Catching Fire, the movie

Catching Fire book coverI liked the movie version of the first book in the The Hunger Games trilogy, (unlike many viewers) and I liked Catching Fire, the movie version of book #2, even more.

When a book or movie is wildly popular, I’m curious to know the reasons. I want to know how the creator birthed a story that inspires passion in so many people. The Hunger Games is epic, powerful, and true to our times, and in capable artistic hands it speaks to us whether the medium is the page or the screen. The Hunger Games books and the movies have become fused in my memory, and it is difficult for me to separate the two – it’s the story itself that stays with me.

Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is based, in part, on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which she read when she was eight years old. According to Wikipedia, in one version of the myth, the king of Crete demanded that every nine years seven Athenian girls and seven Athenian boys be sacrificed to the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Theseus volunteers to go in place of one of them and slays the Minotaur. (In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to go in place of her younger sister, Prim, and Peeta volunteers to replace Haymitch.)

In interviews, Suzanne has said she was intrigued by reality TV shows that feature ordinary people viewers can relate to trying to prevail in impossible situations; she has also noticed our voyeuristic desire to watch others in their most private, vulnerable, and humiliating moments. Flipping through TV channels one evening, Suzanne was struck by news footage from the Iraq war on one channel and “Survivor” competitors on another channel. A former writer of children’s television programming, Collins has spoken in interviews about how viewers become desensitized to real-world violence if they are continuously exposed to the entertainment violence of modern media.

Probably most formative of Suzanne’s artistic vision was the fact that when she was six years old, her father served as a military advisor in Vietnam. News footage on TV of the death and destruction in Vietnam confused and frightened her. After the war, when her family was living in Europe, Suzanne’s father often took them on tours of famous World War I and World War II battlefields, where he taught them about military strategy and history.

Although she’s been criticized for depicting children killing children, Suzanne is not an advocate of violence or war. Katniss, Peeta, and many of the others in The Hunger Games clearly suffer the post-traumatic effects of war, oppression and deprivation. In my mind, they echo the child soldiers and the children who are victims of bombings and other atrocities we see often in the news.  Several stories about The Hunger Games in the media have highlighted the irony of the fact that Suzanne lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. I wonder if that experience will result in another powerful and timely story.

For me, iconic images from Catching Fire include the silhouettes at sunset of Katniss, Peeta, and a dying tribute who has just sacrificed her life for Peeta; the citizens of Rue’s District 11 giving the three-fingered salute; and, in one of the closing scenes, a riveting shot of Katniss that embodies the essence of sacrifice.

I’ve been especially moved by these characters: Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and how he takes a stand with his art; Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and his flawed strength; Eppie (Elizabeth Banks) and her transformation; the growing strength of Prim (Willow Shields); the fire and directness of Johanna Mason (Jena Malone); and the depth of feeling and loyalty of the deceptively shallow Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin).

Year of the Jungle book coverRecently, Suzanne Collins published Year of the Jungle, a picture book about a child whose father goes off to war.

Have you seen Catching Fire? What do you think of the movie and/or or the book? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

One small fact

The Book Thief Book CoverHERE IS A SMALL FACT

You are going to die.

….the grave diggers were rubbing their hands together and whining about the snow and the current digging conditions. “So hard to get through all the ice,” and so forth. One of them couldn’t have been more than fourteen. An apprentice. When he walked away, after a dozen paces, a black book fell innocuously from his coat pocket without his knowledge.”   The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Catching Fire book cover

“If it were up to me, I would try to forget the Hunger Games entirely.”  Katniss Everdeen

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

I’ll be at the movies this month watching two visions of apocalypse. One really happened. The other – well, take a world of haves and have-nots to the extreme, and maybe that’s where we’re headed.

I love watching my favorite books on the screen, as long as it’s done well. If you’ve read these young adult books that obsess grown-ups, too, and/or see the movies, stop by Books Can Save a Life and tell us your thoughts. Why do you think these end-of-the-world stories are so popular? I’ll revisit this soon, once I’ve seen the movies.

Joyce Maynard, Elizabeth Gilbert, George Saunders coming up

Been away for a bit while designer Nicole Bateman of The Pixel Boutique gives Books Can Save a Life a fresh, new look. (Thank you, Nicole!) But I’ve been reading, as always, and here’s what’s coming up:

After Her book coverAfter HerJoyce Maynard’s latest novel. Joyce has written several novels as well as the memoir, At Home in the World. After Her is loosely based on the true story of a serial killer who terrorized Northern California in the late 1970s.

