Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reflections on THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins


My previous post gives an overview of THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. This post will give my reponse to this novel.

PAGE TURNER. This book is a real page turner. I found that I could hardly put it down. Many of the chapters end with an unexpected twist that compels one to keep reading.

ACTION AND RELATIONSHIPS. While the action in THE HUNGER GAMES is of great interest, the personal relationships are highly interesting, too. The other tributes are not just targets to be killed, but persons with lives and families and interests. Katniss and Rue, the slight twelve-year-old girl tribute from District 11 (the agricultural district), develop a brief but intense relationship that leaves Katniss grief-stricken when Rue is killed. Katniss also admires Thresh, the burly boy tribute from District 11, who spares her life because of her kindness to Rue and who plays the Hunger Games on his own terms -- by disengaging from the fray, hiding in the tall meadow grasses, and using his survival skills. Katniss is truly sad when Thresh is killed by Cato, the vicious boy tribute from District 2.

TECHNOLOGY. The technology of the Capitol is fascinating in itself, even though we often see it aimed against the districts. One area that the Capitol has developed extensively is genetic breeding of animals. Such animals are called muttations.

The jabberjay, for example, is a bird bred to spy on people in the districts. Jabberjays are exclusively male and have the ability to repeat entire human conversations. They would be sent out to the districts, would listen to what was being said, and would fly back to the Capitol and repeat the overheard conversations verbatim. The people in the districts soon caught on and began feeding back all sorts of nonsense to the Capitol through the jabberjays. The Capitol then realized that the jabberjays had become useless and released them into the wild, where it was believed that they would simply die off.

But here's the very cool thing. The jabberjays didn't die off as they were expected to do, being exclusively male. The Capitol hadn't counted on the jabberjays' drive toward life and reproduction. The jabberjays simply courted female mockingbirds, many of whom were happy to mate with them. The offspring of the male jabberjays and the female mockingbirds are called mockingjays. They do not have the ability to reproduce human speech, but they do have the ability to reproduce human melodies, even complex ones. When a human sings a lovely song, a mockingjay will often light on a nearby branch, cock its head, and listen intently. It reproduces the entire melody, which is often picked up by other mockingjays, so that the melody cascades through the trees. This is an absolutely gorgeous (and completely unintended) effect of the Capitol's abandonment of the jabberjays.

ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT THE LIVES OF OTHERS. We often imagine that we know what others' lives are like. The reality, though, may be very different from what we imagine.

Katniss, for example, imagines that the people of District 11, the agricultural district, have enough to eat since they grow and harvest the food. But then she meets Rue in the Hunger Games and learns differently. Rue has rarely had enough to eat. The people of District 11 are severely punished for taking any of the harvest for themselves. Their Peacekeepers, as the law enforcers of Panem are called, are very strict and brutal, far more so than the Peacekeepers of District 12, who turn a blind eye to Katniss' hunting outside the boundaries of the district. The news that people in the agriculatural district are as hungry as the people in District 12 is an eye-opener for Katniss.

Katniss also assumes that Peeta, as the son of a baker, has enjoyed good bread and delicious pastry throughout his life, but she learns that this is not so. Delicious bakery items are luxuries reserved for rich customers. Peeta's family eats only stale bread, the bread that cannot be sold.

SILVER PARACHUTE. I love the silver parachute. During the Hunger Games, tributes sometimes receive gifts from their sponsors to help them survive. These arrive in a silver parachute. Katniss receives medicine for her burned leg, broth for Peeta when he is ill, and a loaf of bread from District 11 after she cares for little Rue -- each in a silver parachute. This is a lovely image of giving and receiving unexpected help.

DANDELION. When Katniss is eleven years old and nearly starving after her father's death in a mine explosion, Peeta throws her the lifeline of a simple loaf of bread. The next day, when she sees Peeta in the school yard, their eyes meet and then Katniss looks down -- and sees a dandelion. Free from hunger and thus able to think more clearly, Katniss' mind makes important connections. The dandelions are now out. So are other edible plants. Katniss, her little sister, and her depressed mother won't starve. Katniss can gather edible plants to keep them alive. She can revive her hunting skills in the forest just beyond the boundary of District 12. And in a few more weeks she will turn twelve years old and be eligible to sign up for rations of tessera.

