Category Archives: nonfiction

merely a detail-oriented cat for posts tagged as “books” (likely to be used most often on review posts).

On Knowing a Published Author

It can be difficult to be a writer sometimes. Not just because one’s prolonged ability to stare at a blinking cursor seems to improve and lengthen with each looming deadline. What if you’re the sort of writer who doesn’t have deadlines? you ask. I would venture to say that all writers have deadlines. Some are mandated by a publisher, like the end of the year, or month, or week, or day.

Other writers, like freelancers, or those whose income doesn’t depend upon their turning in (or even finishing) their work, have less concrete deadlines. These types of writers might feed their ambition by setting personal goals for themselves, like so many words per day, of anything, no matter what; or to finish a novel by the time they’re thirty. I am the type of writer who employs these more flexible deadlines for myself. My deadlines hover in the realm of, Write that blog post about the upcoming election sometime before whoever gets elected finishes serving his/her full term. Or, Finish your novel before you are dead (but maybe after Grandpa dies, so as not to offend him with your copious use of the d-word).

Yes, it’s difficult to be a writer. Especially when there are so many times that I come home planning to spend my evening writing but then am met with any number of obstacles that would wear upon my conscience and motivation until I shelve the laptop and succumb to temptation. These temptations, of course, manifest themselves in the form of tasks and responsibilities such as cleaning the bathroom, snaking the basement drain, clearing my attic of squirrels’ nests, or promising social enticements like the conversationally awkward, unable-to-grow-facial-hair guy in his mid-thirties who’s been pestering me for a date for the last six months, or going with Grandpa to pick out a cemetery plot.*

Last but certainly not least, being a writer can be difficult when you have friends who also fancy themselves writers. Because sometimes your friends end up being funnier than you, or more eloquent, or more concise, or more published. Such is the case with my recently acquired friend Katie Savage. Now, to be fair, Katie has managed to do a lot of things before me in life, such as be born, get married, have children, reach the age of thirty and still wear makeup, etc. So she’s obviously superior to me in many ways, and I shouldn’t take it personally that writing happens to be one of them.

But (as briefly as possible because I know I’m losing those of you who don’t even know me and are only here for what you thought would be but are now beginning to suspect is not a review of Whirlybirds) I did take it personally, at least at first. Before I even knew Katie, people were telling me I needed to know her. Mutual friends of ours told me on multiple occasions that we had a similar sense of humor and similar writing styles. I was not closed off to these comparisons or (what I would learn later were) compliments, but the fact remained that there existed no feasible way in the course of normal life to get an introduction to this mystery person, so I shrugged it off.

Until one day. On that day, I walked into my boyfriend-at-the-time’s apartment to pick him up for whatever we were planning to do that night. He was in a particularly good mood and couldn’t wait to tell me why. He had just finished reading his friend’s “thesis,” I think he called it. I’ll let you eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.

“Oh? You read someone’s thesis?” said I, mentally calculating how long a legit thesis would have to be in comparison to my fledgling and surely-not-thesis-length novel, which had been in his possession for some months now, and which he had not yet finished reading.

“Yeah, it’s my friend Katie Savage’s. It’s more of a collection of essays, really. I think she’s going to turn it into a book or something.”

Of course I recognized the name. I also felt slightly deflated by all this information but nodded, smiled, and did all the supportive-girlfriendy things a woman will do, as congenially as she possibly can, when her boyfriend is praising another woman.

However, I was also ready to drop it and move on. “So. You ready to go?”

“Yeah. You know, I really think Katie is probably the best writer I’ve ever known.”

And there it was. Heart: cracked. Balloon: deflated. Self-esteem: vanished.

Some of you might want to defend this mistake, but before you do, let me just try to explain why his parting comment was so hurtful.

