The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

I've been hearing great things about this series since at least last summer...from readers of all ages. Many of my sixth graders read it and loved it, but many adults I know have been raving about it, too. Considering I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it...but, eventually, curiosity won out.

The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic, dystopian society, which Collins makes so real. In a nutshell...a wave of natural disasters struck North America, chaos erupted, and "the Capitol" emerged and seized control. Now, the Capitol keeps its 12 outlying Districts in line through intimidation and force. Living conditions in the Districts are appalling...people are starving, they're forced to work impossibly long hours in hazardous conditions for little pay, they're imprisoned within their home Districts by electric fences, they're constantly monitored and kept powerless, while people in the Capitol live in total luxury.

To remind the Districts just how powerless they really are, the Capitol forces each one to send a boy and girl between the ages of 12-18 to the annual Hunger Games...a televised fight to death...gladiator style. The "tributes" are chosen via a lottery which they call "the reaping". Every child's name is entered once for each year of eligibility (12-year-olds are entered once...18-year-olds are entered seven times), but families can choose to have their children's names entered multiple times in exchange for food and fuel. Many must do so in order to survive.

In the first book in the series, we meet 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. Her 12-year-old sister Prim, whose name has only been entered in the reaping once, is chosen against all odds as the female tribute from District 12. Knowing Prim has no chance of survival, Katniss volunteers to take her place. We follow Katniss on her journey from home to the Capitol to the arena. She's an underdog going in...but she's not totally skill-less: She's awesome with a bow and arrow. She's an experienced tracker and hunter. She's spent time in the woods...knows which plants are edible...climbs trees effortlessly. Plus, she's smart, and she has an incredibly strong spirit. Propelled by her anger toward the Capitol and her love for her family and friends back home, Katniss quickly emerges as a force to be reckoned with...

Collins achieves this great balance in Katniss...we're terrified for her, but we also have hope that she'll somehow manage to survive. And if there wasn't already enough tension, she begins to fall in love with Peeta, her fellow District 12 tribute...Only she knows, and so do we, that there's no way they can both survive.

As we're watching all of this unfold, so are Katniss' and Peeta's families and friends...and everyone in Panem. All eyes are glued to their TVs. The nation is captivated by Katniss and Peeta, just as we are as readers...and we clearly get the sense that feelings of discontent and unrest are beginning to stir in the Districts. Katniss becomes a symbol of the injustice and cruelty of the Capitol. Her spirit gives the people of Panem hope...and energy begins to build.

Every chapter in The Hunger Games is its own mini can't possibly fold down the corner, turn out the light, and go to sleep. You must read on...and on...and on...because you're dying to know what's going to happen to Katniss and Peeta, her family, her District, her world. Collins masterfully propels you forward. As soon as I finished Book One, I had to start Catching Fire, and now I'm eagerly awaiting the release of Mockingjay, the final book in the trilogy...which doesn't come out until August 24!!!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

John Green is one of my favorite authors. I discovered him just a couple of years ago. He writes these smart, edgy "adolescent lit" novels (Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns) all of which have the quirkiest, most original characters. (I say "adolescent lit" because, although his characters are in high school, the novels are definitely R-Rated...especially in terms of language...occasionally in terms of subject matter.)

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is Green's latest, co-authored with David Levithan...who I'd never encountered before. They wrote alternating chapters from the perspectives of two different characters both named...Will Grayson. I was fascinated by the concept and eager to get my hands on anything Green had anything to do with.

The Original Will Grayson...written by seventeen. He lives in a ritzy suburb of Chicago. Both his parents are doctors. He's been best friends with Tiny Cooper since fifth grade. Tiny is...according to Will..."not the world's gayest person, and he's not the world's largest person but...he may be the world's largest person who is really, really gay and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large." Will feels like he lives in Tiny's shadow. After a school-board member gets all upset about "gays in the locker room," Will writes a signed letter to the editor of the school newspaper defending Tiny's right to "be both gigantic (and, therefore,the best member of the football team's offensive line) and gay." Will's other "friends" end up Never Talking to Him Again, and Will takes this event as further proof that his two rules for life are essential. Rule #1: Don't care too much. Rule #2: Shut up. He says, "Everything unfortunate that has ever happened to me has stemmed from failure to follow one of the two rules." The Original Will Grayson is guarded...cynical...somewhat resentful...lonely.

The other will grayson...written by also seventeen. He lives on the opposite side of a tiny, run-down apartment with his mom, who struggles to make ends meet. His dad is totally out of the picture. The other will grayson is beyond cynical. He writes, "i am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me...those seem to be the two choices, everything else is just killing time."

Butandso...the two Will Graysons the most unlikely spot and under the most unlikely circumstances...and this novel is all about what happens when their lives become intertwined. It's ultimately about truth, taking risks, and trying and failing and trying again...metaphorically ripping the lid off "Schrodinger's Box" and peering inside, despite how terrifying that can be. It's about love in all it's complexity and all it's forms...

That's why I love John Green (and David Levithan?) so much. His novels are so entertaining and accessible...but they're also smart and layered and thought-provoking...He's a phenomenal storyteller.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I inhaled this book! I've been up till two or three every night this week reading...I just couldn't stop turning the pages...I would tell myself, "One more chapter. That's it. Then turn off the light and go to sleep." But one more chapter would turn into just one more and then another. It was incredibly suspenseful. Much of the time I was filled with afraid for Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter...but I HAD to know what was going to happen. It was like watching a scary movie with my eyes half covered...seeing it unfold through the cracks between my fingers.

I fell in love with the characters...and though I'm embarrassed to admit it...with the world of the story. I fully realize Jackson, Mississippi circa 1960 is no place to romanticize, but I couldn't help myself. I'm a sucker for southern literature...and I feel like Kathryn Stockett captured the South here...the good, the bad, and the ugly. Something about it resonates with's almost like it's in my genes...encoded on my DNA...

Which made me wonder...if I had lived in that time and would I have treated "the help"? How would I have felt about the Civil Rights Movement? Which character would I have been? I wish I could say Skeeter...but I'm not sure I'm that brave (or...reckless). I HOPE I wouldn't have been Hilly, but I do enjoy being in charge and being in the spotlight. I'm very traditional...and fairly conservative...I don't go around rocking the boat. Maybe I would have been somewhere in between. A Lou Anne...quietly doing what's right behind closed doors. It's really hard to say...

But this book makes me want to take more something BIG...something noble. It makes me grateful for all those people who have.