Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand--This Book-to-Movie Comes to U.S. Theaters Christmas Day, 12-25-14!

Book Review by:
Sharon Powers.
This post is dedicated to LOUIS ZAMPERINI who passed away July 2, 2014, just four short months ago. 

     Adolph Hitler looked on as the last lap of the 5,000 meter Olympic race was being run. He saw a young American run the last lap of the race in a scorching 56 seconds. Later, Adolph Hitler requested to meet that young man. Astonished, Louis was brought to Hitler and introduced. Hitler shook Louis's hand and said, "Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish." [2]

     Unclear, is whether Hitler knew that Louis Zamperini shared a room at the 1936 Olympics with Jesse Owens. [3] Or...that after meeting Hitler, Louis was reported as saying, " I was pretty naive about world politics...and thought he looked funny, like something out of a Laurel and Hardy film, especially the way he stamped his feet and slapped his thighs." [2]

     I suppose young (19 yrs.) Louis thought the Fuhrer was a funny enough guy that he asked some skinny guy to take a picture of him with Hitler. The skinny guy turned out to be Joseph Goebbels. [2] It is, also, not known if Hitler found out that Louis, after meeting him at the Olympics, climbed up a flagpole and stole Hitler's own personal flag. Louis Zamperini kept Hitler's flag and a few years ago was photographed holding the "memento" stolen from right in front of the Fuhrer's nose.  [4] 

     Little did Zamperini know the irony involved in the act, because soon after the Olympics, Zamperini found himself enlisted and flying as a bombardier against Axis forces. Before we delve further into Louis's remarkable life, let's take a look at the synopsis of the book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, REsilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand--the book I am reviewing, today.

Louis (left) and Pete (right) Zamperini
brothers. [6]
     Most biographies you read begin with the story of the person's childhood, and so does Louis Zamperini's. Laura Hillenbrand tells of Louis's wild exploits in his childhood and the unique variety of ways he could get himself into trouble. Hillenbrand relates that Louis's older brother got him interested in running in an effort to steer him away from a profligate life. Louis began running and never stopped. Eventually, going to the Olympics in 1936 as a wild-eyed teenage boy, Zamperini, even there, engaged in theft--that of Hitler's personal flag, for a momento.

     As WW II ramped up, Louis found himself flying as a bombardier, one of the riskier jobs of the war. His number was up when he was called to fly a search mission in The Green Hornet, little more than a bucket of bolts; a plane that had been used for replacement parts for other planes--no one even knew if the critical parts were all there--that, and the plane had a notorious history of trouble. The Green Hornet went down killing all on board except Zamperini and two others.

Louis Zamperini authored
Devil at my Heels, one of
two autobiographies. [8]
     Flinging themselves into two small inflatable life rafts, the three men faced thirst, starvation, shark-infested waters, Japanese aircraft that strafed the rafts, fierce weather, and the eventual death of one of the three men, only to be rescued from death and starvation after forty-seven days on the raft [8], at the hands of the enemy. Ironically, after his internment in a POW camp, Zamperini faced torture and starvation at the hands of his Japanese captors. Zamperini had to call upon his deepest strengths in facing the limits of his endurance. The worst of it, Zamperini reported, was the dehumanazing treatment given POWs. Through it all, Zamperini refused to be broken.

     The only thing you need to know before you read the following passage is that the "children" referred to are wild and troubled boys (like Louie had been as a youth).
On a May day in 2008, a car pulled to a stop before Pete's house in San Clemente, and Louie stepped out. He had come to say good-bye to his brother; Pete had melanoma, and it had spread to his brain. Their younger sister Virginia had died a few weeks before; Sylvia and Payton Jordan would follow months later. Cynthia [Louie's wife]...had succumbed to cancer in 2001, drifting off as Louie pressed his face to hers, whispering, "I love you." Louie [saying good-bye to Pete] spoke of what a feral boy he had once been, and all that Pete had done to rescue him. He told of the cascade of good things that had followed Pete's acts of devotion, and the bountiful lives that he and Pete had found in guiding children. All of those kids, Louie said, "are part of you, Pete." Pete's eyes opened and, with sudden clarity, rested on the face of his little brother for the last time. He couldn't speak, but he was beaming. (p. 389)     
     I chose this passage, first, because it is one of the very few places in the book that is emotive. Obviously, Louis Zamperini had dealt with death and seen it close up throughout his life, and knew how to handle the emotions that would come up because of the loss of someone you would know. Even here, with the deaths of people he loved, he was able to deal with their deaths with dignity and equanimity, respect, and love. This passage made me cry, even after having read all that Louis Zamperini had gone through during his remarkable life.

