Sunday, July 31, 2011

World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks

Basic premise:  The author of this "oral history" interviews survivors of an apocalyptic zombie pandemic.  An international collection of interviewees tell the story from the first signs of trouble through to the aftermath, a decade or more later.  (I can't recall exactly how long after "the war" the interviews take place.  Look, I have a hard enough time recalling dates from real life. (g))  Ok, I looked it up.  The interviews take place twelve years after the US declares victory over the zombies.  (Don't worry; that's not a spoiler.)

It's an interesting idea-- an attempt at telling a global horror story of epic proportions-- but the problem is, I have a limited tolerance for epics.

I enjoy the story presented in The Lord of the Rings, for instance, but a large-scale story can only take you (or me, at least) so far.  The seemingly endless sea of orcs massing before the battle?  That feeling of dread and enormity of obstacle?  ~Shudder~  But I prefer the more personal aspects of the stories.  If we didn't get to know and care about the individual characters, all the impressive scenes in the world wouldn't be enough to salvage the tale.

I feel that World War Z suffers from a lack of the personal touch.  Oh, I think Brooks tries, and sometimes he lets us stay with a character long enough to begin to care what happens to him or her-- but in the end, we know we'll be moving on to someone else's story in just a page or two.  I guess these characters are supposed to be representative of humanity as a whole  It's really the story of the human race.  It's big picture-- grand scale-- "we're all in this together".  It's not my cup of tea.  In this respect, this novel compares unfavorably (in my opinion) to The Day of the Triffids, which focused on the individual's approach to an apocalyptic event.  However, I should note that I haven't read many books of this kind.  Perhaps the individual's story is so often the focus that this "epic" style is a welcome breath of fresh air to genre fans.

Aside from the "epic" vs. "individual" aspect, my chief complaint is that the book too often feels quite political.  Again, Brooks is interested in presenting (his version of) the big picture.  We hear about governments around the world and how they react to a zombie outbreak. (Most often-- poorly, inadequately.)  Religion, when mentioned at all, features (mostly) unfavorably in the book, as far as I can recall.  (That's one of my pet peeves in this type of story.  Yes, there are always people who use false religion to take advantage of the weak and the frightened.  We get it.  You're not being shocking or telling us anything new, at this point.  Can we please have a positive treatment of Christianity every once in a while?   Either that or resist the urge to mention it at all.)  Immigration and "class" also come up, and most of the "issues" are addressed from the left.  (Of course.)  It gets old.  Fast.  (That's not to say that there are no more neutral treatments of "issues".  They just seemed outweighed by a ton.)

Oh, and this is a highly subjective complaint, but I was disappointed that the book didn't go into much detail about what happened in most regions of the US-- the South, for instance.  It's hard to include every region when you're trying to cover the whole world, I guess.  Still, I kept hoping... (I also would've loved to have seen more of a reference to Sweden, but I didn't even really expect that to happen.)  Heck, I would've been happy to get some serious, in-depth detail on what happened anywhere, but this book's not big on "in-depth".  You get an interview's worth of detail.  For the rest, I hope you like filling in the blanks with your imagination.  ;o)

One more little thing:  All that jargon!  I guess it was supposed to lend the characters an air of legitimacy-- "See? This really is a military dude from a post-apocalyptic world.  You can tell by the way he keeps using the military jargon and acronyms of that world!"-- but it was laid on a little too thick.  (Could've done with less cursing, too, in some cases.  Seriously, when every other word's a curse, your character loses some appeal.)

All that said, parts of the story were good enough-- and I still think it was an interesting idea.  I've heard that it's being made into a movie, which isn't surprising.  Honestly, several scenes felt like they were written with film adaptation in mind.  Almost too much so.  They took me out of the story (such as it was), because I couldn't help thinking, "Oh, yeah, they'll lift that right off the page, for sure," and, "Well, we know how they'll film that scene.  It was written for the camera."

One common criticism of World War Z is that everyone-- no matter what sex, nationality, race, or what-have-you-- has the same "voice".  They're all written like the same person.  Personally, I felt there was at least a little variation... but I agree that there could have been more.  At least with the movie adaption, that should be less of an issue.

If you're a true zombie aficionado, it might be worth a read-- for the fresh approach, if nothing else.  Just don't be surprised if you find the pace sluggish-- interesting portions mixed in among the less engaging "interviews", and no way of knowing which type is coming up next.  A page-turner needs to stick with the same handful of characters throughout the story, in my opinion, something this book obviously could not do.  So, if you're not a zombie aficionado... I think you might as well just wait for the movie (if even that).  I had to make myself keep reading (through the boredom), at several points, in hopes that it would get better (and later, out of sheer obstinacy), and I don't plan to read it again.  

I believe this has turned me off from zombies for a while.  I think I'm going for gothic fiction next.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Getting Up to Date

I'll only go back as far as The Buying of the Kindle.  (That may be as far back as I can recall!)

Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters
Not Great Literature, but then so much of what passes as Great Literature isn't at all to my taste.  This was.  To my taste, I mean.  Yes, I predicted the outcome of pretty much everything early on, but I'm not sure we aren't meant to predict it.  The joy is is the journey, not the destination, blah blah blah.  It was a pleasant way to pass some hours, and I'm not even one of those people obsessed with ancient Egypt.  (If you are one of the obsessed, you might love this book... or you might see some inaccuracies and hate it.  The author trained in archaeology, so she ought to know her stuff, though.)  I'll definitely give the next book in the series a try.

