Monday, September 20, 2010

Mockingjay and Travels with Charley: Could Two Books Be More Different?

Travels with CharleySo what have I been doing this past week? Uh . . . not much writing, obviously. I'll give you two words: jam and jam. You'll hear more about that later--and you'll probably hear more about our extremely wonderful week later as news develops but suffice it to say that there was much rejoicing with all that jam and jam and unspecified, yet highly satisfying "good stuff" happening.

But besides all that I've been reading.

You see, I had my kids sign up for the summer reading program at the library and to be a good example I signed up for the adult summer program--giving them encouragement and all that. Well it turned out that I won a set of movie tickets during one of the weekly drawings and then I won the grand prize at the end of the program. The big mother prize! The big prize, that is, not the mother who won.

I was pretty excited to get that call and hear I'd won but then I had to laugh when I heard what I'd received: a gift basket from Kaladi Brothers, a local gourmet coffee shop. Heh. And me not drinking coffee. How ironic is that? But then, almost as a postscript I was told I'd also won a gift certificate to the local used bookstore for $100. WOOHOO! Now that's better than a basket full of coffee any day.

And actually, as fate would have it, the gift basket turned out to be nice too because I took it to our nice neighbors across the street who then offered me her week of veggies at the local vegetable co-op while they were on vacation (though they probably would have offered it even without the coffee). Kohlrabi for coffee, now that's a fine trade I'd say.

But the point is, I went down and grabbed a ton of books.

So today we're going to do an old-fashioned compare/contrast like you did in freshman English on two of my most recent reads: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck.

MockingjayI read Mockingjay (the final installment of the Hunger Games trilogy) because of my daughter. She'd read the books and loved them and insisted that I read them too and as I've been a huge stinker about how much I absolutely HATE (yes, in caps--HATE) the Twilight series I thought that it would be a suitable olive branch to read this particular recommendation.

I've kept quiet here about my complete and total loathing of Twilight and will not get riled up now as we're not talking about that vapid (I love the word "vapid"--but not as much as I hate Twilight) set of books and Meyer should not be mentioned in the same post as Steinbeck but let the record show that I'm no friend to self-absorbed, horny vampires.

But I digress . . . see how it gets me going? Anyway, as I was saying . . . Grace wanted me to read Hunger Games and it wasn't too bad. I mean it was like watching any of a number of action flicks and kept my attention going for the whole of the plot and since I wanted to know what happened next (always a good thing in a story) I picked up the second book, Catching Fire, and read it too along with my daughter.

It was disappointing. Too many stories have interesting premises that eke out into oblivion as the teller can't figure out how to progress and it felt as if this one was weak and unoriginal. But still--what was going to happen? So out comes Mockingjay and Grace was rabid to find out how everything ended.

I finished it, but having previously read Travels with Charley the differences between the two books was staggering.

Reality Check
Travels with Charley is a travel memoir where Steinbeck takes his poodle and his truck to circle the length and breadth of our great country "in search of America." The book felt good in my hand--a quality paperback that had a thick, stiff cover and beautiful illustrations (by Don Freeman) and an artistic yet solid typeface (yes, I notice those kinds of things). I love the way a good paperback feels in your hands--the curve of the cover, the heft of the paper, the size of the layout--and this one felt as if it were built to last as much as a vintage Ford truck or a pair of Levis.

Mockingjay, on the other hand, is a post-apocalyptic novel. America is destroyed and not only is the theme far from looking for the good or for the truth in one's surroundings, the book is cynical in a cliche Hollywood, trust-no-one fashion that has been done to death. The words are spaced widely on the page as if screaming that it's padded to make you feel as if you're buying a bigger book than you really are and that's true on multiple levels.

Me, Myself and I
Steinbeck, while writing solely about himself and his travels (or maybe about his dog here and there) is far from self-absorbed and egotistical. He thinks and philosophizes and considers, but always in the context of the world around him. There is no navel gazing here, he is traveling and seeing the world with eyes that seek for beauty and depth and bring it to us in a very generous way.

Collins' main character, Katniss Everdeen (ever since Harry Potter characters must have Anglo-Saxon multi-syllabic names designed to evoke stereotypical character traits) spends most of the 200+ pages moaning about "me, me, me." Now I know she's only 17 so perhaps it's to be expected but still. Boy does it get tedious. Nothing works for her, nothing makes her happy, she supposedly loves her mother and sister to the laying down of everything else but yet her actions are completely contradictory to this bedrock character trait.

She's a bit of an anti-hero (if she can claim to be that complex, which one could certainly argue against) who uses people and has the same traits as action heroes everywhere: a complete inability to accept authority or obey rules. She is completely predictable, formulaic and flat--the embodiment of Laura Croft with a touch of Aeon Flux or Electra thrown in for variety. Or not. Sigh. It truly is, all about her and her angst and that gets tiresome.

