In Between: The Hunger Games

I took a short break from the classics to indulge in a new series, I really like to read book series. When I was younger I read the Mossflower series by Brian Jaques and eventually my reading life changed when I was introduced to Harry Potter. I picked up the series late, starting The Philosophers/Sorcerers Stone when Prisoner of Azkaban was released but was enchanted with J.K Rowlings creation from the first few pages. I also loved the more adult but equally as addicting Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo et.al.) featuring characters that are so astonishingly difficult to like at times, but at others simply amazing. I was then directed by many people to The Hunger Games, again arriving late to the scene but becoming fully engrossed once I did.

Suzanne Collins paints an astonishing dystopian society and a strong cautionary tale of what could be (only ratcheted up to the nth degree). I really took away a warning of how senseless we can be sometimes with so much infighting and labeling that I just had to ask myself, why can’t we all get along? Do we actually live in a society that isn’t much different that Panem just without The Games? And the answer is not quite, we’re not Panem but we aren’t so United right now as we should be.

While this isn’t on my list I felt compelled to share and recommend these books as I can see them becoming young adult classics in the future. I can understand why schools have banned them, between Rue receiving a spear through her stomach or the concept of Katniss faking a relationship with Peeta for gain, but on the other hand it’s no more brutal than what we read about in history lessons at the same age. I really enjoy how the book plays on other elements from stories of the past, I can almost see The Gamemakers viewing themselves as gods in Homer’s epic Iliad practicing divine intervention while these kids were battling to the death in the arena. I also really enjoyed the similarities between Katniss and Theseus, the prince who volunteered to go “as tribute” with the suns of Athens to Crete and be sacrificed to the Minotaur.

Collin’s trilogy really picks up in the second book Catching Fire where there are twists you never see coming. Between the Quarter Quell’s theme of returning champions, to the alliances made by Katniss and Peeta as well as their mentor Haymitch Catching Fire is a forward driving, page turning thrill. The second book really is a table setter for the crescendo that is Mockingjay, the third book. Katniss embodies the Mockingjay (a mutation created in the first war against the Capitol that began the Hunger Games) but Collins never really lets you completely fall in love with her main character.

Katniss has her flaws, she is as delicate as a cactus at times and often has an impenetrable wall up, but ultimately is driven to do what’s best. She is very conflicted throughout the books and is never told the whole story of anything that is going on, making you wonder who the real bad guys are. The love story takes some gut wrenching turns where you swear things between Katniss and Peeeta can never work or Gabe will swoop in and steal her heart.

Overall the Hunger Games Trilogy is a fantastic read that transcends ages. It’s target audience is a bit younger than I am but that doesn’t mean it loses any appeal. Much like the Harry Potter novels or the Shrek series of movies the books can and do appeal to all age groups. They’re as brutal as the Roman Coliseum, weave in a great love story, and if you stop and think it bears a strong message. Collins will not be mistaken for a master of prose with the Hunger Games books, but nobody can deny her wild creativity and breathtaking imagination and for that I can really call the Hunger Games an instant classic. (Plus I can’t wait for the movies, hope they do better representing the book than the Harry Potter series.) 

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Book Two: Crime and Punishment

My second book I tackled was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment. Most everyone has at least heard of Crime and Punishment and many have the view that it is some old Russian book that looks good sitting on your bookshelf. Plus when you tell people you’re reading it people quickly assume you’re an intellectual, or I like to think so and didn’t mind that stigma even if it isn’t really true. I’m here to say it’s more than just a bookshelf ornament and really can be enjoyed by anybody.

Don’t get me wrong this wasn’t my favorite book, and I didn’t love it but I really was able to appreciate a lot of aspects of it even if I was bored during chunks due to a lack of “action.”  Maybe it was because I read this after reading Dumas’ Three Musketeers which was filled with swashbuckling action but there were periods of the book when I was just craving more of what happened in the first 80 pages.

