Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A meeting of minds

Don Coscarelli directed Phantasm and one of the best movies that I've ever seen about a geriatric Elvis and a black JFK fighting mummies. He also connected with crazed internet writer David Wong to get the rights to John Dies at the End and turn a couple of deadbeats into world-saving heroes.

I think there's a hell of a lot to be said for indie films. Hollywood is busy printing money with Marvel properties and I'm so bored with it that I've kind of stopped going to the movies, but there are always indie groups out there who will make really interesting flicks.

I'm not going to lie: the acting isn't fantastic in this movie (but it's totally acceptable), the writing is sometimes kind of stilted (not too often), and the effects sometimes leave something to be desired (but not very much, honestly). This is NOT a polished, perfect, dull Hollywood picture.

It's something much better than that. It's a good fucking story that a lot of people worked really hard to present on film.

Though I should point out that SOME of the acting IS fantastic. Doug Jones is one of my favorite actors; it took me a few minutes to realize that he was even in this because I'm so used to seeing him under four pounds of makeup. In his first scene in the film (before I realized it was him) he has an incredibly touching and moving moment - a tear rolls down his cheek, slowly, as he ponders humanity and its desires all while talking about a man who masturbated until he bled.

I wish that I could adequately describe almost anything in this film without completely spoiling it, but that's surprisingly hard to do. The insanity of the characters and situations all relies on other insanity so taking anything out of context sounds purposefully obtuse.

Anyway, craziness aside, I enjoyed the movie. Some of the changes made from the book seemed to be a little bit problematic to me but that was probably just window-dressing that I missed only because I'd been expecting it. You should watch it and allow a little bit of madness into your day.

     - Alli

David Wong wins at titles

John Dies at the End is the newest entry on my top-ten-all-time-favorite-books list (a constantly rotating and changing pool that is probably closer to twenty titles). When I finished reading it I wanted to run out and read the follow-up, This Book is full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, don't touch it, immediately but I held off because if I always got all of the books that I want to read my house would be made out of books and I would never sleep again.

So finally, months after my first reading of JDatE, I had myself a psychotic little weekend in which I re-read the book, watched the bitchin' Don Coscarelli film, and finished up by reading This Book is full of Spiders. In short: I had an awesome weekend, thanks, how was yours?

John Dies at the End is just such a great book. It's so happy to be what it is, and it does its job so perfectly. It's creepy and way more funny than almost anything I've ever read and it makes want to have adventures (perhaps somewhat less ball-punchingly crazy adventures than John and Dave have). There is no way that this book could be improved, it's exactly what it needs to be, and what it needs to be is the story of two losers saving the universe from battle arachnids and inter-dimensional aliens.

The best part of it is probably the characters - these aren't John McClain style gritty, handsome everymen; they're charming dipshits who you could easily meet walking down the street. It's great to read a book about saving the world and have flawed, frightened characters who are aware of their own limitations telling you the story.

Maybe the best part is the minutia - with David Wong narrating you're thinking about the visual presentation of dog treats and the geographical distribution of McDonald's menu items as well as terrible slug-monsters and ghost doors.

Maybe all of the parts are the best parts and that's why I like the book so much and can't think of any flaws in it. Some people might think that it's a little long but I'm happy with the length because that's how many words the book needed to tell the story - cutting corners to save pages would cut out cool stuff with Fred Durst and meat demons and chair-based puns.

It's got to be terrifying to follow up a book like JDatE; there's so much going on and it's so clearly what it wants to be. But there was more going on in the universe so we got another story.

This Book is full of Spiders isn't quite as pants-shittingly rad as JDatE but that's because it's a totally different animal (one that I also happened to like quite a bit).

The narration is less focused and is given more voices than in the first book and is much more serious; sure you still get a lot of dick jokes but you don't see as many references to hair bands. This Book is full of Spiders covers a more serious topic than dipshits saving the world; it's a comedy horror novel with alien spiders that's really about man's inhumanity to man and that is fucking rad.

There are a lot of people out there who have trouble wading through Camus or Kundera or Achebe or any of those great 20th century names who understood that after the bomb dropped the human species basically called it a free-for-all. This Book is full of Spiders is Things Fall Apart for a generation of hipsters and gamers.

Do you have any idea how cool that is? There are thousands of books that are in the BS "literary canon" that are going to go unread by billions of people because they're dense and unrelatable (the books, not the people). This Book is full of Spiders examines a lot of the ideas explored in that unreadable (or at least difficult-to-enjoy) canon and presents them so that people raised on pop culture rather than Ovid (y'know, like pretty much every generation since the 1700s) can swallow it and it rules.