OVERALL THOUGHTS. For me, these two thoughts stand out from Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES.
  • Notice the dandelions.
  • Send silver parachutes.

Overview of THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins


I love THE HUNGER GAMES, the first novel in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. Once I began reading it, I couldn't put it down, and once I finished, I immediately delved into the second book and then the third book of the trilogy: CATCHING FIRE and MOCKINGJAY, respectively. This post will give an overview of THE HUNGER GAMES. My next post will describe my response to this book.

THE HUNGER GAMES is what's called a futuristic dystopia. Although the exact year of the story is not specified, I would place it somewhere between 2500 and 3000 C.E. The location is Panem, a country that has emerged from the former North America after the environmental catastrophes that we in the 20th and 21st Centuries have set in motion have run their course. This means that the land has endured extreme weather, famine, epidemics, and war. The sea level has also risen creating a reduced land mass. Now things have settled down, resulting in the country of Panem.

Panem consists of a Capitol with twelve surrounding districts. The people in the Capitol live in abundance: delicious and plentiful food, constant entertainment, lots of leisure, and great attention to body art. They are the haves. The people in the districts live at subsistence level, struggling to put together enough food, water, clothing, and shelter to support life. They are the have-nots.

Several generations ago (74 years ago, to be exact), the districts rose up in rebellion against the Capitol. The Capitol promptly crushed this rebellion and enacted measures to ensure that such a rebellion would never happen again. The chief of those measures is the annual Hunger Games.

Every year, each district is required to send two tributes, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18, chosen by lot at a Reaping, to the Capitol to participate in the Hunger Games. The twenty-four tributes from the twelve districts are wined, dined, and feted, and are then sent into a large outdoor arena to fight to the death until one victor emerges. The arena, created by the Gamemakers, is acres large, usually with both forested and open spaces. The victor becomes wealthy for life, and the victor's district receives an abundance of food for a year.

In THE HUNGER GAMES, we experience the seventy-fourth annual Hunger Games through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the girl tribute from District 12. Actually, it is the name of Katniss' twelve-year-old sister, Prim, that is drawn at the Reaping, but Katniss volunteers to take Prim's place. The boy tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellarck.

Katniss comes from the Seam, the area of District 12 where the coal miners live. (Each district specializes in a product or service for the Capitol. District 12's specialty is coal mining.) District 12 is the poorest of the twelve districts, and the Seam is the poorest area of District 12.

Katniss' father was killed in a mining accident when Katniss was eleven years old. This sent Katniss' mother into a deep depression, leaving eleven-year-old Katniss and seven-year-old Prim to fend for themselves. Katniss somehow managed to take care of herself, Prim, and their mother through those dark months, although they sometimes went for days without anything to eat. As soon as Katniss turned twelve years old and was eligible to do so, she signed up for a tessera ration for herself, her sister, and her mother in exchange for entering her name three extra times in the Reaping. Tessera is an annual ration of grain and oil, distributed monthly. Katniss also remembered the time spent with her father in the forest and revived her ability to shoot with a bow and arrow and to hunt. By hunting and gathering in the forest with her male friend Gale, age eighteen, and by judicious trading on District 12's black market, Katniss is able to feed her family adequately.

Peeta comes from the business area of District 12. His father is a baker. Since Peeta comes from a family with a business, his life has not been as difficult as that of Katniss.

Peeta and Katniss share an important connection. After the death of Katniss' father and before she was old enough to sign up for tessera, she received unexpected help from Peeta. One evening, weak from hunger, she was hunting through the just-emptied trash bins behind the businesses of District 12 in the hope of finding some thrown-away food when Peeta threw her a loaf of bread with a burned crust. This was a turning point for Katniss. It gave her and her family hope, and this hope helped turn her thoughts toward wild plants she could gather until her approaching twelfth birthday and the tessera.

