My Post Apocalyptic Tomato Sauce: Dystopian Fiction and Food Preservation

My husband entertains fantasies about social and political collapse, and I read too much Little House as a child; as a result, we live in the country (sort of), garden with varying degrees of success, keep egg and meat chickens, and can (or bottle, as I believe they say across the pond) some of our produce. Also as a result, my writing buddies and I make lots of jokes about what we’ll do when the apocalypse comes. Our plan involves a compound with membership contingent upon demonstration of domestic skills, a big fence, and communal cooking. But no spouse swapping or marrying of minors, because this isn’t Waco.

So this week at the homestead has been all about the food preservation–chickens to process, plum preserves (we won’t talk about the way plums disappear when you cook them), and the making of tomato sauce. How fitting, then, that while all this has been going on, I’ve managed to read not one but two post-apocalyptic dystopian novels.

I have to interrupt myself here to talk about my relationship with post-apocalyptic literature. In spite of its typical bleakness, I can’t resist dystopian fiction. I don’t exactly like it; reading it is more like a compulsion. Though it fills me with dread and sorrow, I can’t resist it. (I wonder if my compulsion has anything to do with a too-early exposure to the book of Revelation and fundamentalist discussions of “the tribulation”?) I read 1984, Atlas Shrugged, A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Fifth Sacred Thing, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Oryx and Crake, all with obsessive fascination. I read Jennifer Government, too, but we won’t talk about that. (Also, some time remind me to tell you about Fitcher’s Brides, which marries fairy tales, religious dystopia and historical fiction. Creepy as hell.)

In any case, over the past several days, in the midst of preparation for a harsh winter in the wild, or for the collapse of civilization–whichever comes first–I read both Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies and Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth with typical obsessive fervor.

First it was chicken processing and Uglies. This is sort of funny, because the society in Uglies is vegetarian. They’re scary, what with the plastic surgery and idealization of dumb pretty people, but they’re big on the humane treatment of animals. Humans, maybe not so much. That aside, I was happy to have something not-too-demanding to read after all the hours of work the hubster and I put in, and Uglies fit the bill. So at the end of the second long day of chicken processing (and after a nice hot shower), I cozied up to my monitor to read.

First things first, here’s the description from the book jacket:

Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait. Not for her license — for turning pretty. In Tally’s world, your sixteenth birthday brings an operation that turns you from a repellent ugly into a stunningly attractive pretty and catapults you into a high-tech paradise where your only job is to have a really great time. In just a few weeks Tally will be there.

But Tally’s new friend Shay isn’t sure she wants to be pretty. She’d rather risk life on the outside. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world — and it isn’t very pretty. The authorities offer Tally the worst choice she can imagine: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all. The choice Tally makes changes her world forever.

I’d seen Uglies on Amazon and even read a short excerpt, but didn’t really plan to read it. Then I came across a free download of the book in PDF format on the publisher’s website, and figured, why not? I love free books! (Sadly, dear readers, I can’t link you to the free PDF, because it was for a limited time only, and now it is gone.)

I liked it much more than I expected to. For one thing, Westerfeld somehow managed to portray a very disturbing future without being hideously depressing. I thought the pacing was excellent–slow enough to get to know the character and the world she lives in, fast enough to keep you interested. I was also very pleased with Westerfeld’s use of futuristic technology; I’m not a Sci-Fi fan, so it’s nice to read a futuristic story that only uses hi-tech gizmos when they really enhance the plot. He had rules for his technology, and he stuck to them, and good world building and attention to one’s rules is very important to me.

The only thing that kept Uglies from being delicious was its lack of emotional pull. The friendships and the romance all felt a little flat–my heartstrings failed to be tugged. I liked the characters very much, I wanted things to go right for them, but I didn’t love them. And the few make-out opportunities were . . . nice, but not great. No heat. No sexual tension. And I am a sexual tension junky (Hi Cassandra Clare! I love you!).

Still, all in all, I completely enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in the trilogy (which just came home with me from the library, and I’ll probably plunge into book two after dinner tonight).

Now for The Forest of Hands and Teeth. The description:

In Mary’s world there are simple truths. The Sisterhood always knows best. The Guardians will protect and serve. The Unconsecrated will never relent. And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village; the fence that protects the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth. But, slowly, Mary’s truths are failing her. She’s learning things she never wanted to know about the Sisterhood and its secrets, and the Guardians and their power, and about the Unconsecrated and their relentlessness. When the fence is breached and her world is thrown into chaos, she must choose between her village and her future—between the one she loves and the one who loves her. And she must face the truth about the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Could there be life outside a world surrounded in so much death?

If I believed in warning labels and nuisance law suits, I would sue Delacorte Press to have a warning label put on this book that says “Do not read if you have depressive tendencies or weak tear ducts.” Fortunately for all of us, I think lawsuits and warning labels are silly. Anyway. When I first decided to read it, I was worried that it might scare me because I have an irrational fear of zombies. And because when writing buddy Laura told me about it, I went home and had a nightmare about zombies trying to get into my house. What I didn’t fear was that the book would leave me in a little puddle of weeping, twitching sorrow for the heroine and the people she loves. Further proof that what we fear rarely comes to pass, and that suffering is never what we expect it to be. I should have bought an extra box of Kleenex instead of telling the hubster he should be prepared to protect me from zombies so that I could sleep.

On the other hand, the writing was truly stunning. Ryan’s point of view is sharp and focused, her prose is gorgeous, and the emotional tone is brilliantly expressed. Ultimately I felt that even though this book is about zombies, it isn’t really about zombies. It’s about the way society is changed by fear, about the foolish things we do in our search for security, about how all security is, in the end, false security. And it’s about love and loss in frightening times. It made me weep more than once. It was exquisite and devastating, and though I will never read it again, I don’t hesitate to recommend it

Only I have to say I’m not so sure this was the best book to read on the same day as making tomato sauce. Canning isn’t usually such a . . . visceral . . . experience.

Anyway, if you’re spending time this fall getting your pantry ready for the apocalypse, and you want to read some dystopian fiction during your breaks just to give you that extra motivation, there’s a nice list of dystopian literature in English from the 19th century to the present at Wikipedia. I have no idea if it’s at all complete, but there are certainly enough titles to carry you through the food hoarding frenzy.

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3 thoughts on “My Post Apocalyptic Tomato Sauce: Dystopian Fiction and Food Preservation

  1. Delicious review. Srsly.
    And spot on in your assertion that this book is not just about zombies. To say so would marginalize the relationships in this book and that would be unforgivable.

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