The book starts with Raskolnikov avoiding his landlord who he owes months of rent and his travels through the poor city he lives in. In order to raise money to pay his rent Raskolnikov visits Alyona Ivanovna a pawn broker who represents the opposite of Raskolnikov. Whereas Raskolnikov is young, handsome, with little grasp on reality and is dead broke Ivanovna is old, ugly, alert, and practical. Their only similarity is how they present themselves through dress.

Raskolnikov visits a bar for the first time in his life and he begins to contemplate committing a crime. At first Dostoevsky doesn’t let you on to what the crime is but the longer Raskolnikov stays in the bar and becomes inebriated you get more information. You learn that it will involve the pawn broker and how Raskolnikov deals internally with the decision of the crime. Most would think it would be a moral decision but to Raskolnikov who has a Napoleonic concept to crime believing you can commit any crime so long as you as providing positively to society. Thus Raskolnikov’s dilemma is is over his desire to kill Ivanovna or the disgust of actually doing the physical deed.

As Dostoevsky leads us to the crime, Raskolnikov keeps seeing “signs” that he should commit the murder of the pawn broker. He gives money to the pathetic Marmaledov couple and rather than coming off as compassionate Raskolnikov boasts about it, he believes Lizaveta’s (the landlords daughter who lives with her)  absence from the apartment is a sign as well. In reality Raskolnikov is just explaining off his responsibility in the action. Because Raskolnikov has his Napoleonic superiority complex he believes the fates have aligned for him, but when he commits the murder and Lizaveta returns and Raskolnikov is forced to kill her it throws his rationale off. Raskolnikov has been holding on to the utilitarian belief that he is doing society a favor by killing Aloyna but the murder of Lizaveta is only to save himself and is anything but utilitarian.

Part II of the novel deals with Raskolnikov’s internal struggle to turn himself in and to remain free. He continues to try to tell himself he was acting for the greater good but episodes like fainting in the police station and burying the stolen goods from Aloyna’s apartment show just how conflicted he is. You are introduced to Razumikhin another opposite figure to Razkolnikov here as well. Razumikhin is kind, outgoing and loves life and often goes out of his way to take care of his ungrateful an aloof friend. The two friends share a similar situation, being poor students but Razumikhin would never contemplate taking the actions Raskolnikov did.

Raskolnikov continues to have internal battles, and the side of confessing begins to win out. While at the Crystal Palace and while at the scene of the crime Raskolnikov begins to clue in the authorities of his guilt. Raskolnikov is then compelled to assist the Marmaledovs again but while Razumikhin aids Razkolnikov through compassion Raskolnikov is motivated by an unrelenting sense of guilt.

In Part III Raskolnikov continues to spiral, treating his sister and his mother roughly. Raskolnikov begins to take on a split personality, one trying to protect his innocence and remain free and the other teetering on the edge of recklessness almost begging to be caught. The article Raskolnikov writes “On Crime” reveals his Napoleonic views on crime and how there are some people who are above others and who can commit crimes, even murder if they choose. You also see Razumikhin’s good natured personality in his disgust over the article. Raskolnikov’s nightmare begins to chip away at his self-designated superman notion and forces him to reevaluate his worth or lack there of.

In Part IV Raskolnikov has Sonya tell him the story of Lazarus from the Gospels that Lizaveta gave her. Although Raskolnikov claims to not believe in the story, where Jesus performed his greatest miracle on Earth by brining Lazarus back from the dead, it did affect him. Raskolnikov wishes he could be “resurrected” and start with a clean slate but the weight of the crime is taking its toll on him. Possibly motivated by the story, possibly overcome by the crushing weight of his guilt (or probably both) Raskolnikov has a new motivation to confesses. While at the police station Raskolnikov again changes his mind and is confident that Porfiry Petrovich who is interrogating him has no evidence, however Petrovich uses Raskolnikov’s general unease against him. By the end of Part IV Raskolnikov seems to have developed a renewed vigor to remain free and not to confess.

In Part V Raskolnikov confesses his crime to Sonya who was Lizaveta’s friend. Raskolnikov also promises to go to the police, and thus begins his path to a resolution to the guilt he feels for committing the murders. It also begins to show that Raskolnikov is beginning to not believe in his superman theory. The realization he is only human is a step towards confession and shows his realization how despicable his acts were. Though Raskolnikov is far from a full confession his breaking to Sonya and her giving of sympathy begins bringing Raskolnikov back to humanity.

