Give ‘Em Hell: “World War Z” by Max Brooks

Copyright © 2006 by Max Brooks.

“For the first time in history, we faced an enemy that was actively waging total war.  They had no limits of endurance.  They would never negotiate, never surrender.  They would fight until the very end because, unlike us, every single one of them, every second of every day, was devoted to consuming all life on Earth.  That’s the kind of enemy that was waiting for us beyond the Rockies.  That’s the kind of war we had to fight” (Brooks 230).

Despite the plethora of zombie literature, movies, and TV shows, I haven’t reviewed a lot because I haven’t really enjoyed a lot of that material, with the exception of Zombieland  and Shaun of the Dead.

Well, now I’ve finally gotten around to reading World War Z.  It’s safe to say I’ll never look at zombies the same way again.

Everyone knows what the typical Zombie Apocalypse tale is like: some virus or curse reanimates the dead, causing a worldwide breakdown of society and culture as human beings struggle to survive and fight off the ravenous undead.  But Max Brooks decided to do his homework and ask some good questions.  Questions like “How would a zombie virus spread?” “How would ordinary people react?” “How would governments react?” “Are conventional military tactics and logistics effective against the undead?” “Is there any hope for civilization in the face of such a nightmare?”

Brooks does his best to give us as realistic a view of the human response to a global zombie uprising as he can.  Through a series of fictional interviews from survivors and veterans of “World War Z,” we see it all: the emergence of the virus in China, the spread of infection through refugees and black market organs, the first attempts at containment, the breakdown of order, the despair, and the sad, bleak reconstruction efforts.

This is not a happy book, to say the least.  The only comedy is black humor, the only lighthearted moments are bittersweet, and even the ending, while optimistic, is far from resolved for the survivors.  And yet, every single page is downright fascinating.  There’s so much to learn about human behavior, be it cynical or naive, horrifying or heroic.  And every interview subject has his or her own distinctive voice.  You feel like you’re getting a global perspective on the mayhem, which makes it more than just the usual White Heroes Vs. Multicultural Zombies fare.  I’d say my favorite parts were the two accounts of the Japanese survivors, the katana-wielding otaku and the blind staff-warrior.

I suppose that I would really appreciate some of the nuances and the anti-zombie strategies if I’d read Brooks’s previous work, The Zombie Survival Guide, first.  But even so, World War Z is a fantastic horror story, war tale, apocalyptic account, and human interest story in one well-researched, well-written package.

Bibliography: Brooks, Max.  World War ZAn Oral History of the Zombie War.  New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2006.

The Lyricist That Loves And Learns: An Interview With Mr. Smolin


Mr. Smolin at a live performance at Echo Curio. Copyright © 2009 by Mr. Smolin.

Barry Smolin is a man who fulfills many roles: English teacher, singer-songwriter, poet, and radio DJ.  He is also a good friend of mine and his writing is a great source of inspiration.  His song lyrics evoke a strange and wonderful harmony, and denote the presence of a highly imaginative mind.

When not teaching English at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles or being a DJ for “The Music Never Stops” on Sunday nights at KPFK 90.7 FM, Barry goes by the stage name “Mr. Smolin,” writing songs and other strange verses under such self-proclaimed genres as “Psychedelic Cabaret” and “Dorky Jewish Misfit Cabaret.”  His three major albums–released through Nomenclature Records–are At Apogee, The Crumbling Empire of White People, and Bring Back The Real Don Steele.

So today, I sit down with the one and only Mr. Smolin to talk a little about the sci-fi mystique of his song “At Apogee” and the inspiration behind his music.

Rhapsodist: Where did you get the inspiration for your song “At Apogee?”

Mr. Smolin: The first line of the song came to me in a dream.  I was looking at the sky–as I often do in dreams–and thought I saw a starfish streaking across the sky like a starship (a wonderfully muddled pun courtesy of my unconscious mind), and I realized I wasn’t on earth but rather hovering in deep space.  The dream was very still.  I never lost the sensation of some kind of gravity holding me. Not pulling me but holding me. When I awoke–it was a Sunday morning in late December–I pondered the dream imagery and also the dream sensation and understood the scenario as a metaphor for my relationship with my fellow human beings.  I recognized in it a lifelong pattern of distance and disengagement.  And so the song was born.

Rhapsodist: When you’re using some extended metaphors in your lyrics, do you find you have to do a lot of research beforehand or does this stuff come out naturally?

Mr. Smolin: First the metaphor/motif emerges naturally from the nature of the material.  The content births the form.  Then, once I become aware that a particular conceit has taken hold and will be threaded throughout the song, I call upon my English major skills and start gathering pertinent images/allusions to embellish the original idea.

Rhapsodist: Do you find that any of your work as an English teacher directly or indirectly sparks your creativity as a songwriter?

Mr. Smolin: Oh, definitely.  In a couple of different ways.  The students, of course, are an endless source of brilliant images, insights both accidental and intentional, not to mention all that hot brocade adolescent energy.  My encounters with them everyday nourish and inspire my creative life.  But also, the act of teaching certain works of literature can unexpectedly stoke a latent fire.  Just recently, while explicating Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” I was inspired to write a story called “Wake Up In The Dreamhouse,” composed one sentence at a time on Twitter this past summer.

Rhapsodist: And just for fun, if you had to pick one of your songs to be your own personal theme music, which would it be and why?

Mr. Smolin: Most of my songs are not autobiographical but rather observational.  But, coincidental to this conversation, I’d have to say that “At Apogee” is the closest I’ve come to expressing my own personal experience of being alive in the world (or out of it).  That song is my “Prufrock.”  I should have been a set of tentacled arms streaking across the vaults of starry skies.

You can read the lyrics to Mr. Smolin’s songs, along with his Twitter-born composition “Wake Up In The Dreamhouse,” at his website, mrsmolin.com.  You can also follow his divinely-inspired Twitter page.

Thanks to Barry Smolin for being so affirmative with this interview.  If you should happen to be in the LA area, dear readers, you could do worse than to tune in to 90.7 FM between 8 and 10 PM to catch Barry at his show “The Music Never Stops” or check his website for updates on his next live show.