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The Brief History of the Dead

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From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation's most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents cl From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation's most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the City’s only newspaper, are wondering what exactly is going on. Others, like Coleman Kinzler, believe it is the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is trapped in an Antarctic research station, her supplies are running low, her radio finds only static, and the power is failing. With little choice, Laura sets out across the ice to look for help, but time is running out. Kevin Brockmeier alternates these two storylines to create a lyrical and haunting story about love, loss and the power of memory.


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From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation's most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents cl From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation's most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the City’s only newspaper, are wondering what exactly is going on. Others, like Coleman Kinzler, believe it is the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is trapped in an Antarctic research station, her supplies are running low, her radio finds only static, and the power is failing. With little choice, Laura sets out across the ice to look for help, but time is running out. Kevin Brockmeier alternates these two storylines to create a lyrical and haunting story about love, loss and the power of memory.

30 review for The Brief History of the Dead

  1. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    How many people have you met in your life? How many have you glanced at on the street, seen in a shop, sat opposite and shared a smile with at a concert? Ten thousand? Twenty? Imagine that every person you ever met, ever remembered, has endured after death, kept alive by the power of your memory. This is the central idea around which Kevin Brockmeier has constructed a book of surprising beauty and sadness, a novel different from most of what I read, but rewarding and memorable. Few books stick s How many people have you met in your life? How many have you glanced at on the street, seen in a shop, sat opposite and shared a smile with at a concert? Ten thousand? Twenty? Imagine that every person you ever met, ever remembered, has endured after death, kept alive by the power of your memory. This is the central idea around which Kevin Brockmeier has constructed a book of surprising beauty and sadness, a novel different from most of what I read, but rewarding and memorable. Few books stick solidly in my memory. Fewer genuinely hit me in the heart. The Brief History of the Dead did both. In the word that Brockmeier builds there is a more than just this flesh-bound existence. Beyond life in our world there is an afterlife that is effectively a second chance to live again. This post-life life is a vast city, populated by millions of people who have passed on from our world and who work, live, love and play among its streets and buildings. Brockmeier’s afterlife is oddly mundane. There are no big answers, no resolutions. People carry on, and relationships fail, and pain continues. The issues of their lives, their worries and frustrations come with them- they are the same people they always were, in an unfamiliar city populated by the dead. The idea that the dead live on in our memories is a sentiment often heard at funerals, and here Brockmeier makes it a reality. While there are still people on earth who remember you then you continue your second life in the city. When the final person who remembers you passes on then you disappear to no-one knows where, perhaps another afterlife, or perhaps oblivion. But this city of the dead is threatened, at the same time as all human life on earth is endangered too. A virus of terrifying murderousness is sweeping the globe, killing billions, and as each person dies, so the people in the afterlife that they remembered have disappeared too. While the dead wonder what is happening on Earth the still-living Laura Byrd is part of an Antarctic expedition sponsored by Coca Cola, staying in a remote hut with two of her colleagues. As the virus ravages the world Laura’s companions decide to trek to a nearby base to look for other survivors. When they fail to return Laura sets out after them. As Laura begins her lonely struggle across the most inhospitable continent on earth both she and the tens of thousands who live in the city must start to come to terms with what could be not only the end of human civilisation, but the end of the afterlife too. Brockmeier’s book is moving and melancholy, but also somehow uplifting at times despite its end of days feel. His storytelling is deft and he handles the juxtaposition between Laura’s world of ice and ever-threatening death with the bustle of the afterlife city. There is a great deal of pathos here, and some really quite beautiful writing. I found Brockmeier’s afterlife both compelling and alluring, despite its downsides - who wouldn’t like to imagine their relatives living on in another world, waiting for the chance to meet you again while enjoying a second, full span of life? Even my coldly rational atheist’s heart warmed at the prospect of seeing my dear grandparents together again in such a place, and The Brief History of the Dead left me with a sense of sadness and wonder that I have very rarely encountered in fiction.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Richard Derus

