Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Why I Read It: World War II history is always on the table; was going through a box of old books and decided to pull it out and read it.

Summary: The author follows the stories of six people caught in the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, told in four parts.

My Thoughts: Having not been there, it's hard for me to say on what side of the coin I would have fallen. I can say today whether or not I would have supported the dropping of the bomb, but having not been alive and in the United States in 1945, I cannot say how I would have felt at the moment. Of course, most Americans weren't in on the debate anyway.

And I'm guessing that even in the immediate aftermath, there was little American sympathy for the Japanese civilians killed in the blast. With the press filtered as it was in those days, average Joe probably had little knowledge of the truth as it was. Then, too, after four years of war, bloodshed, rumored atrocities and the revelation of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, there must have been a general numbness to death in distant lands.

But to the first-time reader in 2015, there is no such distancing.

The first-person descriptions offered by Hersey from the mouths of his interview subjects are jarring. Descriptions of physical impacts are as heartbreaking as the psychological crashes, like the tale of the woman who held onto her dead baby for days in order to show her husband their child one last time. He, a newly-recruited soldier, was probably dead already, too.

The sense of lost wonder - what kind of bomb was it? - was bewilderment in its truest description. Rumors abounded about paratroopers following the explosions, of gasoline sprinkled over the city then lit by incendiary bombs, and more. In a way, the fear of what came next mirrored the hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, when trigger-happy American antiaircraft crews shot at their own planes. Some Japanese spoke with absolute authority; they knew what the bomb was. Others simply listened, the topic way over their heads.

The tale is utterly humanizing, in the sense that it takes us to ground zero of the enemy's worst day, and forces us to understand that their every day lives were not much different from ours. We are left to wonder, how would Los Angeles have done in the same situation, or Chicago? What if 10,000 wounded and sick Americans tried to find help at a 600-bed hospital? What if 100,000 of your closest friends were suddenly gone? What would you do if you found the silhouette of your uncle burned into a granite slab near the spot of impact, a permanent ghostly reminder of his last act?

This book has long been touted as one that everyone should read. I cannot disagree.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen

Why I Read It: History of any kind is always a potential read, and the 1920s are certainly an area worth wading through.

Summary: A narrative history of the 1920s.

My Thoughts: There are those books that come along once in a while that simply make you feel unworthy. I don't think I'm qualified to review this book, but I'm going to do it anyway.

The book starts in the waning days of World War I. We walked through the next decade with the author, alongside the presidents, from the red scare, to Charles Lindbergh, through the murder trials, the flagpole sitters, the biggest scandals. What I find most remarkable is how the author was able, in such a quick turnaround, to recognize the trends of the decade and report on them from the early days of the 1930s.

But he doesn't just report on them. He narrates them like they're a poem. He takes us up and down the knees of the young women of the 20s, right along with their fashion-dictated skirt lengths. He takes us up into the big bull market and brings us crashing down. He introduces us to H.L. Mencken, teaches us to love him and hate them at the same time. He picks up on the malaise of the '20s, an era we look back to as "roaring." There were high times, yes. There was a reason The Great Gatsby was produced during this time. He educates us on our America was really prepared for Prohibition, how most people even thought it was a good idea. And then he explains how it led to open gunfights in the streets of Chicago. We see the causes, we see the effects. We better understand how the 1930s began, and how our world of today was shaped.

If there was one literary tool I thought the author misfired on, it was not utilizing the wonderful picture he drew at the beginning of the book with a juxtaposed ending. We meet Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Middletown, Anywhere, USA, and join them at the beginning of the decade. We learn what they eat. We learn what they look for when they pick up a newspaper. We learn about what their daily lives are like. Bringing the book to a close in a similar fashion would've been a wonderful reading experience. Perhaps though, considering how the book ends, with the stock market crash, it simply wasn't a good idea.

And there are those funny twists of history, that make such a book such a beautiful snapshot in time. As the book ends, Charles Lindbergh is still a hero. He has married Ann Morrow, but there is no mention of a baby or a kidnapping. Lindbergh hasn't returned from Germany telling us all that the Nazis aren't all that bad. The moment of perspective makes the book. The title is perfect. When Frederick Lewis Allen was writing his epic history of the 1920s, to him it was only yesterday.

I read an old dusty paperback version of this book. I kind of wish I had a hardcover copy, one that I could pass on to my boys. The first time they get into their history studies and tell me it's boring, I plan to pull out this book and read excerpts to them to prove that no subjects are boring, only writers can be. The right author, like Allen, can make history seem not only like it was just yesterday, but that it was right here in front of you.