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.