Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Recommended Reading: A Thriller for Nonfiction Fans

I hate trying to predict a book's success. Too often some little title I adore never makes the big time, despite my efforts (and probably those of hundreds of other devotees) to promote it. So I'm not going to predict great things for Max Brooks's new novel World War Z -- I'm just going to say that you'll be doing yourself a great disservice if you pass this book by, thinking its subject matter isn't for you.

The Z, you see, stands for "zombie." Now, before you outclick, let me state that this book is well-written, exciting, impressively researched, and one of the most thoughtful and intelligent novels I've read in ages. Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide, does seem to have a bit of an obsession with his subject matter. But in his latest effort he has transcended the genre label and produced something of potentially wide appeal. So seriously does the author treat his subject that at times it's possible to forget that you're reading fiction.

World War Z is a collection of oral histories of the Zombie War, gathered a number of years after the end of that terrible conflict. The unnamed narrator, identifiable only as an American, travels the globe collecting stories from all sorts of individuals who experienced the war: military personnel, students, artists, peasants, families who fled north in hopes that freezing temperatures would protect them from a seemingly unstoppable army of the reanimated dead. You'll meet the man who developed a "cure" for the zombie virus, as well as the former vice president of the U.S., a.k.a. "the Whacko," and a popular filmmaker who revitalized his career directing independent propaganda films for the war effort. From the book's beginning, when a mysterious new viral outbreak causes the dead to come back to life, through the absorbing heart of the novel in which the living and the dead battle for control of a world thrown completely out of balance, until the ending, when the author revisits interviewees to get their take on post-war life, Brooks maintains a sense of excitement and mystery, as well as the growing weariness and frustration that accompany any extended conflict.

What makes this book work is that Brooks not only writes easily in many, many different voices about a wide range of subjects, but that he also has done his homework. He has pulled together many disparate elements -- science, history, military tactics, psychology, and more -- and integrates each into the narrative with calm authority. World War Z takes current issues, such as political disharmony and fear of avian flu, and projects them into the near future, asking What if? What if some incurable disease spread across the planet? How would an unprepared and uninformed government and populace deal with the crisis? Brooks's responses to this scenario are thought-provoking and sometimes chilling, making World War Z an excellent and highly recommended read.

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