Category Archives: Literature

Book review: ‘Nothing to Envy | Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

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Photo courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

Mi-ran and Jun-sang had known each other for 13 years and dated for nine. After three years, they began to cautiously hold hands under the cover of darkness once they’d walked a safe enough distance out of town. After six years, Jun-sang mustered up the courage to give Mi-ran an awkward kiss on the cheek, which she quickly rebuffed out of fear and shock.

When Mi-ran escaped with her family to South Korea, she couldn’t risk saying goodbye to Jun-sang. When he showed up one morning to find her family missing, he realized he’d been too late — too late to share with her the capitalist books he’d secretly been reading at university, the South Korean television signals he could faintly pick up at home and his hidden dream of running away with her to Seoul. She was already gone.

The two young lovers are the heart of Barbara Demick’s book, ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,’ which profiles six North Korean defectors hailing from an industrial town in the northeastern part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

‘Nothing to Envy’ is an enthralling read — a kind of novelization that follows its subjects through a fifteen-year period. From the death of Kim Il-sung to the horrific famine of the 1990s, ‘Nothing to Envy’ shows North Korea from the perspective of average citizens, far away from the carefully-constructed capital city Pyongyang and the state’s propaganda-filled press releases.

The book provides a quick but excellent background on how North Korea came to be what it is today. One of the book’s most memorable stories is the biography of Mi-ran’s father, which serves to explain her family’s low social status and “tainted blood.” A once popular and confident young man from a Southern farming area, Tae-woo was taken as a prisoner of war by the North and essentially trapped on the opposite side of the peninsula when a power struggle between the United States and Soviet Union resulted in the drawing of an arbitrary border across the map along the 38th parallel.

“Koreans were infuriated to be partitioned in the same way as the Germans. After all, they had not been aggressors in World War II, but victims. Koreans at the time described themselves with a self-deprecating expression, saying they were ‘shrimp among whales,’ crushed between the rivalries of the superpowers,” Demick writes.

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South Korea on the left and North Korea on the right, as seen from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. SCREAMfmLondon

‘Nothing to Envy’ follows its subjects as Kim Il-sung takes control of the DPRK with promises of an idyllic Communist state and, for the first few years, delivers on them. Then, readers see these people struggle to keep the faith after Kim Jong-il rises to power and the country’s economic crisis begins, resulting in the famine that ultimately killed around 3.5 million North Koreans.

Eventually, each of the subjects experiences a life-altering moment of final disillusionment which leads them to leave their country and, often, many loved ones, established careers and educations behind. For Jun-sang, the epiphany finally came when he was able to configure his television to pick up South Korean signals that told him news of the world and, for the first time, honest coverage of North Korea.

“Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive,” Demick writes. “North Koreans were always told theirs was the proudest country in the world, but the rest of the world considered it a pathetic, bankrupt regime.”

However, the defectors’ difficulties don’t end once they reach Seoul. The initial euphoria they experience often is short-lived, as they have to struggle to acclimate to modern society and start their lives over from scratch. Work experience and university degrees from the DPRK are useless, so the North Korean doctors and intellectuals we’ve gotten to know over the course of the book find themselves taking jobs as nannies and fast food delivery drivers.

‘Nothing to Envy’ concludes with an epilogue bringing the reader up-to-date with North Korea, briefly examining the first years of Kim Jong-un’s reign as Supreme Leader.

It’s an amazingly moving book, and it paints such a vivid picture of life inside North Korea for the past few decades. Not only is ‘Nothing to Envy’ a good primer on the Korean War and the politics surrounding it, but the personal stories within are so poignant they will stay with you long after reading.

The book’s conclusion is realistic and, therefore, inconclusive. The totalitarian regime in North Korea has already endured longer than anyone expected and continues to this day. Although many North Koreans manage to escape, so many are still living lives not unlike those depicted in the book — some are better off and some worse. And their stories are going untold.

‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’
Barbara Demick
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2010
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Politics
Pages: 336
Grade: A

Click here to read about my visit to the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.

Book review: Sophia Amoruso, ‘#GIRLBOSS’

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Photo courtesy of Portfolio/Penguin.

Sophia Amoruso has a really impressive story. She chose hitch-hiking and shoplifting instead of college and still managed to turn her eBay shop into a multi-million dollar online business. As the founder and CEO of Nasty Gal (a well-known fashion retailer), she grew the business to its current success without ever even borrowing money. That’s amazing. I’m awed and jealous.

