Join best-selling author Laura Hillenbrand (whose last book, Seabiscuit, became an international sensation) and NPR Books for a monthlong event — a book-club-meets-social-media experiment. Last month, Hillenbrand approached NPR with interest in creating new forums to discuss her latest book, Unbroken. Together, we will be jump-starting conversations on Facebook, Twitter and NPR.org throughout February, culminating in a live chat with Hillenbrand at the end of the month.
Read on for details on how to participate, and for NPR's most recent interview with Hillenbrand.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE:
1) Get a copy of Unbroken. It is available in hardcover and e-book form.
2) Read the book. You can go at your own pace, but to fully participate in final discussions and live chat, you will want to finish by Wednesday, Feb. 23.
3) Discuss the book on Facebook. On NPR Books' Facebook page, we will be moderating discussion groups about specific chunks of the book (no spoilers please!), as well as a board called "Talk to Laura," where Hillenbrand will be chiming in with answers to readers' queries.
4) Discuss the book on Twitter. NPRBooks will lead a guided Twitter discussion with the hashtag #nprbookclub every Friday throughout the month, and you can discuss the book with your peers at any time by using this tag (just add #nprbookclub to the end of your brilliant tweeted thoughts).
5) Throughout the month, we will be posting Q&As with Hillenbrand, galleries of archival photos and research from the book, and more insider info to enhance your reading experience. Come back to http://www.npr.org/bookclub for updates.
6) Participate in our live chat with Hillenbrand during the last week of February, and join in to discuss the book in your own community (but more on that soon!).
7) Have fun — and feel free to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
For more information about Unbroken and Hillenbrand, visit Random House.
My friend's obsessive 10-year-old son begins writing his next year's list for Santa as soon as the last Christmas present of the current season has been torn open. Maybe he'll grow up to be a book critic! For, in the dreary light of early January while the natural world slumbers, I, too, open up a fresh computer file and begin the process of putting together my new list — my "Best Books of the Year" list.
Every week throughout the year, I receive roughly 100 new books delivered to my home; an additional 25 or more delivered to my office. I wade through those books (and the publisher's catalogues that precede them) and decide what to review. Some books I start to read and discard; others receive a much-deserved pan; still others I never get to for one reason or another. (Much to my mother-in-law's dismay, I haven't read The Help yet!) The happy news for book lovers is that every year, I read and review more good books than this list can hold. Some are even Great.
And, if you want to know how a book earns its place on my "Best of the Year" list, well, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, you know a book is a winner when it takes the top of your head off.
By Patti Smith; Hardcover, 304 pages; Ecco, List price: $27
Sometimes there is justice in the world. That was my first thought when I heard that Patti Smith had won the National Book Award this fall for her glorious memoir, Just Kids — which has just come out in paperback. Smith wrote the book to honor Robert Mapplethorpe, her youthful partner in love, art, and ambition; but Just Kids is also a celebration of the frayed beauty of New York City in its so-called years of decline — the late 1960s into the 70s.
Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage
By Hazel Rowley; Hardcover, 368 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, List price: $27
Hazel Rowley's revelatory biography of a marriage, Franklin and Eleanor, explores an even more famous couple who defied convention. Rowley charts the evolution of the Roosevelt union from a standard-issue high society alliance to something we don't even have a label for — maybe "semi-open marriage" comes closest.
Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women
By Rebecca Traister; Hardcover, 336 pages; Free Press, List price: $26
Speaking of conformity and rebellion, Rebecca Traister's so-very-smart and lively book about the 2008 presidential campaign, called Big Girls Don't Cry, teases out how our reigning cultural narratives about femininity and "playing nice" came to wield so much power during the campaign and, finally, in the voting booth.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
By Yunte Huang; Hardcover, 354 pages; W.W. Norton & Co., List price: $26.95
For all its daring allure, early 20th century American detective fiction played by the rules when it came to the look of its detective heroes: Same Spade and company were white straight males who were quick to pull the trigger on any characters who were "different." It's still a mystery whether the exception to this standard profile — Charlie Chan — challenged or confirmed reigning cultural narratives about Asian Americans in mid-20th century America. Yunte Huang's fascinating mish-mosh of a book, also called Charlie Chan, explores the honorable detective's legacy in film and investigates the story of the real life Hawaiian police detective on whom Chan was based.
