Wednesday, May 4, 2011

disaster, aftermath

It’s funny how things happen. One minute you’re fine and things are just everyday normal, then a few minutes later things are completely not-fine and not-normal. All the disaster and apocalypse novels and movies I’ve read and seen, and when it happens, all I can do is stand and stare. One thing is for certain—you can never really prepare yourself.
Wednesday, April  27th started out an ugly, dreary day. As my husband left for work in the morning, he told me that school had been cancelled, which was fine by me since I had a sick baby to take care of and I didn’t want to get him out in the rain to take my daughter to school. I rolled over and went back to sleep. The day cleared later, and it was actually pretty nice outside; the sun shone for most of the day and it didn’t rain any more. I checked the weather online, just to be sure, and it seemed that the rain would be rolling in around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.
We spent the day being lazy. I cleaned the house a bit, we watched Netflix, ate lunch. I thought about going to the store, but I changed my mind. The baby does not like his car seat and I didn’t feel like fighting with him to buckle him into to it.
Around 3 that afternoon, the sky started to darken. It looked worse than normal storm clouds, so I told Carla to turn off Netflix and put the TV on the local channel (we only have one, which we receive by antenna). I could tell that the weather was bad, but General Hospital was still on, so I figured it wasn’t that bad. But as it got darker and more ominous outside, I told Carla to switch back to the TV again. This time, the weatherman was on. Since we get our one channel by antenna and it’s coming out of Birmingham, the picture kept breaking up, and the sound was terrible. I could tell though that there was a line of storms coming our way, and that it was supposed to have tornadoes in it. I was worried, but then the meteorologist said that it would pass through the northern tip of the county, which is very far from where I live—almost an hour. I kept watching just in case, though, and the picture quality steadily worsened. Eventually, I got my daughter’s radio out and plugged it in. That’s when I heard about the second front coming our way, headed toward downtown Tuscaloosa, according to the newscaster.
Now you have to understand a few things. First, tornadoes are a fact of life here in the south, and we used to practice tornado drills in school. I know what to do and where to go in case of a tornado; that being said, I have never really done any of those precautionary things in the event that the alarm sounded. In general, I think most southerners have the “Boy who cried wolf” mentality—the alarms go off so often and nothing ever happens that we’ve started to believe that nothing ever will happen. Second, I live fairly close to downtown Tuscaloosa, but not really “near” it. It’s about 5 minutes by car. Third, I’d had a bad feeling all day. Maybe it was the fact they’d canceled school. Maybe it was the way the air felt or the quality of light. Maybe it was something else. But when I heard that the projected path was downtown Tuscaloosa, I decided we should get ready to go into our bathroom.
Our house is old, so we have this totally random bathroom in the middle of the house. It used to be the back of the house, but they added on some room, so now the bathroom is in the middle. It has no windows but it has two doors. This is our safe room. So we got pillows from the couch and blankets to put on the floor, and one to cover the toilet because the baby will totally put his mouth on anything and we sat on the floor in the bathroom. My daughter put her bicycle helmet on; one of the meteorologists suggested it. We were laughing, but I was already ready to get out. The radio was still telling people to get to a safe place, so I stayed where I was, but a small bathroom with a chatty nine-year-old and a wiggly 8 month old is not a fun place. Eventually, we let the dog in as well.  Add one crazy pug-chihuahua to the mix and I would gladly have left the bathroom.  All of a sudden there’s a knock on the bathroom door and my husband pops his head in; he goes to get the radio, plugs it in the bathroom, then goes to the other bathroom to pee. When he comes back, I give him the baby to give my arms a break. We’re just talking and laughing about my daughter in her bike helmet when the power flickers. But then it comes back on. My daughter looks scared, so I pull her to me. Then, the lights flicker again, but this time they don’t come back on. I look at my husband and tell him to get the pillows, I grab the baby and he puts the pillows on top of us and holds on.
