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What I'm Reading (No. 59): a tsunami and a war
This week I finished 2017's highly acclaimed Ghosts of the Tsunami, which is less about the 2011 Japanese disaster itself than about the communities and people it affected. And a couple weekends back I blasted through Robert Olmstead's Korean War novel The Coldest Night.
Let's get right to it.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry
The ordering of words in this book's subtitle is very purposeful: there is no lead-up to the tsunami. The narrative starts right away with staggering death. 18,000+ souls were taken in the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami (the vast majority from the tsunami). It's after that horror that the author explores life in the wave's wake. He visits communities, talks with grieving families (mostly mothers), and walks American readers through Japanese culture — particularly how that culture affected the grieving process and vice versa.
My feelings on this book zigzagged quite a bit. There were times it felt too personal/individual in its details and not broad enough in its scope, there were times I was truthfully just bogged down in the similar-sounding names and locales, and there were times where the narrative didn't feel fast-paced enough. Honestly, I almost feel bad about those complaints though because the author is conveying such devastating stories of the very human cost of the tsunami.
As mentioned at the start, Ghosts of the Tsunami isn't so much about the disaster itself — the mechanics of the tsunami, its vast scope along the Japanese coastline, the nuclear disaster that followed, etc. Those things are indeed mentioned, but they aren't the focus. Rather, Parry narrows in on the families and communities most impacted.
At the heart of the narrative is the achingly painful story of Okawa Elementary School, which lost 74 students and 10 teachers, largely due to human failures to evacuate in a timely manner. As you can imagine, the whole range of human emotion is on display: rage, grief, despair, confusion, loneliness. And overhanging all of this is a Japanese culture in which women — and displays of emotion in general — are pushed out of public view (especially in the northern, rural regions where the tsunami hit).
It's a sad book. There's no getting around that. And Parry doesn't beat around the bush trying to find the rays of sunshine; disasters are disastrous, and sometimes there isn't a light at the end of the tunnel. He simply shares stories that need to be heard, especially for the international audience that has largely only seen viral videos and sensational stories on nuclear fallout. It wasn't a fast read for me, and it won't make a list of my favorites at the end of the year, but ultimately it was a worthwhile book.
The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead
I've read two other Robert Olmstead novels, both during my Westerns project last year. The Savage Country was about a buffalo hunt, and Far Bright Star was about a small military outfit on the hunt for Pancho Villa. Both were good, but also desolate and violent. While Olmstead tends to write in the Western genre, this one is half love story and half Korean War story.
Henry Childs is just 17 when he falls in love with well-to-do Mercy. The intensity and emotion that Olmstead puts into that young relationship is very moving and remarkably believable. You feel for the characters and root for their story. But then Mercy's dad intervenes, and Henry ends up enlisting with the Marines and is shipped off to the Korean War on the cusp of its most intense battle — the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. (If that sounds familiar, it's because I read On Desperate Ground — the remarkable Korean War history — at the start of the year.)
The battle scenes are intense to say the least. Yes, there's the brutal violence, but also numbing cold, an unforgiving landscape, and relentless exhaustion. One of the most poignant parts of the book for me was actually at the end in an author's note. He related a story about being at an event and a woman asking why his battle scenes were so gruesome. It was a military vet who actually answered, saying something along the lines of "Mam, this was our experience. We need to be able to talk about the reality of what happened, otherwise you're just getting a glossed over version. This is what war is." A powerful point, to say the least.
Though at times hard to read, as books about war often are, The Coldest Night was really good. Olmstead's writing is sometimes poetic, but also Hemingway-esque in its sparseness and short, declarative sentence structure. It's a really interesting mix. His books are undeniably grim, but what I wrote about Far Bright Star remains true here too: There's an odd beauty to be found within the desolation of the story.
That's all for me this week. Next week will be an Obama edition. Our book club read Michelle's Becoming this month and in typical over-achieving reader fashion I read a couple bios of Barack too.
As always, I'd love to hear what you're reading.