Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

If last year was any indicator — which it probably was — this may be the last fiction book I read with any kind of efficacy for about 9 months.  Sniff.  There aren’t many complaints I have about grad school, but at the top of a very short list is this: my reading is taken up by articles and nonfiction, which taxes the brain and the soul.  I need my fiction, people!  I don’t know when most of you read books during the day, but before bed has always been a favorite for me, with quiet afternoon a close second.  Bedtime after a long day though is disastrous for remembering plot points and characters, no matter how poignant or abrasive or thrilling the story.  The Paris Wife is next on my list, so let’s hope I don’t let poor Mrs. Hemingway languish for months and months as I read one page per day.

Swamplandia! had all the weirdness I want from a book — a story about a family of alligator wrestlers who fall on hard times when a rival theme park moves in and takes away their customers.  It really turned out to be three sections — the first section about the family members finding outlets for their grief after the mother’s death (not a spoiler), the second an unintentional group of short stories going back and forth between Ava and Kiwi’s respective journeys, and the third a “dark night of the soul” type ending that culminates suddenly in the most Pollyanna way I could imagine.

I liked the quirkiness of the first section.  The family history and the set up of the Swamplandia! park and especially the descriptions of the mother were heartening with just the right amount of darkness to them.  Russell created a family that was wacky, quintessentially American, and easy to love.  Then in the second section everything falls apart, and although the humor is still pushing around in the peripherals,  it just seems like nothing is actually going to go right for anyone and the whole book becomes hopeless and dismal.  The reader watches characters make choices that seem not only weird, but are definitely bad. It’s not uncomfortable exactly — dismal really is the right word.

And then every bad thing you imagined might happen to the characters after their bad decisions (which, by the way, work because they are adolescents.  I didn’t feel any kind of sympathy for Chief Bigtree, the father, because there’s just no world that exists in my head where a parent should make the decision he does) DOES happen to them.  But suddenly!  The great Deus ex machina to the rescue!  And abruptly everything’s back to the tone of the first section again — the family is going to make it through this together, yo ho ho, isn’t the world funny?

Not really.

I haven’t read anything else by Russell, and I did really enjoy her writing early in the story.  I just appreciate consistency in the books I read.  If I should be ready for a long deep look into the evils of the human psyche, I can do that and appreciate that.  If I should be ready for a lovely story about the strengths of families and the storms they can weather together, I can do that and appreciate that.  But I can’t switch back and forth between the two.

I hear good things about Russell’s first book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, as if that title wasn’t enough to make me want to read it.  And although this is largely a complainy post, I really did enjoy the book — just not as one unit.  So I will check out this other novel, if only to see how many girls are raised by wolves and whether St. Lucy makes it through alive.

In about 20 minutes, I’m off to my first class of fall quarter.  Good bye, summer!  Good bye, fiction books!  It’s me, not you!  I’ll try to keep in touch, novels!


A Marvelous Trio of Books

This summer has been super duper cool, temperature wise, and therefore a great time for reading some non-academic tomes. I also finally got a library card to my new library — Patrick and I went to check it out one day.  He had a little trouble with the quiet part, but shelves and shelves of books?  He was sold.  And the best part is I finally figured out how to get library books on my Kindle!  2004 here I come!

So I first checked out Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  The creepy cover got me interested, but having the author stand behind us in a line at the LA Times Book Festival got me even more intrigued.  You mean he’s a real person?!?!?  Yes, a real person with a fabulous kate spade typewriter satchel.  The story was fantastic, and definitely one that did give me pause to read right before bedtime. The monsters in this one, and the heroes too for that matter, are skin-crawly creepy sometimes.  There are pictures, real pictures, all throughout the book which fit with the story or reveal things about the plot or characters, or sometimes just creep you out.  The macabre in me really enjoyed this book, and I’ll definitely check out the second one when it comes out.