There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America
By Philip Dray; Hardcover, 784 pages; Doubleday, List Price: $35
In the late 19th century, ordinary people — mill girls, railroad and garment workers and miners — embraced the revolutionary idea that by banding together they might better their lives. Philip Dray's spectacular narrative history of the American Labor Movement is called There Is Power In A Union. Dray's chronicle reads like a novel, filled with dramatic acts of barbarism and bravery.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand; Hardcover, 496 pages; Random House, List Price: $27
Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken is a superb follow-up to her 2001 bestseller, Seabiscuit. Unbroken recovers the incredible and, yes, inspirational tale of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who joined the air corps during World War II, Zamperini was shot down; survived, with his pilot, for 47 days on a raft in the Pacific; and, subsequently became a prisoner of war of the Japanese, Zamperini puts to shame all of us these days who use the word "survivor" casually.
Searching for Tamsen Donner
By Gabrielle Burton; Hardcover, 328 pages; Univ of Nebraska Press, List price: $26.95
Gabrielle Burton, a writer now in her 70s, has nurtured a near-lifelong obsession with Tamsen Donner, the wife of the leader of the notorious Donner Party. A few years ago Burton wrote a fabulous feminist on-the-road memoir, called Searching for Tamsen Donner about piling her husband and five daughters in the family station wagon and retracing Tamsen's life. This year, Burton published an evocative recreation of Tamsen's lost journal; the novel, called Impatient With Desire, gets its title from a phrase in one of Tamsen's 17 extant letters.
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen; Hardcover, 576 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, List price: $28
Certainly, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom — the decades-long saga of a long and fraught marriage — deserved all of its applause, despite the literary spitball fight over Franzen's demi-god status. There's not one throw-away scene in Freedom and, yet, for all that effort, nothing feels overwritten or false.
So Much for That
By Lionel Shriver; Hardcover, 448 pages; Harper, List price: $25.99
My personal favorite novel of the year was Lionel Shriver's So Much For That, a black comedy about the emotional and financial cost of health care in America. Shriver's satire tackles the twin questions about cutting-edge medical treatments of life-threatening illnesses: "At what cost?" and "To what end?"
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
By David Mitchell; Hardcover, 496 pages; Random House, List price: $26
I also admired David Mitchell's beautiful novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which traces the life of its title character who starts working in 1799 on a small European outpost in the harbor of Nagasaki, Japan.
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart; Hardcover, 352 pages; Random House, List price: $26
Finally, Gary Shteyngart's novel, Super Sad True Love Story moves at warp speed rat-ta-tat telling a dystopian but comic story about a future where books are derided as objects that "smell like wet socks."
I want to end this list by doffing my hat not to a book, but to an independent bookseller and small press publisher. David Thompson was known throughout the mystery world; he died suddenly this year at 38. David introduced me to the wonders of noir writers like Reed Farrel Coleman, Daniel Woodrell and Martin Limon. His legacy is a reminder to all of us who love books that, as someone once said about the late critic Irving Howe, enthusiasm is not the enemy of the intellect.
Laura Hillenbrand is shaping up to be the Woody Guthrie of contemporary narrative historians. It's not just that she has an affinity for singing the ballads of dark horses, who through tenacity, luck and a lot of heart turn themselves into folk legends. It's also that Hillenbrand has a gift for recovering the spirit of mid-20th century America — its despair, sure, but also its humor and its graceful refusal to put on airs. Seabiscuit, of course, was an almost impossible act to follow, but as Hillenbrand says in the acknowledgements to her new book, Unbroken, she knew she had found her next subject when she spoke to a then-octogenarian Louis Zamperini on the phone and the wisecracking spirit of that bygone age came through loud and clear: "I'll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit," Zamperini said, "because I can talk."
He sure can and sure did — for seven years' worth of interviews with Hillenbrand. The tale Zamperini has to tell, augmented by mountains of diaries, letters and official documents, is a stunner. Zamperini's story, in a nutshell, is this: He was born in 1917, a son of working-class Italian immigrants who made a life for themselves in Torrance, Calif. Louie was a juvenile delinquent from the get-go, always stealing food from neighbors' houses and concocting homemade explosives. Louie's older brother saved him by forcing him to try out for track in high school; all those years of scampering from the cops turned out to be excellent training, and Louie eventually competed in the 1936 Olympics with Jesse Owens. Hitler even gave Louie a congratulatory nod.
