An Abundance of John Green
One of the things I love about my book club, Flips Flipping Pages, is how it opened up new worlds of reading for me.
In the past, I was averse to reading books other people raved about, mainly because I like discovering books on my own, and with the exception of my cousin Dianne, I don’t know anyone who has the same taste in books as I do. The more a book was foisted on me, the more I resisted it, and if I was interested in a popular book, I usually chose to read it long after the hype had gone down.
Making friends with other readers made me realize a bunch of things. One, I was missing out on a whole lot of books. Two, people with entirely different tastes in books can like a same book, or even find different elements to like in one book. And three, you don’t even have to like a book to find it interesting!
Of course, this realization has had its repercussions: the inability to walk out of a book store empty-handed, the triple-layered shelves of TBR books, and transforming from a strict monobookist to a juggling polybookist, but because there are other people as pathologically addicted as I am to books, I don’t really mind.
Anyway, before I get completely derailed from what I was supposed to be writing about, this post is about John Green, whom I discovered last year because of rave reviews of friends and local book bloggers. When I found a hardcover first edition of Looking for Alaska in a bargain bin last year, I took that as a sign that I should start reading his books.
I actually finished reading the books weeks ago, but I didn’t want to rush the review so I took time to compose my thoughts, and so far this set of books has been the most challenging I’ve had to review this year.
Looking for Alaska, winner of the 2006 Printz Award from the American Library Association, features Miles Halter, a sixteen-year old boy who is fascinated with famous people’s last words. Inspired by the last words of the French Renaissance poet Francois Rabelais (“I go to seek a Great Perhaps), he decides to go to boarding school in search of the “Great Perhaps. “
Formerly friendless in Florida, Miles enters the Culver Creek Preparatory School in Alabama, gets new friends, a new nickname (“Pudge”), and new, erm, skills (drinking, playing pranks, and getting away with them) and even falls in love for the first time, with a girl named Alaska Young.
A tragic event happens at the school — you can probably hazard a guess, but I won’t tell you what happens exactly — and Miles just may discover what he set out to find.
People have been telling me this book is epic, so naturally I had high expectations, and in the first few chapters I honestly wasn’t convinced… until I read the passages about Alaska’s mini-library inside her dorm room:
“I stared, stunned partly by the force of the voice emanating from the petite (but God, curvy) girl and partly by the gigantic stacks of books that lined her walls. Her library filled her bookshelves and then overflowed into waist-high stacks of books everywhere, piled haphazardly against the walls. If just one of them moved, I thought, the domino effect could engulf the three of us in an asphyxiating mass of literature.”
I love reading descriptions of libraries, shelves, stacks of books, or even just one particular book, inside actual books, and appreciate authors who take time to do so! I think that’s a sure-fire way of perking up a book lover’s interests.
The book is divided into two parts, the “before” and the “after,” pertaining to events that led up to that fateful night, and the effect the tragedy has on Miles and his friends.
I thought it was a brilliant piece of work. I appreciate the fact that it was about young people in real-life situations, because I feel there aren’t very many of them published anymore. You scour the young adult shelves and the books try to outdo each other with the “next big thing” — wizards, vampires, zombies, dystopia, and highly privileged kids leading glamorous lives. Nothing against these themes; a well-written book is a well-written book regardless of the theme, but I find some books just coast along on what’s selling off the shelves, all flash and bang, but not much else below the surface.
I also appreciate that the book, among its many themes, tackles grief, a subject I wish more writers would write about, for young readers because there are many kids who have to deal with it and aren’t really comfortable talking about it. I know because I went through it when I was younger. I lost my dad in fifth grade and clammed up every time anyone tried to talk to me about it, but over the years, reading books such as Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes, Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, and the tie-in novel of My Girl helped me tons.
Miles muddles through his grief, too…
Nineteenth-century preacher Henry Ward Beecher’s last words were ‘Now comes the mystery.’ The poet Dylan Thomas, who liked a good drink at least as much as Alaska said, ‘I’ve had eighteen straight whiskeys. I do believe that’s a record,’ before dying. Alaska’s favorite playwright was Eugene O’Neill: ‘Born in a hotel room, and–God damn it–died in a hotel room.’ Even car-accident victims sometimes have time for last words. Princess Diana said, ‘Oh God. What’s happened?’ Movie star James Dean said, ‘They’ve got to see us,’ just before slamming his Porsche into another car. I know so many last words. But I will never know hers.
