Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

“Only I keep wishing I could think of a show the capitol they don't own me. That I'm more than a piece in their games.”

Hunger. Violence. Struggle. Survival. Imagine living in a place where these were your day to day life was filled with nothing but this. Where your one goal was to put food on the table and protect your loved ones. This is the world of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. It is dark, violent, ravished, and controlled. But perhaps the most terrifying thing about this world is that in many ways it is eerily similar to our own.

The Plot:

After an unnamed apocalyptic event, the remnants of North America have come together to create the nation of Panem. Formed by 12 districts and ruled with an iron fist by the Capitol, Panem is not a fun place to be. Everyone's lives are dictated by the decrees of the Capitol, poverty is very high, and starvation is the norm. But 16 year old Katniss Everdeen is determined that her family will not meet that fate. After her father's death, she focuses solely on putting food on the table. She and her best friend Gale spend most of their days in the forest hunting, trapping, and honing their survival skills. Though life is hard, Katniss feels that the odds of survival are in her favor. Until the day of the Reaping.

As punishment for a rebellion earlier in Panem's history, the Capitol randomly selects two "tributes" from each district to compete in the annual Hunger Games. The tributes are placed in an arena where they must battle hunger, nature, and each other to survive - all on live television. Only one person come out alive. When her young sister is chosen as a tribute, Katniss does not think twice before volunteering to take her place. Now she and Peeta, a boy from her past, must make the journey to the Capitol where they will be prepped, presented, and sent to the arena to kill or be killed.

My Review: (Caution-Spoilers):

This was my first step into the world of YA literature. I didn't really think all the hype surrounding these books could be true. But when multiple friends suggested them to me, I figured I should at least give it a try. Boy, was I sucked in to this series! It's been a long time since I finished a book in one day. I just had to know how it was all going to turn out.

In an interview, Suzanne Collins lists books like The Lord of the Flies, 1984, A Wrinkle in Time, and Ray Bradbury works as being some of the most influential books in her life. That is pretty obvious in this novel and gives you an idea of the tone of the story. Most of the choices that Katniss and the other characters are forced to make are not black and white. In order to feed her family, Katniss must ignore Panem laws which forbid hunting and leaving the district. Each of the tributes must garner the admiration and love of the citizens of the Capitol (who put them in this position in the first place) in order to better their odds in the arena. And both Katniss and Peeta, in order to insure their own survival, must take the lives of other young people whose only crime was to be selected as a tribute. At the same time, there is a slow transformation in the story, mainly in Katniss. It is a slow shift from Katniss simply trying to survive, to trying to live. Both Peeta and Katniss eventually promise themselves that though they have been placed in this brutal situation by the Capitol, they won't let it strip them of who they are. They will remember love, trust, loyalty, friendship, and sacrifice...all the things that make them human.

Another influence on the story came late in the night. According to Collins, she was flipping through the TV channels one night, and she bounced back and forth between a reality show and coverage of the Iraq war. For the citizens of the Capitol, the Hunger Games is just another round of entertainment. They have their favorite "characters" who they root for. They love personal interviews, stories about the tributes' lives back home, and "romance" between two certain tributes. But for the tributes, this isn't about simply getting voted off the island; this is a matter of life and death. It is a fight not just to survive, but to help their families have a better life. It begs the question if this is not what our own society has become. If for us, the events happening around the world are no more than a less entertaining version of a reality show. That somehow the violence, the starvation, the death, and the pain all goes away whenever we turn off our televisions. If nothing else, Collins serves us a reminder that for those who are put in harm's way by one means or another, there's is also a matter of life and death.

I may be coming a little late to this party, but I am definitely a fan. In retrospect, The Hunger Games strikes me as the weakest of the three books. Katniss is a rather immature and moody teenager throughout, and the supporting characters come across as somewhat thin. However, the story is gripping, the structure of the Games and Panem are interesting, and you simply will not be able to put it down until you figure out how Katniss will win. (like she'd die in the first book). So I'm adding my voices to the millions of others when I say that this is an absolute must read. Get it now!!

