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Sunday, October 14, 2007

A little light doomsday reading

I know that some (perhaps most) of you are curled up this morning in your PJs, munching on bagels and grazing lazily through the thick Sunday paper while your coffee slowly cools (I miss those days!).  So, I'm guessing that you're probably not going to be that receptive to suggestions of additional reading material. 

But just the same, I recently finished a couple of incredible books - one old, and one new - that should not be missed... so if you really aren't in the market for books, this is your chance to bail out.

Oddly, these two books share an odd theme that I hadn't noticed while they were sitting on my nightstand waiting to be read; they both deal with the extinction of the human race.

First up is an oldie but a goody; 'On the Beach' by Nevil Shute.


This book was written in the late 1950s (and set in the early 1960s), so there are more than a few details in the book that are correct for the period, but will probably tug anachronistically at the corner of the modern reader's attention here and there.  But this is a tiny price to pay for what will certainly be a watershed in your reading life.

'On the Beach' is without a doubt the most disturbing book I have ever read. Full stop.  A treppenwitz reader mentioned it to me as a book that had forced him to re-evaluate some of his priorities in life.  That sounded like a crashing bore to me, but then I started seeing cultural references to the book here and there... so I decided to have a go. 

Without providing any spoilers, this story - set mostly in Melbourne Australia and its environs - is about how survivors of a nuclear war come to the stark realization that the advancing fallout from the destroyed northern hemisphere is creeping inexorably towards them in the last bastion of life on earth. 

Stop.  Do not click away!  This is not really science fiction as you've probably imagined it... or even a little bit geeky.  It is a at once heartwarming and horrifying.  I had bad dreams the night I finished it, and have not been able to get it out of my head since.

Bottom line:  You will not be the same person after reading this book.  Plenty of used copies floating around, and it is still in print for those of you who want to plunk down the whole $6.99 for the paperback.  I found mine on Abebooks - the official bookseller of treppenwitz - for $1!


The second book I'd like to recommend also has a doomsday theme, and yet manages to lay reasonable claim to a spot on the non-fiction shelf: 'The World Without Us' by Alan Weisman.


I first heard about this book before it was published this past summer and managed to get my sweaty little hands on an advance reader's copy (thanks again to abebooks.com) just as the NY Times was starting to sing its praises.

'The world without us' is an incredible thought experiment that takes a scholarly look at what would become of the planet if a virus (or some sort of 'rapture'-like event) were to suddenly pluck the entire human race from the world.

I remember being bothered for months after reading Steven King's 'The Stand', a story about a 'superflu' wiping out 99.9% of humans.  It took me that long to realize that King's brief descriptions of how quickly nature would effortlessly reclaim all of our cities and infrastructure was just a tease, and I felt vaguely cheated that he hadn't devoted more ink to that fascinating topic. 'The world without us'  is the answer to my long-ago prayers. 

The author consulted with architects, engineers and scientists in a wide array of relevant disciplines to find out how the world would make short work of pretty much everything we've every created (except perhaps plastic). 

In addition to dozens of scenarios that could play out, we are also treated to some that have already done so.  Places like the DMZ between the two Koreas and the area surrounding Chernobyl are but two of the many examples given of areas that, given the opportunity, nature has quickly taken back.

We are also told some scary truths about places we know intimately.  For example, he reveals that most the streams and rivers that existed in Manhattan before humans settled that expensive bit of real estate are still there under the thin crust of civilization we've created.  The author reveals that there is a small army of electrical pumps that work around the clock to stay ahead of these bodies of water conspiring to flood New York's vaunted subway tunnels.  I was shocked to learn (from the people who maintain these pumps, no less!) that within a couple of days of the electricity going out, the entire network of subway tunnels would be flooded to the roof!  Think about that the next time you are waiting for the A train at 59th Street.

Being non-fiction, you may find the lack of a plot/story line a tad disconcerting as the author takes you on a whirlwind tour of every Continent and explains (with the help of his expert advisory sources) what could happen... what is happening as we speak... and what has already happened (for good and for bad).  I found this to be a plus as I kept this book in my backpack for odd moments when I'd have some time to read without having to re-establish contextual continuity.

While not nearly as disturbing as 'On the Beach', 'The world without us' lingered at the back of my mind for weeks after I finished it.  It has changed the way I look at the world (and how I see my place in it), and will certainly remain a well-thumbed reference manual in years to come as some of the predictions found in the book are put to the test of time.

You can find it here, or also at abebooks.com... but whatever you do, find it!  Trust me when I tell you that you will be missing something special if you let this one go by unread.

Note from the management:  I do not accept compensation for reviewing or recommending books (which is one of the reasons I rarely do it).  I often receive review copies of new books from authors and publishers.  They send these to many bloggers in hopes we'll read them and like them enough to write something nice on our sites.  To date, none of the books I've acquired this way have been good enough to make me want to share them with you... and life's too short to waste time/space on a hatchet job. 

I did just receive a promising book from a publisher - an eyewitness account/analysis of the Black September (1970) hijackings, not surprisingly titled 'Terror in Black September' .  If I like it, I'll let you know.

Posted by David Bogner on October 14, 2007 | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 15, 2007 6:07:42 AM


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Hi Trep,

It just so happens that I've also been profoundly affected by that book and in a search for a copy I found that two movies were made of "On the beach". I rented the original, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire; finding it only slightly less disturbing than the book I'd read in high school.

