Looking for Alaska–John Green

looking for alaska

I had watched John Green’s Crash Course History series for years before realizing that he was an author of young adult lit.  I realized this, probably along with many others, when I read The Fault in Our Stars.  I enjoyed that novel and the movie adaptation so, when I heard that his first book was celebrating its tenth anniversary, in my Amazon cart it went.

Like many young adult novels, Looking for Alaska is fairly short–221 pages.  A weekend read or a Saturday read if it’s a slow Saturday.  Miles Halter is an only child with no friends, an addiction to reading biographies, and a fetish for last words.  He wants something more, the Great Perhaps that perhaps was part of Rabelais’ last words,  and asks to attend his father’s alma mater, a boarding school in Alabama.  He meets, of course, quirky characters, including his very poor roommate, the Colonel; Tamuki, the rapping Asian-descent second-tier friend; Lara, the cute Romanian girl with a prerequisite accent; and Alaska, the smoking-hot super-smart bad girl who, with the Colonel, drags him out of his humdrum life.  There is tragedy.  I have only read two John Green books, but if this is a regular motif, he is the Nicholas Sparks of young adult lit.

As an adult, I could not help thinking how much young adult lit had changed.  Wifey was a scandal when I was a teenager.  Are You There God It’s Me Margaret was iffy because it talked about bodily functions.  Some of my girlfriends’ moms would not buy it for them and I had to loan them my copy.  In Looking for Alaska characters have sex, there is a description of a blow job and a blow job tutorial, there is smoking, drinking, induced vomiting, and it is all routine.  Perhaps because the people who are parents now grew up with parents who banned menstruation as a topic.

This was not a great, epic novel, but I appreciated the way Green talked about the struggle of what happens after someone you loves dies.  The focus on their being nothing, then the biological process of decomposition, disillusion with accepted answers, then the formulation of something you can live with.  Hopefully most young readers will not understand how on he was until long after they have read about Miles, the Colonel, and Alaska.   One of my favorite lines was after Miles relates Meriwether Lewis’ last words–“I am not a coward, but I am so strong.  So hard to die.”  Green writes, “I don’t doubt that it is, but it cannot be much harder than being left behind.”   One day, I suppose, we will all find out.

Finished 2/23/15


All the Light We Cannot See–Anthony Doerr (Audio)

all the light we cannot see

This book received a lot of possible attention, but it was the Fresh Air book critic, Maureen Corrigan, who finally convinced me to add this to my Audible cart.

I have to admit that I was not sold on this story right away.  It took me several chapters to get sucked into the stories of Marie-Laure, whose father makes locks and puzzles and who helps her navigate their Paris when she loses her sight as a young girl, and Werner, who lives with his younger sister, Jutta, in an orphanage in Zollverein, where children are born to die in the mines that are driving the rebirth of Germany.  Werner discovers his talent when he finds an old radio, restores it, and hears a French voice opening his mind to the glories of the universe.  Doerr paints vivid scenes of Marie-Laure counting the storm drains as she taps her way from their apartment to the museum where her father works and of Werner and Jutta in their beds, quietly listening to the science broadcasts and desperately hoping for an alternative future that keeps Werner from dying in the mines like their father.

Things fall apart in 1939 Europe and Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris for Saint-Melo, the home of her great-uncle, Etienne, an agoraphobia victim of his losses in WWI.  Marie-Laure’s father carries a famous diamond, whose bearer has eternal life, but whose loved ones are cursed.  Werner’s fellow orphans join the Hitler Youth and Werner’s talents are noticed by a military commander, who paves the way for Werner to attend a special school for gifted boys, where he meets little Frederick, who has a gift for identifying birds from their songs.

Marie-Laure’s father is called back to the museum and ends up in a German work camp.  Frederick becomes the target of the school’s bullies, prompted by their schoolmaster in the spirit of Nazi manhood and Werner is torn between his ambition and his conscience.

What makes this novel so intriguing?  For me, Marie-Laure’s courage and Werner’s cowardice kept me going, but the whirlpool of events that inexorably draws them together pulled me in.

