Jim's Reviews > Unwind

Unwind by Neal Shusterman
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Jun 13, 12

bookshelves: dystopia, horror, kindle-books, science-fiction, young-adult, strong-smart-female-protagonist, suspense-thriller
Recommended to Jim by: Erika
Recommended for: Anyone who can deal with the grisly themes
Read from May 20 to June 04, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1

There are nearly 5,000 reviews of this book on GR, and the official synopsis explains clearly what is meant by the term ‘Unwind’. So, I am going to assume that those who read this are familiar with the basic premise. If not, that’s okay - some of the context will be evident here. But it is much easier to review this without major spoilers if I don’t try to tap-dance around the basics.

This book certainly deserves its legion of fans, and could become a phenomenal movie. I strongly recommend it for those who can handle the grim central themes. It plays on your deepest emotions, and gives your logic analyzer a good workout at the same time.

There is a group of big ideas that I will discuss in the second half of this review. And one gut-wrenching core concept - that some unspeakably awful things are in store for a lot of teenage kids. Basic human values are redefined, including the ‘sanctity’ of human life and the responsibilities of parents to their kids. The historic origin for all this is the intransigence of human attitudes on both sides of a tough issue. The outcome is a tide of events that sweeps young humans into institutional crimes, and these are cynically accepted - and mostly ignored - by adults.

These are all big, in-your-face polarizing topics. They demand a firm grasp on one’s own values, and value judgments of events in the story. But Shusterman never preaches here, and never pushes any final judgments except one - that the ‘solution’ in this fight over reproductive rights was at least as heinous as any of the original crimes.

I liked the story and concept a lot. With that said, it seemed obviously farfetched at first, and I was expecting a more thorough world-building treatment than the one that I got early on. I struggled with that, and it was somewhat distracting.

Fortunately, the narrative and the three main characters were highly engaging for me from the beginning. I was especially impressed by Risa, the excellent female lead - strong, tough, smart and adaptable, just what I want to see in this era of clueless insta-love. Any author would be proud of her, in my opinion. In addition, most of my background issues were covered by the midway point, and the narrative really rocked from that point on.

Overview and comments

This section will be relatively spoiler-free, I think.

The author does provide a brief intro/history of the events that led to the central scenario here. It is enough to get you grounded and provide some context for the opening scenes. But for me, there was still a feeling that the author jumped into the story very quickly, with introductions to three teenagers who are facing critical moments in their lives. At that point, I still didn’t understand the rationale at any deep level, and the experience was a little disorienting.

Gradually, however, there were enough details filtering into the narrative that I was able to focus increasingly on the characters and events. For me, both the characters and story were very effective from the beginning, and their momentum continued to build as the events took center stage.

I was sympathetic with all three of the major characters, but especially with Risa - the orphaned ward of the state. As I have said in other reviews, we don’t see enough of her strength, savvy, and intelligent action (my opinion) in recent top-selling fiction. I really liked Risa, and my admiration for her grew through the course of the book.

Connor was a frustrating protagonist for me, but I can understand the author’s purpose in writing him that way. Deeply compassionate - but temperamental and prone to impulses of very poor judgment - he had to grow in all sorts of ways as the story moved along, and he did. I wanted to slap him around a few times, and my view was shared by others in the story. But I was impressed by the author’s development of this character in latter stages.

Lev was perhaps the most interesting character, in his striking transformation from one set of bedrock principles - as his earliest memories - to a radically different manifesto by the end. Lev gives you a lot to think about, and so do Risa and Connor. Their life journey really carries the book, and I thought the author was extremely effective in his use of them as the main vehicle.

So, characters and events are the main thrust of the page-turning narrative, and it reached a point for me that I really couldn’t put it down toward the end. I even forgot to highlight passages on my Kindle for later review, and I swear it was not encroaching senility that made me forget! The book had a major grip on me - a really suspenseful, grab-and-don’t-let-go read.

Thoughts on the Big Questions

This section will implicitly involve spoilers, but I have tried to minimize plot reveals.

