The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When the name “Primrose Everdeen” is called out at the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister’s place as District 12’s female participant of the annual Hunger Games, a cruel punishment and system of oppression created by the government that rules the fictional country Panem. As heroic as Katniss’ act may sound, she is not portrayed as an idealized heroine. She is aggressive, selfish and always keeps her guard up, no matter what.

Collins creates a dystopia where Panem is what is left of North America after wars and natural disasters. Panem consists of twelve districts (the thirteenth district was allegedly destroyed years ago, in the old days of rebellion) and the Capitol, from which the entire nation is controlled. While most inhabitants of the districts live in poverty and starvation, the inhabitants of the Capitol enjoy life in luxury and exuberance. Every year the Hunger Games are arranged. A boy and girl of each district are sent to the arena, where they are forced to fight for their survival until only one of them is left alive.

I admit I was a bit sceptical towards The Hunger Games at first, due to the terrifying concept of the Hunger Games themselves. Twenty four children, some of them young adults, are thrown into an arena filled with weapons and deadly traps, where they are forced to kill each other, for the amusement of the shallow citizens of the Capitol. All of these young characters will have to perish and our main character will probably have to kill some of them. We get to know some of them closely, we come to care about them, and all of them will have to die in order for Katniss to live. I did not know how I could possibly like this story, but I was proven wrong. Even if the concept of the Hunger Games is filled with horror, the story was really worth reading. It is worth reading because of the horror of the Hunger Games.

The story is very dark and it’s subject matter is dealt with seriously. Perhaps some of the deaths in the arena are only brushed upon and dealt with quickly, but that is a result of the first-person perspective. Since Katniss is our narrator we only get her view of the battlefield. Due to this, we never know what threat awaits her around the corner, which adds to the thrill of the story. The story was a real page turner and made me want to read the sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn’t answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass.

At the beginning of the novel we wake up with the main characters of the story, a man and his son. We are in America, post-apocalyptical time, and I get the feeling that this would be in a not too distant future. The father and son travel along the Road on their way to the coast, a desperate attempt to survive the oncoming winter. Society has collapsed, all animal and plant life has died off and a constant downfall of ash covers the world in a gray dust. The sun cares little and does not show it’s face to those few unfortunate remaining on the surface of the earth. Eternal fires, forest fires and fires un-defined, fill the atmosphere with smoke, blocking out the sunlight.

No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put in your head are there forever, he said.

The boy wants to know if you forget some things. No comfort is found in the father’s answer. You forget the things you want to remember, and remember the things you want to forget. The man guides his son through this landscape, with only a shopping cart filled with their belongings to ease their way. Their struggle for survival is desperate, painful and realistic, given that you are able imagine a scenario such as the one McCarthy draws up in his novel. The man and the boy gets by on canned food, but they are constantly starving. Other survivors have given in to more animalistic ways of survival, by resorting to cannibalism. Strangers are the biggest threat in the novel. Other survivors and starvation. Eat, or get eaten. Kill, or get killed. Most seem to live by those rules in the new world and the father and son encounter several man eaters along the way, commonly described as “the bad guys”. The description of the first bad guy we meet is haunting. “Eyes collared in cups of grime and deeply sunk. Like an animal inside a skull looking out the eyeholes.”

Man is an animal like others, a comparison that McCarthy comes back to at several points in the novel. The man and the boy hide like scared foxes in a forest clearing, beating hearts and racing pulses. McCarthy manages to do what great science fiction should do – he makes the reader feel like an insect. Reading The Road makes me understand how infinitely small we truly are. Solitary ants working our way through the grass, part of an eco system that is as fragile and unstable as it is changeable.

And then the poetry of the text. The poetic beauty amidst all the horror and despair. “Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.”

The outer journey tells how a man brings his son through the inland to the coast. The inner journey shows how a father comes to terms with the thought of leaving his child, the only thing anchoring him to earthly life, and how he fights to give the boy the best chance of survival possible. The man clings on to life with sheer force of will, in a body that is completely broken, with a soul sick with longing, wanting to loose itself in the forbidden memories of a world long gone. And while the novel tells how the father struggles to save his son, we also see how the boy tries to save his father. Especially one scene in the book stayed with me, when the man and the boy has argued over an incident on the road, and the father tells the boy that he is not the one who has to worry about everything. The boy is convinced that he is. In his view, he is the one who has to worry about everything.

