Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: Unbroken

As a reader, I am not easily impressed. I have read more than 500 books and wouldn’t consider more than 30 great works of literature. Every now and then, however, I read — or listen to — a book that makes me shake my head in awe.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, is one such book. Subtitled “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” it is a triumph of storytelling, one I would recommend to anyone who is drawn to celebrations of the human spirit.

The story of Olympic runner and prisoner of war Louis "Louie" Zamperini, Unbroken is a mix of history, drama, and inspiration. Like many, I was vaguely familiar with Zamperini’s story. I had read reviews of the 2014 movie based on the book, but nothing quite prepared me for the book itself. It was, in a word, an experience.

Three things stood out for me.

The first was Hillenbrand’s prose. Lean, direct, and yet sufficiently descriptive, it brought Zamperini’s story to life. Hillenbrand exceeded even her effort with Seabiscuit: An American Legend, another non-fiction work that made its way to the big screen.

I also enjoyed Edward Herrmann’s narration. Herrmann, the late American actor, director, writer, and comedian, brought gravitas and sensitivity to a story that demanded both.

Both author and narrator did justice to a man whose life was just flat out amazing. Zamperini, who died last year at age 97, deserved a book for his athletic career alone. An aimless, troublemaking teen in the 1930s, he made a nearly seamless transition from the streets of Torrance, California, to the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin.

But it is Zamperini, the U.S. Army airman, crash survivor, and POW, who shines in this book. He quickly becomes larger than life as he fights a multitude of battles, both large and small, just to stay alive.

When listening to this book, I was constantly reminded of the saying that “cats have nine lives.” In Unbroken, Louie Zamperini has no fewer than twenty. He is the dictionary definition of “survivor.”

I plan to see the movie, starring Jack O'Connell and directed by Angelina Jolie, at the earliest opportunity. Until then, I will savor one of the best stories I’ve ever consumed. Unbroken should be recommended reading in every American classroom. Rating: 5/5.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembering our veterans

If there is one American holiday that never seems to get its due, it is Veterans Day. Lost in the maze between Halloween and Christmas, it is often confused with Memorial Day — if it is remembered at all.

Which is a shame, of course. If anything, we should dedicate a week to those who have served in the armed forces. Even a month would not be too much, at least not in my opinion.

I don't mention Veterans Day or even Armistice Day, as it was known from 1919 until 1954, in any of my seven novels, but I do play up the event that inspired it in one of the books.

In Chapter 35 of The Show, time traveler Grace Vandenberg comforts a friend by telling her that a war raging in Europe will end "on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” She is later witness to an impromptu parade that breaks out in Seattle when the armistice of November 11, 1918, is announced.

Grace's love interest in The Show is a wounded officer who has just returned from the battlefields of France. John Walker, a U.S. Army captain, plays a small but relevant part in a book that is, in some respects, a tribute to those who fought in World War I.

Jack Hicks, a retired admiral, plays a similar role in Mercer Street. He serves his country admirably by advocating peace through strength at a time (1938-1939) when many Americans preferred to ignore or play down growing militarism in Germany and Japan.

In other books, I mention veterans of the Civil War, the American Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, World War II, and the conflict in Vietnam. Those serving in more peaceful times also get their due. Brian Johnson, the nerdy high school senior in The Journey, tests his mettle by joining the Rangers in the 1980s.

I have also used civilian characters to honor vets. In The Mine, Joel Smith, a 22-year-old time traveler in 1941, wonders whether he can measure up to those who have served. He is haunted by memories of grandfathers who fought valiantly in World War II and by knowledge of the fate that awaits his Army-bound best friend.

I don't know whether I will feature veterans in the remaining books of the American Journey series, but I do know I will look for opportunities to do so. I think it's important to draw attention, even through fiction, to those who have done so much for so many.

Happy Veterans Day to the millions of men and women who answered the call. This civilian is grateful for your service.