Sunday, April 29, 2012

Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games #3 , Mockingjay

              Going into the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everyone I had spoken to had generally disliked the ending to the series. Some were adamant that the book was utter trash and had completely ruined the series for them. The best response I had heard was lukewarm. I expected poorly-written prose and a too happy, simple view of the world. I found the exact opposite.    
              Given that this is a young adult series I expect the majority of readers expected the clear dichotomies we have come to expect from children’s literature (and often the world). There would be a good side and a bad side with no shades of gray. The Capitol would fall and everyone would rejoice expect those naughty Capitol citizens who would be punished in a satisfying way. However, Collins did not take the easy way out.  War is never the triumph of good that we have been told it is. There is no clear good or evil, only confused humans acting out of grief, desperation, and hunger for power. Most readers went into this book expecting a glorious restoration of the American republic, but the Hunger Games has never been about idealization. It has always been a story that derives its power from being honest even when the character and the reader desperately want something, anything, to go well.
              At the end of Book 2 Katniss was rescued from another Hunger Games by an elaborate plot and whisked away to the famed District 13 while love-interest Peeta Mellark is captured by the Capitol. The district has been reported destroyed by the capital since the dark days. However this reveals itself to be a lie. The district agrees to keep quiet and not set off its nuclear weapons if the Capitol leaves them alone. Being free from the capitol’s clutches proves more bitter than sweet. First, her beloved District 12 is firebombed, killing most of the people she knows.  Katniss is constantly afraid that Peeta will be killed, a fear that grows stronger whenever she sees him appear (looking weaker and weaker) on Capitol television. Not only this, but District 13 turns out not to be the bastion of freedom and hope that the reader was hoping for. No, it is a highly controlled district where all activities are bent towards military operation and food is just as scarce as in the other districts.
              Katniss grows increasingly disillusioned with Distict 13 and the rebellion. She is furious that District 13 has watched the exploitation of others go on for so long, despite their claims that there was no other ways. This anger is only increased when she discovers that the borders of District 13 were only an afternoon’s walk away from her own. The leader of District 13 (and hence the rebellion) is just as a power hungry and cruel as the Capitol’s President Snow. The war is messy, cruel. Neither Katniss nor the reader feels any difference between the slaughter of District 12’s children and the scared children of the Capitol who are mowed down in brutal assaults. No one has purely kind intentions.
              The gritty, difficult world of Mockingjay stays true to the reality of war. There is no noble clash of good and evil, but angry, desperate humans destroying each other. I see this not as inappropriate, but fitting. So here’s to the series that gave us a heroine who wasn’t likeable and sweet, but absolutely commanded respect. Here’s to the series that reminded us that killing and violence are not to be praised. Here’s the series that refused to lie to us. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ahlam Mosteghanemi: “Memory in the Flesh”

              This award-winning book, first published in 1985, was the first book written in Arabic by an Algerian woman. Algeria is a country in the midst of a cultural identity crisis. The fallout from 150 years of French conquest has muddled what it means to be Algerian. The speaking of Arabic itself is controversial. Many consider it better than speaking French, as most people did before the revolution in 1962, but it is still a language of outsiders. Because of all this it is no wonder that “Memory in the Flesh” is a book about identity, nostalgia, and (of course) memory after the revolution.
              Khalid, the protagonist, was once a freedom fighter. Now after losing an arm and leaving Algeria, he paints pretty pictures for the French elite while living in exile in Paris. He falls in love with the daughter of someone he fought with in the revolution. Her name, perhaps not so coincidentally, is Ahlam, the same as the author’s. It is obvious the relationship isn’t going to work out, but the author makes us wait for the details.
              The book reads more like poetry. There is little emphasis on scene and dialog. Much of the book consists of poetic description and Khalid’s confessing his love within the safe confines of his mind. It can make one dizzy in the same way that love confuses and tricks the brain. Though it often comes across as beautiful, the lack of substance becomes tiring. I got burnt out about 100 pages in and had to slog through the rest.
              I realize my reaction may just be because such novels are not my cup of tea. If you are able to look past the structure, the book is a beautiful love story. It also expertly deals with the concept of “nostalgia.” Khalid is unable to deal with the present. He believed that Algeria would become a perfect world after the revolution, and is too terrified to return and realize that not much has changed except the flag.  Khalid romanticizes both his past, the city he used to live in, and Ahlam to a degree that there is no way they can live up to his expectations even if they wanted to.
              I urge my readers to use digression when approaching this novel. If you enjoy lush, continuous description this may suit you. If you need a bit of action stay away.

