Saturday, 17 March 2012

Catching Fire - a single spark that sets the whole country on fire

The second book of the trilogy picks up where the first one left us off - Katniss and Peeta have managed to set a precedent in the 74 years history of the hunger games by becoming the first two winners. Through carefully manipulating the public with their tragic love story, they won on their side not only the citizens of the capital, but the whole country. The Capitol, in fear of a massive rebellion, had no other choice but to let both of them live.

It seems that everything can now go back to normal. Katniss and Peeta return to district 12 as heroes. They don't need to worry anymore how to feed their families as the privileges of winning the hunger games secure them a wealthy and affluent life. Peeta is still madly in love with Katniss, while she is torn between her best friend, who has always been there for her and the boy who saved her life in the games. Unfortunately, president Snow doesn't plan to leave her a choice. Katniss's actions during the hunger games have provoked massive uprisings in the other districts. People have long been angry with the regime but haven't had the courage and strength to oppose. Now, they have a leader in the face of Katniss and a symbol in the form of her mocking-jay broche. The 17th old girl that had the courage to stand against the rules of the Capitol unconsciously gave the districts strength and motivation. Many of them start doubting the reality of the love story and see Katniss's actions as the long awaited trigger against the Capitol. President Snow is furious; he sets an ultimatum to Katniss - she either has to prove to everyone that she acted out of love or everyone she loves will be hurt. On their annual tour as winners Katniss and Peeta are all over each other and even decide to marry. However, people already see them as symbols of the change. Many of the districts openly show their readiness for rebellion. The solution is only one - Katniss needs to die and she needs to do it in the hunger games.

Yes, the annual 75 hunger games offer a spectacle never seen before. The names of the contestant are to be chosen among all of the winners and very soon Katniss and Peeta are back on the arena. This time the gamemakers have worked hard to ensure that they will not come back alive. Instad of fighting against children like themselves, Katniss and Peeta are set in front of the most skilled and violent killers in the country. As usual, Katniss tries to save Peeta and vice versa. However, weird alliances on the arena seem to lead to the conclusion that everyone is trying to save actually both of them. It is brutal on the Arena, where Katniss is trying to understand and survive, but it is much more brutal outside, where people have released an anger hidden for 75 years.

Catching Fire continues with the amazing trend set by The Hunger Games. Much darker and much more violent, the second book is a turning point in the story. On a first glance, the first two parts are mirror-like. Katniss and Peeta are back in the games, but this time the purpose is not to kill the others and stay alive but to escape. Just like a fire needs a single match to spread, the districts need a single spark in the face of Katniss, to rise against the Capitol. I read the second part in exactly 1 day. Collins is still infatuating and obsessive; her talent creates multi-faced characters, who are neither all good or all bad. The author portrays a realistic and obsessive tale of a controlled regime and the rebellions of the masses, who are like a giant snowball on the verge of a mountain - they need a small push to destroy everything on their way. That is why Katniss needs to surve - to stand as an example of a successful rebellion against the Capitol and to push the people towards change. The girl, herself, is not sure whether she wants to be a symbol for that, but is sure for one thing - she wouldn't be if Peeta dies.

The Hunger Games is much more than a young adult novel. It is about courage and strength in the face of an enemy too strong to be defeated. It is about inner conflicts to do the right thing or to save yourself and your family. It is about sacrifice for someone else and for a whole idea. Even though it is fantastical, the trilogy is closer to contemporary society than we can possibly imagine.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The most dangerous game in The Hunger Games

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Hunger Games have begun. There is only one rule - no rules. Strikingly similar to a gladiator arena, Suzanne Collins takes us to an arena in a futuristic America, where 24 children are turned into beasts and forced to kill each other. Only one can survive.