They and I, by Jerome K. Jerome
This wasn't my first experience of Jerome K. Jerome, thank goodness.  I loved Three Men in a BoatThree Men on the Bummel was less wonderful, but still entertaining... Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow had moments of brilliance scattered over a desert of rambling, preachy triteness.   They and I was pretty much on par with the latter two titles.  There was some of the sharp, sly humor-- and then there were tangents that could well have been left out.

The thing about Jerome K. Jerome (in my experience) seems to be this:  The guy really likes to go off on tangents.  If you're looking for an in-depth, plot-driven work, you'll need to go elsewhere.  To enjoy JKJ, you need to be very accepting of a drifting, lazy-day style of writing.  Love a good moral?  He's your man.  ;o)  At his best, he's hilarious, but at his worst, he can be grating.  My too-frequent thought when reading Idle Thoughts and They and I was, "Yes, yes, Jerome.  We get it.  You have driven home your point.  Now, please, let's get back to the funny, shall we?"

One good thing about JKJ is that he is most often highly relate-able.  Reading even his rambling preachy bits is a strong reminder of unchanging human nature.  If you're new to him, though, I suggest Three Men in a Boat.

Zombacalypse Now, by Matt Youngmark
Meh.  When I was in elementary school, I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books, but I think I outgrew them years ago.  Or maybe I'm just lazy, nowadays.  I found I didn't want to have to make decisions as I read.  I wanted to just sit back and be carried away by a story.  I was interested in the idea of a slightly more grown-up CYOA-style book, but once I started actually reading it, it just didn't strike my fancy.  I could tell the author was trying to be funny, clever, current-- and it wasn't bad-- but it failed to capture my interest.  After reading through to just a few possible outcomes, I lost interest and set this one aside.

The Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Vampire Mysteries, by Charlaine Harris
Actually, I've only read up to Dead and Gone, so there are two more published novels I've yet to read in the series.  I just saw today that Harris has announced that she'll end the series with the 13th installment.  That'll give me four more to read, total.

These definitely fall into my "guilty pleasure" category.  I find them addictive, easy reads.  They're perfect for escapist reading; it's so easy to slip into the story and forget the real world for a while.  Every now and then, there's something in them that I don't really like, but apparently, the pros outweigh the cons, because I keep reading them.  I don't think I'm the type who never met a vampire book she didn't like, but neither do I have a problem with the popularity of vampire fiction (and TV shows, in the case of The Vampire Diaries, which I also enjoy)-- and these are just plain fun to read.

The heroine is neither unbearably obnoxious nor too-perfect, which lands her safely in the "likable" zone.  I usually enjoy her "voice", which is a good thing, since the story is always told from her perspective.  The frequent mention of what Sookie is wearing (as well as other characters' wardrobes) gets a little silly, sometimes, but I try to take it as just one of Sookie's personality traits.  Since she's the one telling the story, this must mean that she's a little too interested in clothes (in my opinion). I can deal with that.  (g)

Despite the vampires, werewolves, etc., the books are too light to qualify as horror.  (They're more humor than horror, which is fine with me.)  Possibly they could be filed under mild suspense.  The mystery aspect is often at least somewhat predictable (if not immediately obvious), but so far, I haven't found that irritating.  They do have elements of romance, but sometimes that seems spread a little too thin (or is Harris just leaving me wanting more?).  I don't like that lust and sex are often given more emphasis than real romance.  I mean, yeah, it's a grown-up, modern book with a romance element.  I figure there's going to be some jumping into bed, but I could do a with a little more... well, romantic romance.  My favorite interactions between fictional love interests involve conversation and the beginnings of consciousness of attraction, affection, and yearning, and in my opinion, we don't get enough of that before they "give in to temptation". 

Finally, the setting (small-town Louisiana) is an added point of interest for me, as a Southerner.  I don't always love her characterizations of the South, but at least some of it is accurate (probably because Harris herself is a Mississippian).  Most of the time, I feel she treats the South and Southerners with a degree of respect, something that is frequently lacking in fictional representations of both.

All that said, I don't think I could bring myself to recommend these to any older female (or male, for that matter!) relative.  (Nor would I ever, ever suggest that they start watching True Blood.)  It's just too embarrassing to imagine them reading these and thinking, "My, my.  I can't believe Michael reads this sort of thing!"  This is probably a sign of immaturity or prudishness or something.  Oh well.  Incidentally, this is when the Kindle comes in handy.  You can read whatever trashy book you like and never be "given away" by the cover-- not that the covers of these particular books look trashy, but you get my point.  Of course, when someone inevitably asks what you're reading, you'll either have to 'fess up or tell a little white lie...

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham
(I listened to an audio version, but let's say it qualifies.)
Interesting concept.  Not exactly fast-paced, but it only failed to hold my interest once or twice.  I did get a little frustrated by the way the story kept changing course during part of the book, but I guess that's just the way this type of novel goes.  The (male) reader of the version I listened to tried to use a feminine voice when he read Josella's words.  This was distracting.  Overall, it was pretty good.

The Purpose of "I Read This"

Since caving in and buying a Kindle, I've been reading more than I have in years.  This may have something to do with my need to justify the expense-- to myself.  ("See?  I'm using this thing so much.  Clearly, plunking down $100 for it was a sound decision.")  However, it also has a lot to do with the Kindle itself (which I love) and just getting back into the habit of reading something other than a few very favorite comfort books. 

To keep tabs on what I'm reading and my reactions to those titles, I decided it was time to start (yet) another blog.  I don't plan to write deeply thoughtful, "professional"-style book reviews-- just some simple opinions.  I'll try to avoid (or clearly label) any spoilers, on the off chance that someone other than myself happens upon this blog.