Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

http://andiwrite.com/2015/08/05/review-world-war-z-an-oral-history-of-the-zombie-war/I do not obsess over zombie films. However if a movie us particularly good, then I will make a point to watch it. One such movie that I did end up watching couple of months ago on the TV was World War Z. I did enjoy watching this take on the movie, and ended up reading some reviews of it. It was during this search that I came to know that the movie is based on the book by Max Brooks. The full name of the book is “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War”.

Freshly having finished a different book, I was itching to get into another one. Few moments later, I was ready with it on my kindle. After the first 3 chapters, I began to lose my interest in the book. You see I had based my frame of reference on the movie. The book and movie are nothing alike. Zilch. The movie follows the plot about a zombie apocalypse from Brad Pitt’s character being the central character. The book however, is entirely different. It is (as the title says) an oral history of the war on zombies. I will cover this review in two aspects: The (long) synopsis, and the review.

The narrator had been asked to prepare a report for the UN, but his supervisor found the report to be too human and opinionated and has only the facts and figures submitted as the official report. The books serves as the records of the narrator as he interviews people from all over the world about the zombie war. His intention with this compilation is that a report on the war on Humanity cannot be complete without the human side of the war.

The book covers 8 major periods of the Zombie War:

  • Warnings: Referred by some of the characters as the pre-war time, this particular period has very few cases of out breaks. Patient Zero can be traced to a boy in rural China, and begins spreading to India. A hiker is said to have brought the infection to USA. Bodies that were dumped in the seas wash up on the shores of the countries and spread the infection across the world.
  • Blame: Isolated outbreaks begin in China, but the government tries to suppress knowledge of it. Black market trading of human organs spread the infection across borders, as some of the organs are harvested from people who had fallen sick to the infection, but before their corpses had been reanimated into zombies. The blood from these organs infects the recipients, who after reanimation begin to attack people and spread it even more. There are large outbreaks in Africa, and disease begins to be dubbed as African Rabies. Most of the governments are still in denial about the infection, or its extent. A company tries to profiteer from the scare by marketing a vaccine called Phalanx. Since the vaccine is designed rabies, and not the zombie infection, it fails massively when the infection begins to spread across the USA. While the initial Alpha teams manage to contain the infection, in sufficient follow up actions by the government on account of wanting political gains causes a surge in the spread.
  • The Great Panic: After a new reporter breaks the news that the Phalanx vaccine is just a placebo and has no protection against the actual zombie virus, there is a mass spread of panic and a resulting breakdown of society/civilization from the rapid spread of the infection and people’s attempts to run. The United States Armed Forces try to hold a big stand against the zombies at a choke point called Yonkers near New York. Instead of being the morale boosting war, the battle is a disaster with huge casualties and serves to further reduce the morale of the surviving population.
  • Turning the Tide: The Redeker Plan, prepared by Paul Redeker (an Apartheid era official) is executed in South Africa. The government realizes that realistically it cannot save everyone. Safe zones are identified in highly defensible areas, and the zombies are lead to other zones. People who are not in these safe zones are killed and reanimated as zombies, while the armed forces defend, purge and slowly expand the safe zones. Other countries implement a similar plan based on this plan’s success. Millions of people are reported to have lost their lives during this period.
  • Home Front: Primarily set in the USA, this chapter deals with how the country is restructured. Once bitten, twice shy (excuse the pun); the government reorients its strategies based on the lessons learnt throughout the world. This leads to not only just new military, but also economic and social strategies.
  • Around the World: Similar restructuring and stories of people from around the world, in other countries.
  • Total War: Around the time that most of western USA has been reclaimed, the governments of the world think that it is better to wait out the rest of their time for the zombies to decompose, get weaker so that they either die on their own or are easier to kill. However the USA wants to go on a full offensive to reclaim the entire nation and hence increase morale by touching Humanity’s undying spirit. In itself, it is a very difficult task. This is because the zombies do not require any logistics or weapons. They do not need to stop for feeding or resting. There are no leaders whose assassination can cause a collapse as each individual zombie is a self-sufficient enemy that only focusses on attacking humans. Even large injuries like burning, cutting of limbs only seem to just slow them down. The only way to defeat them is to destroy the brains of each and every one of them. They employ old war strategies re invented by General Raj Singh in India, where by a square of armed forces can go against thousands of zombies. It is used on a large scale at the Battle of Hope in USA with great success. Ten years after the start of war, North America is cleared free of zombies. The world celebrates Victory Day two years later, when China is also cleared of zombies. Russia and Europe have been able to clear the zombie infestation as well.
  • Goodbyes: Also known as the Post-War time, most of the nations have been able to become zombie free. Some parts in the extreme North face a different problem, where the zombies was frozen due to extreme winter and start coming out to attack after they thaw out. There are still millions of zombies at the bottom of the oceans, of which some manage to float or walk to the beaches and have to be killed by the armed forces.