The USA as we know it is destroyed. The Capitol, the powerful capital of the newly created country Panem controls the other 12 districts through deprivation, obedience and fear. The 13th district has been eliminated, when it rebelled against the controlled society. For remembrance and punishment, the Capitol has introduced a new form of entertainment - the Hunger Games. Each year a lottery chooses a boy and a girl between the age of 12 and 18 from each of the districts, who are thrown into an arena carefully controlled and managed by the game makers. Natural disasters, traps, and occasional gifts are thrown in order to turn the competitors against each other and to provide a bloody massacre for the viewers. This year, however, the organizers haven't taken in mind one factor - Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss has the unfortunate luck of living in the poorest of the districts - 12. No one from the district had won the Hunger Games in 30 years and the region is deprived from the awards associated with them. After her father's death in the mines she starts taking care of her mentally disabled mother and younger sister Prim. In order to feed her family in the most starving region of the Panem, Katniss daily breaks many rules - she escapes through the electric fence guarding the district, she hunts for wild animals, and she sells them on the black market. Together with her best friend Gale they have mastered the art of survival, while secretly dreaming of escaping. Katniss has this opportunity earlier than she imagined. On this year's Hunger Games her sister is chosen as a tribute, or a contestant. Without thinking, Katniss takes her place towards a sure death. The other tribute is Peeta, the quiet son of the baker, who has secret powers and a secret affection for Katniss.

The games have begun. The contestants are in the arena, thirsty for victory and blood. As usual, the trained tributes from the wealthiest regions have the edge, while Katniss is fighting hunger, thirst, and loneliness. Her training in the woods with Gale, however, has prepared her and she throws into the game with the greatest desire not to win but to stay alive - because this is what she has promised her little sister. The Hunger Games drive out the most animalistic features in these children, who in their acts resemble more wild animals set free than human beings with heart and soul. However, the Capitol hasn't taken into consideration that Katniss, Peeta, and several others actually feel. Katniss forms an unusual bond with a 12-year old girl from another district and desperately tries to protect her. Later, her life is saved by a contestant from the same region grateful for her help. But most importantly, Peeta is set to ensure that Katniss will survive.

"I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don't own me. If I'm gonna die, I wanna still be me." That is what Peeta wishes before the games have begun. However, this is exactly what the Capitol is trying to do - show people that they are owned, controlled, and can die just for the pleasure of the strongest. Violent death for some is a nice pleasure for others. In The Hunger Games Collins portrays a futuristic society that scarily reminds us of our own (without mentioning any names I would just like to point out that several months ago certain people were celebrating the death of another human being). Her talent to describe a dystopian future world is comparable to Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury. The book is dark, violent, and consuming. Maybe because it is about children or maybe because it actually places people directly against each other, The Hunger Games had a greater impression on me than 1984 and A Brave New World. I kept asking my self what would I do if I was turned against 23 human beings with the highest stake - my life. It is immensely difficult to remain a human in this situation. It is almost impossible to feel compassion for someone, when you know you have to kill him to survive. Yet, Katniss and Peeta have something the Capitol hasn't expected - a great desire to stay alive TOGETHER. This might cost them their life but if they succeed it might cost the Capitol even more - its power.

I can't even begin to explain how obsessive, infatuating, and consuming this novel is. I don't have the time. My hands are trembling to get hold of the next book. For a trilogy named a bestseller from almost every newspaper, the first book The Hunger Games sets the stake very high. Given Collins's amazing imagination and great skills of a storyteller, I really doubt the following two will be worse.

Monday, 12 March 2012


Before writing a review about a book I spend a lot of time actually thinking about the title of the post. I try to incorporate the name of the novel and the most distinguishing aspect of it for me. I have only one blog post with a one word title - Hunger. Now I have another - Love. I guess when the words are so important in my life, I don't need any further explanation.

Elif Shafak's Forty Rules of Love is a tale about love, in all its forms, that transforms people, opens their hearts, and sets them free both from society's and their own boundaries. Shafak unfolds two paralel stories, one set in contemporary time and the other in the 13th century. The author successfully escapes the cliches and the trivialities and by exploring the nature of sufism, shows that love is transcendental; that it goes beyond race, age, and sex; that it is the sincerest and strongest force; that it makes us better people; that it helps us lose ourselves and find ourselves; that allows us to die only to be reborn; that changes us; that shows us the path towards happiness. Love is the ultimate goal and ultimate truth.

Ela is a bored middle-aged housewife, who has given up her dreams in order to take care of her husband and her three children. Days before her 40th birthday Ela realizes not only that she is not happy but that she hasn't been happy for a long time. Her estranged and unfaithful husband doesn't give her the love she thought she didn't need. Her daily activities are trivial: cooking, meeting with housewives as herself, taking care of the children. For 40 years Ela never broke any rule, never crossed any line, and never lived. Until she meets Zahara.

