Wednesday, December 8, 2010

by Emily

Finally readers are some seriously overdue thoughts on Kate Chopin’s exquisite novel, The Awakening. My excuse: a lack of leisure.

The Awakening: A story of unrequited love; one woman’s journey to find her identity; a hopeless tragedy? The Awakening should not be categorized as such, but should be read as a timeless piece of Romanticism, in which Chopin eloquently illustrates the relationship between human longing, Nature, and the codes and customs of society and its effect on a troubled soul.

The original title Chopin chose, A Solitary Soul, while perhaps more apt, would certainly lend a different interpretation to a narrative which “follows Edna’s consciousness to its extinction.” (Robinson xvi). From a feminist perspective, focusing on Edna’s awakenings implies that there is a sense of enlightenment or progress, and possibly there is, but in a grim sense; “perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life” ( Chopin 147). While it is true that her summer spent in Grand Isle was a period of self-discovery, critics also argue that Edna experienced regression; that her infatuation with Robert was nothing greater than her earlier, distanced infatuations.

Edna’s variety of anguish is certainly specific to her class position. Edna is a woman of wealth; she receives assistance in the rearing of her children; she does not want for material things, and she is at liberty to pursue her interests. Her husband, who has minimal expectations for her domestically, is certainly not domineering or patriarchal, and rather more likely to make excuses for his wife’s ill behavior. Chopin does not place Edna as a victim in a patriarchal society; rather she has “created the least onerous situation imaginable for Edna, one that is leisured and without coercion, ready to accommodate her choices (Robinson xii). Instead Edna’s anguish arises from the the stirring of her soul: her acute sensitivity to art and beauty; her sense of disillusionment and hopelessness with her marriage and motherhood. In the end Edna deems her situation so insufferable that she walks out to sea.

Edna continually pushes the constraints of social norms and it becomes clear that she will not be satisfied until those constraints are broken. Those around her, including Robert, possess the ability to feign misbehavior, while Edna “understands that a game is being played by those about her, but refuses to understand what the game is, or why its rules must not be broken nor its essential artfulness forgotten” (Robinson xv). Edna yearns for a freedom that she realizes cannot be attained in living, and so she exits life.

Whether we sympathize with or abhor the sequence of decisions Edna makes, the reader gets a sense that Edna’s disillusionment symbolizes something greater than oneself; that her dilemmas are real human dilemmas.

Below are some book club questions/discussion topics (some gleaned from the internet).

1. Some critics view Edna’s suicide at the end of the novel as a failure to complete her escape from convention—an inability to defy society once stripped of the motivation of a man by her side. Others view her suicide as a final awakening, a decision to give herself to the sea in a show of strength and independence that defies social expectation. Which interpretation do you find more compelling, and why?

2. Two of the strongest characters in the book are women, Madame Ratignolle and Madame Reisz. Contrast their roles as women in the late nineteenth century to Edna’s character.

3. Describe how Edna’s encounters with “nature” in sensuous and fecund Grand Isle lead to her transformation (not to mention enrich the text).

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Update: The Awakening

by K.A. Lewis

After a two week wait on the library, serious mp3 player angst followed by miraculous mp3 player redemption, "The Awakening" is in my possession and fit to be read (or read to me, as the case may be).  How is everyone (anyone?) else doing on this title?  If you had any doubts before I am here to assure you: you are not behind in this here club. 

There has been a request for a book discussion by live chat to compliment our face-to-face meeting, which sounds swell, I think.  With that in mind, please consider and possibly post restrictions or suggestions you may have regarding your availability to cozy up in an online chatroom for one of our upcoming club meetings.  I am very excited about extending the reach of our real-time discussions with the oft-overlooked non-Nevadan point of view.   

Monday, September 13, 2010

What We Are Reading Now: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

by K.A. Lewis

For our next read we've settled on a novel that is a world apart from the dystopian future of The Hunger Games: The Awakening by Kate Chopin.  I, for one, am still waiting for my audio version from the library, so there is plenty of time to for you to locate this book and plunge into The Club.  Can't wait to hear your insights and impressions of this before-its-time classic!

Wrapping It Up With Mockingjay

by K.A. Lewis

This post has moved from the realm of timely to overdue; it is high time to tie up our thoughts about Mockingjay and The Hunger Games series.  (Mockingjay spoilers ahead, so stop here if you are still a-readin'.)

First, how did you like it?  Were you surprised/disappointed/satisfied by the ending?  I found myself so happy that Katniss, Peeta, and Gale survived that my initial reaction was joy and relief.  There was discussion at the Book Club Meeting last week about the smallish attention to detail payed to Katniss and Peeta's reunion in the finale, like it was an afterthought.  It is an ending that extends the novel's focus from that of a relationship in war time, to the horrors of war and how it affects relationships.  Another popular idea at the meeting was that the evolution of Peeta's love for Katniss to its final form turned it from teenage girl-on-a-pedestal ardor into something more lasting and sustainable; in the end Peeta and Katniss find real love (idea credit: Yuliya).  They can rebuild their devastatingly damaged lives together as partners: equals, each with a intimate understanding of the other's weakness, strength and pain.  

Concerning those who didn't survive, my fellow book clubbers and I were most disappointed about Finnick.  It wasn't just that he didn't get the happy ending we hoped for him, it was that we lost him so quickly, without incident or time to mourn.  He was too rad a character to meet such a swift end.  Prim's sacrifice, in contrast, was probably inevitable.  The entire horrid adventure began in an attempt to save her, and as the story came full circle the futility of this singular mission was sure to be realized.  The loss of Prim and questions surrounding it were fundamental in Katniss' terminal break of faith with President Coin as well as recognition of the impassible divide between her values and Rebel Gale's.  I'm not sure she would have achieved the understanding or courage to assassinate President Coin if she wasn't so emotionally destitute, a triumphant act that led to my very favorite scene: desperate Peeta putting himself between her biting mouth and the poisonous nightlock capsules because he just can't stand to let her die, even in light of a bleak and unknown future.  That is when I knew Dear Brave Peeta was back.

In the end, I found Mockingjay and the rest of the series such a clever execution of timeless themes (war, oppression, love, etc.) that I think it is worthwhile as a story of ideas in addition to entertainment.  Yes, The Hunger Games is like methamphetamine for readers: while under the influence one is likely to neglect the demands of daily life in favor of the drug ... you just gotta have One More Hit.  But amid the relentless onslaught of cliffhangers, war games, and propaganda machines are simple human dilemmas, from the personal (e.g. loyalty) to the public (e.g. poverty).  I enjoyed the Hunger Games series very much, and believe I will still recommend it in 10 years as a novel of substance, especially because that content is delivered in my very favorite form: just like crack.           

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Our Girl Katniss is En Fuego

by K.A. Lewis


As I happen to know that discussions of Catching Fire and the like are happening among you, dear readers, away from the wide world of the web, I feel it is important to throw together a new post now so that you can publish your crafty Hunger Games notions right here for all to see.  I'll stick to Catching Fire, but be aware that Mockingjay spoilers could easily creep into the comments.  A thorough discussion of the big finale is planned for our First Book Club Meeting (Whoop!): Tuesday, September 7, 6:30 P.M. at the Reno Barnes & Nobel.  I think it is safe to assume we'll be near the coffee and cookies.  If you cannot be present at the meeting, fear not!  I will post a Mockingjay discussion too.  We will all have plenty to say; I'm sure of it.

I was as surprised as Katniss to learn that she was heading back into the arena for another Hunger Games in the Quarter Quell.  "The Games" are such a dynamite premise that revisiting and reinventing them should maybe have been assumed, but to find our dear protagonists officially back in the Capitol's clutches was for me a shocking and delightful plot twist.  What are your thoughts on the evolving symbolism of The Games, both from the perspective of the Capitol and Districts?  The Capitol is pushing their literal and symbolic power with the 3rd Quarter Quell rules in an attempt to smother the "Girl On Fire" spark, but they just might make the whole thing crack under the pressure.  Putting the victor tributes back in the arena seems a serious but believable blunder.  Here is a governing body so sure of its ultimate efficacy that it thinks it best to bring together and then broadcast the death exploits of a dearly loved group of people: men and women who have long ago proven their cunning, who absolutely despise their leaders, and who have almost nothing to lose.  What I liked best about the action leading up to and during the games in Catching Fire was the building of alliances between clever, nearly-naked winners.  I devoured the hints that so many were on a team revolving around Katniss and Peeta at the unknowing center.  Clearly it is crucial to the developing plot that we, the readers, have no more than a hunch that the other tributes (and even the Head Game Maker) hold a vested interest in keeping Katniss alive: that a much larger rebellion is underfoot.  So what about the reasons given for keeping Katniss and Peeta in the dark until the very end?  Haymitch and Plutarch Heavensbee explain that they couldn't risk telling them, that the less they knew the better since when the force-field blew they would be first to be captured.  I feel this logic has some holes, and that our narrator's lack of knowledge is more a literary device than key plot point ... maybe.  It does serve to clue Katniss in to her role as yet another piece in yet another game, not a Hunger Games this time but a Rebellion: a televised war.  

Prim remains a shadow of a character in this book, but Katniss' nameless mother and Haymitch Abernathy are developed in interesting ways as their relationship with Katniss deepens.  We gain a more detailed picture of just how damaged these two adults are, and can't help but wonder if their feeble stumbling through what is left of their lives is where Katniss, with her debilitating nightmares and mad fits, is headed.  We get more Gale too and at one point, when he is near death and finally vulnerable, Katniss even declares she has chosen him.  She ends up with Peeta again, however, in a life-and-death, albeit chaste, bond.  Katniss is if nothing else consistent in that she repeatedly chooses to align herself with the weakest and most susceptible around her.  The boy that holds her attention is he who needs saving, and the victors she wants on her team are the oldest and oddest of the bunch.

What strikes you about the original and new characters: what they mean to Katniss, what they mean to the story?   Other Catching Fire reflections you'd like to share ....

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Choose Your Team

by K.A. Lewis

Mockingjay, the third and final book in the addicting Hunger Games series, is currently in my possession. I haven't started reading it yet, I'm just savoring the hope and possibilities contained in these last 390 pages.  If you are finishing or maybe waiting to begin Catching Fire save this post for another day.  For others, in this delectable period of anticipation, there is an important question that simply must be asked:  Are you gonna be all like, "Pick Peeta!" or are do you consider yourself more of a "Go Gale!" kinda gal?  (I apologize, imaginary male reader.  If someday you become real I'll attempt to be more inclusive in my wording.)

The relationship dynamics between Katniss and her revolutionary partners/loving admirers inform the characters in appealing and telling ways.  Gale is at a serious disadvantage, as he has so much less page time than Peeta.  Yet we know that he is loyal and brave ... oh, and very, very handsome.  Peeta, the artist who cannot walk quietly through the woods, has a less obvious sort of strength.  He is engaging and clever, and also vulnerable in his less-practical skill set and undying devotion.  I enjoyed the subtle role reversal that makes Peeta the emotional hero of the narrative, while Katniss is the physical and intellectual one.

Nothing like a little love triangle to inspire division.  Who's your man?

Drawing by Burdge_Bug and colored by Audreleigh

Monday, August 23, 2010

Katniss' Power: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

by K.A. Lewis

The Hunger Games: Katniss wins!  Katniss wins!  While fighting to survive a televised fight to the death she's developed a complex relationship with a boy who's life she saved: a boy she feels once saved her.  She and Peeta are left to sort out these complexities under the rueful eye of the Capitol, whose leaders can't help but see the final twist in the games that saved them both as a very public act of rebellion.  So.  We'll see where the discussion takes us, but from here I'm going to try to stick to overarching themes and save major plot considerations for later posts.

First, setting.  Of the superb details employed to create the post-apocalyptic world of Katniss Everdeen for our fancy, it strikes me that one of the foremost literary strengths are those that remind us of our own.  Sure, the Seam and the Districts, the nature of their government, these aspects need description.  But we need no explanation of the nature of reality television; it has been around so long the audience barely registers shock, much less outrage.  We've lived with Survivor for 10 years (10!).  13 years ago in June we might have watched people lining up on an L.A. overpass to wave at O.J.'s slow-moving white Bronco (just as those in the Capitol greeted the tribute train).  There appears to be a constant stream of rich people who are willing to have their petty grievances aired directly from their home to ours, and I once heard someone describe a program called "Faces of Death" which showed stunts caught on film that end in the worst possible way.  It is a very small leap to a staged death match, which I'm going to guess is The Point.