I want to focus here on the big questions that are always looming in the subtext. In particular, I want to take this scenario of a possible future and trace it back a bit to where we are now.

How precious is human life? When does it become precious? What restrictions should the state place on the “Right to Life”, especially among the unborn? The turmoil surrounding these questions is a daily debate in current society (and I am thinking especially of the USA in this regard, where the story occurs).

Shusterman presents a series of documentary examples: news releases, tales of despicable acts, extreme positions on all sides of these questions. He very pointedly avoids telling the reader what to think. Instead, he lets the characters think and talk about the issues.

“Unborn babies… they suck their thumbs sometimes, right? And they kick. Maybe before that they’re just like a bunch of cells or something, but once they kick and suck their thumbs— that’s when they’ve got a soul.”

“Maybe it’s the best answer of all. If more people could admit they really don’t know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War.”

In Shusterman’s telling, the conflict develops along naturally incendiary lines. It reaches a point where the belief in “sanctity of human life” is a mockery in relation to the war that grows out of the dispute.

What happens in that case? Well, Shusterman presents a truly bizarre outcome that is the core premise of the book - an agreement that would never occur under normal, peacetime conditions. In a one-page dialogue, he reveals how this agreement came to pass. If you have read the book, you will remember the dialogue. At some point, you most likely took a position on both the outcome and the rationale, and your impression of the book was driven in large part by the position you took. That was certainly true for me.

On first reading, the dialogue seemed inadequate to me as an explanation for the agreement. But it started to make a lot of sense on second and third reading, and by that point I found it plausible, no matter how cynical and sickening the implications were. My reading of history is that many critical turning-point events seem impossible until they happen, but seem inevitable after that. But some highly respected friends had a very different take in this case, and I can certainly understand their reactions. It is good to be aware of this going in.

In any case, one implication of the agreement came through very clearly. There was a lot of money to be made from it, and powerful forces took that idea and ran all the way to the bank.

“People wanted parts.” “Demanded is more like it... And all those new parts had to come from somewhere.”

”It didn’t take long for ethics to be crushed by greed. Unwinding became big business, and people let it happen.”

Can Transplants Think?

Whether or not souls exist Connor doesn’t know. But consciousness does exist— that’s something he knows for sure. If every part of an Unwind is still alive, then that consciousness has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?

My take on these issues (in the book) is that teens are left to work the answers out for themselves, while adults look the other way.

“The unborn have souls. They have souls from the moment they get made— the law says.”

“maybe an Unwind’s spirit stretches out, kind of like a giant balloon between all those parts of us in other places. Very poetic.”

Context and point of view are critical here. The conversations are among teenagers on the ‘firing line’. These are not adults, making rules based on hardened ideologies. They are kids who deal with the consequences.

He tries to imagine himself stretched so thin and so wide that he can reach around the world. He imagines his spirit like a web strung between the thousand recipients of his hands, his eyes, the fragments of his brain— none of it under his control anymore, all absorbed by the bodies and wills of others. Could consciousness exist like that?

He thinks about the trucker who performed a card trick for him with an Unwind’s hand. Did the boy who once owned that hand still feel the satisfaction of performing the trick?

As an adult, I read these passages and think, “Nah. It wouldn’t be like that at all.” From my neuroscientist perspective, I wouldn’t expect any vestige of consciousness in any ‘harvested’ organ that is not a brain.

But my adult perspective is not the issue here. These are teenagers who are trapped in a system that was born in warfare, hardened by greed, and then marginalized in the collective adult consciousness. Their bitter reality is carefully ignored on the radar of the average adult in this society. They are the living victims, and no adult is taking responsibility for explaining whether and in what sense they will remain alive.

Conclusions
This book has a lot of power, and has forced many adult readers (me included) to think more carefully about the consequences of ideology run amok. The story won’t work for everybody. But I will be extremely interested in the sequel that is coming soon, and one thing I want to see is whether adults can ‘grow up’ in this world.

