Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes)

I came to The Making of the Atomic bomb sideways, after reading a brief review of Rhodes’s new Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race that mentioned this earlier book, which had won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1988. I wasn’t entirely prepared for the size of it—886 pages, not including three photo-insert sections (see picture)—but given the scope of what Rhodes has done here, in retrospect it could hardly have been any shorter.

The book is much, much more than a recounting of the Manhattan Project in the United States—which, in fact, isn’t even first mentioned (at least by that name) until page 449. Its first several hundred pages are devoted to the birth of the science of the atom, and how physicists at the beginning of the twentieth century—Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, and many others—worked to uncover its structure and components. Like other great scientific histories, it reads almost like a detective story, with all the same suspense, false turns, and red herrings along the way. As the United States enters the war and the urgency behind the bomb project increases, Rhodes also provides an almost mini-history of the war itself. It’s a tremendous, completely absorbing read, with an almost novelistic approach to detail and character, and whatever quibbles I had as I read it pale in comparison with its unqualified success as a whole.

An epigraph quoting Robert Oppenheimer at the beginning of Part 1 encapsulates one of the central themes of the book:

It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.

Rhodes might equally say that the atomic bomb was not made because it was useful; it was made because it was possible to make it. Once a few basic facts had been established—that heavy atoms could be split, that doing so released energy orders of magnitude greater than any conventional chemical reaction, and that the 235 isotope of uranium could potentially provide the material for a chain reaction of fissioning atoms—making the bomb was practically inevitable:

Patriotism contributed to many decisions, but a deeper motive among the physicists, by the measure of their statements, was fear—fear of German triumph, fear of a thousand-year Reich made invulnerable with atomic bombs. And deeper even than fear was fatalism. The bomb was latent in nature as a genome is latent in flesh. Any nation might learn to command its expression. The race was therefore not merely against Germany. As Roosevelt apparently sensed, the race was against time.

Many of the scientists involved were naturally ambivalent about what they were doing, but the knowledge that someone, someday, would make such a bomb meant that they had little choice but to barrel ahead, particularly since at the time it was not at all clear how long the war might drag on, and the bomb seemed a legitimate way that they might help shorten it. And, of course, they were all drawn to the scientific problems as a challenge to be overcome; the technical hurdles to overcome were formidable and, therefore, must have been tremendously satisfying to overcome even in service of a weapon of terrible (and terribly inhumane) power.

That it would be used at least once was, in its own way, as inevitable as the building of the bomb in the first place—some even arguing that it must be used against Japan simply to justify the enormous expenditures of resources and personnel the United States had devoted to building it. (As French chemist Bernard Goldschmidt put it in his memoir, the project amounted to “the astonishing American creation in three years, at a cost of two billion dollars, of a formidable array of factories and laboratories—as large as the entire automobile industry of the United States at that time.”) Others argued that it should be used simply to demonstrate its power. Everyone could see that such a weapon was going to cause a major shift in world politics, with the more idealistic of the scientists hoping that it would ultimately lead to the end of war—and a visceral example of the terrible consequences of its use, some hoped, might shock the world onto a more peaceful course. As Rhodes describes it, it may ultimately have been dropped because of an error—a slip of the tongue by Franklin Roosevelt in a speech in which he accidentally used the phrase “unconditional surrender” in describing Allied demands for the end of the war. That subsequently became official Allied policy in part because Winston Churchill didn’t want the Allies to appear disorganized or confused in their goals. And because Japan was prepared to fight to the death before offering unconditional surrender, ultimately using the bomb seemed like the only way to stave off a wholesale invasion of the Japan at the cost of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of lives.

The descriptions of the aftermath at Hiroshima were tremendously difficult to read. Rhodes retreats to the background in favor of the voices of those who were there, quoting, page after page, short passages from memoirs and oral histories and later studies of the bomb’s brutal devastation: Hiroshima not as a land of the dead and the living, but as a land of the dead and the walking dead. It’s deeply affecting, and throws everything that has come before it—all the basic science, all the technical problems, all the fears about Germany and Japan that drove the project from start to finish—into sharp perspective: ultimately, this was the result of all that work over the decades, a hellish, blasted place of unimaginable suffering.