… and I think the book deals with the experience realistically, even up to the phenomenology of sorts that Miles composes by the end of the novel, his closure piece.
After this novel, I read Paper Towns, which I got from a book swap in a Filipino Book Bloggers meet from Aaron, who is, shall I say John Green’s local publicist, because he will gladly talk about John Green to anyone who will listen. It’s his favorite John Green novel, and I promised I would write about it.
Paper Towns is John Green’s third novel, and I was excited to read it after reading on the back cover that it won the Edgar Award.
It features a John Green staple geeky guy, Quentin Jacobsen, who has been in love with his next-door neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman since they were kids. They used to be playmates, but they eventually drifted apart, until one night, when Margo climbs into Q’s window (in ninja costume!) and engages him in her convoluted scheme for revenge. Before he knows it, Q has spent all night running all over town with Margo.
The morning after, Margo goes missing, and Q is determined to find her, using the trail of clues Margo leaves behind.
I enjoyed Q and Margo’s all-night caper as they pranked all the kids Margo wanted to wreak revenge on; I can already see a teen movie out of it. I also found the mystery part of the novel compelling — Q’s search for the clues to Margo’s whereabouts, his methodical way of sniffing out Margo’s trail, and his dogged persistence in his search moved along quite nicely. The little road trip at the end was a laugh, too.
However, Q doesn’t really have much going for him other than his standard geekiness and his determination to find Margo. And Margo, I felt, was one flaky girl character too many! Alaska was enough, I think, and she was a lot more likeable than Margo. Margo comes off as a selfish, attention-seeking creature, and the bulk of her motivation is revealed near the end of the story, which doesn’t really help her case.
The ending bogs down this novel, I think; I really found the last 25 pages a chore to read because I felt the resolution was disjointed from the general tone of the book. The message is clear, all right, but I was disappointed at how a whole epiphany for both Margo and Q was poured into the last section of the book. I thought that could have been better executed. It may be just me, of course — it appears quite a lot of people enjoyed this book. Well, I did, too, for the most part, just not the ending, and just not Margo.
Colin is a child prodigy who is trying to get over being dumped by his girlfriend, Katherine. She is the the nineteenth Katherine he has dated (he only dates girls named Katherine), and the nineteenth time he has been dumped by one, too.
In an attempt to get Colin to move on, his best friend Hassan, convinces him to take a road trip, and somehow they end up in Gutshot, Tennessee, home to the grave of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, as well as the fabulous Lindsay Lee Wells. Colin and Hassan decide to settle there for the summer, and Colin attempts to plot the course of his relationship with the Katherines to prove his Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability.
Now this is a book I really enjoyed from cover to cover — the quirky premise delivers with a memorable story. Plot-wise, nothing much happens, but this book is a heck of a character study.
While geeky male characters appear to be John Green staples, I liked the layers of Colin’s character. He’s not just your run of the mill smart and socially-inept kid; he’s also a former child prodigy trying to hang on to his prime, and a perennial dumpee attempting to avenge the dumpees of the world. I felt I was getting inside Colin’s mind as he worked out his theory, and the report-style structure of the book (footnotes, graphs, etc) reinforced his personality all over the book. And yes, if it isn’t obvious by now, I am a sucker for geeky guys.
Aside from Colin, the support cast is endearing as well. Hassan is a nice sidekick to Colin’s character, and I’m glad beyond words that Lindsay Lee Wells is not of the flaky-psycho prototype.
The humor of the novel is fantastic, and it’s a light, fun read. I think it’s the perfect counterpoint to Looking for Alaska, and further proof of Green’s writing prowess.
All in all, reading John Green has been a rewarding experience, and I think John Green might be one of my best discoveries this year. Thank you to everyone who has foisted John Green books on me, and now, like you, I can’t wait to read more. I hope John Green keeps the books coming, because I’ll definitely fall in line for his next books!
Looking for Alaska, first edition hardcover, 5/5 stars
Paper Towns, trade paperback, 3/5 stars
An Abundance of Katherines, 5/5 stars
Books #40-42 for 2011