Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Unbroken (biography/non-fiction)

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

One word sums up this book: wow.

Though not the least bit a fan of war stories, I kept running across this book on bestseller lists. I finally read one review that said something to the effect of "You don't have to appreciate a good war story to appreciate this amazing story." So the next time I was at the bookstore and saw this book on the front shelves, I bought it.

From the first page, I was utterly sucked in to the story of Louis Zamperini. Born in 1917 in New York and moving to Southern California in early childhood, "Louie," the son of Italian immigrants, spent his childhood getting into every form of trouble imaginable. A daring thief, trouble-maker, and delinquent, he found salvation in his teen years in running, eventually making it to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. With World War II on the horizon, he landed in the Army air forces where he became a bombardier. Shortly into his tour of duty, the plane in which he and his fellow crewman were sent on a search mission for a missing plane, Louie's plane crashed at sea, with only three men from the crew surviving the crash. After 47 harrowing days at sea, clinging to a life raft and fighting sharks and starvation, and drifting thousands of miles into enemy territory, the surviving men were "rescued" by Japanese military, whereupon they were dumped in prison camps and spent the next two and a half years as POWs, subjected to unspeakable atrocities, while their families at home thought they were dead, killed in action.

Finally, WWII came to an end, and the POWs were released - those who hadn't died from starvation, disease, or outright murder - and found their way home. Only home wasn't the haven Louie had dreamed of throughout his captivity. Suddenly he found himself descending into rage, depression, and alcoholism - what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Eventually he finds redemption and makes peace with his horrific past. Louis Zamperini is still alive and spry today, well into his 90s.

The author is an awesome storyteller, and the book is meticulously researched. My husband told me that I'm the only person he's ever known who tends to gasp aloud when reading. This book had me gasping aloud plenty! It's full of drama and nail-biting suspense, truly a book I had a very difficult time putting down. It was fascinating learning so much about WWII, also. I realized as I was reading it that there are so many books and accounts out there about WWII as it pertained to the Holocaust and the war in Europe. This is the first account I've read about the war as it happened with Japan, and the absolute atrocities tens of thousands of people suffered at the hands of the Japanese. You think the Nazis were bad?

Read this. You won't be sorry.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Full Dark, No Stars (short stories)

Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King
I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances.  The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live ) may sometimes be in vain. - Stephen King
Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of 4 short, harshly told stories, where the main character must face a darker side of themselves.

1922 - the worst year of Wilfred Leland James' life.  Not only does Wilfred meet a darker side of himself when his wife, Arlette, decides to sell off 100 acres of land that she inherited, but he also introduces his 14 year old son to his own demon.  The story is a detailed confession of exactly how he talked his son into helping him with his gruesome deeds, how they worked together to cover them up and how his son chose to live with the guilt he carried.

Big Driver - Tess is violated and left for dead in a ditch along one of Massachusetts back roads.  She meets a determined side of herself, the "new Tess" as she scrambles out of that ditch and works her way back home.  She doesn't report the rape, but instead learns more about her attacker and woman who sent her to him.  what she does with that information is not unimaginable.

Fair Extension - Make a deal with the devil? Dave Streeter doesn't believe it's possible at first, but within days, signs of his fatal cancer show that it is rapidly disappearing.  The price? Fifteen percent of his earnings for fifteen years and the name of the one person he hates.  Dave has a good marriage, loving children, and why wouldn't he want to spend more time with them?  Cancer was cheating him out of his fair share, just like his best friend since high school cheated him out of his first love.

A Good Marriage - When you've been married for almost 30 years, you think you'd know someone.  But when Darcy's husband goes out of town on business and she needs to enter his domain (the garage) in search of two AA batteries, she learns there is a side of Bob she never knew existed.  In her quest to discover how far he could have gone, she also finds another side of herself.  Just how much is too much when it comes to keeping secrets?

I have to be honest and say, I have never read Stephen King before.
::: gasp :::
I've tried! I love the movies and mini series' made from his books, but my attempts at reading him have been a painful process which ultimately leads me back to the bookshelf.  I saw this book in the store (then price comped it on my kindle) and thought I'd give it a try - short stories don't leave much time for wordiness and fluff.

The stories were somewhat predictable, but the gruesome detail (that I sickly enjoy) was there in true King fashion. It was interesting to explore the darker side of your average, every day Joe.  Reading these stories had me asking myself what I would do if I found myself in the same situations ... while I can't say I would have allowed the sinister side of me to take over, I can acknowledge the plausibility of the outcome.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread (a novel)

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread by Don Robertson

This is another "classic" (published in 1965) I never heard of until someone recently chose it for our book club to read. At a little over 200 pages, it's a short and easy read.

It tells the story of a nine-year-old boy, Morris Bird III, who sets out one October day in 1944 with his little sister in tow, to trek across Cleveland to visit a friend. Along the way, he faces challenges and obstacles which are supposed to be seen as character-building. The story culminates when Morris and his sister reach their destination at the other end of town right as the Cleveland East Ohio Gas Explosion takes place, an actual event, and apparently one of the worst industrial disasters in American history.

