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The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse

Sam Sheridan

(Penguin; US: Jan 2013)

Okay, so this is a gimmicky book, but as far as gimmicks go, it’s a pretty good one. Sam Sheridan is a fellow who’s lived an interesting life in his 3011-something years: he has served in the military, fought as a mixed martial arts contender, and worked as a wilderness firefighter. Clearly he’s not afraid of hard work, physical struggle, or the odd shot to the head. When he and his wife had a child, however, Sheridan’s worldview shifted a bit. Like many new parents, he experienced pangs of anxiety about the dangers of the world and the uncertainty of the future. Unlike most parents, he responded to these anxieties by learning how to braid rope, start a fire, steal a car and use a knife to gut a flesh-eating zombie biker cannibal.


The Disaster Diaries is built around the conceit of the end of the world, whether by cataclysmic earthquakes, zombie infestations, pandemic virus or the next ice age. Sheridan found himself haunted by various disaster scenarios straight out of Hollywood, then wondered: How would I survive this? How would I bring myself and my family through the crisis? What skills would I need?


Having determined that a degree of marksmanship would be a useful skill in fighting off those hordes of cannibalistic mutant bikers, Sheridan then set about learning how to keep cool in a shootout. He learned how to shoot from the best experts he could find, both handguns for protection and rifles for hunting elk. A knife expert helped him learn the intricacies of close-quarters combat. (Fun fact: a knife is a deadlier weapon than a gun inside of 20 feet.) Given that one of his mentors reminds him that the best way to “win” a fight is to avoid it in the first place, he also begged aid of an ex-gang member to show him the intricacies of hot-wiring cars and enrolled in a stunt-driving course to master a few basic getaway driving maneuvers.


Through it all, Sheridan writes pithily and well, incorporating wry humor and never losing track of the main thread—survival!—and approaching his subject with irresistible verve. The subject is dour, as are the frames he uses for each chapter, in which he fictionalizes an account of himself and his family in various grisly post-apocalyptic scenarios. But those brief interludes serve only to remind us of why he’s going on this journey in the first place—and why we’re going with him. After all, zombies aren’t real, and alien starships aren’t clogging up our skies anytime soon. (Um, right?) But this is no reason to go on unprepared for the worst. As he points out early on, “If you are one of the lucky 1 percent who survive the pandemic, it will be a damn shame if you die because you don’t know how to start a fire.”


The book is divided into 14 snappy chapters, each focusing on a different skill needed for survival. They range from just a few pages to more than 30, but all are lively and readable. Sheridan’s time with the Inuit of northern Canada, a group which is inordinately skilled at surviving a global cooling trend, makes for fascinating reading. As he learns how to catch fish under the sea ice, build an igloo out of 40 pound blocks of ice, and control a dog sled racing across the snow, the reader can’t help but wonder whether maybe Sheridan is doing right by learning these skills now, before he actually needs them. As one of his guides points out, “If the apocalypse hit, up here not much would change… Life would go on without much of a bump.”


Other chapters focus on the dog-eat-dog characteristics a person might be called upon to use: the quick-draw gunfighting, the knife skills, the car thefts and all the rest. The more interesting chapters, though, focus on what we’ll need to know once the grid goes down and things get really basic: starting a fire without matches, weaving twine, tanning rawhide, chipping stones to make blades. There are people out there who still possess such talents and are willing to share them, and Sheridan makes pilgrimages to several, learning what he can and quietly making the case that this kind of knowledge should be valued and preserved—that we lose sight of it at our own risk.


Despite this, Sheridan is not some bunker-bound survivalist. In fact he eschews such a worldview late in the book, when he offers a brief but affecting consideration of human behavior in extreme conditions. He draws on the stories of concentration camp survivors, as well as the more recent experience of the New Orleans Superdome during hurricane Katrina, to contradict the argument that people devolve into wolves in a survival situation. In an apocalypse, he argues, our best resource will be each other—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared to defend yourself when needed.


Whatever your point of view of the survivalist or “prepper” movement, The Disaster Diaries is a terrific read, an engaging page-turner from start to finish. Sheridan has pulled off a tricky feat, using pop-culture kitsch to engage readers in a far more serious conversation about what it means to be a civilized human being.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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