Thursday, March 31, 2011

Happiness is...a book that makes you think.

I think I've mentioned my love of books at least a million and a half times so far but I have yet to do a book review. It's high time I changed that!

I've adapted my format from various book blogs I've followed as well as my own wants/needs in what I look for.  I know a lot of people hate the rating system (3 of 5 stars and so forth) but I find it really helps me get a quick grasp on the overall impressions of the book.  I trust the opinions of most of the people I follow and odds are if they didn't like it, I probably won't like it. Same goes for the movie rating idea.  I hate getting part way through a book someone has ranted and raved about only to find a horrendously gratuitous sex scene or having to skip and skip and skip all the blatant swears. (That's not to say I won't read a book that has either of those things, but if I know going into it where things stand and if it's a vital part of the story vs. in it for supposed shock/coolness factors then I have no one to blame but myself.)   And I am a firm believer in judging a book by its cover (as I've mentioned before.)  So, you get the pertinent info for tracking the book down on your own, my general opinions on the cover, my overall opinion of the book as a whole and approximately what it would be rated based on its content followed by a brief synopsis and some thoughts.

Now without further ado, here goes!

Author: Neal Shusterman 
Pages: 335
Age Range: 14+
Published: 2007
Genre: Sci-fi
Cover Score: **
Overall Grade: ****
Rating: PG-13

The year is some unknown point in the future and the world has evolved scientifically, especially in the biological  field.  There are some leftovers from the modern age (ipods are mentioned as relics but there's no mention of what has replaced them) but other than some changes in government and the medical field most things are pretty much the same as we know it now.  
Several years earlier there had been an all-out war waged between 2 factions; the pro-lifers and the pro-choicers.  The military/medical fields were called in as a supposed neutral third party during negotiations and submitted an idea that they assumed would make both sides see the ridiculousness of their arguments.  Instead, they all jumped at it as a brilliant solution and the Bill of Life was adopted, outlawing fetal abortions.  However, parents were given the opportunity to 'unwind' or retroactively abort their children anywhere between the ages of 13 and 18 if they so chose. Unwinding entailed sectioning off each and every piece of the person for use in accident or disease victims as well as cosmetic/plastic surgery. A sort of extreme organ donor program where not one cell goes to waste.  The idea being that the individual was not killed but rather continued to live on in small part in each of their recipients.  Thus there was still the population control needed, choice involved, but no actual murders being committed.  Or were they?
The story revolves around 3 characters who, for various reasons, are being unwound. 15-year-old Conner is basically a juvenile delinquent.  His parents no longer know what to do with him and decide the best course is to have him unwound.  Risa is a talented pianist but a ward of the state.  With funds shrinking there is not enough room to keep everyone and while talented she isn't exceptional enough to become truly profitable so she is also being unwound.  Lev, on the other hand, has known of his impending unwinding practically since birth. His family belongs to an extreme religious sect that believes in tithing.  He is the 10th of 10 children, bred specifically for the purpose of being unwound as part of the family's gift to God.  His life has been celebrated and honored by all who know him and he is proud, though a bit nervous, of his impending unwinding.  The 3 lives intersect when the bus carrying them to the harvest camp crashes.  They have very different attitudes  and understandings about what is going to happen to them but all find themselves thrust into survival mode, running for their very lives from police, family and religious leaders.  
They end up finding people who help them to an illegal compound (along an Underground Railroad of sorts) where they are given jobs and opportunities to live until they are 18 and free to venture out into the world again.  But there are conspiracies and rebellions even in their small society and the kids eventually are caught in the cross-fire and find themselves again on the road to being unwound. Each, in very different ways, rises up and stands for what they believe while learning to help society as a whole, think of others and think for themselves.

The ending isn't necessarily a happy one but it is a satisfying conclusion. None of the main characters end up being unwound, but they are also no longer whole.  There is deep physical and emotional damage and yet because of their pains they are more alive than they have ever been. They all still have problems, some might argue that they have more than they started with.  But they've helped  to set about making change in their society, change for the better.
The moral arguements abound as you meet characters from each side of the line throughout the story.  What constitutes death?  What is the definition of a soul? When does life officially begin; at conception or birth or somewhere in between? If all the pieces of a person still exist, does that person still live? What happens to that person when the division is complete? Do they linger in a post-world limbo?  What does that mean for the religious who believe in heaven and hell?  Does the soul move on to one of those states?  If it does then doesn't that mean that person is dead, has been killed? Or do they dwell in a permanent purgatory, never able to progress or end?  

Even with my own religious understandings there were a lot of questions running through my mind and areas of ambiguity. And I'm always amazed at the cunning deception that can lead people to have so little value for human life.  The arguments are often very convincing and without a bit of knowledge and/or faith, you can almost see the truth in what is being said. 

This isn't a book I will probably ever read again but I am glad I read it once.  It was well-written, thought-provoking and emotionally gripping. (I prefer my re-reads to be a bit more on the light and fluffy side!) But if you're looking for something that makes you question what you know and understand,  or one that makes you appreciate our own (imperfect and seriously flawed but infinitely superior) society, look no further than this chilling yet hopeful read.

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