Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Hunger Games: Suzanne Collins

I’m not sure when it was that I first heard about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, but I remember that it was rave reviews. It is a vaguely post-apocalyptic adventure about an inhuman new method of entertainment involving a televised fight to the death. While it is a brutal story, it is an action-packed page-turner filled with charismatic characters, inventive situations, rough violence, young romance, family love, and naïve bravery. In sum, it is awesome.

Collins introduces us to a new world in which the United States has crumbled—literally, in some places. The new country, Panem, is a landmass between what we know now as Appalachia and The Rockies, the ocean coasts having fallen into the sea. Panem consists of thirteen districts and The Capitol. I think of The Capitol as something like 1984’s Big Brother—always trying to keep the citizens in their place by any means necessary; always asserting control. In this new world, each district is responsible for the harvest of a particular resource, which subsequently means the economy of every district is proportionate to their industry. Generally speaking, the districts closest to The Capitol (One, Two, and Three) are most prosperous; in fact The Capitol destroyed District Thirteen in a show of power.

As an illustration of their power over the districts, The Capitol televises an annual event called The Hunger Games, in which each district sends one female child and one male child—known as Tributes—to the Capitol where they will fight each other to the death. Every child must enter their name into the lottery during the ages of twelve through eighteen. The Tributes—a total of twenty-four children—are prepared for the games with trainings, and coached by past game winners. As the Tributes participate in the contest, the public watches and places bets on who will win. Sponsors are invited to make donations to their favorite Tribute so that they may receive much needed gifts during the competition. Overall, the contest is a gory show of ultimate government power and the gross public interest in reality television. No citizen dares speak against The Capitol or The Hunger Games in fear for their life. It makes a reader wonder why anyone would ever choose to have children in such a society.

Our protagonist is a country girl named Katniss Everdeen who lives in the Seam (read, “the ghetto”) of District Twelve. As the coal mining district, D12 is the poorest in the country, filled with under-handed Peacekeepers, illegal hunting, and a profitable black market called The Hob. Since her father’s death, Katniss is the sole supporter of her family, consisting of her mother, her sister Prim, and herself. She spends her days with her friend Gale, hunting illegally in the woods just outside the perimeter of the district. As the primary support for her family, Katniss dreads the idea of being chosen as a Tribute. How would they survive without her? On the day of The Reaping (the name of the lottery), Katniss crosses her fingers that she won’t be picked, only to hear the name of her twelve year old sister called out instead. In a moment of panic and ultimate sacrifice, Katniss volunteers to take her sisters place, winning herself a place in The Hunger Games.

What ensues is a gruesome display of a fight for survival amongst young, desperate citizens who face fame or death. It is essentially a game of instinct, which is something a hunter like Katniss excels as. As coldly instinctual as Katniss is, she manages to form alliances, and even a romance, with a few of her fellow Tributes. Of course, the underlying conflict is that there can only be one winner of The Hunger Games.

Rating: $$$

Friday, February 12, 2010

Schooled: Gordon Korman

I picked up Schooled at my friend’s house while babysitting because it had a bright and interesting cover. A short, young reader novel, Schooled is a modern story of Tarzan for middle schoolers. Capricorn Anderson grew up on a hippie commune with his grandmother, Rain. When Rain takes a fall and is put in the hospital for six weeks, Cap is forced to lived in a suburban home and attend public school as an eighth grader.
The Tarzan parallels are pretty obvious; like Tarzan, Capricorn is taken out of his home habitat and thrust into a totally foreign culture and treated like a freak. In the name of tradition, Capricorn is nominated the eighth grade class president because his peers assume he will make a fool of himself since he is such a total loser. He wears tie dye and has a long mop of blond hair. He practices Tai Chi on the school’s front lawn before class starts. And he’s a total hippie with no contemporary references. Cap doesn’t even realize how different he is. Nor does he understand that being different is the kiss of death in eighth grade.
Of course it wouldn’t be a young reader novel if there wasn’t a really obvious moral. The moral here is that being different can be good. Cap takes on the responsibility of being class president and unites the entire middle school. His reign is not without mistakes, but ultimately, everyone learns an important lesson and they all live happily ever after.
I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. Yes, it’s trite, but it’s a sweet kind of trite. And the characters are really enjoyable. Everyone, at some point in their life, has felt as alien as Capricorn in a public school, but we survive. We make our own way and create our own niche, which is a crucial piece of information for middle school readers.

