Monday, November 05, 2007

Editorial Ass's Top 3 Books about World War II in the Pacific Theater

1) WAR WITHOUT MERCY, by John Dower
In simplest terms, this book is an exploration of how the war was fought in Asia; in fact, it is a study of modern warfare as it came into adolescence in the 1930s and 1940s through the lens of the American war against Japan and the Japanese colonial movement in Asia. Dower shows how in an age of industrial killing and weapons of such unimaginable destructive power, it is necessary for governments to actively dehumanize an enemy in order to convince its own soldiers to be willing to use these weapons. Dower draws on propaganda, army training materials and techniques used both in Japan and the States, racial political rhetoric and policies from both sides of the Pacific, and accounts of battles and war atrocities committed by both sides (both against the other and against other groups of people).

Read this book. You must. Even if you're not interested in World War II or in Asia at all. It has so many important things to say about modern warfare, warfare politics, and modern incarnations of racism that it will actually make you a smarter, better spoken, and an instinctively more politically correct person. It will light up your understanding of "the War on Terror" and modern racial rhetoric both in the United States and abroad. It actually changed my life and the way I understand the world.

In good faith, though, I have to leave a warning: not for the faint of heart or stomach. But the fact that things happened (and continue to happen) is so disturbing that we must try to make ourselves understand it.

2) A GESTURE LIFE, by Chang-Rae Lee
The story of Japanese-born ethnically Korean man moves to suburban America, where he opens a shop and adopts a Korean daughter. Gradually, he confesses his past as he is forced to confront his troubled relationship with his daughter. He carries the scars of active medical duty during the war, when he fought for the Japanese army in Burma, almost (but always just failing at) blending in with the race that persecuted his people. His deepest scar links to the arrival at his war camp of five Korean "volunteers"--comfort women kidnapped from Korea and brought to the camp for the use of the Japanese soldiers. A masterpiece of war fiction as well as a compelling quest for redemption.

A Chinese mother confesses the story of her life in China before escaping at the height of the Sino-Japanese conflict (or, more accurately, the Japanese invasion). The best by far of Amy Tan's books. The one time Amy doesn't let her profound readability compromise the quality of her story. She does a good reconstruction of China before and during the war. A good, fast, rewarding read.

Runner-up: WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS, by Kazuo Ishiguro
An English expat who was brought up in China reflects on his childhood and the war. Classic Ishiguro--careful, malingering, utterly delusional first-person narrator; invisible and subtle plot. Also an awesome book. I wouldn't say a feel-good book, precisely, but definitely worth a read. Shows you a small slice of the war in the recounting of the capture of Shanghai.

Second runner-up: EMBRACING DEFEAT, by John Dower
This is the book Dower actually won the Pulitzer for, but it only makes second runner-up because it's actually about the American occupation of Japan, not about the war itself. It's a long beast, but if you're into this sort of thing, it won the Pulitzer for a reason.

Third runner-up: THE RAPE OF NANKING, by Iris Chang
A good, careful history of the eponymous event. This book opened a lot of doors for discussion when it was first published and Iris Chang is credited with reviving dialog about the forgotten war in Asia. I don't think I'll ever be able to dip back into this book, though, because of the circumstances of the author's death. According to a friend, her research left Iris physically weak. I can't imagine being immersed in this level of tragedy and not being driven into depression.


angelle said...

i was abt to refer to rape of nanking then saw you already had it.

that book is terrible terrible terrible. hard to stomach. esp the pictures. it's important though. but tragic she died. i mean really. TERRIBLE.

gesture life i was actually somewhat disappointed by.

i used to love kitchen god's wife.

when we were orphans - good, but not as good as remains of the day (we had this discussion before).

i must have read some others you haven't but right now i can't think.

on a separate note - are we on for a writing date tomororw, or is this being pushed back? i need to churn out another chapter and a half so i can start working on my apps, seriously.

Precie said...

Darn it...I haven't read any of those, and every time you post a Top 3, my Amazon wish list grows. There aren't enough hours in the day!

In other words, thank you!

moonrat said...

woops, sorry, Precie. i hate people like me.

moonrat said...

angelle--it's funny re: gesture life. when i first read it, i didn't love it, but i've found that i think more and more about it as time goes on, and for me i think how a book affects me over time ends up figuring really prominently in whether or not i recommend it.

there's some books that you read and love and can't remember anything about 5 minutes later. an example for me is The Grapes of Wrath. read it, loved it. can't remember a thing about it. so i don't think i ever recommend it.

pacatrue said...

Thank you for this post, even though parts of it left me sad, i.e., Iris Chang.

Ello said...

Hey I read all of these books! Every single one! That's a first.

Rebekah said...

You may also like,
"In the Claw of the Tiger."

Check it out at Amazon:

My mom wrote this, and self-published it. She and I would love your feedback. Thanks!