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Here is an analysis of John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska, which won the Printz award for excellence in young adult literature.

SPOILER ALERT!

John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska tells the story of Miles Halter, a shy teenager who transfers to Culver Creek Boarding School for his junior year of high school, in search of the “Great Perhaps” (2007, 5).  His roommate, Chip “the Colonel” Martin, takes Miles under his wing, nicknames him Pudge, and introduces him to smoking, drinking, pranks, and Alaska Young.  Alaska is beautiful, witty, moody, and self-destructive, and Pudge is fascinated with her.  When some of the weekday warriors drag Pudge out of his bed, mummify him in duct tape and throw him in the lake (25), the Colonel vows to have revenge (29).  The weekday warriors dunked Pudge and peed in the Colonel’s shoes (29) because they believe that the Colonel ratted out Paul and Marya (37), two students who were expelled the previous year for drinking, smoking pot and having sex (23).  Alaska later admits to telling on Paul and Marya to avoid being expelled for sneaking off campus in the middle of the night and being in possession of alcohol (73).  Alaska, Pudge and the Colonel exact their revenge on the weekday warriors by putting blue hair dye in the weekday warriors’ shampoo and hair gel bottles and sending out fake progress reports to the weekday warriors’ parents, indicating that they were failing (109).  One night, after getting drunk with the Colonel and briefly making out with Pudge, Alaska breaks down crying (129-132), drives off campus and dies in a car wreck (139).  Alaska’s friends are riddled with guilt and grief and obsessed with finding out where she was driving with white flowers in her car in the middle of the night (163).  At last, they determine that Alaska was crying because she had forgotten the anniversary of her mother’s death, and Alaska was driving to put flowers on her mother’s grave (211).  Alaska’s friends must come to terms with their guilt and grief and accept that they will never know if the wreck was an accident or suicide.

 There are several themes in the novel Looking for Alaska.  One theme is that there is more to life and more to any person than can be experienced or known.  Pudge reads biographies and memorizes people’s last words to try to understand what kind of people they were.  He looks for meaning in the facts and the words that are recorded after a person dies.  Alaska fascinates Pudge because he does not “get” her, he cannot figure her out, but Alaska says, “‘You never get me.  That’s the whole point’” (54).  Alaska knows that people are complex beyond anyone’s ability to understand.  Pudge is devastated that he will never know Alaska’s last words (142), and that he would never know Alaska as he wanted to (212).  He feels like someone who has lost his glasses and is told that there are no more glasses in the world, and he will “just have to do without” (144).  Seeing represents knowing, and Pudge will never know the world through the filter of Alaska ever again.  Ultimately, Pudge realizes that “we are greater than the sum of our parts,” and because energy can never be created nor destroyed, “that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail” (220-221).  Another theme is that the labyrinth of suffering need not imprison us forever.  Alaska is incapacitated by her human failures and collapses “into the enigma of herself” (219).  But Pudge recognizes that “she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct” (220).  Alaska never forgives herself for her mother’s death, and her guilt holds her captive.  By forgiving himself for his part in Alaska’s death, Pudge finds hope, which lifts him out of the labyrinth of guilt and grief, so that he can catch a distant glimpse of the Great Perhaps.

The first person narration, authentic teen language and countdown to the climactic event of Alaska’s death lend compelling realism and suspense to the novel’s narrative style.  The story is told through first-person narration from Pudge’s perspective.  Readers are drawn in by Pudge’s introspective, often humorous outlook and the intensity of his feelings.  The language laced with expletives used by Alaska and the Colonel provides authenticity to the impression of teen life.  The literary and historical references challenge readers, and the unfamiliarity of these references give readers the sense of not understanding everything, just as Pudge does not understand everything about Culver Creek and Alaska.  The countdown to Alaska’s death provides suspense and provokes curiosity, as the reader wonders where the story is heading.  Green notes that people view the most important moment in their lives as a “dividing line between what we were and what we are now” (238).  Alaska’s death serves as a dividing line in the lives of Pudge and his friends, marking a moment in which their lives were irrevocably changed.  Green’s style gives immediacy and gravity to the story.

The Culver Creek Boarding School in Alabama offers a setting removed from the influences of parents, where Pudge and his friends can be responsible for their own choices and actions.  The woods, the smoke hole and the barn offer hideouts from Mr. Starnes where the friends can smoke, drink and plan pranks (101-103).  The freedom and lack of supervision that Pudge and his friends enjoy seems at times unrealistic.  It seems unlikely that underage boys and girls would be allowed to spend so much time together alone and unsupervised (126, 128, 131).  The trailer park (91) where the Colonel grew up helps to explain his hatred of the weekday warriors (13), the rich, spoiled students who attend Culver Creek.  The setting of the Deep South does not seem particularly critical to the story.  The story could have been set almost anywhere in rural America where lakes and woods can be found.