It may have only been a few seconds, but it felt like forever. At first there’s a crash, like something breaking. I thought it sounded like glasses falling out of the cabinet. Then there’s a cacophony of sounds—thumps, crashes, scrapes, loud and violent. And the whole house is shaking and it really does sound like a train is coming right through our house. My husband is saying over and over, “We’re okay, we’re alright” and I start praying the most sincere prayer of my life. I remember saying, over and over, crying and so afraid “God, just please keep us safe, just please keep us safe.” Over and over. It got quieter, then still more quiet, until it just sounded like the wind. And to tell you the truth, the wind sounded so loud that I was sure that the back of the house was gone—kind of like that scene in Day After Tomorrow where the janitor opens the door and the rest of the building is gone? That’s what I thought was about to happen to us. My husband opens the door and goes to check. It feels like he’s taking forever. Eventually, I go out too, and I can’t believe what I saw.
The house was fine, apparently. There were a ton of trees down outside; in fact, you couldn’t see out any of the windows because of all the downed trees. What really took my breath away was the view from the front porch. It looked like we had been bombed. I just stood there and stared for what seemed like forever. I couldn’t make what I was seeing make sense. Trees down and broken all over, windows and roofs gone, downed power lines in our front yard. The grill blown off the porch, but the lightweight chairs still sitting where they had been before the storm.
Later on that day, we would leave the house to see what was going on beyond our street, only to find that the end of our street began the devastation. An entire neighborhood of homes and trees gone. The kind of devastation that surely must have lethal. You’ve seen the images by now. If not, youtube has some videos. We were lucky, but many of our neighbors were not. My daughters school was severely damaged.
We went back to our house, and reality started to set in. How could I keep two small children in these conditions. All I wanted to do was pack our bags and put them in the car and go to my parents house. Unfortunately, the streets were impassable. My parents decided to come up to get us in the morning, so we were going to have to make do for that one night. We decided we would all sleep in my bedroom, since my daughter was scared to sleep in her own room. I’d had some pork ribs marinating in the fridge so I went ahead and started to cook them on the grill, which worked, miraculously. After we ate, we tried to get cool and the kids laid down to sleep. I started packing our bags, and my husband went to walk to the end of the street where he saw headlights. A few minutes later he comes back to tell me that we have to leave the house. There are gas leaks everywhere and we’re the only people left on the block. I hurriedly pack a diaper bag and an overnight bag. Luckily, one of my husband’s friends had a place for us to stay, so we only had to get out of the neighborhood and make it to a place where he could pick us up. It was dark and there were no lights out as we headed out for the gas station at the main intersection. I carried both bags and two flashlights, my husband carried the baby, and our daughter walked between us. We made it out of our block, but the traffic lights were out at the corner, and the traffic was terrible. Eventually we made it across the street and were trying to decide if we could walk up the street on the side of the road in the dark, or if someone could give us a ride. I was tired, and hot, and I really wanted this to be a bad dream. As we were standing there debating our next course of action, the owner of the convenience store asked my husband if he was Mexican. My husband said yes, and the guy, who is Arabic (I think?) told him that he would give us a ride wherever we needed to go. When we arrived at the next gas station, I could finally see more of the effects—the entire main road was darkened and blocked off. I stood there and cried out of frustration, fear, and exhaustion. Eventually, my husband’s friend arrived and we went to his house and went straight to bed.
The next morning my parents arrived and me and the kids went home with them. That was a week ago today. My home is still without power. There’s some roof damage and the air conditioner flew away, but nothing too major. I’m torn between just wanting to go home and just wanted to stay here where disaster hasn’t touched anything.
My husband’s workplace was destroyed, so he’s doing independent contracting for now. There’s plenty of work. I’m supposed to start a new job on Monday. Let’s hope that happens. We really need for that to happen. I’m scared. I’m worried. I miss my husband. But we’re alive and we’re going to be together soon. That’s all that matters (as corny as that sounds!).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Good Friday.

