For the townspeople of Union Grove, New York, the future is not what they thought it would be. Transportation is slow and dangerous, so food is grown locally at great expense of time and energy. And the outside world is largely unknown. There may be a president and he may be in Minneapolis now, but people aren’t sure. As the heat of summer intensifies, the residents struggle with the new way of life in a world of abandoned highways and empty houses, horses working the fields and rivers replenished with fish.
A captivating, utterly realistic novel, World Made by Hand takes speculative fiction beyond the apocalypse and shows what happens when life gets extremely local.
James Howard Kunstler (born 1948) is an American author, social critic, and blogger who is perhaps best known for his book The Geography of Nowhere, a history of suburbia and urban development in the United States. He is prominently featured in the peak oil documentary, The End of Suburbia, widely circulated on the internet. In his most recent non-fiction book, The Long Emergency (2005), he argues that declining oil production is likely to result in the end of industrialized society and force Americans to live in localized, agrarian communities.
I read Kunstler's The Long Emergency and was affected for months, but after reading World Made by Hand, I realize that Kunstler suffers from a profound lack of imagination for that which isn't immediately in his intellectual/emotional/philosophical grasp. I could hang with the premise of a small community in the very near future trying to remake themselves after converging apocalypses have nearly wiped their population out and cut them off from other towns, but there is no way I buy that the people of this world would revert immediately back to gender roles and speech patterns resembling those of the colonies in 17th century America. Women, who were supposedly fully functioning adults in the pre=apocalypse early 21st century seem to only exist to provide physical comfort for the men, and a bit of canning and cooking. Did the plagues infect their personalities causing them to forget any professional degrees they held? Believe me, if a global tragedy of this magnitude struck tomorrow, I don't know many woman or girls who would hang to not being allowed to be part of the town counsel. They'd be shouting that the men had their chance and very obviously screwed things up, so scoot over so we can work this stuff out together. The one positive benefit I have enjoyed from reading World Made by Hand is that it makes me reevaluate The Long Emergency--I now recognize Kunstler's lack of imagination at play in his inability to invision scenarios of the future that involve discovery, new ideas, new solutions, new technology.
this book is the grandma moses of all 4 star reviews; it came to its fourth star very late into its existence. it is like my slow-simmer appreciation of winesburg, ohio, but this one took much longer than two stories, this one took 3/4 of the book to win me and (this part pending) keep me.
and yet i still don't have a handle on the tone of this book. most of the postapocalyptic stuff i have read all takes place immediately after the event - like - "oh, shit, now what??" this book is the "now what". this is a decade after the complete cessation of oil and manufacturing and several major plague epidemics and a fucking wheat blight to boot. and things have stabilized into a newly pre-industrial, agrarian dairy farming society where people more or less go about their business cheerfully - all amish without the zipper-aversion or creepy dolls.
there is just something about this that feels like christian fiction, even if it is not. (and by this, i mean stereotypical christian fiction, not the good stuff that jen's husband curates) even though it is adamantly not religious - characters frequently profess that they do not believe - which frankly makes it feel even more like christian fiction, if you get me. part of the feeling comes from the lack of character development, part of it is the extreme lack of female character development - this society is way patriarchal, which makes it feel cloistered old-timey religious, and finally, there is this gentle diffused tone for most of the book that is bland like a hummel figurine until it picks up in this weird stephen king maine-gone-mad carnivalesque way at the end. you know, when i started liking it more.
so i was initially bored with the way the story unfolded, but i had to keep reminding myself that this was a sheltered town before the events. and while some of its members came from more urban environments, this place was already very provincial. this is a paraphrase, but in a town where "yeah, i think there was a black guy here once... before" - you just aren't going to get a richness of experience or a tapestry of progressive thinking. you are going to get... this town. where men run the town council and women stay home and can stuff. and make baskets. and offer their bodies along with their housecleaning and cooking skills in exchange for protection. and not the prophylactic kind.
and even though there are rumors of violence and race wars elsewhere, this little untouched community remains largely peaceful. sure, there is some dude living on a plantation in relative comfort while others plow his fields and whatnot in some nouveau southern gentleman slaveowner situation, and also a gang of redneck trailer park junkyard villains with eyebrow tattoos, but the most pressing concerns are fire and feeding. and getting to the bottom of the new batch of people who have moved into town with their religion and their austere dress and cultlike sensibilities, whose women are also marginalized, in case you were curious.
this is like the bible as literature - divested of its faith. there are some good stories in that book, too - didactic, but with touches of magic. and this one also reads that way. at first, that was what made it off-putting to me.because i like the gritty aftereffects of the end days, not so much the spiritual or bureaucratic ones.
but the hints of the magical throughout, just tiny little glimpses. these are what stuck to my brain bits, and despite all my initial reservations, as these moments increased, i could not deny that i was hooked. and i have the sequel here, and am very interested to see where this all goes. but to keep me on board, the magical bits are going to have to be ratcheted up to at least an 8 because i was born and raised in new england, and have been to olde sturbridge village on more formative-year field trips than i can count, and i do not need to learn anything else about making butter or milking animals or making candles. tell me more about this all-seeing hive mother, please...