     - Alli

Wong, David. John Dies at the End. St. Martin's Griffin. 2012. (2007)
Wong, David. This Book is full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, don't touch it. Thomas Dunne Books. 2012.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Exit pursued by a wampa

Star Wars and Shakespeare is a combination like chocolate and peanut butter - delightful, and surprising that somebody didn't figure that out earlier.

Ian Doescher has published his follow-up to Verily, A New Hope with The Empire Striketh Back and it stands up just as well as the first book did. Probably my favorite part is a conversation between two Storm Troopers discussing the mandatory inclusion of a gaping chasm with catwalks missing handrails spanning it in all Empire-approved constructions, but the new characters we're introduced to and the budding relationship between Han and Leia are handled wonderfully by the book as well.

Doescher goes even further in this book than in the last to establish Han and Leia as Benedict and Beatrice, bringing Much Ado puns into their lines and allowing them to admire each other in asides while they sting waspishly in their exchanges. Yoda is introduced and is totally comprehensible in context while still managing to speak completely in haiku. Lando Calrissian makes his first appearance as well, and is a charming scoundrel made more accessible than the same character in the film through his numerous soliloquies and asides.

Songs are sung, the plot is thickened, and the big reveal is made and all of it is wonderful. The language is great, the characters are given lots of room to breathe, silly things happen and serious things happen. This book isn't as memorable for me as Verily, A New Hope was but that's probably due to the fact that I'd been introduced to the concept of Shakespearian Star Wars and so reading it wasn't the same new experience I had with the first book. Either way, it's hilarious and fresh and fun to read and I'm very much looking forward to The Jedi doth Return whenever it hits shelves.

     - Alli

Doescher, Ian. William Shakespeare's Star Wars: The Empire Striketh Back. Quirk Books.
     Philadelphia: Pennsylvania. 2014.

What might have been

In 1975 a man named Alejandro Jodorowsky was the first person who tried to bring Frank Herbert's Dune to the big screen. He tried to do this in the absolute bug-fucking craziest way possible and his film was never made; what was made, almost forty years later, was the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune that took a look into the madman's process and tracked down what still could be found of the production.

Now, I have said that Jodorowsky is crazy but I haven't explained that. Let's disregard his films (which are crazy and look completely rad) and focus on the film-that-wasn't.

For Paul, the main character, Jodorowsky cast his 12-year-old son and decided to turn the boy into Paul, a warrior-messiah, literally. He did this by hiring a martial arts instructor to train the child for eight hours a day, six days a week, for two years, in several kinds of martial arts and how to kill people with knives and swords. He also decided he would kill Paul at the end of the film because you can't respect a novel - that would be like respecting your wife; if you really did you'd never have kids (not exaggerating, that's pretty close to word-for-word what Jodorowsky says in an interview).

For the Emperor Jodorowsky cast Salvador Dali and agreed to pay him $500,000 per minute. For the Baron Harkonnen the talents of Orson Welles were called on to be exchanged for the services of an opulent French chef. Mick Jagger was supposed to play Feyd. David Carradine was to be Duke Leto. Pink Floyd and Magma were signed on for the soundtrack. Jodorowsky was also the first person to ask Chris Foss (Superman, Alien, Flash Gordon, A.I.) and H.R. Giger (motherfucking Alien, Aliens, Alien Resurrection, and Prometheus) to do art for a film (which means that he was pretty much responsible for completely remaking the way that we envision SciFi). So let's be clear: Jodorowsky was crazy, and his vision of Dune wouldn't be the same story that we know from Herbert, but it would have been insanely awesome.

Jodorowsky's Dune is an interesting film. The producers managed to track down a significant part of the creative team who were going to be involved in the 70s production and sat down to ask them what it was like, working on this white whale of a film. Jodorowsky is probably the most heavily featured respondent, flitting through three languages and a million emotions as he remembers the experience. It becomes clear almost immediately that the man isn't on the same wavelength as the rest of us, but that only serves to make him more magnificent and tragic.

The documentary is beautifully shot and organized, and does a magnificent job of bringing what it can of the original production to light, animated and illustrated based on The Dune Book - a collection of character, costume, location and ship designs, and a shot-by-shot storyboard by Jean Giraud, the legendary French comic artist who also worked under the name of Moebius. The documentary has a careful, delicate touch when handling its subject - clearly it was made by fans of Jodorowsky, Dune, and all the creatives whose careers careened out of control after working with Jodorowsky. A lot of attention is given to the way this unfinished film changed the landscape that we live in as well as its tremendous value.