Note: Due to the dark subject matter and the heavy violence in this story, I would definitely use some discretion before recommending it to anyone under the age of 14 or so.

The Movie:

The film version of this story is due to come out in March of this year. It will star Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, and Liam Hemsworth as Gale.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Burns Night

Today is a big day for the Scots (and those of us who wish we were)! All over the world, people of Scottish descent will be coming together to celebrate the life and work of Robert Burns. Born on January 25, 1759, Burns would go on to right many poems that reflected Scottish heritage, traditions, and life. Today, his poems are still loved and recited by many and in 2009 he was voted the "Greatest Scot" by the people of Scotland.

The tradition of the Burns Supper began in the early 19th century, and occurs every year on or around January 25th. They are essentially gatherings (formal and informal) of Burns lovers who spend the evening eating haggis, drinking whiskey, and reciting Burns poetry. Though different people prefer one Burns poem to another, there are some that are his most popular. This year, over 1000 Scots voted his narrative poem "Tam o' Shanter" as their all-time favorite. Here is the opening portion of the poem:

When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,
As market days are wearing late,
An' folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

Read the whole poem here.

Whether or not your family hails from the Highlands, this is a great time to revel in the tradtion and pageantry of being Scottish. So take a few moments to raise a wee dram to good ol' Rabbie Burns, whose poems continue to bring pride and pleasure to Scots and non-Scots alike over 200 years later.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Literature and the Bible

There's an interesting post over at the New York Times by Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson (Gilead). Entitled Book of Books - What Literature Owes the Bible, it is a fascinating look at just how much of an influence scripture has had over western literature:

Each of these works reflects a profound knowledge of Scripture and tradition on the part of the writer, the kind of knowledge found only among those who take them seriously enough to probe the deepest questions in their terms. These texts are not allegories, because in each case the writer has posed a problem within a universe of thought that is fully open to his questioning once its terms are granted. Here the use of biblical allusion is not symbolism or metaphor, which are both rhetorical techniques for enriching a narrative whose primary interest does not rest with the larger resonances of the Bible. In fact these great texts resemble Socratic dialogues in that each venture presupposes that meaning can indeed be addressed within the constraints of the form and in its language, while the meaning to be discovered through this argument cannot be presupposed. Like paintings, they render meaning as beauty.

Read the whole article here.

HT: The Rabbit Room

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Breakfast at Tiffany's

"What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name."

In 1958, a slim novella by American author Truman Capote was published. In it's pages, Capote had created a character that would not only become his most famous literary creation, but would also become an American cultural icon. Though Capote wrote many short stories and even a crime book, perhaps none of his work is as well-known, as popular, or as beloved as the story of Holly Golightly.

The Plot:

In this novella, an unnamed narrator reflects on his relationship with a young woman 15 years previously. At the time, he was an upstart writer living in a brownstone apartment in Manhattan. After moving in, he meets one of his neighbors, a cafe society girl named Holiday (Holly) Golightly. He is soon captivated by Holly and they become close friends and confidants. Holly at once delights and baffles him. She earns her living by socializing with wealthy men and plays the part of a witty and beautiful socialite. But the narrator also gets glimpses of her insecurities, her fears, and her heartaches. Though he tries to learn more about Holly's true nature, it is not long before he realizes that trying to break through her protective exterior could ultimately drive her away.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This was my second taste of Capote's writing. My first was his collection of Christmas stories which touched me greatly. I wondered if I would feel the same way about his more popular novella. The answer is...not exactly.

It is clear from the beginning that though the story is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, this is really Holly's story. Her card on the mailbox truly says it all: Miss Holiday Golightly, Traveling. Holly someone who is never truly at home. She moves through from one moment to the next living only for the freedom and independence that she craves. She constantly tells the narrator, bartender friend Joe Bell, and husband Doc Golightly that they should never love or try to cage a wild thing because it won't survive. Whenever Holly finds herself beginning to be tied to another person, she bolts. But for all her desire for freedom, she finds that it can lead to loneliness. "
It's better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear." She often doesn't realize just how much she needs another person (or cat) until she has already abandoned them.

