Category Archives: Book Review

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.

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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.

 

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)

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.

Fight for Fiction

A young adult book caught my eye the other day, In the Name of God by Paula Jolin, so I read the back cover. I read it again. With a sinking feeling in my stomach I read it again.

Jolin develops a believable, sympathetic character, a Muslim girl from Syria, who (spoiler alert!) tries to blow up a business building but changes her mind when she runs into her brother inside. Jolin weaves her story so that an Islamic worldview can ease into readers’s minds, so that we end saying, Oh, I sure hope Nadia figures out how to live her faith in a way that works for her.

Fiction is designed to whisper a worldview. It may not be overt. Nobody has to fall sobbing on the bathroom floor after converting. Worldviews just wriggle through fiction into unguarded minds.

This book was Islamic fiction.

Fiction is didactic, sure. Powerfully so. But it’s way more than that. It can sing glory to the Triune God as it delights us. It is God’s image in us as we create or interpret. But, like everything, it’s fallen. In the wrong hands, fiction fights its ultimate creator.

Fairest, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, teaches Christian principles without being labeled Christian, unlike many books which are Christian in name but fail to actually look at life in a biblical way (eg Christian romance novels).

Read. Read widely, and keep your mind awake as you go.

Rhinoplasty and Middle School Reading

Fairest is a princess story that refuses to yield to the conventional ideas of beauty. It’s the modern retelling of Snow White by Gail Carson Levine, who is best known for Ella Enchanted. In a culture that urges acceptance across the board while depicting an impossible standard of beauty, Levine’s story answers the difficult question that everyone, especially every little girl, asks: am I beautiful?

And a simple fairy tale becomes a treatise on embracing true beauty, told in the simple language of a middle school level novel.

All of the characters in the book desire beauty, and that desire is good. Aza, the Snow White character, longs for a slight build and an olive complexion. Rather than transforming her face or her form to satisfy the readers, however, Levine alters Aza’s attitude toward the beautiful. Aza does not learn that her appearance does not matter. She learns to look at herself through the eyes of the people who love her; then she is able to see beauty.

The point of Aza’s journey is not to reject an absolute standard of beauty, but to learn what beauty is. A reader may then make an easy extension to biblical teaching: beauty is absolute, because all beauty is based on God’s truth and goodness.

There must be a standard of beauty or else nothing can be called beautiful. An egalitarian aesthetic reduces quickly into absurdity. Trying to discount beauty as an asset reduces to the simple semantics of limiting the definition of beauty.

Aza feels inadequate next to the slender, blonde queen. In describing herself at the beginning, Aza says, “My skin was the weak blue-white of skimmed milk. . . my lips were as red as a dragon’s tongue and my hair as black as an old frying pan” (3). After her attitude transformation, however, Aza learns perspective as she views herself: “Milk-white face, blood-red lips. Dignified and grand” (316). She did not have to look like the queen or anyone else to be beautiful.

The story also teaches that beauty transcends culture. Modern women discuss corsets in shocked tones while enduring rhinoplasties and liposuction. Fortunately for ribs of women around the world, beauty can’t be confined to any culture.

Levine leads Aza and the reader into this conclusion. Aza’s beautiful spirit is (eventually) recognized everywhere she goes. The gnomes recognize her physical beauty before the characters from her own country, but both cultures accept her kindness by the end. This kind of beauty is accepted across boundaries.

Similarly, the Bible emphasizes a beauty of spirit, “the aroma of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15) that every believer should emit. Because Aza loved graciously, eventually her “complexion came to be called vivid. [Her] size became stately” (325). Aza’s sweet acceptance of the other characters eventually earns their love.

This point is especially significant for Christians. The beauty of the Gospel applies to every generation and every culture because it is based on love and the beauty of relationship.