Thursday, April 30, 2015

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

This is a life-is-stranger-than-fiction book from the same author who wrote Seabiscuit. In this World War II era biography, Hillenbrand explores the life of Louis Zamperini. Once the trouble-maker of his neighborhood, in high school Zamperini focuses his talents on running, even making the Olympics for the 5000 meter race in 1936. His experience in Berlin was an adventure for the 19 year old, with memories of eating to excess, meeting people from around the world, and placing 8th in his race. But there were also signs of unrest that hid beneath the surface of the gaiety of the Olympics. As the games came to a close, signs of civil inequality between Jews and non-Jews became more prominent, and Zamperini caught small glimpses of a storm brewing in Germany that would spread throughout the world in the years to come.

After the games, Zamperini's focus was on the 1940 Olympics, but they were never to be, having been canceled due to war. Zamperini joined the war effort soon after. Serving as a bombardier on bomber airplanes, Zamperini became an all too common statistic - one of the missing or war dead. Hillenbrand does a great job of explaining the difficulties and dangers of our military personnel in World War II, specifically dangers not directly related to combat. And Zamperini's position as a bombardier was primed for disaster. Fatefully, in 1943, his plane went down over the Pacific Ocean.

Hillenbrand describes Zamperini's 43 days at sea as a harrowing, gut-wrenching experience. Sadly, it was probably the easiest part of his misadventures to come, enduring prison camp after prison camp at the hands of the Japanese. Reading about his experiences was difficult, at best, but eye-opening too. I didn't realize how naive I was about Japan's role in World War II. Sure, they were a part of the Axis Powers and devastatingly brought the U.S. into the war, but this book really gives you plentiful and specific examples of their treachery.

Zamperini makes it out of the war and, like many veterans and especially prisoners of war, continues to suffer. His post-traumatic stress, not as well understood (or even recognized) as it is today is a realistic reminder that although Zamperini eventually triumphs over his demons, his road to redemption is a long, slow one.

While some of the subject matter is hard to take in, Zamperini's story is, in a word, amazing. Hillenbrand connects seemingly random topics like juvenile delinquency, the Olympics, World War II, POW camps, and survival at sea in a fascinating way through the life of this one man.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl, of the so-called domestic noir genre (check wikipedia for more details), is a voyeuristic journey into disaster. While you might find Flynn's characters unbecoming, there's enough drama and intrigue to keep you reading.

We begin with Nick Dunne, our Girl's husband, who has just reported her missing to the police. Of course, being the husband, Nick is suspect number one. As he tries to search for his wife, work with the police, and deal with his wife Amy's parents, Nick's every move is scrutinized and criticized by the media. You see events unfold from Nick's perspective, which gives you insight into his actions and reactions. And quite honestly, sometimes his perspective doesn't make you like him much. But that's the problem with being privy to one's private thoughts, I suppose. Some things are better left unsaid, and for good reason.

And Nick isn't the only suspect. Amy has a short list of potential stalkers, thanks to being the inspiration behind her parent's successful series of children's books, the Amazing Amy series. Although she is the inspiration, our Gone Girl is really the antithesis of Amazing Amy, whose triumphs underscore the real Amy's least in Amy's mind.

Which brings us to Amy's side of the story. For every Nick chapter, there is an Amy chapter. While Nick's story begins with the present and moves forward, Amy's begins a few years before. Her voice (as told through diary entries) gives context to Nick's chapters...albeit in a slow unraveling way. Besides the problem at hand, Amy's chapters address the usual course of many relationships in a painful way. She regales the excitement of new love, the comfort of a stable relationship, and the rut of familiarity. We are privy to the small deeds, or rather misdeeds, that sow seeds of resentment, miscommunication, and estrangement in this ill-fated couple.

Gillian Flynn weaves not only a murder mystery, but a sort-of psychological study of relationships. She doesn't stop there, though. When you think you've figured out what the book is about, Flynn changes things up. When Amy's diary entries catch up to the present day, you have a much clearer picture of the situation, the mystery of Amy's disappearance is already revealed, and there is still about half of the book left to read.

Gone Girl is definitely interesting, if a bit unrealistic. It has enough themes and mystery in it to keep you reading. While you might not find yourself loving the characters (at least I didn't), you'll be interested enough to press on, much as a person can't turn away from a traffic accident. There are some tragedies we find terrifying, yet comforting, knowing they're not ours. And Gone Girl just might be one of them.