Jodorowsky's Dune does a good job of introducing you to both of its subjects, the maker and his vision, and presenting them both in a wistful, appreciative light. It's surprisingly funny, full of compassion and wonder, and an interesting portrait of the man, his mind, and the time he gathered up a bunch of "spiritual warriors" to make a blisteringly nuts movie.

As a side note, the only reason I got to see this movie is because A) The Cinefamily's Silent Movie Theater was hosting it as a part of its festival/tour run (though there will be a Blu-Ray release at some point) and B) my awesome dad knows what a nutcase I am for all things Dune and invited me to come see it with him. Honestly I can't imagine a better way to see a movie than with Dad - the way I am about books is the way my dad is with movies only more so; he watches a terrifying number of movies and has an incredibly sharp recall of films that he saw decades ago so movies are always an experience with him - it's not just looking at what's on the screen, it's the discussion of merits and interest that follows that makes it so great to see movies with my dad. He also blogs about them in a faster and more effective manner than I blog about books.

Anyway, thanks for taking me to the movies, Dad.
Everyone else, Cheers.
     - Alli

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Hell is what you make of it

It's got to be tough to have Fight Club be your first published novel. There's no getting around it - it's too big, too shiny, too startling to let any follow-up surpass it. Fight Club has had a huge part in defining my generation (which is terrifying and wonderful at the same time, just so you know) and none of Palahnuik's later books have packed the same overwhelming punch.

Now, that being said, I think that Rant is my favorite Palahnuik book and Invisible Monsters is pretty fucking good too. Damned falls somewhere between Snuff and Haunted for me, unfortunately.

I think part of the reason for that is that I find it only occasionally possible to tolerate thirteen-year-old girls and reading a novel in the voice of a tween was quite frustrating. Palahnuik did a very good job of crafting that voice, and basically what that means is that the novel is consistently irritating.

There are some cool things about it, though. I love the way that Hell is crafted and layered and complicated. There's a very funny scene that involves oral sex with an enormous demon and a punk rocker. That punk, by the way, is one of the more interesting and sympathetic characters in the book and I actually liked him quite a lot.

The book seems to be crafted as a surly response to all those fucking girl books - the books made and marketed almost exclusively to girls and young women. As a sneer, the book is a success - though I'm not sure how well that resonated because I'm pretty sure that Palahnuik's books aren't generally read by young girls, and I'm not sure that the young women who typically read the fucking girl books would be the type to pick up on the joke.

I just, I dunno. I feel like I saw a lot of this coming and was a little let down when it came. One of Palahnuik's trademarks is his ability to keep readers guessing but that breaks down when the reader guesses right too many times. There was nothing here that floored me, either stylistically or as a part of the plot, so I think I was just expecting better. This isn't a novel that would have let me down if I'd never heard of its author, which I know isn't really fair to the author, but disappointed is how I feel anyway.


Palahnuik, Chuck. Damned. Broadway Books. New York: New York. 2011.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

4 unexpectedly awesome things about How to Fight Presidents

In case you don't read Cracked.Com articles, bullshit. You do read Cracked and you just aren't aware of it yet because you get single articles forwarded to you by friends and co-worker and immediately forget where they came from or because a Cracked article was the only interesting thing on the Daily Mail site. But in case you don't read Cracked frequently, thoroughly, and possibly obsessively, you might not be aware of exactly how many of the site's authors have published really awesome books. David Wong wrote what is easily the best horror-alien-dick-jokestravaganza ever printed; terrifying beard-haver Robert Brockway wrote a sci-fi novel about drug explosions; and not too long ago the Cracked De-Textbook debuted with the exclusive purpose of shaming the boring and wrong elementary school teachers who misinformed American children. Recently Dan O'Brien published How to Fight Presidents, a book exclusively dedicated to preparing you for time-travel battles with the ludicrously insane people who held America's highest office. How to Fight Presidents is amazing for all of the reasons that you might expect (jokes about Kennedy's need to bone all of the things, jokes about Lyndon Johnson's johnson, discussion about the history of the US in the context of fighting dead presidents, Theodore Roosevelt) but it's also amazing for some completely unexpected reasons which you can either read about below or figure out on your own by buying and reading the book.

#4. Bonus Chapters

I bought this book with the full knowledge that it only covers fights with dead presidents and was prepared to be happy with 39 chapters of hard-hitting fight strategies. Surprise, motherfucker, you just got DOB'd with some badass extras. No spoilers here (except, you know, SPOILER, there are bonus chapters) but these chapters will serve you well if you need to fight alongside some presidents for any reason, or if you happen to encounter an undead elephant.

