Monday, November 16, 2015

John Green, Pt. 1: The early works

In addition to Neil Gaiman, the other author of whom I have long been a fan without having read much (or any) of his books is John Green. I am a devoted fan of the many educational YouTube channels John and his brother Hank produce, including VlogBrothers, Crash Course, SciShow, and Mental Floss, and the podcast they do together, Dear Hank and John (all are wonderful and interesting). Both Green brothers are intelligent, funny, and kind, and I admire them both. About time, then, that I explored the many books that brought John Green to attention in the first place, starting with some of his earlier works.

Looking for Alaska (2005)

Unfortunately I do have to start by saying that at first I was not especially taken with this book, filled as it was with either awkward, whiny teenagers or rebellious, irresponsible teenagers. I just didn’t connect with the characters at first, which I think is more of a function of the genre than the author. Contemporary Young Adult novels are not normally my genre of choice; what YA books I read are all fantasy-based. So I wonder how much of my initial reluctance was simply the lack of magic and mythology I'm used to in YA books.

Regardless, once I got to know the characters more, and especially their back stories, I liked them much more. The way the story dealt with death in the later part was very moving and – I think – pretty accurate. Of course everyone deals with death differently, so I’m not sure it would have been possible to have been inaccurate per se, but regardless it felt very real and personal to me and helped me connect with the way the characters were feeling. And there were some very nice life lessons in the end.
"We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken... We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations... [T]hat part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail." (page 220-1)

An Abundance of Katherines (2006)

I did enjoy this book more than Alaska from the start. Though there was still a bit more teen angst than I’m accustomed to in the stories I choose to read, I liked all the main characters in this story much more quickly. Though I’m not sure what it says about my deeper foray into YA literature that maybe the character I liked the best was the adult (maybe that’s a sign that I’m getting to old to read YA – to which I say, no such thing! I still read children’s books too).

One major plot thread – taking down oral histories of members in a specific community – was something I found very intriguing, and I really appreciated that the characters were working toward something interesting and concrete. This connection with the community, especially with outsiders (as the two main characters were), I thought elevated the book beyond just 'YA' to a story that is relatable to all ages (though I don't really think most YA books should be read just by teenagers; I know many adults who read them).
"I don't think you can ever fill the empty space with the thing you lost... I don't think your missing pieces ever fit inside you again once they go missing." (page 201)

I like that John Green doesn’t speak down to his readers, that he assumes a certain amount of intelligence on our part (not an unreasonable amount; he is neither snobby nor preachy in his writing, which is also certainly appreciated). Overall, I'm glad I read both these books and look forward to reading some of his later works sometime soon.

Keep reading! Beth

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