Reviewlets

Here it is the middle of November, and I have to accept that I am never going to get full posts written on some of these books before the end of the year. So I am doing a small batch edition. First up, Max Brooks and Canaan White’s comic The Harlem Hellfighters, which I received from the publisher for review consideration, and am (eek!) reviewing rather belatedly. The Harlem Hellfighters were an all-black infantry regiment in World War I; they never lost a man through capture or gave up a foot of ground to the enemy. Rather touchingly, Max Brooks learned about this unit when he was eleven and has always wanted more people to know about their heroism in the First World War.

Harlem Hellfighters

Canaan White’s black-and-white line drawings are lovely, and you can’t help but be moved by the story. Throughout their training, the Hellfighters are subject to vicious prejudice from their fellow American soldiers on account of their skin color. They’re considered second-class citizens in the very country they’re fighting to defend, and every battle they fight is proof of their worth as men and as soldiers. I teared up a few times when Brooks quotes praise they received for their extraordinary bravery. However, Brooks doesn’t bring a lot of new stuff to this story. The characters aren’t very well-delineated; where the book succeeds, it’s because the history itself is an incredible story.

As travel writers go, I am fond of Guy Delisle, who writes cartoon memoirs of his time in various far-away nations. (His wife works for MSF, so the family travels.) Jerusalem, like all of Delisle’s books, focuses on the lived experiences of living in conflict-torn areas: the laws, yes, but most often the way people live within those laws, the workarounds they find, the small annoyances, the insane contradictions that arise from lawmakers failing to think their policies all the way through.

Honestly I will probably never travel to Israel (I have other places to go that do not cause me that same level of ideological and emotional stress), so I like to hear from Delisle what it’s like to be there. Do I depend on him for sophisticated political analysis? Nope, but the man writes¬† a reliably enjoyable travelogue.

Officially, I’m off Crazy Family Memoirs, but I checked the end of Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man and was pleased to discover that his mother and grandmother are already dead. So the only person’s feelings to get hurt by this book would be Skyhorse’s biological father, with whom he reconnected a few years before the book was published. And that guy barely features. And he maybe should have his feelings a little bit hurt, because it’s not cool to ditch your kid even if the kid’s crazy mother is forcing your hand.

Take This Man is about Skyhorse’s string of fathers. The biological son of a Mexican, Skyhorse’s mother claimed that both she and he were Indians, and that he was the son of an Indian, Paul Skyhorse Johnson, in prison for resisting the government in some unspecified way. Over the course of his childhood, this was one of the least crazy lies she told him. Her perpetual hunt for a man to take care of her presented little Brando with stepfather after stepfather–each of whom his mother demanded he refer to as his father. Once one of the stepfathers took off, Brando’s mother insisted that that person had never been his father in the first place.

I think I’ve said before in this space that it feels weird to review family memoirs. I give your f*cked-up childhood three stars! Not enough knife fights to merit four! So I’ll just leave it by saying that I’d have enjoyed this book more if it had more jokes. Not because screwed-up childhoods have to be funny, but just because without jokes I get real sad about them.

Last but not least, I finally read my first! Ever! Frances Hardinge book! Long long long ago, the wonderful Ana sent me A Face Like Glass, and because it was slightly slow to start, I panicked and hid it under the couch to prevent myself from discovering that I didn’t like Frances Hardinge after all. Silly Jenny, I should never have worried that Ana would steer me wrong. Though the first third of A Face Like Glass contained more studied whimsy than I prefer, the second two-thirds more than made up for it. The premise is too insane for me to go into much detail about, so you will just have to believe me when I say that it’s worth sticking with. There is a final act that brings together everything that has happened up to that point in a wonderfully crazy and brilliant and intricate climax. With a message about social justice! (that is not too messagey)

Thanks, Ana! I am sorry it took me so long to read this! It . . . was under my couch for much of the year. Next up, Cuckoo Song!

World War Z, Max Brooks; plus, ARGH GENDER STUFF

It’s fitting to have this post publishing on April Fool’s Day because it seems like nonsense that I am writing this glowing review of a zombie novel. That’s weird. I hate zombies. I’ve never liked a zombie book a day in my life. Nor a zombie movie. Nor a zombie song probably. I hate zombies. I can’t wait for them to be all the way played out so I can get back to the life I had before we were all so weirdly obsessed with zombies.

