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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Collins's Contribution

Panem.  It's the future United States: a semi-Roman world in which the government owns just about everything and makes a yearly reaping from its crop of citizens.  The "reaping" is a perverted holiday of sorts which consists of the political tyrants manipulating the 12 districts of Panem into willingly giving up a total of 24 children (two per district) between the ages of 12 and 18.  These tributes are given the privilege of fighting to the death in a natural arena.  Only one comes out alive.  What is the purpose?  Apparently, it has a lot of entertainment value and the mind-sick government finds it a convenient way to control society.  A bloodthirsty society.
Such is the idea behind Suzanne Collin's new book "The Hunger Games."  How did I enjoy the book?  Not at all.  Better to ask me what I think about it since I have only negative emotional reactions to it.  Hm.  Good question.  It had a jolly good bit of potential.  With all the sensory reactions of a book like Scott Westerfeld's series "Uglies," Collins created a fascinating (if disturbing) platform for taking her audience to a higher intellectual plain.  There's that same oppressive regime with the plastic smiles and the sinister overlords, the longing for something outside of that oppression.  Everything in Katniss's world is empty calories and frustration with the absolute dictatorship thinly veiled as benevolence (nobody is fooled, of course).  Adolescents love that "good rebel" theme, and it can lead to some spectacular critical thinking.  But that's not all. Hunger Games has the sameaddictive intensity of "The Most Dangerous Game," a short story after which having had read to me I had a smashing migraine headache just from the stress of it.  For most readers, the experience landed them in that wonderful world between the chapters: "I need to know!  I can't live if I don't know!  Oh, I don't want to know! I can't live if I know!"  And since I just put the Collins's work down a mere half hour ago, I'm still reeling.  I didn't sleep last night and the Stress Relief Tea I've just downed is only now beginning to take effect.  The premise is meant to anger the reader and it was highly successful in that regard.  I feel the same tension after reading "The Lottery" as a college freshman.  Except this time the feelings are deeper and longer lasting. The dead have names and stories.  It is the blood of mere children that washes the ground of Panem without being avenged.  And the fact that it was children killed...I'm really bothered by that.  As I should be.  

In spite of these potentially noble beginnings, the book elicited nothing but hatred from me.  And I don't use the word lightly.  I hate it so much that I'm breaking my usual self-inflicted obligation and will not be finishing the series.  Why?  I think Collins was off base.  In a big way.  She broke a serious code of ethics in the writing of the first book, and so I don't think I can stomach the other two.  (I've checked online to find the rest of the story and it is on those summaries that I base any critique on the rest of the trilogy.)

First of all, the violence in the book is excessive.  Good writers (which I don't claim to be) have a lot of tools in their belts to make a jarring impact.  Violence is the one I least respect especially in its excessive use and MOST especially where it concerns children...and so many children!  The death toll of the first book in the trilogy pushes 30 people and over half of those are kids.  So, Collins, you can play on the God-given instinct to flee from disturbing images of death.  Fine.  Just know, it's an easy, thoughtless, and highly-questionable way to get an emotional response.  Which is just about all we are left with at the end of the first book.  A lot of emotions.  Not a lot of thinking.  And if Collins intended to build an intellectual response on the carnage of the first book (as I think the second and third try to eek out something of a purpose to all the blood shed), she should have kept it within the bounds of one cover.  Not extended it into another volume.  Better yet, weave the strength of your argument through the story.  (Because while I think it's fine to read just for fun, "The Hunger Games" is not the material that I would give my kids with confidence that it's just fun.  You don't address serious topics like this in that manner.)  I'm not saying that she shouldn't deal with death.  But the detailed descriptions of the suffering of one character after another is a dangerous way to write.  It can either deaden your audience to pain and teach them to crave adrenaline, or it can stab the reader so many times that he or she can't take it anymore.  Your readership is then limited to the few that consume violence rather than ideas.
Collins actually fails to display excellent writing.  She builds her story on very poor character development.  For one example, Katniss is supposed to be the "rebel" but her thoughts are not consistent with clear right/wrong ideals.  Instead, the reader has to project these traditional distinctions on to Katniss's character just to be able to accept her as the heroine.  The development of Peeta is also rather weak.  Is he strong and intelligent?  Or is he just love-sick?  The audience knows very little about him, except that he is kind and in love, very much in love with Katniss.  (He's my favorite character, by the way...another wasted bundle of potential.)  But he's still insubstantial except where he contrasts Katniss.  I won't add here my rant about the gratuitous, pointless, selfish romance story that adds thick layers of sexual tension.  (Arg!)  Instead of creating neat characters and then writing as a way of causing those created characters to interact, Katniss and Peeta change their entire personalities as a way to compensate for the weak plot line.  They don't change in ways consistent with the complexities of human behavior either.  They just wobble around on a line between romance and danger.  And we don't get to see who they really are.  
Essentially, my biggest complaint about the books is that the author uses the tactics of the government she claims to disagree with.  The State is using the death of children merely for entertainment and control purposes.  Collins is using the death of children merely for entertainment and audience control.  It's actually nauseating.  Not to mention the fact that her big finish to the Game was an eerie and disappointing pack of genetically-altered wolves...made from the dead bodies of the kids that were killed in the Game.  Really?  She couldn't think of anything more organic?   or at least less barbaric?
In the end, I think Collins's story had a lot of potential.  But I wish she had been more responsible with those ideas.
My prediction?  The Hunger Games will eventually be shelved with the rest of sensational adolescent literature along with every book written in the past five years with a vampire starring as the hero.  "Hunger Games" will have its intense impact and when all the hype is over, I hope people will turn to more worthy works.
My advice?  If you're looking for something that addresses the same stuff with comparable energy and without all the blood,  go for Lois Lowry's "The Giver."  The emotional impact is stirred by the intellectual complexity.  The way it should be.   

