Posted in 2018, John Green, Looking For Alaska

“Looking For Alaska” Discussion Questions

In the end of Looking for Alaska by John Green, he answers fan questions and in return, asks us questions.

Here is my attempt at answering his questions.

  1. Is forgiveness universal? I mean is forgiveness really available to all people, no matter the circumstances? Is it, for instance, possible for the dead to forgive the living, and for the living to forgive the dead?
    Forgiveness is universal but it’s often underutilized. It goes hand in hand with “love and compassion.” Although we are capable of forgiveness, we have a long and seemingly doomed history of wars, hatred, greed and intolerance. Often time, it’s our cultures and religious background (or lack thereof) that make it hard to learn forgiveness. Our pride is our downfall. We care more about status than morals. I’m not really one to judge because I have difficulty forgiving. I, for example, can’t fathom how anyone can forgive a child molester. Even a “born-again Christian”. I do not have the capacity to forgive that. But I am not a God. I am just a person. A person with feelings of arrogance, anger, judgement and entitlement along with feelings of compassion, empathy, sadness, selflessness and  courage. One of my biggest struggles is self-forgiveness. I have perfectionistic tendencies and it makes it near impossible to forgive my own mistakes. A good quote I heard was “Perfectionism is the highest level of spiritual abuse.” Forgiving is a spiritual act. It’s why a lot of religions try to teach it. Comprehending forgiveness is a personal trait, however. Some have it, some don’t. I am ever evolving so I do believe that one day, I can escape the labyrinth of suffering that is lack of forgiveness.
    Whether it is possible for the dead to forgive the living depends on whether or not there is an afterlife. We’ve all seen movies where spirits linger for the sake of vengeance. We’ve seen movies where spirits linger for the sake on knowledge and forgiveness. And of course, if there is nothing after this, there is nothing that can forgive. I feel like the living can forgive the dead (after all, the grudge was on the living entity of whom now the dead represents). It’s easier to forgive after you’ve removed yourself from the situation and now that the variable is gone, you can slowly heal your heart until you’ve reached a state of forgiveness. However, those cases are hard to do in instances of suicide. It’s hard to understand suicidal intentions and most people react in anger.
    But what is dead, really? Friendships can die while both party members continue to breathe and live. Jobs can die, dreams can die. Forgiving myself for my mistakes has proven far more difficult than forgiving a family member for lying or abuse. Is it really forgiving if I can forgive the whole world but not myself? What about people who say they forgive but never forget, is that really forgiving? If the trust is broken and irreparable, you just technically forgave the action but not the consequence. I can write a whole book on this so I’ll stop now.
  2. I would argue that both in fiction and in real life, teenage smoking is a symbolic action. What do you think it’s intended to symbolize, and what does it actually end up symbolizing? To phrase this question differently. Why would anyone ever pay money in exchange for the opportunity to acquire lung cancer and/or emphysema?
    In most stories, smoking for a teenager represents an act of rebellion. They are underage and they are trying to act tougher than the system. For most characters of any age, it represents a sign of discontent or even a feeling of being lost. Characters who are not usually happy with their circumstances pass the moments by smoking (I.E Alaska). Just like most addictions, it is a tool to suppress emotions. Those who are feeling powerless and confused tend to turn to substances faster than those who are truly confident in their character. So although Pudge isn’t really confident about his looks or himself, he is confident about his morals and his personality. The common excuses smokers say is “it calms me down,” “it helps me socialize,” or they simply believe it’s only a momentary habit. The only why I can come up with is that they want to die without committing to dying (just like Alaska). That or peer pressure (just like Pudge). In the case of the Colonel, he is a mixture of angry and low self-esteem. On the surface, he seems like a pretty put together guy, one who just likes to cause pranks. It would be easy to say that he only does it to rebel. But when you look deeper into his character, he is not so sure of himself of his place. It’s kind of what makes him a considerate person. 
  3. Do you like Alaska? Do you think it’s important to like people you read about?
    I liked Alaska in some instances but not in others. I didn’t like her when she kept teasing Pudge. I did like her standards though, on feminism. I think it’s more important to connect to a character than like the people I read about. Even if I hate someone, but I hate them to the point where I am emotionally invested in the character, it can still make for a good story. If I like them, it’s even better. But when I feel indifferent about a character…when they’re a complete snooze to my consciousness, then the book becomes hard to continue reading. During the times when I was annoyed with Alaska, I was still emotionally invested in her. It’s like having that one friend who you tolerate even though you probably want to stay as far away from their drama as possible. That if you saw them at a party, you’d say hi and hug and still care about them even though you’ll instantly regret asking how they’ve been. Alaska hid behind her words. I think that is what was appealing about her. She was honest without being transparent. The attachment came with wanting to know more so you continue reading and reading in the hopes of finding her without any walls. She had depth. 
