Book Review: Hiroshima

Title: Hiroshima (1946)

Author: John Hersey

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis and history

As one of the first Western Journalists to arrive in Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, John Hersey was soon commissioned to write a feature. As a war correspondent, Hersey already wrote for Life magazine and The New Yorker. His masterpiece, initially published in a long essay format, became an instant success, whereby changing the American perspective of the tragedy.

…”they were the objects of the first great experiment in the use of atomic power, which (as the voices on the short-wave shouted) no country except the United States, with its industrial know-how, it’s willingness to throw two billion gold dollars into an important wartime gamble, could possibly have developed.”

This was one of the first works to embody the ‘New Journalism’ emerging in the mid-twentieth century, as Hersey combines non-fiction with storytelling type prose. Following the experience of six survivors and how their lives intertwined with each other, Hersey demonstrates how techniques of fiction writing can be adapted to suit non-fiction purposes. It is told as a story, but the content is so poignant and revealingly told, there is no escaping the reality.

During the end of the Second World War, the US released nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. Estimates for the death toll vary but are in the region of 129,000-226,000. Many died instantly, but many would suffer in the years after from emerging cancers, infertility problems, cataracts, and the impact of keloid scaring.

A pacific war had been going on between Japan and its allies and the US decided to release the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to force Japan into surrender. The dropping of the first ever nuclear weapon, instantly killed 70,000 and the city was destroyed. The impact would go on for decades to come.

The book focuses on the experiences of six people who lived through Hiroshima. It features two doctors, a Protestant minister, a widowed seamstress, a female factory worker and a German Catholic priest. The structure of the book is chronological and follows the unfolding of the events, each told through a different perspective. Hersey constantly jumps back and forth between characters, but demonstrates how their lives were connected in the final section. Each section, containing a different perspective on the experience, adds another dimension to the horrific imapct of the bomb.

Review

It is hard to coherently review a book like this, as I feel like no number of words or thoughts could process this reading experience.

I remember first learning about Hiroshima when I was in secondary school, I was in an R.E (religious education) lesson, and we were exploring the morality behind humans having the powers of destruction. I remember my teacher telling us, humans are often the creators of their own destruction, he wasn’t wrong. As someone who didn’t live through this, it can be hard to understand the fear, anxiety and astonishment behind these events. But this book offers a valuable insight into the lived experience of survivors and I now feel more educated.

The use of different narrators who all experienced the same event was interesting. At first I found this confusing and slightly hard to follow, but then reading on, I realised that it all connected, as the people featured all knew each other in different ways. I think having a multitude of different perspectives is essential when re-telling an experience like this. As after all, historical events are experienced differently by the individuals that lived through them, it would be reductive to write a book documenting the event through the eyes of just one or two survivors.

Hersey importantly doesn’t shy away from describing the sheer brutality of the impacts of the bomb on the people that lived in the city. He describes the health implications gruesomely, but this is essential, in order to fully comprehend the impact. Some descriptions were enough to make my stomach churn, but then reality kicks in when you remember this actually happened to people, through no fault of their own. Hiroshima impacted the ordinary civilians, and it is so important that their experience is put to the forefront.

Hersey also doesn’t completely focus on just the experience of the bomb, he details the immediate aftermath and then the long term impacts. This allows the long term impact to be protruded into the reader’s understanding and reveals the complete picture of this tragedy.

Despite its very immediate impact, the after affects were something individuals had to live with for the rest of their lives. Not just physically, but mentally. Each survivor featured, had to try and re-build their lives after such a horrific experience. What is shown, is that although they were lucky enough to survive, they could not escape the health implications nor the mental strain of living through such a bleak moment in history. Life went on, but they could never forget.

I was hesitant to read this book, as I like to read to escape reality. But nonetheless, I am very glad I read this. Like most people, I only ever comprehended Hiroshima in terms of the figures and facts, and as a historical event, but this book and the perspectives it provides, really hones in on the humanness of tragedy.

It is not a book to take lightly, but nonetheless an essential one. It is easy to read, once you get the hang of the alternative perspectives, and very enlightening. It is a hard read, but one that everyone should have a go at if they want to be more informed of the lived experiences that were the sheer horrors of Hiroshima.

My top 3 non-fiction reads

Non-fiction isn’t a realm I delve into enough. But I do aim to read more non-fiction this year. But I thought I would share with you my current top 3 non-fiction reads.

The Shepherd’s Life: A People’s History of the Lake District, James Rebanks, 2015

I read this book in 2019, as the Lake District is one of my favourite places to explore. This book was so interesting for the alternative insight it offered – one that was not through the eyes of tourists, but through the farmers that tend the land we so love and admire.

