Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Hunger Games Trilogy

i just finished reading these three books by Suzanne Collins, and they were thoroughly enjoyable. The first book is the most solid because it felt closest to the main character; the second and third books spend too much time explaining the world and its political situation. The sense of suspense drops off too, perhaps because by the time the first book ends the hero has gotten herself out of so many dangerous situations relatively unscathed: sure she gets injured, but there are no real consequences from those injuries. It becomes predictable.

The Hunger Games takes place in a kind of post-apocalyptic North America, where people from 12 districts are slaves laboring in poverty. Each district specializes in a product: Katniss comes from district 12 where the majority of people mine coal. Every year, each district must send 2 tributes between the ages of 12 and 18, one male and one female, to participate in a battle to the death. The winner gets lifetime luxury, and his or her district receives extra goods for a year. Kind of Battle Royale, except the tributes in The Hunger Games aren't thrown in to battle unexpectedly. Everyone knows about the Hunger Games and there's even an enforced celebratory atmosphere. Tributes get to live in the Capitol for a week, eating and training. The citizens of the Capitol, who give no tribute and live off of the work of the 12 districts, anticipate the games and bet on the outcomes. They love the entertainment

Katniss volunteers as a tribute to protect her younger sister. Katniss is driven by her will to survive and to protect her family. The last book is perhaps the best at bringing out her self-doubt and uncertainty about the necessity for violence and toughness by bringing her two romantic interests together under very strained circumstances. Katniss is rough, she succeeds at most things she tries, and people take a liking to her (in some cases because of her PR, in some cases in spite of it). i appreciate her as a strong female protagonist because she's allowed a brutality not often found in girls in literature. Even Tamora Pierce's warrior women are rarely quite as ruthless.

It might be interesting to look at The Hunger Games alongside, or as an alternative to Lord of the Flies in high school classrooms. Similar situation, but much less essentialist. And, in my opinion, more fun to read.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Of Wyrms and Women pt. 8

[part 1] [part 2] [part 3][part 4][part 5][part 6][part 7]

After I dropped out of university, I sat at home for three years. My mother was patient, at first. She’d come into my room and bustle. She’d dust my bookshelf, rearrange the little china horses on my windowsill, pick the laundry off my floor. “Could you get that, Sam?” “Sam, pass me the paper towel.” “Samantha, are you going to sit and watch me work?” She’d herd me out to the mall, to the grocery store, to the library. But she got tired. The bustling slowed, then stopped.

My calendar spent months open to June. I was sleeping until noon, then two, until eventually Mom would have to get me out of bed for dinner. I would slump into the kitchen, sit down, and eat a few mouthfuls of whatever was in front of me. There wasn’t any taste, but I wasn’t hungry anyways. If I couldn’t sleep, I’d sit in front of the computer until my head ached from the glow, surfing listlessly from one site to the next, going through my bookmarks every couple minutes even though I knew nothing would update at three in the morning. I became an atrocity tourist, looking for images so disgusting they’d jolt me into something resembling wakefulness.

Nothing seemed shocking for very long. The internet sideshow constantly produces new material, but none of it is immediate even if most of it is real.

Eventually, my mother moved the computer out of my room, hoping I’d follow it into communal space. She saw what I had been looking at, the images of human excrement and penile surgery and pterodactyl porn and leprosy victims. It was the most yelling I’ve ever heard her do. She thought I was filthy. I don’t think she was wrong. For the first time in months, I walked out of the house by myself. I left her screaming at my back. Without thinking, I went to the park I used to play in as a child. I sat on the swing, vaguely aware of a mother monitoring her son going down the slide, climbing back to the top, going down the slide, climbing back to the top, going down the slide.

If this were a movie, I would have cried then. Reached an epiphany of some sort. Instead I slunk home, opened the door slowly, crept past my mother sleeping on the couch, and dug myself into bed. I woke when my door squealed open. My Mom shuffled over to my bedside. “My little girl,” she murmured. “My baby.” I was careful not to scrunch my face, not to tighten my eyelids and give away my wakefulness. My mother put her hand on my cheek. I pretended to sneeze so she’d take it off. She left quietly, clicking the door closed like a sigh.

