Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I picked this book up after having seen the movie, which I know is against my cardinal rule, but I didn't know the movie was based on a book until my friend told me as we were taking our seats in the theater. I should have known - most movies are based on books. If you haven't seen the movie, I would recommend it. Be forewarned, however, it is not a "feel good" movie. I left the theater feeling very heavy and it certainly brought back my own memories of September 11th. It did end on a hopeful note, but it is heavy film. The movie follows the book fairly closely though, and in my opinion, it deserved all of the praise it got from the critics.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tells the story of Oskar Schell. Oskar is a very unique young man, and although not officially diagnosed, he is clearly on the Autism spectrum. Oskar's father, Thomas, is killed in the Twin Towers on September 11th. After his death, Oskar accidentally breaks a blue vase he finds in his father's closet, and discovers a small envelope with "Black" written on the front and containing a key. Oskar becomes convinced that this key is another mystery his father has left for him to solve and he sets out to find the lock for his key. His journey brings him into contact with all sorts of people from every walk of life. I won't reveal what Oskar ultimately discovers about the key, but it should be a surprise to anyone who has not seen the movie before reading the book.

I really enjoyed this book. The writing style took some getting used to as it switches between characters, each of which have their own unique voices. Once I got used to it, I hardly noticed it because I was so engrossed by the characters. The characters in this book are fantastic - they are extremely interesting and entertaining. Anyone from New York or familiar with New York City will appreciate these characters' uniqueness and eccentricity. I found myself laughing and tearing up throughout the entire book. The book also hits on some fairly heavy themes - loss and grief - but it also spoke to how connected we really are.

All of the characters in the book are dealing with loss in some way - from death, to abandonment, to divorce. It was fascinating to see how each of the characters handled their grief. Some ran away from it, some went searching for things they would never find, others lashed out, while some found small ways to honor and remember who they lost. Each person Oskar met was in a different place with their grief and each played a role in helping Oskar deal with his.  Grief is such an interesting emotion because it really is a process, and each person really handles it differently. But this story was so much more than just that.

It also spoke to how connected we really are and how each of our lives intersects in ways that we can't even imagine. One little action from a person can change and alter the course of someone else's life, often without us really realizing. I loved how all the characters were brought together because of the key and how their stories wove together. Each of them is affected by this connection. It is amazing to think that we have that power - the power to affect the lives of others - and how awesome and terrifying that power is.


Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay is the third and final installment in The Hunger Games series. **There are a few spoilers, so proceed with caution**

Katniss has escaped the arena twice now, but is no safer for it. After being rescued from the arena, Katniss is whisked away to District 13, the headquarters of the rebellion. Panem is now in a state of open rebellion, and the leaders of the rebellion want Katniss to be the Mockingjay – the symbol of the revolution and rallying point for the people of Panem. The problem is Katniss has no idea how to be the Mockingjay and the injuries she sustained in the arena do not make it any easier.

Adding to her distress is the fact that the Capitol has taken Peeta prisoner and is using him not only to counteract the cause, but to also mentally and emotionally break Katniss. While Peeta is eventually rescued, he is no longer Peeta that we have all come to know in the previous books.

Mockingjay answers all of the unanswered questions – Will Panem win its independence? Will The Hunger Games become a thing of the past? Who will Katniss choose – Gale or Peeta? Who will survive the revolution to pick up the pieces? What will replace the Capitol if it should fall?

Mockingjay is pretty action packed. There are a lot of unexpected twists and quite a few of the main characters do not survive. The first time I read this book, it seemed to take forever to reach the climax of the story. For some reason the story seemed to move very slowly, even though there was a lot happening. Having read it for the second time, I didn’t feel that as much, but that is probably because I was familiar with the story.

Nevertheless, the second time around I still found myself wanting in a few areas. I thought the love triangle was a little too drawn out, and while I was originally on Team Gale, it quickly became apparent to me that Peeta was the one Katniss should end up with. However, throughout Mockingjay Katniss continually flip flops between the two. It leads one to wonder if she knows herself at all, or if she is capable of making a decision for herself. She continues to lead them both on, incapable of making a decision, which is somewhat cruel. I think in the end, it’s really Gale who makes the decision for her. While Katniss is sent back to District 12 to live, Gale remains in District 2. It seems that he got fed up waiting for her to make up her mind and chose him. Katniss is all too willing to go along with this decision, because it lets her off the hook completely. She doesn't really make a decision, she simply respects Gale’s decision to stay away.

