Thursday, June 18, 2009

Book Review: The Hunger Games

Image result for hunger gamesIts not easy to live in District 12. The Capitol of Panem makes sure of that. Because if it were easy or even a little more convenient to simply survive, there may be an uprising of people who think they deserve things like sufficient food, comfortable shelter and a decent way to make a living. In a word, Freedom. These are the things Katniss can only hope for. Instead of sufficient food, she has resorted to passing under the electrified fence surrounding District 12 and hunting in the meadow and forest, with her best-guy-friend, Gale. She's able to take home and enjoy some of the animals, roots and herbs she gathers and the rest she sells for money to buy other items her family (consisting of her mother and younger sister) needs.

But even then, there are still things like grain, oil, and heat, to name a few, that her hunting does not provide for. To make up for this lack, she must enter her name more than once in the pool to be picked as a tribute to represent their District in the Hunger Games. Each district is required to send 2 tributes, a boy and a girl, each year. The Capitol sponsors the Hunger Games as a way to remind the citizens of Panem how lucky they are to have a government (corrupt as it is) that protects them and controls them. And the Hunger Games drives that home in a truly vicious and cruel way. Each tribute, 24 in all, is placed in an "arena" several acres large and they fight to the finish, to the death, on live TV. The citizens are required to watch their children battle it out. The winner will never go hungry again. Reality TV at its worst. And this is the story of Katniss, who finds herself in the middle of the game, an unintended contender, who could possibly win. But does she want to? Can she do what has to be done to win?

As you might assume, this novel is exciting, gripping, and violent. It is set in a post-apocolyptic world, where the Capitol has replaced the government of North America. Suzanne Collins mixes famileal love, friendship, romantic love, self-love and violence in a way that immediately engages us. Should I admit at this point that I enjoyed reading it? Because I did. It was a quick read, one that I didn't have to think about (i.e. not deep, kind of like "Twilight"). It kept moving along at a quick pace and the action was always driving me to read 'just one more chapter.' A really great adventure and an interesting look at an alternative future.

I really enjoyed this book. Katniss is a likable character who steps up to the responsibilities given her, both in her village as well as in the Hunger Games arena. The point is well taken about the pitfalls of reality TV and desensitization, a close parallel to our society today. My only peeve is the ending that clearly sets us up for the next book in the trilogy, which doesn't come out until September. I'll be ready when it does.

A note on the violence: The violence was nothing worse than what is seen on crime-time dramas nearly every night or most of the action-adventure movies you see in the theater. But after watching a few video interviews with the author, I started to wonder if, in trying to point out the dangers of desensitization, she is actually contributing to the problem. Some of her comments really started to bother me, especially when she talked about the recommended age of readers. You can view these interviews here.

Other apocolyptic, alternative future books: "Brave New World", "Farenheit 451", "1984", "The House of the Scorpion"

Saturday, June 13, 2009


I love to look at beautiful photograhs. You know the ones -- they speak to your heart. It seems to me, a really great photograph has power.
Power to make you laugh, despite yourself,
try to swallow that lump that has suddenly appeared in your throat,
feel inspired to be so much better than who you are,
or simply to be grateful for the beauty that surrounds you,
whether it be your natural surroundings
or your own gorgeous children.

I long to be that kind of photographer. Alas, I'm hampered by my own lack of confidence and my super-nice but simple, point and shoot camera. Regardless, I AM the family photojournalist and relish the responsibility. And I have found a great book to help me improve my picture-taking abilities.

"Expressions" by Donna Smylie and Allison Tyler Jones is a great book for aspiring photographers. Although it is geared somewhat for cameras a little more sophisticated than my point and shoot, I still absorbed lots of great tips.

The authors go into detail regarding the "five 'S's of Compostition":
See the Possibilities
Simplify the frame
Share the Story
And the "four 'M's of Lighting":
Main Light

Each section was written in a simple manner, so that I could understand the technique, even as an amateur, without being condescending, which I appreciated. Scattered through the pages were also "photo notes" and captions, that helped clarify things a little more.

Admittedly, perhaps the best part of the book are all the striking pictures that not only illustrate the technique, but inspire and speak to you. It is a quick read and very worthwhile to those of us who long to take beautiful pictures, even if it is with a simple point and shoot camera.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Alien Abduction?

