Chillin’ out with great summer reading

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(1 vote, average 4.00 out of 5)

I’ve been chillin’ during the heat wave by cuddling up to my air conditioner with lots of books. Here’s some I recommend.

I finished “The Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins and, boy, am I impressed. Media sound bites since the movie came out reduce the story to an “action adventure.” With its breakneck pacing, scenes of mortal combat and many cliffhangers, it certainly is that, but it’s also a fascinating character study and a strong anti-war statement.

Katniss Everdeen is a great creation – a flawed, reluctant heroine who actually cries when friends die or she’s forced to kill. When was the last time you saw a male hero do that? A friend criticized Katniss’s emotion as a female stereotype. It may be that, but it’s also a sign of moral conscience. I have no problem equating the two.

The chaos and futility of war and the effects of torture (on one of the most beloved characters) are especially pronounced in the third volume, “Mockingjay.” The series does not have a simple happily-ever-after ending either. This is very mature, impressive writing for books aimed at teens, now attracting a wide adult audience.

I switched to lighter fare with “Slammerkin,” by the great Irish (and lesbian) storyteller Emma Donoghue. “Slammerkin” is an old British word for a loose-fitting gown and slang for a loose woman.

“Slammerkin” is by turns the hilarious and horrifying tale of 14-year-old Mary Saunders, a poor girl in 1760s London determined to rise “above her station” by making money and wearing fine gowns. Seduced by a creepy peddler in exchange for a bright ribbon, Mary finds herself pregnant, kicked out by her mother and thrown into a life of prostitution.

The book charts Mary’s misadventures. She learns the tricks of the trade from a wise-cracking whore named Doll, who has less than a heart of gold. She services hundreds of “cullies” (johns) and gets the clap. She does a stint in a home for reformed prostitutes. She doesn’t reform. She pisses off London’s most brutal pimp. She flees to the countryside and finds haven assisting a kind seamstress. But trouble keeps following Mary, and her own bad choices get her in deeper and deeper doo-doo.

“Slammerkin” is a pulpy story with literary gloss. It has great period details and skewers class and gender oppression. It’s also outrageously entertaining.

I moved on to Emma Donoghue’s bestseller “Room” with apprehension, because words like “shattering” and “devastating” appear in every review. They aren’t exaggerations. “Room” has haunted me for days.

The story involves a young woman and her son imprisoned by a madman for years in a room that’s 11 feet by 11 feet. “Ma” is being raped almost nightly while 5-year-old Jack (fathered by the rapist) tries to sleep in the wardrobe but is kept awake counting bed creaks. During long days, when not depressed, Ma steadfastly educates and entertains Jack, who has never known any life outside of “Room.” As tensions rise, Ma devises a desperate escape plan that depends on little Jack. Will they escape? Can Jack adjust to the real world? Can Ma recover from the trauma?

This horror story is made heart-rending beyond belief because it is narrated entirely by Jack, through a child’s voice and naïve perceptions. You will love Jack and root for him and his Ma, whose saga is one of primal love and endurance. “Room” is the most harrowing, beautiful book I’ve read in years.