Thursday, April 8, 2010

a review of "Life As We Knew It" [22]

Life As We Knew ItLife As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
(Harcourt, ISBN 978-0-15-206154-8)

As the book begins, sixteen year old Miranda Evans is a rather typical girl, with the rather typical problems of a modern teenager. Her father, divorced from her mother and remarried, is having a new baby. She writes in her journal, a journal that forms this book, about concerns like a dance at school, the pressure of assignments from teachers, including the many assignments teachers have given about the meteor that is going to hit the moon. No one is very concerned it seems, about this meteor. In fact, it is treated more like a media event, everyone watching on TV and neighbors all going out into the streets to watch as the event takes place. But something goes terribly wrong. It seems scientists totally underestimate the size and density of the meteor and the effect the collision would have.

The moon is knocked out of it's normal orbit, with immediate and horrible consequences. Huge tides and tsunamis hit all the coasts, wiping out cities, killing millions. All oil production is knocked out, electric power become unreliable and communications break down, leaving people unsure what to do. Happily for Miranda and her family, her mother and two brothers, are better off than many, due to her mother's quick thinking, buying huge amounts of food before the supermarkets were picked clean. They have some food, water and, as a very early winter approaches, heat from a woodstove and the stockpile of wood Miranda and her brothers have gathered all summer. But even as they are fairly secure in their home, the news just gets worse and worse. They hear of earthquakes all over the planet, in places where they have never been an issue before and long dormant volcanoes coming back to life, bring a constant gray sky, filled with ash, that blocks the sun and makes growing any crops impossible. And then when you think things can't get any worse...well, they do.

This is a book that I have been reading about in the blogsphere for quite awhile, seeing good reviews for it on Rhapsody In Books, Sandy at You've Gotta Read This, My Friend Amy and the bit less enthusiastic review of Presenting Lenore, to name just a few. By in large very positive reviews. So once again, it seems I must take a contrary view.

On the positive side, this is, without question a very effecting, emotion provoking book. As the book grinds forward, one more terrible thing after another coming to light, the reader can not help but feel for the characters. You can not help but feel scared. But as I closed the last page, what was I really feeling? Well, to tell you the truth, it was all just very depressing. Granted, there is a small light of hope at the end of the book, but I thing it is a hope that, if considered for a moment, will prove illusory.
So yes, it will provoke a reaction in the reader, but does that make it a good book?

My problems with the book are many, more as I considered it for a few days after finishing it.

First, the science, from the little research I did online, is junk science. Did you know that there are physicists with message boards that discuss such things? Well there are, and I think the author owes it do at least write a sequences of events that is plausible. Everything I read shows what she has written is not.
Then there are little illogical things, like how that family had water from their pump without electricity, or who was delivering mail when there was no gasoline and people were starving from hunger and dying from disease? Not huge issues, but careless. Then there were the numerous digs by Miranda's mom against our former president and the government, but the same government she seemed to think would somehow intercede and 'fix' things. And of course, there is the fact that the only portrayal of religion presents believers as gullible, naive fools and their leaders as evil thieves. Certainly the author is entitled to her point of view but I would suggest one word...subtlety. You want to make a case, then make a case, but don't hit us over the head with it.

But more than that, what concerns me is the message of this book, a book targeted for young people. In a terrible emergency, should we work together, pool our resources and efforts to help the weakest and most vulnerable? Isn't that why humans first formed into communities, governments? No, it seems this book suggests we should advocate survival of the fittest, the most clever, the best prepared and watch as out friends and neighbors die around us. And of course, don't organize to make any long term plan, but hide in your house, protecting only your own, and yet assume someone else, someone out 'there' somewhere, will come up with a solution.

I am a fan of dystopian fiction. I think is a great vehicle to explore the Big Questions, see the good and the bad that might be brought out in desperate times, see how people might react in a terrible situation and consider how we might as well. It is a great vehicle for drama, for exploring important issues. But personally, I found the best qualities of this genre missing from this book. The fact that the whole story was based on a fake premise bothered me. Would it have been too hard to come with a real, possible scenario? Yes, it is all scary, but that is not enough for a really good book in my opinion.

Bottom line, is this a book I would recommend to a young person, perhaps a vulnerable young person dealing with all the emotional crises of the teenage years? I found this book very negative, very depressing and ultimately with some values that I found quite questionable. No, I could not recommend it, especially to a young person.


  1. "bit less enthusiastic"! LOL!

    You bring up some excellent points - a lot of those things bothered me too, but I could never quite put my finger on why I was so unsettled until now. Thanks!

  2. PS - the link to my review is broken. FYI.

  3. ooops...I fixed that.
    We have to have a link to SOMEONE that did not love this book too!

  4. Excellent review, Caite! I most likely would not have picked up this book anyway as I am not a fan of dystopian novels. After your review, I know I would have no interest. I don't like it when the author has an "agenda" other than the story. Like you said, subtle is good but when it is too in your face, it really annoys me. Off to check out Lenore's less than enthusiastic review.

  5. I had not heard of this book, but I likely would have been interested because I have liked dystopian novels... if they teach a lesson worth learning. And there are tons of them out there, so I'll focus on them instead. Thanks for the head's up!

  6. I agree the science is junk! And the writing wasn't as stellar as a lot of YA books. But what I loved was just the impetus it gives the reader to think about what would happen in a disaster and what you had to think about - like vitamins to prevent scurvy, for example.