But her book, “#GIRLBOSS,” which purports to teach young women about succeeding in business, says a whole lot of nothing. It’s neither truly a memoir nor a self-help book. She touches on many things briefly and delves deeply into none of them. With such an interesting life story, I was expecting Sophia to give useful, thorough advice from her personal experiences, but I was super let down.

Here’s where Sophia first lost me: it’s on page 14, where she writes, “#GIRLBOSS is a feminist book, and Nasty Gal is a feminist company in the sense that I encourage you, as a girl, to be who you want and do what you want. But I’m not here calling us ‘womyn’ and blaming men for any of my struggles along the way.” She goes on to ask, “Is 2014 a new era of feminism where we don’t have to talk about it? I don’t know, but I want to pretend that it is.”

Noooo. It’s so, so exhausting to have successful women with the opportunity to reach a large audience of young people continue to perpetuate the idea that feminism is about sitting around blaming men for your struggles. Misogyny, sexism and patriarchy are real problems that exist in the world and impact so many aspects of our lives — especially in business. And Sophia really doesn’t talk about this at all in the book, despite making a clear distinction between “girlbosses” and plain ol’ “bosses” right off the bat.

Sophia goes on to touch on her pro-anarchy, anti-capitalism phase (hence the shoplifting) that has long passed, as she now specifically mentions cruising around in a Porsche wearing Prada shoes. It would have been interesting to see her write more critically on capitalism now that it’s working in her favor, or at least to have a more detailed explanation of her shift in morals. She sidesteps this topic with a measly parenthetical, writing, “I believed that capitalism was the source of all greed, inequality, and destruction in the world. I thought that big corporations were running the world (which I now know they do) and by supporting them, I was condoning their evil ways (which is true, but a girl’s gotta put gas in her car).”

In addition to a lack of detail regarding her personal philosophies, Sophia’s business advice also comes up short.

I, personally, suck at networking. This was one of the topics I was most eager to see addressed by a self-made female CEO. Sophia addresses networking in a half-page endorsement for connecting with others on LinkedIn and, on the very last page, acknowledges her father for “teaching me to negotiate like a monster” without sharing any of this negotiating expertise anywhere within the book.

I was sincerely hoping for some useful tips on making a deal or establishing business contacts or calling in a favor or drawing up a contract. Instead, Sophia devotes the majority of this chapter to giving advice on interviewing for entry-level positions like, “We can’t all be Shakespeare, but spend some time on your cover letter and have someone else look it over to make sure it reads well… Spell-check exists for a reason; use it, but don’t rely on it.” Yeah, Sophia, we know.

As evidenced by the book’s Twitter-ready title and Sophia’s tendency to directly address the readers as hashtag-girlbosses throughout, she was clearly unconcerned about the book’s longevity. It’s more of a marketing tool for her clothing business; she didn’t really care at all to give any substantial advice to women in the workplace or female business-leaders. Certainly nothing that could hold up over time or be used for reference in the future.

She did, however, provide pages upon pages of pseudo-inspirational one-liners in less than 140 characters each: “Compete with yourself, not with others. Judge yourself on what is your personal best and you’ll accomplish more than you could ever have imagined. Life stops for no one, so keep moving. Stay awake and stay alive. There’s no AutoCorrect in life — think before texting the universe.”

The paragraph just keeps going like that! What the hell is that last one even supposed to mean?

Altogether, “#GIRLBOSS” was such an overwhelming disappointment with very little to take away from it. Sophia’s remarkable accomplishments speak for themselves. She should have let them.

‘#GIRLBOSS’
Sophia Amoruso
Release Date: May 6, 2014
Genre: Nonfiction, Business
Pages: 256
Grade: D

I took a sightseeing tour of my own neighborhood

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The famed RastaBus. SCREAMfmLondon

I hear talk that sightseeing tours are a great way to explore unfamiliar neighborhoods in big tourist destinations full of historical landmarks, just like Hollywood. I wasn’t sure what I’d take away from one, considering I happen to live in the aforementioned big tourist destination full of historical landmarks that is Hollywood. Maybe I’d learn something new and come away with a fresh perspective? Maybe it would suck and be boring. I was down to find out.

I set off on an “A Day in LA” tour hosted by the RastaBus — a tri-colored van, carefully decorated with “One Love” bumper stickers and peace signs, that played one reggae song at the very beginning of the day.

