Three by John Green

I read a bunch of books this past week, too many to concentrate on just one. Three of them were by John Green: Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns. All three of these books share a similar theme, essentially that we can't really know others, or perhaps even ourselves. These books all feature a male protagonist who comes to realize that he sees what he wants to see in his friends and himself, with detrimental results.

Looking for Alaska tells the story of Miles who goes away to boarding school in Alabama looking for a fresh start. He has no friends at his old school and is delighted when he makes friends with his new roommate "The Colonel" right away. He's even more delighted when he meets the Colonel's friend Alaska, a beautiful, cranky, interesting girl who trails excitement behind her like a comet's tail. The Colonel and Alaska are master pranksters who soon draw Miles into their plans. Miles, who has a new nickname, Pudge, which is ironic since he's quite thin, is perfectly happy to get involved with the pranks as it means he gets to spend more time with Alaska, who has captivated him without even trying.

The book is divided into two parts, before and after, with chapter headings counting down to an event and then counting the time elapsed since the event occurred. I saw a two sentence review of Looking for Alaska before I read it that discussed the event and I felt as though it spoiled some of my reading experience so I'm not going to go into what happens, but it is definitely momentous and life changing. I read the novel all in one go, with mounting anxiety as I neared the midmark. The characters are people I could easily relate to; funny, mixed up, flawed and passionate, and I didn't want any harm to come to any of them. The author does a fantastic job describing the complex emotions his characters go through in the after portion of the book, nailing the "If only" thoughts and guilt feelings that we have in the wake of something we think could have been avoided. It's easy to see why Looking for Alaska is an award-winning novel.

An Abundance of Katherines is the story of Colin Singleton and his search for three things; a best friend, a girlfriend called Katherine who loves him, and to matter. Colin is a child prodigy who is well aware that child prodigies don't usually grow up to any more successful than anyone else. He fears that he has already peaked and has a rigorous training program to try and keep his brain working as hard as possible. When Katherine XIX dumps him he is extremely depressed and reluctantly agrees to go on a spur of the moment road trip with his best friend Hassan.

They stop in a tiny town called Gutshot, Tennessee, to visit the purported grave of the Archduke Ferdinand. Here they meet a girl called Lindsay, who initially makes a bad impression on Colin because she's reading a celebrity magazine, but later intrigues him. Hassan and Colin end up staying in Gutshot, working for Lindsay's mother, taking oral histories of the locals. As Colin agonizes over the end of his relationship with the most recent Katherine and wonders why he is always the one who is dumped, he has a revelation and comes up with a mathematical formula that describes the arc of relationships, how long they will last and who will dump who. Colin concentrates on developing and refining the formula, hoping that he's finally come up with something important enough to prove he matters. Lindsay helps him with the formula and the two draw ever closer even as Hassan starts to expand his horizons with new activities.

Paper Towns starts off with a story about two neighbors, Quentin, who goes by Q, and Margo Roth Spiegelman. They're both quite young when they find the body of a suicide in a park. Margo investigates and reports to Q that she believes all of the dead man's strings had been cut, leaving him unable to function. From here we cut to Q's senior year. He has very strong feelings for Margo but they no longer interact, at least not until she knocks on his window and invites him out for a night of mischief and revenge. Q likes to keep his head down and stay out of trouble, but his feelings for Margo override his nerves and he goes along with her plans. He thinks that things will be different at school the next day, that they will spend more time together but instead Margo vanishes, leaving him wondering if she has followed in the steps of the suicide they found together years ago.

Margo has run away before, always leaving clues pointing to her destination, so Q becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened and where she went, feeling a terrible pressure to find her as soon as possible. Paper Towns is a mystery, and won an Edgar award, but it's also an exploration into preconceived notions and the fantasies we unconsciously construct about the people in our day to day lives. We see this all the time with celebrities when fans think they know all there is to know about someone but actually only see one aspect of a complicated, real person. There's also the other extreme where we might never think twice about the person who delivers the mail or stocks the grocery shelves and are surprised when we bump into them elsewhere or have a chat with them and discover they're also going to school and studying emergency medicine or archeology. All three of these books look into this to some degree but I think Paper Towns delves the deepest.

You can read an excerpt from An Abundance of Katherines here: http://www.sparksflyup.com/2006/09/excerpt-from-abundance-of-katherines..... An excerpt from Looking For Alaska is available here: http://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780525475064,00.html?.... Finally you can hear a small excerpt from Paper Towns and hear John talk about some of the inspiration for the novel here: http://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780525478188,00.html?....

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Evelyn who writes in to say, "I thought biological weapons were against the Geneva Convention so imagine my surprise when I discovered WaWa's mac n' beef. A fetid, vile concoction that looks old chili mixed with a child's macaroni necklace this thing could definitely kill off an entire legion of soldiers. If you're looking for a weapon it's an excellent bargain. If you're hungry you'd better run away." Do you have a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me for consideration. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.