Category Archives: nonfiction

Reading: Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

9th August 2015

nagasaki*I requested this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 In her preface to Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, Susan Southard talks about living in Yokohama in high school as an international student. On a school trip, her class visited Nagasaki, and only there did she realize the lack of knowledge she had about this city’s role in World War II.

As I mentioned in my Pacific War reading post, I felt (and feel) the same way. Southard – and others who write on this topic – discuss that many people do not even realize that there was a second bombing. Hiroshima was the first, and for many, it dominated the news, leaving Nagasaki to suffer quietly.

Strangely, though, Nagasaki was subjected to the more powerful of the two bombs, a plutonium bomb. Just three days after the devastation of Hiroshima, when news of the extent of the destruction had not yet reached Tokyo, the U.S. flew by its original destination because of low visibility and headed to its next target, Nagasaki.

Though some survivors of Hiroshima arrived in Nagasaki and were able to warn family and friends to wear white and lay low, the majority of the city was immune to the air raid sirens, and no siren sounded prior to the bombing. The result was utter decimation of a city, its people, and its culture.

The hibakusha, “bomb-affected people,” survived against all odds. Those not initially killed suffered from flash burns, inhaled glass and other matter, and, what would soon come to be called, Disease X, or radiation disease.

As Pellegrino does, Southard illustrates the mayhem directly following the bombing, but she specifically tracks five hibakusha and their struggle to recover, both physically and mentally.

Japan was already hurting, and citizens of Nagasaki were hungry and malnourished. With little medicine and virtually no support, survivors depended on the doctors and others who worked, some ill themselves, to provide them with whatever care they could. Once Japan surrendered and MacArthur and his troops stepped in, the general’s censorship left the country with little to no knowledge of the effects of the atomic bombings. The spread of misinformation to the rest of the world and America’s unwillingness to treat hibakusha lest such an act look like an apology, further restricted the help available.

The unknown and terrifying effects of radiation disease made hibakusha pariahs, and many refused to leave home because the physical marks of the bombs made them easily identifiable. Later, some hibakusha were unable to obtain jobs and marriages because of their statuses, forcing many to live in silence.

Southard talks about the challenges in telling the stories of Taniguchi, Do-oh Mineko, Nagano Etsuko, Wada Koichi, and Yoshida Katsuji, acknowledging, as she says, “the inherent limitation and unreliability of memory, especially traumatic memory” and counters this through extensive research and fact checking. Photographic evidence and vivid scarring reinforce their stories, and these five travel often, speaking of their experiences and calling for an end to nuclear warfare.

Their remarkable stories and desire to speak globally for peace makes for a sobering, necessary book, yes, especially 70 years after the fact. Southard quotes Yoshida: “At first I hated Americans for what they did to me…I didn’t understand how any nation could use such a cruel weapon on human beings. But in my old age, I have learned that holding a grudge does nobody any good. I no longer hate Americans. I only hate war.”

Regardless of your own (hopefully) conflicted notions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War will certainly further develop a story many of us may have only seen as a mushroom cloud, illuminating those beneath it.

Add this to your Goodreads list.

Reading: To Hell and Back by Charles Pellegrino

6th August 2015

tohellandback*I requested this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Today marks the type of anniversary some will celebrate and others will denigrate. Exactly 70 years ago today, the United States, in what some say was an effort to end the war and others claim was a way to justify the expense of scientific research, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan.

My Pacific War reading inevitably led me here, but I knew I should not read anything regarding the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without gaining a much broader understanding of what led humanity to this moment. Flyboys by James Bradley gave me a look at Japan’s history and rise as a military power as well as the cruelty of the Japanese military to American pilots. The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan gave me an insider’s view of the making of the bombs as well as the American ignorance of such raw power.

By the time I made it to Charles Pellegrino’s To Hell and Back: The Last Train from Hiroshima, I thought I was ready. He opens his book with this line: “Had Mary Shelley or Edgar Allan Poe been born into the mid-twentieth century, they would never have had to invent horror.”

And then it begins. Pellegrino starts at the epicenter in Hiroshima, mixing science with humanity, breaking down what the bomb did to the humans below it as well as who those humans were and what they were likely doing, based on routine and the flash prints left behind where once men, women, and children stood.

He weaves survivor memory and testimony, illustrating the immediate chaos of the bomb’s aftermath, describing the teacher whose face would be marked from the flash of the bomb, as a student held up her calligraphy on rice paper, creating the only barrier between her and the pika-don, or “flash-boom” as the Japanese termed it.

The first 50 pages of this book resulted in me gasping aloud again and again, shocked at the apocalyptic world it described and bookmarking information I’d never come across before and wanted to come back to.

