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Book Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

I’ve had a hard time explaining this book to my friends. About all that comes out coherently is, “It’s nothing like the movie.”

Okay, so they both have zombies. And yes, Israel builds a giant walled city and shuts itself in. And that old guy whose job it is to believe the unbelievable, in hopes of preventing another 1973 “Arab sneak attack”? He’s in the book. But that’s about it. No Brad Pitt, no miracle plane crash survivals, no deus ex machina immunity and sneaking around a zombie-infested CDC. By the end of the book all is not peachy keen. We don’t all get inoculated against the virus and are instantly saved. We have to fight for decades against an enemy that is more like us than appearances suggest.

What I try to convey is that, to my NPR-and-Daily-Show-fueled brain, this book accurately depicts what people in the future would say if a Zombie Apocalypse were to hit our planet as it currently stands. Without naming names it manages to perfectly reflect our world. Therefore, this book is less about zombies and more about geopolitics, economics, fear and survival, and deeds both selfish and selfless. It’s a whole bunch about the military, soldiers from every corner of the globe, and the myriad ways there are to kill the undead. (It’s a lot more complicated than you might think.) It’s activists and mystics and detached teenagers and feral children, refugees and pilots and drug companies capitalizing on our panic.

Told in the form of interviews (the United Nations interviewer, unnamed and almost entirely without character, formed the basis of the Brad Pitt character in the movie) that range from just a few pages to dozens, the book is able to cover a wide range of topics and locations from Colorado and Micronesia to China and Finland. Soldiers, politicians, mercenaries and filmmakers recount their experiences in the Zombie War, and some truly are affecting. One woman recounts, with the help of her doctors, her harrowing experience that left her orphaned and alone at a very young age. Another gives a touching reflection on the nature of monarchy and castles in Europe, and another, a rollicking 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-style adventure in a Chinese nuclear submarine. Many critics have pointed out that the voices of the many interviewees aren’t diverse enough, which may be a valid point, but I hardly noticed. Everything they recount is engaging and varied enough to overlook the fact they all sound like Max Brooks.

And about Mr. Brooks. I’d like to see his research notes, because oh my god this guy talks about everything. I felt smarter by the page.

So hopefully this little review has helped explain what this nifty little book is like. Because yes, while it’s nothing like the movie, it’s also so much more. I highly recommend it, whether you’re into zombies or not.

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Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

ocean_at_the_end_of_the_lane_us_cover

I need to get this one out before it starts to fade. Normally I wait until my first impression is gone before talking about a book. But this time, the first impression is the true impression.

This book is childhood. We all had one. And at some point, it had to die. All that’s left are memories, which are completely separate from the real thing. Adults’ memories of childhood are like a child’s imaginings of adulthood: idealized and distorted, as if viewed from the bottom of a pond as deep as the ocean.

Or, as Gaiman puts it, “Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

Our unnamed narrator starts off the story as a middle-aged man attending a funeral in his hometown. It’s been some years, and he goes back to visit the places of his childhood with a deep sense of loss, eventually making it to the farmhouse at the end of the lane. A girl used to live there, when he was seven. He can’t remember her exactly, other than she went somewhere far away–Australia, was it?–and she never came back. He sits on a bench beside the pond she told him was an ocean. Silly things, children say. A pond can’t be an ocean. Oceans are bigger than seas, which are much bigger than ponds.

Then, as he looks into the still water of the pond, he starts to remember. Things that no adult can remember looking back on their own childhood, because he remembers not only what happened but also understands it through the lens of age and experience. What happened back then, what he’d forgotten up until this moment, seems very significant

So begins the story, which I will tell you nothing about. It needs to be experienced for yourself, and it will mean something different to you than it did to me. All I can tell you is that it’s beautiful, and terrible, and frightening and real. It will make your hair stand on end, it will make you nod your head in agreement. This is, using the narrator’s terminology, “true art.” It feel like it has been a part of the world forever, and we’ve only just recently unearthed it.

One sample, not even related to the plot, of how true this is. A lot of people have latched onto a quote of Lettie Hempstock about there being no adults anywhere, which is just fabulous, but this quote was the first of a great many to bring me to tears. The narrator had previously explained that his father doesn’t like toasters so he makes all the their toast on the broiler, where it inevitably burns:

At home my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.

So read this. Please, if you read anything this year. One reviewer said this book is for anyone who’s ever been a child. And I will agree. Gaiman describes his magic in a way you could almost believe it, and certainly leaves you wishing such things existed, somewhere in the world outside of our memories.

