Monday, January 19, 2015

Unbroken Book Discussion Guide and Discussion Questions

Book:    Unbroken
Author:  Laura Hillenbrand
Edition:  Hardcover, Randomhouse, 2010
You can purchase Unbroken online at Hugo Bookstores.

Internet Resources

There are a plethora of internet resources on Louie Zamperini, the specific battles he fought in and the camps where he was held.  The following are just a couple of the articles that are helpful background reading geared toward the discussion topics below.

On Veteran's Day November 2014 the Atlantic published an interview with Louis Zamperini based on conversations between Zamperini and the article's author in 2010 and 2011.

The New York Times book review of Unbroken presents a viewpoint on the author's writing style that is helpful to consider as one point of view in contrast with a more recent New York Times Magazine article.  The New York Times Magazine published an article on Laura Hillenbrand as an author and as an individual dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  The article also talks about the writing style in this and other contemporary nonfiction writing.

A Japanese student who moved to Australia as a teenager, talks about the history education Japanese students receive today in his BBC article.  Reading this article may provide a segue to a discussion on how history varies dramatically by who is doing the teaching.  

Major Characters

The author’s book website has photos and summaries of the seven of the major characters.  and two of the planes.
Louie Zamperini: 1936 track Olympian and bombardier in Pacific in WWII.  Survived crash of Green Hornet with Phil and Mac.
Lt. Russell Allen Phillips (Phil): pilot of both the Super Man and the Green Hornet when it crashed. On raft and taken prisoner with Louie.
Stanley Pillsbury: engineer and top turret gunner on Super Man.  Leg shredded in battle of Nauru.
Francis McNamara (Mac): Tail-gunner and third man to survive the crash of the Green Hornet. Dies at sea in raft.
Pete Zamperini: Louie’s brother.
Cecy Perry: Phil’s fiancee. 
Payton Jordan: Louie’s best friend at USC and a sprinter.
Lt. William Harris: prisoner at Ofuna with Louie.
Frank Tinker: dive-bomber pilot. At Ofuna, Omori and Naoetsu with Louie. Plans escape from Omori with Louie and Harris, but scuttle plans.
Commander Fitzgerald: at Ofuna, Omori and Naoetsu with Louie. Second POW in rank at Ofuna. Senior POW at Naoetsu.
William (Bill) Harris: at Ofuna and Omori with Louie. Plans escape from Omori with Louie and Tinker, but scuttle plans.
Quack: vicious guard at Ofuna.
Tom Wade: British Lieutenant at Omori and Naoetsu with Louie.
Mutsuhiro Wantanabe (The Bird)psychopathic sadist and Japanese POW camp guard.
Jimmie Sasaki: Japanese friend of Louie’s at USC whose sympathizes are unknown.


Torrance, California: Louie’s hometown.
Kahuku: beachside base in Hawaii where Louie and Phil are stationed after training.
Funafuti: tiny atoll from which the attack of Nauru was launched.
Nauru: tiny atoll 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii which Japan seized in August 1942 where phosphate was mined.
Kualoa: Base from which Louie and Phil take off in the Green Hornet to look for Corpening’s B-24 and then crash.
Marshall Islands: Where Louie and Phil’s raft washes ashore after 46 days at sea in the Pacific.
Kwajalein: Known as Execution Island. First atoll Louie and Phil are transported to after being captured by Japanese. Spend 42 days here. 
Ofuna: Louie and Phil sent here after Kwajalein. Louie spends a year and 15 days in this “secret interrogation center where ‘high-value’ captured men were housed in solitary confinement, starved, tormented, and tortured to divulge military secrets.”
Omori: POW camp outside Tokyo where Louie first meets The Bird.
Naoetsu: Louie’s final Japanese POW camp on distant reaches of Japan.

Discussion Topics


The writing style of this biography is very factual, with little dialogue.  As described in the New York Times magazine December 21, 2014,
“The release of “Seabiscuit” in 2001 coincided with a shift underway in nonfiction writing. Hillenbrand belongs to a generation of writers who emerged in response to the stylistic explosion of the 1960s. Pioneers of New Journalism like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer wanted to blur the line between literature and reportage by infusing true stories with verbal pyrotechnics and eccentric narrative voice. But many of the writers who began to appear in the 1990s — Susan Orlean, Erik Larson, Jon Krakauer, Katherine Boo and Nathaniel Philbrick — approached the craft of narrative journalism in a quieter way. They still built stories around characters and scenes, with dialogue and interior perspective, but they cast aside the linguistic showmanship that drew attention to the writing itself.”
While an earlier New York Times book review in 2010 criticizes the author for the lack of voice of Louie Zamperini:
“But virtually everything about Zamperini is filtered through her capable yet rather denatured voice, and we don’t really hear him. So, while a startling narrative and an inspirational book of a rather traditional sort, “Unbroken” is also a wasted opportunity to break new psychological ground.
How could someone with such access — she interviewed Zamperini 75 times — fall short in this fashion? Hillenbrand may have gotten too close to Zamperini. Writing, even about heroes, must to some degree be an adversarial process.”
How did you react to the writing style? Were you drawn in or held at arms’ distance?  Would you have preferred a more personal voice, or did lack of dialogue hold appeal for you?