#3. Winston Rowntree is intimidatingly brilliant

I thought about doing a Rowntree style comic featuring Dan O'Brien fighting a president, but realized that I would only bring shame on my family and my name for a poor imitation of Rowntree's seriously badass comicry. I knew the book was illustrated, I knew that Rowntree had done the illustrations, and I knew he was a wonderful artist; what I didn't know was how intricate and hilariously appropriate each illustration in the book would be.

Everything about these pages is more perfect than anything I have ever done.

#2. Teddy Motherfucking Roosevelt

TR is mentioned in the list of things that I expected to be awesome in How to Fight Presidents, but no one can really expect how awesome anything even briefly touching on Teddy Roosevelt is.

#1. The pure, unbridled joy of the author

On any random page you turn to in this book you'll find evidence that Dan O'Brien is surprised and delighted that somebody let him write a book about punching dead presidents. His style is silly and familiar and charmingly self-deprecating and you can feel it in every chapter. I don't know if he meant to put this much of himself into his book but I really appreciate that as I read through the book I could get a sense of how much O'Brien enjoyed writing it. It's great to read a book where it feels like the author is giddy about his subject; it's incredibly entertaining to get caught up in O'Brien's glee as the talks about the enormous nightmare that was Abraham Lincoln, George Washington's attitude about passing bullets, the weirdness of Grant's man-tackle, the possibility that Regan was Wolverine, or his frothing rage at how incredibly boring Millard Filmore was.

So please read this book - it's fun as hell and just good sense to be protected in case a time traveling president comes storming around the corner at you. (Though if it's Andrew Jackson just run as fast as you can or hope for a good death.)

     - Alli

O'Brien, Daniel. How to Fight Presidents. Crown Books. New York: New York. 2014.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Super silliness and problems with nomenclature

I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but in this case I probably should have judged it a little MORE by its cover than I did. Ex-Heroes shows a bold, central image of a sad-looking dude in a super suit holding his mask and moping. Sweet, I thought to myself, a book about heroes who lose their powers - that should be interesting. I used the book to round out my buy-two-get-one-free selection and wandered on my merry way.

What I should have examined more closely were the more pale, diminished figures surrounding my mopey hero - there are zombies in them-thar hills.

I used to be really into zombies. I got super-duper excited by 28 Days Later and managed to keep the romance undead at least until 28 Weeks Later came out: the first film was unexpected and wonderful and did $10 million its first weekend (not bad for a movie with a budget of 8 million), the second was underwhelming and overwrought and almost tripled the first-weekend US gross. It wasn't too long after the second film came out that I just got sick of zombies. Maybe it's just that I'm kind of a hipster - I liked it before it was popular - or maybe it's that popularity tends to make things noxious in the world we live in. After seeing 28 Days Later I read The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, saw Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead and (much to my chagrin) Doomsday. Then, not too long after those books and movies came out, you could buy zombie targets at WalMart and zombie survival kits started popping up on Amazon and then there were zombie walks and zombie 5Ks and it just got to the point that EVERYTHING was zombies and everything was painted zombie green and everyone had a zombie survival plan and I realized that I was over it. The zombie story had been told so many times (almost always leaving the interesting rebuilding society and fighting the ongoing menace part out) that I couldn't stand to hear about it anymore. It feels like reading a comic book where every single issue is an origin story. World War Z is one of the few books that's made the subject interesting again, but when they made it into a movie they left all the good shit out. So if I had taken a bit more time to examine the cover of Ex-Heroes I probably would have taken the time to put the book down and back the hell away because I was looking for a book about cool stuff happening to superheroes, not a book that had anything at all to do with zombies.

Which brings up another point: don't make up new names for zombies. This is something that gets me about The Walking Dead - they call them walkers or biters or some shit like that. Zombies are so incredibly pervasive in our culture that there would never be an opportunity to call them anything else. When someone on bath salts eats someone else's face the media jumps in screaming "ZOMBIE!" There is no way we would call them anything else but zombies if zombies were to become a real problem. But in Ex-Heroes zombies are called exes, as in ex-humans. So the ex-heroes referred to in the title are zombie heroes (not an uninteresting concept in and of itself, but wrecked by putting a good concept in the middle of a mundane and too-often retold story). I call bullshit and also false advertising. If you want to write a book about zombie heroes call it Zombie Heroes and call it a day. Don't make up some bullshit would-never-be-used synonym for zombies and then use it to bait-and-switch your audience into thinking they're actually going to be reading about former heroes. Dick move, Peter Clines. Dick move.