I was way behind the curve on the next book, but I am so glad I read it.  When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead takes its inspiration from A Wrinkle in Time, and I still have vivid memories of the Children’s Theater adaptation from the early 90s.  Now when I read young adult novels, I really get interested in the parent characters — go figure, right?  Miranda’s mom and her soon-to-be step-dad were excellent, and the little glimpses we got of Annemarie’s dad made me want to know her family more.  I guess it’s only natural that as I grow older, I’m more interested in the hesitance towards commitment in Miranda’s mom than I am in the difficulties the kids themselves are having at school.

The third in my trio was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and wow.  Heavy, dark, and excellent.  While dealing with his mother’s illness and impending death, the adolescent main character “accidentally” calls a monster to help him.  The grieving the protagonist goes through is realistic — messy, confusing, heartbreaking.  And the illustrations reminded me of the ones from Scary Stories to Read in the Dark…so, pretty creepy also.  But this book made me cry in the end, and not because of anything sappy.  Unexpected from the cover art.

All three books gave me little thrills and chills — shimmy shivers, as I call them.  There were moments for each of them when I was a little afraid to get up in the night, and when for sure I didn’t want to brave the walk up to the marina bathrooms after dark.  Shimmy shivers.  But they all had strong main characters that I could really feel for, and get involved with, which is just the kind of release and literary relationship I’m looking for in a summer read.  I recommend them all, if you’re in the market for a summer read that will help you work some emotions out and release some pent-up stress with good thought and deep feelings.

Since I haven’t written in a while, here are some of the other books I read this spring with abridged reviews.  They each deserve their own feature-length extravaganza, but the books keep coming, and any specific thoughts I had about them are a little lost in the haze.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson — amazing supernatural/religious/sci-fi mash-up with great twists!  Put it on your list!

Broken Harbor by Tana French — I loved French’s first two books, the third was too similar to the others, and this fourth one was void of surprise and overtly gruesome.

Anasi Boys by Neil Gaiman — LOVE!  Can we get more stories from the American Gods world, please?  Please?

Villette by Charlotte Bronte — This book changed my thinking.  Whatever was going on with those Bronte sisters, man, they made it happen.  I assume this one takes the back seat to Jane Eyre because the ending is…unexpected, but I think that maybe… … MAYBE… … I liked this one better than Jane Eyre.  Read it.  Do it now.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente — Fun, but I think it would have been much more meaningful to me if I knew more about Russian mythology or fairy tales.  I was able to figure out who some characters were, but ultimately, I was an outsider on the inside jokes here.

Catching up – Quips!

I am alive!  Who would have guessed it?  Not anyone reading this blog.  You would have thought I had finally nailed myself into a coffin with my worsted weight noose, but NO!  I am still here!  I am still knitting and reading, but with this PhD program, suddenly writing isn’t something I really want to do in my spare time anymore.  Which is a pity.  So we’ll have ourselves a little catch-up post here, and then maybe I can keep a little better track of things after that.

So last you heard, I had read The Beautiful and the Damned and it was a stirring experience.  After that, I figured it was time for some comfort food…book style.  So I used the power of my Kindle to find all those wonderful little Arthurian romance/legend novels I loved so much.  I read Persia Woolley’s Guinevere Trilogy, which is a long time favorite of mine.  I found the third book at a library book sale back in late middle school.  The cover was SUPER romance novelly — Guinevere sitting on a throne with billowing red hair, an look of defiance, and full, painted lips with a brilliant velvet dress spilling onto the floor around her.  It was definitely a cover I was embarrassed to be seen with — I think I read most of it at home.  But you know the old saying…regardless of the crazy artwork, the third book is fantastic — the fall of Camelot, with relate-able characters who I really grew to love.   Eventually, I went back to the library and found the first two books, which were fun, too, but the third one takes the cake.  Rereading them again after so many years was comforting and provided a fantastic escape from the stress of starting my graduate education.