    Rating: 3.9* of five The Publisher Says: From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation's most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the City’s only newspa Rating: 3.9* of five The Publisher Says: From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation's most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the City’s only newspaper, are wondering what exactly is going on. Others, like Coleman Kinzler, believe it is the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is trapped in an Antarctic research station, her supplies are running low, her radio finds only static, and the power is failing. With little choice, Laura sets out across the ice to look for help, but time is running out. Kevin Brockmeier alternates these two storylines to create a lyrical and haunting story about love, loss and the power of memory. My Review: I am simply appalled that my cynical shell has been breached by a man who has an MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and who has been published in McSweeney's, Crazyhorse, and suchlike Writerly Venues. Appalled. But then there's this: Anyone who has ever experienced love knows that you can have too much or too little. You can have love that parches, love that defeats. You can have love measured out in the wrong proportions. It's like your sunlight and water - the wrong kind of love is just as likely to stifle hope as it is to nourish it. That, laddies and gentlewomen, needed saying and needed Brockmeier to say it. It's just that true, and just that beautifully crafted. I hate that. I make merciless fun of, and throw lots of rotten eggs at, the Writerly Writers like Eggers and Franzen and Foster Wallace for their pretty sentences going nowhere new or even all that interesting. Their self-congratulatory cadres, nay myrmidons, attack anyone who dares say, "yeah, so?" of the myrmidons' ikons. Why can't Brockmeier have inspired such a slavish, culty following, so that I may point and say, "but him! He's a good one! He's a Writerly Writer with something *interesting* to say!" Life is unfair. But anyway. The story is a good one, of dislocation in time and space with all that implies for identity...how do we survive as ourselves even knowing that we aren't in any space ever known to us?...so we're already of to a pleasing start. The Writerly Writing is an enhancement of the basic story, because the sentences being self-consciously pretty and profound make a point about the afterlife. It's a well-used technique in this instance, and doesn't feel show-offy as normally it could or even would. The ending. Well, now, all things have flaws. The important question is, is it a raku pottery crazing-type flaw, or an inclusion-in-the-diamond-type flaw? This will greatly depend on one's point of view of the afterlife. I'm on the fence with this book's ending...and I come down on the raku-pottery side only because I like the rest of the book so much. A different mood, and this would be a three-star review with a sad, impatient growl about the sentimentality of the ending. Lucky Brockmeier. I had Thin Mints before I wrote this review.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Annet

    I'm still not sure what to think about this book exactly. I bought the book because I found the theme and story line extremely intriguing. It makes you think... about 'life after death', about a virus situation spreading over the world beyond control, about relationships and memories... How can someone think of a story line like this? Wow! It's in between fantasy and real life, this one. So... I started reading, and the beginning was intriguing and promising, but somehow the story didn't 'catch' I'm still not sure what to think about this book exactly. I bought the book because I found the theme and story line extremely intriguing. It makes you think... about 'life after death', about a virus situation spreading over the world beyond control, about relationships and memories... How can someone think of a story line like this? Wow! It's in between fantasy and real life, this one. So... I started reading, and the beginning was intriguing and promising, but somehow the story didn't 'catch' me really. I did like the concept of the two separate storylines and how they seem to intertwine the further you come into the book, and there are some good moments in the book, very well written and food for thought, but at times I also found the story slow and dragging.... The theme however, again, brilliantly found. Afterword, all these years this book has been in the back of my head, the theme being so weird and out of the box. that is a solid 3 stars now.

  4. 4 out of 5

    karen

    i always want more. even when i enjoy a book - especially when i enjoy a book... i love the concept of this book, and while its true there are some implausibilities here, and while it gets a little thin in places, it is easy to overlook because it is such a delight to read. yes, a delight. i am tacking on a little more to this sad and short excuse for a review because i was thinking about this book today, after i finished reading "on the beach". if anyone needs a dissertation topic or just has th i always want more. even when i enjoy a book - especially when i enjoy a book... i love the concept of this book, and while its true there are some implausibilities here, and while it gets a little thin in places, it is easy to overlook because it is such a delight to read. yes, a delight. i am tacking on a little more to this sad and short excuse for a review because i was thinking about this book today, after i finished reading "on the beach". if anyone needs a dissertation topic or just has the free time to write something for fun, you could do worse than to explore the placement of coca-cola in post-apocalyptic fiction. i think it would be fun. feel free to use this book, the road, on the beach, and many others. what does this say about the permanence of american commercialism? to whom do we assign responsibility? is its inclusion meant to evoke wistful nostalgia or cynical consumerism? discuss.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    I dearly wanted to love this book. The first chapter--establishing a vast city of the recently dead, an afterlife for everyone still remembered by the living--is amazing and beautiful. The second chapter flies off in another direction entirely, and plants us firmly in the ice and snow of antarctica. From there the novel alternates: each odd-numbered chapter explores the city of the dead from a new character's perspective, while the even-numbered chapters follow the adventures of the woman in Ant I dearly wanted to love this book. The first chapter--establishing a vast city of the recently dead, an afterlife for everyone still remembered by the living--is amazing and beautiful. The second chapter flies off in another direction entirely, and plants us firmly in the ice and snow of antarctica. From there the novel alternates: each odd-numbered chapter explores the city of the dead from a new character's perspective, while the even-numbered chapters follow the adventures of the woman in Antarctica, Laura Byrd, who seems to be the last living person in the world. If this structure sounds like too difficult a balancing act to maintain, that's because it is. Brockmeier holds things together in the first half, but before too long he's grasping to fill out the length of the novel. The stories of the city remain interesting, if hard to believe, for a while. People there listen to music and eat food that comes from...well, from nowhere, apparently. And back in the real world, Laura Byrd journeys from one station to the next, across a vast wasteland of ice and snow. Her scenes are so painfully and poetically protracted that one could easily skip three and four pages at a time without missing anythng but descriptions of frostbitten extremities and an unvaried landscape. The prose is beautiful in the first half and rounds back into top form in the final quarter of the book, which may sustain some readers' engagement. By the anticlimactic ending, though, this "novel" feels like two excellent short stories stretched far beyond their breaking points, and The Brief History of the Dead ultimately fails to be brief enough.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Oceana2602