Peeta and Katniss both remember this incident, although neither has ever spoken of it. In fact, it turns out that Peeta has been in love with Katniss ever since he first set eyes on her in kindergarten.

So -- off go Katniss and Peeta to the Hunger Games. In my next post, I will write about my response to this book.

Bike Ride, Breakfast, Stroll, Chat

What a beautiful morning I had yesterday. I rode my bike to Ellen's house near City Park from my apartment near the Riverbend -- about a 30-minute bike ride.

Ellen, her husband Paul, and I had breakfast in their back yard. We had delicious fresh eggs straight from the hens on the farm of Ellen's friend Will, toast, and Ellen's homemade scones.

After breakfast, Ellen and I strolled through City Park, particularly the sculpture garden, and spent time chatting and catching up with each other. Ellen is quite good with recognizing birds and pointed out the starling, the mockingbird, and the red-breasted robin, as well as some others.

Before I rode my bike back home, Paul sprayed my bike lock with WD-40 (or is it DW-40?), as the lock had been getting stuck. It works much more smoothly now.

Just a simple morning with good friends. A blessing.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Tennessee Williams Festival 2012: Writing Marathon

One really interesting event at the Tennessee Williams Festival - a new event this year - was the New Orleans Writing Marathon on Saturday. This was led by Richard Louth of Southeastern Louisiana University, who regularly leads this kind of writing experience for his writing students and others.

In creating the New Orleans Writing Marathon, Richard has drawn from the work of Natalie Goldberg and of Ernest Hemingway.

Natalie Goldberg, in WRITING DOWN THE BONES, describes her own writing marathon, where participants spend a day writing in response to prompts provided by Natalie. Natalie will give a prompt, everyone will write for a specified time period, then there will be an opportunity to read aloud. This is followed by another prompt, a writing session, and a read-aloud. This cycle continues throughout the day.

To Natalie Goldberg's model, Richard Louth has added Ernest Hemingway's practice of writing in various Paris cafés and other Parisian venues in A MOVEABLE FEAST.

For the New Orleans Writing Marathon, participants form small groups of 3 to 5 writers and spend the day going to various locations in New Orleans (in our case, the French Quarter) to write and share. The idea is to go somewhere, write for a specified amount of time using a prompt or not, and then read aloud. Then the group goes to another location and does the same. We were provided with a list of suggested locations, mostly coffeehouses and bars in the French Quarter, although someone reminded us not to forget such possibilities as Saint Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square, and the Moon Walk by the Mississippi River.

I decided not to participate with a group, but to do a solo writing marathon. Here is where I wrote.

  • Croissant D'Or coffeehouse
  • U.S. Mint courtyard behind the Road Food Festival booths
  • Congo Square, where drumming and chanting was going on
  • The Voodoo Temple on North Rampart Street
  • Croissant D'Or again
  • Royal Blend coffeehouse
While I was at Royal Blend, a clown came in with full costume, ordered a sandwich, and sat at a table to eat it. Also, a man and a woman at the table next to mine were practicing reading Tarot cards with each other.

I did the kind of journal writing that was helpful to myself, the most helpful session being the initial one at Croissant D'Or.

I LOVE this concept of the writing marathon. I will think about ways to use it in my teaching and with friends.

Tennessee Williams Festival 2012: "A Streetcar Named Desire"

I attended two performances of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in conjunction with the Tennessee Williams Festival, although not exactly during the festival.

The first was an outdoor screening of the 1951 film starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in the sculpture garden next to the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. This film has the most effective rape scene in film history (in my opinion). You don't see a rape - it's only suggested. But you see the intention on Marlon Brando's face, you see his determined leap toward Vivien Leigh, and you see the mirror shatter (which I had remembered as the whole screen shattering, but it's actually the mirror that shatters). This shows that it's often better to suggest than to portray graphically.

The second was a performance of the play at the Michalopoulos Studio on Elysian Fields, the temporary home of Southern Rep. The performance was preceded with a walking tour of the neighborhood, which would actually have been the Kowalskis' neighborhood. The Kowalskis' address, 632 Elysian Fields, is right across form Michalopoulos - so we saw where Stanley and Stella Kowalski would have lived, as well as where they would have bought groceries, where they would have gotten their liquor, where Stanley would have worked, where Blanche would have gotten off the streetcar. This walking tour was conducted by the dramaturge for the play.