  4. By the end of this novel, Pudge has a lot to say about immortality and what the point of being alive is (if there is a point). To what extent do your thoughts on mortality shape your understanding of life’s meaning?
    I honestly don’t believe there is a meaning to life, therefore mortality won’t shape my understanding of it. I believe life exists because it needs to. And we are who we are not because the world needs us, but because that is how we were created. Finding purpose is a novel idea. One of my favorite quotes (I forgot who said it) states that a dog does not need to define itself to be a dog, a horse does not need to define himself to be a horse, but a person needs to define himself to be a man. We grow up with this idea that we are better than other species and therefore, we feel like our lives should have purpose. I believe it’s backwards. By redefining ourselves, we lost our purpose. I don’t think we were created just to have jobs or explore the world. I don’t know why we were created but it seems that we have become rather selfish. Other animals exist for the good of the ecosystem. We destroy the ecosystem. The heart can stop whenever it wants to. We can’t really control that. We can take preventative measures but our beliefs won’t change that. Our beliefs shape how we live our lives. It has little to do with life’s meaning and a lot to do on how we define it. But even defining it isn’t enough. I know many people who talk the talk but never walk the walk and ultimately, I think we use religion as a security blanket. I am not looking down on anyone, I love security blankets myself.
    The only correlation I can think of is: urgency. I like the scene in Fight Club where Tyler points a gun to a random stranger and tells him that if he doesn’t go after his dream, he’ll kill him. I know that sound drastic, but if he never made it until a life and death situation, the random stranger wouldn’t think he had to go after it. “I have all the time in the world.” But living life like it’s life and death is exhausting. It’s why doctors are so drained of energy. It’s why soldiers have trauma.
    My belief in life is to live it with integrity. Not to please some God. Not to please your parents. But just having morals is a way to tell life “I respect you and the gift you have given me.” Ultimately, living a life of gratitude has been a recurring theme amongst belief systems. 
  5. How would you answer the old man’s final questions for his students? What would your version of Pudge’s essay look like?
    For those who haven’t read the book, the old man asks “How will you — you personally– ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?”
    My first mission would be to identify what suffering means in my life. Suffering very objective and therefore, different for others. An alcoholic’s version of suffering is not being able to escape the bottle, whereas the alcoholic’s partner’s version of suffering is to watch his/her partner suffer. Or even in terms of the book, Alaska’s version of suffering is never getting anything right, Pudge’s version was not being able to get together with Alaska, and The Colonel’s was not being good enough. See, different perspectives based on different values, morals, priorities and circumstances. Very similar to each other, but their own personal versions.
    What is causing suffering in my life? Something that I want to escape? Well, in short, overthinking.
    After identifying the suffering,  I would provide evidence as to why this constitutes suffering. My overthinking has led to loss of relationships, productivity, and opportunities.
    Then go into more details on the trigger moments. I.e: I was fine working where I used to work until I realized that I no longer felt satisfied because no matter how hard I work, I wasn’t making more money. Then I felt guilty for making it about the money and not about the work. Then I felt incompetent for not being able to support myself. Then I thought about all the other ways I’m incompetent until I have an self-doubting, self-loathing anxiety attack and need to escape to calm myself in the women’s bathroom. All this thinking when I could have just said “This job isn’t fulfilling to my talents or my wallet, I want to find something else.”
    Then I will list all the possible ways to escape overthinking and describe why that might work. Such as: If I meditate every day, my body will learn to breathe better naturally and calm my brain down with each breath. If I can find a power greater than myself to believe in, I might learn that it’s okay to let go of all my fears. If I can learn to let things go in general (forgive), I won’t feel the burden of my past. If I can learn to voice my concerns instead of holding them in, I can slowly see how quickly my thoughts jump from one isolating event to another, trying to merge past and present in incongruent ways that only seem to make perfect sense to me. If I can learn that my thoughts are not a direct representation of me, but rather a side-affect of living, I can separate myself and come back to my reality.
    That’s more or less how my essay will go (with more detail and proper grammar, of course). Oh, and do a small summary for a conclusion because teachers usually take off points if you don’t (at least my teachers did. I didn’t just bare my soul for them to not get an A+).