    Here's the story how I came by the best book I read in 2007: So I'm standing at King's Cross station, waiting for a friend of mine to arrive by train. Oh, look, there's a Waterstones! They are having a 3 for the price of 2 sale, and there are two books that I wanted to buy anyway. Now, let's find a third one! This one looks pretty, and it isn't too heavy, gotta fly back tomorrow. *buys books* Great, my friend's train is an hour late. Let's read a book. That third one isn't too long. *reads* *reads* *r Here's the story how I came by the best book I read in 2007: So I'm standing at King's Cross station, waiting for a friend of mine to arrive by train. Oh, look, there's a Waterstones! They are having a 3 for the price of 2 sale, and there are two books that I wanted to buy anyway. Now, let's find a third one! This one looks pretty, and it isn't too heavy, gotta fly back tomorrow. *buys books* Great, my friend's train is an hour late. Let's read a book. That third one isn't too long. *reads* *reads* *reads* *Friend arrives* *continues reading* *has to leave book shortly because people tell me social life more important than books* *finishes book on plane-ride back home* (I never said it was a very interesting story.) Here's the story of the book (which isinteresting): A city where people go after they die. Suddenly the population grows unexpectedly, but then people start leaving. At the same time, Laura is fighting for her life in the Antarctic. You may have come across some of the ideas before, but never in this way. Brockmeier is never predictable, and even though you know how this story has to end, the consequence with which he tells it right until the inevitable ending was so powerful that it left me disoriented and shocked. BEST book I read in 2007 without doubt. Here's what the papers say about it: "Brockmeier's confident voice, obervational brilliance and playful humour dazzle to the end." "Highly impressive." "Brockmeier is a lyrical yet subtle writer...A powerful read." I call your praise and raise you by a thousand.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ann M

    There should be a particular damp shelf in book hell for science fiction books that start off with an interesting premise and then go absolutely NOWHERE. I mean, nowhere. I'm used to sci fi that starts off well, then is okay in the middle, then fizzles out. This one fizzled right away. I mean, who cares what the city of the still-remembered is like if nothing happens there? Who cares about all the dull crossing stories, and really, WHO CARES about the idiot street preacher as the last human on e There should be a particular damp shelf in book hell for science fiction books that start off with an interesting premise and then go absolutely NOWHERE. I mean, nowhere. I'm used to sci fi that starts off well, then is okay in the middle, then fizzles out. This one fizzled right away. I mean, who cares what the city of the still-remembered is like if nothing happens there? Who cares about all the dull crossing stories, and really, WHO CARES about the idiot street preacher as the last human on earth is risking death on the ice in Antarctica? This is not a book, it's an idea.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Alan

    Could have been briefer.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Maciek

