Sunday, October 05, 2008

A Book Review

I just finished reading J.H. Kunstler's _World Made By Hand_ on Friday. I figured it'd be a good book to review here.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It "read" quickly for me, didn't take me more than 2 or 3 days to get through. It certainly brought up some very valid points about the likely realities of Peak Oil. In this, it wasn't a BAD book.

My problems with it have to do with the sentiment toward women, as other critics have mentioned.

It did NOT appear to me that JHK views women as simply sex objects, but he also doesn't seem to have a very high view of a woman's imporance in the world outside the home.

First though, some character summaries:

Robert Earl (Ehrlich): former white collar businessman turned town carpenter. Widower, wife & daughter died in an illness, son left town in search of better. Best friend and fishing buddy of the town preacher; sleeping with the preacher's wife, with the preacher's knowledge. Somewhat reticent about starting a town laundry with friend Loren.

Loren: town's preacher. Somewhat passive agressive about the affair his wife is having with Robert. Seems to blame the wife more than he blames Robert. Preaching is mostly good-will based, some biblical thrown in for good measure; not a fire & brimstone type preacher. Wants to start a town laundry with Robert's help.

Jane Anne: Loren's wife. Only attends town functionsto show show a united front with her husband. Sleeps willingly with Robert (after Robert's wife died) both for her own sexual satisfaction, and as a sympathetic move for Robert's needs. Does not appear to be sexually active with her own husband. Makes great wine. Very weepy after her own son left town with Robert's son, in search of better circumstances.

Brother Jobe (pronounced Job as in the bible): New arrival to town. Fire & Brimstone type preacher. Runs a cult-like sect that contains mainly younger (formerly military) men & women. Dresses rather austerely in black, with clean shaven face. Very nosy & pushy in a new environment. For all that he's a fire & brimstone type "christian" preacher, he encourages some sexual promiscuity in the women of his group to draw in male followers from the town.

Britney Watling: young widow with young girl child who's hubby dies in a unplanned murder very early on in the book. Makes willow basket as a contribution to the town's floundering economic system. After hubby's murder, moves in with Robert first as housekeeper, then as his new wife. Tells Robert that her hubby hadn't slept with her in a few years due to his desire for another neighbour.

Wayne Karp: former local drug lord, "gear head", red-neck, operates town "general supply" which happens to be the store-house for the materials salvaged from the town dump and abandoned tract houses in the area. The leader of the gang of "gear heads" that lives out in the revamped trailer park known as "Wayne's Town". Rather violently inclined, with a wierd sense of honor. A non-descript looking person with a strong personality.

Stephen Bullocks: Land owner who set himself up rather successfully as a plantation owner in the area. Owns a large-ish amount of property, some previously owned by his own family and some previously run (poorly) by other small dairy farmers. Somewhat benign, though it's noted that he COULD be a dangerous man. Provides his indentured servants with small cottage-like homes with electric and running water from his own hydro-electric, in exchange for their servitude. Seems intent on holding onto a bit of the past, esp. likes a burger or "hotdog" made from meat grown on premesis served with wheat buns from wheat grown on premesis.

Those seem to be the major characters. The setting is in upstate New York in various parts of a given "town". Stephen Bullock's farm is a setting unto itself, as is Wayne's Town and the town in which Robert and Loren live with their neighbours. We also see Robert and some of Brother Jobe's followers make a week-long trip to Albany to rescue some of Bullock's servants, thereby buying the gratitude and future help of Bullock himself in town matters.

At the beginning of the book, we're told that Robert's wife and daughter are dead and his son left town a couple of years before in search of a better life elsewhere. Robert has sexual relations once a week with Loren's wife Jane Anne. Right off the bat, we also see Robert and Loren confronted by the new owner of the town's former High School: Brother Jobe. Jobe comes across the other two as they're returning home from a successful fishing jaunt, each carrying several large fish. Jobe pressures Loren into selling his fish to Jobe for Jobe's congregation. Robert proceeds to give Loren a couple of HIS fish to take home for dinner and tells Loren to thank Jane Anne for the wine that they enjoyed while fishing.

Upon Robert's return home, we find Jane Anne there with some baked goods, at which point we learn about some of the food hard-ships facing the town, not the least of which is that they're unable to grow wheat due to some rust, and live mainly on cornmeal products. Jane Anne is there for her once-weekly sex-session with Robert, on the "wrong night".

The following day, Robert sets off to the "General store" and meets up with Sean Watling (Britney's hubby), and ends up being IN the store when Sean W. is killed by the store's guard OUTSIDE. Robert must pull Sean's body back to town to the Dr's and is part of the contingent of 3 that informes Britney of her new status as widow. (Within a couple of days, her house burns down as well, leaving her and the child homeless.) With Brother Jobe's help (interference!), Robert and Jobe pay a visit to Bullocks about the possibility of Bullocks acting as Magistrate for the town in the prosecution of Sean's murderer. Bullocks initially refuses but kinda hedges on that by implying that if Jobe and the town will help find his missing servants (who'd floated the river down to Albany for supplies but didn't return), he'd maybe be willing to help them out with the murder case.

