Tag Archives: reread

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

I read this a few years back and recently picked it as the first read for my book group.  Why?  Because it is awesome.

I am not a fan of the zombie genre.  I do not like horror.  This book was sort of on my radar because it was on every OMG!!! READ THIS BOOK!!! list when it came out, but it was about zombies, so I didn’t pay attention.  But after seeing it again and again as a suggested book on various Fark threads I decided to give it a try.

And I tore that thing apart.

Here’s what you need to know: this isn’t a zombie book.  I mean, yeah, the entire thing is about zombies, but it’s not a zombie book.  It’s so much more and when I read it the first time and now rereading it, I continued to be amazed and impressed about how smart it is.  Brooks researched the hell out of each topic.  Even if every chapter isn’t a smash, it’s obvious that he put in some serious work.

The Zombie War lasted for roughly ten years.  Another ten years or so have passed, and our interviewer has finished his report for the United Nations, but is frustrated that the human aspect was left out.  He returns to his interviews to put faces to the facts and to reconstruct what happened to us all when the zombies came.

Following a fairly chronological arc, he meets with a range of individuals and each chapter is one interview.  Medical professionals, government officials, members from differently levels of the military, researchers, scientists, capitalists, religious leaders, environmentalists, average folks, clean up and reconstruction volunteers, historians, and many more make up his book.  This is one of the things that made me love it so quickly.  You get to see every level of the Invasion from people at the top to J. Random Guy sitting on his couch when his front window gets smashed in.    It could have just been a military book or a government book or a civilian book, but he makes it a world book, and it is awesome.

The oral history also did it for me.  This isn’t a text book.  These are people telling their story in their own voices.  Each profession (for lack of a better term) has their own vocabulary and view of what happened and how they reacted, and I really liked comparing priorities and responses.  For a mom, her only goal was to get her kids to safety.  For researchers and government officials, they had to figure out how to save the most amount of people and decide on an acceptable death rate.  The military has to learn an entirely new battle system and completely change the psychology of war.

The oral history aspect of the book doesn’t work for all readers.  People in my book group as well as other reviewers felt like all the voices sounded the same and that Brooks didn’t have the talent or vocabulary to write for all these characters.  I disagree, but then again, if I was an expert in any one field, I’m sure I would cringe at that section.  The first time I read the book, I really liked the entry told from the point of view of a woman named Sharon who was very young when the Invasion happened.  She escaped and became a somewhat feral child until she was discovered and brought to a group home.  Her feral life has resulted in cognitive impairment and she tells her story in basic language.  I really liked it because she was mimicking the sounds and voices and shouts and I liked teasing out what really happened based on her childhood version.  However, after my book group, I realized that this chapter doesn’t hold up so well.  One of my friends has a three year old and hated how Sharon spoke.  She said she sees this a lot – adults writing the way they think kids talk.  Sharon speaks like a toddler, yet is able to tell a complicated, sequential story.  She doesn’t recognize blood or know the word for cell phone.  We tried to figure out how old she was when her story happened based on what she says, but the language and sequential arc do not fit together.  This is something I never would have noticed on my own, which is why book groups are awesome.

Another major selling point for me was that each interview was fairly short and because Brooks chooses so many subjects, if you weren’t that interested in a topic, you only had to skim for a bit more to get to the next one.  There were characters who I were fascinated with and took my time with, and then there were others that I glossed over because I wasn’t interested in that aspect of the War.  It was great to discuss it with my book group because there was a mix of favorites. 

In no particular order, my favorites:

  • Breckinridge Scott because I hated this guy.  Hated him so much because his character would happen in real life and who knows if he’d ever be punished.  HATED HIM.  The kind of hate where I get mad all over again when I think of his interview.  Yeah, it didn’t happen, but things like this happen all the time, and fuck those guys.  SO MUCH HATE!!!
  • Todd Wainio because it was frustrating and heartbreaking to see how unprepared the US military was and how useless our modern weapons were.
  • Colonel Christina Eliopolis because… what really happened?
  • T. Sean Collins because the pop culture aspect was so satisfying.  I had forgotten what happened to the Hollywood elite and was as surprised the second time as I was the first.
  • Sensei Tomonaga Ijiro and Kondo Tatsumi because they were representatives of people who were deemed useless to society before the Invasion yet became crucial during the fight and now in the rebuilding.

Anytime anyone asks for a book recommendation, this is always my go to.  I feel just about anyone will like it because it doesn’t really fit into any genre.  There’s going to be at least one story in here that you relate to or are interested in.  I challenge anyone to read this and not try to figure out how they’d react if something like this happened.