KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #13: The Dreaded Feast, Writers on Enduring the Holidays, edited by Michele Clarke and Taylor Plimpton

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I’m a big fan of Christmas, but even I have to draw the line somewhere. While I’m not above buying gifts in July, I have no patience for people who put up twinkle lights in October and even I can only sit through so many viewings of Its a Wonderful Life before reaching for the insulin. So when I spotted The Dreaded Feast in a used book shop the week before Thanksgiving, I thought it would be a nice antidote to the super saccharine influence of the holiday season.

It is an antidote, I suppose, in the way that morphine would be an antidote for a headache. It’s not just that the collection of essays is too snarky for me. It is (and that is saying something) but I can’t really blame the book for that. After all, the back cover says in big block letters, “For people who aren’t so crazy about the holidays.” I ignored the warning, thinking surely that the negativity would be balanced with redemption. So, my bad there. But what really irritated me was that the humor-ish essays were all very obvious. Let’s face it, Christmas is a pretty easy target. There’s a lot of room there for mockery: the fruitcake, the carolers, the ugly sweaters. Now that I think about it, ugly sweaters were pretty much overlooked in this collection, which seems odd (note to self: write Dave Barry-esque essay on ugly Christmas sweaters for publication before Jan. 1). The point is, there’s lots to make fun of, but making fun and making something funny aren’t the same thing. For all its jokey criticism, the essays just didn’t elicit many chuckles from me.

Not all the essays are humorous, though. John Cheever’s Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor is a thought-provoking tale worthy of its own essay. Last Last Chance by Fiona Maazel and Oh, Christmas Tree by Augusten Burroughs are both curious stories that are more interesting to me than a study of the office Christmas party. And don’t even get me started on Hunter S. Thompson’s contribution—what the hell was that about? The point is, this is an anthology, so one would expect a mixed bag.

The more I read, however, the more the collection as a whole started to bug me. Overall there just didn’t appear to be any cohesive theme. The selections seem so random, like the inclusion of a single scene from a play called “The Truth About Santa” and an anonymous 17th century diatribe on the vanity of the Christmas holiday. It feels like the editors simply selected the first thirty pieces of writing about Christmas that weren’t The Gift of the Magi and called it a day.

I’ve read some excellent short-story collections in the past, where each piece of writing stands independently while also contributing to a whole. Unrelated works can sometimes build on each other and shine a light on similar themes, making each more thought-provoking or worthwhile than it had been on its own. Sadly, The Dreaded Feast isn’t one of those collections.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #12: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

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The Hunger Games had a “first episode in a trilogy” kind of feel to it (which makes sense, being the first episode in a trilogy and all). By that, I mean that while the story is left on a questioning note, it also stands nicely on its own, the way that Star Wars or The Matrix ended with a future of possibility, but if that was the last you saw of that world, you would have still been happy with it (in the case of The Matrix, you would have been much happier, in fact). The point is, second books/movies in trilogies often have a tough time: they are the bridges between the often self-contained story of book/movie #1 and the conflict resolution of book/movie #3. The worst episode #2 books feel like filler material, killing time until we get to the climax of episode #3. The good ones feel bigger than episode #1, drive the story forward, and build excitement for the final installment. Catching Fire is a great second episode.

Catching Fire feels much bigger than The Hunger Games. While politics served as a backdrop in The Hunger Games, the true state of Panem and the oppression of the people in the districts comes to the forefront in Catching Fire. For the first time we get to witness a confrontation between Katniss and President Snow, a conversation which reveals the true depth of the danger Katniss has put herself and her family in by defying the Capitol at the end of book one. We get more insight into the Peace Keepers and their relationship with the people of the district, and how brutally citizens can be treated. During the Victory Tour, we get to see how life is even harder for some of the other districts than it is for District 12. When the tributes gather on stage the night before the games start, talk is nearly treasonous as the victors try to turn the audience against the games. It’s an exciting time to be a revolutionary, certainly!

We also get more of the “love triangle,” although I think that phrase is selling the relationships between the characters short. Katniss is certainly a conflicted individual who has feelings for both Gale and Peeta, but are any of those feelings romantic in nature? She has too much at stake to allow herself to even explore that question and she doesn’t expect to live long enough for it to matter. But in not facing it, she reveals as much about her character and her feelings as she would if she were to wear her heart on her sleeve.

While The Hunger Games took us into the brutal world of a regime that would force its citizens to murder each other, Catching Fire pulls back and gives us a larger view of that regime and the citizens that live there. True to its name, Catching Fire sets the spark of anticipation, preparing us for the final battles that episode three is sure to bring.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #11: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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I’m usually well behind the curve when it comes to popular culture. I don’t think I even started reading the Harry Potter series until somewhere around the time when Goblet of Fire was published, so  it should come as no surprise that I saw the blockbuster hit The Hunger Games in theaters before deciding to read the book.