Immediately following the visit to Bullock's plantation, Robert calls a town meeting, as one of the town's 12 council-members. He comments that NO women are on the council, as society standards have returned somewhat to older traditions. Jane Anne shows up (as the only woman, I believe) in support for her husband and to provide the "benign Mother Figure" to Loren's "Father Figure" in the manner of Town Preacher. But it's made clear that women not only don't serve on the council, they're also not "voting" members of society. We also find out that servants from the couple of outlying farms (of which Sean was), even when they live in town, do not merit a vote in town matters. Kunstler refers to it as an end to egalitarianism that was never really possible anyway. He seems to feel (through his character) that if you don't have a (pre-collapse) college education and a job independent of other's whims, then you're not on equal standing with others such as preachers, professional carpenters, doctors, and lawyers. In the course of things, the current Mayor and Constable are deposed of their standings and Robert is elected Mayor, while Loren is appointed Constable.

At the same time, Britney approaches Robert about moving into his house with her daughter as his housekeeper. He agrees reluctantly, seeing it as a conflict of interest seeing as he was the last person to see her husband alive before his murder. He indicates that it would be rather unseemly, seeing as he's a suspect (or, would be if civic affairs were running normally) in that murder. She reminds him that her house has burned and nobody else in town has the wherewithall to put herself and her daughter up indefinitely except Robert himself. Also indicates that Robert needs somebody to keep his house for him, as it's looking pretty ratty without a woman's touch.

Jobe sends 5 young men of his congregation along with Robert (who knows the 3 missing servants from days prior to the collapse of society) down to Albany to find out what happened to the servents. Basically JHK uses this trip to give us some insight into the personalities and military abilities of Jobe's people. This also allows a chance for Robert to act with some violence as he's involved in a fire-fight and kills a man (albeit in self-defense as he was fired upon first).

The return to town with the 3 missing servants results in Bullock's good will being showered upon the town and Jobe's congregation, which are all invited to a "levee" at Bullock's farm. At this party, we see Jobe encouraging the young women of his congregation to seduce male members of the town in an effort to bring them into Jobe's congregation. Bullock also agrees to act (temporarily anyway) as Magistrate and issue some warrants for apprehension of Wayne Karp and the guard who killed Sean Watling. (The same night as the levee, upon return to town most of the town finds that they're homes have been invaded and they've been divested of some valuables. Britney, who did not attend the party, indicates that it was Wayne Karp who'd done so along with a couple of his gang-members.)

Robert and Loren, in their standings as Mayor and Constable, proceed to visit Wayne's Town to serve the warrents, arrest Wayne and the murderer, and make a search of the town for the stolen valuables. What they find at Wayne's Town is that the trailers have been remodeled, renovated, and replaced in a manner very unpredictable but very creative. It is implied that the gang-members living in this "town" are trash and worthless as humans, but that they show some creativity (also in their love of music) but that this creativity is very base and not worthy of a REAL town. Robert and Loren are brutalized by town-members for their troubles. Loren nearly dies from this brutalization, Robert is allowed to leave with minimal physical pain in order to convey Karp's feelings toward the town's authority BACK to the town.

Immediately following the failed attempt to bring Wayne and his gang-members to justice, Jobe sends some of his militarily inclined congregants to Wayne's Town and proceeds to lose his own son in the fire-fight. Karp is brought to town under arrest and placed in jail. The next morning Karp is found dead of a wound identical to the wound he inflicted on Jobe's son. These last couple of chapters, we see some evidence of paranormal activity that really doesn't fit well with the tone of the rest of the book. It is implied in THIS case that it's God's judgement of "an eye for an eye", in retribution for the killing of Brother Jobe's son.

The book ends with accounts of how things have changed, including the renewal of interest in life that Brother Jobe brought into the town along with his congregation.

So now, specifically my feelings on this book:

Women seem to have a position in town much like a favored pet. The author feels that if a woman knows her place, then she's to be loved & treated like a favored, semi-intelligent pet. That a woman's place is to take care of the home, support her husband, do the family's gardening and provide him with sex. Women are "allowed to have" productive hobbies such as Jane Anne's wine-making, and Britney's basketry, also the dentist's wife's assistance as his nurse & dental assistant. We DO see that a couple of the women (one with previous nursing assistance, one who's the town midwife) are welcomed into the Dr's office when needed in a nursing capacity. Women are NOT capable of carrying on a particularly valued place in town life, and when a woman's husband passes away, she is essentially pliable clay, able to be molded into whatever capacity would best serve her new husband's purpose in life. It irks me, even the thought that women might willingly, easily decline to such a position in society. This view of women is further encouraged in a scene in which a man (a former "gear-head") dies in the dentist's chair and it's supposed that his wife will return to her life with Wayne Karp's crowd. That it was only this man's stabilizing ability and aspirations beyond that of a "gear-head" that removed them from the primitive tribal life of Wayne's Town. That given her own ability to move, the widow would not have any direction but to move back to that level of primitiveness until taken on by another man.

