Monday, February 27, 2012

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand has been perched on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year with good reason.  It is the remarkable story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner, a World War II veteran, a crash survivor, a survivor of the brutal Japanese prisoner camps and a fearless man.  Laura Hillenbrand's previous work, Seabiscuit, was a highly successful 2002 work.  This work was recently optioned for a movie.

Louis Zamperini grew up in California and was a rambunctious teenager.  With his brother's guidance, he became a runner, nearly breaking the four minute mile.  He competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics turning in an extraordinary performance in an event he had no real experience in.  His training for the 1940 Olympics was cut off by the war.  As part of an air force bomber crew, Zamperini flew regularly over the Pacific.  In May 1943, his plane went down.  Miraculously, Zamperini and two other crew members barely survived.  They spent 47 days drifting at sea in a tiny raft with essentially no provisions.  The three men survived daily shark attacks and a vicious attack by a Japanese bomber.  Picked up by the Japanese, Zamperini was interned in a POW camp.  He was brutally beaten and barely survived his two-year ordeal.  The US government had declared Zamperini as dead.  His return home at the end of the war was nothing short of a miracle.  Today, Zamperini is in his 90s.

With this work, Hillenbrand turned in a magnificent performance.  The book is meticulously researched.  It is loaded with corroborating facts.  Hillenbrand does a masterful job of telling this modern Odyssey story.  Some reviewers have noted their disbelief at parts of Zamperini's story.  While many parts of the story defy reality, what many soldiers and Holocaust survivors endured (and how they did it) defies comprehension.  Hillenbrand's reputation and work deserves deference. The book reads as well as any fiction work.  It is a page turner and will give you a deep respect for the unbroken spirit of Mr. Zamperini.  He truly is an American hero.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Books at The Academy Awards

You may recall that a few weeks ago I posted a beautiful video, The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore. I'm thrilled to let you know that the film won the Oscar for best animated short. Congratulations to the producers of this wonderful movie. The movie  is free on iTunes and is on YouTube. Watch it here or below.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus is a new novel, which I just could not finish.  Neither the story, the writing nor the execution were great.  I'll cut to the chase: pass.

A plague, carried by children and spread through language, kills.  Sam and Claire try to understand what is infecting them, how to be close to their angry daughter, Esther, and how to survive.  Sam leaves to find answers.  Sam and Claire are also "Jewish" and worship in little huts in the forest where they receive messages from a "rabbi".

The premise of the novel is creative but that is all that I liked about the book.  Marcus is supposed to be a great writer; I just was not impressed or drawn into the story.  The plot drags.  The sentence construction is okay.  As to the Jewishness of the family, aside from using Jewish words (e.g., Jew and Rabbi), not much about what Sam and Claire did seems Jewish to me.  While I am an open-minded reader, this book was too much for me.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

Last year, the parenting book that grabbed the headlines was Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  This year's lead contender is out: Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman.  Druckerman, a former journalist, relocated to Paris, had a child and struggled like most of us as a new parent.  The baby completely consumed her life.  Out at dinner with her husband and baby, Druckerman noticed that the French kids sat nicely though an entire meal while American kids often terrorized their parents and those around them.  She can't take phone calls when the baby is up because she can't finish a sentence.  But, at a French friend's house, she sipped coffee and conversed as an adult while the friend's young child played by himself.  By four months old, nearly all French kids sleep through the night.  Druckerman wondered aloud: is there something different that the French do or are they just wired differently?  Bringing Up Bebe was born.

It is all about the parental approach.  Many American parents (and certainly NYC parents like me) are obsessive, try to fill their kids' lives with activities to boost their chances of success and use discipline to get a child back into line.  When I first read the excerpt of the book in the Wall Street Journal (here), I found Druckerman's thoughts about parenting squared with mine: does parenting really need to be an obsessive, combative and all-consuming endeavor? Is there another way in which parents can be fully committed to our children, teach them independence and even enjoy ourselves a bit.

According to the French approach, kids (and yes, even babies) are capable, bright and able to understand.  The parent's job is to educate the child and expose them to life, not to track or discipline them.  For example, how do the French get their kids to sleep through the night so easily and uniformly?  Something called "The Pause".  During the day, the baby wakes, eats and sleeps.  At night, the baby will wake up between sleep cycles, which last about two hours each.  Between cycles, the baby stirs and maybe even cries, but she is not awake.  If a parent steps in at that time to hold or feed the baby, the baby learns that the way to bridge one sleep cycle to another is to cry and get food.  The French wait.  It is called "The Pause".  They understand that the baby needs to learn to bridge one cycle to the next.  So, before attending to a baby, they observe and wait.  They don't go in.  And behold, shortly the baby sleeps through the whole night or, as they call it, "doing her nights".  Crazy, no?  The science seems to line up with the practice.

Food is similar.  Babies nearly uniformly eat at 8 am, noon, 4 pm and 8 pm.  Sounds like a regular eating schedule for older kids and even adults (maybe minus the 4 pm snack).  Every whine during the day does not need to be met with food.  Learning to wait a bit creates frustration (in manageable doses), which we all need to learn to cope with in life.  Older kids learn that a snack is at snack time, 4 pm, not at will.

Playtime is similar.  The kids learn to play on their own at a young age (not with electronics).  They learn to occupy themselves.  Yet again, another life skill.

There are limits to Druckerman's advice.  If a child is wailing for 15 minutes at night, something may be wrong.  Check on the kid.  Inflexibility is not a virtue; patience is.  Since reading this book, I've tried out a few of Druckerman's ideas with my own kids.  The results were pretty amazing.  We'll see how it goes over the next few weeks.

Druckerman's writing is highly approachable and even a bit funny. This is not a "how-to" book. It is a series of informed observations about how Parisians approach parenting. Druckerman shares anecdotes and then supports them with some research. There are no magic tricks; just a shift in behavior and approach that the author shares with us.

Monday, February 6, 2012

More book videos!

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore from Moonbot Studios is a gorgeous video about a life with books.  It has been nominated for an Academy Award.  It is a silent movie that touches on what books add to a life.  It is free to watch above.  You can also buy it for your iPad.  Enjoy.