Author’s Story

Laura Hillenbrand has her own story of individual struggle and facing adversity. If you are a New Yorker subscriber you can read her story she wrote on her illness,  Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,  or at least read the abstract.
“I asked whether she was ready to begin thinking about a new book, and she smiled. ‘Yeah, I feel so fully alive when I’m really into a story,’ she said. “I feel like all my faculties are engaged, and this is where I’m meant to be. It’s probably what a racehorse feels like when it runs. This is what it’s meant to do, what its body is meant to do.” She paused. ‘This is what my mind is meant to do.’”


Hillenbrand uses the word “hero” and “heroism” very sparingly. The following are nearly the only times hero is used.  Glenn Cunningham is referred to as Louie’s hero.  The airmen in general are referred to as heros. Phil is referred to as a hero twice and Commander Fitzgerald, also in the POW camp, was noted as recognized for his heroism. In two instances, Japanese are referred to as heros— once some civilians and once a POW camp guard.
“Louie has his hero,“ page 16, referring to Glenn Cunningham.
“He had hoped to pad around with Glenn Cunningham, but his hero proved too mature for him,“ page 35, again Zamperini’s view of Cunningham.
“News of the raid broke, and the men were lauded as heroes,” page 77, after the Wake Atoll raid.
“Chaplain Phillips had carried clippings about the raid to the offices of a local newspaper, which had run a story on Allen’s heroism,“ page 136.
“After the war, some POWs would tell of heroic Japanese civilians who such them food and medicine, injuring ferocious beatings from guards when they were caught,” page 225.
When Fitzgerald got home, he would be honored with the Navy Cross and the Silver Star for his heroism in combat and in the POW camp, page 318 footnote referring to the Commander John Fitzgerald, ranking officer who stayed behind in the POW camp with the sickest POWs after liberation.
“Four weeks later, in a wedding ceremony officiated by Reverend Phillips at Cecy’s parents’ house, the hero finally got the girl,” page 328 referring to Allen Phillips, ‘Phil’.
“Of the postwar stories of the men who ran the camps in which Louis had lived, the saddest was that of Yukichi Kano, the Omori private who’d risked everything to protect the POWs and had probably saved several prisoners’ lives… Kano was a hero, but when the Americans came to liberate the camp, two of them tried to rip the insignia off his uniform…Kano was arrested and jailed as a suspected war criminal…He was mentioned in many POW affidavits and, in everyone, was lauded for his kindness.” page 357.
At the end of her interview on NPR, Hillenbrand says, “I feel like anybody who puts on a uniform and fights for their country is heroic, that’s an amazing self-sacrifice… I don’t though want to separate him from all the other men around him who did the same thing.  They are all extraordinary. I want him to be representative of all of them, rather than somebody who stands apart from them.”

What does hero mean to you? How do you think the meaning of hero as changed over the years? Do you think as Hillenbrand states that “anybody who puts on a uniform and fights for their country is heroic?” Is your definition broader or more narrow? Whom do you know personally who has been a hero in your life?

Moving Forward After Loss

Loss was extraordinary for the servicemen and women serving, for families at home, for civilians and countries, for everyone during World War II.  Zamperini sank into alcoholism to deal with his loss. Many individuals committed suicide; rage was bottled up or violently expressed depending on the individual affected.  Similarly whole communities and countries responded to their loss and continued to come to terms with actions and repercussions decades afterwards. Hillenbrand traces some of these stories, the individual and the country-wide responses, in her epilogue. 

Talk through responses you have expressed or witness responding to loss. How is an individual’s loss similar to and distinct from the loss experienced by a community or a country? How can we reach out and support those who have experienced loss, or reach out and receive support for our own loss?

