Centering on a single episode, a powerful declaration of conscience,a Washington Post reporter tells an intensely unsettling story about living with our nuclear arsenal.
In July 2012, cutting through fences topped with razor wire and avoiding guards, guns, sensors, armored cars, and alarms, an 80-year-old nun, a Vietnam veteran, and a housepainter, all deeply religious, all affiliated with the pacifist Plowshares movement, broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the “Fort Knox of Uranium.” Carrying hammers, cans of spray paint, a loaf of bread, seeds, bottles of blood, banners, and a written “message” explaining their action, the protestors spent hours inside the facility before their arrests. Was this security breach “a miracle,” as supporters claimed, or a “catastrophe,” as the government labeled it? Or was it both? Zak demonstrates that this strange and awful duality has been at the heart of the nuclear weapons debate from the beginning. Was the atom bomb’s first detonation, as President Harry Truman said, “the greatest thing in history,” or was it, as one of the scientists who first imagined it remarked, one of history’s “greatest blunders?” Using this trespass against Y-12, the activists’ biographies, arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonments, Zak skillfully intersperses a wider story, with nuances about the minds behind the bomb, so many of them populating the physics department at Columbia University, which taught the young Megan Rice, who’d grow up to become the protesting nun. New York was also ground zero for Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, spiritual ancestor to the Berrigan brothers and today’s Plowshares anti-nuclear activists. While the author’s sympathies clearly lie with his protagonists, the narrative plays fair. Zak soberly recounts the Manhattan Project’s origins, charts the growth and development of the Oak Ridge facility, forthrightly assesses the difficulties surrounding arms reduction and security, and demonstrates the sheer persistence of problems relating to all things nuclear. More than anything, though, it’s the moral convictions demonstrated by Zak’s three holy fools that will remain with readers.
A scrupulously reported, gracefully told, exquisitely paced debut.
An intimately detailed look at the agony of a Japanese-American family struggling to maintain American loyalty amid discrimination and war.
Historian and teacher Sakamoto weaves a richly textured narrative history of the Fukuhara family, who moved from Hiroshima to Auburn, Washington, in 1926. However, financial issues after the death of the father forced them to move back in 1933. Somewhat typically at the time, the family was made up of the first-generation immigrants—businessman Katsuji and homemaker Kinu—and their five American-born children. The two eldest, Mary and Victor, were sent back to Hiroshima to help their aunt in her lucrative candy-making business, then subsequently returned to the U.S. as teenagers, culturally confused kibei whose English had been mostly forgotten. Harry, the spirited middle son and the one most thoroughly Americanized, was not happy about the move back to Japan, though his five-year stay allowed him the language immersion that would be invaluable during World War II, when, interned with his sister Mary at the Gila River Relocation Center, Arizona, in the fall of 1942, he was plucked by the Army for intelligence translation in the Pacific theater. The Japanese-speaking author offers fascinating research into the lives of these conflicted immigrants. At the time, Japanese-American youth who served in the Japanese army automatically relinquished their American citizenship, which Harry, by moving back to the U.S. at age 18, refused to do, unlike his other brothers. The specter of the atomic bomb hovers ominously over the narrative, and while most of the Hiroshima family managed to survive, the physical and psychological scarring were gruesome and lasting. American soldier Harry’s resolution to return to Japan in October 1945 to find his family forms a poignant closure to this remarkable tale.
A beautifully rendered work wrought with enormous care and sense of compassionate dignity.
An early assessment of America’s first black presidency.
In this rich and nuanced book, Dyson (Sociology/Georgetown Univ.; Can You Hear Me Now?: The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson, 2009, etc.) writes with passion and understanding about Barack Obama’s “sad and disappointing” performance regarding race and black concerns in his two terms in office. While race has defined his tenure, Obama has been “reluctant to take charge” and speak out candidly about the nation’s racial woes, determined to remain “not a black leader but a leader who is black.” Ironically, as the first black president, Obama was expected by many to offer racial insight to the country, but instead, constrained by a “toxic environment” (criticism by birthers, etc.), he has sought to “keep racial peace, often at the expense of black interests.” Too often he “ignores race, denies white responsibility, or criticizes black culture.” Dyson cogently examines Obama’s speeches and statements on race, from his first presidential campaign through recent events—e.g., the Ferguson riots and the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston—noting that the president is careful not to raise the ire of whites and often chastises blacks for their moral failings. At his best, he spoke with “special urgency for black Americans” during the Ferguson crisis and was “at his blackest,” breaking free of constraints, in his “Amazing Grace” Charleston eulogy. Criticized in the past by the radical Cornel West for being an Obama cheerleader, Dyson writes here as a realistic, sometimes-angry supporter of the president. He notes that adoration of Obama has prevented many blacks from holding him accountable. His discussions of key issues and controversies—from Obama’s biracial identity to his relationships with older civil rights leaders—are insightful and absorbing.
Dyson succeeds admirably in creating a base line for future interpretations of this historic presidency. His well-written book thoroughly illuminates the challenges facing a black man elected to govern a society that is far from post-racial.
Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.
The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.
Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.
Journalistic portraits of pioneering farmers, harvesters, and conservationists unafraid to fight for the protection of the American landscapes they cultivate.
Covering territory from the rambling Northwest to the Louisiana bayou, journalist Horn (co-author: Earth: The Sequel: The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming, 2008, etc.) delivers a cautionary yet compelling chronicle spotlighting threatened productive farmlands and introduces “the families who run the tractors and barges and fishing boats who are stepping up to save them.” Among those she profiles is a Montana frontiersman who prides himself on veteran stockmanship; he is praised for his effective collaborative strategies with other grassland ranchers and wildlife managers to peaceably “keep both livestock and wild carnivores alive.” In other sections, a Kansas prairie farmer uses environmentally trailblazing strategies to refertilize depleted soil after years of devastating drought conditions, and a marine transportation company CEO maintains a commitment to improved efficiency of his operations to preserve and maintain the Mississippi River’s infrastructure. Horn then directs her focus to the sea, which is just as endangered as the land and in need of dedicated champions like the Vietnamese shrimper who fights for the preservation of Louisiana’s estuaries and aquacultures and a Gulf of Mexico fisherman dedicated to balancing both commercial and sport fishing in the gulf to appease recreational anglers while keeping small, family-run businesses afloat. All of these valiant men and women, writes the author, are fiercely protective of the land and sea and its bounty not only because these delicately balanced ecosystems directly support their livelihoods, but because there is also an enduring love of the land itself and an allegiance to preserve it. A founder of the Clean Energy Program at the Environmental Defense Fund, Horn translates her passion for ecological balance and environmental sustainability into this passionate, unwavering tapestry of “conservation heroes” dedicated to coexisting with their American agricultural terrains.
An optimistic journal of promise for the future and a supremely motivational text for readers interested in Earth’s compromised biodiversity.
A dual biography of the 30-year relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and Lorena Hickok (1893-1968).
In 1932, Hickok was an Associated Press journalist writing about politics and other serious matters, unusual for a woman at the time. Soon after she met soon-to-be White House occupant Eleanor, the two formed an intimate relationship that lasted at various levels of intensity until Roosevelt's death. Biographer Quinn (Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, 2008, etc.) delves into the privileged but unhappy upbringing of Roosevelt—she was the niece of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and distant cousin of her eventual husband, Franklin Roosevelt—on the East Coast and in Europe as well as the poverty-stricken, abusive childhood of Hickok in rural South Dakota. Roosevelt was normally demure, physically tall, and somewhat slender, while Hickok was loud, brash, and overweight. “[Hickok] reveled in food and drink, played a good game of poker, smoked a lot…and was capable of swearing a blue streak,” writes the author. “Unlike Eleanor, who kept strong emotions under control, Hick let it all out.” Indeed, the intellectual, emotional, and physical chemistry seemed out of sync on the surface. Quinn deftly explores how the unlikely relationship evolved, relying on correspondence between the women, oral histories in archives, various government documents, and numerous other sources that allow readers to learn a great deal about normally private affairs. The author’s exploration of Hickok’s journalism and government jobs offers detailed, fascinating human portraits of citizens caught in the grip of an extended financial depression. The benevolent and often daring initiatives of Roosevelt have been copiously documented for decades; Quinn sorts through the massive volume of material, making wise choices about how best to illuminate Roosevelt's character.
A relentlessly captivating study of two remarkable individuals who helped extend the roles of American women in the public policy realm.
A veteran journalist and travel writer collects pieces dating back to the late 1980s.
Solomon (Clinical Psychology/Columbia Univ.; Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, 2012, etc.), who has won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, has not assembled these pieces haphazardly. As he notes in a long (44 pages), lovely introduction—and reiterates in the acknowledgements sections—many of the essays required substantial revisions. He also appends to each a short prologue and epilogue, setting the stage, updating us on events and people, and confessing the inaccuracy of some predictions. Arranged in rough chronology, the pieces reflect Solomon’s impressive career. In the early ones, the author deals principally with art and artists (from Russia to China to South Africa), while the later ones focus on issues ranging from economic inequality (Brazil) to sexual identity (Ghana) to autobiography (Romania—his family emigrated in 1900). Throughout, Solomon evinces an intrepid traveler’s confidence, though he sometimes visits places that were life-threatening, from ghettos around the world to Australia, where he nearly lost his life scuba diving. Some essays are very personal, others mostly expository. He tells us early on, for example, that he is gay, but we don’t learn much about his husband (and, later, two children) until late in the text. In between, Solomon globe-trots, interviewing people from all walks of society, from the president of Ghana to impoverished people living in the most distressed circumstances from South Africa to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The author tried but failed to reach Antarctica, but he did experience an African safari and—in an excerpt from The Noonday Demon, his 2001 book about depression—visited the Solomon Islands to see how some locals dealt with the demon that has periodically tormented him.
Agile, informative, even revelatory pieces that, together, show us both the great variety of humanity and the interior of a gifted writer’s heart.
The tale of a devoted collector of manuscripts who outwitted militant jihadis.
