Rachel Bomberger is Internet marketing manager at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and walking (when she gets the chance). She used to love roller skating.
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Two months ago, I broke my ankle while doing the Hokey Pokey on roller skates at a grade school skating party with my children. (In hindsight, it’s obvious to me that I was just never meant to “put my right hip in and shake it all about.”)
Throughout the past eight weeks, my injury has had a number of powerful effects on my daily life, both negative and positive.
Among the negatives: surgery, pain, immobility, and an ugly, heavy cast/boot contraption that has kept me out of skinny jeans all spring.
Among the positives: while I was home recovering from surgery, I finally found the time to read Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy.
I started the first book — massively sore, mildly drugged, and bored to tears after a few lonely days spent cruising Facebook — just to see what all the fuss was about. Having read any number of book and movie reviews (it really is hard to avoid them anywhere you go online, isn’t it?), I fully expected that I would recoil in horror both from the graphic images of child-on-child brutality and from what I presumed would be nauseatingly pulpy prose.
But what do you know? I loved these books. I quickly and eagerly gobbled up The Hunger Games and its two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. The last two flashed by at breakneck speed in just over twenty-four hours.
Suzanne Collin’s gritty dystopian fantasies gave me a few days of much-needed diversion during the worst parts of my convalescence. They also gave me plenty to think about afterward. I found in them subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) commentary on themes including consumerism, mass media, wealth and poverty, war and peace, oppression, violence, beauty, romance, loyalty, courage, survival, regret. There’s so much going on in these almost deceptively easy to digest novels.
In fact, soon after I finished them, I began digging — as I am wont to do — through the Eerdmans list, rummaging for books that might help me think further and more deeply about the issues raised in my mind by The Hunger Games.
I share my list with you today, in hopes that others of you out there currently suffering from Katniss withdrawal might find it useful. Some of these books I’ve already read; others I intend to read just as soon as I get the chance (perhaps on my next unplanned medical leave?).
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Hunger Games themes: child warfare, loss of innocence
Book: Son of a Gun by Anne de Graaf
Simply and powerfully, Son of a Gun tells the story of a brother and sister, eight-year-old Lucky and ten-year-old Nopi, who are kidnapped from school and forced to become child soldiers.
Like The Hunger Games, Anne de Graaf’s novel is fast-paced, easy to read, and aimed primarily at older children and young adults, and it offers a thought-provoking treatment of the painful subject of child violence. Unlike The Hunger Games, it’s based not on a fictional future dystopia but on the real-life accounts of child soldiers who fought in the long and bloody Liberian civil war.
(Note: barring catastrophe, I plan to post a longer review of this book — which is due out this month — sometime this week. Update: click here to read my review.)
Hunger Games themes: romance, survival
Book: Inge: A Girl’s Journey through Nazi Europe by Inge Joseph Bleier and David E. Gumpert
Like Katniss Everdeen, teenager Inge Joseph finds herself torn from her family by an oppressive regime and thrown with other young people into a series of extreme and life-threatening scenarios. Like Katniss, Inge discovers the sweetness of first love in the midst of these trying circumstances, only to have it ripped painfully from her grasp. Like Katniss, she ultimately finds herself forced to choose between her core principles — her very identity — and her own survival.
Unlike Katniss, however, Inge Joseph was a real person whose story played out not in fictional Panem but in Nazi Europe.
Based on a sixty-six-page manuscript discovered after her death, Inge Joseph Bleier’s powerful memoir was completed by her nephew and co-author David Gumpert, who drew on her personal letters, from the recollections of friends, relatives, and people who were with her in Europe, and from his own close relationship with his aunt.
A poignant reminder that even those who outlive a war don’t always survive it, Inge’s story was for me at once gripping and bittersweet — impossible to put down while I was reading it, and impossible to put out of my mind when I was finished. If Katniss Everdeen were to sit down decades later and pen a memoir about her wartime trauma, it might very well read something like this.
Hunger Games theme: the dangers of consumerism
Book: Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh
While the outlying districts of Suzanne Collins’s fictional Panem starve, its decadent Capitol is awash in the excesses of rampant consumerism, materialism, and mass media culture.
Collins’s sickening (at times, literally) portrait of consumer culture gone awry accomplishes exactly what it set out to do: start readers like me questioning the status quo of my own socio-economic reality.
In Being Consumed, William Cavanaugh uses Christian resources to address the same sorts of basic economic issues at stake in Panem — the free market, consumer culture, globalization, and scarcity — arguing that we should not just accept these as givens but should instead change the terms of the debate.
Among other things, Cavanaugh discusses how God in the Eucharist forms us to consume and be consumed rightly. Examining pathologies of desire in contemporary “free market” economies, Cavanaugh puts forth a positive and inspiring vision of how the body of Christ can engage in economic alternatives, illustrating his theological analysis at every turn with concrete examples of Christian economic practices.
Hunger Games themes: genetic manipulation, generally messing with nature
Book: Nature and Altering It by Allen Verhey
If there’s one thing Panem’s best and brightest minds seem to excel at, it’s altering the natural world in disturbing and often horrifying ways. Jabber-jays, tracker-jackers, and the other genetically-altered “muttations” that pop up throughout the trilogy run the gamut from zoological oddities to out-and-out abominations.
Yet, as is true of so many other features of her books, Collins’s “muttations” seem to be little more than grotesque exaggerations of present-day realities. Real-world scientists may not be creating weaponized hallucinogenic hornets (that we know of) (yet), but they do regularly and persistently experiment with other ways to modify and better suit the natural world to humanity’s wants and needs.
In his penetrating book of ecological ethics Nature and Altering It, Allen Verhey demonstrates the value of the Christian narrative for informing contemporary discussions on ecological ethics. Deftly unpacking the underlying human narratives or “myths” through which Western culture perceives “nature,” he presents the biblical narrative as an alternative story that can help shape a very different ethos for “nature and altering it” — an ethos that President Snow and the mad scientists of Panem would do well to take to heart.
Hunger Games themes: war and peace, the limits of violence
Book: Put Down Your Sword: The Gospel Call to Creative Nonviolence, by John Dear
I’ve heard folks complain that Suzanne Collin’s trilogy fizzles a little in the series finale, Mockingjay — that her storytelling is jagged in someplace places and messy in others; that the ending just isn’t all that satisfying.
To that, I say: good. Whether justified or unjustified (let the debate commence), war is hell, and it seems only right to me that as Katniss’s world dissolves into the chaos of war, so too should the threads of her previously neatly woven story become frayed and uneven.
After following Katniss’s story through to its shocking end (I won’t spoil it for the roughly 10 people reading this who plan to read the books but haven’t yet) — after being struck in my guts by its stunning indictment of even seemingly “just” war — I found myself thinking: “I wonder what Father John Dear would say about all this?”
In his 2008 book Put Down Your Sword: Answering the Gospel Call to Creative Nonviolence, Dear invites readers to follow Jesus’ example in the ways of peace and embrace nonviolence. Dear outlines in the book the many actions he himself has taken while following the path of nonviolence and presents a vision of peace in our turbulent world.
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So there you have it: my post-Hunger Games survival reading list. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m headed over to Pinterest for tips on how to recreate one of those awesome diagonal French braids.