Alan Weisman, an award-winning journalist, researches every possible corner of the idea of an abandoned world in his book, "The World Without Us."

Its pretty interesting to consider the situation. What would happen to the world if we (homo sapiens, as we are referred to throughout the book, merely another species) suddenly disappeared? What if a virus took us out in less than a day? or a natural disaster? What if we were raptured away to heaven? or aliens abducted the entire human species? Would the world return to its "Garden of Eden" state or have we humans done too much damage? How long would it take and how would it happen?

Weisman divides his book into several segments, looking at different aspects of the theory of a world left to itself. He begins in the city, and how quickly plants, both native and imported, natural and landscaped, would take over the buildings, subways, streets, and sidewalks. He discusses where we came from, the future of our empty cities and their new inhabitants, the animals who will evolve to take our place.

Stepping outside the city, Weiman focuses other chapters on the evolution of man in Africa, polymers and the lifespan of plastics, petrol and nuclear impacts on the world and even farming and its influence on the natural state of the earth. His visualization of the future is research packed and is interesting, forcing you to think broadly and objectively about the impact of the human race.

This book heavily relies on the opinions and studies of a variety of scientists, researchers and activists. Although his expansive research does give the theories some credibility, sometimes it gets bogged down in the science of it all and the hundreds of thousands of years he uses as a reference for the life-span of the earth is often times too big to comprehend. Which is fine if you are scientifically minded. But if you're like me, you realize much of the content is going over your head and you just don't care. There is a lot to learn, much of it interesting and much of it I just don't agree with.

Despite all the research and science, what is missing is spirituality. Religion and faith are referred to, in the last chapter, but merely as an obligatory side-note, just another theory. In fact, religion seems to be ridiculed in this passage, concerning the resurrection. Commenting that a messianic reign would result in a severe population reduction of the unrighteous, Weiman follows up, "unless...the dead would be resurrected, which could trigger both resource and housing crises." Really? Would we really be worried about resources and housing during a messianic reign?

He ends his musings on the subject of depopulation of the earth so that we can experience "the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful." They call it 'voluntary human extinction,' limiting every human female capable of bearing children, to one. At this point, I have forgotten anything scientifically worthwhile in the previous 300 pages. What he says in the last 5 pages, in my humble opinion, discredits it all. Its just a completely different paradigm, void of faith. But then it gets better, or worse, as he explores another option. A microbiologist Weisner interviews suggests, we "find a fertile planet somewhere big enough for all of us, holographically clone our bodies, and upload our minds across light-years." He then has the audacity to say, "Unless...there really is something called a spark of life."

An interesting book, but too far from my faith-based paradigm to give much credence to. Suffice it to say, I will not read it again or place it in my home library. That being said, its up for grabs if any wants to read it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sent by Post

I'll admit it

I'm a blog stalker. I don't do it a lot... but I"ll admit...I do it. Its kind of fun to get a glimpse into a stranger's life, anonymously of course. To hear about their comings and goings, trials and triumphs, gains and losses.

And this latest novel is a blog stalker's dream, only it has nothing to do with blogs. In fact, the concept would have made the characters turn their heads and laugh politely into their handkerchief. This book is completely written via snail-mail, pencil-to-paper, written-letter correspondence and its fascinating.

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" takes place in 1946, post WW II era, on Guernsey, a small island in the English Channel. And from the first page, we are trespassing into someone's personal correspondence. Extremely well researched by Mary Ann Shaffer, the stories of World War II come to life through the vibrant and endearing characters she creates and the stories they tell.

Juliet, the primary letter-writer, is an author in London who is contacted by Dawsey Adams, of Guernsey, who has come across an old book of hers, books being a rare find on the once-Nazi occupied island. As their correspondence continues, we come to know the story of a group of people brought together on one fated night marking the origin of their literary society. Its an eclectic group of individuals holding fast to one another as they survive the atrocities of that terrible war.

Written-correspondence was such a brilliant way to frame this book. It immediately put me on a friendly and intimate level with the characters, privileged to conversation that might only take place between good friends. Much to the author's credit, the personality of each character is thorougly developed through these letters, with great detail and imagery creating an easy picture of events in my mind.