When World War II broke out, Zamperini joined the air corps as a lieutenant stationed in Hawaii, where he learned to operate the bombsight on a B-24, an unwieldy plane known to flight crews as "The Flying Coffin." His pilot, Russell Allen Phillips — known as "Phil" — was respected as "a damn swell pilot" by the other men, and Hillenbrand vividly describes a few knuckle-biting bombing missions in which Phillips' skill nursed the injured plane back to base, sans brakes or fuel. But Zamperini's and Phillips' luck ran out on May 27, 1943, when, on a rescue mission in the middle of the Pacific, an engine died and their plane went down, killing everybody onboard but Zamperini, Phillips and a guy named "Mac," the tail gunner.
For a record 47 days, the men floated on two, then one, rubber raft. Sharks circled constantly, scraping their fins under the bottom of the rafts. Water came, when it did, from the skies; food consisted of raw fish and a couple of unwary albatrosses that alighted on the rafts. They were strafed by a Japanese fighter; thrown into a typhoon. The men lost half their body weight, and drifted for some 2,000 miles on open water. Mac didn't make it; the other two men survived to become prisoners of the Japanese — subjected to starvation, torture and slave labor. Because of his Olympic fame, Zamperini became the special target of a sadistic Japanese corporal who dedicated himself to shattering Zamperini's spirit.
Hillenbrand writes here with authority and her distinctive sensual intensity: You smell the stink of the maggoty fish the prisoners of war were forced to eat; you feel the horror of the void out on that raft. But Unbroken aims for something beyond vicarious secondhand suffering. Through the lens of Zamperini's story, Hilllenbrand explores how people fight to preserve their essential selfhood — their dignity — in the most extreme circumstances. She describes how the prisoners of war fought back against their captors: stealing newspapers to find out news of the war; passing gas when they were forced to bow to the emperor. She gives ample space to the home front, too: the everyday courage of Zamperini's mother, who refused to believe he was dead; his father and brother, who schemed to buy a boat after the war and search every island in the Pacific until they found him.
Louie Zamperini is still with us. He even ran with the torch at the Olympics in 1998 in Japan. He has lived on into an age where we're more skeptical about heroes. Inspiration is considered an attribute of "middlebrow" popular literature, not the highbrow stuff. Maybe that's why, as I couldn't help but notice, The New York Times buried its review of Hillenbrand's moving and, yes, inspirational book deep in the middle of the Sunday Book Review.
Don't let the cynics intimidate you. Zamperini's story — and Hillenbrand's unforgettable new book — deserve pride of place alongside the best works of literature that chart the complications and the hard-won triumphs of so-called ordinary Americans and their extraordinary time.
Laura Hillenbrand has written two great big books about exceptional athletes and inspiring survivors that the world somehow managed to forget for a while. The first was Seabiscuit, the tale of the Depression-era racehorse.
Now she offers up the saga of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic runner who became an American airman — and whose true laurels were the result of trials, endurance and will far from any stadium.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption follows Zamperini as a bombardier during World War II. When a plane he is piloting disappears into the Pacific Ocean, years of starvation, imprisonment and brutality follow.
Hillenbrand tells NPR's Scott Simon that when Zamperini was a kid in Torrance, Calif., he was known for his unbridled energy. That verve would one day make him an Olympic athlete; at the time, it simply made him spirited to the point of delinquency.
"He was the Artful Dodger of his hometown from a very early age," Hillenbrand says. "He was a serial runaway; he was a brawler; he was a prankster."
Zamperini's delinquency often manifested itself in the form of theft, Hillenbrand says; the kid would steal anything edible he could find, even breaking into kitchens to make off with a family's meal moments before it was to be served.
When Zamperini took up track and field at the urging of his older brother, he finally had somewhere to channel his pent-up energy. He would go on to become the fastest high-school runner in history and an American record holder in the mile.
"Running saved him," Hillenbrand says. "He had the one thing that a good thief has — getaway speed. And it turned out Louis had world-class, historic speed."
He eventually competed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler took notice, and complimented him on his speed.
An Airman Falls Into The Sea
After Pearl Harbor, Zamperini would become a bombardier, serving in the Pacific theater during World War II. The bombers of the time had technical problems and limited navigation abilities, and as a result Zamperini was at high risk even when he wasn't in combat.
"It was extremely deadly just to fly in these things, much less to go into combat," Hillenbrand says. "Fifteen-thousand Air Corps trainees died in training, stateside. Once you got into the combat theaters, 36,000 airmen died in noncombat accidents."