The mode of Looking for Alaska includes elements of comedy, romance and tragedy, but the story cannot be completely encapsulated by any one of these terms.  The powerful realism and poignancy of the novel stems from its mingling of comedy, irony, romance and tragedy, just as these elements are found in real life.  More than anything, Green’s novel is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story.  Alaska is unable to leave the tragedy of her mother’s death behind her, and so she is unable to come of age and move on with her life.  Instead she smokes, drinks, and drives too fast until she self-destructs.  The paper Pudge writes at the novel’s end (219-221) indicates that Pudge is able to come to terms with Alaska’s death.  His ability to rise above the tragedy and find hope demonstrates his coming-of-age.

The novel’s plot, theme, style, setting and mode work together to formulate a powerful piece of literature.  Readers are drawn in by Pudge’s emotions and reflections.  The way information is withheld, such as the nature of the Barn Night prank (99), entices the reader to keep turning the pages.  The countdown to the unknown, critical event of Alaska’s death builds suspense, and the literary references of the labyrinth (19) and Frost’s poem (10) foreshadow Pudge and the Colonel’s subsequent struggle to rise above the tragedy.  The setting provides the removal from parental influence, so that Alaska, Pudge and the Colonel are responsible for their own struggles, failures and achievements.  These literary elements combine to create a coming-of-age story that will appeal to anyone who has ever struggled to escape a labyrinth, whether that labyrinth is grief, guilt, adolescence or high school.  This ability to appeal to such a wide audience justifies the novel’s placement on the Printz Award list.

Work Cited: 

Green, John.  2007.  Looking for Alaska.  New York: Speak.

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Here is an analysis of Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

SPOILER ALERT!

The theme of Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak is explicitly expressed through imagery, plot and character development.  The theme of the novel is silence, struggling towards self-expression.  Melinda Sordino was raped in the summer before her freshman year of high school (1999, 135).  She is silenced by fear and shame, unable to tell anyone about what happened to her.  Throughout the story, Anderson uses imagery of being silenced, choked and gagged to describe Melinda’s character.  She bites and chews her lips until they bleed (5, 17).  She tries to speak, but the words will not come out (25).  Her “throat squeezes shut,” cutting off her explanations (28).  Pulling her lower lip in between her teeth, Melinda wishes she could swallow herself (39).  She imagines her lips are stitched together (46).  Her throat is perpetually sore, and when she wakes up in the morning, her jaws are clenched so tight it gives her a headache (50).  Melinda thinks her mouth looks like it “belongs to someone else,” someone she does not know (17).  She takes her mirror down from her bedroom wall and hides it in her closet (17).  Melinda does not recognize herself after being raped, and she is in denial of her identity now that it has been shaped by trauma.  In the bathroom after school, Melinda washes her face until she imagines “there is nothing left of it, no eyes, no nose, no mouth” (45).  She wants to wash away the trauma and her sense of being a victim, but she can’t.

Melinda’s classmates blame her for breaking up their party by calling the police, which resulted in at least one student being arrested and others getting in trouble (28).  Although her friends do not know what happened to Melinda at the party, their blame and anger makes her feel that she was wrong to call for help.  Melinda’s parents did not know she attended the party; she was supposed to be spending the night at her friend Rachel’s house (133).  Melinda struggles with the sense that her rape is partly her own fault because she went to the party.  Anderson emphasizes Melinda’s silence in her interchanges with teachers, students and her parents by writing one-sided conversations, where Melinda’s parts are preceded with “Me:” and followed by nothing but a blank space on the page (9, 21, 61, 88).  Melinda tells herself, “Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say” (9).  Her friends have their own conceptions of what happened at the party.  They already dislike her for calling the cops, and Melinda believes that her friends do not want to hear her explanations.  Besides, talking about what happened requires reliving the trauma, confronting the trauma and admitting it really happened to her.

At the beginning of the book, Melinda and her parents primarily communicate through notes on the kitchen counter (14).  Melinda explains, “I write when I need school supplies or a ride to the mall.  They write what time they’ll be home from work and if I should thaw anything.  What else is there to say?” (14).  The theme of obstructed communication is also expressed through the character of Melinda’s Spanish teacher, who tries to speak only Spanish to her students and is never understood (13-14).  These elements contribute to the theme of being silenced, unable to communicate complex thoughts and feelings.

Melinda wants to sleep most of the time, but she has trouble sleeping at home.  She lingers for hours in a “halfway place, a rest stop on the road to sleep” where she does not have to close her eyes but can “just stay safe under the covers and breathe” (16).  Many individuals who suffer from depression and post traumatic stress disorder have sleeping disorders, such as insomnia or hypersomnia.  Sleep blots out the pain of living as a social outcast and the awareness of what happened to her, but nightmares can force her to relive the terror.