My identity as a writer is everything to me. Absolutely everything. If I don’t have my writing, what do I have? Nothing. And if I don’t have the support of the person I’ve given my heart to, what do I have? Nothing. To be compared to a peer by mutual friends and thereby feel in immediate competition with her was bad enough, though tolerable. To be told, however, to my face, by the love of my life, that she was better than me was insufferable. Even if it’s the truth.

If you occupy the role in my life of Holder of my Heart, then you can tell me any truth you like except this one. Tell me I’m too short, too plain, too weird, too stubborn, too rude, too blunt, too emotional, too callous, too poor, too smelly, too unkempt, too attached to my dog, too crass, too analytic, too obsessed with baseball, too Democrat, whatever. I can take all those truths. But – and I’m sorry if this is asking too much of any potential suitors out there who might be reading – if you claim the title of my boyfriend (or someday husband) and don’t think I’m the cleverest, most articulate, most fun, most talented writer you’ve ever personally known, well, then, my heart just won’t be able to withstand that.

Now, I didn’t bring you through all of that to focus on what a poor decision that particular boyfriend made on that particular day. I brought you through it to help you understand the jealous, competitive obstacle I had to overcome in my heart when I actually, finally met Katie for the very first time. Luckily, to be concise, her writing is as good as everyone says it is, and she is as cool a person as I had been told, so it wasn’t easy to dislike her, even though I tried very hard. (Sorry, Katie – both that I tried to dislike you and that you’re finding this out for the first time in a public blog post.)

I’ve also brought you all this way to set up the proof that you can trust me. Katie and I have known each other for about a year now, and though I think we can legitimately be called friends, I don’t think we can legitimately be called close. Therefore, you know now that whatever I have to say about her book (which I swear I’m getting to) will not be driven only by my sappy desire to praise my friend.

So, if anyone besides the author-in-question herself is still reading, I shall thus commence my review of Katie Savage’s first published book, Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times: Reflections on Faith and the Changing of Seasons.

Quickly, I’m going to get out of the way the things about the book that did not particularly push my happy-reader (or, as the case may be, happy-editor) buttons. And then we’ll get to the flowery stuff. First, without knowing much about the book beforehand, I wasn’t exactly enticed by the vague, wordy title. Without the cover design (which I’ll get to in a second), I wouldn’t have even been able to deduce what the word whirlybird refers to. I’d never heard that word. On the cover, however, is a framed depiction of what I grew up calling a helicopter. Not an actual helicopter, mind you, but one of those seed-pod things you throw up in the air as a kid and watch as it twirls down to the ground, much in the manner of (duh) a helicopter. So there was that mystery solved.

But I didn’t particularly love the “ordinary times” part of the title either. It just seemed so bland, and to be perfectly honest, a book that purports to be written about one’s personalized reflections of faith already isn’t likely to be one I’m gonna pick up off the shelf unless I happen to know the writer in real life because I’m just not that interested in very many people’s personalized reflections on faith. That is an aspect about my personality and reading self that many may view as a character flaw, and I guess that’s fine. We all have our literary preferences. But the point is, I was disappointed with the term ordinary times. Until, that is, I received the book in the mail and opened it up to the table of contents, wherein I discovered that Katie has organized her essays in a manner that follows the calendar of the Christian church – a large portion of which includes something we call Ordinary Time.

Ah, of course! I thought. It’s a play on words! How clever! And so, I came to quite like the title, and all the more for the fact that I greatly respect titles that seem vague and meaningless until one has read some portion (if not all) of the book. It’s like a reader’s reward, or something. It’s nice.

As for the cover design, it’s cutesy and pretty-looking. But it’s not the most engaging, most compelling, most tempting cover I’ve ever come across. Part of the reason for this is that, though I’m not exactly a design specialist, I have had the luxury of knowing some really amazing cover designers. My former coworkers Joey and Tyler, and my personal friends J.R. and Arthur, are all better designers than whoever designed the Whirlybirds cover, and that’s not Katie’s fault at all. That’s the fault of Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster), for not employing more creative, more talented designers. (If any representatives from Howard Books are reading this, please click the links from J.R.’s and Arthur’s names above. They really are very good designers, and you could use their help; I’ve seen your other covers.)