In May of 1943, those realities would turn Zamperini's life upside down. Zamperini and his crew were flying a rattletrap B-24 called the Green Hornet — their usual aircraft was grounded for repair — to look for yet another plane that had already gone down. When the Green Hornet began to fall apart, they ditched the plane in the ocean — a move that Hillenbrand says almost certainly should have guaranteed the crew's demise.
"The odds of being rescued if you ended up on a life raft were terrible," she says. "The rafts were very poorly equipped. The raft that Louis ended up on was especially poorly equipped."
Zamperini's raft had just a few cans of waters, a few bars of chocolate, screwdrivers, and a set of pliers. Staying alive would require resourcefulness, and a bit of audacity.
Zamperini and his crew were audacious, though, and they did all manner of things to survive. For hydration, Louis made rain catchers out of air-pump cases. For food they caught birds. Louis snagged fish with a hook made from his lieutenant's pin, and once with a fish hook tied to his finger.
Sometimes the crew wrestled sharks onto their raft, then killed them with the pliers.
Sunk In Another Kind Of Hell
After 47 days, Zamperini and his crew made landfall, and were picked up by a Japanese boat. And after a short period of decent treatment, they were sent to hellish prison camps. Their only food: a ball of rice thrown onto a filthy floor.
"There were feces on the floor, and there were maggots and they would have to pick the rice out," Hillenbrand says. "Their water was a tiny cup of tea every day."
Zamperini and his men were also subjected to much physical brutality, Hillenbrand says — and to medical experiments. Much of that cruelty was inflicted at the hands of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known among his prisoners as "The Bird."
("Watanabe didn't want to be spoken about, so they chose fake names for all of their captors," Hillenbrand explains.)
Watanabe was handsome, wealthy, young and prominent in Japanese society. But he had failed to make officer himself, and resentment was part of what fueled his brutality toward prisoners of war, and especially toward Zamperini.
"He had an obsession with POWs who had made officer, with those who were prominent in civilian life, with those who were defiant," Hillenbrand says. "Louis was an officer, he was a lieutenant, he was a world-famous Olympian, and he was a ferociously defiant man. Once these two met, it was more or less a showdown for the rest of the war."
Watanabe singled Zamperini out for terrible brutality, Hillenbrand says, and eventually Zamperini and his fellow prisoners hatched a murder plot against their captor. That plan, Hillenbrand says, was critical for the prisoners — as a means, not an end.
"There was a lot going on with the prisoners of war in terms of maintaining their dignity and finding ways to push back," she says. "One of the ways they did that was they hatched a murder plot against this man."
Whether the plan succeeded or not was almost beside the point; the goal was to maintain their dignity.
'A Deeply, Deeply Haunted Man'
Zamperini survived. But when returned to California, he found himself in a new battle: overcoming the impact of his experiences.
"Louis came home a deeply, deeply haunted man," Hillenbrand says. "Terrible, terrible nightmares where Louis would wake up screaming ... fighting with The Bird, being beaten by The Bird or trying to strangle The Bird."
Today Zamperini's struggles would be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
"Once the war is over physically, it's not over emotionally," Hillenbrand says. "Not nearly."
Living in the midst of war, Zamperini knew exactly what he had to do to survive. Living in peace, however, was another story.
"What he was dealing with when he was in crisis, in the war, these were all physical things that he had to get over," Hillenbrand says. "He had to figure out how to get water on the raft; he had to figure out how to catch that next fish. Meanwhile, the damage was being done to him emotionally. It was something, I think, a lot of these men could kind of put off at the time, in the crisis, but once the crisis was over, that's when it all kind of exploded inside them."
Yet Zamperini prevailed. He's still alive today. He found closure, in part, in 1998, when he returned to Japan to carry the Olympic torch during the Nagano Winter Olympic games.
He carried the torch through Noetsi, a town where he had been held prisoner. This time, he arrived to cheers and clapping.
"It was a beautiful experience for him to come back and have that closure, and have all of that hatred behind him," Hillenbrand says.
Despite Zamperini's astounding triumphs, Hillenbrand rarely refers to him as a hero in her book. She wants his story to stand as just one example of its kind.
"Louis is definitely a hero," she says. "What he did for this country is something that really moves me. I don't, though, want to separate him from all the other men around him who did the same thing. They're all extraordinary. I want him to be representative of all of them, rather than somebody who stands apart from them."