Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through Library Thing's Early Reviewer program.
In anticipation of the 2012 release of the film, a number of books about The Hunger Games trilogy hit the market - much to my geeky joy. As far as academic volumes go, Smart Pop's most excellent THE GIRL WHO WAS ON FIRE was one of the early releases (later updated to include several chapters on the film), followed by THE HUNGER GAMES AND PHILOSOPHY: A CRITIQUE OF PURE TREASON from The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series; OF BREAD, BLOOD AND THE HUNGER GAMES: CRITICAL ESSAYS ON THE SUZANNE COLLINS TRILOGY (part of the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series); APPROACHING THE HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY by Tom Henthorne; and finally THE PANEM COMPANION, written by fan/academic V. Arrow. I was lucky enough to win a copy each of OF BREAD, BLOOD AND THE HUNGER GAMES and APPROACHING THE HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY from Library Thing (and still hope to snag a copy of THE PANEM COMPANION on its blog tour!).
Though written by academics - not a few of whom use papers previously presented at academic conferences as jumping off points - OF BREAD, BLOOD AND THE HUNGER GAMES can be enjoyed by everyday fans and serious scholars alike. Whereas academic pop culture anthologies run the risk of coming across as dry and even a bit tedious, OF BREAD, BLOOD AND THE HUNGER GAMES is neither. With few exceptions, the authors are engaging and insightful. Where jargon appears, it's thankfully kept to a minimum.
In contrast to many similarly-sized academic anthologies - which usually feature twelve or so essays - OF BREAD, BLOOD AND THE HUNGER GAMES contains a whopping twenty-one essays! As a result, each piece weighs in at just eight to ten pages. Though I was often left wanting more, this is far better than the alternative - namely, nodding off in the last few pages of the piece, even as you wish for the author to get to the point and wrap it up already! Perhaps the individual essays' short lengths is what helps to keep OF BREAD, BLOOD AND THE HUNGER GAMES feeling so fresh, concise, and to the point.
The twenty-one essays in OF BREAD, BLOOD AND THE HUNGER GAMES cover a range of topics, from crisis economics to food as a cultural metaphor and the shifting boundaries of human and "other." Reality television rears its oft-ugly head, and art, fashion, and propaganda also make for common topics of discussion.
While an existing knowledge of THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy is assumed, when the texts are discussed in relation to other works - THE RUNNING MAN, the Harry Potter series, TWILIGHT, BATTLE ROYALE, ENDER'S GAME, and William Shakespeare's Henriad all make appearances - the authors do a good job of explaining the pertinent details (that is, at least given the space allotted).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of my favorite pieces examine gender in the trilogy. In her contribution, "Of Queer Necessity: Panem's Hunger Games as Gender Games," Jennifer Mitchell makes the argument that Katniss - who is able to transition between masculine and feminine gender roles with relative ease, sometimes exhibiting "male" and "female" characteristics simultaneously - is at her core a genderqueer protagonist. Likewise, Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassel ("`Killer' Katniss and `Lover Boy' Peeta: Suzanne Collins's Defiance of Gender-Genred Reading") see the trilogy's blended genres (romance vs. war story) as a way to "bridge the gap" between young adult literature that, traditionally, has been stratified along gender lines. Peeta, the gentle, caring, and peaceful baker, exists opposite the "male-identified" Katniss, holding her morally accountable for actions. This mixing and flipping of gender roles provides a much-needed contrast to traditional YA fiction (the history of which Lem and Hassel summarize neatly for the reader, in a highly enjoyable and informative intro).
As an atheist, I expected to hate Tammy L. Gant's "Hungering for Righteousness: Music, Spirituality and Katniss Everdeen" - indeed, the first few pages are filled with furious scribblings - but I quickly came to love it. Largely absent from THE HUNGER GAMES `verse, religion has been replaced, in part, by music. "The ubiquitous presence of folk songs, lullabies, and songbirds suggests that Suzanne Collins uses music to fill the space meant for religion in Katniss's life." Not because religion is necessary - rather, the human heart needs hope and a sense of meaning (spirituality, if you will) to take flight.
Also intriguing is "Apples to Oranges: The Heroines in TWILIGHT and THE HUNGER GAMES." Amanda Firestone asserts that it's unfair to compare Katniss Everdeen's feminist merits to those of Bella Swan, since the two are born of completely different genres (post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction and romance), each of which are governed by different rules and conventions. While her argument is compelling, I couldn't help but come away with the conclusion that, if Firestone is correct, romance is inherently (or at least traditionally) misogynist and thus much more poisonous to young women (and men!) than the violence found in THE HUNGER GAMES and its ilk. At the very least, the romance genre is in need of a drastic overhaul.
Given the whitewashing of the film(s) - see, e.g., the tumblog Katniss is Olive-Skinned - I'm a bit disappointed that none of the essays looked at the intersection of race and class in THE HUNGER GAMES. While it's true that OF BREAD, BLOOD AND THE HUNGER GAMES only discusses the trilogy, these are important enough topics of conversation to merit a mention on their own, even absent the film's whitewashing. Indeed, there's even one essay that talks about the story's geographical setting - "Coal Dust and Ballads: Appalachia and District 12″ - in which a look at race and class would have been right at home.
Also annoying: while several authors mention Katniss's early insistence that she remain childfree, only to eventually succumb to starting a family with husband Peeta, none note that he seems to have coerced - or, at best, pestered - her into doing so: "It took five, ten, fifteen years for me to agree. But Peeta wanted them so badly. When I first felt her stirring inside of me, I was consumed with a terror that felt as old as life itself. Only the joy of holding her in my arms could tame it. Carrying him was a little easier, but not much."
While this is perhaps meant to be charming or even inspiring, I find a lack of respect for a woman's bodily autonomy anything but. Pregnancy and childbirth can be a trial even in the best of times. Begging your wife who, as a survivor of multiple death games and a war on top of that, is recovering from PTSD and not keen on birthing and parenting kids, to do it anyway? "For me." That's just plain cruel. If you want children and she doesn't, perhaps you aren't that compatible after all.