I might have been the last person on earth to hear about these books. Is that true? Maybe you all have read this triology already? I've been kinda out of the loop, what with the grief and the sadness and the desire spend my spare time watching reruns of the original Beverly Hills, 90210 (Kelly was addicted to cocaine last night! But she's getting help! Donna still a virgin? I can't remember. Probably.)
Anyway, couple months ago I got a text from my friend Abby telling me I should read a book called The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. She said I could buy it for my kindle for $5 and it was really good. I trust Abby's judgment (we both like good books and bad TV), and it was easy to let someone else make my decisions. So I bought The Hunger Games.
Then I saw in the book description it was set in the future and I was like "Meh. That doesn't sound like something I would like."
But the day came that I had exhausted my grief books and already re-read Harry Potter and all the Anne of Green Gables series. So I turned on the Kindle and started reading.
And I couldn't stop. I seriously read the first book in two days and I immediately downloaded the other two books in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Then I proceeded to ignore the stack of essays I had to grade and do nothing but read until I'd finished both of those books, too.
It was the perfect book for me because it got my out of my own head (which is an amazing feat in itself) but it wasn't just a fluffy distraction. It was interesting enough that I wanted to think about it even when I wasn't reading it. It felt so serious and real and all of the characters are familiar with hardship and grief and I guess I needed that in a book.
The Hunger Games is considered young-adult fiction and now I realize that all the books I wanted to re-read after Eliza died were mostly young adult books. I think it's because they present complicated issues, but without the existential crisis of adult fiction. There's no question in these novels that life is worth living, even when it's dark and terrible. Moral truths aren't questionable; they're the only thing that matters. Good and evil can be drawn in broad strokes and that doesn't mean that people aren't complicated and lines don't get crossed, but it does mean that if people try hard enough, they can make a difference.
Since I do think I was possibly the last person on earth to hear of these books, chances are that you already know about them and have heard about the upcoming movie and all that. But I will try to give a quick summary without giving any plot spoilers and then tell you why I liked them so much.
The books are set in North America, in the future--a country called Panem. The country is divided into 12 Districts that are controlled by the Capitol. Every year, the Capitol hosts "The Hunger Games," a televised event that reminds the districts of the Capitol's power and control over them after the terrible uprising that occurred years before, and also entertains the citizens of the Capitol. The Games are a Survivor-like reality show in that there are a certain number of contestants and only one of them comes out as the winner. But in these Games, the contestants are selected by lottery--one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each of the districts, and they are put into a huge arena to battle it out on live TV. The Games are played until 23 of the tributes are dead and one victor remains.
This was the first new fiction I read after Eliza's death. It was dark and gruesome and scary and I loved it. It's a world in which there is loss and death and constant struggle--pain and hunger and grief and injustice. But in spite of everything, people find ways to stay alive and reasons to do so. I needed a big story, where the weight of a nation rests on an unlikely heroine, where decisions are literally life or death, and personal sacrifice both is agonizing and necessary. The Hunger Games trilogy was perfect like that.
The narrator is a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen and she's as flawed and imperfect as any sixteen year old (though far more talented with a bow and arrow than most of them). She remembers a lullaby at one point, and sings it to comfort someone else, promising tomorrow will be more hopeful than this awful piece of time we call today.
It was a promise I wished for myself as I read that scene.
I don't think I need to point out that Katniss's struggle is completely different from mine. But it's still about loss and pain and fury and about feeling like a pawn (except Katniss really is a pawn, and I'm just a victim of circumstance, I guess).
In the third book, Katniss is terrified about the potential fate of someone she loves. She says, my muscles are rigid with the tension of holding myself together. The pain over my heart returns, and from it I imagine tiny fissures spreading out into my body. Through my torso, down my arms and legs, over my face, leaving it crisscrossed with cracks. [...] I could shatter into strange, razor-sharp shards.
And I thought, yes. That is exactly what it feels like. The tension of holding myself together so I don't fly apart into sharp bits of nothingness. I'm not playing the Hunger Games, but I'm in a living hell of my own.
She asks someone who has endured similar suffering how he bears it and he says,
I don't Katniss! Obviously, I don't. I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there's no relief in waking. [...] Better not to give in to it. It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart.
Can I get a hell yeah to that sentiment?
Another character speaks pragmatically, painfully, about the aftermath of tragedy: There's no going back. So we might as well get on with things.
Our circumstances are totally different, but I kept thinking these were conversations I could be having about my own grief.
Katniss remarks at one point, I can't believe how normal they've made me look on the outside when inwardly I'm such a wasteland. I remember having a similar thought when I caught a glimpse of my reflection on the way to class--pants, boots, jacket, sunglasses on top of my head, travel mug of hot tea in my hand, taking long strides past the windows of the library--I looked just like my normal old self. You couldn't tell that my guts had been shredded, that my life fell apart, that I don't really know how I get through the day. As long as my mascara is waterproof, most of the time I look just like anybody else.
Katniss's two closest friends are boys who are both in love with her--Peeta and Gale. Peeta reminds me of David (strong shoulders, kind heart), and I felt like I had a special understanding of the way a shared trauma brings him and Katniss closer together.
At the same time, Katniss can't let go of Gale, and the life she had once imagined having before the Games, and you can't blame her for wishing she could know what might have been. I won't say anything about how (or if) all of that works out, but in the end one of them is able to give her something invaluable:
The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again.
I loved these books because they offered a small, temporary place not exactly to escape my grief, but to put it into perspective in a really unexpected way. A work of fiction set in an un-real place and time, it still reminded me that pain is a necessary part of being human, that a meaningful life is always full of risks, and we never escape pain or hardship, but we can always work for something better. Like Katniss, we do what we can to protect those we love, and as long as we're alive, we seek ways to make our lives worthwhile, no matter the circumstances.
I'm afraid this review hasn't really done the books justice, because (in my narcissistic blogger fashion) I've made it all about me and my grief. But honestly the books are SO freaking good. I've read them all twice now.
Also, David and I just had the following conversation as I was typing this blog post:
David: So something is going on with Dennis's job. There's like a lockout where he can't work or get paid.
Me: Uh, yeah. The federal government is shutting down. Where have you been?
David: Well, Lindsey can still work.
Me: She must be more essential than Dennis. Essential people get to work. Like people feeding lab animals. Haven't you been listening to NPR?
David: I guess not very much. So, what? This is like the end of life as we know it in America?
Me: Well, I heard the Capitol is organizing this thing they're calling "The Hunger Games." It's like a fund-raiser.
Both of us: Laughing at my clever joke.
OK, maybe it's only funny if you've read the books.
So... if you haven't read these books, you should. You can click here for the Amazon link.
And if you have read the books, you should tell me how awesome you think they are. (If you don't think they are awesome you should keep your opinion to yourself because it would be embarrassing for you to be wrong on the internet.)