Ideas and Presentation: On The Hunger Games and The Book of Lost Things

I’ve been thinking about the difference between ideas and presentation recently.

In my summer reading plans I have, of course, gotten sidetracked, but in a good way.  I will admit though that my job has distracted me as well, however; I began this entry on the back of a map while working at an information desk, taking in turns scrawling half-ideas and in others answering questions.

But the fatigue that I feel is also somehow a blessing.  After I picked up The Hunger Games, I felt overcome by a desire to consume words, to fill myself with them, to appease a renewed hunger to read more and more.  So I picked up the next book in the series, and then the final one.

(Scholastic, 2008)

Despite the agitations I felt toward some of Suzanne Collins’ style of writing—primarily her habit, especially in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, to frequently use fragments rather than full sentences for “effect”—I was pulled forward by the story.  The Hunger Games series is exceptionally readable because it is written at a fairly low reading level.  (On the Scholastic website, the books in The Hunger Games series are listed at a 5.3-5.4 grade level equivalent.)  I finished reading the series in a little over a week, but I’ve know people who have said they did in a weekend.

For much of the first and second books in the trilogy, the storyline remains active and unbroken in its flow.  With short chapters in all of the books, it is easy to move quickly through the novels.  Collins planned almost every chapter to end on a suspenseful note, dragging the reader into the next one.  For this reason I generally found stopping points mid-chapter.

The fragments and reading level may be explained as Collins attempting to write in the voice of the narrator, the novels’ main character, Katniss Everdeen.  In this regard Collins is successful.  By the end of the series, Collins was using fewer fragments, but I was also very accustomed to Katniss’ narrative voice.  I think it is a mark of a good story that, once I had finished the last book, I knew I would miss the closeness the reader maintains with Katniss throughout the series.

While at the beginning I felt I had some things in common with Katniss, as well as envy for some of her abilities, over the course of the story the reader remains privy to her intimate thoughts, worries, and gut feelings.  Collins’ minimalistic style keeps pace with Katniss’ down-to-earth appeal and her straightforwardness, but the frankness of Katniss’ voice never wavers into absurdity.  These are not the only reasons why Katniss is a well-crafted character, however; in addition to “growing on” the reader, Katniss is also a dynamic character.

In the final book of the series, Mockingjay, Katniss is on edge, questioning her perception, feeling less sure of herself, and seeming to frequently lose consciousness.  I won’t give away any plot details, but Katniss has serious psychological/emotional trials in the final installment of the series.  In general, she seems to glow less brightly, but that is no surprise; Mockingjay illuminates the worst crimes of the Capitol, and Panem in general.  While the plot still has a lot of action, these less physical struggles become more of the focus.

I will admit I was disappointed with the ending to the series.  Where the epilogue of the Harry Potter series disappointed me most, in this case the epilogue smooths over and ties up the end of the series rather well in my opinion.  However, the last few chapters of Mockingjay introduce tragedy that almost seemed unnecessary, and further political corruption barely hinted at before; the latter of these may have developed into a further book, had Collins chosen to drag it out that way.  In comparison to the rest of the novel, both felt like hasty additions.

(Washington Square Press, 2006)

Immediately after finishing Mockingjay, I picked up John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things.  Let me just say—wow.  This is, without a doubt, my favorite book I’ve read in a while.  Connolly’s novel takes World War II-era England, multiple fairy tales, the loss of a parent, and growing up, throws these topics into a mix, and then paints it with the sparkling gloss of a love for stories that any avid reader will adore.

Before beginning The Hunger Games series, one of my friends had cautioned that I would take issue with some of Collins’ writing.  Perhaps this is why presentation was so much in the forefront of my mind while reading both authors’ works.  Although I understand to some extent Collins’ style (re: audience, Katniss’ narrative voice), I still wondered how much better the series could have been if written differently.  People say that’s the curse of seriously studying anything you love—it makes you more critical, considering different ways one could have done things.  While The Hunger Games as a series presents an amazing story, and I have to credit Collins with a wonderful imagination, a story is just an idea until you tell it.

