California and the Unread Shelf


I bought this book on a whim five years ago. If I am being honest with myself, I buy most books on a whim which is why I own more books than I will probably be able to read before I die. During the last year, I engaged in an unread shelf project which challenges readers to stop buying books and just read what they already own. I am sure there are many varieties to this challenge, like not permitting oneself to buy a new book until five owned and unread books have been read, but I have not constrained myself in such a way. I am feeling this one out. I have not purchased a book for myself in months — at all this year? — and I feel pretty good about that. The act of purchasing a book always comes with a sense of joy until I return home and remember that I have nowhere to put a new book. Remorse ensues and book is piled on the floor. This cycle repeated dozens, maybe hundreds, of times until I decided it was time to stop. I reviewed my bookcases, boxed up books I had already read but had a weird sensation of wanting to keep as well as books I decided I probably was never going to read and donated them to one of those free library kiosks one finds scattered about. The one I discovered is behind a little beer brewery which seems fitting since I am usually inebriated when I buy books which is probably why I buy so many on the aforementioned whim. We seem to be uncovering the root of the matter, do we not?

When I started writing this book-centric blog however many years ago it was, I had grand plans. Stars in my eyes and whatnot. I was going to write an article about every book I read and before long, I would have a vast repository of book reviews, babblings, and relatable stories that people would discover and enjoy reading. For many reasons, things have not panned out quite like that. I am constantly reminded how difficult writing is. Sometimes, I sit down and the words just flow, but it seems most times I slog uphill in the rain under heavy machine gun fire. I doff my cap to those book bloggers who are able to put in the time and effort required to maintain a successful blog and I am doubly impressed by those who are able to make a career of it. That is the dream, is it not? Well done, you.

Now, to the book at hand: California by Edan Lepucki. I bought this at my local Barnes & Noble some months after its 2014 release. It was on the Discover Great New Writers shelf which was a frequent stop any time I entered the store. The book jacket said something about a young couple escaping the crumbling city of Los Angeles and heading for the hills to survive the collapse of the nation. With Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Hillcoat’s excellent film adaptation still pinging around in my head, my interest was piqued. I enjoy the apocalypse genre of literature and film and was intrigued by the fact that in this story, the apocalypse is not nuclear or extraterrestrial, but climatic and economic. The survivors are not wandering a desolate wasteland plagued by two-headed beasts and irradiated water. Frida and Cal escape to a forest, commandeer an abandoned shack, and manage to survive as well as they can. They are visited by a wandering trader who stops by regularly with supplies on offer. They encounter a nearby family who share survival tips and help the young couple along. Things seem to be going as well as they can, but Frida and Cal are frequently warned not to stray too far from their plot of land. Bandits may be lurking in the woods and a mysterious settlement surrounded by a fortification of ominous Spikes lies not too far away. When Frida and Cal ask questions about this settlement, the responses they receive are cagey and foreboding. When a series of events threatens their tenuous sense of security, Frida and Cal venture toward the settlement for help. Are the inhabitants hostile or are the Spikes merely protecting a friendly but frightened group of people?

My familiarity with the genre fed my expectations and I was pleased that the story defied those expectations. Frida and Cal are both presented as POV characters in alternating chapters so readers become acquainted with each of them and see the other through their partner’s eyes. This is a slow but steady character study exploring just how rapidly people can grow complacent, how much of themselves they are willing to sacrifice when presented with the smallest comfort after enduring tremendous hardship. How would I respond in such a situation? After reading the novel, I am still pondering the answer. That is what I love about the post-apocalypse genre. It is a fantasy of being able to start over without the worries of the modern world. It is a return to basic needs and wilderness survival. In this genre, mankind tends to squad up with like-minded individuals collaborating in a tribal environment. No gods or kings, only Man. Of course, that is a short-lived dream and someone always asserts authority and claims control of the people. What is most interesting about this feature of the genre is who rises to the top and how everyone else reacts to it. I enjoyed this storyline in California. The who was unexpected, as was the how. The conclusion surprised me with its truth. It is probably how things would go if this were to actually happen and that, not the book’s conclusion itself, is disappointing. I find myself believing we would do better, but I know I am just fooling myself. We are where we are because of what we are and no world shattering event will change that.

This novel is much more The Road, much less Mad Max. Both have their place and I just happened to be in a The Road kind of mood. If you are too, I think you will enjoy a steady journey through California.



I do not often read short stories. There is no good reason for this other than I find myself picking up a full-length novel most of the time when I am in the mood for fiction. On rare occasion though, I find myself with a short story collection in my hands. I discovered Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams sitting on the New Science Fiction Releases shelf at my local bookstore… X number of years ago. Holy smokes, I just opened the book to the publisher page to check the book’s publication date and found the retail receipt, yellowing and so faded that the print is barely legible. February 23, 2008.  Okay, so I have owned this book for nearly ten years. Like I said, I do not often read short stories.

A couple of years ago, however, I decided to read a short story between each book or two. This would allow me to continue reading something while putting my thoughts together for my blog entry about the previous long-form work. The practice has worked rather well and I have read some excellent short stories recently, be they in short story collections like Wastelands or in literature magazines like Tin House or Analog.

Wastelands is an impressive anthology of post-apocalypse stories written by some literary stars like Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, and Octavia Butler. It also introduced me to several writers who may be known to more prolific readers than I but who are new to me. Discovering a new writer is such a treat and that is the greatest benefit of anthologies such as these. All of the stories in Wastelands are good and some are downright great. I read the book over the course of a few years and do not recall every story, but a few notables stand out in my memory. “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R.R. Martin was the first story in the collection that elicited a palpable emotional reaction. Cory Doctorow’s “When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth” is funny, not in a comedic way but rather in its truth and plausibility. I suppose that makes it frightening as well, but all of the stories in Wastelands are frightening in one way or another. “The Last of the O-Forms” by James Van Pelt and “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neal Barrett Jr. follow resourceful wasteland entrepreneurs traveling from town to town with their carriages of curiosities, trading pleasure and fascination for another gallon of rare gas or a hot meal. I found myself amused that, when civilization falls and society reverts to tribalism, there may still be traveling showmen doing what they know how to do to, hoping the people they meet want what they have to offer enough to pay for it. “Killers” by Carol Emshwiller tells the story of a young woman struggling to survive in a remote town years after a domestic war has plunged her nation into a pre-industrial period. Maybe the war still wages. They do not know because the men who went off to fight it more than a decade ago have not returned and the modern society and infrastructure has collapsed so there is no news, no radio. Then a mysterious man appears at her window one night, filthy and starving. Who is he? Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World As We Know It” was a different kind of apocalypse story. It was deeply personal and the second story in the collection to cause some feels. I loved Bailey’s writing style and would like to read more from him. There are many more stories in this anthology, all of them well worth reading.

The most terrifying aspect of apocalypse fiction is that so many of the situations presented in the stories can actually happen. Perhaps these tales can serve to as a warning and help us prepare. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is a great anthology, the first compiled by editor John Joseph Adams. He has opened my eyes to the true value of story anthologies and you can bet I will more willing to grab one off the shelf if I see his name on it. I highly recommend it for fans of the apocalypse subgenre, but I think any science fiction fan would enjoy it. Even readers of more mainstream novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will find a lot to like in this collection even if they claim to not enjoy genre fiction.