Archive for March, 2012

hunger tixCall me The Hunger Games hypocrite. Yes, I raced through the books. Yes, I got advance tickets for opening day. (Not the midnight show—not since I slept right through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.) And no, I could not concentrate for much of Friday thanks to the zeitgeist of anticipation via email, Facebook, and Twitter.

The books are hugely readable and addictive. Suzanne Collins offers up lots of great plot twists, which keep them far from predictable. Collins must be commended in hooking, not only girls, but also the elusive non-reading demographic of teenage boys on a story told from the point of view of a schoolgirl. That is a phenomenon in itself. It’s refreshing and exciting to have a strong, determined, and capable heroine, and I know that my teenage self would have loved to read about Katniss Everdeen. Still, I have some real problems with these books.

hunger games 1For starters, the body count is higher than a season of 24. Spoiler alert: pretty much everyone dies. And they die savage, gruesome deaths. Kids—yes, these are kids here. They’re dying and killing each other like something out of the 300. The grisly fate of stylist Cinna in Catching Fire would work great in a pulpy noir novel about Russian mobsters. But, um, this book is aimed at ages “12 and up.” To contrast, in Lord of the Flies, three boys die and it is a really big deal. In The Hunger Games, every kid dies and it is no big deal. At least it seems to be no big deal judging by the hordes of kids (not teens) who packed the theater.

Also, the dispassionate tone of Katniss, the narrator, really unnerved me. She seems fairly anesthetized to all the violence and takes a disturbing matter-of-fact approach to her Death Wish-esque rampage. Gosh, even in Jason in The Bourne Identity (book or movie) seems more conflicted than Katniss, um, as does Darth Vader at the end. When nice guy Peeta dispatches another wounded and helpless tribute (that’s a child/teen competitor), the book plays it off like that was a smart move, as though it were some heroic reach to protect Katniss. Again, little remorse. Even in Saving Private Ryan, the trained soldiers—men who have just been through D-day—find themselves torn about whether to execute their German prisoner.

hunger-games-2This lack of emotion and also the frenetic pacing made me feel like I was reading a video game. Snipers shoot unexpectedly from trees or roof tops, assailants jump out from behind corners, and there’s a constant stream of surprise dangers—fires, rabid mechanical dogs, poisoned gas—that Katniss keeps dodging. Particularly the third book, Mockingjay, feels a bit like “Call of Duty” as Katniss is almost continually shooting at someone. The whole underground trek in the tunnel was dizzying, as menaces popped out at nearly every turn. I had to stop several times during this book, because the choppy pace was so bing, bang, boom that I was getting a headache. My 13-year-old nephew told me that his teacher did not like The Hunger Games because he said it doesn’t offer the same sort of ‘patience and reward’ as traditional books. And I do wonder if kids are getting the same benefits to their comprehension and concentration skills when reading this flash-and-dazzle compared to say, Treasure Island, or eventhe Harry Potter series, which featured plenty of more ruminative passages and lots of complicated plot lines and backstories.

In the film Jennifer Lawrence, who was so striking in Winter’s Bone, added nuance and complexity to Katniss. I liked the character better than in the books. It’s interesting, because there was a bit of an uproar when Lawrence was cast, as Hunger Games fans called her too pretty or too old. But, she nailed it.

I’m not sure how they will handle Katniss as the films progress, but it really bothers me that the books never resolve the difficulties between her and her mother. They have a distant, unsettled relationship which percolates throughout the trilogy, and it was a real let down to have that go nowhere. Katniss is able to forgive and accept Buttercup, the cat she hates, but why not her mother? I must add that I loved the fractious dynamic with Buttercup.