The last thing I was disappointed with (which, again, is not Katie’s fault) was some of the editing. There are a few minor, fairly inconsequential things I would’ve done differently, and that’s okay. But the one thing I could not abide through the entire book was the capitalization of pronouns referring to God. It is a common misconception in Christian writing circles that God pronouns (he, him, his, himself) ought to be capitalized. The truth is, they’re abysmally distracting, and nothing uglies up a layout faster than a page full of capital H’s. Plus, it’s a basic tenet of the Chicago Manual of Style.

So, Howard Books, you’re 0 for 2 on your book production staff. Might want to do some hiring in the near future. I am available, if you’re handing out jobs. Oh, and if you are handing out jobs, you might want to hire new layout designers too. The layout of this book employed a magazine-article style, which is intolerable. There are pull quotes on almost every page, which is, again, so distracting. Helpful in a magazine article – when you’re skimming because you only have five or ten minutes in a waiting room. But this is a book. People are reading every word. Release the pull quotes. (I did end up not hating them, though, at certain times when I wanted to write a long comment in the margin next to one and they afforded me extra space for doing so.)

Okay, so now we get to the stuff I like about this book, which is, honestly, everything else. Everything that Katie did herself, in fact. Since I am a woman, I can’t comment on an audience for this book. I mean, she does talk about things like the relative size of her breasts, and breast feeding, and breast pumping, and squashing her sore, milk-filled breasts with the strap of a heavy bag. (Don’t worry, if you think you’re sensing a theme. If I remember correctly, all of the breasty references are constrained to one chapter…two, max.)

Katie writes about other stuff too. Like a difficult summer she experienced as a teenager when a friend died at church camp. And a harrowing, riddled-with-misadventure trip through Europe one Christmas holiday. And the hilarious shortcomings she views in herself (such as the fact that, for a long time in her life, she never cleaned underneath her oven knobs). And an awkward evangelism experience she had to participate in one time, in which she was to play a drunken demon, even though she had never actually been drunk and wasn’t sure what it looked like.

The best thing I found about Katie’s book is that, despite the subtitle potentially scaring off certain readers, with all its mentions of faith and reflections, it’s really just a book about the human experience. And it just so happens to be written by someone whose experience includes believing in Jesus. It’s true, there are references and allusions to Christian-y things that might escape a non-well-read, non-Christian reader, but that won’t really detract from the quality of the reading experience. Katie writes with both a depth comparable to theologians and an accessibility that will invite and welcome anyone who isn’t actually interested in all the God stuff. She spends enough time talking about non-God stuff that anyone who is not drawn to those parts will still remain engaged and interested, but for those who are drawn to them, she also ties everything together beautifully in a way that any author I’ve edited could only hope to do.

The margins of my copy of Whirlybirds are filled with my notes, mostly of laughter. But there’s also a fair amount of assent and agreement because, as it happened, the further I got in Katie’s book, the more convinced I became that we are twins separated at birth (never mind the fact that she’s two or three years older than me). There were even a couple of times when I read my own thoughts on the pages. Sometimes I loved this. However, the third or fourth time it happened, I began to feel I was running out of material for my own future book. When that happened, I underlined the sentence and wrote in the margin: Dammit! She’s stealing all my lines!

Which brings me to the d-word I alluded to before. Which I finally feel comfortable admitting that I (sometimes) like to use in my writing, and Katie is the reason I’m finally willing to admit it publicly, in front of Grandpa and the world. See, Katie uses this word no fewer than four times in her book, and once, at the very end (when she must’ve thought we all stopped reading), she uses the s-word! So, I’ve succumbed to this self-inflicted peer pressure and have decided that if Katie can do it publicly, then by golly, so can I, dangit. Well… I’m still getting used to the idea.

