Cristina's Library

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Category: July Books

The Hunger Games

“Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games”

There are spoilers in this review. It is less a review than my need to vent about the things I loved and hated. Feel free to join in the discussion!

I started The Hunger Games at 5pm one day in July.
I finished it by midnight.
I felt like I swallowed the whole story in one gulp. And it was amazing.

This was a book I actually COULD NOT PUT DOWN. I didn’t go out with my family. I changed plans with my friends. I needed to finish it. I felt an insatiable, irrational desire to know exactly what was going to happen. Usually, I don’t read a lot of YA fiction, but I had only heard favourable reviews for this series and couldn’t resist. Reminiscent, in some subtle ways, of George Orwell’s 1984, Suzanne Collins exposes the detriment of a corrupted, twisted, totalitarian government controlling a deteriorated society. It’s a post-America, with the ominous, terrifying Capitol reigning from the center, ruling 12 districts around it. There are no wizards, vampires, illusions, circuses or magic. This book is real, raw, and striking. The Hunger Games is all of the things that a good YA novel should be: violent, shocking, thought-provoking and, of course, there’s always an element of surprise.
It is a YA novel, yet I am 22 and loved this book. An old professor of mine is nearing the age of 50, and admitted that she couldn’t stop reading this book. Humans are naturally attracted to that which defies the norm, and when it’s painted so drastically, we feel necessarily compelled to dive into the picture.
The Hunger Games will grab your attention and not let it go until you have finished the entire series.
Except when you get to the last book. More on that later.

The first book opens on the day of the annual reaping, when the Capitol chooses, in a grotesquely elaborate fashion, 1 boy and 1 girl (“Tributes”) from each of the 12 surrounding districts, to compete in The Hunger Games, a fight to the death (literally) in an arena. They do this to remind the populace that they are in complete and total control, and any act of dissent will not be tolerated. They have the power to take your children and have them slaughtered on national television for the sake of entertainment, and you can do nothing about it. The arena is not a typical arena — it’s specifically designed to adapt to the Gamemakers’ whimsies (those illustrious fellows who dream up the horrors each Tribute will have to face), in which blood is spilled in order to win or even the odds. Alliances are made, then torn apart.

There are two extremes in this book. In the arena, Collins takes us back to the primeval nature of human beings and, outside, in the Capitol, to what has become of us. Which scenario is better? To be in the arena and know that every person in there is, during that time, their true self, or in the Capitol, where a person’s true self is empty and robotic, a human amalgamation of Capitol ideals? The arena and the emotions within it feel real, yet the entire thing is orchestrated and the friendships they make are inevitably challenged by the need to survive. Outside, survival always and ultimately depends on the Capitol. The people of Panem are all pawns in their hands. This book really made me think.

Onto the romantic side of the books: the relationship between Gale and Katniss is endearing. In fact, I am probably in love with Gale. But the situation with Peeta just annoys me, though I realize its necessity for survival. Peeta is almost — almost — too nice and piteous. He is constantly evoking pity from Katniss, which drives her to act in the way she does. I never, ever get the sense that she feels the same way for him as she does for Gale, which is something much more deep-seated and long-lasting. The ending of this book had me dying for more, which is when I started Catching Fire…
And it is not better than The Hunger Games. The second book in the series is good, don’t get me wrong, but I felt like it was a buffer book, the book she needed to provide plot development and background info for the finale. There’s one of these in every series. This is why this portion of my review/rant is not very long. However, it is brilliant in that the plot is constructed in such a way that it is impossible to guess what will happen next.
Synopsis: Katniss and Peeta return to the arena. President Snow gives the order to hold the Quarter Quell, a showdown between victors of past Hunger Games. However, there is something that everyone, except Peeta and Kitness, know — a rebellion has begun. You’ll find out in the last few pages, where everything you’ve been wondering is explained. It’s annoying, but surprising and exciting.
My favourite character in the sequel: Finnick Odair
Most creative plot element: the arena as a clock (terrifying)
Worst plot twist: Cinna dies. Come on, Suzanne Collins. Come. On.

Regardless, I was very excited to read Mockingjay and still in love with the series…

And by the end of this book, I was no longer in love. Collins had an amazing story with relevant and shocking and attractive themes, and she could have done so much with it, but she completely ruined the last book. Mockingjay begins in District 13 (it exists!), the hub of the rebellion against the Capitol. Panem is at war, and President Coin of District 13 is at the forefront. We discover that Katniss was rescued from the arena in Catching Fire because they want her to be the “face” of the rebellion. Peeta, instead, was left to be captured by the Capitol and tortured. I expected so much from this book. I expected an epic battle between the rebels and the Capitol, a grand finale, clear decisions and strong wills.

