Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Two Old Women by Velma Harris

    Two Old Women by Alaskan native Velma Wallis is a prime example of orature(which is the blending of oral stories and literature). The story is compelling as well as refreshing. Most readers will be able to attest to the fact that the average book features a lead character in their youth or the prime of their lives. Books overflow the exploits of the young, with some notable exceptions like Migeul de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. However, even in Don Quixote there is a sense of warning regarding older heroes and heroines. Not only does Alonso Quixano(the lead of Don Quixote) suffer many humiliating defeats due to his romantic notions of chivalry and knighthood, but he eventually dies a depressed and defeated man because of it. When I was younger and first read Don Quixote, I was left with the impression that the book was a cautionary tale to anyone who took romantic ideas too seriously, especially people past their prime. Admittingly, it has been a while since I read Cervante’s infamous work so I cannot write from the benefit of a new perspective. What I can write with utmost certainty however, is that Wallis’s book left me an antonym feeling than what I felt with Don Quixote. That is to say, Two Old Women led me to believe that anything is possible, despite society’s preconceptions regarding your age and despite the value others place on your life.
    The tale is one passed down to Wallis from her mother, and presumably passed down to her mother from her grandmother. It chronicles the journey of two elderly women—Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak—who are left behind by their tribe in the dead of winter. The tribe—or The People, as they are known—are going through a time of great suffering, with food scare and the winter harsh. Traditionally, elders are taken care of by the younger members of the People. Infact, Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’are known to be complainers and whiners, yet still they are taken care off. However, when the people are starved and their minds are filled with fear and anxiety for the future, a drastic decision is made—the chief elects to leave the women behind, so as not to burden the already suffering people with having to look after them. Wallis writes, "In those days, leaving the old behind in times of starvation was an unknown act", though she also adds that it is the first time for this particular group. The horror of what starvation has driven them to is made even greater when it is revealed that Ch’idzigyaak has a daughter and grandson in the tribe.
   What happens then is a story of inspiration and perseverance. Against all odds, the two old women manage to survive the harsh winter, deciding that they’d rather die trying than waiting for death to catch up with them. They prove their usefulness and work youth into their bones once more, using skills that they never thought they would use again in their old age. This book really is a lovely read, though it is a very short one. It really is more like a long short story or a novella, though the font is big and the pages small. My edition, which is the Tenth Anniversary Edition, has 140 pages. It took me a little over an hour to finish, though I felt that it was an appropriate length for such a story. As all orature originates as an oral story, it is fair to expect that a tale that might seem long when spoken will be much shorter when transcribed. It is like a children’s story in this sense, though the story itself is relatable to people of all ages. If you’re looking for an example of heroism and perseverance at it’s finest or are just searching for a quick book to take on a short trip or to read while waiting in line, you might want to consider Two Old Women by Velma Harris. I had to read this particular story for a class, though it in no way felt like an assignment but rather a pleasant reprieve from stuffier, academic books.

Rating: 3/5

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games

      Most readers have probably heard of this wildly popular trilogy by now and, with the film adaptation of the first book in the series fast approaching, I thought that I’d finally find some time to see what all the fuss is about. In terms of story, The Hunger Games is comparable to a rather famous Japanese novel called Battle Royale, which was written by Koushun Takami(or Takami Koushun, whichever you prefer) in 1999. Both books feature a government orchestrated scenario in which young adults(all teenagers in the case of Battle Royale) are made to fight to the death. The fighting only ceases when one remains, and the only way to survive is to kill. In terms of basic plot, the similarities between these two stories was initially very striking. However, it became clear from the first chapter that The Hunger Games was a book less focused on violence and more on the struggles of one resilient girl named Katniss, whose character is likeable and endearing and a far cry away from the female stereotypes that tend to surface in literature. While the story itself was nothing new(atleast, not to those of use familiar with Battle Royale), the characters in the story were what really made this an overall good read.
       Sixteen year-old Katniss Everdeen is the sole caretaker of her family, which consists of an emotionally unstable mother and a younger sister named Primrose. She inhabits one of the twelve districts of Panem, a country that is the remains of the North American continent in the distant future after it has been ravaged by war. The districts each have a specialty, with District 12’s(Katniss’s district) specialty being coal. As the story begins, readers are shown that this particular district is poverty stricken, leaving providers like Katniss and her friend Gale no choice but to hunt illegally in order to survive. The story opens on one such hunting trip, and the sense of foreboding that lingers between the pages leads readers to believe that it may well be the last hunting trip for quite some time as rampant poverty is not the only enemy of the people. There is the Hunger Games.
        The Hunger Games were established by the Capitol, which is the totalitarian government that rules over all of the twelve districts. They were made to serve as an example of the Capitol’s power as well as to dissuade rebellion. The rules are quite simple. Every year, boys and girls ages twelve through eighteen are entered into a lottery. The prize? A free ticket to the Capitol, a lavish make-over, and a one in twenty-four chance of never seeing home again. One boy and one girl are chosen at random from each district to participate in a staged war that is passed off as some sort of glorious game. Only one participant can survive, and the rewards benefit both the winner and their home district. The imprint of what they did to survive however is not so easily erased. Overall, The Hunger Games is a good read, and it is the characters that make it so. Katniss’s selfless sacrifice to save her sister from the horrors from the tournament, as well as the bizarre and budding relationships between her and her competitor Peeta, their mentor Haymitch, and the fashion consultant Cinna are really interesting to observe. The story holds no surprises for me, as once again I had seen a similar plot before which held a similar outcome. At some points, I was disappointed with the lack of attention shown at the true horror of what these games are. I understand that Young Adult books have an audience to keep in mind, but it wasn’t the lack of gore I was missing. Personally, I’ve never much cared for an excess of violence in any form of literature or media. Rather, it was the lack of narrative in regards to the subject that I found a little disappointing. Fortunately, this is but one in three books and I hold hope that Collins will pay more attention to the politics behinds the games, the history of Panem, and the emotional impact of the games on the districts and the main characters.

Final verdict: It’s a good book, and I see it making a fantastic movie. The paperback can be purchased at most stores for $8.99, so if you have some extra money or know a friend who owns this title pick it up and give it a try.

Rating: 3/5