World War Z by Max Brooks

29 09 2010

Long overdue review here, but I loved this book and finally was able to get around to writing about it.

Let’s just face it: you’re going to have to go ahead and read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War for one of two reasons and you’d better just go ahead and get on top of that. Either you’re going to realize that the Zombie Apocalypse is going to happen any freaking day now and that you’d best prepare for what’s coming, and because what’s better for that than reading a novel about it? Or you’re going to go watch the movie when it comes out in 2012 because Brad Pitt is executive producing and starring in it and after Inglourious Basterds, why the hell wouldn’t you? Nazis? Zombies? Hell to the yes.

Either works for me, because if the zombies do come, I’m going to be ready and you’d better be too or I’ll leave you in a ditch no matter how much love you. I think my almost 3 year old niece is fantastic, but I’ve declared to her family before, after watching her run and play hide and seek, that when THEY come, she’s zombie chow and will be out in the first round.

If you haven’t looked at the book at all, it’s not what you’d expect from a horror novel and barely fits the genre if you ask me. First, it’s not so much scary as it is horrific. Basically, if reading Nostradamus freaks you out a little (or even just watching the documentaries of it on the History Channel, because I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about-I’ve never read and probably will never read Nostradamus), then this book will do the same for many of the same reasons. They access the same whole oh-shit-we’re-boned part of the brain. Second, it’s barely what you’d call a novel, or rather it doesn’t have a traditional novel format. It’s more a series of interviews that make up a novel, which isn’t unheard of but is different than your standard boy meets zombie story. Third, holy crap, it’s going to happen just like this and Max Brooks thought of every single little thing and what to do about it. Hint: make lobotimizers.

When I sit back, drink beer and wax philosophical about the zombie survival story as a subgenre of horror, I normally get around to the point of saying that these kinds of stories are really mostly about the humans. The zombies are just sort of a blind force leading to mass hysteria and tragedy, like asteroids hitting the earth or a famine or like if Sarah Palin won the Presidential election. True, you can discuss different flavors of zombies and that’s fun: Do they talk? Do they run? Are they intelligent? Is it a disease or are they undead? But to be honest that’s really not the point. The good zombie stories have more in common with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than they do with any of the vampire stories. Like the nuclear apocalypse story, we confront the agents of our destruction and find that it is us-in the zombie story, literally so, because the zombies are us and we consume ourselves into oblivion.

The best thing about zombie stories are the survivors themselves. I think a lot of people would just go ahead and choose the Charlize Theron route and wander off into the darkness and get themselves eaten up and they’d be the lucky ones. But the focus is on the ones who aren’t going to just lie down and take it. The survivors are the ones who have to make the really ghastly decisions and sacrifices, and that’s why it belongs in horror. The scariest thing is having to live through that and hold on. Survivors not only have to fight the monsters on the outside but the monsters within.

This is why World War Z rocks. The zombies themselves aren’t particularly threatening, especially since the story takes place 10 years after the war against the zombies has already been won. But what people recall through all of the interviews are the massive amounts of horrible crap that human beings did to each other all along the way. How did the zombies happen? Humans. How come we weren’t able to stop it early? Humans. Why were so few people able to be saved? Humans. The zombies did their job and ate people, sure. The really horrific crap came from the decisions humans made about how to deal with each other. Think Donner party on steroids with a hibachi.

The brilliance of this novel and its format as opposed to other stories is that it is a bird’s eye, big picture view of the entire scenario. I mean, normally, what you read about are the little pockets of survivors and what they have to deal with on the small scale. Think, for example, about Dawn of the Dead (if you’ve seen it). It’s a small group, the movie is mostly about how the characters’ own weaknesses are overcome but sacrifices are made, and they grow and survive, but there’s always the lingering despair that, in the end, they just won’t make it.

Brooks examines it as a comprehensive history instead. It is written as a history in raw documentary format, as the narrator interviews survivors from every walk of life from the grunt soldier, to the young girl survivor, to the head of the military, to the scientist. And from all the little pieces, you get this whole grand picture of everything going to absolute hell.