I think I took the last one a little too literal. It would be interesting to see how my answers for Question 4 and 5 would change down the line as I continue reading more books. Perhaps I’ll make it a thing to answer them every two years. 

Posted in Fiction, John Green, Looking For Alaska

Looking For Alaska by John Green

SPOILER FREE REVIEW

Looking For Alaska by John Green is a story of adventure, love, loss, and friendship. Miles “Pudge” Halter is a teenager searching for the “Great Perhaps” and convinces his parents to let him go to his father’s old boarding school.  There he meets The Colonel (his roommate and fast friend), Alaska Young (neighbor), Takumi and Lara. Together they pull pranks and participate in other teenage antics.

Miles is obsessed with knowing people’s last words. For the most part, he feels insecure about his looks and has a hard time making friends.

The Colonel comes from a poor family but is one of the most ethical guys at school. He doesn’t believe in ratting people out. He’s a smoker, a tough guy and an expert in geography.

Alaska seems like a party girl when you first meet her. She’s a reckless, smart, philosophical feminist.

We don’t really get to know much of Takumi and Lara outside of Mile’s point of view. The story focuses more on the relationship of Miles, The Colonel, and Alaska.

I got this book because I remember reading a quote from it and thought “this is a book I need to read.” I would recommend this book if you’re into YA books. It fits the standard of an outsider kid who finds friends and starts feeling like he belongs. There is a slightly complicated love story. And like most successful books, there are golden nuggets of wisdom buried in the book.

I would not recommend this story if you don’t like a narcissistic protagonist. Miles has low self-esteem but that doesn’t stop his sense of entitlement (to his defense, he doesn’t know he has that attribute and he isn’t a jerk about it. He’s just a…well…human).

The characters here are rather simple and it doesn’t have a strong character development, but given the events, I don’t expect it to. I wish I could say it had an interesting plot twist, but I wasn’t at all surprised. If anything, I was expecting the tragedy. That, however, didn’t take away from the story.

IN-DEPTH REVIEW (CONTAINS SPOILERS)

The book is separated from the Before and the After. This is an interesting concept because you know there has to be something big in order for there to be a before and after.

When I first started reading it, I thought the before and after was Miles losing his virginity (don’t know why just felt like that would be a big thing for a teenage boy). As the story progressed, I thought it had something to do with a tragedy revolving Alaska. Maybe she left school, maybe she wound up ODing or hanging herself. I didn’t expect her to die in a car crash persae.

One of the things I loved about this book is that the dialogue really spoke for the characters. It wasn’t just mindless conversations. They exposed parts of themselves with responses. Here are some of the quotes I dissected.

Before

“‘I guess I stay with her because she stay’s with me. And that’s not an easy thing to do. I’m a bad boyfriend. She’s a bad boyfriend. We deserve each other.'”
There are so many people who have stayed in relationships because of this mentality. The “I don’t deserve better than I have” mentality. I appreciate this being part of The Colonel’s story because at first, he seems like this confident guy. But as we start getting to know him, we get to see his insecurities. He was, by far, my favorite character.

“‘Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.'”
Alaska Young said this on page 44. This is when I knew something would happen to her. I feel like when you have a character as dark as this, there are only a few directions this person can take. Even if she fell in love with Pudge, he is not a strong enough character to have her change her whole personality and live the “happily ever after” most teenagers hope for. Characters like Alaska are really hard to write for, mostly because they are such forces.

“‘I’m not going to be one of those people who sits around talking about what they’re gonna do. I’m just going to do it. Imaging the future is a kind of nostalgia.'”
This is a quote that Alaska said that made it obvious that there was more to her than the party girl prankster she portrays herself to be at first.

“‘You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining the future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.'”
The labyrinth becomes very symbolic in the book. It derives from Alaska’s favorite book The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His last words were “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” Alaska was as obsessed with the mystery of the labyrinth as Pudge was obsessed with last words. Alaska and Pudge went back and forth with figuring out what it was (more on that later).

“‘I just did some calculations, and I’ve been able to determine that you’re full of shit.'”
This is going to be my new comeback. BRILLIANT! The Colonel told this to Pudge after he tried to deny that he didn’t ditch his parents to stay because of Alaska. I like that this shows that The Colonel is very perspective, and knows more about people’s intentions. He is the only one who truly knew Alaska. I also like that he lets others be who they are without trying to change them. He even told Pudge that if he does hook up with her, it would disastrous, but he never forbade him not to hook up with her.

