Book Review: The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2013)

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Team Katniss

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation.)

If you’re a voracious reader of THG criticism, you might already be familiar with the work of Valerie Estelle Frankel: in addition to a short guide to The Hunger Games (Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), Frankel also contributed an essay to the 2012 anthology, Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy (“Reflection in a Plastic Mirror”). I had the pleasure of reviewing each of these, as well as a study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it relates to Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey (Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One).

In this latest book, The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen: Exploring the Heroine of the Hunger Games, Frankel revisits and expands upon many of the ideas introduced in her previous guides and essays. In particular, Chapters 4 (“Katniss Lives the Roman Histories”), 5 (“Katniss the Hungry: Food in the Hunger Games”), and 8 (“Katniss the Mockingjay: The Power of Story and Song”) are an extension of Katniss the cattail: a more in-depth look at the names (Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Prim, Claudius Templesmith, Plutarch Heavensbee, Presidents Snow and Coin, etc.) and symbols (bread, arrows, primroses, etc.) found in The Hunger Games trilogy. Likewise, Chapter 1 (“Katniss the Reality TV Star: Reflection in a Plastic Mirror”) is reprinted from Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games.

But far from a rehashing of old ideas, The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen is a fresh and insightful discussion of the major themes of the trilogy, from its criticism of our current obsession with reality television (which, coupled with our war fatigue, is especially insidious – we enjoy watching the suffering of others, but turn our backs when it happens en mass) to the execution of the film adaptation:

1 – “Katniss the Reality Star: Reflection in a Plastic Mirror” – No less enjoyable the second time around, the opening essay in this collection compares Panem to the modern-day US; the Hunger Games are an exaggerated version of our own reality television – our own bread and circuses, if you will. In this way, The Hunger Games isn’t just a future dystopia – but a present one, as well.

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Book Review: Divergent, Veronica Roth (2012)

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Starts With One

fiveout of five stars

Not so much a review as a random collection of thoughts (so many feelings!), but you get the idea.

  • The plot, in brief: Set in Chicago sometime in the unspecified future, the hallmark of Divergent is its unusual method of social organization. The population is divided into five factions, each of which embraces a different virtue: Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (honesty), Erudite (knowledge), Amity (peacefulness), and Dauntless(ness) (bravery). Purportedly the faction system arose after the last major war; people blamed the conflict on different flaws fundamental to humanity, and adopted the opposing traits as a means of preventing future violence. Amity, for example, signaled out human aggression and adopted a position of non-aggression coupled with forgiveness and understanding.

    A person’s life is all but dictated by her faction membership: faction housing is segregated, and different factions assume responsibility for those jobs appropriate to their skills (Amity is involved in agriculture; Erudite produces the city’s scientists and innovators; and, owing to their unrelenting selflessness, Abnegation is entrusted to run the government). Aside from political leaders, members from different factions rarely interact, and inter-faction marriages are unheard of.

    Those who find themselves without a faction – because they failed their chosen faction’s initiation, or later left or were cast out – compromise the city’s homeless, who rely on Abnegation charity and menial labor to get by. To be factionless is considered by many a fate worse than death.

    At the age of 16, children – who are raised (read: indoctrinated) in their parents’ faction – armed with the results of aptitude tests administered to determine which faction best suits them, can either choose to stay in their current faction or join a different one. “Transfers” are rare: those who leave their faction may never return, as the choice is a lifelong one. Since members of different factions have little occasion to interact, this often means saying goodbye to one’s family of origin. In more extreme cases, a transfer may be shunned as a traitor. Few adolescents even consider leaving, since they’ve been trained from birth to share in the hive mind of their own faction; different ways of thinking are foreign, even terrifying.

    Of course, not all of Chicago’s citizens can so easily be categorized and classified: unbeknownst to most, there’s a sixth “faction” (the factionless not being considered belonging to a faction, though we’ll see in Insurgent that this is far from the truth), that of Divergent: those rare individuals who demonstrate a flexibility of thinking and aptitude for two or more factions. Young Beatrice Prior is Divergent, in a time when it’s dangerous to be so.