Indeed there are many things to love in these books. Collins delivers memorable characters—Rue, Haymitch, Cinna, President Snow.  Even the tributes who we don’t know that well (Foxface, Glimmer, Thresh) we can visualize clearly. Collins is also a wonderfully descriptive writer and does an amazing job creating the sparkling Capitol, the rundown “Allentown” of District 12, and the workaday poverty of the Seam. You really sink into the world of Panem. Also, it is quite a feat that with only her words, she sort of put me off the smell of roses. I got some right after I finished the last book, and they did smell overly sweet and almost sickly. With each whiff, Katniss’s negative associations came to mind. Now, that’s some pretty impressive wordsmithing.

hunger games 3It was great fun seeing all of this come together on the screen in The Hunger Games movie, which so far seems to be a hit with both the diehard fans and those who’ve never read the book.  I do look forward to the next movie and also the next book by Suzanne Collins, although before I crack the spine, I will brace myself.

The Hunger Games Series Official Site on Scholastic

The Hunger Games Movie

The Hunger Games Wiki Site

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I really enjoyed this searing, beautiful, and understated book by Jamil Ahmad. I actually won it for participating in IndieThursday. (That’s when you buy a book at a local independent bookstore and then share the book title/store name via Twitter or on Facebook each Thursday.)

The Wandering Falcon arrived, a delicate gem of a book, like a small box of sand. Tempting, but I approached it thinking it would be one of those books that I would learn a lot from but did not expect it to be a page turner. What a wonderful surprise to find myself hooked!

From the very first sentences, Ahmad drew me in with his spare but evocative prose:

“Lonely, as all such posts are, this one was particularly frightening. No habitation for miles around, and no vegetation except for a few wasted and barren date trees leaning crazily against one another.”

The writing conveys a windswept, nomadic energy. Ahmad does not burden the reader with heavy prose or rich descriptions. I was completely taken in by his cadence. It felt as though I were hearing these tales from one of the Afridi elders, as they sat in their tented house passing the hookah and a box of tobacco around the fire. “The box had a mirror on the lid, which caught the light from the lamp and flung it back in mad dashes across the room.”

Usually I am suspicious of the ‘novel in short stories’ concept as just a marketing ploy, but these vignettes are gracefully braided together. There is a narrative arc that binds them chronologically and geographically, as the stories move from the southern desert where Pakistan borders Iran and Afghanistan up to the mountainous northern frontier above Peshawar. The setting is the post-colonial era of the 1950s, after the British had pulled out. Tor Baz, the title character named the ‘black falcon’, meanders through the stories as leitmotif. I really liked that. With each story, it was a fun little game trying to work out which character he was. I’m holding back on specifics about the many plot threads, because they won’t sound as good as the book reads. But, it’s a bit like James Michener‘s approach, in which different players, storylines, and cultures overlap and play out in a region.

After I tweeted how much I liked The Wandering Falcon, they put me on Facebook.

Indeed, I hadn’t realized that there were so many diverse and rival peoples in Pakistan. Ahmad skillfully draws out their differences via memorable characters, like the noble Dawa Khan who steps up to shepherd his tribe at a time of crisis, and the fusty old Ghairat Gul, who played the British against the Germans during  WWII, and the hopeful Shah Zarina, who despite her beauty has few options in life. Ahmad offers a nuanced, but not melodramatic, look at the harsh challenges and wrenching realities of their hardscrabble lives. He does not really delve into the current situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, except with a final prescient quote from Tor Baz: “Who but God knows what the future holds for me and for this land?”

The Wandering Falcon is small, quiet book, but leaves you satisfied like an epic.

NPR Interview with Jamil Ahmed

The Guardian Review, with Background on the Book and its Author

Penguin Books: The Wandering Falcon

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Am I the only one who switched from Google to Bing on March 1? Don’t get me wrong. I loved Google, but I have no love for their new shockingly invasive “privacy” policy. As of March 1, Google is saving *and consolidating* all of your data: your searches, your phone number, any Gmail accounts on your computer, your Google+, YouTube, and anywhere that you’ve Google Mapped.

Did you browse for a divorce lawyer? Did you look up side effects of Ambien? Did you ask for directions to the AA meeting? Er, do you know what your teenager has been watching on YouTube? Google does, and they are holding onto all of this information to build a composite of you and your family. Basically, they are creating their own avatar of you which they plan to save indefinitely. Google says it’s for advertising—now you might get ads for Lunesta or for the Wal-Mart near that AA meeting you mapped. (Actually, you are already getting these tie-ins if you use Gmail.)