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Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

(with possible mild spoilers)

OMG THIS BOOK

I read this while vacationing on Tybee Island, Georgia, which is a little unfair to my husband. While he slogged through the latest Dan Brown and muttered, “I know where this is going. . . ,” I kept shouting “OMG THIS BOOK IS RIDICULOUS,” scaring the children and seagulls.

(I think that’s why Gone Girl has become as big as it has. Everyone who reads it goes OMG THIS BOOK and runs to share with the nearest human. My copy already has a waiting list. Hurry up, mother-in-law!)

Okay, now some serious reviewage:

When I was younger, I read thrillers all the time. Law and Order and Dateline NBC were my favorite shows, and I inhaled every Joan Lowery Nixon and Caroline B. Cooney I could find. The covers promised instant drama. A girl is kidnapped! Stalkers! Crazed killers! Murder murder murder! (I kind of wish there were more people writing books like this for young readers. Having written one unintentional thriller that almost made me break pencils in my brother’s eye, I know that person is probably not me.)

Around high school though, my interests moved onto things like dystopia, magical realism, and serious literary allusions (SANDMAN SANDMAN AMERICAN GODS SANDMAN). I looked for books that took me to fantastic and terrifying places. Well, I still do, but now I realize that the most terrifying place is within the human mind itself.

Gone Girl begins with a husband waxing poetic on the unknowable qualities of his wife’s head, down to the very coils of her brain. On their fifth anniversary the wife goes missing, instantly casting suspicion on the husband, because, as several characters point out, the husband is always a suspect. The first half of the book shows him digging himself further and further into the hole of suspicion, making us wonder just what the heck is wrong with him and genuinely want to beat him over the head with the stick of common sense. Alternating chapters of the wife’s diary help paint a more complete picture of this troubled marriage.

I must say, the first half of the book is difficult to get through. I gave up for several weeks before coming back, out of lack of anything else to read. (I will admit this happens surprisingly often for a girl which giant stacks of unread books.) There was so much family backstory to get through, and while it does seem necessary to fully realizing the story and was told in a lively voice, it was still backstory. Chunks of it. That was hard to get through and hard to keep straight most of the time. I kept having to flip back to catch details I didn’t properly absorb. Also, the diary portions made me groan every time they popped up. A saccharinely-sweet voice of an obnoxious, self-absorbed New York rich girl whining about how she should be more appreciative of her “perfect husband” didn’t make me sympathize with her–it just make her look like a blubbering brat with a victim complex. I was super thrilled when I no longer had to deal with them. (Yes I realize their design BUT I DIDN’T AT THE TIME OKAY.)

BUT, because my friend grabbed me and said OMG THIS BOOK, I soldiered on. And I’m so glad I did. Because once I started to pick up on what was going on, I ran around the house shouting “Sheer genius! Why didn’t I think of that!”

See, right before this I read The Sociopath Next Door, which, despite a lot of marketing hype, really helped me understand the segment of the population that don’t care how others feel and who only want to win. It’s a most foreign concept to me, being a highly sensitive and empathetic person, but also an important one. One of the characters in my WIP may or may not be a sociopath, and it helps to explain how some people in this world can be so mean and eat humans for breakfast. (Really been getting into the TV show Hannibal–check it out! Super empath vs. super psychopath is always good for a laugh.) Anyway, maybe because I’d just read the book, I was able to see the big picture and analyze it from a more “psychological” point of view.

Gone Girl a perfect profile of a sociopath. These people become what you want them to be, only so they can tear out your heart and prove how magnificent and godlike they are. And what Flynn does, extending this idea to freaking MARRIAGE ITSELF, is somewhat terrifying. Completely normal people employ these same dirty tactics. We all want to win, we all want our spouse and everyone else to think we’re awesome. A big part of life is this struggle of power with others, wanting people to like us, constantly presenting versions of ourselves that will attract the most admirers. Because, if you peel back all the layers, what you will find inside each and every one of our heads would scare the living daylights out of those we love. Look at young children: they think the world was invented with them in mind. It’s very, very difficult to grow out of that mindset. Some people never do, sociopathic or not.

That’s the neat thing about Flynn’s writing: her characters are awful people. And yet, we love them anyway. Or if not love, at least we want them to succeed. That makes them pretty fantastic psychological manipulators if you ask me. (I should probably read Lolita next, though I first need to work up the courage.)

In the end, Gone Girl is THEORETICALLY more awesome than how it turned out. I loved it and appreciated what Flynn was able to accomplish, but I can’t help but wonder if what she came up with didn’t exactly fit the vision in her head. I remember Neil Gaiman saying this about one of his books (I think it was The Graveyard Book), that it was the first time what came out on paper perfectly reflected what was in his head. He waited 20 years before writing it, knowing it would take certain skill to pull off correctly. I wonder if perhaps Gone Girl could have used a little more creative gestation (or just better editing; the slogging first half has probably prevented many people from getting to the good parts.)

