Archive for the ‘Faith-Based/Religious Element’ Category

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

Unbroken is the incredible, nearly mythic, story of Louis Zamperini, an army air forces bomber whose plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean in 1943. Before the war, he had been an Olympic miler, and probably would have been the first man to break the four-minute mile if the war had not intervened.


Louie and his raft mates survived more than a month on the Pacific Ocean—through starvation and dehydration, shark attacks, and even a strafing by a Japanese bomber. One of Zamperini’s raft mates finally succumbed to starvation and the elements. Louie and the other, ‘Phil’ Allen Phillips, viewed land after forty-seven days at sea in the life raft. Unfortunately, they were spotted by a Japanese boat crew and taken prisoner. From the boat, they were sent to Kwajalein—or as it was commonly known, ‘Execution Island.’


On Execution Island, the true hell of their POW experience began. ‘The crash of The Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water or shelter. But in Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity.”


Both Louie and Phil were moved from one POW prison to another, always without being registered with the Red Cross so that no one would know they were alive. They were consistently mistreated. Having no other information, the army reported to their families that they were dead.


In the 1940s, the Japanese considered it shameful to be a prisoner of war and many Japanese soldiers killed themselves rather than be captured. When they captured Allied soldiers, they often felt that they were fair game for abuse. Because of this, Allied POWs in the Pacific fared far worse than those in Europe.


“The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity . . ..  Tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, anemia, eye ailments, and festering wounds were widespread. [In one survey], 77 percent of POWs [were found to have] wet beriberi . . .. Among Canadian POWs, 84 percent had neurologic damage . . .. Men had been crippled and disfigured by unset broken bones, and their teeth had been ruined by beatings and years of chewing grit in their food. Others had gone blind from malnutrition.”


Louie, Phil, and their fellow POWs suffered all these ailments and more because they are starved and tortured. In the Omori POW camp, outside Tokyo, the men fell under the cruel persecution of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (‘The Bird’). The Bird is a true sociopath, brutalizing men one minute, possibly asking for forgiveness the next, and getting sexual pleasure from administering brutal beatings, clubbings and grotesque punishments involving excrement. He particularly hated Louie, singled him out and beat him, sometimes with a belt buckle, every day.


That anyone could have survived such terror appears miraculous.



Some of your teachers ask me to look for biographies or memoirs of inspirational Americans. I bought Unbroken awhile back when it was getting stellar reviews. Then it became a longtime bestseller. I’m so glad I finally had the chance to read it myself. (Sometimes it seems that this is what my summer break is for. 🙂) Not only is it one of the best biographies I’ve read, but it also has the long list of acknowledgements and endnotes that give you an understanding of what serious research looks like.


If you are looking for inspiration, just read the two-page forward of this book. You’ll be hooked.


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life of pi   Note: Ms. Waddle wrote this for Colony Library Lady back in 2007. Now that the book has been made into a movie, she thought Chaffey students might be interested in checking it out!

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Here’s another story that begins in India, but marches to a very different drummer. The main character, ‘Pi’ Patel is named after a swimming pool in Paris. His father, a zoo keeper, decides to immigrate to Canada, and sells the animals. Most of these stay in India, but a few are destined to cross the ocean and live in distant zoos. During the Pacific crossing, the ship capsizes and Pi is thrown overboard into a 26-foot-long lifeboat. Though his family all die, Pi finds himself floating with Richard Parker—a 450 pound Bengali tiger from his father’s zoo—as well as a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan. The most rudimentary knowledge of the animal kingdom will tell you which of the animals survives. But Pi tells the reader that this is a story with a happy ending, so the reader wonders–how will Pi survive with Richard Parker on board?

Pi does survive with the tiger—for 227 days. And, yes, the journey is an epic one. Pi uses all his knowledge of the animal kingdom as he realizes that the tiger’s survival is necessary to his own. He expounds on faith and his understanding of Christianity and Islam as well as his native Hinduism. He makes an argument for the environmental value of zoos. Both his ill-fated meeting with another castaway and his salvation on a mystical island may be unbelievable, but who cares? The story is so weird and intriguing on so many levels, that the reader will follow Pi’s faith in the universe anywhere it takes him.

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Many people love dogs, and in the last several years, they’ve realized that they could share that love through books. It’s hard to count the number of books about dogs that have made the bestsellers’ list since Marley and Me was published.

Like a lot of other folks, I’m crazy about dogs (my own dogs in particular), and so I read about them as well take them for walks. But Rin Tin Tin is the first dog book I’ve read that includes a fascinating look at our culture over nearly a hundred years while discussing the life of a dog and his progeny.