Throughout Timbuktu’s tumultuous history, writes Hammer (Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II, 2006, etc.), the city “seemed to be in a constant state of flux, periods of openness and liberalism followed by waves of intolerance and repression” involving the killing of scholars in the 1300s, the banishment and imprisonment of Jews in the 1490s, and the implementation of Sharia law in the 1800s. In this vivid, fast-paced narrative, the author recounts another period of devastating repression when extremists took over the city in 2012, threatening both inhabitants and Mali’s cultural heritage. As a former bureau chief for Newsweek and current contributing editor to Smithsonian and Outside, Hammer draws on many—often dangerous—visits to the city and interviews with major players to chronicle the efforts of Abdel Kader Haidara to save priceless literary and historical manuscripts. Since the 1980s, working for Mali’s Ahmed Baba Institute, Haidara traveled by camel, canoe, and on foot, crossing perilous terrain, to acquire ancient manuscripts that had been hidden for safekeeping, sometimes in caves or holes in the ground. Some had decayed to dust or been eaten by termites, but in Mali’s dry climate, many thousands had been preserved. After nearly a decade at the institute, he had collected 16,500 manuscripts. Eventually, he amassed hundreds of thousands. As Hammer portrays him, Haidara was tireless, ingenious, and single-minded. Besides recounting Haidara’s efforts as collector, fundraiser, library builder, and publicist, Hammer conveys in palpable detail the rise and radicalization of al-Qaida militants. By 2006, Timbuktu had evolved into a modern city, with five hotels catering to growing tourism and three Internet cafes. Six years later, hundreds of extremists took over, arresting, executing, holding foreign hostages for exorbitant ransoms, and determined to purge the city of music, art, and literature.
A chilling portrait of a country under siege and one man’s defiance.
An unexpectedly hopeful, but never mawkish, tale of love and loss.
The literature on death is vast, that on the grieving process somewhat smaller, that concerning teratology—in the grimly archaic language of medicine, the birth of “monsters”—smaller still. With grace and compassion, Ptacin describes the roller-coaster plunge from cautious elation to profound sorrow as romance (“We fell in love. Exposed kneecaps and collarbones, and entire evenings spent devouring one another; we were like wild forces”) yielded to pregnancy. Then pregnancy became ever fraught as the first “abnormal” tests began to come in: “I thought maybe it was my fault,” the author writes of the first iffy report, “maybe I forgot to take my folic acid one morning, maybe I was too stressed and cantankerous and it was poisonous to the baby.” After reeling off a list of deformities—spina bifida, clubbed feet, irregular heartbeat, lack of brain development—the doctor asked whether Ptacin still wanted to know the sex of her baby. The question then became what to do, how to reconcile modern medicine and the health of the mother with Catholic doctrine and the beliefs that she, her beloved, and her family held—not to mention the opinions of those with no stake in the matter. “If I choose to terminate,” she writes, “I’ll be what the pro-lifers hate.” Her choice is heartbreaking and shattering, and it makes for difficult reading; in the end, Ptacin suggests, there is nothing to say, only acknowledgment that something terrible has happened and the need to summon the will to go on. In all this, the author’s Polish-immigrant mother emerges as a wise counselor and moral anchor: “Poor baby. Poor her soul. It is very sad,” she said, and that is just right. But Ptacin herself, who is neither heroic nor helpless, also rises in our estimation, even as she sinks in her grief.
Beautifully written, at just the right emotional pitch. Of interest to all readers but likely to find a home among bereaved mothers.
A history of the American Revolution, focused on George Washington (1732-1799) and Benedict Arnold (1741-1801), in which the author acknowledges Arnold’s good points but does not fully rehabilitate him.
National Book Award winner Philbrick (Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, 2013, etc.) devotes almost equal time to Washington, in his eyes an incompetent general and a slow—although eventually successful—learner but a superb judge of talent; he knew Arnold possessed plenty. As a militia captain at the 1775 siege of Boston, Arnold impressed Washington with his energy in capturing the fortress of Ticonderoga. His expedition to Quebec ended in disaster but burnished his reputation. In 1777, fearless leadership played a major role in defeating Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga. Arnold’s self-regard ensured that success produced more enemies than admirers. Appointed military governor of Philadelphia in 1778, he was a controversial figure and began to profit from a variety of business deals related to his post. In 1779, he offered his services to the British and began sending useful intelligence. Only bad luck derailed his 1780 plot to surrender West Point to the British. In Philbrick’s opinion, Arnold was a psychopath. Oblivious to the consequences of his actions, he was incredibly brave under fire. Peculation was common even among loyal Revolutionary officers, but Arnold’s stood out. He exhausted his fortune to support his campaigns, lived beyond his means, and used his official position, especially in Philadelphia, to enrich himself. Payment dominated his negotiations with the British. After brilliantly chronicling two obscure voyages (In the Heart of the Sea, Sea of Glory), Philbrick turned to familiar subjects (Mayflower, Bunker Hill) with admirable, if slightly less, brilliance but better sales. Like the latter, Valiant Ambition is solid popular history.
A lively account of our Revolution’s most reviled figure.