As interesting a character as Holly is, I wasn't overly enamored with the novella itself. It didn't quite touch me like the other Capote works did. Plus, I think too many people (myself included) go into this story with pictures of Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard on their mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. The character of Paul in the film bears no resemblance to the story's unnamed narrator and Holly's glitzy prostitution is not as whitewashed as Hepburn's portrayal. Not to mention the ending of the novella is much more sober and reflective than in the film.

Overall, I found this book to be interesting, but not necessarily something that I will return to over and over again. I think all fans of the film should read it as a companion, and Holly makes an interesting character study for those who are interested in that kind of thing. I'm glad that I read it, but I don't think I'm in love.

The Movie:

The film version of this novella is actually more popular and well-known than the original book. Starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, Blake Edwards' 1961 production is a true film classic. Though it is a whitewashed and happier version of Capote's story, it is nevertheless a must see for all fans of great cinema. It is truly a classic of American culture.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

2012: The Year of Dickens

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Over the last few years, there have been numerous milestones in literary history. In 2008 we celebrated the 100th birthday of L. M. Montgomery's famous work Anne of Green Gables. Last year marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility. But all of those pale in comparison to the party that the world (and London in particular) has planned for this year.

February 7, 2012 is the 200th birthday of one of English literature's most beloved novelists, Charles Dickens. There are tons of events, special exhibitions, and other things being planned worldwide to mark this milestone. The website Dickens 2012 has this to say about the author and the planned celebrations: Although a writer from the Victorian era, Dickens’s work transcends his time, language and culture. He remains a massive contemporary influence throughout the world and his writings continue to inspire film, TV, art, literature, artists and academia. Dickens 2012 sees a rich and diverse programme of events taking place in the run up and throughout the whole of 2012.

Here are some of the amazing things happening this year that you can participate in:

-London is definitely the place to be this year if you are a Dickens lover. The Charles Dickens Museum has re-opened to the public, and is the place to view over 100,000 manuscripts, rare editions, and personal items from Dickens' world. The Museum of London has a new exhibition dedicated to Dickens' legacy in London. On Feb. 7th, Westminster Abbey will hold a wreath laying ceremony at his tomb. Many portraits of the Dickens family will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery. And Dickens centered walking tours will let you see the great city through his eyes. However you like to commemorate this special occasion, London can help you do it.

-England is not the only place to party. The Museum Strauhof in Zurich which specializes in literary history will have a special exhibit dedicated to Dickens. The Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts will highlight Dickens' friendship with the American poet. And a Dickens Book Festival is on the schedule at Ch√Ęteau D’Hardelot, Pas-de-Calais in France.

-Even if you don't live where a major festival or exhibit is planned, there are plenty of ways to celebrate on your own. Masterpiece Classic will be airing two new Dickens adaptations this year: Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Two new biographies of the author were published in time for the festivities: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin and Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. And international publishers Wiley-Blackwell have announced a free online conference entitled "Dickens' World" will be held March 7-March 8.

-Get others involved in the fun. If you are in a book club, try reading and discussing a Dickens novel. If you are a patron of a local bookshop, encourage them to get involved by inviting guest speakers and hosting read alouds. If you are involved in community theater, consider bringing a Dickens classic to life. And if you are a teacher, introduce your students to Dickens' world.

No matter how you choose to celebrate, just be sure to take some time this year to commemorate one of the best writers in the English language. His creations continue to haunt, amuse, and inspire us to this day. Mr. Dickens, we are truly in your debt.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Way We Live Now

Whatever be the misery to be endured, get it over. The horror of every agony is in its anticipation.