    I really wanted to enjoy The Brief History of the Dead, but unfortunately it just didn't do anything for me. The novel attracted me with its intriguing premise, but ultimately proved to simply be far too long and too dull. The premise makes this story: The Brief History of the Dead features the concept of a city to which the recently dead travel after they pass away. They can stay in the city, but only as long as someone who remembers them is still alive - after which they disappear, never to be I really wanted to enjoy The Brief History of the Dead, but unfortunately it just didn't do anything for me. The novel attracted me with its intriguing premise, but ultimately proved to simply be far too long and too dull. The premise makes this story: The Brief History of the Dead features the concept of a city to which the recently dead travel after they pass away. They can stay in the city, but only as long as someone who remembers them is still alive - after which they disappear, never to be seen again by other puzzled souls. And inhabitants of the city are disappearing at an alarmingly fast rate - back on earth a mysterious plague is wiping out the rest of humanity. Laura Byrd, a lone scientist on a research mission in the Antarctic, begins to suspect that she might be the last living person on earth: as she journeys from station to station, clinging desperately to life, she slowly loses herself in memories of people she used to know: in the city of the dead, these few souls depend on her survival for their own. Kevin Brockmeier can write very well, and really set the mood for his scenes - of particular interest are his atmospheric descriptions of ice and cold through which Laura has to travel - but with this book he just can't bring himself to tell an interesting and captivating story; the entire book feels like a good idea which was stretched out way too thin, and for way too long. Funnily enough, it probably was the case - The Brief History of the Dead was originally published in New Yorker as a short story in 2003, and the novel just feels like an unnecessary expansion on that idea. Many novels found their beginning in short stories and novellas, but The Brief History of the Dead is one of these books which should have stuck to the short form - for their own book. In longer form, the novel ultimately fails to engage and captivate the reader - I could not get involved in any of the characters and their stories, and ultimately just did not care about any of them. Though I did get a chuckle with the idea of (view spoiler)[the world ending because of Coca-Cola (hide spoiler)] , but I really don't think that makes the book worth reading.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Trudi

    This book started out brilliantly with a wonderfully unique premise. The writing is e-x-c-e-l-l-e-n-t, but somehow the story loses its momentum at the end and speaking of endings, I found this one to be very unsatisfying. However, I enjoyed this book enough to try something else by Kevin Brockmeier.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ana-Maria Petre

    “Many African societies divide humans into 3 categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. As “Many African societies divide humans into 3 categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. As generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered. Many...can be recalled by name. But they are not living-dead. There is a difference.” One thing's for sure, I will never read this twice. There's a certain consuming hopelessness about it, a helpless resignation which does not do well to the soul. It presents a sad perspective on existence: after death, life gets no more better than before. Brockmeier brilliantly portraits this idea of lifeless afterlife, people doing everyday things because they're used to doing them, not because they have to be done anymore. They wander through the city like night walkers in their sleep: being there, but not really there. The narration is largely constructed from the inside of characters' minds, so you will know what each of them is thinking about. This can get tedious after a time, especially when they start hallucinating. Other people's dreams are always sterile. I remarked a disconsolate solitude of the characters. Despite living all together in one city, they are incredibly lonely, like roles in someone else's dream. I wouldn't wish for such an afterlife. Their lives are pieced together from fragments; death is not the end, nor a new beginning, but a painful and slow attempt at existing. "The game had to be played the same way every day or the pieces would fall to the floor, the board would collapse, and the illusion that you were shaping your own life, that you were in control, would break.” I'll go read some Chesterton to purge my mind of all this unwanted pessimism.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ken-ichi

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Diverting, but not much more. The book didn't displease me, but it never left the blocks of its central conceit: there's a city you go to when you die, populated by those still remembered by the living. You know that from the dust jacket, and it seems like fruitful territory for some Italo Calvino-esque slices of city life, but Brockmeier keeps his cast relatively small and his narrative surprisingly linear, short, and ultimately unsatisfying. There still seems like opportunity for some straight Diverting, but not much more. The book didn't displease me, but it never left the blocks of its central conceit: there's a city you go to when you die, populated by those still remembered by the living. You know that from the dust jacket, and it seems like fruitful territory for some Italo Calvino-esque slices of city life, but Brockmeier keeps his cast relatively small and his narrative surprisingly linear, short, and ultimately unsatisfying. There still seems like opportunity for some straightforward storytelling: how many are left alive? How and why was the disease unleashed? What lies beyond the city? But these avenues go unexplored, or are dealt with in anticlimax. So what's the point of this dystopia? This isn't a contemplation on depravity and whittled hope like Cormac McCarthy's The Road (life in the city is too cushy). Neither is it the possibly-rotten future-present pie of a George Saunders story (not as funny or as well-written). One dust jacket reviewer described it as "an elegy for how we live now," but I didn't come away with any sense of the author's feelings on the significance (or insignificance) of humanity's life and times, or its passing. The NYTimes review is decent, if harsh: "The bold premise at the heart of 'The Brief History of the Dead' could have offered the best sorts of complex pleasures, narrative and metaphysical, that science fiction has to offer. Instead it merely flounders, a waste of a perfectly good idea."

