New to Me Author / Nonfiction (Misc)

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

unbrokenWhile we’re halfway through the month, I wanted to highlight Nonfiction November, an event hosted by Doing Dewey and a few other bloggers. I haven’t participated much but I’ve already put some new nonfiction titles on my TBR list.

Unbroken is the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American from California who was an Olympic runner until he enlisted as a pilot in World War II. He survives a long ordeal, first when his plane goes down and he’s stuck on a raft in the Pacific, and second as a prisoner in the Japanese prison camps. This book has been made into a movie by Angelina Jolie, coming out around Christmas in the U.S.

Zamperini’s story is certainly inspiring, and dramatic. I’ll admit, though, that this book dragged for me, and I was relieved when it was over. Some of that’s because of the level of detail in the book, which I could appreciate from a technical perspective. From the amount of information about military aircraft to the many many days Zamperini spent floating in a raft, it just was not as interesting a read as I wanted it to be.

I feel like a terrible person saying that. I know I’m supposed to gush about this book, but honestly, I don’t think it’s the story as much as the writing.

Another problem I had with the book is it never felt objective. Yes, there are a lot of facts in the book, and yes, Hillenbrand must have conducted a lot of research. I’m not questioning that. But it felt like it was mostly based on Zamperini’s perspective. That’s fine when an author uses quotes or letters or other sources, but here I felt like we were just supposed to rely on his views and his memories, which – let’s be honest – can’t be all that accurate so many years after the fact. Plus the book makes a lot of claims about people’s motives and thoughts, like those of the Japanese guards, that didn’t feel substantiated.

And I’ll say something else I know I’m not supposed to: while Zamperini shows amazing courage and strength, and I certainly want to honor his service to the country, I never really got to where I liked him as a person.

Let’s compare this book, just for a moment, to one of my favorites, Into the Wild. Chris McCandless is arguably selfish and immature, turning his back on his family, and setting out on an adventure he isn’t well prepared for. But all that said, after reading the book, he’s someone I really wish I’d known. And maybe the same will be true of Cheryl Strayed in Wild.

I don’t want Hillenbrand to minimize the horrors of floating on a raft without food or shelter, or worse, of being imprisoned and tortured for years, physically and psychologically.

I’m glad I learned more about Japanese prisoner of war camps in World War II. I’m glad I know more about the life of Louis Zamperini. It’s just that the book didn’t grab me.

I found the part about his return among the most interesting aspects of the book. Like reading about prisoners of concentration camps, readjustment to normal life seems almost as agonizing. I think that’s because you desperately want the person’s ordeal to be over, but it isn’t. A person who goes through what Zamperini went through will be scarred their entire life, and the people they care about can’t relate. I did think Hillenbrand wrapped up that aspect of his life rather quickly, but I can understand that wasn’t the focus of the book.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I have read some nonfiction that I loved. This just wasn’t one of them.

9 thoughts on “Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

  1. I really appreciate your comments — it sounds like I might have some of the same reactions (especially to the level of technical detail). I’ll think twice before starting this one. I’m curious what you will think of Wild — people have such different reactions to Cheryl Strayed in the book.

    • Lory, thanks for commenting! I’ve heard many rave reviews about Unbroken, so I’m probably in the minority here. I think it was a writing style issue with me. I read the first chapter of Wild and I can see why she might be polarizing — but flawed characters tend to be more interesting to me. Maybe that was one of my issues with Unbroken. I’m not sure Zamperini was fully explored as a person.

      • I’m often more interested in mixed or negative reviews than raves! Sometimes they give me more insight into the book, as long as the writer goes into some detail about his or her reaction — I appreciate your thorough explanation. I’m still interested to see what it’s all about, but this might go further down on my list.

  2. I found this story fascinating and the only reason I picked it up was my book club. I have to disagree that the most interesting parts of the book were floating on the raft and being a prisoner of war in the Japanese camps. Yes it was gruelling at times but it was interesting. I found his return to the US and his life there a bit boring and most of all rushed. I didn’t really like Zamperini’s personality much either but he was a very courageous man. With all of that the writing is the thing that I’d find the most fault with. The author’s constant personal opinions throughout the story were incredibly annoying and did a disservice to the book as a whole. There were parts that were evidently not recounted correctly or that the reader will have doubts about certain things happening exactly as she wrote it. I’d be interested to see how the film will go but I’ll probably not go to see it.

  3. It’s fun to read differing points of view on a book. I was so annoyed at Cheryl Strayed in “WILD” that I didn’t really care for the book. She made too many bad decisions in my opinion that I had no respect for her. On the other hand, I had total respect for Louis and although the beginning part about his Olympic running was a bit long for me, after completing the book I realized it was important to know this and feel this, to make his survival more real. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Joan, thanks for the thoughtful comment! My sister totally agrees with your assessment of the book. I agree this is an important story to understand, I just didn’t get wrapped up in it as I wanted to. I’ve only read the first chapter of Wild and I can see why people find her annoying. But I’ve heard great things about that book as well. I think it’s an interesting question whether you need to admire the person to really get something out of the book (probably) but I think writing style plays a role too.

  4. The book (I’m more than halfway through it) has its truly gripping moments but compared to Hillenbrand’s previous book Seabiscuit, it’s not as compelling a page-turner. As with her former book , Unbroken is evocative and vivid in its storytelling. Unlike Seabiscuit the book moves in fits and starts. There are times while reading it where I wonder why Louie is the major focal point of the book. The author does give a few biographical nuggets about other men during Zamperini’s ordeal but no one comes across as a fully fleshed -out character. I don’t question the man’s bravery, I just wonder if some of parts of the story are embellished for dramatic effect. There is no denying that the Japanese POW Camps were brutal places to live (and die) in. I probably should have waited and finished reading the book before stating my opinion but I think the above review makes some very valid points. I certainly recommend the book, I just have some reservations about how accurate some of it is.

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