Saturday, February 25, 2012

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

by Laura Hillenbrand

Louis Zamperini, son of Italian immigrants and neighborhood trouble-maker, becomes a celebrated track runner (making it to an Olympic showing in Berlin), then joins the Army Air Forces as a bombardier when war breaks out.  On a search and rescue mission in a dilapidated B-24, the plane crashes into the ocean; Louis and two others spend 46 days stranded on a tiny inflatable raft, hunted by sharks and tormented by thirst, with almost no supplies.  This alone is a fascinating tale, but Louis’ story had only begun at that point, as he lands on an occupied island and is taken from one Japanese POW camp to another, wracked with starvation, slave labor, and the most sadistic, dignity-destroying punishments the camp commanders (including one notorious psychopath the inmates nickname Bird) can dream up.  At war’s end, Louis is released, but the memories of all he has undergone and lost stay with him, forcing him to either seek new meaning in life or sink into an alcoholic fury at the world.

This is, quite simply, an incredible book.  First of all, Hillenbrand is a brilliant chronicler of the tale, a meticulous, thorough researcher who writes in clear, readable prose and has a fine sense of pacing and suspense.  The smallest detail is essential to the story, from Louis’ boyhood skills at thievery that later help him steal at POW camps, to the names of the few kindly Japanese guards who may have made the difference between life and death to the men.  But beyond Hillenbrand’s skills as a writer, this is simple an amazing story.  Full of twists and turns, nadirs and redemption, this is one true story that actually is as thrilling and as outright unbelievable as any Hollywood thriller.   Though Hillenbrand’s aim in this book is to honor a nearly-forgotten hero, not to make historical arguments, Louis’ story seems to stand as solid evidence for a few historical points.  One is that the Japanese treatment of American POWs, which was flouted all international rules of warfare, is eerily parallel to America’s post-9/11 treatment of “enemy combatants” (a term the Japanese used for their POWs to justify their treatment, including waterboarding).  The second point is that, based on this story and some others, the Japanese military mindset appeared to be systematically sadistic, drenched in an almost alien xenophobia that bordered on the psychopathic and genocidal.  There is simply no excuse for the mass starvation, slave labor, biological testing, and the infamous “kill-all” order.  For all the talk by Japanese historians about “transfer of oppression” (soldiers trained brutally treated prisoners brutally), there truly is something nearly inhuman in the actions of Bird and hundreds of others.  From this, and from the drilling of Japanese children and arming of women with sharpened sticks to prepare for the US invasion, it seems clear that dropping the atomic bombs was the only rational, and justifiable, move to end the war.

five stars

Monday, February 20, 2012


by Sinclair Lewis

The titular main character, Martin Arrowsmith, attends medical school and becomes a doctor, then struggles to plot the correct course for his career: dedication to slow pure scientific research in the name of progress, or the quest for the money and rewards that hasty mock trials and early publication bring?  The life of the dedicated scientist, or the society man?  Arrowsmith’s  heroes are Gottlieb, a scientist who disdains the “Men of Measured Merriment,” as he calls those who pursue knowledge for practical purposes, and Sondelius, a hygienist who travels the globe fighting plague.  But after he marries, Martin is torn between providing the life he wants for his steadfast, loving wife and burying himself in crucial but unglamorous research.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize (though Lewis declined it due to the wording of the prize, which states it goes to the novel which “shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life,” which he said meant nothing whatsoever), this is an exciting and readable novel.  Populated with characters who represent the various directions a med student can go: the joker turned dropout, the supercilious ascetic surgeon, the patronizing missionary, the pharmaceutical agent, the dedicated pathologist, the PR-perfect Head of the Department who understands nothing of the nature of the work does in his department,  and so on.  Though they do seem to represent distinct types, they are fully drawn characters who help shape Martin’s own fate as he moves from small-town neophyte to cog in a hospital machine to something of a celebrity.  In addition, Lewis lampoons high and low society of the time, from Martin’s close-minded in-laws to the clueless Smart Set he later finds himself allied with.  Through the drama of Martin’s growth as a free man and a doctor, Lewis provides plenty of satire and wit, with sharp phrases such as “he had learned plenty of new things about which to be dull” and “fatly, behind cigars, they accepted their kinghood.”  It’s a witty, compelling story of a man gaining the strength to find himself among all the external pressures of the world.