    We meet Tris – as she’s later christened – as she’s on the cusp of choosing her faction. Told from her point of view in first-person narrative, Divergent follows Tris through the process: high-tech aptitude tests, choosing ceremony, and initiation. While her brother Caleb decides to leave Abnegation for Erudite, Tris chooses the daredevils of Dauntless, and the freedom they represent. In just a month, she must learn how to be Dauntless; among the skills she will need to master are weaponry, hand-to-hand combat, and strategy. She must also learn how to conquer her own most primal fears through a computer simulation known as the fear landscape. The initiates aren’t just working against themselves, but are pitted against one another as well: only the top ten initiates make the cut. The rest are cast out into the factionless.

    As if this isn’t enough for Tris, her initiation comes at a time when the gears of war have again been set into motion: led by the Erudite, several factions are on the brink of war, with both the Abnegation and the Dauntless – Tris’s home and chosen factions – caught in the middle.

    Oh, and she’s also got the hots for her instructor. Talk about yer teen angst!

    (More below the fold…)

  • Book Review: The Panem Companion, V. Arrow (2012)

    Monday, January 28th, 2013

    V. Arrow is the Fangirl on Fire!

    five out of five stars

    Witty, insightful, passionate, engaging, highly readable and with keen attention to detail: V. Arrow’s The Panem Companion is all of this and more. I usually enjoy the stuff that Smart Pop puts out, but they’ve really outdone themselves this time! Arrow approaches The Hunger Games trilogy with the unabashed enthusiasm of a true fan and the critical eye of an academic, resulting in a guide that’s everything I wanted – and more.

    In fifteen chapters, Arrow covers a wide range of topics – from gender roles to race and class to culpability for war crimes, not to mention all sorts of wacky fan theories:

    1 – Mapping Panem – Drawing on canon, textual clues, and scientific predictions about the effects of climate change, Arrow (with a little help from “geek friend” Meg) posits a likely map of Panem. The maps are printed on glossy, full-color paper, which I appreciate – but owing to the small size of the paperback, it’s also a bit difficult to make out the details. This was the only chapter that didn’t fully hold my attention, but I suspect that’s because I’m not a very visual thinker and had trouble picturing the geographic changes. Still, the map is integral to some of the later discussions (such as race, class, and immigration), so don’t skip it!

    2 – How Panem Came to Be – Using modern history as a guide, Arrow considers how the dystopian society of Panem might have risen from the post-apocalyptic ashes of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

    3 – Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Panem – This is the discussion that THG fans – rightfully upset over the whitewashing of the film(s) – have been waiting for! Arrow presents a cohesive, convincing argument that Katniss (and her fellow Seam residents) are, if not persons of color as we understand the term, then most definitely “not white”; “other” – at least on Panem’s terms. Taking care to distinguish between race and ethnicity, Arrow examines how race and class intersect to create a society divided into multiple levels of “haves” and “have nots.” She also addresses the fan theory that Katniss has Native American or Melungeon roots.

    4 – The Socioeconomics of Tesserae – In a chapter that can be seen as an extension of “Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Panem,” Arrow examines the ways in which the tesserae system – which disproportionately affects the poorest of Panem’s citizens – deepens race, class, and culture divisions. In addition to providing an awesome show of the Capitol’s power and brutality, The Hunger Games also help to quash rebellious leanings by pitting members of the working class against the merchants.

    5 – The Curious Case of Primrose “Everdeen” – Is Prim really Mr. Mellark’s daughter? Probably not, but Arrow has fun entertaining this fan theory anyway!

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    Book Review: Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games, Mary F. Pharr and Leisa A. Clark, eds. (2012)

    Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

    A must read for academics and fans alike!

    four out of five stars

    Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.

    In anticipation of the 2012 release of the film, a number of books about The Hunger Games trilogy hit the market – much to my geeky joy. As far as academic volumes go, Smart Pop’s most excellent The Girl Who Was on Fire was one of the early releases (later updated to include several chapters on the film), followed by The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason from The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series; Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy (part of the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series); Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy by Tom Henthorne; and finally The Panem Companion, written by fan/academic V. Arrow. I was lucky enough to win a copy each of Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games and Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy from Library Thing (and still hope to snag a copy of The Panem Companion on its blog tour!).

    Though written by academics – not a few of whom use papers previously presented at academic conferences as jumping off points – Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy can be enjoyed by everyday fans and serious scholars alike. Whereas academic pop culture anthologies run the risk of coming across as dry and even a bit tedious, Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games is neither. With few exceptions, the authors are engaging and insightful. Where jargon appears, it’s thankfully kept to a minimum.