Melinda feels that her identity as a victim is glaringly apparent.  She describes herself as “a wounded zebra” and her social studies teacher, Mr. Neck, as a predator, “hired to coach a blood sport” (5).  When her parents find out about her failing grades, Melinda describes the scene as dinner theater, “with Dad doing his Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation and Mom playing Glenn Close in one of her psycho roles” (35).  Meanwhile, Melinda plays the role of “the Victim” (35).  Melinda does not want to be defined as a victim, but she feels trapped in this role by Mr. Neck, her parents and IT.

Anderson draws attention to the duality of surface appearances and the reality underneath.  Melinda wonders how the cheerleaders can sleep with the football team and then be reborn as “virginal goddesses” the next day (29).  Even the Sordino’s couch has unspoken secrets.  Melinda turns the messy side of the cushions up while she eats dinner on the couch, then flips them over “to show their pretty white cheeks” before her parents come home (15).  Melinda’s school is also having an identity crisis as their mascot is changed from Trojans to Devils to Tigers to Hornets.  These details reflect Melinda’s facade of silent placidity while something dark and painful boils beneath the surface.

Art class helps Melinda begin to confront her trauma and begin to heal.  Melinda is excited by her art assignment to make her subject “say something, express an emotion, speak to every person who looks at it” (12).  Melinda is desperate to express herself, and art provides an outlet for her pain.  She starts painting watercolors of trees that have been struck by lightning, so they appear nearly, but not completely dead (30-31).  These paintings show Melinda’s first efforts to express her feelings about her trauma and the damage that her spirit has suffered.  She has difficulty drawing a healthy, normal tree (32), probably because she is unable to imagine feeling normal ever again.  By the end of Anderson’s novel, Melinda is able to draw a beautiful, breathing tree in which “one of the lower branches is sick” (196).  She hopes that the branch drops soon, so the sickness does not kill the tree (196).  Her tree is a metaphor for her own survival as she accepts and lets go of her trauma and moves on with her life.  By finally speaking her secret, she transforms herself from a victim into a survivor.

Work Cited: 

Anderson, Laurie Halse.  1999.  Speak.  New York: Puffin Books.

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In the intercession between spring semester and my summer internship, I’ve been delving further into the realm of podcasts, looking for resources to enhance my Library & Information Studies education.  I’ve located and subscribed to a number of library and book related podcasts, which I believe will help me to expand my awareness of current events as well as popular, award-winning and recently published books that library customers may want.  These podcasts allow me to make better use of my time—hours spent driving, exercising or washing dishes now become opportunities to cram more useful information into my head.

To expand my knowledge and awareness of noteworthy current literature, I am listening to the following podcasts:

New York Times Book Review
NPR Book Tour Podcast
NPR Books Podcast
BBC World Book Club

To increase my knowledge of classic literature, I am following the Classic Tales Podcast.

To follow current events, hot topics and developing issues in the library and information service arena, I have subscribed to these podcasts:

Book Lust with Nancy Pearl
The Library 2.0 Gang
Library Geeks
Library Luminary Lectures
LISNews Netcast Network
Longshots: Library-Related Commentary and Interviews
Uncontrolled Vocabulary

All of these podcasts can be located and subscribed to through iTunes.

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This seems like a good place to log some thoughts I jotted recently about the book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Spoiler Warning!

I suspect Middlesex will be a classic studied by college students one day.  Tracing the familial and genetic history of a Greek family whose intersections resulted in the narrator’s birth as a hermaphrodite, the story wrenches the heart by relating experiences that resonate with any reader.  Alienation, loneliness, desire—all are human experiences.  But the author makes the narrator even more human by recognizing those less definable feelings, emotions that blend and blur at the edges: the mournful joy of autumn, the hatred of mirrors that comes with middle age.

 

The narrator is Calliope Stephanides.  Calliope is also the muse of epic poetry, and Calliope Stephanides’s creation is indeed an epic undertaking.  Her paternal grandparents, Desdemona (Greek for unfortunate) and Lefty are brother and sister.  As children they are very close, described as like one four-legged, two-headed being scrambling down the mountainside where they live in Smyrna.  This alludes to Plato’s symposium, where Socrates hypothesizes that soul mates are drawn together because in the dawn of time, they lived conjoined as one being.  Desdemona harvests silk from silkworms, providing cocoon imagery and foreshadowing Calliope’s later transformation from what appears to be a normal girl into an adult that self-identifies as male.  Lefty’s name is not explained, but maybe it’s a hint that he is Desdemona’s other half?  Does “Lefty” connote a sinister quality, since, while Desdemona’s willingness to marry him wavers, it is Lefty who pushes the envelope?  Maybe it is sinister in the older connotation, because they keep their identity as siblings secret after their marriage.  The left hand was regarded as untrustworthy, deceitful and dirty in ancient Greek and Roman culture.  The right hand was used for eating and greeting friends, while the left hand was used when urinating.