I also struck out on new Arthurian territory, with a book called Gawain and Lady Green by Anne Eliot Crompton.  The author has also written an excellent and unique Arthurian legend called Merlin’s Harp, which I devoured in high school.  Merlin’s Harp is a feminist retelling through the eyes of Nimue, but it isn’t easily recognizable as the Arthurian tale.  Not at first.  The main character only hops in on the tale we’re all familiar with every now and then.  Gawain and Lady Green is, as you English majors out there might expect, a retelling of Gawain and the Green Knight.  It’s cute, and also comfort-foody, and unique again — if you don’t know the story of Gawain, you might not recognize the novel for what it is.  But I’m not sure you can only enjoy it if you know the story…I could see many a young adult enjoying this book simply for itself.

I also received a book from meine Mutti-in-law, called Bringing Up Bebe — One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman.  HIGHLY recommend!  Especially if you’ve ever been weirded out by the stress American culture brings into parenting.  If you’ve ever stumbled upon the kind of crazy that only we Americans can come up with on Facebook or blogs — fatwa on [insert trend here], why aren’t you afraid of this?  don’t you realize how your child’s life will be RUINED if they do thing x? — then you know what I mean.  This book is the perfect remedy.  It helped me breath a sigh of relief, that we weren’t raising Patrick like a weirdo — we were kind of raising him like a little Frenchman.  Which he is, to a certain percentage point.  The section on food is fantastic.  I wish I could enroll in a creche and eat like that — amazing.  A really fun read that helped me feel like I wasn’t the only one who thought our society’s expectation that being a mother = living in a constant state of freak-out is a bogus expectation.

Devil’s Advocate: Obviously, if you’re not freaking out, you’re not paying attention.  Am I right, America?!?  Who’s with me?!?  Let’s be sure to stress ourselves out about every feature of our child’s life, because if we don’t, then mass ax-murdering is CERTAINLY in their future.  (Did I conjugate that correctly?)

Then, Christmas rolled around, and I got a couple books for the jolly holiday!  The first one I read was from Drew, a T.C. Boyle novel that took place in our new home.  It’s called When the Killing’s Done and it was excellent.  By far the best of his novels I’ve read.  Subtle themes that progressed as the plot unfolded, characters who were true to themselves throughout, and realistic to boot.  Really excellent.  A literary treat, after all my Arthur comfort diving.  It also takes place in …drumroll… the Channel Islands National Park!  Right across the ocean from us!  And parts of it take place in our HOME — Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, Ojai — so fun!  Nothing like a book based on where you live to make you feel special.  Of course, almost all the boats in it sink to the bottom of the sea, and it does live up to it’s title, but…it’s still kind of a trip.

Let’s start with that for now.  I’ve got three more books to add, plus the one I am currently reading.  But I think if I don’t publish this post now, it may be the end of poor little Knitquip: the blog.  And I can’t have that.  PUBLISH!

The Girl Who Played with Fire AND The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larrson

The conclusion I’ve drawn from these books is that Sweden is a terrible place.  It’s always dreary.  The men are either sex offenders or waiting for an opportunity to become a sex offender. And it’s cold.

I assume, for the Swedish people’s sake, that this book is not an accurate portrayal of their country.

But the books were great!  I know I’m a few years behind it all, reading the Millennium Trilogy waaaay after the song by the same name was on the charts (remember that?  Some British artist who was super hot at the moment, and it recycled a lick from a Bond song?).  The plot was still hair-raising and suspenseful — I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen in the end.  And the HUGE cliffhanger at the end of the second book — well, I had to start right in on the third immediately.

But, as most riveting plots do, I think my family was happy to see the end of these books for me.  As twist after twist occurred, I couldn’t put it down. I was reading on my Kindle, which became an enabler to my desire to read this book at all times.   I would set it up to read while I was brushing my teeth for bed, I would set it up to read while I was blow-drying my hair in the mornings, I would sneak it out while waiting for lunch dates — it went with me everywhere.

And the trial at the end was really gut-wrenching.  What was going to happen?  How was she possibly going to get out of the quagmire she was in?  I’m trying to be vague here, in case you haven’t read the books — hopefully I’m not ruining anything for you.

And as a follow-up to my post about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where I really hated on the character of Lisbeth Salander (which I stand by), I will say that with the events at the beginning of “Played with Fire,” I was with her all the way.  She grew up as a a character, and she learned from her past mistakes, and she became stronger and got me to like her.  A good switch-around for any character.

