Friday, June 26, 2009
Review: The Hunger Games
The Hunger GamesSuzanne Collins. ISBN 978-0-439-02348-1. That rare book that you can't tear through fast enough even as you dread it being finished, Suzanne Collins's distopian future is easily the best young adult storytelling to come along since Harry Potter finished. What the two worlds share is an unusual ability to celebrate the best of humanity without neglecting its worst. Set in a future North America transformed by global warming and ravaged by nuclear war, the descendents of the survivors are concentrated atop the Rockies in the West and the Appalachian range in the East. Collins introduces us to the world through the eyes of Katniss Everdeen, an undersized and undernourished sixteen-year-old protagonist and narrator that embodies Jean Craighead George's practical and self-sufficient ideal. The early chapters feel ripped from 'My Side of the Mountain', if the Catskills had been occupied by a brutal foreign power. Before her father died, he taught her the basics of hunting. Her mother, a skilled apothecary before she sank into a debilitating depression, educated Katniss on the plants all around them. These skills, combined with ample ingenuity, allow her to keep her mother and little sister fed.

The one thing she cannot control is the Hunger Games. After the disasters, the Western population restored its high standard of livng by dividing the far more ravaged Eastern range into thirteen districts which were forced to pay tribute. A littl over seven decades prior to the start of the novel, the Eastern districts mounted a failed rebellion that was brutally crushed by the Western Capitol. The thirteenth district was completely obliterated to make a statement and an annual gladiatorial fight to the death broadcast live as reality TV called the the Hunger Games was imposed on the surviving twelve districts as punishment. Every year, a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district are drafted through a lottery to compete. When Katniss's little sister is drafted, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

What transpires from there is full of human feeling and astute observation of the human condition. Collins restricts herself to a middle school vocabulary for her target audience, but the result feels authentic given Katniss's age and background. Her portrayal of death is matter-of-fact, unflinching, and heartbreakingly personal. Her portrayal of life in the face of death is achingly beautiful. In spite of severely limited options that have left them literally and figuratively boxed in, the children competitors demonstrate the full spectrum of human expression. The Hunger Games are designed to break the spirit of the oppressed by force the most vulnerable among them to carry out inhuman acts in order to survive. Katniss's most rebellious act, then, is to express love and fellowship and gratitude in spite of what she must do. Collins presents a vision of the future on the opposite pole from Huxley's A Brave New World in a book that grapples with the unanswerable questions of our uncompromising world in a manner accessible to all ages. I felt that little pang of grief upon finishing this book that only the best stories can stir. The good news for me is that the follow-up arrives this September.

Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3John Godey. ISBN 978-0-425-22879-1. Republished in anticipation of the 2009 film adaptation, this 1973 best seller wears its age extremely well. While the style of the narration, the speech patterns of the dialog, and the chosen character archetypes mark the time period, the language is both crisper and less pretentious than we would expect from a thriller today. All but one of the main characters are male, and they address each other with the vibrant, vulgar and politically incorrect vernacular that imbalance implies. Morton Freedgood (writing as John Godey)'s cast of characters is multi-racial and evenly handled in a New York City when the racial divide still played out on the surface and in the open. From the opening setup to the final punchline, Godey's thriller operates with clockwork precision. The ingenuity and research that went into the subway hijacking itself is sufficient enough to makes its initial success feel inevitable rather than contrived. As events play out, Godey shakes the proceedings up with both predictable speed bumps arising from evident character flaws and the sort of random, unpredictable incidents that naturally arise from such a complex, high-stress situation. The Rashômon-esque device of telling the story through rotating perspectives is tremendously effective at painting a vibrant tapestry of New York City life. The omniscient narrator's wry gallows humor pleasantly adds to the dated quality of the novel. But the IRT Pelham Line still runs from Pelham Bay Park to South Ferry via the No. 6 train, preserving the relevance and potency of the core scenario.