I fucking get it, you don't like the way the world is. I should have started counting how many times he mentions decaying strip malls and useless stores. I'm not sure if I could count that high though.
There are many post-apocalyptic novels out there. This is another one. For the record, this is another book, one of many that the author has written, that rely on the fruits of the world that he hates to produce and distribute, and probably also to write. Is this unfair to point out? Is it weird that I think of the author and the points he never seems to let up or tire at making being similar to those of a teenager saying 'fuck you mom and dad' while spending his time playing video games on the giant tv that those same parents bought for him? Author, social critic and blogger are, um, not exactly professions that are, um, you know, um contributing something to the world that you are supposedly preaching for. I know, I know, you have some great insight that needs to be shared, and you are opening peoples minds, serving as a self-appointed vanguard or something or other. Do aging baby boomers dream neo-Leninist dreams?
This book is a squishy liberal fantasy of what happens after society collapses. The book takes place in the fictional town of Union Grove, NY. Union Grove I'm pretty positive is actually Greenwich, NY – a town a bit west of Schuylerville, NY and probably about a twenty or thirty minute drive from Saratoga Springs. I was hoping when I started to read the book that it actually took place in Saratoga (being that it was the author's home for at least a while), but no luck there. It's still the fall of civilization taking place in my neck of the woods.
It's a fairly peaceful fall. The population has been more than decimated. And now some good folks live in this little town and they all engage in some labor that seems to be more like hobbies than activities for survival.
There are some undesirables, like the rednecks who have taken over the former landfill and sell scrap to the good citizens of Farmer Market-ville. The rednecks also enjoy Guns n' Roses, Metallica, Nirvana and using Larry the Cable Guy catch phrases. There is also a model of sustainable living who owns a vast estate that actually produce things and don't seem to exist by 'magic' (yes this is a not so veiled reference to the author's newest book). The weird thing to me is that this estate and the rednecks make sense, they are flourishing because of hardwork and ingenuity, and this shows in the book, even though the people who I'm guessing we are supposed to be rooting for are sort of a ineffectual middle-aged people whose survival baffles me.
The book isn't bad. But it's not really good either. Even if I leave aside all the disgust some of his rants fill me with and his seemingly hypocritical anti-science ramblings I still can't get too excited about this book. It's sort of one-dimensional, the characters are all fairly flat, the story is fairly predictable and the writing when it isn't being overly ranty and pedantic isn't that much better than your standard airplane sort of read. That said, the book does throw a bit of a curve ball about three quarters of the way through, and it actually takes on a kind of interesting edge. It's like the author decided that maybe I need to have some actual story here and not just a bunch of middle-aged people eat food and play folk music. Then it actually starts to read like an actual post-society collapsing sort of novel, like the realities of what would probably happen finally forced themselves to into the pages of the book, although to be fair (as in to not give too much praise) they are done with a sort of liberal 'oh the horror!' feeling that is in line with a book about the collapse of society where when the main character first comes into contact with a firearm he recoils in the horror that he would be the sort of person who would ever handle a gun. Yeah, it's a gun, you live in a dangerous world maybe having some form of protection would be a good thing.
As you can tell I didn't really like this book all that much. If it hadn't been set in the area I'm from I probably would have lost all interest in it before the book started to get sort of good, but because of the good stuff at the butt-end of the book, I'm kind of curious to see where he goes with the story in the sequel.
the story may reference peak oil issues but it doesn't particularly demonstrate how a declining oil supply effects a culture.
the really bad part is the main character who is sad and everyone in the town is sad and then wakes up, goes on an adventure, kills a guy, sleeps with or is kissed by every married or widowed girl in town, enlivens a whole town, and makes friends with a strange insect-like cult (with no explanation as to why they house a giant queen-bee-like southern women who smells like honey and eats massive amounts of cornbread) it's self congradulatory.
The book even spends a little bit of time explaining why feminism will go away in a declining oil situation and how the women will stay home and clean while the men go out and make decisions.
As I read the first few pages of this quasi-post-apocalyptic novel set in upstate NY, I said to myself, "Self, this is going to be a Book About Men." And I was completely right. (Apparently if technology disappears, women will become mindless drones who live to serve men food. I thought the author was just oblivious, but it turns out he actually thinks this is a meaningful point of view - see commentary here as he explains why his silly female readers are wrong to complain about gender roles in the book.) Still, I considered giving this book 4 stars at several points, as I was interested in Kunstler's descriptions of the ways people coped with the change. I enjoyed the level of detail of how people's everyday tasks were different. Mostly I found the book to be fairly unimaginative in terms of social organization (basically, society has returned to the 19th century, and is falling into corruption and exploitation without government to keep people in line) - I'd prefer to see a book where people actually develop some new approaches to problems. And then, the ending happened. Um - WTF? Did this just turn into some completely different kind of book? I have no idea what that was, or how it relates to the author's point (which, considering his other works, is presumably that we should move away from our dependence on oil).