Back in 2009, Newsweek created a list of fifty books that it considered "must reads" for understanding the times we live in. Surprisingly enough, the book it considered most important for those living in today's world was none other than an 1875 British satirical novel. Considered by many readers to be his masterpiece, Anthony Trollope's sweeping novel The Way We Live Now lashes out at the dishonesty that he saw prevailing Victorian England. From issues of money to love to politics, Trollope forces society to look in the mirror and see the glaring faults that it possesses. In so doing, it also shows us that the society that we openly despise as we read is in many ways eerily similar to our own.

The Plot:

It is the 1870s and London society is reveling the glitz and gilding of the Victorian era. The arrival of a foreign investment manager named Augustus Melmotte has a ripple effect that touches many lives. There's nonsensical Lady Carbury who imagines herself to be the literary world's next great authoress, as well as her son, Felix, whose gambling and philandering drive her ever deeper into debt, and her daughter, Hetta, who's heart is being torn in two. There's Roger Carbury and Paul Montague, two friends who have the misfortune to fall in love with the same woman. There's Melmotte's daughter, Marie, who finds that her hand (and her wealth) are coveted by man young gentlemen. There's Ruby Ruggles who spurns security and true love for a romantic dream, and Georgianna Longstaffe who will do ANYTHING for a house in town. And there's Mrs. Hurtle, the mysterious American trying desperately to retain the heart of the man she loves.

All of these and more find their lives wrapped up in the meteoric rise of Augustus Melmotte. He is the man to know, and almost all of them will crawl over broken glass to be seen in his presence by Society. But rumors soon begin to spread concerning Melmotte and as his rise gives way to a plummet, many are left scrambling to get out of the way.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I guess the first thing I should tell you about this book is that it is LONG. Clocking in at 100 chapters and over 700 pages, it is the definition of a clunker. I almost envy those Victorians who got to read it in serialization versus having to take it all in at once. Nevertheless, it is worth the time it takes to plow through it.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Though the world that Trollope describes is one of corsets, horse drawn carriages, and waltzing, it is not hard to see that the essence of the story is reflected in the world of the 2000s. What Trollope despises most is the fact that Victorian society would overlook just about anything if the offender has enough money. Augustus Melmotte is a great swindler, which everyone knows from the beginning. He is coarse, greedy, arrogant, manipulating, and criminal. And nobody cares. As long as he lives in a gorgeous house in Grosvenor Square, as long as he entertains the royalty of the land, and as long as he throws a lavish dinner for the Emperor of China, the fact that he is a liar and a cheat means nothing. Society is more than happy to overlook any offense that is covered in gold. It is only after rumors begin to spread regarding Melmotte's actual worth that society begins to aim it's daggers at the interloper. Sounds a bit like our own time does it not? How often did we turn a blind eye to the dishonesty and criminality happening all around us, assuming that anything (or anyone) with that much money was worth being associated with?

Trollope also shows society's faults in the way it treats people like John Crumb, Mr. Breghart, and Roger Carbury. Each of these men is honest, hardworking, and sincere. Though John Crumb is capable (and more than willing) of providing Ruby Ruggles with a comfortable home and a loving heart, she despises him because he does not fit her romantic idea of a gentleman. Mr. Breghart deals honestly and straightforwardly with Georgianna Longstaffe, but she throws him over when the house in town no longer enters the equation. And Roger Carbury is the epitome of a gentleman, and yet Hetta gives her heart to Paul Montague who, though well-intentioned, does not exactly play fair between her and Mrs. Hurtle. Ok, so the last example is a bit of a stretch, but let it be known that I am solidly on Team Roger. I'd take him over that nice but weak-willed Paul any day.

When it comes to a good example of a Victorian novel, this is a wonderful one. Many people compare Trollope to Dickens, and in many ways this is fair. Trollope's focus on the problems facing Victorian society is very similar to Dickens, and you can see lots of similarities between their works (Little Dorrit anyone?). And though perhaps Trollope's characters are not as over the top or memorable as Dickens', they are very well drawn. There are those you love to hate, like Felix Carbury. There are those who are so ridiculous that you can't help but love them, like Dolly Longstaffe. There are those who never cease to surprise you, like Mrs. Hurtle. And then there are those who simply demand your love and respect, like Roger Carbury. Each of Trollope's characters are very human, and it is easy to see our own traits, faults, and dreams reflected in them.