Instead, we see Katniss as a mentally-withering, high-strung, emotional basketcase hooked on painkillers and wandering around in a dreamy, half-present state. She remains a pawn in the hands of the government, and has little moments of dignity and power — and even those, she cannot execute freely. There are many, many pages of self-loathing, incessant reflection, and uncharacteristic uncertainty. Katniss, in the beginning, was strong and assertive, her own person. In this book, she is fighting for her life in a costume that is provided for her, for a series of propaganda shoots. Everything she does is a direct result of someone’s manipulation on her. She has no choices.

I kept waiting for a moment of clarity, strength and true rebellion, and it does not happen.

I was unhappy with the way Collins constructed the final book. It is bleak, bloody and hopeless. Even the rebels, who are fighting for justice, are portrayed as brutal and merciless. I realize that there is no distinct line between good and evil, and one is often synonymous with the other, but it all could have been presented in a better way. They are fighting with good intentions, for a real reason, and yet Collins makes it seem like even those battling for social justice are evil, and to fight is pointless. There are no heroes in this book, there’s no satisfying conclusion.The final battle is completely skipped over and not described or discussed at all. There are 2 pages after-the-fact that summarize, practically in point form, what happened. Katniss, conveniently blacks out (*cough* COP-OUT).

Also, Prim dies. This was as pointless as every other death (and there were MANY) that occurred in Mockingjay. Thanks for negating the entire purpose of Katniss’ sacrifice for her, the series, and the rebellion? Finnick’s death? Ridiculous. Gale leaving? COP-OUT. This is what happens when the author wants to quickly finish up the book — they leave loose ends, hanging questions, and disappointed readers. Gale literally disappears without warning, without any emotion from Katniss, and finds a job in District 2. It is not possible to end a friendship/love that has been building up throughout all three books so abruptly. They should have been together. Gale is strong, resourceful and understands Katniss on a different level. It is also unlike the character that Collins painted of him to suddenly and carelessly leave, when he spent the better part of the first books doing everything he can to stay and provide for Katniss and their families. Clearly, I am upset with the ending. Instead of moving on to happiness, self-fulfillment and bigger/better things after defeating (I guess) the government, Katniss returns to her old life in District 12, full of self-reproach and depression. She complies with what everyone wanted of her, the easiest choice, and falls into a predictable life with Peeta out of pity — she did not choose it. Katniss was at first inspirational, and she later turns out to be more weak than when the Capitol was in power.

Is Collins sending out a bleak message of hopelessness? That no matter what you do, you will never win? Somehow, I don’t think that’s what she intended to convey to young readers, but that’s the message I got.

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Secret Daughter

“Sometimes, as she has well learned in life, one’s actions must precede the emotions one hopes to feel”

Secret Daughter, the stunning debut novel from Toronto-born author Shilpi Somaya Gowda, is captivating, emotional, and rich in detail. The beautiful prose, intricate storylines, and riveting characters drew me in by the first chapter. I loved this book from beginning to end.

The novel begins in Dahanu, India in the midst of the monsoon season, when Kavita Merchant gives birth to a baby girl–without the aid of a midwife. Out of fear of her husband’s reaction, and that of the society in which she lives, Kavita leaves the newborn at an orphanage in Bombay in order to save her from the merciless hands of a culture that abhors female births. The novel spans 2 decades, stringing together the story of Kavita, her husband, Jasu, the girl, Usha, and American doctors, Somer and Krishnan — Usha’s adoptive parents.

Usha, we learn, means “hope” — Gowda plays with this concept throughout the book; her characters pray for it, question it, turn away from it, lose it, find it, and, ultimately, believe in it. We learn, at the onset, that Kavita gave birth to a daugther before; however, she was given up, quickly and brutally, to her husband. Gowda describes her anguish in heart-wrenching detail:

“Kavita spent the next two days curled up on the woven straw mat on the floor of the hut. She did not dare ask what had happened to her baby. Whether she was drowned, suffocated, or simply left to starve, Kavita hoped only that death came quickly, mercifully. In the end, her tiny body would have been buried, her spirit not even granted the release of cremation. Like so many baby girls, her first-born would be returned to the earth long before her time.”

Reading through Kavita’s personal trajectory from an accepting, acquiescent wife to a strong woman willing to risk her life in order to save her daughter’s was eye-opening. Determined for this daughter to live, she stands up to Jasu, her initially domineering, frightening husband, demanding space and time. And, concealed from him, she hands her child over to the orphanage and walks away, the devastating sound of her shrill screams resounding in Kavita’s ears for the rest of her life. Jasu and Kavita struggle for much of their life, after their son (they finally have one) is born, moving from the slums to Bombay in pursuit of bigger dreams, only to have them shattered upon arrival, and year after year.