What really works for this book is that it is an oral history of people around the world. Barring a select few characters, characters do not reappear. It does require getting used to, because by the time you get attached the story of a character, the interview of that particular character has finished and we move on to a different character. The reason this works for the book, is that this is the story of humanity as a whole, and not some particular central characters and other secondary supporting characters.

The book covers both, the good and the bad of humans. When you read about the screw ups, each one is as painful as the previous because all of them cost human lives. As you read through the books, it becomes easier to observe and predict the screw ups and poor decisions, but one cannot change or control what happens in this story. We have to live through these losses, as much as the narrator and characters do. To balance this, each act of courage, and help makes you wonder an awe at the strength of human bonds and survival. This book shows how stupid and brazen, and how helpful and caring humans can get.

Another reason (which is discussed in detail in the book) for why lost so many lives, and took this long to recover is that most (if not all) of our war tactics and strategies are based on fighting fellow humans. All of this fails when we’re fighting an enemy that can wage total war against us. This an enemy that does not stop, and has no specific leader. Things that would kill a normal human (like gunfire to the torso, being set on fire, drowning, or starvation fail when it comes to zombies. Every human lost to a zombie bite, is a loss to the humans, but is an addition to the zombie army. This is literally an army that grows as we lose ours.

The interviews are not limited to military veterans, or politicians. There are people who survived only because of the kindness of strangers, people who became veterans because they had no other choice but to enlist and fight, people who witness that sometimes it is humans who are to be most feared as they descend into violence and cannibalism. This is a story that talks of the best and the worst of us.

Since this is a book, and not a film or TV series, it relies upon the imagination of the reader to deal with the gore of the zombie attacks, of them eating humans. Honestly speaking though, these are the least disturbing parts of the book.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, absolutely yes. Full 5 stars. I will leave you with some quotes from the book:

“Fear,” he used to say, “fear is the most valuable commodity in the universe.” That blew me away. “Turn on the TV,” he’d say. “What are you seeing? People selling their products? No. People selling the fear of you having to live without their products.” Fuckin’ A, was he right. Fear of aging, fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of failure. Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells. That was my mantra. “Fear sells.”

Our country only exists because people believed in it, and if it wasn’t strong enough to protect us from this crisis, then what future could it ever hope to have? He knew that America wanted a Caesar, but to be one would mean the end of America.

Marty chose, instead, to show the other side, the one that gets people out of bed the next morning, makes them scratch and scrape and fight for their lives because someone is telling them that they’re going to be okay. There’s a word for that kind of lie. Hope.

When that famous Latin singer played that Spanish lullaby, it was too much for one of our operators. He wasn’t from Buenos Aires, he wasn’t even from South America. He was just an eighteen-year-old Russian sailor who blew his brains out all over his instruments. He was the first, and since the end of the war, the rest of the IR operators have followed suit. Not one of them is alive today. The last was my Belgian friend. “You carry those voices with you,” he told me one morning. We were standing on the deck, looking into that brown haze, waiting for a sunrise we knew we’d never see. “Those cries will be with me the rest of my life, never resting, never fading, never ceasing their call to join them.”

