Stephen King is the go to guy when you want a great TEotWaWKI story. I have reviewed The Mist and I need to so for The Stand, which I haven't read that since pre-SHTF days. That is the granddaddy of all end-of-the-world stories. I figured his novel Cell wouldn't disappoint.
I was wrong. I don't want to say this book is bad. I really respect Mr. King. This is also his first book after his horrific car accident. It is still infinitely better than anything I could write. Let's just say that it's not his best book, but it has it's moments.
The opening grabs you right away. You barely have time to absorb the ordinary world before he brings it crashing down via cells phones that corrupt callers' brains, driving them into homicidal rages. This is Stephen King at his best:
Pass the test of immediate survival, but just barely.
Assemble a small group and seek shelter.
Figure out what the fuck to do now.
I'm lapping this up as it's classic TEotWaWKI story-telling, but then we hit some speed bumps. The writing's not that good. It feels rushed, lacking an editor's touch. I may be unusual in this way, but these kind of mistakes begin to affect my ability to suspend disbelief. Some of the story flaws begin to nibble at me:
Driving is a task that can rarely be accomplished because the roads are all clogged. I'm not buying this. Sure, there will be clots of vehicles, and you may have to drive off to the side, but I cannot imagine it would severely restrict you to the level represented in the book. At least that wasn't my personal experience during the outbreak.
The "zombies" behaved weirdly. I can't go into detail on this since it would involve serious spoilers, but this ultimately killed it for me.
I'm not saying there aren't worthwhile lessons. He was correct to point out that obtaining one or more fire arms is a top priority. Also, group cohesion is extremely important. There are times when you'll need to subordinate your desires for the good of the group. Truly, though, you're better off reading some of his other works. My apologies, Mr. King.
I once announced in the typically grandiose way I use when I pontificate:
All that is wrong with American food culture can be traced to the recipe. I am suffering under its tyranny.
Rather than eliciting the usual eye-rolling, a vigorous debate ensued. My wife quickly pointed to the glaring weakness of my proposition: Recipes teach you new ways of cooking. And yes, she is right, if you already know how to cook! She is a master and almost never follows a recipe to the letter. For her, it is a starting point that she's riffs off of to produce an amazing meal. But therein lies the trap that recipes pose for the rest of us. Allow me to make my case:
Recipes Set Unreasonable Expectations
Things don't always work out as planned. Even the best chefs have flops when they try something new, but they learn from their mistakes. That flawless salmon Gordon Ramsay plates on camera is probably the thousandth time he's done that dish. Give him a recipe that uses an ingredient he's never seen before in a style that's new to him and, well, he's probably got a better than even chance at success. But for the rest of us? I wonder how many potential cooks were turned off by an initial failure?
I believe the overall quality of food in America would increase with the number of people who cook. I don't think we need a nation of Michelin starred chefs, just people who know what it takes to make the basics. We'd be less likely to put up with crap from others.
What can we do to get more people into the kitchen?
Recipes Teach the Wrong Thing
You cannot learn to cook from a recipe. There are too many variables at play for any one recipe to be the definitive answer: My oven behaves differently than yours. The meat I buy today is different from what I bought last week in size, shape and fat/connective tissue content. Etc., etc., etc... How can I be a success in the kitchen if I don't understand these fundamentals?
Rather than learning recipes, I should be learning techniques. How much easier would it be to follow a Coq au Vin recipe if you've mastered a basic roast chicken? Sure, they're not same thing (braising vs. roasting), but you'll already grok what heat does to connective tissue and the absolute lusciousness that follows.
Also, if you master a technique, it becomes easier to branch out (for example, making your own stock with the left overs from a roast chicken). You have the building blocks that make good dishes. The more techniques your learn, the easier it is to assemble and reassemble these blocks into different meals.
Pick a basic technique and a general ingredient, then keep doing it until you feel comfortable.
Recipes Subvert the Shopping Process
I ideally, you should go to the store with an open mind, to see what's good today. A recipe driven approach makes this difficult. Unless you're able to memorize hundreds or thousands of recipes, what are you going to do? Flip through every recipe you have to find a match for what you bought? Sure, the internet and recipe searches make this easier, but how much effort are you willing to put into tracking down something worth cooking? This would be more manageable if you limited the number of items you bought, but you may need to make a second trip.
It's more likely, though, that someone is jonesing for a particular dish and goes searching for the ingredients. This is how we've ended up with flavorless tomatoes that are available year round. And the meat department? How often do you see something with a bone in it? They're usually arrayed in ready to use cuts. Please, don't get me going on boneless, skinless, all white meat chicken.
If you start with a technique, though, shopping becomes a zen-like journey of discovery. "Oh, look, duck. Hmmm, can't be that much different to roast compared to a chicken." You'll find yourself asking questions of both staff and other customers and actually getting answers you understand.
When you feel confident enough to take home a new ingredient, you'll know that you're beginning to master your craft.
Let me reiterate: There is a place in the world for recipes, but they should not serve as your entry point into the world of cooking. I find it interesting to leaf through Le Guide Culinaire. Most recipes are a few sentences, maybe 2-3 paragraphs. There are no lists or explicit steps. Here's one selected at random, Sole à la Dieppoise:
Prepare the sole and shallow poach in a buttered dish with 1/2 cup white wine and the same amount of mussel cooking liquor. When cooked, drain and place in a suitable dish, surround with a Dieppoise garnish and coat the whole with Sauce Vin Blanc containing the reduced cooking liquid from the sole.
How many assumptions are built into this recipe? You can't make money selling a book like this since only trained chefs will buy it. And that's the answer to my conundrum. Cookbook publishers want you to buy their books. They need to appear to contain doable recipes. I think it would be antithetical to their business model, though, to actually produce a truly useful volume. Most people would then limit their purchases. I'm looking at 6 shelves of cook books and magazines in my study, most of which are pure lists of recipes. I'm guessing that we've averaged cooking 2-3 from each book.
These are the types of food books I'd like to see more of:
Yes, there are recipes here with your lists of ingredients and steps. But that's only a part of the book. The author goes into the history of Tex-Mex; how it came to be and how it straddles the border between Mexican and Anglo cuisines. Not only do I have a recipe for an excellent chili gravy, but I also have a counter move when someone swings the term "authentic" like a club. This is a cookbook that can be read cover-to-cover.
This is not a cookbook, though it does contain recipes (pickled oysters, anyone?). It's a history of New York City told from the context of this bivalve. It's a fascinating read (dang, the oysters were the size of dinner plates when Europeans first showed up), but I appreciate the insight it gives me to one of my favorite foods. I understand this shellfish better.
Well, enough of my rant. I need to figure out how to prepare a flatfish.
When most people think of the end of the world, images of the recent zombie wars flood the mind. Understandably so since we lost nearly 90% of the world's population. What people seem to forget, though, is that TEotWaWKI is a regular, albeit infrequent occurrence, from world-wide cataclysms to local events. The American Plague is a good example of the latter end of this spectrum as it delves into the Yellow Fever epidemic that swept through Memphis in 1878.
Consider the following from page 64*:
A number of nurses, doctors, ministers or nuns later wrote of the fear that accompanied them the first time they entered an infected home. They had nursed hundreds from the halls of sick wards, but it was something else all together to climb the steps of a porch and open a door with a yellow card swinging from a nail. The first thing to strike was the smell. It floated in the streets, a scent like rotting hay. The smell grew stronger and overpowering once the front door was opened, where it mingled with the soiled sheets, sweat and vomit. Inside, one never knew what to expect. Moans, cries, delirious screams, or worse, no sound at all. There was darkness, as windows were boarded shut, and there was the stagnant heat of imprisoned air. Then, as their eyes focused, they saw the bodies. At first, it was hard to tell which ones were living and where were not. If deceased, one could never know how long they had been that way or in what condition they would be.
