Craig's Reviews > Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
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Oct 05, 2015

did not like it
bookshelves: history, survival
Read from January 26 to February 17, 2011

I’ve seen recently that negative commentary or reviews about this book invoke a kind of backlash normally reserved for non-conformists who critique the Bible, The Diary of Ann Frank, The Last Lecture, or any Oprah 'Book of the Month'. Well, brace yourself because here comes another one.

This book is a poorly written, exaggerated, sensationalized version of a true story, an over-hyped pop history book more concerned with drumming home the message that the human spirit can be indestructible in the face of extreme adversity (a pet theme for the author it seems) than in being a tight and accurate biography of a war hero. I had the feeling throughout the book that the “true story” was buried somewhere deep in the pages, struggling to get past the hyperbole and over-the-top events to floor the reader with what really happened. It’s instead mired in the monotonous descriptions of our protagonist’s lurid misfortunes and maltreatment, told in mind-numbing detail, and never really allowed to break free.

Judging by the notes, Laura Hillenbrand has put in a respectable amount of research yet the way in which she weaves the facts into the book is so sloppy and lacking any hint of subtlety it leaves you feeling like you’re reading a first draft script for a Michael Bay flick (remains to be seen if you are). The resulting story is horrendously tedious, repetitive, and – despite the fascinating subject and the stage where it’s all taking place – boring as all hell.

The first part of the book takes us from Louie’s humble beginnings through his meteoric rise to the Olympics. The second part involves Louie’s time in the military and all of his oftentimes unbelievable achievements. The third is the account of his B-24 bomber crash, subsequent loss at sea, capture by the Japanese, and the endless rounds of torture and beatings. The fourth and last part is his rescue life after the War and finding God with Billy Graham. How can this be made boring? Well, it can if your prose never rises above a dull, rambling, ill-constructed narrative about how this event happened, then this one did, and then this thing happened after that.

The characters in the book are so shallow and one-dimensional, hardly a one is given more than a passing intro before the story bumbles on to the next thinly veiled anecdote. The people begin blurring into the next and you’re left struggling to tell one cardboard person from another. Apart from Louie and his family the only other characters that really stood out were his raft mate and best buddy Phil and his most sadistic prison guard dubbed The Bird. Every minute of every one of Louie’s beatings by The Bird is documented to the nth degree; every one of The Bird’s tantrums, mood changes, facial tics, and spazz attacks is written about in the most curious of detail. The reader is subjected to dozens of "last sightings" of The Bird only to have him "shockingly" resurface in the most unlikely of situations a chapter later. You know the kind of scene I mean: "And Louie looked up at the new arrival only to discover once again –" Dah dum duuuuuuum!!! "—that it was The Bird!" This can only be pulled so many times before the reader starts to feel like they’re being strongly manipulated by the author. It happens so often in fact you start to think of it as a good candidate for some kind of literary drinking game where you take a shot of bourbon every time he shows up.

Now, far be it for me to disparage war veterans, especially POWs who’ve endured the kinds of crushing abuse that Louie and his fellow service men have, but how is it that we are able to get such detailed minutia over 50 years after it all went down? I’ll bet you can’t describe the full details of the days of your wedding, your first child being born, your first car crash, your first date, getting your driver’s license, etc. These were all life-changing, and in some cases traumatic, days in your life and it’s a safe bet that most, if not all, of these events took place more recently for you than 50 years ago. Most of us remember scant bits and pieces of events and many of these memories have “drifted” from reality in our fallible brains. Even polling spectators who were there at the time and cobbling together all of the recollections won’t make for a fully fleshed-out memory. This thought kept rattling around my brain as I made my way through the book. How on earth could these things be recalled so clearly and precisely after all that time? I’ve read other POW accounts that say that all days start to blur together and the extreme horrors the soldiers endured are blocked out of memory. Some soldiers, as Hillenbrand herself says in the book, forget the war entirely. The sneaking suspicion (and you can’t help but feel like a total shit for thinking it) is that a lot of the filler put in the book to string the anecdotes together is fabricated to puff up the story to appeal to a broader audience.