The book itself is just sort of not very good. The story is alternately predictable and ridiculous, the truly ridiculous bits are never really fleshed out, the characters are stereotypical and boring. There's a Superman analogue who can breathe fire instead of having laser eyes. There's a guy who can become energy who doesn't just straight-up destroy all the zombies because it feels icky when he does (so instead he just lets lots of people die so he doesn't have to feel the terrible icky feeling). There's a sex interest for the Superman guy whose powers are never explained (I don't actually know that she has powers but her name is Lady Bee so maybe?) but who has funky-colored hair and a red bra (the color of her underwear is more thoroughly explained than anything else about her character). There's a REALLY sexist female Batman analogue called Stealth - she doesn't appear to have any super powers other than her super-model looks that she hides under a scarf; she wears a skintight catsuit and has a great ass and is very sneaky and I'm completely pissed about the way that she's written. If Spock and Batman had a baby and that baby had a killer rack and no ability to relate to other people it would come pretty close to what Stealth is like. She's the leader of the survivor compound and most of her conversations with the Superman guy focus on making sure that he doesn't have a secret boner for her in her specifically-designed-to-accentuate-her-tits-catsuit. The really irritating thing about Stealth is it's clear that Clines was specifically trying NOT to be sexist when he wrote her and just completely failed.

Anyway, that's most of the supers. The humans occasionally have names until they get killed, and sometimes they get in the way of a super and it's supposed to raise tension and just completely doesn't. You're marketing to geeks here, Clines. We know a red shirt when we see one.

It's pretty rare that I read a book and wish that I hadn't spent the money on it, but that's what happened this time. There's a sequel (because of course there is) that supposedly explains more of what's going on. I'm not going to read it, but if a stereotypical, boring, tension-less super-zombie story sounds interesting to you then there are at least two more books out there to feed that need.

     - Alli

Clines, Peter. Ex-Heroes. Broadway Paperbacks. New York: New York. 2010.

Friday, April 4, 2014

What happened to all the horrifyingly plausible distopias?

I'm kind of obsessed with good dystopias. 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, and The Stand all speak to me in ways that very few books ever really achieve. They're educational and somber and depressing and sobering because they suggest a terrifying possible existence. The flipside of my love affair with dystopian fiction is that I am hypercritical of anything that I see as a bad dystopia - that it, any dystopia that is so laughably overbearing that it's implausible. I wish that I was only looking at Battlefield Earth when I'm talking about bad dystopias, but unfortunately Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series falls under the same umbrella for me.

The Hunger Games
One of the biggest things I need to really appreciate a dystopia is plausibility, and of the whole series the first book is the most plausible. Yes, there are some fantastic elements but nothing that's really verging too far on the edge of magic or really unlikely politics except the central focus of the book, that for seventy four years people in the 12 districts of Panem have sent their children off to be murdered on television for the entertainment of the citizens of the Capitol and as a reminder of the districts' powerlessness.

I'll give you genetically engineered muttations (and yes, I'll even give you the stupid name); I'll give you ridiculous surgeries and bizarre cosmetics - that shit is happening now; I'll give you giant arenas full of deathtraps because humans are pretty damn good at making things that are very bad for other humans. But what I won't give you is a privileged population of about a hundred thousand maintaining a dictatorship so absolute that a population of 1.8 million people are willing to let their children be murdered for the amusement of the Capitol (and yes, even if you include District 2 and its peacekeepers with the capitol you're still looking at three hundred and thirty thousand versus 1.6 million people). But more about implausibility later.

The Hunger Games is actually a pretty good book - it's well constructed, there are interesting characters with interesting problems and challenges. Katniss is a pretty round, dynamic person while still having the Keanu-esque woodenness that allows the reader to project onto her. We can all sympathize with wanting to save children and with being scared of a pack of murderous teens and not wanting our families to starve to death. The reader can get right in there and freak out with her a little bit and that's fun - it's a page-turning experience even if it is about a nightmarish civilization.

What I strongly dislike about the book (and the series as a whole) is this:

I kind of want to go "Yeah, that's awesome - fuck Twilight," but I can't because Twilight isn't the problem with this image. The problem is WHO THE FUCK DECIDED TO PUT A LOVE TRIANGLE IN THE MIDDLE OF MY TELEVISED FIGHT TO THE DEATH? People like to talk about Katniss as a strong female character but the entire series that revolved around which boyfriend the "strong female character" would keep instead of HOLY SHIT YOU GUYS LET'S OVERTHROW THE CAPITOL.