 

Desdemona must flee Smyrna to escape the invasion of the Turks, who murder and burn everything in their wake.  As all they know is destroyed and they barely escape with their lives, Desdemona and Lefty find comfort in each other. 

 

Sure, incest is a gross and creepy idea.  But these two tried to find other romantic interests, and somehow keep ending up back together.  When they lose their parents, their home, their village—when everything else familiar is taken away, you can’t help but have sympathy for two lonely, frightened people seeking comfort in the only familiar thing left to them.  (Please don’t misread me, pervy people.  I’m only saying I sympathize, nothing more.)

 

In telling Calliope’s story, Middlesex references the story of Teresias, who was transformed into a woman for seven years as a punishment from the gods, Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, Orpheus, who swore he could never love another woman after he lost his wife Eurydice at the gate to Hades, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy, Love Story, That Obscure Object of Desire, and probably many other texts I’m not well-read enough to know.  It is masterfully written.

 

When the doctors are trying to determine Calliope’s sexual orientation, I hate how they are trying to categorize him/her—their probing, their cold, clinical labeling of Cal’s most private features.  It makes me angry, because, fiction or not, I know this sort of pigeonholing and invasion of privacy has happened to innumerable people.  Real, vulnerable people.

 

But I guess only a well written piece of fiction can make you really angry like this.

 

Oracles in Middlesex

On the drive home, I was wondering why the recurrence of oracles, augurs and prophets in Middlesex, besides their obvious frequent appearances in Greek mythology.  A hermaphroditic oracle appears in Fellini’s Satyricon, although this character has no source in Petronius’s text.  Perhaps their recurrence is in part because an oracle has a foot in two worlds, so to speak–the present and the future–in the same way Calliope has a foot in two worlds, male and female.

It also occurred to me that prophesies in Greek myth are inescapable, immutable.  The crux of many Greek tragedies is that as the protagonists struggle to avoid the circumstances of their predicted doom, they inevitably bring about the events they seek to avoid.  Oedipus’s parents hear the prophesy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, so they send him away to another city.  Years later, Oedipus is offended by a stranger and kills him, only to find out later this man was his father.  Sometimes the prophesies are not believed, as in the sad case of Cassandra–always right, never heeded.

I think Cal’s mention of oracles and prophesy indicates his desire for his existance to be deliberate, intentional.  Rather than a mistake, a fluke, a freak accident.  If Cal’s existance was fated by genetic prophesy, an inescapable event, that suggests there must be some reason for his experiences and sufferings.  Cal fears that he is a monster.  But if unseen powers planned his existance, intended his biological design, then he does not have to be an aberration.  Most humans need to believe there is a reason, a purpose for things, I think.  Entropy, like Medusa, is hard to look in the face.

Osiris in Middlesex

A few more disjointed notes on Middlesex:

Cal/liope is born in January, which is named for Janus, the two-faced, Greco-Roman god of doorways and the new year.  He looks backward at the old year and forward to the new one.  When Cal and family come to the house on Middlesex Street, there is a scene where Cal gets stuck in one of the strange, pneumatic accordian doors in the house.  Like Janus, Cal lives in a place between–between genders, between the past that created him and the future that he embodies.  In the last scene of the book, we find Cal guarding the doorway to the house during his father’s funeral, in the old Greek tradition, to ensure his father’s ghost does not return to the house.  Raised as a girl, he now fills this traditionally male role–carrying out an old-world ritual, he stands considering the future.

Cal’s father’s name is Milton, reminiscent of another man who authored an epic.  I believe Milton had gone blind at the time he wrote Paradise Lost, having dictated it in its entirety to his daughters.  This may be what Eugenides had in mind throughout Middlesex, with Milton’s blind faith in President Nixon and his inability to see the viewpoints of others.

Eugenides also references another myth when Cal mentions the Osiris grass growing around the houses in Detroit.  In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was married to his sister Isis, but was killed by his brother Seth.  Seth cut Osiris’ body into a number of pieces (the stories vary as to how many) and scattered them.  Isis found and reassembled all of Osiris’ body parts, except she could not find the phallus, which was eaten by a fish.  So she fashioned a new one for him out of gold, and brought him back to life.  However, because he could no longer reproduce, he could not be completely brought back to life, and he became the god of the dead.

Cal does not want to be sliced up and sentenced to a half life, so he runs away rather than submit to gender re-assignment.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the way Lefty begins to be eclipsed from the moment Cal is born.  I’m certain it’s significant, but I’m not entirely sure what it means.

More thoughts on this later, and the Freudian implications of the houses in Middlesex.

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