V is for Vitality #photoaday #project365

Day 74:  V is for Vitality

74 of 365. Our Daily Challenge — Looks like a letter.

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

8, 9, and 10 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

Yes, I’m doing a three-for-one book blog. Maybe that’s cheating, but it’s my blog challenge, and I can cheat however I want. This counts, you see, because even though I’m writing one blog entry, I did read three books. They go together as a series, and since I read them back-to-back, I’m not sure I can separate the details in my head to write three separate responses.

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins are this year’s huge sensation in young adult fantasy fiction. I can’t let a sensation pass me by, so I downloaded the audio version of the first book just to find out what the fuss was all about. Within about five days I’d listened through to the end of the last book.

Understand that I usually don’t speed through audio books. I listen to them in my car. I listen to them when I exercise. I listen to them when I am working around the house. When I’m done with my task, I turn them off, and if I still want to read, I pick up a “real” book. With this trilogy, though, I was making up reasons to keep listening. I went for extra walks. I mopped floors. I took the long way home. By the second half of the third book, I wasn’t even bothering to make up excuses to listen. I just sat on my couch with my iPod and waited to find out what happened.

That said, I don’t necessarily rate this trilogy as among the best of the best. The books are good. They had me hooked. Now that I’ve read them, though, I probably won’t read them again. I don’t know that they will have lasting value to me, but I am still glad that I read them.

The books are dark, very dark. It bothers me that they are classified as YA because they are so dark I can’t imagine giving them to anyone younger than about 15. Scholastic rates them for 12 and up, but I would really hesitate over giving them to a twelve-year-old. I realize that some kids enjoy frightening books and don’t have nightmares because of them, but I had bad dreams after reading these books. They aren’t just frightening. They’re disturbing.

Katniss Everdeen, our teenage heroine, becomes a contestant in the Hunger Games when her younger sister’s name is drawn, and she volunteers to take Prim’s place. Katniss is from District 12, one of the poorest of the districts in a place called Panem, which is what has become of the United States after some sort of catastrophic event. It’s implied that the apocalypse was the result of war, but if so it’s all ancient history by this time, and we’re more concerned with current events.

The wealthy Capitol has enslaved the districts that provide its supplies. In the Capitol, citizens live in high tech luxury, while in the Districts, people scrape by in the most primitive and impoverished conditions. The gap between the haves and have nots is extreme, and to make sure no one rises up in protest, the Hunger Games have been created as a reminder of the Capitol’s power. Each year each district sends two adolescents, a boy and a girl, to the Games, where they compete to the death. Out of the 24 contenders, only one can survive.

See, I told you this was dark. It’s also deeply disturbing in its insight into the nature of violence and cruelty and inhumanity. For the Capitol, the Hunger Games are high entertainment, just as the arenas were in which the Romans forced their slaves to fight to the death.

Many parallels can be drawn between the kind of oppression that takes place in these books and the kinds that have taken place throughout human history — France, Russia, Rome, you name it. Any society that has ever kept one group of people in great poverty while another group enjoyed great wealth can be seen in the cruelties exhibited by the Capitol of Panem. In fact, if you mix Roman gladiators with contemporary American reality TV, you have the Hunger Games. These games are basically Survivor, only deadly and real and mandatory viewing for an entire country.

In fact, according to the Scholastic author page for the Hunger Games, reality TV was a major inspiration for the series. Another inspiration was the Ancient Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur in which Crete forces Athens to send 7 girls and 7 boys each year to be fed to the Minotaur until the hero Theseus finally slays the Minotaur and saves the others from certain death. Collins also talks about Roman Gladiators as a basis for the story.

This is what makes The Hunger Games so disturbing. Though the world is fictional, the horrific and very painful levels of cruelty are nothing more than the kind of inhumanity people have inflicted on one another for the sake of power and privilege throughout all of time.

Maybe this is why I had to read to the end as quickly as possible. I had to find out if there was anything redemptive in the story, if there was anything to help us believe in humanity. I’m not sure there was anything to help us believe that it’s even possible to preserve humanity within the context of great power. I think I respect the books more because of it. They don’t try to fool us into thinking corruption ever really goes away.

The hope for humanity is simply in the little person who stands up for herself, the Katniss who defies authority to protect those she loves, though she leaves herself irreparably damaged in the process.

I don’t want to say much more for fear of giving out spoilers, but I will say that I believe Book 2 is my favorite of the series. After Book 1, I thought there was too much violence without much purpose. In Book 2, I thought that purpose was finally taking shape as people began to rebel against the cruelties of the Capitol. In Book 3, there were so many twists to the story, and there was so much personal tragedy for the characters who had already suffered too much that it just made me tired.