As a general rule, I actually do prefer seeing a movie adaptation of a novel before reading it. To me, novels are generally much richer in detail and create a more vivid world, so that I am usually at least a little disappointed when I see a film version of a novel I’ve enjoyed. There are exceptions, of course: The Lord of the Rings trilogy did a tremendous job of adapting books that seemed unfilmable; and there have been occasions when I’ve read a book after seeing a film only to discover that the two versions shared very little beyond the title (Bernard Malamud’s The Natural springs to mind, but I’m sure there are better, more recent examples).  Books and film are different media, and I do try to approach them as as independent of each other and revel in the strengths of each. At any rate, seeing and enjoying the film version is what finally motivated me to read The Hunger Games.

Perhaps because the film adaptation was so strong, I was mildly let down that the book didn’t include a tremendous amount of additional material and plot points. That’s not really fair, I know, but my usual strategy of seeing a film and then “getting more” by reading the book kind of failed me this time. Mainly, I was surprised that the book was written in first-person narrative. I like first person-narratives as much as the next reader, and Katniss Everdeen is a compelling protagonist to be sure, but the world of Panem is full of colorful characters and I was hoping I’d get more insight into how and what they were thinking. Wouldn’t you just love to know what, if anything, is going on inside Effie’s head, or learn more about Cinna’s past? What did Katniss’ mother feel when first her younger daughter’s name is called, and then her elder daughter volunteers to take her place? What did the people of District 12 think as the games progressed—did they feel hope that their tribute might come home alive? Did they even care? Maybe that’s why the movie adaptation worked; the book doesn’t contain much nuance or subtlety for the movie to miss.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading The Hunger Games. I did. Very much. Katniss is a complex character full of strength, anger, doubt, and love, and she kicks ass to boot. She is the protagonist that young adult readers deserve and can relate to, and adult readers can embrace as well. The plot is well paced and drives forward to a tense climax, and it did leave me wanting more. Fortunately for me, there are still two more books in the series.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those novels that has worked its way into our collective consciousness. If someone mentions Jekyll and Hyde-like behavior, you understand what that means, even if you have never read the novella. In the 127 years since it was published, over 100 film adaptations have been made, not to mention stage, radio, television, and countless parodies. Remember that Gilligan’s Island episode, where Gilligan dreams he is Dr. Gilligan/Mr. Hyde, switching to the evil version of himself at the mention of food? Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, as I was hunting around for something to read, I decided I was in the mood for a popular classic, something British and Victorian, preferably. Stevenson’s novel presented itself, and I realized I had never actually read it. That’s probably true for many readers—we hear so much about a story and see so many adaptations, we sometimes forget that we haven’t familiarized ourselves with the original. So I dove in, not sure what to expect.

The story is told from the point of view of a Mr. Utterson, friend and lawyer to Dr. Henry Jekyll, a kind man and upstanding citizen. Utterson is concerned that his friend has recently made changes to his will, leaving everything to a man named Edward Hyde, whom Utterson comes to learn is a completely disreputable and hateful character. Jekyll brushes off Utterson’s concerns and assures him everything is under control. After Hyde is seen beating a man (an MP) to death with a cane, Hyde vanishes and Jekyll assures his friend that he has cut off all ties with the horrible man for good.

For a time, all seems well, with Jekyll visiting with old friends and devoting himself to charitable works. Suddenly, though, Jekyll begins behaving strangely, refusing visitors and not wishing to see anyone. He eventually locks himself in his laboratory for weeks, causing Utterson and Jekyll’s butler to eventually break down the door, where they find not Jekyll, but Hyde, dead by suicide. Papers left by Jekyll, including a letter to Utterson, explain the story: the doctor had been experimenting with good and evil and devised a way to separate his evil side from his good. Unfortunately, the evil Hyde started to take over, and Jekyll was unable to suppress him. The potion he had been using to keep Hyde at bay stopped working. Jekyll realized that Hyde was on the verge of taking over for good and that, as Hyde, he would either be convicted of murder or kill himself. Either way, he writes, in concluding his letter to his friend, “I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.”

What surprised me most about this book is how much detail it lacks. Other than the murder of the MP, none of Hyde’s crimes or depravities are ever described. Jekyll makes reference to the misdeeds of his own youth but never provides any specifics. The transformation from kindly doctor to evil madman, so often a staple of adaptations, is never really depicted, and only one instance of the transformation from Hyde back to Jekyll is recorded. Throughout the book there is a reluctance for any of the characters to speak plainly and provide details—even the final revelations are delivered in sealed envelopes, only to be read in the case of the death of the parties involved. From a Victorian point of view, this shroud of secrecy makes sense; however, I was still surprised given how much liberty filmmakers have taken with the subject matter.