The Road was a very powerful reading experience. Sometimes a book comes along where the story sticks with you, so even when you’re not reading it you’re thinking about it. I could not let go of this story. If I wasn’t reading actively I would think of the man and boy, wandering through that gray, ruined world. While on a walk through a forest nearby the impressions from The Road crawled up on me, transforming the fur trees and pine trees into burned out skeletons, and I could see the world through McCarthy’s filter, where ash falls like snow over a doomed world that is burning, burning, burning. The story was with me all the time. The horror of it all was always at the back of my mind, and it still is, if I let myself feel it. The novel touches upon a sensitive part in our hearts. What if the world ended, and you were left, and you were about to loose the one thing you valued most. What would you do? And if you stood there, in the ruins of the only world you’ve ever known, stripped bare, with your heart of hearts at your side,  could you do what was necessary to keep that heart intact? McCarthy forces us to ponder these questions.

On the road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world. Query: How does the never to be differ from the never was?

I saw the movie before I read the book. The movie did leave a strong impact on me, but it did not capture the same depth of horror and despair as the novel does. Every last word imprinted in one’s soul while reading, sending shudders through one’s body. The darkness. The ashes. The regression to predator mentality. The broken shards of civilization. The long rattle of mankinds’ last breath.

The boy asks his father again and again if they are still the good guys. And the father reassures him that they are. Because they’re carrying the fire.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Psychologist Kelvin arrives at the station on Solaris to investigate the death of one of the three scientists currently manning the station. Solaris is a planet revolving around two suns, one blue and one red. Kelvin is immediately thrown into conflict with Snaut, the first character he meets. Older scientist Snaut, who has been on Solaris for some time, is behaving oddly, acting crazy. But things are not always as they appear. Within hours, even the sensible Kelvin can’t separate what is real from what is unreal, he experiences hallucinations so life like that he can touch them. Strange things are happening at the station. How did Gibarian die? And why did he leave coded messages for Kelvin to find?

The planet itself is an important character in the story. Contrary to belief, life can exist on a planet revolving around double suns, and on Solaris life takes the shape of a vast, biological ocean. Scientists agree that the ocean is a sentinent being, with the strange ability to affect the planet’s orbit around the suns. We are introduced to this being through the windows of the station and through the literature Kelvin recounts during the course of the story. It’s ever-changing hues and it’s strange manifestations are described with detail. Throughout the novel, I struggled to get a grip of this creature, and Lem kept me guessing up to the very end. The ocean looms around the station as a malevolent guardian, heavy and intense. Lem creates the feeling of being on board of a ship that is just about to sink, it’s crew members watching the over-powering ocean pushing against the sheaths of glass in the port holes. The heat of the double suns contributes to the tense mood and shifts in the lighting is used to create different feelings.  As warm red brightness is contrasted with cold blue and white shimmers, the characters are affected emotionally.

The mood is menacing and threatening from the first moment Kelvin lands on Solaris. Lem’s language is swift and full of movement, he pulls the reader through the story. Once and again, however, the story stalls and the text is weighed down by very scientific elements, such as re-tellings of the history of mankind’s research on Solaris. So the basic story of the novel, the exciting mystery to be solved, is balanced with a slow-paced story about the discovery of Solaris and the years leading up to the story’s present.

Solaris is a story about the First Contact and mankind’s attempt to communicate with an alien species. While the characters dissolve mentally under the influence of the ocean on Solaris, they analyse the ocean’s every act in order to find a message, to understand it’s purpose. But how will the human scientists ever be able to understand the intentions of a vast ocean of plasma? Kelvin goes to Solaris to investigate Gibarian’s death, but is caught in a dilemma of his own. He is forced to dig up his darkest and most painful memories, in order to save himself and his colleagues. In order to understand Solaris, he needs to understand himself.

This was a haunting, but fascinating story. Filled with elements of wonder and surprise, of fear and discomfort, of beauty and awe.