Meanwhile, in California, Asha — as she is called — grows up in a normal American household, wondering why her eyebrows are so bushy and why she and her adoptive mother, Somer, seem so far apart, while she and her father, Krishnan, understand each other on a completely different level. Both physicians, Somer is a California blonde and Krishnan is Indian; having fallen in love in med school, they married, and, sadly, discovered that Somer could not have children. Scared that Asha will distance herself from her, and insecure about her ability as a mother, Somer is reluctant to engage in any conversations with Asha about her past or her heritage. Throughout the novel, she consistently denies the part of her family that is Indian, creating discord between herself, her husand and her daughter. By the time that Asha is twenty years old, she has not been to India since the time she was in the orphanage. Deeply curious about her past, Asha decides, in the summer before college, to go to India. She wins a journalism scholarship, hoping to visit her father’s family, learn about who she is, and, lastly, contact her biological parents.

None of the characters in Secret Daughter are one-sided; they are full of good qualities and full of flaws. This is the mark of a well-written novel. There is a great, many-layered complexity in the relationships between parent and child, husband and wife. For example, Jasu seems, initially, terrifying; by the end of the novel, we actually sympathize with him, as readers. The novel begins and ends with his devotion to finding the truth in order to bring peace back to his and Kavita’s life. In closing, Kavita describes her marriage:

Yes, he has made mistakes and poor decisions along the way, but her husband has grown to be a good man. They have grown together, toward one another, two trees leaning on each other as they age.

Gowda presents a powerful, touching story about self-identity, marriage, the definition and importance of family, and indirectly, India. The novel does a wonderful job of conveying the contrast between “the two Indias”, describing, in great detail, Indian lifestyle, traditions, language, advantages, and disadvantages, truths and myths, and, of course, FOOD (I am dying to go to a good Indian restaurant in Toronto, after reading this — any suggestions?) I felt extremely heartbroken and shocked towards some of the issues Gowda hints at in the novel: bride-burning, sex-selective abortion, drug culture, and rampant poverty. I cannot believe the tragic suffering that women in many parts of the world, at the hands of a patriarchal society with an archaic mentality, continue to endure. I was compelled to do some more research on these topics — you can find some useful information here.

Overall, I really enjoyed the novel and zipped right through it. I only wish Kavita’s son had more of a voice; though he gives his parents money, it is only for the social stigma he feels without it — he is the only character that seems to be purely selfish. However, it neatly came together at the end, and was completely unpredictable — in fact, it had a very different ending than the one I had envisioned. And it was better that way.

The Help

“Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision. You gone have to ask yourself, “Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?”   
— Kathryn Stockett, The Help

I am not sure what initially drew me to The Help. Perhaps it was the pleasantly yellow, Impressionist-style background that caught my eye, or its central co-op placement on a table at Indigo Bay and Bloor, which provokes the type of eye-catching, back-cover-skim, grab-and-go purchase that publishers and booksellers cherish deeply. After learning that Stockett had received 60 rejection letters and negative reviews, I was, at first, skeptical about cracking it open on my morning commute for the first time. Put simply, I was so glued to the page that I completely missed my stop! The California Literary Review calls it “an old-fashioned page turner”, and The New York Times hailed it as a “button-pushing, soon to be wildly popular novel” — I couldn’t agree more.
In the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, 1962, three women have decided they’ve had enough of the situation in Jackson, Mississippi. Aibileen, a middle-aged black nurse and housekeeper, has raised seventeen white babies, and finds it harder each day to turn a blind eye to the unfairness of her perpetually devastating, demeaning situation. Minny, a hot-head with a smart-mouth, who has been fired several times due to her impertinence and unabashedly straightforward nature, struggles to keep her newest job, the secrets of her latest employers, and her temper in check. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a twenty-three year old white college graduate and writer, stifles her angry feelings towards Hilly Holbrook, the novel’s villain, and her inhumane treatment towards the help.
Hilly is a Jackson socialite, advocate of segregated washrooms for the coloured, and self-centered hypocrite. She works tirelessly to campaign for “The Poor Starving Children of Africa”, though contemptuously regards the black people in Mississippi as unintelligent, diseased, and dangerous.
Skeeter, dismayed at what the world she grew up in has become, devises a rebellious plan to secretly befriend and interview the help, these wonderful black women with their myriad stories, and publish them in an anonymous book — if all goes well, she has a chance at her dream job in New York City. Life has dissolved into a boiling pot of Minny’s signature soup with the lid clamped firmly on top, and the three of them are about to cause a monumental explosion in Jackson, forever.
I appreciated the unique narration (Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter), and the way that Stockett manages to speak in three distinct “voices” throughout the book, which is a testimony to her ability as a writer. Minny was a memorable character; she wasn’t portrayed as either good or bad, but rather a deeply complex woman, her sad past a heavy, debilitating shadow.
Stockett does a good job of constructing multi-faceted, many-layered and, most importantly, human characters, whose emotions of love, anger, triumph, frustration, compassion, good and evil, we can all, inherently, relate to. Aibileen is my favourite character — she was the most developed and insightful of the main voices. Her stories of the children she raised, and the eventual segregation from them, were sad and thought-provoking. However, the characters of Celia, Skeeter, and Skeeter’s mother, I found, were not illustrated as thoroughly, leaving many gaps open for (mis)interpretation.
The issue of racism is highly apparent throughout the novel — it is not one that Stockett frighteningly avoids, or sugarcoats. She is blatant and clear, with a comedic undertone. The voices of her main characters tell stories filtered through slave vernacular, white-collar parlance, and the jargon of 1960s Mississippi.  It is a very phonetically-appealing novel.