The paradox, of course, is that despite the horrific outcome, it’s difficult to second-guess the reasoning that drove the project and the bomb’s eventual use. If the United States hadn’t made it, the bomb may have ended up in Stalin’s hands, without an equally matched opponent as counterweight for the Cold War. The bomb was coming; the tragedy was that the only question was who would have it, and how they would or would not use it. At one point, midway through the war, General Leslie Groves, the thoroughly competent military head of the bomb project, “proposed to the Military Policy Committee that the United States attempt to acquire total control of all the world’s known supplies of uranium ore”:

That uranium is common in the crust of the earth to the extend of millions of tons Groves may not have known. In 1943, when the element in useful concentrations was thought to be rare, the general, acting on behalf of the nation to which he gave unquestioning devotion, exercised himself to hoard for his country’s exclusive use every last pound. He might as well have tried to hoard the sea.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Service Included (Phoebe Damrosch)

I find the title Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter to be a little misleading. The subtitle sounds like a celebrity/socialite expose instead of a thoughtful book on the finer points of being a server at Per Se, Thomas Keller's New York restaurant. But this was apparently the publisher's meaning, even though it doesn't appropriately represent the book, given this blurb (from William Morrow): "Kitchen Confidential meets Sex and the City in this delicious, behind-the-scenes memoir from the first female captain at one of New York City's most prestigious restaurants." And if by that they mean it's about the inner workings of a restaurant and involves Phoebe Damrosch's (who lives in New York) personal life, then yes, I guess you could say that. But Tony Bourdain and Carrie Bradshaw were not even close to the first two people that came to mind while reading, I can tell you that much.

As I myself have waited tables (in such fine establishments as your local neighborhood Applebee's and everyone's favorite "Australian" steakhouse Outback Steakhouse), I was pleased to see a food-centered book written from the front-of-the-house perspective. (Michael Ruhlman does an excellent job exploring the back-of-the house perspective Thomas Keller's restaurants.)

Keller's attention to detail extends to the dining room of his restaurants and the intensity of the training his employees receive. As some may know from their experience (or, in my case, from watching Top Chef), the head chef in a restaurant is referred to as "chef." Things roll a little different in Keller's restaurant:

I had already noticed that in Chef Keller's kitchens, everyone was called "chef," not only The Chef. In fact, everyone who worked in the restaurant, from the reservationist to the coffee server, was called "Chef." It was an equalizer, a sign of respect for people's metiers, and a great way to get out of learning hundreds of coworkers' names. Not that Thomas didn't know our names, because, for the most part, he did. It was surprisingly hard to resist, and I was soon calling my mother "chef," as well as cabdrivers and guests. I even fell into the habit of calling friends "chefie," which even I found irritating. Once, when I called a man I was dating "chef," he became irate.

"Who's Jeff?" he demanded. When I tried to explain that I had actually called him "chef," he looked dubious.

"I bet you know who this Jeff is, you little Judas?"" he said to the dog sitting at the end of the bed---whom I regularly called "chef" as well.

Damrosch began working at Per Se as a backserver but quickly found herself promoted to captain:

It would be a relief to talk about something other than the bread, butter, and water selections. As a backserver, from the moment the first table entered my section to the time I had changed all the tablecloths at the end of the night, I moved nonstop. Pouring, marking, clearing, surviving the wrath of the captain who had barely survived the wrath of a chef or maitre d' and needed someone to blame. It was an exhausting job, but at least the time went by quickly. Being a captain, on the other hand, would carry more responsibility, but it would also be a hell of a lot more fun. No longer would I feel like a marking machine. I could make real connections with the guests, get to know the chefs better, and become even more familiar with the food.

The Per Se story is entertaining, especially regarding the many visits Frank Bruni made prior to his review of the restaurant in The New York Times. But what really made me keep reading was Damrosch's romance with a sommelier at the restaurant. That's where the real story lies in the book, in my opinion, making it accessible to people who aren't obsessed with food as well.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Elephant Vanishes (Haruki Murakami)

I actually thought I had read this collection before until I idly picked it up the other day and realized that, no, I’d just read a number of the stories in other places—usually the New Yorker, either when they were originally published or in the Complete New Yorker collection. The unexpected discovery of an unread Murakami book right there on my very own bookshelf naturally required immediate attention.

Unsurprisingly, The Elephant Vanishes is a great collection, full of Murakami’s usual array of directionless men, mysterious women, surreal events intruding into otherwise normal lives, and ordinary events taking on sudden and unexpected meaning. “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” which later appeared in revised form as the opening of the sprawling, phenomenal Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is a great little story on its own. (Oddly, the novel’s sinister Noboru Wataya character is here named Noboru Watanabe, a name that Murakami also uses in two other stories, with no obvious connection between them and to no obvious end.) Others feature both weirdly inexplicable occurrences (the title story, in which an elephant and its keeper vanish mysteriously one evening, and “The TV People,” in which smallish men appear in the narrator’s apartment, rearrange his living room, and set up a television); more traditional realist stories (“Lederhosen,” in which a pair of German shorts impels a woman to suddenly divorce her husband); and events that fall somewhere in between (“The Second Bakery Attack,” in which a newly married couple decide to dispel a curse on the husband by robbing a McDonald’s of bread in the middle of the night; “Sleep,” in which a housewife suddenly loses her need to sleep).