These suspected filler bits are nothing compared to some of the fantastical events scattered throughout the book. Zemperini is cheapened and the readers are dared not to roll their eyes as he is aggrandized and endlessly adulated from a man to a superhuman demi-god. He can withstand plane crashes, hourly beatings for over a year, prolonged starvation, backbreaking physical labor, diseases, and anything else that can be dished out. Consider his scenes of fist-fighting sharks in open water, meeting Hitler after his Olympic race, running a 4:12 mile -- in the fucking sand(!!), surviving violent dysentery for weeks on end with only scant handfuls of polluted water to drink (not to mention the “death sentence” disease beriberi that he contracted and overcame, despite it being untreated), blacking out as he’s tangled in wires in his sinking bomber only to wake up untangled and able to swim freely to the surface, self-repairing a broken nose and leg while at prison camp, and living through 40+ days at sea with practically no water or food then having the patience to wait offshore overnight once he reaches an island -- of course, just in time for a typhoon to hit them in their raft! Seriously? These personal achievements are apart from his sufferings in a group setting like enduring over 220 punches in the face during one camp thrashing and moving 20 – 30 tons (yes, TONS -- 40,000 to 60,000 U.S. pounds) of material at a rail yard in a day. Why the author stopped there and didn’t throw in a cage match with a silverback gorilla to determine alpha male dominance I’m not sure.

I imagine therein lies part of the reason why this book resonates so deeply with our intelligence-starved society today. Long titillated by years of reality TV, Saw movie sequels, and other torture porn many are conditioned to be drawn to the grisly and violent story of a guy who went through hell and made it to the “million dollar vote” by the end. It’s the car crash scene you slowly drive by and can’t pull your eyes away from ("Can you pull those bodies closer to me so I can get a better look?"). I also suspect the book serves as a keen display to whiners in search of inspiration that hey, maybe my life ain’t so bad after all.

I say hats off to Louis Zamperini and his fellow soldiers. Seriously. A toast! I have nothing but bottomless admiration, respect, and gratitude for his service and am in awe of his mettle and perseverance. He is one tough-as-nails guy whose achievements should not be overlooked and never be forgotten. It just would have been nice if his story could have been told in a more honest and fair manner, letting the facts speak for themselves without all the earnest dramatization, unabashed hero worship, and hyperbole slathered so thickly over them. His autobiography "Devil at My Heels" maybe?
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Reading Progress

01/27
3.0% 1 comment
02/14
29.0% "Impressed w/ the main character and his trials during WWII but man it's melodramatic stuff! He was an Olympic athlete, survived dogfights that left the plane and everyone else shot to ribbons, swam away from an ocean crash and made it by fist-fighting sharks and catching birds with his bare hands...and so on. He has my respect but can I call any of this exaggerated w/o being called unpatriotic?"
02/11 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-27 of 27) (27 new)

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message 1: by John (new) - added it

John Craig I hope you post your thoughts. Always interesting to read you.


Renie I have to agree that the details at times seemed a bit too detailed. But then, I can't remember what I had for breakfast today...


Nick Reading your review ( a fine review whether other readers agree or not) , the book's title should have been "Sea Biscuit".


Jessica Rios So, just wondering if you think those stories were made up? Like the 220 punches in the face AS HARD AS A MAN COULD PUNCH. I just cannot fathom how at least one of the POWS didn't die from that. At the very least, the faces should have been disfigured for life.


Craig Not sure how to take it really, Jessica. That, along with so many other examples, stretches the credibility near to the breaking point, doesn't it? That's a whole lot of punches.


Jessica Rios There were many examples of things happening that just seemed to be impossible to have happened. The belt buckle beating comes to mind. I mean, if it were as bad as they claimed, it would have caused brain damage. I work in a hospital and I see people messed up for life for far less. I am not going to say things aren't true because they may be and that would be wrong of me to say about a story I was never there for. If they are all as true and NOT as hyperbolic as they seem, then that's a-friggin-mazing. I mean they did show the dude on a damn skateboard in his 80s! My beef with the story was the writing. The writing had no heart, no flair. All of her sentences looked like a tenth grader wrote them. "Louis went to war. His family was sad." I mean, she had an AMAZING story to work with and she almost made it boring. The whole Billy Graham thing was just weird too. It almost was insulting to all of those vets that were never free of the flashbacks and the torment of the memories of the war. Feel me?


Jordan Dossett Craig, I just asked to friend you. Your a mighty reader compared to me but I hope you'll accept. I was blown away by your review. I read it because it was the first 1 star review for the book and found it well written and entertaining. Maybe you should write. ;)

I do have more books to read than friends and a lot of life to make up for the lost and loosing time.


message 8: by Eva (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eva Leger I have a horrible memory and can't remember yesterday, much less years ago, but I do know more than one person, including my own daughter, who have extremely detailed memories. I do think it's possible, and even likely, depending on the person, that someone can remember the kind of details Zamperini did. And we have to remember that not all of them came from him. The author pulled things together from Zamperini's memories, other POW's, records, etc.
I loved this book and gave it five stars but I haven't really read anything like it before. I read a lot about the Holocaust but never really Japan and it's role. I don't mean to put you on the spot but it seems like you're well read and know this subject - are there any others that come to mind that you could recommend?


