Monday, March 12, 2012

Life As We Knew It

Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer
(aka "The Last Survivors, Book 1")

Publisher's blurb:
I guess I always felt even if the world came to an end, McDonald’s still would be open.
High school sophomore Miranda’s disbelief turns to fear in a split second when an asteroid knocks the moon closer to Earth, the way “one marble hits another.” The result is catastrophic. How can her family prepare for the future when worldwide tsunamis are wiping out the coasts, earthquakes are rocking the continents, and volcanic ash is blocking out the sun? As August turns dark and wintry in northeastern Pennsylvania, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove.

Told in a year’s worth of journal entries, this heart-pounding story chronicles Miranda’s struggle to hold on to the most important resource of all—hope—in an increasingly desperate and unfamiliar world. An extraordinary series debut!

The only good thing I can say about this book?  You look at food differently while you're reading this novel.  (Meat, bread, fresh produce, chocolate, pizza-- pretty much whatever we want, we can get it, and we tend to take that for granted, even though we know we shouldn't.)  You put down the book, remember that you are fortunate enough to still live in the "normal" world, then shudder at the thought that you might not always be so lucky (probably not because an asteroid nudges the moon, but for any number of other reasons).

Specifics (with SPOILERS):

•  "Mom's" political opinions irritated me and took me right out of the story.  Maybe they were meant to lend a sense of verisimilitude to the story, but... ugh.

"...There was no CNN.  'Maybe I'm wrong,' Mom said. 'Maybe the world really is coming to an end.' 'Should I try Fox News?' I asked.  Mom shuddered. 'We're not that desperate,' she said."

"And then, out of nowhere, was the president.  Mom hates him like she hates Fox News, but she sat there transfixed."

After the president speaks (from his ranch in Texas, so hmm, I wonder which president we're supposed to think of...), "Mom" mutters that he's an idiot, and she calls him an idiot again, later in the story.  She also says that she thinks the president doesn't specify how exactly things might get worse because he "didn't want to tell us because he was an evil jerk."  Such a charming woman!  Always assuming the best of everyone!  (Everyone laughs whenever "Mom" berates the president because it's so "normal-sounding" for her to be doing so.  Oh, that Mom!  She sure does hate the president, doesn't she?!  Hee hee.  It's so funny when Mom insults the Prez.)

"'I wish I trusted the president,' Mom said. 'I just can't imagine him handling this.'"  (UGH. PLEASE JUST SHUT UP,  YOU ANNOYING WOMAN.)

Now, I'm not going to say that a character can't or shouldn't think a president is idiotic (because I've thought-- and continue to think-- even worse than that about some politicians), but honestly, it took away from my enjoyment of the book and made me somewhat less sympathetic toward "Mom"/Laura almost right from the start.  I would like to read some modern novels in which the main, "good" characters are conservatives-- or at least characters with no specified political leaning who don't make stupid, predictable jokes about how awful Fox News is or how idiotic Bush is/was.  Please?  Are there any mainstream authors out there open to that possibility?

•  "Mom" (and Miranda) irritated me again when they go on the shopping spree and this happens: "'Miranda, you're going to canned vegetables and fruits.  You know what we like.' 'Mom, we don't eat canned vegetables,' I said. 'We do now,' she said."  Oh!  Well aren't weren't they the Fancy-Pants Family!  Don't eat canned vegetables, eh?  Not ever?  Maybe I'm revealing myself to be an awfully unhealthy, undiscerning person, but-- what?  The never eat canned vegetables??  I can understand preferring fresh for taste and (to some degree) healthiness, but good grief.  Don't they keep a can or two in the pantry for convenience's sake or "emergencies"?   (What?  You've never had an emergency that required a can of corn or green beans?  Consider yourself lucky.  ...Ok, I guess I haven't, either, but you get the point.) 

•  "'Get Progresso,' Mom said.  'They don't need water.'"  Ooh, nice free plug for Progresso, there.  Not that Progresso's the only soup brand that doesn't need water, but whatever...

•  "In a million years, I never thought we'd be drinking canned juice..."  I don't drink juice, period.  (Well, hardly ever.)  Never had it from a can, that I can recall, and it probably wouldn't be my preference, either.  But it still seems like Miranda feels very strongly about juice in cans, doesn't it?  Never in a million years, you guys.  I mean, seriously.  Juice.  In a can.  It's just... not right, ya know?  ;o)

•  I tried to look past it, but after the first half-dozen mentions of "wagons", I nearly exploded.  Who calls them "wagons"?  (People from PA, I guess-- according to the book, at least.)  Here, they are either "buggies" or "shopping carts". 

