The Hunger Games as Entertainment: Real or Not Real?

I tend not to like something if everyone is in love with it. (One of the many reasons I won’t touch Twilight.) I had heard so much about the unputdownable, unbelievable, never-before-seen Hunger Games trilogy that I wasn’t gonna be reading them any time soon. Instead, I had these books ambush me—my roommate started reading the first two chapters aloud while I was cooking or something. I listened because I had no choice. Then one day she left the room and it was sitting there on the shelf and I couldn’t hold back and I read the whole thing in one sitting with no bathroom breaks. Hi, I’m Elena, and I’m addicted to books.

But I hope you’ll read it too, if you haven’t already, and you’ll see why the trilogy The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay made a serious splash. Emphasis on serious. One review described them as “Gladiator meets Project Runway” which feels oddly appropriate. (For a more in-depth review, check out this one. Not responsible for spoilers, though.) For those of you who haven’t read them, Janie B. Cheaney gives an intense summary:

“How’s this for a scenario: In the future, the USA has been divided into 13 districts, and the strongest dominates all the others. One form of domination is the annual televised exhibition in which two teens from each district compete for the prize of being allowed to live. Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old poacher from District Twelve, volunteers to replace her younger sister who was chosen by lot to be one of the district competitors. Katniss and her fellow competitor Peeta are transported to the capital city, where they will compete to be the last teen standing in a glitzy, media-frantic, widely anticipated, hotly contested, brutal and bloody fight to the death.”

Yeesh. Not my kind of book. And yet the books were so compelling that I heartily recommend them. If reading the above paragraph doesn’t make you throw up, you’ll probably be fine. And here’s why:

Author Suzanne Collins has a clear, fast, “flat” writing voice that makes dramatic events approachable and the action march steadily onward. This means that her descriptions of teens fighting to the death feels remarkably like her descriptions of teens participating in a fashion show—both are steady, intense, and pretty low on the emotional scale. Even more importantly, the books’ violence serves to tell a story and not to indulge in gratuitous brutality. Collins does a good job of showing some pretty awful events without making them either glamorous or trivialized.

Instead, our main character Katniss narrates some pretty brutal things in her flat, unemotional voice. Which leads to my second point: Katniss doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of moral backbone. You’re just watching people die? I was thinking in the first book. You’re going to kill them yourself? As the books went on, I saw some moral consciousness surfacing, but nothing very strong or universal. And yet—this is how I justify it to myself—and yet, I think Collins also tells this part very, very well: these kids have grown up with this sick system. It’s expected that if the lottery picks them, they will kill or be killed. They all know it, and it’s a brutal part of their brutal lives. It reminds me of ancient Rome and other civilizations who became so desensitized to their own cruelty that they gathered to watch lions tear people apart. The children of the Hunger Games are psychologically consistent with their world. It’s just a sad, sick world to begin with.

Which brings me to my third point: violence should not be glamorized, but neither should it be passed over. Stephen King, in his review of the first novel, said “Reading The Hunger Games is as addictive (and as violently simple) as playing one of those shoot-it-if-it-moves videogames in the lobby of the local eightplex; you know it’s not real, but you keep plugging in quarters anyway.”

Hmmm. That’s funny, because in the middle of one of the arena scenes (in which Katniss and other players try to kill each other while avoiding tricks that the “Gamemakers” have planted throughout the arena), I thought, “I feel like I’m in a video game.” And then I did a little search. Sure enough, the internet is full of people clamoring for the video game to come out. Where (I presume) players will use their character to fight and kill other characters after the model of, oh, almost every video game out there. And now the model of the Hunger Games.

[Okay, so these kids are younger, but this is how I felt while reading. Click on photos for credit.]

 

What am I supposed to make of this? Everyone will acknowledge the depravity of a game that forces children to kill each other while their country watches it on a screen. In these books children are being manipulated by a controlling audience’s insatiable thirst for violence. Ok, so the idea of the Hunger Games is twisted. But what about the games we play where children use their own controllable character to kill other characters on-screen? How are the books different from the video games we ourselves play, where violence is a staple commodity?

