crap i have read recently #21

lord of the fliesIt’s the “I’ll Get Around to it Someday” Edition!  There are SPOILERS in your future!

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For various reasons there are some books I just put off reading for a really long time.  For instance, I didn’t read the Harry Potter novels until all the books were out, primarily because I figured I’d hate them.  I eventually read them because everyone I know had read them.  I turned out to be pleasantly surprised by most of them and by the series as a whole.  Sometimes I don’t read a book forever because I’m sure I’ll love it and I am one of those people who always save the good stuff for last.  Other times…eh, I don’t know.  Anyways, there are a few books I’ve read recently that were on my to-read list for shamefully long periods of time.  Here’s a review of one of them!

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The Hunger Games (Collins, 2008):  I’m not really sure why I procrastinated on this one so long.  I generally have good luck with the limited amount of young adult fiction I read and although the premise isn’t entirely fresh, it has a lot of potential.   I found it some time ago in the LFL in my neighborhood and it sat on my desk for months before I finally, almost grudgingly, picked it up.  Silly me.  It turned out to be pretty good.   Not “oh my god, can’t put it down” good, but a solid read with believable characters and a fair amount of suspense.  Although technically “young adult” literature, its themes of exploitation and oppression, loyalty and rebellion are quite mature.  In particular, its withering examination of our entertainment-obsessed culture is spot on.

Katniss Everdeen is sixteen and a resident of far-flung District 12 in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem.   Her father died in a coal-mining accident, her mother is next to useless, and the family survives on Katniss’ hunting skills and the income from her little sister’s dairy goat.  Every year each of the 12 districts of Panem is required to send one girl and one boy to the Capital to participate in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death that is televised live throughout the country.  Participants are chosen by lottery and when Katniss’ little sister is chosen, she volunteers in her place.  She and the boy tribute, a school mate named Peeta, are whisked away to the capitol where they are cleaned up, dressed up, and paraded in front of judges and potential sponsors.  The games begin and nearly half of the tributes are killed off in the mad scramble for food and weapons at the beginning.  Katniss heads off into the woods, primarily looking for a place to hide.  The longer she can keep away from the others the better chance she has.   We never learn much about most of the other tributes.  We know the kids from the richer districts train for the games, are well equipped, and nearly always win.   Katniss knows she’ll never beat them in a head-to-head fight.   She knows her own strengths and relies on them, finding food and water quickly, keeping moving, finding terrain she feels comfortable in.  As the tributes are picked off one by one the gamemasters manipulate the environment and change the rules to enhance the drama.  Katniss allies herself first with the tiny Rue, who reminds her of her own sister, and later with Peeta, who declared his secret love for her in front of the televisions and who she is not sure she trusts.  The two play up their relationship for the cameras and their sponsors, who reward them with food and medicine.  Eventually they are the only two remaining and at that point, for entertainment’s sake, the game-masters visit one final indignity on them.

The book’s primary strength is that it is told entirely from the perspective of a sixteen year old girl who has been chosen to die for the entertainment of others and she’s not particularly interested in being entertaining.   We see everything through Katniss’ eyes:  the poverty of her home, the gruesome spectacle of the Games, the hypocrisy and cruelty of the game masters, the hopelessness of her own situation, her anger, her struggle between not wanting to kill and wanting to live.  The Games are not that different from her life (and Panem’s District 12 is not so very different from modern real-life Appalachia).  She’s poor, from a poor district, and she’s been scrambling to survive in an indifferent world nearly all her young life.  She is at the mercy of nearly everything around her and adults are no source of comfort or safety.  Her one real friend is a young man whose father died in the same accident that killed hers and who, like her, must hunt in the woods to feed his family.   Most of the friends who recommended the book to me described Katniss as a strong female character and this is true, although not in the way you might think.  She’s not out there with guns and hatchets mowing down her competitors.*  Her body count is actually pretty low:  one in self defense, two more or less accidentally, and a mercy killing.  (AFAIK, Peeta kills no one at all.)  She’s more…practical.  When she realizes that her “doomed relationship” with Peeta is popular with the sponsors she goes along with it, although she’s confused by the feelings she fears she is developing for him.  She’s angry at the Capital and resourceful enough to subvert its rules to reflect its own shallowness and cruelty back at it.  She fights throughout to keep her integrity and her sense of self intact.  Against impressive odds she manages to beat the Capital at its own Game (heh) and on her own terms.  At the conclusion we are left to understand that though they have survived Katniss and Peeta are not safe.  They have made powerful enemies and, even for the so-called winners, the Games never really end.

Although The Hunger Games touches on many themes it is primarily about taking possession of your own fate, about becoming an agent and not a victim.  Collins does this not by showing us kids killing other kids while adults place bets on them, but by showing us kids not killing each other.   The one big bloodbath in the book happens off the page; Katniss doesn’t see it and neither do we.  Many of the other deaths are likewise experienced third-hand.  Instead, most of the narrative concerns Katniss’ attempts to keep herself alive and her interactions with her allies. She plots with Rue to destroy the rich kids’ food cache.  She risks her own life to get medicine for Peeta.  Even though she tries to convince herself it is only for the most cynical of reasons, her reluctance to take advantage of Rue’s trust and Peeta’s injury belie this.  Both of them are at her mercy but she does not become a killer.  The book has many sublime scenes but its deepest moment of grace comes not when Katniss sings a lullaby to Rue as she dies and then covers her body with beautiful flowers as a giant “fuck you” to the audience.  It comes when Rue’s impoverished district pools its funds to send Katniss a loaf of their traditional bread in thanks for her kindness.  It is such a small thing but it illustrates the power of subversion, the many tiny ways the oppressed can fight back against their oppressors and how they can express solidarity with one another in the face of circumstances designed to keep them apart and make them enemies.   Because Katniss will not accept the version of the story the Capital gives her, because she chooses to make her own ending, she becomes the sort of subversive that governments fear the most:  the one that shows people there can be another way.

Although sequels almost always disappoint me I’ve queued up both Catching Fire and Mockingjay on the Nook.  I’ve not seen the film adaptation of The Hunger Games yet.  I imagine I will eventually, but not until I’ve read both of the other books.  I can only hope the film aims for the deeper meaning in the book rather than milking it for the spectacle of teenagers killing each other off.  Because that would be all kinds of ironic.

Score:  Meh.

* Despite the obvious similarities, it is not hard for me to believe that Collins had never heard of Battle Royale before she wrote her book.  The novel and manga have never been very accessible to English readers and the film, although popular in art houses and on college campuses, never received wide distribution in the US.   It wasn’t released on DVD in the US until 2012, well after Collins published the first of the Hunger Games books and probably benefited mightily from her book and film.  Anyways, I think the world is big enough for two kids-killing-kids-for-entertainment franchises.

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~ by gun street girl on February 11, 2014.

One Response to “crap i have read recently #21”

  1. I found Catching Fire to be the best of the trilogy, mainly because I thought it did a good job exploring the workings of a totalitarian government. Cheers!

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