Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)

Review: Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

I admit, this book surprised me. It didn’t leave me feeling pleasant, or hopeful, or happy. It’s by no means a happy ending, and I understand now all those bad reviews I’d seen on Goodreads (I didn’t read them before to avoid spoilers, but couldn’t help looking at the number of stars). Honestly, the only complaint you can have about this book is that it’s too realistic. In real life, not everyone who is important to you gets away unhurt. Wonderful, talented and special people die everyday in the most useless, worthless kinds of ways. People try to control you, and succeed, in a myriad of ways, specially if you happen to be important or famous. Sometimes there is no way to break free without causing even more damage to others and yourself. And in real life, war never leads to happy endings. That’s just the way it is. It’s complicated, this life thing.

And Katniss? I admit she annoyed me in the other books, but on this one, she is so fleshed out that she becomes one of the most realistic characters I’ve ever read about. I’ve seen people complain she is whiny and can’t seem to do anything without being pushed to do it. But let’s face it. She’s a sixteen year-old girl. A teenager. She’s still growing up and hasn’t had time to learn how to deal with anything she’s been through. And she goes through a lot. It’s all very nice and well to complain about her, but how many of you would go even through a fraction of what she did and come out ok? Make an effort to imagine it, to feel it. What kind of person would you be if you had lost a parent and gone hungry with a depressed mother at the age of 11? If you had been forced to kill other teenagers at the age of 16 for the pleasure of others? If you had seen your city reduced to rubble? If you had had your body burned by acid, pierced by arrows, etc.? If you had seen your friends beaten to a pulp while trying to protect you? If you had seen all your efforts to wrestle back control of your life thwarted by people with more power than you, who seem to control the fate of everyone around you? I could go on, but really? At sixteen, there’s no way you can deal with it and come out unscathed. Hell, maybe not even as an adult, but definitely not while you’re still trying to figure out who you are.

So even though this book was rather painful to read, it was one of the most honest and raw accounts of first-hand war (even a futuristic one) I’ve read in fiction. Highly recommended.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Rating: **** (4 out of 5)

Review: Warning: Contains spoilers for the first book.

After managing to win the Hunger Games, save Peeta’s life and strike a symbolic blow to the Capitol’s totalitarian strength, Katniss returns home a victor, rich beyond anything she ever needed and more damaged than before. As the story progresses, she begins to realize the implications of her actions go far beyond herself, Peeta and their families, and that she unwittingly started a rebellion in the Districts against the Capitol. What will the all-powerful President Snow do to quell the flames of revolution, and can Katniss do anything to save herself, her loved ones and the Districts?

This was a great read. Suzanne Collins’ writing kept me glued to the pages, even if the story was a bit predictable – for me, at least. I could pretty much see all the twists coming, even though Katniss herself seemed totally oblivious to all the signs around her. That’s the only thing about the book that irked me – Katniss is at times absolutely annoying and you wish you could reach into the book and slap some sense into her. She needs to be told absolutely everything as she can’t seem to put two and two together, ever, or when she does try she reaches the most ridiculous conclusions. It gets a little better toward half-way through the book, and she has her heart in the right place, I guess; but I still liked practically all the other characters better than her.

Still, this is an interesting story that touches upon many political and social issues that are relevant nowadays. And the ending left such an impression on me that I started reading the third book right away. Let’s see how this plays out!

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

Rating: ** (2 out of 5)

Review: This book follows Mark-Alem, a young man from an aristocratic family in the Ottoman Empire, who, at the bid of his family, starts working in the Palace of Dreams. This is a place where the dreams of every person in the empire are collected, sorted and interpreted, in order to control the citizens and find the Master Dreams, the ones that give clues into the future of the Sultan and the Empire. The building is a nightmarish maze that engulfs Mark-Alem in despair, and his powerful family’s interests are frequently at odds with those of the Palace, so he fears that his life will eventually be touched by disaster.

The premise of this book is quite interesting, but I had problems getting into it because of everything else. I don’t know how much was lost in translation (this is an English translation from the French version – the original is in Albanian) but the writing style didn’t work for me. Mark-Alem’s disposition in the entire book went from very nervous to outright panic, and I couldn’t understand why. It felt like the book was telling me that he had reasons to feel terrified but wasn’t actually showing me the reasons.

I really liked the premise, and I usually like metaphors and political dystopias, but this one just didn’t work for me.

P.S. Even though I wasn’t crazy about this book, I do have an interesting back story about it. My friend André bought it in Cuba (of all places!) when we went there a couple of years ago, but only managed to read it on a journey to London. He lent it to me so I could read it on our trip to Scotland. So this is a very well traveled book!

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Background: An undeniable classic and a must-read. I actually started reading the Portuguese translation of this book a long time ago, but it mysteriously disappeared when I was about midway – it’s been years and I still have never seen it again. I don’t mind – actually I think it’s funny that it happened to this book in particular! When I saw the Anniversary Edition from Penguin (which has a truly amazing cover) I decided to buy it.

Review: This is a book that has had such an impact on culture that hardly anyone, even those who have never read the book, hasn’t heard about the concept of Big Brother (who is always watching). “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a dystopian novel which follows the story of one individual, Winston Smith, who lives in Oceania, one of the three remaining super-powers in the world. Oceania lives in a constant state of war, and their inhabitants disappear behind the needs of the Party, the ruling collective mind of those in power.

Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, which concerns itself with changing the past according to what the Party needs. Every historical document ever made is constantly being reinvented and adapted to the present, so that contradictions never exist. Human memories are all but obliterated, and the truth becomes what the collective mind can remember. However, Smith, born before the Party rose to power, is sure he can remember a time when things were totally different.

The book goes much deeper than just presenting the story. In fact, it felt more like an exercise, or study, if you will, on the organization of society, the economic and social needs for the war, the viewing of power as an end (as opposed to being a means to an end), the controlling of people until they are only a shadow of what we would consider human. In this world there is no privacy, there is no individual – the people are described as being cells in the body of the Party, inconsequential and unimportant by themselves, unless in relation to the whole. Every effort made is towards the advancement of the control the Party has over everyone, but at the same time that control must be unconscious. The contradictions are solved by applying doublethink – the power to accept two contradictory facts as simultaneously true.

Like any well-made dystopia, this is a chilling book that successfully explores the extremes to which a totalitarian, completely controlled regime could go, and the ugly consequences of the quest for power. Recommended for everyone.

What’s Next: I’m interested in reading more dystopias, and have already added some to my wish list. I think they’re a great way to study human behaviour and society.

Next on my reading list is maybe a graphic novel or some fiction… Since I now have around 50 books in my shelf it’s getting kinda hard to decide what to read next!

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)

Background: This is one of those books that have become such an integral part of culture that you just have to read them if you call yourself a book lover. At least I’ve always felt like that, and it’s been on my wishlist for quite some time, so I was very happy when I came across this charming little edition from Penguin.

Review:
George Orwell initially named this “Animal Farm: A Fairy Tale”, but the second part of the title has been largely dropped, something that I found quite interesting. It reminded me more of Aesop’s fables than of any fairy tales I’ve come across. The introduction to this edition, written by Peter Davison, was short but very informative. I was particularly amused to read about some of the initial reactions from publishing houses to the book. Can you believe it was once rejected on the grounds that there was no market for children’s books? I wonder what it felt like for Orwell to hear things like this – I hope he felt at least some amusement, but it does show some of the sad ignorance (even from apparently literate people) that we encounter eventually in the book.

The story begins when the animals of Manor farm, owned by an incompetent farmer named Mr. Jones, decide that they had enough of being mistreated and subjected to the whims of the evil humans, who did no work but took all the fruits of the animals’ labour to themselves. Old Major, a pig, gathers the animals and gives them a vision of a better future, of a society ruled by animals, where there were no humans to answer to and every animal was treated equally. They succeed quite rapidly at overthrowing Mr. Jones, and the guidance of the farm is taken over by the pigs, the most literate and intelligent of the animals. Two of the pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, quickly come into disagreement with one another over many things – Snowball keeping true to their vision of equality of rights among animals (to which they gave the name of Animalism), putting his brain to work to figure out ways of making their lives easier and better, while Napoleon works secretly to overthrow him and seize control of the animals and the farm.

For anyone with a basic knowledge of recent history, it’s very easy to read this as an allegory for the Soviet Union. Old Major might be a representation of Karl Marx (this is what I originally thought – but I’ve read some people argue that he might just be a representation of the socialist ideals, which I guess makes sense as well), Napoleon represents Stalin, slowly corrupting the ideals, twisting them to fit his own agenda, all the while taking advantage of the ignorance and illiteracy of the other animals to convince them, by the use of propaganda (here represented by the pig Squealer) that all these changes were for the animals’ benefit. While I read this I thought of Snowball being a representative for Trotsky, who was deported from the Soviet Union for opposing Stalin – in the story, he is chased out of the farm by Napoleon’s dogs, whom he had trained since puppies to serve as bodyguards and law enforcers.

The story unfolds as little by little the initial dream of an ideal society where everyone is a comrade and an equal to everyone else is corrupted cunningly by the desire of a few to get power for themselves. The fact that one knows how it’s going to end (since the story is very well-known, and almost everyone knows at least a bit about the USSR and Stalin) does nothing to diminish the power of the story. At times it’s painful to see how easily most of the animals were deceived, and it’s all too obvious that this happens all the time with humans.

And that is the true moral of the story. It’s not a book against Socialism. To me, it’s more like a mirror to society, with anthropophormized animals in the place of actual humans or groups of humans (hence my initial opinion of classifying this as fable). Some individuals corrupt ideals to fit their own agenda, but they can only do this if the “masses” are easily deceived – either because they’re too ignorant, because they don’t care, because they’re scared or because they no longer remember clearly what things were like in the past. Look at any dictatorship and you will find these things in common.

Overall, I thought this was a brilliant work. I’m very happy to finally have read it, and recommend it to everyone.

What’s Next: I’ve already bought Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I had already started reading a Portuguese translation, but the book mysteriously disappeared about midway (and really, what better book for that to happen than this one? Talk about coincidence!) and I ended up buying this much better looking edition in English. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Next up I think I may read one of the many graphic novels I have laying around, and start going through the various art /photography books I ordered a while ago. It’s been a while since I read anything art-related that wasn’t in blog form, so keep your eyes peeled for that!