Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Things That I Read

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

Grade: A

It is not often that I read nonfiction, but when I do by and large I'll read biographies, particularly those of people with whom I have a passing knowledge or fascination, or "adventure" stories: Lost City of Z, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, Over the Edge of the World, etc. Every once and a while I'll chance upon something wonderful, something completely unexpected. In the case of Unbroken it started on a bored Saturday night at home with nothing to watch on TV. I turned on Netflix on Demand and browsed my queue and decided on a film that looked interesting based on the premise, but which had not appeared on my radar, despite the fact that it featured several major Hollywood actors (Colin Farrell and Ed Harris) and came out only two years ago. The film was called The Way Back, directed by Peter Weir, and it told the grueling "true" story of an escape from a Siberian prison camp. The movie was overall well acted and entertaining, though it suffered from certain narrative shortcomings and failed to live up to some of the quality last seen in Weir's Master and Commander, one of my personal favorites. The plot was intriguing enough, though, that I wanted to read a bit more about this "true story." Unfortunately, when I did a bit of research I learned that the book Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, on which the film was based, has been frequently derided by scholars as being almost entirely fabricated. I decided against reading it for that reason. However, browsing on Amazon I saw a number of recommended titles based on my interest in the film, among them Unbroken: A World War II story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. The blurb mentioned something about a downed aircraft and survival aboard a raft, so I thought I was starting a modern day Robinson Crusoe sort of story, which was perfectly fine with me. Given my long list of books to actually read in print, I decided to check out the audio read by the estimable Edward Herman, whose voice you have probably heard over countless stock film reels of aircraft on the History Channel.

Little did I know that when I picked up this book on a whim, I would be discovering a story more fascinating than any major Hollywood film I've seen in the past 5 years. Louis Zamperini was a troubled young son of Italian immigrant parents living in Torrence, California when he discovered he had a gift for running. This passion would lead him all the way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When the war began he became a bombardier, taking part in a crucial raid on Wake atoll among other endeavors. Then his plane was shot down and he survived aboard a life raft, fending off sharks and eating raw bird meat. And that is not even halfway through the book. The trials that this man had to endure are worthy of Job. Internment in a series of brutal Japanese prison camps resulted in horrific mental anguish, and some of the atrocities committed by guards are stomach churning. "Unbroken" is certainly not a read for the faint of heart. The whole of Zamperini's story I will not spoil here. In fact, I am really glad that I decided to listen to the audiobook because it prevented me from reading ahead to find out what happened next. I also made a conscious decision not to Google Zamp's name so I wouldn't know what was going to happen to him, which of his friends would make it out of the war unscathed, etc.

The writing is absolutely riveting and listening to the audio gave me a sense of urgency and captivated me utterly. I spent several lunch breaks just sitting in my car so I could hear the rest of the story. Truly, it was that good. I learned fascinating details about World War II, life in Japan, the Olympics, and post war America that were completely new to me. Zamperini, as Hillenbrand describes him, is a true American hero. Not a perfect man by any measure, but a man whose drive and fortitude are enviable, almost super-human. One brief note on the latter chapters in the story. While I am not a religious person, Zamperini's eventual coming to Christ seemed a genuine expression of gratitude and faith. Though I do not believe in God myself, I can only say that his faith and strength astound me, and seem a natural result from his ordeal. "Unbroken" is one of the best books I have read in ages. It was deeply affecting and engaging and I cannot recommended enough. I do actually hope that they make it into a film, because I think a great director could do a lot with his story. Given Hillenbrand's track record (see: Seabiscuit) it is altogether likely that somebody has optioned it already. I certainly hope that if a film is made, they truly do justice to the impossible life of this man.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Things That I Read

This Week: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Rating: B+

It seems like every year a book comes around and reviewers call it "The next Harry Potter." I think what they mean is the next big phenomenon to catch on, though many of these books like the Percy Jackson series have similar premises (magical type school, mysterious villains, etc). Akata Witch is very much in this vein, but it is so delightfully original that I think it stands alone as a novel, not simply "the next best thing." I will admit at the outset that I know next to nothing about Nigerian culture, though I am a fan of books that explore any kind of mythology from American Gods to Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I started to read this book knowing only that it was set in Africa, received favorable reviews, and was "Harry Potterish." It is so much more than that.

Sunny is the albino daughter of Nigerian parents who moved to the United States before she was born. When she was 9 they returned to Nigeria and Sunny, who had always struggled to fit in due to her physical differences, faced a new kind of torment: not quite African, not quite American, not quite Black. She never feels as though she is a part of any nation, any world. But there is more to Sunny than she knows. She is a Leopard Person, one who can work juju and communicate with the spirit realm. She is befriended by Orlu and Chichi, who bring her to Leopard Knocks, the center of West African magic, to meet Anatov, a scholar. From now on Sunny must live a double life, hide her magic from her family, and discover her true inner potential. Meanwhile a killer of children is on the loose and his ties to Sunny are closer than she wants to know. The realization of abilities, camaraderie found in a group of friends, tutelage under a teacher, and menacing evil force are tropes found in everything from to Percy Jackson to Harry Potter or Star Wars, but the differences from these works are striking. Whereas one might read Harry Potter and wonder at the negligence on the part of the professors at Hogwarts, the adults in Akata Witch make it clear that they willfully put the lives of others in danger, that people can be expendable to achieve a greater goal, and that there can be severe punishment if rules are not obeyed. Professor McGonagall might deduct points from Gryffindor but you don't see Neville Longbottom getting caned. Dolores Umbridge may have inflicted pain on her students, but she was considered a villain, unlike the scholars of Leopard Knocks. You hear about Voldemort killing people, but not brutally cutting them up and eating them. Sunny faces sexism and discrimination even among the Leopard people and this is considered normal and if not acceptable, at least par for the course. I found the treatment of women, or rather, the open and honest discussion about the way women are treated in certain African communities, particularly interesting and something rarely dealt with in Young Adult fiction. The system of magic, or juju, is equally unique and fascinating, as is the monetary reward in the form of chittim earned when one attains levels of knowledge. The characters are interesting and while not always likeable, believable.

My major complaint about the book was that it seemed to wrap up too quickly. In many ways I wish this book, at a scant 349 pages, were Harry Potterish in length. The battle with the "big bad" was far too short and I felt the narrative ended too abruptly. I am hoping that by leaving the story with an open ending that there will be sequels so that the author can go into more detail into the world she has created. Little time is spent in any one place, so unlike in Harry Potter, I never felt that I could really inhabit Leopard Knocks or see the interior of the Obi Library.

Overall though I was incredibly impressed with this book and want to read everything the author has written. I am also so pleased to have discovered a fantasy book for children/ Young Adults that has a female protagonist of color (though, come to think of it, it is the lack of color that distinguishes Sunny most of all). With so many fantasies based on European mythology or feudal kingdoms, I think it is important for children and teens to see that there are other systems of magic and other cultures to explore. I really enjoyed Breadcrumbs last year, but even though the protagonist was of Indian heritage (albeit adopted by a white family), there was nothing of that culture in the storyline. Akata Witch on the other hand is very much an African book about African/ African-American people with issues of race and culture playing prominent roles, but will appeal to all people of of all nationalities and backgrounds. It is a testament to Nnedi Okorafor's skills as a writer that she makes a foreign culture seem accessible as she does. Not only a wonderful read, but a book that I can recommend to a lot of our library patrons. Fantastic.