Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How to break Mel, one book at a time

Glutton for punishment, that's me. I don't know how else to explain all the melancholy books I've been consuming lately, but oh, they've been worth it. My brain is constantly chewing the cud from one or another of the titles from this week, and as much as I like relaxing with a quick mystery or romance title, I do have to have some mental protein to balance out those chips-and-chocolate books.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionSo, foremost this week is Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, which, yes, broke me. I'm under the impression that everyone I know has read this in the few months since it was published, so maybe this is redundant, but I have to recommend it to anyone who hasn't picked it up. I'm not a war buff, I'm squeamish, I wasn't familiar with the Pacific Theatre of Operations, I don't gravitate towards non-fiction, but I couldn't stay away from this story of Olympian-turned-POW Louie Zamperini. (Side note - I did know a little about Zamperini from Neal Bascomb's The Perfect Mile, which chronicles the quest to break the 4-minute mile barrier. My family listened to it on a road trip a couple of years ago, and it was the kind of audiobook that left us sitting in parking lots refusing to go to the next hotel or attraction until we'd finished another chapter. I'm fixing to reread it.) Although the piling on of adversity left me stressed and anxious more often than not - I mean, come on, hadn't he overcome enough? - ultimately this was such an absorbing, informative, and thought-provoking account that I am thoroughly glad I read it.

P.S. - NPR Books had an online book club on Unbroken, which included a lot of great discussions, my favorite being this Facebook Q&A with Hillenbrand that you should check out once you've read the book.

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust BowlAnd speaking of adversity pile-ons, I finally got a chance to finish Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Times this week, which I'd begun listening to a few weeks ago but the CDs from my library were blank after the first few disks. Fortunately, my other library had it available on audio download after not too long a wait. (It was narrated by old audio-pal Patrick Lawlor, who's another narrator I recommend for his well-inflected, kind voice.) My grandmother grew up in Oklahoma in the 20s and 30s, and after Egan's account of life there, I've got quite the mental picture of a part of her life we didn't discuss much. (She was from Muskogee, so not as much the Dust Bowl stuff, but compared to the images of America in the 20s I got from Jillian Larkin's Vixen, for example, Oklahoma was a different era entirely.) Anyway, Egan's history of the Dust Bowl and the attendant issues was fairly fascinating, though often depressing. It left me with one question, which also cropped up for me during Hazel Rowley's Franklin and Eleanor: Was Herbert Hoover an asshole, ignorant, or just over matched? Thoughts? Book recommendations?

The Mistress of Nothing: A NovelFinally, a gorgeous little novel which sprung from Kate Pullinger's curiosity about the life of the maid to consumptive traveller Lucie Duff-Gordon. The result is The Mistress of Nothing. Sally's story of their emigration to Egypt and the life she made for herself in Luxor in the midst of unfamiliarity and unrest is delightful and, at times, devastating. Pullinger's command of place and tone is especially strong, and I'm making a note now to look for more by her when I'm next in her part of the world.


  1. Growing up in Muskogee, your grandmother had it better than most. They were not rich, by any standard, but her dad had a job with the railroad and they lived in a place that was big enough to have a vegetable garden, chickens and a milk cow.
    Your great-grandmother often invited less fortunate friends from church over for Sunday dinner.
    One Sunday, your great-aunt Frankie noticed a guest slathering a huge mound of butter on her biscuit. She looked at her and said "Well, have some butter, Miss Evans."
    The only one more mortified than Miss Evans was my grandmother, and the phrase became part of the Boyd family lexicon; a sort of slang code for any occasion when someone seemed to be taking more than their fair share of anything.

  2. The Worst Hard Time was a great read for me, as my mother lived in Southwest Oklahoma - not too far from the worst hard time. I am starting Unbroken for my book club. I hope I am as satisfied as you - I am struggling under the weight of adversity!

  3. "Well, have some butter, Miss Evans!" Love it. I'm relating that to my children and I'm sure they'll be keeping it alive for years to come. Thanks for the story.