A man named Lee Duncan found the original Rin Tin Tin, who was a newborn pup, on a battlefield in France during World War I. The German dog kennel that housed the war dogs had been bombed out, but a female and her litter had–against all odds–survived. Duncan took the dogs back to his American comrades and gave them away, except a male and female pup—Rin Tin Tin and Nanette—whom he named after good-luck dolls.

Somehow, Duncan managed to bring the dogs home to Southern California. Nanette didn’t live long. However, Rinty, as he was affectionate known, was very athletic. He won an agility contest by being able to jump twelve feet in the air. His special talents made Duncan think that Rinty could be in the movies—which were silent at that time, so a dog might act as well as a man, given the right script. Hollywood in the early days was more accessible to ordinary folks with dreams of fame, and Duncan was able to place his dog with Warner Brothers.

What happened then sounds like something from a fantasy script. Rinty was so popular that his movies literally saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. For the first Academy Awards ever, Rin Tin Tin was voted as best actor—but wasn’t allowed the award as this might have taken from the seriousness of the honor. All of America loved this hero dog.

Rin Tin Tin had generations of offspring who later starred in other movies as well as the popular TV show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Learning about the journey of the dog and his brand teaches us fascinating facts about the early years of moviemaking, the early years of television programming, and much more.

I enjoyed so many of the facts in this book. I didn’t know that dogs were used in WW I to increase the survival rate of wounded soldiers. They were trained to ‘sniff out’ the living wounded who, after a battle, would lie among many thousands of dead. The dogs could quickly identify the living and this aided soldiers in providing faster medical care.

In WW II, the United States was caught short without a military dog core (as it had been in WW I), so average citizens donated their pets to be trained and shipped to Europe. Lee Duncan and Rin Tin Tin III traveled promoting Dogs for Defense. The military was actually able to return some of these dogs to families after the war was over.

When television first became affordable and folks started having TVs in their homes, dog shows were popular family fare. This book discusses the differences between The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie (a famous collie with a show of her own), as well as how these differences reflect a changing culture in the U.S., one that moved from hero worship to being centered on children and their activities. It also shows how smart producers were able to cash in on products connected to programming—books and toys—plastic models of the dogs and much more. These marketing schemes have continued to be successful with all forms of media even today. (Did you have a Dora the Explorer lunch box? A shirt with Twilight characters printed on it?)

Finally, Rin Tin Tin highlights the people today who are keeping the dog’s legacy alive. They are passionate about who owns the rights to the Rin Tin Tin brand and have engaged in many lawsuits to claim that right.

Lee Duncan had been an orphan as a child. He never seemed to make deep connections with people, even his wife and daughter. And yet, a dog, this Rin Tin Tin, gave him a purpose in life as well as–though at times, tenuous–financial reward. What the man and the dog made, how they changed the lives of so many Americans, and even of people in other parts of the world, is a stirring story. Even readers who are not wild about dogs will be fascinated by the look at American culture. But for those readers who love dogs—well, you’re going to love this book, too.

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So–I’m defining biography and memoir a little loosely here, but I think teachers would love to have you read any of these books. And you’ll find empathy, outrage, inspiration and courage through your reading.


We All Fall Down by Nic Sheff

Sheff writes candidly about stints at in-patient rehab facilities, devastating relapses, and hard-won realizations about what it means to be a young person living with addiction.

Steve Jobs by Water Issacson

Based on more than forty interviews with Jobs conducted over two years, as well as interviews with more than a hundred family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues, the author has written a riveting story of the roller-coaster life and searingly intense personality of a creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. At a time when America is seeking ways to sustain its innovative edge, and when societies around the world are trying to build digital-age economies, Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness and applied imagination. He knew that the best way to create value in the twenty-first century was to connect creativity with technology. He built a company where leaps of the imagination were combined with remarkable feats of engineering. Although Jobs cooperated with this book, he asked for no control over what was written nor even the right to read it before it was published. He put nothing off-limits. He encouraged the people he knew to speak honestly. And Jobs speaks candidly, sometimes brutally so, about the people he worked with and competed against. His friends, foes, and colleagues provide an unvarnished view of the passions, perfectionism, obsessions, artistry, devilry, and compulsion for control that shaped his approach to business and the innovative products that resulted. Driven by demons, Jobs could drive those around him to fury and despair. But his personality and products were interrelated, just as Apple’s hardware and software tended to be, as if part of an integrated system. His tale is instructive and cautionary, filled with lessons about innovation, character, leadership, and values. — From publisher.