Crimes Against Humanity

   The States Parties to this Statute,
         Conscious that all peoples are united by common bonds, their cultures pieced together in a shared heritage, and concerned that this delicate mosaic may be shattered at any time,
         Mindful that during this century millions of children, women and men have been victims of unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity,
         Recognizing that such grave crimes threaten the peace, security and well-being of the world,
         Affirming that the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished and that their effective prosecution must be ensured by taking measures at the national level and by enhancing international cooperation,
         Determined to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes and thus to contribute to the prevention of such crimes,
         Recalling that it is the duty of every State to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes,
         Reaffirming the Purposes and Principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular that all States shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations,
         Emphasizing in this connection that nothing in this Statute shall be taken as authorizing any State Party to intervene in an armed conflict or in the internal affairs of any State,
         Determined to these ends and for the sake of present and future generations, to establish an independent permanent International Criminal Court in relationship with the United Nations system, with jurisdiction over the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole,
         Emphasizing that the International Criminal Court established under this Statute shall be complementary to national criminal jurisdictions,
         Resolved to guarantee lasting respect for and the enforcement of international justice,      
Have agreed as follows.”
In addition to the crimes during World War I and World War II, the Slave Trade, Apartheid, Rwanda, the Armenian Genocide, and Pol Pot sadly represent a few of the unimaginable atrocities that have threatened the peace, security and well-being of the world. 

How does humanity have the capacity for such atrocity? How can we work to reduce and eliminate this human capacity?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Eleven Book Discussion Guide

Book:    Eleven
Author:  Mark Watson
Edition:  Softcover, Scribner, 2011

You can purchase Eleven online at Hugo Bookstores.
Eleven by Mark Watson, offers up themes of moving forward after a loss and the interconnections among people akin to the butterfly effect of a small distant change causing large changes at a later point in time.  These effects are like a web of connections that we are either trapped in or spinning as we go depending on your perspective. The characters are realistic and the humor of London lives bubbles gently throughout, even as the protagonist wrestles with his own loss and connections.
Your book group may enjoy this as a quicker read after a lengthy novel or paired with The Emperor of Paris which is like holding the threads of multiple characters as they slide between he pages of the book and drift from the past to present to past, creating ripples as they gently bump against one another; each telling his or her now story and also sharing the story of storiesTwo very different writing styles, two different European capitals, one excellent theme to explore.

Internet Resources

Xavier’s need to retrieve his darkest memory from “the vault” is akin to the real life story of Martin Pistorius “leaning into those dark thoughts” in order to move forward.  Listen to Martin’s story on and his work at re-engaging with his thoughts, similar to what the fictional Xavier needed to do to move forward.
The Buddhist short story of Indra’s Net and can be a launching point for a discussion of how your book group members views interconnectedness and whether the connections are predestined or created by human choice.
Huffington Post article summarizes the story of Indra’s net and compares the interconnectedness it espouses to the internet and modern events. This very short article may stimulate conversation on the connected nature of world events.

Major and Intertwined Characters

Xavier Ireland: Protagonist and late nigh DJ (was Chris Cotswold when he lived in Australia)
Murray : Xavier’s sidekick who has a stammer
Pippa: professional cleaner who meets Xavier speed dating
Clive Donald: depressed teacher who calls in to Xavier’s late night show
Frankie Carstairs: young teenage boy who is a victim of bullying where Xavier only half-heartedly intercedes
Jacqueline Carstairs: Frankie’s mother and food journalist who skewers Chico’s restaurant in a review
Andrew Ryan: owner of Chico’s
Julius Brown: Obese high school student in Clive’s class who loses his restaurant job at Chico’s
Ollie Harper: realtor for Frinton and man whose BlackBerry Julius steals
Roger Willis: Ollie’s boss whom Ollie accidentally texts, and client of Maggie Reiss
Dr. Maggie Reiss: psychotherapist to the rich and famous, who exposes her clients’ secrets
Stacey Collins: Journalist and friend of Maggie’s
Edith Thorne: well-known TV presenter whose affairs Maggie exposes to Stacey and Stacey publishes
Alessandro Romano: barman with whom Edith had an affair
Jamie: three-year-old boy who lives in flat below Xavier Mel: Jamie’s mother
Tamara: council officer who lives in flat above Xavier
Bec, Matilda and Russel: Xavier’s best friends when he lived in Austraila. Bec and Russel married and had a son, Michael
Vijay: Usual winner at the monthly Scrabble tournaments Xavier competes in
Wendy: Pippa’s sister
Iris: caller to radio show reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire who mentions encounter with Tony 50-plus years ago.
Gemma: woman Xavier meets speed dating who attends movie with him, they enjoy a one-night stand and realize they have little in common

Discussion Topics

The softcover edition has some particularly good launching points for a book group discussion at the back of the book.  The following topics expand upon those questions and compare this novel to other stories of fact and fiction that also deal with similar themes such as moving forward after loss, the interconnectedness among humans, and having a positive impact on a stranger or a friend.

