Tag Archives: Hampton Sides

Reading: Pacific War Nonfiction

17th June 2015

Growing up, I do remember watching cartoons, but more vividly, I remember watching American Movie Classics (back when they showed true classics and not this “modern classics” business). World War II films captivated me from an early age, but nearly all of them focused on the European war.

When Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand first came out, the blog world was saturated with reviews of it, and I steered clear. But in December when the film came out, I watched it and thought it was good but wondered how much better the book was. That night, I raced home from the theater, downloaded the book and stayed up all night reading it.

Since then, I’ve been on a steady diet of Pacific War nonfiction. I realized how little I knew of those battles and how many of them there were. I’m still cultivating a list of authors and books to give me a broader perspective, but I thought I’d share a little on the ones I’ve read so far (click on the title below the book to add it to your Goodreads shelf!).

pacificwar6Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

The book that started it all. No doubt about it, Zamperini’s story is incredible. A hardscrabble young man turned Olympic athlete turned soldier, Zamperini himself was a fascinating man to read about. Combined with Hillenbrand’s ability to shape his story and increase the tension as he crashes and finds himself in a Japanese POW camp, Zamperini’s story was an excellent introduction to the personal nature of war.

pacificwar5Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II by Bruce Henderson

Rescue at Los Banos reinforced just how little I knew of the Pacific War. Mere days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they started in on the Philippines. Colin Powell teased the events in this book most enticingly, calling the raid at Los Baños “the textbook operation for all ages and all armies,” and Henderson does it justice, depicting the Pacific front of the war as well as the many American citizens whose lives were caught up in the fighting. The plans to liberate the internees were intricate and dependent on so many variables, and the tension Henderson creates in his narrative makes this an up-all-night read.

pacificwar4The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan

Though this book isn’t specifically about the Pacific War front, The Girls of Atomic City is an intriguing account of the women, many of whom were incredibly sheltered, picking up and leaving for Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city so secret it wasn’t even on the map, and war work about which they knew nothing. The more technical sections are a bit daunting, but I loved reading about women who thought bobby socks were wild, trying to retain a semblance of society amid such a bizarre, manufactured atmosphere. When they realize what their work has done, many of them are unsure of how to feel, realizing what devastation they’ve enabled but also appreciating an end to the war.

pacificwar3Flyboys: A True Story of Courage by James Bradley

Of all of these books, James Bradley’s account probably spurred my reading on the most. Flyboys: A True Story of Courage is the story of nine men, one them George H.W. Bush, who were shot down in enemy waters and the story of what happened to them after. Eight of the men’s stories were classified for many decades, and Bradley’s meticulous research honors their lives. Yet what gripped me was Bradley’s discussion of the history of Japan and its codes, which gave me an insight into why and how the Japanese seemed (and were) such brutal opponents. He manages to do this while not downplaying the brutality of America’s own ways and means and had me searching for more in-depth looks at the history of the empire of the rising sun.

pacificwar2Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff

Why yes, Lost in Shangri-La also happens to claim the subtitle “the most incredible rescue mission of World War II,” but I’d argue that this and Rescue at Los Banos are completely different, worthy accounts. Stuck in New Guinea near the end of the war, Allied Forces were frustrated with the lack of action they were seeing. In order to boost morale, a superior officer decided to take a select group on a sightseeing trip over “Shangr-La,” the newly discovered, untouched civilization in a lush valley. The plane crashed, and the only survivors were face to face with natives who were rumored to be headhunters. Their survival and subsequent rescue are the stuff of legends.

pacific1Ghost Solders: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission by Hampton Sides

Survivors of the Bataan Death March lived only to suffer additional cruelty and deprivation at the hands of their Japanese captors. Near the end of the war, the Japanese massacred all prisoners of a nearby war camp in an effort to leave behind no witnesses to their treatment, as it was against the Geneva Convention (which the Japanese never signed), and American Forces realized they had no more time in which to plan a rescue for the Cabanatuan POW camp behind enemy lines. Just over 100 troops, along with Philippine guerilla forces and civilians, worked ceaselessly to execute a raid, and Sides dips into the lives of both the prisoners and the soldiers planning to save them, telling a story of incredible courage, strength, and will.

Next up, I’m reading James Hornfischer’s Ship of Ghosts, so I’ll have to check back later with an updated list. That said, I’d wholeheartedly recommend any of these, and I’m curious if you may have any recommendations as well.

Or have you ever been obsessed with reading books on a certain subject?

