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Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

Brown book cover with blood spatter on it.Summary:
The world has survived the first zombie war, and the government sends out a young man to interview people in order to find statistics on the war.  When he returns, he finds out they only want the cold, hard facts.  This disappoints him, as he wants to show the world the human, emotional side of the war, so he prints the interviews, so we all can read and connect with them.  What follows is the harrowing tale of how a virus starting in the countryside of China spreads via refugees and a general human refusal to believe that bodies are reanimating.  All of this leads to the Great Panic, which brings humanity to the very brink of extinction.

Review:
Since I was a US History major in undergrad, I came at this book with a lot of experience wading through pages and pages of boring and irrelevant text in primary documents to find the hidden gems.  The gems made it all worth it.  I’ll never forget going through Samuel Sewall’s diary, which was largely a collection of his farming statistics, only to suddenly start seeing glimpses into the Salem Witch Trials.  It was awesome.  It is not, however, an experience that I think a fiction writer should attempt to replicate.  Reading World War Z felt far too much like reading through actual primary historical documents.  There was too much wading and not enough awesomeness.

The thing is, even though I’m suspending my disbelief enough to be in the future after a zombie war, I still know that I’m reading a fiction book, and I tend to get a bit irritated when the characters relating their experiences spend pages on useless dribble.  I don’t want to hear about how you miss your father; I want to hear about the zombies climbing all over your submarine on the bottom of the ocean!  Even in the fictional world of the book, there’s still an editor who collected these stories.  Why didn’t he edit the ramblings out?  Is that the human factor I was supposed to connect with?  Because I didn’t. 

However, when you get past the dull bits, there are some truly awesome scenes.  Scenes such as a woman standing on the roof of a car and taking out over 100 zombies by herself.  Or American soldiers reverting back to the Revolutionary-era tactic of two lines of soldiers facing the enemy with just rifles.  Or a nun protecting her Sunday school class from a horde of zombies with just a 6 foot silver candlestick.  These scenes, and many more, are fun to read because they are done so well.  Brooks displays an innate understanding of not only how zombies should work, but how humans would respond to their presence on an individual basis.   

Although I personally wouldn’t like a zombie war to be met with so much government and political power, the way Brooks lays it out, it actually is believable.  What is quite possibly the most scary about the zombie war future he proposes isn’t the zombies, but is the fact that most of the governments of the world survive and come out with more power over the people than before.  If freaking zombies can’t wrest the power from the government’s hands and give it back to the people, then I don’t know what could. 

Overall, I’m glad I read World War Z for the epic scenes and condensed picture of the war I now have in my head.  I’d recommend it to fans of zombies primarily, but also to people who enjoy analyzing global politics and military strategy.  Be warned that it’s not your typical fast-paced horror read.  You have to earn the scenes with zombies.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Book Store (used books basement)

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  1. August 17, 2010 at 6:58 am

    Interesting review. I haven’t read the book, but I did listen to the abridged audiobook (which had an incredible cast) and I think you would have much preferred that edit.

    • August 17, 2010 at 8:07 am

      This is one of those rare cases where I agree abridged is probably better.

  2. August 17, 2010 at 11:07 am

    I agree it’s probably a most beloved book of history majors who like zombies. It didn’t occur to me reading it that everyone wouldn’t love this book as much as I did. Hopefully the movie cuts out the “dribble” for the masses.

    • August 17, 2010 at 12:50 pm

      There’s so much action (hidden underneath), that they’re probably going to have to cut the dull bits to get it down to a reasonable length! Actually, reading it, I kept thinking how cool some of these scenes are going to look on-screen.

  3. August 17, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I really liked this book, precisely because of the minutiae of the stories and the characters. It’s kind of like the book version of a Ken Burns zombie documentary. I think if there had been more background from the narrator and less of the characters’ own words, it wouldn’t have been so compelling.

    If you’re looking for another zombie book, check out Patient Zero by Jonathan Mayberry. It’s much more action-packed; I feel like I’m reading a movie script. Imagine Jack Bauer vs. zombies.

    • August 17, 2010 at 2:52 pm

      I read a review copy of Maberry’s upcoming Zombie YA book Rot and Ruin and loved it. Definitely worth checking out in October.

      • August 17, 2010 at 5:15 pm

        Hmm, maybe by then if I’m over my YA fizzle. (I read genres in spurts).
        Have you read Breathers? It’s a rom-zom-com where two zombies fall in love. Pretty creative.

    • August 17, 2010 at 5:14 pm

      What can I say, I don’t like characterization all up in my action flick…er, books. 😉

      Thanks for the reminder on Patient Zero. I’d heard about that a while ago and forgotten!

  4. Meg
    August 24, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Definitely an intriguing premise, and there’s gruesome and simultaneously fascinating about the subject of zombies… which makes sense, given how many books, movies, etc., seem to have them as their focus these days! The oral history aspect of this one interests me, and I love what you said about having to wade through so much to “earn” the zombie scenes! Sounds like academia to me. 🙂

    • August 25, 2010 at 7:43 am

      Haha, yes. Now that I think about it, it’s definitely an “academic take” on zombies. 😉

      (Also, thanks for the return visit!)

  5. August 25, 2010 at 5:30 am

    After reading this review I’m completely in two minds haha. The concept sounds great on the other hand the writing style doesn’t sound very me at all. I like a connection and don’t want to plough through things, writers that ramble annoy me so may be this one isn’t for me. Did I hear someone mention a film adaptation of it? Perhaps I’ll just wait for that instead!

    • August 25, 2010 at 7:47 am

      Yes, Brad Pitt is the producer, and there’s rumors that he’ll play the “lead role,” which I’m guessing will be the guy collecting the oral history? Not too sure.
      I’d say the ideal thing for you would be to get your hands on a copy (at the library, from a friend, etc…) and read the first couple of people’s stories to see if it suits your taste. It’s definitely a unique storytelling technique for the genre.

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