Anyway, the point is, this book is really good, and if you know Katie, you should definitely read it. Heck, you need to buy it! If you don’t know Katie, I still think you would enjoy it. And if you are not a Christian and don’t know Katie, well, I still think you’d like it. If for no other reason than the abundance of one-liners, or, as stand-up comics like to call them, zingers. There’s a lot of them, and I’ll just give you one because one of the Amazon reviews quotes a whole bunch, and that made me mad because I felt that those particular lines were spoiled for me, even though they really weren’t, and even though the book is pages and pages full of them, so it didn’t really spoil anything at all.

The one I liked in particular is actually one of the ones having to do with breasts. It’s near the beginning, and Katie talks about the changes her body went through during her first pregnancy. It reads thus:

My pregnant breasts were as dainty as my regular breasts, and my delusions of bountiful cleavage – even cleavage that lasted only a few months – rapidly faded.

The reason I liked this line so much was that it produced this margin note: And now, so have mine! :(

And those delusions of mine have faded even more now that I’ve finished the  book and realized just exactly how similar Katie and I really are. So, that’s a bummer (about the breasts, not the similar personality thing). But here’s the thing: Katie’s a damn good writer, and everyone should know it. And now, I can agree with that old ex-boyfriend of mine. She probably is the best, most talented writer I have the pleasure of personally knowing. And, it’s actually pretty cool that now my shelf reserved for Authors I Personally Know has two books on it!

Thanks, Katie, for being brave enough to publish a book. You’re a great author. And thanks also for making it all the way to the end of the Most Tangential and Off-Topic Book Review Ever. By the by, can I come to dinner sometime soon? I’d love to get my book signed.

*Apologies to my grandpa, who took a few hard hits in this post. For the record, he neither bases his love for me on the foulness of my language nor lies at death’s door. On the contrary, he’s really quite genial and hospitable and still has an impressive spring in his step. I do hope he’ll forgive me.


Filed under bloggy, books, irreverent, nonfiction, reviews, the industry

The Wisdom of French Parenting -OR- Americans Are Doing It Wrong. Again.

I just finished a fascinating book on parenting called Bringing up Bébé, written by journalist Pamela Druckerman. I was drawn to this book for more than one reason, none of them having to do with parenting. First, I appreciated the title’s reference to one of my favorite movies (thanks to my dad’s influence) from when I was a kid. Second, the use of the French word for baby and the book’s subtitle, One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, both appealed to the Francophile in me. Third, anything that suggests that Americans might be wrong is attractive to me.

This book has not been received favorably by all American audiences, a result that is not surprising in the least. After all, no one likes to be told they’re wrong. And Druckerman is subtly and politely but quite firmly doing just that. I appreciate this book because it doesn’t let American parents get away with the pat excuses of, “He’s a child; what do you expect?” or, “They call them terrible twos for a reason.” (I don’t think they do call them that in France, likely because they aren’t terrible.) Unfortunately, I think this book will do what many of the best sermons, speeches, and exhortations throughout history have done: enrage those who need to hear its message the most, therefore disabling their ability to receive it; and be endorsed by those who need to hear it least – people who already practice (and see the positive results of) the suggestions contained within.

Without going into too much detail about why this book should be read by everyone, parents or not, or why the French truly are superior, at least in some ways, I’ll just summarize Druckerman’s main conclusion, which is – to oversimplify it – that American parents are overindulgent and allow their children to rule over them, while French parents have found a way to balance authoritarianism with allowing their children the freedom to express themselves and be who they are. She uses a lot of research and various observed examples to back up her findings, mainly focusing on sleep rhythms, eating habits, and behavioral/discipline patterns.

The part I resonated with most was an underlying thread running through the entire book; an idea that one of the main differences between the French and Americans is that French people view their children as legitimate human beings, capable of knowing and learning and conforming to rhythms from the time they leave the womb, whereas a large portion of American parents tend to coddle and suffocate their children because they view them as too young, immature, inexperienced, etc., to learn or decide anything for themselves; which, of course, becomes a vicious cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that, because American children are coddled and suffocated, they often are too immature and inexperienced to think, learn, or decide for themselves.

