two not-so-youth novels: another great one by john green, and part two of the hunger games

Looking for Alaska, John Green (2005)

Some months back I blogged about The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. I absolutely loved this book. I went in search of everything else the author has written, and with another title down, I have not been disappointed. Green's 2005 debut novel Looking for Alaska was about as good a youth novel as I've ever read.

It's almost impossible to write about this book without spoiling a major plot reveal. I loved the way the author managed this - it damn near took my breath away - and I don't want to deprive anyone else of that experience. So if you can manage to find this book without reading or hearing of the central premise, go for it. If the premise already has been spoiled for you, but you like a good teen read, go for it anyway.

The brilliance of Looking for Alaska lies in one Miles Halter, a narrator-descendant of Salinger's Holden Caulfield and Russell Banks' Bone, a witty, sweet, self-deprecating searcher, a misfit experiencing the joy of finding belonging, a teenager experiencing the pain and joy of love, sex, and loss. Miles is one of the most authentic and memorable teen narrators I have encountered in a long time.

On one level, Looking for Alaska is a teenage comedy, chock full of pranks and capers. At the same time, it deals with all the biggest existential questions - what is our purpose in life? what happens when we die? - as well as the very important, very ordinary questions of friendship, love, and self-acceptance.

A while back, I wrote about Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. By happy coincidence, one could say that Looking for Alaska is Man's Search of Meaning in adolescent novel form. Somehow John Green manages to weave it all together in a way that feels natural and authentic, and never preachy.

It's funny, sweet, and heartbreaking. Read it.

Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins (book two of The Hunger Games) (2009)

Perhaps the second book of a trilogy is destined to be a let-down. Between the sharp knockout of the beginning and (we hope) the stunning wrap-up of the conclusion, the second book must keep the suspense and excitement going, without peaking too early. It must function as a bridge, while also standing alone as a complete novel. It's a tall order.

So while I was somewhat disappointed in Catching Fire, the second book of The Hunger Games trilogy, it's still a very solid novel. It was only a let-down by comparison with the first book, which I absolutely loved.

This book, too, is difficult to write about without spoiling. I'll give you one bit, out of context.

Our heroes Katniss and Peeta attend a party in the Capitol, a scene of conspicuous consumption so extreme it rivals anything we've heard about ancient Rome, anything the Victorians could have dreamt up, or anything you've read about a profligate celebrity yacht. And like the storied vomitorium of ancient Rome, the Capitol frolickers drink a special liquid, to make themselves vomit... so they can eat more, and do it all over again.

For Peeta and Katniss, this is the last straw. Katniss thinks of the children in their home district, crying themselves to sleep at night with empty stomachs, thinks of whole districts of people who never experience a full stomach in their entire lives... contrasted with this obscenity of waste. Out of all the injustice, all the indignities and degradations that they struggle with, it is this contrast that fuels their thoughts of revolution.

The parallels to our world are obvious, whether we think of the income inequality of one country, or of the entire planet.

Catching Fire is less overtly political than The Hunger Games, and I found the ending unsatisfying. But I'm starting Mockingjay as soon as possible.


James Redekop said...

I gather from his videos that John Green isn't satisfied with Looking for Alaska, but that's not that surprising given that it's a first novel.

You might enjoy John Green's Crash Course Literature video series -- he covers Romeo & Juliette, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, and Emily Dickinson. It definitely gives you an idea of his influences.

I haven't read any of the Hunger Game books yet, or seen the movies, but most of the reviews of the Catching Fire film that I've come across say that it's much better than the first film.

laura k said...

In my experience, writers are seldom satisfied with their efforts. It's an amazing accomplishment for a first novel.

I saw some of The Hunger Games movie, just blipped through it on Netflix to get the general idea of the differences between the book and the movie. I didn't hate it like many fans of the book did, but I won't be seeing the movies of Catching Fire or Mockingjay. Just no real interest.

James Redekop said...

From the "They Just Don't Get It" department:

Covergirl is selling a line of Catching Fire-licensed cosmetics, called "The Capitol Collection". Because if there's anyone in the book you'd want to emulate, it's the citizens of Capitol.

From the same article linked above, Subway is also running a Catching Fire tie-in promotion, because nothing sells spicy food like a story about making children fight to the death so that their families can eat.

laura k said...

Oy! All I can say is I hope Suzanne Collins is making a big pile of money from the Covergirl license. It's very possible she's not included at all, that only the movie producers profit from that.

James Redekop said...

I have no idea what the licensing arrangements would be. It seems unlikely that she had any say in granting the licenses, which suggests that she probably doesn't get much of a cut, if any.

laura k said...

It's conceivable that she has a contractual arrangement where she gets a small percentage from any licensing. Also conceivable she gets nothing.