Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Trilogy complete, mind blown, spoliers within

After I wrote the last post, I ran out and bought the other two books. I returned home at 10:30 p.m. and started reading "Catching Fire." By morning, I was into "Mockingjay". By Sunday night, it was all over...and it took me this long to be able to articulate more than "wow...fucking amazing."

I'd wondered where the series would go after the first book. I wouldn't have really said it ended on a cliffhanger. Katniss won the Hunger Games, when the Gamemakers sadistically forced her and her District 12 partner Peeta into an alliance, then shattered it at the last minute by renegging on their promise to declare co-victors. Katniss and Peeta were ready to kill themselves when the Gamemaker frantically ordered them to spit out the poison, they could be co-victors after all.

Well, it turns out that didn't sit well. You're not supposed to beat the Games, you're supposed to beat the other competitors. Katniss winning in the way she did was the worst possible thing for the Capitol. It gave hope to the districts, and the Hunger Games are designed to quell hope. The next two books deal with the fallout from her subversive victory.

My sister teaches this book to her classes sometimes, and she said on her blog post that one of the main things about it that students always notice is how violent the books are. Every death means something, there's no gratuitous violence here. Either the deaths happen offstage, or they happen as you stare into the eyes of someone with a name, a family, a backstory as they take a spear to the core or melt or get attacked by a monkey. It's enough to make you wish for some gratuitous violence, actually.

The books don't make you feel like a horrible person for enjoying them, however, because they really do make you think. It made me think a great deal about what life under a totalitarian society would be like. As the trilogy wears on and the rebellion's spread, it becomes clear that no one's safe. Members of the victor's prep teams (Capitol citizens all, at the top of society) are murdered. When the rebellion reaches the Capitol, their society disintegrates. The poor citizens of Katniss' home District 12 don't escape notice either.

Being a victor won't even guarantee anything: win in the wrong way, like Katniss' mentor Haymitch, and they kill your whole family. Have the misfortune to be attractive, like Finnick, and you become a sex slave, a reward for good behavior, and if you refuse, they kill your family. And there's the psychological fallout that leads many down a path of addiction and insanity.

I also thought it was clever how the characters keep shifting. When you first meet Haymitch, the only other victor in history from Katniss' district, he's sort of a pathetic and laughable character, showing up an hour late to dinner and puking all over their prim escort because he's drunk. Get to know him, though, and he's clever and tough. The aforementioned Finnick is a flirty, sexy career tribute at first. After a while, he's revealed for who he really is: a loyal guy, in love with a badly damaged girl from home, who screws everyone they tell him to in order to protect her. Beetee transforms from an older, burnt-out Victor to a wily hacker, indispensible to the revolution.

I'm not sure how much my sister liked Katniss at the end of the books. I still liked her a great deal. I still feel she's an excellent female role model with many, many fine qualities, even if she is guilty of selfishness. Her two love interests, I'm less sure of. Peeta is the only character who really doesn't change. He's still the boy next door, goodhearted and in love with Katniss, the same boy you meet on the train to the Capitol as a scared tribute. Gale hardens, although you know him less intimately at first. Once he hears of the rebellion, he's all about it. He has no problem sacrificing ohter people's lives for it, either. I thought the resolution of the 'love triangle' was a bit of a cop-out, although at least no one died.

If you made it this far, you've probably already read the books, so I'd like to know, what did you think of them?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sensation: The Hunger Games

So, my library inexplicably did not have any of The Hunger Games trilogy of books. I was pretty excited, then, to get the first book for Christmas from my sister. Before I was into the third chapter, I'd already made two decisions: I was going to read the rest of the trilogy, and I was going to purchase, rather than try to borrow, the books.

"The Hunger Games" is set in a dystopian, future-America called Panem. Every year, each district is forced to send a boy and a girl to participate in The Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live television. It's treated as a celebration, the victor is taken care of for life, and in some districts, it's actually an honor to be chosen. Not in the district Katniss comes from. It's the poor, former Appalachia area, and those kids are usually among the first to die.

But when her little sister gets chosen against all odds, she steps in anyway, and becomes a contender, also against all odds.

The book is totally engrossing. Katniss is an ideal heroine and a great feminine role model: very smart, very brave, very clever. She also has a lot of heart and compassion. It would be a wonderful thing if a generation of girls grew up trying to emulate her. The plot alone would be enough to create solid momentum for the book, but Suzanne Collins is adept at keeping us turning the pages during those stretches where Katniss is mostly trying not to be found, or not to dehydrate. I can't wait to read the rest of the trilogy. In fact, I'm heading out to the bookstore now!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Vamp, or light shining from a dead star

The most poignant line from Eve Golden's biography of Theda Bara, titled Vamp, is about a fan magazine popularity contest that Bara placed highly in. The magazine called it "The Contest to End All Contests". Golden notes the view of the results that history provides, with notables such as Charlie Chaplin faring poorly while others, today, "are nothing more than obscure names in a faded fan magazine." I think that's the real story of Theda Bara.

Golden had a formidable challenge in writing this biography. Her subject had been dead for decades. She had no children, nor did the sibling to whom she was closest. Bara's spouse had also been long on the other side of the veil when the book came out in the mid-90s. This would be bad enough, but the bulk of Bara's films, including most of her best work, was lost to vault fires long ago. To top it all off, much of what was originally published about Bara in fan magazines...well, it had me re-thinking my stance that PR work is not a creative profession.