    I disagree that humans would work together and help the weakest and most vulnerable. Not that this would not be a laudable goal, but I don't think it is realistic. I think a book with the message you suggest just wouldn't ring true. At least not to a cynic like me!

  7. I know this book has been wildly popular, but I'm not a big fan of dystopia so I haven't been tempted by it. From your review, I think I made the right choice.

  8. I'm not a fan of dystopian novels so I won't be reading this book. It does irk me when authors don't pay attention to the little details. As you said, it's minor, but for me it takes away from the authenticity the author is trying to create and makes it unbelievable. How hard is it to think through the facts?

  9. well, Lenore, I didn't think you hated

    Kaye, I do like dystopian fiction, but I hate being hit over the head with an agenda and...

    Margot, I totally hate when they get the little stuff wrong too. I find I start spending way to much time thinking about it.

    rhapsodyinbooks, I see your point...but of course I disagree. ;-)
    we have a huge infrastructure in the US..police, military, government, and we are to believe it all just disappeared..but the TV went out and we could not watch the news. where was the local, state government, the military...anyone? It was a fairly gradual situation, how things went bad, and yes, I can see as things got worse, the structure would fall apart, but except for the hospital and the very ending, no sign of any organization or authority from the beginning.
    sorry, I did not buy it.

    Snowcatcher, yes, I want a book to say something worthwhile to me..even if it is not something I agree with...I want to be something more than depressed.

  10. Well, HECK Caite! I guess I never really took any of the science seriously. I mean, with any disaster film or book, the shock value is really the draw, at least to me. So that didn't really bother me in the least. What I can say is that my 12-year-old read it, she liked all three books, and seemed to have some positive take-aways. She was able to sort through what worked for her and what didn't. In the last book for example, Miranda takes a very aggressive action, a controversial one. My daughter was absolutely dead set against it, even though I was not. I was proud of her for knowing her mind.

  11. Sandy! hey...why are you shouting heck at me? ;-)

    look, I know a lot of people liked this book and I am glad it was a positive experience for your daughter but that was not my all. I thought it was very negative, very depressing. I can't really see any positive factor in the book. The thought of reading the second book thanks

    The junk science...hey, I am no physicist, but I hate reading a book and thinking "that is just ridiculous". But that is just me. lol

  12. I love to read contrary reviews ... especially if I haven't shelled out good money for a the book already!

    I think I saw somewhere that the author did just "make it up" and didn't worry about the science parts of it. I'm so dim sometimes that these things would probably never occur to me.

  13. I like that you are so honest about your opinion of this book, especially since almost every other review I've seen has been a rave. I think it's fun to read opposing viewpoints, plus it helps me to read with a more critical eye. I'm still planning to read this series at some point though because I'm a huge fan of dystopian fiction.

  14. Jenners, I guess I have a problem with someone just "making it up" when it is such a key element of the story. would it have been so hard to come up with something that was actually possible? but maybe that is just

    Alyce, I don't particularly like swimming against the tide...but I have to be honest. As I said long ago, when I first start this wee blog, I look at every review as if someone I know is asking me "Should I spend my hard earned money on this book..or buy something else?"
    I am a dystopian fan...but not of every dystopian book.

  15. Hey caite,

    Found the review! I think first off I'd have to say, like another commenter, that I didn't worry too much about how accurate the science was. To me it wasn't about whether the catastrophe could have happened or not, but what happened to humanity after it did.

    Regarding some of your other points, I'd have to say that for the way Pfeffer was portraying her characters, I wouldn't have said that their words and actions were contradictory. Yes the mother might have bad feelings about the government personally, but is that what she's supposed to tell her starving family? That the government is completely inept and they should be ready to die hungry? I think the purpose there is that's she's a mother with opinions and a personality, but she's a mother - one who has to try to keep it together for her children.

    I think in the end yes, it is mostly a depressing book. But I have yet to read a dystopian book that wasn't. Maybe I'm a cynic, but it's a dystopian for a reason right? When things go to hell, society isn't supposed to go in the positive direction. All Pfeffer can do is try to portray how one family tries to preserve at least a semblance of humanity amidst the ruins. There was enough of a believable hope at the end to keep me from being totally despondent, which for a novel that had so many bad things happen to its characters says a lot I think.

    I'm not saying that any of your points weren't true, a lot of them were, but I don't think it detracts from the novel's overall ability to convey its message.

    Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. We'll see if I get around to reading any more of this trilogy and if I change my mind!

    Reading Amidst the Chaos

  16. ok, the junk science bother me. it is as if the author said, "they won't notice."

    the mother...but she did say bad things about the government. my issue is that even with what she thought of the government she DID NOTHING but hide, waiting for Big Brother to come to the rescue.

    dystopian fiction...well, I am a bit of a cynic but...ultimately, I believe that people are, in their essence, good.
    Yes, looking around, it is often hard to see...or believe, but I do believe it because I have a religious belief that people are made in the image of God. societies and government will come and go but the soul makes us in His image and to be truly human is to be as God made us.

    I see no hope in the ending. NONE. if you accept her 'science', then in her 'world', all humans will die. it is only a matter of time and not that much time.
    happily, the science is junk.

    it is ok that no one agrees with me about this book...really...{{sob}} ;-)


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