Actions have consequences, and responsibility doesn’t end when you don’t want to deal with it any more. Can we do better? I believe that is a good thought for any day.

Highly Recommended

Thanks very much to Erika and many other GR friends who recommended this book to me. I depend so much on their judgments in choosing the books that I read, and I am deeply grateful to have them on my side.

There are so many excellent and moving reviews of this book on GR, from my friends and many others. Too many to list here. My advice - look at what your friends had to say about it, or just start at the top and go from there.
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Reading Progress

05/20/2012 page 120
36.0% "from p. 47: "Risa finds herself unsettled by the food wrappers and broken bits of plastic they start coming across in the woods, because the first sign of civilization is always trash."" 1 comment
05/26/2012 page 170
51.0% "from p. 111: "He doesn’t tell Risa what’s in store for her. Somehow telling her would be stealing something from her. Let this be between her, Sonia, the pen, and the page, as it had been for him."" 4 comments
06/05/2012 page 173
52.0% "I finished the book, but will post a couple more updates before I review. " "She believed that if someone actually gets unwound, then they never had a soul to begin with. She said God must know who’s going to be unwound, and he doesn’t give them souls.” Diego grunts his disapproval. “I don’t like the sound of that.” "" 7 comments
06/08/2012 page 224
67.0% "Last update before review: "We thought it would shock both sides into seeing reason— that they would stare at each other across the table and someone would blink. But nobody blinked.""

Comments (showing 51-68 of 68) (68 new)

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message 51: by Nataliya (new)

Nataliya Jim wrote: "Recs'R'Us! That's what friends are for.:)"

This should be the unofficial title of Goodreads!

"Yes indeed, you are in the big hive now. And anyone who knows what the 'sharks' are up to, and how they get away with it, should keep all that in mind when they vote this fall. Just sayin.."

So true. I know I will definitely keep that in mind. It's quite ridiculous that students now have to graduate with so much negative worth.

"An excellent plan! And stake out that cot in the corner, or the closet, or wherever it is.. "

...Or a blanket on the floor ;) That works as well.


Catie Haha, Oh Nataliya...when you warned him away from Never Let Me Go I had this moment of sadness where I thought we were actually going to disagree about a book for the first time. (Which, I know wouldn't really be a huge deal - but still... ;)). That's one of my favorite books. I love it an insane amount.

The movie made me sob like a baby. For almost the entire film.

BTW - for either of you - I share my books quite frequently so if there's anything that I own in print that you guys would like to borrow, just let me know and I'll be happy to mail it out. I am very frugal in my book-purchasing too but between book-swapping, libraries, and ARC's I can usually keep it pretty cheap.


message 53: by Nataliya (new)

Nataliya Catie wrote: "Haha, Oh Nataliya...when you warned him away from Never Let Me Go I had this moment of sadness where I thought we were actually going to disagree about a book for the first time. (Which, I know wo..."

Oh no, I loved "Never Let Me Go" (I actually gave it 5 stars when I read it - through the tears). But I think, based on what I gather "Unwind" is about, that Jim can definitely use a break before plunging into the Ishiguro's sadness.
The movie though - I saw it before I read the book, and I don't think it succeeded in conveying the atmosphere of the book. (view spoiler) It just made no sense to me. Then I read the book, and I felt it, and understood it to the best of my abilities. Maybe if I had read the book first, I would have felt the sadness of the movie, but instead there was only frustration. I'm so glad a good friend of mine convinced me to read the book regardless of my impressions of the movie!

Hey, the book swap seems like a great idea! I have quite a few books as well (well, not as many as I would love to have, clearly, because I tend to consolidate and make Goodwill donations every time I have to move - this way I can share the goodness). I should go through my GR lists and mark what books I actually own.


message 54: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Nataliya wrote: "So true. I know I will definitely keep that in mind. It's quite ridiculous that students now have to graduate with so much negative worth. "

Just after I posted that message, I received and signed an online petition from my junior U.S. Senator (Kirsten Gillibrand). Here is an excerpt:

//////////////////////////////////////
Just over two weeks.