KONDO: I thought he was insane, and told him so right to his face. The two of us against millions of siafu? TOMONAGA: I handed his sword back to him; its weight and balance felt familiar to the touch. I told him that we might be facing fifty million monsters, but those monsters would be facing the gods.

I made eye contact and gave him this look, like “Hey, Doc, they’re all nut jobs, right?” He must have known what my eyes were asking because he just smiled back and shook his head. That really spooked me; I mean, if the ones who were acting loopy weren’t, then how did you know who’d really lost it?

Yeah, we stopped the zombie menace, but we’re the ones who let it become a menace in the first place. At least we’re cleaning up our own mess, and maybe that’s the best epitaph to hope for. “Generation Z, they cleaned up their own mess.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I don’t miss some things about the old world, mainly just stuff, things I used to have or things I used to think I could have one day. Last week we had a bachelor party for one of the young guys on the block. We borrowed the only working DVD player and a few prewar skin flicks. There was one scene where Lusty Canyon was getting reamed by three guys on the hood of this pearl gray BMW Z4 convertible, and all I could think was Wow, they sure don’t make cars like that anymore.

I’ve heard it said that the Holocaust has no survivors, that even those who managed to remain technically alive were so irreparably damaged, that their spirit, their soul, the person that they were supposed to be, was gone forever. I’d like to think that’s not true. But if it is, then no one on Earth survived this war

 

This post was originally posted at Andiwrite.com

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Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore

I had ordered Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore based on a recommendation I found on Flavorwire. Written by Robin Sloan, this is his first book.

Recession has caused Clay Jannon, a web designer to be out of a paying job. He finds work at Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour book store, run by the titular man. When being screened for the job, Penumbra asks him, “What do you seek in these shelves?” The answer to that will unfold the secret to immortality, which a secret order has been looking for, over the last 500 years. An answer that possibly cannot be found without using the technology and tools at our disposal today.

Clay works the night shift as a clerk at the book store. The customers for the books are few. However there exists a shelves of books at the back of the bookstore (called the Wayback List), which seem to not have been published anywhere else. These books attract a weird base of customers, who from time to time issue the books for their own perusal. While told no to open the books, curiosity gets the better of him, and Clay realizes that these books contain coded text. But Clay doesn’t limit himself to pen and paper like these customers do, and uses his computer to crack the code.
In this process he meets Kat, who works at Google. She dresses in the same tee with a ‘Bam’ on it, is an expert at data visualization, wants to be a Project Manager at work, and is thrilled by the idea of Singularity (where technology and humans become one, a point beyond which we cannot even fathom what lies ahead). Enlisting the help of Kat and a childhood friend Neel Shah (who is start up owner that deals with computer generated 3D human bodies, but predominantly breasts), they approach Penumbra with the solution.

Instead of being mad, he is glad that they cracked it to the point of being impressed at their use of modern technology with ease. Penumbra however, disappears the next day. Worried, they form a team (A wizard, a warrior and a rogue) and trace him to New York. They find a symbol similar to the one outside his bookstore at the entrance of the building, which Penumbra tells them is a front for the secret order called the Unbroken Spine. Their objective is to search for the secrets to immortality, clues to which have been left in yet another coded text written by the founder of the order (aptly named as the Founder’s Puzzle).

The symbol for the Unbroken Spine

The symbol for the Unbroken Spine

 

They determine to now solve this puzzle which the Unbroken Spine have failed to do for 500 years in spite of having used some brilliant mathematicians and cryptographers.

The book is an easy read. As a narrator, Clay describes his world in detail. His thoughts and observations are interesting. Take his description of his girlfriend Kat:

“…is a Googler. So, she really is a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a cute way.”

When she wears the same tee shirt when she meets him the next day, he thinks that “(a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical t-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.”