But yeah — not visiting Sweden any time soon.  At least not until I become a better hacker.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

This book took forever.  Not because of the book — oh no.  I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma around Christmas.  Then I paused to finish Walking to Canterbury.  Then I got sick, and didn’t want to read at night for awhile…which is really my only opportunity to read right now.  Then I was just plain tired for too many nights in a row, so I didn’t read it then.  Then he started talking about foraging for mushrooms, which I don’t really like to eat, so my interest waned.


This book was great.  It doesn’t matter how long it took me to consume it — it was by turns fascinating and revealing.  The idea of the book is that Michael Pollan is going to try to create four different meals — one from all industrially sourced foods, one from industrial organic foods, one from “true” organic foods, and one where he has hunted or grown or found all the foods himself.  The meals are all unforgettable, and I won’t blow it for you by telling you how all of them turn out.  His meals are just a lovely little piece of creative nonfiction.

The real interest in this book comes in the reveals he makes.  About 7 years ago, Drew and I were watching Real Time with Bill Maher, and we laughed at what a fool Bill Maher was.  He was going on and on about how bad corn was for everyone, and how it was killing us, and how terrible it was for our country.  The panel just laughed, and so did we.  Well, Bill Maher, I formally apologize for making you into a Cassandra.  Turns out, he’s maybe right.  Check it out:

A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef.  (Modern-day hunter-gatherers who subsist on wild meat don’t have our rates of heart disease.)  In the same way ruminants (cows) are ill adapted to eating corn, humans in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn.


Pollan talks to a farmer in Iowa about corn subsidies: So the plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion  a year subsidizing cheap corn.  But though those subsidy checks go to the farmer (and represent nearly half of net farm income today), what the Treasury is really subsidizing are the buyers of all that cheap corn.  “Agriculture’s always going to be organized by the government; the question is, organized for whose benefit?  Now it’s for Cargill and Coca-Cola.  It’s certainly not for the farmer.”


He has a biologist friend of his put his meal from McDonald’s into a mass spectrometer:In order of diminishing corniness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100 percent corn), milkshake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and French fries (23 percent).  What in the eyes of the omnivore looks like a meal of impressive variety turns out, when viewed through the eyes of the mass spectrometer, to be the meal of a far more specialized kind of eater.  But then, this is what the industrial eater has become: corn’s koala (Earlier in the book, he describes what it means to be an omnivore — it means we have choices when we eat, and that can lead to many “dilemmas” about what we are actually going to consume.  The koala, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem — it only eats one thing.  Like us, now!)


Because of diabetes and all the other health problems that accompany obesity, today’s children may turn out to be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents.  (This is shocking…and the biggest reason why having a child makes me want to change my diet even more.  No way is Patrick’s life going to be shorter than mine — not if I can do something about it.  Pollan goes on to list all of the reasons for “humanity’s expanding waistline” but intelligently cuts it down to the real source:  “When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.”  Which is really all you need to know.)

Pollan goes from industrial farming, where he buys a steer and then works VERY HARD to try and track it down through the system (which proves extremely difficult), to a place called Polyface Farms, which is organic and run by a farmer named Joel Salatin who believes very strongly in his way of life and products.  He introduces Pollan to all kinds of agricultural insights, like this one about soil — “When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.” And finally, in the face of a farm that “feeds itself,” Pollan (and at this point, me the reader also) asks, “All of which begs a rather large question: Why did we ever turn away from this free lunch in favor of biologically ruinous meal based on corn?  Why in the world did Americans ever take ruminants off the grass?  And how could it come to pass that a fast-food burger produced from corn and fossil fuel actually costs less than a burger produced from grass and sunlight?”

As you might imagine, he does answer a lot of these questions.  But the philosophical idea there is a hard one to answer — why do we eat this way?  When we know it’s bad for us, and we know it’s killing us and our children and hurting the environment too — why?  And that, there is no answer for.

