November 19th, 2012

You can sing along

Green with Envy

After loving The Fault in Our Stars, I decided to go on a John Green binge, starting with his first book. Looking for Alaska is the story of Miles Halter, ironically dubbed "Pudge" by his roommate because he's so thin, and the friends he makes at boarding school. These include his roommate, Chip, who calls himself "The Colonel," and Takumi, who is Asian, I don't know, maybe he had other personality traits. And then there is the titular Alaska, a Manic Pixie Dream Bitch whom Pudge immediately crushes on because she's super hot.

The book is divided into two sections, Before and After, with the chapters counting down to some unnamed event, lending every chapter title a sense of ominousness. Before what? Was it something good or bad? Probably bad. Maybe Alaska runs away and they go LOOKING FOR ALASKA. I became more and more nervous as we neared 0.

What goes on Before mostly involves Pudge and his pals hanging out, smoking, drinking, playing pranks on rich douchebags, and so on. And all of this is perfectly fine, but I found that I wasn't really too drawn into the characters, not the way I instantly fell in love with everyone in TFiOS. Pudge was fine, and I should have really identified with his hopeless crush on Alaska, but I didn't really like Alaska that much. I know she's not supposed to be entirely likable; the fact that she's a bit mean is just part of her appeal. But something about her grated on me. Maybe I just have a negative association with Southern accents (Jeff Woodman does well with the accented females in this book, Alaska and her Romanian friend, Lara). I was enjoying the teenage adventures well enough, this quirky group of kids—Pudge is obsessed with famous last words, the Colonel memorizes capitals, Takumi is a rapper—and then John Green decided to punch me right in the feelings, out of nowhere.

And then we hit After.

The After section is stronger, but it is difficult to talk about without spoiling what it is After. Suffice it to say that John Green does tackle some heavy topics in a realistic, emotional way and muses on one of my favorite themes.

Looking for Alaska is a very good book, and it does many things well, but I didn't feel truly connected to it. Much of it seemed like well-dressed clichés (boarding schools are a well-trodden setting for narratives, after all) taking a little profoundness out on a date. I think it does suffer in comparison to his most recent book, so I hope to see Green improve from book to book as I go through his oeuvre.

An Abundance of Katherines begins with seventeen-year-old Colin Singleton, child prodigy and lover of anagrams, being dumped by a girl named Katherine. As the title implies, however, this is not the first time this has happened. It is, in fact, the nineteenth time Colin Singleton has been dumped by a K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E. It is time once again to enter the world of John Green, where quirky teenagers tackle deep, meaningful issues.

The quirky teenagers this time are the aforementioned Colin Singleton, who seeks to devise a theorem that can predict who in a relationship will be the dumper and dumpee and when said dumping will occur, using his failed relationships with Katherines as data; his best/only friend, Hassan Harbish, a fat, wisecracking Muslim who loves Judge Judy; and Lindsey Lee Wells, the girl they meet when their cathartic road trip lands them in Gutshot, Tennessee. And unlike with Looking for Alaska, I really loved and connected with these characters. (And Lindsey even had a Southern accent, so that wasn't the reason I didn't like Alaska after all. Lindsey actually feels like a real person outside of her role as potential love interest.)

As Colin works on his theorem, we flash back to his previous relationships and see how the pattern developed and how the abundance of Katherines has made him who he is today. Meanwhile, the trio have adventures in Gutshot. Although the book is third-person, it might as well be Colin telling his own story; I loved the wry narration, and Jeff Woodman is even better in the way he brings each character to life. (Plus, the audiobook production uses a different sound design for telephone calls, which is a nice touch.)

One reason I connected so strongly with this book is that Colin Singleton is basically me. There were several times when I almost teared up because John Green get out of my neuroses. Another reason is that, like Looking for Alaska, it deals with issues near and dear to my heart, like identity, memory, and storytelling, and how all three of them go hand in hand in hand. The book weaves the three themes together beautifully in the end.

A subplot involving the local factory falls a little flat, but it is a small flaw in an otherwise fantastic book. An Abundance of Katherines is a clever, affecting look at relationships both romantic and platonic and what can happen when your search for an answer may lead you to a "Eureka!" moment...but not the one you were expecting.
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