An Abundance of Katherines

Since a lot of my review of John Green’s Looking for Alaska compared it to his second novel, I thought I would share my reaction to An Abundance of Katherines as well. This is a short paper from a couple years ago. Both the reading and the assignment were for a class on academic literacy–thus the opinion on whether I would use the book in a classroom.

John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines tells the story of Colin Singleton, a former child prodigy who has just been dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine. To get over the heartbreak his friend Hassan takes him on a road trip; the two end up in Gutshot, a small Tennessee factory town, where they are taken in by Lindsey and her mother Hollis. Colin, in a double effort to do something that important and win back his latest ex, decides to develop a Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability which he hopes will explain his failed relationships. During their stay, Colin and Hassan broaden their horizons by taking chances on new experiences (such as hog hunting), and learn more about life, others, and themselves.

image from fantasticfiction.co.uk

Despite Colin’s current fixation on math his true interest is words, and a key subplot of the story focuses on the importance of stories. Hollis recognizes that Gutshot may die out within a few generations, and sends the teenagers out to collect memories and anecdotes from all the long-time residents as a record of its life and vibrancy. In the process Colin learns about what makes a good story, and the role that memory plays in defining events.

The book has several different layers that intertwine as the characters learn and grow; one of these is what it really means to matter. Even though Colin is extremely bright, he continually doubts his own worth and struggles with insecurity in all his relationships, largely because he is a social outcast. He and Lindsey eventually realize, however, that is it more important to be yourself and pursue who and what matters to you than to try and matter to someone else. People will be valued more when they define themselves rather than try and fit in to the definitions set by others. This message of individuality (hinted at in Colin’s last name) is juxtaposed, however, with one of solidarity, exemplified by Hollis supporting the town out of her own pocket.

Oddly enough, in taking on Colin’s persona the author is guilty of the same storytelling and conversational faults that his character is criticized for. Colin constantly references uninteresting trivia or creates anagrams, and Green frequently does this as well in footnotes to the text that can distract from the story at hand. Some of the footnotes, however, are interesting and serve a purpose, such translating the Arabic words Hassan uses. These author interjections could be a starting point for a discussion on looking up unknown information.

image from fantasticfiction.co.uk

Though personally I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I’m not sure of the extent to which I would use it in the classroom. It’s better to be on the cautious side when considering whether material is appropriate, and the mild cursing and nudity probably place this book on the PG-13 level, though it is pretty tame compared to a lot of other things that are out there. I think it would be best used in an Algebra II or higher class where the students would have the background to further investigate the formulas and would be closer in age to the characters.

The actual math in the book is more conceptual than computational, and though the author professes an affinity for the subject he states that the math behind the theorem is long and boring, and relegates it to an optional appendix. This does, however, make the concept itself more accessible, as Lindsey claims to hate math but is interested in the ideas behind the theorem.

I would most likely only use an excerpt or two from the book dealing specifically with the theorem and the idea that math can describe events or tell a story, with questions for the students to reflect on. However, I would recommend the entire thing to them, and wouldn’t mind using it in conjunction with an English class, where they would be able to devote more time to discussing some of the other themes of the book and could spend more than a day on it. Though the book is a quick and enjoyable read, the ideas Green poses stay with the reader even after the story ends.

Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Looking for Alaska

“‘Why do you smoke so […] fast?’ I asked.

She looked at me and smiled widely, and such a wide smile on her narrow face might have looked goofy were it not for the unimpeachably elegant green in her eyes. She smiled with all the delight of a kid on Christmas morning and said, ‘Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.'”

John Green is one of those YA authors who seems to do no wrong. He may not be the most popular author, but his books have a certain substance that goes over well with critics without getting heavy-handed.

A few years ago I had to evaluate An Abundance of Katherines for a math education class and was surprised at the amount of food for thought and potential themes. Looking For Alaska has the same characteristics–at first glance, almost too much so. This first novel seems to set up the scenario of quirky hero with an idiosyncratic pastime, sympathetic and motivational best friend, mysteriously compelling female, and quest for some sort of greater truth. After a while, however, the characters set themselves up as distinct and I became absorbed in the story.

Miles Halter, whose sole claim to fame is memorizing famous last words, seeks a “Great Perhaps” when he leaves home to board at Culver Creek High School. He is thrilled to finally find friends in his roommate Chip and Chip’s scrappy crowd, but the crux of the group is clearly Alaska Young. Everything about Alaska mesmerizes: her fascination with literature and philosophical questions, her reckless nature, her impetuous tendencies, her ability to make someone feel special. Despite the fact that she has a serious boyfriend, Miles falls for her hard. One of Alaska and Chip’s greatest enjoyments is devising elaborate pranks against the school, in which Miles is soon caught up. When one risk becomes too many, the characters realize vulnerabilities in themselves and each other.

The book is probably best for older teenagers, as in addition to language there is smoking, underage drinking, and occasional sexual elements. In fact, it makes me pretty suspicious of boarding schools in general. Despite upholding stringent rules the discipline is generally lax, with repercussions only if actually caught. The students have the freedom of a college campus with four fewer years of maturity. For example, Miles picks up smoking simply as a habit because Chip smokes and shares cigarettes. I guess this means I’m officially part of the adult generation if I wish these kids didn’t have as much independence quite yet.

John Green tends to make his themes obvious but interesting, and I do like how everything fits together. In this book one of the main questions, posed first by Alaska to Miles and taken from The General in His Labyrinth,  is “how will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” They wrestle with what the labyrinth refers to–life, death, suffering–and how to possibly escape it.

Looking for Alaska won the Printz Award the year it was published, and even if this success did become a template somewhat for his later novels it’s still a well-written  and thought-provoking book.

Published in: on July 3, 2010 at 5:51 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: ,