After that there was counselling. I went every two weeks to see a dumpy man in a sparse office. “I’m not too worried about you,” he said. “I have another patient, with bulimia. I have to go into the hospital to talk to her.” He really liked to talk about his bulimic patient. There was nothing wrong with my eating. My Mom would drop me off in front of his office every Tuesday. She’d go run errands for an hour, and she always had a box of Nerds on the passenger seat when she came to pick me up. She began to bring home pamphlets for nursing programs. I guess she wanted to use my perversion to do good. I suspect the counsellor suggested it.

The pamphlets went straight onto my closet floor. So my mother began to bring home other brochures—be a veterinarian, a hospital technician, a legal assistant. “What do you want to do?” she’d ask me daily. “Don’t you have a dream?” My mother bought herself a University of Toronto sweatshirt to wear around the house. College and university information booklets found their way into my bed every night. Then an acceptance letter arrived in the mail from Centennial College. “I thought you might like to be a computer programmer,” my mother said. “You’re on that machine all day anyways. Just go. Give it a chance.” The letter was magneted to the fridge, where I could ignore it every time I went to get a glass of root beer. One day, my tearful mother tells me she’ll start charging me rent if I don’t go to school. So I began looking for a job. Something physical, something rigorous. I started working at a Tim Horton’s. Take a cup. Add sugar. Pour coffee. Smile. “Have a nice day.” Take a cup. Add sugar. Add cream. Pour coffee. Smile. “That’s too much cream.” Dump coffee. Take a cup. Add sugar. Add less cream. Pour coffee. Smile. “Have a nice day.” Rinse pot. Change filter. Add coffee. Hit switch. Take a cup. Add cream. Pour coffee. Smile.

After a year, Mom told me that she’d been saving the money I gave her for rent, and collecting interest on it. She said I could use it towards a place of my own, or to go back to school. I moved out of my Mom’s house and into my small apartment. Tim Horton’s didn’t pay enough to support me for long; so I searched for a better job. My mother continued to advocate for school; she wouldn’t mind giving me more money if I wanted to go back, she said. But I didn’t want to go back; I hated the dictatorial professors. Since I was a disappointment anyways, I could at least be one on my own terms. I found my job swabbing the library floors. For four months I lived in my apartment with the peeling not-quite-white colour that seems to be the default for rental units. My Mom came over with cans of paint when she realized that I wasn’t going to buy any myself. After a long Saturday, the bathroom became bright yellow, the bedroom pale rose, and the living space a soft, toothpaste green.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Layout Update

i've been feeling lately that the blog is perhaps a bit unreadable (or perhaps it is my own worsening eyesight that finds bright colours blurring) and certainly looks dated. So i've updated to a look & colour scheme that is hopefully easier on the eyes. Suggestions & comments are welcome.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Not Really A Review: Monoceros

Alright, i'm supposed to be getting down to serious business, but my supervisor's out of town! Which means I can spare a few minutes to talk about Suzette Mayr's new book Monoceros.

i wish i could mail a copy of Monoceros back in time to give to teenaged me, though i think i appreciate the book much more since i've worked in a high school. Monoceros deals with the impact of the suicide of a gay teenager on his community: the closeted principal and guidance counselor, the wistful girl obsessed with unicorns, his secret boyfriend, and his boyfriend's jealous girlfriend. Mayr takes a tragic subject and teases out humour; who knew a book about teen suicide could be so wickedly funny? And the Catholic high school -- well that could have been my school. The weird disjunction between what the church says and what teachers might actually believe or do . . . official policy versus real life . . . the inability to talk openly or directly to students looking for advice or guidance on sexual issues. This book gets it so right.

i've written before about the bullying i experienced in high school because i looked gay. i've written about the attempts of the Halton Roman Catholic District School Board to ban Gay-Straight Alliances (and the comparison Alice Anne LeMay made between GSA clubs and Neo-Nazis). i don't think i mentioned that the year i spent in a Calgarian high school involved an incident where my model UN team nearly got pulled from competition because ABORTION might be discussed. Or the time my Teacher Adviser outright denied that George W. Bush might restrict where health care aid funds could be distributed based on abortion provision.