At 10 a.m., we clamored onto the bus from our starting point at the Santa Monica Pier. It didn’t take long for my boisterous fellow riders to commandeer the sound system, start blasting “No Diggity” and pop open a few bottles of champagne. Whenever I’d previously encountered a RastaBus in the wild, the passengers have always been really drunk and exceptionally annoying. But the thing about annoying, drunk people is that it’s much more fun to be with ‘em than against ‘em. So, I filled a red Solo cup and kicked back as we headed up the Pacific Coast Highway.

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Brunch on the water at our first stop on the Malibu Pier. SCREAMfmLondon

Malibu

The first stop was definitely the best part of the whole damn thing, and it was totally an anomaly. This is kind of deluxe treatment is highly atypical for a RastaBus tour, I assume. I just happened to be rolling with some well-connected sightseers who managed to surprise us with a hook up for free food. Individual results may vary.

We were dropped off at the Malibu Pier, where we were served an elaborate array of breakfast food at Malibu Farm, a ritzy farm-to-table restaurant located at the end of the pier. After weaving our way through fishermen with their wriggling mackerels, we were escorted into the Surfrider Room, a private dining area on the second floor of the restaurant that overlooks the gorgeous Malibu beaches.

We were treated to fresh-squeezed orange juice and local syrah rosé wine. Quinoa oatmeal with pomegranate and chia seeds. Swedish mini pancakes with homemade whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Vegan chop salad. Grilled chocolate and whole wheat olive oil cakes. And my personal favorite: a fried egg sandwich made with bacon, arugula and baby potatoes on top of country wheat toast.

Next time, I’d skip the rest of the tour and come straight here.

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Malibu Farm’s fried egg sandwiches that made it all worthwhile. SCREAMfmLondon

Beverly Hills

There was supposed to be a tour of celebrity homes, but we mostly just peered up at Will Smith’s and Prince’s houses as we headed back eastward on the freeway. Seriously, that was it. Oh, and the tour guide also pointed out some scenery that appeared in a panoramic shot of “Two and a Half Men.” You know, just the essentials.

We drove in abject silence to a backing track of old school East Coast rap (for some reason) toward Beverly Hills, where our driver shared some fun facts about Rodeo Drive and offered to let us stop to walk around for a while.

“Keep driving!” someone yelled from the front of the bus. “Unless anyone has a black credit card we can use.”

The Grove

We had a scheduled lunchtime stop at the Grove and Original Farmers Market, where we had about 45 minutes to explore by ourselves. It’s a cool place to hang if you have a pocket full of cash and longer than 45 minutes.

As we left the Grove, we took Melrose Avenue followed by Sunset Boulevard, and our tour guide finally began sharing some information about the area via the RastaBus intercom system.

I was glad to finally hear from him. I was beginning to worry that he had fallen asleep at the wheel. Unfortunately, just as I feared, most of his information was pretty basic. Like, he explained who Judy Garland was. I kind of wished I was giving the tour myself; I’m full of useless historical and pop culture trivia. It took a lot of self-restraint to keep from interrupting his monologues.

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Griffith Observatory. Not pictured: nachos. SCREAMfmLondon

Griffith Park

Our next stop was the Griffith Observatory, where we were given another 45 minutes to wander aimlessly and not really accomplish anything. I must admit I was getting a little tired of being forced out of the pleasantly air-conditioned bus into the actual great outdoors.

Since there isn’t much science you can accomplish in 45 minutes, I headed straight for the café and emerged with a plate of nachos. The Café at the End of the Universe is significantly less cool than it sounds with a name like that, but they did sell me a plate of tortilla chips covered in fake cheese, guacamole and pico de gallo, so what more can you ask for?

Hollywood

Cruising through Hollywood, the tour guide actually shared some interesting information! Did you know that the blinking light atop the Capitol Records Tower spells out the word “Hollywood” in Morse code? I did not.

Shortly, my tourmates grew jealous of my uncanny ability to locate and devour nachos under strange circumstances, so they insisted that our driver stop at Chibiscus Asian Café and Restaurant on Sunset for some food. We called the restaurant from the van (“Hello, there are about 13 of us, and we’re coming in right now.”) and filled the entire small space with our raucous presence. I watched K-pop music videos while everyone else ate ramen.

And, then, very awkwardly, I said, “Hey… Would it be weird if I asked you to leave me here?”