I am happy she ends up with Peeta. He is broken and destroyed just like she is. However, what makes Peeta special and perfect for Katniss is his ability to remain optimistic. Peeta and Katniss have been made to suffer and they have both lost a lot, but Peeta still has hope that the future can be better. Katniss is definitely a pessimist, and has great trouble seeing the beauty in life, which is why Peeta is the perfect balance for her. Gale’s fire is too driven by hatred and rage. He would never be able to be what Katniss needs to survive. He could never give her the hope that she needs. However, I’m not sure that I could argue that she really chose Peeta either. He was the one who stayed, and through the process of healing they grew together. There is no grand, passionate confession. He’s just there, and she realizes it is better to live with him then without him. I don't doubt that she does care for him, but I also was not left with the impression that Katniss has a burning passion for him. This leaves a romantic like myself slightly disappointed.

I was also a little disappointed with the character of Katniss overall. When we first meet her she is a clever, resourceful, strong, and independent female. She alone has carried the burden of keeping herself and her family alive. It certainly has made her somewhat cold and distant, but you know that she will do anything in her power to survive and keep her family alive, even if it requires doing something illegal. By the time Mockingjay comes along, few of those traits remain. She is reduced to a broken child who really only seems to complain and do what others tell her to do. She can’t seem to make her own decisions about anything. She constantly second guesses herself, and allows others to influence her thoughts and feelings way too much. She throws pity party after pity party and runs away from her problems rather than deal with them. While some of that makes sense considering what she has been through, it did get a bit tiring and annoying. I found myself missing the tough girl from the Seam.

There were glimpses of the old Katniss throughout Mockingjay, but she always seemed to revert back to this less than ideal version of herself. I wanted her to get over herself and charge into the fray and be the Mockingjay. I wanted her to lead the revolution, rise above all that had been done to her, and prove that she was a survivor. I wanted her to prove that she could survive not only all of the physical stuff they put her through, but also prove that she wasn’t broken mentally or emotionally, that she was stronger than anything they could ever do to her. I wanted her to harness her own personal strength and refuse to be defeated. That moment for me never materialized, which left me disappointed in her character. While she did have moments, they never felt fully realized to me and they were usually followed by less than lackluster moments.

Despite these slight disappointments, I still highly recommend the series. It is definitely worth the read. The stories are well written and are certainly entertaining. They are also really quick reads – I read the entire series in a weekend.


Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is the second book in The Hunger Games series, and is my second re-read of the year. Catching Fire is still my favorite book out of the series and really brings the story to a whole new level.

**Spoiler Alert** I will try not to give too much way, but if you don't want to know anything about what happens I suggest you stop reading now...

Katniss has managed the impossible - not only has she managed to survive the Games, but Peeta has also survived. For the first time in the history of the Games, there are are two victors. Normally this would bring the victors a sense of relief, but Katniss has very little time to enjoy her victory.

Her stunt with the berries, which saved not only her life, but Peeta's life, has become a catalyst for rebellion in the districts. Without consciously meaning to do so, Katniss's actions are seen as an open defiance of the Capitol and she finds herself the symbol of the rebellion. President Snow holds Katniss personally accountable for the uprisings that have sprung up and threatens Katniss with the deaths of her family and friends if she is unable to convince the people of Panem that she has no intention of overthrowing the Capitol as she travels throughout the districts on the Victory Tour.

When Katniss is unsuccessful in the task set for her by President Snow, she finds herself once again facing the Hunger Games arena. This year is the 75th anniversary of the Games - the Quarter Quell. To remind the people of Panem that "even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol," the tributes are chosen from among the previous victors from each district. As Katniss is the only female victor from District 12, she has no choice but to return to the arena. To make matters worse, Peeta will also be returning to the Games, only this time, Katniss is determined that he will be the one to survive and return home.

While the Games play out in the arena, Panem descends into open rebellion. District 12 has been destroyed, and the rebels are gathering in the previously thought to be destroyed District 13. Many of the victors within the arena are in on a plot to save Katniss, the symbol of the rebellion, from the clutches of the Capitol. All does not go according to plan however, as Peeta is captured by the Capitol. Catching Fire ends as Katniss' world is falling apart. Panem is at war with the Capitol and she has become the symbol for the rebellion, her home has been destroyed, and Peeta has been captured...

On to book three - Mockingjay!


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This is my first re-read of the year. I actually read this series last year for the first time and loved it. I decided to pick it up again, because the movie is being released on March 23rd (check out the trailer below). 