The play was excellent. Starring were Aimée Hayes as Blanche, Ashley Ricord as Stella, Michael Aaron Santos as Stanley, and Mike Harkins as Mitch. Aimée Hayes was especially wonderful as Blanche. She gave a very emotionally intense performance. In fact, it is hard for me to imagine how long it must take her to come down from that emotional high after the play - or, one might say, how long it must take her to resurface from that emotional low.

The theater experience included vendors dressed in period costume selling flowers and pralines!

The play runs through April 15, 2012.

Tennessee Williams Festival 2012: Late Night Events

I attended two late night events at the Tennessee Williams Festival.

  • Poetry Slam
  • Lafcadio Hearn


The Poetry Slam was held at Café Istanbul in the Bywater with the very energetic and funny Chuck Perkins as Master of Ceremonies. There were ten or so participants, each performing a poem that he or she had composed. Quite a few of the poems focused on marginalized people, such as gays/lesbians and teens in special education.

The most entertaining performance, however, was by a woman named Sunshine, who violated the performance rules. She used props (no props allowed) and she recited something that rhymed but that couldn't be called a poem. It was a free-wheeling rhyme that she was creating on the spot. Sunshine also exceeded the 3-minute time limit.

Sunshine's performance consisted of blowing up long balloons from a balloon cart (no props!) to shape a woman based on the preferences of Chuck Perkins (the volunteer!), all the while creating this free-wheeling rhymed speech. Did Chuck want his woman to be brunette, blonde, red-headed, or chocolate? Chuck, an African-American, preferred chocolate. What kind of legs did Chuck prefer for this woman? What kind of arms? What kind of torso?

The rhyme went something like this:

Now, watch me! You see,
With these balloons, two,
I twist them into
A chocolate woman for you!

Now, what does she need?
Why, surely, a head!
So here's a fine head for her,
Now take her to bed!

Of course, I don't remember the words of the rhyme, so I'm making this up, but the rhyme was very much like this. It really was that silly. It was NOT A POEM!

So, Sunshine - having violated the no props rules, having violated the 3-minute rule, and having violated the rule that you had to do an actual POEM - was finally shooed off the stage! She really was funny, though! Sort of like a clown who produces some comic relief in the midst of the more serious poems about marginalized people!

Also, I have to give lots of credit to Chuck Perkins, who is masterful as an M.C., no matter who is performing!


This late night event was also held at Café Istanbul in the Bywater. It consisted of reading passages about New Orleans by the 19th Century writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). There were also two burlesque performances - one by an alligator and one by a crab, performed by Trixie Minx of Fleur de Tease - and a dance by the Hip-ocrisy Belly Dancers.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tennessee Williams Festival 2012: Panels & Special Event

I attended three panel discussions and a special event at the 2012 Tennessee Williams Festival. Below are some notes on these.


This panel was composed of four memoirists.

  • Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts: HARLEM IS NOWHERE
  • Jesmyn Ward: SALVAGE THE BONES
The moderator was Ted O'Brien.

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of HARLEM IS NOWHERE, spoke of her book as one person's consciousness colliding with history, using the first person as a tool to encounter the place. She does not separate Harlem's history from her own life; rather, Harlem very much affects her life and the lives of African-Americans; Harlem and its history are very much alive today. Harlem was once seen as the place from which African- Americans would enter our democracy, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Harlem became the symbol of all that was wrong with our democracy.

Sharifa says that writers can sometimes experience an emotional reaction to their material that causes them to shut down, and that they must develop the ability to push through this, to write through this, to persevere.

Zachary Lazar, author of EVENING'S EMPIRE: THE STORY OF MY FATHER'S MURDER, says that the best part of writing his memoir was interviewing his father's friends and having the father whom he had never known come alive.

Claudia Sternbach, author of READING LIPS: A MEMOIR OF KISSES, focuses her memoir on the observation that the most important moments of life are often marked by a kiss.

