Monday, June 15, 2015

Book Review: Paper Towns & An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Well, this is a bit embarrassing.  A friend lent me these two books more than a year ago (Thanks, Mary!), I read them and set them aside to write the reviews when I had some free time, and then they kept getting buried by other books or stacks of papers or other paraphernalia on my dresser. So here it is, more than 12 months after the fact, and they're going to have to share a review after I briefly skimmed them to remind myself of basic plot points.

I actually was a fan of John Green before I read any of his books, before I even realized he was THE John Green, from watching some of his Crash Course youtube videos on world history and his social and political commentary as one of the two vlogbrothers. His fast-paced patter and ability to connect dots and articulate concepts in a common-sense kind of way without making the listener feel stupid or angry is phenomenal and sets him apart from many of the other commentators out there.

His fiction is a completely different format, of course, though still focused on making connections and highlighting our shared humanity.

Instead of introducing a vast array of characters in these two novels, Green settles into an in-depth study of just a few, the interactions between them, and what they can teach us about ourselves and about life and humanness in general.

In An Abundance of Katherines, we meet Colin Singleton, a child prodigy who always happens to fall in love with girls named - you guessed it - Katherine. After the first few Katherines, it became more of a quest than a coincidence and now he's on a mission to "prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability" can predict the course of any relationship, all of which, he states, inevitably end "in breakup, divorce or death." Colin and his friend Hassan, who is avoiding the thought of college like the plague, take off on a road trip to help Colin recover from the latest Katherine breakup and meet a girl named Lindsey while passing through Tennessee. Lindsey is in a relationship with a boy named - surprise! - Colin, called TOC for "The Other Colin" for clarity's sake. In the end, Lindsey dumps TOC's cheating butt, Hassan decides to register for some college classes, and Colin has his first non-Katherine girlfriend ever after realizing that his Theorem can't predict the future; it can only explain the past.

Plenty of witty pop culture references and dialogue reminiscent of Green's youtube patter make An Abundance of Katherines an entertaining read.  Of course, there's lots of teen angst and a bit of navel-gazing, too, but it's familiar angst and navel-gazing. Colin says, "I just want to do something that matters. Or be something that matters. I just want to matter." Lindsey's concern is that "I'm never myself...I'm nothing. The thing about chameleoning your way through life is that it gets to where nothing is real." Both of those are very real holes I felt as a teenager and young adult - and some days still do!

Paper Towns takes a different approach. Late one night towards the end of his senior year, someone sneaks in Quentin's bedroom window. It's his childhood friend and current classmate, Margo, wearing black face paint and a black hoodie. She enlists his help in wreaking revenge on eleven people who have wronged her - a boyfriend who cheated, the friend he cheated with, etc. - before she runs away. Quentin, determined to track her down, finds clues in a Woody Guthrie poster, a book of Walt Whitman poems, and old maps. He interprets these disparate hints as a trail of bread crumbs deliberately left by Margo who wants him to find her.

Long story short, when he finally tracks her down, she's not pleased. She didn't leave clues intentionally, and she didn't want to be found and dragged back into what she called her "paper life," "so trivial, so embarrassing...paper kids having their paper fun...", fake and empty. Quentin has to face up to his real motivations for looking for Margo.

The message of Paper Towns seems to be that other people are not just projections of us. They are they protagonists in their own stories, not supporting characters in ours, and are as complex and complicated as we are, rather than the one-dimensional caricatures we sometimes assume them to be as they fill a role in our story. "It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined," Quentin muses.

Both interesting and entertaining reads, I'm intrigued enough to pick up his other novels next.

An Abundance of Katherines
by John Green
ISBN: 9780142410707
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Paper Towns
by John Green
ISBN: 9780142414934
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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