past favorites: unbroken by laura hillenbrand


I think I have recommended Unbroken to everyone, whether they were asking for a book recommendation or not (Kindle here). Even though I read this a few years ago, I often still think about it and the incredible spirit of Louis Zamperini.

Unbroken is a story of how Louie, an Olympic-qualifying runner, became lost at sea and a prisoner of war and lived to tell the horrific tale. His plane crashed, leaving him afloat on raft for 47 days before washing ashore a Japanese island, where he became imprisoned.

So, in case you thought being lost at sea for 47 days–with two other soldiers, no food, and man-hungry sharks–wasn’t bad enough, he was also captured, starved, and tortured in Japanese war camps. Just wanted to make sure you got all of that.

But the thing I remember most about this story isn’t the atrocities. It’s the spirit and love that Louie embodies in spite of everything he goes through (it is also the terrifying sharks). The vignettes of hope–like a duck the prisoners take on as their mascot, or Louie’s friendships in unbelievable circumstances, or the back-to-life party doctors throw for Louie–are what make this book one of my favorites.

I first glimpsed Louie’s strength when he was adrift on a raft after his plane crashed. Eight of 11 men on the plane died, and Louie and the other survivors were lost at sea for a very long time. There is an incident on the raft that I still cannot think of without getting knots in my stomach. And when they finally reach land and you think they might get some relief, the land is Japanese.

Louie experiences unspeakable cruelty when he is taken prisoner, especially from a guard they call the Bird. The Bird focuses on Louie, I think, because he couldn’t beat Louie’s spirit from him. But Louie and the men consistently fight back however they can: “To deprive the Bird of the pleasure of seeing them miserable, the men made a point of being jolly.”

In one of many instances where Louie shows he is stronger than this cruelty, the Bird forces Louie to hold a heavy beam of wood and tells Louie that he cannot let it fall.

“He felt his consciousness slipping, his mind losing adhesion, until all he knew was a single thought: He cannot break me. Across the compound, the Bird had stopped laughing.”

Louie was beaten as he was holding the beam, and then he collapsed and was taken to the hospital. Louie had held the beam for 37 minutes.

That spirit and holding onto his dignity are what keep Louie alive during his time at sea and his imprisonment.

“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.”

And when the war ends, and Louie can begin his trek home (not a spoiler guys, he is alive and interviewed for the book), he keeps that spirit–though not without difficulties and dark days.

“Seeing a table stacked with K rations, he began cramming the boxes under his shirt, brushing off an attendant who tried to assure him that he didn’t have to hoard them, as no one was going to starve him anymore.”

When Louie was given orders to fly out, he asked the doctors to keep him longer so his mother wouldn’t see him so thin. The doctor agreed, and also threw Louie “a welcome-back-to-life bash, complete with a five-gallon barrel of “bourbon””–a hodge podge of Coke syrup, water and whatever booze they could find.

These bright spots alone are worth the read. But Laura Hillenbrand’s voice and research are fantastic. Unbroken is beautifully written and easy to read–save for the horrific subject matter at times. And Hillenbrand’s extensive research includes even documenting newspaper interviews of prison guards years after they were assumed dead and then resurfaced. She interviews Louie and his family and treats the material with the same dignity Louie himself exhibits. Her footnotes are a good read in and of themselves, but the heroism throughout Unbroken is what makes it truly amazing.

(I bought this book on my own and am not being paid to write about it. But I am a part of the Amazon Affiliates program, so if you buy through my links on Amazon, I’ll receive a little bit of money for it.)

odd thomas

odd thomas

Odd Thomas! How I loved your quirky characters, your heart, your ghosts, and your central mystery.

But let’s talk about your girlfriend. You know, Stormy? Your soul mate, your feisty partner who knows her way around a gun and isn’t afraid to use it. You have matching birthmarks and you’re ready to marry her after years of being amazed by her strength and her love.

So how do you show you love her, trust her, and respect her? You hide from her, Odd, and I don’t understand it.

Odd Thomas can see the dead. He speaks to them (though they don’t talk back), and he tries to help them so they can move on. This has often led him into dangerous situations and into a tricky relationship with the chief of police because many ghosts who find him in Pico Mundo are trying to uncover their murderers, who are very much still alive.

And in this first adventure with Odd in Odd Thomas: An Odd Thomas Novel by Dean Koontz (Kindle version here), he gets into some dangerous situations indeed. But Odd chooses to hide his extracurricular activities from Stormy. He doesn’t want to put her in danger, so he lies to her and tells her he’s fine, omits that his friend has been shot and that a killer (or killers) are on the loose. And I believe that in doing so, he put her in more danger than she would have been than if she were well informed and prepared.

