Sunday, April 17, 2011

MIND RAIN

Review of MIND RAIN edited by SCOTT WESTERFELD


I don't read much nonfiction for leisure, but whenever I do I think I should read more. This particular book is a collection of essays on Scott Westerfeld’s UGLIES series. Anyone who loves to read knows what it's like to talk about your favorite book. I don't mean the gushing about how amazing it is, but when you really delve in and engage with characters and themes in ways you never have before. This book is packed with insight about Westerfeld’s series, and intriguing new perspectives that can prompt hours upon hours of debate.


My favorite essay by far is Linder Gerber’s “Conformity by Design,” in which she addresses how we in the United States often consider conformity a negative thing, and instead value individuality much more. Drawing on Japanese culture (which ties in nicely with EXTRAS), Gerber points out some of the ways in which conformity can benefit society (and individuality hinder it). I enjoyed this essay so much because this viewpoint is, at least from my experience, rarely discussed in a culture that primarily sees conformity as a monster that devours individuality. I’m withholding specifics to make you go read it yourself, but Gerber uses some intriguing examples to emphasize that sometimes it’s a strength to see yourself as one tiny piece in a greater whole.


I also really liked the second essay, “Best Friends for Never” by Robin Wasserman, mostly because I entirely agree with it! Wasserman claims that, though Tally is the protagonist, Shay is the real heroine of the story. Shay is the one who runs away from the controlling city. Tally only follows with the intention of betraying her friend so that she can become pretty and continue on with her average life. Once at the Smoke, Tally has no reservations about taking the attention of a guy Shay clearly liked, and seemed to actually be involved with. Not to mention that Tally’s betrayal leads to Shay’s capture, when she desperately wanted to avoid the operation. That’s book one. Wasserman lists many more of Tally’s betrayals and discusses how Shay is often an essential steppingstone for Tally’s success. I don’t dislike Tally quite as much as Wasserman seems to; she seems merely average to me and I find it hard to resent someone for not being incredible. I do, however, agree that Shay deserves more credit!


Also included in MIND RAIN are two stories that served as loose inspiration for UGLIES with their debates about beauty. The first is Charles Beaumont’s “The Beautiful People,” which is very similar to UGLIES when you boil it down to basics. The second is Ted Chaing’s “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” which is absolutely fascinating! Westerfeld declares that his UGLIES series stemmed from an email discussion with Chaing about his story. The questions raised in “Liking What You See,” despite also being about beauty, are quite different than those raised in UGLIES, and in many ways impressively unique. Chiang approached the debate over beauty from a new angle: what if we could see appearance but not beauty? If we could recognize individual features and how they differ but we had no emotional reaction to those differences? All literature feeds your mind in one way or another; even when you dislike something, you critically engage by articulating why. “Liking What You See” took this to a higher level, and I felt like I had a buffet of promising discussions that I could “eat” over and over again without tiring of them.


I’ve mentioned the pieces I liked the most already, but there were also one or two essays in here that I disagreed with. That’s the fun of discussing something! When we talk about a book, we have a chance to learn about different perspectives, which gives us an idea of the range of human understanding. If you have read UGLIES, then MIND RAIN is worth reading, too, because I guarantee there will be at least one viewpoint in there that hadn’t occurred to you before.

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