Morris's pilgrimage across town represents his quest for courage, "selfrespect," and a wish to prove his own determination. It's a coming-of-age story, and describes a number of other characters as well. I didn't really care for the book. The author's writing style was not my cup of tea (his penchant for reinventing multiple words as one, as in "selfrespect" and "twentyone" and "lefthanded" and "allofasudden" drove me a little batty), and I didn't like any of the characters, with the exception of an elderly black woman who plays a very minor part in the story. I mostly didn't like Morris Bird III - he's a bratty, mouthy kid who is mean to his little sister, but somehow the reader is asked to root for him. Maybe it's just me, but I didn't think his character was terribly admirable.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali and Delphine Minoui (true story)

"Since forever I have learned to say yes to everything.
Today I have decided to say no."

I saw this book in a store back in January and was intrigued ... who wouldn't be?  at least slightly??

I price checked the store copy to my Kindle and immediately put it on my wish list.  I downloaded it last week and read through it in a night.  It wasn't a "great" read, it certainly won't be found on everyone's must read list, but it left a lasting impression with me.

Nujood is 10, or at least, that is how old she figures she is.  She lives in a small village, many difficult miles outside the nearest city with her parents, her father's second wife, and many siblings.  Being so far away from conveniences (like hospitals), records of births and deaths were not kept, so Nujood's true age is really not known.  But like any child, she doesn't get caught up in the dealings of the "grown up" world and finds joy in the simple pleasures, like hide and seek with her younger siblings and special trips with her older sister.

The harsh reality of her family's customs soon make their way into Nujood's life.  Her brother, Fares, argues with her father and leaves home, only to be heard from again in Saudi Arabia.  Her sister Mona is suddenly married off while her family leaves their small village of Khardji and heads to the capital, Sana'a, leaving behind all their belongings.  Mona eventually returns to the family home and her husband unexpectedly runs off with Nujood's other sister, Jamila.

Soon, Nujood is the oldest eligible daughter in the home, and in order to reduce his "burdens", her father agrees to marry her to a man three times her age!  The husband has agreed he will not consummate the marriage until one year after Nujood's first period.

But the husband does not keep his promise and rapes the young girl the first night in her new home.

Nujood has been taught to do as she is told.  The word of her father and brothers - and now her husband - is as good as law, but she also knows that the nightly rapes and beatings are not right.  One day she sneaks away to the courthouse and finds a group of people willing to fight for her right to be a child.

Unfortunately, in some countries child marriages are not uncommon, in fact, they are the norm.  Nujood's courage to fight for her rights has exposed this practice in countries such as Afganistan, Egypt, India, Iran and Pakistan.  Because of her public struggle, laws have been rewritten and more are in the making to protect the rights of young girls.  Programs, like ENTELAK (organized by the Girls world Communication Center, GWCC), have been launched to help girls who have become the victims of early marriage to continue their education and to secure a good future.

The royalties from this book are helping to finance Nujood's family ... her continued education, clothing, food and rent.  Later the money will help Nujood pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer who will help other young girls.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Lisa reviewed this book quite some time ago and I put it on my to-read list then. It interested me for several reasons and all of those reasons led to my eventual enjoyment of the book.

While I was reading, I was reminded of growing up and spending Spring Break and summer vacations with my great-grandmother and grandmother, respectively. The former lived in small town North Carolina and the latter in an affluent area of New York. While those worlds were very different, what my grandmother learned from growing up in that small, country town followed her to the "big city." I remember wondering why we never crossed the railroad tracks in Hertford and why my grandmother demeanor was the way it was in Great Neck. I didn't grow up picking cotton and tobacco as a child, nor was I raised with an inherent fear/reverence of white people. The differences were evident and this book continues to help me understand, as an adult, why that was.

All that to say, this book took me back to the days when I used to visit my grandmother at the house where she stayed on the weekends, working for a wealthy white family. It made me think of what that life must have been like for my foremothers in another time, in another place. The book felt very real and true and I felt the gamut of emotions while reading: anger and frustration, pride and fear. I was also quite impressed that the author was able to tell such a tale using the voice of those that lived the life that she did not.

I was so intrigued that I plan to read Telling Memories Among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and Their Employers in the Segregated South, the book that inspired the author to write The Help.

This was a library book so I do not have it to pass along.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Corrections (a novel)

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Have you ever read a book that you loved so much, it made you want to run out and buy every other book by the same author? That's how I felt about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom; after reading it, and finding myself almost grieving that the book had come to an end, I wanted more of this author. And so I bought The Corrections, an older, highly acclaimed novel of his.

Although I liked Freedom more, this book doesn't disappoint (although I do find it curious that this one won The National Book Award, and as far as I know, Freedom has not won any awards). Stretching from mid-century to modern-day, in this novel unfolds the Lamberts, a midwestern family comprised of Alfred, a stern, austere, repressed man descending into dementia, his wife Enid, flighty, desperate for some love and happiness and growing ever more bitter, and their three children: Gary, Chip, and Denise, who grow up and fly the coop in their own attempts to escape the oppression of their parents and who each, in his or her own way, make a mess of their lives. The story culminates in a Christmas reunion between the five of them that is both comic and tragic.

Franzen clearly has a gift for rendering characters who seem so real that it feels like you could touch them. Although every one of the Lamberts is at first glance unlikable, the author allows you to get to know them and in the end, love them.

I think I would have gotten more out of this book had I been able to read it at a quicker, smoother pace. Life has offered me so many distractions lately, however, that I feel like my reading of this story was choppy, and that took away from it for me. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed it and recommend it.

Mine's up for grabs!

PS: Franzen is definitely one of my new favorite authors, and I can't wait to read something else by him. Apparently there is lots to choose from!