Read in February

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, amazing book.  I cried a lot. I have not seen the movie.  This is the true story of WW2 era track athlete, elite member of a bomb crew (by elite, I mean one of those most likely to die) and American POW in a Japanese internment camp, Louis Zamperini.  He experienced brutal treatment at the hands of one of the most notoriously sadistic Japanese prison camp guards, and the post-war PTSD and revenge fantasies nearly destroyed him, until he attended a Billy Graham rally .  It’s not just his story, though.  Through his experiences, Hillenbrand, a gifted writer, also teaches about some little known details of WW2 and America’s fighter pilots and their crews, the brutal glorification of sadism and eugenics beliefs in WW2 era Japan.

I read it on Kindle, and just in case you do too, or wish to consider it for your high school students, I thought I’d share a couple book-keeping style details. It is a long read, but via the Kindle, 75% is the actual story.  A significant chunk of the end is footnotes, index, and acknowledgements.  I would definitely read the epilogue and the Reader’s Guide, which includes an interview with Laura Hillenbrand and some letters the adult children and other relatives of survivors of Japanese POW camps wrote to her, and well worth your time.

I am hoping to have my teenaged son read it.  For those wondering, Hillenbrand never goes for salacious details, but she doesn’t avoid hard facts, either.  I think she does an admirable job, but if you have a highly sensitive student who will be traumatized by references to pin-up girls, brutal beatings probably prompted by sexual sadism and cruelty for the sake of cruelty, you may prefer the young readers version. There is a little more detail on some beatings, not really on the sexual sadism except the acknowledgement that for some of the worst, they derived a sensuous pleasure from torture (she does not delve more graphically into the how and why, that’s essentially what she says). I think the most horrific episode is where a small animal is violated by a Japanese guard in front of the whole POW camp and the animals subsequently dies of its injuries.  “…dropped his pants and violated…” is the phrase Hillenbrand uses, and the abuse is not further detailed than that.

There is an adaptation she wrote for young people which I also read this month.  It has a lot more photographs and direct quotes from Zamparini, and also an interview with him.  She said in an interview that she also added a bit more historical explanation of things she took for granted adult readers would know.  She has softened some details while still acknowledging some of the brutality of life in Japanese POW camps.  The brutal and bestial killing of the small animal is not in this version.

John Buchan: Power-House, only 9 chapters, a very quick read.  According to his into he either wrote this one, or published this older tale of his,  for men in the trenches in WW1, because he’d been told they particularly enjoyed his stories. He wanted to write something short and exciting so they could finish quickly and yet have some escapist reading that might, if only for a short time, take them mentally away from the strain.  I supposed he did that. I did enjoy it as escapist reading, but there were a couple of amazingly and inexplicably idiotic decisions on the part of the protagonist that kept ejecting me from my enjoyment.  For example, being in sole possession of vitally important information and knowing his apartment is surrounded by baddies who wish to stop his mouth, he sends to confederates out to attempt to deliver this information to the police.  He has a phone in the apartment at his disposal, but he does not use it to telephone his friend the police officer and share this info with him.  He makes other phone calls, though. Hours later it occurs to him to try to use the phone to pass on that information, only by then, the wire was cut. IT’s almost like somebody else previewed the story for Buchan and said, “I say, old chap, why doesn’t he use the phone to convey his vital information?” and Buchan quickly threw in the belated wire cutting as the simplest way to address it. So annoying.

Strawberry Acres- this is vintage Christian fiction around the same time as Grace Livingston Hill’s, maybe ever so slightly earlier.  It’s less heavy handed in the religious department, and not nearly as fun in the home-making details, but it was a charming read, none-the-less.  19 year old Sally and her 3 brothers (two older, one younger) and their bachelor uncle are trying to make a go of it in a small apartment after coming down in the world rather substantially because of the untimely death of their parents some three years prior to the opening of the novel. The two older boys quit college and are working as low income white collar jobs in the city.  Sally keeps house for them all, and the younger brother is still in high school but also has an after school job to help the family make ends meet.  At the start of the book, they’ve inherited a overly large, rambling old house in the country in somewhat awful shape.  What they do with the property and their various characters and how they develop (as well as some of their friends) is the theme of the rest of the book. Nothing earth shattering, but a pleasant and charming way to spend a couple hours when you want an elbow chair for the brain.

Indebted: A Suspense Novel ; I downloaded this for free earlier this month, but it’s 2.99 now. It is billed as Christian suspense. Here is what I didn’t like, followed by what I did:
The end was incredibly abrupt and left a major element’s projectory from point A to point D completely unexplained. Also, it had the only grammatical error in the story that I noticed, but it was kind of a big one. Now, you don’t really *need* to have it explained to appreciate the story, but I want to know. I’d be happy if there is a sequel about this part of the story.
There are also two rather large coincidences not explained well enough to my satisfaction.
A couple of the ‘Christian’ speeches seem stilted to me, and the easy acceptance of his fate by somebody horrifically wronged, with long ranging consequences to his innocent children, was a bit too easy to me, and too lightly glossed over.