In a slight effort to change her life, Ela takes a job as a literary critic. Her first assignment is a manuscript by an unknown author, Sweet Blasphemy. It tells the story of a 13th century wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz and his inspirational relationship with Rumi, the greatest poet of the Sufi canon. Most importantly, it shows how the love between Shams and Rumi helps transform the latter from a conservative literator of the Koran into one of the most praised mystics in the Islam and one of the most famous poets. Ela is so impressed by the novel that she contacts the author Aziz Zahara, never expecting that similarly to Rumi and Shams, this relationship is going to change her life.

Told through the view point of a range of characters, The Forty Rules of Love follows the development of two types of love, separated by more than seven centuries. Shams introduces to Rumi a new religion - the religion of love. His forty rules of love philosophy implies a gentle and non-judgmental reading of the Koran, which rejects religious fundamentalism and is accessible to all, drunkards, whores, intelligence. Through his love for Shams, Rumi denies his former way of living, his strong reliance on reputation and other people's opinion, and his conservative reading of the Koran. Instead, he turns to Sufism and writes Masnavi, a key Sufi tract which weaves Koranic analysis with poetry, parables of the everyday, the mythic and miraculous. This inspirational bond sets Rumi free from any conventions, opens his heart to spirituality and teaches him to accept people for who they are.

Similarly, Aziz appears to set Ela free. All of her life she believed she didn't need love. She looked down on the concept of eternal and passionate love and she despised romance. At least she thought so. Upon realizing there is a terrible void in her heart, one that needs to be filled exactly with love, she starts a passionate on-line affair with Aziz, an affair that is set to have life-changing consequences.

As much as I liked to avoid the religious part, I indeed have to touch upon it. Shams's philosophy focuses extensively on love for God and on the eternal search for God within yourself. I am not religious but I am willing to accept people that are. Without going too much into the subject, I would just say that the God part of the novel did indeed irritate me. I personally don't see the need of religion to prompt people to be virtuous, to love one another, and to accept other's faults by a simple fear of being punished or by a blind fate that they are serving some omnipotent creature. And for me religion in its essence is the cause of an infinite number of conflicts and confrontations, of unnecessarily strict rules, of the church's desire to control and guide people, and of endless hatred between people.

Otherwise, the novel is positive and inspirational. It has a great attention to detail. Every chapter starts with a "b" (even in the Bulgarian translation), as for Sufi mystics the secret of the Koran lies in the verse Al-Fatiha, the essence of which is contained in the word bismilahirahmanirahim (in the name of Allah, the Benevolent and Merciful), with the quintessence of the word in the dot below the first Arabic letter, a dot that embodies the universe. Moreover, Shafak offers a popular and understandable introduction to sufism as a religion towards spirituality and self-awareness. The author wrote the book for more than 15th years and the result is obvious. She is one of the most read female authors in Turkey, a direct competitor to Orhan Pamuk, and possibly a challenger to Paulo Coelho's dominance. The Forty Rules of Love indeed flaws easily and is perfect for people on a verge of their lives when they simply need encouragement, positivism, and hope. I am sad to say that at some points it greatly reminded me of Andy Andrews and Jorhe Bucay, which for me as a reader, is a great offense.Still, Shafak manages to go beyond the cliches and to offer an inspirational tale of love as the most important thing. If it makes readers better people, if it indeed teaches them that religious differences don't exist and should not be a reason for violent acts (something we are quite familiar in contemporary society) and if it actually influences them to love each other and themselves, I believe this novel's value will be even greater. It also reminded me of Eat, Pray, Love, where similarly a disillusioned woman goes on a search for spirituality and falls in love.

It seems that contemporary authors now more than ever attempt to imply that love is the answer to all of our questions, our ultimate goal, our only purpose. Andrews, Bocay, Gilbert, and now Shafak tell tales of despair and hopelessness, of lack of ambition and desire to live, which are all solved byt the power of that one person, who opens your heart and soul. As much as I would like to believe this positive view of life, I am skeptical. Reading about it is ok, but until it happens to me, I stand convinced that even the greatest love in the world is not enough for a fulfilled and happy life. Still a good thought, though. I will give it a try. After reading, I even started my own forty rules of love but I ended with only one: "Lora, don't be afraid."