I understand now why so many different versions of this story have been written and filmed: Stevenson provides just enough detail to juice our imagination. The basic premise of good and evil versions of oneself fighting for control is rich with possibility. From a purely physical perspective, the actual transformation can be imagined any of a million ways. From a moral perspective, what would that struggle between evil and good self look like? From a narrative point of view, the story can be interesting when told from the perspective of almost any of the other characters. As I mentioned in my review of Gone Girl, I love an unreliable narrator, and Jekyll would have made a fine one. (If someone hasn’t written that novel yet, I’m sure it’s being worked on.)

I enjoyed The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I’m glad to have finally taken the time to read the original story.  Now to check out the 1955 Bugs Bunny version, Hyde and Hare, to get their take on it.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #9: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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There’s a little book called Gone Girl that’s been flying under the radar. I’m surprised more of you haven’t heard of it. Only 20 or 30 people recommended it to me, but I decided to give it a go anyway, and I’m glad I did. It’s nice to help out an unknown author now and then, and this was a real page turner.

Ok, in all seriousness, I did enjoy Gone Girl, but nobody wants to read yet another recap of the first two chapters or listen to me skate around any spoilers just in case someone out there is even more behind the curve than I am. But I did want to mention two aspects/techniques used in this novel that I appreciated: the non-ending and the unreliable narrator.

Now I know some people didn’t like the ending of Gone Girl, but to me it fit. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Gillian Flynn said she doesn’t think people who wanted or expected a certain type of ending would necessarily have been satisfied with it, and I have to agree. To me, the question mark at the end of a journey has a way of staying with me much longer than a solid conclusion. To make a comparison with two popular films, the end of Fatal Attraction may have momentarily satisfied the audience’s thirst for justice, but personally, I didn’t think much about it after I left the theater. No Country for Old Men, on the other hand, crept into my brain and settled there, tugging at my imagination, making me wonder what was next and why we didn’t see justice. Tastes vary and I know plenty of people would like to see something else, but I truly hope when the Hollywood adaptation is made executives don’t rewrite for a “happier” ending. I also hope Flynn never writes a sequel, because to me, the worst thing you can do to a “what next” ending is to follow it up with the answer.

After finishing this book, I started to think about how much I enjoy reading from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. I love hearing a character’s story unfold and coming to realize that there is more, or less, to the story than I am hearing. Is the narrator lying? Crazy? Both? Is he mildly delusional or full-on psychotic? Is she ill, sad, evil, or merely misguided? Figuring that part out is just as interesting to me as uncovering the truth. The best novels that use this technique are the ones where the author never actually spells out the inconsistencies but provides just enough information for the reader to be able to piece it together on her own: Arthur Phillip’s The Egyptologist is one of my favorites. I think that’s why the first third of Gone Girl was the most fun for me—picking up gaps in Nick’s story and questioning why he was leaving out details and wondering to myself what I was supposed to think was engaging and suspenseful. Part two spells everything out, which is a little disappointing, but the switch in tone is earned. Flynn writes convincingly in at least three different voices, which is fun for a novel with only two narrators.

The unreliable narrator is a popular technique, and it’s one I can’t get enough of when done well. Fight Club, The Cask of Amontillado, and An Instance of the Fingerpost are all great examples. I would love to hear form you, fellow Cannonballers, about your favorite unreliable narrators so I can add them to my reading list.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #8: The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore

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Ah, Christopher Moore. There are some days when I get so depressed about the state of the world that I can’t even turn on the TV for fear of hearing about a school shooting, or genocide, or Congress. But no matter how dim the world seems, I can count on you to lift my spirits with your completely warped and original view of that world.

For those of you unfamiliar with Christopher Moore, his novels give “suspension of disbelief” a whole new meaning. Usually involving some sort of magical, mythical, or supernatural aspect, Moore’s world is a place where a crazy, former C-movie actress can have an inappropriate relationship with an ancient sea monster and it just seems like good, clean fun.

To try to summarize this novel is a bit like trying to describe the plot of a Monty Python sketch, but I’ll give it a shot. The story takes place in the beautiful coastal town of Pine Cove, California. Moore often revisits locations in his novels and characters cross over from one novel to another, so that picking up a book you haven’t read is sometimes like visiting with old friends. More accurately, old friends who are on leave from a psychiatric institute or prison, but old friends nevertheless. In this quaint little locale, psychiatrist Valerie Riordan becomes disillusioned with modern psychiatric medicine and decides to replace her patients’ medication with placebos. At the same time, a blues singer comes to town and starts playing at the local saloon (now quite crowded thanks to the lack of anti-depressants), an ancient Sea Beast awakes from the deep and makes everyone horny, local rats start acting weird, and Theo Crowe, the town’s stoned-out constable, discovers a meth lab controlled by a scheming Sheriff. Former scream queen Molly Michon (the aforementioned crazy lady) starts hearing voices (no meds, remember) and thinks a strange trailer in her trailer park might be more than that, so she starts calling him Steve.