There are more layers to the book than just the decoding of this text. There is an underlying current about the transition from old to new, from traditional methods to new found. This is exemplified in the form of books and e-readers. There is a time when even Penumbra wonders in awe at the Kindle and other e-readers, as to how volumes and shelves of books condense into one hand held device.

I have only two grievances with the book. The primary one, as with most books that I have loved is that the book feels too small. I want more of it, where the story arcs are longer and drawn out. This is something, I wouldn’t hold against the author. He does the story justice in 300 pages. The second grievance is that the adventure feels too easy. It’s not that it has not been described well, or isn’t intriguing and involving; it’s just that when the characters face obstacles, they are able to overcome them with some stroke of luck, or a specific skillset/resource one of their friends has.

The book is a treasure trove for book lovers. There are many wonderful lines that would make readers smile with joy, probably a reflection of Sloan’s own love for reading. I will leave you with some such lines.

 

“Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines — it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.”

“I’ve never listened to an audiobook before, and I have to say it’s a totally different experience. When you read a book, the story definitely takes place in your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes”

“…this is exactly the kind of store that makes you want to buy a book about a teenage wizard. This is the kind of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard.”

“Some of them are working very hard indeed. “What are they doing?” “My boy!” he said, eyebrows raised. As if nothing could be more obvious. “They are reading!”

“A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”

“He asked <…> Rosemary, why do you love books so much?
And I said, Well, I don’t know <…> I suppose I love them because they’re quiet, and I can take them to the park.”

Front cover of Mr. Penumbra's 24 hour Bookstore

Front cover of Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore

About the (blog) Author

Hrishikesh is an Automobile Engineer based in Gujarat, India. He enjoys cooking and loves eating chocolates. He believes that he doesn’t have enough time to read all the books, and watch all the films and series that he wants to. He blogs at http://andiwrite.com where he posts his short stories, and shares his recipes.

How I came to love reading

Five years of my schooling life were spent in Bombay at my uncle’s, so that I could get a better education in Bombay. There were other reasons too, but that is for another blog. I was put up in St. Gregorios High School, and those are one of my most memorable times I have had. One of the two life changing classes that I had over there was Library. Like all other subjects, we had a ‘Library’ class once per week. During this period we were to sit in the library, and return the book we had previously issued so that another one of our choice could be issued to us. Quite simple actually.

I was indifferent to reading books before that, and didn’t bother much except for the text books or the mandatory book we had to issue every week. Our librarian saw this, and I will be ever so thankful that she started recommending books. It started with ‘Great Illustrated Classics’, which are classic books like Oliver Twist, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Frankenstein, Black Beauty, Alice in wonderland and so on. These have a large font print one side and an illustration on the other. They soon had my attention. Once I had exhausted the entire series, I was told to select other books myself. When our names were called, we were encouraged to spend time in front of the books, read their jackets and pick one that we liked.

A sample of the Illustrated Classics (via classiccaseofmadness.wordpress.com)

As we got into higher classes (standard 6 and above, I think) the books we could choose from increased to include Goosebumps, and Shivers. They were such a wonderful read. However the incident that made me passionate about reading took place soon. Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were popular in our school, and the library had a huge collection. Generally boys read Hardy Boys, and girls read Nancy Drew. As part of a bet I had to take up Nancy Drew. The librarian saw my sheepish look when I asked for a Nancy Drew, and asked me what was going on. When I explained, she just laughed and told me that for a good book, it doesn’t matter if the characters were male or female. She put me at ease and I started with ‘Nancy Drew and the secret of the slumber party’. I was hooked. I was now issuing books by the day instead of the regular weekly Library period. Every day, I would come back early from the evening games and finish my studies so that I could read Nancy Drew. The next day I would finish lunch quickly so that I could exchange the book for another.

