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.

Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament by S.G. Browne, STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, and You Suck: A Love Story by Christopher Moore.

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.

(Warning: Contains spoilers. You’ve been warned.)

Random reanimation

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.)

Bring on the zombie literature!

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 LegendResident 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.

Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament, S.G. Browne
E-book, Broadway Books
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble |  Kobo Books

(Next: “More Life After Life”: STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach)