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