Sunday, January 16, 2011

CBRIII #3 and #4: Fire Catching and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Spoilers ahead!)

I finished the final books of The Hunger Games trilogy in the course of 48 hours, just burned right through them. I know that everyone and her mother has read this trilogy, but just bear with me here. I should add that there are probably spoilers ahead for the first book if I am to describe the last two books.

The Hunger Games trilogy takes place in the futuristic world of Panem, a nation that consists of the Capitol and 12 districts. The 12 districts are under the oppressive thumb of the Capitol, headed by the cruel President Snow. Every year, in memory of a past revolution that failed, the Capitol organizes The Hunger Games, which takes 2 children, male and female between the ages of 14 and 19 (I think) from each district and throws them into a battle arena where they have to kill each other until one victor emerges. The Hunger Games serve as a reminder to the districts that the Capitol's power extends even to children's lives. In the first book, Katniss and Peeta from the 12th district, the poorest section that is a producer of coal, are chosen to go into the Games.

Fire Catching

Katniss and Peeta have both emerged victorious from the Games. The Capitol sees their survival as an act of rebellion from Katniss but as long as Katniss and Peeta act like they are in love, President Snow will allow them to stay alive a little longer. The reasoning is that Katniss had unknowingly ignited a rebellion with her defiance and now she must pretend her actions were because of her love for Peeta, not because of her anger at the Capitol.

After the Games, Katniss and Peeta have to do the victory tour around the different districts, and Katniss is able to observe that there is unrest in Panem. During the tour, Peeta proposes marriage to Katniss, and she accepts. While all of this is going on, she is also harboring feelings for Gale, her old hunting partner back in 12th.

Despite the show that Katniss and Peeta put on, the Capitol still announces that the 75th annual Hunger Games will actually be between previous victors from each district, which means that both Katnniss and Peeta will have to go back into the arena and fight for their lives again.


The 13th district, which was thought to be bombed and dead during the Revolution but has actually been growing underground and planning an overthrow of the Capitol, has rescued Katniss from the arena of the 75th Hunger Games. Apparently, her mentor Haymitch had kept the rebellion's plans from her, and as a result, Peeta has now been captured by the Capitol. Whether Katniss likes it or not, she is the symbol of the rebellion, and the 13th district would like her to take on the role of the Mockingjay to show the strength of their side. Once again, she is just a pawn in some elaborate game that she cannot see the end and she does not like that feeling. Katniss is also preoccupied by thoughts of the Capitol torturing Peeta and is afraid that her Mockingjay status will endanger him.

I know that these are young adult books, but they really are very graphic and gruesome. It's not just the subject matter, it's also the descriptions. There are physically gruesome plot points, like all the teenagers killing each other, but what stuck out more to me is how heartless these characters are portrayed. Take Katniss, for example - she is the main character and supposed to be the most sympathetic, and yes, I do like her very much, but Collins has no qualms showing how self-centered she can be.

On the flip side, what I think I might like best about Katniss is how honest she is about her motives. She usually acts before she thinks, but after the fact, she would look back at her actions and wonder why she did what she did. The answer is not always pretty but for a 14-year-old teenage girl, she's incredibly self-aware. And I think that a protagonist like her is something that a lot of young adult books lack.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

CBRIII #2: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

How does one describe The History of Love? It's one of those post-modern, hipster-favorite books that starts out with two different threads of narratives with an adjoining element until the tendrils end up meeting. Here, the two stories seemed so random that the beginning of the book kind of threw me off. What kept me interested was Krauss' writing - she really has a very beautiful way of putting emotions into words - and though the payoff by the way wasn't as monumental as I was hoping, I am still very happy that I read it.

The two main stories are shown from the points of view of Leo Gursky, an old Jewish man who escaped the Holocaust when he immigrated from Poland, and Alma Singer, a 14-year-old girl who was named after every female character in the book, "The History of Love," which was given to her mother by her father. Alma's father passed away many years ago and her mother's been hiding under her grief ever since. One day, her mother, a book translator, received a letter requesting her to translate "The History of Love." Of course she accepts, and Alma plots to find the writer of the letter for her mother; she is trying to cure her mother's sadness.

I mentioned earlier Krauss' way with words. To describe Alma's mother's sadness, she wrote:

Once Uncle Julian told me how the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head you have to give up the whole figure. To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you're limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.

My mother did not choose a leaf or a head. She chose my father and to hold on to a certain feeling, she sacrificed the world.

See what I mean?

As for Leo Gursky, he is an old man who has basically ghost-walked through life because he lost his only love. He's a real odd ball. His only friend is Bruno, he likes creating diversions in public just so that he can feel like he's not forgotten and he stalks his son that was conceived with his lost love, who does not know his real father. He is also working on a book, though it's not clear why except that he wants to be writing.