“‘I’m really not up for answering any questions that start with how, when, where, why, or what.'”
Another response I have to add to my arsenal of conversation. This was from Alaska when she was feeling down. She can be very closed off when she wants to. This was a bit frustrating because, since we were already so invested in wanting to know Alaska, it felt like a tease…and I’m also the person who wants to really know a person by more than just a superficial level. Anyway, it plays out well enough since the second half of the book is about her friends trying to understand her last thoughts. The mystery that is Alaska Young.

“‘No woman should ever lie about another woman! You’ve violated the sacred covenant between women! How will stabbing one another in the back help women to rise above patriarchal oppression?!’
This is Alaska’s argument when The Colonel’s girlfriend Sara lies about The Colonel and Alaska hooking up. This is the moment I knew I would like Alaska. Before I was a little unsure of whether I thought she was a strong female character mostly because she seemed to tease Pudge a lot. Sometimes without meaning to, but still, it felt like she was just going to be a sexualized character (which makes sense since we are in the mind of a teenage boy). However, Green made her this complicated, deep-thinking,  character. With her witty remarks, her power over her peers and her comfort around the adults. She, for the most part, tries to be a good person.

“Just like that. From a hundred miles an hour to asleep in a nanosecond. I wanted so badly to lie down next to her on the couch, to wrap my arms around her and sleep. Not fuck, like in those movies. Not even have sex. Just sleep together, in the most innocent sense of the phrase. But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”
This was the quote I read on a post that made me think “I want to read this book.” It gave me butterflies just writing it down. I’m such a hopeless romantic.

‘Don’t you know you love, Pudge? You love the girl who makes you laugh and shows you porn and drinks wine with you. You don’t love the crazy, sullen bitch.’
Alaska told this to Pudge when he was trying to console her after she started sobbing wondering why she always screws everything up. It seemed like a sudden turn from such an outspoken character. Later we find out where this “”Scared isn’t a good enough excuse!”” attitude came from. But for now, the reason I liked this remark is that it shows that she feels like people won’t like her deeper rooted emotions. That they fall in love with this idea of the perfect girl. It’s no wonder she’s cheated on all her boyfriends.

Alaska tells the group that her mother died when she was young and that her father blamed it on her because she didn’t call the police on time. She was a kid, she was in shock. Her mother was choking and she didn’t know what to do. This is why her “Scared isn’t a good excuse” mentality is so strong. This is why she thinks she screws everything up. Because her mom died from her incompetence. Now I don’t believe she was incompetent. She’s a little lost, yes, but she had a good heart.

Before she convinces the boys to distract The Eagle (their principal) so she can leave (she was drunk…), she was freaking out over something. Later we find out that she was freaking out because she forgot her mom’s death anniversary so she was going to drive to the cemetery…only she didn’t make it.  The whole after consisted of the guys trying to figure out if it were an accident or suicide. The police said she didn’t even swerve. She just drove straight to the cruiser.

After

All night, I felt paralyzed into silence, terrorized. what was I so afraid of anyway? The thing had happened. She was dead. She was warm and soft against my skin, my tongue in her mouth, and she was laughing, trying to teach me, make me better, promising to be continued. And now.
And now she was colder by the hour, more dead with every breath I took. I thought: 
That is the fear: I have lost something important, and I cannot find it, and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses and went to the glasses store and they told him that the world had run out of glasses and he would just have to do without.”
This train of thought, passing through Miles (I switch his name, he is Miles when he is by himself and Pudge when he’s with his friends). This is the constant annoying thought that keeps running through his head that makes me call him narcissistic. He is more concerned that he will never get to continue kissing Alaska, than the actual fact that she is dead. I understand though, people handle death differently. It’s a traumatic event to lose someone. It is normal to start thinking about what you lost. I have told many people that if I were to die, not one person would really know me, they would just know the role I played in their life. Therefore, given that he only knew her for less than a year, it makes sense that he only sees her as a love interest. It’s not his fault, it’s just…really annoying. He wasn’t the only one who lost Alaska, we, the audience, lost her too…and I would have like to know more about her. But, we don’t get what we want. The Colonel even called him out for this. He said that he forgot her personality already and that he was only concerned about how they hooked up. Takumi also told him that he does not get to monopolize her.

