Wednesday, January 22, 2014
The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein
In 1935, Cameron Richards is falling in love in New York while young Billy Reynolds snaps photos of everyday life on the other side of the world, in Japan. Neither is aware of the horrors that will unfold in the coming years.
During WWII, Cam goes off to war as a pilot, Billy's family must leave their beloved Japan and the daughter of a woman Billy photographed before the war will stay in war-torn Asia. As the war progresses and then ends, the lives of the people in these three families intersect in surprising ways, offering a glimpse of the way love and war refuse to take sides.
I have such mixed feelings about The Gods of Heavenly Punishment that I'm not quite sure where to begin so I'm going to fall back upon the handy self-interview. A nice, refreshing cup of ice water will serve as interviewer, since one is handy.
Cup of Water (CW): I hope you're not extremely thirsty because this may take a few minutes.
Bookfool (BF): I'll try to refrain from drinking you out of existence, for now.
CW: What possessed you to read The Gods of Heavenly Punishment?
BF: I have a serious weakness for books set during WWII, both fiction and non-fiction.
CW: What did you think when you began reading the book?
BF: I was impatient, initially. At the beginning of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment there are hints that war is on the horizon but the early scenes take place in 1935 and there's quite a bit of set-up. Also, for a solid 2/3 of the book, I honestly had no idea what the author was trying to say or where she was taking me.
CW: What happened to change that?
BF: Time, I suppose. The understanding of why the book was set up the way it was didn't really dawn on me till the individual threads were firmly woven together near the end of the book. Then, I set it down and had to let it roll around and around in my head. It's such a visceral book that I came away from it feeling like I could smell a smoldering Tokyo (even though the final scenes take place many years and thousands of miles away) and was still grieving for some of the characters.
CW: That sounds like pretty high praise.
BF: From the standpoint of vividness and characterization, absolutely.
CW: What did you dislike about the book?
BF: A part of me feels like the author tried to carve too many facets into the storyline. That left me feeling a little disconnected most of the way through the book. There were also scenes I still don't feel were entirely necessary and an occasionally a jump in time or place that skipped right over some chunk of resolution I was specifically expecting to read as a follow-up scene. Yet, the big picture worked. On the picky-picky side, there were a few minor editing errors and two little phrases that I thought sounded modern.
CW: What did you like best about The Gods of Heavenly Punishment?
BF: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a deeply emotional read and a learning experience. To both engage and inform the reader are two very important aspects to a successful novel, in my humble opinion. Also, the characterization is excellent and the fact that when I set the book down I had that "engine is off but the wheels are still rolling" sensation speaks highly of the book.
CW: What did you think of the ending?
BF: I loved it. I thought the separate threads of the story were pulled together in a satisfying way and I was relieved that the all-important "ray of hope" was present. Because everything revolves around war, there are tragedies on both sides. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is deeply affecting -- very, very sad in many ways. The book needed an uplifting note to provide balance and I was relieved when it appeared.
CW: Your labels include a sex and violence warning. Any particular reason you felt obligated to add that?
BF: I don't like graphic sex or violence but sometimes I don't feel like they're disquieting or graphic enough to merit a warning. In this case, there were some words I find particularly offensive in the sex scenes and the violence is intense and disturbing. To be honest, I think the violent parts need to be upsetting in order to get across the point that war is equally painful to both the victor and the vanquished.
CW: What did you learn from the reading of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment?
BF: I knew about the Doolittle raid on Tokyo because I've read 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and, of course, knew about the atomic bombs that were dropped in Japan but I was not aware of the fact that 100,000 people were killed in the final raid on Tokyo. Nor did I know that the incendiary bombs that were dropped on Tokyo in 1945 contained an early version of napalm, a horrifying but very important fact. I doubt I'll ever forget the on-the-ground scenes that take place during and immediately after the 1945 firebombing.
BF: Yes, but be aware that The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is not for the faint of heart. There are some very disturbing scenes. It is not a light and fluffy book. But, it's also not a story that lacks hope.
CW: Anything else you can think of that's worth mentioning?
BF: The settings are exceptionally well-drawn. I dived in knowing the novel was a WWII book and nothing else since I avoid reading cover blurbs, reviews and author bios immediately before I open a book (in case of spoilers). So I was unaware that the author had lived in Japan. But I thought it was clear early on that Jennifer Epstein had not just studied Japan but experienced it.
On another note, I though the book could have used a tiny glossary because there is such a large quantity of Japanese words (although plenty of them are clear from context or explained in dialogue).
Third and final note: There are some wonderful black-and-white period photographs interspersed throughout the book.
CW: I have to go now because--
BF: Glug, glug. Down the hatch. Goodbye, Cup of Water, and thanks for interviewing me. Thanks, also, to TLC Tours and W. W. Norton for the opportunity to read The Gods of Heavenly Punishment.
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