And in honor of the fact that I only have a half day of work today (courtesy of

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Maybe worse than the end of the world is the slow and gradual development of a repressive state. In fiction, these states are known as Dystopias. I mean, at least with an apocalyptic event, life usually becomes even more nasty, brutish, and short. Dystopias, however, are more sinister in their methods, painting a shiny veneer on to the nastiness. I'm currently reading Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories by JJ Adams (ed) and it's put me in a dystopian state of mind.

Dystopias are enormously popular in fiction. Dystopias are particularly popular during times of upheaval or unhappiness, particularly when people view the government as getting out of control and becoming more oppressive, or when they see government becoming more “religious.” Dystopian fiction paints a picture of what could be if all the wrong things happen at all the right times. The most important part of creating successful dystopian fiction is to root it in some reality. After all, if there’s no truth to the story, it will not create the appropriate response in the reader.

Perhaps the most well-known dystopia of the 20th century (in English, that is) is Fahrenheit 451, or perhaps Brave New World. Or 1984. It’s hard to pin down the definitive work of dystopian fiction, since dystopias can take any shape or form. But here's a list of my favorites, irrespective of their literary qualities, and in no particular order:

My Ten Favorite Dystopian Books

1)      Fahrenheit 451—Ray Bradbury
2)      V for Vendetta—Alan Moore
3)      Oryx and Crake—Margaret Atwood
4)      The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood
5)      The Hunger Games—Suzanne Collins
6)      Never Let Me Go—Kazuo Ishiguro
7)      Parable of the Sower—Octavia Butler
8)      Uglies—Scott Westerfeld
9)      Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories—John Joseph Adams, ed
10)   The Giver—Lois Lowry

Honorable Mentions:
1)      The City of Ember—Jeanne Duprau
2)      The Big Empty—JB Stephens
3)      The Other Side of the Island—Allegra Goodman
4)      The Maze Runner—Jim Dashner

And because it's not just books:

My Favorite Dystopian Movies or TV Shows:
1)      Children of Men
2)      Gattaca
3)      Equilibrium (based off Fahrenheit 451)
4)      Minority Report
5)      Johnny Mnemonic (for sentimental reasons!)
6)      V for Vendetta
7)      The Island
8)      Death Race
9)      Firefly

Friday, April 15, 2011

with a bang

So of all the ways the world could end, one of the most catastrophic would involve Yellowstone Park and a certain hungry bear. I mean super-volcano. To add to the list of all things you wish you didn’t know the Yellowstone Caldera measures 34 miles by 45 miles, and experiences between 1000 and 2000 little earthquakes a year. While the last full-scale eruption was 640,000 years ago, the explosion of the caldera would put more than 240 cubic miles of hot rock and dust into the atmosphere, which would turn into a concrete-type mixture the first time it rained. It would block the sun, and the toxic nature of the debris would kill anyone within a few states of Yellowstone. Since most of the food production in the US takes place in the states surrounding Yellowstone, food shortages would begin almost immediately. There would be no hope for those closest to the blast, but those a little farther out would attempt escape but be unable to get very far before the cloud catches them. Some would manage to make it to the East coast, but lack of food, crowded conditions, civil unrest, violence and the ash cloud would result in a significant loss in population.

All of this brings us to Land of Ash (Ed. David Dalglish), an e-book anthology of loosely related stories connected to the explosion of the Yellowstone Caldera. I’m pretty sure that this was self-published, and it only cost .99 on Kindle. I know what the authors were trying to accomplish—a list of stories composed around a common event, a la The Martian Chronicles—but this falls far short of the mark.

I mean, the idea is excellent, but the execution is sloppy and disjointed. Some of the stories are quite good, but others read less as stories and more as vignettes. They don’t have a plot, and they don’t advance the book’s arc at all. It seems to me that some of the stories are connected, while others are just tangentially related. For example, the first story in the book is about a few people waiting for their inevitable deaths. Then there’s another, similar story. One really stupid story about a guy who lives off the grid in a cave (really? Really.) Then there’s a story about a guy who does everything he can to keep his little daughter safe in their home, only to realize that they must leave before the house caves in. This character and his daughter later show up in another story. So there’s some connection between the characters but not enough to make a fully-fleshed series of short stories. It seems like they thought about doing it at the last minute, but didn’t have time to go back and rewrite everything.

Another problem with the book is that there aren’t nearly enough stories to illustrate an event, and some of the stories are so short that, again, they’re more like vignettes. The book needs to double in size, at least, to adequately flesh out the back story, which is a problem in itself. We never get much exposition to explain the events that precede the story—I would have enjoyed a story that takes us through the initial event so that we can see it. We get no idea of chronological progression of the stories, so we can’t tell when the stories take place along the timeline, although we’re led to believe the stories at the end take place later than the stories at the beginning (due to the sudden connection that develops at the end). At some point France comes to our aid or something (really? France?), but we only find out with a passing reference. That’s the problem—when stories are told centered around one event, we’re meant to read the stories and learn about the event through the stories. We should be able to piece the story together, like in World War Z. I would also liked to see some variation in the types of people in the stories. They are all sort of “good, normal” suburbanites. There are thousands of stories that could be told, maybe tens of thousands. Why pick these people and these stories? What motivates these choices? I don’t know, and that’s a narrative problem.

But, that’s not to say the whole thing is crap. It’s got potential, and if Dalglish had just written his own book and joined his own stories, it may have been better. His writing was stronger than the others. I enjoyed the concept as well—it’s not your typical apocalyptic scenario. With a little work, it could shine. Is it worth the .99 cent download? Yeah, I would say so. Is it worth $5.99 for the paper book? Well, I’m cheap, so I’d say no. But if you’ve got cash burning holes in your pocket and you’re concerned with having a complete collection of all apocalyptic literature, well I guess you’re gonna buy it. Otherwise, just download it to your kindle app.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: Carrie Ryan's Forest of Hands and Teeth

It's been a few days, but that's what happens when you go out of town. I've picked up a few new PA books lately, but I need to ruminate on them a little more before I can effectively evaluate them. For now, I want to focus on one of my favorite Post-Zombie-Apocalypse books.