  13. 4 out of 5

    Res

    The one where when people die, they go to live in "the city" until no living person remembers them. Meanwhile, on earth, things are turning out very badly. I loved the short story that became the first chapter. And there are so many beautifully observed moments that I found the book quite enjoyable while I was reading it. It was only afterwards that doubts began to creep up. The real-world part of the story has two major implausibilities in it: why the company would consolidate its production into The one where when people die, they go to live in "the city" until no living person remembers them. Meanwhile, on earth, things are turning out very badly. I loved the short story that became the first chapter. And there are so many beautifully observed moments that I found the book quite enjoyable while I was reading it. It was only afterwards that doubts began to creep up. The real-world part of the story has two major implausibilities in it: why the company would consolidate its production into one facility in one country, and why Laura would leave the nice, safe polar station once she finally found it. Of course the answer to both these questions is, "Because the plot depends on it," but the in-story answers are not convincing. I loved the city of the dead when I read the short story. I loved the vagueness of its geography and economics and weather, and the way people came and went with no warning as you gradually understood what sort of city it was and what kept people there. At novel length, though, I started wanting questions answered. There's one beggar and one crazy person, and we see one beating, but in a place where no one can die, there's no crime? No lootings, no arson, no vandalism, no muggings, not even reckless driving? In a place where there's no pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease, there are no orgies, no public sex? Children arrive with no parents, and no one abuses them? For that matter, who's going to devote sixty or seventy years to caring for a three-year-old who will never be four? And why O why does the one and only violent crime we see have be committed by the only two non-heterosexual people in the world? It's interesting to compare this city to Bellona in Samuel Delany's Dhalgren -- both are cities cut off from the world, in which normal cause and effect sometimes don't apply, but the city of the dead seems unrealistically lacking in id, while Bellona is all id and nothing else. (2007 Locus poll: #13 fantasy.)

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. The Brief History of the Dead had a fantastic premise but ultimately failed to deliver. In this book, there is the earth and the living and there is a city of the recently dead. The dead stay "alive" in this city as long as there are living people on earth who remember them. Once everyone who knows you dies, then you pass on to the final death. I loved the idea of the city of the living dead and I thought there was some great writing on it. "What kind of heaven had the blasting of garbage trucks The Brief History of the Dead had a fantastic premise but ultimately failed to deliver. In this book, there is the earth and the living and there is a city of the recently dead. The dead stay "alive" in this city as long as there are living people on earth who remember them. Once everyone who knows you dies, then you pass on to the final death. I loved the idea of the city of the living dead and I thought there was some great writing on it. "What kind of heaven had the blasting of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end?" (p. 7) But Brockmeier doesn't linger on the idea of the city of the living dead for very long. A plague (which was indirectly started by Coca-Cola) is killing off the entire population of the earth, and the city of the living dead is emptying out. Eventually, only Laura Byrd, a scientist who was on a publicity stunt expedition to Antarctica, is left alive on earth and only the people she knew are "alive" in the city. This should have been a character driven story, and it turns into a disappointing thriller. I felt like Brockmeier wasted way too much time on Laura's struggle for survival. We know already she's going to die and there is no tension to it, because in this universe, we know that there is life after death. Then in the city of the dead half of the book, he spreads the story out between too many characters and I didn't develop a strong connection to any of them so I couldn't feel any sense of worry about their final deaths. And we never get to find out what happens after the final death, which was the biggest rip-off of all.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mauoijenn

    I loved the concept of this story line. Ghosts/spirits or what ever you want to call it, still roaming around in our everyday life. But they hang round until the very last person who remembers them passes away them selves. It just didn't match up to all the hype. Still it was okay.