Yet another book where I was lured in by a good review/blurb, this one from NPR. Yet another disappointment.
The premise is very interesting. Set in a small town in upstate New York after apocalyptic events that have essentially disbanded the government and deprived everyone of oil and electricity, the lives of the townsfolk are disrupted one summer by a series of events.
The plot was interesting enough - right up until the end, where it got weird and then abruptly ended, as if the author got distracted and just walked away from the manuscript.
The misogynitic and rascist overtones, though - sheesh. Apparently, after the apocalypse, the wimmenfolk just happily allow the smart, burly men to just take their rightful place as leaders, and will cook and can and clean. Not one woman in the book amounts to anything more than a domestic or a slattern. And blacks? They don't live in idyllic upstate; they're in the scary big cities where "racial tension" has led to violence.
Start at four stars for an engaging, can't-put-it-down it-could-sorta-happen read.
Subtract one for Kunstler's one-dimensional female characters, and his conviction that we will all retreat to archaic gender roles. No feminists, no homosexuality. Lots of beards.
Subtract another star for some absolutely ridiculous copy editing. There are at least a dozen times when characters ask questions, but there is no question mark at the end. "What if they don't." I would think he was trying some Cormac McCarthy punctuation-killing, but it's sporadic; sometimes twice on a page, but sporadic, and irritating.
Add two for providing me with a much more palatable version of the post-apocalypse than the one from The Road, which has been haunting me since I read it. I would make rather imagine a world in which only the human population has really been affected by our stupidity. Kunstler depicts upstate New York post-bomb, post-flu, as a place where people have returned to subsistence living and farming. A good horse is useful. There is still beauty and love in the world. I can live with that.
"It was chilling to reflect on how well the world used to work and how much we'd lost." pg 12, ebook.
In World Made by Hand, civilization has fallen to pieces. There is no consistent electricity. The town of Union Grove has running water, but only because of a water system that relied more on elevation than anything else.
Worse, the justice system has fallen apart. There is little to no medical care facilities or supplies available. Television stations have ceased to broadcast. The radio sometimes broadcasts religious programming in the moments the electricity flickers on and then off.
"It's not all bad now," I said. "We've lost our world." "Only the part that the machines lived in." Jane Ann patted my thigh, but said no more and got up to leave." pg 25, ebook
A slow-paced dystopian novel that savors the end of life as we know it might not have been the best book for me to read right now. In the midst of a global pandemic and unfounded fears that life may never go back to the way it was, this wasn't as much an escape as an additional cork-popper to my ever-present anxiety.
The characters lack depth, but I found myself caring for them because they seemed so real.
They want food, shelter and safety for their loved ones, even though all of those things have become difficult to find.
"By the time he passed away, it was obvious there would be no return to 'normality.' The economy wouldn't be coming back. Globalism was over. The politicians and generals were failing to pull together at the center." pg 29, ebook.
There are very few moments of action in here. I can see the slow pace being frustrating to some readers.
"The afternoon weather resolved into an uncomfortable drizzle, driven by hot winds out of the south. I had an old ripstop nylon poncho from my collegiate camping days, but it had lost its waterproofing." pg 126, ebook
But, to play the devil's advocate, perhaps that would be the way the world would actually end. To quote T.S. Eliot: "Not with a bang, but with a whimper."
Recommended for readers who enjoy dystopians like Station Eleven and who are brave enough to read this kind of thing with the current state of things.
Reminded me of good old-fashioned post-collapse SF from the '50s and '60s. Sadly, the book is marred by Kunstler's weird conceit that once all the oil is gone, everyone will revert to sexism, start dressing in old-timey clothes, and talk like extras from a bad Tom Sawyer movie. If the book had a thicker layer of the fantastic, he might have pulled this off. But as it is, the 19th-century trappings just pull the reader out of the narrative again and again. Plenty of reviewers have commented on Kunstler's assertion that women will end up as chattel in this bleak future--for me, this was the predictable fantasy of a privileged author. Still, the book was fun and elegantly written, and I enjoyed the super-weird elements thrown in at the end.
Of the three post-Apocalyptic tales I've read - The Stand, The Road and this one - this is my favorite, and not just because it's set in a region near where I happen to live (Upstate NY). It's not as dire as the other two (not necessarily a good thing) but I found it more thought-provoking. What if we had no more oil, LA and DC were nuked, and subsequent plagues knocked out a significant portion of the population? The short answer is no one knows. The pessimist says "We're all five meals away from murder" (bring on the cannibals in The Road) while the optimist sees us reverting to farming, fishing, carpentry, masonry and serfdom. Those who don't go insane carry on in various ways. The industrious survive - sometimes thrive - through community, agriculture, acoustic music, a little corn liquor and half-hearted religion. Some thrive through despotism, but luckily they live down the road apiece and they scavenge and sell useful junk.
