Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)

Okay, so I've joined another book club (actually, two other book clubs, but more on that in another post). This new book club is a mean and lean group of 3-5 friends who will get together to read and discus depressing books of fiction and non-fiction. We've dubbed it the Debbie Downer Book Club, and I'm pretty excited about it.

Our first read truly qualifies for the book club theme. Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946) is a plainspoken account of the experiences of six survivors of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima both before, during, and after the bomb fell. Hersey wrote the piece in four sections that were initially supposed to be published in four consecutive issues of The New Yorker, but when he read the work as a whole, editor William Shawn decided to devote the entire August 31, 1946 issue to Hersey's piece. Shortly thereafter the piece was published as a book which became a bestseller and has never since gone out of print. In 1985, Hersey went back to Hiroshima and followed up on the lives of his six protagonists, adding a fifth chapter to later printings of the book (which I didn't read, since my library had the 1946 edition).

I'm not sure why I had never heard of this influential book, and I'm so glad my book club members brought it to my attention. Hersey's straightforward writing style does nothing to hide the horror of that day and the direct impact the actions of the United States had on the people of Hiroshima. Small details and hints of every day life creep in here and there and are met by radiation sickness, melted eyeballs, vaporized people, and other unimaginable horrors. The cultural reactions of the Japanese to the tragedy are fascinating and surprising, and while the group of survivors that Hersey decides to follow are diverse, their experiences are relatable and moving.

Everyone should read this book. It's short and engrossing and widely available. If you'd like to check out the copy and don't mind reading things electronically, get yourself over to the Internet Archive where they have it available in a bunch oh formats, including PDF, EPUB, and Kindle.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski (1999)

My friend Jennifer loaned me her copy of A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski (1999) before our trip to New York this summer. I didn't get a chance to crack the book before we left, but I read it just after we came back. This is one of those books with a topic that I wouldn't have really thought I'd be that into, but which ended up being fascinating. Definitely recommended.

Rybczynski's sub title "and America in the 19th Century" is no joke. This is certainly a biography, and the reader gets a full picture of Olmsted and his influence on the landscape of the United States and the formation of landscape architecture as a profession, but there is so much more than that: Civil War, 19th century gentlemen, German settlers in Texas, European tours, early New York commerce, the Chicago World's Fair, and just about everything else that a New England man of property and good breeding could be expected to dabble in.

Rather than overwhelming the reader with detail and context, the author expertly weaves Olmsted's personal narrative with everything that is going on around him into a nicely readable and extremely educational text. Pick this one up, dudes!