I get not wanting to put your loved ones in danger–I am a human with a heart. But Stormy is not his child, or his dog. Stormy is a real life human who Odd is supposed to be an equal with in a loving relationship. And in hiding these truths from Stormy, Odd does her and their relationship a disservice.

He says he trust her and believes in her, but his actions don’t say that at all. He doesn’t trust her to make wise choices and be ready to face danger with him, so he keeps her out of the loop and out of his life.

We see this a lot in fiction, and maybe in real life too. Edward lies to Bella to get her out of danger when a rival vampire comes into town (yeah, it’s Twilight–stick with me). In the Fifty Shades trilogy, Christian lies to Ana to keep news of a bribe and kidnapping from her. Both of these men are lauded for their strength and protection of their women (bleh).

This is often held up as an ideal–that men are protecting women and that’s what you should look for in a perfect partner. But if my boyfriend/husband/best friend/anyone kept these things from me, I would feel betrayed and hurt. Together we should be able to find a way to handle the situation. I’m not saying send me to the front lines here (But yay! Women can do that now!) but I am saying women should be treated with respect–always, but especially in romantic relationships. We are not flowers who can’t hear dirty words, we are not weaklings who shrink from life, we are not passive participants in our relationships. I hope.

Where have we seen some really kick-ass women in modern stories? Katniss was pretty badass. Let’s see how it would go if Peeta was on the run and didn’t talk to Katniss about it. I daresay he’d have more to worry about if Katniss found out than from the murderers themselves.

Hermione, oh Hermione. She’s right there with Harry and Ron making plans and taking punches. They love her, and so of course they want her to be safe, but they respect her skills and her brains. They couldn’t have made it without Hermione, and they know it. (Not to mention Ginny, Luna, Mrs. Weasley, and Professor McGonagall.) (Interesting fact: the authors of Twilight, Fifty Shades, HP, and The Hunger Games are all women.)

And Stormy is (supposedly) one of the strong ones. She is outspoken, never shies away from Odd’s peculiar gift, and even helps him out of a sticky situation like a pro. And there’s other strong women and good relationships in Odd Thomas. The chief of police’s wife is right there by her husband’s side, discussing who’s on the loose, and she’s in his inner circle when he needs to talk about work, or probably anything else.

So I just don’t get it when it comes to Odd and Stormy. But I did love everything else about Odd Thomas. The characters are wonderfully weird and Odd is great in every other instance. It was a fun ride and a good mystery, and I will be reading more Odd Thomas for sure. Thanks to my sister for telling me to check it out!

I also wrote about Odd Thomas here during a screen-printing craft.

(I bought this book on my own and am not being paid to write about it. But I am a part of the Amazon Affiliates program, so if you buy it through my links, I’ll receive a little bit of money for it.) 

real life book club

You know about #familybookclub already, but let me tell you about this real life book club I went to last weekend. It was at Word, a local bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and it was really fun! We talked about Safe as Houses by Marie Helene-Bertino. It is a short story collection, and I very much enjoyed its surrealism and wit. I had a lot of thoughts about this book on my own, but book club helped me see how all the stories worked together. We talked about themes, what we liked and didn’t like, and what we thought was good and bad about the book. And to my surprise, there were a few stories that seriously divided the room. It was so great to hear why others loved the stories I didn’t like as much. Here are my notes from our discussion.

book club notes

I absolutely recommend this book, especially if you’re into surreal/absurd/magical realism. My favorite story was “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours.” I thought it was hilarious and sweet–I underlined almost every line. My next favorite was “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph.” I loved how the characters interacted, and it hit some emotional notes that I adored.

Next month is on Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. I haven’t started it yet, but I am already looking forward to the discussion. It will be on March 2 at noon at Word. And don’t forget about #familybookclub! You have until March 30 (well, probably a little bit later even) to read Middlesex (paperback here, Kindle version here).

(I bought these books on my own and am not being paid to write about them. But I am a part of the Amazon Affiliates program, so if you buy it through my links on Amazon, I’ll receive a little bit of money for it. I am not affiliated with Word; I’m just a fan.) 

books heal hearts (donations for newtown)


Books heal hearts. I believe that’s true. Books can offer a safe place to escape, and a familiar story with a happy ending can be a unique source of comfort.

