Dark Have Been My Dreams Of Late

Zone One is, if you can fathom it, a literary zombie novel.  I know, I know…zombie novels aren’t literary, they’re genre.  But not this one.  This is a zombie novel (and, therefore, a genre novel) written by a literary novelist in a literary style.  And, for my money, it’s a lovely union of the two.  (Full disclosure: I’m a lover of literary fiction.)

Zone One spans 3 days in the life of Mark Spitz, a man filling his time as a “sweeper,” essentially a member of a military-style team of 3 volunteers out to find, kill and dispose of skels (short for skeletons, a.k.a., zombies) or stragglers – people who’ve been bitten and infected but become catatonic, not really a threat.  Though nowhere near as bleak as The Road, this novel is somewhat reminiscent of it.  Colson Whitehead, Zone One‘s author, utilizes such beautiful language – the imagery and honesty painting a vivid and stark picture of a world we’ve all seen before: America ravaged by flesh-eating zombies.  Yet nothing about it feels recycled.

They say the devil lives in the details, and maybe it does, but I say so does genius.  The presence of stragglers and their description is one such detail that adds rich depth to this fictional world.  Kudos to Whitehead for thinking up such a unique element to propel his readers into this grim reality.  Because the truth is, if any infectious agent were to cause an apocalypse of any kind (not necessarily one involving zombies) there would undoubtedly be some who reacted to it differently.  Some who were exposed but still survived, as there were with Smallpox, the Black Plague and AIDS.  And there would be some whose symptoms wouldn’t quite match the symptoms of the majority.  As is the case with the stragglers.  They are infected and slowly dying, but they don’t wander aimlessly in search of human or animal flesh to devour.  Instead, something inside trips up and they spend the rest of their ruined lives repetitively reliving some fragment of their former lives.  A former psychiatrist, for example, sits in the chair in her office, endlessly waiting for her ever-late patient to arrive.  Another woman stands in the dressing room of a deserted bridal shop, cradling a wedding gown, slowly decaying over the dress until she either falls to the ground for lack of physical strength or someone like Mark Spitz happens upon her and ends her mindless existence.  These stragglers make up maybe 10% of the infected and their existence causes Mark Spitz to wonder which of the many mundane routines of his former life would consume him if he were to become a straggler.  Where would he go, what part of his former life would surface through his plague-ridden brain and summon him back?  Details like this set this book so far apart from any other “zombie” novel.  From other novels period.

Another beautifully-executed detail of this fearful world is Post-Apocalypse Stress Disorder, or PASD, and every single survivor suffers from it.  “PASD had as many faces as there were uninfected.”  What Whitehead does so eloquently is showcase the truth of this statement with the varying behaviors of all characters in his novel, including the main character.  They all have baggage.  They all have issues.  They are, each and every one of them, damaged.  And they all express the effects of their damaged psyches a little differently.  Which is exactly how it goes following any major trauma in people’s lives.  Similar though we all are, stress manifests itself in varying degrees and in a variety of ways for each of us.  Mark Spitz tends toward extended internal reveries during which he recalls pieces of the world that no longer exists.  He has trouble speaking with people; basic language often evades him.  Gary, another member of Mark Spitz’s unit, refers to himself in the collective plural we, as he was born one in a set of triplets, his two brothers both long gone.  Kaitlyn, the third member of their unit, seeks order and organization anywhere she can find it, trying to create the illusion of control in a world almost completely devoid of it.

There isn’t much of a plot but that’s no complaint.  The characters are fully developed and the elegant prose moves the story along gracefully.  It’s mostly a 3-day glimpse into an America that’s been transformed by a zombie-creating plague, filled with flashbacks that answer many questions and raise others, its lack of plot more than compensated for by its characterization and its beautifully crafted theme: the devastating but no longer deniable truth that all life, including human life, is random, without design or meaning, and however we might get there, there is but one end for us all.  This story is not for the delusionally optimistic.  Yet, there was no cynicism in its telling, either.  When I reached the end, I felt there was no other place this story could have gone.  I hadn’t predicted it, yet I thought, of course, this is the end.  And I immediately flipped back 15 pages and read it again.