four stars

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time

by by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson

After his five-year college reunion, editor and writer Deck was left looking for a last road trip that he could infuse with meaning. Hitting upon the idea of correcting “typos” (read: mistakes based on poor literacy skills) found in public signs, he and a friend formed the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Typo Eradication Advancement League and started on their quest, armed with Sharpies and correction fluid. It’s all fun and games until the friends make the naïve mistake of correcting a sign on public land, and they are accused of vandalism.

This was a fun read; quirky adventure stories with a hook more or less write themselves. But while Deck (who is the sole narrator) is an engaging, affable voice, I was a little put off by his conceptualization of how typos come about, which is arrestingly naïve: deep into his quest, he notes “we thought we saw evidence that these [grammatical and spelling] essentials weren’t being fully acquired by the populace.” This is such a wishy-washy cop-out with so many qualifiers – it’s obvious Deck doesn’t want to come off as an educated elitist – that it borders on self-parody. The plain fact is that these are not “typos” at all, but errors made by a public too stupid to know how to study or read and too proud of ignorance to care. But Deck doesn’t want to admit that, so he comes across to me as spineless. It isn’t until page 183 that Deck asks, “What was the principle that guided the [mis-]speller? There wasn’t one. Many were guessing, as if they’d never been taught to pay attention to the letters when learning to read.” “As if” they’d never been taught? It is first of all obvious to a blind fool that most people who make these mistakes are guessing and know nothing of how language is guided by rules, so Deck’s remark is that of a clueless person. Second, it is clearly blaming teachers rather than the families and children who deride education and don’t bother listening to even the poor instruction they do get. Deck tries so hard not to offend “the public” with this mock-surprise at uneducated people’s lack of education, that, unfortunately, at the end he decides to throw in his lot with Direct Instruction, which is forced scripts for the inadequate teachers we already have. While he’s a fine writer and undoubtedly a skilled editor, I found Deck to be clueless about American education. So although their whimsical trip made for amusing reading, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

two stars

Friday, February 10, 2012

Jeeves In the Morning

a.k.a Joy In the Morning
by P.G. Wodehouse

In the episode that "my biographers will probably call the Steeple Bumpleigh Horror," Bertie goes to his Aunt Agatha’s manor, Steeple Bumpleigh, where Jeeves tries to arrange a discreet business meeting between Bertie’s uncle and an American magnate.  Meanwhile, Bertie’s friends Boko, a writer, and Nobbie, want to get married, but Bertie’s uncle, her ward, will not give his consent; and Bertie finds himself inadvertently affianced to Florence Craye, a woman given to exhorting mental improvement, and who is also engaged to oafish, jealous police constable Stilton Cheesewright.  Naturally, Jeeves, stuffed with fish, overcomes all difficulties to arrange a satisfactory resolution to all problems.  It's a delightfully clever, tortuous plot, peppered with sharp dialogue and less than flattering descriptions of everyone except the urbane Jeeves himself.  I was very amused by Jeeves’ blatantly blunt solution at the end.

five stars

[Read three times: 3/15/97, 5/16/08, 2/10/12]

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Thimble Summer

by Elizabeth Enright

Garnet Linden, a nine-year-old girl who lives on a farm in Wisconsin with her two brothers.  After finding a silver thimble, a drought ends, and she begins to have delightful adventures: being accidentally locked in the town library; hitchhiking to the nearest city, New Conniston; entering her prized pig into a regional fair.

This 125-page book, with charming line illustrations by the author, won the 1939 Newbery.  It’s told in clear, bright-eyed prose, with the wonder of a farm girl seeing extravagant exotic things like Ferris wheels, or the joy of finding “magic” treasure,” or the simple childlike fun of running in the rain.  There’s little drama and less despair in this book, just the ups and downs of a bright child who loves her home town and her family.  There are unfortunately several quasi-disparaging remarks about “fat” people in the book, which mars an otherwise kid-friendly tone.

four stars