That's how much time we have until student loan interest rates are set to double to 6.8% on July 1 unless Congress acts.

You may be asking, didn't Congress already vote for this? The answer is yes, but it was filibustered by Republicans, once again blocking progress for middle-class Americans.

The GOP’s all for keeping wasteful taxpayer subsidies for oil and gas companies, but lose their zest when it comes to protecting students. They have it all wrong.

Click here to sign my petition calling on Congress to hold student loan interest rates down. We simply can not allow them to rise.

http://www.democratsenators.org/dia/t...

At a time when middle-class families are struggling and student loan debt is skyrocketing, it would be a disastrous hit to the middle class if we let these loan rates double.

Keeping interest rates affordable has never been a partisan issue. As the deadline for action quickly approaches, it's more important than ever that we rise above the gamesmanship.
/////////////////////////////////////

I am going to take a wild guess that Barbara Boxer and/or Diane Feinstein have a very similar petition on their web sites. Just sayin'.

"...Or a blanket on the floor ;) That works as well."

Yes, the old blanket on the floor trick! I have been told by some neurosurgery residents that they can sleep standing up!:) (not while in surgery, mind..)


message 55: by Nataliya (new)

Nataliya Jim wrote: "Yes, the old blanket on the floor trick! I have been told by some neurosurgery residents that they can sleep standing up!:) (not while in surgery, mind..) "

I've fallen asleep standing up before as well! (and no, not in surgery, either). By now I can catnap in any position and situation imaginable.
We used to joke about curling up in an empty patient bed, but so far I haven't had a chance yet ;)

Oh, and I will check up on similar petitions in California. The education loan situation here is ridiculous!


message 56: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Catie wrote: "Haha, Oh Nataliya...when you warned him away from Never Let Me Go I had this moment of sadness where I thought we were actually going to disagree about a book for the first time. (Which, I know wouldn't really be a huge deal - but still... ;)). That's one of my favorite books. I love it an insane amount.

The movie made me sob like a baby. For almost the entire film."


Those are lovely thoughts, Catie! I am very confident that I will love the book too - I think we are all on board with that one.

I am pretty sure I made a DVD of the movie, but haven't watched it yet. Keira Knightley is in the cast, right? I will have to check it out...

"BTW - for either of you - I share my books quite frequently so if there's anything that I own in print that you guys would like to borrow, just let me know and I'll be happy to mail it out. I am very frugal in my book-purchasing too but between book-swapping, libraries, and ARC's I can usually keep it pretty cheap."

Thanks so much, Catie! That is a wonderful offer.:)

I would be happy to lend any of my Kindle books - I think Nataliya and I discussed this briefly before. The program seems pretty limited now, but will probably grow. A lot of my Kindle books are not listed (yet) here on GR. But just ask if you need something, and I will see if I have it.

Perhaps more important, I am happy to send either of you a copy of any of my home-made DVDs - I have a VERY extensive movie collection, especially of the classics and stuff that is out on the subscription movie channels. Just ask, and I will be happy to oblige if I have it. They are blu-ray, or quite as good as the commercial DVDs, but they are definitely good quality and we watch them all the time.


message 57: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Nataliya wrote: "I've fallen asleep standing up before as well! (and no, not in surgery, either). By now I can catnap in any position and situation imaginable.
We used to joke about curling up in an empty patient bed, but so far I haven't had a chance yet ;)

Oh, and I will check up on similar petitions in California. The education loan situation here is ridiculous! ..."


Sleep is a precious thing, that is for sure. Especially when you don't get any for a really long time...

The petition should be out there. You can probably sign the one I linked! Senate Republicans can stop any action by Congress, and they routinely do. I hope the voters understand that...


Catie I watched after reading the book and I guess it must have dredged up all of the original feelings I had for the book because it really got to me! (view spoiler)

Long comment about Never Let Me Go! Sorry Jim!