In Newtown, right now, there are a lot of children who may need this comfort. Who may need a small break from grief. I am packing up a box of children’s books to send to the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown. The library has also set up the Books Heal Hearts fund to provide materials for the community, now and in the future.

Please join me in giving, if you can. You can make checks out to Cyrenius H. Booth Library with Books Heal Hearts written on the memo line. Please mail donations to:

Cyrenius H. Booth Library
25 Main Street
Newtown, CT 06470

You can also donate through the library’s JustGive page, where you can select Books Heal Hearts and donate with a debit or credit card. All donations are tax-deductible.

Books are an escape for me, even if it’s just from a crowded bus. Familiar characters become your friends. New details in an old story give fun, new insight. Books can stretch your imagination and bring joy without batteries and without traveling. We can’t stop the hurting in Newtown, but we can be kind to one another and try to provide something that could help. Rae’s Days is about making a beautiful life and finding inspiration from stories. I hope you are inspired, too, to give back any way you can.

cannery row

I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at not batting an eye at seeing crazy things. I’ve lived in New York for a few years now and you have to just accept the crazy and move on with your day. But my cynicism is nothing compared to Steinbeck’s in Cannery Row.

Without so much as a hyphen, he drops in doozies like finding a beautiful dead girl while out on a fishing trip. And he slips in a family that lives in a boiler and rents out pipes so quickly that if you sneeze you’d miss it (you can hear the snores echo at night if you listen closely). Hilarious, scary, and touching moments are all a part of life at Cannery Row, and Steinbeck weaves them in so naturally you need to really pay attention to see the beauty of it all.

But maybe that’s not cynicism. Maybe that’s optimism. To find these moments of hope and heart in your community among the work and strife is truly beautiful. And these moments were my favorite moments of the book.

The rest of the town was also great. Doc is a wonderful character whose pathological lies are the perfect counterbalance to his goodness. Mack’s manipulations are only matched by the love for his new puppy. We know Mack’s selfish schemes can’t end well, but the way they fall apart is a lovely surprise each time. And the language was another beautiful surprise.

My favorite quotes:

  • They did not measure their joy in goods sold, their egos in bank balances, nor their loves in what they cost.
  • ..where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them.
  • …for a starfish loves to hang onto something and for an hour these had found only each other.
  • No one has studied the psychology of a dying party. It may be raging, howling, boiling, and then a fever sets in and a little silence and then quickly quickly it is gone, the guests go home or go to sleep or wander away to some other affair and they leave a dead body.
  • Who wants to be good if he has to be hungry too?
  • And no one was invited. Everyone was going.

You may not be invited to the community you live in, but those who live at Cannery Row choose to participate. They share kindness, hope, distress, and–best of all–a good party.

the casual vacancy

I finished this book with a glass of wine and a box of tissues. My tears fell for the characters in  the book, and their injustices, their pain, and the knowledge that real-life people are going through the same, and worse.

This isn’t the first time J.K. Rowling has made me cry. Her themes of respect, friendship, and death are as apparent in The Casual Vacancy as they were in Harry Potter. The Casual Vacancy opens with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town council in Pagford. Just like with Harry’s mother, Lily Evans, we learn about Barry mostly through the way people speak of him. He is kind, perhaps to a fault. He is generous. He is smart, works hard, and cares for people less fortunate than him. People like Krystal Weedon, a high school student from the poor side of town who Barry takes under his wing.

The tale that follows Barry’s death is full of gossip in a small town, and how it affects the city council election for Barry’s now open spot. There’s gossip, bullying, drinking, drugs, affairs, and sex. But also HOW that gossip, bullying, drinking, drugs, affairs, and sex affect the people involved. Through Rowling’s beautifully crafted characters, you learn about the bully and bullied. You see both sides, and Rowling poses no judgement. She leaves that to you.

My favorite thing about this book, and the Harry Potter series, is how Rowling illustrates respect. Harry respects living creatures, no matter how small or insignificant. He sees what’s in their hearts and not the purity of their blood. In The Casual Vacancy, almost everyone does bad things. But who is a bad person? Is it a drug addict prostitute mother? Is it a man who cheats on his wife? Is it a teenager with every privilege who harasses people for sport? Rowling finds humanity in all of them, and in doing so, she reminds her readers to do the same.

I have a lot more thoughts about this book. Want to talk about it with me? Lemme know. Email me at raesdays [at], leave a comment, or hit me up on twitter @rclnudson. (And if you’re my sister, Dad said you were reading it–let’s talk soon!) See what else I’m reading on Goodreads.