What would you do? Who would you be? How would you get by? Would memories of the Old Times torture you or fade mercifully? Who would rise to leadership, and how? What would you EAT? (What would you smell like?)These are worthwhile questions sharply articulated by this book. A lot of attention is paid to how food is produced and prepared. I frequently got hungry while reading.
Also - the climate has gotten wackier, with blistering heat and unpredictable storms. But that is actually the least of everyone's worries.
Although Kuntsler doesn't give actual dates for anything (annoying)the book takes place about ten or so years after the nukes. The US economy has imploded, ports are shut down, and flu and encephalitis have ravaged the land. Electricity is gone, government buildings are shuttered and all modern conveniences - cars, phones, computers, malls, eventually radio - are extinct. The residents of Union Grove are scraping by, growing pot and poppies for relief (both medicinal and recreational) when a strange sect called the New Faith Church shows up in Amish-type wagons at the same time a crazed redneck shoots and kills a kid and a barge bound for an Albany trading post goes missing. These events spur the action in the tale, sending Robert - the protagonist, a widower whose teen son has vanished - on a fascinating trip with the ass-kicking, Jesus-loving sex-positive New Faithers. There are quite a few unexpected bends in the road.
That road, and the narrative in general, is described in detail both harrowing and gorgeous. Rutted, impassible pavement, tumbled bridges, candlelit nights, Dutch ovens, summer kitchens on the back porch, corn bread, desperate lovemaking. There are a few characters in the book who prefer the new life. Nature is rebounding in a lot of ways, both to the good and bad. The good was enough to give me pause.
The criticisms about the return to a pre-Women's Liberation way of life are sound. I know quite a few women who would do great in the fields and on the rooftops and quite a few guys who could do the basket weaving and child rearing. Just sayin'. And Robert passes over his 40-something lover Jane Ann for a nubile youngster (who is lovingly described) and we hear nothing about this from spurned Jane Ann. In a book that is all about consequences, this is glaring.
While Kuntsler has a lot of compelling ideas about what Mother Nature will do when the grid goes down, his grasp of actual womenfolk is lacking.
Also, everyone is white. WTF?
It's clear that Kuntsler doesn't care for rock and roll. The Union Grove folks play hymns and bluegrass, which is great, but when some rednecks attempt a Metallica song, it's described in withering detail.
At first I thought the Union Grove people were just too sanguine about their lot in life but then I recalled folks I know who've been through real tragedy, just unspeakable stuff. To a person, they found reserves of strength to move on. None of them lost their minds, at least not permanently. I do believe most of us possess that deep reservoir of strength, we simply don't want to look at it. Until we have no choice.
I don't think this book even knows what it wanted to be. For the most part, it feels like a satire of post-apocalyptic fiction--flu meets nuclear bomb meets ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, or something--and suddenly upstate New York reverts to the 19th century. (More so than it already has.) None of the timelines add up to anything possible, but you quickly get to ignore that.
Except in between being satirical, it gets bizarrely dark and gruesome a couple of times, and also twists in some kind of strange fantasy element of...magic? supernaturalism? the wrath of God personified? I have no idea.
The best way I can think to read this is as a series of vignettes--65 chapters in 317 pages--of a confused, old man, nostalgic for a lost world, and increasingly drunk and high as the stories progress. Read that way, it was almost enjoyable, with, well, the exceptions noted above.
I found this story sincerely disappointing because it was a concept that I was interested in (the whole what happens when modern life as we know it comes to an end) and it was done badly.
I found most, if not all, of the characters two-dimensional and often felt like the author was pushing me to care about them and what was happening to them without giving me any real reason to do so. It also felt to me that the plot meandered as though the author got halfway through writing the book before he settled on what he ultimately wanted to happen to the characters.
But, my biggest gripe of all with this particular novel was how much of it I found insulting. Clearly, the author's concept is that when modern life as we know it fails, the world reverts back to an almost 19th Century existence. Apparently, included in that vision, is an anticipation that women's roles in society will also revert back to a 19th Century existence. I find that neither plausible, nor acceptable.
All the female characters in this book seem to be there merely to serve the male character's lustful needs or to make them dinner. There is nothing wrong with men lusting after women in books or for women to make their man dinner, but when that is their only function in a post-apocalyptic world, what is the point of having them in a story at all? I didn't necessarily want or expect this book to have a strong female character. It just irritated me that the female characters that were there were so pathetic.
While I have no desire to read any other books by this author as a result of this experience, I did go ahead and give it two stars. In part that was because I found the author's descriptions both of the landscape and the society's efforts at rebuilding interesting enough to keep plodding along even while disliking the actual story. So, while that doesn't say much for the book, it is an indication that I didn't dislike it enough to toss it aside entirely.
Bottom line: Interesting concept, very badly done.
Among the many subgenres I have a weakness for, one of my favorites is the post-apocalyptic thriller. World Made By Hand is not a thriller, though there is some action and violence. It occupies some strange middle ground between The Stand and Earth Abides. James Howard Kunstler is more interested in telling a story about what people do when the lights go out and how they go back to churning their own butter and making their own candles than a broader story about the collapse of civilization. In fact, that theme (as indicated by the title of the novel) seems to be the reason why the author wrote this book. While the residents of Union Grove, New York now live hard, sometimes precarious lives, and Kunstler does not neglect to show people suffering trauma and not coping very well with the death of the world they knew, the subtext throughout the book seems to be "Maybe it's better this way." The narrator, who by virtue of being the only responsible adult who was too much of a sucker not to say 'No' is now the mayor of Union Grove, frequently ruminates on how much better and sturdier things are now when you have to make them to last, just like in the old days, and seems to regard his old modern consumer life with a mixture of yearning and ironic disdain.
So there is quite a bit of talk about how people have gone back to a primarily agrarian existence, without oil or electricity, and how they struggle to survive when most folks don't have the skills needed for a post-industrial society. It's one of those books that makes you think about what you would do: if all of a sudden we got knocked back to the 19th century by some sort of apocalypse, do you have any survival skills? Any useful skills that would make you valuable to a community. Well, I'm no prepper and I'm afraid my own skill set would probably prove a bit meager.
We aren't given many details about what happened in this world made by hand. There is talk of recent wars in the Middle East, and bombs took out Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles and other cities (though apparently not New York City), and the U.S. government, and global civilization, seems to have essentially collapsed. The folks in Union Grove get little news from up the Hudson and even less from anywhere outside New York.
That said, they have been, as Brother Job of the New Faith Church points out, awfully lucky so far. They've managed to keep their town running with no major disasters, and their region has not yet reached the stage of feuding warlords and roving bandit gangs. However, lawlessness is certainly taking over the countryside, which causes most of the problems in the book as they have to deal first with a trade ship that was sent down the Hudson to New York City and never returned, and then with a local troublemaker who has set himself up as a feudal lord on the edge of town with a bunch of bikers, vagrants, and other ne'er do wells.
The New Faith Church, a bunch of healthy young evangelicals, show up in Union Grove and want to settle there, which proves to be a mixed blessing. They are (it seems) basically clean, decent, hard-working folks, and they bring fresh blood and, incidentally, a lot of combat vets. However, they definitely have proselytizing on the agenda, and being an instant power in the community, there are bound to be tensions.
It's a well-constructed story and the world, while light on details, makes sense. No major suspensions of disbelief, until the end, where Kunstler seems to be hinting at the encroaching of supernatural elements. As Brother Job says, "Science don't rule the roost no more." It's both odd given the straightforward, realistic style of the rest of the novel, and also seems to be in keeping with the idea of a "world made by hand" being somehow deeper and more spiritual.
Well, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't terribly exciting, and I'm not inclined to sign up for the rest of the series to learn just how religious the author decides to get. Yes, our modern consumer lifestyle probably is unsustainable and many things are lost when everything is commercial and transient. On the other hand, as the events in World Made By Hand show, it's not a great improvement to let the world be run by whoever has the most charisma and guns, and I have no faith in the nice folks of the New Faith Church not turning into witch-burning science-hating zealots given a generation or so to cement their power. So, while I feel a certain sympathy for the idea that the world would actually be a better place without Walmarts and reality TV, I'm not willing to throw out electricity, antibiotics, and indoor plumbing to get it.
This book was presented as a "what happens when the oil runs out" spec fic. What it turned out to be was a luddite, misogynist rant against modern culture. The dystopic future didn't develop in any sensible way, and the author clearly believes that a reversion to a patriarchial society would naturally result if we just took away all the "unnatural" features of our current economy.
Thoroughly unpleasant read. Only real value is to use as an example of worn out tropes in fiction.
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)
I've been toying around recently with the idea of releasing a new book of essays called The CCLaP Guide to Bushist Literature, taking a look back at all the post-9/11 novels I've now read that blame a conservative administration for bringing about a speculative neo-fascist America or even post-apocalyptic disaster (see for example The Road, World War Z, The Plot Against America, Jamestown, The Possibility of an Island, Anathem, Rant, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Under the Dome...are you starting to see why I'm thinking of doing this book in the first place?); and if I were to put such a book together, absolutely one of the titles included would have to be "Doom-N-Gloomer" James Howard Kunstler's 2008 World Made by Hand, the book that in fact is precisely known for kicking off what's now known as the "Peak Oil" movement, the belief that one day pretty soon we're simply going to run out of fossil fuels, and that in our current state we'll all be pretty much screwed when that happens.