I really don’t know. And what troubles me even more? Both books and video games are designed for our “entertainment.”

What is the difference between reading about a “game” (disturbed!) and playing the game ourselves (sweet!)? How can we condemn one brutal, intense, graphic world and yet participate in a similar world where we ourselves are the controllers? Well, you might say, it’s not real. True. Neither video games nor Young Adult novels are “real”. But the thing we often love about literature (and, you could say, about video games) is that it shows us reality in a different skin. So if none of it’s real, why on earth are we wasting our time? And if it is real, who am I to say one is harmful, when I’ll happily join in the other one?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share.

Anna to the Infinite Power: 5 Reasons to Read This Book(Or Not)

Anna Zimmerman Hart is a little different. She’s brilliant at science; she can do math faster than computers; she’s also a pathological thief and liar. Her brother Rowan, a musician, cannot understand her; he sees her as self-absorbed and detached. Anna and Rowan have grown up in a dystopian world where food is scarce, families usually have one child, and they have to check in with a special computer everywhere they go.

But one day the siblings don’t check in. By chance, they meet another girl who looks identical to Anna, and whose first two names are also Anna Zimmerman. When Rowan asks his mother about it, she spills the big secret: Anna is actually a clone of a great scientist who died. And so is this other girl. And there’s a big experiment going on here, but Rowan and Anna had better not tell anyone.

While Anna deals with confusion (who is she, anyway?), she is also getting sicker. Is it from cancer? Or something else?

Anna to the Infinite Power builds to a climax which I shall not ruin. But I’ll give you five reasons to pick it up.

  1. Super great title. I heard this title and it kept coming back until I finally got the book—it’s just so intriguing!
  2. Dystopia! Nothing like a little immersion into a twisted world to make you appreciate how good your life really is.
  3. Technology Humor. I enjoyed the passages that explained the computer in great detail. The book was written in 1981, long before Internet, and I had to smile at the painstaking description of the “information-gathering machine.” It’s something we take for granted today (i.e., a computer and a Google search), but it’s fun to see how people thought before they had that technology.
  4. Identity Themes. I was actually a little surprised by this one. Mildred Ames takes the opportunity to explore how it would feel to discover you’re a clone. (It feels not good.) I was impressed by this book’s depth in this area, for a young adult book, and this alone makes it worth the read, I think.
  5. Intensity. I was thinking about this book long after I’d finished it. That’s always a good sign.

Or Not: My critique of Anna to the Infinite Power is that its writing style is a little inconsistent in places, and some parts of the story never feel entirely explained. I didn’t think it was highly significant, though, and I liked the book in spite of this.

It was actually also made into a movie, which I have not seen, but from the clips on YouTube, it looks like a bizarre children’s horror movie. I can’t decide whether to avoid the movie or laugh at it. Haha.

Have you read this book? Will you consider it now? The book (well, eight copies of it) can be found on Amazon here, but it’s out of print now, so you could also check the library…

When We Were Very Young: Timeless Poetry

Today I’d like to talk about two of my favorite books of children’s poetry. The books are When We Were Very Young and And Now We Are Six, by author A. A. Milne, better known as the creator of Winnie the Pooh. Pooh makes some appearances in their pages—so does Christopher Robin, his nanny, King John, and a whole host of other wonderful characters. Milne’s poetry is believable and sweet, the kind of thing that can only be written by somebody who actually knows kids. His rhymes are deliciously clever. The illustrations, by E. H. Shepard, are charming, funny, and distinctly characterize each of the lovely characters. One of my favorites is of a little boy skipping around a table, here with some of the words in the book Now We Are Six.

This picture, in fact, may have inspired my childhood enthusiasm for skipping. Why walk when you can skip?

