Tag Archives: history

The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages

The Green Glass SeaDewey Kerrigan, raised by her grandmother until she has a stroke and goes into a nursing home, is sent to live with her father is New Mexico. Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943: the place where chemists, physicists, and other scientists are working on creating the atomic bomb. All of this is shrouded in secrecy, and Dewey herself knows nothing of it. Her life is concerned with smaller things: having conversations with Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman, bonding with a loving but overworked father, working on projects with scrap metal and electronics. Then her father is sent away, to Washington, and Dewey is left with family friends and their daughter Suze. Deeply awkward around each other at first, Suze and Dewey slowly form a friendship.

Klages really gets what it’s like growing up as a nerd girl: the way adults can be easier to talk to than people your own age, the way one’s projects can be so fascinating that you don’t even care (that much…) when you’re unpopular, how Popular Mechanics is the most exciting magazine in existence, how great it is when you can share obscure knowledge with a friend like a secret code. I don’t know if I really believe the ending–it has one of those Big Misunderstandings I’m thoroughly sick of–but it’s such a warm and knowing picture of friendship and growing up, with the historical information woven in unobtrusively.

I think I like the book’s approach to the atomic bomb best of all. It’s not foregrounded at all. It’s top secret, and up until almost the end of the book, you only get vague rumors of a gadget that could end the war. But when it does show up, Klages doesn’t spend a lot of time arguing for and agaist the use of the atomic bomb. Dewey certainly doesn’t get to decide that. The scientists working on the bomb can argue about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but ultimately, it’s out of their hands. Instead, Klage approaches it from three different perspectives–there’s the scientific perspective, and given Dewey’s fascination with science and engineering throughout the book, it’s easy to get caught up in this idea of– Wow! Science did this! And then there’s the political perspective, pro-ending the war as quickly as possible, with as little loss of (American) life as possible. Dewey is a child of her time, casual about using slurs against the Japanese. And finally, you just have to be floored with fear and trembling at the idea that human beings can obliterate each other on such a massive scale. The last chapter is wonderful when it comes to bringing all of these things together without hitting you over the head with them. 

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The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, by Peter Sis

The WallSis’s graphic-novel-memoir describes his youth in communist Czechoslovakia and the effects of government oppression, from his childhood in the 1950s until his emigration to the U.S. in 1984.

The artwork is impressive, dense pen-and-ink line drawings in black and white with splashes of color. It makes use of graphic-novel sequential panels and montages when appropriate, but is generally written more like a picture book or heavily illustrated nonfiction book, with full-page spreads and captions at the bottom. As beautiful as the artwork is, I most liked the excerpts from Sis’s journals, which expand on the brief captions.

There’s humor to offset the grim subject matter, and the book moves easily between the personal and the political. It works well as a personal and easy-to-read introduction to the Cold War and life under the communist regime.

Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Anti-War Movement, by Carl Oglesby

Ravens in the StormThe 1960s Anti-War movement is something that’s always been vaguely of interest to me but I’ve never seriously studied it, so I picked up this book as an introduction to the history.

That was a mistake on my part, because it’s not a history; as the title indicates, it’s a personal history, or a memoir, of Carl Oglesby’s involvement in the SDS. Oglesby started out as a technical writer/editor for a defense subcontractor, got vaguely involved in politics by a circuitous route, and subsequently discovered through research that the Vietnam war was a really, really dumb idea. (The ‘ravens’ in the title refer to Oglesby’s characterization of himself, and others, as neither a hawk nor a dove – not a pacifist for the sake of pacifism, but opposed to stupid and unwinnable wars). Oglesby eventually found himself elected president of the Students for a Democratic Society, writing and delivering anti-war speeches, staging nonviolent protests, traveling to Vietnam and Cuba, and trying to bring moderates and even conservatives into the movement. This, as the movement was radicalizing itself, beginning to make overt appeals to Marxism and revolution and violence.

I feel like this book would be better appreciated by someone with a solid grounding in the relevant background and history, because there were many points where I wished for more context, more information, instead of some level of assumed knowledge. The book is clearly one person’s individual point of view, and while it’s always calm, measured, and politically moderate, it doesn’t quite strive for objectivity. In some ways it feels more like long-after-the-fact persuasion and editorializing and self-justification than mere recollection of the era.

That said, it’s a fascinating story. I loved reading about the divisions within the movement, the conflict between moderation and radicalism, especially since I am sometimes equally tempted by both sides. It was also interesting to read about the slowness of the radicals to embrace women’s lib – with liberal publications still making their female employees get the coffee! And it’s scarily timely to read a book that deals with paranoid administrations fighting unpopular and unwinnable wars