I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken in the late spring and was so impressed that I put it on the summer reading list in the hopes that some students might read it. I had read a terrific review of it and standing in Border’s (when there was such a place, sigh) I read the opening pages and then just bought it and took it home. I had loved Seabiscuit and I thought when I read that book of Samuel Johnson’s observation that “any life well told is worth reading about”–who knew that would include a horse’s life, but it does?
Louis Zamperini’s life is presented to us as sort of bell curve in narrative structure–what is known about his very early years and what happened to him in recent years are engaging but brief bookends–the real meat of the biography is in the parts leading up to and including his adventures in World War II and the immediate aftermath of that. Viktor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning that from the Nazi concentration camps, “The best of us did not return.” I have always taken this to mean that those who gave their lives for others–who fed others even when starving or who took places of others on the transports, did not make it and so many of those who did survive feel some survivor’s guilt. I was put in mind of this particularly when reading the episode on raft which after the plane is shot down. What prevents the men from turning on each other–especially after the betrayal regarding the food? Zamperini is physically tough and mentally remarkably resilient. Frankl (borrowing from Nietzsche) says that those who survived the death camps found a “Why?” to live for that allowed them to deal with almost any “How?”
The way that Zamperini keeps inventing “Why’s” to live for strikes me as astonishing and it continues to show up when he rebuilds his life after his freedom and a period of deep difficulty. Hillenbrand, as she did to some extent in Seabiscuit, manages to tell a story of perseverance and redemption without either the trait (perseverance) or the outcome (redemption) being cloying or pedantic. (It also strikes me as a commentary about Hillenbrand’s own life which is a constant struggle–but I don’t want that to seem reductive.) That is quite a feat in an age of relentless cynicism and snarkiness. I’ll be interested to what any of my students thought about it.
I have read all 17 of Janet Evanovich’s numbered Stephanie Plum mysteries (One for the Money all the way to Smokin’ Seventeen)–I know that there are some stories outside this oeuvre but I haven’t read those. Why do I read this series? Well, writing that is humorous is hard to come by and there are times when Evanovich is laugh-out-loud funny (not just lol funny) in ways that few others (Christopher Buckley, Richard Russo, Steve Martin, David Lodge, and Woody Allen come to mind) can pull off.
Part of what makes the series work (when it does work–and for a stretch of novels it DID NOT work) is Evanovich’s blending (or smashing together) of two genres that usually do not go together–the mystery and the romance. Now this is not exactly Sir Philip Sidney inventing the “mixed mode” in Arcadia by blending the pastoral with the philosophical and prose with poetry or Orwell marrying the genres conducive to allegory such as satire and political parody with the genres of verisimilitude such as the thriller, naturalism, and psychological realism in 1984, but it can be pretty good. Evanovich honors the romance novel’s roots by having Stephanie stuck between two fabulous but flawed men (heck, I think I’m in love with Morelli and Ranger) but unable to commit to either one–and they can’t commit to her. Obstacles are thrown in the way of each relationship and they are surmounted only to be followed by other obstacles (it is not quite Jane Austen but you get the idea). Evanovich is really put to the test because once Stephanie decides, or once the obstacles to marriage are removed then the series will end–it has to. Jane Eyre (the novel) does not survive the marriage; ditto Emma and others all the way down to the finest Harlequin Romances. (See Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” for a Western take on the “marriage” ending a particular period in the town’s history.)
Mysteries often function in series by setting up a series of single problems that need to be resolved and that can contain a continuing cast of characters (even the villains can continue from novel to novel as representatives from Conan Doyle’s Moriarity to Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter make clear). Each problem/crime is resolved by the closing pages but the next novel presents a different problem. The mystery, then, often functions in a series–and the romance novel, which is not series-friendly (though occasionally handled in trilogies or quartets), wouldn’t ordinarily go together but when Evanovich is at her best and utilizing her characters from central casting (goofy grandmother, long-suffering father, outrageous sidekick, moronic and despicable boss, disappointed mother, and various goofball minor characters) she is really good and can make you forget the manic implausibility of it all. For my money the early ones are still the best–but maybe that’s the newness of discovery.
I haven’t quite finished Michael Lewis’ The Big Short so I think I’ll write about that along with David Foster Wallace (Consider the Lobster and other Essays) and Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw for next week. Other nonfiction such as Here’s Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Personal Ethics by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz could also make an appearance; it was a busy summer reading nonfiction. Also coming in the next few weeks a brief entry on “The Most Dangerous Game” and a nice riff on that by Algis Budrys and an entry on George Pelecanos’ The Cut. Pelecanos is the finest writer about race in America since the death of Ralph Ellison–and he is on the short list of must-read novelists (of any sort).