 

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

There are stories that are true, in which each individual’s tale is unique and tragic, and the worst of the tragedy is that we have heard it before, and we cannot allow ourselves to feel it too deeply. We build a shell around it like an oyster dealing with a painful particle of grit, coating it with smooth pearl layers in order to cope.

From American Gods.

There is just something about Gaiman’s stories that lingers with you. Not all of them leave as deep a stamp as American Gods does, but many of them do, and some of them touches upon the heart of hearts when it comes to truths about life, death, belief and love. In American Gods Gaiman serves up profound reflections about mankind and man’s relation to society, the world as a whole, the universe. Love, sex, dreams, violence, friendship, hate, fear.

In American Gods Gaiman tells the story of ex-convict Shadow, who is released from prison only to discover that the woman he loved and lost in a car accident had betrayed him, in the last moments of her life. Lost and rootless, Shadow accepts the offer to work as a handy-man, or body guard of sorts, for a man named Wednesday, whom he meets on an airplane. (Could this be a reference to Adams and his The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, where a certain Norse God appearing in this scene plays an important role? One can only speculate, probably a long shot.) Caught in the middle of a war between the Gods of Old and the newer deities, gods of Media, Highways and Computors, Shadow travels through America as Mr. Wednesday’s hired help, across a country that is a place of exitement and joy, of wonder and beauty, of decadence and filth. The America depicted in American Gods is as transient as it is eternal.

The novel is littered with lovable, fearful, terrible, beautiful, ugly and wonderful women. Beautiful portraits of the female characters, deities or not. Mothers, sisters, daughters, lovers. Gaiman deserves praise for his female portraits, they are as multi faceted as they are respectful.  Samantha Black Crow, the energetic, vivacious, brave and creative young woman who studies women’s history and casts in bronze and hitch-hikes fearlessly. The goddess Eostre, or Easter, who is the goddess of spring and dawn, of life and regeneration. Or Bast, the catlike egyptian godess who weighs the acts and hearts of men and women, against a feather, with Ibis and Anubis,  when they are condemned to their after lifes. And, perhaps the most moving portrait of all, the portrayal of Shadow’s wife Laura, who is one of the greatest heroes of the story despite the fact that she has comitted an unforgivable sin in cheating on her husband.

There is so much to be said about this novel. It’s scope is enormous. We touch upon mythology from all ages and from the different corners of the world. Interspersed with the chapters moving the story of Shadow forward are short scenes showing one or other fate of a deity. Some of these are haunting, others thrilling, all of them moving. American Gods is more than a novel. It’s a journey of the mind. It’s a feeling, at the root of your heart. It’s a truly magical reading experience.

 

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Guy Montag is a fireman, but in the fictional future of Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 a fireman is no longer what you expect. A fireman does not put out fires, he starts them. Whenever the alarm goes off, the firemen assemble and race to the scene of the crime, where they quench the thirst for knowledge, by burning books that have been condemned illegal. Firemen are now crime fighters. Owning books is now a crime. Our main character, Montag goes about his business burning books without any considerations. Only, lately his hands seem to have gathered a will of their own. There is something forbidden hidden in his apartment and consequently, something forbidden in his mind. Montag represses his feelings of doubt and discomfort, tries to go on leading his less than fulfilling life, until one day, when he meets someone who tilts his universe.

Clarisse McLellan is seventeen years old and, in her own words, crazy. According to the standards of the fictional future she lives in she deviates from the norm, since she takes time to think things over, to ponder, to wonder and stare in awe at leaves, at the sky, at people. The simple habit of conducting a meaningful conversation has become an oddity, something strange and dangerous. When Clarisse and Montag first meet, he is scared senseless by her unusual ways, but slowly his mind starts waking to the reality surrounding him, and he realises that it’s not Clarisse who is crazy, it’s society.

Why burn books? They are dangerous of course, since they demand time, concentration and thought, something that the society in Fahrenheit 451 does not allow. Every second of the day, the citizens of Bradbury’s society are bombarded with commercial and mindnumbing information, streaming constantly through television walls and screens, on billboards, through radio. Montag’s wife is the perfect example of a mindless citizen, watching their television walls all day, listening to radio all night;

“And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind.”