Sound familiar? It gave me the chills. (Is that a headache I feel?) The similarities don't end there:
Effective quarantine procedures had been in place, but they were rescinded several years before because it would, as the author wrote on page 48, "create panic, stifling river traffic and delaying cotton shipments." Money always wins out over safety.
There were gangs roving through the city, robbing the homes of the defenseless infected.
Many did not die as a direct result of the disease, but rather of other causes exacerbated by the outbreak such as starvation and dehydration.
This happened before the dead rose and it will happen again. Be prepared!
* This and other quotes are from the September 2007 Berkley trade paperback edition of the book which is available from Amazon.com.
This book is a rant written by a very angry man in a world that had yet to experience TEotWaWKI. His rage seems to get in the way of his arguments. (Good thing he didn't know what was coming, how we handled zombies would have caused him a stroke.) Thing is, he makes some very good points, but they're buried in his rambling prose. I much preferred his World Made by Hand — a book I strongly recommend.
I previous reviewed A Canticle for Leibowitz in which the end of the world is instant and massively violent. If you survived the nuclear war, it was obvious there was no going back. Mr. Kunstler, though, posits a world where the end is gradual and not at all obvious. Remember the beginnings of the zombie outbreak? Denial was strong through the first week or so. It took actual assault by the undead for people to wake up to the new reality and, yet, even that didn't work for some. But the removal of the underpinnings of the pre-SHTF world — cheap petroleum — would have taken years if not decades to complete. The process described in The Unthinkable clearly apply here:
Denial: People didn't want to believe that oil was going away. Oh, sure, it will happen eventually, but by then the free market will produce something to replace it such as hydrogen or solar power.
Deliberation: Once it was accepted that the days of cheap oil were behind us, the thinking went haywire. There were wars to secure supplies, attempts to invent something in a hurry (only to realize that it, too, would need vast inputs of petroleum), and don't forget the blame. The finger was pointed at everything from ungodly behavior to communist subversion.
The Decisive Moment: Well, we never got to that point. The zombies rendered it moot. As the Chinese say: It's a truly ill wind that blows everyone evil. Reducing the human population by 90% did have some benefits.
I can't exactly recommend The Long Emergency. If you have the patience, the nuggets you glean are worthwhile, but you're better off reading World Made by Hand.
I have to be careful how I say this or I might come across as one who enjoys the end of the world: If the world must end, the swiftness and violence of TeoTWaWKI can be a blessing. You have no choice but to accept the fact that the world as you knew it is no longer. When the destruction is so complete and return impossible, you can look to the task at hand. Such is the case in A Canticle for Leibowitz.
This masterfully written novel posits a world in which we infer a nuclear exchange wiped out civilization sometime in the mid-20th century. The story is broken up into 3 parts taking place 300, 600 and 1,200 years post-SHTF. Unlike most stories I've reviewed here, you do not see what happens during the crisis, only after stability has returned. And the fact that we're dealing in centuries should tell you the extent of the damage that occurred, that we're talking sociological far more than physical infrastructure.
Nothing had been so hateful in the sight of these mobs as the man of learning, at first because they had served the princes, but then later because they refused to join the bloodletting and tried to oppose the mobs, calling the crowds "bloodthirsty simpletons."
A common mistake for pre-SHTF planners is to assume reasoned behavior on the part of survivors, that even violent behavior would be guided by a rational sense of survival. That has consistently proven to not be the case. Beware the man who is having difficulty redrawing his mental map, especially if his is armed. You cannot appeal to his senses. You best get out of his way. Woe to the land over-run by a mob of such people.
The thon's gaze seemed to clamp calipers on the abbot's cranium and measure it six ways.
One other aspect of end of the world scenarios that this book covers well is that of scope. There is the short term: how do I survive the crisis? Then there is the long term: I have survived, now what? This book deals in the epochal, survival not just of a man, but of mankind. There are three stages to this process:
Archive the Knowledge: Gather everything from the old world, wherever you may find it.
Protect the Knowledge: Both from enemies who would seek to destroy it as well as time that would corrupt and erode it.