Tenth of December – I don’t usually read short stories, but I’d heard so many wonderful things about George Saunders I had to pick up a copy of his latest collection when I saw it on our public library’s “Most Wanted” shelf. Besides, he teaches a stone’s throw away at Syracuse University – he’s someone I should know about.

Sons of MadnessI’ve written about Susan Nathiel’s excellent Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Mother, a collection of interviews with adult women. Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Parent is a companion volume.

The Art of the Commonplace – I’ve always wanted to know what Wendell Berry is all about, so I’m reading his collection of agrarian essays.

Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has been made into a movie and will be released November 22. I wrote about the first movie and book here, so I just have to check out the next installment.

The Signature of All Things book coverAnd last but not least, I can’t wait to dip into Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things. Beautiful book jacket and end papers. The epigraph: “What life is, we know not. What life does, we know well.”  Lord Perceval

I’ll be back with a closer look at all of these.

First anniversary book giveaway

What one loves in childhood stays in the heart forever.   Mary Jo Putney

Snow-covered trees
After the storm.


Books Can Save a Life is a year old this month.

I’ve grown so fond of it here and of you who visit and comment. Meeting people from all over and re-connecting with friends and distant family  –  I never expected that.

Not to mention the beautifully conceived and produced blogs about books, writing, food, nature, gardening, travel, creativity, and other topics I’ve discovered, and the artistic geniuses behind them.

Books Can Save a Life is a lot like my backyard retreat, where I sit by our homemade pond after I walk or run. I always look forward to visiting Books to set down my thoughts and see who has stopped by.

To celebrate a year of Books, I’m having a book giveaway. By the end of February, leave a comment about a book you’re reading. a book you want to read, a book that’s becoming a movie, a book memory, or anything at all to do with reading, and I’ll put your name in a hat. (Actually, I use a rice bowl.) If I draw your name I’ll send you the book of your choice. If you can’t decide on a book, I’ll surprise you.

You might have noticed I’ve redecorated, too. I’ve chosen a new design theme in honor of the coming year and to signify a more expansive focus on topics beyond books. There’s so much I want to write about.

But you’ll still find plenty of books here.

Your comments and guest posts are what I absolutely love about this blog. Many of you spoke of books from your childhood that years later still evoke memories of family and loved ones, places you’ve been, and particular times in your lives. I think sometimes the very story or book we need comes along, or  somehow we’re led to find it.

Here are a a few comments from readers of Books this past year. Please keep them coming.

I can’t imagine my room without my personal bookcase, or a world without books. (Giuseppe)

It’s hard to put yourself in their places [The Hunger Games], living their lives and going through what they do daily in their “world,” but that’s what’s so great about books, they take you to different places and times through the amazing imagination of the authors. (Diana)

I find many so called adult novels pretentious. I want a story. I return, often, to what is classified as young adult literature, mostly because these are stories of life. Stories – in the true sense of the word. And, I can’t help but say that, years ago, I was saying to people, “Have you read the Harry Potter book?” And everyone said no. Then came that glorious day on the L in Chicago, traveling home from work, and I saw not one, not two, but six adults reading the book. I wanted to laugh out loud at the thought of those six people entering into another world…. (Donna)

Agatha Christie wrote a story without heroes; to me, that was heroic honesty.  Conversely, the inevitability of justice satisfied me. For all my contempt for two-faced authority, I still relished the idea of wrongdoers punished by divine oversight.  My sense of my own weakness as a child needed that reassurance. (Doug)

Cooking from Moosewood, even with its imperfections, was utopian. Funny how small, utopian practices can make you feel, despite the deepest contradictions, that summer is everlasting and life is good. (Judith)

….even the smallest person can step away from comfort and into challenge, that change is possible on scales small and large, that our efforts and intentions matter. The story reinforced for me that there are things in this world worth protecting–fellowship and love, food and conversation, adventure and courage, songs and stories. These are the things that sustain us when life is difficult, when we are hurt or afraid and have to be so much braver than we feel. (Adrienne)

Snow-covered bench

She read The Lord of the Rings and said what you’re not supposed to say to get the job

…everyone deserves these chances, moments when something pierces the everyday and points a path toward health and wholeness, toward growth and adventure and change.   – Adrienne Furness

In February, when we began talking about The Hunger Games (the book and the movie), I asked readers to share books that affected them in a profound way when they were growing up.

