Sunday, March 25, 2012

The District sleeps alone tonight

So many friends hyped up The Hunger Games trilogy that I finally had to read the first book. The plot was well-known: in a post-apocalyptic North America, two teenagers from different districts are sent as "tributes" to the Capitol to battle to the death.

For starters, it was written in the present tense, which I hate. It was also predictable, even if the warrior-reality-TV-survival-romance plot was complicated.

I liked the concept, though: the oppressed districts struggle to survive under a brutal regime. The reader can sense a revolution coming in a future book. (Hmmmm, I wonder who will lead it?)

And I loved the fact that traditional gender roles were reversed: the heroine, Katniss, is the fearless archer, hunter, and provider for her family. Her fellow tribute (and predictable love interest) Peeta is the baker's son who is at home in the kitchen; he's the blindly besotted one, wounded and helpless, who has to be rescued by the heroine. It was Girl Power to the extreme. Awesome.

Then I saw the just-released movie. It was remarkably faithful to the book, perhaps because the author helped with the adaptation. Though I'm split on the merits of the few differences between them, I think I liked the movie a little better than the book.

One scene in particular that is very different was the aftermath of the death of Rue, a fellow tribute whom Katniss befriends. While I loved that part of the book (which has District 11's residents scraping together to send Katniss a loaf of bread), the scene in the movie was more powerful (District 11 salutes her , then riots). Not ashamed to say I was crying from the scene where Rue dies, straight through the riots.

The other thing that's missing from the movie is Katniss' own conflicted thoughts about Peeta, her fellow tribute. In the book, it's a little clear she has a subconscious crush on him; in the movie, it's not. Also lost in the movie is Katniss forming a bond with Cinna, her stylist.

The additions in the movie, though, were brilliant: unlike the book, we see exactly how the Capitol manipulates the Hunger Games for ratings and to control the Districts.

The Atlantic had a great analysis of the movie in terms of the Occupy movement and the 99%. So it's hard not to correlate current affairs to the book's development, each time the tributes or the residents of the poorer, outlying districts need basic things like food and health care.

Meanwhile, in the real District of the real Capitol, the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act tomorrow....

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A world of hopes, a world of fears

Mis hermanas and I loved The Littles when we were kids; The Borrowers we considered the slightly boring ancestor, but liked conceptually nonetheless. So when Mi Hermana en Michigan mentioned that The Secret World of Arrietty was the only movie she knew about it theatres at the moment, it seemed like Providence when a friend in Seattle suggested watching it.

Overall, the story is cute. A boy with a weak heart goes to the country to recuperate, in a house where a family of tiny people-creatures lives. The Borrower girl, Arrietty, wants to explore the bigger world, but puts her family in jeopardy by befriending humans.

There's a dark sort of undertone to the whole story: the boy is going to have an operation and is obsessed with dying; Arrietty's family lives in isolation, not knowing whether or not there are any other Borrowers like them left; the human housekeeper is a bizarrely controlling and manipulative "caretaker". And then there's the one little "wild" Indian-looking Borrower who runs around with face paint and a bow and arrow, which was not cool; this is 2012, and that sort of imagery is a relic from a more unenlightened era.

As a coming-of-age tale, though, I thought it was aptly unresolved: both Arrietty and the boy learn that change is one of the only constants in life, and that their survival depends on that realization.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Polarized pillars

In an alternate New York post-9/11, a committee (representing victims' families, art critics, funders, and politicians) selects an anonymous artist's sculpture garden to be its memorial. The Submission tells the story of what happens when the artist's name is revealed, and it turns out he's Muslim.

Parts of the book were painful to read, because I know it wasn't fiction. The vitriol, the racism, the profiling, the hate, the fear ... it all happened when plans for a proposed Muslim community center met with vicious opposition. And still happens. The talk show soundbites in Waldman's book have all been said somewhere, the articles already printed, the comments uttered repeatedly in real life. But even though it was realistic, it was still gut-wrenching to read.

The characters are assembled right out of a Law and Order episode: the stubborn and egotistical artist who, though agnostic, refuses to answer questions that would not be asked of a non-Muslim; the widow whose role is to represent the interests of the victims' families but finds herself at odds with them; the undocumented Bangladeshi Muslim woman who lost her husband in the towers; the working-class unfavorite son who finds the only meaning in his life in leading an anti-Islam movement.

The cast of individuals in the story spans the wealthy and privileged to the invisible and vulnerable. The changes they undergo as the protests against the memorial mount are, amazingly, unpredictable. Though the community dynamics and identity politics were all uncomfortably familiar (uneasy coalitions, performing for cameras, etc), I was surprised at the twists and turns the characters themselves took.

The book wasn't exactly riveting, nor were the characters especially complicated. Yet I couldn't stop reading because in some way, I was hoping for some minor resolutions in this fictional plot for the mirrored real-life issues and concerns.

Of course, there are none.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Full of grace

I absolutely loved Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, so I brought his debut novel The Virgin Suicides with me to Michigan to read in between toddler birthday parties and gymnastics practices.

I'll admit, I was a little uneasy about the subject of the book, especially given the need for a recent project like "It Gets Better". But when I read the book as a dark comedy rather than a commentary on teenage suicide and the meaning of adolescence in America, it became less grim.