First published in 2010, Pellegrino’s book was recalled by the publisher when the New York Times uncovered false information – the book set forth, in part, that an American was killed and others irradiated, based on the testimony of a man who apparently lied about his involvement in the entire affair.

This publication, by Rowman & Littlefield, has no such testimony, and names and situations Pellegrino discusses have popped up in multiple books I’ve read on the topic.

All this to say, the book is not only compelling but a reliable and fascinating account of the survivors not just of Hiroshima, but of the men and women deemed “double survivors,” those who left Hiroshima in time for the bombing in Nagasaki.

Pellegrino gives voice to their suffering, their sorrow, and their spirit of survival in what is, for me, required reading on the subject.

Add it to your Goodreads list.

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?

Review: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

1st January 2014

pg1*I purchased this book.

The subtitle of Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City tells it all: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago. Though I’ve long loved the music of Chicago (my mother is especially – and disturbingly – fond of the line, He ran into my knife ten times!), I never realized it was based on the true story of a spate of murders in Chicago in the early 20s. 

In 1924, the Cook County Jail was full of women killers. Perry briefly discusses the phenomenon, citing the new found freedom of women in Chicago in the Jazz Age as a possible reason for the higher female crime rate. If you were pretty, you got off. If you weren’t, or worse, were a foreigner, then the jury was a bit harsher. Disturbed by the indulgent treatment of these female killers in the media, young journalist Maurine Watkins decided to lend her hand to the court of public opinion. With all-men juries showing leniency to the attractive inmates, Chicago’s female inmates began to learn a nice dress and a new hairdo worked wonders for their trials, and Maurine was determined to document the ridiculousness of it all.

Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan were the worst offenders in Maurine’s opinion – both having killed lovers without much remorse. But even though both women were accused of lewd behavior and illegal drinking, they became the darlings of the Chicago papers and later, the juries. Anxious to attempt redress for the injustice, Maurine writes her play, Chicago, what New York Times reporter Brooks Atkinson said was “a satirical comedy on the administration of justice through the fetid channels of newspaper publicity – of photographers, ‘sob sisters,’ feature stunts, standardized prevarication and generalized vulgarity.”*

Though the end of the book drops off a bit as it discusses Maurine’s subsequent failures as a writer, The Girls of Murder City is a fascinating – and sometimes amusing – look at a true phenomenon of Chicago in the Jazz Age. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in feminism, true crime, the musical Chicago, and more specifically, as a great intro to someone looking to read more nonfiction.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

*This is a nice reminder that the “good old days” of journalism never really existed…

Review: Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

24th October 2013

pg1*I bought this book.

What can I say? The Mindy Project absolutely makes me laugh.

This book? I laughed so much just in her intro, I knew I had to buy it. Plus, it’s eminently quotable.

Mindy (I can totally call her that because we’re bffs now, so deal) breaks her book up into a look at her childhood, life in New York, Hollywood, romance, and body image. It’s more structured than Tina Fey’s Bossypants, but it also has an interesting generational difference. Sure, Kaling relates stories of photo shoots and sample size dresses designed to fit no one. But she also doesn’t quite have the roadblocks Fey seems to have. Reading these two books back to back, particularly knowing the age difference here isn’t all that much, made for a great look at women in comedy. Both address the ridiculous “women can’t be funny” in anticipated humorous ways. Yet there is an awareness in Kaling’s book, a liberation of sorts, that wasn’t apparent in Bossypants. In a sense, Mindy is able to worry about everyone hanging out without her whereas Tina Fey was scrambling to even get in the door.

I do think Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is better written, and though the writing is simple, the timing of the humor as well as the arc of each essay is really excellent.

And I can’t leave you without hints of the humor:

Is this one of those guide books celebrities write for girls?

Oh, hell no. I’m only marginally qualified to be giving advice at all. My body mass index is certainly not ideal, I frequently use my debit card to buy things that cost less than three dollars, because I never have cash on me, and my bedroom is so untidy it looks like vandals ransacked the Anthropologie Sale section. I’m kind of a mess.

*****

Unlike other athletes, Frisbee people won’t let it go. My theory is that this is because there’s a huge overlap between people who are good at Frisbee and people who do Teach for America. The same instinct to make at-risk kids learn, which I admire so much, becomes deadly when turned on friends trying to relax on a Sunday afternoon in the park….I don’t want to learn! I don’t want to learn! Let me read Shopaholic Runs for Congress in peace!

*****

I WILL TRY TO LIKE YOUR BOYFRIEND FIVE TIMES

This is a fair number of times to hang out with your boyfriend and withhold judgment.

IF OUR PHONE CONVERSATION GETS DISCONNECTED, THERE’S NO NEED TO CALL BACK

I get it. You get it. We take forever getting off the phone anyway. This was a blessing.

*****

I’ll wait while you add this to your Goodreads shelf.