And then Harry Potter happened. My friends were already into it. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is book 3 of the series was already out. I started with that, worked back to book 1 and then read the lot in sequence. I was hooked. We would spend our day discussing the book, challenging each other with trivia questions, or who could remember more spells. Newspapers were hounded for any news of the release dates of the next book. Since the school library would get limited copies of the book, we had a waiting list which went across classes. The list was public, and it was common knowledge as to who was reading the book and the next person in waiting would be after them to read it faster. We were playing a Harry Potter Trivia session in the bus, when we had gone to Bangalore for an interschool event. (We had gone by train, and the bus was for travel within Bangalore.) The principal happened to hear us go at it, and told us that if read our syllabus books with even fifth of this much devotion we would all be getting full marks.

We were encouraged to write reviews for the books we read, and the better of the lot were put up in the bulletin board. It was not an official contest or event, but we felt a pang of pride if our review was put up on the library bulletin board. We had classes only weekdays, but were allowed to come to the school library and read periodicals, Nat Geo, encyclopedias and other books that were not issued to be taken home.

As I grew up, many people told me that Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are two books which are a must read. When I asked them why, nobody could give me a satisfactory answer but just said that these were mind blowing books. Why and how the books did blew their minds, they didn’t know. Their minds were blown because they were told that was the reaction they were supposed to have. When I was doing my internship at General Motors (where I work now), my mentor told me that I remind him of Howard Roark. When I asked who, he told me about the Fountainhead and offered to loan me his copy. I said no. With the limited pocket money I had, I purchased a second hand copy of it for myself.

Reading that book for the first time had been an interesting experience. There were times I was nodding in agreement at what I read, there were lines which I had said myself. Same in essence, and a little different in the choice of word. There were also things that I only hoped I had the courage to do should the time came. Quite naturally Ayn Rand had my interest and I read Atlas Shrugged as well. It was an experience similar to Fountainhead, only more profound. Soon I had a job, so I ended up with all of her books that I could find. If you do want to read her fiction works, then read them in order of Anthem, We the living, Fountainhead, and finally Atlas Shrugged. It makes for an interesting study in not only the objectivist philosophy, but also in Rand as a writer. With each book you can see how her characters evolve, how the plot has more depth, and how the plot arcs reach out and meet each other.

Sometime last year, I was re-reading Atlas Shrugged. I had a strong reaction and felt like hurling the book across the room. I was going through a particularly difficult time, and was reading how the characters were dealing with their own lives in the book. Part of me thought that how could they manage to hold through through much tougher things when they only had themselves. The idea that they’re fictional characters and not real also came to me, at which I was about to throw the book. However I also thought that it was not who I was, and the characters were the kind I always wanted to be. Even before I had read or even knew of the book. Better sense prevailed.

As a practice, we never called the librarian in school by name or as a librarian. She was to be conferred with as much respect as we gave our class teachers. Which is why we addressed her as ‘Ma’am’. In retrospect she has taught me as much, if not more, as any other teacher I have ever had. It is she who gave me the love for reading.

 

About the Author

Hrishikesh is an Automobile Engineer based in Gujarat, India. He enjoys cooking and loves eating chocolates. He believes that he doesn’t have enough time to read all the books, and watch all the films and series that he wants to. He blogs at http://andiwrite.com where he posts his short stories, and shares his recipes.

Review: Sputnik Sweetheart

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami has three characters at its core. Sumire is a young Japanese woman who is in her early twenties. She is an aspiring writer, and holds part time jobs along with the stipend she receives from her family to sustain her livelihood till she finishes her novel. Miu is a Korean woman whom Sumire is attracted towards. Among other things Miu imports wines in to Japan, and asks Sumire to work for her. K is the narrator and lead central character. He is her friend and few years older than her. An elementary school teacher, he has passionate feelings for Sumire.

While K is the narrator of the novel, the story effortlessly moves between the characters like a football team passing the ball. Sumire is an anti-social woman who doesn’t get along well with many people because she is a motor mouth. She dresses in clothes too large for herself, and often goes without matching her socks. Sumire can write beautifully but cannot complete her novel. Her works have an ending or a beginning, but never both. She feels that her writing lacks a soul that will connect the two.

