Saturday, September 29, 2012

The BFG and The Hunger Games, Locke and Hobbes

In the last few weeks I've read several books, all of which I intend to review.

But I keep circling around these two children's books: The BFG (by Roald Dahl) and The Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins).

A strange combination, I suppose. I didn't intend to read them in succession, and I'd never read them before. I didn't know a thing about BFG until my wife brought it along as an audio book for one of our road trips. On the other hand, I'd heard all about The Hunger Games. Expectations are funny things. Friends of mine, people who know me but must not really know what I read (and why), kept recommending Hunger Games. And I kept resisting. I know myself.

I enjoyed Harry Potter, but I didn't read it until all the books had been published, and I came very close to not finishing the series. I blew through the first 3 books and promised myself that if the fourth book didn't pick up considerably, I was finished. Thankfully, the fourth book improved in the complexity of its plot, the depth of its characters, and its tenor. But Harry Potter was an exception to this simple rule: Young Adult books are too simple.

And Hunger Games was. Of course, I see (or think I see) all the injustices the author wants us to see: the brutality of wealth, the disenfranchisement of the oppressed, the divisions within the oppressed that prevent an overthrow of the system.

BFG traffics in many of the same themes: we meet monsters who force us to admit that our "civilization" is barbaric in its own ways, we see how hard it really is for someone who perceives him or herself as weak to stand up to thuggery.

Both protagonists are young girls snatched from their homes and put in a hostile environment. Food is central to both books (the hunger games tournament revolves around the threat of starvation, while the giants of BFG show their evilness by guzzling humans). 

But where the prose of Hunger Games felt static and lifeless (in fairness, largely because the bulk of the book was exposition by a character who is profoundly isolated from the people around her; it would be interesting to see how similar internal books fared in movie adaptations), BFG was brimming with dialogue. The voice of the giant who is the focus of BFG is unique, in the same fractured syntactical way that so many of Lewis Carrol's characters are.

In the denouement of both Hunger Games and BFG, our protagonists realize how their previous view of the world was too simple, that the real world is more complex than they had considered. But where Katniss raises her guard and begins to see enemies everywhere, Sophie finds friends. Maybe its wishfulness, the mix of nostalgia and childishness, that makes me prefer Sophie's ending.

The people of Sophie's world are, ultimately, good people. They are competent and capable. Though they need help to see past differences, with a little guidance from a young girl, they can. Katniss' world is darker, more filled with people willing to sacrifice each other. Thinking about the political science distinction between Locke and Hobbes, whether we are social creatures who come into conflict only when we delude ourselves into thinking that force is justified by the scarcity of resources, or whether we are individualists only bound together by the strictures of society.

I've always come down in favor of Locke- just as I prefer Dahl to Collins.

Books 35 and 36 of my book-a-week challenge.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Worst Community Theatre Production Ever

It wasn't, of course, the worst performance ever. I probably shouldn't even call it the worst production of my life.

I've been in a version of Guys and Dolls with a Sarah who couldn't sing, and in a 42nd Street where we didn't run the entire show uninterrupted until opening night.

But a show I've been a part of the past few months, one that has taken my evenings and my energy away from this blog, crossed a line tonight.

Background: the show, which is not your typical musical, which does not end on a happy note, was great. Our best performance to-date. In the showstopers the audience was engaged, enthusiastic, and in the heart breaking moments at the end of show, when turn arrives and we slip from dark into tragedy, you could have heard a pin drop.

That's the magic. Theatre does that, and I don't think any other art does, except perhaps dance. Music can transport and inspire, and painting and sculpture can make profound, provocative statements. But only theatre, really only musicals, can bring together all the other arts and then add the response of the audience to completely overwhelm your emotions.

I love this show. I would not have spent the last 3 months working on it otherwise. And I auditioned- I decided a year ago that I had to do this show- and I took a part in the chorus, because I really do believe that I would rather be in the chorus of a show so brimming with talent that we can break the audience's hearts, than to be the lead in a mediocre show.

And we could have broken their hearts tonight, until the curtain call and the final bow. And we had to sing a verse of Happy Birthday to someone in the cast. And I could feel the magic slip- this was just another community theatre again, just another show.

It broke my heart.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

from here
When I was younger (which may only mean last January when I started this project to read 52 books in 2012) I divided books into those I love, those I like, those I'm indifferent to, and those I actively dislike.

As this project goes on, I find myself liking fewer books, but also disliking fewer books as well. Instead, I begin to see flaws. The best books I've read this year (Asterios Polyp, Cutting for Stone, Death in the AfternoonThe Imperfectionists) have the fewest flaws, which is not to say they are flawless. But their strengths outweigh their weaknesses by a considerable margin.

Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin started off with several points in the bank: it's set in a city I love (New York City), in a time period I find fascinating (the 1970s, amid the tide of urban blight ready to swallow New York), and in a format I adore (a series of interconnected, only marginally sequential short stories).

McCann builds from there: his stories revolve around Philippe Petit's August 7, 1974, tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. Petit is a reoccurring character, taking a couple chapters for himself, and in some way touching the lives of every other character in the novel.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

from here
I finally finished Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lackes. I spent a lot longer reading it than I intended to, because the story bogged me down a little over the three-quarter mark.

I am probably not an average reader for a book like this. I love science stuff; I spend time reading the NYTimes science pages and anything related to outer space and dinosaurs that I come across. Maybe I just never really got over being 8 years old.

So Skloot was phenomenal turning the history of cancer and genetic research into page turning material. When Immortal Life was focused on fifty years of false starts and breakthroughs in cellular research, I was engrossed.

But, (and you knew there was a but, didn't you?) when the time came for Skloot to step into the story, she lost me. She connected with the Lacks family in a way that must have been authentic. She earned the Lacks' trust through the family's opposition- their distrust of outsiders, especially white outsiders; their layers of misunderstanding and misinformation about what Henrietta's cells were doing and who had them and how they got there; their lack of education and their susceptibility to hucksters.

I see why Immortal Life is a part of high school curriculums, especially here in Maryland (most of the action occurs in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins and the surrounded neighborhoods). Skloot deftly juggles the intersection of history, science, American socio-economics and race relations. She tells a difficult, potentially abstract story in a concrete way.

Maybe I'm dissatisfied because it is a story without resolution: justice is never really done, not for Henrietta nor for her family, who have unwittingly become a conscripted cornerstone for modern genetics. Maybe my reading slowed because I knew how the story ended: with the pharmesutical companies and the major research universities raking in profits hand over fist; while the little people, the victims of disease upon whose backs progress has marched, get nothing.

Book 33 of my book-a-week challenge.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wednesday Open Mic

It's Hazel & Wren's Open Mic today.

Go comment on all the poems, but especially on mine.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Back on the Horse

I've been neglecting the blog for a couple weeks because work and a production of Cabaret have eaten my soul. It is a wonderful problem for me to have, a result of my new life here on the Eastern Shore. I have the time to do more than work, to do more than type a few words into a my computer before falling asleep each night.

But there's content coming, I promise.

I've recently finished three books worth talking about: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Hunger Games, and Let the Great World Spin.

And I'm nearly done with three more: Zeroes, Southern Tiger, and You Are Not a Stranger Here.

Plus next week is Open Mic week. That's always reason to celebrate.