Monday, October 13, 2008

Book Review: Looking for Alaska

Title: Looking for Alaska
Author: John Green
Genre: Young Adult Literary Fiction
Grade: A

Abbreviated Book Summary (From Back Cover): Before. Miles "Pudge" Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the "Great Perhaps" even more. He heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. After. Nothing is ever the same.

Review: I read this book in about one day, which isn't necessarily the most reliable indicator of a book's pull on my sensibilities because I can fly through chick-lit and vapid YA books in a matter of hours, but it does serve as an independent variable in my evaluation of my impressions of this novel. (Note the descriptive use of the word "novel" to describe this story and the throw-away term of "book" used to describe the vapid stories referenced earlier in that sentence... you're starting to get where I'm going, eh?)

As predicted by all of the rave reviews and Printz awards that have been lauded on John Green, he does have a way with words and characters are putty in his hands. You feel like you love Pudge, the Colonel, Lara, and Takumi (not just Alaska). I probably loved Lara and Takumi more than any other characters in the novel because they were entirely relateable--never too much of a charicature (which can be done with ethnic characters in a Southern setting) and avoided some of the pitfalls that come from characters we become too familiar with (such as Pudge and the Colonel).

I liked the story, it was captivating to a good degree, I liked the writing style, and I liked the message the book provided--I'm such a sucker for a message. The only thing I didn't like (hence the A, rather than A+) was some of the content of the novel. Wait, before you consider me someone who is fond of censorship, just hear me out.

I thought this novel was phenomenal and totally something that should be read by those in the target audience. However, being a (relatively) mature adult, I can see how some adults would shy away from some of the content of this novel. Granted, I'm pretty understanding when it comes to blow jobs for the sake of art (how can someone watch the current "90210" re-make and not be willing to see high school students going down on one another on school property?). I'm also not too naive to know that many high school students drink, smoke, cut class, are disrespectful of authority, etc. On the other hand, what I'm also not too narrow-minded to know is that there are plenty of people who had a high school experience sans sex, alcohol, and drugs, and still found meaningful and valuable lessons in their life. I fall into the category of the "squeaky clean" who avoided typical (prosaic) high school traps, and still learned a lot through my experiences about how to transition to adult-hood, stumbling through but learning to navigate the social cliques, breaking down judgemental attitudes, and developing a self-view that disregards others' prejudices. Call me crazy, but is it not possible to write a phenomenally good book that is going to change the lives of young people (which I think Looking for Alaska is poised to do) without including content that will get it banned or censored from public school curriculum? I'm not an advocate of banning books, but I know it's an unfortunate element of our society, and am saddened that Green had to include the content that is going to keep his book out of many kids' hands because it won't be integrated into curriculum.

Looking for Alaska is exactly the type of book that many teens need to read, but it won't be accessible to the masses; rather, it will likely be read by teens who are already aware of this message--the undeniably awesome teens who have a cult following of John and Hank Green (the nerd fighters). This book, although awesome, comes across as preaching to the choir. If this book were only slightly altered (without compromising artistic integrity) this book could rock a generation. Instead, it's going to rock a subset of a generation that were already poised to be amazing teens transition to an amazing adult-hood... those teens who love to read and understand the lessons that are out there is similiar novels (Farenheit 451, Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, The Chocolate War, The Perks of Being a Wallflower... this list could probably go on forever).

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