The plot is fairly straightforward, from the first few paragraphs: five teenage sisters all commit suicide within the space of a year. Was it a pact? Was it because their parents were extremely strict? Was it because their peers thought they were reclusive and weird? Was it due to depression? There are no answers, just as there are rarely any answers with a topic as complex as suicide.

The book is narrated by a collective group of neighborhood boys who are obsessed with the sisters; there is no "I" in the storytelling, only "we". Through the eyes of middle aged men recalling their youth, the reader also becomes the voyeur, bears part of the responsibility for both the ostracism and objectification of the girls, and serves as historical record. The narrators, like society, are gruesomely interested in the suicides (even years later) and yet also ironically supplying the social atmosphere in which they can take place. Are the "Virgin" suicides the girls themselves, innocent lives cut short before the passing of decades and declining of health makes their peers nostalgic for a perceived simpler youth or America?

Eugenides is a brilliant writer. His descriptions of little social details and observations are spot-on, hilarious, and oftentimes poignant. Like Middlesex, it definitely kept the reader hooked and engaged by throwing little interesting crumbs down, little tidbits about plot developments.

Perhaps the underlying discomfort I had with the story stems from some long-buried critique of Durkheim, or in the gritty, uneasy reality that this exaggerated tale is a pretty apt portrait of a cultural obsession.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Four of spades

I read the first books in two similar series' at the same time, so I figured I'd do the same thing with the second (and last) books. They were, once again, bizarrely parallel.

City of Secrets: San Francisco, 1940. Tough, chain-smoking, wise-cracking female private investigator solves murders that have a sickening anti-Semitic overtone. Meanwhile, in her personal life, she gets a mysterious note from the mother who abandoned her; she also has to deal with potential suitors who don't necessarily like the nature of her work. She works alone, but her "partner" in solving crimes is a journalist always out for a hot story. Her apartment is a target for the bad guys. There is also a subplot involving eugenics and illegal abortions.

Too Darn Hot: New York City, 1943. Tough, chain-smoking, wise-cracking female private investigator solves murders that have an anti-Semitic undertone. Meanwhile, in her personal life, she tries to confront her painful past with a mother who never loved her; she also has to deal with a boyfriend who doesn't necessarily like how her work takes up all of her time. She works alone, but her "partner" in solving crimes is a cop always out for a hot case. Her apartment is a target for the bad guys. There is also a subplot involving a pregnancy scandal and rape.

Though the two books were so similar, I enjoyed them more than the first books in the series. City's tone was a lot more cynical that its predecessor - the writing style was even choppier and more hard-edged. Too Darn Hot was the same blend of sarcasm and sappy that worked well for the main character.

Maybe it was the blatant contrast between a starkly dark, gritty tone and sardonic but light-hearted irreverence. In the end, Sandra Scoppetone's setting and characters grew on me. Kelli Stanley's didn't.

Truffula oil

I saw The Lorax on opening night with a friend who didn't want to see anything serious. Though I haven't read the Dr. Seuss book in a very long time, I remember the general storyline: a boy wants to know why trees have disappeared, and a mysterious Once-ler reveals that it was his own greed that killed them off many years ago.

In general, I was disappointed and bored with the movie. The addition of an air-in-a-can Big Business industry was something I don't think was in the original Dr. Seuss book, but it did fit rather well for turning the story into a longer animated film. It also gave the movie an evil corporate villain for the audience to rally around.

But the breaks into song and dance were a little annoying and out-of-place, though all the little kids in the audience seemed to love it. (They chair-danced during most of the songs. We were surrounded.) I also thought the little romance between the two kids was a little weird: the plot would have worked fine if Ted, the boy, simply had a curious intellectual interest in trees. Why was it necessary for him to want a tree to impress a girl? Luckily, the movie is short enough that I don't think my entire time was wasted watching it; plus, it gave me a quick break from the coup in Olympia that ate up my time until 3am.

Then I read this BBC analysis and this review of The Lorax and didn't feel so bad.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Hemlock and rank fumitory

I wanted to love Breakfast with Socrates. I thought it would be an amazingly deep, academic journey through Western philosophy and its relevance to modern daily life.

Surprisingly, it wasn't as academic as I expected, which ended up being both relieving and disappointing. Robert Rowland Smith walks through an average day and connects certain aspects (waking up, commuting, having lunch, shopping) to a larger discussion of being and meaning. Since I was familiar with some of the philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Hegel, Marx), it was a little frustrating that their ideas weren't explained in their complex entirely; and knowing that, I wasn't sure how to put into context the philosophers with whom I was less familiar.

The chapters, each dealing with a different realm of a day, were hit or miss: either I was really intrigued or I was bored. There were even a few instances where the end of a chapter came with an irritatingly moralizing tone (for example, the admonition that you should definitely let your parents buy you lunch, or some of Smith's reflections on the nature of love). However, I did enjoy Smith's writing style: peppered with alliteration and every kind of literary or musical references, he is enjoyably witty. But the book wasn't so much the introduction to applied philosophy as I hoped it would be.