Monday, December 31, 2012

Catching Fire

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Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year: 2009
Genre: Teen/thriller/popular
Rating: 2

The second installment of a trilogy is almost always the best of the three. Take for example The Two Towers, which captures the soul of the whole story, or The Empire Strikes Back of Star Wars. Because the central story doesn't have to introduce strangers into a brand new world or say goodbye, it nearly writes itself. The tension strings the two together, and the book can act like the climax of the whole.
Catching Fire, the second novel of the acclaimed Hunger Games series, acts like the first. After the choppy, rushed introduction of the first book, the second flows much more naturally and freely.
Suzanne Collins brings us back into her futuristic country of Panem, where Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark have returned to their home district and prepare for their forced tour of the districts. Their relationship is forced and awkward now that the games are over and they must go back to their original, simpler lives. However, the world has changed since Katniss's explosive presence on the Hunger Games. The twelve districts are on the brink of revolution, and the remarkably revolting President Snow approaches Katniss to enlist her to defuse the rebellions steadily growing in the country.
But Katniss has other problems. And as her personal life spins out of control, so does the feeling in the country.
Collins has clearly realized that in the face of the immense popularity of The Hunger Games, she needs to refine her writing for a larger audience. The syntax of this novel is much cleaner and more mature, and the characters think in much more logical, mature manner. Peeta, who was borderline childish for large sections of the first novel, is suddenly an adult and full of much more relatable pain. Gale, who was pointless and flat, suddenly folds out like origami into something far more complicated and able to stand on his own. He remains a little cliche in places, but his interactions with the citizens of District 12 glow far more than those with Katniss.
Better yet is the unpredictability of the novel. While The Hunger Games is both somewhat predictable and even a touch corny at times, Catching Fire pitches a continuation of the story in a familiar direction with the touches of Suzanne's overall goal for the story. Katniss, Haymitch, and Peeta are pitched into a sort of dysfunctional family relationships because of their one horrid commonality-- they were forced to kill their peers for the entertainment of those around them.
And yet, despite the improvement of the entire novel, there is a hollowness, as if Collins has written the body of the story but sucked the marrow out of the bones. It has a skeleton, but the bones are empty and there's no blood in its body. She tried to make up for it with the gratuitous amount of violence, but this does not stop us from feeling a certain emptiness for a true meaning in the story. One of the themes that screams to be explored is also the most obvious: what does it mean to kill another person? What has to change inside of us to be able to face someone just like us and kill them to save our own life?
Sadly, Collins skirts these great questions for the entertainment value. Not that it is lacking-- the story is fast-paced, gripping, and tear-jerking in places. Great new characters are introduced, and the relationship between Katniss and Peeta changes into a form both more complicated and more simple. Katniss does all she can just to survive, even when that means hurting the people she thinks she might love.
The title is a double entendre and refers to the first Games, which takes about half the book to figure out. However, the scene in which she fulfills it is strikingly unforgettable; even if she is no Dickens, she has the visuals of a master.
Altogether, though, Suzanne Collins has done that thing that authors dream of: writing a sequel that improves on the original. Available for $5.99 on the Kindle or $9.87 for the hardback on Amazon, Catching Fire is worth the read for anyone, but read the original first, because otherwise confusion is inevitable.
The film is due out in September 2013, with a much larger cast (including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee). Look for the long line of screaming teenage girls outside the movie theatres.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Hunger Games

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Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year: 2008
Genre: Sci-fi/thriller/teen
Rating: 2

