Wednesday, February 22, 2012


“Fire is catching! And if we burn, you burn with us!”

The subject of war is not new to the sphere of literature. It has been portrayed in everything from sweeping epics like War and Peace to heart-wrenching sagas like All Quiet on the Western Front. But the vast majority of "great war novels" are strictly in the adult genre. Peruse the aisles of children's and YA literature and you'll find novels of good vs. evil, novels of children affected by war, and novels that glorify battle. What you won't find are novels that show war for what it really is: complicated and morally ambiguous. The final installment in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy fills this gap and takes its young protagonist to the very brink of destruction.

The Plot:

It is all out war in Panem. Katniss Everdeen has been rescued from the Quarter Quell arena only to find out that her home of District 12 has been wiped out by the Capitol. The few survivors including Gale, Prim, and Katniss' mother who do escape find refuge in District 13, once thought to have been defeated by the Capitol but which survived by moving underground. District 13 is now leading the revolt against the Capitol, possessing the weapons, the technology, and everything they need to get the job done. Everything that is except a symbol. Whether she likes it or not, Katniss has become the symbol of defiance to the people of Panem, and the rebels want her to help them by taping propaganda messages to go out across the country. After much deliberation, Katniss decides to become the "Mockingjay".

But things are not as cut and dry as she originally thought. She is under full control of District 13's President Coin with little to no say in the actual battle plans. Her overwhelming desire for revenge and freedom soon meet up with the reality that is war. She is faced with the mass killing of innocent people, battles with ordinary citizens of Panem, and the loss of comrades in arms. On top of that, Peeta is being held and tortured by the Capitol and she is forced to see him disintegrate before her eyes. Then the final, crushing blow comes which plunges Katniss into a despair the depth of which she has never known. Throughout this story, she has proven to be a survivor. Now she must wonder if surviving is even worth it.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Having already fallen in love with the previous books in the series, I was prepared to enjoy the final installment. I wasn't prepared to be blown away by it. Suzanne Collins certainly took the story in directions that I did not see coming. After finishing it, all I could do is sit back, take a deep breath, and reflect on what I had just experienced.

Everything in the first two books had led to this. The war is in full swing and we are ready for it. Ready to see the Capitol pay for the horrific things it has done. Ready to see Katniss stand and face President Snow in defiance. And then it happens. We see hospitals full of innocent victims deliberately bombed. We see characters we have grown to loved wiped out in an instant. We begin to question whether either side is really worth rooting for. Collins does a masterful job of portraying war like it really is. We are so used to seeing movies or reading books that have defined good and evil sides. We can pull for the "good" side without fear of being betrayed. Of course, this is not true in real war. Both sides make mistakes that needlessly send their warriors into danger. Both use propaganda to wage psychological warfare. Both leave physical, emotional, and mental scars on everyone involved. And both sacrifice the innocent in the name of the cause. It is this moral ambiguity that makes Mockingjay's war both so familiar and yet so terrifying. To me the line "If you we burn, you burn with us!" is so symbolic of Collin's message about war. It is said in a moment of defiance, a kind of "I dare you". But the truth is war is fire, and no one is left unscarred by it's flames.

After the war's conclusion, Panem is a shattered place. Thousands have died, many are left homeless, and no one will ever be the same again. After all she has witnessed, including the horrifying death of her sister, Katniss cannot imagine how life can continue. And yet it does. Slowly but surely, the survivors begin to pick up the pieces around them. Peeta and Katniss reach out to each other, slowly bringing themselves back to life. The meadow that covers the bones of so many dead blooms again and becomes the playplace of the next generation. It is this image of hope enduring in the face of the most unspeakable horror that Collins leaves us with. Beyond the anti-war message of most of the book, Mockingjay makes us realize that survival is not really about ourselves, but about the ones who will come after us. It is for them that we continue on.

This is truly a fitting end to this series and one that is well-worth your time. Collins reminds us of the total depravity that we humans are capable of. But she also reminds us of our resilience and the hope that lies at the end of every tragedy. I know some may be disappointed with this quiet and sober ending, but I found it to be perfect. One of the best books that I have read in a long time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

That's Amore....

It's that time of year again! Today we celebrate that wonderful, maddening, passionate, and complicated emotion called love. Once again as in years past, I'm using this day to highlight some of my most favorite literary couples. The one's whose stories make our hearts flutter. Each story is so unique, and yet in many ways they are all the same...

Sir Percy Blakeney and Margeurite Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

At the beginning of the story, there seems to by no unlikelier romantic couple than the foppish, slow witted Sir Percy Blakeney and the witty, sarcastic Margeurite. But these two are actually much more alike than you would think. It is only their pride and lack of trust that cause an emotional rift. This is such a fun novel, and we are kept on the edge of our seats wondering, not really will Percy be able to outwit Chauvelin, but will he and Margeurite be able to rekindle their love for each other.

She loved him still. And now that she looked back upon the last few months of misunderstandings and of loneliness, she realized that she had never ceased to love him; that deep down in her heart she had always vaguely felt that his foolish inanities, his empty laugh, his lazy nonchalance were nothing but a mask; that the real man, strong, passionate, willful, was there still--the man she had loved, whose intensity had fascinated her, whose personality attracted her, since she always felt that behind his apparently slow wits there was a certain something, which he kept hidden from all the world, and most especially from her.

Dr. Peter Blood and Arabella Bishop from Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

What's a good swashbuckling novel without a helpless damsel finding herself entangled with a ruthless pirate. But Arabella Bishop is no helpless damsel and Capt. Blood is no ordinary pirate. Though they did not meet under the best of circumstances, their mutual respect for each other leads to a strong friendship and a passionate love. But fate is cruel and mutual misunderstandings soon threaten to separate them forever. Though their romance is not the main focus of the story, it is still a good one.