The main time I witness this is when American adults (parents or otherwise) speak to children. Regardless of the child’s age – whether teenager, adolescent, grade schooler, toddler, or baby – many adults have gotten the idea that children must be talked down to, patronized, and condescended. Many parents wonder why their teens rebel and disrespect them and act out; my supposition is that a lot of times it has to do with the teens not feeling respected themselves. Unfortunately, most parents don’t wonder anymore why their toddlers and young children throw regular temper tantrums for no apparent reason. Rather than delve into why, they’ve simply come to accept and expect that this is part of raising small children. They assume that young children have no rationalization skills, so why even bother trying to ask why they’re having a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store? It’s better to bribe him or shove some food in his mouth so he’ll shut up and stop embarrassing them, right?

The thing that has probably become my biggest pet peeve when watching adults interact with children is the way they talk to them. Adults assume a certain (low) level of understanding, and when communicating with children, one can witness adults intentionally bringing themselves down to this perceived level. Not all adults do this, mind you. The best and most respected teachers out there – the ones who get the most results from their most “troubled” students – understand the danger of doing this. And some really awesome parents understand it too. But not the majority of the ones I’ve witnessed and observed in my almost 28 years on this earth.

The most intelligent, well-behaved, and articulate children I have met in my life have been children whose parents have never spoken to them like they were halflings. Even from before the time they could understand language and words, these children were spoken to like normal human beings, just the way you and I might speak to each other right now. I have said before that I completely abhor the fact that people speak to children the same way they speak to animals. They change their tone of voice (it immediately becomes high pitched); they start using words they would never use in adult conversations (like boo-boo, teetee, and bwankie); and they talk down to the child (instead of validating what the child has to say, they ask the condescending question, “Oh, really?” which immediately communicates disbelief; or, they over-validate what the child has to say, acting as if this imaginary tale of fantastic proportions involving superheroes and mythical creatures is absolutely, 100% true, when the child very well knows that it is not true and is just trying to have a bit of fun).

Yes, children develop at different paces, and yes, their logical reasoning skills and general grasps of syntax and vocabulary are much lower than (most) adults’, but this does not make them stupid. It means they are at a different place on the developmental journey, and that should not be occasion for condescension from adults. We should not expect children to deliver well-constructed debates or impressively articulated demands from the time they are first able to speak, but we should always encourage them toward attempting to articulate themselves and rationalize their own thoughts. Patronizing them by deigning to lower ourselves to their level sends two messages: 1) I am not worth as much; 2) I have no reason to improve myself.

I have actually babysat upper-grade-school children who knew how to speak and pronounce words properly but still talked like babies. Why? Because they were allowed to and saw no reason to quit. After all, if they continue to act like babies, their parents are going to keep treating them like babies, no matter how old they get. And what child wants the royal infant treatment to stop? Infants have it made! All they have to do is make a single peep, and adults are at their beck and call, ready to carry out their every whim. My theory on why parents let this continue is that they don’t want their children to grow up too quickly because, as we all know, it does happen too fast. When I encounter this type of child in a babysitting experience, I typically refuse to acknowledge the request (whether it be for more pwetzels or a huggy-poo before bed) until they speak to me as properly as I know they can. I admit, some of my disgust for this behavior is rooted in my love of language and grammar. But I also believe that children should be challenged and empowered to mature and grow up, not stay whining little bwats.

Something Druckerman touches on in her book is the high level of importance the French place on children learning to say not only please and thank you (which are the universal magic words of American culture) but also hello and goodbye. American children are not generally asked to greet anyone upon arrival and departure, and this sends them the message that their greetings are not important to us as adults. It reinforces the implication that they are just accessories, mandatory accoutrements parents are forced to lug around, less important beings than anyone who is more than two feet taller than them. French children, on the other hand, learn quickly and early on that everyone is worth being acknowledged, including themselves.