What strikes me is how Brooks thought of it all. I may not be very imaginative, but the way I see it, he covered every possible angle here. Every potential problem that could come up as zombies ate the face off the earth, Brooks thought of it. He thought of how it had to be countered and the repercussions of all of that. Here’s a small example (and a bit of a minor spoiler, so don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you want to avoid that sort of thing): Zombies aren’t the only things that will eat your face. But what’s even more horrible than the dead coming to get you are the crazies who snap and think that they’re going to survive by actually becoming the enemy. These wackos lose all touch with reality and start acting like zombies themselves. It’s really spooky, because zombies are scary by themselves, but what about crazy people zombies? In fact, the soldiers telling you about them and how they had to deal with them is pretty horrifying. It’s apparently quite hard to tell the difference between a real zombie and a faker. But what’s even more frightening is that these souls are totally lost but not dead, but you need to shoot their asses anyway and quick. You can’t spare the resources, time or take the risk to try and save them. Oh, and there’s another really creepy part of what happens when a real zombie comes across a fake one. Hint: the real zombies didn’t get the memo that they’re on their team. I blame the post office.

Anyway, I love zombie stories, games, movies, you freakin’ name it. Zombies rule and a little piece of me likes to think, you know, it’s because zombies are honest. You know where you stand with them. They’re dependable. Zombies make a great plot for the kind of misanthropic folks like me who think the world might just be going to hell anyway. World War Z is must read for any zombie enthusiast.

Banned Books Week

27 09 2010

Banned Books Week started yesterday and I’m grateful to Eli Ross’s blog for having reminded me of the fact and for having made this very interesting comment in one of his posts where he linked to my post on getting boys to read. He writes:

So perhaps — and I know this is a stretch — perhaps we can entice reluctant readers with banned books. A Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse Five, Native Son — each of these could appeal to boys who find no connections to the stories in most books handed to them, with the added fillip of being considered “dangerous” by some groups.

I think it’s a great idea and my plans to celebrate Banned Books week include trying to introduce the kids to a banned book and read one or two myself. For reluctant readers, I can completely see being able to have access to the forbidden fruit as something appealing. My daughter, in particular, would jump at the chance to no only be allowed, but to have Mom and Dad’s blessing to do something “bad” like reading a banned book – in fact, when I mentioned it to her this morning, a slightly wicked grin grew across her face. So, for other kids, perhaps not only will it entice them to read but to also think about what they’re reading in a different way, not as a simple consumer, but to consider why it is that books are sometimes seen as dangerous. Going to be a fun talk with the kid as we go over it, I’m sure of that.

Now I just need to decide on the book. For myself, I’m going to kill two birds with one stone (ha!) and finally get around to reading To Kill a Mockingbird. “You’ve never read that?!?!” says my wife. No, and it’s tremendously embarrassing to me, but I’m going to just go ahead and cop to it now: I’ve had opportunity after opportunity to do so, but have always managed to get distracted, most recently during the 50th anniversary of the book which landed dead square in the middle of our relocation across the country. So, I’ll read a banned book and I’ll also fill in a huge, glaring, ugly gap in my reading history. How’s that for efficiency?

For kids, finding one is made much easier by consulting this list maintained by the University Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

If anyone out there is looking for ideas or feels like joining in on a reading challenge, two good places to start would be to check out the 10 most challenged books in the U.S. for 2010 (courtesy of the Guardian) and/or this book blogger reading challenge for the month over at Steph Su Reads.

Also, last year, the American Library Association released the following cute PSA about banned books. Be neat if they did another one, but this is pretty funny:

A quick note on being “Freshly Pressed”

25 09 2010

Being “freshly pressed” for my post on Boys Reading from yesterday came as a real surprise and I cannot tell you how much fun it has been having so many visitors and comments on the site. As I’m currently away from home (we’re visiting my parents for the weekend), I don’t have time to write a very long post, but I did want to thank every single person who has come by, read, commented and otherwise visited my little corner of the internet. Let me tell you, it’s been a very exciting, very humbling (I had an embarrassing grammar error in there that I edited out as quickly as possible!), and very interesting experience to have so many people read something I’ve written.

