Just as names are important in Harry Potter, they're an important clue in The Hunger Games. Some District names derive from plants (Katniss, Prim, Rue); others from nature's elements (Gale), others from the agricultural process (Thresh, Seeder, Chaff, Haymitch); and still others from food (Peeta, "the boy with the bread"). In the Districts, names are related to nature in some way. These contrast sharply to names in the Capitol and inner districts, which have come straight from the Roman Empire: Octavia, Flavius, Portia, Caesar, Claudius, Brutus, Plutarch, Cato, Venia, Cinna. (This last one is especially telling, because in the play Julius Caesar, there are two characters named Cinna: one conspires against Caesar, and the other is a humble poet who dies because he is mistaken for the first Cinna. Collins's Cinna has embodied a little of both.)
The land in which this story is taking place is called Panem, a Latin word meaning bread. In the Roman Empire, a vast network of conquered peoples, the emperor asserted both his authority and his magnanimity through panem et circenses ("bread and circuses"). In this approach, the Empire appeased the people's basest desires by distributing free food to the provinces and providing gladiatorial spectacles for their entertainment. Over time, the people of Rome demanded larger and ever more violent performances, using conquered peoples from around the world who were forced to fight each other to the death as gladiators.
You've got your work cut out for you when you're Stephenie Meyer. When you dare to write an in-between novella, the same people who criticized your doorstopping tomes of old now complain that you're holding out on them by penning a 168-page glorified short story. The people who got angry that there was too much of the Edward-Bella-Jacob love triangle in Eclipse now rant that The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner: An Eclipse Novella doesn't have enough of their lovelorn woes. And everybody assumes it's all just a marketing ploy to promote the Eclipse movie, which hit theaters yesterday with the largest-ever midnight launch in history. In short, you just can't win.
I'm sorry to add to the criticisms because I hope that Meyer will continue writing about this fascinating world she has created, and I don't want to be that vampire whose special superpower is whining. The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is okay. But I have to say, I was hoping for more.
Bree Tanner is a don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it character in Eclipse, whose story intersects with Bella's in the final battle scene.
I blame my mother for introducing me to the Gosselin family. During one of her visits last year, TLC was running a marathon of Jon & Kate Plus 8, and Mom was glued to the screen. I watched several episodes with her and was surprised to find that she knew each child's history and personality. Watching the show for the first time gave me more than a few schadenfreude moments. I saw one episode where Jon and Kate take the kids to Disney World. I couldn't imagine the stress of keeping track of them all, or scheduling their naps, or dealing with Mouse-induced meltdowns times eight. Those parents deserve a medal, I thought.
And yet the family has come under intense media scrutiny for, well, allowing the media to intensely scrutinize their lives. Americans just can't get enough of the Gosselins. As our own families get smaller, we're endlessly fascinated by ones that are supersized. We watch the Gosselins' show in part because we know that although our lives might seem crazy, we'll never be potty-training six toddlers simultaneously, on tiny toilets all lined up in a row. We'll never have to hold back some of our trash from one week to the next just because our allotted bins are already full of diapers. We'll never have half a dozen kids with fevers all at once. Thanks, benevolent universe!
If we haven't gotten enough of the Gosselins yet (even with Jon's well-publicized adultery and Kate's disastrous recent turn on Dancing with the Stars), the Zondervan book I Just Want You to Know promises the dish on Kate's kids, religious beliefs, and supersized life. I was prepared to cynically hate this book. And you know what? It's actually not bad, and there's a surprising amount of material on religionRead more of this review on my Flunking Sainthood blog at Beliefnet.
Admit it. You have succumbed to the crack cocaine that is Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series. (Here in Cincinnati, The Hunger Games is all the rage because it's the On the Same Page selection for this year with our public library system.) But I've already read it three times and am counting the days until Mockingjay, the final book in the trilogy, will be released. Just under four months to go! Can I get a witness?
So here's a wonderful way to fill the time: dive into Graceling by Kristin Cashore. I almost feel bad comparing the two, because I'm sure that Cashore hears that all the time and has wondered why The Hunger Games has achieved iconic status while Graceling has flown a wee bit under the radar, despite starred reviews in PW, LJ, SLJ, and Booklist. So I'm on a one-woman crusade to help spread the word about this excellent YA novel. It's like THG in that both feature unapologetically strong female heroines (one named Katniss, one named Katsa . . hmm), fascinating explorations of dystopian societies and the misuse of power, intriguing plot twists, and epic love stories. (Black box warning: Graceling does feature some sex, which is sensitively portrayed. The novel is aimed at older teen readers and adults.)
