Sunday, April 17, 2011

Life As We Knew It

I recently ran across a blog post that was asking why we ask students to read the stuff we do when they could be reading something they might actually like, like The Hunger Games or Life as We Knew It. The Hunger Games I knew about, but Life as We Knew It was a new one on me. So I wound up downloading a sample chapter to my Kindle, and on the strength of that chapter wound up buying the whole novel, which I then devoured in about two days.

Life as We Knew It is a YA novel which takes a fairly simple premise, almost silly premise, and then pushes it to the point where it becomes not just believable but intensely real and engrossing. It’s a novel that reads pretty much like what it purports to be, which is the journal of a high school sophomore. There isn’t much of interest going on stylistically. The language is everyday language, the sentences themselves are everyday sentences, the characters are not particularly remarkable in terms of their talents or capabilities. Even though I’m a compulsive annotator, I read the entire book without making note of a single passage that called attention to itself from a writerly perspective.

It’s a little surprising, then, that I found the book so satisfying, and that it has maintained such a strong presence in my head since I finished it. It succeeds because it builds so carefully, and renders with such patience, the experience of an ordinary girl in what turns out to be an extraordinary situation.

As the novel opens, Miranda, the main character, has just found out that her father’s second wife is pregnant. She’s excited because he’s asked her to be the godmother. She’s also looking forward to the upcoming swim meet and thinking about whether she might like to start skating again, after having taken some time off due to an injury, and she’s trying to reconnect with an old friend she’s drifted away from. And some of her friends are asking her what she thinks about the rumors that an asteroid is about to collide with the moon.

That collision, only dimly attended to in the weeks and days leading up to the event, is what sets off all that follows in the novel. The moon, knocked off its regular orbit, comes closer to the earth, setting off a sequence of effects: tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, ash in the jet stream, climate change, interruptions in the electronic grid, changes in the growing cycles of plants and the delivery systems for food, gasoline, pretty much everything. These changes occur gradually at first and become progressively more disturbing and have a progressively more disruptive effect on the lives of Miranda and the people around her. The book is largely about the escalating series of losses and threats and how Miranda and her family cope with them.

Life as We Knew It might be read as a sort of prequel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a darker, more stylistically ambitious novel which takes place after civilization as we knew it has collapsed. Susan Beth Pfeffer is offering a vivid depiction of how that collapse might begin. And because it begins with more or less where we are and demonstrates how fast it might all go up in smoke, it is all the more sobering.

I’ve written before about my leanings toward catastrophism. I’d suppose I’d describe myself as a short-term optimist and long-term pessimist. I pick up the papers every day and don’t see any good reason to suspect that any of what appears there is likely to get better any time soon. (Sample inventory from today’s paper: budget crisis forcing government service cutbacks, BP oil disaster effects a year later (along with increased support (!!) for continued offshore drilling), continued coverage of nuclear disaster in Japan, record number of tornadoes in the South this year, suicide bomber in Afghanistan kills three, al-Qaida resurgent in Yemen, rebels fleeing in Libya as Qaddafi forces unleash cluster bombs in neighborhoods, chemical companies charged with injecting hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals into wells from 2005-2009. And so on.) I’m at a loss as to what to say or do in the face of headlines like that. This is the world we live in. This is the world we have created. And this is only a taste, I fear, of what is to come.

The most affecting passage in Life as We Knew It comes toward the end of the book. Miranda's family has been trapped in a house with no electricity for more than a week by a savage blizzard. They’re rationing food out of cans, one meal a day, and melting snow to get water, and the older people in the family are cutting back on eating so that Miranda’s youngest brother will be able to eat a little more. And it’s dawning on her: this is as good as it’s going to get.

I still remember when Mom sprained her ankle the first time and we played poker and really enjoyed ourselves. If you’d told me three months before then that I’d have called that a good time, I would have laughed out loud.

I eat every single day. Two months from now, maybe even a month from now, I might eat only every other day.

We’re all still alive. We’re all healthy.

These are the good times.

An asteroid hitting the moon? That’s about the last thing we need to worry about. But everything else in Life as We Knew It is pretty much dead on.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Silent Sky

I was in San Francisco last week and wound up taking a walk one evening on Grant Street in Chinatown. I stepped into one of the stores and there was some music playing caught me by surprise: acoustic guitar, violin, and some kind of hand-struck drum in an arrangement that sounded like a lot of Western folk music, and a very soft, floating woman’s voice doing the vocals in what I assumed was Chinese. It was one of those odd moments where it felt like I had stumbled into the right spot at the right time to hear this music. I asked the woman behind the counter what was playing, and she handed me a CD entitled Silent Sky by a band called Haya.

I bought the CD and have been listening to it since I got home. Turns out the title track, the one I heard in the store, is up on YouTube:

Turns out the lead singer, Daiquing Tana, is not actually Chinese at all, but Mongolian. I’m not sure which language she’s signing in. The CD case includes a booklet with the lyrics translated somewhat precariously into Engish:

The sunrise and the moonset
In the flourish world
From the eternal
Your frame is melting in the setting sun
I sound a sad blessedness
Silent prayer for the soul of dedication to pacify
When everything returns to silence
I have no desire.

On the blowy grassland
There is my lover
Ah you wind blowing gently
and listening to his sadness songs
Ah you moon, could you lighten his way
Ah you fire, could you make him warm

The Mongolian thing got me wondering again about the purported connection between the Mongolians and the Huns. I have yet to come across a coherent explanation of the history, but from timelines like this seem to suggest that the modern-day Mongols and the Magyars had common ancestors in Siberia as far back as 500 B.C. and that much of the military and cultural history of China, Korea, Russia, India, the Middle East, and Central Europe has been influenced by the actions of Mongol and Hun warriors like Attila, Genghis Khan, and Kubla Khan.