In my own life, I have conducted a semi-sociological experiment on a favorite child of mine whom I babysit often. We’ll call him Cason because…well, that’s his name. I have known Cason since he was just over a year old. Considering he’s just a few months shy of four now, that obviously isn’t very long (though it is most of his life). But when I talk to and interact with Cason, I do my best not to talk down to him even though his speech capabilities have only in the last year begun to really develop. It can be difficult, at times, to overcome what feels like an instinctive way to talk to children, but it’s not instinct. This is one instance where we can definitively say nurture is winning the debate over nature. I was talked down to as a child (and sometimes am still talked down to as an adult in my late twenties). I grew up in an environment that taught by example that I should communicate with children in a louder voice, using a high-pitched tone, and with an exaggerated and insincere enthusiasm about everything. (By the way, kids can tell when you’re being insincere.)

At some point in my life, I started having encounters with children who seemed unusually intelligent for their ages, and by the time I met Cason, I realized – as a result of observing how his parents talk to him – that these smart, articulate, seemingly precocious children weren’t necessarily advanced for their age; they just seemed that way because they were so far ahead of other kids their age. Why? Because their parents talked to them like they were normal human beings.

So the first time I babysat Cason, I decided to try to emulate his parents’ way of communicating with him. At this point, he couldn’t yet talk. As young as he was, he of course cried when they left, especially since this was his first time to meet me, let alone be left alone with me. After they got out the door, I knelt on the floor next to him and explained what was going on, something to the effect of, “Your parents are going out for a little while, and I’m going to hang out with you while they’re gone. Then you’ll go to bed, and they’ll come back while you’re sleeping, and then you’ll see them first thing when you wake up in the morning.” I had no idea if he understood what I was saying, but he listened tearfully and silently to every word, as if he could understand and was trying to decide whether he could trust me. Then, after a couple of trial sniffles and big breaths, he smiled, held out his arms for me to pick him up, and didn’t cry the rest of the night.

Later that same night, he was running around and playing with his toys. I watched him from a couch with my laptop out. He came over and wanted to look at the computer, so I let him. His hands were sticky, though, so when he reached out to touch it, I told him, “No, please don’t touch that; your hands aren’t clean.” He withdrew his hand and toddled away to resume playing.

Now, it could be that luck was on my side that night and that I just had good timing. But I don’t think so. I think he understood me just fine, even if he couldn’t respond verbally. And ever since that night, I’ve done my best to keep copying his parents’ example and continue to talk to him like he’s a normal person. And, as I’ve watched him grow up, I’ve also watched him make extraordinary progress in his grasp of language, his articulation skills, and his communicative abilities. He speaks full sentences now and (with prompting and encouragement, at times) is able to explain coherently why he is upset about something or other, which is so much easier to deal with than screaming, kicking, punching, or biting. (He occasionally does still shout, but he’s come a long way, and he’s miles ahead of other kids his age, and even other kids who are older [whose parents I hope never ask me to babysit].)

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge proponent of the nurture side of the debate. I think environment plays a much bigger role in development than genes do. The reason so many American children are brats is not that Americans are genetically bratty. It’s the mob mentality. It’s their environment. They are taught how to be brats, and they spend their time with a bunch of other brats, and they learn to be that way. If you don’t agree with me about nurture, look at adopted children. Look at military children. Or missionary kids, or other third-culture kids, such as Pamela Druckerman’s pack of Paris-born children who, genetically, are half American, half British. They’ve molded to their sage French environment and have themselves become sage.

I don’t know how J.R. and Jenny are managing to do such a non-American job with Cason (and Jack, Cason’s younger brother, who is no less awesome) in the extremely American culture they live in, but I am gonna stick around them when I have kids, or, if I’ve lost them back to the Great Northwest by that time, I’ll just have to move to France. By the way, I’m not saying that I’m a parenting expert or anything, or that I know any better than anyone else how to raise children. I don’t know the first thing about raising children. But I have spent the last couple of years learning how to talk to children, and that’s a step in the right direction, I think.