Disseminate the Knowledge: When the time is right, release it back into society so that it may help humanity to grow and prosper.
I highly recommend this book. The characters are engaging and the issues raised provoke much thought after you done reading. Compared to the world the author describes, I feel we got of light. What's a horde of zombies compared to full scale nuclear war?
This book changed my life. I realize people think me a curmudgeon and I'll cop to that charge. I take my undead seriously and have witnessed the grisly result of those who don't. I see nothing funny about them. So it may come as a surprise to some to learn that I enjoyed this book, found it to be a worthwhile read. Let me explain.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has been sitting in my To Read pile for quite sometime (I mentioned this about a year ago). The reviews made the book seem lighthearted. Not at all, the authors clearly show in serious tones what life is like in a world over-run by the living dead.
What makes this a great piece of fiction is that the zombies are not central to the story. I found myself more concerned about Mr. Darcy's boorish behavior than how best to dispatch a ghoul with a katana sword. Perhaps this is best, because what is covered leaves me wondering about the authors. One of them seems not to realize that the musket is a weapon, even in the hands of an experienced user, that can fire only 3 rounds a minute. That's a recipe for disaster. I'd stick with older technologies, like the battle ax or halberd. But then, I've never had proper training in the Asian martial arts. Maybe they provide courses in flint lock fire arms.
So, yes, read this book. Enjoy this book. And demand of other authors that they focus on the story rather than on how they can make their undead more outlandish. Oh, and don't forget, my daughter comes from a fine family, has impeccable manners and is second to none with the machete.
A while back I was having dinner at a new place with colleagues after a particularly grueling week of work. Exhaustion and wine had combined to make me lose my focus in the conversation and I only came to attention when I heard someone say, "They have really good food here, I wonder how you can scale an operation like this to make some serious money." I smacked my hand down on the table and shouted, "You can't scale good food."
Awkward silence, everyone in the restaurant looking at me. My friend asks, "Why not?" If I had read this book, I would have had a good answer, but I would have tempered my opinions somewhat. How food is created in America is a complicated story. There are clearly some bad guys who do not care for good food or the health of those who eat it, but it's not obvious who wears the white hats.
First of all, this book is a great read and in a format I greatly enjoy: one part a deep dive into an interesting subject and another part travelogue. He breaks it down into four stores: Industrial production with a tour of the Midwest, Industrial Organic on the west coast, a process he calls beyond organic in the Shenandoah Valley and finally an attempt at living the Hunter-Gatherer existence in California. Each one of these stories could stand on its own, but the combination truly brings America's perplexing relationship with food to light. I took these lessons from the book:
Do Not Look to Corporation for Dietary Advice
Given that eating is something everyone does, the food market can only grow as fast as the population does. This means the only way for a corporation to profit at a Wall Street acceptable rate is some combination of lower cost of production and convincing consumers to spend more for the same thing or to eat more of it. The former means ruthlessly standardizing the production of food. Mr. Pollan ably demonstrates why this is destroying the environment and making us less healthy. As for convincing us to spend or eat more, that's not hard. We seem to be prey to all kinds of marketing gimmicks and health concerns which Corporate America has no problem stoking as they have just the antidote to sell us.
Organic Processes Are not a Panacea
The only way large organic concerns such as Whole Foods can work is to scale things up. This, ultimately, requires a standardized (there's that word again!) distribution network. Small farmers cannot reliably meet their demand, so only the large concerns succeed. Yes, it is true that this is healthier than regular industrial food production, but it is not environmentally sustainable and, arguably, uses more energy than non-organice food production.
Doing the Right Thing is Hard
Part of the reason many farmers have gone industrial despite it being a losing business is that it is extremely easy. You only have to work for a small fraction of the year and you don't have to think much, industry tells you what to do and when. Sustainable farming that produces healthy food requires a lot effort and thinking in order to balance the diversity of plants and animals that a sustainable concern needs to manage. Those willing to do this deserve our support. I shall seek them out and give them my business. And why not? Sure, it will cost more money, but the food will taste so much better.