She does an admirable job, despite the fact that reliable source material about film's first sex symbol is exceedingly thin on the ground. Unfortunately, though, Golden was left with a skeleton. Much of the book is devoted to recounting the plots of films that have long since burned to a crisp (including big-budget epics "Cleopatra" and "Salome": according to Golden, anyone who could recover a copy of either of those films would never have to work again), and explaining how they were received. How Bara felt about those films, we are clueless. What her experiences were in the dawn of a medium that came to dominate everyday life, we get only sketchy information. (I can surmise it for you: one worked a great deal, did their own hair and makeup, and had their life stories scripted by people who make JK Rowling look unimaginative). Golden tries to build around the concept of the "vamp," but didn't really do it forecfully enough.

This book didn't really give me a lot, but I enjoyed it anyway, despite the fact that I prefer scandalous and tragic Hollywood tales to ones about people who work a lot, then get married and retire from pictures. There's something forlorn about Theda Bara from our perspective. Ninety years ago, she had it all. She was on top of the world, making tons of money, renowned by everyone. Today, her pictures are gone and all that's left of her is the shadowy concept of the "vamp", some remarkable still photos (this book is worth a checkout for the pictures from her epics alone), and the Teddy Bara character in Disney's Country Bear Jamboree.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Day They Came To Sanitize The Book

Growing up, the afterschool special "The Day They Came To Arrest The Book" was one of mine and my sister's favorite things to watch. We taped it and watched it repeatedly. If you're not a devotee, the plot unfolds at a modern high school when the students are assigned to read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in English class. A black student takes offense at the copious use of the workd 'nigger' and walks out of class. He returns later with his father to meet with the principal and ask that the book be removed from the classroom. This ignites a firestorm within the school and tears him and his best friend apart.

The climactic, heroic, scene belongs to the school's librarian. who attends a hearing on the matter and announces to the crowded room that she's found an even more vile, disturbing book and goes on to re-tell a scene laced with graphic sexual violence contained in it. When everyone's jaw is on the floor, she announces the chapter and verse of the Bible in which that scene can be found and sits back down.
"Huck Finn" lives to be taught another day.

But as you've no doubt heard by now, it's not safe from sanitization. An 'n-word free' version will be released in February. There's a lot of reaction to it on the Web, but very little information, except a very vague quote from the Mark Twain scholar and Auburn professor behind the project, stating that the change is 'to meet the needs of a mondern audience'. That, coupled with the $24.95 price point, make this read as a giant publicity stunt.

And, in a way, that's even more disgusting to me. The student in the after-school special was genuinely offended. There are many scenes where his anger is palpable as he talks about the challenges he faces at a majority-white school. I must say that I never thought I'd see 'to make a buck' listed as the reason to censor anything. I hope this tanks.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fireflies and friendship

I always want to post something clever around the first of the year, about the year in review or a new year's resolution pertaining to books, or something. But I honestly don't make new year's resolutions, and I was too lazy to dig through past posts to write a year in review. So I guess I'll just start 2011 in my usual manner, writing about a book I just finished.

I got Kristin Hannah's Firefly Lane because I'd heard of it at work and remembered the title. It was another book club selection by one of the clubs in my coverage area, and I figured that was as good a way as any to choose a book.

The book tells the tale of Tully and Kate. Kate is a quiet, geeky 'good girl' who grew up with loving parents and a younger brother. Tully was raised by her grandma because her own mother was a hippie and a drug addict, and is a larger-than-life personality. The two meet during one of Tully's rare stints in her mother's custody and become best friends. When Tully's grandma dies, she moves in with Kate's family to finish her senior year of high school. They attend college together, major in communciations together, begin working in TV news together. Along the way, their paths diverge. Kate falls in love, gets married, has children and stays at home with them. Tully becomes a bigger and bigger name in TV news, ultimately so big that the news can't contain her and she gets her own Oprah-style show.

If this sounds familiar to you, I guess that means you've seen "Beaches." And like that film, it has the same sort of punch-you-in-the-face sad ending that comes out of nowhere. Firefly Lane is a weeper, that's for sure.

It's also, technically, not very good in a lot of ways. Most of the characters are archetypes. Kate is the Barbara Hershey character from "Beaches" to the hilt, ditto Tully with Bette Midler's character. Kate's husband is sort of a cardboard cutout of a handsome, successful man. Kate's mom is the archetypical Ideal Mom, who bakes cookies and dispenses wisdom, though there is a slight edge to her in the form of her wistfulness over the fact that she was born a decade too late for the feminist movement and never had the chance to even attempt going to college and pursuing a career. Tully's pursuit of her Big Break gets repetitive, as she gets about ten in a row.

But there is a lot of value here. One theme that the book explores a great deal is the difficulty of Having It All. Kate had this drilled into her growing up, and had a great deal of peer pressure to be a career woman with a family. When she gets pregnant, she renounces this to be the stay-at-home mom that she always secretly wanted to be, but expresses many times throughout the book that it's not quite enough. On the other side of the coin, Tully's eighteen-hours days which start at 2:30 a.m. are barely conducive to hookups, let alone any sort of longer-time relationship.

The message of being happy with your choices is also a strong one, though, with both sides declaring at the end of the book, that upon careful examination, they really were happy, so that conflict sort of gets washed away.

The book is also (until the last few chapters) a fun one. It's not really funny, but it makes you smile and feel good at many points.

Spoiler alert:
But I have to say, the sacrifice of The Quiet One kind of bothers me. Why is it always her that has to leave her kids before menopause? It would have been a little more interesting to see some introspection and serenity forced out of Tully, who is all smart remarks and courage during the final chapters (you know, like Bette Midler). The Quiet One's character is all about sacrifice, she always learns to just be happy for her friend, be happy with what she's given, be happy taking care of people and take what she's given. Why do they always have to kill her off, too?