“All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.” 

The Help, admittedly, is realms away from anything I have ever experienced first (or second)-hand in my life. Though, somehow, I can see and hear the story, vividly. And, at the end of the book, I feel something. I feel empathy. Anger. Understanding. Inspiration.

 “I want to yell so loud that Baby Girl can hear me that dirty ain’t a color, disease ain’t the Negro side a town. I want to stop that moment from coming – and it come in ever white child’s life – when they start to think that colored folks ain’t as good as whites … I pray that wasn’t her moment, pray I still got time.”    

As for the ending, I was, initially disappointed. I was left wondering about the resolution with her mother, and the fate of Skeeter. It built up a lot of suspense, then ended quite abruptly. Lynn Crosbie, in The Globe and Mail, slammed the novel for its historical inaccuracy and lack of reference to other illuminating writers and events of the time; she also insults readers by claiming that only those lacking education in American history or good Literature would appreciate the book. This is an ignorant, offensive, and self-indulgent comment.
Let us not forget that this is a work of fiction, which means that the author has the right to depict her story in any way she deems fit. Stockett may not have lived through the Civil Rights Movement, but she was born and raised by a black maid in the American South — she has an idea of the race and class dynamics at play in her novel. It is incorrect to assume that there is only ONE version of a particular story and that Stockett got it wrong because her characters don’t cite the “right” authors or events during that time, or didn’t concentrate enough on writers like Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison. Does that mean that Hemingway’s depiction of 1920s Paris is not exhaustive, or that Edith Wharton is tunnel-visioned? Stockett chose her story to be about the social relationships between black maids and the white women for whom they work, against the backdrop of 1960s Mississippi — as she imagines it.
When you think too much about what an authour should have done, you miss out on what they HAVE done.
The book accomplished everything it sought to: it brought the issue of slavery in Mississipi to the forefront, introduced the world to memorable, inspirational characters, and told a story. I had the privilege of having my book signed by Kathryn Stockett at a signing – she was funny, honest, and extremely kind. I’m looking forward to the film directed by Tate Taylor, starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone – in theatres August 10. But I’m seeing it early because my wonderful friend, Ikhlas Hussain (check out her blog), gave me tickets to the advanced screening on August 8!

The beauty of Literature

Be rare.

Attention:
BE RARE.
Eat a chocolate éclair.
Let your hair down.
The car windows, too.
Breakthrough
the barriers of tradition.
I’ll give you a hint:
be different.
The latest fashion trend is to
befriend a total stranger.
The world is a subway terminal;
a swirl of faceless, traceless people
rushing by, in a daze,
lost in the  m a z e  of life.
Do not be confused by the characters you play
throughout the workday.
Choose the one in the mirror;
it’s getting nearer to 5pm.
In 15 seconds, dare yourself to smile;
it’s a popular style in North America.
People will tell you:
“Be opaque;
save yourself from heartbreak.
Hide more, show less;
save yourself from sadness.”
Don’t listen if you never wanted
to be haunted by regret.
The truth is,
opacity hinders kismet.
It makes you murky, closed,
unappealing and hard-nosed;
a practical tabernacle
of boredom.
The truth is,
if you’re open, if you’re clear,
you’ll save yourself from fear.
It’s a mere desire, a small thought:
True luxury cannot be bought.
Sit in the sun.
Run.
Free yourself.
-CR