Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Book Tour Stops Here: "The Gods of Heavenly Punishment" by Jennifer Cody Epstein and Miso Soup with Tofu, Oyster Mushroom & Baby Kale

There are books I read and that I like but that don't stay with me once I have finished them. Then, there are books that I read that flatly refuse to leave me and stay in my mind for days, even weeks afterward. "The Gods of Heavenly Punishment" a novel by Jennifer Cody Epstein is firmly in that second category. If given one word to describe it, I would choose haunting. It is a beautiful book--moving, tragic, and with characters and prose that linger long after the last page is turned.

Set in the before, during, and the after of Word War II, the book centers around the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945, a horrific event that doesn't really get that much WW2 attention or mention especially when compared to the events of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is particularly amazing because of the enormity of the damage--close to 16 miles around the city burned to ash and between 80,000 and 130,000 Japanese citizens killed. The story spans almost three decades--beginning in 1935 and wrapping up in 1962 and it is told from the perspectives of people on both sides of the Pacific--citizens, ex-pats and military--some who played a key role in the carnage of war and others who were trapped by it. Its heart is Yoshi Kobayashi, a young girl seeking to survive, understand her past and find her future while her life is drastically impacted by the war and the choices of those around her.

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 13, 2014)

An excerpt from the book: 

"Now she stared out at the Pacific, the flat blue line of sea and sky, as empty of emotion as space itself. This is it, she thought. This is what started it all. This is what they'd all been fighting over: a silk-smooth stretch of ocean between California and Yokohama. It seemed strange that something so serene, so intrinsically peaceful could have incited so much bloodlust; could cause fathers to kill husbands and pilots to kill mothers and young men to let babies fall down wells. Why does it happen? she asked herself. Why do we do it? What have we learned when it is done?
--The Gods of Heavenly Punishment 
For me this book wasn't an easy read. Although not at all maudlin or excessively graphic, it is incredibly painful to read about the suffering of so many who were lost or lost their homes, family and friends in such a brutal war. I read much of it with a lump in my throat and as page-turning as it was, I had to put it down a few times to go find my 'happy place.' Did you ever see the episode of Friends where Joey and Rachel read each others favorite books? Rachel reads The Shining and is freaked out, putting the book in the freezer to get away from it because she can't take how scary it is. Joey reads Little Women and finding out just how sick and near death Beth is, gets upset and wants to put his book in the freezer too. I didn't put "The Gods of Heavenly Punishment" in the freezer but I might have been close a few times. ;-) Although there are many jumps between time and character perspective, the author weaves it together well and gets her characters deeply ingrained in the reader's heart. 

"The Gods of Heavenly Punishment" is a rich and absorbing novel that captures an important piece of history and paints it into an amazing and compelling story that makes close to 400 hundred pages fly by (even with a few time-outs). It touched me. Historical fiction fans, those looking for a different perspective of World War II, and those who like powerful storytelling will enjoy this one. 

Author Notes: Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC,  and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. Jennifer lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two daughters and especially needy Springer Spaniel.

"The Gods of Heavenly Punishment" is not a foodie book, although food is mentioned here and there. As most of the action takes place in wartime, the dishes mentioned were most often simple and usually meager. For my customary dish inspired by the book, I looked to miso soup--warming comfort food that I became semi-addicted to when regularly traveling to Japan for business several years ago. Since the hotel we stayed in was always freezing, even in the midst of summer as they jacked up the air conditioning to full blast, I took to consuming a bowl or two of miso soup from the morning buffet as part of my breakfast. Even now, when the weather is cool, I have the sniffles, or I just need some comfort, I make a simple miso soup for breakfast--it puts me in a good place, nourishes and fills the belly. 

Miso is also the little black dress of soups--classic, basic and you can dress it up with whatever you like so it always looks a little bit different. I usually toss in pressed tofu and whatever greens are on hand, sometimes egg or seaweed, mushrooms when I think to buy them. I make up a batch of the dashi base ahead of time and pull it out to heat up with what I am adding, and stir in the miso paste at the last minute so as not to boil or cook out the nutrients. Done in a flash and the perfect way to comfort yourself when what you are reading gets to be a bit too intense. 

Miso Soup with Tofu, Oyster Mushroom & Baby Kale
by Deb, Kahakai Kitchen
(Makes 1-2 Servings)

2 cups dashi (recipe below) or light vegetable broth
a small handful each of: 
     -mushroom, thinly sliced (I used oyster mushrooms for this one)  
     -firm tofu (pressed to drain liquid), cut into small pieces 
     -greens of choice (I used baby curly kale
2 Tbsp white miso paste
a sprinkle of green onions, thinly sliced

Bring the dashi broth to a boil in a small pot. Add in mushrooms and cook for 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, place tofu and greens into individual bowl(s).

Ladle about 1/2 cup of the hot dashi broth into a cup or bowl and add the miso paste--stirring gently with a fork until blended. Pour the mixture into the dashi pot and stir gently. 

Ladle hot soup and mushroom into bowls, topping the greens and tofu. Sprinkle with green onions and serve immediately.

Before the broth and mushrooms are ladled on top

Basic Dashi Stock (Ichiban Dashi)
(Makes about 4 cups)

1 small piece of dried kombu seaweed
1/2 cup of bonito flakes
4 cups water

Soak the dried kombu seaweed piece in the cold water for about 15-20 minutes. Bring the water to the boil and add bonito. Turn off burner and let sit for 5-7 minutes. Strain mixture through a sieve, making sure to press out all the good flavor. Store covered in the fridge for 3-4 days. 

Notes/Results: Good flavor, light but satisfying. You can of course cook the greens (and tofu with the mushrooms but I like spinach and baby greens like this curly kale just barely wilted and the tofu just warmed by the hot broth. You can also use other misos--red, barley, etc., but I prefer the lightness of white miso paste. If you have the dashi made or use veggie broth, making miso soup for breakfast (or any meal) only takes about as much time as it does to make oatmeal or cook an egg. Depending on what you add to it, it is filling enough to get you to lunch. Delish.

Note: A review copy of "The Gods of Heavenly Punishment" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own. 

You can see the stops for the rest of the Book Tour and what other readers thought here



  1. I could curl up in a big bowl of miso soup! Love your take on it.

  2. "Haunting" seems to be a great word for this book. I can see why it will stay with readers longterm!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  3. Sometimes those difficult reads are the ones that stay with us for so long.
    The last book that has stayed with me was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Disturbing in its own way but not on the same vein as this "haunting" book.

    Great post, Deb.

  4. The book and the soup sound good!


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