Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Looking for Alaska" by John Green (2005)

More John Green? Seriously? How many more books has this guy written? You weren't kidding when you said you were going to read them all.

Okay, first off, a couple of notes about the cover you are using above. It doesn't look like the book you read for a few reasons. The most important detail is that on this edition there is no candle. The copy you read has the smoke coming off of a candle, which John Green hates. Newer editions (like the one above) have the candle removed, because there is not a whole lot of candle burning going on in "Looking for Alaska" ( although there is some to be fair) but there is a lot of cigarette smoking going on. The smoke on the cover was supposed to be from a cigarette, but since it is about high school kids, the publishers added a candle. You chose to honor the author and the story and put the book cover on your blog as it should be, not as it was. Also, there was no huge golden seal with an embossed P on your copy of "Looking For Alaska" because John Green had not yet won the Printz award for the book when the copy you read was printed. Which brings us to the last way the image above doesn't look like the copy that you read. Your copy has a big red box on the front reading "Advance Reading Copy - Not For Resale." Which is hilarious since you bought it at a used book store (making you at least the second person to buy a book that was not intended for resale). Also, your copy came with a neat little postcard questionnaire still inside from Penguin publishers asking how you liked the book. It had prepaid postage, so you filled it out and mailed it back... even though the book has already been in print for eight years and won a prestigious award. It never hurts to say something nice when you can.

So now that that bit of house keeping is completed, on to the book review. "Looking For Alaska" was John Green's first novel. Yeah. You're reading them WAY out of order. But it's okay, they aren't really in any order, the characters don't carry over from one book to the other, but you could certainly tell that Green's writing improved in the seven years between this one and "The Fault in Our Stars." This whole book is anchored around a central plot point. Everything before that plot point is in the half of the book labeled "before" and everything after is in the half labeled "after." Every other page or so is marked with a new chapter either with a countdown TO the event, or with a count of how many days have passed SINCE the event. The foreshadowing lets you know pretty early on that this fulcrum event is going to be a tragedy, because I guess John Green didn't think you cried enough reading his last book.

"Looking For Alaska" is about a high school boy named Miles (but everyone calls him Pudge) who goes off to his first year of boarding school in Alabama and falls in love with a girl there named Alaska. Pudge is the narrator of the story and the more first-person books you read, both fiction and non-fiction, the more you are beginning to see the value in the style. Instead of an omnipotent perspective with the luxury of 20/20 hindsight,  a first person perspective gives you the chance to view the world through other people's eyes. It affords you the chance not just to learn to care about other people, but to learn to see through their eyes and validate their experiences and their perceptions. You still love a nice omnipotent over-arching history book, but there is compelling value in a more intimate look at how other people's minds work.

Pudge meets new friends and makes some new enemies pretty quickly at his new school. He and his friends bitch about teachers, smoke too much, and obsess over pulling pranks. It's fairly obvious that Pudge is John Green himself, all tall, and nerdy, and bookish. The central tragedy of the book didn't happen to Green when he was attending boarding school, but the way Pudge processes things, the way he expresses his realizations, and his obsessions with the dying words of famous people, all of that is very much John Green. You were more impressed with green's ability to write as a female cancer patient in TFiOS than you were with his knack at writing as himself, but the book was fun, and Pudge was likeable.

Green's convincing dialogue helped pull you right into the story, but the real story was the way each character tried to deal with the tragedy. Everyone gets together eventually to try to investigate the details of what happened, but there is no real solid answer. Just like life. Each person is ultimately left inside their own minds, trying to figure it all out.

What happens when we die? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Is there any point to this life, or are we just happy accidents?

These are heavy questions and the book could have turned into a dour exercise in existentialism, but, as in all of his books, Green left you with a hopeful thought. "Looking for Alaska" closes with Pudge's final essay for his World Religion class and he does his best to answer some of these question. "Yes," says Pudge (and John Green). We are important. We do matter. We are more than the sum of our parts. there is a soul inside of each of us that is eternal and though it is born inside a body, our soul is not attached to this matter any more than life is attached to the carbon atoms that make us all up. Through the eyes of a teenager comes wisdom that is often forgotten by older souls.

"Looking for Alaska" ends on a hopeful note, with the line "Thomas Edison's last words were, 'It's very beautiful over there.' I don't know where there is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful."

It is, John Green. It is.

On to the next book!