Reviewers have suggested that high school students need to read this book. i think even more than that, this book needs to be given to teachers, to parents, to priests, to school librarians. To board of education members. To the people who influence and control the environment, and therefore the lives, of students.

And yes, to teenagers too. Because teenagers especially need unicorns.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Of Wyrms and Women pt. 7

[part 1] [part 2] [part 3][part 4][part 5][part 6]

As soon as Tia cleared the line of customers, she came to join me.

“Something wrong?”

I tell her to forget it. She tries to press me a little. I shrug.

“Did you have fun Saturday?”

“Thanks for inviting me.”

“Sure, I’ll let you know when we do it again. I have to remember to keep it down next time.”

“Did a neighbour complain?”

“No, but the noise freaks out my cat.”

“You have a cat? Here?” I’ve never seen a cat; is it in the back room?
 “Upstairs.”

“Upstairs?”

“I live above.”

“Oh.” Sanitation crisis averted.

“So tell me about your writing,” she suggests, settling into her chair. She knows the flow of customers like sailors know the tide; right now the tide is out and there is nothing to do but wait for it to come back in. I start slowly, I haven’t explained my ideas to anyone yet. But soon, it comes pouring out. I tell her everything I know about Wealhtheow, and everything I want to know.

“It sounds like you’re in love with her,” she muses, her green eyes half-closed.

“What? No. That’s nuts.” Maybe she never really existed.

“You care about her, about getting to know her,” Tia continues, as if she didn’t hear me. “Ha! You should get a tattoo, keep her with you.”

What? Me, get a tattoo? I’ve overheard various explanations of Tia’s tats, so I know this is a good way to divert the focus away from me.

“Why don’t you tell me about your tattoos?”

Tia talks about each dragon, one by one. She reminisces about the cities she’s visited, the artists who inked her, the people she knew at the time. Tia must be older than I thought, to have done so much. She gets up to serve her customers a few times, and then returns and continues her monologue from where she left off. It strikes me: I’ve never even been out of the province. I need to get out of Toronto. I want to turn on the local news and hear about something other than the falling Gardener Expressway and what David Miller’s doing wrong now.

Tia tells me about hanging out in parks in Japan to avoid the train at peak hours. In Thailand, her moped was stolen, and so she drank flaming shots all night in a bar, because the bartender had never seen a flaming shot before. I don’t think I’ve seen one before either. Then she skips to Europe, a bar she visited in Scotland. Tia talks effortlessly, telling stories about the places she’s been and the odd people she’s met. My life’s not nearly as interesting. I’ve never had much to talk about, because I don’t do much. I work, then go home. Coming for coffee is about as wild as my day gets. Tia’s boozed her way around the globe. It occurs to me that I can go on about Wealhtheow even when I have nothing to say about myself. Tia seems to think that’s close enough; she listens so intently her eyes stop blinking. My gut is still squirming with guilt. I shouldn’t have walked out.

Tia finishes showing me her tattoos. She smiles and goes to wipe down the counter, start the dishwasher, and fiddle with the espresso machine, prepping it for the three o’clock wave of university students. I sit and sip my almost-cold cappuccino, looking at the walls. The poster hanging above me seems different. A village is burning; wasn’t it just a single hut there before? The fire has spread; the lizard looks smug. Weird.

Although I’ve always admired tattoos, I have never considered myself the kind of person who would get one. Tia’s comment makes me wonder if an artist could capture the specific image of Wealhtheow I have in my head. She’s a Valkyrie: tall, strong, blonde, mythical. Her fierce face features a strong nose and sharp jaw, and her lips are round; not soft, but sexual. Her eyes are like looking at the sky through crystal. She wears a loose white dress belted at the waist; a dagger with an intricate golden handle hangs from her belt. A warrior. A woman. Wealhtheow.