A Well Thought Out Animal Rights Philosophy
I love meat. I always will, but that doesn't mean I condone maltreatment of animals. I have had difficulty arguing against folks such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They seem to provide a good moral argument that's difficult to contradict. Mr. Pollan, though, does this well. I agree with his statement on page 328 of the paperback version of the book: "What's wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle." We can humanely raise and slaughter animals. Moreover, a healthy environment demands that animals are eaten. It's part of the cycle that we break at our own risk.
A Losing Battle?
The weak arguments that I did make to my workmates as to why good food shouldn't and can't be scaled were met with a shrug of their shoulders. "Why bother, then?"
A good meal should be more than just a business proposition, more than just the sum of the ingredients that went into it. It's the appreciation of the effort, wonder at a magical combination of flavors and the joy of the people you share it with. I hope this wins out.
Alas, sources have told me that at least one thing hasn't changed since pre-SHTF times: Publishers shun those who write negative reviews. At first I was outraged. How dare they infringe upon my free speech! But I realize I am not prevented from saying anything, there's just some consequences to what I might say. Despite this, I will not change what I say, but I might be more careful how I say it.
Going forward, I will make these changes:
I'm ditching the star based system. Upon reconsideration, it is at best superfluous. At worst, it prejudices the readers' conclusions. Truly, I don't want you to buy (or not buy) a book based on how I feel about it. I hope that I provide enough information in even a bad review for you to determine whether or not you might like it on your own terms. If I haven't done that, then I have failed.
I will be clearer in the delineation of fact and opinion. This applies to the positive as well as negative. I will still ding a writer for factual mistakes and poor writing, but I will be more circumspect when it comes to differences of opinion.
I will not rule out bad reviews, but since I cannot review everything I read or watch, I will focus on those that I think will be particularly useful to the readers of this blog. Lest you feel you can no longer trust what I say, or rather not say, I have set up a Twitter account (TEotWaWKIDiary) where I will list what I have seen, read or played. Just give me 2-3 weeks before you infer anything from a lack of a review.
I admit that this has taken some wind out of my sails. It depresses me, but I must remember that publishing is a business. It make money by producing stuff people buy. Whether it is great art or not is almost coincidental.
I almost didn't read this, didn't feel I needed to. After all, I survived an unthinkable that was inconceivable to the author when she wrote this book. Also, I have absorbed Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales into my DNA. I didn't believe that Ms. Ripley could add anything useful. I'm glad I had the opportunity to learn that I was wrong.
From My point of view, The Unthinkable provides insight that differs from Deep Survival in two general ways. First, the later focuses exclusively on individuals and how they interact with their environment, while Ms. Ripley widens her focus to include that of groups large and small. Second — and this addresses my initial thoughts regarding the book's utility going forward — The Unthinkable, I find, is a great tool to allow me to understand what happened during the catastrophe rather than as a guide for my actions in the future. That's not to say this couldn't be useful for those in the future who did not live through the Zombie War.
Ms. Ripley's thesis is that there are three mental stages one goes through in a crisis: denial, deliberation and the decisive moment. This matches my experiences, personally, and what I witnessed in others over and over again, from the outbreak all the way through the War. The author talks about this in two stages: dealing first with your immediate situation, then the realization that the world at large is affected, too. Think 9/11 and an escape from the World Trade Center only to find that you aren't yet safe from the collapsing towers. My personal experiences are similar to others who survived and I probably cycled through that process a dozen times in the first week alone.
This was the primary cause of death during the outbreak. How could pre-SHTF folks possibly deal with the dead rising? And what if that zombie was a loved one? I'm surprised anyone survived. But that was just the beginning. How many people were in denial that their fellow survivors could be more dangerous than the zombies? How about that first winter? It felt like each succeeding crisis made it harder to move beyond the denial stage.
This is where The Unthinkable complements the work of Mr. Gonzales. One's ability to keep your mental map in sync with reality goes along way to predicting who gets out of denial quicker and able to act effectively.