  16. 5 out of 5

    lark benobi

    I really loved this book--beautiful writing and a thought provoking cosmology.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    One of the few comforts we can draw on when facing up to our own mortality is the fact that we will live on in the memories of those we leave behind. Kevin Brockmeier takes this sentiment and envisions a world in which it is literally true. As such, The Brief History of the Dead makes for a unique take on the idea of life and death, as well as a poignant testimony to the power of memory. For the dearly departed, there is no heaven or hell in this world of Brockmeier's imagination. Although the c One of the few comforts we can draw on when facing up to our own mortality is the fact that we will live on in the memories of those we leave behind. Kevin Brockmeier takes this sentiment and envisions a world in which it is literally true. As such, The Brief History of the Dead makes for a unique take on the idea of life and death, as well as a poignant testimony to the power of memory. For the dearly departed, there is no heaven or hell in this world of Brockmeier's imagination. Although the crossing can be extremely difficult, each soul finds his/her way to a magnificent City. Apart from the City's mysterious ability to expand in such a way that the newly arrived always have a place to live and work, it proves to be much like Earth. Many of its denizens take up the same kind of life they used to live, performing the same jobs and reuniting with loved ones who have also passed on, while others choose to reinvent themselves. After 60 or 70 years, many of them quietly disappear, but most are too busy living their own lives to really worry about their own distant future. It soon becomes clear, however, that those in the City remain there only as long as they exist in the living memories of individuals on Earth. The great City undergoes drastic changes when a deadly virus back on Earth begins claiming the lives of a majority of the living world's population. Our only window into this futuristic Earth comes through the eyes of wildlife specialist Laura Byrd, but she could not be more isolated from the infection. Laura is in fact stranded on her own in a hut in deepest Antarctica, having had the rotten luck to be selected as one of three team members sent down there by the publicity-happy Coca-Cola Corporation to explore methods for using pure Antarctic ice in the manufacture of its product (which doesn't sound so crazy once you hear about the environmental problems of this futuristic Earth). Having lost their communications equipment to the elements, Laura's teammates set out for the nearest research station, promising to come back for her. That was over three weeks ago. With the hut's heating coils finally failing, Laura has no choice but to set out on her own. What follows is a visceral and engrossing survival story that would have done Jack London proud. As Laura struggles to survive, the denizens of the City find themselves drastically reduced in number. When they realize they each have a connection to Laura Byrd, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that every other man, woman, and child on Earth is now dead. The big question is what will happen to the remaining denizens of the City once Laura herself dies. The reader will find this question almost as meaningful as the characters themselves, for Brockmeier makes you a part of their precarious afterlife. Two in particular, a journalism professor who had an affair with a young Laura and one of Laura's childhood friends, are wonderfully evocative characters who serve as the author's primary sounding boards for his speculative ideas of memory vis-à-vis human interaction and its implications for life (and even afterlife) itself. It's a fascinating novel, but the conclusion may prove a little disappointing to some, for one could say that it ends with a whimper rather than a bang. As a reader, one cannot help but want more than Brockmeier gives us in the end, but I find it hard to criticize a book or its author on those terms. No matter what you think of the conclusion, The Brief History of the Dead is a poignant literary journey offering readers a unique perspective on some of the deepest questions of life and death.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sezín Koehler

    This was an incredibly profound book, and I have a feeling that it will shape the way I see the world and death from now on. I really wasn't expecting it to affect me this way, and it completely came out of nowhere. Can't recommend this one enough. Absolutely gorgeous in every way.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Amerie

    fantastic world-building + ongoing sense of wonder = a novel that is very hard to put down

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    I picked up this book after listening to an episode of KCRW's To The Best Of Our Knowledge entitled "Apocalyptic Fiction" (mp3). I had just finished reading Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," and felt myself compelled to read a bit more "apocalyptic fiction." Unfortunately, the brutal grandeur of "The Road" set the bar too high. It seems unfair to compare the two books, but because I read them in succession I feel I must. Where "The Road" was almost liberatingly sparse and hopeless, "The Brief History I picked up this book after listening to an episode of KCRW's To The Best Of Our Knowledge entitled "Apocalyptic Fiction" (mp3). I had just finished reading Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," and felt myself compelled to read a bit more "apocalyptic fiction." Unfortunately, the brutal grandeur of "The Road" set the bar too high. It seems unfair to compare the two books, but because I read them in succession I feel I must. Where "The Road" was almost liberatingly sparse and hopeless, "The Brief History of the Dead" seemed, at points, weighed down by triviality. Where "The Road" was unrelenting in its voice (its coarse, dessicated voice), "The Brief History of the Dead" seemed, at points, to waiver between a beautiful fantastic realism, the supernatural, and a future reality that seemed a bit trite. "The Brief History of the Dead" itself is set on a beautiful premise: a land where those who have died yet remain in the living's memories reside...and the real-world events the shape a collective understanding of its inhabitants. The story is peppered with beautiful imagery (people's travels to the world of the dead, the fractured pieces of memories, the confused acceptance of existence) but sometimes is too bogged down in a weird simplistic futurism (big bad corporations involved in Brazil-esque schemes). It's a good book, just don't read it after reading "The Road."