     I also found that Louis, in recognizing Pete's remarkable gifts to him, would allow Pete to know just how much Louis loved and appreciated Pete and valued what Pete had done for him. Louis was able, in the end, to be the wind beneath Pete's wings, just as Pete had always been for Louis...just so beautiful.

     Also, it is remarkable that after all the horrible things Louis went through, and all the deaths he had seen, that he was not a hardened man at the end. Louis was gentle, respectful, and caring for those who died in his arms. To me Louis Zamperini will be a great man just for this one simple and caring thing he did for those he saw through death.

     Perhaps you don't get biography and autobiography mixed up, but I've spoken with people who do. They've asked me to give them a good definition so they will be better able to understand the difference. The biggest problem are the two different terms, themselves, biography and autobiography. Both words contain "biography," so it is understandable why the mix up.

     An autobiography is what most people think of when they hear either one of the two terms. Looking at the info graphic, here, on the left, you can see the definition laid out for you.If you can remember that "auto" means "self, you have it made. The story you are reading (or writing) is a story by you about your life, OR a story by the author about themselves. [12]

     A few very famous autobiographies are as follows: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank; Meditations by Marcus Aurelius; The Autobiography of St. Theresa of Avila by Theresa of Avila; The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammed Ali; and Night by Eli Wiesel. Many, many more autobiographies exist. These few came from the List of Autobiographies, [13] but you can find new autobiographies in virtually every bookstore or online marketplace.

     The definition of biography can be seen in the info graphic on the right. A biography is still a story about a person's life, but it is not written by the person themselves, it is written by someone else.

     Famous biographies are as follows: The Perfect Hostage: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Justin Wintle; Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World by Louis Fischer; Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King by Lisa Rogak; and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. [15] Again, many, many more really good biographies are out there and can be read for free, in many cases, or the newer biographies can be purchased at any book dealer or on-line book purveyor.

     The book I review, today, Unbroken... is a biography, since it is about Louis Zamperini and written by someone else, Laura Hillenbrand. However, Louis Zamperini also wrote about himself in two separate autobiographies; I mentioned one of them, above, Devil at My Heels by Louis Zamperini. So, here is a perfect example of both genres of books on the same subject matter!

     Unbroken, the movie, will open on Christmas Day, December 25, 2014. Directing credits go to Angelina Jolie; writing credits go to Laura Hillenbrand (book), Joel Cohen and Ethen Cohen (screenplay), Richard LaGravenesse, and William Nicholson (screenplay). Starring in the feature will be Jack O'Connell as Louis Zamperini, Alex Russell as Louis's brother Pete Zamperini, Domhnall Gleeson as Phil Phillips, Morgan Griffin as Cynthia Applewhite and numerous other actors and actresses. [*] Please enjoy this trailer courtesy of YouTube. [**]

     Probably the most wonderful part of the book is the obvious amount of research Laura Hillenbrand put into getting the book together. Not content with paper and on-line information, Hillenbrand often spoke with Louis Zamperini to confirm information, clarify it, or just to have him expand upon it. She was exemplary in her detailed work about Louis Zamperini's life story.

     In the back of her book, Hillenbrand writes: "I found his story in the memories of Olympians, former POWs and airmen, Japanese veterans, and the family and diaries, letters, essays, and military documents and hazy photographs; in unpublished memoirs buried in desk drawers; in deep stacks of affidavits and war-crimes trial records; in forgotten papers in archives as far-flung as Oslo and Canberra." Probably no higher praise of her detailed research can be said than by Louis Zamperini, himself: "When I want to know what happened to me in Japan...I call Laura." [Kindle location 6381 of 8669]

     Additionally, the story is engaging and the subject matter dramatic (Although it cannot be credited to Hillenbrand, but rather to Zamperini and his remarkable life.) Hillenbrand recognized a good story when she saw it--I'll certainly give her credit for that. The story itself is unbelievable! How can one man have gone through so much? I'll never know...suffice to say, the story is extremely remarkable for by the very fact that it really happened.

     Hillenbrand's writing style flows easily on the page and is emminently readable. She logically takes the reader chronologically through the story with no back and forward time shifts--a good writing choice for this biography.