Not that you have to listen to me; I know every parent’s favorite advice expert is the childless single woman next door, but hey. I was called a baby whisperer recently, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. But seriously. Check out Bringing up Bébé if you have some time. Even if you’re not a parent, it’s really good. I promise. And I haven’t even begun to do its synopsis justice here. She’s got all sorts of statistical proof to back up her claim that France is kicking America’s butt in the raising-children department. Grab a copy from your library. Even if all you do is flip through it to find the italicized words and work on pronouncing them out loud in your best French accent. (Wait, what? Of course I didn’t do that.)


Filed under bloggy, books, irreverent, nonfiction, reviews, sentimental

UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand

A couple of times when I was growing up, I got asked by various friends who visited my house if my family was Jewish. A few other times, people who knew for sure that we weren’t Jewish (as in, friends from our Protestant church, most likely) made jokes in my presence that my family might as well be Jewish. Because this happened more than once, I quickly tired of the joke, and my standard response was usually, “Ah yes, because of my dad’s Holocaust bookcase.”

There are several bookcases in my parents’ house. Several is actually an understatement. The bookcases are strategically placed throughout the house, and there is some sort of system to (at least some of) them. I wasn’t really allowed to borrow books from my dad when I was growing up because he’s rather particular about the condition of his reading materials. Plus, I’m known to take a year or more to finish a book or to even get around to starting it. But one bookcase of his that I couldn’t keep my hands off of was the one that houses his Holocaust collection. My dad has an impressive accumulation of Holocaust literature and memorabilia, and it is this bookcase that stood out to my friends more than any other. Not only does it hold books; this bookcase is home to menorahs, stars of David, and at least one copy of the Tanakh.

This collection of my dad’s was the catalyst that kicked off my fascination with and appetite for Holocaust literature. I have now read multiple WWII fiction and nonfiction accounts that detail Germany’s strategic efforts, Hitler’s invasions, the horrors of concentration camps, the sadistic medical experiments, etc. I have seen many Holocaust movies, both mainstream and independent. I took a class in college called Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and I traveled to Washington DC the summer after taking that class, with a friend, my sole objective being to visit the Holocaust museum there. So it can be said with some truth that I am well versed in Holocaust and WWII literature.

So several weeks ago, as I was perusing the library’s nonfiction newsletter, I came across a book the subtitle of which included a WWII reference, and I was unsurprisingly intrigued. I added the book to my hold queue and waited for it come in. When I picked it up, I noted the accolade on the cover: “#1 New York Times bestselling author of Seabiscuit.”

The reference to Seabiscuit meant nothing to me, except my knowledge that the book did well enough to be made into a movie – a movie, however, that bored me so much in the first few minutes that I turned it off and didn’t finish. So that was all I had going into the read of Laura Hillenbrand’s second book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

So this past Sunday night, when I realized it was 1:00 a.m. and I’d flown through the first 100 pages of the book and beyond, I knew I was in for a really good read. For the next two days, I was glued to the book and was unable to put it down until I finished it early Tuesday evening, and my first thought was, I have to tell people about this book. (Lo and behold, I found out the next day that a large part of the world already knows about this book, since it’s NPR’s February book club recommendation and they’ve been having chats with the author all month. Lucky me, that I happened to crack it open and zip through it, just as the rest of the world is doing the same thing.)

The blurb on the inside jacket cover mentions the hero of the book’s name, Louie Zamperini. It also mentions his Olympic athletic accomplishments and the fact that he was an Army Air Forces lieutenant – a  bombardier, to be specific. Mention is made of the fact that his plane crashed into the Pacific in 1943 and that he would then be in for the survival struggle of a lifetime as he floated along on a life raft with two fellow servicemen – one injured, one catatonic – hoping to be rescued.