Point of View

The omniscient narrator frequently foretells the future, sharing that Jamie will “one day develop an antibody against two types of cancer” down to the day “in twenty-three years’ time that he’ll submit a Ph.D. proposal leading to the work which achieves a small breakthrough against two types of cancer.” page 99,  or the death of the Indian shopkeeper in “three years time,” page 160.
How does this voice magnify the novel’s themes? Did you find it irritating? Comforting? Did you even notice the forays into the future? How would the book have changed if it were told by Xavier or another character?

Interconnectedness among people and taking responsiblity 

The first half of the sequence of actions is described:
“but now is the moment, because Roger got angry over her bathroom visit, because he’s upset over a text, mis-sent because of an unfamiliar phone, used because another phone was stolen, because a boy was sacked over a tantrum provoked by a review, which was fuelled by anger at a beating-up which Xavier failed to stop on that cold day a few weeks ago.” page 156.
How does the remainder of the sequence play out?  What other sequences of unknown or known interconnectedness did you note? Which characters took responsibility for their situation and corresponding actions?

As a teacher, Clive’s impact through his connections is summed up:
“he realizes that every person is connected to every other, and therefore that every lesson he teaches — all those poxy graphs, those weary reprimands to the fat-necked youth eating crisps at the back — has its consequences. Everything has a chance of mattering.” page 256
Edith sums up her philosophy,
“Really you can be responsible for anyone’s feelings, thinks Edith, approving of her face in the mirror.  You can’t be responsible for what happens to other people. You just have to live your life.” page 265
How are “everything has a chance of mattering” and “you can’t be responsible for what happens to other people” opposed?  How are they complimentary? Are they two sides of the same coin? Or, perhaps they can’t be neatly boxed, 
“This is where the story could end, but it doesn’t; life isn't so neat” page 256.
The concept of interconnectedness has been explored for millennia.  Read the story of Indra’s net which is simply retold online as a workshop story.  

The concept and play of the same name, Six Degrees of Separation, explores the theory that everything is separated from every other person by six or fewer degrees or steps.  Compare these concepts of connections to the chain of 11 events. What metaphor do you like to use for expressing the impacts that we have on one another of which we aren’t even aware? Do you ever think about the individuals who have had a significant impact on your life who are not even aware of their impact or the impact you have had on others of which you are not aware?

Moving Forward After Loss

Listen to NPRs All Things Considered story on Martin Pistorius who fell into a mysterious coma and had only his own thoughts as his mind began to awaken.  
Compare the interviewer’s description of Martin first trying to disengage from his thoughts to Xavier sealing his memory from Australia in a vault. From the interview:
“You don’t think about anything, you simply exist.” 
“You are in a sense allowing yourself to vanish.” 
Martin’s interviewer explains how Martin made a “decision to lean into those dark thoughts," described at the following time intervals in the online interview:
At time 7:39 “Now when a dark thought came up instead of just letting it float by he would take it on.”At 8:17 “Martin found a way to reframe, reinterpret even the ugliest thoughts that haunted him.”At 8:49 “Overtime Martin began re-engaging with his thoughts.”
At 10:05 “Martin thinks it may have been his decision to lean into those dark thoughts that helped him to get the very best thing in his life”
Compare this expression with Xavier’s allowing 
“himself to retrieve from the vault the full memory of 11 July 2003,” page 180.
When have you had to revisit, or lean into dark thoughts, in order to move forward after loss?  When has it been helpful to revisit a difficult memory?  What are the negative consequences of returning to a particularly painful memory? 

Comparisons to Other Stories

Eleven offers the opportunity to be paired with another book such as Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, The Emperor of Paris by C.S. Richardson or I am the Messenger Markus Zusak, or the movie Love Actually. Pair Eleven with any book or movie where seemingly unrelated human lives are loosely interwoven, often without the individuals involved even aware of the connections.
While the primary characters are common through Cannery Row, there are a series of connected vignettes that have parallels to the connections among the strangers in Eleven. Near the end of Cannery Row, Mack and the boys are "the stone dropped in the pool, the impulse of which sent out ripples to all of Cannery Row and beyond." Couple a discussion of Cannery Row with Eleven.  How is your view of the universe aligned or at odd's with the order or chaos present in both Eleven and Cannery Row
I am the Messenger has parallels to this novel as characters tangentially related to the protagonist stream through the pages.  Both offer omniscient narrators, and both Ed, in I am the Messenger, and Xavier are generally likable characters whose roles center on helping out friends and strangers.
Love Actually is a romantic-comedy whose characters are linked to one-another, some more, some less, and the viewer is aware of the connections while the characters are only tangentially aware of many of the relationships.


What quotes jumped out as you read?
“She whips out her BlackBerry — people all over the room are doing this each time they move between conversations, as if the gadgets contain instructions on how to move” page 126

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