These two books were given to my sister and I as Christmas presents from a thoughtful aunt, and I treasure it more now than I did at the time. I would gladly buy a copy for kids I know, in hopes that someday they might enjoy it as much as I do. Here are the beginnings of two of my favorite poems:

King John’s Christmas

King John was not a good man –
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air –
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

More than anything in the world, for Christmas King John wants a “big, red, india-rubber ball!” You can read the rest of the poem here; to see the poem with its original pictures, click here.

Another of my favorites, from When We Were Very Young, has a conclusion that feels strangely ideological and profound:

The Dormouse And The Doctor

There once was a Dormouse who lived in a bed
Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red)
And all the day long he’d a wonderful view
Of geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue)

A Doctor came hurrying round, and he said:
“Tut-tut, I am sorry to find you in bed.
Just say ‘Ninety-nine’, while I look at your chest…
Don’t you find that chrysanthemums answer the best?”

The full poem, with pictures, can be found here.

Finally, I don’t think this post would be complete without a mention of the later works that made A. A. Milne famous. Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner brought the world of Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin, and all their other animal friends to life. Christopher Milne was the author’s son, and the animals were all based on real stuffed animals, now immortalized and preserved for us literary geeks who like this kind of thing. Here they are in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Library Building in New York: Tigger, Kanga, Edward Bear (Winnie the Pooh), Eeyore, and Piglet.

As an adult, Christopher Milne talked about the animals, known by thousands of children through the books, being in an American library:

I am asked “Aren’t you sad that the animals are not in their glass case with you today?” I must answer “Not really” and hope that this doesn’t seem too unkind. I like to have around me the things I like today, not the things I once liked many years ago. I don’t want a house to be a museum.…Every child has his Pooh, but one would think it odd if every man still kept his Pooh to remind him of his childhood. But my Pooh is different, you say: he is the Pooh. No, this only makes him different to you, not different to me. My toys were and are to me no more than yours were and are are to you. I do not love them more because they are known to children in Australia or Japan. Fame has nothing to do with love. I wouldn’t like a glass case that said: “Here is fame”, and I don’t need a glass case to remind me: “Here was love”.

We’re All Mad Here

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass are so well known to children that it may come as a surprise, for adults, that these books are about a lot more than a dreamy land.  We remember the frazzled rabbit, the crazy Hatter’s tea party, the disappearing cat with the creepy grin, the Tweedle brothers, and the bloodthirsty queen.  And most of us, if we were young enough, (or brave enough to watch the Tim Burton movie), had nightmares about at least a few in that list.

But both books also contain political and social commentary, logic and math problems, and linguistic jokes galore.  Lewis Carroll, a pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was a lecturer, teacher, and mathematician at Christ Church in Oxford.  His cleverness has lots of dialogue that goes right over kids’ heads, but lots of playfulness with words that kids love (at the time, it seemed like really good advice for life):

‘If everybody minded their own business,’ the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, ‘the world would go round a deal faster than it does.’ (Wonderland, Chapter VI)

The Red Queen tells Alice,

‘Curtsey while you’re thinking what to say, it saves time.'(Looking Glass, Chapter II)

One of the most quotable quotes, from the insane and disorderly trial:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’ (Wonderland, Chapter XI)

And when Alice is falling down the rabbit hole:

“I wonder if I shall fall right THROUGH the earth! How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward!” (Wonderland, Chapter I)

And then, sometimes, Charles Dodgson just gets a little weird.  When you were a kid, did you know the caterpillar was smoking a hookah?  I sure didn’t.

(“Bless you!”

“–No, it’s a hookah.”

“Can I get you a tissue?”)

And I went on with my sheltered life.  Ya gotta wonder, sometimes, if the author got a little desperate for writing material and tried some drastic new methods:

Lewis Carroll tells his whole long haranguing, trippy story to a friend, rabbits and scary queens and kittens and all,  “…and then she woke up.”

Friend, after a long pause, “Um, you been snacking on the mushrooms again, Charles?”

And that is why it became a kids’ story.

