Monday, August 27, 2012

Let the games begin.

I recently finished The Hunger Games series, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. Here's the rundown just in case you're not familiar, or you know you've been living in a cave or something.
Nearly 75 years prior to the opening of the trilogy, the thirteen districts of Panem revolted against the Capitol. When they lost irrevocably, as punishment they destroyed District 13 and as a reminder against further action, every year a boy and a girl from each district will be chosen to participate in the "Hunger Games," where they will fight to the death until there is one victor, who will be rewarded for a lifetime with food and wealth. Every child from the ages of 12-18 participate in the reaping, their names appearing at least once. A child may receive more rations of food and oil in exchange for entering their name several times. Twenty-four children go in, one comes out, covered in blood.
In the first installment of the trilogy we are introduced to Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old girl who has to grow up really fast after the death of her father in a mining accident resulting in the "checking out" of her mother, who suffers from depression. Her sister is 12 year old Prim, and she's terrified because its her first reaping. Her sister assures her that she won't be chosen, after all the odds against it are huge, especially considering Katniss herself has her name entered several times over. Katniss has dedicated her life to protecting her family, sneaking out past the perimeter fence to hunt, trading for goods on the black market, getting more rations by entering her name. She and her best friend and hunting partner, Gale, carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, and as inhabitants of Disctrict 12, the poorest of them all, they have their work cut out for them. At the reaping, all the children are understandably nervous as the eccentric Effie Trinket reaches in to pull out the name of the girl for the 74th annual Hunger Games. When Katniss hears the name "Primrose Everdeen," the world stops. Without hesitation, she boldly steps forward and volunteers as tribute in her sister's place. Peeta Mellark is chosen as the boy tribute immediately following, and the pair embark on a terrifying journey of survival. Along with their drunken mentor, Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta devise a plan to make themselves appeal to sponsors in order to win gifts, and to survive as long as possible. They are presented as a team, a pair, unprecedented in the games. Together they captivate the audience and steadily become closer. But there can only be one victor. Or can there?
Here's why I enjoyed this book: it is dark and unforgiving. I like Katniss as a lead character: she is realistic and brutal from having to live in a harsh world. But she still has a sense of humor and extreme compassion for human beings. Sure, the writing isn't spectacular, but for the genre (young adult literature), its above and beyond other works (AKA Twilight) that are popular now. The subject matter is disturbing of course (what with kids killing each other and all), so if you are sensitive, you should definitely steer clear. But if you can brave the graphic subject, you will not be disappointed. There are some really endearing characters that were just not given justice in the movie. Haymitch immediately comes to mind. He's a drunken fool, yes, but he's so much more complicated than that. And the relationship between Katniss and Peeta is anything but candy and flowers, but it really touches your heart nonetheless. Once you read the first book, you will be clamoring for the second!
Should I really go on to discuss book two if you haven't read the book or seen the movie? Well, I am, so spoilers abound. Katniss and Peeta have both been named victors in the 74th Hunger Games and Katniss is in trouble with the Capitol over her blatant defiance and challenge. She must convince them that she did it for love of Peeta, as she had been playing the part the whole games. With the upcoming Quarter Quell, the 75th annual Hunger Games, President Snow wants to make an example of her. He announces that the reaping for this games will be drawn from the previous games' victors. In other words, Katniss and Peeta are going back in the arena. And so are 22 other survivors. The message is clear: no one is above the authority of the Capitol. No one is safe. Can they survive the arena again? And is there rebellion stirring in the other districts? What is Katniss' role? I honestly didn't enjoy this one as much as the second. It felt like a repeat. The fact that all the people competing were victors who knew each other and were even friends in many cases did put a compelling spin on everything, though. Katniss and Peeta continue to play the "we're in love" game to try and appeal to the audience and appease President Snow. Katniss struggles with her confusion over her feelings for him and her friend, Gale. She knows she can't afford to be romantic and she doesn't want children, but she knows she cares about both of them. These moments can be bittersweet, but she never stops being Katniss, a badass fighter and smart cynic. The end leaves you in a bit of a cliffhanger, so you must immediately pick up the third.
Again, don't read unless you don't want to be a little spoiled. 
In the third installment, Katniss and some of the other victors have been rescued from the arena as part of an organized rebellion with HQ in District 13, which has been alive and scheming underground for the last 75 years. District 12 has been destroyed in retribution and Katniss finds herself as the symbol of the rebellion, the Mockingjay, that gives people hope. She is reluctant, and before she agrees has many demands to make, one of which is to pardon all victors, namely Peeta, who has been captured by the Capitol. As the war rages on and the death toll mounts, Katniss sinks deeper into herself as Gale finds his place as a soldier and weapons developer. This book is definitely the most complex of the series as far as emotional development of the characters. I admire how the author does not glaze over the effects of war on the minds of those fighting and how everyone, even children can become casualties. Everyone is fighting for freedom, but Katniss is fighting for the chance to kill President Snow. It drives her to train hard and even defy the leader of the movement. She feels the ultimate betrayal when Peeta is rescued and it's discovered that he has been "hijacked," his mind manipulated to believe she is the enemy. She fights for him, as well, hoping he'll come back to her. Overall, I was enthralled, but bitterly disappointed by the hastily whipped out ending. I felt it to be rushed. Katniss never fails to be unpredictable and real: not a perfect, unscathed, perky Hollywood heroine. I won't give away how it ends, but you know I'm a sucker for it...
My overall recommendation: read this series! For its various faults, it really is entertaining and moving. And it's a really fast read. I finished the whole series in a few days with two toddlers, work, and general household chaos.
And may the odds be ever in your favor!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Now you see me...