Start Something that Matters by Blake Mycoskie

Known as the founder of TOMS Shoes and as a contestant on The Amazing Race, Mycoskie uses his experience with TOMS, as well as interviews with leaders of non-profits and corporations, to convey valuable lessons about entrepreneurship, transparency of leadership, and living by one’s values.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer, yet her cells–taken without her knowledge–became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer and viruses; helped lead to in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave. Her family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. The story of the Lacks family is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of–From publisher description.

Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals

Using news accounts and the diary she kept as a teenager, Beals relives the harrowing year when she was selected as one of the first nine students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The true story of how the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands. When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw–and the city’s zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Żabiński began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen “guests” hid inside the Żabińskis’ villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants–otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes–and keeping alive an atmosphere of play and innocence even as Europe crumbled around her.–From publisher description.

Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean

Allegedly found in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel in France during World War I, then brought to Los Angeles by Lee Duncan, the soldier who found and trained him, by 1927 Rin Tin Tin had become Hollywood’s number one box-office star. Susan Orlean’s book–about the dog and the legend–is a poignant exploration of the enduring bond between humans and animals. It is also a richly textured history of twentieth-century entertainment and entrepreneurship. It spans ninety years and explores everything from the shift in status of dogs from working farmhands to beloved family members, from the birth of obedience training to the evolution of dog breeding, from the rise of Hollywood to the past and present of dogs in war.–From publisher description.

Lady Gaga: Behind the Fame by Emily Herbert

Chronicles the life of singer Lady Gaga, exploring her childhood, musical accomplishments, unique fashion sense, influence on popular culture, and other related topics.

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Adult books for teens: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan 

In a future United States, a scourge has caused pandemic infertility. Abortion is against the law, and when Hannah Payne is caught, she is imprisoned in the “Chrome Ward” where she (as well as other prisoners) are videotaped for public humiliation. After a month of public display, she is released to try to start life anew.

Melachroming is a part of punishment for criminals. They are injected with a virus that makes their skin a color related to their crime. Hannah wakes up entirely red—crimson from head to toe—because she is a murderer. She must remain so for sixteen years. Her punishment is for ten years, but because she refuses to name the abortionist or the father of the unborn baby, three years are tacked on for each. Should she try to flee once her month-long sentence in the Chrome Ward is up, she will die—‘frag out’ as they say in the book. She has another virus implanted that will start to cause mental derangement if she doesn’t go in for her regular sessions to be re-chromed.

Hannah doesn’t name the father of the baby because he is her minister. He is widely known as a holy man and does a lot of good work for the impoverished. Hannah doesn’t want to see that work stopped. If all of these direct connections to The Scarlet Letter don’t grab you, the quote from that novel at the beginning of the book is another big hint. This is a future dystopia with a Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmsdale (here simply Reverend Dale) working out their sins over video mail.

When Hannah is released from the Chrome Ward, her mother, a very strict, upright Christian, refuses to take her in. She must go to a halfway house run by a (extremely self-righteous and voyeuristic) Christian couple. Only capable of taking so much humiliation, Hannah flees, and, being sought by anti-abortion terrorists, finds herself in the arms of a pro-choice underground group. Ironically, what they have in common with the unforgiving Christians is that they, too, are unwavering in their beliefs. They will not let anything get in the way of their mission.

Although Hannah does question her decision to have an abortion, just as she questions her strict religious upbringing, ultimately—just as with Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter—she feels more sinned against than sinning and rejects the moral certitude of those who torment her.

I would love to talk about the end of this book with someone who has also read The Scarlet Letter. When She Woke would be a great read for teens who are looking for literary readalikes. However, here’s a caveat: This novel is not for everyone; I can say with certainty that conservative Christians will object to the content and to the outcome. It’s for mature, older teens, not the middle school set. Mature topics and situations appear throughout the book.

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The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesental

You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for forgiveness. What would you do? Withe responses by Robert Coles, The Dalai Lama, Matthew Fox, Mary Gordon, Harold S. Kushner, Dennis Prager, Dith Pran, Desmond Tutu, Harry Wu, and forty-four others.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Viktor Frankl survived more than one concentration/death camp, including Auschwitz, during World War II. His father, mother, brother, and wife all died in the camps. He lost everything he’d owned. Frankl was also a psychiatrist. In his classic Man’s Search for Meaning, he reflects on why some people survive in the most horrific circumstances possible. He asks –and answers—how can man find life worth living?

