CBR-V Review #33: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken is the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian  track star turned World War II soldier, and his experiences as a POW in Japan after a plane crash that left him stranded at sea for nearly 50 days.

I was expecting to love this book, as it has rave reviews and was written by Laura Hillenbrand, whose Seabiscuit I loved when I read it years ago. To my surprise, I absolutely hated it.

I think my biggest problem with the book is that it has such an unreliable narrator. The bulk of the narrative is based on stories told by Zamperini himself, and have no way of really being verified by outside sources. There were places, then, that (to me) seemed completely unbelievable and probably untrue, but there’s nothing in the narrative to either support the events or dispute them.

Zamperini is also presented as, essentially, a 100% good hero. There’s no grey area for his character, no complexity, nothing to show that he’s a real, fully-rounded character with flaws and fears and less-than-perfect qualities. I kind of hate “overcoming the odds” stories in generally because I find them flat and uninteresting–I don’t like my heroes to be so one-dimensional.

I did like the parts of the novel that dealt with Zamperini’s time at sea, and wished that they had more focus (actually, from the plot summaries I’d read and the book jacket, I’d assumed that the plane crash and the ensuing struggle to survive would be the main story). It’s actually only a small portion of the narrative, with the rest focusing on his time in Japan.

I also appreciated the insight into life as a WWII soldier, and was impressed by Hillenbrand’s research and fully realized portrait of the army at that time. However, she also got bogged down by the details–I could feel my eyes glazing over in some of the parts where she goes on and on about different battles and dates and training techniques that ultimately aren’t significant in the overall story. I count myself as a history buff and someone who is generally fairly receptive to a lot of more mundane trivia in biographies/nonfiction, but this was excessive. She could have used a good editor to make this more readable.

Overall, I personally can’t recommend this book. However, it has consistently excellent reviews from most other sources, so it might just come down to a personal preference thing.

CBR-V Review #32: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

I’d been wanting to read this for a while, despite not knowing much about it. I knew it vaguely dealt with the filming of Cleopatra and, being a huge classic film buff, that was enough to sell me. The book actually doesn’t have too much to do with the famous movie, as it turns out, but it’s an excellent read nonetheless.

Beautiful Ruins jumps back and forth in time between 1960’s Italy and present-day Hollywood. In the past, a young Italian hotel owner is surprised by an unexpected guest: a beautiful actress who, as he soon discovers, is dying. Fifty years later, the same man arrives at a movie studio, searching for the woman he fell in love with long ago.

His is the central story of the novel, although those of minor characters–the Hollywood producer who promised the man a favor, the studio assistant with bigger dreams than producing crappy reality TV shows, the actress herself, and the actress’s lost-soul musician son–are woven in and out.

There’s a bit of everything in this novel: lots of romance, some tragedy, a bit of historical fiction, just enough humor to keep it light.  It’s a book to get lost in–I’m so in love with Italy, and Walter’s descriptions are totally enchanting and absolutely took me back. The “past” parts were by far my favorite, although the “present” sections were by no means boring.

My one complaint with this book–as lovely and enjoyable as it was–is that it didn’t leave a huge impression on me. I guess I like my books to have a little bit more meat, something I can take away from them, and this one was more light and fluffy than I would have expected.

It’s a great read though, and I would definitely recommend it when you’re in the mood for something to transport you for a few hours.

CBR-V Review #31: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House  is told from the adult perspective of Joe, a Native American who grew up on a reservation in North Dakota. When he was thirteen, his mother was brutally attacked; the book is a coming of age story in the wake of extreme trauma, following Joe and his three best friends as they try to take matters into their own hands and find the answers the adults in their lives are unwilling–and unable–to give them.

Erdrich is a brilliant writer, tackling a difficult subject with grace and a directness that really drives home her point without ever becoming preachy. Her descriptions are powerful and raw and some of them (particularly those surrounding the attack) were so unflinchingly honest and realistic that I had to put the book down for a few minutes before continuing on. She excels at voice, recreating the tone and dialect of her characters vividly and memorably. Her characters themselves are incredibly compelling and interesting, particularly Joe, who is smart and sweet and a completely believable thirteen year old. His characterization really benefits from the use of his adult perspective to frame the narrative; we’re given the benefit of his hindsight and his mature understanding of the events that defined his coming-of-age, but we also experience the shock and confusion he had to deal with as a child.

This is a thematically heavy book and is definitely kind of a downer, but it’s a book that really examines complex issues such as race, violence, and manhood in a unique way. Despite the depressing subject matter, it’s a really quick read–it’s hard to put down.

Overall, I highly recommend it!