The four-day weekend starts in a few hours (thanks, Holy Week!), and I’m really looking forward to the long and relaxing break from work and other major stressors. The Philippines being a “predominantly Catholic country”, everything stops during this time of the year; Manila becomes quiet and blissfully traffic-free as hordes of people troop to the provinces for actual religious observation and pre-booked holidays. (That’s the reward for enduring super-crazy traffic the week before, I guess.)
I usually stay in the city, catch up on sleep, read books, and/or hang out with friends during long weekends like this one. If you are up for a reading spree and are fond of the undead, these three books will serve you quite well.
For this blog entry, I have for you two works of fiction, and one science book. Zombies, corpses and vampires — awesome company for the whole four-day weekend, or maybe in between faith and familial obligations.
Click the link below or keep scrolling down:
- Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament, S.G. Browne
- Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach
- You Suck: A Love Story, Christopher Moore
According to S.G. Browne‘s 2009 fiction novel, Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament, not everyone gets to be true-blue zombies, and no one really knows why some people come back from the dead and some don’t. But the cause doesn’t really hold much importance for Andy Warner, who had just left his casket and discovered that he’s a freshly minted zombie.
(Side note: I first saw a paperback copy of Breathers while going around Fahasa Bookstore in Saigon. I wanted to buy it, but it wouldn’t didn’t fit my new rule of acquiring books about or set in the places I’m visiting. So I left it on the shelf, and eventually got a Kindle Edition book a few weeks after I returned to Manila.)
You read that right. Our hero’s a zombie. Breathers joins a real lengthy line of books, movies, games, music videos, and TV shows about our favorite gnarly brain-munchers. Here’s a brief rundown: Night of the Living Dead, the late Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Zombieland, Plants vs. Zombies, Quarantine, I Am Legend, Resident Evil, Max Brooks‘ hit book series (The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, which will be featured on The Reading Spree in a separate entry… sometime this year, hopefully), The Walking Dead, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Warm Bodies. I know I’ve missed a lot of popular titles in that short rundown; and given the strong popularity of these dead dudes and dudettes, there will be more novels, movies and parodies on the way.
What made me want to read Breathers is that, similar to the 2010 book Warm Bodies, the story unfolds from the protagonist’s point of view. In this case, it’s our darling dead dude Andy. And he manages to tell us a lot of things about how zombies “really” are, despite having damaged vocal chords and a mouth that’s been sewn shut. In Andy’s world, the zombies:
- Don’t eat brains. Well, most of them, anyway.
- Require formaldehyde to “live”. Lots and lots of it. You can even get your daily dose from foundation and lipstick.
- Are physically attacked, verbally abused and utterly reviled by humans (a.k.a. “breathers”), so much that these undead beings get food thrown at them every day (what a waste of food!), and often have to move in groups.
- Have absolutely no rights. This means they can’t do normal things: speak out against anything, hold jobs, buy anything, even walk down the street. Come to think of it, if you’ve already been declared dead…
- Have to be claimed by relatives and must be kept at home, and within close range. Andy was claimed by his parents at the SPCA, which serves as a pound of sorts. The unclaimed zombies will be dispatched in myriad ways.
- May wear reading glasses (mostly the older ones) and may have faulty hearing.
- Move relatively quickly — no slow-moving, moaning and idiotic zombies in this novel!
They also have to follow what Andy calls the Undead Commandments:
You will not disturb the living.
You will not be out after curfew.
You will not commit necrophilia.
You will not covet your neighbor’s flesh.
Back to Andy. He now has to get used to his new existence as a zombie, mourn his wife and child (who died in the car accident they were all in after Andy fell asleep at the wheel), communicate using a white board hanging around his neck plus a marker, attend Undead Anonymous meetings every week, see an annoying counselor who doesn’t and can’t really counsel him on zombie life, live in his parents’ house and basement wine cellar, endure his father’s outright wrath and mother’s disgust, and meet edible projectiles with his face and body.
Things eventually change for the better. Andy gets a few zombie pals from his support group, falls in love with gorgeous suicide victim Rita, and begins to fight back against his aggressors. And the story takes a few major turns when Andy and his friends discover that Ray’s Resplendent Rapture isn’t exactly what he said it is; and Andy decides that it’s time to improve the zombies’ way of life, becoming a media darling in the process.
Breathers is a fun read, and it made me a bigger fan of dark comedy and sarcasm. Several lines really made me laugh. A sampling:
- “It’s not like I reanimated with a five-year plan.” (Chapter 3)
- “Who expects zombies to dress up for Holloween?” (Chapter 8) (Reminds me of the yearly Holloween pass the residents of Hell get in Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned. So… no trick-or-treating for me, ever.)
