Monday, October 25, 2010

Review: Looking For Alaska by John Green ★★★★

Looking for AlaskaI've been seeing this book around for quite a while, but I never really thought about reading it. I figured that it was one of those "Let's see just how drunk, high and stupid we can get!" books, the ones that glorify the idiocy that is being a teenager. I went through that, I lived through it, even had fun with it at the time, but I outgrew that phase of my life (earlier than most) and I don't care to read about it now. So I was rather "Meh." about reading this book.

And then my friend, influential by persistence, introduced me to John & Hank Green via VlogBrothers on YouTube. Now, if you've never watched any of their videos, I highly recommend them. They are smart, funny, relevant and always make me think. So, via VlogBrothers, I came to understand John Green a bit, and realize that I had underestimated him. So, the next time I came across "Looking for Alaska", I picked it up. And this book did not forget to be awesome.

Right away, I was glad that I "met" John via VlogBrothers before reading the book. I could really feel his personality in it, and his intelligence and sense of humor. But I also felt like it was a story that he took seriously. Not only because of the serious subject matter, but because he captured the permanent impermanence of being a teen without making it feel like a joke. Everything now is forever until what was is yesterday and everything NOW is forever. Looking back on my teenage years, the furthest out I could imagine was 21, and that was only for the legal ability to drink. My friends were still my friends in this imagining, my life was still my life, as if the only thing that would change was my age. We just can't picture where things will take us. By the time I hit 21, I was so far from the predicted life I had thought I'd have that if someone had bet me a million dollars that I would have been there, I'd be out of a million dollars.

My point is that I liked the way that John portrayed these characters as having everything in front of them, to look forward to, but still they live in the moment as if that future never gets any closer. I loved that they were booksmart brilliant, but still make the same stupid mistakes and errors in judgment as anyone else. I love that they latch on to an idea and hold onto it despite realizing that it is slipping away anyway, because everything does and we change despite ourselves.

I loved Miles, or Pudge as he's called. I feel like I understood him. He's bookish, nerdy, a bit of a loner by necessity rather than choice, at least until he's around people who are ready to accept someone like him. Those people primarily being Alaska and Chip, aka The Colonel, who are both outrageous, brilliant and wild, and bring Pudge out of his shell a bit. Pudge forms an instant and close friendship with both of them, one that changes his life.

As much as I loved Pudge, I loved The Colonel more. He is one of those characters that, for me, just hop off the page and into being. I would have been friends with him. I liked that he came from humble beginnings, and that he and his mother weren't afraid to aspire to be better, that they weren't afraid to show how hard they work for something, that they weren't ashamed of who they are but rather proud of it. I loved that while he was as willing to play hard and get into trouble as anyone, he still took his priorities, which were his studies, seriously. I loved his loyalty and his determination to follow everything he started through to the end. He was definitely my favorite character here.

My least favorite character was actually Alaska. I don't know if this is because she's a female teenager written by a man, or if she just represented all (or at least a large chunk) of the things in teen girls that annoy me, but I just couldn't really like her. I can certainly see why Pudge would, why lots of teen boys would, but I just didn't. She was too much. Too wishy-washy, too moody, too impulsive, too flirty, too wild, too mysterious, too smart for her own good, too damaged-and-knew-it, too aware of her effect on others. But not all of these things are bad. And not all of them bother me individually, but all together, it was just too much and I couldn't care about her like The Colonel or Takumi or Lara or even Pudge did. And I find this last the worst, because Pudge is telling this story, so I should understand his feelings for her, but they just seemed shallow to non-teenage me. Attraction and flirtation do not equal love - unless you're 16 and a hopeful idealist.

But the one thing that I think affected me the most about Alaska is her sense of responsibility for others. She seems to take on the well-being and happiness of others as her own obligation, and the burden of guilt when she doesn't succeed. And it struck me that the guilt of failing someone is like a physical thing that can be passed on or spread. Alaska failed someone she loved, and then Pudge failed Alaska, and the guilt spreads.

Shortly after the shift from "Before" to "After" (which was a storytelling method I loved!), I realized why Alaska left the school that night, and I waited for the guys to figure it out as well. Normally, I would be disappointed that I figured it out before the main character, but this is not the type of "mystery" that gets solved like that. It's a human mystery, one where the only person able to solve it is the one you seek and cannot find.

I loved the depth of this book, particularly the philosophical aspects of their World Religions class. I wish I could have taken a class, and had a teacher like that. This book, and the class it depicted, makes you look at life, the world, and meaning itself differently. I am glad that I read it, because it was so much more than I thought it would be. And I officially declare myself to have been wrong. John Green, can you ever forgive me?

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