Let's go through a quick list (just, like, a TON of SPOILERS below):
Katniss is blindsided by Peeta's confession before the games and then her whole winning strategy revolves around saving her "boyfriend."
Katniss decides she needs to escape because the Capitol is going to force her to marry Peeta.
Katniss decides she really needs to escape because the Peacekeepers whip Gale.
Katniss decides she's not going to escape because she needs to save Peeta.
Katniss decides she's going to die in the second arena so that Peeta can live.
Katniss decides that she'll only join the rebellion if they'll pardon Peeta.
Katniss decides she can't fight because Peeta is being tortured.
Katniss decides to open up about her past for the FIRST TIME IN THE WHOLE SERIES because Gale is part of Peeta's rescue team and she might lose one or both of them.
Katniss decides to question her entire mission and purpose because Peeta has been trained to hate her and she needs him to be a good dude.
Katniss decides to go to the front of the war because she can't handle being close to brainwashed Peeta.
Katniss is so sickened by Gale's trap that she pleads in person with refugees and gets her ass shot.
Katniss decides to train and fight in the Capitol so that she can kill Snow. (Because seriously, fuck that guy).
Katniss decides not to kill Peeta even though he constitutes a clear and present danger.
Katniss kills Coin because she was so sickened by the use of Gale's tactics.
Katniss snaps out of her months-long stupor because Peeta comes back to District 12.
Katniss (the poster-child for PTSD) has kids - which she has decided all by herself and before she had a boyfriend that she doesn't want and isn't ever going to be prepared to handle - because Peeta (the poster-child for schizoid implanted memories) wants kids so badly.
          (Okay, this really needs to have a whole separate article for my rant, but FUCK, she recounts her pregnancy as an extended period of constant terror with an overwhelming understanding that what was growing inside of her was unwanted and alien; she says that the fear of having the child could only be surmounted by the love of holding the child (which is pretty much exactly why Texas requires unnecessary sonograms before abortions) and WOW that is what her loving, sweet, nice-guy husband asked her to suffer through FOR HIM and she said YES and this is what we're calling a strong female character? A woman who doesn't want to have kids and has been victimized and abused her entire fucking life deciding to do the thing that she wanted to do LESS THAN SHE WANTED TO GO TO THE HUNGER GAMES because her husband wanted to breed so badly is what our society sees as a strong female character. I'm only triple-checking here, but did we seriously decide that a woman sacrificing her body autonomy and best interests to her husband, who is potentially more damaged than she is and once tried to choke her to death, is the character we want little girls looking up to? We did. Okay. I HAVE A PRETTY SIGNIFICANT PROBLEM WITH THIS.)

That is a list of sixteen pretty goddam major life-changing decisions. Exactly ONE of those decisions is not the direct result of something one of her boyfriends did or something that happened to her boyfriends. There is ONE TIME in the entire series that Katniss decides she doesn't need either of her boyfriends and it is when she overhears them discussing which one of them she'll pick and how it will be based on her neediness. And she's not pissed about them talking about how she needs one of them to survive - she's pissed off that it makes her sound really cold.

But the first book doesn't have a lot of that bullshit in it, it's just about a super tough girl who pretends to love a kind of useless boy and joins in a suicide pact with him after they kill a bunch of other kids. So yeah, I'm not pretending The Hunger Games isn't fucked up, but it's fucked up in a kind of awesome way.

Catching Fire
The second book in the series is a little more problematic than the first, largely because it makes no goddamn sense. NONE of it makes any sense. The Katniss/Peeta/Gale triad is all effed up, Snow's manipulation of Katniss when he MUST (as a crazy and long-standing dictator) know that she's not going to be able to do anything about the uprising seems like it's evil for the sake of evil (which is a really good way to inspire your population to overthrow you as a dictator, as Snow must know), the Quell makes no sense at all ("In order to remind you of how terrible your leaders are, every twenty five years we'll make an effort to be significantly worse so that every generation has a fresh reason to kill us"), the arena makes no sense (write down every cool death-trap you can think of and then arrange it in a circle and just sort of hope that your readers forget that there are 12 numbers on a clock 'cause you could only think of 7 sort-of cool death-traps in the first place - it's like something the fucking Riddler would do), but what makes the LEAST sense of ANY of all that other shit is that there's a rebellion going on (one that would seem to rely on Katniss participating and being seen in support of it) and fucking NOBODY tells her about it.

Oh, what a silly faux pas Plutarch Heavensbee made when he flashed Katniss the mockingjay - he made a Capitol fool of himself because he assumed that the face of the rebellion was aware that there was a fucking rebellion.

And it's lucky that Katniss has some kind of psychic relationship with Haymitch because if she didn't she might have electrocuted Enobria instead of the arena and then been killed because she was given SHITTY INSTRUCTIONS and could be forgiven for misinterpreting them.