- “I haven’t been to any of the zombie singles’ mixers, but I hear they’re a regular maggot-fest.” (Chapter 13)
- Jerry (a.k.a. Andy’s bro-for-life or BFL): “My purpose is to introduce all of the ladies to a new definition of stiffy.” (Chapter 16)
- Ray: “Satisfaction is a luxury. Contentment an extravagance. Like I always say, you can’t wait around for someone to solve your problems or improve your lot. Sooner or later, you have to help yourself. ” (Chapter 23)
- “Is it necrophilia if we’re both dead?” (Chapter 31)
- “I make a mental note to eat them if at all possible…” (Chapter 41)
- “I guess you can lead the media to a story but you can’t make them report it accurately.” (Chapter 48)
However, there are chapters wherein Andy seemed to go on and on and on about how miserable and hopeless his zombie existence is. The “slow” chapters are there to set up the upcoming pleasant changes in Andy’s life, but there were times when I just couldn’t wait for the action to get started already — it was like our hero’s moving much slower than the shuffling zombies you see in movies. I know I’m impatient, but those chapters really seemed to go on forever.
I did love the zombies’ gradual shift from survival to self-reliance and strength. That change was real nice. Fight for your rights! The love story and “unexpected best bud” story line didn’t feel forced, too. Andy had to open up and be happy at some point; a lover and a BFL were essential. I truly felt sad when two central characters were killed (well, again) in the last few chapters, but then the ending (which left me hanging, BTW) wouldn’t be what it is without those re-deaths.
Also, George A. Romero. ‘nuf said. 😛 I know he’s a legend, but other references would’ve been nice, too.
The Acknowledgements section of Breathers gave me a surprise. Browne gave a shout-out to an author whose 2003 non-fiction book just happened to be sitting on my bookshelf — and was already next in line on the reading list. Apparently, Browne got a good chunk of information on corpses from the author.
More life after life
I first saw veteran writer Mary Roach‘s byline on one of the old issues of Reader’s Digest Asia that was lying around at home. Roach had a column on the US version, which was routinely reprinted by the Asian edition.
The column I remember the most is the one where she talks about the his-and-hers mentality that’s present in a lot of romantic relationships (this includes married couples having separate bathroom sinks, just in case they “want to brush their teeth at exactly the same time”). She and her husband Ed, who she talks about a lot, tried merging their iTunes playlists. But Roach soon realized that their song and genre choices aren’t that compatible. (The phrase “out-of-date pap” got stuck in my head, for some reason.) The end of that month’s Reader’s Digest column ended with Roach stating that some things should be kept separate, but she and Ed have to use the same sink at the same time, at least for now.
What I noticed immediately was that Roach has a way of making the mundane and unusual very interesting and understandable, maybe even to the token village idiot. Really love her dry humor and no-nonsense writing style, too.
I think this style makes Roach the perfect person to write about corpses − and the centuries’ worth of notable contributions they’ve made for the benefit of the living. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers does it without inducing nosebleeds from its readers, or pushing away people like me, who don’t usually go for science books. She can take a big chunk of the credit: she needed just 292 pages to fully cover things that can be difficult for some to address, in an easy manner, and with humor in (almost) the right places. I couldn’t help but laugh at some inappropriate parts, but that’s just me. 😉 To be fair, I felt real queasy and weak-kneed while reading some chapters, too.
A lot of research, travel, interviews and on-site observations also took place for the book. It makes readers feel as if they were there beside Roach and her contacts, the way data and observations are given out in the book. Or it’s like chatting with a girlfriend, only with much more winning wisecracks, sobering facts, and macabre visuals. Did you know that:
- Necrophilia wasn’t a crime anywhere in the US before 1965? And that as of 2003 (the year Stiff was released), Roach noted that only 16 states have laws regarding necrophilia?
- There are other uses of corpses besides standard dissection and classroom instruction? Those include donated or unclaimed cadavers being “employed” as crash test dummies, subjects of body decay studies for scientific purposes and policework, and participants in the determination of the impact of bullets and bombs on the body.
- People used to take the heads of prisoners who have been guillotined to figure out when the human soul leaves the body?
Aside from the aforementioned topics, Stiff talked about:
- Cremation, burial and enbalming
- Medical/Criminal practitioners and scientists who regularly deal with cadavers, and their feelings and reservations (if any)
- Jesus’ crucifixion, The Shroud of Turin, and the arguments on both sides
- Body snatching
- Decapitation and head transplants
- The use of the body as compost material
- The application of tissue digestion/water reduction in mortuaries
- Ethical questions and concerns about the use of cadavers.
I think the parts that affected me the most were the ones where Roach talked about organ donation to save someone else’s life, and body donations for scientific studies and practical instruction to universities and specialty schools. She does have a good point: you can still help other people after you die − I should remind everyone that organ/body donation should be done with your consent, and through legal means.
Roach outlined her decision at the end of the book; after reading it in its entirety, I’ve also made mine. I am warning you that I won’t be able to donate all organs as my heart, liver, eyes and lungs might be shot to shit by this time. 😜
Verdict: Superb read, but certainly not for the faint-hearted. Good call, buying this book from an online seller three or so years ago.
