Admittedly, I am a bit of a geek about the Victorian era so this book was kind of right down my alley. It's kind of half "Extraordinary Origins of Ordinary Things" and half "What Jane Austen Ate" (a writer's guide to the 19th century), but jam-packed with humor and insight in the particular way that only Bryson can do. If you like history but are maybe a bit done with the "drum and trumpet" style that concentrates on battles and leaders and ignores ordinary people lucky enough not to get into a battle and unlucky enough not to become a leader, this is a great book for you.
Another thing: this is narrated by Bryson. I've noticed in some of the reviews of his earlier books (the Appalachian Trail book, for instance) that getting someone else to read was a good idea. Well, maybe he's changed or something. He's not a professional reader or anything but he does just fine if you ask me. He's legitimately excited about the subject matter, knows the bits which are funny and the ones which are more interesting than funny, and doesn't get in the way of the prose.
I'm not sure that he can ever outdo "In The Home" or "A Short History of Nearly Everything", but very few authors could, so that's not exactly a knock. This is a fun, Sarah Vowell-esque look (or maybe Sarah Vowell is Bryson-esque, I don't know) about walking the Appalachian Trail. Now I feel like I kind of want to walk this walk just to prove that I am more MANLY than Bryson. Sadly, I don't have a buddy from an earlier book I can re-acquaint myself with and con into taking along with me.
I definitely enjoyed Hunger Games quite a bit. I mostly end up listening to nonfiction but I have to say, this is probably not a book I would have tried had it not been available in audio format. I admit, I'm a bit of an intellectual wannabe and so kind of shirk at the idea of spending time reading Young Adult fiction. This is not, I don't think, your typical YA fare though. The sentence structure is simple and there aren't a lot of big words used, but you know what? That's just fine. Good literature doesn't have to say antidisestablishmentarianism every other sentence to be good.
What makes this book work is the way that Suzanne Collins introduces Catniss and then always finds a way to bring the story back to her. I mean, okay, she's the protagonist of the book and it's in first person. However, lots of other first-person books just assume that you're going to "get" the character when they get put into situations, or try to make you like the character too much by making them good at everything. Catniss is a wonderfully flawed character who you really feel could make any number of horrible decisions without you really blaming her, and that means that when she does do good, you're cheering along with her even more.
She's hardly the only well-fleshed-out character either. Astute readers/listeners will want to pay attention to some of the smaller things because they'll come up later: Hamisch's drunkenness, for instance, or some of the details in the Games themselves. Peeta is a really interesting person himself. I do have to say that the fact of this being YA did, I think, intrude just a little into this aspect of things: you get the sense that Collins knows much, much more about these characters than she ever lets on, and although she might have been free to go into some more depth about them in a full-on adult book, these other lives are only hinted at.
One thing I did like about the story as a whole is the way it breaks gender conventions so easily. This isn't a little-girl's book about falling in love with 200 year old vampires and having no agency of your own to affect change. Catniss might not be the smartest kid on the block (though she's plenty smart) or the prettiest, but she sure is the toughest. One of my favorite aspects of the first book in particular is the way that she's so able to carry the traditional "man's" role we normally see in stuff like this (she and Peeta's roles are essentially reversed from, for instance, Indiana Jones and the pretty sidekick in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Gwynneth Paltrow and the Sky Captain in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). I think that this is a potentially empowering book for young girls.
At the same time, it's very brutal. It's been noted that there are times where Collins kind of takes a step back from the sheer brutality but I want to add that this does not take away from the heart-renching nature of the situations. In fact, it often makes it worse, because you are unable to concentrate on the gore and must instead face the fact that another person whom Catniss and therefore you care about has died or might be about to die. In some places, I think this book is actually harder on the psyche than Game of Thrones (in a good way, though!).
Carolyn McCormick's reading of this book is FANTASTIC. It's a lot like listening to a one-person play. I hope that she was well-compensated for this.
Although I am a guy, I am not ashamed to admit that parts of this book did make me cry. It's a very dark book that hints at a very ugly future, and the techniques that Collins use to make it more palatable to YA do not, as I've noted, make it less emotionally powerful.
My one "gripe" here is that people with a limited number of credits may want to load up on some extras, because you'll listen to this trilogy so much that you'll probably get done with the whole thing within a week. And then you'll have 3 more weeks before you get more credits! I guess that's not really a gripe.
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