Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand


DownloadedFile-4My husband, the non-reader, was given an iPod Touch for Christmas and has embraced audio books, hooray!  His first book on the iPod was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  I read Unbroken with my book club last fall, so I was excited to be able to discuss it with him and get his impressions of it.

For those who don’t know, Unbroken is an amazing true account of the life of Louis Zamparini, a man in his 90s who was, among other things, a scrappy kid from Torrance, CA,  a student at USC, an Olympic runner, a WWII bombardier, a plane crash survivor who spent more than 40 days floating in the Pacific Ocean on a tiny raft, a POW in Japan, an alcoholic, a born again Christian, and a motivational speaker.  He met Hitler during the 1936 Olympics and met Billy Graham after the war.  I liken him to Forrest Gump.

Let’s just say I enjoyed the book much more than my husband did.  I was so surprised!  I mean, it’s a war book and a survivor book, guys like that stuff, right?!  But he felt it was too long and that there were just way waaaaay too many details about everything.  Details about planes, about weather, about the ocean, about the sky, about maggots in the food, about starvation and bodily functions.  Details about running and training and school.  Most of his annoyance, though, had to do with the abuse Louis Zamparini endured in the Japanese POW camps.  He felt that, if it were accurate, nobody could possibly survive it and live to tell about it.  He wondered if perhaps it was exaggerated, and we talked about memory and how a man in his 90s could recall in such great detail what had happened to him decades before.  I admit I wondered if there was some exaggeration in the book, too, but by all accounts the author did flawless research.  And, the old dude is sharp, even now!!  We watched an interview with him on youtube and he’s got to be the most with-it *nonagenarian ever (*that’s an old dude in his 90s, in case you don’t know that word).

The old dude

The old dude

Anyway, I’m just giddy that I was able to have an actual book discussion with my actual husband.  Friends, this has NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!  Hopefully it’s the start of a trend.

Does anyone have any good recommendations for my husband’s next audio book?  He hates accents of any kind, so the narrator must speak American English.  No Brits.  Leave me a comment if you know of a good one.  I don’t listen to audio books so I’m not sure what’s good to listen to.  He likes history, action, adventure, and anything that would be motivational/positive thinking (you can perhaps see why I thought Unbroken would be perfect for him?!)  Thanks for any suggestions you can offer!

Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

This month my book club discussed The Boy In the Striped Pajamas by Irish author John Boyne.

I was quite stunned by this book, a book meant for children but one that carries very adult themes.   I’ve read other books about the Holocaust but never one like this.

Bruno is a 9 year old boy, the son of a Nazi commandant living in Berlin in 1942.  After the “Fury” comes to dinner, his dad takes an ‘important’ job and the family has to move far away to a smaller home outside “Out-with”.  Bruno is really unhappy about this because there is no one to play with and nothing to do at the new house.  He is lonely and bored until one day he looks out his bedroom window and sees dozens of men and children, oddly all wearing striped pajamas.  The curious Bruno decides to do some exploring to find out what those people are doing there.

I worried about this innocent boy going too far with his exploring, and then it occurred to me that I was worrying more about the child of a Nazi than I was about all the people in the book wearing the pajamas.  They were all innocent, of course.  Did I believe that boy’s life was more important than the others?  I really had to question myself about why I was so concerned for him.  Perhaps because I already knew the fate of the others- I knew they were doomed.  That knowledge allowed me to put those feelings aside and put all my worrying into Bruno.

It was an odd experience reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas because the reader knows more about what’s going on than the sheltered young Bruno, and can understand what’s happening while he cannot.  And, because you’re reading about the Holocaust, you know it can’t end well, but the ending of this book was like a punch in the face.  I’m not kidding- I never saw it coming.  I have no desire to spoil it for you here so I won’t comment further- just know it’s shocking.  I’m glad I didn’t know more about the book before I picked it up because I like being surprised like that.

Parts of this book were a little hard to swallow (a child of a Nazi commandant would be that clueless?) but I got past that and didn’t let it spoil the book for me.  Kids are self absorbed, so perhaps he really wouldn’t have known anything about what was going on.