Unfortunately, after finishing it, I examined our bookshelves closely and found no other unread Murakami works hiding there. So I guess I’ll have to wait for more until I get a chance to pick up After Dark.

My Life in France (Julia Child)

I have a hard time packing things I'll actually need when traveling. For one, I can't imagine how the climate at my destination can be any different from the climate at home. (This caused a lot of problems when traveling from California to anywhere cold.) I also will either overpack reading material or not bring nearly enough. So a few weeks ago when I went to Salt Lake City for work, what I brought to read only made it through the flight there. So I spent some time once there wandering around downtown Salt Lake City in search of a bookstore. Even though I did not run into either Dooce or Ken Jennings (really, the only two celebrities I know of in Salt Lake City), I was lucky enough to stumble upon Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore, a large independent bookstore that sold both used and new books. I could have spent the afternoon there, which was good, considering that what I had seen of the rest of downtown Salt Lake City didn't have much to offer. Of all the great books they had available, I finally decided on a copy of My Life in France by Julia Child.

I loved this book. It is written by Alex Prud'homme, Julia's great nephew, who sat with Julia for long discussions of her life and looked through old photographs and letters written both by Julia and her husband, Paul. The book is in Julia's voice and he did an excellent job getting the tone just right. It reads much the way I imagine she spoke.

What impressed me most about Julia Child is how hard she worked in her life, although work might be the wrong term to use, as she seemed to enjoy almost every minute. She was an awful cook when she started, but was determined to get it right. While working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she constantly testing recipes, all variations of coq au vin, for example, and did significant research, so much so that the book took her and her coauthors years to complete.

She and her husband Paul had a wonderful relationship that really shines in the book. (The photograph on the cover of the book is one of many of their Valentine's day cards, which they sent in lieu of Christmas cards, partly because they could never seem to get the Christmas cards out in the mail on time.)

This is one of those books I will read again. Probably often. The tone is comforting, the story engaging and warmhearted, and she never takes herself too seriously. The book is full of fabulous passages, and here is one of my favorites:

I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one's hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as "Oh, I don't know how to cook. . .," or "Poor little me. . .," or "This may taste awful. . .," it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you're right, this really is an awful meal!" Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed---eh bien, tant pis!

How SASSY Changed My Life (Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer)

"So how did Sassy change their lives?" Jim asked, looking at the book on the table.

"The same way it changed all girls lives my age," I said. "Our lives sucked before we got the magazine. Then we got it. And everything was awesome."

A bit of an overstatement, yes, but how many girls out there read Sassy and then felt like it was okay to be different from the popular girls at school? And while I can't remember every issue I ever received, I remember the first one. I believe I read the whole thing with my mouth wide open. As a young girl, I was a supporter of Tiger Beat (not a subscriber, but I surely convinced my mom to get me the issue with a fold-out poster of Kirk Cameron), and when I was in sixth grade I started reading Seventeen, which made me feel like I had a long way to go before I would be cool (which, in all fairness, was probably true). But Sassy didn't look or feel like Seventeen. It introduced me to independent actors and musicians, made fun of the 90210 celebrities who could do no wrong at the time, and told me how to dye my hair with kool-aid.

And then, many years after my very first issue, Sassy disappeared for a while in a pre-Internet age where you couldn't easily find out why. A few months later, Sassy came in the mail. But I was immediately put in the defensive: Who is this super smiley bland girl on the cover? I flipped through the magazine. It was like bizarro-Sassy, Sassy without the Sassiness or any of the writers that had made the magazine what it was. I was furious. And I, apparently like almost every other Sassy reader out there, wrote them a letter expressing my discontent. For my efforts, I got an extension on my subscription, the worst possible outcome.

Since that time, "what happened to Sassy" has been a mystery to me. How SASSY Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greated Teen Magazine of All Time documents the story of the magazine from its inception to the dark unSassy Sassy days. There are stories of the conservative outrage that sparked advertisers to pull out in the early days because they felt the magazine was too explicit about sex, the writers who were in their early teens who wrote as if they were talking to their younger sisters, the story of how Sassy paved the way for such great magazines as Bitch and Bust. Jesella and Meltzer do a good job presenting the whole story, which for me helped make what had become almost a myth (the undeserved downfall of the most amazing teen magazine ever) into a story that involves real people not always making the best decisions.

I will say that the design of the book is a bit odd. It's a two-column magazine style, but the font is rather large for the look, and there are no photographs. (Not that the design of the book would have affected my decision to read the book, but the part of me that spends every weekday working in publishing can't let it go.)

This is a quick read and good one, filled with lots of inside stories about the staff (including interesting stories involving Spike Jones, Kurt Cobain, and Courtney Love). Highly recommended for every girl who read Sassy.