Apparently my new canning skills (such as they are) may come in handy in the future, and not just in case of the zombie apocalypse. The general breakdown of society appears to be a prevalent theme in my reading these days. I finished the Hunger Games trilogy in mid-2011 and now I just finished the excellent World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler.
I was surprised by how much I loved this book. Kunstler is in some ways a no-nonsense, straight forward writer, spending little time delving into the character's thoughts, preferring to let the action take center stage. But he can also write lyrically and movingly about place, love and loss. The combination of both styles was a little jarring to me at first, but starts to make more sense as you continue to read.
The premise is that the world as we currently know it has basically ended, through mostly unexplained but hinted at actions like war, disease etc., sparked by dependence on oil. The book takes place in the near future, and starts (I'm guessing) about 10 years after the main apocalyptic events have happened. The people who have survived have learned to pick up the pieces and make new lives for themselves. This new life looks very much like life was in the 1800s.
The suburbs are history--anyone who is surviving is living either a very small town, rural farming life, or a rougher, more hardscrabble and lawless life in what is left of the cities. There is certainly nothing left of a central government, news organizations, etc., and it appears that is the same throughout the world, although no one really knows what is happening anywhere.
I found much of this book completely fascinating. It was such a realistic, very possible portrayal of what life could really be like. Kunstler walks a fine line between welcoming a return to the past without sugarcoating it, and imparting a sense of dread and loss without having it overwhelm the story. He pays attention to the details of what life could be like. There is a certain amount of time spent showing how in some ways people are better off. They work together, they spend time socializing, they know how to do things, there are lots of pleasures to be taken in the simple things, etc. But the realities of life are not ignored either. They have few modern medical supplies, violence and lawlessness are rampant, they lead a subsistence, agrarian lifestyle that is completely dependent on their skills, hard work and uncontrollable events like weather.
It's like life in the 1800s, but in many ways much harder, because the characters know what they used to have. And because it is so soon after the disasters, everyone is still in a basic survival mode. There is very little trade between communities, although within a community it is the only way to survive. Life has become small and contained within a five mile boundary. Few people have horses and any trade that happens occurs along waterways. There are no organized schools or trades, and the younger generation know only hard work and apprenticeships.
There is so much to this book that I can't do it justice. The plot is compelling and surprising and will keep you turning the pages. The characters are well drawn and vivid. There is a tension throughout the book between hopelessness and despair for a life that may never come back, and optimism and guarded hope for a new future. There are even some mystical and supernatural elements woven throughout the story that hint at a very interesting sequel. I highly recommend this book. Besides being quite enjoyable, it made me think, and I'm still thinking about it a week later.