I know that this is fiction, but I'd like to think that I wouldn't give into the pressure so easily to fade away to being only a help-meet to my husband. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, persay, if a woman feels that this is her calling. But I feel that my calling in life is library work. And I think that I'd have that calling whether or not my hubby is inclined to work in a library. I also think that it's ridiculous to believe that just because my hubby may end up a general laborer (and therefore, a "serf" in JHK's view of our future), that I'm restricted to the same sort of life because I'm married to him. Why would I give up my love for library work just because my hubby doesn't have aspirations that lead him to more than general laborer status?!?! Why is it impossible for a woman to be the force that draws a MAN out of primitiveness??? Why cannot the woman be a stabilizing force in the marriage??? This has actually been the assumption throught a lot of history, that without a woman's civilizing force, a man is often little better than a savage. Even at one point this is suggested by Kunstler himself when Britney moves in with Robert and cleans up his house, removing it from "resembling the home of a trapper" to actually being clean & homelike. And yet, at the same time he's asserting that a woman cannot be a civilizing force unless her husband WANTS her to be a civilizing force. Very contradictory.

My next problem with the book is based on JHK's inconsistency regarding the spiritual leanings of Jobe's crew. They're made out to be almost Shaker-ish in their religiosity, and Jobe is very much a "Fire & Brimstone" type preacher, and yet the women are encouraged to be rather promiscuous in order to bring new men into the congregation. That just doesn't "jibe". If you're going to imply that a religious sect is very upright, keep it consistent at least.

Secondly, JHK throws in some paranormal BS late in the book that has NOT been refered to in the earlier part of the book. One part in particular in which we find Robert being asked to outfit the innermost sanctum of a "hive-like" warren of rooms to be a comfortable "jewelbox" for the congregation's "queen bee", a morbidly obese woman who lounges all day surrounded by other women being fed post-collapse delicacies (cakes and such) and fanned, while undergoing violent seizures that supposedly carry meta-physical messages for Jobe. Jobe implies that prior to the collapse, many mental and paranormal abilities were hidden due to the belief that they were mental illnesses and the "sufferer" was drugged to suppress these abilities. This scene has NO grounding in any of the previous scenes, and is not refered to again later in the book. It's a stand-alone scene that seems to serve ONLY to bring in a meta-physical/paranormal touch. Did JHK think he couldn't write a decent "post-apocalyptic" book without including something like this???

The other paranormal bit that seems to come out of nowhere is the "eye for an eye" scene that I mentioned earlier in which Jobe's son is shot and killed by a bullet through the eye, delivered by Karp. The next morning Karp is found dead in his cell, locked up. The Doctor/undertaker finds that though there is no evidence of a weapon or a bullet in Karp's head, he has suffered a killing wound identical to that of Jobe's son. "God's will" and "eye for an eye" type talk is actually bantered around by Jobe when Robert talks to him after Karp is found dead.

All in all, this book has it's good points in that it does bring up some valid concerns in the light of Peak Oil. It does bring up the fact that this could leave our world pretty demoralized and that it may take some pretty strong personalities (even those without the best of intentions for society as a whole) to move us in a direction that could return some sense of civilization to our lives. The book does broach the possibility that when the time comes, we may need to just keep on slogging through the emotional hardships we could face in order to see anything done. Whether or not we believe it to be effective, to just keep moving and going on will probably be what saves our lives in the end. Without forward motion, things will probably fall into decline. "Objects in motion stay in motion" if you will. To stop moving forward, even if it's done somewhat mindlessly, is to give up. We cannot do that if we hope to live.

So, yeah..... The book has some good, very valid points to make. But it's also got some rather poorly thought-out parts, and the over-all view of women as an important part of society is rather poor. I would recommend reading it for the assertions of the way life may be post Peak Oil, but keep in mind that it's up to US to make it better than JHK views it. It's up to us WOMEN to make a point of staying a strong, valued part of society so we're not reduced to JHK's view of women (at best) or worse. It is going to be up to each of us to do our best to get through Peak Oil with any sense of ourselves as people.

*shrug* So there you have it, my take on this much talked about book. (Or, at least it appears to be much talked about by Peak Oil believers.)

Gotta get heading out for work.

Have a Blessed Day!

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