The constant noise from the walls, screens and radios drown out any form of higher thought, which is also the purpose, and everything seems to move at an insane speed. Drowned in the stream of meaningless noise, feelings and thoughts are reduced to the simplest of forms. But the perpetual machine of motion and noice must be kept up, lest someone stops to smelll the flowers again. Once Montag starts questioning his place in society, finding that he no longer fits it, time almost grinds to a halt. It feels like watching a roaring fire freeze in motion.

Fahrenheit 451 is a very interesting and thought provoking reading experience. Frightening to say, but there are many things to recognize in today’s society, comparabale to that fictional one of Bradbury. Our television sets roar at us, commercials call to our attention from our radios, computor screens flash at us. We are all part of a society built on the accessibility of information, and information is accessible at all times. This is a good thing, in many ways, but sometimes there is so much information to sift through that it all just becomes white noise. And how do we know that the information we get our hands on is true, un-corrupted and reliable? Luckily we can turn off our televisions, our radios, our computors.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams is probably most widely known for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but he has also written a humoristic detective novel with roots in the fantasy genre. The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (best title ever?) is the second novel starring private detective Dirk Gently in a leading role (the first novel is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which I have not read). The novel has strong influences of norse mythology, with gods Thor and Odin making cameo appearances.

The book opens with the narrator’s thoughts on airports and their inherent ugliness, but soon moves focus to Kate Schecther, the key character in the first scene, who is standing in line at Heathrow. Adams goes on to reveal Schechter’s motifs and reasons for being at said ugly airport, we get a glimpse of her background and Adams swiftly gives us an idea of what type of a person she is. We are informed that she is not really superstitious, but at present time she is doubting whether the Universe is trying to tell her that she should not go to Norway (where she is heading), and we also understand that she is acctually going to Norway in order to meet a man of dubious morale. Schechter has lived in several different places during her life, a restless soul, and she lost her husband five years ago. This terrible loss is just touched upon briefly, mentioned before the narrator moves on to the subject of pizza, and the lack of home deliveries thereof in the U.K., as if the narrator as well as Schetcher prefer not to think of the lost love.

After that, the crazy plot starts to unravel and it’s just a matter of leaning back and enjoying the ride. Expect the unexpected.

I was astounded by the great flow of the text as I read this book, the simplicity of Adams’ story-telling is truly captivating. Adams skillfully depicts the inner thoughts and musings of the different characters’ with humour and clarity, without stalling the action too much, at the same time as he anchors the characters and the plot to their surroundings. Tedious, normal people mingle with gods and supernatural beings, the real places are intertwined with the places that are not, myth becomes reality.

 

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world’s only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch is a story about the last days leading up to the Apocalypse. The story is told from several different P.O.V.’s, in shorter and longer scenes, eventually sewn together neatly at the end. Starring: meek-hearted angels and slick demons, wonderful witches and demented witchhunters, wise children and their unknowing parents, satanic nuns and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Before I got to know all the unique characters the reading experience was a bit scattered and fragmented, but once all the relationships and motives were established, everything was crystal clear.

It is a true accomplishment to write a funny story about such an ominous and depressing topic as the End of the World. The sophisticated and witty tone (slightly sardonic a times) of the story, the clashes and interactions between the characters and the silly foot notes all contribute to the hilariuosness of the novel. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something truly aweinspiring and magical about the combined writing forces of Gaiman and Pratchett;

Just because it’s a mild night doesn’t mean that dark forces aren’t abroad. They’re abroad all the time. They’re everywhere.

     They always are. That’s the whole point.

     Two of them lurked in the ruined graveyard. Two shadowy figures, one hunched and squat, the other lean and menacing, both of them Olympic-grade lurkers. If Bruce Springsteen had ever recorded “Born to Lurk”, these two would have been on the album cover.

I’ve read it twice, this far (once in Swedish and more recently in English) and I know I’ll read it again. It’s that type of story, that you want to return to over and over again, to re-discover the characters and parts you loved immediately, and to discover parts you didn’t notice the first time around.