Friday, April 22, 2011

Life Without Limits, by Nick Vujicic

Last year, a friend of mine won third place in a film competition, The Doorpost Film Project.  That was cool, but I thought he should have won first place.  (He did earn a job writing and directing a new feature film, Unconditional, scheduled for release later this year.)  The winning film, The Butterfly Circus, starred a young man with no arms and legs.  We're used to seeing Hollywood special effects remove limbs from actors, but this guy was the real deal!  It's a powerful film, and made me curious about this actor.
Nick uses technology and simple ingenuity to get around and be as independent as possible.
So when I saw that the actor in The Butterfly Circus, Nick Vujicic, had written a new book, I decided I'd check it out.  In Life Without Limts, I felt like I got to know Nick.  The strongest parts of the book are the personal stories.  Nick was born with no arms or legs, just a small, but thankfully somewhat functional left foot. He has never let that difference slow him down.  I loved the stories he tells of his adventures as a limbless man.  Some highlights:

  • The blind girl he met who wanted to "see" him.  She was unfazed by the absence of limbs, but when she felt his beard, she freaked out! 
  • Another little girl who did not speak to him all evening at a party.  When she was leaving, he asked if she would like to give him a hug.  She paused, put her arms behind her back, and, showing a high degree of empathy, leaned in for a "neck hug."
  • His first and only schoolyard fight, when he left the older, bigger bully with a bloody nose.  I would love to have seen that!  Too bad this predated You Tube.
  • His adventures surfing, skateboarding, scuba diving, playing the drums and keyboard. You can see some of this on You Tube.
  • The fun he has helping people get comfortable being around him with his pranks and jokes.  "Can you lend me a hand?" 

Nick takes every opportunity to pull pranks like this.  One of his rules of life: do something ridiculous every day!
He mixes his stories in with pretty standard self-help, motivational message type of teaching.  Nick makes his living as an inspirational speaker, so it makes sense that this would be his content.  I usually groan at this Zig Ziglar, Robert Schuller school of writing or teaching.  But coming from Nick takes what might otherwise be trite to a whole new level.  Have a good attitude!  Be thankful for what you have!  Turn your struggles into opportunities to grow!  Life has setbacks--keep pressing on!  Whenever I was tempted to scoff at his "power of positive thinking" message, I stopped myself.  This guy was born with no arms and legs!  If I ever think I have it bad, if I think things aren't working out so hot for me, if I struggle with a positive attitude, I have no excuse!  Nick inspires me to remain thankful and positive and to seek opportunities to grow.

His life really is inspirational.  I have not seen him live or seen his videos, but I am sure the written word only captures a fraction of his good humor, love of life, and contagious joy.  Besides just enjoying his stories and taking in his practical teaching, the thing I'm left with most of all is the witness of his life.  If he can be happy in his circumstances, I can be happy in mine.  If he can be thankful in his physical state, I can be thankful, too.  You can't help but be inspired and challenged by this amazing man.

(I am grateful to WaterBrook/Multnomah for providing this free copy for review.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Black Mountain, by Alan Hillgarth

In my review of Operation Mincemeat, I mentioned that several of the players in this scheme to create a fictional airman to carry fictional documents to trick a very real enemy were novelists themselves.  One of those key figures, Alan Hillgarth, who, at that time, was naval attache in Spain, spent some time in South America searching for gold.  Out of his experiences there, he wrote The Black Mountain

Set in Bolivia in the early decades of the 20th century, The Black Mountain follows the exploits of an Indian boy of mixed heritage who leaves his village for good.  He ends up being taken in by a wealthy landowner, and, due to his relatively fair complexion, ends up blending in with the Spanish upper class.  As he matures, he comes to identify more with the Indians, and is swept up in the movement for Bolivia's independence.

At first, The Black Mountain reminded me of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, with the young man heading off for adventure.  But it probably owes more to Rudyard Kipling's Kim, which follows the adventures of an Indian orphan during British colonial rule in India.  In fact, on the dust jacket, some editions of The Black Mountain call it "the story of a Bolivian 'Kim.'"

I didn't love this book, but I enjoyed it, mostly as an historical relic.  I'm not sure I would sit down and read a history of Bolivia, but Hillgarth captures a slice of it, while raising the questions of native rights, national independence, and colonialism.  Good luck finding a copy, though.  It's out of print, and most copies for sale online are pretty pricey.  I got it through inter-library loan. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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

Not too long ago, I read an excerpt of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken in a news magazine.  The brief passage, describing simultaneous attacks by sharks and Japanese fighter jets on helpless Americans on a raft in the pacific, was compelling enough that I immediately requested the book from the library.  (Yes, I'm usually too cheap to buy books.  Book gluttons on a budget love the public library!)  After I brought the book home, I opened a recent issue of Runner's World which I hadn't read yet, and there was another compelling excerpt from Unbroken, this one an account of a track meet.  This broad appeal--a great war story and a great sports story in one book--combined with Hillenbrand's story-telling skill, have kept Unbroken on the NY Times bestseller list since its publication in November.