What I liked: The characters, the plot, the story, the writing.

Some of the criticisms of the story in Amazon reviews were a bit weird. Somebody objects to a character in a Christian book referring to Karma, but the character in question is not a believer at the time the reference to Karma is made- it’s maybe the first chapter.

God, Robot- by Anthony Marchetta, John C. Wright, Vox Day, MJ Marzo, Steve Rzasa, Joshua M. Young, L. Jagi Lamplighter, EJ Shumak
It’s an interesting premise, one that has been done before- a single novel, with each author continuing the story in his or her own chapter. I mainly find these interesting for the exercise, not for the story itself, and this was no exception. I’m a little frustrated because I think I actually paid 4.99 for this one.
The premise of the story itself was interesting- theobots which initially are primed with Asimov’s three laws, but then two more are added – the greatest two commandments. What happens after that?
The first few chapters were the best. I just felt that by the end the story had really unraveled and was too disconnected from its beginning.

Where this kind of book is  really useful for is getting some insight into which of the authors you’d like to read more of, and which you’ll probably pass on next time.  I found several I’ll read more of, and one or two that aren’t really my style so if that’s what you’re looking for, one book instead of eight, to give you a taste of 8 current sci-fi and fantasy writers so you can narrow down your future selections, than it’s worth the five dollars.

I forget the title, but I read a Suicide Squad short story from the pulp fiction, thirties or forties era. Thee Suicide Squad are a group of G-men known to taken any assignment, but they break the rules (and other people heads and appendages) quite frequently, often with a sardonic grin or other machismo demonstration. Not really my cuppa.

Short Story by E. Nesbit in the horror genre.  Typical of the time, and I hope she was able to buy something she needed with the profits.

Partners, by Grace Livingston Hill, you get what you expect to get from this one.  It’s the first GLH I ever read.   In this one, the poor orphaned girl making do with milk and crackers in the upstairs back room of a not very friendly and congenial boarding house in between jobs helps the energetic orphaned reporter save the life of an abandoned baby with predictable results.  One of the things I love about this one all over again when I read it is that it is refreshingly free, and even, for the times, dismissive of the eugenics usual for the era (and quite openly promulgated in Gene Stratton Porter’s books).  Nothing is known of the parentage of the baby- his dead mother is found starved to death, and she wore a wedding band and there are reasons to believe she was a widow, but at the time, that would not have been enough to justify taking in a stranger baby. In the story, several characters bring up this point of view- how could you do this? You don’t know his background.  What if he grows up to be a bad man? And their answer is basically ‘we know he is a baby who needs to be loved and we will teach him and we are praying that if he’s going to grow up to be a bad man, God takes Him home now, but we’d rather help him grow up to be a good man.’  When I first read this back in 1980, I had no idea how prevalent Eugenics was at the time, so this didn’t really stand out to me as refreshing, it was more  of a series of repeated, ‘Duh, every body knows this’ speed bumps in the story. Having a more informed historical context this time through, the story is a bit more labored, but the ‘save the baby, who cares about his background’ message was a delight.  God bless GLH.

I had a room-mate in college who loved these and owned several.  She could not believe I had never even heard of them, (my lovely mother did not care for Christian fiction, finding it theologically muddleheaded, wrong, and she objected to the generally sappy and not very polished writing).  My mother is pretty much right about all of it, but GLH hits my sweet spot in certain ways that I just can’t ignore- as I have mentioned before, the slice of life in the time, like reading historical fiction, except it’s written at the time. I love the little pieces, like the girl fleeing from a man who wants to kidnap her, but who has to stop and make herself a natty little hat by folding a handkerchief on the train so she won’t stand out to bystanders- from this you see train travel, that girls had to wear a hat in public, and something of styles of the time (her handkerchief hat is folded much like a captain’s hat, and perched on the side of her head.  That’s not this story, it’s from another one but it’s an example of the kind of thing I mean.  I also love the little details of housekeeping and cooking spread throughout the books.

Partners actually doesn’t have as much of that as many others. But there was this:

“Then she made a game of getting an interesting supper out of the odds and ends she had in her little tin box out the window, which she called her refrigerator. A stalk of celery, too tough to enjoy raw, nearly a cup of stewed tomatoes left over from yesterday, a lump of baked beans, the last of a can she had opened a week ago, a scrap of hamburg.
She put them all in her little tin saucepan, and watched over them carefully, till there came out a very tasty dish of soup- was it bean or beef? At any rate, it had a delicious flavor.
There was also a lettuce leaf, two leaves of spinach, one radish, and a half a tiny onion, besides the little white leaf top of the celery stalk. Minced fine they made a very attractive salad with the last cracker from the box and a tiny wedge of cheese. It was a good dinner and she really enjoyed it. And then as she nibbled at a single chocolate peppermint left over from some that had been passed around in the office that day, and now serving as desert, she got to thinking that she really ought to go out somewhere and get a brighter outlook on life.”

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