The book contains SO MUCH more than I can talk about in one blog post — he talks about vegetarianism, he kills a wild pig for his last meal, he talks about how deceptive Whole Foods is (which we all knew anyway, right?).  All in all, a fascinating read, even if a slow one.  And honestly, shouldn’t a book like this, which ends up giving you faith in the slow food movement be a slow read also?  In a way, it was good to have a long time to really think about the ideas he brought up and the experiences he had trying to trace his meals down the food chain.  I am really struck by how far removed we are from the food we eat — most of us don’t grow it, or hunt it, or even meet the people who grew it or hunted it or found it or created it in a lab.  It’s like magic — it just appears on the shelves or in the cases of your local supermarket.  I’m also struck by how cheap food really is, and how little we spend on it.

But the last little quote I’ll leave you with is just kind of fun — and applies to this blog directly.  Pollan is about to go foraging for mushrooms for the first time, and will soon go hunting for the first time, too: “Isn’t is curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs — for food, shelter, even clothing?  So some people knit, others build things or chop wood, and a great many of us “work” at feeding ourselves — by gardening or hunting, fishing or foraging.” Guilty!  I play at self-reliance!  But hopefully, our little family can continue to play at self-reliance in other food ways as well, and then we can stay healthy and only eat corn when it’s on the cob.  With lime.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

I read the first in this series, The Magicians, over Christmas break 2010.  It was a relatively cool book, especially considering all of the weird things I had heard about it before I read it.  All sorts of readers on Good Reads kept saying meaningless comparisons like, “It’s Harry Potter for adults” or “Harry Potter for the Hipster crowd!”  Being only Hipster-sensitive and not myself a hipster, I didn’t know exactly what to make of that.  Turns out what that meant was that The Magicians was a book about high school graduates who are invited to a private school to learn magic.  Honestly, that seems to be where the comparisons end.

The Magician King, the sequel, was also better than I expected.  At the end of the first book, I was unsure of where the story could go, or if it could even continue.  The answer?  It’s got places to go, new magical mysteries to uncover, and yes, it’s able to continue.  New characters were introduced that I ended up caring about.  New magical places were explored that I had not heard about in the other book.  Old ideas were dredged up again for another going-over, but new ideas were also brought to light.  The ending of this book was in some ways more satisfying than the first book — I feel more compelled to continue reading — but it also feels odd.  I’m not sure exactly how to feel about my main character at the end.  Is he really the martyr I think the author wants me to see?  Or is Quentin (the main character) just at another weird crossroads but somehow has found his “bliss,” something he’s never been remotely close to before?

It probably feels like I’m not actually saying much about this book. I’m trying to explain my thoughts about it without totally blowing the plot for you, in case you’re interested in reading it.  But now, looking at what I’ve written so far, it’s difficult to get what I’m talking about.  I’ll say this: if you read the first book, it’s worth reading the second.  If you haven’t read the first book, but you like fantasy novels with realistic touches, check it out.

I do enjoy the realistic world Grossman has created.  It’s not like Harry Potter — nothing is safe, or out of bounds, or unimaginable.  Evil is truly scary, not referred to like the Boogieman.  And I think one aspect of his realism is how he treats magic in these books — as just another talent that some people have.  I see others on Good Reads complaining about how nonchalant Quentin (who is our main Magician, and our Magician King in this second book) is about magic.  But wouldn’t you be, after awhile?  We like to think that magic is special, and exciting, etc. etc.  But if it was actually something you could do, the simple stuff would lose its charm eventually.  (punny!)  So it seems only realistic to me that Quentin would sometimes be a little bored, even though we, the unmagic types, find everything he does exceptional.  I like that Grossman doesn’t seem worried about creating a world where magic exists and we find it “magical” — in his world, magic just exists, like how religion exists.  Some people are really into it — other folks, it’s just something they do.

