The best books on surviving impossible odds

Why am I passionate about this?

Since arriving as a refugee in America, my father, Mae Bunseng has always wanted to tell his story. It would take many decades later for me, as I was coming of age, to consider what exactly my father had lived through. I was shocked at what he told me and knew his story had to be told. Thus over a decade ago I worked with my him to what eventually became Under the Naga Tail. In addition to this book, along the way, a short documentary called Ghost Mountain was created and released on PBS, which is accessible for streaming here. The film would win the best documentary at the HAAPI Film Festival.


I co-wrote...

Under the Naga Tail: A True Story of Survival, Bravery, and Escape from the Cambodian Genocide

By Mae Bunseng Taing, James Taing,

Book cover of Under the Naga Tail: A True Story of Survival, Bravery, and Escape from the Cambodian Genocide

What is my book about?

I am a co-author of the book, Under the Naga Tail. It is an inspirational, true story of my father’s riveting near-death escape from Cambodia’s genocidal regime and survival of the secret second-killing fields that takes place afterward in a place called Preah Vihear. As much as the account is about a terrible moment in history and the horrors of war, it’s also about finding resilience in times of fear, strength in places of despair, and that hope can overcome all obstacles.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Unbroken

James Taing Why did I love this book?

The bestselling novel turned motion picture about Louis Zamperini by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s truly a story about the strength of the human will to endure incredible hardship and cruelty. Louis is on a flight mission with several others, and his plane is struck down over the Pacific waters in a firefight. Him and several other survivors drift on a life raft for many days, until they are captured by the Japanese. They face many obstacles in their survival as they are repeatedly beaten and inhumanely starved. Once the war was over, Louis returns home to discover that the wounds of his captivity still remain with him. Laura writes about Louis’ road to finding peace with his dark past, and a newfound faith. Familiar with my own father’s struggles from war-torn Cambodia, it is this section that resonates closely and compassionately with me. Near the conclusion of the book, it ends fittingly with Louie Zamperini in 1998 carrying the Olympic torch past Naoetsu, a place where he was once imprisoned, but now was cheered on from the roadsides.

By Laura Hillenbrand,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked Unbroken as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the author of the bestselling and much-loved Seabiscuit, an unforgettable story of one man's journey into extremity. On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane's bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War. The lieutenant's name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood,…


Book cover of The Railway Man: A POW's Searing Account of War, Brutality and Forgiveness

James Taing Why did I love this book?

This book inspired a movie by the same name. This is an autobiographical book by Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who was sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942, where he was tormented and tortured nearly to the point of death. Decades after the war is over, he is made contact to the Japanese interrogator who harshly mistreated him. The both of them would eventually meet in Thailand near the area where he was a prisoner. Eric finds the man is deeply remorseful for the crimes he committed and asks for forgiveness. Railway Man has a touching ending where the survival was not during the war itself, but dealing with the trauma and psychologically damaged in the aftermath. And remarkably healing comes through the redemptive power of forgiveness.

By Eric Lomax,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Railway Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING COLIN FIRTH, NICOLE KIDMAN AND JEREMY IRVINE

During the second world war Eric Lomax was forced to work on the notorious Burma-Siam Railway and was tortured by the Japanese for making a crude radio.

Left emotionally scarred and unable to form normal relationships Lomax suffered for years until, with the help of his wife Patti and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, he came to terms with what had happened and, fifty years after the terrible events, was able to meet one of his tormentors.

The Railway Man is an…


Book cover of Survival in the Killing Fields

James Taing Why did I love this book?

Haing Ngor, is still only one of three Asian actors to win an Oscar, received in 1985 for Best Supporting Actor in his portrayal of journalist Dith Pran for the film, The Killing Fields. Remarkably Haing Ngor himself was a survivor of the genocide in Cambodia, a trained Doctor at the time before the Khmer Rouge enacted their devastating atrocities upon the country. He would only survive torture by pretending to be an uneducated taxi driver. This book will leave you in awe and inspired, as it did for me, of Haing Ngor’s life. He resettles in America, doing jobs cleaning latrines to suddenly finding himself becoming Hollywood famous overnight. He was an important voice in the advocacy of human rights, until he, unfortunately, passed away in 1996.