Yeah, doesn’t exactly translate that well into one paragraph. But you just have to trust me that Christopher Moore creates a place where it’s impossible to be sad. He doesn’t try to bore you with lessons; he just wants to share the way his crazy brain works. There is love and lust and death (one of the main characters is a Sea Beast, after all; you kind of have to expect that people are going to be eaten), but you never feel weighed down by the moral of the story, if there is one.

Moore himself describes The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove as a kind of Godzilla meets The Bridges of Madison County. While not as poignant as Moore’s excellent Lamb or A Dirty Job, or as absurdly funny as The Stupidest Angel (another Pine Cove adventure), The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove is an antidote for whatever weighty matters are getting you down. I’m no psychiatrist, but Christopher Moore may even be a good substitute for anti-depressants.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #7: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo

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In August 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo and a team of researches conducted an experiment in the basement of Stanford University wherein 24 perfectly normal, healthy male college students took on roles of prisoners and guards. The purpose of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to study the effects of situational forces on both sets of participants: how would the guards respond to their new positions of power, and how would prisoners respond to being stripped of their identity and freedom? I’ll sum it up for you quickly: given the right situation, it appears that just about all of us have the capacity to be total dicks.

The speed with which the prisoners seemed to lose their identity and take on the role of prisoner was impressive; however, the real surprise of the experiment was the intensity with which the guards embraced their new roles. Although they were told they could not physically harm the prisoners, they were free to employ whatever mental harassment they could come up with, including solitary confinement and sleep deprivation; they repeatedly made the prisoners get up in the middle of the night to count off their “numbers” and repeat the rules of the prison in mind-numbing repetition. (It seems to me that sleep deprivation would be physically harmful, but I’m no torture expert.) When one prisoner goes on a hunger strike, the guards force him to “make love” to his dinner sausages, ordering him to hug, caress, and kiss them. When he still refuses to eat, they try to force the sausages down his throat. At one point towards the end of the experiment, the guards humiliate a prisoner by forcing him to mime intercourse with the ground.

Have I mentioned that all of this happened within a span of 6 days?

The roles or prisoner and guard were assigned completely at random and all potential participants were carefully screened to make sure they were mentally stable (i.e., not prone to nervous breakdowns or predisposed to be assholes).  From the experiment, Zimbardo concludes that, “We overemphasize personality in explaining any behavior while concurrently underemphasizing situational influences.” In other words, we are constantly explaining bad behavior as the work of “bad apples,” instead of looking at the “bad barrel” to see how the situation can be corrected.

All of this is very interesting and I wish I could recommend this book; however, I’ve pretty much told you most of what you need to know. So unless you are getting a graduate degree in psychology, please just read the Wikipedia entry on the Stanford Prison Experiment and save yourself time.

I’m probably being unfair; this is, after all, a detailed study of an experiment, but the author’s writing made me want to go out and do some waterboarding. In Chapter 2, Zimbardo describes how he talked the Stanford police into “arresting” the prisoners for his experiment, to lend authenticity to the volunteers’ loss of freedom and start the experiment off with a little flair. He recounts his conversations with the Palo Alto police department officers in dialogue that wouldn’t cut it on Cinemax. The officers conveniently provide a framework for exposition, saying things like “I’m a little confused about a couple of things,” and “Yes, I guess it makes sense the way you put it.” I know I’m being picky, but couldn’t he have found a graduate student willing to ghost write this thing for him? The last straw was when he referenced the Milgram Experiment as having “shocking results” (wink, wink). Good God, who was the editor on this?

But enough of my literary critique. I found myself getting irritated as well with the glee with which Zimbardo set out to conduct his experiment, starting with the “arrest” and local news coverage. Zimbardo himself put pressure on the guards to be tougher with the prisoners, and the only reason the experiment ended after six days instead of two weeks was because graduate student Christina Maslach (who was also romantically involved with Zimbardo) visited the prison and expressed horror at the conditions. Zimbardo does explore in the book whether the experiment was ethical (it wasn’t) and expresses regret that he allowed it to go on as long as he did, indicating that he too got caught up in his “role” as prison superintendent. I just couldn’t help thinking that maybe we need an experiment to study dickish tendencies among the scientific community.

The last third of the book explores what we can learn from the experiment about situational forces and how these forces help explain modern incidents like the Abu Ghraib abuses.  Zimbardo concludes that “this experiment has emerged as a powerful illustration of the potentially toxic impact of bad systems and bad situations in making good people behave in pathological ways that are alien to their nature.”

There’s plenty of food for thought in this book; I just wish it had been available in pamphlet form.