Monday, January 10, 2011
You could quantify my interest in reading a story about a WWII POW, or really that of any war's Prisoner of War, with the number zero. Just not something that interests me. On the other hand, if you asked me my interest in reading a book about paint drying, I'd say I'm totally for reading a book about that as long as Laura Hillenbrand wrote it.
I finally got around to reading Hillenbrand's book on Seabiscuit last year and it was the best book I read in 2010. Although I had no interest in the topic matter of her second book, Unbroken, I opted to read it because she is such a fantastic writer.
A good choice it was as I expect this will fall in my top ten books of 2011 come next December.
The book follows the story of Louie Zamperini. Zamperini was an obnoxious kid until he took up running. He developed into an incredible runner and became one of the world's best, competing in the Olympics for the United States in 1936 at age 19. He went on to set the collegiate record in the mile two years later and was training for the 1940 Olympics. The host city was Tokyo and with World War II, the games were initially transferred from Tokyo to Helsinki and then canceled. Zamperini joined the U.S. war effort in 1941 and became a bombardier.
One of the more fascinating things I read in this book was the primitive state of aircraft during the war. The number of crashes and injuries during training activities was incredibly large. Zamperini ended up a victim of such a mishap. He and his crew were sent out to look for a missing plane in the Pacific, their plane suffered a malfunction and they ended up crashing. Zamperini and two other crew members survived and were afloat at sea on a life raft for 47 days during which they were shot at by a Japanese plane, attacked by sharks and suffered from starvation and dehydration. The one crew member died but the other and Louie washed ashore in Japanese occupied territory.
The two were then placed in prisoner of war camps where conditions were probably worse than they were on the raft. Zamperini is regularly abused by a camp guard, the prisoners are starved and suffer from diseases, and when the Allies appear to be winning the war, the Japanese kill many prisoners of war rather than letting them be rescued.
Somehow Zamperini survives all his ordeals and returns home. He marries but suffers from alcoholism and is tormented by his memories. Through religion, he overcomes his hauntings and he is still alive and well at age 93.
Insprining though this book is, I also continue to be inspired by Hillenbrand herself. She suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and is often bedridden. Her being able to conduct the research for this book and write this book is amazing given her condition.
As I said, I love her writing. She also does a great job with research and thoroughly cites everything. My one problem with the book is that it does rely primarily on interviews with Zamperini (over seventy of them in total, yet, amazingly, they have never met in person). Memories are tricky things and there were many times in the book where I had to question happenings as being exaggerations or faulty memories. The instances weren't too bad (Zamperini didn't invent the internet while he was a POW or anything) and primarily involved his youth. And I may be wrong and every bit of them may be true. I'm a documentation kind of guy, though, and would like to have some sort of corroborating evidence.
Nonetheless, this is an incredible book and is a definite recommendation.