Who Needs Literature Anyway?
Steinbeck (and I should warn you, I've been on a holy Steinbeck kick these last few months and I'm completely biased here) has a mastery of the English language that few can rival. It's really unfair to compare Collins to him but then who ever said I was fair? I read the book with a new, long pencil sporting a fine, sharp point, underlining passages I liked or found especially beautiful. There is not a page in the book that doesn't have at least one marking on it.

As an example, the opening sentence reads, "When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. . . .A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."

He writes about language, about politics, about trash, about food and about racism--and every word is crafted with ease and comfort so that you feel as if you're sitting with Steinbeck in the back of his camper over a cup, talking about his experiences. I wish I had my own talent enough to explain how beautiful it is.

Mockingjay, however, is written as most popular books are today--as a screenplay. It's plot-driven, explosive with violence and pathos, extreme in emotion and environment--all built around that most elusive of modern holy grails: our dwindling attention span. There is no depth of character, there is no reality or underlining humanity (no matter how desperately Collins tries to make us think, "There, but for the grace of God, go we") and no great conflict. Sure, the world is coming to an end but nowadays "conflict" merely means more bullets. And bullets there are aplenty. In fact, many scenes read like the script for the next Quentin Terrantino film with limbs being severed and flesh being melted in ever new and exotic ways but without any significant conflict--the kind that makes you care what happens to people and things.

Quite simply, this is a book written to entertain with action and violence (which it kind of does) without benefit of any other literary tool or unity. Fine. That's what the best-seller list has become and I'll accept that. Why rail against the inescapable? Go with the flow, that's what Steinbeck would have said. Though he would have said it much more eloquently.


Raejean said...

I haven't read either of the books you posted about (or the Twilight series either - I'm just not interested in Vampires). Your comments still ring true about literature in general. I read a lot of Young Adult books to know what my kiddos are reading and to keep up with their inside jokes.

The more I read, the more I notice good writing, not as intellectually as the things you pointed out. I notice things like the lack of vocabulary and description. The second time I read the Harry Potter books to my younger children I noticed how J.K. Rowling's writing improved from the first book to the 7th.

I enjoyed the Percy Jackson series because it was a fun read; it had a very conversational tone. Was it great literature? No, but it was a good story, told well. I also liked Two Princess of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine, but the very long descriptions of the settings slowed the book down to the point of being distracting to the story. Maybe I'm too much a part of pop literature to appreciate good literature!

Reno said...

Hunger Games was okay but Catching Fire was like reading Hunger Games again. And Mockingjay- I couldn't wait to finish it. Not because I was enjoying it. Because I wanted to be done with it.
I did read the Twilight Series and basically disliked every character and the whole plot so why did I waste my time? I'm not sure. I guess I enjoyed the feeling that I was going to throw up the whole time.
I did enjoy The Host by Meyer.

Scribbit said...

Raejean--I agree and I've said to Andrew that I think that Rowling had a great deal of creativity with the world she created. She wrote something that was unique in children's literature and made it fascinating--a valuable thing in a writer. However, I think her writing lacked depth. Vocabulary (how many times do characters "stretch their legs"??) and character development, literary tools such as allusion, alliteration, metaphor, etc are lacking and it's quite plot-driven. But did I like reading it? Absolutely. I think it's wrong to say that someone like that stinks as a writer just because their writing isn't Steinbeck quality, but then I do think it's important to identify what it is that they do well (i.e. plots). So many of the hoity-toity "intellectual" writers nowadays think plot is unnecessary and pride themselves on being obtuse. At least Rowlings can keep you reading.

Meyer? Not original, not fun to read, not a good writer. I have a harder time with that one.

liz said...

I love Travels With Charley and agree that Steinbeck was true literary master. I often feel so immersed in the setting while reading his books that I feel the place with all of my senses-- touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing... Maybe that's a cheesy thing to say, but it's Steinbeck makes me feel. With a smidge of his talent perhaps I could explain it better.

I haven't read the Hunger Games series. I read about them and decided they weren't for me. I have read the Twilight books and just loathed them, not that it stopped me from reading all four! Alas.

I agree that the plot of most books is now very similar to movie screenplays. Fortunately for us, the is plenty of good literature out there still, old and new. You just have to dig a bit.

Oh, and thanks for your book reviews. I've read several books you recommended and enjoyed all of them, especially _The Twentieth Wife_ and _A Geography of Time_. Keep 'em coming!

From Snowflakes To Hotcakes said...