Rating: $$

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Lovely Bones: Alice Sebold

When The Lovely Bones first hit bookstores a few years ago, I was curious about it, but ultimately decided to skip it. As a general rule I don’t go in for a lot of gore, so reading about the rape and murder of a teenage girl wasn’t the least bit appealing. However, in my spare time I’m also a movie buff. So when I saw that The Lovely Bones was going to be made into a movie (with Stanley Tucci!), I bit the bullet and ordered myself a copy. My overall opinion is that I wasn’t missing much by not reading it.

The Lovely Bones is disturbing and gory. Which are actually testaments to the great writing of Alice Sebold. I’m just not sure it’s a great book. The story was sometimes uncomfortable to read. And rather than be about the search for Susie Salmon’s killer, it’s about what happens to a family and community after the death of a young girl, which was only interesting for about a hundred pages. The family reaction was fairly cliché—the parents grow distanced when one of them becomes obsessed with finding Susie’s killer. Her siblings fall into the shadows as the sad survivors of a family torn apart by the loss of a child. And Susie’s friends from school react by finding solace in each other, which feels a little uncomfortable in itself.

I think that what makes this story silver-screen-worthy is that it’s believable. We have become all-too-familiar with the reality of the neighborhood sociopath who preys on our children. What Sebold has managed is to make Susie’s killer dimensional. He is cold and calculating, but she gives him thought processes and determined decisions that effectively bring him to life. If it weren’t for Sebold’s writing skill, I don’t think this book would have made it beyond the thrillers section into the best-selling shelves it stands on today.

Rating: $$

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dinner With A Perfect Stranger: David Gregory

Would you respond to an invitation for dinner with Jesus? Would you ask tough questions? What would it take to convince you that you were dining with the son of God?

In Dinner With A Perfect Stranger, Nick Cominsky receives an invitation for dinner with Jesus of Nazareth at a high class restaurant. His initial reaction is one most of us would share—disbelief. He assumes some of his buddies are up to a gag, but he’s curious about the punch line so he shows up for dinner. Instead of being seated across from a thirty-three year old man with a shaggy beard and long robes and sandals, a man in a blue suit with neatly trimmed hair introduces himself as “Jesus. My family called me Yeshua.” Scanning the restaurant for his friends, or maybe the cameras, Nick struggles to take the man seriously. He instinctively asks for proof in a hilarious exchange in which Nick asks Jesus to turn his wine back into water. Not without a sense of humor, Jesus calls the waiter over and asks for a glass of water to replace his friend’s wine. Calling back his wine, Nick agrees to Jesus’ suggestion of suspending his disbelief for awhile.

Throughout the four course meal, Nick and Jesus discuss everything from world religions, family, and even the realities of heaven. Nick seems to be a non-religious guy who took some religion courses in college, so while he doesn’t necessarily believe in religion, he is able to talk about with some knowledge. I personally had some trouble with some of the statements that Jesus makes during dinner. He says that there is no path to God because the reality is that through sin we are separate from God. That’s a hard line to swallow if I’m to turn around and believe that good faith will earn my forgiveness. Jesus talks about God as being ultimately Just, so we can’t actually earn our forgiveness. We are only forgiven by the sacrifice of His Son…which Jesus wants us to believe was actually God himself.

This was a super fast read, and it was pretty entertaining to react along with Nick Cominsky through the course of conversation. I don’t usually read religious writings because I have a tendency to become aggravated at some of the statements that are made. This little novel was inoffensive and fun. I will warn some of my readers that this novel doesn’t leave a lot of room for religions outside of Christianity.