Looking for Alaska by John Green
Source: local library
Published: 2005 by Dutton Juvenile
Synopsis: Miles “Pudge” Halter is abandoning his safe-okay, boring-life. Fascinated by the last words of famous people, Pudge leaves for boarding school to seek what a dying Rabelais called the “Great Perhaps.”
Pudge becomes encircled by friends whose lives are everything but safe and boring. Their nucleus is razor-sharp, sexy, and self-destructive Alaska, who has perfected the arts of pranking and evading school rules. Pudge falls impossibly in love. When tragedy strikes the close-knit group, it is only in coming face-to-face with death that Pudge discovers the value of living and loving unconditionally.
This was my first John Green. The fervor surrounding last year’s The Fault in Our Stars meant that it wasn’t necessary to suggest his books to library patrons, because they were nearly constantly checked out on their own. I haven’t been in a hurry to read him, because I like spotlighting lesser known or brand new books rather than talking about ones everyone else has already read or already circulate well. But just for the sake of comparison, I thought I should read one of his books and decided that coupling it with my goal of listening to audiobooks would kill two birds with one stone.
To be fair, the format might have effected the way I feel about this book. I’ve tried them before, but with limited success. I listened to Leviathan and enjoyed the narrator, but one of the discs was scratched and needed repair so I finished a paper copy. I listened to Pandemonium and got very confused with the “then” and “now.” I find myself easily distracted by thoughts tumbling around in my head. I tried to listen to Seraphina while riding in the car with two YA librarians and we couldn’t get into it. I find my inability to get into audiobooks frustrating because it would be awesome to be able to read while folding laundry or doing the dishes, because so often I end up picking up the books and leaving the household duties for lately and them embarrassed when unexpected company comes knocking. Plus, I love listening to NPR and can get into This American Life just fine…anyway, I’m determined to listen to audiobooks and thought maybe fantasy was not the way to go and decided to try some realistic fiction.
There is a slight problem with my audiobook commitment. I don’t like wearing headphones. I have few pairs that fit in my ears correctly so I use them at the gym but I really find them uncomfortable. My mom won’t let me have her Bose headphones and I can’t fathom spending so much money on them. This meant that I play the audiobook from speakers that fill the entire house, so I have to either listen while Mister BS is not home or play something that won’t annoy him too much. Since he read Looking for Alaska during his Teaching Young Adult Literature class in grad school, it didn’t bother him too much. Since I read it over the holidays while he was off school, he was pretty much always around. It was fun because we got to discuss our reactions. I always enjoy talking books with him.
Mister BS confessed he cried the first time he read Looking for Alaska. I had no such emotional reaction. I recognized that it was well written and appreciated that Green didn’t seem to be talking down to his readers. I really did enjoy the “countdown” format, even though I knew the event that would mark the “before” and “after” (thanks, Lauren, who spoiled it for me—but really, I’m not mad, because I saw it coming). But I really found the whole story to be very… contrived. A kid who memorizes famous last words, yeah, that’s a fun quirk, but not wholly realistic. At least, I didn’t believe it. The nicknames, the boarding school set up, the tacos…it was all just kind of cutesy to me. While I appreciated the frank discussion of sexuality and the general awkwardness of it, I didn’t believe two older teens would go ask for a demonstration from a friend. Google that shit, kids. (Not that I think there’s anything wrong with peers discussing sex, I just don’t believe they’d ever do it in such a blasé way).
It would be easy for me to say that I didn’t love this book, just kinda liked it, because I really didn’t like Alaska, the mysterious girl that is the center of the story and the near obsession of our geeky hero, but it isn’t exactly how I feel. Alaska is very much a real girl, more real than any of the male characters in a way, even though we only see her through the narrator’s eyes. I appreciated that she was neither 100% bitchy mean girl nor 100% perfect princess, but I disliked how she become almost an object, a story device.
So, now I understand what John Green is about, and believe me, I get the appeal, I just think a lot of it is more the cult of personality he’s developed than the actual books. I’m not writing off John Green yet, I’m just not the fangirl so many people are (but I’m not anti-John Green like some of his more bitchy detractors). I’m going to give Will Grayson, Will Grayson a try, because I’ve had similar issues getting into fellow YA darling David Levithan’s books. I DNFed Wide Awake and Love is the Higher Law, though both on the surface had concepts that appealed to me. We’ll see if I like John Green and David Levithan together more than I’ve liked them separately.
The Book Smugglers: “The girls are mirrors or windows from which to observe the boy-narrator’s lives and this is perhaps my greatest criticisms: that the girls are more out of this world, impossible realities that serve more as plot-propeller than concrete characters in themselves…John Green’s prose is insanely good writing because it is the kind of writing that creeps in little by little.”
What’s your take on John Green or Looking for Alaska?