Let's count all of the things that have to go right for the arena escape to work. If these things DON'T happen the escape doesn't happen at all:
1 - Katniss has to learn about the weak points in force fields.
2 - Katniss has to be clever enough not to let on that she knows about the weak points in force fields.
3 - Katniss has to understand that Beetee's wire is worth protecting AND has to be willing to risk her life to retrieve it.
4 - Katniss has to not die protecting Peeta, something she is completely resolved to do.
5 - Katniss has to understand that the people all around her, actively trying to kill her, aren't her real enemies.
6 - Katniss has to have not wasted her arrows protecting herself or Peeta, and has to be in good enough physical condition, after getting hit in the head and having a tracker dug out of her arm, to fire an arrow at a fair distance through a target that is only a couple of inches wide.

So what happens if Katniss decides NOT to talk to Beetee and Wiress during training? None of the plan works. The arena doesn't explode. No one escapes and the revolution fizzles without a strong face to represent it and give hope.

And why wasn't Katniss told any of this? So she couldn't be tortured for information if the plan failed. The way that Joanna, who knew about the plan, was tortured after it only barely succeeded proving that even the people in the know weren't given enough knowledge to seriously damage the rebellion. You know what avoids almost all of these problems? Haymitch saying to Katniss "There's a group trying to make sure that everyone gets out of the arena; listen to and trust everyone whose district token is a gold bracelet, and when someone tries to cut out your tracker let them."

But no, none of that happens. Instead everyone has to work around Katniss and Peeta because they think they're only trying to save each other, not literally every single citizen of their country. Oh, and for all you aspiring strategists out there: if your plan hinges on someone doing the thing you want them to do without being given explicit orders then you have a shitty, shitty plan on your hands. Compartmentalize, sure. Make sure that no single soldier knows the entire command structure you use or all the locations of hidden bases and general shit like that. But don't expect a plan based on cryptic hints and an injured 17-year-old girl's ability to shoot accurately and guess what you mean to be anything but a massive cockup.

But probably the thing that I like least about this book is that it's lazy. The arena is flashy, but nothing that happens there is interesting. The district tour talks about a lot of clothes with very little content to move the story along. All the conflicts are either not articulated and internal or overwhelmingly external; Katniss doesn't tell Peeta anything that's going on in her head and she is expected to stop an entire revolution by playing house with the boyfriend she keeps secrets from - so she's either in a one-on-one battle that she can't handle because she won't speak up or she's in a one-on-one-million battle that she can't do anything about because she's not allowed to communicate with or know anything about those million other people. Everything that happens is too convenient and therefore, in spite of acid mist and mutant monkeys and blood rain (seriously? blood rain is maybe a little gross but it doesn't appear to be dangerous in the story), everything is at least a little boring. Even the tear-jerker moment in District 11 feels lazy because Duh, obviously, of course the four-note song and three finger kiss are going to have to be repeated. Ugh.

And now back to plausibility: what in the name of fuck does the Capitol think the peacekeepers are going to accomplish? You have a starving population and you want to control them so you don't technically allow them to hunt but you look the other way. Suddenly you crack down on the hunting, whip people in public to serve as examples, and allow children to starve. You also close the coal mines - the only reason this district still exists - for two weeks so that everyone is even closer to dying of hunger and freezing to death in the middle of winter. When you're talking about levels of fascism that would sound outrageous to North Korea (and that don't even have the cult of personality to shore up the system) then you're talking about a government that would never, ever be allowed to survive for a decade, let alone the three generations that it has been around. Even Soviet Russia knew better than to demand that bourgeois children fight to the death in front of an audience of millions for the entertainment of Party loyalists. The fist clasped around the throat of every citizen of Panem has switched from frightening to funny pretty damned quickly. I mean, shit, the servants in the Capitol are people whose tongues have been cut out, some of whom were Capitol citizens (Pollux from Mockingjay, for example) - nobody, fucking NOBODY is well enough fed, entertained enough, or detached enough to think that a government that de-tongues its enemies and then uses them as servants in the public eye is a good government to live under. Nazi Germany didn't put their atrocities on display to remind the public that they were atrocious, and when you manage to make Nazis look like a class act you are laughably, hilariously, stupidly over-the-top bad and there is no way that I can suspend disbelief to pity the absolute idiots who haven't seen the weaknesses in their oppressors in all of this time. The Capitol citizens would have rebelled within ten years for the Avoxes alone, there's no way that the districts - without whom the capitol would freeze and starve - would put up with that sort of bullshit for seventy-five years.

This book has no idea what it wants to be. It's got way too much going on and could have been divided into two book that make at least a modicum of sense, but instead it's one book with an identity crisis. Katniss is in recovery from her last turn in the arena, and then she's training for an army, and then she's in an army, and then she's recovering from everything being terrible. I don't know if blogger has a word limit, but if it does I would go over it trying to list what's wrong with this book so I'll try to limit myself to just two things.

