Saturday, August 19, 2006

books! zombies, ponds, and loners!

An abundance, an embarrassment almost, of good reading lately has succeeded entirely in wiping the rancid aftertaste of Bully Boy from my mind. Naturally, this makes me happy - reading is one of my foremost pleasures, so a bad patch of it can make my entire waking life feel a little wrenched.

After A Tale of Two Summers I read Saint Iggy by K.L. Going, the author of the really good teen fiction book Fat Kid Rules the World. Saint Iggy is cut from much the same cloth - a memorable loner as the main character, and graceful, fun, fluid, intelligent writing throughout. Before I was half-way done with it, I'd forgotten my dissatisfactions with A Tale of Two Summers. Saint Iggy is hugely smarter as a book, and part of what lets it be so is the greater trust it reposes in the kids who'll be reading it.

I don't know an open-minded fiction-reading adult who wouldn't love this book strictly on its own merits. It was just the kind of smart, involving fiction that's a pleasure to read.

Just as I was finishing up Saint Iggy I struck broadside by an unlooked-for FANTASTIC book, Max Brooks' World War Z.

The book bills itself as a narrative history of World War Z, in which the nations of the world face annihilation at the hands of ... zombies!

Your cheesiness-alarms are going off, I can hear them from here. You're thinking no novel about zombies can be good in any way, unless in the exclusively silly way done so well by Sci-Fi Channel original movies. And in this case you'd be wrong!

Brooks has done an amazing job here, and he's taken the best - really the only - tone for the job: complete seriousness. He's imagined exactly how a plague of zombies would spread, what responses it would evoke from the living world, and what the long-term consequences would be. This book is twice as well thought-out than John Grisham's last three combined.

If you still don't believe me, if you're just close-minded enough to still be repeating to yourself "Oh, I don't know ... zombies ... doesn't sound like my kind of thing," then try this: try telling yourself that Brooks is just USING zombies as a metaphor for ANY world-wide pandemic - the initial misdiagnoses, the failed containment attempts, the aftermath. OK, so you're too much of a fiction snob to read a zombie novel - but surely you're JUST ENOUGH of a fiction snob to read a zombie ALLEGORY, right?

Of course Brooks ISN'T using zombies as a metaphor for anything else - that's a huge part of what makes this book so damn fun to read. No, this boy's got zombies on the brain, is fascinated by them, and World War Z only benefits from that. This is really the ultimate zombie novel, just like "Dawn of the Dead" is the ultimate zombie movie.

So cast aside your knee-jerk reactions and give World War Z a try! I myself found reading this zombie-Iliad tremendously enjoyable - I'd be willing to be you will too.

And just as I was finishing World War Z I came across a $2 copy of Alexandra Marshall's Still Waters, a natural history of America's freshwater ponds. This book came out in 1978, yet somehow I'd managed to miss it all this time.

Boy, am I glad our paths crossed at last. It's a slightly oversized hardcover with loads of fascinating black-and-white photos of every aspect of pond-life in all four seasons.

But the main drawing point is Marshall's writing, which is personal yet informative and always beautifully done. My young friend Elmo and I could tell you how rare this is - even in nature-writing, which tends to bring out the best in many writers, excellent prose isn't always a given.

Still Waters is out of print, but since it was produced originally to coincide with a Nova special, I'm guessing there's a healthy number of copies floating around out there. If you're at all interested in great nature-writing - and especially if you've ever fallen in love (as I have) with a particular pond or fen in all its seasons, you'll be well rewarded by hunting down a copy for yourself.

So there you have it, boom, boom, boom! Three really good books in a row, and my reading equilibrium is restored!

Up next? J.E. Lendon's book on warfare in classical antiquity, Soldiers & Ghosts. I confess to being a bit leery, since it was history done poorly that derailed my reading in the first place. But the book comes highly recommended by a friend whose opinion I trust (about books anyway ... he has deplorable taste in baseball teams), so it will be the meat of my next two hours.

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