Although Connolly’s novel also does not come without its flaws, reading it immediately after Collins’ novels stirred this ponderation of ideas and presentation further.  Collins’ idea may be more unique than Connolly’s, but I have always thought that a major part of writing is not dreaming up the newest storyline—post-Modernists would say that there are no new ideas.  If we are to give this credence, then it is the presentation, the literary craft, that makes a story what it is.  Perhaps there is a similar percentage to the old saying that talent, or ideas in this case, are 1% of the equation, where effort, or writing, are 99%.

Connolly’s novel presents one of those remarkable experiences I’m sure other readers have encountered where the author expresses a deeply felt sentiment one has carried for a long time.  Near the beginning, he writes:

Stories were different though: they came alive in the telling.  Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world.  They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being.  They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge.  Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change.  They could take root in the imagination, and transform the reader.  Stories wanted to be read…  They needed it.  It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours.  They wanted us to give them life.”

While Connolly is writing about the reading aloud of stories, I also feel that he is referring to the initial crafting of tales, of bringing an idea into existence in the form of a story, novel, etc.

You can argue that Collins’ writing style in The Hunger Games either remains flat, or that it represents the narrator’s voice in an honest and character-appropriate manner; I can see both sides of this debate.  As a reader, I appreciate good ideas, but as a writer I delight in the telling.  It is the marrow within the bones, the frosting between the layers of the cake.

Have you read either of these novels?  What did you think?

What are your ideas about ideas and presentation?

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Summer reading

I’m currently reading Azadeh Moaveni’s Honeymoon in Tehran.  I would have read it a lot sooner, but I was just too cheap to buy the hardback copy when it was first released.  Sometime around then, or perhaps a year earlier, I had read Lipstick Jihad, Moaveni’s first memoir, and loved it.

(PublicAffairs, 2005; Random House, 2009)

I’m nearing the end of Moaveni’s second memoir, and to me it feels noticeably different from her first.  Where Lipstick Jihad focused on misconceptions of Iran (the country, people, and culture), the changes that had occurred in recent years, and her own personal experience as an Iranian-American moving to Iran, Honeymoon in Tehran progressively grows more focused on the politics of the country and the development of the public opinion of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his first election as president.

Since I followed closely online the protests of the Iranian presidential elections in 2009, it has been really interesting to perceive the beginning of Iranian concern about Ahmadinejad through Moaveni’s writing.  With the recent reduction of his power in Parliament, and the upcoming end to his presidency in August 2013, it feels appropriate to now read an insider’s view of the beginning of his time in office.

My only complaint would be that this increased focus on politics can make the book a little dry at certain points.  Moaveni is again successful in that she offers just enough historical background to clarify events and views, but I am increasingly craving more description and culture and less political analysis.

As I near the end of Moaveni’s book, I am looking forward to the massive amounts of reading I will (probably) be able to do in the commute I will have between my parents’ house and my job downtown this summer.
Here are some ideas for my reading list this summer:

  1. The Hunger Games– Suzanne Collins
    If you haven’t heard about this book, I’d be very surprised.  Originally I said I wouldn’t, but I ended up seeing the movie before reading the book.  With its futuristic/post-apocalyptic setting and readability, I’m expecting it to feel a little like the types of books I adored in one of my pre-teen phases of reading. (See:  Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe, Neal Shusterman’s Downsiders, Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember, among others)That being said, I hope to be surprised in some ways.  I’ve heard good and bad things about the book, and am looking forward to reading it for myself.

    (Scholastic, 2008)

  2. Ceremony– Leslie Marmon Silko
    During my final English class for undergrad, we read Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Lullaby.”  I was struck by Silko’s presentation of current issues faced by Native Americans in the United States.  Where other classes I had taken, English and otherwise, focused on the mistreatment of Native Americans during the colonization and the later removal of them to reservations, I was drawn by the fact that Silko focused on current issues faced by many Native Americans—in this particular story, that of poverty related to age and work-related injury.Ceremony was published in 1977, and according to Wikipediait “remains the Native American novel which most often appears on college and university syllabi, and one of the few individual works by any Native author to have received book-length critical assessments.”Wikipedia further describes the novel as such:
    “The story documents the troubles of Tayo, a half-white, half-Laguna Indian, as he struggles to cope with returning to traditional Native American society after surviving the Bataan Death March of World War II.  As mental instability engulfs him, he turns to traditional spirituality and ceremony as a source of healing.”

