CBR-V Review #61: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff

I love disaster stories. For a while, when I was about ten, I was obsessed with all things Titanic–I read virtually every book out there (fictional and non-) about the wreck. Nowadays, I’m a sucker for any book about surviving accidents–in 2013, I read two books about shipwrecks (one of which, The Lifeboat, I liked, the other of which, Unbroken, I hated). I was really excited to read Lost in Shangri-La, because it sounded really promising on the back cover–a gorgeous setting, a catastrophic accident, cannibals, and a daring rescue. Unfortunately, it really didn’t live up to my expectations, and felt a whole lot closer to Unbroken in terms of quality.

Lost in Shangri-La is the true story of a plane crash in New Guinea during World War II, killing almost twenty Americans and leaving three others–Margaret (a feisty and beautiful WAC), John (a young lieutenant whose twin brother was also on the plane), and Kenneth (a severely injured sergeant)–to find their way out of the unexplored jungle. While the three survivors are struggling to stay alive and interacting with the island’s natives, their colleagues at a nearby army base try to plan a seemingly impossible rescue mission.

I’ll start with the good: it’s stories like this that are meant to be written about. The crash and the events that followed it are truly incredible, and I completely understand the desire to write about and essentially memorialize an incident that most people have never heard about before. In the same vein, Zuckoff has a lot to work with in terms of an amazing setting–a lush, untouched paradise filled with people who are living in a world completely removed from modern civilization–and a truly great cast of characters. The raw material is nothing short of amazing, and Zuckoff is a good writer, with enough skill to present it in an interesting and (at times) compelling way.

However, despite all this potential, the book falls short in a few significant ways. The first is that Zuckoff was clearly limited by his decision to write a nonfiction account of the events. While there is a great amount of detail to be found regarding certain pieces of the story, and certain characters, his lack of information in other areas was glaring. For example, while we get a  good sense of Margaret and, to a slightly lesser extent, John, as people (based on written first-person accounts and interviews with family members), Kenneth is a complete non-entity throughout.

Zuckoff also seems to have some trouble with pacing and balance–he includes a lot of really extraneous information that seems to serve no purpose other than to take up space, but then rushes certain events to the point that they feel anti-climactic. It almost felt like he was really excited about writing about the crash itself, but everything past the immediate aftermath of the crash felt boring and misleading. The blurb on the back completely sensationalized the material– in reality, the survivors spent a lot of time just hanging out and getting to know the (perfectly nice, friendly, and definitely non-cannibalistic) natives. That’s fine, and obviously if it’s true, that’s the way Zuckoff needs to write about it, but it doesn’t make for a particularly exciting read.

I also really felt like Zuckoff could have dedicated more attention to the natives, who I was fascinated by. He framed their experience through the lens of the Americans who encountered them, and the result was often (unintentionally although it may have been) kind of patronizing and ethnocentric. I would have loved to have known more about them and their customs and beliefs, rather than have them be relegated to the sidelines of the story. I also felt like the description of the natives on the back cover of the book (as “cannibalistic”) was sort of offensive, and I would have also really liked to have gotten a better sense of the relations between the tribe that interacted with the Americans and those other violent groups that populated the area but didn’t play a role in the story.

Overall, this book definitely doesn’t live up to its potential, and I was very disappointed by it. It might just be my personal preferences coming into play, though–I’m starting to realize that I just don’t respond well to triumphant narratives of overcoming the odds, because I find them to generally be overly simplistic and not interesting enough. As evidenced by the number of extremely positive reviews of this book across the board, it’s probably just me, so take my review with a grain of salt.

CBR-V Review #60: Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III

I’m going to preface this review by saying that I have a huge crush on Andre Dubus III–I’ve met him before and he’s just awesome, and he’s an incredible writer. I tore through House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days and adored them, and I was really excited to hear that he had a new book coming out because I just love his work. I actually had no sense of what this was about before I read it–I just knew I wanted to read it because it was by him!