K is two years older than Sumire, and they initially bond over their love for reading. K develops intense feelings of passion for her, but knows that she cannot reciprocate the same for him. There are moments when this passion flares up in him, and he takes to having a relationship on the side to deal with his urges. K even talks to Sumire when she calls him up in the middle of the night. K serves as the only person to which Sumire can vent out, or open up to.

Miu is a successful businesswoman, who gave up her training as a pianist to look after the family business after her dad died. She meets Sumire at one of her former student’s wedding. The two of them talk about the author Jack Kerouac, whom Miu mistakenly calls of the Sputnik style instead of the Beatnik style (having mixed up the two words). Sumire who thought herself to be asexual, feels an attraction towards her. Miu asks Sumire to work for her, first three days a week and as a full time personal secretary later. Due to the nature of work, they have to travel much. The word ‘Sputnik’ means a travelling companion, which is why the book is title ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’.

Sumire is an aspiring writer, and K is her friend who loves her. Sumire falls in love with Miu, who offers her a job and is 17 years older to her. The two are off to Europe for a business trip and decide to spend some time at a Greek island to relax. One day K receives a call from Miu, and she asks him to come at once. Sumire has disappeared. When K reaches the island, he learns from Miu and some of the Sumire’s writings as to what had happened before her disappearance.

The book is full of angst and loneliness. Sumire is full of angst about her not being able to write the novel she wants, and her nonconformance with society. Sumire has intense feelings for Miu, but doesn’t know how to talk to her about it. K pains about his unrequited love towards Sumire, and tries to sleep with other women. He ends up still thinking about Sumire all the time, and it makes things worse for him for her to be so close to him, and yet not with him. Miu has a secret in her past, and doesn’t know how to react when Sumire disappears.

Murakami has a wonderful way with words. His choice of words make you feel the stuffiness that the characters feel, and he can paint a vivid picture with ease. His play of metaphors is brilliant. When we learn of Sumire’s inability to finish a novel, he uses the metaphor of ancient Chinese gates. These were sealed with bones of soldiers, and their souls would revive only when fresh blood was mixed with them. There is another instance Sumire is going through changes in her life on account of her new job under Miu, when K explains how in life one uses the gears of a transmission to adjust to the realities of life. He tells her how she has taken off one transmission, but not yet bolted another while the all the engine keeps generating all the raw power. Another recurring theme is of duality or ‘the other side’. For most counts, the two sides are polar opposites. What one lives in, and what dreams; what one wants to be, and what one is; what is in the past and what lives today.

The story is well layered. Miu has a secret of something that happened 14 years in the past that made her hair turn white overnight. The story behind that is told in the Sumire’s story, which comes as a part of K’s own story in his search of Sumire. There are fantastical elements in Miu’s story, in Sumire’s dreams and K’s experiences.

Overall this makes for a gripping read with its layers of stories, character back stories and the intense longing for something that one cannot have.

Some wonderful quotes from this book:

“In the world we live in, what we know and what we don’t know are like Siamese twins, inseparable, existing in a state of confusion.” 

“We each have a special something we can get only at a special time of our life, like a small flame. A careful, fortunate few cherish that flame, nurture it, hold it as a torch to light their way. But once that flame goes out, it’s gone forever.” 

“I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik, even now circling the earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.” 

“I’ve written an incredible amount up till now. Nearly every day. It’s like I was standing in a huge pasture, cutting the grass all by myself, and the grass grows back almost as fast as I can cut it. Today I’d cut over here, tomorrow over there… By the time I make one complete round of the pasture the grass in the first spot is as tall as it was in the beginning.”

sputnikcover

 

About the Author

Hrishikesh is an Automobile Engineer based in Gujarat, India. He enjoys cooking and loves eating chocolates. He believes that he doesn’t have enough time to read all the books, and watch all the films and series that he wants to. He blogs at http://andiwrite.com where he posts his short stories, and shares his recipes.