•  "We finally found a clothes store that was open... It was the kind of store we never go to ordinarily, small and not well lit, and everything looked dingy."  --and-- "I know Lisa and she'd never want a baby of hers to wear the clothes that store was selling."   I know this sort of thing is meant to highlight how the characters/their world changes... but honestly, it mostly just makes me annoyed with them.  In some ways, they (or at least some of them) are smart and practical right from the start, but in other ways, they're disgustingly shallow and dim-witted.  I like them all better once the natural disasters have... well, humbled and sharpened them somewhat-- made them more cognizant of the important things and less obsessed with celebrity and image. 

•  On the other hand... It drove me crazy how much of the time they seem to sit around and mope.  Yes, it's understandable to a certain degree.  They're low on energy because they're not eating enough, and they're low in spirits because they don't know when or even if conditions will improve.  But sitting and moping isn't going to help anything.  They should distract themselves with life-enriching activities-- music (singing, maybe playing an instrument, if they have access to any), reading aloud together, drawing, writing (something other than a depressing journal), games (which they do mention from time to time)... making their surroundings as cozy and comfortable as possible.  I'd be crocheting-- or quilting together spare fabric into blankets or something.  Finally, they do start making some changes in that direction, but it feels like a lot of time is lost just being miserable.  And most of the time, "Mom's" solution is studying textbooks.  Learning is good, but I don't think I'd put all my focus on that.  (Maybe I'm just burned out on education in general, but textbooks wouldn't be my first thought for mental or spiritual engagement, under the circumstances.  So many of them are so poorly written, for one thing... You can learn just as much from a good-- non-textbook-- work of non-fiction.)

•  Had to laugh when they found "a manual can opener and an egg beater and the sorts of things kitchens had in the olden days".  Ooh, antiques!   Sheesh.  We have a (admittedly, rarely used) manual can opener in a kitchen drawer.  I guess we're still living in the Stone Age...

•  I laughed again when "Mom" finally thought about baking bread.  Good grief.  Is that really the same character who had the foresight to stockpile nonperishable food, toiletries, etc.?  I mean, really.  How hard is it to think about bread?  You look in the pantry (as she'd surely been doing all along), you see the flour, and you think to yourself, "Hm... What can I make with the flour, I wonder?  Eh, nothing comes to mind.  Guess I'll just have to think some more about that one.  Maybe the answer will come to me in a vision."

•  When they're eating their pb&j sandwiches, "Mom says if we keep eating like this we'll end up fat and malnourished."  That "Mom" is such a killjoy.  Seriously.  I don't like the Mom character much, most of the time.   And since when is a pb&j sandwich that unhealthy, anyway?  I wouldn't recommend eating it for every meal, but plenty of kids grow up on the stuff.

•  This book ranks right up there with Farmer Boy for inducing hunger!  But whereas Farmer Boy does it through all the descriptions of delicious meals, this one does it more through the fact that the characters never have enough to eat.  It reminds me a little of The Long Winter in that respect, as well as a couple others.  (Everything comes back of Laura Ingalls Wilder. (g))  Another "Little House" reminder was the beef broth eaten with oyster crackers.  I knew good and well that LIW mentions oyster crackers at least once-- and looking it up, I see that Pa lived on oyster crackers in Little House on Plum Creek when he was stranded during a blizzard.)

•  "I sort of dread Peter's visits... It feels like all he knows how to talk about are illness and death."  I know people like that...

•  Why weren't "Mom" and Miranda helping with the firewood, when they were both able?  There shouldn't have been that much that they needed to (or even could) do around the house.  Women are not incapable of chopping or hauling wood. 

•  Unless I missed something, she never explains how they have water after their electricity goes out.  They're not on city water, I think, since wells are mentioned.  I know you can hook up a hand pump to a well, but I  don't recall her mentioning that...

•  Under similar circumstances, I doubt they would even try to reopen the schools as they did in this book.  I certainly wouldn't want my (theoretical) kids to go.  Even if things got back to normal, eventually, missing a year of school wouldn't be the... well, the end of the world. (g)  I'd focus on teaching my kids practical survival skills and leave the frills for later-- except for any subjects they found especially interesting and wanted to go on studying at home.

•  The scene where they burn the hair in the woodstove was-- ew.  Isn't hair supposed to really stink when you burn it?  But that brought up an interesting point that I don't think was addressed in the book.  Namely, what do they do with all their garbage?  Of course they'd probably burn the boxes and paper containers, but they're living off mostly canned food for months, so what do they do with all those cans?  There's no garbage pick-up, of course, and we don't hear about a homemade landfill or accumulating piles of bags.  I'm just curious...

