Monday, July 25, 2011

The Things That Keep Us Here: A Review

The Things That Keep Us Here  (TTTKUH) is a pandemic flue suspense-disaster novel...

that has received some nice reviews (from the book's website):
"A knockout debut of the decade." —LA Times

"With crisp writing and taut pacing, Buckley spins a convincing apocalyptic vision that's both frightening and claustrophobic." —Library Journal

"The Things That Keep Us Here is without a doubt one of the most powerful and realistically frightening books I have ever read... "   —Suspense Magazine
There is a video (also from its website) about the research the authoress did in writing the book: the author shows up about 45 seconds in.  It is a bit of an infomercial for Ohio State University, but none-the-less interesting.
The story reminds me a lot of Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It.  You have a family with a couple of kids, the father and mother are dealing with break-up issues, and everyone is stuck in the house as the suburban infrastructure slowly falls apart around them.  There is a fair amount of bickering, and unlike many of these apocalyptic tales, character development is at the forefront.  The primary tonal differences from Pfeffer is that the disaster scenario is more plausible. the build up of tension is better executed, and although the children are not ignored, the focus of the story is the adult.

Another story that it echos at times is The Jakarta Pandemic that we reviewed earlier.
  1. Both stories have the father working in a field that relates to influenza research/medicine so that they have a greater than typical knowledge of its effects.
  2. In both books (Jakarta in particular) the general populous panics and rushes to the stores when the potential for long term quarantine becomes evident.
  3. In both books, a neighborhood "sharing" program is attempted.  For different reasons, it fails in both novels.
  4. Both books have monster snow storms to add additional problems into the mix.
  5. Neither family has even a clue about looking around to see if there is any food about (acorns?) that they could harvest to add to their supplies.  They do have access to the internet for some time so the knowledge is there for the looking. 
  6. Neither family has much of a concept of getting food from abandoned homes.  Leaving supplies around for more dangerous types of prowlers is not a good idea.
  7. Even after the disaster strikes, both families do very little to prepare or obtain additional weaponry to protect themselves.  Spouses and older children are given little instruction in methods to protect themselves in what are clearly (as the novels go on) increasingly dangerous situations.
  8. Both families adopt a dog.  Neither family adopts a cat.
Some noteworthy differences in approach:
  1. Tamiflu, or other ameliorates are not noted in TTTKUH.  Likely the result of the different authors backgrounds.  The author of Jakarta works for a pharmaceutical company.
  2. The family in TTTKUH makes no intentional preparations for disaster.  They do not even keep the FEMA recommended minimums on hand.  This would be normal except for the fathers familiarity with the concept of influenza pandemics makes it a little odd.
  3. The only survivalist character in TTTKUH is portrayed as cold and uncaring.  It is an odd flip in perspective because in Jakarta the hero is the one being accused of being cold and uncaring - in both books this observation is made by the people who have made no preparations.
  4. In TTTKUH there is a parallel avian pandemic.  The exact reasoning for this simultaneous die off is unclear.  There is no particular reason that a plague that was deadly to birds would be any more likely to jump humans then any other.  Ducks do fly around, but they don't usually take aircraft.  That the die off of birds and humans in Ohio occurs at the same time from a disease that originated on the other side of the world seems a little odd - but it does give the father something relevant to worry about.
  5. Both books have their gradual societal breakdown, But TTTKUH does not have hardened psychopathic criminals focusing in our our heroes.  Given the relatively short timeline of the books and where the characters are located (suburbs), I would say that this is probably a more realistic approach. 
  6. Finally the plague in TTTKUH kills 50% versus 20%.  That is a pretty monstrous number.  This would be an unusually high number even for Native Americans who (still) have very little resistance to the disease.  However, it is not impossible, and as we all know (here) there are other deadly disasters that could be substituted.
Pretending that my opinion has merit, how/what would I "rate/recommend"? 
  1. As a post apocalyptic primer it does a reasonable job of forewarning what types of problems may occur.   The complete and continuing cluelessness of the characters with regards to survival strategies is a moderate drawback.
  2.  For character development it may be the best book within the End of the World as We Know It (EOTWAWKI) genre as I have read.  Almost too good.  The portrayal of the neurotic wife will make it very clear why the (also annoying at times) husband is wanting to leave. 
  3. Within the context of the setting there is no gratuitous sex, violence, or otherwise inappropriate behavior.  For better or worse, religious views are not a major issue within the novel.  There is no out of marriage sex, and very little of that.
  4. The novels wrap up is very strong.  There book does not turn into a Cosey where everyone is happier now that their lives have been simplified, nor does it return everything magically back to business as usual now that the disaster is over.  The summation also does a good job of explaining the wife's neurosis and actually does a good job of working it logically into the conclusion.  So you don't feel like you have had to deal with all the pain and anguish to no purpose.
  5. As a thriller it does a very good job.  There is very little action, but the presence of doom is always there.
  6. The delivery and pacing of the book are ideal.
I would very much recommend the book.  Somewhat on artistic merit (there are a lot of well written books out there), but more so because of its illustration of what sorts of hard choices would be facing people in very stressful, life and death situations.  Will you help your best friend?  Will you help your best friend if they are sick with a contagious disease that may infect your children?  If you are exposed to a very infectious disease, but show no symptoms yet, what will you do for your own survival?  Who will you put at risk?  Because the character development is so well done, the book puts these questions in anguishing and real terms.  It will teach you a little bit about a reality that hopefully you will never have to face.
Carla Buckley

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