That’s not to say he doesn’t create some fantastical things.  I love the world of Fillory, and I find the Neitherworlds really interesting as an idea.  And, without giving too much away, the origin of magic as discussed in this book is really cool — good food for thought.  So haters can hate.  These books are enjoyable, and if you can’t get past Quentin’s ennui at times to enjoy the interesting paradoxical worlds Grossman has created, then just leave it.  Go back to your Hipster hating parties and leave poor Quentin alone.  Lord knows he’s got enough problems by the end of this book.

Also, on an ending note — I swear, I’m almost done with this weird and random review — I was not into Harry Potter or the Narnia books as a youngster.  I’ve read both, but as an adult, not at a more impressionable age.  But I would think that the Narnia fans would enjoy these books more than the Harry Potter crowd would.  Grossman is really creating an homage to Narnia in Fillory, but often ridicules the Harry Potter world with his own comparisons in this book.  Either way, he’s created something that deserves to be called its own — not only referred to by comparisons that don’t hold together well anyway.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

In the end, satisfying and worth reading.  The third novel isn’t substantially different than the first two, and, to avoid spoiling any plot points for you, I’ll focus on the series as a whole.

First off!  What I liked:

  1. The ending — It made me tear up a little bit, I’ll admit it.  And the love triangle, while not super captivating, did end in a way that I hadn’t foreseen but had hoped for.  Tied up most of the loose ends a reader might care about, and made me feel the span of Katniss’ journey.
  2. The message — Autocracy — bad.  Societies enslaving whole groups of people — bad.  Simple messages,  but good ones for a young crowd to internalize.
  3. The “young adult” traps that were avoided —  I did have to remind myself, often, that these books weren’t really for me.  They were written for the me of 17 years ago, and the me from back then would have LOVED them.  LOVED.  But the me of today appreciated that Collins avoided many “young adult” tropes.  Her main character was constantly dealing with the guilt and aftermath of people she had killed or had caused to be killed.  But not in an off-hand way — it was a large part of her character.  She also did not become a killing machine, even in either of the arenas.  She only actually killed a few people, many less than the other Hunger Games victors we were introduced to, and, also unlike them, she was never able to put a cold distance between herself and those she had killed.  Collins also kept the books realistically violent — terrible things happen, and are not sugar-coated for younger readers.  But the book is stronger for it.  It doesn’t shy away, it doesn’t hide from what might actually happen in a war.  And there’s a lot of confusion — the enemies are not as cut-and-dry as other young adult fiction.  Katniss trusts someone, then learns they can’t be trusted, finds out her source was the one who was untrustworthy, but that STILL doesn’t make the person she did trust trustworthy.  Collins gives her readers some credit…after all, what middle school student doesn’t know all about the dangers of trust and deception?

What I didn’t like:

  1. The epilogue — Didn’t need it.  From the actual end of the book, I felt like I had everything I needed…I knew which characters were going to survive, and I knew how the rest of Katniss’ life was going to play out.  The epilogue was another tablespoon of sugar on top of some lemonade.  Leave it out.
  2. Inconsistent characterization  — I talked about this in my post on Catching Fire.  Honestly, the problems I had with her characterization of Katniss as dim-witted when it came to others cleared up in the third book.  In this one, she seemed just as aware of the motives of others as she had in the first book.  So, one problem solved. 
  3. Unnecessary deaths — Once again, I don’t want to say WHO dies, but some main characters die in the third book.  For one of those deaths, I almost missed it.  I had to page back and read again…”Oh, he died?  Wait, what?  Just like that?”  Some die in sudden, quick ways, but it seems incompatible with their personal stories, and incompatible with the narrative Collins set up.  They should have either had more of a send-off, so I would really feel the loss, or not died at all.  Another character died dramatically, but her death makes her entire existence in the novel seem inconsequential.  She lived only so she could die so that Katniss would find the strength to do what needed to be done…but Katniss already seemed fairly committed to doing all she could.  I think some young adult novels really try to pack in the deaths at the end of a trilogy, but go too far.  There’s a line there, between realistic intensity and caricatured violence…many authors cross that line, trying to make sure their young readers really see the devastating toll of war and unwarranted bloodshed.  But it just makes the work seem a little sloppy, and also makes sensitive readers (like myself) feel like they’re just killing off characters for sport.  If they can’t write about them anymore, the characters will just have to die.