Thank you for the tip on the other, I'll have to give it a peek.

Take care,

Posted by: Jethro | Oct 14, 2007 1:12:47 PM

Since my middle name is "doomsday", these seem to be required reading for me....

Posted by: Baila | Oct 14, 2007 1:43:17 PM

Jethro... Although I haven't seen it (yet), I read on Wikipedia that the movie version of 'On The Beach' changed many of the key elements and the author was very unhappy with the results. Apparently, the movie was made in 1960 and the producers were worried that the audience wouldn't buy many of the 1950's values present in the book. Feh.

Baila... Um, just for future reference, if I ever come to your place for dinner... I'll stick with the fruit plate. ;-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 14, 2007 1:55:31 PM

Haven't read either of the books, but a question based on your description:

Have they changed your view of shmitta at all? Isn't this year about nature taking back the world from man?

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Oct 14, 2007 2:22:59 PM

i read about "the world without us" on gothamist -- here's their take on what it would look like --


that should keep you awake for awhile!

Posted by: nikki | Oct 14, 2007 2:29:14 PM

I read "On the Beach" a couple of years ago, because my mother-in-law left a copy behind with some of her other books. A lot of it is well-done, but the female characters were just so...of the literary conventions of the time...I had trouble getting through it.

The other I've been planning to read, sounds interesting.

Posted by: balabusta in blue jeans | Oct 14, 2007 6:11:03 PM

Hi Trep,

Thanks for the cool book reviews!

Ever since I saw "Mad Max" years ago, I not only learned to love Ozzies (many with whom I served in the military) but also developed an affection for post-apocalyptic novels. My baby sister also reads them voraciously.

The last one I read was this one:

"World War Z"

Link here:


And as much as I agree with your sentiment that:

"To date, none of the books I've acquired this way have been good enough to make me want to share them with you... and life's too short to waste time/space on a hatchet job."

I also feel that since many to most of my readers tend to share my tastes, I do them as great a service warning them of drek novels as I do recommending gems. Of course, I prefer gems, but, once in awhile, one has to save one's friends.

Wishing you and yours well!


Posted by: Maksim-Smelchak | Oct 14, 2007 6:43:30 PM

I do second your hymn on Abebooks. They found me a long-sought book that I couldn't even get at the library.

Posted by: Account Deleted | Oct 14, 2007 9:39:20 PM

Cormac McCarthy -- The Road. Extra poignancy points if you are the father of a young man.

Posted by: Wrymouth | Oct 15, 2007 1:17:37 AM

Shades of Noah.

Always receptive to good reading suggestions.

Have you read "The Kite Runner?"

Posted by: Mickysolo | Oct 15, 2007 1:46:10 AM

Try Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. It was written around the same time as On the Beach and is, IMO, a very good description of what a post-strike society in the US would be like. A very good read.



Posted by: Karl Newman | Oct 15, 2007 3:02:19 AM

Kite Runner is one of those books that I read that I still see pictures from in my head. I also finished reading it shortly before seeing House of Sand and Fog, so the two intertwine in my mind a lot.

Kite Runner and Bel Canto . . . the last two really good books I read that weren't historical fiction.

Posted by: Annie D | Oct 15, 2007 6:09:43 AM

Dave (Balashon)... Not really. Ideally shmita is supposed to allow the earth to rest in much the same way we rest on shabbat. But there are now so many loopholes and work-arounds to this that the earth benefits little or not at all from this scheduled 'break'. It is sort of like having a mule that you aren't supposed to use to carry things on shabbat but you 'sell' it to a non-Jew and it continues to work on the sabbath. The book 'The world without us' is more of a cautionary tale of what we are doing to the environment on an ongoing basis... stuff that a year off in seven won't help.

nikki... Thanks. Nice illustrations there too. I hope you get a chance to read it.

balabusta in blue jeans... Yeah, the treatment of female characters (meaning that they are rather two dimensional and not well developed) is what I meant by 'anachronistic'. The wife of the Aussie naval officer though is deliberately child-like and I don't think this is connected to how women were portrayed in the 50s.

Maksim-Smelchak... So much of what I might enjoy in a book is subjective. If I recommend it here it has to have a lot going for it. But if I don't enjoy a book, it doesn't mean you won't. Al ta'am v'reach...

a. ... I only wish there were a few more Israeli bookstores in their network to simplify the shipping thing. :-)

Wrymouth... Thanks. I'll have to add it to my list. For a Lit. major, I am incredibly poorly read. It is only since I finished university that I haven't felt pressured to read... so I have really started to enjoy it.

Mickysolo... I think after you read it you will see that the Noah analogy is flawed... but to say more than that would be a spoiler. thanks for the suggestion.

Karl Newman... I'm happy to get the suggestion and will probably read it. But you should know that I am not on a post-apocalyptic book jag. this just worked out that way. :-)

Annie D... OK, got 'em on the list. Nice to have you second the 'kite runner' suggestion. :-) I also like historical fiction, but I like stright history even more. Let's face it... even pure historical works are so heavily influenced by the person who collects/writes them that there is an element of fiction to them. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 15, 2007 8:52:49 AM

Speaking of apocalyptic literature - Remember "By the Waters of Babylon" by Stephen Vincent Benet? That one always gave me chills - and the best part is that it's a short story, so you can read it over & over. (And it doesn't even matter that you already know the surprise ending.)

Posted by: psachya | Oct 15, 2007 9:25:23 AM

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