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No Bread and One Circus

This Friday the film based on Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games opens, and we can only hope it is even half as good as the book. My review on Goodreads [SPOILER ALERT]:

This is a horrifyingly good book, so much so that I had to put it down twice and walk away before I could continue for fear of what would happen next. In a dystopian future US, there is no bread and only one circus, the Hunger Games, in which 24 “tributes” (forced volunteers) duel to the death on camera with the whole world watching whether they want to or not.

The narrator is a 16-year old girl, Katniss, the sole support of her mother and 10-year old sister back home. Her sister is chosen in the reaping and Katniss volunteers to take her place in the Games. The plot is like American Idol crossed with Survivor, only in this case children are killing children as a national spectator sport. By the last page you know what it was like at the Coliseum, from both the cheap seats and the floor of the arena. A riveting read.

And this is what I wrote about the third book in the trilogy, Mockingjay:

This is what Collins means these books to be about, right here

Something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences…The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.

It sure doesn’t. These three books work on several levels. First and foremost, they’re a riveting read, an action/adventure tale that sweeps you along from first page to last. Katniss is a wonderful character, smart, strong, stubborn, taught by a hard life to have exactly the right skills she needs to survive the Games. Collins made an inspired choice to let Katniss tell her own story in first person present tense, which lends just that much more verisimilitude and immediacy to every event, without any assurance that anyone, Katniss included, is going to survive those events. You’re on the edge of your seat for the whole narrative. Taken simply as pure, breathless entertainment, these books totally rock.

Second, not only does Katniss kick serious ass, she instinctively says and does the right thing when everything is on the line. She’s a role model I’d be happy for any girl to aspire to. Or any woman, for that matter. I love Harry Potter, I do, but it’s always bugged me, just a little, that the books weren’t about Hermione. I know, I know, teachers and librarians say you can’t get boys to read books about girls, but let me tell you, I’ve made grown men read these books and they can’t put them down. So maybe the Hunger Games books are the beginning of a paradigm shift in reading habits. I so hope so.

Thirdly, Collins has a message. She puts these randomly selected kids into an arena to kill each other on a homicidal version of American Idol, all to serve as an annual object lesson that furthers the political stranglehold of the Capitol on the twelve Districts. By not flinching away from just how brutal those deaths are, she puts us personally on the battlefield. I can still see that spear going through Rue. Man, I can hear it.

How many Rues does the human race sacrifice before we figure out how to live with each other? I think Peeta was onto something, Katniss says, about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over. Because really, I think Collins is saying, what is the alternative? Children dying.

The best science fiction is more than just a good story, and these books are an exemplar of the “if this goes on” trope. Collins is holding up a mirror and showing us exactly who we are.

I really like the ending, too, and not just because I was a Peeta girl from The Hunger Games on. Again, Katniss did the right thing like she always does and took down the right person. Her way back from everything that has happened to her is long and filled with pain and grief. This isn’t a happily ever after, and it shouldn’t be.

But, boy, it is a good read.

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