It took me quite a while to get through my next mind-blowing, life altering read. Not because it wasn't a wonderful piece of literature, but because I just got so bogged down in the meaning that I had to set it aside for some lighter fluff now and again. And this is very difficult for me to do since I am such an OCD reader.
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison tells the story of a young black man from the south in the 1950s as he struggles to discover the answer to the age old question: who am I? He begins by living the life of the "idealistic" black man, the reformed black man that goes to college and is everything the white man wants him to be: intelligent (to a point), clean cut, and subservient. Through a series of unfortunate events, he is expelled from school and sent to Harlem to work. There, he is in an accident at a factory and ends up in the factory hospital undergoing electro-shock therapy in order to "cure" him. For a while, he doesn't even remember his own name. It is at this point that he begins to question the nature of identity, what is it that makes us who we are? What's in a name? Etc. etc. etc. He walks through the streets of Harlem and wonders why all those things that black people enjoy are considered socially unacceptable and even abhorrent. He soon draws the attention of a mysterious organization called "The Brotherhood," whom he believes is striving for equality. He becomes their spokesperson, and he works hard to better the world for both blacks and whites together. Bit by bit, this reality begins to crash around him as he realizes what he thought was the truth was really their variation. He comes to describe himself as the "invisible man." People do not see him as an individual or even a black man, but a character of his surroundings, circumstances, or imaginings. He suddenly is forced to come to terms with the harsh reality of the world, and finally able to face himself and decide who he really is.
Yes, this is a frightening glimpse into the treatment of blacks in America from a black man's point of view, and it is despicable. But this book is about so much more than racism. It is about the degradation of a person's soul, exploitation, hypocrisy, and the journey to self realization. The nameless protagonist is an intelligent and well spoken young man that is jerked around throughout the book, wanting and needing to trust that those he encounters are truly in earnest to make the world a better place for his people. He genuinely believes that what he does is right, and then life bitch slaps him in the face. He is constantly questioning his own identity and struggling against anything stereotypical of his race that he deems shameful i.e. a preference of fried yams. At a young age, he is taught to suppress those tendencies in order to became a "better" individual i.e. a credit to the race i.e. what the white man expects. His world turns upside down again and again. You feel horrible and outraged at his circumstances, and at the same time screaming, "What are you thinking? These guys are totally using you!" The writing is impeccable and the story flows very well from one trying time to another. You'll be stunned, you'll cry, you'll even laugh, and in the end, you will be haunted.
Honestly, this book really should be required reading in high school. The language doesn't go over the top as far as obscenities and there really isn't any sex to speak of, so there should be no issue there. I wish I could have read this in high school myself as it is a brilliant essay on the nature of man from a very different perspective. It's difficult to explain racism when you never have to face it yourself or see it in everyday life. In reading this book, you will understand how racism reaches into the soul; how it effects the world, people's actions and thoughts; and how it makes a man invisible.