I was angry with the book’s ending.  It’s war, but I wanted a happy ending. Doerr sets up a grand myth of fate and morals to drive the story forward, but his end suggests there is no morality, no pattern but chaos.  What difference do the characters make?  Why doesn’t Marie-Laure tell Jutta what Werner did for her?  It’s not self-preservation; it’s mean and continues Jutta’s too-flat role as martyr. Why can there be no hope for Frederick, no glimmer from Werner’s gift? Even the cancer-ridden German officer goes unmourned as his wife eyes her next husband during a church service.  These characters survive, but not much more.  Some of my concerns were less selfish other than my dismay at seeing the wizard being the curtain.  Marie-Laure’s grandson’s playing war on a game device as the prompt for her reflection about people leaving the world for whom the war is a memory seemed like it should have been left on the cut and paste clipboard for being too obvious, too first-novelish.  Ultimately I enjoyed this book, but did not love this book.  Marie-Laure and Werner will stay with me, but I will not treasure this book for its craft, as I have so many others.  I disagree with Maureen Corrigan.

Finished 2/11/15

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones–Thomas Asbridge

greatest knight

Asbridge is no stranger to writing popular history and his skill is evident from page xiii.  He begins his tale with a Da Vinci Code-style story of a young scholar finding a manuscript at a Sotheby’s auction that piqued his curiosity and seemed to have been unopened for the previous two and a half centuries.  Chapter One begins in a similar vein with the line, “In 1152 King Stephen of England decided to execute a five-year-old boy.”  Talk about drama.

Asbridge uses drama to spice what becomes a wonderful walk through the historical method–but a walk done so skillfully that most readers will not even recognize where he is leading them.  The manuscript found at Sotheby’s the History of William Marshal, is the backbone of Asbridge’s tale of this fascinating figure, but he contextualizes Marshal’s story with that of the Angevin dynasty, the family of Henry II, King Richard the Lionheart, and the infamous King John I, teaching an engaging lesson about the English monarchy and the fate of western Europe while setting the stage for his protagonist.  Asbridge confronts the bias and gaps of the History and refers repeated to other sources that confirm, contest, or complete the History.  This, gentle readers, is what historians do and Asbridge sets it before us matter of factly as he spins out Marshal’s dramatic rise to power.  He further models the historian’s approach when he disassembles the traditional interpretation of the role of the 1215 Magna Carta in establishing universal human rights in the west while ostensibly writing a chapter on Marshal’s role in its composition.

Marshal begins as the younger son of a middling noble who is forced to make his own way in the world, which he does largely through the tournament circuit followed by astute political service to the Angevin dynasty.  Asbridge flips back and forth between the master narrative of England and the Angevins (and the High Middle Ages generally) and the fate of Marshal.  Where the sources are silent, Asbridge is honest and then uses logic to infer Marshal into the larger story. He punctuates each chapter with vivid vignettes, which, thankfully, his subjects readily provided.

If I had any concerns about Asbridge’s account, they were his rosy view of King Richard and his bleak view of King John, which seemed to fit too easily into the broader cultural images of these complex kings.  Asbridge’s tale is that of a remarkable knight, but too often he could make key points to non-historian readers about women, but he chooses to remain frustratingly silent.  For instance, marriage politics are crucial to Marshal and the nobles around him, but Asbridge gives no time to comment on the roles of women in those decisions or their fates after the wedding day.

Asbridge says in his epilogue that he wants to bring attention to the often neglected William Marshal and the key battle in which he played the hero’s role (Lincoln 1217), but his tale seems as focused on explaining the values and motivations of a medieval knight–the interplay of self interest, piety, chivalry, and emotional restraint demonstrated so successfully by Marshal. and that Asbridge says was destined to fall by the wayside as the thirteenth century progressed.

The Greatest Knight comes with the requisite maps and family trees, but, as always, I wished those had been integrated into the text at key points and augmented with infographics to help keep the narrative and the secondary characters straight.

Finished 2/6/15