  21. 4 out of 5

    Michelle Morris

    What the heck just happened. I am so frustrated with that ending!!!! Kind of feel like I just wasted a lot of time on this book. It started out a little slow, but then I really got into the idea of this story. It was (for me) a really new and interesting concept and I was looking forward to see where it went. It went no where. That's where it went. No where.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Patrick St-Amand

    A nice haunting book that brings an interesting twist on the afterlife. Fans expecting resolution be forewarned; it's a kind of incomplete ending. I really did enjoy this book even if the promise of the story didn't find it's way into the ending. Something different but don't expect to get all the answers when you're done.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Marvin

    A moving story that explores the power of memory, the significance of loss, and the meaning of our existence. While reading this novel I was constantly reminded of Berkeley's "If a tree falls in the forest" question. Certainly many of us want to know that our life have meaning, perhaps even remembered beyond our existence. I think these are the ideas Brockmeier is playing with and of course he has no real answer but the route he takes is one mesmerizing journey. Two separate stories are revealed A moving story that explores the power of memory, the significance of loss, and the meaning of our existence. While reading this novel I was constantly reminded of Berkeley's "If a tree falls in the forest" question. Certainly many of us want to know that our life have meaning, perhaps even remembered beyond our existence. I think these are the ideas Brockmeier is playing with and of course he has no real answer but the route he takes is one mesmerizing journey. Two separate stories are revealed with both of them gently weaved together. The first one is about a city where the dead live until they are no longer remembered by those on earth and then disappear into a unknown future. This story meanders like a philosophical but casual conversation as the city empties leaving only a few thousand left to wonder why. The other story evolves around Laura Byrd who is trapped in an Antarctica station and may be the only living survivor of Earth. This story reads like an adventure tale as Laura tries to survive and find out what happened to the rest of the world. I like the contrast between the tales. Yet the journey is the thing. Those who criticize the lack of resolution in this novel are missing the point. This is a novel of questions not answers.

  24. 4 out of 5

    liz

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. This book had no climax. I mean, I figured out what would probably happen... and then it did. And that was it. It mostly takes place in a city where everyone who's died, but can still be readily remembered by at least one living person, continues to exist. It also follows a three-person research expedition for the Coca Cola company to the Antarctic. A horribly deadly virus escapes into the world population... and whoops, I just gave away the ending. He could not decide which possibility was the m This book had no climax. I mean, I figured out what would probably happen... and then it did. And that was it. It mostly takes place in a city where everyone who's died, but can still be readily remembered by at least one living person, continues to exist. It also follows a three-person research expedition for the Coca Cola company to the Antarctic. A horribly deadly virus escapes into the world population... and whoops, I just gave away the ending. He could not decide which possibility was the most likely, an uncertainty that disturbed him greatly, and for the rest of the day he found his mind returning to the matter as he preached, his voice lapsing into silence while he listened to the wings of the question beating around in his head. The people of the city flowed around him like water around a stone, and finally he gave up and went home and sat on the edge of his bed, and he watched the shadows as they shifted across the floor of his room, and he listened to a girl who was jumping rope on the street below his window.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

    The story is based on an African belief that the dead remain in a limbo world until the last person who remembers them also dies. Only then will they pass on to whatever afterlife awaits them. In a world that has killed itself with pollution, war, and finally disease, this is the tale of the last survivor and what ultimately happens to those whom she holds in her memory. I liked the premise much more than the execution. I wish there was more to the ending but maybe that's what the authors intend The story is based on an African belief that the dead remain in a limbo world until the last person who remembers them also dies. Only then will they pass on to whatever afterlife awaits them. In a world that has killed itself with pollution, war, and finally disease, this is the tale of the last survivor and what ultimately happens to those whom she holds in her memory. I liked the premise much more than the execution. I wish there was more to the ending but maybe that's what the authors intended. It was interesting and I did enjoy reading it.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Shaniqua Lizardo