This, of course, was an interesting enough narrative thread and teaser to get me to read the book. But imagine my (pleasant) surprise when I got through the first third of the book and everything alluded to in the front-jacket blurb had already come to pass – and I still had 200 pages left to read! What followed was a horrific, page-turning account of the war on the Japanese front.

There are scores of books and memoirs and biographies and autobiographies out there that focus on the horrors that the Nazis inflicted on Jews in their concentration camps. Unbroken is the first WWII book I have ever read in which Germany plays a minor role. Japan and the atrocities perpetuated by its soldiers are the spotlight of much of this book. This up-close, graphic, raw glimpse into life as a Japanese prisoner of war affected me deeply, and I will not soon forget it.

Hillenbrand lauds many heroes throughout the book – for bravery, persistence, patriotism, loyalty, and any number of gallant acts our American boys performed in that war. But she focuses on one hero in particular – Louie Zamperini – and the way his life was especially changed by his wartime experiences. Throughout the book, it was easy to pinpoint the parts that comprised two thirds of the subtitle: survival and resilience. But I kept wondering where redemption would come in and what part it would play.

And then, the war ended and the book was still not over. Again, this was a pleasant surprise. Last summer I read a fantastic WWII memoir, a book I was so pleased with that I ended up giving it to my dad for his birthday the following month. But I was disappointed when I reached the end of the book and got no information about what happened when this heroic soldier returned home. Nothing about how he coped with life after the war. Nothing about the family he ended up forming with the woman he ended up marrying. Nothing. Just a blasé, the-war-is-over, happily ever after.

But Unbroken does not make that mistake, and all my questions about where redemption fit in were answered at last, in the final 70-ish pages of the narrative.

I’m not going to give away much more because the read is truly thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. But I will say that Louie is a character to root for, and after reading Unbroken, I feel like I know him, even though I don’t. I’m sure most readers feel this way, but I feel it especially so because he reminds me so much of an author I worked with at my last job, Rudy Leeman. Rudy was 80- or 90-something years old, and he had so much fire and spunk left in him. And his book, For Everything a Season, was a beautiful (albeit very long) history of his family’s journey to the States. Rudy was one of the authors who made it difficult to leave my last job. I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet him in person. But the account of Louie Zamperini in Unbroken brought Rudy back to my memory, and my reminiscence made me feel closer to both of them.

One final word on Laura Hillenbrand. In her (very long) acknowledgments, located at the back of the book (this is a newer trend that I really like), she mentions more than once being “too sick” to go or do something specifically related to the research of the book. She never goes into detail about why she was sick or what with, so I found this odd. But then, I did some poking around on the Internet and found out that (apparently) she has CFS, which some more poking led me to discover stands for chronic fatigue syndrome. From what I can tell from cursory research, this is a disease that appears to be very much like my understanding of fibromyalgia, at least with regard to how debilitating and life limiting it is.

I only mention this because this book project would’ve been enormous, for anyone. An undertaking of this magnitude must have taken her a couple of years at least, if not longer, to finish. She obviously sifted through volumes upon volumes of research, materials, and resources, and it is nothing short of impressive that she has woven together the seamless-feeling account that she has. It is every writer’s dream to be able to connect details, transition scenes, and rivet readers as flawlessly as Hillenbrand does – all the while telling someone else’s story – and the amount of effort she put in, if not made obvious in the first 400 pages, will manifest itself in the form of her 50-page notes section and her 12-page index.

So the fact that she battled CFS while working on this project and still came out with a product that is better than most healthy writers is just proof that this woman truly has a gift. And thirsty readers like myself reap all the benefits.

So if you have about 48 spare hours lying around (probably less, for the average reader; I tend to read at a slower pace than most), do yourself a favor and pick up Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. I got it from the library, but I would not have regretted purchasing it and fully expect to read it again in the future.


Filed under books, nonfiction, reviews