1 - The pods in the Capitol are utter fucking bullshit. It's shiny and exciting to read the first time around, but then you realize that the Capitol put deadly traps on every single surface they possibly could and then what, just crossed their fingers and hoped really hard that there would never be a computer malfunction? Most of the damage done in the battle for the Capitol is done by the pods, and they don't have a limitless supply of the things, so either they're hoping for a Pyrrhic victory or taking the "if I can't have it no one can" attitude to the city where they live. What happens if they DO win the battle - all of the citizens now know that their rosebushes are mined and that the streets are programmed to drop people into a stew of acidic chemical horribleness AND they know that their government doesn't particularly care if they're dropping enemies or refugees into the pit. Bullshit. Shiny, happy, lazily-written bullshit.

2 - Katniss, after going through two Hunger Games, the battle of the Capitol, losing her spleen, and watching her sister explode (while also catching on fire herself) goes back to the (conveniently) only still-standing part of her district that she used to live in. She mourns and is so miserable and broken and fundamentally incapable of caring for or about herself that when she stands up flakes of skin the size of playing cards fall off of her. And what makes her want to get up and go when her get up and go got up and went? Peeta.

The weekly calls she was supposed to make to her doctor, the availability of an older mentor with similar life experience, the companionship of an animal that was a link to her lost sister, the possibility of a phone call to her mother, and the assistance of a woman whom she had known as a child do nothing, over the course of several months, to help Katniss recover. The simple proximity of an appropriately aged breeding partner, however, does make a difference. And then they have babies. Katniss, who woke up screaming and strangling in a cupboard full of scarves and couldn't be bothered to wash herself for several months, has babies with Peeta, who was kidnapped and tortured for most of a year before being brainwashed into thinking that his mate-to-be was a genetic experiment built to destroy him. The only way they can express their "love" is by asking whether it's real that they love each other. These are people who have a fractured and completely codependent relationship, and they decided that procreating is a good plan. Actually, PEETA decides that procreating is a good plan and Katniss goes along with it because he wants kids so badly. Her terror and damage and mental health are ignored because she wants to please Peeta and he allows that to happen either because he's exactly the selfish, calculating person he appeared to be when he sided with the Careers in the first book or his headmeat is so fucked up that he doesn't realize how incredibly unhealthy the situation will be for everyone.

Katniss ends her narrative talking about how someday she'll show her kids the book of kills she's written and tell them that the lullaby she sings to them is the same song she sang to a dying little girl after being forced to sacrifice her life to save her sister's life. And this is presented as a GOOD thing, as a HAPPY ending. If a soldier came home from Iraq and started showing his kids drawings of people he'd killed or gazing silently at photos of the children of his dead battle buddy with his daughter on his lap, what would we say? Probably nothing because we'd be bustling him off to get some therapy for his PTSD, stat. And we might consider that leaving him alone with children, when he's prone to violent flashbacks and blames himself for the entire war, is probably not a good idea. Katniss, years after the fact, is not in a place where she is healthy enough to have children. It doesn't sound like she's ever going to be in a mental state where she would be allowed to keep her kid if current Child Protective Services standards were in place.

It is really and truly shitty to write a three-book series that centers around a female protagonist, make all of her choices hang on male action, and then end with the "joy" of motherhood. I completely DO NOT understand why people keep calling this a "feminist story" or Katniss a "feminist character" because neither is actually true, and if you look at the arc from provider to fighter to symbol to wife and mother Katniss has LESS control over her destiny and is MORE beholden to the male figures in her life than she was before she volunteered.

Not every book marketed to girls needs to have a freaking love story, and if we are going to keep selling love stories to our daughters can they at least be love stories where the woman has some agency? The closest Katniss comes to making a stand on her relationships is realizing that she'll never be able to trust Gale - she isn't even the one who brings this up, he simply cedes her to Peeta and goes on his way, leaving her to rot in Victor's Village until Peeta shows up and provides her with a male to live for.

Augh, SERIOUSLY, what the fuck?
Screw your hetero-normative, patriarchal, procreative agenda. Katniss wins the whole fucking war and kills the next tyrant without consulting anyone but is too weak and frail and feminine and womb-having to control her own fucking life.

WHO DOES THAT? Suzanne Collins I am very confused and concerned about why you thought this was an okay message. 

And you know what, if I have daughters they're not allowed to read The Hunger Games until I know that they've read and understood The Handmaid's Tale.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press. 2008.
Collins, Suzanne.  Catching Fire. Scholastic Press. 2009.
Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. Scholastic Press. 2010.