In Part VI Petrovich begins to twist Raskolnikov’s psyche and lays an option of confession in front of him. Further into Part VI Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya is attacked by the complex character Svidrigailov who is cunning and calculating and represents a level of immorality that surpasses all others. The conflicting stories of his servant’s and wife’s deaths and his possible connection further complicates his character. Dunya defends herself by firing a revolver two times but neither with the intention to kill and after she placed the revolver down. This shows what matters is not whether the murder leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of people, but simply whether the individual with the gun can find it within him or herself to kill another human being. Dunya clearly cannot, which distinguishes her from Raskolnikov.

Reflecting on Svidrigailov’s suicide Raskolnikov believes suicide is below him; a vulgar act for common people, when in reality he lacks the strength to kill himself. Raskolnikov is then again compelled to confess but in order to build the strength to do so (even if it is unbeknownst to him) he visits Sonya. Sonya is the catalyst to Raskolnikov’s redemption and plays a key role in the novel. Raskolnikov ultimately confesses but Dostoevsky expertly builds suspense by having Raskolnikov walk out of the police station before he finally ends the internal torture in almost the last line.

In the epilogue we find out Raskolnikov’s punishment. The Epilogue takes on a different tone from the main body of the novel. It is more absolute and heavy handed than the rest of the novel as evidenced by the death of Raskolnikov’s mother, his love for Sonya, and his dream of a virus spreading throughout Europe. Where the main text was open-ended and left a lot for the reader to think about and interoperate the Epilogue does not. It is a blunt instrument. The Epilogue is used to finish the Lazarus-like reincarnation of Raskolnikov as he uses the New Testament to stay attached to humanity, reinforce his love for Sonya, and to tie up a theme that through faith and morality life is more enjoyable.

One thing I really liked about Crime and Punishment is that even though it was published in 1886 the themes throughout the novel of morality, internal struggles, and relationships with different people remain true today. The novel transcends the ages with themes that are not uniquely Russian,  European, or 1800’s but instead these themes can be applied today. I think every person can relate to Raskolnikov, while many haven’t committed a crime to the degree of murder, and our motives may not be as utilitarian or as self centered but many of us have broken the law or a rule and experienced the guilt that goes along with it. I can definitely see why this is a classic novel and even though I was turning pages thirsting for  more outright action Dostoevsky is a master of playing with the reader’s mind. This is more of a psychological thriller it helps knowing that going into reading it. It’s a heavy read and such a stark contrast to Dumas’ Muskateers, but definitely worth the read even though I don’t see myself picking it up again anytime soon.

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Book One: The Three Musketeers

The first book I chose, and these are in no specific order is Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. And like all the books I’m reading it was published by the Easton Press which is based out of Norwalk Connecticut. I chose the Three Musketeers because unlike many pieces of literature most everybody has heard of the Three Musketeers and probably know a little of the story, most likely gathered from one of the numerous film adaptations. Plus I felt it was appropriate to start with a book that has a candy bar named after it.

I really enjoyed The Three Musketeers a lot more than I expected myself to, and that’s saying a bit because I was looking forward to reading it. Dumas has a great sense of storytelling and really starts you off on the adventure with D’Artagnan right from the get go. His characters are not the most profoundly developed, most are one-dimensional, for example the main protagonist D’Artagnan is a hot headed youngster who aspires to join the Musketeers and is solely driven by his ambition. Nowhere in the book does he go through a real change in attitude, but thats because Duma’s didn’t really need to have him to. The plot makes up for everything.

After arriving in Paris, which was after a duel with an unknown man, D’Artagnan runs into and befriends the three musketeers who this novel is names after: Athos, Porthos and Aramis. They become friends after each challenged D’Artagnan to a duel, sense a theme here? The three original musketeers are fiercely loyal to the king, their friendship, all known vices, and their own personal ambition but not advancement in the military (which is basically their job as Musketeers). The three spend their days drinking heavily, gambling and chasing and/or lamenting over women while each mixing in their personal goals. Aramis wishes to become a priest and Porthos wishes to find a rich wife and marry into comfort.