I LOVED Travels with Charley. I even made notes in the margins, because... well... I'm a dork. I went through a Steinbeck kick a few years back. East of Eden was also incredible. I just saw Mockingjay at the library today, and thought, "Who would want to read that?" Good to know my initial opinion was probably right, having heard your synopsis. LOL My tiny town library doesn't have a very large collection, so my free options are limited, but even so, I had no desire to read that one. And I second your opinions on Twilight. Amen. :-)

The Library Lady said...

I am ROFTL because I loathe and despise "Twilight" to the point where I started a literary deconstruction of the book. I got distracted but need to go back and work on it again--though that will mean reading it again. Bleh.
My 15 year old daughter is luckily of a similar view. She has a shirt I got her that says "Team Go To College, Get A Hobby and Stop Basing Your Life Around A Man"

And I was so underwhelmed by "Hunger Games" that I didn't bother to read the others in the series. Then again, I didn't like her "Gregor the Overlander" series that much either.

On the other hand, I love Steinbeck. "East of Eden" is one of my all time favorite books.

"Twilight" and "Hunger Games" will fade away. On the other hand, "Harry Potter" will live a long long life because Rowling created characters who will find their way into children's (and adults) hearts no matter how times change.

Chrisbookarama said...

I did like the Hunger Games series but probably because it's not something I usually read. I do agree with you about Katniss though.

Carina said...

I've been debating whether or not I should try the "Hunger Games" trilogy. I've heard lots of good things from friends etc., but then these people loved Twilight too, and I knew for sure I didn't even want to try that one. So who knows. The general quality of literature is so abysmal these days as to make a book-lover lose hope.

Anonymous said...

Rowling kept her writing in line with the age that Harry & co. was at the point of the story. So the vocabulary and density of the story is lighter when Harry is 11, and then matures as he matures. Compare Sorcerer's Stone to Deathly Hollows. Deathly Hollows is definitely written at a 17-18 year old reading, writing, and vocabulary level.

My librarian friends enjoyed The Hunger Games, but they did emphasize that they're all in good fun, and not terribly lofty. All literature is so very subjective, I don't feel comfortable raining on any one's parade with the written word. Except for Twilight. That stuff is high fructose corny.

Patricia L said...

I did not think I'd like Hunger Games when my book club picked it last year. But I ate it up like candy! (Which is kind of what it is-- full of empty calories, but so oddly satisfying though it just gives some people a stomach ache). Anyway, my daughter loves the twilight series (as do a lot of my grown friends-- what is up with that???). I have tried to encourage her to read the Hunger Games series because the female character is much stronger. I couldn't even do the Twilight series. I've seen the movies to make sure their halfway appropriate for her to watch and I still don't get it. I see your points on the books though-- I'll have to look up Travels with Charley.

Amateur Steph said...

Call me a shallow plot-lover, but I loved the Hunger Games. Where Twilight was like eating cotton candy, the Hunger Games felt more meaty.
Katniss held such promise in the first book-- As a character she was growing and realizing that her focus of winning at all costs was a cost in itself. Her relationship with Peeta was a saving grace and I looked forward to reading more about the choices she made and how she grew into a young woman. I even liked the second book, but felt a little short-changed on character-building. Gale remained mysterious, her mom distant and Prim just an unknown little girl.
Then in Mockingjay, Katniss-puppet whines a lot.

The promise of the initial book--a strong girl growing and becoming a woman amidst great strife, was never carried out. So it was more tofu-y than meaty.

But I do disagree that the book was written to entertain with violence. I believe the trilogy comes across as a strong indictment of violence and the cost of war. And I do believe you could have some pretty great discussions about government, control, fear, human nature, and war based on the books. When I recommend them, however, I'll tell people to stick to the first two and leave their imagination for a better ending.

Mirien said...

Still haven't read the Hunger Games books, even though Alyssa tells me I should. I read Twilight when it first came out, because Alyssa had already read it and a friend said I needed to know what was in it. I'm glad I did, because I had so many great conversations with my teenage daughter over it--laughing hysterically and making fun of the sappy writing. She calls the book "Toilette" and has mercilessly marked up her copy (given to her by her grandma, along with a Jacob shirt--I tried not to laugh as she tried to thank her Grandma without gagging.) The mystery to us--who edited this book and sent it off for publication??

Stephanie said...

I totally smiled when I read your intro about Twilight. Now you MUST write a full review of the series! Please? I just know it would be witty and wonderful and create a giant stir in the blogosphere...

VanderbiltWife said...

You have cured me of any offhand desire to read the Hunger Games series.

And I NEVER read posts that are this long--but you have quite a mastery of the English language, too, and I enjoyed every word!

From a fellow bibliophile, of course. I think we can still be friends even if you don't like coffee.