Fuse #8

Monday, March 20, 2006

Review of the Day: Looking For Alaska

What's life without the random teen novel to review? I promise I won't make this a regular feature of this blog, but once in a while there's a book that's so well-written you want to make perfect strangers aware of its existence. This year, it's this book.

I don't enjoy angsty teen novels. I don't enjoy angsty teen novels fair overflowing with unrequited love and mental anguish. I don't even enjoy angsty teen novels fair overflowing with unrequited love and mental anguish that take place in posh boarding schools. Yet here I was checking, "Looking For Alaska" out of my library's Teen Central. Was I nuts? I read the occasional teen novel once in a while, sure. But this book looked imposing. First of all, it seemed sure to contain all the elements I've just mentioned. It had a cover that looked stylish in a deeply depressing way. Heck, you open the puppy up and what's the first thing you see? A big grey page with the word "before" staring you in the face. I nearly threw it against the wall when I saw that. What prevented me? Well, there was no denying that "Looking For Alaska" won itself the highest honor a YA novel can obtain. The Printz Award is given each year to a teen novel of extraordinary writing. This year's winner? You got it. Secondly, its author (John Green) is the ancient age of twenty-seven. I am twenty-seven. Therefore I wanted to size up my virtual classmate. Oh, and I wanted to dislike this book. I was itching to tell everyone how overrated it was and depressing and then rip it to tiny shreds over a blazing hot fire. Unfortunately for me, I sat down and read it cover to cover. I read it so quickly that it's amazing I managed to find time to eat and sleep in the interim. Not only is this book good, not only is this book GREAT, but this book is so bloody wonderful and real and (most importantly) funny that it's all I can do to keep from bodily grabbing strangers on the street and frog marching them into the teen portion of my library so that they might check out this novel.

Our hero Miles is sixteen-years-old and is going to attend his first year at a boarding school in Alabama. Miles is tall, skinny, adept at memorizing famous last words (which comes up more often than you might think) and is referred to in his new school as "Pudge". The Culver Creek Preparatory School turns out to be everyone Pudge could want. He has a diminutive roommate referred to as the Colonel. He meets a Japanese fellow with a tendency towards truly awful rapping named Takumi. There are rich kids that leave campus every week-end called the Weekday Warriors. And then there's Alaska. Let's get a couple facts about Alaska straight right of the bat, okay? She is beautiful, yes. Curvy and funny and wry as all get out. She's also insane. Alaska has a tendency towards moodiness that has gotten her into trouble in the past and is certain to get her in trouble in the future. Pudge doesn't care. He's in love with Alaska. The fact that she has a boyfriend doesn't frighten him off. With the Colonel as their leader, he and his friends pull off some magnificent pranks, drink some truly terrible wine, and smoke more cigarettes than stars in the sky. But there's a reason this book is divided into a "before" and an "after" section. A reason that shakes up everything Pudge has come to love.

Reading this summary back to myself, I see that I've misrepresented the novel. It still sounds agsty, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. In fact, the sheer amount of pages in this puppy that are dedicated to the fine art of pranking practically make this novel worthy of a non-fiction call number. Since author John Green attended his own Alabama boarding school back in the day, I've little doubt that much of the "research" in this book comes from first-hand experience. They say that a writer should write what they know. Green most certainly has and the result is brilliant. For the first half of the book Pudge goes through the usual unrequited love motions. Alaska is quick to point out to him that the girl he loves is the sunny happy one. Not the sullen nasty gal she's apt to be when she's in a bad mood. The second half of the book is a coming to grips with that love and coming to terms with Alaska herself.

The characters are also spot-on. You know, or have known, these people. Remember that short guy who was a lot of fun and kind of made up for his size by coming up with these brilliant ideas all the time? He's here. Or the cute foreign exchange student who never said more than two words in class? She's here. Or that messed up, screwed up, seriously disturbed girl that still got all the guys? Oh she is here in spades. Pudge is kind of the everyman in this story. He's Nick Carraway to Alaska's Gatsby. A better comparison is Stingo to her Sophie (and if you haven't read "Sophie's Choice" then stop reading this review and go do so now). Even the crusty old dean referred to as The Eagle has more than a measure of sympathy to him. If Green didn't actually know these people in real life then he has a remarkable gift for conjuring three-dimensional souls out of thin air.

So here's a portion of Green's writing for you to chew over. "So this is how Noah felt. You wake up one morning and God has forgiven you and you walk around squinting all day because you've forgotten how sunlight feels warm and rough against your skin like a kiss on the cheek from your dad, and the whole world is brighter and cleaner than ever before, like central Alabama has been put in the washing machine for two weeks and cleaned with extra-superstrength detergent with color brightener, and now the grass is greener and the bufriedos are crunchier". Nice, eh? The bufriedos, I should mention, are deep fried burritos and appear to be the primary staple of the denizens of this book.

Let's sum up. You have a teen novel that isn't full of itself and can talk about the author's own years without coming across as some kind of pseudo-confessional. You have emotional content that never crosses the line into melodrama. Great characters, powerful writing, and (I will repeat myself here) it is funny. Funny funny funny. If you've been hankering to figure out what this whole Young Adult form of literature really is about, this is where you should start. All around fabulousness.


At 10:37 PM , Blogger John Green said...

You're so kind, and the nicest part of all is that you call me 27. (I am the ancient, washed-up age of 28.)

Thanks so much for reading 'Alaska,' and for taking the time to write about it so beautifully.


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