Overall — a good series.  Lots of interesting talking points for a young folks’ reading group, and something for everybody.  I’ll look forward to the movies!  More than other stories I’ve read lately, it really lends itself to the screen.  In the meantime, I’ll just hope that this isn’t actually in our country’s future and settle down to cuddle with my own little Buttercup cat here in District 13.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

That was quick.  As far as sequels go, it was captivating, and the cliffhanger at the end threw me right into the third and final book.  The science fiction aspects of this second book were more what I was looking for.  The arena for the Quarter Quell games was mind-boggling, and fit much more with my thoughts about where any kind of reality-show games might be held.  It follows that if a society is going to go to the trouble of filming humans hunting and killing each other, they’d  add a little more dramatic flare to the arena, not just put them in a one-note biosphere.

But for most of this book, I was distracted by one big inconsistency — the idiocy of Katniss.

In the first book, she is a fearless huntress, much more like Artemis than any of the other contestants.  She is an excellent hunter, able to take down any prey swiftly and silently.

She’s still this huntress in the second book, but here’s where the characterization began to fall apart for me: she’s also an idiot.  I mean that in the nicest way possible — but it’s still true.  She’s become a symbol for a revolution, an uprising, and even when she learns that, she doesn’t piece together SIMPLE events, BLATANT events, that should show her what exactly is happening in her world.  Even when it is perfectly obvious to the reader, Katniss doesn’t connect the symbol of the mockingjay with the rebellion.  Time and time again, other characters show her some hidden token with a mockingjay, look at her meaningfully, and wait for understanding…but she just thinks they’re being odd.  For someone who is so smart in the arena, I don’t buy it.  It’s a fault of characterization, and someone really should have said something to Collins about it.  I can believe that a girl who has grown up devoid of romantic contact would have trouble understanding her relationships with both Peeta and Gale, the two other points of the love triangle, but I can’t believe that she wouldn’t figure THIS out a little earlier than the last three pages of the book.  Doesn’t work for me.

That said, I did like it enough to continue on to the third book.  The story is still intriguing, and the world fully-realized…and the plot is chugging along in a satisfying way.  I’ll see it out to the end.  I just hope that in this next and last book, I get to see a Katniss who feels a little more real…a little more true to the intelligence she’s shown in the past.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’m so glad to have read a young adult novel that doesn’t make me feel old.  This book is a quick read, and a good one, too.  A dystopian future for North America, with a sacrificial games element.  I’ve also read Gregor the Overlander by Collins, and I applaud the way she can create darkness and maintain that darkness in a story that still contains all the regular tropes of young adult fiction.  I’m already on the second one, Catching Fire, and am breezing happily through that book as well.

Students have been listing this as their favorite book ever since it came out in 2008.  But students also told me to read Twilight, and…yeah.  I don’t always take their reading advice.  It’s tricky reading young adult fiction as an “old” adult now — those books are no longer written for me.  They contain plot points or characters who I find tedious because I’ve seen them before in countless other novels.  It just gets boring after a while, feeling like “they don’t write them like they used to.”  They need those elements, however, to instruct their young readers on what book reading is like, what you can hope to take from it, and how to write.  The amount of times I’ve told students that I DON’T want to know what everyone is wearing in their short stories…Gack!  But I know where they get that idea from, and it’s a good idea for their age — keep them observing and thinking about details that belong in a story.

Rant!  Back to reality — I really enjoyed this book because I did NOT feel like I’d read it all before.  Sure, you’re able to kind of guess the ending before you get to it, but Collins surprised me at times too.

I’m curious to see how the main character, Katniss, will mature in the next two books.  There’s a trend in young adult fiction now to have a female main character who in some way doesn’t recognize how special she is.  It could be that she doesn’t know how beautiful she is, or doesn’t understand her full potential.  But this lack of self-esteem is a central part of these characters, and that worries me.  Is a girl really only beautiful if she doesn’t know it?  Can a girl who doesn’t know how smart she is really be that smart?  Do we only appreciate young women who are humble or completely self-aware?  Hmm.  I’ll report back on whether this develops or not. It’s continuing in the next book, but I’m hoping it will be part of her journey to become more self-aware and more self-confident about everything, not just her prowess at hunting.

