Tuesday 22 December 2020

#CBR12 Book 82: "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War" by Max Brooks

Page count: 352 pages
Audio book length: 12 hrs 9 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Official book description:
The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the audiobook captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the listener, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

As it's getting harder for me to find the motivation and time to read (and review) coupled with the fact that I'm getting older and more set in my ways, I have a tendency to pick up only books I'm pretty sure I'm going to like, and rarely move out of my comfort zone. I've also gotten better about just giving up on books that just aren't working for me. This year, that was The Three-Body Problem, seriously, after a third of the book, I gave up, read the Wikipedia summary, which was just as boring and confusing to me as the book had been, and concluded that I'm just never going to read that book. One consequence of only picking books in my "safe zone" is that it gets harder for me to pick my worst of the year, as I rarely finish and review books I truly loathe anymore. Another consequence, of course, is that I rarely get properly surprised. 

One exception to this comes from my book club selections. There's obviously the Cannonball Read book club, and also my fantasy/sci-fi club, which meets the first Wednesday of every month (sadly only on-screen now, with corona restrictions). Not all of the books of the month are books I would have picked up on my own (this is also why I've read part of, but not finished the aforementioned The Three-Body Problem). Our book pick for October (to be discussed in November) was this, World War Z. The book is not exactly new,  so I'd heard about it, but never read it - because I really am not a big fan of zombies. The fact that the movie adaptation was supposed to be dire didn't exactly make me more excited about it.

Still, I try to show up prepared and like to have read at least part of the books in question. Another member recommended the all-cast audiobook (telling me to make sure I got the full text, not the abridged version), so I got it on Audible. Within only a few chapters, I was utterly engrossed and found myself listening to the book every chance I got. This book was such a wonderful surprise because I'd thought I would suffer through it, getting squicked out by horror and gore, and instead found myself fascinated by the way the story is told and the way Max Brooks (who I also had no idea was the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft until I read up a bit about him) structures his narrative. I will be very surprised if this book isn't on my top 10 of the year - something I wouldn't have believed before I picked it up. 

I have a Masters Degree in history, and for much of my university courses, I specialised in medieval history and particularly social history at that. I really am not all that bothered about battles, politics, various heads of state, and the like, give me the nitty-gritty of how people lived and all of these big events impacted on regular people, and I will eat it up. So a book chronicling the aftermath of what is known as the zombie wars, where we hear from ex-soldiers, scientists, politicians, regular people and so forth all over the world, which in itself was very refreshing. There is no singular focus on America and Americans here, but "witness accounts" from every part of the globe, even Antarctica, and even features interviews with ex-astronauts. The book covers part of the actual war, but also a lot of the aftermath, and the changes the zombie outbreak caused to society, including social, political, religious, environmental, and financial developments. 

As with Station Eleven, which was certainly a strange book to reread during a global pandemic, a book where the various government powers are criticised for their shortsightedness and how ill-prepared they are to handle a global crisis also took on unexpected additional relevancy now - with the death toll from Covid-19 still rising steadily, especially in the USA. The book was picked for our book club long before we knew what this year was going to look like, so as with Station Eleven, it was just one of those strange coincidences.

I'm really glad that I turned out to be wrong about this book, and my fellow book club member who recommended the full cast version was not wrong. It's an excellent way to listen to the book, and it makes the fates of the various people we meet seem all the more realistic, as you hear them not through the voice of one narrator, but as if you were listening to actual interview recordings. The voice cast is very star studded (go to Wikipedia to see the full list) and I had fun trying to identify some of the actors taking part.

This book should stand as a reminder to me that it's important that I still read outside of my comfort zone occasionally and that I try genres and books that I think are going to be difficult to read or that might make me uncomfortable because occasionally I discover a new favourite - and that's never a bad thing. 

Judging a book by its cover: I've got to admit, the rather plain and unremarkable cover of this book is one of the reasons I've never really bothered to give the book much of a second look. It's not exactly inviting, in shades of muddy brown, with only the plain title on the cover. Doesn't look too riveting, does it?

Crossposted by Cannonball Read

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