Second, class.  The contrast between the tributes and those living in the Capitol paints a clear picture of having and having not in Panem.  Those in the Capitol are never hungry, they are wasteful and petty, they never want for necessities or luxuries, and therein they are so detached from any reality other than their own that they have lost some of their humanity.  How else can they watch starving children kill each other for sport?  Only a tragic love story, fabricated and edited for emphasis, can motivate compassion.  (Even that empathy is rooted in selfishness, for Katniss and Peeta's story is no longer their own but shared by all.)  I love it when Katniss describes her inability to feel embarrassed as she stands naked before her prep team because they are so strange, cosmetically altered and ridiculously dressed, that she can't help but feel they are more like three colorful birds than discriminating humans.

Third, power.  The power of the Capitol is made to seem absolute.  Beyond the constant threat of death for any "crime" or the daily prison of poverty in which the Districts are held, the games represent the ultimate show of authority.  It is a punishment that lasts generation through generation, and it is worse than death; it is death for your most dear, your children.  And no one is safe.  The town square gathering and false holiday atmosphere of the Reaping is reminiscent of that wretched classic short story I know I was assigned to read as an 11-year-old: "The Lottery."  The twist of additional entries for the poorest families through tessarae reinforces the class issue and shifts the odds in an interesting and terrifying fashion.

I think that it is Peeta who first realizes that the Capitol cannot, in fact, overpower them completely.  Katniss doesn't understand his intentions when he confides in her on the roof the night before the games, but the reader can see in retrospect that Peeta is prepared to die.  However, at the same time he hopes to retain some of himself: to show that even in death he is not simply a pawn but his own person beyond the Capitol's full reach.  Katniss is a survivor, so initially this instinct alone informs her plans which in no way include the subtle rebellion Peeta has described.  In the end, of course, they both play the games on the fringe of the Capitol's power.  Peeta plays to save someone other than himself, Katniss understands his declaration when she gives Rue beauty and respect in death, and finally she defies the rules to save them both with a handful of poison berries: a survivor turned accidental rebel.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Word About YA Fiction

The Hunger Games is currently number two on the New York Times Best Sellers List.  Catching Fire is number one.  Or maybe that should be worded with one wee difference: Catching Fire and The Hunger Games are leading on a New York Times Best Sellers List.  Because if you want to find out how Suzanne Collins' bit of dystopian fiction is doing on the charts you have to look under Children's Books.  Moreover you have to look at the second listing under Children's Books, as Chapter Books falls below Picture Books on the NY Times web page.  (It gets more complicated if you care to dissect it, with two additional categories: Paperback, mostly to benefit young adult [YA] titles, or so my research suggests.  And also Series which ignores individual works and tracks the sales of a series as a whole: current leader The Twilight Saga.)

I'm sure I don't have to tell you that these particular children's chapter books are in good, and at the very least popular, company.  The previously mentioned Twilight phenomenon (I think I can safely use the term "phenomenon" when t-shirts etched with "Camp Cullen" and "Bet you can't read my mind" are being sold at Nordstrom) is a notable YA book that lands on the "Children's" list.  The prototypical series, however, concerns the exploits of one H. Potter.  In 2000, with J.K. Rowling titles holding the top three spots and the fourth Harry Potter book about to be released, the NY Times Book Review added a shiny new category: "Children's Books."   This allowed them to clear some room on the original list and pass out way more "best-seller" stickers.  Apparently this was a controversial decision at the time, with some arguing that a best-seller list should track exactly that.  There was concern the new list implied Rowling's books were exclusively for children, which in addition to being arguably insulting was also untrue (30% of the first three titles were sold to and for readers over the age of 35).  Others countered that the new list provided an opportunity for publicity for books and authors that might otherwise go overlooked, and that it should not be seen as demeaning to categorize a book as written for children, especially as that label in no way implies it won't also appeal to adults.  Well, ten years later the expanded list is here to stay, and this adult book club is beginning with a trilogy from that list.  Young adult titles fall under Children's, and children's books are the new black.