It certainly doesn't take long to feel drawn to Juliet as a friend. Her down-to-earth, quick-wit makes sure of that. The same is to be said of all the characters. Juliet quickly makes friends with others in the Guernsey literary society, via correspondence, as she gathers information, eventually aiming to compile a book of their war experiences. As the stories are told, the characters come to life, as well as the tragic experiences they survived. Soon enough, Juliet travels to Guernsey and comes to love the island as much as she does the people. And the feelings are reciprocated as she immerses herself in their lives.

If you enjoy World War II novels, you must read this one. "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" is a wonderful story about friends, developing relationship, surviving because of each other and the true depth and beauty of the inter-dependent weaving of friends when family is gone.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I can't get no...

Alex is not happy with the way his life is going. Although he is busy enough, working with his step-brother at the Happy Dragon tavern his step-father runs, he is yet unsatisfied. But all of that changes for Alex while on a walk to cool his temper and clear his mind.

Seeing a sign that reads "Adventurers Wanted" in the window of a small book store marks the beginning of, well, an adventure. That's what adventurers do, afterall. But we soon find out that Alex is not your average adventurer. His ability to simply see the "wanted" sign marks him as someone destined for greatness, of great power and strength. His valor, however, is something he has to determine himself.

Alex is quickly introduced to the obligatory forrest-dwelling elf and tunnel-dwelling dwarf as he begins his journey as the eighth member of an adventuring team on the hunt for Malgorath's treasure, a dragon whose notoriety precedes him as well as the magnitude of his treasure.

Troll encounters and bandit fights ensue as Alex begins his adventure, not just in pursuit of treasure, but in pursuit of who he really is. Although meeting with an Oracle gives him some needed confidence and comfort in his search for identity, he still wrestles with doubts as simple as whether or not he believes in magic; and as complex as whether or not he can rise to the power everyone is convinced is within him. And if he does believe he is someone remarkable, what will he do with that knowlege? And there-in lies the true beginning of his adventure.

His search for identity continues as Alex returns home and discovers there is more to his background than he thought. Regardless of the doubts and questions that still run through his mind and his continual search for a more complete self-identity, he is satisfied in knowing he is not just common help in the tavern. He is an adventurer.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Once a lovestory, always a lovestory

My good neighbor suggested, as I am an avid reader, that I post reviews of the books I read. And so I shall.

by Neil Gaiman
Tristran Thorn is in love. His love for Victoria Forester drives him, not only to wish on a falling star, but to embark on a grand adventure to find that star. Upon his successful return, the star will redeem for him, a kiss from Victoria and possibly a "happily ever after" with her.

What Tristran doesn't realize is that he is no ordinary, love-struck boy from the city of Wall. The mother he never knew is from Faerie, on the other side of the wall for which his city is named. Once he passes through the wall and enters this land of Faerie himself, the magical part of his heritage begins to become dominant and strange and wonderous adventures ensue. Tristran is ready for adventure and willing to do almost anything to return the star to Victoria. Its easy to relate to him, who is an unlikely and unassuming protagonist and is often just as surprised and entertained by the magic that surrounds him as we are.

With a little help from an unlikely travel companion, Tristran finds his star, who is spunky, self-assured and one we immediatley care about as a seemingly lost orphan, injured and fallen from the only home she's known. We soon discover Tristran is not the only one in search of such a prize. This particular star also holds the key to the throne of Stormhold, as well as a heart that beats strong with the promise of extended youth for a weathered witch.

But who will find the star first? And once found, who will be able to keep possession of it? There are some adventures to be had, but much of the potential for what I would term as "good fantasy adventure" is cut short by way of magic that carries Tristran through and above such opportunity. Unfortunately this prevents some much needed character development, even for some of the more minor characters. The author seems to have had the outline for an epic of sorts and just glossed over it. Mildly dissappointing.

As for the love story -- it is put on hold throughout most of the story to make way for adventure, and is adequately revivied in the return to Wall, in which all parties are rendered happy and, with a few clever surprises, loose ends are neatly tied for a satisfying conclusion to both a fun adventure and unexpected love story.

*** warning for ultra sensitive readers - there is some sensuality, mostly in the beginning. Nothing too offensive but surprised me a little. I would read it yourself before giving it to a teen or pre-teen.