jill_dragon (jill_dragon) wrote,
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Book Reviews - 'Unbroken' and 'How Carrots Won the Trojan War'

These aren't the only books I've been reading but they are two that really stand out for me.  One's about WW2 and the other is about vegetables - it's hard to get much more diverse than that.  Beware of spoilers, though nothing too specific. 


How Carrots Won the Trojan War, by Rebecca Rupp
You'd never think that reading about vegetables would be interesting but the author's light-hearted and slightly ironic tone keeps this book from being dry and dull.  It talks about how the ordinary vegetables (or fruits in the case of melons and tomatoes) we have on our table got to where they are now from a scientific, historical, and cultural perspective.  It's all broken down into easily digestible chapters by vegetable type so the information is easy to keep straight.  Rupp doesn't go too heavily into the scientific terms, so even a layman with no horticultural or gardening experience would be able to understand and enjoy this book. 

It's interesting to note that most of what the western world consider common vegetables seem to originate from three distinct places: Central Asia, Mexico/Central American, and the Mediterranean.  Many were spread around Europe and the Middle East by Roman conquest and colonization, or from Asia to Europe via the Silk Road.  So really, the book is about the people as well as the plants.  Each chapter also talks plant genetics and mentions the most popular or well-known cultivars that are or were grown, which is of interest to anyone looking to plant them. 

And then there's all the random, whimsical facts which may not be of earth-shaking scientific or cultural importance, but are fun and fascinating to read about.  And if you're wondering how accurate it all is, there are many pages of references in the back of the book that attest to the amount of research the authors has done on the topic.  There's stuff like how in the nineteenth century people believed tomatoes were deadly poisonous, that corn was once put on trial for murder, asparagus was once considered an aphrodisiac, and how it may not be the peppers in your chilli that are upsetting your stomach.  Read and you'll find that the truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.  And as for how carrots won the Trojan War?  Legend has it that the Greek soldiers hidden inside the Trojan Horse ate carrots to 'bind their bowels'. 


Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
Unbroken is a true story about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who at the time was speculated to be the first man who would break the 'four minute mile'.  He competed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (and even met the Big Bad Wolf himself) and was training to compete in the next Summer Olympics when WW2 broke out.  He enlisted in the U.S. Airforce and became part of a bomber crew in the Pacific Theatre, fighting the Japanese.  After surviving several missions - including one hair-raising raid over Wake Island that left six hundred (!) bullet holes in the plane - ironically Louis crashed into the ocean during a routine search-and-rescue mission due to a mechanical failure.  Louis and two other survivors drifted for weeks in a life raft until they were picked up by the Japanese.  Separated from his crewmates, Louis was forced to endure torture and humiliation at the hands of the Japanese for many months.  One particularly sadistic Japanese soldier, nicknamed The Bird, was determined to break Louis' spirit and became his nemesis and personal demon.

Despite the brutality of The Bird and others, the story doesn't tar all the Japanese with the same brush.  The soldiers that rescued Louis from the ocean admired him after seeing what he'd been through, and in the Omori prison camp the interpreter risked his career and quite possibly his life to help the POWs survive as best he could.  Like everyone else in the war the Japanese were human beings, some were good, some were bad, and most were in between.  I appreciate that the book was able to deal with them fairly.

This is more than just a war story; this is about one man's indomitable will and unbreakable spirit, painted against the backdrop of a world-spanning conflict.  Laura Hillenbrand doesn't sugar-coat her subject's life, telling of his childhood as a juvenile delinquent (seriously, his mother should be nominated for sainthood) that only trailed off (but never quite stopped) when he got older and took up running competitively.  But Louis is neither a saint nor a demon and it's his faults and flaws that, to me, make him seem more real and human.  It's his spirit and his stubbornness that kept him alive through weeks on the ocean, surviving on seagull and rainwater while being stalked by opportunistic sharks and strafed by Japanese planes.  It kept him alive though the constant starvation and abuse in the Japanese prison camps, and it also kept him alive afterwards when the weight of what he'd been through finally came crashing down on him. 

I like that the book dealt with more than the war itself but also Louis' psychological scars that he was left with, and his struggles with alcohol, depression and PTS.  Unlike many war memoirs it doesn't shy away from his long, hard journey to peace and personal redemption, which in the end I felt was nothing less than inspiring.

Unbroken is gripping and fantastically well-written book - I've read some reviews where people scoff that "No one could possibly have survived what Louis had been through" but I believe differently.  Human beings are capable of incredible things, given enough incentive and it's clear from the start that Louis is an incredible man.  As for the parade of unfortunate and/or horrible things that happens to Louis - the phrase 'you couldn't make that shit up' comes to mind.  I should warn anyone thinking of reading the book that it is quite graphic at times in its depictions of violence and abuse, and might be triggering for some people. 
Tags: awesomeness, books, plants, ww2
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