I binge read John Green and this is what happened

I just could not resist that title.  I look at some of the things people make a living blogging about and I am deeply jealous.

The three binge read books were, in order of binge-ery:

Paper Towns

Looking for Alaska 

An Abundance of Katherines

I read The Fault in Our Stars a while back.

I don’t tend to do Cancer Books (capitalization intended) but the accolades were too great to ignore. Cancer is so hard to pull off without being maudlin, and I have to be in the mood for a book that I am well aware will wreck me for a few days. The Fault in Our Stars is undoubtedly a work of genius, but in finally buckling down to reading three of its four predecessors (sorry Will Grayson!) I realize that the scope of his genius is far from limited to his most popular novel.

I saw an article on the internet lately about how he built his platform and brand and how it contributed to his success. I believe that his success is due to his genius as a writer. I agree that branding is important, but in my opinion, Green’s work carries itself on its own.

His work is about teenage (and arguably lifespan) themes. Larger questions and developmental tasks for the typical, albeit usually smart with a razor sharp wit, teenager. I would love to know if he sets out with a theme in mind or makes characters and writes and the theme emerges.  His main characters change in the course of all of his novels in the way that teenagers can and do change in short periods of time.

I broke his books down to what I see are their central themes below.

Paper Towns:

The idea of someone and the reality of them are two different things.

A routine loving teenage boy loves and does not understand the girl next door, who, after a night of spontaneous adventure, disappears inexplicably, and he goes on a quest to find her.

The actual road trip is in the second half of the book, and it parallels the transition from teenager to young adult:  it looks thrilling and independent and free and fun at the outset, but the reality of a road trip/young adulthood can be boring and stressful.  As a teenager we think we have an idea of the life ahead of us but we have no idea who we will become or how the realities of young adulthood will make us who we are.  We have an image of those around us, even people we believe we know, and we think they have fewer problems, or do not get as upset as we do over things, or have something figured out that we most certainly do not.  Or, in the protagonist’s case, he does not always accept the ways that others are not like him.

But that does not end up being the case. Love is about the whole person, and love as a young adult can be about learning lessons and going on your own path anyway, not always about being together forever.  Being a young adult is really difficult. Illusions (and ideally the world of our childhoods) keep the world simple. Giving up the illusions and accepting the perpetual gray area is not an easy transition. Giving up everything we have known for an adventure that we don’t understand the implications of is not an easy thing to do.

That, to me, is what Paper Towns is about.  And hilarious, laugh out loud dialogue and characters. Clearly Green has not forgotten about what it is like to be a teenage boy.

Looking For Alaska:

Grief and forgiveness.  Love people where they are at.

A teenage guy goes to prep school, where he meets a young woman, Alaska, who is all mystery and moodiness.  Despite this, he harbors a fierce crush on her, and when unanticipated events strike, he and his friends work to decipher the tantalizing mystery that she is to each of them.

I did not have as many “I remember when my world changed like that and it sucked” moments like I did with Paper Towns.  I can’t relate to the events in quite the same way. But, like Paper Towns, relationships change from superficial to more accepting of the entire person. Forgiving, accepting, and even loving dark places in a person, because they are what makes this person the loved person that they are.

Also, Green can write a realistic, sexually tantalizing, wholly confusing teenage girl. They are in three of the four of the books I read, and I loved every one of them. And Hazel Grace.

An Abundance of Katherines:

How to be whole. How to accept who you are, find what really matters in life and embrace the uncertainty of the future.

A child prodigy grows up to find that being a prodigy, or dating his Katherines, does not make him the special, standout, famous person in life that he longs to be.  After high school and one of the tougher breakups he goes out on a trip with his also brilliant but aimless best friend Hassan, and they stumble into a town that depends on a factory for its livelihood, and in it a young woman and her mother who will change them.

I do not know if the main character Colin was intended to be autistic, but he certainly has the flavors of it: his ability to find patterns, his efforts to explain the unpredictability of life through formulas, his struggle to know if people are sarcastic or teasing or supportive, his hunger for facts and not understanding that others do not share this, and a literal translation of the world around him.  Synchronistically, I read a Times article this morning about how child prodigies are good at working within the paradigm but struggle to be creative and contribute something really original to the world.  The Times refuted the common belief that prodigies are socially and emotionally inept, which Colin struggles with in the story (and even though he can be socially inept somehow his brilliance draws in his Katherines for mostly succinct encounters). The Times also suggests that children who begin with a passion and are not drilled with the rules but are free to make their passion into what they will, and even pursue multiple passions, tend to keep their creativity intact.  Colin has been filled with empty facts and figures and languages and his emptiness makes him needy in his relationships with girls.  But when he tries to make something his own and takes his own actions in life besides just learning, the hole inside lessens and he is more comfortable with the unknown.  When the kids are shown a person working hard for the greater good, they all realize that they too want to be part of mattering to the rest of the world, and not focusing solely on their own emotional needs on the day to day. This is an important part of emotional maturity, whenever a person finds his or her way there.

And, filling that hole inside of you.  Some people never make it.

I also love that an adult sets an example in this book, rather than just being sweet and loving but at the same time kind of checked out.

And finally:

The Fault in Our Stars:

Carpe diem.

Forgive me if my commentary is not as detailed as this book is too intense for me to return to. I am not even ready to watch the movie. I do remember the main piece of this funny and all too realistic romance being that you have to make the most of the time that you have.  Hazel is not the crazy, mysterious sexual tension builder that some of Green’s heroine’s are.  His heroines are all smart, and creative, and funny, but Hazel Grace has had to live with a terminal illness.  She has had to worry about how she affects others at a time where that is not really a requirement of being. She has to face her own mortality but not succumb to it.  I love that love does not always mean forever in John Green novels.

Green serves up on a largely entertaining, hilarious, and relatable platter the hardest challenges that have to be overcome to get to maturity and a passably happy adulthood. I want to write like he does.  I want to start out with challenges that we can all relate to and make them entertaining and funny and to make my readers care. I want to share those pithy statements about life.

I’m too old to declare my undying love/fandom/willingness to have his children on his website, so it’s a good thing there was not the internet like it is now when I was right in his demographic. And if these novels have taught me anything, it is that love is much different in the real world than how we fantasize love to be like when we are young.

Comments and shares are always the best.




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