I had been warned over and over about this book being terrible to the point of ridiculousness, so I have to say that I was surprised and relieved to find it actually pretty good*; but brother, make no mistake, this is not so much a traditional post-apocalyptic tale as it is Kunstler's wish-fulfillment wet dream of a world he desperately wishes actually existed, a pre-industrial Luddite paradise in upstate New York where all the commuting stockbrokers and dot-commers have now become farmers and blacksmiths, where every good thing about small-town life has been retained but none of the bad, where women have voluntarily come to realize that they're not much useful for anything else besides canning fruit and making love to the men-folk, and where it's apparently proven that not a single thing from the 20th century besides medicine was worth keeping in the first place. (And just how self-righteously utopian does Kunstler get? Well, there are no drug addicts in his post-apocalyptic world, for example, despite marijuana and poppies now growing wild on the sides of the abandoned highways; and that's because in the universe of World Made by Hand, only the strong and noble have the will to survive, while those who are apathetic enough about life to do drugs in the first place have all died off long ago. Sheesh, and you thought I was bitter!)
It's these details, then, that lead to the most notoriously eye-rolling elements of the book, the stuff its haters are always mentioning -- like how everyone for some unknown reason start dressing like the Amish after these post-apocalyptic events, how all the men for some reason all decide to grow big bushy hippie beards and start wearing bolo ties, how for some reason everyone in the 2010s suddenly starts speaking in the most corpone, faux-country dialect this side of a Little House on the Prairie episode. (Although to be fair, even Kunstler admits in the book that this is simply a look at one random town where everything just happened to go right; although they receive little news of the outside world in this novel, it's heavily insinuated that the rest of the US hasn't survived the apocalypse in nearly as good a shape as the idyllic rural town that is our focus, with it being implied that slavery has been reinstated in the Deep South, and that a state of Mad-Max anarchy exists pretty much everywhere west of Denver.) It can get silly for sure, but at least the fundamentals of character, plot and style are all rock-solid, making World Made by Hand an imminently readable and even thought-provoking reflection of its Bushist times. For those with a high tolerance for occasional cheesiness, it comes strongly recommended.
Out of 10: 8.6
*And although the book turned out to be better than expected, for unintentional Doom-N-Gloom amusement I highly recommend checking out an episode of Kunstler's podcast, in which he routinely ignores basic rational arguments that are presented to him so that he can instead confidently state his worst-case-scenario diatribes, most of them hilariously (and unironically) ending along the lines of, "...And that's why, by the time of Obama's re-election in 2012, I predict that large sections of the American Midwest will be forced to eat their own babies for mere survival."
It's not very often that a book grabs me on page one and won't let me put it down until I've devoured the whole thing. This one did that. This world is incredibly vivid and all-too-possible these days, and the smallest details (like the guy who has an almanac and will come around and set your mechanical clock for you, or the electricity coming on just long enough to provide a burst of radio preaching from who knows where) are often the most arresting. The narrator is a complex character whose voice resonates beautifully, and the struggle to survive while still maintaining shreds of civilization pushes the plot forward with incredible power.
But come ON, Kunstler, where the hell are your strong women? Maybe five women in this book have actual lines, none of them talk to each other, and mostly what they do is make food for, then seduce, the men. There's one desexualized oracle figure whose one-page cameo is never explained. Pretty much every other woman in the story is a wife or a whore. None of them are central to the plot. I could possibly buy that 19th-century patriarchal values moved right in alongside the 19th-century technology, but that doesn't mean the women have to be mere objects. If your society is devolving into pioneer times, you have to make your women accordingly strong. Pioneer women were fighters. They didn't just hang back and putter around the kitchen until it was time to open their legs and indulge the menfolk. I know there are more stories set in this universe, and hopefully yet more to come. Put a strong female character into the action next time and I'll be a fan for life.
EDIT: I feel like I should probably add a coda to this review. A few weeks after I read it, I emailed the author to ask him (politely, of course) whether he'd considered that his female characters could be adding so much more to the story. His incredibly condescending response came a day or so later. In it, he suggested that I didn't like the book because I didn't understand it, and that I never would unless I "move[d] beyond the gender programming of [my] generation." So, uh, I guess I'm not going to read any more of his stuff.
I have an ARC copy but I'm assuming it is fairly close to the published version. It was a pretty good book. Interesting. I didn't think much of some of his premises for the end of our civilization, but it worked well enough for the situation he painted. The situation was very plausible & scary. The veneer of civilization is quite thin & delicate. He certainly made that point well.
There is quite a bit of description about how fast & far we fell. I found most of it very realistic from the people to the buildings. The way he described the various states of mind & group dynamics was quite well done.