James Rebanks offers a personal insight into his life and the history of his family on a small farm in the Lake District. He talks about the impact of tourism and the dying art of farming in the UK. He structures the book through the changing farming seasons and often offers an insight into the everyday beauties he witnesses on his doorstep.

He also talks about his personal battles with wanting to branch out into the world of academia as a young student, who is expected to take over the farm for the next generation. This ongoing, generational expectation is one many farmers and landowners still have to battle with.

It made me rethink our relationship to this popular landscape and not only appreciate it for its beauty, but for the hard work and commitments that go on behind the communities that make it. I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. (5/5)

This is London: Life and Death in the World City, Ben Judah, 2016

This is the book that made me want to consider branching into investigate journalism. As a regular London tourist/day tripper, I often gave little thought to the people who live in London with constant struggle. This book gives a voice to those who are often forgotten amidst the central tourist hot spots that we all go and see.

In an incredible, exploratory work of investigate journalism, Ben Judah speaks to those who have felt marginalized, kicked out of, and not respected in the city. He goes beyond Leicester Square, Regent Street and tourist London. He speaks to ordinary people, hears what they have to say, and pays homage to the variety of experience of living in the big city.

Judah gives a voice to the immigrants who have often been forgotten and marginalised, to the sex workers trying to make a living and to those who are living on the streets. It serves as a brutal reminder of the many problems the city faces, which are often invisible in day to day, and tourist life. (5/5)

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank, 1947

This is something that everyone should read. I have read it countless times, but it is an account I always turn back to.

Everyone knows Anne Frank and her story. Many go to visit the house in Amsterdam on tourist weekends to the city, but many may not have actually spent the time to read her diary in full.

Written as a thirteen year old in hiding, during the Nazi occupation of Holland, Anne writes about the struggles of family life in isolation, the fears of no return and more often than not, ordinary teenage struggles. It is eye opening and serves as a reminder to the horrors of that time in history, but also, a testament to staying positive in times of desperation. Despite living through a horrific experience, Anne always tried to remain positive and see the beauty in life,

“I’ve found that there is always some beauty left — in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.”

Her account offers something that the history books cannot rival. An honest, down to earth account of life as it was lived during the Holocaust and Nazi occupation of Holland. One that despite its countless tragedies, acts as a homeage to the spirit of humanity and togetherness in times of need.

It was also a book that inspired me to keep my own diary, which I have done for many years. Anne’s voice and the way she writes and sees things, makes you realise that she would have gone on to be a brilliant writer. It also makes you feel like you’re connected to that sliver of history which she describes and documents so well. An essential read.

Book Review: Wolf Hall

There is always something purely magical about historical-fiction and its ability to provide us with a world so different from our own.

As a history graduate; I have always had my qualms about it, in the sense that it can often obscure historical reality. A lot of what people know about history can often come from fictional adaptations like this, which is on the one hand worrying, when it is done badly, but reassuring when it is executed well. Wolf Hall, unreservedly belongs to the later.

Since it’s publication in 2010, it has opened up debate by creating discussions about the significance of Thomas Cromwell’s role. History, more often than not, is told by the victors and the Tudor story often features unrivaled focus and praise for Henry VIII alone. However, Mantel’s Wolf Hall, has posed the suggestion that Henry VIII was a mere figurehead for the plethora of minds that were running the country. It is through using the protagonist of Thomas Cromwell, that the reader realises there were many minds and characters behind Henry’s successes (and failures…).

Thomas Cromwell has been given a harsh judgement by many historians, however, this account is an incredible dive into the mind and life of one of history’s most notable statesmen, who came from humble origins.

Title: Wolf Hall

Author: Hilary Mantel

Publisher: Fourth Estate (2010)

Genre/topics: Historical Fiction, The Tudors, Henry VIII

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis and the historical background

Mantel’s novel begins in 1500, when Thomas Cromwell was a mere boy, free from the responsibilities of being the mind that ran the country. Cromwell had a rough start in life which is often missed out from the history books. Son of a blacksmith, Cromwell was repeatedly physically abused by his father and had a rocky upbringing. However, this upbringing made him humble, and an extremely valuable negotiator who could empathize with every cause. These skills would soon be put to good use in later life.

The book documents Cromwell’s beginnings but then lurches forward to 1527. Henry VIII was comfortably sitting on the throne, alongside his wife, Catherine of Aragon. This is an England where Thomas More was the speaker of the House of Commons, where Cardinal Wolesy establishes Cardinal College in Oxford, and England are desperately struggling to establish peace with France. In 1525, peace between the two nations is agreed and the end of the year marks the beginning of the English Reformation, the de-tangling of the Church of England from the overbearing influence of Rome and the Catholic Church.