This is the critical step. Once you accept that the shit has hit the fan, what do you do? Unlike the crises detailed in the book, we had to think in the long run. It wasn't enough just to get through the immediate situation, you had to also think of shelter, food and rest. It was too easy to let that slide in the name of hasty escape only to ensure you eventual death.
Another factor in deliberation is that most people were unable to get through this stage alone. They needed someone to lead them through it. I fear I was not always the person I wish to be during this stage. I didn't always help those in need. It's not hard to find an excuse in a crisis: I need to get to my family, I have only enough food for me, etc. And there was once or twice where someone snapped me out of it in time. Ms. Ripley talks of heroes being a rare breed, but our situation was long enough, replete with plenty of opportunities, that I dare say everyone, at one time or another, was both a hero and a villain.
The Decisive Moment
If denial gets harder to shake off over time, the ability to act gets easier. The less you have to think about it, the likelier it will happen. How this played out varied greatly with the type of crisis you faced, but there was one commonality: suicide. From beginning until even today, years after the end of the War, suicide seems like the only viable option to some. I've talked about this before, my feelings are known, so I won't discuss it here.
Think of this book as a call to action. You cannot blithely go on about life as if nothing bad will happen. You need to be mentally prepared. I'm not saying you should live in constant fear. I am suggesting that it couldn't hurt to always be aware of your surroundings and to at least play out certain scenarios in your head. You don't want the first time you think about escape to be when your life depends upon it.
The author uses words like Monet applies brush strokes. Mr. McCarthy takes ordinary scenes, frames them in unusual perspectives and creates a story that is both beautiful and horrific. I admit that I am not objective when it comes to his works as he is my favorite author. A movie based on this book was released, but I'm a little hesitant to watch it for fear of what it may do to this great story. Before I do so, I wish to get my thoughts down.
This IS great literature. It may be hard to grasp at first, if The Road is your first book of his. You'll have to get used to his unusual style, especially the fact that he doesn't use quotation marks. You'll be wondering if a line was spoken out loud or even who said it. I implore you to stick it out, though, as it will be worth your while. The fact that you are forced to think about what's written, rather than mindlessly plowing through the pages, gets you into the story. With your mind thus engaged, you'll gain greater insight.
Beyond being a great TEotWaWKI story, this also appears to be a personal allegory for the author. Mr. McCarthy is an elderly man with a very young son. I could not help but see those two at times in this story. But I do not wish to delve into the literary aspects of the book, this review will focus on the lessons for end of the world survival: food, security and the philosophy of survival.
Despite all of the horrors in the Zombie Wars, the lack of food was never more than a short term problem, except for those in the far north during that first winter. Everyone experienced hunger at one time or another, sometimes quite severe. But the fact that the catastrophe was not an environmental one and the greatly reduced human population (at least the non-undead), meant that as long as you were able to devote time to the effort, you'd be able to find sustenance. I cannot imagine ALWAYS wondering when my next meal would occur. Heck, even the thought that there was a finite supply of food that will run out eventually would drive me insane.
The food situation in The Road directly impacts the state of one's security. EVERYONE realizes there's only so much food. All bets are off. It's not just a matter of protecting your own supply, but you, too, could be considered food. This is different than dealing with zombies. First, you cannot form large groups. Even if you tried, they would tear apart during the first lengthy period without food. Second, you have to be constantly on the move. You will either exhaust the local food supply or others will learn how good you have it. It must be difficult to walk away from food that you cannot easily carry. Finally, what do you do when the food truly does run out?
That final reckoning, I believe, is the major TEotWaWKI point made in this book. What is the point of survival? It becomes extremely difficult to argue with those who want to end it all. Why struggle and suffer when everyone's going to starve to death or meet with a brutally violent end anyways? This was an issue during our catastrophe. I knew a number of people who swallowed a bullet rather than deal with the world as it now is. I took everyone of those as a betrayal. But in The Road? I don't know.
Read this book and think good and hard. What is the point of it all? I did not fight the Zombie War just so I could return to a life where I worried about making my credit card payments.