"Must I release ye? Must I let ye go and never set eyes on ye again? Or will ye stay and make this exile endurable until we can go home together?"

Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

There is nothing that guarantees that two people will fall in love at the end of a story like their profession of absolute hatred for each other at the beginning. Shakespeare's famous couple comes out swinging with all kinds of verbal punches but by the end of the story each finds him(her)self conquered by the other. There's nothing like a good fight to make you enjoy a makes for such wonderful "kiss and make up".

"In brief, since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it; and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion."

Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Perhaps no literary couple is as iconic or exasperating as the one found in Mitchell's classic novel. It is obvious from the start that Rhett and Scarlett absolutely belong together. But both of them are so stubborn and blind that they just can't see it. This is definitely one of literature's more heartbreaking romances.

"When I first met you, I thought: There is a girl in a million. She isn't like these other silly little fools who believe in everything their mammas tell them and act on it, no matter how they fee. And conceal all their feelings and desires and little heartbreaks behind a lot of sweet words. I thought: Miss O'Hara is a girl of rare spirit. She knows what she wants and she doesn't mind speaking her mind--or throwing vases."

Henry Tilney and Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

What's Valentine's Day without a bit of Austen? Perhaps no other Austen couple is as much fun as Henry and Catherine. She is so sweet and naive and he's so laid back and brotherly. I love how he can easily go from being Catherine's playful chum to giving her somewhat stern (though needed) correction. Theirs is a relationship that we can see lasting far beyond the end of the book.

"'I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him -- seems a most extraordinary genius -- hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say.'"


#1 Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour in The Scarlet Pimpernel
#2 Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland in Captain Blood
#3 Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Much Ado About Nothing
#4 Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind

#5 JJ Feild and Felicity Jones in Northanger Abbey

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Catching Fire

At some point, you have to stop running and turn around and face whoever wants you dead. The hard thing is finding the courage to do it.

When faced with the threat of danger, our first instinct is to run. We turn and bolt from it almost without thinking, our only goal being to outrun whatever is after us. That, or to outrun someone else and let the danger catch them first. And yet, many times we also feel compelled to stop and sacrifice ourselves for the safety of those we care about. In this second novel of the Hunger Games Trilogy, our heroine must make the hard choices and decide whether a life without the people she loves is one worth living at all.

The Plot:

After winning the 74th Hunger Games together, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark should be returning home to a life of ease. Not only will they and their families have plenty of food, but as celebrities they will also have many privileges and favors bestowed on them by the Capitol. But things don't quite work out that way. Katniss is informed that her actions in the games have caused rebellion to begin rising in the Districts. The Capitol does not intend for this to go unchecked, and Katniss must find a way to stop it if she wants to protect those around her. Fire is not easy to put out, and Katniss soon finds that her biggest efforts do nothing to cool the flames. Just when she is contemplating running away, the Capitol cracks down by sending in more Peacekeepers and harshly punishing petty crimes.

As things get worse in the Districts, Katniss learns that District 13 (which was supposedly wiped out by the Capitol) may still be alive and able to offer help to the others. But before she can act on this information, Katniss learns that, in a cruel twist of fate, she and Peeta will be heading back to the arena to face past winning tributes. She must now decide how she will once again protect herself and Peeta from the enemy, and also just who exactly that enemy is.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

After having been completely sucked into this series by the first book, I had high hopes for this one. Ultimately it did not disappoint, and once again Collins kept me transfixed. I simply had to know how it was all going to turn out.

As in the first book, Collins addresses many issues throughout the story. One of these is the idea of independence versus interdependence. In the first book, Katniss' only goal was to survive. If that meant taking out a few people, even Peeta to a point, then so be it. In these games, that idea kind of turns on its head for her. She goes into it with the idea that she must protect Peeta at all costs, hoping to accomplish this much the same way as in the previous games by separating off from the main group and then taking things as they come. But Haymitch has other ideas and persuades her to make alliances, which makes her dependent on other for her own survival. This ultimately changes her perspective. Haymitch had asked her to remember who the real enemy is, and as the games progress she realizes that it is not the other tributes inside the arena that she must conquer, but rather the Capitol who controls the games.

Collins also continues to hold up a mirror to our own society. I think one of the most telling moments in the book is when Katniss and Peeta witness the true decadence of the Capitol. While they are at a large party, it is revealed that in order to continue indulging in the overabundance of rich foods available, the guests make themselves vomit every so often. This is as convicting as it is disturbing. How often does our society overindulge in this manner? Not just in food, but in
toys, homes, clothes, entertainment, etc. We clamor for more and more than we can stand, only to turn a blind eye to those around us who would almost kill for a tenth of the things we posses. It is a very stark picture and one that would behoove us to change.

All in all, Catching Fire is a wonderful sequel. Katniss is allowed to grow as a charcacter, we are given a deeper and more mature glimpse into the world of Panem, and Collins isn't afraid to take risks when it come to the plot (though I'm not sure I'll forgive her for killing off Cinna). If I have any real complaints for this book, it is the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. To me, it really didn't deserve the number of pages that Collins devoted to it. Not only are Gale and Peeta so similar that the choice is almost moot, but it is not really the point of the stories at all. Beyond that, I really enjoyed this book and couldn't wait to pick up the next and final one.

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 Catching Fire is due to come out in November of 2013 as a sequel to the film version of the first book coming out this March.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Happy Birthday To:

James Joyce
February 2, 1882

“A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
-from Ulysses