6.24.2010

Currently Reading: Looking for Alaska

Later, I walked toward the dorm circle beside Alaska. The cicadas hummed their one-note song, just as they had at home in Florida. She turned to me as we made our way through the darkness and said, "When you're walking at night, do you ever get creeped out and even though it's silly and embarrassing you just want to run home?"


It seemed too secret and personal to admit to a virtual stranger, but I told her, "Yeah, totally."


For a moment, she was quiet. Then she grabbed my hand, whispered, "Run run run run run," and took off, pulling me behind her.

Author: John Green

Mini-synopsis: Miles Halter, having gone to boarding school looking for a Great Perhaps, wants but can never quite attain the wild and wildly attractive Alaska Young. In searching for the part of her that is more than "her genetic code and her life experiences and her relationships and the size and shape of her body" [quote edited for spoilers], he learns of failure and forgiveness and what it really means to know and to love.

Notes: All right, I'm going to get this out of the way.

I don't like disclaimers, but sometimes, what else can you do? This book is not for children; besides containing a fair amount of profanity, it is told from the perspective of a high school boy confronted with "the hottest girl in all of human history," and neither of them have the least notion of chastity. I skipped several pages, myself, because 1. I have a really clean mind, and 2. I like it that way, and 3. in a couple of places these teenagers were doing things I've never even done, even though I'm happily married, which amounts to 4. sometimes I just don't need to know.

That said, I read the rest of the book. I figured that it's a bit nonsensical of me to want to be a YA writer without having read John Green, and I'd looked into one of his books in a bookstore recently and been absolutely captivated from page 1 by the voice. Besides, having made it all the way through Catcher in the Rye--of which I only liked one paragraph--I thought I could handle Miles Halter's mind.

And I loved the book. I loved the characters--Miles, the Colonel, the Eagle, Takumi, and especially Alaska. I loved the World Religions teacher and his class and the final things Miles writes about and the bittersweet ending that I almost couldn't read because of the tears in my eyes. There is one line in the last few pages that I've never yet managed to read without my throat catching and my eyes welling up.

It is not a Christian book with a Christian solution to the "labyrinth of suffering," but the solutions were of the sort that I as a Christian could identify with, at least in part. As someone for whom agnostic sensibilities are likely to provide a lifetime of struggle, the thoughts were even helpful. And as someone who admittedly has a hard time letting go of either my own mistakes or others', the book also made me think about failure and forgiveness in meaningful ways. Sometimes, you just have to "love your crooked neighbor with all your crooked heart."

That might be telling you more about me than about the book--but I can't say much more about the book without giving out major spoilers. Or rather, major spoiler. On that topic, I knew going in what the "before" was counting down to, and I'm actually kind of glad I did. But as most people will probably want to remain spoiler-free, I'll go no further here. I won't say 'Read the book'--I know too many people who would be offended--but I will say the book is worth reading.

8 comments:

  1. This actually makes a nice connection with the HH discussion about morality in literature (or not). I must say you listed four convincing reasons why I will never read this book.

    Green's attitude toward these subjects sounds to me irresponsible (portraying teen sex as 'desirable' and safe) and sexist (degrading the woman to an object, lookism, etc). He might be a brilliant writer, but I'm not willing to degrade myself--and to degrade the beauty and nobility of womanhood--through submitting my imagination to his voyeurism.

    Sorry if this is a bit of a flame, but you hit on a moral nerve ending here...:D

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  2. I admit, when I saw the title my first thought was:

    'Looking for Alaska? That's a rather large bit of real estate to lose, isn't it?'

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  3. Mr. Pond, this does work nicely with the Hog's Head discussion. And I'd far rather deal with a flame from the perspective you're working with than from the opposite (though I'm a little ashamed of having occasioned one.) At least I agree with your principles.

    John Green's intent with the sexual encounters in the story is to argue against casual sex, not for it, but I still believe there are some problems with his attitude--namely, that saving sex for marriage doesn't seem to be part of it. And without that ultimate commitment, I don't think it's possible to avoid the intrusion of casual attitudes, sexism and voyeurism.

    I liked the book for its religious thought and its pursuit of learning to love and care for a whole person (weaknesses and strengths, body, soul and spirit), and for the emphasis on forgiveness. The sex bothered me, but it isn't nearly the entire book and I was able to get past it (in contrast, I tried to read Lolita and persevered for fifteen pages before deciding that I could never, and would never, subject my mind to that.) The problem I have with his presentation certainly prevents my giving the book a wholehearted recommendation, even with the qualifying statement "Not for children."

    Don't take this as an argument to get you to read the book. I don't blame anyone for choosing to abstain.

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  4. I hear you. And, in fact, you have managed to almost convince me to give it a read. I am just generally disgusted with the rampant obsession with bed scenes in books and movies--particularly those styling itself as YA.

    The general argument seems to be that it's part of life, so we should write about it, good, bad, and unspeakable. True, but I don't see very many people rushing to write, ahem, commode scenes. Which is actually more a part of life. (You'll never see a book connecting it with spirituality, either...I hope.)

    And tying into the HH discussion--do you think the bed scenes in Green's book would really help convince, oh, say, a fifteen year old that casual sex is a bad idea?

    Don't feel bad for occasioning a flame. Every good writer does that every now and then. And I've had a bizarre week. So, thanks for reminding me I should read before I speak.

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  5. Right, and I'm not a fan of the general argument. Maybe someday I'll make a post on sex in fiction and see what people's standards are for what and when to include. I suspect we'd have at least as many ideas as people, but my own opinion would slant toward keeping private things private when possible.

    John Green's intent was directed against the casual encounter, but I doubt whether in the long run it works. You can hear his argument here; I think the more romantic scene he refers to, which is intended to contrast with the awkward one, is still not based on much commitment, even for those who believe that the standard for sex is "when you really love someone."

    Also, I'm 32; I skimmed past stuff, but what I caught didn't give me any new information. I'd think long and hard before giving this to my hypothetical fifteen-year-old. Not out of concern that the teenager is unable to think critically--I was thinking critically about everything I read long before then--but because sometimes it's just better to have a clean mind.

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  6. Agreed, Jenna. And nicely put.

    Just for the sake of the record--your didn't offend me in anything you said in the post or the comments.

    The only thing 'offensive' to me is the sheer prevalence--Green is just one instance--of irresponsibility in the treatment of sex and sexuality in literature, particularly in YA lit, and particularly adolescent sexuality. I think in a justified concern to make these things not taboo, we've lost discretion. But, as you say, that's another post.

    So, yeah, nothing you said. Maybe not even Green in particular. Just a trend that I've been bothered with for some while.

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  7. In regard to how sexuality & decorum is displayed in society it's kind of like we've gone from Amish attire, wearing thick clothing that covers our bodies from head to foot with nary any skin showing to instead walking around in string bikinis & speedos. Without realizing there might be some kind of proper medium between the two.

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  8. Mr. Pond and George, yes. I feel exactly the same way. I'd love to see a general attitude that balanced openness with restraint, avoiding the errors of both prudishness and irresponsibility. Not that the world will ever agree on what those words mean, but it would be nice to escape the mayhem.

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