They didn’t seem to think so, so I ditched the RastaBus and hiked back home by myself rather than sticking around for the ride back to Santa Monica.

And, well. I did learn the thing about the Capitol Records Building.

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View of my ‘hood from the RastaBus. SCREAMfmLondon

Here are some cool tours to take in LA that will circumvent the RastaBus experience:

Pamela Des Barres Rock Tour

Rock groupie Pamela Des Barres guides groups around Hollywood and Laurel Canyon, reading excerpts from her book, “I’m with the Band,” which details her escapades with Led Zeppelin and other classic rockstars.

Esotouric Literary LA Tours

Tour the hangouts of famous Los Angeles writers, including a jaunt to Charles Bukowski’s favorite liquor store, a Raymond Chandler-themed gelato shop and settings from James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce.”

Dearly Departed Tours

Creepy tours include the classic Tragical History Tour of celebrity death locations, the epic three-hour Helter Skelter tour of the Manson Family murder locations, and a horror movie location tour, among others.

Esotouric True Crime Tours

These morbid tours dig into LA’s most famous crimes, including the Black Dahlia murder, the serial killings of the Night Stalker and “hotel horrors” at hotspots like the Alexandria and the Cecil.

Theater: UnMasqued presents ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

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SCREAMfmLondon

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros plays from a stereo in the background as audience members take their seats upstairs at the Pieter Performance Art Space for the UnMasqued theater company’s second week of “Much Ado About Nothing” performances.

As we wait, the Friar (Daniel Ryan Wallach) approaches everyone individually and warns us that there is going to be some “audience stuff” later. He hands me a neon pink business card that, on one side, identifies him as “that one guy you met at that one party who thought you were awesome.”

It was the most interesting reinterpretation of “Much Ado About Nothing” I’ve ever seen.

In the UnMasqued production, the characters join together to form The Arragons, a touring band of bluegrass/folk musicians, who are returning to their favorite venue, The Messina, to perform songs they have written about their adventures for an upcoming album called “Much Ado About Nothing.” It’s really amazing how well this concept works and how seamlessly the original music is woven into Shakespeare’s text.

The story — with all its mischief, romantic entanglements and comedy — lends itself remarkably well to a cast of cool, young modern-day musicians.

The production begins with an impressive, rousing opening number featuring several of the multi-talented actors that comprise the cast on a range of instruments, including the accordion, fiddle and harmonica. It is understood that this is a homecoming concert after the band has been away on a year-long tour.

“That’s when I first met Hero,” Claudio (Dillon Horner) says of the last time the band appeared at The Messina when the song is finished. Then, the backdrop of colored handkerchiefs is moved aside, and the play begins.

The production is extremely well-executed, and elements of the unique bluegrassy theme are consistently evident in every scene.

Ty Fanning and Torey Byrne are especially entertaining as Benedick and Beatrice. They have great back-and-forth chemistry and are hilariously expressive as the characters evolve from hating each other to being tricked into realizing that they love each other.

Kristyn Chalker gives another standout performance as Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon. She has a strong, commanding stage presence, and the gender-reversal of this role adds an additionally compelling element to the character’s story — most notably when it comes to her relationship with her troublemaking brother Don John (Josh Henry).

Before the second act begins, everyone in the audience is presented with a handful of confetti and a balloon, and Leonato (Neil Fleischer) leads us in a call-and-response sing-along of “My baby’s getting married, / But Benedick’s got the blues.”

It becomes clear that UnMasqued’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is not just a play and not just a concert. It becomes a much more immersive experience as cast members climb through the audience, pulling people up to join in on the dancing and, at one point, to take notes on a chalkboard during an interrogation of Borachio (Parker Wilmoth) by the night watchmen, who include the exceptionally amusing Dogberry (Harriet Fisher) — the real star of the second act.

Altogether, I was quite blown away by the quality of this production. Though the company is so new, “Much Ado About Nothing” is incredibly fun and outstandingly well-produced. I left the theater tapping my toes, feeling strangely excited about Shakespeare. It’s a good feeling.

‘Much Ado About Nothing’
420 W. Ave. 33
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Tickets are $15
For more information, visit www.unmasqued.org.

