book review: zone one

I’ve read a few reader reviews (as opposed to professional reviews, or reviews by writers, or literary critiques of somewhat higher worth than oh say this one you’re reading here) of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and it appears that I am the exact audience for this zombie novel about ennui.

First off the three days of “the present” are cut up with tonnes of flashbacks, giving the reader the pieces of how we got to this point. Characters all have the “Last Night” (before the world changed) story and the versions and variations we witness are a big part of the story. So structurally it wasn’t “this happens, then this, then this…” which is something I enjoy.

Second, while there was zombie killing action, the scenes were short and brutal. In books that’s how I like my action. Dwelling on how bullets penetrate undead flesh holds little interest for me, since one of the strengths of the novel is the interiority of the whole experience, how the characters feel about and are changed by the actions they’re taking. Whitehead’s writing dwells on the parts I care about, and can be damned pretty at times (even if there’s a bit of an emotional detachment to the whole thing).

Third, the protagonist was a self-proclaimed average person who ended up being good at surviving. He was not a badass. He was lonely and disaffected, middle class and black. He resembled a Murakami narrator, but one who drifted into a zombie war. The moments when he has to do something besides drift feel earned.

Fourth, I loved the choice to set the main story in the “rebuilding the world” phase. The characters aren’t the first wave of marines clearing out zombie hordes from the streets, buildings and subways of New York; they’re the civilian clean-up crew taking out the last stragglers. They’re more pest-control than soldiers (though they’re being directed by military types for the greater glory of the American Phoenix). It felt more like Bringing Out the Dead than The Walking Dead.

Fifth, the worldbuilding of the war against zombies had exactly the right amount of Catch-22 ridiculousness for me. There are strict anti-looting regulations enforced by the growing bureaucracy holed up in Buffalo, which mean that companies looking for an in when society builds back up again sponsor the rebuilding effort by allowing their products to be looted. I loved those kinds of details. And the language the characters use that doesn’t get explained until you’re used to them using it didn’t feel out of place.

In short, this is now probably my favourite zombie novel.

book review: the book thief

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief might now be my favourite book about World War 2. Yes that means it beats Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22 and Gravity’s Rainbow (though really, Gravity’s Rainbow was never really a favourite). This story is just as disjointed in time as those, but it feels more connected to the characters.

The story is about Liesel, a German girl who is living with a foster family outside of Munich. The mother is rude and terrifying, always yelling about everything, and the father is a house painter who can’t really find much work in their town. They also hide a Jew in their basement.

The thing that makes this book amazing is how it’s put together. You see, Death narrates the story, and does the narration with this detached wit that’s also surprisingly empathetic. Death keeps on spoiling the story for you, but it doesn’t matter because it’s told so beautifully. The main text gets interrupted by these bold, centred pronouncements and lists about characters or events, but the story circles back and back and around.

Liesel has a friend who painted himself black to be like Jesse Owens. She steals books and learns to read and rereads the only books they have because they’re poor and the book is about the hope that comes from story even if you know how it’s all going to turn out.

It’s an amazing piece of work and one of those things that gets marked as children’s literature just because the protagonist is young. Which is fine, I want young people to read this, but I also want adults to read it.

my new job has much more to write about

Saturday at the library was busier than I expected. There were two people in trying to work the computers who were very interesting. One was an old guy and the other a fat guy in his 40s. The fat guy was the old guy’s “$400/hour advisor from Denver.” They were in the library trying to sign up for those spammy Work From Home websites you see advertised all over Facebook and hydro poles.

The old guy understood how to move the arrow on the screen and click, but that was the extent of his computer literacy. The advisor kept needing me to come over and help them figure out where to type in web addresses. His advice was to get the old man to type them in whatever the first text box on any given web page and then be astounded it didn’t give them results. So I got to go over and type “” so they could search for things. Then I realized they already had web addresses to type in and made the revelation that they could put that directly in the address bar.

Then after a few trips over there, the advisor was asking me about directories. I had to ask him what he meant, because he thought he was very smart. It turned out he was talking about top level domains (the .com or .ca or whatever on the ends of the web addresses). We had to go through the different possibilities there might be. “Are there more than five?” he asked. The questions moved on to “How many countries are there in the world?” when I explained most countries had their own special ones. Eventually he asked “What if I were to pay you $40/hour, since you’re so computer literate to make a new directory for me?” I clarified what he meant by directory again and he was all, “My client here would like to make a new directory of .world, and he wants you to make it for him.”

At this point the advisor went off on a rambling diatribe about how much money the old man made “over $100,000 each year, and if someone has an investment that won’t make him that much he won’t even touch it.” The old man blinked, not stupidly exactly, but like he was attending a performance in a language he didn’t understand. I tried to explain to the advisor that creating a new top level domain is the work of regulatory bodies and such. A person can’t just make their own in a weekend. “It doesn’t matter what it costs; we want you to do it. He’ll give you his card and you’ll call us and we’ll pay you well, much more than you make here.”

When their hour on the internet was done, the old man did give me a piece of paper instructing me to call him in ten days to explore our further business arrangements. I felt bad for the old guy. He’s some clueless Mennonite from Steinbach with an “advisor” who I assume is committing fraud with every moronic breath he takes. I really hope there’s no real money changing hands there.

But the day was redeemed when (ten minutes before closing) a kid came in needing to find two books to compare and contrast for his big grade 12 English paper. He didn’t need them done right away, they just needed to have made an effort to begin before school starts next week. Whoever this English teacher is gave them a great list. It was a huge amount of wide-ranging literature that people should read. The kid had no clue, but he’d marked a couple of possible titles. “The important thing is that the two have to have some connection so I can talk about it,” he said. One of the books he had marked was Catch 22. I told him how much I loved that book and how then we could look for other war books on the list, or we could go a slightly more fun route. Because this great list included a few Tom Robbins books. “Do you like weird funny stuff?” He’s all, “Yeah sure.” So I found for him Skinny Legs and All, and Catch 22 and he’s going to talk about the use of humour in these books. I really hope he likes Skinny Legs. He apologized for not knowing what he was doing and I told him “Dude, this is the best part of this job.” I wished I could have spent an hour or so helping him instead of the scam man, but twas not to be. I also hope nobody gets mad at me for the amount of sex in the book. It was completely on the teacher’s list though.