Action! Danger! Tragedy! Oppression! Romance!
You couldn't ask for more on a movie poster. Perhaps, in fact, if any book could have skipped the written phase and gone straight to film, it would be The Hunger Games. Rapid-paced action and visceral imagery make this book a top-notch story, and even if the language leaves something to be desired, it hits its target crowd exceptionally well. After all, sometimes all we need is a good story, right?
Suzanne Collins is an experienced children's writer; she has written multiple episodes for 1990s TV shows like Little Bear, Oswald, and Clarissa Explains It All. She has also written a five-book series for children known as The Underland Chronicles, which are an interpretation of the classic Alice in Wonderland.
However, with The Hunger Games, she takes a step into the gritter world of teen fiction, leaving behind squeaky-clean genres for a heftier tale. The novel tells the story of 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen, a poor girl living in the 12th District of a post-apocalyptic North American country called Panem. She is content to lead a quiet, meager existence by illegally poaching off of government land to feed her family until her younger sister, Primrose, is called out to be a participant in the bloody gladitorial contest known as the Hunger Games. In desperation to save her sister's life, Katniss volunteers to take her place, sealing her fate to kill or be killed.
To make matters more complicated, a boy that Katniss owes her life to, Peeta Mellark, is named as the other participant, obliging her to kill someone that she feels indebted to. Thus, she explains, is the horror of the Games: in order to survive, you must give up all your dignity, which is the government's aim. As the book progresses, the relationship between Katniss and Peeta becomes much muddier and more complicated, and even she is not sure how she feels about the boy who saved her life, the boy she is obliged to kill.
Told in the first person, the book places the readers firmly inside Katniss's mind. We hear her thoughts, her gut reactions to things, and see the grossly unfair world of Panem as she sees it. Grammar fanatics will squirm and squawk as they read turns of phrase (think high school language, written down) and the truncated fragments of thoughts are jarring, but the argument stands that they do place you into the mind of a coarse teenager.
Collins has created a marvelously dark, creative world replete with extensive details and logical, ordinary, yet beautiful characters. Although some of the people we meet are rather two-dimensional (Prim and Effie are exceptionally flat, and Cato runs a close third) Katniss and Peeta are fully fleshed out, and blend together beautifully. As time progresses, we understand more of the darkness and complete victory that the Games are to the Capitol, dehumanizing their victims and their audience in one blow.
The story is a thinly veiled allegory for the evils of socialism, what with the rigid rule controls on each district's product and the omnipotence and omniscience of the government. Katniss and Peeta represent the young capitalists defying the shackles of governmental regulation, shaking off the social expectations of submission and fear. Collins has essentially created a effective propaganda piece for republicanism with a action-packed, fast-paced, driven plot filled with believable people and graphic imagery.
The target audience is most definitely teenagers and young adults. The language is easy and flows much like an average American talks, and there are few moments without some sort of action or plot-centric exchange. Collins draws in a female audience with the sweet, innocent romance between Peeta and Katniss and the male audience with the sheer horror of the Games that she describes. (Cato's death is particularly horrifying, and will shock anyone with a visual imagination.) Intuitively weaving all of her different articles together to create one enormous, lumpy tapestry, Collins introduces us to a plot that we can love and remember, cheer and grieve for, and step easily into with the tightly-woven words she has written.
Because it is told in first person, the book stays with Katniss nearly every waking moment for a few weeks, but at just over 300 pages is surprisingly short. While that style necessitates some dull moments, some of the scenes are exceptionally poignant, such as the reaping (where the participants, known as "tributes," are named) when Katniss throws herself forward to save her sister. Rife with passionate language and the impulsive nature of the action, we are gripped throughout the telling and tied tightly to the brave girl as she sacrifices herself for love of family. Because it is told in the present tense, the readers experience the events in hypothetical "real time," which places us even more inside the mind of Katniss, lending us her emotions and distractions. Perhaps it is because we nearly become her, but our heroine is one of the most complete characters in popular literature.
The film, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, came out in March 2012 and drew an enormous audience for its extended run. Catching Fire, the next film, is expected in September 2013.
The Hunger Games is available for a meager $5.00 on the Kindle (it's free if you join Amazon Prime), or $10.89 in hardback. The entire trilogy, which includes Catching Fire and Mockingjay, is available for $18.99 on the Kindle or $29.50 in hardback. Because of the popularity and timeliness of these books, they are probably taken out of most libraries most of the time; if you can't borrow them, they're worth the purchase. Mine were given to me by some wonderful people as a Christmas gift, and I profusely thank them. It's taken me a really long time to jump on the bandwagon.
Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope you got or gave at least one book today. Enjoy your break and keep reading!

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Reenchanted World

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Title: A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship With Nature
Author: James William Gibson
Year: 2009
Genre: Non-fiction/environmental/sociology
Rating: 3