    In contrast to many similarly-sized academic anthologies – which usually feature twelve or so essays – Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games contains a whopping twenty-one essays! As a result, each piece weighs in at just eight to ten pages. Though I was often left wanting more, this is far better than the alternative – namely, nodding off in the last few pages of the piece, even as you wish for the author to get to the point and wrap it up already! Perhaps the individual essays’ short lengths is what helps to keep Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games feeling so fresh, concise, and to the point.

    The twenty-one essays in Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games cover a range of topics, from crisis economics to food as a cultural metaphor and the shifting boundaries of human and “other.” Reality television rears its oft-ugly head, and art, fashion, and propaganda also make for common topics of discussion.

    While an existing knowledge of The Hunger Games trilogy is assumed, when the texts are discussed in relation to other works – The Running Man, the Harry Potter series, Twilight, Battle Royale, Ender’s Game, and William Shakespeare’s Henriad all make appearances – the authors do a good job of explaining the pertinent details (that is, at least given the space allotted).

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of my favorite pieces examine gender in the trilogy. In her contribution, “Of Queer Necessity: Panem’s Hunger Games as Gender Games,” Jennifer Mitchell makes the argument that Katniss – who is able to transition between masculine and feminine gender roles with relative ease, sometimes exhibiting “male” and “female” characteristics simultaneously – is at her core a genderqueer protagonist. Likewise, Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassel (“‘Killer’ Katniss and ‘Lover Boy’ Peeta: Suzanne Collins’s Defiance of Gender-Genred Reading”) see the trilogy’s blended genres (romance vs. war story) as a way to “bridge the gap” between young adult literature that, traditionally, has been stratified along gender lines. Peeta, the gentle, caring, and peaceful baker, exists opposite the “male-identified” Katniss, holding her morally accountable for actions. This mixing and flipping of gender roles provides a much-needed contrast to traditional YA fiction (the history of which Lem and Hassel summarize neatly for the reader, in a highly enjoyable and informative intro).

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    Book Review: I Am Number Four, Pittacus Lore (2010)

    Friday, July 27th, 2012

    Four stars for I Am Number Four

    four out of five stars

    Not so much a review as a random collection of thoughts, but you get the idea!

  • The basic premise of the Lorien Legacies series is this: we are not alone. Besides Earth, multiple planets capable of sustaining life exist in the universe. Among these are Lorien and Mogadore, whose contrasting pasts and presents reflect two possible futures for Earth.

    Much like Earth today, in its early history Lorien was faced with ecological collapse. Caused by greed and fueled by rapid technological advancements, the Loric people were quickly depleting their planet’s resources, driving it ever closer to ruin. Rather than continue on this self-destructive path, the Loriens chose another way: they simplified their society, living sustainably and in harmony with nature. (Just what this entails isn’t clear. For example, there’s no indication that the Loriens are/were vegans, nor do they seem to have renounced their “ownership” of nonhuman animals.)

    In thanks, the planet endowed the Loriens with special gifts. While all Loriens are stronger, faster, and more powerful than the average human, roughly half of the population have additional, supernatural abilities: Telekinesis. The ability to control the elements. Invisibility. The gift of flight. Imperviousness to fire. They are members of the Garde, the superhuman – or rather super-Lorien – protectors of the planet. Behind the scenes, the Cêpan manage the society and act as mentors to young Gardes who are just discovering their Legacies. At the time of our hereos’ births, Lorien is a veritable Eden, with everyone coexisting in peace and harmony.

    Mogadore offers a terrifying glimpse of the road not taken by Lorien. Faced with a similar fate, the Mogadorians deplete their planet’s resources, turning it into a barren hellscape – and then set out to conquer other planets and plunder their resources as well. The first of these is Lorien, which is caught with its guard down and is taken easily. Save for a lucky few, all of the Loric people are slaughtered. Lorien is laid to waste.

    Obvious moral is obvious, though no less true. We are at a crossroads; will we emulate the peaceable Lorien, or – be it through, antipathy, stubbornness, or privilege – go the way of Mogadore? Human history, rife as it is with genocide, colonization, slavery, and wars of convenience, does not speak well of us.

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