•  Certain aspects of the book remind me of The Diary of Anne Frank, though of course there are also huge differences between the two-- the largest being that one is a work of fiction and the other not.  I found myself wondering if Miranda had ever read it.

•  I've never heard of anyone eating tulip bulbs.  It doesn't sound very appealing, but the family's reaction-- Miranda describes it as being "almost as though Mom had sauteed Gorton"-- seems a bit extreme.  Really?  It's a plant from the yard.  It's not that different from any normal garden vegetable. 

•  I gave an internal groan when Megan (the too-adamant Christian character) was introduced.  That's one part of the book I could've done without.  I mean, sure, there are people like that who go to cultish churches and are willing to kill themselves because they blindly follow false prophets, but why is it so often necessary to include them in this type of story?  At this point, it's not ground-breaking.  It's more of a cliché than anything else.  Why not have a normal Christian?  Do these authors not realize that such people exist?  A normal Christian?  Nah, that's too boring.  Instead we get Matt, of whom Miranda writes "I think he's a Buddhist these days".  (I guess he's experimenting with different religions, since he's a college student.  That's what stereotypical college students do, right?)

•  Related issue:  Oh boy, we get a brief encounter with a nutsy, hypocritical preacher-man.  What a surprising, creative decision to include him!  He eats the food his faithful give him, yet he insinuates to his parishioners that it is God's will that they starve themselves to death.  Yeah, that's what most preachers are like.  Very accurate portrayal. 

•  It's impossible not to wonder how/why some of the disasters in the book took place.  I guess that's not really the point of the story; it's not as important why these things are happening as it is how the family adapts to survive them.  But still.  You've got to wonder how/why the "tsunamis" get worse over time... and why the moon's closer proximity to the Earth would cause terrible thunderstorms the next day... and whether the moon would actually cause earthquakes (of all things) and volcano eruptions where there haven't been any in recorded history...  Even if you buy the premise that there are more mosquitoes around because of increased rainfall, warm weather, and lack of pest control, would there necessarily be an increased breakout of the West Nile virus?  I don't know... I just kept finding myself stopping and wondering how much of this has any basis whatsoever in reality.  But I tried not to focus too much on that.  (Tried.)

•  I guess I understand why "Dad" left the family to go with Lisa and find her parents... but I don't think it was the right call.  I think he and Lisa should've stayed with the rest of his family (though I doubt that would've worked out very well on a daily basis).  He has a bigger obligation to protect and feed his underage kids than he does to indulge his pregnant wife's wishes to find her parents.  The parents should understand that a pregnant woman wouldn't be wise to come looking for them, anyway. 

•  With all the repeated talk of people moving to the South and Southwest for better conditions, I was waiting for news of a fresh catastrophe in one or both of those places.  I suspect we'll hear more about that in the second or third novel. 

•  The chocolate chip scene.  Miranda acts kind of crazy, sometimes, but clearly she inherited from her mother.  That scene made me feel sick.

•  I was sorry when Mrs. Nesbitt died-- and also when Peter died, even though it feels like we hardly knew him. 

•  When they drank cocoa made from the ash-snow, I was surprised.  Didn't they still have some clean water left, at that point?  I'd use that until I had no other resort but the ashy water.  I think there can be some pretty nasty things in volcanic ash-- not the sort of thing you want to drink-- and boiling it probably won't help much, since, um, you can't kill toxic chemicals like you can bacteria. (Heh.)

•  I guess Horton still has food at the end of the book.  Shouldn't they have been eating his food for a while, once they realized most of them were probably going to starve?  I mean, I'm sure it's not very tasty for people-- and then you're left maybe having to "do something" about Horton, if there's not enough food to sustain him... but if it comes down to eating cat food and possibly having to kill your pet to keep him from suffering starvation versus starving yourself or your family... I'm sorry, but people have to come before pets. 

•  Later on, when Miranda sees the emaciated remains of dead pets, I wonder why people didn't catch and kill the pets-- possibly even to eat-- rather than let them starve or freeze to death.  I'd have a very hard time killing my own pets (if I could even manage it under those circumstances), but leaving them out to starve... that seems much more cruel than giving them a quick, relatively painless death.

•  I guess we're supposed to believe they've done everything they could, but I can't help but feel that the family didn't do much scavenging before things got so desperate that they had no energy to do so.  They could have tried fishing at the pond... digging up the roots of any edible wild plants... even digging up insects (before the ground froze).  Maybe there was nothing left, anywhere, but I find that hard to believe.