Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: The Panem Companion by V. Arrow

The Panem Companion
by V. Arrow

Available as: paperback, Kindle edition, ebook
Pages: 224
Publication date: December 4, 2012
Publisher: Smart Pop
Suggested tags: young adult, non-fiction

From Goodreads:
"-What does Panem look like?
-How does Panem define race?
-How do Panem’s districts reflect the major themes of the trilogy?
-What allusions to our world are found in Panem names like Finnick, Johanna, Beetee, Cinna, Everdeen, and Mellark?

Go deeper into the home of the Hunger Games with the creator of the best-known fan map of Panem.

The Panem Companion gives fresh insight into Suzanne Collins’ trilogy by looking at the world of the Hunger Games and the forces that kept its citizens divided since the Dark Days. With a blend of academic insight and the true passion of a fan, V. Arrow explores how Panem could have evolved from the America we know today and uses textual clues to piece together Panem’s beliefs about class, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexuality, and more. Includes an extensive name lexicon and color-illustrated unofficial map of Panem."

{ I received this as an ebook from NetGalley. }

I'm a big fan of the Hunger Games series, so when I discovered The Panem Companion, I knew I had to give it a go. I don't usually read unofficial guides or criticisms or that sort of thing, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I found The Panem Companion to be an interesting commentary from a devoted fan who knows the subject matter well and clearly did a lot of research, but leapt to a few too many illogical conclusions for my taste.

Perhaps this is obvious, but I still feel like I should say it: If you're planning on reading the whole Hunger Games series, DO NOT read The Panem Companion before you're done. The Panem Companion comments on all 3 books in the series, so if you don't know how the series ends (especially who survives and who doesn't), you're in for some BIG spoilers.

First, the things I did like about The Panem Companion:
- The author's complete devotion to both the Hunger Games series and The Panem Companion. I can't even begin to imagine the amount of time and energy it took to gather all the information from the original books and analyze it all to form hypotheses in her own book. Very impressive.

- The chapter on "The Games as Exploitation, Exploitation as Entertainment." One of the reasons I was so drawn to the Hunger Games series was the way it portrayed the actual Hunger Games event as a sort of extreme reality TV series. As readers, most of us are horrified by the idea of children fighting to the death on live TV as entertainment. But how far away from that are we, really? The reality TV series that we watch now thrive on exploiting humiliation and pain. Is it such a stretch to think that, sometime in the future, a show with a concept similar to the Hunger Games might come to pass? And how many of us will watch it without really considering what we're watching, or the impact of this show on the participants' lives? I studied reality TV from an anthropological standpoint in college, so I may be a little more into this subject that the average reader, but regardless, this was my favorite chapter of the book.

- The author's conclusion. I really liked the way she wrapped it all up. First with this quote, regarding the questions raised by the series and the nuances debated by fans:
"The beauty of the questions with which the series leaves us is that, through fandom--through careful, loving extrapolation--these questions never need to go unanswered. There can be thousands of answers, shaped by different readers' unique experiences and perspectives on the world..."
How fantastic, to acknowledge that there will always be different views and different answers depending on who is considering the question. I liked that she left it all open; she's presented her views as convincingly as she can, but she acknowledges that these aren't the only correct answers. Everything is still open to interpretation. And the final sentence of the book was pretty powerful, reminding us that the Hunger Games series is a fantastic work of fiction, but perhaps it's also a commentary on something more serious:
"The final question behind the Hunger Games series, one that we attempt to answer over and over again, is not What happened to Panem? but What's happening to us?"
With the good comes the bad; here are a few things I didn't like about The Panem Companion:
- The author's use (overuse?) of big words and fancy phrases. I'm sure readers appreciate her developed vocabulary, but I felt like there had to be a better way to word some of those statements so that readers who perhaps aren't as advanced don't feel alienated. Things like "demi-canonical implication," "communiqu├ęs,"and "jingoistic" (which apparently is a favorite of the author's, as she uses it A LOT) seemed a little off. They didn't flow with the writing; in fact, they were a little jarring, almost as if the author went out of her way to fit those words in.

- The author's acknowledged use of "grossly oversimplified pseudoscience." She states this in reference to her Punnett squares regarding Prim's parentage in the chapter on "The Curious Case of Primrose 'Everdeen.' " (And I have to interrupt myself here to ask: Am I the only one who didn't suspect that Prim was the daughter of anyone but Mr. and Mrs. Everdeen? After reading this chapter, I sure feel like I am. I had no idea this was such a big issue.) I'm glad the author acknowledges that she's twisting science a bit to prove her own point. But does that make it ok? Her discussion on Prim's parentage involves a lot of assumptions and a pretty simplified version of genetic inheritance. I haven't done my own Punnett square yet, but I'm certainly not convinced by the author's, nor by her reasoning. She states, "We don't know for sure that Mr. Everdeen doesn't have any recessive genes for blond hair and light skin..." Which immediately makes me think, "Hmm. In that case, we seem to be ignoring some key aspects of genetics here in order to make things turn out the way we want." She also says, "It is Katniss and Gale, not Katniss and Prim, who 'could look like siblings.' " Which makes me wonder why devoted readers haven't jumped all over that? Why question Prim's family tree and not Katniss's or Gale's, if they look so much alike? Shouldn't we be asking if Mrs. Everdeen is really Gale's mother, if we're assuming parentage based on looks alone? I don't know. The whole question and argument that made up this chapter wasn't convincing to me at all.

- The author makes some stretches to arrive at her conclusions, especially with regards to the author's intended symbolism and allusions. Being a science-minded girl, I believe wholeheartedly in Occam's Razor, which essentially states that the simplest solution (the one that involves the least leaps of logic) is usually the correct solution. So the author's tendency to grab hold of an aspect of the Hunger Games and then stretch it and twist it to fit her own theory kind of irked me a bit. For example, she argues that Katniss could be meant to symbolize Artemis, the goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology, because Artemis "immortalizes her beloved dead with constellations (as Katniss memorializes Rue with flowers)." I am on board with the idea that Suzanne Collins (author of the Hunger Games series) may have designed Katniss's character with a nod to Artemis because of her prowess as a hunter. However, I think it's a bit of a stretch to say that Katniss is Artemis because she gives Rue flowers. Quite a few people and cultures memorialize their dead with flowers. If Katniss had declared her intent to memorialize Rue with a constellation instead, then I would wholly agree that Collins clearly intended Katniss to be seen as a symbolic representation of Artemis. That's just one example; I found a lot of stretches in "The Hunger Games Lexicon" section, where the author presents her ideas on the selection of characters' names. Most notably here, for me, was the discussion of Collins's possible motives for choosing Delly Cartwright's name. She mentions that a "cartwright" is one who makes carts, and then she lists a few famous "Cartwrights" from history, including Alexander Cartwright. She states, "Alexander Cartwright supposedly invented baseball, which is cool but not necessarily related to Delly--unless one considers that baseball is "the American pastime" and Delly is a strong exemplar of the New Panem: cooperative and willing to trust those from other districts, or even the Capitol, to work together towards a better future." ... I'm sorry, you lost me, weren't we talking about baseball? ... Oh, no wait, we were talking about Delly...

While I wasn't convinced by many of the author's arguments or theories, I did still enjoy reading The Panem Companion, and there were some chapters which I thought were handled very well. I probably would pick up another unofficial guide or companion book in the future, if it was about a book I really liked. It's interesting to see other people's views, to be introduced to ideas that others picked up on that I did not get at all when I was reading.

Overall rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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