Well, in honor of Alice’s Trippy Adventures, today’s post has some riddles, straight out of the books.  The first person with the right answer–you can tell us in the comments section–wins that fabulous glow of pride that comes from the knowledge that you were right.  Blind your friends with it.  And no fair googling the answers!

1.  Why is a raven like a writing desk?            (the Hatter asks this to Alice at his Tea Party)

2.  “First, the fish must be caught.”

That is easy: a baby, I think, could have caught it.

“Next, the fish must be bought.”

That is easy: a penny, I think, would have bought it.

“Now cook me the fish!”

That is easy, and will not take more than a minute.

“Let it lie in a dish!”

That is easy, because it already is in it.

“Bring it here! Let me sup!”

It is easy to set such a dish on the table.

“Take the dish-cover up!”

Ah, THAT is so hard that I fear I’m unable!

For it holds it like glue—

Holds the lid to the dish, while it lies in the middle:

Which is easiest to do,

Un-dish-cover the fish, or dishcover the riddle?’

(The Red Queen recites this to Alice in Through the Looking Glass)

And finally, just for fun, a short short version.  We’ve never seen it so quick.  Don’t blink.  (Actually it does the blinking for you.)

At the end, all I can think is, “Look out! Here come the Boy Scouts!”

What did you think of the Alice books, as a kid or an adult?  Tell us your guess to the riddles!

The Princess Bride (Wait, is this a kissing book?)

"S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure"

Today we’re continuing with a review of a book better known by its movie counterpart–but it’s a book first and forever.  If you’ve seen the movie, “The Princess Bride” you’ll still want to read this book.  For those of you who haven’t seen it or read it (do these people even exist?), here’s a little teaser:

Buttercup, who has risen to the title of most beautiful woman in the history of the world, waits for her true love, Westley, only to hear he has been lost at sea.  She vows to never love again, and keeps her vow, but agrees to marry the evil Prince Humperdinck (evil, but ridiculously smart and wants her for low-handed political reasons).  But when the Prince’s plans go slightly awry, and the Dread Pirate Roberts comes on the scene, it’s only the beginning of scores of adventures and interesting characters.  The prologue says it best:

[Young William Goldman] “Has it got any sports in it?”

[Father] “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison.  True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”

[Young William Goldman] “Sounds okay,” I said, and I kind of closed my eyes. “I’ll do my best to stay awake…but I’m awful sleepy, Daddy…”

Do you ever find an author that makes you want to keep reading, and you’re fifteen or twenty pages in before you realize the author has said nothing of significance?  And you don’t care?  The Princess Bride does that for me.  And it happens while I’m reading the preface, for pity’s sake.  (Side note: I’ve done this with other books too–once I read a whole 432-page kid’s thriller novel like the outcome of World Peace, and possibly the World Cup, depended on my finishing it in under half an hour.  (And it took me longer than that–now we know why the world is the way it is.  Sorry, folks.)  Anyway, I read the last page, shut the book, gasping like a marathon runner, and thought to myself, “That was dumb.”  Ah, the power of thriller novels.  I was powerless to do anything until it was read cover to cover, and then I realized I didn’t even like the book. And then I read the second one! (It was very persuasive.)  And this wasn’t even a full blown ax-murderer story!  It was about some genetically altered kids with wings.  I don’t know if I should link to it, since this wasn’t an entirely positive description, but if you’re interested, you can find it here.  Just cancel your life beforehand.)    Warning warning warning we are now returning to our previous altitude in the above-parentheses stratosphere.  Thank you.

 

If you flip the movie case around, it says the same thing upside-down.

