Tag Archives: John Green

Book Review: Looking for Alaska and Looking for Answers

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9780142402511Looking for Alaska is my second John Green novel after The Fault in Our Stars. When I started out, Gwen, who graciously gave me her copy, warned that this was her least favorite, noting that in this novel is rougher, that what in his later novels gleams like gold and makes us all gold-sick, hoarding his book and wanting more, is not polished here. That was a pretty fair assessment. In the beginning, I noticed glimmers of beautiful wordsmithing and musicality. I think it more likely that I got sucked into the story and lost track of the poetry than that those glimmers disappeared, but they didn’t gleam enough for me to notice them once I was in the tunnel as they had when I read The Fault in Our Stars.

I knew fairly little about this book going in other than that it was a teen book of John Green’s. I’m not sure here what I should say and what I should keep to myself as spoilers.

It’s a contemporary fiction piece, a school story about outcasts and friends and prank wars and finding your place in the universe. Miles Halter leaves behind a life in Florida for a boarding school in Alabama. Miles wants to hang on to very little of his old life, to recreate himself, judging by how quickly he abandons the promises he made—and I’m sure all kids make—to his parents before they left him to live away from home for the first time: “No drugs. No drinking. No cigarettes” (7). Only that first rule does Miles not break, and the third he breaks within ten pages. Miles’ roommate, the Colonel, gives him almost immediately the nickname “Pudge” because of Miles’ skinny frame, and inserts him into a group of rebellious scholarship kids (at one point early in the book, Pudge himself as the narrator remarks, “The phrase booze and mischief left me worrying I’d stumbled into what my mother referred to as ‘the wrong crowd’” 20). This group includes Alaska Young, at times infuriating and frustrating, at times lovable and cuddly, always unpredictable. Miles is infatuated with the vivacious Alaska, but she is in a stable relationship with a musician from out of town. Pudge has come to Alabama looking for a “Great Perhaps,” something exciting, something beyond his less-than-exciting, rather friendless existence in Florida. For him, Alaska in all her unpredictable rebellion against society and standards represents the Great Perhaps. She is living while he merely coasting, and that I think is why he is so excited by the idea of her, apart from her apparently being a good-looking, curvy girl who wears tank tops and cutoffs and talks openly about sex and sexuality. But then in one wild night, she is no longer living, and Pudge has to decide if the Great Perhaps and he have died with her.

This book at once discusses the consequences of suicide and of drunk driving—but it is so much more than an issue book—really more a bildungsroman. The second half of the book masquerades as a mystery: what happened and why? The Colonel puts his analytical mind to work trying to unravel Alaska’s final mystery, her final act, her final rebellion. The school story form here helps too to provide a context and answers to the plot’s questions as the predominate class is a religions class where the students are encouraged to think about and write essays on the Big Questions that religions seek to answer: life, death, and our place in the universe.

The ultimate answer to suffering that Pudge finds is forgiveness—of the living and of the dead. Pudge chooses not to be held back by the past—or rather learns how to let go of the past—the very thing that I think he’s been seeking since his decision to leave Florida for Alabama and since his first cigarette. That message I can get behind—and I think most parents will find that they can too.

There is a great deal here too about the secreted world of teenagers—the one that they hide from adults, mostly represented here by the Eagle, the dean of students.

This book rarely disrespects or belittles teenagers and their small and large decisions, and I think that is part of what has made it so popular.

Other Goodreads reviewers have pointed out that Green’s characters are fairly flat and at times reliant upon stereotypes to uphold them or define them. I can definitely agree that the accents and syntactical decisions in particular were at times distracting and overblown. At times I saw Green as trying to distance his characters from their stereotypes, but more often than not—frankly—the characters did all seem a little flat and a little cartoonish.

Green works with a fairly small cast, each character standing for a group or a trope: the Eagle for adults, Alaska for the Great Perhaps, Longwell Chase for the rich Weekday Warriors who return home on the weekends to their parents…. Lara is really only present to be an attainable alternative romantic partner for Pudge.

All this said, I enjoyed the time that I spent in this book, and I tore through it— devoured it, you might say, in nine days (a short time for me).

I recognize that it definitely has some literary value, and is a worthy first novel, but I don’t think that it is Green’s best work.

****

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: SPEAK-Penguin, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by John Green, SPEAK, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars Doesn’t Have Many

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First let me say that I am and was before reading this book a fan of John Green’s and of everything he has been doing to “decrease worldsuck.”

The Fault in Our Stars, the love story of star-crossed Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, young teenagers whose lives have been ravaged by cancer, is his latest novel and the first of Green’s books that I’ve read.

I had before reading it heard so much about The Fault in Our Stars.  It’s been lauded by many as a must-read and has been on the bestseller list for many weeks.  As I was warned, I had a strong hate-and-love relationship with this book while reading it.  I cried and was angry with Green, and I laughed aloud even more often than I was upset.

Death hangs like a Damocles sword over the heads of so many of the characters, and Green shows how that threat effects all the characters from the protagonists to their parents to their friends who understand and their friends who don’t down to people in the food court at a mall who catch a glimpse of Hazel’s oxygen tank, a full and round cast.  There is a hopelessness and sadness in the knowledge that few characters that you love here will live long or healthy lives.

Yet, their lives go on despite the disease that tries to destroy them—they live, play video games like ordinary boys, The Fault in Our Stars reads primarily like a romance—and disease brings the cast together.  There is hope in the continuation of their lives.

The story tells of parents caring for a child that they know that they will lose too early and parents who have lost a child, of the devastation that a young death can cause and of the ability of a parent to move on.  Though categorized as and reading like a teen book, Green does not neglect directing a message to adults.

I do not know if it’s merely that I tend to avoid this genre, but it seems to me that Green gives voice to a pretty much voiceless group, which I believe to be an important endeavor.  I believe that cancer is oft talked about in our society as the great evil, the last, great American disease to be conquered, but there is little hope offered to those suffering from it.  Survivors are lauded as heroes and heroines, but we speak of discovering a cure for cancer the way we speak of finding Atlantis or of planting a colony on the moon.  There’s not a lot of hope beyond the example of survivors given to those suffering from the disease.

Green captures the exile of disease well.  Green’s is an honest rather than a glorified look at cancer and death and disease, though he does take a rosy glass to life.

With likeable characters, intelligent banter, philosophical thoughts, and quotable one-liners, the text is enjoyable—surprisingly so for the depth of the subject matter (the nature of life, death, and immortality), the characters’ circumstances, (try explaining to people who don’t know about the book that you’re laughing aloud at a story about a group of cancer-riddled friends; they look half-scandalized), and the stilettos with which this book’s plot stomps on your poor heart.

Now something must be shared that was not shared with me and would have had me reading this book (one that’s out of my usual comfort-genres) much sooner:  Augustus Waters is Jace (from Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series) with fewer thorns.  Now go out and read some realistic fiction, Shadowhunters and Mundie Moms.

****1/2

Green, John.  The Fault in Our Stars.  New York: Dutton-Penguin, 2012.

This review is not endorsed by John Green, Dutton Books, or Penguin Group, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.  DFTBA.