The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai

The Bells of Nagasaki
Takashi Nagai
(Kodansha International, Ltd., Tokyo: 1984)

Originally published in 1949 by Hibiya Shuppan under the title nagasaki no kane. Translated and with an introduction by William Johnston.

READ: March 2008

Dr. Nagai was the dean of the School of Medicine at Nagasaki University, and was on the frontlines of the atomic explosion. His school was destroyed, the majority of his students and colleagues killed instantly or within days of the incident. His wife was also killed. He himself was grievously injured, but with the remaining staff and students, they moved to one of the neighbouring villages in the surrounding mountains, and spent a month or more tending wounded people for whom, oftentimes, there was not a lot they could do.

The book is fairly bluntly written. But it is honest, and a simple, sobering read. Dr. Nagai spends no time feeling sorry for himself or for others, and very little time philosophizing about the situation. It is a lot to take in. The no-nonsense tone of the book, and the perfectly tiny amount of time spent lamenting the loss and wondering about the horror of the use of the bomb, might throw some readers off. But it is important to remember the book is a product of its time. The fellow characters who populate Dr. Nagai's book are also medical personnel. They were trained to respond and react quickly to medical situations and emergencies, and they did their work well. While they never thought they'd have a situation so dire (to put it lightly), nor one in which they, too, were casualties, they remembered what their duties were. Dr. Nagai was trained to be cool and detached in these situations, and his book reflects that. He doesn't dwell on philosophizing about the merits of using the A-bomb, or about Japan's actions during the war, and some might perhaps criticize the book on that front, but that is not what this book is about. Those issues are for a different book.

Some knowledge of Japanese history and especially more traditional Japanese culture will help toward better enjoying this book. While certainly not necessary, it will make a lot more sense if you have at least a slight understanding of Japanese culture and ideals throughout the period between the two world wars and even earlier. While nothing can give us a sense of what it was like to be on the ground in Nagasaki on that fateful day, it clarifies the picture a little bit by allowing us into this man's professional life. I say "professional" because I only learned from the book's introduction that Dr. Nagai's wife was killed in the atomic blast. I also know from some of the accompanying pictures that he had two children who survived the bombing and (I think) its aftermath. I wish he had spoken more personally. But again, I guess, that would have made this a different book.

What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

What the Body Remembers
Shauna Singh Baldwin
(Vintage Canada, Toronto: 2000)

First published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, Toronto, in 1999.

READ: March 2008

What the Body Remembers tells, put simply, the history of two women and the man they both love. The more complicated version is that it is the story of families, cultures, and religions struggling to survive against the backdrops of the 1930s, World War II, and ultimately, the partition of Pakistan and India after the Second World War.

Singh Baldwin's writing style is lyrical, yet clear. She knows her characters well; sometimes too well, in fact, as occasionally I wanted her to step back and explain why someone was acting in such a way, though I could tell their actions were based in cultural norms (but ones with which I am unfamiliar). She does better on the personal level than she does on the political level; but in a way, that is fitting, since the characters themselves, especially Roop, do not really comprehend what is happening in the world outside their small circle, at least not until near the very end of the tale (when India and Pakistan are undergoing their very chaotic, violent partition).

My only negative comment about this book, then, would stem from this: I wanted a bit more politics and a bit less story. However, in all fairness, I think that is telling of my current reading interests, rather than a real critique of any fault or shortcoming of this novel.

The Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, with annotations by Douglas A. Anderson

The Annotated Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien
Annotations by Douglas A. Anderson
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York: 2002)

The Hobbit, first published 1937.

READ: February - March 2008

The classic text of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, with detailed annotations on the text by Douglas A. Anderson, a leading Tolkien scholar. The annotations cover everything from differences in text between various editions (and, in particular, explanations of how parts of the text were changed from the first edition to the second in order to bring some aspects of the story more in line with The Lord of the Rings), influences on Tolkien's work by other authors (Anderson is, after all, the same person who edited Tales Before Tolkien, so he has a decent grasp on the subject), and excerpts from Tolkien's own writings explaining why the story developed in certain ways. Most charming of all, however, was perhaps the inclusion and explanation of various illustrations from different foreign-language editions of The Hobbit, which, if you hadn't realized it already, really drives home the idea that The Hobbit is a true classic tale that speaks to many different cultures. A wonderful book.