My 12 year old read the book too but I had to explain the ending to her as she hasn’t learned very much about the Holocaust or concentration camps yet.  She was quite horrified (by what I told her, not by the book) and asked a lot of questions.  I’d recommend the book for mature 12 years olds, on up.  It opened the door to a good introductory conversation on the topic between my daughter and me.

For our book club meeting we watched the movie.  For the most part it was true to the book, however the ending was a bit different.  In the book, the parents are left wondering what happened and eventually figure it out.  In the movie, they know immediately.  I thought the movie was good but (as usual) I preferred the book.

You can find book club discussion questions for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas at ReadingGroupGuides.com.

The Boy In the Striped Pajamas is different, well written, heartbreaking, and tender.  And shocking.

Very highly recommended.

For the FTC:  I bought this book with my hard earned cash.

Book Review: When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka is a book I accidentally read twice.  Has anyone else ever had that kind of lightbulb moment, when things start to sound vaguely familiar?

For me that rarely happens because I generally get rid of my books after I’ve read them.  They go to friends or off to the library; I keep very few.  But for some reason I kept this one, and it only took 11 pages for that reading lighbulb to go on with a scene so vivid and visual and unforgettable that at first I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it in a movie or read it in a book (this book).  I had to read a little bit further to realize that yes, I’d read this before, probably when it first came out in 2002.

It is spring of 1942, in the early days of WWII.  Evacuation orders for over 100,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast have been posted.  Japanese AMERICANS who’ve done nothing wrong; who love baseball and school, who own stores and homes and little white dogs, whose only crime is their ancestry, are suddenly enemy aliens and ordered to leave their homes to reside in internment camps far away.

This book is about one family’s experiences.  Told in sparse, simple prose, it focuses on the small things, the quiet details.  It feels bare.  Direct.  Subtle.  Sad.

The first chapter is told from the mother’s perspective.  The father has been taken away for questioning late at night, months before.  Taken away in his slippers and his bathrobe, with the neighbors peering out from behind their curtains.

Now the mother (never named) is making careful and necessary preparations for the rest of the family to leave their home in Berkley, California, not to join the father but to be taken to a different place. She’s packing up the house, making painful decisions about the pets, waiting for the children to come home from school.  She doesn’t know where they are going or how long they’ll be gone or who will live in their home while they are away; she only knows that they have to go and can only bring what they can carry.

The next chapter is from the perspective of the eleven year old daughter, on the train and then later on a bus toward their destination in Utah.  It’s hot and they are bored, cranky, sad.  Their minds drift to other places.

The next two chapters are told by the 8 year old son/brother during the family’s time at camp and are filled with a kids view of the heat, the white dust, the cold, the hunger, the boredom, the thin walls, the cramped quarters, the lines, the barbed wire, the armed guards, the censored letters, the longing for old times, the wondering about friends at home.  Finally they do return home but things are not the same, will never be the same.

The very end of the book, after the father’s homecoming, is a political tirade that seemed unnecessary and tacked on.  The stark realities of the family’s experience and the injustice of it all is a potent enough political statement all by itself.

At 144 pages, When the Emperor Was Divine is an understated, extremely well written book with a poetic feel that pays close attention to detail and focuses more on feelings than on actual events during this painful and ugly period in our country’s history.

I loved this book and highly recommend it for anyone over the age of 12.  It’s a keeper.

Teaser Tuesday- November 24, 2009

Miz B and Teaser Tuesdays asks you to: Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

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My teaser comes from page 51 of When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.  At 144 pages this is a minimalist story told by a young boy about his Japanese American family during WWII, when they are split up and sent to the internment camps.

My (step) grandparents were children during WWII and went to the camps with their families, so I have a personal interest in these kinds of stories.  I’m pre-reading this one to see if it would be ok for my 12 year old daughter to read.  So far, so good.  Here’s the teaser, from page 51:

“There was a window above the boy’s bed, and outside were the stars and the moon and the endless rows of black barracks all lined up in the sand.  In the distance, a wide empty field where nothing but sagebrush grew, then the fence and the high wooden towers.”

