Category Archives: Literature

Hunger Games Review

A little belatedly, I would like to add my two cents to the conversation about The Hunger Games, specifically responding to: this Gospel Coalition blog‘s guest post (where author ND Wilson whines about how bad readers are at reading) and this concerned father’s post (which floated around my circles on Facebook for a while).

1. You’re not done reading Hunger Games until you’ve read all three.

2. You heard me. Read. Not watch. The movie is a companion to the book, flattened by the need to streamline the story.

3. Do not compare Hunger Games to Harry Potter. Do not compare Hunger Games to Twilight. Why do people do this? Fantasy is not the same genre as science fiction is not the same genre as romance.

4. Do not be confused. Suzanne Collins is the author. She gets to decide what situation her characters are thrown into. I’m sorry it’s not something you see happening this week in middle class America. But sometimes ethical choices are really hard, and Collins decided to make the circumstances in her story extreme to highlight something, to drive home her message.

5. Katniss is a round, consistent, complex, original character. She is revealed to us over the course of the three books. In the first book, she was not a revolutionary. She takes the easy way out sometimes. She lets the Capitol manipulate her. Wilson says, “She needs to stop giving a rip about her own survival (the most dangerous men and women always forget themselves).”

I respond with his own words: “File this under misunderstanding humanity, which is just another way of saying that [Wilson] misunderstands courage, inspiration, oppression, and nobility.”

As Katniss develops she does choose the harder path and suffers for the sake of everyone who the Capitol is oppressing. But let’s not forget that every human hero remains human. Jesus is the perfect hero–he forgot himself completely in his heroic acts. Katniss is a human character–she will still act within her flawed nature.

6. Peeta. How I love Peeta. Wilson’s accusations against him descend from a flawed understanding of gender. “[Peeta is] fundamentally passive and submissive,” Wilson says, using that as ground to bash Peeta for letting Katniss initiate their relationship. Read this blog post and look again at the accusations from Wilson. Someone has their knickers in a twist over middle class Victorian ideals.

Peeta is, in fact, fundamentally passive and submissive. What I don’t understand is why ND up there thinks that’s such a bad thing. I’m thinking of that perfect hero again, and how he was led like a lamb to the slaughter and did not open his mouth. Passive and submissive? Yes. The ideal heroism.

7. Yes, refusing to eat the berries could inspire a rebellion.

8. Gratuitous violence is violence that doesn’t have a point. Hunger Games violence in the arena and in the battles to follow serves the specific function of driving home a point about the nature of culture and violence. So… it’s not gratuitous.

9. A potty mouth, let us be clear, uses swear words excessively. Katniss says “hell” and “damn” at appropriate moments of surprise or anger.

10. Why would portrayal of “a body-pierced homosexual” offering “respite from the madness” be a problem? Who were “Dad and Emily” even talking about? What?

11. Cheer for the right winner.

The Generations With Vision post summarized like this: “It was the fact that there were two audiences watching the game, and everybody on both sides of the screen was rooting for the winner.” I included this post in my discussion at all because of this point–one that I considered as I sat in the theater at midnight watching Katniss being called into the arena.

But “Dad and Emily” miss what the Capitol audience is cheering for. The Capitol audience is not inside Katniss’s head like the reader is. It sees star-crossed lovers when we see Katniss struggling to keep her family safe. The Capitol audience cheers for its favorites in the arena, thriving on the bloodshed, and then wonders what’s for lunch, while the reader suffers with Katniss as she agonizes over her position in the arena, as she slowly learns to shake off the presuppositions that the Capitol has relentlessly driven into her worldview.

Suzanne Collins wrote a page turner. She trusted her readers to be thinking as they read. Hunger Games succeeds in making people think about difficult ethical dilemmas, violence in entertainment, and the making of a hero. But the books actually give an answer, the right answer. Collins doesn’t stop with making you ask questions; she answers them.

But I don’t want to give anything away. Go read the books. All three.


Mercy Rising

A Live Coal In the Sea by Madeleine L’Engle has become a favorite book of mine. It is the sequel to Camilla, a book about the title character’s emotional coming-of-age. Live Coal starts with an end for Camilla, a retirement party. Through a series of flashbacks and some focus on her granddaughter, Camilla’s life unfolds like intricate origami.

Critics often accuse L’Engle of too-perfect families. They forgot to read this one.

Camilla’s family, like most families, looks idyllic, but their smiling public faces hide the most painful of secrets: betrayals.

Betrayal of spouse, friend, child. Blatant and secretive. Sexual and platonic.

The book is dark, and at the very darkest of betrayals, light splinters in. Painfully merciful.

L’Engle communicates how messed up families can be. How agonizing the past can be. How some mistakes can never be forgotten.

How mercy rises above it all.


How Not to Find a Good Book at the Library

  • Check out a book because the author has written so much.

Chances are, you’ll end up reading cardboard fiction because the author is churning words out so fast that she doesn’t have time to stop and think. Prime example: Danielle Steel, who has written more than 100 books that are not worth your time. Major exception: juvenile and children’s fiction. Mary Pope Osborn, for example, has written a delightful string of Magic Tree House books along with their nonfiction companions.

