware of the pain she will unavoidably cause him given her incurable condition. A self-described “grenade,” she holds back to protect him. “To be with him was to hurt him—inevitably. And that’s what I’d felt when he reached for me: I’d felt as though I were committing an act of violence against him, because I was.” And yet Augustus is undeterred. He tells her, “all efforts to save me from you will fail.” Ultimately she relents, and it is an abiding interest in the precarious conclusion to An Imperial Affliction that cements their bond—and sets them off on an adventure to Amsterdam to meet Peter Van Houten, its reclusive author. Somewhere along the way, they fall in love. As Hazel describes, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” But when Augustus reveals a shadowed truth, their emotional journey together is indelibly redirected as they learn that “some infinites are bigger than other infinities.”
Funny, wise, and deeply romantic, this tragicomedy is undoubtedly a celebration of the best of love and the worst of life—a beautiful, bold depiction of how those two narratives are ever-entangled, securely written in the prolific stars as they magically align or devastatingly cross. The universal theme of Green’s work transcends illness—a thoughtful, nuanced appeal to readers young and old alike. If, as Augustus contends, cancer is an act of civil war—a cellular battle of the self—we can all relate on some level to those affecting fears. For we all struggle to varying degree with ourselves and our own sense of fragility and worthiness. We all battle our own, specific “imperial affliction” as well as the residual concern of imposing and absorbing hurt. But what these two young, improbable lovers prove is just how worthwhile pain can be for the right person. To paraphrase Hazel, true love is knowing you can’t unlove someone even when confronted with his “hamartia,” his fatal flaw. And, more importantly, knowing you don’t want to.
Those glorious, faulty stars… What would our lives be without them?
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
Dutton Children’s / 336 pp
Editorial Note: This poem was composed and read for President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration.
by Richard Blanco
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses; the rhythm of traffic lights;
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables. Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
SOURCE: The Huffington Post
Editorial Note: Henry David Thoreau wrote “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” So how exactly do we, said mass, come instead to know happiness? Is it truly as elusive as Thoreau suggests? Certainly not. Through his own research, Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, offers some insight. Here is his fascinating 21-minute TED Talk, “The Surprising Science of Happiness,” a topic that he explores further in his bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness.
* * *
Stumbling on Happiness
by Daniel Gilbert
Vintage / 336 pp
Leaving the Empty Room
by Stephen Dunn
The door had a double lock,
and the joke was on me.
You might call it protection
against self, this joke,
and it wasn’t very funny:
I kept the door locked
in order to think twice.
The room itself: knickknacks,
chairs, and a couch,
the normal accoutrements.
And yet it was an empty room,
if you know what I mean.
I had a ticket in my head:
Anytime, it said, another joke.
How I wished I had a deadline
to leave the empty room,
or that the corridor outside
would show itself
to be a secret tunnel, perhaps
a winding path. Maybe I needed
a certain romance of departure
to kick in, as if I were waiting
for magic instead of courage,
or something else
I didn’t have. No doubt
you’re wondering if other people
inhabited the empty room.
Of course. What’s true emptiness
without other people?
I thought twice many times.
But when I left, I can’t say
I made a decision. I just followed
my body out the door,
one quick step after another,
even as the room started to fill
with what I’d been sure wasn’t there.
SOURCE: The Paris Review
This week I’m on a tight deadline for another (legitimate) book blog. Well, “tight” might be an exaggeration. In truth, I had ample time to complete my assignment, and yet I chose to leave it to the last minute. Welcome to my writing process—where procrastination and panic play integral roles. But I didn’t want to leave you all (and by “you all,” I mean “Hi, mom”) high and dry. Instead, I’m including you in the procrastination part. I’ll be sure to withhold the panic.
In such predicaments, I happily turn to baking. Nothing fancy—just something simple and heartwarming that will make the apartment smell like homey goodness. And often for me, that smell is banana bread wafting from the oven. It seems Sophie Dahl would agree. She introduces her own recipe with this: “I used to make banana bread in the fierce winters when I lived in New York and it was too freezing to do anything but bake. Eat it warm out of the oven with a lick of butter—it’s unadulterated manna.” Ah, a kindred spirit.
On a side note, Sophie—a former model, forever cook, and longtime writer—is the granddaughter of Roald Dahl, the beloved author of many treasured children’s books (including my personal favorite Matilda). Whether it’s an autumn stew or a summer salad, Miss Dahl’s Voluptous Delights is comparably whimsical. By equal measures stylish, soulful, sweet, and savory, Dahl truly knows how to whip up something special. Here’s her aforementioned banana bread recipe, which could not be easier:
SERVES 6 [umm, oops...]
51/3 tablespoons of soft butter, plus extra for greasing and serving
4 ripe bananas, mashed up
1 cup of light brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 pinch of salt
11/2 cups flour (spelt or whatever)
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease a 9 x 5-inch pan.
Pour the mashed bananas into a big mixing bowl. Mix in the butter, sugar, egg and vanilla extract. Add the baking soda and salt and mix in the flour last. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour, remove and cool, then serve in slices with a little butter.
From my amateur kitchen to yours, happy procrastinating/baking!
Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights
by Sophie Dahl
William Morrow Cookbooks / 288 pp
by Billy Collins
Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows
the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.
In a while, I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch
sending a cold shower down on us both.
But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news
that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed,
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with—some will be delighted to hear—
the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.
So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.
And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.
SOURCE: Poetry Foundation