Brett's Reviews > World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

World War Z by Max Brooks
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's review
Apr 06, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: horror

I have fretted long and hard about what my choice for book club would be, when that time finally came. I wanted both to pick a piece of literature that would be surprising and that most others in the club would not have considered reading, but I also wanted it to be good. After all, I have spent the last few months reading the likes of The Kite Runner and Water for Elephants. If I can put up with that kind of sissy-pants literature (I am of course, joking. Partially.) then I wanted to make others endure something they would not normally consider. So I cast around for a while, and eventually landed on this little book. The deal was sealed when, in a strange coincidence, the day I started to read this book, the author turned out to be reading in town. So I went to hear him, and decided this book was fate. He signed my copy and added "survive book club".

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a hell of a fun book. Though not without moments of humor, it takes itself completely seriously. It is laid out as other "oral histories" are, with short, "man on the street" style interviews, as well as interviews with those that experienced certain unique aspects of the war. Humans have, at least for now, vanquished the zombie threat, though there are still zombies out there and no one knows if the plague might start again. Through the eyes of the participants we see the earliest outbreaks, the chaos of the Great Panic, fighting the hordes to a stalemate, the tide slowly turn, and finally the re-emergence of humanity. WWZ is full of intimate detail, some touching or inspiring; some brutal, remorseful, or bittersweet. There is a fair share of blood and guts--this is a horror novel, after all--but many of the snapshots are unexpectedly poignant.

Really though, the zombies in the story are only a stand in, a way to pique the interest of readers. It could be any kind of worldwide emergency, particularly disease, such as Avian Flu. The bulk of the story is showing lack of government planning and bureaucratic missteps. And it's impossible not to read and think of the inadquate disaster response to Katrina in the U.S., and other large scale catastrophes around the world. Also on this wavelength, there are some fairly clear allusions to modern political figures and to the war in Iraq. However, the novel is truly global in scope, and we spend time in a variety of countries besides the U.S. I was especially intrigued at the way the zombie war boosted the prestige of eastern nations, and helped to tip the balance of geopolitical power toward China and India, much like a major worldwide disaster might really do.

Criticisms I expect to have to deal with at book club: there are 40 or 50 different "voices" or characters in this book, most of them only getting a few pages to speak. As such, some voices will obviously be stronger than others. Also, we do not build up large amounts of attachment to a single character over the course of the book. I think Brooks did a great deal of research on what type of weapons the military might use to combat a zombie plague, and he spends quite a few pages detailing various sorts of tactics and specific weapons that could be used. To some degree, I lost interest in this topic. I felt that since he did the research, he felt like he had to use some of it, but honestly, I wasn't too in to learning about exactly how weapons systems work. Less would have been more. As someone who works in politics, as does most of my book club, some of the interviews with political figures were a little heavy handed.

One particular section I wanted to praise was the writing about zombies in the water. This was a very effective image for me and will have me thinking twice next time I'm swimming in a body of water after dark. And, of course, as with any story about zombies, during certain moments you have to ask yourself who the real monsters are. The zombies, grotesque as they are, have no choice in their actions. It is the humans that stab each other in the back and become their own worst enemies, willing to do anything to fellow survivors in order to gain their own advantage. Even in the last pages, as some survivors talk about the way the crisis brought people together, I had to wonder if they were already starting to gloss over the worst moments with familiar cliches. Do these sorts of crisis bring people together, or is that only the story we tell ourselves when it's all over, when we've done what we must to survive?

WWZ is a fast and interesting read. Obviously I think highly enough of it that I chose it to make my coworkers read. If you happen to be an interp coach reading this, you might seriously think about getting a copy; I think some very cool pieces could be cut from it, and I guarantee you'll be the only school in your area doing them.

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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Bella Brunton You certainly got me thinking, philosophically-wise... Just starting the book, I never like to watch a movie before reading a book. And it's funny 'cause I love zombie movies but I dread reading a book of the subject... I mean, books are so much more intense! With movies I can always shut my eyes and wait until the gory parts are over, kinda hard doing that while reading a book, isn't it? My point is, should I prepare myself for gory parts like I am Legend, or is it like the movie Blindness - one of my favorite movies, btw - where something huge happens to humanity, but the focus is not the event but how it affects society. I just don't want to have nightmares like when I read "It".

Brett I've never seen Blindness--I'll have to check it out! But to answer your question, I think the latter is closer in the case of WWZ--the focus is generally on how it affects geopolitical relations and how human society adapts or doesn't. There are still plenty of intense moments though. Thanks for the comment!

Lynn Sorry to butt in, but please, please, please read Blindness instead. It's one of my favorite books and I still kick myself that I didn't choose it for my first book club choice while you were still in DC. (ps; Still not sure if I want to see Hollywood's adaptation of WWZ...thoughts?)

Brett I have not seen the movie, but I almost certainly will at some point. I'm actually fine with the (apparently) dramatic changes to the plot and I'm just resigned to accepting that in order to be a big budget summer movie, a lot of nuance had to go by the wayside. I've been surprised by the generally positive reviews, so I'll see it in the spirit of just hoping to have an entertaining afternoon, and then I'll continue recommending the book to people.

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