1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Hazel is a teenager with cancer. Augustus is also a teenager, but he is recently cancer free. They meet at a support group for kids with cancer. What a terrible idea for a book, right? Depressing. But it wasn't. It made me laugh, which doesn't happen very often. One of the things I hardly ever hear about is the dark humor that comes from long-term suffering. On a much smaller scale than cancer, Brian and I found humor in strange places when we were going in for fertility treatments. Things that would probably offend most people (and us before it was us). That's what I found refreshing about The Fault in Our Stars. The things Hazel jokes about (herpes, the group leader who survived testicular cancer, her friend who is losing his sight because of cancer) make her sound like a horrible person on the surface. Green gets her perspective just right, though, and makes the darkness funny to me, too.
Hazel and Augustus have a surprising little love story. It's different and sweet. I rooted for them. They're both smart, they're both suffering physically, they both know their lives might be cut short. When they connect for the first time it's over a book called An Imperial Affliction by a guy named Peter Van Houten. Augustus uses his Wish (from the Make a Wish Foundation) to take Hazel (and her Mom - an ineffective chaperon, it turns out) to meet Van Houten in Denmark. An Imperial Affliction has no ending - it stops mid-sentence. Hazel wants to know what happened to the characters. Van Houten ends up being a really awful person, but the trip is a highlight anyway.
I wouldn't say I enjoyed every minute of The Fault in Our Stars. Any time the teenagers are smarter than the parents, I'm wary. That's pretty much never the case in real life and I don't like it. I was pleasantly surprised by this book, though. One of the great lines, spoken by Van Houten: "Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you." I liked that. I believe it.
2. The Migraine Brain: Your Breakthrough Guide to Fewer Headaches, Better Health by Carolyn Bernstein, M.D., and Elaine McArdle
I've had migraines for the last 15 or so years. The first one I had, I thought I was dying. I threw up for hours and it only made my head hurt more each time I did. I was so sure I was dying that I actually said goodbye to Brian. Since I didn't know what it was, I blamed the migraine on Aleve (which I took sometime during the migraine).
At first I was only having migraines about six times a year, so I lived with it. They've been more frequent recently and they have been lasting longer, so I decided it was time to educate myself. Finally. There are a lot of very helpful things in this book. I didn't care for all the assurances that I'm really suffering (I have had doctors roll their eyes at me when I try to get their help for migraines), I don't need to be validated that way. Dr. Bernstein suffers from migraines, which I think is very helpful. I'm identifying my triggers and avoiding them as much as I can. Thanks to this book I was able to recognize that I wasn't going to be able to stop the migraine once it starts. I've been delusional for a long, long time about that point. Sometimes in the middle of the headache I tell myself that I can still make it go away, and I've never been able to. Duh. I just need to take care of myself better. Also, duh. In the end, though, The Migraine Brain is mostly advising me to get a good headache doctor. Easier said than done, but okay.
3. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
This is a short, but deep life story of a woman named Hannah. She grows up very poor in a small Kentucky town and comes of age right before the U.S. joins WWII. Hannah marries a good man, Virgil, and just as she becomes pregnant with their first child, Virgil goes off to war and is soon Missing in Action. Hannah continues to live with Virgil's kind parents on their farm, a 24 year-old widow with a small child to care for. It's tragic, but it's also just a version of everyone else's life at the time. That generation sure had to deal with a lot of loss and endurance. Is that what makes them The Greatest Generation? Maybe their grief is what "revealed" their greatness.
Anyway, there are a lot of characters in Hannah Coulter. Maybe too many. It's been difficult to keep track of everyone in town when I only meet most of them once. Also, I haven't been able to read this as much as I'd like because I can't read when I have a migraine or a migraine hangover (most of the days in November). There is some lovely wisdom, though. After Virgil is gone for about four years, Hannah falls in love again, this time with Nathan Coulter. Nathan was also in the war. He came back to his hometown of Port William to make a life. There was something very sweet about Nathan seeing the world and wanting to come back to his place to make his life - no more wanderlust for him.
The story is told by Hannah as an old woman looking back on her life. In the right hands, any life story is compelling, right? It's a nice book. Good in front of a warm fire with snow falling outside the window. :)