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Early Morning Laughter

God has blessed me with a part-time job at a Christian daycare.  While I'm not very good at communicating with little kids, it's something I want to get better at.  So I practice.  Every day.  And some days I succeed.  Other days...well, it might have been better for me to have stayed home.  But every job is like that.  And I'm finding out that working at a daycare is more than a job.  It's a stewardship.  I don't shuffle papers around and file reports all day.  I take care of little people...and I feel the weight of that responsibility.  They are souls that need shepherding and they are looking to me for some of that.  

Mostly, I just work in the afternoons.  I take care of the snack room and then play with (and discipline) the kids for a few hours until their parents pick them up.  But on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I cover a 6:30 to 8 AM shift.  This one is interesting.  It's an hour that I don't normally use to converse with adults...much less children who require longer explanations since they assume nothing normal.  It's funny.  I don't think I'm a hyper-logical person.  But I guess I do function within the confines of an orderly universe.  Some kids just don't.  And their comments are a little past my ability to comprehend at 6:30AM.  Here is an example of one such conversation...

Child: Why are you wearing that necklace? (it has a charm on it in the shape of a bird)
Me: Because I like birds.
Child: No you don't like birds.  Do you like fast birds?
Me: Um...yes.
Child: Slow birds?
Me: Yes.
Child: Big birds?
Me: Yes.
Child: Little birds?
Me: Yes.
Child: If a bird is hurt, will you help it fly again?
Me: I don't know how to help birds.  I'm not a veterinarian.
Child: Yes, you do.  You just have to pick it up.  It will fly.  Do veterinarians wear hats?
Me: I guess sometimes they do.
Child: Then my mom is a veterinarian.
Me: I thought your mom was an the police force..?
Child: No.  My mom wears hats.  My mom was a cowgirl, tomorrow. Where did you get that pencil?
Me: My friend bought if for me.
Child: No she didn't.
Me: Yes she did.
Child: No.
Me: Her name is Zoe.  And she did buy me this pencil.
Child: You don't like Zoe.
Me: Yes, I do.
Child: What is her name?
Me: Her name is Zoe.  And she bought me this pencil!
Child: I had a bad dream last night.  So my mommy let me sleep in her room.
Me: Oh.  We're you scared?
Child: Yes. But then she made me leave.  She said I was talking too much.
Me: Do you think you talk too much?
Child: Yes!
Me: Why?

On one occasion I asked a boy why he had just done something that he clearly knew was against the rules.  His response: "Because I'm awesome!"  
I had to restrain myself from laughing until I was by myself.  The truth is, that answer won't work in the real world.  But it is pretty hilarious.  

I'm told that being with children is healing.  I think it's true.