I’ll give the series 4 out of 5 stars. The books are both fascinating to read and thought-provoking. They do have levels of meaning, and they do leave you with plenty to think about. I won’t give them a five because they just don’t thrill my soul. I read them ferociously through one time, but I probably won’t read them again. They bring out too much anxiety without enough of a sense of hope to balance out the anxiety. In that way perhaps they are simply disturbingly realistic, but if I want disturbingly realistic, I’ll read a Russian novel about a real revolution. I don’t particularly need fantasy to give me that.

The Fall of the House of Zeus by Curtis Wilkie

7 of 52 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

If you live in Mississippi, have ever lived in Mississippi, or have any interest in passing through Mississippi, you should read The Fall of the House of Zeus.

The book is about Dickie Scruggs, a trial lawyer who hit it big over litigation first involving asbestos and later involving tobacco. And when I say he hit it big, what I mean is the man still collects $20 million a year from tobacco settlements despite the fact that he is in prison. Evidently, big is never big enough. He didn’t simply retire on his enormous wealth after the tobacco years. I’m sure he now regrets that, but he thought he could do it all again with Katrina lawsuits, and somewhere along the way in all of that, he ended up indicted for judicial bribery.

Wilkie, a professor at Ole Miss and a friend of Dickie Scruggs, tells the story of the rise and fall of this extraordinarily powerful and notorious trial lawyer. Quite frankly, I found the whole tale so shocking that I wondered if I should have been reading more John Grisham novels so that I would have had a clearer sense of the corruptions in our legal system. What was most shocking was that by the time the story reached the events that actually sent Scruggs to prison, I didn’t think they were all that bad. They didn’t seem like much compared to the many things he’d done that were evidently not illegal but were certainly unethical in my view.

What’s more, before I read the book, I was certain Scruggs was guilty. After I read it, I wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t sure he was really the one who bribed the judge. It seemed like that was more the work of a man who was trying to impress Scruggs than Scruggs himself. Scruggs had no choice but to plead guilty and cut a deal for a reduced prison term in the end, though, because several other people by that time had already plead guilty and in the process implicated him. Which brings me to the part that really bothers me. What the federal investigators did in their efforts to bring down Scruggs also brought down a string of people leading to him, only a couple of whom were clearly guilty in the particular case being investigated. The rest sort of fell into a domino pattern — if one comes down the next one has to as well.

Basically then my impression is that Scruggs made a lot of enemies over the years. He did a lot of things that were clearly unethical but that couldn’t quite be nailed as illegal. Thus, when a case came up where there was a chance to send him to prison the federal investigators went after him in full force. But in doing so they entrapped so many people that their actions were just as bad as his in the end.

And I haven’t even gotten into the connection to Trent Lott yet. Lott and Scruggs are brothers-in-law. Part of the accusations against Scruggs claimed that he attempted to influence judges by promising them a leg up toward a federal appointment. Lott resigned from the US Senate only days before Scruggs was indicted. Lott denies any connection to the Scruggs case, but it sure does add a whole new level of intrigue to the story to contemplate who might have tipped him off, blackmailed him, or whatever to move him out of the way of the investigations at the very last minute.

All in all, I’m disillusioned with our legal system after reading this book. You like to think that justice actually matters in the courts, but you come away from this story realizing that what matters all too often is not who is right but who has manipulated the system to the best advantage. It’s about how much money has changed hands. It’s about who has formed political alliances with whom. It’s about what kind of deals were cut on the side.

And don’t even get me started on Ole Miss fraternities. This book leaves you with the impression that every man who has any power whatsoever in Mississippi established that power in the first place in a fraternity house at Ole Miss. They were all fraternity brothers. Trent Lott spent his entire political career staffing Washington with people from his fraternity. I knew we operated by the good ole boy system around here, but I was appalled to learn the extent to which this is true.

The Fall of the House of Zeus
is a non-fiction, journalism-style book about politics and the legal system and one particular legal crime. I read it because it is about something that happened in my home state, and I thought I ought to read it. I didn’t expect to particularly enjoy it, but I was completely absorbed by it. I couldn’t put it down. When we discussed it at my book club, that was the general consensus. We just couldn’t put it down.

Of course it is more interesting to people from Mississippi. We recognize people and places. We remember the events even if we didn’t know at the time what was going on behind the scenes. I don’t think you have to be from Mississippi to find this book fascinating, though. Nor do you have to be from here to leave the story feeling equally disillusioned.

After all, if power plays of the magnitude described by Curtis Wilkie are happening in the poorest state in the country, just imagine what must be happening everywhere else. Just imagine.