It gets worse. Google will identify and track your computer hardware model, operating system, software, unique device identifiers, and network information, including your phone number. Once they have your phone number, they will track and save any number that you called, any calls you forward, as well as the time, date, and duration of all your calls. It’s like they commandeered the Patriot Act, minus the semblant subpeonas and court orders. Why does Google need to know about every call you have ever made in order to pop up an ad for Disney or American Airlines???

What’s even scarier, and downright outrageous, is that there is NO way to opt-out.

OK, so it’s pretty tricky to figure out the labyrinthine, Kafkaesque opt-out of say, Facebook. But at least Facebook is acknowledging our right to privacy, sort of. Google is acting like we don’t have any such rights. They are just pushing ahead, hoping we don’t notice—sort of like a quarterback rushing to get the next play off before the ref realizes that the last catch was actually out of bounds.

So now, beware, Google is watching and monitoring your every click … and call. Heck, even the police need a warrant to search your computer or your phone records. I’m no lawyer, but it’s pretty clear Google is violating our constitutional right against unlawful “search and seizure” as outlined in the Fourth Amendment.

If this all sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because you have read George Orwell’s 1984. “Big Brother is watching you.” Or maybe you have read The Hunger Games? Or perhaps you were around 30 years ago when this sort of surveillance was regularly practiced by the Soviet Union’s secret police, the KGB, which in 1983 Time Magazine called “the world’s most effective information-gathering organization.” These tactics were also used by the Stasi, the secret police of East Germany. Note, if you haven’t seen it, this is rendered heartbreakingly in The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2006.

Perhaps I’m starting to sound alarmist with a twist of conspiracy theory? It’s just Google, after all. But …

Hey, remember that time Google hired the head of the Pentagon’s research arm?” tweeted writer Chris Arnold. Ha ha, but wait. It’s true. Director Regina Dugan, who has overseen the Pentagon’s cyber security R&D for three years, has accepted a job at Google. Hmm. Arnold also compared Google to Skynet in The Terminator. Ten years ago I would have laughed at that. Now, I’m not so sure. Google saves my search data, they scan my Gmail for key words, they track all my phone calls, and they zoom in on my house via Google Earth. Logan’s Run, anyone?

Isn’t it also odd how little buzz has surrounded all this? Only a month ago we had a giant protest and media out lash against the proposed SOPA/PIPA regulations. But, of course, that was promoted on Google, by Google. This time Google is the one pushing the boundaries, and except for Bing and Twitter, there has been surprisingly little criticism from Silicon Valley.

I’m hoping people wake up and take notice. I’m hoping Google gets reigned in. The Attorneys General of of 36 states have banded together to address the issue. Also, several members of Congress have expressed concern. But so far not much has been done. So PLEASE contact them with your concerns. If not, it won’t be long before other internet companies adopt similar profiling measures. Seriously, Skynet!

Meanwhile, I’m using Bing, which I actually really like. Who would have thought that Microsoft would be the “alternative” to the Evil Empire? Or Yahoo would? I’m back to them for email and news etc. I never got into Google+, but if you use it, again, beware! Here are some tips to limit your online exposure to Google’s new tracking system.

I do miss Google. Even though I’ve deleted the apps and the bookmarks, I still sometimes land there by habit. And when I do, I type in “privacy.”

Google’s New “Privacy” Policy

CNN: Google Knows Too Much About You

UK Daily Mail: Google Will Soon Know More About You Than Your Partner

Time Magazine: The Basics Behind Google’s New Privacy Policies

Time Magazine: How to Limit Your Exposure to Google’s New Privacy Policies

Washington Post: Google Announces Privacy Changes: Consumers Can’t Opt Out

Google Hires Pentagon Director of Cybersecurity R&D

Attorneys General Join Together to Challange Googles Privacy Policy

Lawmakers Question Google’s New Privacy Practices

Contact Your Elected Officials

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