But why?  Why are young adult titles so appealing, or more exactly why are they so appealing to me?  This is the question I found myself pondering when I came upon The Hunger Games, which was not the first YA title I really, really enjoyed.  A nagging part of me couldn't help but wonder: Am I not a good reader?  Do I need my literature simple in a complicated world?

Maybe the answer should be obvious.  Enjoying one genre does not mean you enjoy the others any less.  And children are not all that simple, so writing something that appeals to them plus their parents should hardly be considered a lesser achievement.  However kids are not, as a societal rule, respected as individuals with discerning minds of their own, and adolescence is tolerated at best and despised at worst.  Therefore, I think it relevant to address why a separate category for children could be seen as demeaning but probably shouldn't be, and what it is about YA that both distinguishes and recommends it.

The NY Times solves the labeling question by simply allowing publishers to tell them if a book is for children or adults.  But are there common elements that shove a book embraced by young and not-so-young adults alike onto a YA list?  I can think of a few: 1.) Adult themes are tread upon with care.  And by adult themes I mean sex as well as the other one: more sex.  With teenagers fighting to the death on live TV in our current read, it is difficult to argue that violence is also curbed, even violence against children.  (I wonder if the exception would be sexual violence.)  2.) The protagonists in the story are children.  If your main character is under the age of 18 does that make your book for people of like maturity?  Maybe ... If this young person is not subject to terrifically awful circumstances (i.e. those involving both sex and violence).  It is this, the lack of terrible, horrible horrendousness that I put forth as the crucial and appealing trait of the YA genre: 3.) The characters can find joy; the ending can be tidy.  Children's books can be well written, adored and also respected without the edgy despair that need be present in so much other critically acclaimed entertainment.  They can, and maybe even are expected to, have a happy, happy ending.

What do you think?  Can you name examples or exceptions?  Are there common threads I'm missing or undue simplifications I'm making?  Please share your thoughts.

by K.A. Lewis

Saturday, August 7, 2010

1st Read: Hunger Games Trilogy

In the interest of beginning with spirit and relevance the book club will kick off with not one, but three books, the third and final installment of which is not quite published.  Written by Suzanne Collins, the trilogy begins with The Hunger Games, followed by Catching Fire, and will conclude with Mockingjay, to be released August 24.  In truth, this is not actually a particularly ambitious undertaking.  An absorbed little reader could likely plow through the first two books in the series in under four days, and as of this minute there are 17 before Mockingjay arrives.  Hopefully this leaves plenty of time to both locate and anticipate.  The real trick will be getting a hold of three separate volumes, one of which the kids are  anticipating highly.  The local library should have plenty of copies (don't forget audio!) and if you are building your own collection this series is likely popular enough to be acquired on the cheap.

A post focusing on The Hunger Games will appear here on (or around) the 17th, to be followed a week later by one on Catching Fire.  We'll go from there regarding Mockingjay, assuming we still have eager readers on board.  I think we will; it should be a satisfying end-of-summer read!          

by K.A. Lewis


Well team, grab your book lights: it is Club time.  Desperately-seeking-intellectual-stimulation club; let's-not-talk-work/kids club; what-I-miss-about-college club ... Book Club.  And listen, I understand: there is not enough time.  There is not enough time to mop your floor, much less indulge in a work of fiction.  The phrase "in my free time" is only delivered as a punch line.  Your daily reading choice comes down to literature or sleep.  And yet ...  you are reading, or you want to.  And, darn it, you have insights, or used to.  Well, this is the club for all of you.    

I hope this blog can provide a virtual meeting place for discussion and commentary on books we decide to read simply because we think we will like them.  Follow us on Twitter @LoLbookclub, and use the hash tag #lolreads to tweet your 140-character book-clubby thoughts.  And one evening a month, for those who are interested and able, we will meet so that our "hahaha"s and "lol"s can be lived as actual guffaws. 

Who's in?  Shall we read together for the joy of it?  Let's discuss the heck out of a novel or two in our complete lack of leisure.    

by K.A. Lewis