Those of us who’ve worked with teens for awhile know that you ask yourselves this difficult question. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean that you haven’t had a crisis, a ‘dark night of the soul.’ If you do worry about life having any meaning, reading this book is a great start toward answering your questions.

The book has two parts. The first part reviews some of Frankl’s experiences in the death camps. He looks at what causes friends to give up hope and what brings moments of happiness. In every case, the individual has to make sense out of his suffering. Frankl believes that all suffering (even that which ends in death) has meaning. Man can rise above his fate by choosing to be worthy of his suffering.

The second part covers logotherapy, Frankl’s school of psychotherapy. In this second part, the reader sees how Frankl uses his experiences to help ordinary people who feel that life isn’t worth living.

Many students ask for books by or about Holocaust survivors. This is different from others because it delves into life’s purpose as much as it does into the story of Frankl’s captivity. I found myself wanting to copy down quotations to remember.

“The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex. We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be ‘somebody.’ Now we were treated like complete nonentities. (The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life. But how many free men, let alone prisoners, possess it?)”

“I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument—they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.”

“From all this we learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only two—the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure’ race.”

“What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: ‘Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?’ There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds true for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.”

There’s much hope for all of us in this little book. If you’re in the middle of a tough time and looking for purpose, check it out.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot 

Teachers who are thinking outside the box will let you read this for your biography/memoir assignment, and what a great opportunity!

The story of Henrietta Lacks is more than a biography of an individual woman, It’s the story of the first person’s cells that scientists could cause to grow in a lab—that could live outside the body and be shipped around the world, thus making new research possible. It’s the story of a family that knew nothing of the cells or the fact that they had been removed from the cancer-stricken and dying Henrietta. It’s about the effect that this medical miracle had on Henrietta’s children. It’s about medical treatment for African-Americans in the 1950s South.

Henrietta Lacks grew up in poverty in Clover,Virginiain the segregated, pre-civil-rights-era South. Her family were tobacco farmers, and the house she was raised in was once slave quarters. (The author discovers a white branch of the Lacks family, but they refuse to acknowledge their biological connection to Henrietta.) Amazingly, before Henrietta died on October 4, 1951, cells taken atJohnsHopkinsHospitalduring a gynecological exam for her cervical cancer had become the first cells to be cultured in a lab and survive. The cells, known as HeLa, were so strong, that they could be shipped to medical labs everywhere. These cells become the necessary component for medical advances such as the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, understanding the effects of nuclear bombs, and part of the search for a cure for AIDS.

Knowing this, you’d think that Henrietta’s children would have become wealthy. Ironically, they spent years without medical insurance, and for twenty years, didn’t even know that their mother’s cells existed. They couldn’t afford the benefits of the research done with their mother’s cells. In fact, they suffered from secrets as well as con men. Especially hard hit was Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who, without the educational background necessary to understand how the cells survived, became prey to every report that her mother had been cloned or that her cells had been fused with those of other life forms.

Part of this biography of Henrietta and her cells is about the sad way that African-Americans were treated in medical experiments. (In this sense, Henrietta’s daughter Elise, who was sent to a state hospital and diagnosed with “Idiocy”—and then experimented on in a horrific manner—is just as interesting as Henrietta’s story.) But part of this book details the fascinating fact that no one has any rights over their cells, their discarded tissues. Even if this tissue becomes valuable, as Henrietta’s did, and makes millions of dollars for the companies and individuals that market it, it is considered a waste product, trash that the individual has discarded. (And most of the time tissue/cells aren’t worth anything—people have moles, appendixes, and gallbladders removed all the time.) So the horrible way that the Lacks family was treated also figured into the rise of bioethics—of getting informed consent from patients before using their tissue for medical experiments.

This great book embraces so many themes. Deborah’s life with its grounding in both superstition and spirituality is just as important to the reader as is Henrietta’s. The author has the ability to show us so many things about life, science, treatment of Africa-Americans, medical research—and we can understand it all because she is so good at making it clear. The only part of the story that she doesn’t dig into is the life of Henrietta’s husband, David Lacks. I wondered a lot about him as Henrietta’s cancer was caused by repeated STDs that he gave her. After she died at age 31, he allowed a new woman in his life whose cruel abuse of the children permanently scarred them—destroying the life of at least one of the five kids. Yet David is given a pass on everything. Perhaps the author didn’t feel that his story was crucial to the arc of the overall family story, but it was the one missing piece that bothered me. Still, this is one of the best books of its kind. Any student interested in medicine, the history of the treatment of African-Americans by researchers, the rise of bioethics—or just a good story of a suffering family—will want to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

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