~Nikki

Wear A Necklace of Rope, Side By Side With Me

Mockingjay, the third and final installment of the Hunger Games series, began as it ended: in the wake of devastation.  Katniss, now rescued from the Quarter Quell and reunited with her mother and sister, Gale and Haymitch in District 13, opens the book by visiting her native District 12.  She finds it reduced to ashes, bombed by the Capitol in retaliation for her rescue and the defiance she’s come to represent.  After much resistance – she’s sort of in a depression due to the loss of her home and former life and Peeta, who was captured by the Capitol – she agrees to be the Mockingjay, the symbol of the uprising, a role that requires she shoots video with survivors of the various battles taking place in other districts and occasionally fighting a bit herself in order to boost morale and keep the resistance going.  She and the leader of District 13, President Coin (eerily similar to President Snow in her demeanor) butt heads, though, and Katniss’s participation is limited.

The story really picks up once Peeta is rescued.  Much to my surprise, he was brainwashed (with the aid of tracker jacker venom) into believing Katniss to be his enemy and tries to strangle her to death upon seeing her.  I expected him to be angry for not being part of the rescue; I did not expect him to have been warped into an assassin.  Very slowly, he begins to differentiate his actual memories from the nightmarish ones implanted by Snow and return to the Peeta I fell in love with in the first book.  He, Katniss, Gale and a small team of other soldiers eventually set out to invade the Capitol and join the fight, though they are instructed to steer clear of the front lines since they are the ‘Star Squad’ – the face of the rebellion – and their defeat would destroy morale.  Katniss secretly devises her own plan to hunt down and kill Snow and I was elated to see her back to her wild, brave self.

Many die or are captured but the rebels do ultimately win the war.  But not before Prim is killed in a senseless bombing of medics and refugee children.  I didn’t see this coming and I admit, it crushed me.  Katniss can barely find the will to keep breathing, the only thing keeping her going is the promise made to her by Coin that she’ll be the one to execute Snow.  Another awesome twist: Katniss visits Snow before said execution and he admits to her that he did not order the bombing of those child refugees.  Coin did.  Prim was not the primary target, she just happened to be in the wrong place at the worst time.  When execution day arrives, Katniss shoots her arrow into Coin’s heart, not Snow’s, trying to avoid ending up right back where they started.

What I’d hoped for, but really did not expect, was that Peeta not only lived through the revolt but eventually won Katniss’s heart.  Given their long-time friendship and similar personalities, I expected Gale to be Katniss’s choice.  She and Gale did have a strong bond, for sure, but it was Peeta, the boy with the bread, who saved her life when she’d been starving and again, more than once, inside the arena.  They’d saved each other and helped each other cope with the emotional scars they’d earned and, ultimately, it was Peeta who helped Katniss overcome her grief at the loss of her sister.

I love that at the end of the series, Katniss and Peeta (and everyone else) are deeply damaged, scarred beyond repair.  It’s so far from a fairy tale and for that, I am grateful.  Suzanne Collins has impressed me more than any other new (to me) author I’ve read in the past few years.  Her characters cope as best as they can and go on, hopeful but irrevocably changed, as though they were real people, and once I’d finished this series, I kind of wished they were.

~Nikki

I Need A Hero

Today, as promised, I’d like to share with you my thoughts of Catching Fire, the 2nd novel of the Hunger Games trilogy.  And I should warn you now, there will be spoilers.

For me, Catching Fire felt slow-going.  I loved, LOVED The Hunger Games, so maybe my expectations were too high, but Katniss Everdeen was such a complete bad-ass that I expected her to dive right into the role of leader of the revolution, a role she all but refused to accept.  I admired the graceful words of gratitude she offered in District 11 to the families of Thresh and Rue (to everyone of District 11, really) and thought her brave to speak them publicly.  The district’s response – the old man’s mockingjay whistle and the unified 3-finger signal the entire district gave to Katniss – was touching and the way her simple expression of thanks moved them to this unified act of dissent made me think she would step up and organize a real uprising.  Instead, she makes an internal vow to better play along with President Snow’s agenda.  Look, I get it.  Really, I do.  The old man who whistled quickly got a bullet in his head for his tiny rebellious gesture.  I understand why Katniss felt afraid.  But after her fearless (and clearly mutinous) behavior in The Hunger Games, I didn’t expect her to succumb to her fear quite so easily.