A couple of people said The Lord of the Rings trilogy had been an unforgettable and transformative reading experience. I considered writing about J. R. Tolkien’s trilogy on Books Can Save a Life, but I knew I couldn’t do his books justice. I’d read Tolkien when I was young, but for whatever reason his fantasy novels didn’t speak to me in the way they have to countless other readers.

Then the other day I visited a favorite blog, What Adrienne Thinks About That, authored by a librarian friend, Adrienne Furness. Adrienne is a superb librarian and a superb writer. Anyone, child or adult, who walks into her library is very lucky indeed. She has just become director of the Henrietta Public Library, and there’s a story behind how that came about.

Adrienne graciously agreed to let me re-post her story:

When I went on my interview, the hiring committee asked me why I became a librarian. For many years now, people who give advice on these matters have been telling librarians not to answer this question, “Because I love to read.”

But I answered this question the same way I’ve answered it in every single job interview I’ve ever gone on. I told the truth.

I became a librarian because I love to read.

The Fellowship of the RingI tell this story often because it was a moment that’s defined my life: I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time when I was in the fifth grade. I got to the end and was overwhelmed by the sadness of the story being over, and so I got my copy of The Fellowship of the Ring and read the whole trilogy again.

I’ve reread the series more times than I can count. My love for these books has nothing to do with elves or magic or swords, although those things are all fine, as far as I’m concerned. What makes me return to this story again and again, though, is the notion of life as a quest. My fifth grade self couldn’t have articulated what she found in those books, but I know now that I needed to see that even the smallest person can step away from comfort and into challenge, that change is possible on scales small and large, that our efforts and intentions matter. The story reinforced for me that there are things in this world worth protecting–fellowship and love, food and conversation, adventure and courage, songs and stories. These are the things that sustain us when life is difficult, when we are hurt or afraid and have to be so much braver than we feel.

These books told me to find people who value the things I do and to treasure them, because they are essential. That’s a lesson that led me from fifth grade straight to this moment when I’m sitting here writing this to you.

I’ll never know how many lives have changed because of a book I made sure was on the shelf or something I helped someone find, but I’ll spend my last couple weeks at WPL watching children check out stacks of books, knowing that some of them will find something that will still matter to them when they’re adults trying to figure out this world that defies understanding.

I became a librarian because everyone deserves these chances,  moments when something pierces the everyday and points a path toward health and wholeness, toward growth and adventure and change.

I believe we all get to write our own stories. When I was in fifth grade, I decided my story was going to be a little epic.

I like the way that’s working out so far.

About Adrienne

Henrietta Public Library’s newly appointed director, Adrienne Furness, was formerly head of the Children’s Department at the Webster Public Library in Webster, NY, where she managed over $100,000 in grants focused on providing better services to homeschoolers in Monroe County, expanding the reach of storytimes and other literature-based programs, and creating a space for tweens in the Children’s Room.

Adrienne is the author of Helping Homeschoolers in the Library, ALA Editions, 2008. She has taught library staff all over the country about working with homeschoolers, and has published articles in Library Journal, School Library Journal, Public Libraries, Children and Libraries, and AudioFile Magazine.

Share your book stories

If you’d like to share a story about a book that is special to you, send an email to valoriegracehallinan[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line: My Book Story. Please include a post of about 500 words or less in the body of the email or an idea/book you’re interested in writing about.

Don’t tell Joel Stein I like The Hunger Games

I was taken aback when I read Joel Stein’s essay in The New York Times, “Adults Should Read Adult Books.” He writes that the only thing more embarrassing than seeing an adult looking at pornography on his computer is catching him reading The Hunger Games.

How dare a grown-up read a “children’s book” in public! The least he can do is read it in the privacy of his own home!

Not that Stein has actually read The Hunger Games, mind you. This Stanford-educated guy doesn’t read “children’s books,” and he’s making no exception in this case, at least not until he’s read his way through the 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

Let’s hope that will keep him so busy he won’t have time to write more inane essays.

