Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Books twenty-six and twenty seven: Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I've decided to write about Suzanne Collins last two books in the Hunger Games series (Catching Fire and Mockingjay) in a single post.  I read them back-to-back and it seems easier to talk about them together.  I also need to start this post with a giant SPOILER ALERT!  In this post, I will talk about plot points that will spoil not just the endings but much of the books if you haven't read them and you intend to.

I wasn't sure I wanted to read these two books because I had some misgivings about the first novel in the series.  But my book club decided to read the entire series, which gave me ample encouragement.  And I'm glad I read the full series.

From a pure reading enjoyment experience, I think the first book is the best with its thrilling action sequences and hyper-fast pace.  But the second book offered a more nuanced story with some genuine plot surprises and more insight into characters.  My least favorite of the three is the last book which loses it's focus and offers a plot that sometimes feels haphazard. However all these books are delightfully readable and I can see why they are so popular.

That said, I do have issues with the books.  While I liked the plot of Catching Fire better than the others, there is one twist so obvious and forced that I can't help but call it out.  In this book, we learn that the rules of the game (once a child has survived the games, she never has to compete again) can easily change.  The changing of the rules felt like little more than a ploy to put Katniss Everdean back into the arena to fight it out to the death with other kids.  A more interesting plot would have made Katniss the mentor to another child forced to fight for his or her life. Although, I'll admit that this forced plot point sets up the second half of the book which is filled with fantastic plot twists and turns and some damn fine character development.  So maybe I should leave the storyline to Collins.

I've also complained that I don't like the first person voice of these books.  But now I'm not so sure.  I think what I may not like is teenage-girl angst.  There's an endless attitude of "woe is me" and "I'm such a terrible person" and "how can I ever live up to the goodness of Peeta" and "why do I have to constantly be such a disappointment to family" and " . . . "  This constant drone starts in book two and carries right on through book three.  For me, it's like Chinese water torture; a constant drip, drip, drip of negativity and self loathing that belies the powerful girl that is Katniss Everdean.

These books also treat some pretty serious stuff with surprising frivolity:

On teenage pregnancy: Let's tell everyone that Katniss is pregnant with Peeta's baby. Isn't that romantic?

On underage drinking: Yes you've had a really bad day.  Go knock back a few with Haymitch.

On prescription drug abuse:  Life is better when shrouded in a drug-y haze

On suicide: Yes, your teen life sucks.  Why not consider ending it all?

On revenge killing: What a great idea!

It's this last point, that made me ultimately not like Katniss Everdean as a literary character.  In book three, Katniss is obsessed with executing President Snow.  In the end, she doesn't directly kill him.  Instead, with no thought or moral conflict and in front of a blood thirsty crowd, Katniss coldly shoots District 13's President Coin through the heart because she may or may not have been responsible for the death of Katniss's sister. Yes, a lot of people would call me a weak, spineless liberal.  But I think execution demands a more careful consideration.

This post risks coming off as too negative.  So let me end with a bit a praise for Suzanne Collins.  I heard an interview with her on the New York Times Book Review podcast and she was brilliant.  I particularly liked how much credit she gives her audience of young readers.  She talked about how my generation is creating massive social and ecological problems that I won't have to deal with in my life.  Instead, it's the kids reading her books that will have to face some monumental problems. And that's why her books ask kids to face some pretty serious issues and ideas.  She confronts these issues in her books brilliantly.  Issues like the morality of reality TV. Or ecological degradation. War. Poverty. Economic disparity.  Tackling tough issues like these with honesty (yet written with such excitement) is what makes these books so powerful.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked the points that you brought up. The books were so blase about big issues. But is that in itself a comment on their society?