Though it took a lot of diligence and effort to make it through this lengthy novel, it was well worth it in the end. It is a fine portrayal of life at the height of the Victorian era, as well as reflection of our own times. The Way We Live Now is just that.

The Movie:

This novel has been adapted twice by the BBC. The first was in 1969 and starred Colin Blakely, Cavan Kendall, and Phyllida Law.

The second is the more recent 2004 adaptation starring David Suchet, Matthew MacFadyen, Cillian Murphy, Miranda Otto, and host of other well-known British actors. It streamlines this sprawling plot beautifully, and the cast is wonderful in their respective roles. David Suchet is especially good as the scheming Melmotte. Worth a watch whether you read the book or not.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Enter 2012....

It never ceases to amaze me exactly how fast a year can go by. It seems like only yesterday that we were ringing in 2011, and here we are welcoming 2012. Though I didn't get nearly the amount of reading done in 2011 that I had planned on, I still discovered a number of gems and new favorites that will remain with me forever. Here are my top 5 books of 2011:

Honorable Mention: The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. I just finished the book yesterday and have not had a chance to fully review it, but it is definitely worth a read. Though this 700 page tome was written in 1875, it could just as easily describe life in today's world. The preoccupation with money, the willingness to overlook falseness in those who have it, and a lack of respect for honest and trust is just a prevalent today as it was in Trollope's time. A must read Victorian classic.

#5: 84, Charing Cross Rd. by Helene Hanff. This classic is enough to warm the heart of any book lover. It tells the story of a brash New York writer and a buttoned-up British bookseller who begin a correspondence that lasts for many years. Though they never actually meet, their mutual love of good literature helps create a strong friendship that brings them together despite the ocean between them. This is a warm, comforting read that brightened up a slow rainy day at my office.

#4: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. Often described as a "haiku in prose", this sparse novel by Japanese writer Kawabata is painfully beautiful. Set in the hot springs resorts of Japan's snow country, it is the story of two people who simply cannot connect on an emotional level, no matter how much they want to. This was my first taste of Asian literature, and it left me craving more.

#3: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. I am a huge fan of Charles Dickens, and this particular book is certainly one of his better ones. Great characters, an intriguing pot, and relative lessons about life are all found in this one. Though it can be uneven at times, it still ranks up there with some of my most favorite Dickens works.

#2: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham. A truly heart-wrenching story of love, betrayal, and self discovery. Set against the backdrop of 1920s China, Maugham's work removes the mask from his characters and shows us human nature as it really is. I highly recommend it.

#1: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. I knew the moment I finished this book that it would probably be my top book of the year. Paton's cry for truth, justice, and human dignity is as poignant today as when it was written. It is both a beautiful novel with a lyrical writing style, as well as a powerful story with wonderful characters who can move you to tears. This is one that I wish I had read years ago. If you have never read this jewel of a book before, I am telling you to do so now. You won't regret it.

So what is coming this way for me in 2012? I don't have as definite a plan of reading as I have in past years, but nevertheless I believe it will be a great year for me in books. First off, I plan on reading more non-fiction this year than I have in years past, so be prepared to see those kinds of reviews as well. I also plan on dipping my toes into the world of young adult literature by reading The Hunger Games trilogy (let's see how well that goes). And finally, I hope to post much more regularly this year. Though my days have gotten no less busy, I plan on making reading and blogging a much higher priority on my "things to do list". Hopefully I'll gain some lost ground this year.

To all of my readers, thank you so much for sticking with me and taking time to read my thoughts on books. I hope that your 2012 is an amazing year both in reading, and in the rest of your life. Happy New Year!!