I forgave her her choice of Gale over Peeta, even though I adore Peeta, after Gale’s public whipping for the wild turkey he poached.  Gale became more of a real character throughout this book, more than just the best friend to whom she occasionally alluded.  And seeing him so badly hurt finally put her in the mindset she needed to give up her fantasy of fleeing into the woods, telling him she would stay there and “cause all kinds of trouble.”  Which led me to believe, once again, she was ready to lead the rebellion.  Rattled though she was, fear quickly trumped all else.

I’m actually okay with the whole ‘reluctant hero’ thing, but even the reluctant hero eventually accepts his/her role.  I was furious at Katniss’s response to going back into the arena.  I thought if anything would force her to step into the role so clearly set out for her, this would be it.  If I’d gone through what she and Peeta went through in the arena, no fucking way could anyone get me back in that death trap.  I know her options were limited; I just didn’t expect her to accept her doom so quickly.  Once inside the arena, however, she did kick back into survival mode (though, this time, it was Peeta’s survival she strove for), and the story immediately picked up.  I didn’t see coming the planned rescue arranged primarily by Haymitch and Plutarch Heavensbee and I thought it was perfect.  My only complaint was that Peeta had been left behind (though soon into Mockingjay, I realized this was necessary for the rest of the story).

The bottom line: Catching Fire kept me on the hook enough to want to keep reading (though, seriously, it would have taken a LOT to make me not see this story through to the end) but it pales in comparison to what both precedes it and what follows it.

We’ll talk about Mockingjay sometime soon.  First, your thoughts on Catching Fire?

I’m On The Hunt I’m After You

I was initially reluctant to read the Hunger Games trilogy only because I’m kind of tired of the YA genre (Twilight has worn me out) and I judgmentally assumed it’d be a fluff-type of story featuring teenagers to whom I can’t relate.  I realized I was wrong on every account roughly 2 pages into the first book of the series.  The strong, clever female lead, through whose eyes we watch the story unfold, is someone to whom I could easily relate and her smart narrative sucked me in immediately.

The story is reminiscent of 1984, a personal favorite of mine, and is much darker than I expected, which suited me very well as I am fond of all things dark and melancholy.  The main character lives in District 12, the final of the 12 districts that make up Panem.  The country is under the rule of the Capitol, a government that insists upon loyalty, even as it watches its citizens starve.  Once a year, it forces each district to give up 2 adolescents (one male and one female) to participate in the Hunger Games, literally a fight to the death in an enclosed arena, designed to demonstrate to every citizen that the Capitol has complete control and to serve as a lingering punishment for a failed rebellion some decades ago.  Pretty twisted for a novel written for teenagers, huh?

The main character, 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen, finds herself enlisted in the Games along with Peeta Mellark, a boy her age with whom she has a slight history.  He once gave her bread in a time when she and her family were truly starving and she never stopped feeling indebted to him.  Now, however, in order to stay alive, she knows he must die, possibly at her hands, along with 22 strangers from the other districts.  And all of this in only the first couple chapters.

I admit I was hooked instantly.  Katniss is sharp, bold and a bit wild and her story captivated me from the first paragraph.  I also grew attached to Peeta.  From the start, it seems inevitable that he will die and yet, I could not help but love him.  He eventually comes to compete for Katniss’s affection with her long-time best friend, Gale, a strong, rebellious young man who is a couple years older and who, like Katniss, grew up in the Seam, the poorer part of District 12, whereas Peeta is a shopkeeper’s son.  It seemed obvious to me that of the two, Gale would probably end triumphant in gaining Katniss’s love but that didn’t stop me from hoping against the odds that it would be Peeta she’d chose.  I liked Gale well enough but Peeta is so kind, so honest, so full of integrity.  He’s just so…good.  There I go again, rooting for the wrong one.

I’ll save my thoughts of Catching Fire and Mockingjay (books 2 and 3, respectively) for another day.  For those of you who haven’t read them, please do.  They are well worth the time.  (That means you – Annie!)  I hear the movie adaptation is currently in the works and I, for one, am looking forward to it.  I hope it does the book justice – Suzanne Collins (author of the trilogy) has set the bar seriously high.

-Nikki