At the beginning of the book, before his death, Wolsey remained the King’s Chief adviser, and Cromwell was merely his assistant. However, after failed attempts to get Rome to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he falls out of favour and is stripped of his titles. This, and Wolsey’s unexpected death, becomes the perfect breeding ground for Cromwell rise to powerful prominence.

Thomas Cromwell’s family become decimated from the sweating sickness as it reaps through London, taking his wife and both his two children. However, this marks the beginning of Cromwell’s success as he becomes more recognized at the court of Henry VIII. Cromwell manages to help secure the annulment of Henry’s marriage so he could marry Anne Boleyn, who promptly gives birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth is not the desirable heir to the throne (being female), but history tells us this doesn’t get in her way.

This first installment documents the Act of Supremacy, whereby Henry VIII is recognised as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thus breaking from Rome. There appears to be an element of calm in the final pages, perhaps signalling the calm before the inevitable storm that is to come. That storm, being the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and everything that entails.

Review

BBC Adaptation of Wolf Hall. Image: Amazon.

This book had been sitting on my to read pile for a long time, ever since my Grandad had told me to read it many years ago. If you’re reading this Grandad, thank you for the recommendation, I’ve finally gotten round to reading it! I can see why you told me to read it.

Although it took me a while to get used to Hilary Mantel’s third person perspective, I really found myself enjoying this unique way of storytelling. The reader’s experience is completely told through the eyes and ears of Thomas Cromwell; every conversation, act, and event is told through his perspective. It is unforgiving, relentless but at the same time, fully immersive. The reader is trapped inside his mind, and his mind only, throughout the entire novel. For a long time, there is little mention of Henry VIII which I found quite amusing as he is traditionally at the center of most books! Henry would hate the fact that he isn’t the center of this story – but that’s partly why I loved it so much.

The use of this protagonist offers an unrivaled account, and an account of Tudor history that has never been told in this way in historical fiction. It is eye opening in its challenge of the way we view the traditional Tudor story and the components of the regime. In the crafting of this protagonist, Mantel strips Henry of his traditional prominence and gives the wheel to the man who was the real pioneer of his success – Thomas Cromwell.

Various historical dramas have put forward Henry VIII as the central character with his outlandish religious and foreign policy agendas. His women and countless affairs have been the focus of dramas such as The Tudors (2007), but Mantel’s version with the use of Cromwell, makes the reader think outside the box of prescribed history we are given. It puts forward the agenda that the underdogs of history were in fact the real makers of the Tudor story. For once, the Tudors are not told through endless monarchical sex and scandal, but intelligence, intrigue and dedication, shown through the experience of Cromwell himself. I appreciate this book just for this element alone, as it is so refreshing to see an author take on a new perspective that gives a voice to an individual who has been overlooked.

As well as this, the prose and writing is beautiful. It evokes an age so different from our own, but yet full of similarities. Throughout the novel are frequent bouts of sweating sickness and the plague, as well as political debates, religious changes and discussions about cultural upheaval. Every age has its own version of these debates, but featuring these so fully allows the reader to be transformed into this period. It is hard to read this work of fiction and not escape to an entirely different world. I felt deeply immersed, fully informed and endlessly fascinated by what was going on in the pages in front of me. I loved the experience of reading this book, as much I valued its unique perspective and beautiful prose.

I am not someone who often reads historical fiction, but this is exceptional. It is a work of perfection in every way. Granted, it took me a while to get the hang of the prose style, as it is something I have rarely ever come across, but it was nonetheless an essential component to the novel’s success. It was a little slow and unnecessarily ‘fluffy’ in some parts, considering the momentous period in history it covers, but never did I feel like it was a slog. It has made me re-assess my reading habits and think about reading more historical fiction in the future.

A great opener to the rest of the series. I can’t wait to read the others!

Reading more poetry

Image: Pixabay

As someone who claims they love poetry, my range tends to stick to those I know, (or studied at A-level) such as Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and William Blake. During these years I enjoyed studying poetry but was consumed by having to memorise it for an exam.

I’ve decided that I want to read more poetry and have set myself the challenge of reading a new poem every day. Using the book, Poems for Life, I am picking at random a poem everyday to read.

Part of my appreciation for poetry comes from the process of ‘unpicking’. On the first read, sometimes things don’t stick out. On the second, comes the realisation that certain phrases, lines and images are of importance to the central message. I like the fact that the more you read a poem, the more you understand. Above all, what I like is that poetry can have so many different interpretations.