World War Z, is is the processest dystopia in the history of process dystopias. Brooks presents it as an oral history of the war against the zombies, with something like forty narrators weighing to tell their stories. It’s awfully good. Max Brooks details the impact of the zombie apocalypse on the entire world (a bit light on South America, but mostly the book is great about discussing what goes on in a lot of different countries), starting from the very first awareness that something horrific is going on and proceeding to the first battles with the zombies, the early defeats, the different challenges each country faces, and the strategies they come up with for facing the threat.

I don’t know how to review this book without getting into very spoilery details! Just, it’s really amazingly cool to see Brooks shade in this war-ridden world. He constructs some absolutely spectacular set pieces, and while I’m not sure what to expect from the move adaptation, I can definitely see some parts of it being really, really cool to see on film. The scene in — I believe — India, where thousands of people are trying to get themselves and their families onto boats, and there aren’t enough boats, and people are getting dragged into the water — SO COOL AND SCARY.

What’s great, I think, and what makes the book so chilling to me, is the combination of denial, lack of preparation, and general incompetence that lets the zombie outbreak spread as far and as fast as it does. The disaster isn’t just zombies. It’s national pride and it’s greed and it’s reliance on tradition in situations where tradition has become meaningless. It’s believing that you are somehow exempt from what’s happening to the rest of the world. It’s short-term thinking and fear and and miscommunication and failing supply chains and major, major psychological damage. These are all aspects of disasters, and I loved that Max Brooks dealt with all of them in scary, interesting, insightful ways.

Again I would like to emphasize how cool the international stuff was. I can’t imagine how much research this book must have required, but it really, really paid off. I can’t remember all the things that came up, but basically it’s made clear that every country has different political, geographical, and cultural strengths and weaknesses in the battle against the zombies. Once specific weapons are developed for fighting them, for example, the US is kind of in clover; whereas countries with no standing army and less capacity for building fancy weapons and body armor face enormous struggles. Zombies freeze in the cold (but thaw when the weather warms up) and eventually rot to pieces in the heat, and each of these outcomes has its benefits and drawbacks. It was just a lot of cool things to think about. Way to go Max Brooks!

However, I did have one fairly major complaint, and I cannot believe nobody in the entire editing process said, “Hey Max Brooks, shape up about this.” There are no damn women. And I just don’t buy it. I just don’t. It’s fine for a bunch of the soldiers to be men, because those are the people who would overwhelmingly have the training and whatnot if a world war started today (which is the book’s premise). I can accept that. But in a book with something like forty narrators (I’m estimating), there are (and here I’m not estimating) five women. Five. One of them is a beautiful feral teenager and that’s all she does. One of them is part of the group of civilians that is deliberately abandoned by the government to distract the zombies.

And, like, fine? That’s fine? I have no special problem with either of those things except insofar as those two passive victims make up forty percent of the women who get to narrate sections of this book. So many of the characters could have been women. The blind Japanese guy could have been a woman. The guy from the canine unit could have been a woman. The Brazilian doctor who did the organ transplants, the guy who came up with the pretend zombie vaccine, the Chinese doctor who we hear from first about the outbreak, the British historian, the disabled neighborhood watch guy, the guy who talks about the lack of skilled tradesmen in America, the space station guy, the guy who tells about the Indian beaches, the dirigible pilot–

Seriously, so many of these characters could have been women. It really started to piss me off that none of them were. Even in the stories where all that’s happening is the person is describing one of the cool set pieces — not a combat thing at all because blah blah more men in the military blah which would only work as an excuse if everyone in the book were soldiers — the narrators are almost all guys.

It made me sad. I really did love this book. I’ve never read a work of dystopian fiction that had such an international focus, and as you can imagine, it made the story just fascinating. I only wish Max Brooks had brought the same creativity and thoughtfulness to gender diversity as he did to national diversity. That is what I wish had happened. Then this would have been a very close to perfect book.