It’s not clear to me if Stein actually believes what he’s written or if he’s trying to be provocative. It’s also not clear to me why an essay of this sort deserves to be in The New York Times unless, like many newspapers, they’re desperate for readers and looking to generate plenty of buzz.

I see nothing insightful about Stein’s comments, no fine sensibility or subtlety of thought, though Stein expects as much from adult literature. “Children’s books,” just aren’t up to the challenge of satisfying discriminating grown-up readers. (Stein appears to be unaware of the genre of Young Adult literature, or perhaps discounts it as bogus.)

Stein’s viewpoint (if it is genuine) surprises me because it demands that literature adhere to strictly defined boundaries when, in fact, its boundaries are shifting dramatically in terms of physical form, delivery, and content. That is something to be celebrated.

Hundreds of readers did, indeed, respond to Stein’s viewpoint, most of them defending the value of children’s and YA literature for everyone, young and old.  The other essays in “The Power of Young Adult Fiction,” written by a teen blogger, a librarian, a book reviewer, and three authors, are worth reading.

It seems as though extreme or obnoxious or edgy, in the manner of Stein’s essay, is now the way to rise above the crowd and be heard. Which brings me to the movie, The Hunger Games.

As violent and dramatic as the plot is, I found the style and tone of the movie to be understated. That, in my view, made it all the more powerful. One critic found Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) to be detached, but I felt that, without carrying on or becoming hysterical, Lawrence radiated terror, courage, and determination. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) delivered equally strong performances without going over the top.

The blood and gore were mostly offstage, which disappointed some, but I thought it kept the focus on the psychological terror (and made the movie palatable for younger audiences).

John Garder said that in great fiction the writer creates the illusion of a dream world. The reader enters that dream, but with just one false or inauthentic moment the dream vanishes and the connection to the reader is lost. I easily entered The Hunger Games dream and didn’t leave until (reluctantly) the closing credits.

Joel Stein doesn’t know what he’s missing.

Let’s Talk about Hunger Games, the movie

“So what happens when we go back?”

“We try to forget.”

“I don’t want to forget.”

I read a review of The Hunger Games last night after I got home from the theater.

Sometimes I wonder if the critics and I are watching the same movie.

I’d rather hear what you think.

Let’s talk about The Hunger Games movie. Leave your comments below. Who wants to go first?

Reading in another dimension

I remember the book, which I think of as my Hunger Games book, and I remember the reading of it. Where I was (in my bedroom, my favorite place to read), how old I was (ten), and how I started reading as soon as I got home from school and didn’t stop until I reached the end sometime after dark.

A wrinkle in timeIn A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Meg Murry wore glasses like me (she had a habit of pushing them up on her nose, just like me) and braces, (me too) and her hair never looked quite right (me too, again). She was a social misfit in danger of being held back a grade in school. I could slip easily into Meg’s skin; even though I had plenty of friends and good grades, I felt I could lose my tenuous social standing in a flash if anyone found out about my strange mother who, around that time, had succumbed to mental illness.

It was as if the book had been written just for me. As if, somehow, L’Engle had looked into my soul and put all of its good parts and bad parts right there on the page. I felt recognized for what I was.  Understood. Authenticated.

Meg’s family was like no other family I’d ever heard of. Her mother, Katherine Murry, was the mother I wanted: a beautiful, brilliant scientist who ran experiments in the kitchen pantry. There weren’t many scientist moms in 1965 Cleveland, Ohio, and Mrs. Murry’s brand of strangeness was the kind I could live with. (She won the Nobel Prize in a later book by L’Engle, but always had home-made cookies waiting for Meg and her younger, genius brother, Charles Wallace, when they came home from school.) Meg’s Princeton educated father worked at Cape Canaveral and had been away for a long time on a secret mission. The gossip was that he’d abandoned his family.

Meg’s friend, Calvin O’Keefe, was a revelation to me, too. He made it clear you could be from an unhappy family and still be your own strong, separate self. He was kind, popular in school, and a talented basketball player (yes, way too good to be believable) even though his mother had missing teeth, wispy, gray hair, and paddled her children with wooden spoons.

Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are swept away to another dimension to search for Meg’s father and fight a great evil. I was swept away with them. This was new territory for me. I didn’t typically read fantasy or science fiction and I’d never encountered such odd, mesmerizing characters. L’Engle based the sci-fi elements of her story on Einstein’s theory of relativity, and I had always been fascinated by outer space and its mysteries. Yet, for all of its science, A Wrinkle in Time is infused with spirituality, too, and though I couldn’t have verbalized it back then, that fusion of science and spirituality rang true for me.  And while L’Engle invoked Christian themes I could relate to, she gave equal time to the Buddha, Gandhi, and the great artists. This was a viewpoint I hadn’t considered before.

A Wrinkle in Time, for me, was an escape from unhappiness, a preview, in Katherine Murry, of what a strong woman could be, and a glimpse of a different, more complex world than my own familiar one.

Many years later, I met Madeleine L’Engle when she spoke at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, where she was the librarian and writer in residence. We shared a neighborhood, those blocks clustered around the massive Episcopal cathedral. As she spoke about her life and her beliefs, I recognized the themes I’d encountered in her fiction: a passionate spirituality inseparable from a reverence and respect for the laws and mysteries of the cosmos.

When I was doing research for this post, I discovered that this year is the 50th anniversary of A Wrinkle in Time. When it was published half a century ago, it won the Newbery Medal. Yet, because it combines fantasy with an inclusive spirituality, (rather than an exclusively Christian one) A Wrinkle in Time is often on banned book lists in schools across the country.


Did you have a Hunger Games book when you were growing up? If so, tell us in the comments below.

Someone is always watching in The Hunger Games

“The greatest multiplex in the universe is in your mind, and the only ticket you need is a good, well-written novel.” Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I agree with Zafon. But still, I can’t wait for The Hunger Games movie. If it’s good, that will be partly because it’s based on a fantastic young adult novel.

On March 23, Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Primrose, Cinna, Rue and the rest of The Hunger Games’ characters will come to life on the big screen, as will the world of Panem, the futuristic North American country that emerged after climate change and war.

As YA literature goes, The Hunger Games is controversial. Every year in this harsh dystopia, twenty-four teenagers, two from each of the poor districts that serve the ruling Capitol district, are chosen in a “reaping” to fight to the death. The last contender alive wins.

These teens, some as young as twelve, kill each other on TV to entertain the Capitol citizens; their families get to watch them suffer and die.

A New York Times reviewer observed that the reality show motif adds complexity to the drama of alliances made and broken for the sake of survival. In this “double storytelling,” Katniss and Peeta must put on a good show because the audience favorites may win a share of mercy from the unseen game masters.

We, the readers, are privy to Katniss’ innermost thoughts and feelings, while we watch her present a false self to the cameras. She and Peeta form a bond that, for Katniss, may or may not be love. They play up their romance to captivate their viewers while they play out their “true” relationship under cover. Except, for all concerned, it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which.

And, in the end, they both know one of them will have to kill the other.

The Hunger Games is, in part, a nightmarish look at a culture of reality shows taken to an extreme.

It strikes me that young people are always “on.” They have never known life without incessant friending and following and posting. I’m ambivalent, to say the least, about the constant staging of oneself that’s necessary now if you don’t want to be completely out of the mainstream. 

In fact, it’s getting harder to deliberately choose privacy and anonymity. Recently, in a nearby town, over a dozen teen-age girls developed an illness with symptoms resembling Tourette Syndrome. Reporters and television cameras have besieged the town in an unrelenting media storm.  The story has gone viral.

It’s not just news. It has become our entertainment.

For peace of mind, some of the girls have given up social media altogether, at least for the time being.

Back to The Hunger Games –  there is still time to read or reread it before the movie comes out. My niece, a soon-to-become librarian, is a big fan of The Hunger Games.  She wears a mockingjay necklace (a mockingjay is a bird that symbolizes liberation from the evil Capitol) and knows everything there is to know about the upcoming movie. In fact, I found out about the movie when she posted the trailer online.

I saw it because I’m her friend on Facebook.

What was your Hunger Games book?

Did you have a Hunger Games book when you were growing up? A sci fi kind of book about a different world, that made you feel alive on every page? With a heroic character so real you could step inside his/her skin?

Tell us your Hunger Games book in the comments. I’ll tell you mine in my next post. Hint: It’s the 50th anniversary of this book’s publication.