Most zombie stories focus on the events of the apocalypse itself (usually these days attributable to some sort of plague) or the events immediately after it (ie The Walking Dead). Very few actually deal with a world where zombies are taken for granted (or granite, if you like), as is the case with Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Set seven generations after a zombie plague hit the earth, the narrator lives in a tiny enclave of humanity within a forest of the dead (as well as a literal forest). Everyone in the village believes that their small community is the last bastion of humanity on earth--that they are literally all that is left of the world. The undead are a part of their lives, albeit a dangerous part.

This novel focuses on Mary, who longs to see the ocean--something she's only heard of and which others in her village no longer believe in. As their world has shrunken to include only what is inside the fences that protect their village, many people have come to believe that their never was another world--that the world has always been like it is, with the dead pressing against the fences longing for a taste of their flesh. Mary's life is bound, not only by the physical fence of the village, but by the archaic traditions, laid down by a religious group called the Sisterhood, and that people unquestioningly follow. When Mary's life takes an unseen detour, she discovers secrets long buried and paths both hidden and forgotten.

As a stand-alone novel, this book is wonderful. Mary pushes the envelope, refuses to accept the life that has been pre-written for her; she both literally and figuratively forges a new path, while losing and gaining a lot along the way. Whereas a lot of young adult fiction (and make no mistake, this is young adult fiction) has a main character who is too perfect, whose defects really aren't flaws at all (SEE Mary Sue), the main character in this book is flawed, and she does things that as readers we find a bit morally questionable. And in the end, she is incredibly selfish, but we like her for it; we appreciate it for its honesty. Of course, there are places where she is obnoxious as any teenager is obnoxious, but as an adult I'm not sure if it would be read as irritating by other teens.

There are so many elements in this book--the Sisterhood, the community, the fast ones, Gabrielle, relationships both romantic, friendly, and familial--but the the author manages to pull them together quite well without leaving anything out. There is, of course, a bit of ridiculousness somewhere around the middle of the book; when the characters find themselves stuck in a pair of adjacent houses, the energy to the story leaks like the air out of a tire--it completely fizzles. The forward motion that had been building in the book just dies and becomes stagnant. Eventually it builds again, but I can't help but think the book would have been better if that series of scenes had been shorter or arranged differently.

All in all, this is a good book for the PA fan who wants to zombify his or her life without all the typical zombie tropes. They provide a very real menace, but a very different menace from your typical zombie novel. This book is also the first in a series of companion novels that are loosely tied together; the second book is The Dead-Tossed Waves. Which I'll review another day. The third in the series is The Dark and Hollow Places, which arrives in hardback on March 22!
looks a bit like Summer Glau, no?  BTW, the movie rights have been optioned, but as of yet, nothing serious in the works.

Monday, March 7, 2011

might as well be the last whale on earth

This is so sad and disturbing. Imagine being stuck on a planet where you could see people around you, but it's like you don't exist. No one can hear you calling out. Poor Alice. Or Dan. Or whatever.

The Story of the Lonely Whale

It reminds me of that episode of Twilight Zone.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

halloween plans, anyone?

Since there are now two small children in my life, we don't get to do a lot of "scary" Halloween stuff. Plus, I'm not the biggest fan of people jumping out at me, and I don't want to be chased around by a guy with a chainsaw. There's an interesting place in birmingham (Sloss Furnace), but with no family around to babysit and $20 per person plus gas and babysitter? That's about a $100 night, which just sucks the fun right out of it.

But this year. THIS year I'm hoping to go here:

According to their website:

"A group is lead through the apocalypse by Sergeant McKinsey. Known as Mack he is a post military zombie fighter dedicated to try to help the human race survive the zombie invasion.  Mack will lead our group through this wasteland of destruction and gore keeping the zombies at bay with his M16 plus the help from friends they find along the way.  Will they make it through the chaos and constant zombie attacks from all sides?  If they move quickly and stick close to Mack they stand a chance, but most likely not everyone will get out alive. With plenty of gunfire, car crashes, gore, and of course many zombie attacks inside and out, this is what the end of the world would look like."

90,000 sqaure feet!