Note: There are multiple translations of this book. I recommend the Baria Ahmar Sreih/Peter Clark edition as it best preserves the syntactic flow. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Grealy, Lucy – Autobiography of a Face

Nothing sickens the heart like a sick child. This is memoir of one such child and how her lifelong battle with normalcy. Diagnosed at age nine with Ewing’s sarcoma of the jaw and given a five percent change to survive, Lucy Grealy began a long battle with cancer and an even longer battle to reconstruct her face after parts of her jaw were removed.
          Though there are plenty of graphic descriptions of chemotherapy treatments, vomiting, and surgeries, Grealy focuses mostly on identity. At the forefront is her desire to be accepted as a human being. She unhappily is reminded again and again that this is impossible through the taunts of children or the surprise of adults at her asymmetrical, misshapen face. This passage exemplifies her long standing struggle with appearance:
“When I walked down a street or hallway, sometimes men would whistle at me from a distance, call me Baby, yell out and ask me my name…but sometimes they’d catch up with me, or I’d be forced to pass by them. Their comments would stop instantly when they saw my face, their sudden silence potent and damning” (188)
 When reality proves too unforgiving Grealy passionately embraces a world of fantasy and disassociation. She attempts to dissolve her misery through friendships with self-described “outsiders,” through complex fantasy worlds, and through writing. Her most passionate escape is in the world of horses. Their indifference to her appearance is refreshing and freeing. Yet, she stays miserable up until the end. Typically, books about people who face insurmountable odds surmount them, and this book is no exception. However, the end is slapped on and incomplete. A basic investigation of Grealy’s life reveals just how fake the “happy” ending is.
          Grealy’s life was not a journey towards self-acceptance, but hell bent on self-destruction. She attempted suicide throughout her life (which is conveniently left out of the book). She neglects to mention that talking and eating were both incredibly difficult for her. And, perhaps most tellingly, she omits her addiction to drugs which started with prescription OxyContin.  Ann Patchett, author of “Bel Canto” and friend of Grealy, said that she “had a nearly romantic relationship with Death. She had beaten it out so many times that she was convinced she could go and kiss it all she wanted and still come out on the other side." At age 39, Grealy succumbed to a heroin overdose.
 If anything, this book should speak volumes about the genre of memoir. We accept memoir as reality, yet it is closer to fiction than fact. I have no doubt that the anecdotes Grealy relates are real, but the story is shaped completely separately from Grealy’s life due to flagrant omissions. I urge all readers to be careful when approach either reading or writing memoir. Reality is more bendable than anyone can comfortably admit.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dickens, Charles "Bleak House"

On the heels of Kony 2012 and the economic crisis Charles Dickens’s biting, sardonic indictment of corruption and “charity” in his novel “Bleak House” is strikingly relevant. Dickens focuses his ire the legal system, which creates endless confusion and constant schemes. He also focuses on people, mostly women, who pour time and energy into helping “poor natives” while ignoring the rampant misery beating at their doorstep.  
Dickens follows exploitation, hypocrisy, and murder into every home, every neighborhood, and every social class in London. He opens with the Lord Chancellor, one the Great Officers of State in British government, but gives equal attention (and perhaps even more attention) to Jo, a street sweeper.
The story is structured around the life of Esther Summerson, an orphan under the care of an elderly retired lawyer. Esther does not know her own heritage, and struggles to find out who she is while dealing with a number of personal issues.  However, the book is more than this. It bounces back and forth between chapters entitled “Esther’s Narrative” that are told from the point of view of the young lady and scenes throughout London: from the Inns of Court to collapsing tenement houses.
The book can seem a bit long-winded and drawn out (my edition ran for eight hundred and eight pages). Yet, it is important to remember that Bleak House was not first conceived as a singular novel to be read at once, but was serialized into twenty installments released over the course of a year and a half.
Dickens social criticism is poignant and biting. The character Mrs. Jellyby lets her children suffer and go without while she devotes herself to African charities that never seem to change anything. He goes even further with his hatred of the legal system exemplified below:
…to consider that, while the sickness of hope deferred was raging in so many hearts this polite show went calmly on from day to day, and year to year, in such good order and composure…as if nobody had ever heard that all over England the name in which they were assembled was a bitter jest…I could not comprehend it (317).
The author’s real power comes in his ability to evoke careful imagery and his word combinations often surprise and delight with their wit and sound. He is a master of description, which gives life to a story that might otherwise be dull. Take for example this passage:
Chesney Wold is shut up, carpets are rolled into scrolls in the corners of comfortless rooms, bright damask does penance in brown Holland, carving and gliding puts on mortification, and the Dedlock ancestors retire from the light of day again. Around and around the house the leaves fall thick – but never fast, for they come circling down with a dead lightness that is somber and slow. Let the gardener sweep and sweep the turf as he will, and press the leaves into full barrows, and wheel them off, still they lie ankle deep.
What separates Dickens from other novelists who critique their own societies is his attention to the personal. The book is not a pasted-together plot that exists for the pure purpose of riling up anger at the status quo, but is a charming and emotional tale about one young woman’s struggle to define her identity and her destiny. Dickens ending, which focuses on the adult lives of characters we have seen grown up, gives us the impression that life goes on. In some ways this is a more powerful appeal for change then an ending where skinflint lawyers evilly rub their hands. It reminds us that there is beauty in life, goodness and love that needs preserving. Dickens not only points out where we should fight, but reminds us that there is so much worth fighting for.