I originally intended to respond to every comment on the post, but I’m afraid the power of the internet has me outdone. Let me just say then that I am so grateful for every one of your comments and I read every one of them. I’m so happy to hear about your perspectives and experiences, so do please keep them coming.

Mostly, though, I just want to say a big thanks to the WordPress community for shining its light on me for a day. This really is a great community.

Boys Reading

24 09 2010

There is an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning about getting boys to read, which is an important issue because in most cases, boys are lagging seriously behind girls by their teenage years. The only way, of course, to improve reading skills is to actually do it and the author of this article, Thomas Spence, tries to make a connection between bribery with video games and reluctant readers. I think it’s a very valid point, overall, but misses the mark in a few rather significant ways. I do agree with the general premise, however, that if you want a kid to read, then bribing him with a video game is at best merely a distraction and at worst completely counterproductive.

About a month ago there was an article that came across the Associated Press in which librarians maintained that parents should worry first that kids are reading at all and worry about what they’re reading later. Hence, you have Captain Underpants and Sir Fartsalot. I’ve got to admit, I’m with Mr. Spence on this for three reasons: First, I think they’re gross myself and I don’t want to see them; Second, I don’t think every boy is really intrigued by boogers and farts that much anyway-at least not enough to read books about it; Third, I think the idea simply throws all boys into the same mold without any sense of individuality.

My daughter has only recently really caught on to reading and what did it was not the American Girl series. It was Zombiekins. She found a couple semi-scary books that catered to her interest. She also read the first couple Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. She now says she loves reading and reads everything in sight. So, it may be pandering to their interests, but I’m not sure that’s ultimately a bad thing. What isn’t usual is that you can’t assume that all girls will read X and all boys will read Y. That equation just doesn’t work out and reinforces stupid stereotypes (which is one of the things we’re trying to overcome anyway, right?) Let’s instead treat boys and girls as individuals, shall we?

I’d agree with the author that video games need to be kept under watch, but there’s no need to be a prude, either. Video games were no more and no less available to my daughter once reading caught on with her. What happened was she just matured to a point where reading was attractive, available, interesting and always encouraged. I think the key is not to go all crazy on TV and video games. Think, after all, of all the things you might’ve been denied in your life. Have you ever wanted anything more than the forbidden fruit? Yeah, me neither, so let’s not create an artificial lack thinking we’ll change kids’ ideas about games. This is the part of the argument where I think Mr. Spence gets off track. If you create a video game free environment, you don’t need Captain Underpants anymore. Your 13 year old son will read Robinson Crusoe instead, just like magic. I don’t think that’s surprising. I’m pretty sure I could get a 7 year old to take Sartre out for a spin if I locked him in a room with no other stimulation. We could withhold food and get them to dive into Wittgenstein even, maybe. I can guarantee one thing by that approach: You might get them reading, but they’re going to resent it. And, despite what Mr. Spense says, I’m not sure anyone could devise an adequate torture device to get a pre-teen boy to read Jane Austen. It won’t be happening.

I’d argue if boys aren’t reading as much as girls, it’s because they’re encouraged more to engage in different pursuits than girls that exclude reading (and sitting still for that matter). Before we had my son, I thought my daughter was active. They’re not even close. So, yes, I can understand that most boys are very different than most girls and getting them to stop moving long enough to look at a book is a challenge unto itself, not to mention that we parents want them to burn some of that excess energy off. That’s just something we have to overcome.

Instead, here’s what I’d propose: Throw books at your kids every chance you get. Not literally, but if it works, go for it. Take them to the library once a week. Talk about books. Read in front of them. Read to them. Buy them books. Let them pick out books they want and if they judge it just by the cover, so be it. Don’t judge too harshly what they choose. Try to expose them to other things, but don’t take it too hard when they balk at it. Just keep trying until something sticks. Insist on at least 20 minutes of reading a day as soon as they can manage it and scale that up as they improve and age.

