I’m coming to the end of my Christmas holidays. It has been a very restful and slow time. I’ve filled it with family, long, slow recipes, and reading. I logged off irc, closed my mail program, ditched twitter, and allowed myself to become properly isolated from my daily routines.
I also tried an experiment. My reading tends to follow the paths begun in my literary degrees. Studying literature causes one to accumulate huge lists of books that need to get read. I mostly read philosophy, capital ‘L’ literature, and essays. And I read some of this over the holidays.
But in addition to my usual reading, I game myself permission to venture off the lists. While in line at the local drugstore I noticed a shelf of books next to the magazines. Among the paperbacks on the shelf, I recognized two titles. First, Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” a book I could remember my brother loving and telling me to read. Second, Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.” I’ve heard various people mention this book, not least my niece and nephew, who were both amazed and horrified I’d never read it, and implored me to correct this oversight.
I found both books nearly impossible to put down, with fast, clever plots. It was fun to get swept up in dark, unrelenting stories. The down side of plots this fast is that you don’t linger, don’t need to, the point is what happens next. I can’t imagine rereading either.
Encountering Larson’s Lisbeth Salander next to Collins’ Katniss Everdeen was interesting. Both girls (Lisabeth, though an adult, is still very young) have no father, lack a loving relationship with their mother, fend for themselves by breaking the law, and take care of their own safety in ways traditionally left to male characters. Neither girl lets the world around them into their inner life, and even the narrators struggle to understand much of what is really happening in their heads. And yet, it’s hard as the reader to not love them both. It is their very rejection of love that draws so many people to them, makes them so desirable.
Beyond these two strong female characters, the books deal with violence and death, lust (both sexual and otherwise), and power and control. The books are very different, and intended for different audiences (adult vs. teen). I found Larson’s repeated graphic rape scenes disturbing and hard to read; though I didn’t find them gratuitous or unnecessary. However, the novel’s ending was harder to believe than its beginning. At some point violence piled on violence isn’t achieving more, but begins to create a landscape where such things are common enough that they must be accepted or ignored. Collins, on the other hand, intentionally creates such a landscape, where children killing children is simply good television. Her presentation of the Capitol, and its mostly unseen populace, is haunting in what it doesn’t reveal about this acceptance. Who are these people who take such pleasure in such horror and pain? Larsson wants us to understand that they are the people we least expect, the people who are most completely unlike what we expect.
Friendship plays a central role in both books. For Larsson, the word is sometimes used as a euphemism, sometimes as a threat, and often as an impossibility. Lisabeth and Katniss are both right to distrust the people around them, both so well practiced at it that the impossibility of real friendship is really the point. Neither book affords its character the chance for anything more than temporary agreements: friendship as deep relationship is simply not available in either of Collins’ or Larsson’s worlds.
Reading the books also put me in mind of other similar books I’ve read, especially in the case of “The Hunger Games.” In the first third of this novel I was repeatedly taken back to Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game,” a book so incredibly different in many ways, but eerily similar in others, especially in its narrative of children being taken from their families and trained for games that the rest of the society will witness. The latter part of the book echoed Tom Brown’s “The Tracker.” The scenes with Katniss caught up trees, hunting, and tracking through the woods were very well done.
Both books are first in a trilogy. I don’t think I want to continue in Larsson’s world. The first book was gripping, horrifying, and stands on its own. Much as I feel about the evil in Charles Williams‘ novels, I understand its point in the story, but don’t want to subject myself to more of it than necessary. I will likely read the next Hunger Games book, though. I thought that there was much left to do in that story, and I’m interested to see how Collins will manage it.
Will I continue to read using the drugstore as my guide? I’m not sure I will. However, I loved this holiday from my usual patterns of reading.