Friday, April 2, 2010

Book review: "Looking for Alaska," by John Green

Looking for Alaska (2005)
By John Green
Speak / Penguin

A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's title is my sixth of the contemporary "superstar" young-adult (YA) books out there, a whole series of post-9/11 titles now in my reading list that have each sold millions of copies, usually without most of us adults being any the wiser; in particular it's the 2005 Printz-winning tragicomedy Looking for Alaska, by master of the character novel John Green, whose newer title An Abundance of Katherines has also been reviewed here in the past. And indeed, it's easy to see why those who read Alaska first are generally a bit disappointed by Katherines, despite it being great unto itself as well; because both books end up sharing many of the same traits (nerdy boy hero with weird linguistic obsession, who's also popular and gets sex regularly; stocky, brusque best friend who serves as the comic relief; bewitchingly complex and deeply flawed female love interest who generally drives everyone else crazy; gratuitous drinking, smoking and cursing), but with Alaska packing much more of a punch when it finally gets to its serious half.

See, it's about a group of friends at a small private boarding school in Alabama, one of those low-tier prep schools with only a regional reputation but is where all the rich kids in the surrounding towns are sent; and the first half is not much more than a comedic, laid-back look at the inconsequential ins-and-outs of their daily lives, socially centered around a precociously intelligent yet bit of a trainwreck girl named Alaska, who seems to always be coining all their inside jokes and planning all their clever pranks. But then about halfway through, the book takes a complete right turn (and I don't think this is a spoiler, in that the book itself states it nearly explicitly on the back cover), when Alaska drives drunk one night and dies in a suspicious auto accident; and that makes the second half of the book a much more somber and existential tale, as Alaska's friends grapple not only with her death but also such troubling questions as whether she actually committed suicide, and how responsible they are in her death for knowingly letting her drive drunk that night in the first place. In trademark Green fashion, then, all of these issues are handled with a surprising amount of gentle if not dark humor, and a kind of direct connection to the topsy-turvy emotions of teens that most of us adults have long forgotten; and that of course is a big part of what makes Green such a brilliant YA author, is precisely that he does remember all the subtle emotions of teens that most adults promptly force out of their memories after the end of puberty, which he then combines with plots so tight and dialogue so witty as to make Michael Chabon himself proud.

Green is easily my favorite of all the YA authors I've ever now read, and I will count myself lucky if I can put out books myself that are even half as good as his. I recommend either of the titles mentioned today, or of course his newest, Paper Towns, which I also plan on reviewing here in the future.

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