Review and Giveaway: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

GuernseyTRCoverI recently had the pleasure of reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and her aunt, the late Mary Ann Shaffer.  Where do I start in reviewing a book that has become a modern day classic in such a very short time?  A book that is almost universally loved?  A book that so many people have lauded, admired, and reviewed before me? 

Do I even need to say what it’s about?  Is it possible there are readers out there unfamiliar with the premise? 

In short, it’s a book told in letters.  It’s a cool format.  I know there is a real word for that.  Epistolary?  Is that it?  Or is that a religion?  Hmmm.. must check that out on Dictionary.com.  

Anyway, let’s dispense of the unwieldy book title for this review and just call it Potato.  Potato starts out in 1946.  WWII with all its devastation has ended, and the world is forever changed.  Early in the book Juliet Ashton, a writer, gets a letter from Dawsey Adams, a man living on the island of Guernsey, which had been occupied by the Germans during the war.  He found her name and address written on the inside of a book that intrigued him and, isolated on the island but seeking more information on the author, he reaches out to Juliet, the former owner of the book.  Their correspondence is the foundation for Potato.  

Dawsey tells Juliet about his book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Juliet is intrigued and asks him to have the other members write to her as well, because she is looking for material for an article and thinks their group would be interesting to her readers.  Soon she is corresponding with several members of the Society, and before long she is charmed by the people and by the idea of the island, so much so that she is compelled to go meet them and see it for herself. 

Yes, Guernsey is a real place

Yes, Guernsey is a real place

I love my book club- love talking about it- love the many positive changes it has brought about in my life (including this blog).  However, I could never say that it saved me or got me through the worst times of my life.  I could never say that it became my lifeline during a war.  But that is precisely the function the Society served for many of the people on Guernsey. 

And I loved this book for all it’s bookish quotes and insightful observations.  There are so many to choose from, but here is one from page 11, which I adored: 

“That’s what I love about reading; one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book.  It’s geometrically progressive-all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.” 

How true that is?!   That has happened to me so often.  

Another quote I loved isn’t specifically about reading, although I guess it could be: 

“Have you ever noticed that when your mind is awakened or drawn to someone new, that person’s name suddenly pops up everywhere you go?  My friend Sophie calls it coincidence, and Mr. Simpless, my parson friend, calls it Grace.  He thinks that if one cares deeply about someone or something new one throws a kind of energy out into the world, and “fruitfulness” is drawn in.” 

That reminds me of when you get a new car.  I never knew how many Nissan Quests were on the road until I started driving one.  Or how many pregnant woman were in the world until I was one (and how they multiplied tenfold after I lost my baby). But it’s true in a bookish sense as well.  I have thrown my “book club energy” into the world, and I am constantly amazed at how often I meet others who participate in book clubs and who love to read and discuss what they’re reading.  You attract others like you into your sphere when you send out the right vibes.  And apparently I have some really strong book club vibes floating through the universe. 

Another quote I loved (LOVED!) is this: 

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey?  Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” 

I am that perfect reader, in this case.  I adored this book. 

I will leave you with one last quote, and (shock) it’s a book club one.  From page 51: 

“None of us had any experience with literary societies, so we made our own rules:  we took turns speaking about the books we read.  At the start, we tried to be calm and objective, but that soon fell away, and the purpose of the speakers was to goad the listeners into wanting to read the book themselves.  Once two members had read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight.  We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another.” 

Yes.  I can relate.  My book club is very dear to me, and it is a delight to debate a point in a book. 

If you are interested in WWII or historical fiction, you’ll appreciate this unique look at the war.  If you enjoy letters, are a member of a book club, or an avid reader, I strongly recommend this literary gem to you.  It is timeless, charming, insightful, and soothing.  It was the perfect book for me and I hope it finds other perfect readers. 

The publisher, Random House, has generously offered 5 copies of the trade paperback of this book to give away as part of it’s TLC Book Tour.  Please leave a comment by Friday, August 28th for a chance to win.  If you’ve already read Potato, please let me know what you thought of it!

Visit the Guernsey website HERE and the author’s website HERE (she also writes children’s books).  You can find discussion questions for your book group HERE.