Greetings, my fellow port swillers!
Over the past couple weeks, ol’ Robbo has found himself reading several books new to him. Some brief impressions [Spoiler Alert!] re each:
The first is Unbroken: A Word War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, a copy of which was loaned to me at New Year’s by the Former Llama Military Correspondent, which means he probably never will see it again. (I’m as bad as Hugo Bracegirdle about returning books.) It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, Troubled Yoot Extraodinaire, who discovers a talent and drive for competitive running which leads him to shatter all kinds of scholastic records and lands him a spot in the ’36 Olympics in Berlin. Before he can make a return appearance, war breaks out. Zamperini is drafted into the Army Air Corp and finds himself bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific Theatre. After some early success, he is one of only three survivors when his plane crashes into the ocean. These three (one of whom dies) then spend the next 40+ days adrift in a small life raft with no food or water but what the occasional fish, bird and rainstorm can provide, surrounded by hungry sharks, subject to extremes of sun and wind, and once even strafed by a passing Japanese bomber. Eventually, the two survivors get picked up by the Japanese and sent to POW camps. Then the real hardship begins: Beatings, starvation, torture, slave labor, exposure. Zamperini falls victim to a particularly sadistic Japanese corporal known as The Bird, who beats him senseless daily. Somehow or other, they manage to endure several years of this until the War ends and they are liberated. Liberation is pure joy. Once back in the States, however, Zamperini discovers that the War is not, in fact, over – at least in his own head. He quickly goes into a power-dive of self-destructive behavior and it is only when his wife drags him to a Billy Graham sermon that he finds redemption and gets himself back together. The rest of his life is remarkably peaceful, rewarding, and spiritual.
The book is meticulously detailed and clearly, if rayther dryly, written, but I have a few things. First, the title. Zamperini wasn’t “unbroken”. Even according to the text itself, he was most thoroughly broken by his torture within the Japanese camps by The Bird and took that brokenness with him back home. (He nearly strangles his wife in his sleep, thinking in a dream that she is The Bird.) As for his redemption, it should be noted that Zamperini, while floating in the life raft, promised God that if He delivered him, Zamperini would devote the rest of his life to Him. He also reported, during that same period, several times hearing choirs of angels around him. Well, we hear nothing more of this until the remembrance of that promise seems to come back to him at the Graham sermon, where it’s presented awfully cut and dry:
1.) Graham – “You need to get with God.”
2.) Zamperini – ” Oh. ‘Kay.”
4.) Spiritual Profit!
I’m over-simplifying a bit, of course, but I wish that aspect of things had been unpacked more thoroughly, because it seems to me the key point of the entire narrative. (I’m reminded of what Mattie Ross says in Charles Portis’s True Grit about how nothing in life is free except the Grace of God and that none of us deserve it.) Oh, well. At least it’s better than the recent movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, which, according to my sources, pretty much ignores the whole God thing altogether.
Second is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, “abridged” by William Goldman. For some years I’d been meaning to read this, fond as I was of the movie version, so recently I bought both the book and the DVD to add to my collection. (An aside: Robin Wright appears in some of the extra features commentary and is quite RCBfA-worthy, IYKWIMAITYD.) This particular edition of the book is a special “30th Anniversary” one, containing both a 30th Anniversary and the 25th Anniversary author’s prefaces. The “abridgment” consists of Goldman (who wrote the movie’s screenplay as well as a bunch of other famous ones such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “All The President’s Men”, “The Stepford Wives”, and “A Bridge Too Far” (aka, “A Movie Too Long”)) putting together all the “good parts”, i.e., the action sequences, and summarizing and commenting upon long, useless, cranky, Melville-like asides by Morgenstern in between. From the preface, I learned that the whole Fred Savage/Peter Falk reading biznay in the movie was based on Goldman’s recollection of his own father’s reading the book to him when he was a kid sick in bed. I also learned some of the historick background of both the story and of Morgenstern, and of the apparent ongoing legal squabbles between Goldman, his publishers, and Morgenstern’s estate over the publication of all these materials.
Then I did a little background check and discovered that the whole “Morgenstern” thing – together with what Goldman let fall about his childhood, his marriage, his reading to his own son and his research travels – was a hoax. Goldman wrote the whole damned thing himself.
Bastard. Ol’ Robbo hates getting pawned.
I’m sure you remember in the movie when Vizinni says the “Greatest Mistake” is getting involved in a land war in Asia? I’d always thought of that as a bit of stoopid Baby Boomer snark about Vietnam, perhaps gratuitously introduced by the director, Rob “Meathead” Reiner.
When I first came across the line in the book, however, still thinking Morgenstern was For Realz, I thought, “Hmm…Could the original author have been making a cranky reference to Alexander teh Great’s foolish attempt to conquer India? The various wars between Rome and Persia that went so badly for some Emperors? Even the ill-fated Song Dynasty resistance to the Mongol invasion of China?”
When I realized what was afoot, however, I went back to my first conclusion: Stoopid Baby Boomer snark about Vietnam.
It’s a helluva fun read, nonetheless.
Finally, I’ve just started a book picked up for me by Mrs. Robbo as a small token of my upcoming mumbledy-mumble birthday: The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshall, The Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge. Marshall, who first rose in the service of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, became a sort of early 13th Century equivalent of the Very Model of a Modern Major General and was deeply involved in the rise of the Knightly Class as well as the history of the English Throne during the reigns of Richard the Lionheart, Wicked King John and those immediately around them, particularly Henry II’s first son, Henry. The text is based in part on a valedictory biography of Marshall penned shortly after his death, but also supported and damped by other available contemporary references.
I can’t say that much about the book yet except that Asbridge goes to great pains to make sure his readers understand the difference between judging Marshall according to his own time and judging him according to modern sensibilities. This is increasingly important in our own godawful age, in which it is becoming all the more common to attempt to simply “disappear” people and events which don’t fit in with the current narrative. Nonetheless, Asbridge slips a bit now and again. At one point, he remarks that toys given to medieval boys and girls were often “gender-normed”. In other words, little boys were given toy soldiers and little girls were given dolls. [P.C. Police: Get….OUT!!! Me: So, what?] Also, he has the annoying habit of using C.E. (“Common Era”) for dates instead of A.D. (“Anno Domini”). This may be the academic standard now but it grates on ol’ Robbo’s soul mightily. Back in the day, the ol’ Jacobins tried to chuck the calendar completely and start with a brand new one. It seems their modern equivalents have got wise enough to appropriate and assimilate their target rayther than obliterating it.
Anyhoo, so far quite an interesting exploration of an era of which I don’t know much beyond a few facts about the main players.