Texas Book Festival – Part Dos

20th October 2010

Saturday night, I was exhausted. Like, too tired to read, and I’m never too tired to read. I guess dancing at The Broken Spoke until midnight Friday night and then traipsing across the capitol ALL day on Saturday was a bit much for this gal. I mapped out Sunday’s events, watched some HGTV in the hotel (I don’t have cable, so this was thrilling) and crashed. Sunday found me refreshed and excited to get to my two panels:

Literature on the Lam

Moderated by Skip Hollinsworth of Texas Monthly and filmed by BookTV, I was really excited about this panel. Criminals fascinate me, and I was practically fused to my seat I was so enthralled. Malcolm Beith, Jonathan Eig, Hampton Sides, and James Swanson were all panelists.

Each has a new book out dealing with infamous criminals. James Swanson, who wrote Manhunt about John Wilkes Booth, has a new book out called Blood Crimes, which is about Jefferson Davis. Patricia Cornwell deemed Manhunt to be one of the top two true crime novels along with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Hampton Sides writes about James Earl Ray in Hellhound. Jonathan Eig’s new book Get Capone posits new theories of the life Al Capone. Finally, Malcolm Beith wrote The Last Narco, a book about El Chapo, organized crime leader in Mexico.

The panel started on a light-hearted note as Hollinsworth asked Eig how he switched from writing about baseball players to Al Capone. Eig said he thought long and hard and asked himself: “Who else used baseball bats?” Eig’s sense of humor was welcome on the panel, and I’m curious how much humor comes across in his book. He says Capone was really “a product of Prohibition” who otherwise may have driven a truck or stocked store shelves. He had a chance to rake in money, though, and he took it. The odd thing about Capone, according to Eig, is how willingly he accepted the infamy. He asked “what kind of person welcomes that sort of attention” and ended by saying, “We’ve all got a little bit of larceny in us.”

Sides and Swanson were much more serious, tackling topics of national sensitivity. When asked how easily they could shake off the people of whom they wrote, all the authors said they could not. Sides and Swanson are left with questions as both John Wilkes Booth and James Earl Ray left many unanswered questions.

I particularly felt for Malcolm Beith, as he seemed genuinely disturbed by El Chapo. He answered he would never shake the man off because of the horror of his crimes, at one time killing 300 people in a vat of acid. El Chapo owns 23,000 square miles in Mexico and has enormous amounts of power. Beith, a former Mexican journalist, now resides in America and relates that at least 45 journalists in Mexico have died trying to bring to light the corruption.

Spanning cultural differences and huge time gaps, all the authors were interesting and obviously passionate about their books. I have added Manhunt, Hellhound, The Last Narco, and Get Capone to my reading list.

I can’t embed the video, but the link is here. It’s long-ish but worth the watch.

Swanson, Sides, Hollinsworth, Eig, and Beith at Literature on the Lam

Wickedly Funny Noir

This was a quirky bunch. Harry Hunsicker moderated a panel of authors including Lou Berney, Jonathan Woods, and Mark Haskell Smith. I haven’t read any of these authors, but the panel itself sounded interesting. Each was laidback and humorous and focused mainly on writing itself and not individual books. Hunsicker asked if there is any pressure to be funny, but each responded in the negative, Burney saying he writes characters “who aren’t funny but have a good sense of humor.”

How do you make sex funny? Woods, Berney, and Smith all agreed sex just is sort of funny. In fact, Berney doesn’t like writing sex scenes: “It embarrasses me; it embarrasses my Golden Retriever.” He relayed a couple of humorous scenes from his book. Smith said sex is just plain awkward, and he starts with that. He, though, apparently doesn’t shy away from these scenes, instead writing every gory detail. (My mom went to another panel the day before and said it was the closest thing to porn she’s ever heard. Apparently people with children there walked out as there was no warning and a children’s author was on the panel. Odd)

All agreed, as Burney said, “You have to learn to love killing things.” There is not a lot of humor in crime, but as Smith said, often the people with the best sense of humor are in law enforcement. The gist was, if we can’t laugh at something, we might as well “put a collective gun to our collective head,” Woods said

The audience here definitely felt more like a bunch of amateur writers. You know the type. They are really there for validation of their own work as opposed to really listening to what the authors have to say. Not all amateurs are like this, but many are. I did ask a question, though, to see if any of these guys knew any other funny noir other than Dashiell Hammett who wrote around the same time. They gave me some more current names, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. It was a fun panel, though, and I will likely pick up Burney’s book Gutshot Straight. Mark Haskell Smith has written several books, Baked, Salty, Delicious, and Moist. Woods has a new collection of short stories Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem.

Hunsicker, Berney, Woods, and Smith at Wickedly Funny Noir

 

The weekend was fabulous, and I can’t believe I have to wait another year to go back. I will definitely have to find some bookish events in the meantime. I hope you, dear reader, have something fun and bookish to look forward to – any great events happening near you?