Graceling is set in a society in which a handful of individuals are "graced," or gifted with extraordinary abilities in one key area, whether it be animal husbandry, mind-reading, or setting fire to things. Katsa, our heroine, is graced with killing -- not the gift she would have chosen -- and is given work as a kind of mafia hit man for her uncle, a cruel and petty king. The novel traces Katsa's gradual discovery of her real Grace, which turns out not to be killing at all, and her growing openness to loving others and finding self-understanding. Unforgettable characters, exciting and well-paced plot, and imaginative setting. You will be cheering.
Ever since the stock market went belly-up a year and a half ago, I've been trying (with considerable Girl Scout diligence, I might add) to understand why. I read Fool's Gold by Gillian Tett, which was over my head and rather incomprehensible, and numerous articles in the finance magazines I subscribe to. I watched the PBS Frontline special about the crash. And while I learned from all of those things, the book that has finally clicked for me is Michael Lewis's The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which focuses on the subprime lending and credit default swaps that made the crash possible, if not inevitable.
OK, so part of the problem is that I've never fully understood until now what a credit default swap even is. (I just accidentally typed "credit default swamp." Freudian slip?) Lewis gave me an "aha" moment when he said to think of it less like a bond and more like life insurance. When we buy life insurance, we're betting on a negative -- that Grandpa's gonna croak. And when that happens, we cash in. A CDS is kind of like life insurance that you buy when Grandpa is already 110 and on life support -- except that you get to pay ridiculously low premiums. A CDS bets on the idea that hundreds of thousands of homeowners are going to default on their mortgages -- and that when that happens, it's payday for you. Most of it is perfectly legal (except for the shenanigans by the rating industry, which demonstrated insane grade inflation in giving BBB bonds an A rating).
What's most interesting about the book is that Lewis gets to the heart of the meltdown by means of human interest stories, much as he did in The Blind Side and his other books, which I now want to read. (The Huff Po called him America's "non-fiction novelist," which I thought perfectly captured his eye for character and detail.) He focuses here on several outliers in the finance industry who saw what was coming and made a huge profit because they understood that rampant subprime lending was like having an EZ-Pass to the Apocalypse. Lewis considers them heroes; I would call them anti-heroes. They win our admiration for their cleverness, but we don't want to emulate them. Or at least, I don't. Who could cheer for them while they profit from the misfortune of others during and after the crash--which is precisely what they accuse the subprime industry of doing in the years before the crash?
Lewis tells the story as a cautionary tale about how "even smart people can deceive themselves when they're paid to do so." In a post-book interview in the audio version, he assesses the few changes our government has made to ensure that this won't happen again. Short version: we still have almost no safeguards in place to regulate the speculative trading of negative capital. He expects that at some point, speculative trading will be bracketed out from ordinary banking, so that the Goldman Sachses of this world won't fall apart when the bubble bursts, bringing Middle America down with them. For my part, I hope Lewis's next book deals with what the government could and should do to protect Americans from this far-reaching greed and predation. So far, as Lewis puts it, it looks like our bailout propped up not only the financial system but the very people who brought on its collapse in the first place.
Does it count as shameless self-promotion if your name isn't on the front cover of the book you're trying to plug? I don't think so! So here goes.
Writer's Digest Books, which is part of F+W Media here in Cincinnati, recently hired me to revamp their old Writer's Market Companion and bring it completely up to date. This I gladly did, revising all the content, cutting some chapters out completely, and adding lots of brand-new material, including a chapter on self-publishing and a whole new multi-chapter section on marketing and publicity for authors. I had a great editor, Melissa Hill, who helped me craft the book according to the needs of WD's customers--mostly new writers who are wondering how the heck to get started in what often feels like a mysterious and even cruel business.
I'm proud of the results, and happy that the book covers a broad spectrum of what it means to make a living as a writer--books, magazine writing, screenwriting, the works. The book is available at a low price ($19.99 list, and about $14 with Amazon's hefty discount). Check it out!
Here's what WD says about Writer's Market Guide to Getting Published on its website:
"Everything you need to succeed in the business of writing! You have the ideas and the desire—but how do you get your writing published? Find out here! Writer's Market Guide to Getting Published gives you the inspiration and instruction you need to achieve long-term success in an ever-changing industry. This authoritative guide explores the ins and outs of the business of writing to provide you with:
Plus, get insider tips from magazine and book editors and successful freelancer writers on what works—and what doesn't.
With Writer's Market Guide to Getting Published, you'll know exactly what it takes to get your work out into the marketplace, get it published, and get paid for it."