Tree-huggers have a negative connotation in today's culture. Somehow, they've acquired this stereotype of long-haired, smelly, poor, bleeding-heart liberals, and we look down on them as a handicap to progress. They strap themselves to bulldozers for the sake of a few trees, and that's ridiculous, right? Why defend a few trees?
It's more than the trees. It's a kinship with nature itself, according to James William Gibson's book A Reenchanted World. With detailed journalism and observations on sociology, Gibson explores the modern yearning for a connection with nature amidst the expanding suburban world of chain-link fences and asphalt. While he does address the whole world, he mostly focuses on America, which deserves all the discussion it gets.
The book begins with the story of John Quigley, who received national attention for his two-month-long tree-sit in California in 2002. The local developers wanted to tear down the tree in order to expand a road into a subdivision, and the local environmentalists howled in protest. Quigley climbed into the tree and refused to move, much to the chagrin of the developers, and was supported by other environmentalists in the LA area. "Old Glory," as he named the tree, remained standing.
This fierce love for nature is not new to the world, but it's new to us, according to Gibson. For nearly 200 years, Americans have been recklessly and aggressively taking hold of the New World, blazing fields and drilling oil rigs in the name of progress, and the victims have been endangered species, our natural environment, and the climate. Odd, considering that the Native Americans are some of the most naturally-connected people on the planet, and it is from this that Gibson draws his beginning.
Native Americans believe in the spirituality of nature, and the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s stemmed mostly from a revival in tribal traditions amongst Native American chieftains. As we know, it spread quickly through the youth because of the anti-war sentiments at the time, taking the world in great strides with movements like "flower power" and Greenpeace. Yet, despite all the positive effects that a more natural environment has been proven to have, these hippies have been blacklisted by modern society as radical, liberal, and dangerous.
Gibson takes this movement in hand and explains the desire for a connection with nature in both scientific and spiritual terms. The very title refers to attaching a holiness to the natural world, which seems ridiculous to us. But if you look at it, we do anyway. Gibson's primary example is our reverence for whales. People come from around the world to the great oceans to take a cruise liner out into the middle of the sea just to see whales surface for a moment, and it changes them. This doesn't just apply to biologists or whale experts; ordinary people have been reduced to tears by simply watching a whale surface out of the water for a moment, blow water at them, and disappear majestically once more. Any whale stranded on a beach makes national news as hundreds of people rush to its rescue, and there was recently a film entitled Big Miracle based on the true story of the drastic attempts to rescue a whale family marooned in the ice. Shamoo, the performing whale at SeaWorld, is more famous than many humans.
Gibson's point is not that we are coming back to nature worship, or that people will soon revert to worshiping ants or grass. No, instead, he outlines the reasons that we are still attached deeply to our world, and that environmentalism is merely an expression of the love and responsibility that we must bear for our planet.
This book was remarkably similar in topic to The World Without Us, which I reviewed earlier this year. However, Gibson doesn't have Weisman's writing charisma, and A Reenchanted World reads like a scientific article. The facts and points are well laid-out, the theme is relevant, and the ideas that he shares are true and thought-provoking, but it still feels dry. Scattered with words like "dispensationalism" and "counterculture," Gibson might have reached a wider audience by simplifying his ideas into layman's terms.
Addressing environmentalism's place in politics is necessary for any ecology book, but because of the stiff relations between the two, the discussion can become awkward. Gibson devotes two chapters for politics and religion, and while they make excellent points, they both feel a bit like rants against the right wing and conservatism. Although the men he refers to are radicals and usually known as such, he does not address the moderate right wing, nor the average American view of environmentalism, which leaves a big gap in our ideology. It is easy to pick out the red threads in the weave, but all the ones that blend together make the big picture and are equally important.
Altogether, this book makes an important contribution to the picture of today's environmentalism: it's not just a sense of misplaced duty, but a pure connection to the world that motivates us to save it. Rife with excellent examples and pithy quotes, Gibson has provided us with a guidebook for why we love nature and how to responsibly go about conserving it as long as we can. There are more details about the book on his website.
The book is only two years old, so it's available for $9.99 from the Kindle store or $10.80 in hardback from Amazon. The library might have a copy, so check there first, but do read this. Even if you're not an environmentalist, it can't hurt to understand what drives them, and it might help to make you understand our world and its people a little better.

Monday, December 10, 2012

We, the Drowned

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Title: We, the Drowned
Author: Carsten Jensen
Year: 2010 (English)
Genre: Historical, exploration
Rating: 1