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Garlic, crucifix, and Count Dracula

I have put a crucifix on my chest. I have surrounded myself with garlic (I have even eaten some as I love it and I put it on every dish despite my best friend's reaction to this) and I am safe and ready to write about Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. I look several times behind my back to be reassured he is not going to come and suck my blood. I was told, though, that vampires exist. See Twilight.

Seriously now, I have heard a lot about Dracula, the mythical figure of the vampire from Transylvania. I also new about the garlic and the crucifix as means of protection and I was more or less aware of the fact that vampires are active before sunrise and after sunset. Strictly speaking, I was acceptably ignorant and since I am not that much into fantastical stories, I was satisfied with that. Still, knowing that Bram Stoker's Dracula is a classic I knew that one day I have to read it. This day has come. I was pleasantly surprised since Dracula is an entertaining, captivating, and exciting adventurous novel that follows the attempt of the vampire Count Dracula to relocate in London and to threaten the security of the British Empire. Count Dracula is a centuries-old vampire, sorcerer, and Transylvanian nobleman, who claims to be descended from Attila the Hun. He inhabits a decaying castle in the Carpathian Mountains near the Borgo Pass. Unlike the vampires of Eastern European folklore, which are portrayed as repulsive, corpse-like creatures, Dracula exudes a veneer of aristocratic charm. Dracula "works" only during the night, he controls the wolfs, and he can easily transform into mist, dust, and bat. By sucking people's blood he slowly takes their life away, making them look anemic. However, if they ever suck his blood, they are doomed to become vampires after their death.

A group of 6 brave people, led by Dutch professor Abraham van Helsing decide to stop him and to kill him once and for all. All of them have been affected in one way or another by Dracula's thirst for blood. Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor, is sent to Dracula's castle in Transylvania in order to help him buy a property in London. Harker finds himself trapped there with only one possible end - victim of the vampire and his followers. After his successful escape, Jonathan is mentally unstable for a while but still marries the beautiful and clever Mina. She, unfortunately, becomes another of the victims of Dracula and starts showing the characteristics of a vampire. Quincey Morris, Lord Godalming, and Dr. John Seward have all made a proposal to Lucy, Mina's best friend. However, Lucy's destiny is also tragically connected to the vampire. These five people are lead by professor Helsing, a prominent Dutch professor with extensive knowledge about Transylvania's folklore, culture, traditions, and superstitions. The party decides to use all means to drive away the Count from the British Empire and to put an end to his thirst for blood that has lasted for centuries.

Even though the novel is told in epistolary format, as a series of letters, diary entries, newspapers listings, etc, it never becomes boring or monotonous. In fact, this format allows the reader to see the story through the eyes of all of the main protagonists and to feel their inner struggle, worries, and fear. At the end we are given as much a story about Count Dracula, as about the character of the typical Victorian age man. Topics such as sexual conventions, the role of women, colonialism, and immigration emerge, but Stoker's main contribution to world literature is the manifestation of the theme of invasion. H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells were subsequently influenced by Stoker, who set the formula for a successful invasion and adventurous novel. Indeed, in the Victorian age Dracula was seen as a very entertaining mysterious novels. Today, however, Dracula is praised as one of the best examples of Gothic literature and as a novel-manifestation of the power of reason.

I was personally never disappointed by Stoker. He didn't invent the figure of Count Dracula, as it was a living man, the Romanian ruler Vlad III, who later turns into vampire (according to the folklore of Transylvania. However, Stoker managed to make him famous. Stoker gave him a disastrous appearance, a witty mind, and extreme malice. He also showed that all evil has its weak points and can be defeated through the power of reasoning and the means of consistency and perseverance. Overall, a very good read that one shouldn't miss, especially if you are into vampire literature, horror fiction, and bloody stories. Please, not to be confused with Twilight, which is just a sugar-coated love story with sharper teeth and lots of gentle sucking on the neck. If after this you are looking for a similar reading, I would recommend Shelley's Frankenstein, which in fact preceded Dracula.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Elia Kazan's Acts of Love - Disturbing

