Friday, May 24, 2013

Books I Love: The Hunger Games

I don't think an author exists who doesn't love books.

We all get started in this business partially because we were wowed and distracted and entertained and moved by other authors' work first. I plan to discuss books now and then on this blog, and I'll do my best to only name names when I'm talking about the books I like. For my first post about someone else's work, I'd like to discuss my feelings about The Hunger Games.

You won't see me talking that much about hugely popular books on this blog (okay, maybe once or twice), but part of the reason I want to talk about it is that it is super popular, and I think it's really important that as writers we look at what the most well-known books in our genres are saying to our reading public. (Plus it's nice to see what the hype is about and have my own opinion.)

So what did I think of The Hunger Games? Please be advised that I do include spoilers in some cases.

First off, I didn't like the writing as much as I liked some of the concepts. As an editing nerd, I noticed a lot of comma splices, and the narration is just a little clumsy sometimes, but not often enough that you get used to it and adapt, so when something's weird or wrong it really sticks out. Katniss's narration talked to the faceless audience a lot, especially in the beginning, to explain stuff to us, and I was wondering who she was talking to. Sometimes it was okay because it bounced right off of what she was thinking or doing. Other times it was a history/culture lesson and that I didn't like, but I dealt with it. And there were a lot of flashbacks, which sometimes worked well and sometimes felt shoehorned in. Beyond that, the actual writing style was sometimes awkward, but the present tense narration was unusually invisible, and I thought Katniss's tone was established early and established well.

Given this criticism, why do I think it's one of the best books I ever read?

Katniss herself, first of all. She was firm and independent and seriously a nice breath of fresh air after so many YA novels featuring drippy heroines who melt over guys and focus on getting a guy as the center of their lives. Nope, not this girl.

Stepping away from the book itself for a moment, I should say that she's kind of important from a feminist standpoint when it comes to literature, and I don't mean that in a silly girl-power way. I mean that the big book-to-movie blockbusters in this era don't have good messages for women at all.

If the protagonist is a girl or a woman in these megahits, her purpose usually focuses primarily or exclusively on a boy or man. And "getting" him means she "wins," and gets "happily ever after." Katniss is important because she shows that a female lead can exist without being dependent on a boy to give her purpose.

The only person she truly loves is her sister, so you believe it when she puts it all on the line to protect her, even though she clearly feels that caring makes her vulnerable. When Katniss volunteers for the Games, you can immediately see that she is already being practical about the future, because the wheels are already turning on how not to look weak by crying. And she's all business while saying goodbye to her family. She's prepared for this. She's sixteen, but she's a grown-up, and throughout the rest of the story she thinks about everything she's doing in terms of how it will affect her family, especially her sister Prim. And she doesn't carry the "I'm doing this FOR MY FAMILY" banner for show. It is part of her in the arena, and consistently works as a motivating factor in her thoughts. It isn't a ruse and it's written very well.

I like that Katniss doesn't like "owing anyone" and feels like she owes Peeta a thank-you for helping her when she was a kid, and I unexpectedly chuckled when she was thinking about how it'd sound insincere if she thanked him while trying to slit his throat in the Games. She recognizes Peeta's kindness and sees it as a possible ploy right from the beginning, and throws it right back at him--which works to her advantage. This is choreographed to some degree--the organizers of the Games like shaking it up and making a love story happen in the arena--but Katniss plays it all as a game and that's probably one of the most interesting things about her. She actually had layers, and wasn't perfect all the time--the fact that she broke down and cried after losing her temper during her evaluation was particularly telling of the stress that's gotten under her skin--and she's not always self-aware about how she's coming across, like when she denied that she was perceived as "sullen and hostile" while figuring out how to present herself in the interviews. I love that she has so much fire and great points--that she resists giving the Capitol what they want in terms of answers at the interviews because she perceives that they're taking her future already, so what right do they have to suck on her past?

Katniss's emotional roller coaster is well told . . . she's angry about being put in this terrible position and indignant about being expected to go along with the dog and pony show before the Games, but beyond that she has connections and feelings about everyone she comes into contact with--sizing them up, pulling them in, pushing them away. I especially liked how she dealt with the voiceless servant in her room. I was actually more intrigued during the lead-up to the Games than I was during the Games themselves, but I liked how Katniss used what she knew to survive, didn't do absolutely everything right, sometimes got hurt, sometimes had weaknesses, and sometimes had to be saved (but usually by luck or correctly deducing how to manipulate her rescuer, not in the usual "boy saves damsel in distress" way).

Her feelings for Peeta were really well handled too; a lot of what she did was for show, because of the situation she was in, but she was not one-dimensional and some of her feelings were conflicting. Even if you're not romantically attracted to someone, it's good to have another person on your side in a scary and desperate situation, and nearly anyone would develop strong feelings of at least protectiveness and appreciation. I loved that the story explored types of caring, intimacy, and love that do not have to be romantic. I don't think she was completely surprised that Peeta's feelings were different from her own, though she did seem sort of a little confused and disappointed to know that he wasn't faking anything he did for the cameras.

I'd say it annoyed me how there were so many indirect deaths--because that happens a lot in violent books when the main character is to be kept pristine, so the enemies die by accident, by each other's hand, or by natural causes--but this thing overall annoyed me less because Katniss did kill one person completely fairly and another person straightforwardly when the opponent couldn't fight back, so she didn't come through the Games with no blood on her hands. But for a plot so vicious and bloody, there really were a lot of indirect deaths--Katniss was directly involved with someone dying from insect bites, dying from poison, etc. I won't go into detail, but I thought the ending was a great mini-rebellion. I actually saw the twist coming (and hoped it wasn't going to happen, even though it seemed inevitable), but I liked how they twisted the twist, which sets the scene for . . . future books. (You can tell more were planned by certain little aspects of how particular characters acted.) And I really appreciated that they did NOT just cut off at the end with a victory; they actually showed some aftermath and some reacting and some of the reward that the tributes had fought so hard for--and some of the consequences.

There are certainly reasons people don't like these books that I understand and to some extent agree with, but I think the series (particularly the first book) is good in a number of ways that are unusual for YA books, and I highly recommend them.

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