     This book has been around for a while--since 11-16-10--and has received many positive reviews. Many rate the book at 5 stars out of 5 and averages around a 4.5 average for book reviews. So...I am reluctant to lambaste this book. But if I am to be honest, and give a balanced book review, I must do so. I mean, isn't that the point of doing independent, honest book reviews? So, I will give it my best shot. Here we go:

     Writing in the third person did allow the author some unique perspectives, but left the reader feeling a lack of intimacy with the reading material. First Person Narrative would definitely made the story more compelling and INTIMATE. Perhaps Hillenbrand thought distancing the reader would be best given the horrific nature of many of the events of Zamperini's life. Nonetheless, I found the characters to be rather flat and the reading dry in many places due to the narrative perspective.

     I also had trouble with Louis's conversion near the end of the book. Hillenbrand describes how Zamperini went to see Billy Graham and eventually underwent a conversion. It is all seen as a third person observer--from a distance. And that's the problem. Here, we need to know Zamperini's thoughts, be privy to his feelings, have access to what moved him to give up alcohol, cigarettes, and turn to serving God.

     The difference between hearing someone talking about being a born again Christian and, instead, hearing the personal story of how they were moved, inside themselves, to change the way they see the world, God, and themselves, is HUGE! These kind of conversions are very personal and need intimacy, and we generally only get that with first person narrative.

     Without intimacy, Louis's conversion seems like so much dialog on the nightly news. So, whether Hillenbrand shied away from feelings because she's not comfortable with them, or because she didn't or couldn't get Zamperini to give them up, or even because she is uncomfortable with religion, doesn't matter. The reader just doesn't get what they need at that point of the book.

     I found that the Louis Zamperini book, Devil at My Heels to be much more interesting and definitely more personal and intimate than Hillenbrand's book. No, I am not reviewing Louis Zamperini's autobiography, here, today--this is just a simple comparison. Also, the difference in pages is striking; about 175 pages longer is Hillenbrand's book. Why? Zamperini tells the same story in only 322 pages while Hillenbrand's book is nearly 500. I definitely liked Devil at My Heels better than Hillenbrand's book. But, hey!, Hillenbrand was able to parley her story into one that will hit the big screen soon. So...I guess, good for her.

     Given the nature of the book, WWII and the suffering, torture, and imprisonment of men, I would recommend parental guidance, and I think we can take the movie rating as a guide, here. Since Unbroken is rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality and brief language, parents please go by this guide. Also, I would suggest anyone who is sensitive think about the movie rating before reading the book.

     Given the reasons I have enunciated, above, I rate this book 4.0 stars out of 5.0 stars. The book is a good read and I am not sorry I read it. I did enjoy, Devil at My Heels better than Unbroken, however. In and of itself, I would read the book before seeing the movie. Also, gaining knowledge of this amazing man, Louis Zamparini, and his unbelievable life story is a must for anyone who values knowing more about history, WWII, and how to live a life well.

     Thank you for joining me today as we looked at an interesting book, the subject, a great man with a remarkable life history. Join me next week as we look at a new book. Please remember to read a little bit every day, and this week I highly recommend reading Unbroken and Devil at My Heels.

Until next time...
This flower is a double white Rose of Sharon. [23]
...many happy pages of reading!

All my love,


[1] "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption." [By Laura Hillenbrand] Retrieved 11-05-14.
[3] "Louis Zamperini--June, 2011." Retrieved 11-04-14.
[5] "Louis Zamperini Lives to Talk About Horrific Plane Crash, 47 Days Lost at Sea and POW Camp." Retrieved 11-04-14.
[6] "Pete and Louis Zamperini." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[7] "The Flying Coffin." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[8] "Devil at My Heels." [(p.134) by Louis Zampirini] Retrieved 11-05-14.
[9] "What We Mean When We Say, 'I Love You.'" [Feb. 14, 2011 by Tom Matlack] Retrieved 11-05-14.
[10] "Death." [Don death ft major metre b] Retrieved 11-05-14.
[11] "Respect." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[12] "Autobiography." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[13] "List of Autobiographies." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[14] "Animal Research-Part 10 & Biography Genre Focus." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[15] "Shelves>Biography Famous People>Popular Biography Famous People Books." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[16] "What Worked." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[17] "His Story." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[18] "Unbelievable." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[19] "About Billy Graham." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[20] "Point of View Flow Chart." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[21] "The History of the PG-13 Rating." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[22] "Movie Review: Planes (2013)." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[23] "Pictures From My Garden." Retrieved 11-05-14.
[*] "Unbroken." [IMDb] Retrieved 11-05-14.
[**] "Unbroken." [movie trailer] Retrieved 11-05-14.