Once we have met our four heros the novel take on two plots, the first of which involves the Cardinal trying to discredit the Queen. The Queen is an outsider who married into French royalty and that grinds the gears of the Cardinal who is the power behind the King’s throne. Through his network of spies he learns of the Queens extramarital affairs with the Duke Buckingham of England, a sworn enemy of France and that she gave her lover a set of twelve diamond tags. The Cardinal convinces the King to throw a ball then sends the evil Lady de Winter to steal two of the tags from the Duke to prove the affair. The Queen catches wind of the plot and sends D’Artagnan and the Musketeers to warn Buckingham and get the tags back. The Musketeers are injured along the way so D’Artagnan must go it alone, he arrives in England gets the tags (two must be replaced because Lady de Winter was successful in stealing two. Because she’s a villain she can’t steal them all she must leave the heroes with a way to be successful) returns them to the Queen and the King is none the wiser. This enrages the Cardinal and Lady de Winter and ends plot one.

Plot two begins when D’Artagnan sees Lady de Winter  (whom he doesn’t know is the tag stealer) in church and falls madly in love with her. He’s also in love with the Queen’s linenmaid and landlord’s wife Constance, a nice little love triangle brwing. After dueling and defeating her brother-in-law he spares his life, and in return he introduces Lady de Winter and D’Artagnan. While doing so Lady de Winter’s handmaiden Kitty falls in love with Dartagnan, now we’re cooking with gasoline. Soon through some questionable moral decisions D’Artagnan beds Lady de Winter while she thinks he’s the Count de Wardes who is Lady de Winter’s lover (it’s dark so she doesn’t know she’s sleeping with someone else). After being pleased so well she orders Wardes to kill D’Artagnan, which pisses D’Artagnan off. So to exact his revenge D’Artagnan forges a nasty letter from de Wardes to Lady de Winter. This insults Lady de Winter, so to keep her pride she orders D’Artagnan to kill de Wardes. D’Artagnan agrees only if she’ll sleep with him (again). After they bed he idiotically boasts that this wasn’t the first time they hooked up. Lady de Winter tries killing D’Artagnan there on the spot, but Kitty, who is still in love with D’Artagnan comes to his aid and he escapes. So begins a series of attempts on D’Artagnan’s life as well as Lady de Winter’s continued attempts on the Duke Buckingham’s life.

The Lady de Winter is my favorite character in the book because she is so damn bad, she reminds me of  Hannibal Lector. She’s noble, refined, elegant and behind it all just downright evil. She uses her bewitching good looks to seduce men to kill for her, or to ensnare them to be killed by her own hand. She’s like the train wreck you can’t stop watching, you know something awful is going to happen, you’re rooting for it to stop but you can’t take your eyes off of it when it doesn’t stop. I won’t go much more in detail so I don’t ruin the book for everyone but there’s a reason this book is a classic and still read today and Lady de Winter plays a major role in that.

As the end approaches it reminds me a little of Game of Thrones where people start getting killed left and right, and give you the “That really happens?!?” moment and the book turns from light hearted swashbuckling to a very bleak and dark end. Then D’Artagnan basically switches alliances from the King to the Cardinal after he and the Musketeers are arrested. They are all offered promotions in the guard by the Cardinal but as stated above the Three have ambitions that don’t include job advancement so they retire, but D’Artagnan jumps at it.

After reading the book I realized why this is such a classic. It really has everything: swashbuckling action, more romances than one can count and a villain that makes Lord Voldemort look like Charlie Brown. The book really lives up to it’s “classic” status and really should be read by all. There have been some great movie adaptations as well notably the 1973 version starring Raquel Welch and Oliver Read (which is the most true version to the book) and for the younger audience the Disney version (which has been heavily Disney-fied but is no less of a good time) starring Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Southerland, and Oliver Platt. This was a great start to my journey though the classics and I highly recommend it.

 

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