It can get real bloody sometimes
It was one of those days. I had errands to run, and when everything was done, my feet took me straight to a bookstore. In this case, it was the National Book Store branch in Glorietta 5, Makati City. As I roamed the second floor, I spotted a paperback book in light blue bearing Christopher Moore‘s name; and a title and artwork that promised a funny, crazy and absurd tale about vampires. Cool. Count me in.
At that time, Twilight was taking over the bookshelves and movie screens, and I needed a vampire story that I can actually enjoy (save for True Blood and the movie adaptation of Interview with the Vampire). Forget sparkling vampires and vapid heroines! I took the book and went straight to the cashier. I loved Moore’s previous novels (specifically Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal and A Dirty Job), so I had no doubt that this one’s a good read, too.
Fast forward a few years. I finally had the chance to read the book I bought on impulse. By this time, vampire mania is in full force, along with zombies. Perfect timing.
I began reading the first few chapters. I soon realize that I must’ve missed something. A quick check with good ol’ Wikipedia proved me right. You Suck: A Love Story is actually the second book in a trilogy; it’s preceded by Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, and followed by Bite Me: A Love Story. (It’s a three-part love story. Obviously.) As someone who usually makes book purchase decisions based on the blurbs on the back cover, I was a bit annoyed with myself. But Tommy and Jody already had my interest piqued, so I kept reading.
Here’s a brief summary: Jody the vampire turned Tommy into a vampire. They both get used to being creatures of the night (with differing outcomes) and work out the kinks in their relationship. They also begin to try to solve the problems arising from the first novel, eventually hiring Abby Normal (a perky Goth) as their minion and her creepy Goth friend Jared as substitute minion.
Meanwhile, the Animals (Tommy’s friends, co-workers and fellow turkey bowlers at the Safeway), The Emperor, and two inspectors find out about them. The Animals go after Tommy at the orders of a blue-skinned stripper named Blue (duh), who they picked up after a sex-booze-and-drugs binge in Vegas. The Emperor and his dogs try to save their beloved city of San Francisco. Inspectors Nick Cavuto and Alphonse Rivera run around town trying to find a killer, and worry about not being able to retire and open the rare book store they dream about owning and operating.
While all of this is happening, Elijah Ben Sapir (a.k.a. Jody’s maker) gets out of the bronze casing Tommy put him in, causes more trouble, and joins the hunt for Tommy and Jody. Then there’s this huge shaved-and-sweatered cat named Chet, who hasn’t been fed yet. Oh, and there’s this biotech dude named Steve who says he found a cure for vampirism.
The characters may get into the messiest of affairs, but as expected, You Suck is a fun and quick read, and is quite difficult to put down once you get started − even if you started at Book 2. Couldn’t help but crack up while reading many of the chapters. I still prefer Lamb in terms of laughs and wit, but this one pretty comes close.
The author also glosses over the events in the previous novel without breaking momentum in the current novel, so readers don’t get confused. However, keep in mind that there will be some parts that really require Wikipedia’s help. 😜
Like Breathers, You Suck tries to change things up a bit in vampire lit. Several deviations from the established rules:
- Vampires don’t need coffins, but still have to be protected from sunlight so they don’t go up in flames. If you have to go up rafters, cover yourself up in tarpaulins, or hide under mattresses and beds, then do so.
- The vamps here automatically conk out at sunrise − and don’t wake up until the first second of sunset. No staying up late for these folks.
- They subsist only on blood, but can also mix blood into their preferred beverage (e.g., coffee and liquor) or put it on normal food so that their system accepts it and they don’t retch.
- If their prey’s drunk, they’ll get drunk too.
- At least in Tommy and Jody’s case, sex or “sweet monkey love” results in the utter destruction of their loft.
A few Moore trademarks are in this book. First up is his penchant for integrating historical and cultural references. For example, The Emperor, Bummer and Lazarus are named after Joshua Norton − the self-declared “Emperor of These United States” and the “Protector of Mexico” − and stray dogs that weren’t owned by Norton, but were equally famous in San Francisco. Abby Normal is a reference to 1974 Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein. Blue reminds readers of Smurfette, and is actually referred to as a Smurf by the Animals (as in, “Have you ever fucked a Smurf?”). Abby also mentions her desire to be a Nosferatu quite often in her ultra-perky diary entries.
The whole trilogy also brings back a lot of characters from A Dirty Job. The Emperor, Bummer, Lazarus, Inspectors Cavuto and Rivera and Jody are also in that book. In fact, You Suck is in the same timeline in the Chris Moore-verse as A Dirty Job. Jody’s actually the previously unnamed redhead in the latter novel who goes into Asher’s Secondhand to give Charlie Asher, the new Death Merchant, a cigarette case that glows − a new vessel for the soul of the dead. Abby’s the best friend of Lily, Charlie’s employee at the shop. This pattern of character cameos continues throughout Moore’s work, with different characters popping into different novels.
Abby, the awesome scene stealer, takes on a bigger role in the third book. Have to get and read Bite Me… but also need to go back and read Bloodsucking Fiends first. 😊 Obviously, You Suck doesn’t suck.