Craig Thanks, Eva. I agree that it is theoretically possible for someone to have such clear memory recall (I just saw an amazing story on 60 Minutes about Marilu Henner -- but she is said to be 1 of 6 known people in the world who can do this); I just find it improbable that Zemperini was another one of them. But hey, he fought sharks barehanded so who knows...

I do try to read a lot and widely, especially on the subject of History. Unfortunately, my interests focus more with the American Revolution and Civil War eras more so than WWII. The only book related to WWII that comes to mind offhand is Truman by David McCullough, which is a very dense and fascinating biography of the man.


Oluwolebankole until relatively recently, popular belief held that the liver, not the heart, moved blood around the body, and those who disagreed were probably deemed unworthy of science. in the same way, i think we need to be cautious in concluding that things are false because we don't understand them.

regarding z's crash experience, and his later conversion, although i wasn't there either, i've found that if we're truly interested in answers - not just stating and justifying our opinions - we are often surprised by what we find.

of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion, so please don't take this as berating, merely encouraging keeping an open mind.


message 11: by Eva (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eva Leger Thanks for the link Craig - I new as soon as I saw the name it sounded familiar but I couldn't tell from where until I got to the site. This is interesting!


David FYI, the first book written about Louie came out in the mid-50s, there was another biography in the 1980s, there have been numerous television shows and many contemporaneous articles written in newspapers and magazines after Louie's return to the United States. So its not like he sat down 60 years after the fact and tried to remember everything that happened to him. His story has been chronicled many times.


message 13: by Eva (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eva Leger David wrote: "FYI, the first book written about Louie came out in the mid-50s, there was another biography in the 1980s, there have been numerous television shows and many contemporaneous articles written in new..."

That's new info for me. Probably a few others here too. You don't happen to have the title or author name of either of the two previous books do you? I think I'd definitely like to check one or both of them out at some point.
I'm going to try to do a search and find them - if I do I'll come back to share.


David Eva wrote: "David wrote: "FYI, the first book written about Louie came out in the mid-50s, there was another biography in the 1980s, there have been numerous television shows and many contemporaneous articles ..."
Devil at My Heels (1956) by Zamperini with Helen Itria
Devil at My Heels (2003) by Zamperini with David Rensin (this is the one I thought came out on in the 80s but it was published in 2003)

This article from 2006:
http://www.americainwwii.com/stories/...


message 15: by Eva (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eva Leger Thanks a lot David! Really, I appreciate it so much! :)


Carolinecarver You describe so well what is wrong with this book. I listened to it on tape so skipped ahead during the really repetitive parts, but yes, you are so right about the manipulation and "the bird" showing up like some figure in a horror film. Thanks for a great review.


Christine I have a terrible memory for minor, daily events. I have very vivid and detailed memory of several traumatic life-changing events. There is a lot of scholarly work published about this kind of memory associated with PTSD (see link as an example). http://bobhall.tamu.edu/epsy602/Topic...


message 18: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Delucchi Just wondering if you read the same book as me!!! Guess there one in every crowd. I grew up in San Francisco as a Giant fan, there was always one guy who grew up in SF that was an Oakland A's fan. Come to think of it his name was Craig as well.


message 19: by Roxy (new) - rated it 1 star

Roxy "the way in which she weaves the facts into the book is so sloppy and lacking any hint of subtlety it leaves you feeling like you’re reading a first draft script for a Michael Bay flick"
YES!!!!


message 20: by Roxy (new) - rated it 1 star

Roxy Such a disappointment to the subject.


Sarah Wish I'd read your review first. About half-way through and feeling obligated to finish out of respect for Zamperini, but wising I didn't have to.


message 22: by Roxy (new) - rated it 1 star

Roxy @Sarah - I read somewhere that Zamperini wrote an auto-biography. Perhaps that would be better.


message 23: by Roxy (last edited Jun 12, 2012 08:23AM) (new) - rated it 1 star


Shanmcg While I don't share your feelings about this particular book, I do love and respect the lead-in pu wrote in your review (Esp the Oprah part..ha!). I'm a firm believer in differing opinions!


message 25: by Nan (new)

Nan To put it simply, I find this retelling preposterous. I found myself rolling my eyes rather than empathizing with Louie.


message 26: by Dom (new) - added it

Dom So he met his college friend Jimmie Sasaki (the spy) again on page 191. I gave up then. Surfing on a great white shark and drinking brandy with his captors I only just allowed but really...


Kathy I also did not like this book as I found it extremely disturbing and I was unable to finish it.


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