Dirty Love is actually a collection of three short stories and a novella, all of them loosely connected by their characters, who share passing relationships with one another. All of them, as the title would suggest, deal with love and sex in our modern world–a world of pain, darkness, and loss. Love (of all kinds–of others, of oneself) isn’t simple, and that seems to be the overall message of the book: it’s messy. We meet a man struggling to come to terms with his wife’s affair, a woman facing the prospect of being alone forever, a bartender struggling with his constant urges to cheat on his pregnant wife, and a teenager dealing with the consequences of a hook-up gone wrong.

As is typical of Dubus, all of these characters are stunningly portrayed and incredibly complex (and, more often than not, not particularly likable). I felt like in the first three stories, he was really able to get into their heads, express thoughts and beliefs and perspectives that are most certainly not his own. It’s a tremendous talent, and his ability to characterize so well is one of the reasons I fell in love with his writing. The fourth story/novella was more of a disappointment–it felt too try-hard. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a male author to accurately capture the voice of a teenaged girl (it’s not super common, though. Off the top of my head, only She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb comes to mind, although I’m sure there are others). Dubus himself has done a great job with female characters, even in this very collection (with the second story). But the fourth piece of the book fell totally flat for me, and I didn’t buy his main character at all. It seemed like he was trying to incorporate too much “teen-speak” and sound hip and that really bothered me. It just wasn’t authentic, which is so unusual for him–typically, his work is all about the authentic human experience, giving voice to stories that don’t get told.

Maybe its because his work is so character-based that I felt like short stories weren’t necessarily the best platform for his talent. I don’t know–I was definitely intrigued by most of the stories but I wasn’t as engaged as I should have been. I felt like he couldn’t necessarily go as in-depth as possible, and there wasn’t really any momentum in any of the stories (except maybe the second one). I actually had a hard time getting through this book; I kept putting it down and picking it back up. Which, given how fast I’ve read his other work, isn’t a great sign.

I don’t know. Overall, I’m just lukewarm on the book. I still love Dubus, but I’m going to hold out for his next novel and hope it meets his old standards.

CBR-V Review #59: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I reviewed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix a few weeks back–I know it’s a little weird to be working backwards, but it’s actually been sort of fun to read in reverse, making it easier to catch references and foreshadowing that I might not have remembered otherwise.

I always forget how good the fourth book is! The titular Goblet refers to the prize at the end of the Tri-Wizard tournament, an infamous, dangerous competition between the schools of the wizarding world. For the first time in years, it’s being hosted at Hogwarts–and Harry, despite being too young to enter, finds himself competing as one of two representatives of Hogwarts. Once again, Harry finds himself thrust into the spotlight, which is hard to deal with while also trying to figure out how to get through the tournament without embarrassing himself (or worse, being killed).

I mentioned in my last review that the 5th book seemed like it was a turning point in the series, but this is the book that lays the groundwork for that shift in tone/plot structure. While there’s obviously darkness to be found in all the HP books in the series up until this point, this one has the biggest stakes, in that Voldemort and his followers are regaining power, and the biggest consequences (namely, death, although I won’t name names if you for some crazy reason have never read this). I still can barely get through the first and second-to-last chapters of this book; they’re truly disturbing and scary.

This book is also important because the world of Harry Potter–previously confined to, essentially, the Muggle world, Diagon Alley, Hogwarts, the Weasley home, and Hogsmeade–expands dramatically here, in geographic scope, in background information, and in characters. Accordingly, this book is significantly longer than any other in the series up until this point–I remember being shocked at how huge it was when I first got my hands on it at age 10. It’s the first book that shows us that there’s a wizarding world outside of England, with wizarding schools and Quidditch teams. It’s in this book that we get important background information/world-building, with details on Voldemort’s supporters and their time in power, insight into magical creatures and wizarding world history, and more. And we also get a whole new cast of characters, many of them some of the most memorable in the whole series (I’m particularly fond of Rita Skeeter and Mad-Eye Moody).

This is a great installment of the series–I’m guessing most people have read it already, but if you haven’t, it’s really worth a read. (I know I’m clearly a HP fangirl, but really…it’s great).