Hey wait... how about a quick Vlogbrothers video? You've always got time for one of those, right? In this one, John Green, five years after winning the Printz award, talks about the collaborative effort that was required to make "Looking For Alaska" a real book, and dispels the myth that any book was a singular effort written by one person alone with just a brilliant mind and a keyboard.

Monday, March 4, 2013

"War" by Sebastian Junger (2010)

Honeslty, you were a little disapointed that the first line of the book wasn't,

"Hooh!... Yeah!... What is it good for? Absolutely NOTHIN'!! Say it again..."

This was another book that you picked up at Book People and couldn't put back down. you really enjoy it when that happens. It's like love at first sight, but with books.

Sebastian Junger is most well known for writing the book "The Perfect Storm." He is a freelance journalist who also directed a documentary called Restrepo which he made with cameraman, Tim Heatherington. You'd seen the film before buying the book, but had no idea when you bought "War" that it was about Junger's experience during the year long filming of "Restrepo." (Incidentally, Tim Heatherington was killed a few years later while covering the revolution in Libya. His death inspired an exodus of almost all Western journalists. C.J. Chivers, who wrote "The Gun", couldn't stand the thought that Tim's death would result in a media blackout of a war zone, so he returned to Libya immediately to continue the work his friend had died doing.)

One of the things that attracted you to this book as you read it in the store was how raw and honest the writing was. Junger makes no attempt to speak to the overarching themes of the war in Afghanistan and only briefly touches on any grand strategic concepts. Instead, he focuses on how the human animal responds to being in combat, actual physiological stuff. He explains how far away a bullet would have to be fired from for human reflexes to allow someone to dodge it (much farther than any of the combat he described in the book). He describes in intimate detail the privations and the physical hardships and the boredom of being in a war zone. He explains the chemical responses within our brains when we are exposed to the extraordinary experience of 21st century battle. But mostly, he explores the psychological effects of being in close combat for extended periods of time.

Most of the book takes place in a lonely outpost called Restrepo. Named after a fallen trooper, OP Restrepo is manned by soldiers from Battle Company of Second Platoon, 173 Airborne Brigade. The outpost is in the middle of a remote valley on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border carved out of the Hindu Kush mountains by the Korengal River. At the mouth of the valley the United States Army had recently established a base called the KOP (Korengal Outpost). The KOP is surrounded by some of the highest mountains imaginable (the foothills of the Himilayas, really) and as such was exposed to weapons fire from Taliban forces who could simply climb the mountains, aim downwards, and hit anything they wanted inside the base. Sometime in mid 2007, Battle Company, attempting to deny the enemy this opportunity, climbed the walls of the valley in the middle of the night, and built an outpost on the site from which they had been taking the most incoming fire.

For days as they built OP Restrepo, the men would dig in and try to build, only to be forced to stop and fight off repeated enemy attacks. Sometimes they would have five or six or seven battles in a day. Immediately after each firefight, they would lower their weapons and grab their shovels and pick axes and get right back to work. The outpost is so high in altitude that footage of mortar rounds exploding nearby show the smoke flowing down the mountain sides... down! Restrepo was so remote that it had no electricity no running water and no hot meals. But, as awful a place as the outpost was, it did its job. And so did the troopers living there for fifteen months. The KOP was never attacked directly after the OP was built. Other bases in neighboring valleys were not so lucky in 2007-08.

The men and boys of in this book were in almost constant combat for fifteen months. The men who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944 were only in combat for eleven months before Germany surrendered. The war in Afghanistan is the longest war the United States has ever fought. As noted in a previous review, the British have fought four or five wars in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union went bankrupt partly as a result of trying to conquer this country. And it is worth noting that the reason these Central Asian people (who have only been Muslim for a hundred years now) are noted for having blonde and red hair is because Afghanistan is the place where Alexander the Great's armies had to stop in their conquest of the known world. Alexander's soldiers stayed in valleys like the Korengal for so long, trying to conquer, that their European genes are still affecting the features of the people who live there today. Afghanistan is the place where empires go to die.

Indeed, the descriptions of the area are reminiscent of Dante's "Inferno." Restrepo is infested with fleas and giant spiders the size of your hand who seek out human body heat. Wolves prowl outside the walls and mountain lions are known to stalk inside the walls, while tribes of monkeys scream at the setting sun. There are even birds whose calls sound exactly like incoming RPG rounds. Why anyone would want to fight over this piece of ground is beyond you, but fight there they do, and fight there they have for thousands of years.