Louie Zamperini, a conniving juvenile delinquent in his hometown of Torrance, California, found his gift early: he could run--fast!  He became a local hero on his way to setting the high school record for the mile, 4:21.2.  The "Torrance Tornado" went on to compete in the 1936 Olympics in the 5000 meters, gaining some international notoriety for his speed.  Some speculated that he would be the first the run a mile in under 4 minutes.  Alas, before his running career peaked, war broke out.  The 1940 Olympics were canceled, and Louie joined the Air Force.

Stationed in the South Pacific, Louie raided Japanese bases and did search and rescue operations.  While searching for another plane that had disappeared, Louie's plane's engines failed, landing him in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Most perished in the crash; Louie and 2 others miraculously survived.  On two life rafts lashed together, Zamperini and his 2 crew mates survived for weeks on rainwater, birds, and fish, while fighting off constant shark attacks, a typhoon, and strafing from the Japanese airplane.  After surviving all of that, one crew mate died, but Louie and his friend Phil continued to drift for weeks, until they finally spotted land.  Unfortunately, a Japanese navy ship spotted them before they could paddle to shore.

The "rescued" airmen soon found themselves longing for their little raft in the sea.  The hardships and deprivation they suffered at sea paled in comparison to the abuse and degradation imposed by the Japanese.  The dehumanizing treatment of the Allied prisoners in the Japanese POW camps almost make the Nazi's methodical, systematic murder of Jews seem compassionate by comparison.  I know that soldiers going to war may view the enemy as less than human; this makes it easier to kill them.  Of course, that an enemy soldier is less human is a lie, but the Japanese in the POW camps held such a view of the Americans and other Allied troops, and gave them good reason to hate the Japanese.

And hate them Louie did.  Hillenbrand goes into great detail describing the many trials of the POW camp, especially the cruelty of a guard nicknamed "The Bird."  In a way, Louie was lucky.  His fame as an athlete marked him as a keeper.  Otherwise, he might not have been kept alive.  The Japanese singled him out in hopes that he would be a propaganda tool.  They also had him run races for their entertainment.

A couple of heroes, Graham and Zamperini.
After his weeks of deprivation on the raft, and years of deprivation in the POW camp, Louie was not in the shape he had been at the start of the war.  When the war ended, he tried to resume his running career.  His workouts were promising, but an injury ended it for good.  He descended into depression and alcoholism, giving up hope.  Before he could totally hit the bottom, his wife dragged him against his will to a tent in LA where an unknown preacher named Billy Graham was holding meetings.  Louie remembered a promise he had made to God while on that raft, that if God got him home, Louie would give his life to serving him.  Radically saved and with a new purpose in life, Louie turned his life over to Jesus and began a career as a traveling evangelist.

Before he was saved, his driving purpose in life had become revenge on The Bird.  He was determined to hunt him down and kill him.  Jesus transformed his heart, giving him a spirit of forgiveness.  In what must have been a moving event for all involved, Louie traveled to Japan and preached in a prison holding Japanese war criminals, including some who had been guards at camps where Louie was held.  He never could have imagined offering forgiveness to these men and preaching the gospel to them during his time as a prisoner, but the transforming power of Jesus' grace made it possible.  (The Bird wasn't there.  He died before Louie was able to meet him again.)

Hillenbrand did not set out to write an evangelistic book or a spiritual biography, but I wish she would have focused more on Zamperini's miraculous conversion and the theme of forgiveness that came to define his post-war life.  I would be interested to know how many people's lives were changed as a result of his testimony: his miraculous, against-all-odds survival at sea, his determination to survive the POW camp, his despair to go on living, then his transformation from a vengeful, hateful survivor to one ready to forgive his tormentors.  God's hand can be seen at so many steps in Zamperini's life, protecting him, guiding him, and preparing him. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough.  It's a great story, about a great man, told by a great storyteller, with a great (though understated in this telling) message of transformation through Christ.  As you might expect, a Hollywood treatment is in the works.  (Hillenbrand also wrote the book on which the movie Seabiscuit was based.)  I'm sure this will be a great movie, but, in the first place, Zamperini's story is much too big for a movie.  Secondly, I fear Hollywood will miss the biggest story here, God's changing his heart from revenge to forgiveness.