They say that readers have to like the narrator to like the story–and the narrator of The Princess Bride is both charming and snarky.  I know it’s hard to imagine both of those together, so I’ve mined some examples for you skeptics:

The land of Florin was set between where Sweden and Germany would eventually settle.  (This was before Europe).  In theory, it was ruled by King Lotharon and his second wife, the Queen.  But in fact, the King was barely hanging on, could only rarely tell day from night, and basically spent his time in muttering.  He was very old, every organ in his body had long since betrayed him, and most of his important decisions regarding Florin had a certain arbitrary quality that bothered many of the leading citizens.  (Chp. 1)

In what must be an attempt to ground the story in history, the narrator tells us whether things have been invented or not.  After mentioning stew, he says,

This was after stew, but so is everything.  When the first man first clambered from the slime and made his first home on land, what he had for supper that first night was stew.

and then has a small fight between the parents:

“What exactly is it dumpling?” Buttercup’s mother wanted to know.

“You look; you know how” was all he replied. (This was their thirty-third spat of the day–this was long after spats–and he was behind, thirteen to twenty, but he had made up a lot of distance since lunch, when it was seventeen to two against him.)

Charming, right?

Tell us what you think! Have you ever read this book? Why, after all this time, has nobody been able to locate the original, unabridged S. Morgenstern version?

Next week’s book: Alice in Wonderland…

Ella Enchanted: An Exercise in Free Will

“It is helpful to know the proper way to behave, so one can decide whether or not to be proper.” (Ella Enchanted)

Ella of Frell loses her mother at a young age and grows up under the thumb of her stepmother and two stepsisters.  Her one great difficulty in life is not getting to the ball–it’s getting her way.  She’s been “blessed” with obedience by a meddling fairy: If someone commands her to tie her shoe, bake a cake, fail an exam, even cut off her own head, she must do it.  She cannot stop herself.  In the midst of trying to break this curse and save her friendships, she begins a correspondence friendship with the prince of her country.  But she can’t possibly be involved in a kingdom–her curse would make her a weapon in enemy hands.  Ella has to fight against a curse nobody can fight for her–or the results will be even worse than she imagined.

This treasure by Gail Carson Levine is such a clever retelling that I was three quarters of the way through it before I realized it was the story of Cinderella.  No more figurehead beautiful princess here–Ella is smart, thoughtful, resourceful and insightful.  She’s not a perfect person because she wants to be–it’s because she has no choice.  She must eat her peas and make tiny stitches, because she’s been told to; if she had her choice, she’d slurp and yell and play in the mud a lot more often. She’s not a snappy feminist rebel, (which, if you’ve seen the movie retelling, is Anne Hathaway’s character–more on that in a second) but she sure would rather make her own choices. Ella is gentle with her friends and determined against her enemies, and an inspiration to us all.  *sniff* Pass the Kleenex…

And now we come to the problems everyone has when a story is told in multiple media:  If you saw the movie, you either thought Oh, okay, fine, and maybe went out and read the book–or else declared it a sacrilegious outrage and spent the entire movie calling down ancient curses upon it–which, loosely translated, go, “What?  WHAT??? Noooo… That’s not how it–What?!?”–because you’d already read the book.   (If you’ve never done this to a movie experience, you know you’ve had to sit through someone else doing it. Joy.)  It was because the book was your favorite ever, and your hopes have been dashed upon the rocks of Hollywood, and your disappointment has ruined the weekend and possibly your entire life…

Snap out of it!  (Haha, sorry that’s unkind.  I feel your pain… okay, that’s enough.  Snap out of it!)  Even author Levine said, “To fans of the book, I’d suggest regarding the movie as a separate creative act. You might want to think about the choices the screenwriters made and why they may have gone in the direction they did. But I hope you have the breadth and sense of humor to encompass both movie and book.”

What impressed you most about this book?   Did you hold a DVD-burning ceremony?  If you’ve seen both, are there any strong points the movie has that the book did not?