I took away one star for the fantastic elements he introduced. I don't like spoilers, but anyone who has read the book will know what they are. They came along late in the book & were distracting from the basic story line - jarring. They did nothing to help the story & should have been left out. (If anyone else read the published copy & doesn't know what they are, I'd be pleased to discuss in email & very happy to change this review.)
I'm looking forward to reading the 'Long Emergency' by him. Possibly I should have read it first.
It aint (sic) fine literature, its a page-turner. Small chapters and an easy story make this book fly by. What makes it interesting to read, however, is the idea of having to start all over again... but this time with the comparison of what things used to be like. Everything is a bit anachronistic, post-pre-modern I guess you could call it. You can see the roots of our modern conveniences, how the layers built up over years, improvements taking us one step further away from the basic knowledge of how to survive off the land where we live. It is energy that is the catalyst for the modern world, and in this story, the lack of energy that is our conveyance into a second Dark Age. The redistribution of labor, the lack of law and order, the weedy roots of religion sprouting up everywhere that fear lives or aught to, and the lack or scarcity of essential goods and foods all make this book a foreboding prophecy we should take to heart. Wake up people! We can do this the easy way, or the hard way: it's entirely up to us.
What is it about the end of the world as we know it that reverts women back into homemakers, capable of little more than washing, cooking, handicrafts and child-rearing - and in need of a big, strong man to protect them? Is it because a return to a more primitive form of society brings with it a return to more primitive gender roles? Or is it because most post-apocalyptic stories are written by men?
As the narrator of James Howard Kunstler's "A World Made By Hand" says, "as the world changed, we reverted to social divisions that we'd thought were obsolete. The egalitarian pretenses of the high-octane decades had dissolved and nobody even debated it anymore, including the women of our town." While this book made me ponder (for some time) whether a return to a more agrarian, manual labor-heavy life would, by necessity, force people back into traditional, gender-based, division of labor - I'd like to think that the strides made by women over the last century are something a bit more than "egalitarian pretenses." I'd also like to think that there probably are some women out there who could plow a field as well as a man. When times are tough, and all hands are needed on deck, would we really have the luxury of caring whether that cart was built by a man or a woman?
But how does "A World Made By Hand" stack up as an end-of-the-world tale? Despite a little lecturing on environmental issues that may strike some as irritating, or as stating the obvious - and despite some bizarre, out-of-place supernatural twists near the end, not to mention an ending that felt totally slapped together at the last minute (as if the author had gotten bored and needed to quickly wrap this thing up) - it's not bad. Kuntsler went for broke - apparently a nuclear attack on Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, a flu pandemic, and climate change all played a role in bringing about this post-apocalyptic scenario. I kind of like that - go big, or go home, right? He paints a vivid picture of what life might be like after all that - a return to subsistence farming, bartering, simple pleasures, and hardship.
Better-written than "Alas, Babylon," - but not on the same level as, say, "The Road." And, feminists may find it obnoxious from time to time.
One of the best post-apocalypse stories I've read, and it doesn't even have plague zombies or giant radioactive roaches. It does have a remarkably detailed and frighteningly plausible setting coupled with well-rounded, believable characters and a plot engine that is one of my favorites in PAW novels - the effort of people to create law and sanctions in a lawless world.
Of course, there are about a dozen other plot lines going on in this story - the loss of electricity and realization that it will probably never be seen again for generations, the struggle to maintain access to water, the quick education on farming, hunting, and gathering, the change in personal relationships, the rise of leaders, followers, bandit kings and religious zealots, the use of faith in politics, war, and survival.
If you like post-apocalypse novels just go out, buy this one and clear a spot for it on your shelf. Everyone else should pick this one up from the library at the least. The only way I could have enjoyed this book more is if it was about three times longer. I was elated to discover that he has a sequel scheduled for release this fall, titled The Witch of Hebron.
Not-quite-apocalyptic, but pretty close. Life in the USA after LA and DC are bombed, there may be a president, and he may be in Minneapolis (but no one really knows), and the Mexican flu wipes out half the population. Still reading...but it's good enough to rate and recommend now. Wait a minute! I just finished reading this and the author must have (1) gotten tired or (2) decided on a sequel. What's with the "mother" character? What about the beehive rooms in the school? WTF?
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
I live in upstate New York. I'm not very familiar with Washington County, the primary setting of this book, but I am familiar with downtown Albany and the surrounding suburbs. I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy in his geography of the area and references to state government until he spelled Duanesburg wrong (he spelled it Duanesberg), which really upset me because that's my hometown. I know that this may sound trivial, but if a local author is going to use his home region as the setting for a post apocalyptic saga, you'd think he'd spell the names of towns correctly.
As for the book itself - not a fan. The catastrophic events that led to this post apocalyptic world are shady at best. All I could gather was no one wanted to trade with the U.S. anymore and major cities were bombed or were struck my massive hurricanes, leaving them in chaos and/or uninhabitable. The idea that society could deteriorate so quickly didn't seem plausible to me.