The Hunger Games takes place in the not-too-distant future on the ruins of North America in Panem, a country divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. The districts live in relative isolation from one another, and the majority of the population barely has enough to survive. Katniss Everdeen is from District 12, the poorest district in Panem. After the death of her father, Katniss becomes her families sole provider, often sneaking into the woods illegally to hunt with her best friend, Gale. The inhabitants of the Capitol live opulent lives off the spoils of the surrounding districts. The districts are strictly controlled and even the smallest of infractions can result in strict punishments from the Peacekeepers. 

Panem originally had 13 districts, however District 13 was destroyed after it attempted to overthrow the Capitol. Now as a reminder of and punishment for this failed rebellion, the inhabitants of the districts are forced to participate in The Hunger Games. Each year, two young people - one male and one female - are selected by lottery to participate in the Hunger Games, a competition where 24 contestants are sent into an arena and must eliminate each other while the rest of the country watches. 

This year "the reaping" has a special significance for Katniss - it is the first year that her younger sister, Primrose, will be eligible to participate. Although the odds are in her favor, Primerose is chosen to be one of the District 12 tributes. Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place, and she and her male counterpart, Peeta, set off for the Capitol to face the greatest challenge of their lives.

Katniss and Peeta find themselves pitted against fierce competitors, some of which have spent their young lives training for the chance to participate in the games. Both of them struggle to maintain their identities and humanity, while being forced to make tough decisions and survive.

The first time I read this book, I had a little trouble getting into it, or at least that is what my review on Goodreads says...I can't seem to recall why and I don't really mention a reason in the review. I can say that I definitely enjoyed reading The Hunger Games for a second time. I love the premise behind the story, and since I read the books for the first time about a year ago, enough time has passed that I didn't remember everything that happened in the book. The chapters that tell about the games were still exciting and action packed, and I still really liked the character of Katniss.

I'm curious to see how it will translate onto the big screen, especially the casting, as I pictured some of the characters differently in my head. If it is anything like the book, it promises to be an action packed film. I just hope that they didn't deviate too much from the original story.

My original plan was to re-read The Hunger Games and move on to something else, but I find myself hooked again and have decided to re-read the series in its entirety. It's that good! On to book two - Catching Fire!


Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

I picked up this book because I saw a preview for the movie that was just released staring Robert Pattinson as Georges Duroy, a.k.a. Bel-Ami (means beautiful friend). The story takes place in the 1880's in Paris. When we first meet Georges Duroy, he is a nobody. He has a thankless job, which pays him so little that he is barely able to live. He has no prospects, and no hope of making more of himself. I initially had great sympathy for Georges - he was ambitious, but unable to rise above his poverty.

That all changes when he happens to cross an old military buddy of his, who manages to secure him a job at the newspaper where he works. Through this friend and his new job, Duroy comes into contact with high society women, and soon discovers that he has a way with them. He uses his good looks, charm, and powers of seduction to achieve wealth and social position, at the expense of these women.

There is nothing "beautiful" about the character of Georges Duroy. He is extremely shallow and spends most of his time consumed with thoughts about what others think of him. He is never happy and seems to think that the grass is always greener. Every success leads to the desire for more. He is a cruel womanizer. He takes advantage of his many mistresses, taking from them what he wants - their bodies, their time, their money - and then discarding them with little regard for their feelings. One of his mistresses he conquers just for sport, just to see if he can seduce her, and then throws her away at the earliest convenience. To cap it all off, he even goes so far as to marry her daughter.

The women of this story are infuriating. They continually allow themselves to be taken in by Duroy and tossed aside, and yet they keep coming back to him, again and again. One mistress even gets beaten by Duroy and still comes back! What drove me crazy is that Duroy clearly has no real regard for these women and feels no remorse over using and abusing them. Over and over again, these women realize that he does not truly care for them. They get angry and rage at him, some even refuse to ever speak to him again. Yet one word from Duroy, one glance their way, and they are hooked again and allow themselves to be used as pawns in Duroy's game, only to be disappointed again.

The book has all the great things one would expect from a novel about Paris in the 1880s - sleazy journalism, corrupt politicians, sex, money, and power. While I can appreciate all of that, my inner feminist was screaming at these women to "smell the coffee" and realize that Duroy was a no good, two-timing douche-bag. What's sad is that karma does not come to bite him in the ass. Duroy becomes a stunning success, despite his treatment of those around him.

As far as classics go, this was a very easy read. The writing style is easy to follow, and there is not a lot of difficult language to trip over. In fact, the book has a very modern feel to it. I gave it two stars - I liked the book and don't regret picking it up, but it is not a classic that I will probably ever read again. I recommend that you at least give it a try...