Verdict: SUPER AWESOME but somewhat disjointed. I felt Sharp Objects was a stronger offering. We’ll see about Dark Places. I’m only halfway through.

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Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Verdict: tragic

I liked it.

But probably not as much as I wanted to.

Disclaimer: I am not a John Green expert. I loved Brotherhood 2.0 when they were doing that vlog-only-communication experiment, enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines a great deal–probably because of the nerdiness of it–but I am afraid to read his Printz-Award-winning Looking for Alaska maybe for the same reasons that got in the way of my really falling for Augustus and Hazel.

Sure, when things started getting tragic halfway through Amsterdam my heart started palpitating for them. (Anne Frank references kinda do that to me–she was my first tragic love. See Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, inspired by her and utterly heart-cracking.) And I was clinging to the bitter end, my fingernails ragged, very much feeling the hopelessness of it all. It is a very emotional book. And that’s probably why I liked it as much as I did; if I don’t feel a book, I have no reason to care what the heck happens in it.

But ultimately, it was a sugar rush. Once it metabolized, I felt kinda empty.

The metaphors were great. (I think I started to like Augustus when he revealed his belief in metaphor.) The Fault in Our Stars, titled after a correction of a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, has great ideas. Really great ideas, ones I’ve been exploring in my own writing: struggling with the inevitability of death, whether it’s worth it to love in the face of such death, not wanting to be “a grenade,” a Green so wonderfully puts it. The idea of a hamartia, a tragic flaw, and just where that comes from.

But, as Ray Ferrer, my new favorite stencil artist, says in his artistic statement:

I am vehemently opposed to using art as a means to rely on overly-complex theories or ideas to prop up mediocre images. I believe that the quality of the actual work is what is paramount.

I felt it just wasn’t enough. The ideas were great, there were some fantastic lines, Augustus and Hazel were hilarious, observant, and intelligent, but the entire package just didn’t support those ideas. As much as their words tickled me, the characters didn’t feel real. (They felt like Mary and Harry Sues. There. I said it.) It was too pat. It didn’t make me think. It made me nod my head and agree, but that was the depth of my thoughts: “Yes, yes, I totally hear you. That is exactly how it is. You said it, brother.” I had nothing to chew on.

Maybe the pace was too fast. YA, outside of an age bracket, is often dictated by pacing, which makes for quick reads. (And I read this in like a week? Super quick for me.) But I felt like Green was breezing past so many things I wanted to linger on, wallow in, reflect on. (Is it because he wouldn’t have anything to say in these reflections??) Maybe the problem was not enough character introspection. Hazel experienced lots of things and colored the prose with her judgments, but there weren’t a whole lot of reactions from her.

Writing instructors say “Show not tell” like a mantra, but they leave out the part about telling, when done right, being able to synthesize pages and pages of showing, like an attorney’s closing argument. You already saw all the evidence. Now here is what that evidence means, through the eyes of the character. It’s absolutely essential for connecting with a character, in my opinion. It wasn’t until I got over my fear of telling that my own characters stopped being transparent papery creations driven hither and thither by my authorial ideas. (This isn’t a movie, for goodness sake, it’s a book, so get inside your character’s head and analyze crap.)

The writing didn’t sing. It wasn’t art.

Maybe I’m being too picky. Passages in Amsterdam were gorgeous (maybe because he actually went to Amsterdam to write), and so were certain philosophical reflections. But I didn’t see the world, feel it, hear it, taste or smell it. True, description drags, and can be a pace-killer. (And some of my favorite YA/MG authors are probably considered painfully slow: Donna Jo Napoli, Rosemary Sutcliff, for goodness sake, Jean Craighead George!) I gotta have poetry. I gotta have figurative language. I gotta have little metaphors–the kind like make you see things, not just that link ideas within a narrative. And similes. Things are like things. All the stinking time. (Also, the dialogue sucked. Everyone was too smart, too clever, too quick with comebacks. Even parents. Fine in a stylistic book or, like, a cartoon, but this was supposed to be gritty and real.)

To sum up, let me just say I have to agree with my brother’s girlfriend, who loves books and has intelligent discussions about them. When she told me her 13-year-old brother read The Fault in Our Stars, I felt the sudden urge to defend myself. Of course he read it, he’s 13 and it’s YA, but you know, YA can have some big ideas. I explained what it was about.

And you know what she said?

Oh, so kinda like A Walk to Remember.

“No, no,” I said. “This is way cooler than Nicholas Sparks.”

Except, it kinda isn’t.

(Hey, I liked A Walk to Remember when I was like, 13.)

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