  • Force yourself to finish every book you start.

Not only will you start accruing late fees before you get around to finishing, trying new books will become a discouraging prospect. If you happen to pick up a book that doesn’t suit, nothing obligates you to finish it.

  • Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Peer through the double negative–yes, that says to judge a book by its cover, at least sometimes. If the people on the cover are too beautiful to be true and/or their clothes are falling off, put the book down. If the people on the cover are Amish, standing in a field, and looking very sad, don’t bother. If you’ve ever read Amish fiction, you’ve read it before.

  • Always read from the same section of the library.

Always read thrillers? Try a biography about a spy or a nonfiction book on criminology. Always in adult fiction? Mosey on over to juvenile fiction. Try a classic. Try a memoir. Spread your wings.

  • Never pick at random.

Sometimes, a book will surprise you by leaping to your hand and begging to be read.

a blog post about self-expression

Sometimes words are hard to say.

Sometimes the problem is that we try too hard.

Sometimes it’s easier to say what you’re expected to say

than it is to say what you want to say,

or what you really mean.

Like “somewhere i have never travelled,”

Phileas’s Fortune is a small book that says just what it means to say, without oversaying.

After reading it, I found myself singing,

not even the rain has such small hands.

Sometimes the best way to say Iloveyou is not to say it at all.

Sometimes the best way to say the hardest things is to say,

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses.

Or to say

cherry! ruby! chimes!

After these most personal Iloveyous have been spoken, and

only something in me understands,

what can I say but,


From Dr. Seuss to Dostoevsky

Katie Couric wrote a children’s book called The Brand New Kid in 2000 that was developed into a musical in 2006. It’s a story about acceptance. Lazlo, the new kid, suffers rejection from his classmates until one little girl, Carrie, takes the time to make friends with him.

Good idea. Terrible book.

I stumbled across it in the library the other day and picked it up because seeing Couric’s name on the cover piqued my interest. Couric decided to use rhyming text, a bad idea since most of the rhymes were forced and the lines lacked any rhythm. Even the charming watercolor illustrations by Marjorie Priceman don’t redeem this book.

Are people’s expectations of children really so low? Thankfully not. Most of the reviews on Amazon were scathing:

“I am trying to remember why Couric went into the kids’ book business. Wasn’t the day job working out Katie?”

“This amateurish effort from Ms. Couric should never have been published. The writing is bland and the rhythm forced. Buy a book from a professional children’s author who has spent serious time honing their craft.”

If we don’t take the writing of children’s literature seriously, how can we expect the reading of it to improve anyone? Reading children books with little content and poor style doesn’t prepare them to read masterworks that teach about God and life and other big ideas. Reading The Brand New Kid doesn’t get children ready for The Brothers Karamozov.

Expect greater, both from children’s authors and from the children themselves.

Try these books about acceptance instead:

The Cow That Went OINK (Bernard Most)

The Sneetches (Dr. Seuss)

Wolf! (Sara Fanelli)

In Which I Break Up With Milton Although I Still Love Him

Typically, Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer crown any discussion of English literature. I’m going to pretend like I didn’t even say that and discuss now whether Shakespeare or Milton is the greatest. Actually, I’m not even going to pretend that much.

Reasons that Shakespeare is greater than Milton, making him the greatest author in the English language:

Characters. Hamlet, of course, is the most complex character ever written. And my favorite, Portia from Merchant of Venice, taught me so much about mercy and justice that I think about her every day. Shakespeare’s characters inspire. I can see them breathing as I read. Adam, of Milton’s Paradise Lost, on the other hand, can’t even make me dislike him, despite his misogyny. Eve, meanwhile, stands by batting her eyelashes.

Worldview. Was Shakespeare a Christian? I don’t know. Was Milton? I really don’t want to answer this question. No. Maybe. I hope so. But no. Milton denied the Trinity in De Doctrina Christiana. Shakespeare delivers strong messages of sin and redemption. Milton. . . well, Milton denies the Trinity. That’s a big strike against him.

Humor. Shakespeare makes me laugh. A lot. Milton does not.

Body of work. If you want numbers, this is the point for you. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, a great work. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Othello, MacbethLear, great works. And Tempest, another great work. And Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. More great works.

I’m sorry, Milton, but I just can’t make it work. It’s not you, it’s. . . well, actually, this one’s all you.

Bring It, Princess

My coworker asked me the other night if, when I was a little girl, I wanted to be a princess.

I knew he meant the dresses and the beauty and the fairy-tale ending. But I didn’t know how to answer because my favorite princess books are Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. They feature princesses who branch away from tradition on purpose, who want to read and fence. These princesses don’t wait around; they do their own rescuing.

Thinking about Ella, my answer is definitely yes, please, I would like to be a princess. (Although, to be fair, even after she marries the prince she takes the titles Court Linguist and Cook’s Helper instead of Princess.) She’s funny and smart. And spunky. She runs away from finishing school and she learns foreign languages and she makes friends with elves.