    Good premise, but not entirely well-fleshed out story. This book made me realize that I don't take well to survival stories, because (A) there is only person to care about and if I don't like that person, well that's that, isn't it? and (B) NOTHING HAPPENS. No conversations, no character development, hardly any movement. It's not fun for me to read about a person who's basically just sitting there, twiddling her thumbs, trying not to die. I don't know, maybe I'm just really self-centered. The fir Good premise, but not entirely well-fleshed out story. This book made me realize that I don't take well to survival stories, because (A) there is only person to care about and if I don't like that person, well that's that, isn't it? and (B) NOTHING HAPPENS. No conversations, no character development, hardly any movement. It's not fun for me to read about a person who's basically just sitting there, twiddling her thumbs, trying not to die. I don't know, maybe I'm just really self-centered. The first and last chapters were really good. The in-between parts, not so much. Again, maybe it's because I read this book during the fifteen minutes I spend on the train to school everyday so I might not have ~internalized~ it well, but the alternating chapters didn't really do it for me. As I said, the Laura-trapped-in-Antartica chapters were kind of boring for me, since I didn't really find a reason to care about Laura, nor did I get a sense of her personality aside from the fact that she doesn't want to die. The city chapters were promising, but they seemed so...supplementary. Like I didn't really need to know the stories of these people, they were just half-finished bonus features. Sad, because I cared a lot more about the people in the city than I did about Laura. I wish the book could've been all about them instead. As it is, the city chapters lack focus and the switching between characters just left me feeling like I didn't really get to know any one character fully. The language was also really promising in some places, but in other places, it felt a little like it was trying too hard. (view spoiler)[Like that super long part about Laura trapped in Limbo! It was like that trippy part in Mockingjay, where Katniss was floating/swimming/burning/flying after Prim died, but at least that was just a few pages. Damn, this was a whole acid trip of a chapter and I was just like, DIE ALREADY. (hide spoiler)] You'd think that a book about Antartica will make for a good summer read, but the snow actually kind of alienated me. Meh, tropical country problems.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Silver Thistle

    The premise is wonderful and exactly the kind of story I usually love. I suppose it's an apocalypse book...kinda. It's more an 'afterlife' book though, if such a genre were to exist. I thought the beginning few chapters were great and I loved hearing all about the world of the departed (although not the part of 'how' they got there....that was a bit psychedelic). I was probably more interested in the dead than I was in Laura Byrd, although even the chapters given over to Laura were interesting at The premise is wonderful and exactly the kind of story I usually love. I suppose it's an apocalypse book...kinda. It's more an 'afterlife' book though, if such a genre were to exist. I thought the beginning few chapters were great and I loved hearing all about the world of the departed (although not the part of 'how' they got there....that was a bit psychedelic). I was probably more interested in the dead than I was in Laura Byrd, although even the chapters given over to Laura were interesting at the start, just not 'as' interesting. As chapters went by though, I was tempted to skim her sections because there's only so much I need to know about an abandoned woman in the Antarctic with only herself for company and little in the way of resources. By three quarters of the way in I was finding the afterlife sections disappointing too. The religious zealot's chapters were too 'out there' for me to relate to and some of the other characters were neither hateful nor lovable...they were just filler. But it's the ending that is the most dissatisfying. It was a letdown of an ending but by the time I'd reached it I was almost past caring what happened anyway. It was a quick, short read that seemed to be far more 'wordy' than was necessary. It's also quite a deep book, considering it's size, but that's not really what I look for when I read.... I want to be entertained by a story and I'm not necessarily looking for a deeper meaning

  28. 4 out of 5

    A.W. Wilson

    If you read my reviews then you'll probably think I just wax lyrical about everything I read. the reason for this is that if I don't enjoy a book I tend to stop reading it and also don't think it's my place to criticise something that happened not to be 'for me'. And it's much more fun writing about stuff I've enjoyed anyway, so there! Guess what? That's right, I loved this book! I normally employ a know-nothing-in-advance technique in which I ensure I've not read any reviews or even read the blu If you read my reviews then you'll probably think I just wax lyrical about everything I read. the reason for this is that if I don't enjoy a book I tend to stop reading it and also don't think it's my place to criticise something that happened not to be 'for me'. And it's much more fun writing about stuff I've enjoyed anyway, so there! Guess what? That's right, I loved this book! I normally employ a know-nothing-in-advance technique in which I ensure I've not read any reviews or even read the blurb on the back, because I like everything to be up for discovery. I'm very glad I did so in this case because it's very much a premise-driven book and even though you find out fairly early what's going on, it was nice to just be eased into it. So on that basis I won't say much more (although if you've got to the stage of reading about it on goodreads you'll already know the premise, oh well). I love the idea of there being lots of shopkeepers, we all remember shopkeepers without even knowing it! It's funny and sad and extremely charming. Kevin Brockmeier depicts tragedy in such a matter of fact way, that it seems to heighten the impact. He's similar to George Saunders in that way. Ooh, I've not reviewed any George Saunders have I? Let's get waxing lyrical....

  29. 5 out of 5

    Debbie

    I'm so glad I found this book! The story is that I was trying to find something else and ran across this book in perfect condition that I do not remember purchasing. Inside was even a postcard of the cover from Pantheon Books. So I started reading and couldn't stop. Original and fascinating, so different from other apocalyptic stories. I might even read it again. Definitely recommending it to my friends.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Robin

    This was my first choice when a patron asked for something "different" and/or "mind-bending." I still think about this book.

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