Setting the bar low

23 09 2010

I was thinking this morning about Michael Chabon’s book, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, which I mentioned that I listened to recently in audiobook format. What prompted the thought were the compelling articles in response to the Newsweek “Man Up!” piece about how we need to “reimagine masculinity.”

In Chabon’s book, one of initial chapters involves a trip he took with his kids to the grocery store. Standing there in the checkout lane, a woman in rainbow-colored leggings comes up and comments on what a good father he is. Of course, he didn’t really do anything to merit it, as he was simply standing there not beating nor overtly neglecting his children. None of them were on fire or anything, so apparently that meant he was attentive enough to ensure that their chances of survival at the grocery store and their very well-being were well within acceptable parameters. Otherwise, not a big deal.

Chabon goes on to point out how it’s painfully clear that women don’t do that to each other in the store. They don’t go about congratulating each other on what a good mom they are simply for pushing a cart around. Good parenting is more about waking up in the middle of the night and worrying about your kids, about their development, their learning, their happiness, and all of the things they need to become fully-functioning, well-adjusted little grownups. His wife may have scheduled 3 doctor’s appointments, changed 12 diapers, nursed a flu sick kid back to health, and helped carve from scratch out of a block of wood a scale replica of the Statue of Liberty for a kid’s social science project all while performing an emergency tracheotomy with a drinking straw and a pen knife and nobody would say a word. That’s what’s expected of mothers. Dads, however, just have to not kill their offspring and they’re already well ahead of the curve.

I’ve experienced this a lot myself with my own kids. All their lives, aside from the last couple months while we’ve both been between jobs, I’ve been the one doing most of the day-to-day caretaking. I’ve gotten tons of compliments on fathering, both from family and strangers, most of the time for doing nothing in particular to deserve it (though, here and there, I think I’ve pulled off something pretty good and if you look in the aggregate, I’ve done better than just not kill them).

Chabon concludes by saying a simple “fuck you” to the lady with the rainbow-colored leggings and I, for one, think she had it coming. It was one of the highlights of the book for me. Men deserve recognition for being good fathers by virtue of having earned such a distinction, just as a mother would.

What prompted my thinking about that particular chapter in the book was this comment in a response piece by Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory:

Their argument is essentially that we need to encourage men to take active caretaking roles at home and at work. This means putting more emphasis on the importance of fatherhood and recasting so-called nurturing professions so that they no longer seem the sole domain of women. Another way of saying all that? Men need feminism. They are talking, after all, about equal opportunity and expectations, and greater freedom from restrictive gender roles — that’s the fundamental aim of feminism, as I understand it.

In this comment, she points out correctly the move that needs to happen. The authors of the original article think men should more often embrace the role of caretaker and Clark-Flory seems to recognize that the way to this is not just to toss more men into the role all willy-nilly, but to address the role and the social stigma that these professions are somehow less than masculine. How we get there is a different matter entirely, but I believe it involves focusing on full-fledged participation in and underscoring men’s obligation to having a healthy, happy and successful family as reflecting back on their masculinity. Men may not always be the breadwinner, which if we’re being honest is a pretty important but ultimately easy part of the family-raising  job, but they can still be responsible for the family as a whole unit. It goes beyond the mere financial, in other words.

Where I differ is the suggestion that men need feminism. “Greater freedom restrictive gender roles” is one one of the fundamental aims of feminism and is the most appropriate and laudable one for this, but it’s not the only aim of feminism, either. If you can ever express a complex philosophy/discipline like feminism in so few words, it’s sure to be not totally on the mark. For instance, I do think that a continued focus on equality is important for all genders (masculine, feminine, gay, straight, you name it), but I also think that a men’s discipline should focus on men as inherently different from women. It may never be exactly equal, but there is a difference between how I work in the family and how my wife does. There are inherently masculine approaches to problems (just as there are inherently feminine ones). Men don’t need to watch the View. They don’t need to decorate with fluffy pillows or watch design shows (inside joke). They can teach a kid to suck it up instead of crying and can be rougher. They can teach a sense of competitiveness, assertiveness and even healthy aggression that flies in the face of the whole “it only matters if everyone has fun,” “everyone’s a winner,” touchy-feely crap they get everywhere else. I’m not saying women can’t fill that dynamic either, but I think there are differences and we should be okay with that. See where I’m going? We need to take credit and even, dare I say it, pride in some of those masculine approaches, even when they appear to be (or perhaps because they are) not in the mainstream, more traditional, outmoded and sometimes even reactionary.

Jon Hamm endorsing John Ham

Image via Wikipedia

I’m also not sold on the idea of heralding all of the writing in mainstream media as the “New Macho.” I’m uncomfortable with packaging shit up like that, but I understand that that’s all part of what sells magazines. I suppose that talking about Jon Hamm’s Mad Men fashion is a part of the discussion, too. It just doesn’t really get to the point, isn’t as important and shouldn’t be treated as the main thing. There’s more at stake than just clothes. If there is suddenly a rejection of the “metrosexual” (and I never met anyone who fit that role exactly, but whatever), then let’s not fall into the same level of discourse as we did last go around. There are real things to talk about here that matter more than clothes.

Civilization V is out today

21 09 2010

And because of this, I’ll probably not be blogging much (or writing or reading or sleeping or eating) until Thursday (maybe Wednesday, but we’ll see). I know a few of my friends will also be very much in Civ-mode for the next few days, complete with sagging productivity and withdrawn participation from everyday life, fractured marriages and neglected children. Over here, it’s also a game that Holley loves and since my computer’s the only one that can run it, there’ll be squabbles and ugliness.

If you’ve never played one of the Civ games or just aren’t a fan of that sort of thing, it’s perhaps harder to understand, but for those of us who do love it, it’s amazingly addictive and compelling. The Take-Two store even has CivAnon t-shirt, coffee mugs and posters. The tutorial/trailer video posted on the website mentions, after watching 13 minutes of various how-to’s and new features, that it is at this point that you look up and find that it’s 3 o’clock in the morning (perfect deadpan, by the way, so massive kudos to the geeky narrator). It’s fun. That’s an established fact.

It’s definitely easy for me to get lost in being the big boss (who would’ve thunk it?), taking over the world and spending inordinate amounts of time micro-managing everything that you can do in these games which, played beginning to end, can last a couple days if you let them. Hopefully, the older, wiser me has learned a bit more restraint, but somehow I doubt he’ll be around today. Check in tomorrow. For today, I geek out immoderately and I am trying very hard to get everything that needs to be done, including workout, done by 10 a.m. For once, my stupid insomnia pays off because I woke up hours before I planned to.

I always play very diplomatically and I’m not overly aggressive until I have a good science lead. Then, just before resources get short, that’s when I make my move. Also, I always play as zee Germans first. Shocking, ich weiß.

Book Due Date

20 09 2010

I opened up my email yesterday and found a notice from the library that the copy of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is due today. Now, the essential problem that I always face is that I tend to walk out of the library with really good intentions and far more books than I’m going to be able to read. I’m also guilty of being pretty ambitious about some of my selections. This is one of those cases where I decided to pick up a classic along with about 5 other books and just never got around to it.

Now, the book isn’t especially long, only about 180 pages or so and it’s big type and I could read it pretty quickly, but the due date email always prompts a choice. Do I surrender and return it unread? Do I renew it (again and again)? Do I sit down and read the damn thing?

I’ll just go ahead and confess now that it’s probably going to just get renewed and put back on the desk, but I find resisting the due date hard. When I notice the email early, like a few days in advance, I like that it makes me want to find that ambitious version of me who was in the library and wants to do so much more than sit on the couch and watch TV. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

It being a Monday, I’m also planning on re-evaluating my big ass life schedule. I need to make some tweaks this week, since I’ve been less than incredibly productive the last two. It might, then, give me a bit of a kick in the butt to read Ivan Denisovich here and remind me that the past two weeks could’ve been worse. They can always be worse. Mondays are about new starts.