And thanks for offering to share your movies!


message 59: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Catie wrote: "I watched after reading the book and I guess it must have dredged up all of the original feelings I had for the book because it really got to me! [spoilers removed]

Long comment about Never Let Me Go! Sorry Jim!..."


Never a problem, Catie! To be honest, I could read it right now and forget all the details by tomorrow...and I might just do that.:)

And you are very welcome on the movies! Anytime..


Erika I even forgot to highlight passages on my Kindle for later review, and I swear it was not encroaching senility that made me forget!

I must pull out my kitty for this...
http://www.smileycodes.info
Don't worry Jim, with your ability to gather your thoughts and transfer it to helpful reviews like this (and some other reviews of yours I've read so far), I'm pretty sure no one will think you suffer from age-related forgetfulness :D

I understand your issue with the world building at the beginning since I also felt the same. For a moment I had thought NS brought us into the story without preparing the readers first with enough introduction, which is very crucial in science fiction especially with the 'uncomfortable' world building like this book had. Like you said he jumped into the Unwind world very quickly, like the pace of fantasy books. But somehow I still got invested in the story soon after I started reading, maybe because I was so drawn toward Connor, Risa and Lev the moment they were introduced to me.

I think what I liked most was the way NS wrapped these controversial topics from our real world in a story of fiction, and throughout the story he tried to keep the readers in a position to see those controversies both way from black and white perspectives. At least that was how it worked to me. As the story went I wanted to make judgements, to be able to say 'that is wrong' and 'this is right', but in the end the book just made me think and questioned where will I stand when I am brought to one of those situations.

Jim I just have a little time for escapism here, but I'm so glad to find your have posted this review. I really wish I can 'like' it more than once!


message 61: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Erika wrote: "Jim I just have a little time for escapism here, but I'm so glad to find your have posted this review. I really wish I can 'like' it more than once!"

Thank you so much for all of your lovely comments, Erika! I think I had very much the same reactions to it that you did, and I definitely agree that the main effect of the presentation of controversies was to make me think.

That was a very good thing, and I certainly did engage with the characters as you did. I am really glad you recommended this book to me! And I definitely look forward to the sequel.

I hope you have more time for GR escapism soon!


Erika I'm glad you had good time reading it :) One topic that interest me a lot (among others) was the one you mentioned: Can Transplants Think? It's good you brought up the issue and share your perspective as a neuroscientist. I believe the same way, about consciousness. But the book made me remember there were times when I wondered 'Despite the controversy, does it ever happened to anyone who received organ donors?'. And I ended up googling it :D

You have done a great job, you brought up all the essential information the readers need to know before reading the book.

Btw Jim I finished The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. I rated it three stars, more like 3.5 actually. I liked the theme a lot, but I'm so thankful you warned me first, because I really struggled with the writing! Couple of times it made me dizzy figuring what does this word mean LOL...


message 63: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Thanks so much for the kind words, Erika! I do think that transplanted organs will be 'felt' by recipients in all sorts of ways, because of tissue/genetic differences in the way the organ functions, and because the brain is likely to get feedback or other signals from the organ and its physiology. But that is a very different matter than the way the characters were thinking about it in this book, as you well know. I touched on other aspects of those distinctions, and I really appreciate your comments about the approach I took!

Yes, I can certainly understand your problems with the meanings of misspelled words in Knife of Never Letting Go! It was challenging enough for me in my native language. :D

I will say that the next book in the Ness series is easier to read, and I enjoyed it more. But it may not be for you, and I could certainly understand that.


message 64: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Thanks, Kayla!


message 65: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Thanks, Meg J!


message 66: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Thanks, Alysondra!


message 67: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Sam wrote: "It's great to hear your final verdict, Jim! Just in time for the sequel, too. I hope we can expect good things. :)"

Thanks so much, Sam! I am definitely looking forward to the sequel, and I will look forward to your review!


message 68: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Thanks very much, Chance and Wordsmith!


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