By Haing Ngor, Roger Warner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Survival in the Killing Fields as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is an autobiographical account of life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, written by the Oscar-winning actor from "The Killing Fields", whose own experiences under the Khmer Rouge were more shocking than those of Dith Pran, the character he played. The Khmer Rouge, led by Maoist fanatics, laid waste to the social fabric of Cambodia, forcing the entire population into agricultural labour camps and murdering those they considered bourgeois or intellectual. As a doctor, Haing S. Ngor was a special target of the Khmer Rouge; his family was wiped out, his wife died from starvation in his arms, and…


Book cover of Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission That Changed the War in the Pacific

James Taing Why did I love this book?

Captain Jay Zeamer, the protagonist of this book is the grandfather of a family friend. Similar to my own father’s story, it had been a story the family had been trying to get written into a book for a long time. And it is one of the epic proportions. Captain Jay Zeamer and bombardier Sergeant Raymond Joseph “Joe” Sarnoski are called for a 1,200-mile reconnaissance flight into the heart of the Japanese empire. It would become one of the most dangerous missions in aviation history, with very morbid chances of surviving. Yet, if they succeeded, it would change everything and open up the South Pacific for an American victory. This inspirational book is an important timepiece for any World War II enthusiasts, one that you won’t be able to put down.

By Bob Drury, Tom Clavin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lucky 666 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the authors of the New York Times bestselling The Heart of Everything That Is and Halsey's Typhoon comes the dramatic, untold story of a daredevil bomber pilot and his misfit crew who fly their lone B-17 into the teeth of the Japanese Empire in 1943, engage in the longest dogfight in history, and change the momentum of the War in the Pacific-but not without making the ultimate sacrifice.

It is 1942, the Japanese war machine has rolled up nearly all of the Pacific Theater, and American forces are clinging to what little unconquered territory remains. While US Marines claw…


Book cover of Night

James Taing Why did I love this book?

The masterpiece memoir by Elie Wiesel is an astonishingly short autobiographical of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. His account of surviving a concentration camp is important as any other, a narrative that is chilling, yet with compassion put into each word. Night is a book that has to be read. Elie would become an important human rights activist and this continued beyond the subject matter of the Holocaust. During the refugee crisis on the Thai-Cambodia border in 1980, he and several other notables (such as Joan Baez, Liv Ullman, and Bayard Rustin), mobilized to bring relief assistance for Cambodians fleeing the dangerous borders of their country. When asked by a journalist why help Cambodia, he replied, “When I needed people to come, they didn't. That's why I am here.” It demonstrated Elie’s resolve and will to prevent the next genocide from happening somewhere else.

By Elie Wiesel, Marion Wiesel (translator),

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Night as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Born into a Jewish ghetto in Hungary, as a child, Elie Wiesel was sent to the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. This is his account of that atrocity: the ever-increasing horrors he endured, the loss of his family and his struggle to survive in a world that stripped him of humanity, dignity and faith. Describing in simple terms the tragic murder of a people from a survivor's perspective, Night is among the most personal, intimate and poignant of all accounts of the Holocaust. A compelling consideration of the darkest side of human nature and the enduring power of…


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She Refused to Bow

By Farida Manekshah,

Book cover of She Refused to Bow

Farida Manekshah

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What is my book about?

A personal memoir which introduces the supernatural in the most natural way.

A message which came in a dream and brought you wealth. A sadhu's warning. The presence you feel as you pray at a grave. A well that dries up. The vision you see as you peer out of the window of your cabin. A jinni. An ancient religion. When everything you say and do has consequence. Because nothing that is done can be undone.

She Refused to Bow

By Farida Manekshah,

What is this book about?

A personal memoir which introduces the supernatural in the most natural way.

A message which came in a dream and brought you wealth. A sadhu's warning. The presence you feel as you pray at a grave. A well that dries up. The vision you see as you peer out of the window of your cabin. A jinni. An ancient religion. When everything you say and do has consequence. Because nothing that is done can be undone.


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