"I have always disturbed people with what I do", says Elia Kazan, one of the most famous directors in Hollywood and in Broadway. He has discovered immortal actors such as Marlon Brando. Warren Beatty, and James Dean, he was driven actors to 12 Oscar nominations (resulting in 9 wins) and he has himself won two Oscars for a Best Director and numerous other awards. Among his most famous movies are "East of Eden", "A Streetcar Named Desire", and "On the Waterfront". Only at the age of 54 did the prominent director decide that the novel is the greatest form of art. His forth book, Acts of Love shows the genius of the Greek-born director, who is equally successful in movies, plays, and novels

I actually found out this impressive background information after reading Acts of Love. Before starting it, I had never heard neither of the book itself, nor the author. After finishing, I had one thought in my head - disturbing, controversial, and shocking. Set in the turbulent 1980s, Acts of Love tells the story of two people from different generations and with different perspective on life, whose destinies become entangled in a tragic and destructive way.

Kosta is a conservative Greek immigrant in the US, for whom Greek traditions determine the right path of life for his family. With a steady hand the rather dogmatic man maneuvers the actions of his wife, his son, and his close relatives. He is strict, demanding, and frightening. Kosta doesn't allow any deviation from the righteousness and virtuousness of the Christian faith. He keeps his wife in control, showing her the exact place of a woman n the 1980s - in the house taking care of her husband. Kosta attempts to influence the life of his only son, Tedi, until he meets his new bride-to-be. Ethel, unfortunately, is far away from an obedient Greek wife.

Ethel is most probably one of the greatest and the most controversial female characters I have encountered so far. In the beginning I saw her as a shy and complacent young woman, who is impatient to become Tedi's wife and be transformed by Kosta into a proper obedient Greek wife. She keeps asking her husband and her father-in-law not only for guidance, but for orders. She wants to be told what to do, even beaten when she fails to do it. Ethel claims she would like to learn how to complement her husband and how to anticipate his needs and serve them to perfection. At least that is what she wants to believe about herself.

Unfortunately, Ethel is years ahead of her time. She is emancipated, passionate, impulsive, and strong. She dreams of a strong man, who can invoke feelings of admiration and respect and who can satisfy the desperate urge she feels inside. She indulges her appetite early, jumping from one man's bed to another, dipping into lives and beds and then leaving - unsatisfied, unfulfilled, ravenous. Ethel believes that having Tedi by her side to tell her what to do is the solution of her desperate hunger. However, she finds what she needs in an unexpected place - Kosta.

What makes Acts of Love so disturbing, so influential, so provoking, is most probably the nature of its main characters. Neither of them is a saint. Kosta is dogmatic and conservative; he never listens to anyone else's opinion and he demands obedience and perfection. Ethel is absolutely different. Her impulsiveness causes her to look for adventures to satisfy her appetite. Ethel becomes destructive for every man who ever crosses her way or her bed. Yet, reading about those two characters, I couldn't help but love them. They seemed so real, so natural, so authentic. Those are the people you see on the streets, this is the way they talk, interact, quarrel, love, and live. Nothing of the idealistic approach to love and relationships. We are closer to animals than we think. And we are creatures with a lot of flaws. Happiness is achieved if we manage not to overcome them, but to live with them.

Ethel and Kosta represent the clash of two opposite worlds. Their strong attraction and infatuation with each other is destructive for both. Ethel needs to be stopped. Kosta assumes this role. The ending is as disturbing as the rest of the novel. Kazan has this talent of not leaving you indifferent or calm. You will feel enraged, astonished, angewidert. You will want to strangle Kosta and Ethel and yet you will love them and admire them for being real.

I have to be honest. During the first half of the book I was rather disappointed. I didn't get it. I was so shocked that I blocked my mind and was almost ready to deem it unreadable. The second half though shaked me. I kept flipping the pages like a human possessed. I wanted the happy ending even though I knew it was impossible and it wasn't made for Kosta and Ethel. They were there to affect lives, to alter them, to show them a new direction, but never ever to be truly happy. This is just not the way the world functions. If you want a happy ending, you need to decide where you put "the end" of your story.