August 26, 2011

Book review: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

There is so much that is wonderful — and scary — in Richard Rhodes’ 1986 history of the creation of nuclear weapons, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” For me, the single most important sentence is on page 645: “No one should presume to judge these men as they struggled with a future that even a mind as fundamental as Niels Bohr’s could only barely imagine.” That sentence is important because, in the hands of a lesser writer and lesser historian, this book would have turned into a blame-fest. Not that Rhodes doesn’t allot responsibility. Indeed, immediately after that sentence, Rhodes notes that Robert Oppenheimer, in a committee meeting of U.S. policy-makers on the question of international control of nuclear weapons, failed to adequately explain Bohr’s position. Rhodes makes clear that, of all the people involved in one way or the other with the birth of the atomic bomb, Bohr was best able to see over the horizon and realize that, if the U.S. dropped the bomb during World War II and tried to keep a monopoly of the weapon, the result would be an arms race. That arms race, he foresaw, between the United States and the U.S.S.R. would […]
August 14, 2011

Book Review: A People’s History of the United States — from 1492 to the Present by Howard Zinn

There is much in this book that’s infuriating. I’m not referring to the myriad ways in which the people of the United States (and earlier in the American colonies) have failed to live up to the nation’s founding ideals. It is sad and shameful how majorities have oppressed minorities throughout our history. And how the rich have lorded over the poor. And how racial prejudice, xenophobia, sexism and greed have pushed us apart from each other, isolating groups, blocking the ability for united action. We could be a much better people. We certainly say we want to be in our founding documents and more than two centuries of official pronouncements. So Zinn has an important, necessary story to tell in “A People’s History.” This was especially true in 1980 when his book was first published. Then, it was a tonic to the hyper-propaganda that passed for history in our textbooks and official histories. Yes, history is more than simply a story of the winners, more than simply the account of Important People, more than the narrative of the wealthy and those who seek to be wealthy. That was Zinn’s message, and it was an essential one. Three decades later, this […]
August 14, 2011

Book Review: A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel

If Emily Dickinson had had a sense of humor, she might have written “A Girl Named Zippy.” And if she’d been born in 1965 in Indiana. That’s when and where Haven Kimmel arrived on the planet and spent her childhood in the small (population: 300) town of Mooreland — the subject of her fun and funny and subtly poetic memoir. Her father, she explains, nicknamed her Zippy after a roller-skating chimp he saw on TV because she zipped around the family home like the monkey. Of course, the book might just as easily been called “A Girl Named Haven.” What sort of name is Haven? Kimmel doesn’t explain, and it’s one of many questions, large and small, that she declines to address. Why, for instance, did her father wear a .38 in a shoulder holster? (Not addressed.) Why did her mother sit seemingly rooted in a corner of the couch, day in and day out, reading books, mainly science fiction? (Not addressed.) There is a light tone throughout this memoir. It is an evocative entertainment, and Kimmel clearly loves her parents, her sister and her brother and enjoyed growing up in their presence. But there are darker elements of her […]
August 8, 2011

Book review: “General Grant by Matthew Arnold, with a Rejoinder by Mark Twain,” edited by John Y. Simon

In 1867, the British poet Matthew Arnold published his 37-line lyric poem “Dover Beach,” which concludes with this stanza: Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night. It’s a strikingly downbeat insight into life. Yes, life can seem various, beautiful and new. But, behind that curtain, there is no joy, love, light, certainty, peace or ease from pain. Instead, we stand “as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.” War as chaos — a metaphor for life. Twenty years later, in a two-part article published on Murray’s Magazine in England, Arnold used some 13,000 words to review — and promote — the recently published “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.” Grant, the victor of the Civil War and a former American president, was bankrupt and suffering from terminal cancer when, racing death, […]
July 26, 2011

Book review: “In Rough Country” by Joyce Carol Oates

I don’t usually read books like this, collections of smaller pieces. In this case, six essays and 23 literary reviews. I call them “literary reviews” rather than “book reviews” because, in them, Oates examines at least a good chunk — and often the entire breadth — of a writer’s work. Her essays deal with the sudden death of her husband after 48 years of marriage; her growing up in and near Lockport, N.Y.; and her life as a prominent author. I prefer the essays. The reviews flummoxed me. They display Oates’s deep knowledge of American literature. (In one of her essays, she estimates that she has read, in part or entirely, “thousands — tens of thousands? — ” of books in her life.) She comments with insight and sensitivity on writers ranging from Cormac McCarthy to Sharon Olds, from Jim Crace to Annie Proulx, from Shirley Jackson to Flannery O’Connor. My difficulty is that I’ve read maybe one or two works by most of these authors, and none by some. So, often here, I’m getting Oates’s analysis of work of which I know nothing, or next to nothing. It’s like reading a Roger Ebert review of a movie I’ll never […]
July 23, 2011

Book review: “I Shall Wear Midnight” by Terry Pratchett

Starting to read a new Terry Pratchett novel, for me, has been a different experience since December, 2007. That’s when Pratchett announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Each time, I wonder: Is this the book that will show the impact of the disease? Will this be the one that shows the diminution of his skill? And: What kind of a ghoul am I to be thinking this? How can I worry about the quality of the books when this man — whom I’ve met and interviewed — is watching his brain slip away? A man of great writing skill and imagination recognizing that he is losing so much of what has made him him? It is a high measure of Pratchett’s skill that, once I’ve gotten into one of his post-announcement books, those questions quickly fade away. Pretty much. “I Shall Wear Midnight,” completed in May, 2010, is one of Pratchett’s darker novels. Which isn’t to say that it’s without its humorous asides, its droll footnotes and its odd and odder-than-odd characters. After all, the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue people also known as the Wee Free Men, are major figures here (if that’s not a contradiction […]