When people think of Japan and World War II, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are probably what come to mind. For some reason, people seem to forget the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945, but it claimed more lives than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, left millions homeless, and burned down half of Tokyo. Jennifer Cody Epstein’s The Gods of Heavenly Punishment revisits these attacks through the eyes of multiple narrators: Cam, a pilot who participated in the Doolittle Raid; his wife, Lacy; Anton, an architect who helped build some of the great buildings in Tokyo and who was then hired by the government to figure out the best way to burn Tokyo down; his son Billy, a soldier in the army who is sent to Tokyo during the Occupation; and a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl named Yoshi, who serves as the thread that holds all of the stories together.
The book moves forward chronologically, but each chapter alternates to a different point of view. As a result, readers get to imagine World War II from different perspectives: that of the anxious wife awaiting the return of her husband; of the soldiers (on both sides) who signed up for service for a variety of reasons and must bear witness to the aftermath of war; of the architects of all of the destruction, and most importantly, of the survivors.
Alex Carter has worked hard to build her career, and she has her dream two-story home to prove it. All of a sudden, it looks like it might come crashing down: her company is facing a massive restructuring and her job might be on the line, and she and her boyfriend finally decide to call it quits. She’s thirty-five years old and is starting to hear the ticking of her biological clock, so it’s not an ideal situation for her. While friends and family are pressuring her to get a man and settle down, she’s getting desperate enough to toy with the idea of getting a sperm donor.
Then she runs into her old flame, Nathan. She can’t deny that the chemistry is still there, but because of the way their relationship ended, she can’t fully trust him even though he seems to have matured into a thoughtful adult. As a control freak, Alex always has it in the back of her mind that she can do everything herself. She likes the idea of settling down, but when it comes to actually handing over the reigns and letting someone else take care of her for a while, she can’t bring herself to fully make that leap.
Subhash and Udayan Mitra are two brothers growing up in Calcutta. When they were children, they were inseparable and often got into mischief together. As they come of age in 1960s India, their paths begin to diverge.
Subhash is the obedient, studious one. He plans to go to the United States and study to become a scientist, then come home like a good son and marry the woman that his parents have chosen for him. Udayan, on the other hand, is rebellious and is drawn to helping fix the inequalities he sees in India. He’s drawn to the burgeoning Naxalite movement, a Communist-inspired uprising, much to the chagrin of his conservative family. Their concern is warranted; as the Naxalites begin committing acts of violence in the name of their ideals, the government responds with brutal crackdowns. While Subhash is falling in love with academia and the peaceful isolation of Rhode Island, his brother is trying to avoid arrest.
2013 was kind of a weird year for me in reading. Looking back at my master list, I see I read a lot of really random things. Sometimes it worked out in unexpectedly wonderful ways, sometimes it didn’t. That said, I had an extremely hard time narrowing my favorite fiction books down into a top ten list! And because of that, I’m adding an honorable mention at the end of the list (I agonized over which book to bump and just couldn’t do it). The first three are my absolute favorites ranked in order; the rest are listed alphabetically. All links lead back to my original reviews:
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)
A writer, Ruth, finds the secret diary of a suicidal sixteen-year-old Japanese schoolgirl named Nao. The diary reveals the horrible bullying and cultural dislocation that Nao suffered, as well as fascinating stories about her grandmother, a philosophical and forward-thinking Buddhist nun. Ruth becomes obsessed with trying to find out what happened to Nao. From my review: this book “is cleverly nuanced and layered in complex ways. Ozeki is a master.”
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff (2013)
With a revolving door of characters and a chronological timeline, this book manages to capture the essence of the twentieth century, and it does it all in anapestic tetrameter (see the review for an excerpt so you can see what I mean). From my review: “The book is funny, sad, beautiful, and unconventional. It’s sad that [Rakoff is no longer] around to share his talent with the world, but talk about going out with a bang.”
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (2013)
There are several different stories going on in this book, and all of them involve gay teens. At the center of it are Harry and Craig, who are determined to break the world record for the longest kiss. Narrating the book is a chorus of gay men who all died during the AIDS epidemic. From my review: “Levithan’s book is a beautiful ode to the past while offering commentary on love, acceptance, and contemporary society…I’m so glad it exists in the world.”
In 1972, James Lowe told his best friend that two seconds were going to be added to the time. It was something he read about in the papers, a fun fact of sorts, but the information made eleven-year-old Byron Hemmings nervous. How could extra time possibly be added into existing time? It would throw everything off kilter. While James soon seems to forget the information, Bryon begins keeping vigil over clocks and watches, waiting to witness the exact moment when those two seconds would be added.
As Byron’s mother is driving him and his sister to school, it happens. The two seconds are added during that ominously foggy drive. Byron witnesses something during those two seconds and he knows that life will never be the same, but his mother and sister don’t seem to notice and carry on as if nothing happened. In the weeks ahead, Byron will be consumed as he tries to carry the secret of what he saw.
As the novel unfolds, the chapters alternate between two different points of view. The main one is Byron’s; much of the book is told through the eyes of his shattered eleven-year-old innocence. The other narrator is Jim, a man in his 50s who has spent his life in and out a local mental health facility that recently had to close its doors; he suffers from emotional issues and a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Jim focuses on he numbers 2 and 1 and is convinced that if he doesn’t perform his daily rituals, people will get hurt. The tie between the two is unclear at first, though it becomes clearer as the book progresses.