Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Hunger Games Trilogy

I finished Mockingjay last night. The three books are actually a single book printed in three volumes. I suppose a 900+ page novel would appear too intimidating for the young adult readership -- unless it was the last book of the Harry Potter series. Any way, if there is anyone left who hasn't read the books I highly recommend consuming them successively for the full effect of the story arc.

My reaction on completing the series was "Wow!" I was also disgusted by the commercial success of the poorly written Twilight novels when compared with The Hunger Games trilogy.

Near the conclusion of Mockingjay, Collins sums up her theme:

...something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children's lives to settle its differences.
We're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.

Some folks will point to the child warriors of Africa, but I'm not so sure the western nations can be left off the hook. Eighteen is hardly mature -- with a prefrontal lobe that is not fully developed. As for poor memories and and a gift for self-destruction -- the history of our species speaks for itself.

Collins says her inspiration for the books rose from scenes of the war in Iraq and the popularity of "reality" shows. The final scenes of Mockingjay involve street fighting that comes right out of the nightly news feeds from the Middle East. Her descriptions reminded me of newsreel coverage showing American GIs fighting their way into Italian villages. Panem, the remnants of the United States after a vague disaster, hints at 1984Brave New World, or North Korea. It is is a centralized totalitarian government that controls its citizenry by keeping it underfed and overworked. The techniques for maintaining an ancient empire still work today. Or tomorrow?

Instead of the passive Bella of the Twilight series, Collins' Katniss takes action at a young age to care for her mother and sister after the death of her father. She volunteers to represent her district in the Hunger Games in place of her little sister. Katniss has no taste for the acts she must commit to survive the Games. As the Mockingjay figurehead for the rebellion against The Capitol, Katniss is aware that she is once again being used. She does not relish placing others in danger, deeply feels the loss of friends and fellow rebels, experiences PTSD, and suffers from survivor's guilt. 

I did balk at the "love triangle" of Katniss, Gale, and Peeta. I feared it would be similar to that of the Twilight series with vacuous Bella mooning over controlling Edward. Katniss, in contrast, wasn't pining for anyone. She cared deeply for both youths, but was too busy surviving to waste much time examining potential romantic relationships. Each youth represented an aspect of Katniss:  do whatever is necessary to survive versus maintaining her humanity against all odds. Who would she be by the final pages of the third book?

For the parents concerned about the violence contained in The Hunger Games, be forewarned. Mockingjay is worse. Parents would benefit by reading the books to evaluate their own thoughts about the theme. Collins is making a point, not tossing in action to enliven a dull moment.

The Hunger Games trilogy and Harry Potter series both deal with young people finding their inner strength when faced with extraordinary circumstances in imaginative settings. Maybe not great literature, but done well enough to absorb readers and initiate discussion.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Club: "The Speed of Dark"

Our March book was Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark. I'm a fan of Moon's so I looked forward to reading the novel. The Speed of Dark is different from Moon's usual stories but obviously one close to her heart. It centers on Lou Arrendale and his coworkers at a pharmaceutical company -- all of them autistic with a particular skill at pattern recognition. Moon is the mother of an autistic son and as such she provided an unique perspective to the topic.

Set in the near future, the "fictional science" involves the genetic and nanotechnology reversal of autism. Lou and his coworkers were born before the "cure" was available; however, the company that employs them has developed a process that shows promise to correct the condition in adults.

Lou's direct supervisor, Pete Aldrin, is protective of the group but their manager, Gene Crenshaw, resents the "special accommodations" made for Lou and the others. Crenshaw is intent on a speedy climb up the corporate ladder and hopes to make an impression by replacing the autists with a computer program and thereby eliminating the expenses associated with the unit To accomplish his ends, Crenshaw "encourages" Lou and the others to undergo the company's new procedure -- or lose their jobs. Aldrin is upset when he learns of the threat and at first feels helpless, since Crenshaw is his boss, too. However, Aldrin cautiously researches the ramifications of dismissing the unit and learns the company would not only lose the unique skills of the work group, but also federal funding -- not to mention the public relations nightmare it would create.

While Aldrin works behind the scenes on behalf of Lou and his coworkers, the reader follows Lou's daily experiences. He lives alone in an apartment, drives his own car to and from work, and leads a very structured lifestyle. Viewers of Monk will recognize Lou's insistence on order and a strict schedule. Lou shops for groceries on Tuesday, participates in the sport of fencing on Wednesday, does laundry on Friday, goes to the Community Center on Saturday, and attends church on Sunday. He works hard on his interactions with "Normals" as he negotiates his private life.

The majority of the book is written in first person from Lou's POV. This exposes the reader to the thought processes of a high-functioning autist. In his thoughts and speech, Lou does not use contractions which tends to slow the flow of words for the reader. This is an excellent device on Moon's part to infer Lou's mental process.

Lou is fixated on "the speed of dark." He speculates it must be faster than the speed of light, since dark has to go out ahead of light. "Dark" is the metaphor for prejudice, ignorance, the unknown -- everything we associate with it. Lou discusses his quandary about the speed of dark with his fellow autists as well as his fencing friends ("normals"). Crenshaw and one of the fencers represent the prejudice and ignorance associated with darkness. The experimental process that offers a chance at "normalcy" is the unknown.

All of us enjoyed the book. Although it got off to a slow start for some of us, we were soon hooked by our empathy for the characters. We did feel the ending of the book was rushed, and we had mixed feelings about the conclusion.

One of our members works with autistic children and her perspective was valuable to our discussion. Like the characters of the book, we talked about what is "normal" and who defines it. Lou is chastised by some of his friends for his association with "normals" as if he is betraying his fellow autists. This reminded us of the deaf community, some of whom view cochlear implants as a rejection of the deaf culture.

We also talked about what constitutes our individual personalities. One question raised in the book was, if autism was reversed by the experimental process, would the individual retain his/her personality? In the SF world created by Moon, convicted criminals were implanted with a brain chip that inhibited violent tendencies. Sounds good on paper, but we wondered just how ethical it would be in real life. We then pondered what about ourselves we would enhance or correct with a brain chip. Eliminating food cravings was a popular fix with our group.

The Speed of Dark is an excellent book for examining our assumptions about what is normal, who determines what is normal, and how do we treat those who don't quite fit the definition. It also raises the question about "correcting" what is considered outside the norm -- the ever present issue of technology versus ethics. Just because we can -- does it mean we should?

I also think the book would be a good read for young adults. Lou ponders that it isn't wrong to be different. It is sometimes hard, but not wrong. And aren't we all "different" in our own way?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Stills: Weather or Not

While other regions of the contiguous 48 are experiencing unseasonably warm weather, we in the Pacific Northwest are welcoming Spring with snow. Go figure.

Puppy and me.
To see how others are weathering the first days of Spring, visit Sunday Stills.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Stills: A Small Part of a Whole

This week participants were instructed to take two photos, one of the "big picture" and the second a part of the whole. I went to this city park with a subject in mind, but ended up with two surprise subjects instead.

Roundabout near park entrance.

Close up of decorative grass trimmed for the winter months.

Play structures at the park.

A part of the "hole."
This was a fun assignment to think of a subject that would be interesting from two perspectives.

See how others met the challenge at Sunday Stills.