And what was an ‘instant’ death anyway? How long is an instant? Is it one second? Ten? The pain of those seconds must have been awful as her heart burst and her lungs collapsed and there was no air and no blood to her brain and only raw panic. What the hell is instant? Nothing is instant. Instant rice takes five minutes, instant pudding an hour. I doubt that an instant of blinding pain feels particularly instantaneous.
This train of thought gave me a headache. I get it. I have experienced deaths of those close to me and there is no such thing as consolation. It hurts. And anyone trying to make it less painful doesn’t understand the pain of loss. There is no “at least” there is only what is and what isn’t.

Yeah. I was so tired of her getting upset for no reason. The way she would get sulky and make references to the freaking oppressive weight of tragedy or whatever but then never said what was wrong, never have any goddamned reason to be sad. And I just think you out to have a reason. My girlfriend dumped me, so I’m sad. I got caught smoking, so I’m pissed off. My head hurts, so I’m cranky. She never had a reason, Pudge. I was just so tired of putting up with her drama. And I just let her go. Christ.‘”
This is The Colonel speaking. Remember how I said he knew her best, but that she didn’t let people in? This confirms it. She wouldn’t talk to her best friend about her problem. Life gets overwhelming when you don’t talk about what the real issue is. When Alaska confessed the tragedy regarding her mom, The Colonel was surprised that she never told him. But she was itching to talk about it, otherwise, she wouldn’t have said anything. Her life was slowly falling apart. That’s why she convinced Miles (not that he needed convincing) to hook up with her on a truth or dare. Because although she didn’t want to cheat on her boyfriend, she was also trapped in her mind.

‘I am sorry, Alaska. You deserved a better friend.'”
The Colonel said this as he kissed her tomb. I think he finally felt guilty that he didn’t see the signs as signs, but just as part of her personality. I don’t blame him though, how was he supposed to know? Still, that was heartbreaking. Of course, he was also feeling remorse for not stopping her. But again, how was he supposed to know?

“How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? –A. Y.
‘I’m going to leave that up for the rest of the semester,’ he said. ‘Because everybody who has ever lost their way in life has felt the nagging insistence of that question. At some point we all look up and realize we are lost in a maze, and I don’t want us to forget Alaska, and I don’t to forget that even when the material we study seems boring, we’re trying to understand how people have answered that question and the questions each of you posed in your papers–how different traditions have come to terms with what Chip, in his final, called ‘people’s rotten lots in life'”
Alaska’s labyrinth is suffering. When the guys were collecting her stuff from her room, she wrote “straight and fast” in her copy of The General and his Labyrinth. That’s when the guys started believing it was indeed, suicide because she drove straight and fast. But it wasn’t intentional at first since she had flowers for her mom. If she were going to kill herself, why bother with flowers. They believed that once the opportunity presented itself, she took it. Unless, of course, the flowers were a peace offering to her mom and it was intentional. We will never know. Also, her initial thought of what the labyrinth was life and/or death. She constantly thought about death.

The times that were the most fun seemed always to be followed by sadness now, because it was when life started to feel like it did when she was with us that we realized how utterly, totally gone she was.
I like this quote because it reminds me a lot of Inside Out, the Pixar movie. Memories change. Emotions change. Grief is a challenging emotion.

When you stopped wishing things wouldn’t fall apart, you’d stop suffering when they did.”
If Alaska was able to remove herself from the situations, maybe she would have learned how to escape the labyrinth. This was a thought that Miles had. Along with “Because memories fall apart, too. And then you’re left with nothing, left not even with a ghost but with its shadow.” He was forgetting her. His memory was fading with what he wanted, what was real and what he couldn’t comprehend.

Eventually, Miles realized that “we had to forgive to survive the labyrinth.” Forgiveness is one of the hardest acts to ever accomplish. True forgiveness. Not just in the moment forgiveness. Not just “I’m going to forget for now because I don’t want to deal with it.” Not just forgiveness for the sake of forgiving. It’s why resentments are so powerful. It’s why some of the 7 deadly sins revolve around the consequences of not forgiving. The inability to forgive is the ultimate disservice to one’s spirit. It’s how wars start. It’s how bridges are burnt. It’s how life becomes unmanageable.

I, at first, thought the labyrinth was…well…life. Not necessarily life as in real life, but life as in the standard people put you in. Your identity. How do you escape the identity that was thrust upon you, without your permission? How do you escape without suffocating? Think about it, how can Alaska forget the blame her dad put her through. How can she escape the girl her friends want her to be? The girlfriend her boyfriend wants her to be? The student they want her to be? She was never really her. That was the ultimate tragedy. If she was this fantastic person, while filtered…image how incredible she would be if she were able to escape this labyrinth?