I'm not sure what else I can say without giving anything away. Admittedly, I was a little slow on the uptake while reading it, but I enjoyed the careful unraveling of narratives. Though I was hoping for some outpouring of happiness or some sort of emotional catharsis from these very sad characters, it didn't happen.

As a final note, I want to add that the reason why I picked up this book was because her husband is Jonathan Franzen Foer and I've heard say that Krauss is actually the stronger writer. Comparing them, I definitely like her writing better, but I think I prefer Foer's plotting. I know we shouldn't compare writers just because they are married to each other, but it's kind of difficult because The History of Love was really, really similar to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In both books, there is a young protagonist who is introverted and precocious looking for a lost parent and there is an older character trying to find his lost love. This similarity wasn't only caught by me, and when asked about it, both Krauss and Foer said that they worked on their novels separately and were actually done with it before they met.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Obama Steps Up and Delivers

I tuned into the speech last night on MSNBC (Why wasn’t any of the major networks playing it? Instead, there was The Big Bang Theory on CBS) and saw a might-be-drunk speaker apparently representing the Native American community of Tucson. Watching that was unbearable so my roommates and I switched back and forth between that and Comedy Central – there was a Dave Chappelle rerun featuring a "What Men Want" skit, a parody of that Mel Gibson movie with Helen Hunt. Next up, Daniel Hernandez. Though he is certainly a hero and I greatly admire his courage, his pronouncement of humility (thrice) made me wince. Stop trying so hard to convince us that you are humble and maybe we’d believe it, I thought. Then Jan Brewer came on, and it was like Elmer Fudd hunting for wabbits; Roommate 1 and 2 imitated her lispy speech, which, I think, improved it. Putting aside her hateful politics, how she could get elected governor with those poor public speaking skills is beyond me. When Obama finally stepped up to the podium, all the other speakers had collectively whetted my cynicism for this entire event.

Fortunately, he did not succumb to any political rhetoric or theater. Listening to his speech, the sadness I felt returned. It was present on Saturday afternoon when I first heard the news and it has resided heavily in my heart for the past few days, but I really could not process the horror because it was just too terrible. Saturday showed me that it was actually possible for a human being to think it was ok to open fire upon a crowd of people, to go to an event with the intention of taking a person’s life – and this numbed me. The media and politicians' finger-pointing certainly didn’t help. It only proved that as a group of self-governing individuals, we can condemn our hateful political conversation while also ape indignation on live TV for some fleeting relevancy. Or ratings. I don’t know.

So I wrapped my sadness in my annoyance, and while reading the stories of the various heroic individuals who lent a hand at the shooting, I picked apart the media’s motives for showing that clip or running that story. Christina Taylor Green’s parents appeared in an interview on Sunday, and I wondered how they could even sit there and calmly answer the reporter’s questions. I marveled at their strength, but also, in the back of my mind, wondered how this unexpected attention might affect them. Perhaps they could get a reality show on how they cope with their loss. I disgust myself for having thought that and you may be too, but you know this screwed-up idea is not completely out of our screwed-up reach.

Obama’s speech was a wake-up call. It jolted me back to the despair that I’ve been ignoring. But borne out of it was also hope.

You know, so many pundits/politicians have said some variations of this: "Despite the tragedy of the event, we still feel hope." I didn’t get it at first because I lost hope on Saturday afternoon, and then lost it again in the media shitstorm. "Hope" was facing some serious extinction with Palin’s stupid fucking video yesterday. Even last night, when Obama said, "Our hearts are broken - and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness," I could feel my stubbornness rearing up. There was no "fullness" in my heart, only heaviness.

But by the end of the speech, I felt pride. Pride for my president, pride for the people cheering maniacally during inappropriate times and pride that we can come together to mourn for people we do not know. Collectively, as a nation, we can still be good. Isn’t that an incredibly notion to stumble upon, like it’s somehow news? Obama hit a home run last night in more than a political sense: He restored my faith and hope in Americans.

"The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud."

(The full transcript can be found here.)

(I’m avoiding all TV news coverage for the next few days because I don’t want them to ruin this feeling.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

CBRIII #1: War by Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
(Credit: Courtesy of Tim Hetherington)

Right around the time that Restrepo was released in selected New York City theaters, Sebastian Junger's book, War, was published. No doubt this book is the literary companion to its cinematic counterpart, directed by both Junger and Tim Hetherington, a videographer and photojournalist (and the movie is now available to watch instantly on Netflix). However, with War, Junger is not just looking at a platoon stationed in the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan, the Korengal Valley. He is also exploring the nature of combat warfare and has divided his compelling account of the months he spent embedded with the second platoon of Battle Company (part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade) into three parts: Fear; Killing; and Love.