Theater: CityShakes presents ‘Romeo & Juliet’

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Colin Martin begins the City Shakespeare Company’s production of “Romeo & Juliet” as Mercutio. SCREAMfmLondon

It was a hot summer night in Santa Monica, and the audience was pressed closely together on rows of wooden benches lining the either side of the stage — pressed even tighter when Romeo scooted us over in his efforts to hide from Mercutio and Benvolio at the Capulets’ ball.

Last week, the City Shakespeare Company concluded its latest run of “Romeo & Juliet” with a semi-modern interpretation of the classic story.

“Romeo & Juliet” is always, at first, the ultimate tale of rebellious teenage love against all odds. Until you get older and begin to recognize it as a valid example of why 13-year-olds should not be making important life decisions.

The CityShakes interpretation did an impressive job illustrating both perspectives of the story. David Hartstone and Megan Ruble are expressive and passionate as Romeo and Juliet; both actors had moments onstage where their true innocence (and irrationality, really) shone through. Likewise, the supporting cast (Gilbert Martinez as Father Laurence and Mallory Wedding as the Nurse in particular) represented the outsider’s “adult” perspective on the romance that ends in tragedy.

Wedding as the Nurse was perhaps the most entertaining part of the play. Her interpretation was unique and gave unusual life to a character I would have otherwise considered unremarkable. Wedding’s stylistic choices were really amusing as the Nurse toed the line between wise and ridiculous, serving as a big sister-like figure to Juliet and a solid contrast to Juliet’s youthfulness and naiveté. Wedding would make a great Polonius — just sayin’.

Although the playbill states that CityShakes’ “Romeo & Juliet” takes place “now” in “Anytown, USA,” there was only a little bit of evidence to support this. The biggest anachronism was Paris (Daniel Landberg), Juliet’s would-be betrothed, who still carried around a large sword strapped to his waist. As Paris is clearly the most oblivious character in the play, this only further emphasized how out-of-touch he is from his surroundings. So, it worked, whether or not it was actually intentional.

Immediately following the performance, the cast and crew held a Q&A segment for the benefit of the high school students in the audience, which was a nice touch. CityShakes performances are especially great for students, parents and teachers because they are more traditional adaptations with minimal sets and costumes, but the actors express clear respect for the original text, which makes the performances clear and accessible.

The size of the theater (such that I probably could have reached out and touched Romeo during his dramatic final scene in the crypt) as well as the size of the cast (only seven actors, most of whom played two or more roles) make the experience feel all the more like community outreach. And the City Shakespeare Company really is a great asset to the community — it continues to offer simple, relatable and charming adaptations of Shakespeare’s classics. I already look forward to the next one.

Theater: CityShakes presents ‘The Merchant of Venice’

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SCREAMfmLondon

Underneath twinkling rope lights in the exposed-brick back room of a storefront in Santa Monica, the City Shakespeare Company brings to life “The Merchant of Venice” with a strong cast, effective stylistic choices and a beautiful performance space.

The company makes the most of a minimal set and places the audience on a few rows of wooden benches right in the middle of the action.

If it’s been a while since high school English class, the plotline of “The Merchant of Venice” essentially follows Antonio (Todd Elliott), who takes out a loan from Shylock (Peter Nikkos) in order to fund his friend Bassanio’s (David Hartstone) quest to woo Portia (Allison Volk), the heiress, under the condition that if the loan is not repaid, Shylock is entitled to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Although typically considered a comedy, “The Merchant of Venice” throws in some intense dramatic scenes (Shylock’s attempting to forcibly remove the aforementioned flesh from Antonio’s chest in open court comes to mind, for instance). These moments are especially powerful in the intimate space: the audience members in the front row are directly confronted by Nikkos as Shylock during the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue, among others.

But, really, this production’s excellence lies in its brilliantly-executed comedy. The supporting cast is as strong as the leads, and the jokes land effortlessly.

Daniel Landberg and Gilbert Martinez are particularly fantastic in their comedic ensemble roles. These two are instrumental in making CityShakes’ production of “The Merchant of Venice” as accessible and laugh-out-loud funny as it is. Additionally, Landberg scores the play with acoustic guitar-playing throughout and interjects a few original songs during key scene changes that help advance the storyline.

CityShakes’ production is so well done, the only real flaws come from the source material itself. “The Merchant of Venice” isn’t often performed in contemporary theaters — most likely because of the hard-to-ignore, heavy-handed anti-Semitism. Shylock is clearly portrayed as a villainous, vengeful Jew in contrast to the righteous and merciful Christian characters. During the play’s denouement, they tell Shylock that they’re going to force him to convert to Christianity, and that’s the happy ending to his story.