Shadiness tends to be a theme with James Howard Kunstler - for example - this New Faith tribe that buys the high school and turns it into a self sustaining home. How did they find Union Grove? How did they manage to buy the high school without no one in town finding out? In a small town made even smaller by this strange Mexican flu epidemic, you'd think they notice a band of strangers looking at real estate. What about their "queen bee" who does nothing buy lounge in a bed eating corn bread and telling the future? And what Minor and Wayne Karp's identical wounds, except Karp's body shows no evidence of a bullet? Am I really supposed to believe that Jesus killed a man by mimicking gun shot wounds the man inflicted on another man?
James Howard Kunstler also does a great job of showing how women are virtually useless in a post apocalyptic society except for cooking, cleaning, and having sex with the available men. Women played no part in making town decisions or in solving town problems. Kunstler goes as far as to say, in regard to the town's board of trustees, "All the trustees are men; no women and no plain laborers. As the world changed, we reverted to social divisions that we'd thought were obsolete." (p. 101). As a woman, Mr. Kunstler, let me tell you one thing - I highly doubt that women would forgo all of the rights and freedoms we've fought so long and hard for over the last 150 years just because there is no oil and bombs decimated cities. If it's do or die time, you can be damn sure that I'll be out there doing instead of sitting at home waiting to die.
Wow, there are certainly some odd reviews of this book. I, on the other hand, loved this book:
In short, it's the story of a man dealing with the natural change within a post-apocalyptic community once the worst of it ends and some semblance of society tries to get going again. It's richly and realistically set, and addresses the real challenges and probable situations these people would find themselves in, and finds realistic solutions.
It's perhaps the most 'optimistic' view of dystopia you'll encounter, but afterwards you might well think as I did that perhaps Kunstler's view of a post-apocalypse America is MORE realistic than other writers visions precisely because it takes into account man's effort to rebuild and adapt to a new world.
Now, there ARE some things that I'm leaving out, and readers might enjoy or be thrown by them, but I don't think they can be discussed without spoiling the story at least a little.
Kunstler does a great job of not only bringing his credentials as a writer on peak oil and apocalypse though, and the book is lushly written and he does a great job of evoking the landscape of his characters and their new relationship with the earth. Some have complained that the book seems to imply society has simply rolled back to an 1830's world, complete with gender roles and language. I can see where they would complain about that, but it's not something I share as I feel the book presents a realistic idea of small community. Afterall, you speak intimately and directly to people thanks to either the supposed anonymity of the internet, or because you have an absolute confidence in the rule of law...perhaps you'd be a little more stilted and formal if your personality was tempered by a little fear and anxiety.
So I highly recommend this book, espially for those already reading dystopian fiction. You might find this your favorite of the bunch!
This book surprised me. At first, I was pleasantly surprised by the pastoral setting in this post-peak oil world. It's a unique treatment of the dystopian concept that was pretty engaging for the first half of the book--and fully believable. It's not difficult to imagine that in a world where central government, transportation & the energy industry has collapsed, we'd have no choice but to go back to the land. That they seem to have reverted back to the language patterns of the frontier times annoyed me, but I wrote it off to the fact that they're in rural upstate New York. However, the second half of the book kind of falls apart--the characters' lack of depth really begins to show, and Kunstler introduces some unnecessarily strange twists that do nothing to further the plot. Frustratingly, the female characters have absolutely no dimension and very little role in the operation of society--except cooking. In the hands of a better writer this story could have had so much more power.
That said, I'm still interested to read The Long Emergency, and now feel quite motivated to stock my home library with books that will help us live off the land, just in case.
If you're reading these reviews you've heard all about the setting of this book so I won't repeat it but I will say that it really is the setting that makes this book. The author's vision of the future is interesting, thought provoking and unfortunately easy to imagine. I do wish he had gone further into telling us more about the lives of the survivors and the way they've come to live as it is very interesting. The downside of this book is in the story. The plot is somewhat flimsy and trite- enjoyable to read but not exactly surprising or novel- and some of the characters lean towards being charicatures (for example a certain leader who is an enemy at the end of the book). Overall a good, quick, fun read.
I like the idea of this book maybe a bit more than the book itself. I feel as if the author could have thought much more deeply on the implications of a fuel-free economy in terms of every day life. I also disagree that the outcome would be as gloom and doom as this book. I was a bit frustrated 85% of the way through the book, feeling like I was following a bunch of cowboys around the wild west, but the end of the book got my heart racing and followed a good climax. Overall, pretty average writing, but I liked it alright.
Yes another post-apocalyptic story. Formula is pretty standard. Confusion, desolation, desperation, fanaticism. It's all here.
Not at all a bad read--I'm just not sold enough to continue. The semi supernatural involvement intermittently woven into the story I believe to be a fishers net to gain series loyalty. Meh. My reaction is Meh.