I just found a book called The Ugly Princess and the Wise Fool by Margaret Gray. It’s utterly charming. “A very long time ago,” it begins, “when all the countries you’ve ever heard of were in different places on the map, and the world was still full of the dark, wide forests where fairies tend to live, a princess was born who was not beautiful.” And we’re off on a self-consciously different princess story. The ugly princess also happens to be very smart and the wise fool happens to notice. I’m guessing that things work out.

Fortunately, the intelligent princess has taken over the realm of fairy tales and booted out the unbelievably gorgeous but intellectually deficient heroine, in children’s literature anyway. The size of the romance paperback section indicates that the adults still need some rescuing.

Quick, someone send them a princess.

Belle and Edwart: True Love Strikes Like a Vampire

Ah, satire.

During high school, my best friend Chelsea and I wrote a parody-in-notes to each other during Chemistry class. We modeled it after a type of book I had been in the bad habit of reading during my Junior High years. We still pull it out to read. When I started dating, my poor boyfriend had to listen to us read the entire thing out loud between bursts of laughter. Later, Chelsea’s boyfriend had to go through the same thing.

I continue to enjoy satire. Recently published parodies I’ve enjoyed: Right Behind, by N. D. Wilson (which targets Jerry B. Jenkins’s and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind) and Nightlight, by the Harvard Lampoon.

Nightlight, which features Belle and Edwart, ridicules Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Notably and surprisingly, Nightlight stayed a lot cleaner than its progenitor, which kept us all thinking about teenage sex for thousands of pages. The parody is (as stated by the back cover) “complete with romance, danger, insufficient parental guardianship, creepy stalkerlike behavior, and a vampire prom.”

As I read I started wondering, what makes satire work? Four things, according to A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking, written by the father of N. D. up there. (1) Object of attack, (2) satiric vehicle, (3) tone, and (4) a norm.

I thought a lot about the norm while I read Nightlight. For example, try classifying Twilight as fantasy. The ultimate example every fantasy writer should ever look to–ever–is Lord of the Rings. Maybe we shouldn’t hold Meyer to a standard that high. Paranormal? Although the term wasn’t used until the 1920s, let’s apply it retroactively to Dracula, which was published in 1897. Much more satisfying in its darkness, Dracula also seems to be well-written. Poor Meyer. Maybe romance? Jane Austen wins. Maybe it’s paranormal romance, which has its roots in Gothic fiction, according to the Wikipedia page. A page that doesn’t even mention Twilight or Stephenie Meyer.

All of that to explain why Nightlight had me laughing out loud. Twighlight, compared to a norm, is naturally mockable.

If you like Twilight, I’m happy for you. As happy as Belle is to have Edwart in her arms again.

Milton Was Not Mean II

Part two of two

Milton’s stridency was purposeful and effective. He criticized both the government as a whole and individuals opposing him.

Both the giving and the taking of criticism are arts. Both seem to be lost. Modern man, loving his relative truth, fears public debate because, in the end, someone has to be wrong. Christians, of all people, may embrace criticism affectionately because they possess certain truth.

What about loving your neighbor? And Matthew 18:15, which says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (ESV)?

Take it up with Paul, who relates in Galatians 2:11-15 how he publicly berated Peter for separating from Gentiles. Paul was always writing about love, not least in the famous passage I Corinthians 13. Yeah, Paul, what about loving your neighbor?

Peter sinned publicly. His mistake led others astray. In our culture of mass communication, where everyone has his platform through Facebook or Twitter, there’s a lot more opportunity to make public mistakes and a lot more opportunity to lead others astray.

And a lot more opportunity to keep purveyors of falsehood accountable.

A defamatory tweet about God must be met with public rebuttal. Or an anti-Trinitarian status met with a status celebrating Trinitarian thought. A sermon that lies about God’s character should be met publicly with truth.

Criticism and love are not opposites. They often walk hand in hand. If Paul had taken Peter quietly aside to correct him, how many church members would have been left still in the darkness?

Milton understood this. He feared that England was turning away from God by wanting a king. He very publicly met the very public problem, using harsh criticism for the sake of love.

Milton Was Not Mean

Part one of two

John Milton experiences less favor than English literature’s other two stars, Shakespeare and Chaucer, for three big reasons (credit to Dr. Caren Salter Silvester): religion, politics, and personality.

Many critics complain that he inserted himself too much into his works, that he was self-consumed and overly worried about posterity’s opinion of him. His sandpapery prose feels brusque. In his work “The Ready and Easy Way To Establish a Free Commonwealth,” he attacks royalists as emasculated slavish idolaters. That seems a little harsh.

What a mean guy he must have been.

The Merritt Y. Hughes edition of Milton’s complete works contains several biographical appendices. The first, by John Aubrey, says that Milton was “of a very cheerful humor. . . He would be cheerful even in his gout-fits, and sing.” A few pages later, Milton is described as “severe on one hand,” but “familiar and free in his conversation to those to whom most sour in his way of education.”

In the unsteady political times of his day, Milton had to take an unyielding stance in his work. He was fighting a war that was more than political to him. It was religious and personal.

Every writer develops a voice that is separate from personality. Milton is a supreme example of a writer.

What do we learn from his voice?