I won’t always be writing a post about each poem I read (as that might get a bit much!) but I thought I would share with you the first one.

Flicking through the pages, I stuck my thumb at a random spot and fell on the poem, “Casabianca” by Felicia Dorothea Hemans. Upon reading it, I had no prior knowledge of the poem (or even when it was written.)

The Poem

The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.

The flames rolled on – he would not go,
Without his father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud – ‘Say, father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
– And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath
And in his waving hair;
And look’d from that lone post of death,
In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapped the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound –
The boy – oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part,
But the noblest thing which perished there,
Was that young faithful heart.

Reading “Casabianca” for the first time

Before researching , I believed this poem was about the departure of childhood, set against the natural rhythms of nature. The poem features a father and son on board a ship in the middle of the sea. Thus, the passing of nature could be related to the certainty of the end of childhood. Lines such as, “The boy stood on the burning deck, / Whence all but he had fled” and, “Yet beautiful and bright he stood, / As born to rule the storm” suggests the idea of departure with words like, “fled”. Additionally, the image of a boy ruling nature suggests an element of leaving childhood behind.

The poem also contains the repetition of a heroic like theme, words such as, “heroic,” “brave,” and “gallant” which suggests the idea of conquering. Whether that be over nature itself during the sea storm, or over the eventual eradication of one’s childhood. Thus, the conquering of childhood, as it were.

In sum, I read this poem to be about the gradual but relentlessness transition from childhood to adulthood, mirrored by the undulating rhythms of nature presented in the waves. The timeless image of a ship sailing away, relates to the human life cycle passing into the next phase of life, from childhood to adolescence. Like nature – life always has a next stage, or ending.

History and impact

Image: Felicia Dorothea Hemans National Portrait Gallery

Although this poem does contain a considerable element on childhood, it also documents an actual event.

Published in 1826, this poem details events that occurred on the Orient during the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It was a French ship commanded by Louis de Casabianca. The poem features a scene between a 12 year old boy and his Father; whereby the boy refuses to abandon the ship during a series of attacks. It becomes clear during the course of the poem, that the young boy tragically dies, he only ever wanted to protect the ship and perform his expected duties.

Thus, the poem explores elements of death, as well as transitional life. It’s a tale of commitment, resilience and dedication from a young boy, but also the bond between father and son.

The poem became a classroom staple throughout the United Kingdom between the 1850s-1950s. It is therefore, a classic example of classroom poetry recital. It explores a sense of military prowess by featuring the 1798 Battle of the Nile, between the British Royal Navy and the Navy of the French Republic. Hence, I suspect it was chosen for classroom recital due to its demonstration of patriotism and British victory.

Felicia Hemans was a known poet in her day, whose major collections included: The Forest Sanctuary (1825), Records of Woman and Songs of Affections (1830). She was known to be quite popular, especially among women. It is welcoming to note such a successful female poet during this period. Sadly, she died from dropsy in 1835. Despite the beauty of this poem (and probably the rest of her work) it was often used for school children – due to its discussion of morality and patriotism, and easy to remember rhyming rhythm. (see what I did there…)

Upon reading this poem and unpacking it, I was able to reflect on the many things I had learned just from reading these few lines. I had no idea to begin with that it was written so long ago, and about a true event I wasn’t even aware of. I nearly always learn something when I read a new poem, and this one didn’t disappoint!

Graduation (a reflection)

Over last weekend, I managed to successfully graduate from the University of York and obtain my degree certificate.

It was a successful experience on the whole. I managed to climb the stairs in sync with the processions of the ceremony, had the correct name read out alongside my degree, and didn’t manage to trip on my way down. I was relived when I could sit back in my seat and enjoy the rest of the ceremony without having to worry if I would make it up and down in one piece.

After the ceremony came the onslaught of photographs – both professional and ones taken by my parents. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. It isn’t often that the sun shines so brightly in the North of England – but it did on the 24th.

Sitting in central hall, surrounded by so many others – PhD’s, Masters and Bachelors, I couldn’t help but think how amazing it was. Every person in that room had to put up a fight and keep themselves going throughout the pursuit of something they love. Seeing the array of mortar boards worn by people of any age, was incredibly inspiring (and I definitely hadn’t expected it to be.)

This may have been my first graduation – but I don’t expect it to be my last. If I can summon up the resources to finance another stint in education that is…

I feel a sense of sadness when I realise that last Friday were my last moments at the University of York as a student. But I also feel a huge sense of achievement and closure. My graduation was a long time coming, due to the delaying of my final exams. But now I can draw a firm line below my undergraduate life.

I’ll be honest, I don’t currently know what’s around the corner, but who really ever does?