    Being partially Cherokee myself, I am interested in the (nearly) contemporary presentation in fiction of Native Americans, especially from the imagination of a writer of the Laguna Pueblo tribe.  I am additionally interested in the elements of mental health Silko will confront, as I have done research on PTSD at different points in time.

    “In an America full of damaged Vietnam veterans, the book’s message of healing and reconciliation between races and people made it both an immediate and a long-term success.”

    (Penguin Books, 1977)

  3. Everything is Illuminated– Jonathan Safran Foer
    I first saw the film version of this in high school.  As with The Hunger Games, I had hoped to read the book first, but various factors that I can no longer remember led to me seeing the movie and, even now, at least six years later, having not read the book.  I recently saw the movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” again before reading the book. (I’m sensing a pattern here…)Foer, to my understanding through the filter of the filmic rendering of his novels and the response some of my friends have had to these novels, has a specific gift.  He can take an enormous tragedy which affected millions and make it personal.  It is his precise ability to balance the broad and the specific of such tragedies that makes these works so realistic and profound.I know the film version of Everything is Illuminated is supposed to be quite different from the novel, including less of the humor that defines the beginning of the film.  Nevertheless I know it is a recommended and well-loved novel.  If I want to read Foer’s work, I want to start from the beginning—of both his novels and my interest in them.

    (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

  4. The Guardian Angel’s Journal– Carolyn Jess-Cooke
    I have a confession to make.  Carolyn Jess-Cooke was the professor of the first creative writing class I took, a year-long course in which I enrolled during my study abroad.  Although I truly admire her and her work, I have thus far only read her poetry.In a few days, Jess-Cooke’s second novel, The Boy Who Could See Demons, is being published in the U.K.  (Follow the link for an extract!)  The descriptions of the book have me itching to read it, as it combines the voice of a child, the Troubles, mental health, and belief.  As yet I don’t know when it will be released in the U.S.  Luckily Jess-Cooke’s first novel also bears an intriguing description:“When Margot Delacroix dies at forty-two years old, she is sent back to earth as a guardian angel—to herself. Renamed Ruth, she is forced by divine mandate to re-experience and record her biggest mistakes and fiercest regrets from the beginning of her life to her untimely death.

    Forced from the moment of her birth to witness the cogs of fate and the stuttering engine of free will, Ruth sets out to change the course of her life, and, ultimately, to prevent her premature death. When she realises that the reasons behind her teenage son’s descent into drugs and murder lay within her own actions as Margot, she makes a pact with a demon—she will give up her place in Heaven in exchange for the opportunity to save her son from his fate. But the changes she makes result in consequences no one could expect…”

    Check out Jess-Cooke’s blog for the recent posts she made about writing the setting and two of the characters from The Boy Who Could See Demons.

    (Little, Brown/Piatkus, 2012)

  5. Norwegian Wood– Haruki Murakami
    When I saw the brick of a book my friend was carrying around most days during the fall semester, I knew it had to be a worthy read.  However, even she admitted that 1Q84may be a little hefty to start off with for someone who’s never read anything by Haruki Murakami.I’ll admit, I’m a little drawn to this novel because of the relation of the title to the Beatles’ song.  However, Slate’s November 2011 articlelists the novel among two others recommended for readers just starting on the Murakami reading list.  Just as added recommendation, another of my friends said he was starting off with this one.Slate says:
    “This 1987 novel is the book that made Murakami famous—and he’s been running from it ever since. Unlike his previous four novels, which incorporated the surreal elements that have since become his hallmark, Norwegian Wood marked his efforts to write in a “realistic” mode. The book is pop not just in style and allusions but in mood: In it, a thirty-something narrator, Toru Watanabe, recalls his heady college days in Tokyo in the late ’60s through a wistful gauze. After Watanabe’s best friend kills himself, he falls in love with that friend’s former girlfriend, a laconic, troubled echt-Murakami inamorata who accompanies him on long walks through the city. …the novel’s late-adolescent sentimentalism holds up: This is Murakami doing one of the things he does best.”

    (Kodansha, 1987)

Have you read any of these books or others by these authors?  What did you think?  What would you recommend that I read?