Considering these problems exist within Shakespeare’s text, the theater company does a fair job presenting the story and emphasizing mercy and forgiveness as the overall themes of this production. Although, even the play’s portrayal of mercy is questionable, since Shylock is unflinchingly hell-bent on revenge and has to be lectured about compassion by Portia. Director Brooke Bishop addresses this issue in the playbill, writing, “The Merchant of Venice is often thought to have been written from a place of hate — we invite you to watch out production from a place of love, and see what you discover.”

Still, the City Shakespeare Company’s “Merchant of Venice” is an outstanding artistic production. It is incredibly charming in its moments of comedy and romance, and thought-provoking in its most dramatic scenes. It is, altogether, definitely worth watching.

‘The Merchant of Venice’

1454 Lincoln Blvd.

8 p.m. Thursday – Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets are $20, or pay-what-you-can at the door on Thursday

For more information, visit www.cityshakes.org.

Book review: John Green, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’

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Photo courtesy of Dutton Books.

“The Fault in Our Stars” is designed to make the reader cry, but it is a bit more complicated than that.

John Green’s fourth novel centers on Hazel Lancaster, a 16-year-old cancer patient, as she considers exploring young love with Augustus Waters, a fellow cancer patient who has lost a leg to the disease.

This book is obviously designed to make the reader cry. That much is obvious from even the most vague of plot summaries.

Green, a YouTube personality who worked as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital, planned to become an Episcopalian priest before pursuing his writing career, and is now quite successful, having enjoyed some time on the New York Times bestseller list as well as a number of awards for young adult fiction. A film adaptation of “The Fault in Our Stars” starring Shailene Woodley (“The Descendents”) as Hazel is scheduled to be released in June 2014.

Naturally, Green’s time working at the hospital inspired much of the content of “The Fault in Our Stars,” and who doesn’t love to see affluent white men achieve success by exploiting the less fortunate souls they encounter while doing charity work?

Regardless, the novel is a quick and easy read that is predominantly enjoyable (except, of course, for the aforementioned inevitable crying).

Hazel and Augustus meet at a support group for children living with cancer that meets in a church basement (“the literal heart of Jesus,” according to their hapless counselor Patrick, who will be played by the excellent stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia in the film). Hazel recommends her favorite book to Augustus, and the pair embarks on a quest to track down the ne’er-do-well author to answer their questions about the novel’s cliffhanger ending — obviously falling in love along the way.

The progression of the relationship is not exactly seamless, but it is sweet and absurdly romantic (to a ridiculous degree, even, when it gets to the point of sipping Dom Pérignon by candlelight in Amsterdam).

Where “The Fault in Our Stars” deviates most from stereotypical young adult “sick lit” or romance is the extended philosophical element that carries throughout. The characters are witty, interested in the world and spend a great deal of time ruminating on the human condition and the meaning of life as they deal more closely with mortality than typical teenagers.

Because the two main characters are also devout readers who are deeply committed to symbolism (Augustus, at least, actively creates and points out metaphors in his own life, such as a never-smoked pack of cigarettes he carries at all times), there are a number of literary references that parallel the story’s plot. The most obvious literary allusion is the novel’s title, which refers to a line from “Julius Caesar”: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The characters discuss this excerpt at one point in the story, concluding that Shakespeare was incorrect because the fault is, in fact, often in the stars — lots of things happen to people outside of their control.

However, the most poignant allusion comes when Hazel recites some of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to Augustus from memory on the precipice of a pivotal moment in the progression of their relationship. The poem is a particularly resonant choice because of the narrator’s famous indecision (“Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”), all the while Augustus and Hazel struggle to decide if temporary pleasure would outweigh long-term pain, if their lives and the lives of all the other “dead people” will have mattered at all in the long run.

Ultimately, all of the characters are likable and dryly humorous, specifically Hazel and Augustus, but also their parents and friends. And, for a novel about teenagers with terminal cancer, it was surprisingly lacking in angst and instead portrayed the protagonists as intelligent, thoughtful people who made mature decisions about their lives.

The love story wasn’t as impactful as expected, but “The Fault in Our Stars” is interesting, and its popularity alone may warrant it a read before next summer.

‘The Fault in Our Stars’

John Green

Release Date: Jan. 10, 2012

Genre: Young Adult

Pages: 318

Grade: B