What do we base our identities on? Does the shape of the whole define the shape of each individual, or the other way round? Perhaps both.
W.B. Yeats once wrote, 
              The finished man among his enemies? 
                    How in the name of heaven can he escape
        that defiling and disfigured shape
 the mirror of malicious eyes 
          casts upon his his eyes until at last 
                 he thinks that shape must be his shape?
                            And how in the name of heaven can he escape
            if honor find him in a wintry blast? 
--A Dialogue of Self and Soul
  Carsten Jensen's seafaring novel We, the Drowned not only explores the ending days of sailing ships and the Danish world, but also delves into the heart of those questions that purse us every time that something ends. Where do we go from here? What am I without it? 
Told from the perspective of no particular character, only the we of the town, the novel tells the story of a Danish seafaring town called Marstal off the northeastern coast of Denmark. For generations, men and their sons and their grandsons have gone to school until confirmation, then taken to the decks of ships to sail around the world, only returning once every two years or so. Those left behind, the mothers and children and parents, wonder if they will ever see their sons again, but have to learn to live around it-- Marstal is a seafaring town. The men take pride in it, and don't care if they drown. To them, that's just collateral damage in their line of work.
The book tells the story of Marstal from 1848 until the end of World War II, sharing the lives and adventures of several people along the way, but never from their perspective. It is always the townspeople sharing the story from the outside, as if they were reading diary entries or sharing the tales over beer in a pub. We begin with Laurids Madsen, the heart of Marstal seafaring, a man who trusted nothing save his own skills and his sea boots. He disappears into the South Pacific, and fifteen years later, his abandoned son Albert goes looking for him to give his family some closure. We trace Albert's life from beginning to end, and we meet Knud Erik, a boy who was denied the sea by his mother, and wanted the adventure with his whole heart. Dozens of other names float by, like acquaintances we only knew a little, living their lives and passing away as time goes by.
The first chapter is a bid muddled, as you are walking in on a complex world that you know very little of, but everything soon falls into place. The crew is the "we" in this case, and they tell the stories of the legendary Laurids Madsen, like a hero that they all knew, who did nothing more than survive. That is the legacy of Marstal-- those who survive are the heroes.
The greatest majority of the book, though, involves Albert. After becoming a hero for sailing the South Pacific and returning with tales of cannibals and shrunken heads, Albert watches his friends die and his town grow old, and he can do nothing to stop it. He watches his own life drift idly by after he comes ashore, constantly longing for the danger of the sea, and conflicted by his own desire. After all, who is he without the sea? He is a sailor, and if he no longer sails, he's drifting.
Knud Erik, too, is an vividly living character, full of latent desire, suppression, and longing, pursued by his own dreams. He was shaped from a young age to love the sea and sailing, and once he reaches it, it's so different than his expectations that he's not sure what to do. His whole life has been about sailing, and when his desires change as he ages, he falls stagnant, trapped by his achievement.
Jensen is brilliant. Even though We, the Drowned has been translated from the Danish, it reads smoothly and beautifully in English, even the idioms and quotes falling into place. He clearly has a passion for this town and its history, and as he grew up there, he understands the dreams of the people and the things lost. Marstal comes to life in its biography, fraught with danger and very real characters.
The novel is gritty, dark, and gruesome where it needs to be, but no more so than necessary to be real. Many times adventure novels become romanticized, and while this book has its fictional elements, the core of it is so deeply human and real that even the words of the characters come to life. Every Marstaller walks the streets, warm with the blood of their ancestors that we knew, full of the dreams that they know will never come true.
The core is all about identity. We all know that nothing lasts forever, even if we hope it will, and life is all about learning to say goodbye and change ourselves. Marstal faces the extinction of its way of life, and even though the men are the greatest sailors in the world, they cannot stop the end of the sailing ship as they had known it for centuries. Laurids' identity is in his thirst for adventure, and it ruins him; Albert's identity is in his skill and experience as a sailor, and once he retires, he is forced to change himself. Knud Erik's identity is in his dreams and ambitions as a sailor and defiance of his mother. There is a drawing point where each man must face failure or change, and some do, but some fade away.
The second chapter is the most strikingly poignant. We are placed amongst the schoolboys of Marstal, tortured by Isager, the abusive schoolteacher. He teaches them to accept pointless abuse, because that is what they will get aboard ships their whole lives, and the readers recoil against it. And rightly so-- it is horrific, but real. In the middle of the chapter, the boys have a quiet moment, and they say poignantly,  "We committed appalling acts and only realized the horror of what we'd done when we stood gathered around the evidence of our atrocity. Violence was like a drug that we couldn't relinquish. He planted a thirst for blood in us. One that could never be quenched."
In addition to the brilliant main characters, every side character is unique and colorful. Jensen has painted a full picture of a town, leaving no one out and nothing corrected. For example, Lorentz, a contemporary of Albert, is constantly seeking acceptance and only learns to accept himself by years of rejection. Another striking character that is nearly impossible to sort out is Herman, a darkly suspicious man who does what he will, but he is still a Marstaller and therefore "one of us."
At 678 pages, We, the Drowned is a hefty novel, but it wastes no time on unnecessary moments. Capturing the very real parts of life is the challenge to the novelist, but Jensen has done it so poignantly that his work will survive amidst names like Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Odyssey.
Available for just $9.32 from the Kindle store, We, the Drowned is one of the best books I've ever read. I have a deep fondness in my bones for seafaring novels (stemming from a childhood copy of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch) but this one goes even deeper. Because of its raw emotion and beauty, this novel will live forever in the hearts of those who quest for adventure and identity. We all want to know who we are, and we belong to each other just as much as everyone belongs to us.