Harry Potter Will Turn You Into A Serial Killer: Yet Another Review of, you know, that one book…

The third Harry Potter movie has just ended, and a birthday party of sugar-stoked eleven-year-old boys begins laying waste to the movie theater lobby. One boy separates from the group with a bright idea. He runs, full tilt (I am not making this up), straight at the movie theater’s brick wall. The result is a staggering, completely unforeseen display of the laws of physics, in which the brick emerges victorious. (Who knew?) After regaining consciousness, the boy’s mother asks him why, if he wanted to deprive himself of his senses, he didn’t just leap into oncoming traffic. He wails, “But Harry Potter can do it!…” The rest of the birthday party watches eagerly while sucking down cans of Red Bull. Other moviegoers begin backing away before the other boys start impersonating the hamsters from a preview.

The above is a true story with an important moral: Never, never combine sugar and eleven-year-old boys. Or at least let them wear helmets. But the second moral, only slightly less important, is that stories move us. (Literally, in this case.) Stories shape our motives and enlarge the world we live in, for kids even more so. (Just ask the hundred or so children who flushed their own goldfish down the toilet after “Finding Nemo,” only to find out Guppy was taking the Long Swim to the water treatment plant.)

It was an intense discussion for a while there, whether Harry Potter was the devil or just his apprentice.  It went something like this:

Person 1:  Harry Potter will turn your child into a Satanist!

Person 2:  No, Harry Potter will help kids to read!

Person 1:  About evil!

Person 2:  No, about being a kid!  It isn’t real anyway.

Person 1:  YOU’RE a Satanist!…

and so on, until both are so worked up they’ve got to sit down and sort out which one of them was 1 and which was 2 all over again. Here’s the deal, folks: If, one morning after reading Harry Potter, you wake up and think that, by waving a stick, you can turn your mother into a lampshade, you have other problems. Get help now! Operators are standing by!  What Birthday Boy above needed was a good dose of reality (and let me tell you, he sure got it).

On the other hand, J. K. Rowling’s “magic” is a cousin to some very dangerous stuff that doesn’t belong in quotes or children’s books, and readers better be discerning enough to know the difference. The question becomes, what are you willing to be desensitized to? I’m personally not concerned about Harry’s brand of magic unless it leads to other things.

Stories may not turn us to the Dark Side, but they influence us. So what’s more dangerous than Harry’s magic? Well, real life.

We learn about human relationships from books too, and, though I hate to say it, Rowling’s characterization is lacking. Rowling’s characters, while they feel complete and believable, don’t develop like real people. (Come to think of it, that is like some people.) Harry, Ron and Hermione barely change throughout the series. They don’t learn from their mistakes, and they interact in excessively predictible ways–Hermione nags, Ron sulks, Harry turns narcissistic. It gets a bit irritating. I find that, after I read this series I’m crabby and irritable and selfish with the people around me. I swear it’s the characters in the books rubbing off on me. This never works for an excuse (“Harry made me do it!”)–but it reminds me how much I learn from the books I read. Harry’s relationships are just as significant as his magical fantasy world, and they will be to readers too.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, if she can get this way over a kid’s series, keep her away from the serial-killer novels…

Yeah, I know, it sounds paranoid; I’d just rather read books with my eyes wide open. (As opposed to the other way, where it gets real dark and it’s hard to find your spot…)

I love these books and will end by applauding J. K. Rowling, who excels at (at least) two things: creating a world and spinning a plot. The wizarding world is incredibly well-imagined, from a bureaucratic Ministry to a highly original sport (where in the world of sports do we have a Snitch?) down to the candy names like Fizzing Whizbees and Toothflossing Stringmints. Rowling picks the kinds of details that not only sound true, but make me wish it were.

Rowling also spun a vast story that kept readers guessing, weeping, and up all night. (Um, not that I would know…) The seventh book is brilliant, really brilliant, in the way events pull together. I was thoroughly engrossed–a live hippogriff in my room could not have made me look up. Great books. But not because of character development. I can still enjoy Rowling’s fantastical plot in spite of her rather flat characters. I just wish that Harry had grown up as much as he thinks he has.

Books are meant to be shared–what was your experience of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and the series as a whole? Did you find the books irritating and inspiring?  And have you ever tried to reach Platform 9 ¾ ? (Would you admit it if you had?)