Jesmyn Ward, author of SALVAGE THE BONES, wrote her memoir from a burning question: When five young black men died within a short period of time in her hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, WHY was there such an epidemic of death among young black men? One of these young men was her brother.


The panelists were four women writers.

  • Lucy Ferris: THE LOST DAUGHTER
  • Ellen Baker: KEEPING THE HOUSE
  • Laura Ellen Scot: DEATH WISHING
  • Jessica Maria Tuccelli: GLOW
The moderator was Bev Marshall.

Lucy Ferris, author of THE LOST DAUGHTER, says that her novel sprung from a news headline about the abandonment of a baby by teenage parents. These were actually middle-class teens. In the novel, the abandonment occurs in 1993, and in 2008, we go back to see the aftermath of what happened, especially as the baby did survive. For her book, Lucy learned about the effects of hypoxia at birth. A baby with hypoxia can appear dead to two confused teenagers. Lucy also remarked that people often know us only as adults but do not know the past lives that have created the people we are today.

Ellen Baker, author of KEEPING THE HOUSE, began her work with three images: (1) a photo of women in work garb from World War II, (2) an abandoned farm house that Ellen would drive by and that looked as though life had been hard there, (3) a visit to Calumet, Michigan, which was once home to 700,000 but which had decreased to 7,000 because the mining work had disappeared, leaving empty streets and rows of empty company houses. In KEEPING THE HOUSE, a grand-daughter in the year 2000 goes to northern Wisconsin to try to piece together why there is such separation among the women in her family. She discovers a tragedy that occurred in 1913.

Laura Ellen Scot, author of DEATH WISHING, wrote a book set in the Marigny, where people are dying, and some of them have the ability to make wishes that will come true after their death. No one knows who has this ability and who doesn't. Laura began her work with a "what if" question. This book seems a bit silly to me.

Jessica Maria Tuccelli, author of GLOW, wrote about lives of hardship spanning generations in northern Georgia. Her setting is Rabun County, and she did research at the county house in Clayton (which, to her surprise, turned out to be a shack). When I lived in western North Carolina after Hurricane Katrina, I sometimes went to Clayton and to the Osage Farmer's Market in Rabun County, which also has a wonderful barbecue stand next to it.

Jessica chose north Georgia because she wanted to write about a place that was completely unfamiliar to her. She is from New York City. On a trip with her husband, she went through an ancient forest in northeast Georgia and knew that this was the place she would write about, as it has a magical quality.

Jessica had to find a way in to talk with the people about their lives, and after persistent efforts and softening her approach, people began to talk generously with her about their stories. The people of Rabun County all have Cherokee ancestors, as well as African-American and Scotts-Irish. These people all have ghost stories.

Jessica has given the people of Rabun County copies of her novel, and they have expressed appreciation for the way she has portrayed them. Jessica used the Beck family as a basis for her novel.


The panelists were four people who have written about free people of color.

  • John Guare, author of a play titled "A Free Man of Color"
  • Barbara Hambly, author of the Benjamin January series of mysteries featuring a free man of color
  • Gregory Osborn, archivist at the New Orleans Public Library
The moderator was Pat Brady.

John Guare play, "A Free Man of Color," is about race in Louisiana before the Louisiana Purchase by the United States. The play will be performed at the Swine Palace Theater at LSU in September. I will consider going to Baton Rouge to see it. John Guare says he just loves the idea of his play being performed at a place called the Swine Palace - but I didn't really have a reaction to this as I'm used to the name of that theater in Baton Rouge.

John made the important point that today we have no vocabulary to talk about the nuances of race that existed in 1802 and earlier. Prior to 1802 (and the Louisiana Purchase), race existed on a continuum with many different shades and social standings. Once Louisiana came under the United States, all of this changed and any nuance of race disappeared. You were either black or white. If you were 1/32 black, you were black. If you were less than 1/32 black, you were white. Lots of either/or thinking here.