Junger's descriptions of the combat at Restrepo was pretty memorable. His explanation for the rules of modern combat in a world of machine guns and air power gives lie to the idea that war is supposed to be honorable, "'s not. It's about winning, which means killing the enemy on the most unequal terms possible. Anything less simply results in the loss of more of your own men."

But Junger can't deny how extraordinarily exciting the experience is, "In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn't where you might die... It's where you find out if you get to keep on living."

He reminded you that soldiers don't just fear death. "As a soldier, the thing that you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with. cowardice lingered forever." And he reminded you just how ludicrous warfare between an ancient and undeveloped people and the world's only Super Power can be. "Each Javelin (a shoulder fired, anti-tank missile) costs $80,000, and the idea that it's fired by a guy who doesn't make that in a year at a guy who doesn't make that in a lifetime is somehow so outrageous it almost makes the war seem winnable."

But what stood out more than Junger's wit or his journalistic gift of keen observation was how much he ended up caring for the men at Restrepo, and how much those relationships made you care for all of the soldiers still fighting for a cause and in a country that most Americans have forgotten. Half way through "War," in a section about killing and the true cost of war, he wrote what might be the most memorable quote of the whole book. "Society can give its young men almost any job and they'll figure out how to do it. They'll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end, it will get done. That only means that society should be careful about what it asks for."

The clarity Junger brings to the clouded subject of war left you with questions. Those young men (and now women) he's talking about were his friends. They are your countrymen. Some of them are or soon will be your family. What is our society still asking them to do in Afghanistan? Is it worth it?

One thing this book didn't offer was easy answers.

On to the next book!

P.S. While you were reading this book, Simon Kilingert (another war correspondent) posted a link to a 360 panorama of Forward Operating Base Munoz. FOB Munoz is in Pakhtia Province, to the south of OP Restrepo. You kept coming back to this site to get a feel for how the war must look for the men and women who are fighting it.

Here is FOB Munoz in 360 panorama.

Here is more info about FOB Munoz.

Unlike Restrepo, which was always within sight of supporting bases, FOB Munoz could only be reached by air units for resupply or reinforcement. It seems that each different corner of the War in Afghanistan offers its own special flavor of Hell.

P.P.S. This is a fascinating speech given by Junger about how veterans could possibly miss an experience as terrible as war.

Friday, March 1, 2013

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams (1979)

Another book you were kind of embarrassed that you'd never read before.

Also, another book which you'd only ever seen as a movie or heard reference of in popular culture. Dang, man! You're letting yourself down. You should really read more books...

This is the first in a long series of books which you will probably also read sooner or later. The story line is pretty simple and everyone pretty much knows it already: the Earth is destroyed on the worst Thursday afternoon ever, and Arthur Dent is saved by his friend (who has been an alien all along) only to be thrust into an adventure that promises to explain the meaning of Life and the Universe and Everything... 42.

So with a story line that has become so well known, how could this book prove to be entertaining? The story telling, man! "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is charmingly stuffed with quirky witticisms and whimsical non sequiturs, and the humor is so very British you couldn't help but love it. Honestly, the whole book was a bit like reading a 'Monty Python' movie, somehow managing to be insultingly hilarious and remarkably peppered with quotable moments. "The Hitchhiker's Guide" celebrates the absurd by pointing out how ridiculous life truly is, how arbitrary our most significant encounters can be, and how silly some of our most cherished notions really are.

At 200 pages, you can read it in a week (or even an afternoon), which is a good thing because you are going to want to read it again. There are just too many memorable parts to remember after only one reading. Like a good movie, you really can't quote it at the drop of a hat until you've seen it (or read it) more than once.

As silly as "The Hitchhiker's Guide" seems, it has some moments of depth that surprised you; moments where Adams makes it clear that asking good questions is better than getting good answers, where it is revealed that humans aren't the smartest animals on Earth because how we measure "smart" is pretty limited. Adams reminds us that bureaucracies are pervasive and possibly eternal, that Vogon poetry is the worst in the galaxy, and that cause and effect can reverberate so greatly that an offhanded comment might one day result in an alien invasion fleet being carelessly swallowed by your pet dog. In short, the overall impression "The Hitchhiker's Guide" left you with was that the Universe is weird and life is too short to take too seriously.

And don't forget to bring your towel with you when you go.

On to the next book!