Though the book is very expansive and I took my time reading it, I've decided to distill my review to what was most memorable to me in each section. These are not necessarily specific to the Second Platoon's combat experience, but is more often a general look at a soldier's mentality.

For example, in Fear, Junger describes some of the studies done to combat soldiers to figure out what goes on in a human being's body when he is in a high-stress situation, as combat soldiers are apt to be in. A study involved measuring the amount of cortisol – a hormone secreted from the adrenal gland during stressful times that sharpens a person's mind and concentration – in soldiers' blood and urine several times a day during a period which the platoon braced themselves for an expected attack. They had received intel that the overwhelming force would likely lead to their base being overran by the enemy. As the fateful day of the attack drew closer, the study found that the men's cortisol levels dropped. This was surprising as one would expect that their adrenaline levels would be higher as they anticipate this attack. However, when the supposed day of the attack passed without an incident, the cortisol levels started rising rapidly. As it turns out, these men were more at ease facing a known threat than facing an unknown one.

I found this interesting, since behind this is a concept of courage. Being highly-trained individuals whose sole purpose is to kill, these men are able to push aside their fear when they know that there is a fight coming, even if it is highly probable that they would be defeated. A mark of a good combat soldier is not about being unafraid in the face of danger, but being able to still function like a combat soldier despite feeling scared to death. "There are different kinds of strengths," wrote Junger "And containing fear may be the most profound, the one without which armies couldn't function and wars couldn't be fought (God forbid.)"

In Killing, Junger confesses one aspect of war rarely talked about: War is exciting. Soldiers and journalists don't want to play up that part of it because of the horrors it visits upon nations, men and families, but there is no thrill or high quite like it for combat soldiers. Many of the men in the Second Platoon talk about how they are not sure they will be able to return to civilian life after their deployment is up because there is a great disconnect between being caught in an enemy's crossfire and doing something mundane like balancing your check book. Thriving on the constant adrenaline rush, it would be difficult for them to find a normal day-to-day job that sates the need of feeling accomplished. There were many questions raised about a combat soldier's future after the war, but really no answers.

It is also in this section that Junger highlights the bravery of Sergeant Salvatore Guinta, the recipient of the Medal of Honor, which is the military's highest decoration for valor. In 2007, Guinta was patrolling at night in the Korengal Valley with his platoon, about 18 people, and they were ambushed by insurgents. The ambush is known as an "L-shaped ambush" and can result in a handful of men wiping out an entire platoon if done effectively. However, under intense gunfire, Guinta was able to properly assess the situation to save his platoon mates and prevent one of them from being taken by a Taliban fighter. Below is a 60 minute interview with Lara Logan after Guinta received the Medal of Honor:

And here is an interview with Stephen Colbert for some levity.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogMarch to Keep Fear Alive

Though the platoon suffered casualties – the man that Guinta saved from the insurgent died shortly after – this was considered a victory because no one was taken during this ambush.
Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of qick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense it's much more like football than, say, like a gang fight.
Which leads me to the final section, Love. As brutal and destructive combat warfare is, it is also impossible for a platoon to succeed if the men are not ready to pledge their lives for one another. Throughout the book, Junger describes some of the physical tussles that these men get into (for example, a way to welcome a soldier into the platoon is by ganging up on him and beating him to a bloody pulp) and the insults they toss at each other. But at the end of the day, when faced with the pressures of an insurgent attack, these men are ready to put themselves in danger if only to stop the enemy from shooting at their friends. This paragraph will explain it better:
Combat fog obscures your fate – obscures when and where you might die – and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between the men. That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on. The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another's lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly. What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless meta-analyses, slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.
I'm really glad I read this book, if only because now I have more of an insight into a combat soldier's mind. Compared to The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, Junger focuses more on the soldier and the ins and outs of combat warfare. There are some tidbits of how his role as a reporter plays in the platoon (such as when they offer him a gun to use for protection or when he wrestles with the notion that whether or not helping to throw a grenade means a line has been crossed) but overall, Junger does not dwell on his personal introspection. He also does not bother with the politics of the war, be them American or Afghan, and his storytelling does not wander far from the Korengal Valley. In this narrow, tightly-paced account, Junger is not only able to show these young men as ruthless, cussing, killing machines, he is able to to connect all the terrible parts of this war to love. And that really is something.

The photo above shows an American bunker in the Korangal Valley, June 2008.
(Credit: Courtesy of Tim Hetherington)