Barbara Hambly, author of the Benjamin January mystery series, had wanted since college to write a murder mystery series about a free man of color. Barbara knew (as many people don't) that free people of color owned slaves. Her main character, Benjamin January, is always walking a fine line between white and black. He is 3/4 black, with a fully black father and a mulatto mother. His mother is the child of a white master who raped one of his black slaves.

Barbara explained that free people of color did not identify themselves as black. To be black meant to be a slave. U.S. Americans, however, made no distinction between free people of color and black slaves. The way they saw it, if you weren't white, you were black.

Gregory Osborn's African-American parents were in the diaspora to California just after World War II.

Daniel Sharfstein, author of THE INVISIBLE LINE: A SECRET HISTORY OF RACE IN AMERICA, says that his book comes from an experience at age 20 in South Africa, where he spent a summer doing photo education. The black people he worked with were all classified as African by the government except for one woman who was classified as colored. This woman was actually fully African, but a census taker, wanting to do her father a favor, listed her classification as colored. This gave her a very different and much better educational and social experience as she was growing up, all due to her racial classification, which was not something visible and obvious but simply due to one census taker's whim.

This flexibility of race is what Daniel explores in THE INVISIBLE LINE. He returned to the United States wondering about race here. He came across one man in the United States who was suing for divorce on the grounds that he had unknowingly married a woman of a different race than he had thought. (Clearly, the race of this man's wife had not been obvious to him.)

Daniel tells the history of race through three families - just before the American Revolution, just before the Civil War, and at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Someone remarked that stereotypes about black people today stem from the terror inspired by the Haitian Revolution, which was indeed very bloody and terrifying for white people in Haiti. It was also remarked, though, that fear of a slave uprising had always existed. Indeed, oppressors always fear the oppressed - they fear their vengeance, which they know they deserve. In the United States, the Reconstruction after the Civil War hardened attitudes toward black people in the South.


The best thing about this event was the wonderful hors-d'oeuvre served along with it. John Mariani says that there is no better barometer of economic health than how many people are going to restaurants. This is true of our receding recession, and it was true of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

I also noticed that John Mariani says he likes to eat at the very fattening Cochon in New Orleans, as well as at John Besh's Lüke, with its French bistro cooking.

Tennessee Williams Festival 2012: Master Classes

I attended the Tennessee Williams Festival, which was held March 22-25, 2012. Here are some notes about the Master Classes I attended on Thursday, March 22.

CHILDREN'S BOOKS 101 with Catherine Frank

The main thing I learned here is that Young Adult books have crossed over into the mainstream adult reading world. Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES is an excellent example, as is HARRY POTTER.

I also identified some books I want to read.
  • THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green
  • TRY NOT TO BREATHE by Jennifer R. Hubbard, which addresses not only suicide but the rebuilding of the life of someone who has attempted suicide

This Master Class was really for publishers getting into e-books, so it didn't apply to me, but I really just like to hear Radclyffe speak. I like Radclyffe a lot.


Michele spoke about how to use social networking media to keep yourself as an author before the public. Michele says that Facebook is best used to spark conversation, and Twitter is best used to spread quick information. Michele likes to put up discussion questions on Facebook and let her FB Friends discuss them. She also says that people love Top 10 lists. And she has the interesting idea to offer a prize of "Lunch with an Author"! The winner gets to have lunch with the author whose FB page it is. Michele provided a hefty handout with extensive information, and she makes herself available to answer questions any time. I also just plain old like to hear Michele speak.

SURVIVING AND THRIVING IN THE PUBLISHING WORLD with Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry of the Book Doctor

This Master Class was about how to pitch your book to a publisher. You need a pitch for your book - a 200-word, one-minute answer to the question, "What's your book about?" Your voice should come through in your book, and the pitch should be reflective of the book (funny if a funny book, heart-thumping for a thrilling book, informative for an information book). You also need a platform - what YOU will do to get your book before the public. Arielle and David stressed that most authors have no idea how overwhelmed agents and publishers are. They also said that self-publishing has become quite respectable in the last few years.

An interesting thing is that the Book Doctor (Arielle and David) also held a later event during the Festival called Pitch-A-Palooza, where anyone could take one minute to pitch a book to them. They would choose a winner and help that author get his or her book published.