Summer Reading – What I learned from Neal Shusterman

It’s been a few years since I’ve read what could be classified as Thrillers. I went through this Clive Cussler stage at the beach one summer. I read about six Cussler novels and found them quite entertaining if not a little formulaic. And there’s the Christian Fiction author named Ted Dekker that writes some very trippy fiction. There were more than a few times I found myself cringing at some of his more gruesome descriptions (but if you haven’t read any of his stuff check it out. Blink is pretty cool). I generally consider thrillers to be good summer-fluff reads.

Unwind plays like a thriller, but it’s not just summer fluff. I could talk about how the characters do become a little cardboard once they undergo “change”, but they do change. I could talk about how the villains seem a bit more like caricatures than actually scary people. But the motivating fear is that at any point the characters’ struggles will be invalidated by their unwinding, so I can forgive (to a degree) the villains. The things that make this novel pack some punches are the socio-political and religious debates that serve as the subtext.

At one point the main character – Connor – and three other boys are being transported in giant metal crates via a 747 being sent to the airplane graveyard. This is a particularly tense scene in the novel because none of the teenagers are sure that they are actually being transported to safety, or that they’ll survive the flight. In the midst of the uncertainty a smart-alecky Hayden asks the other boys the “big questions”. Like when does life begin? What happens to us when we die? If you don’t really die when you’re unwound then what happens to your consciousness?

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the four boys in the transfer crate a boy named Cy-Fy is under the compulsion of a piece of his transplanted brain to travel to Mississippi. It’s a chilling scene when Cy-Fy arrives at his destination. It seems that the part of the brain Cy-Fy got didn’t realize it had been unwound and was making a desperate attempt to absolve itself and avoid unwinding. It’s absolutely abhorrent.

Shusterman does a very good job of revealing to teenagers that they are capable of serious, heavy thoughts. It’s funny because teenagers often behave as if when they use their higher reasoning they’ll no longer be cool (sometimes their use of higher reasoning is stunted by the slowly developing frontal lobe, but that’s not too much of an excuse). A line that was repeated throughout that I loved was Connor realizing that because of Risa he’d begun to use his brain.

On his website Shusterman continually refers to himself as a storyteller. I read a few of his blog entries and he seems very concerned with delivering a moral couched in his stories. Because of my upbringing this moralistic, parable type story appeals to me, and for a long time I operated under the belief that all of my stories had to have a purpose or a lesson. I think the danger in forcing a lesson into each story you write is that the need to be didactic can take over and strain the story. I now believe it’s better to have a more organic approach. Some people will see a moral in anything they read, even a simple poem about a kitchen. Others won’t. I no longer feel the need to try to force it.

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Summer Reading – Unwind

check out the fanmade trailor
Unwind by Neal Shusterman

So, my friend Speargun Jenna (her blog is empty right now, but if you visit it she’ll be forced to write something) suggested this book to me a while back. Goodreads says she read it two summers ago. She’s my go-to YA Lit girl. And once she told me the synopsis for this book I freaked a little bit. Guys, it’s amazing.

Here’s the basic gist: there’s a second American Civil War approximately in our time over abortion rights. The war is resolved because of The Bill of Life which makes it illegal to abort unborn children but makes it retroactively possible to “unwind” teenagers between the ages of 13-18. Unwinding is literally taking the entire body apart for use in transplants. The downside to this plethora of available transplants is that doctors no longer bother trying to cure diseases, they just replace the body part that ails you.

I love this book for so many reasons. It’s an easy, face paced read that acts a lot like a thriller. I think it’s really entertaining for teenagers to read. But in the midst of this lovely fast paced, summer blockbuster type story is a concept that is pretty serious. The sanctity of life, consciousness, as well as other social and religious issues are addressed in such a way that teenagers won’t be bored by it, but challenged by the questions. Two of the main characters, during the course of the novel, learn how to process their thoughts and make decisions based on their developing worldviews.

This is another thing I love. I’ve worked with and alongside teenagers since I was a teenager myself. By sheer amount of exposure to teenagers I’ve witnessed how awesome it is to see them develop a worldview, learn to think for themselves. I think this novel is useful in providing food for thought in an easily digestible form for said teenagers.

Above all it ends with hope. I love dystopias. I think it’s fascinating to see how one slightly stranger-than-normal opinion could drastically change how the world works. In Shusterman’s Acknowledgements (have I told you guys before how much I love Acknowledgements?) he said this –

I’d also like to thank Charles Pamment of the BBC, Jim Bremner and Joe Zentner of desertusa.com, and Dave Finn, for their help with the factual info between sections. The soul for sale on eBay, and the response, is real. The airplane graveyard exists and the chilling story of the Ukrainian babies taken for their parts is true, proving that fiction is all too often one rationalization away from reality.

(emphasis mine)

 The thing about dystopias is they usually leave you with the heebie-jeebies (like the rat gnawing toward your face in 1984). Or they’re vague and (if you’re like me) you imagine a happy ending is possible (but not likely, a la The Giver). This one is left hanging with a fairly positive note – music filling a desert.

Apparently, Shusterman is working on a sequel and a movie adaptation. The website leads to a bunch of fan-made trailers (some of which were school assignments, which were pretty cool). Shusterman is writing about some interesting topics. I’m not sure how closely I’ll follow his career, but this is definitely a great book.

 

What I learned from Margaret Atwood

This is by no means a comprehensive discussion of all the elements and style that I admired in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s merely meant as a sort of reminder for myself of what I admired and hope to possibly incorporate in my own storytelling.

In my previous post I talked a lot about the element of truth in story. There’s a phrase used to describe the type of narrator Atwood used. She’s a mildly unreliable narrator. Mainly because she does not deliver basic facts (like actual names, places, details). Sometimes she’ll get most of the way through the story and then admit that she really has no clue and has only imagined the details of the story she shares. It makes for a fascinating narrator. Especially if this device is used well.

Offred’s unreliability is established near the middle of the novel after enough of the story has been told, yet I didn’t feel betrayed or annoyed by the shift. It seemed organic. Atwood created a situation that allowed Offred to reveal her story realistically, in pieces, as she grew more trusting of her audience.

This brings me to an element that I admire so much and hope that I’ll figure out how to do. Revealing the story. Or one of those words that work-shoppers hate “pacing”. It’s a struggle.  A common critique of books and movies is, “Well it slowed down somewhere near the middle, but the ending was really good.” Or as my friend Pam puts it, “Once I hit the denouement, I’m over it.” I didn’t feel that way about Handmaid’s Tale. Offred only offers glimpses of her history, yet the narrative is not hindered by these flashbacks.

(I’m sorry if that last paragraph may make no sense because I’m distracted by Stacy & Clinton on television. The woman on this show is unbelievable. )

Finally, Atwood has guts. Or maybe it is the nature of dystopias to have a dangling, open to the imagination ending. So, Offred, true to established form, doesn’t tell the end of her own story. But the reader is given a consolation prize in the form of an academic discussion of the Gileadean Coup and Offred’s transcribed memoir. It offers several possible endings for Offred and the other characters. And the thing Atwood has striven to make clear throughout the novel is that all three of them could be true, or not, but either way we’ll be prepared.

How do you feel about hanging endings? Unreliable narrators? Dystopias?