Right now, I’m excited that they’re making this into a movie.  And the casting looks spot on, which is a real treat.  My advice would be to not check out the movie pictures yet until you’ve read the book — it’s a good read, it won’t take long — and then get a pleasant surprise when the cast looks almost like you pictured them in your head.  Pretty cool.

I also found out from a little peek on Wikipedia that Suzanne Collins was a writer for Nickelodeon AND wrote for one of my favorite shows when I was in middle school, Clarissa Explains It All.  Well, now I’m a real fan.  Plus, that picture takes me back.  I bet that’s exactly what Drew and I would have looked like, if we’d studied together in middle school.

I’ll keep you posted when I finish the next book, which should be….wait for it….almost done…

His Majesty’s Dragon and Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

Every summer deserves summer reads.  These two get my vote for the “summerest” of the reading I’ve done so far in 2011.  And, lest you think I’m being pretentious, this isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, at the beginning of the summer, freshly exhausted from the taxing end of year inventory checks, grade entering, and menial cleaning jobs that fill a teacher’s last days of the school year, all I’m looking for is a book where I won’t have to think much.

These delivered a respite from stress and heavy thought.  PERFECT.   A new series, optioned already for movies by Peter Jackson, about dragons during the Napoleonic Wars.  Drew is a Napoleonic war fiend, thanks to Patrick O’Brian and the Aubrey books, and he turned me on to this new, fanciful series.

Full disclosure– they are SUMMER READING.  There’s not much going on metaphorically or below the surface, but the main dragon in the story, Temeraire, is the sweetest character ever.  He is a dear, dear, dragon.  My favorite moment in the first book comes when Temeraire and his Captain, Laurence, are walking up a mountain.  At this point, Temeraire is only a few months old, and still small enough to go on hikes with Laurence.  (He gets much, much bigger.  Much.)  He becomes fascinated with a little shiny pebble on the hike, but it’s too small for him to pick up in his talons, so he gently pushes it up the hill with him so that Laurence can pick it up for him.  Sweet, sweet, dragon.

The historical parts of the books are fun, but a little odd.  Military leaders act in unusual ways, that work well with the plot points, but seem ill-befitting to a military force in the middle of a epic war.  Temeraire proves to be a valuable dragon in a fight, and yet in the second book, the Admiral lets the Chinese take him away, because…I’m not sure exactly.  Doesn’t sound like something many fighting forces would consider.   But, as with so many summer reads, suspending belief and criticism is important for enjoyment. Even though they are speculative historical fiction, they remind me a lot of the Arthurian books I used to devour — a slight nod to history, but changing whatever gets in the way of the narrative.

The relationship between Temeraire and Laurence is the reason to read the books.  Every kid wishes for some kind of fantastical pet, and although it is clear that the dragons aren’t pets in this world, I still can’t help but wish for a dragon of my own.  Temeraire is wholly devoted to Laurence, and Laurence sacrifices all normalcy from his life in order to serve his country with Temeraire.  The kind of commitment they feel for each other is touching and desirable for the kid in me who used to love fantasy books.

It reminded me a little bit of the Dealing With Dragons series by Patricia Wrede.  Those books were much more in the realm of fantasy, and contained no historical base at all, but they were so much fun.  I loved Princess Cimorene, who because bored with her princess life and abandoned it to become a cook for a dragon instead.  The cover of that first book left me daydreaming for hours — look at how defiant she looks, even in the face of a huge, monstrous dragon!  So many fantastic role models in young adult fiction…I have to reread that one.

After finishing the second Temeraire book, I was ready to jump into the third book, but took a small hiatus for some actual historical reading — no dragons in my book now.  But after I finish reading about the fatalistic, depressing events that led to World War One, I’ll be ready to get back to a world where dragons roam the air.

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