Thursday, April 18, 2013
Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
Nothing like a bit of melodrama to jack up a review, don't you know. Not that this book is melodramatic. Shoot we are dealing with physicists. Oppenheimer is such a dippo that he goes on a date with a girl, parks the car with her, tells her he is going for a walk and completely forgets her in his car. She calls the police thinking something has happened to him and they find Oppie asleep in his bed at home. He explains that he forgot about her while contemplating theoretical physics. Uff da, and I thought my brain was scattered. Trust me, this is just one of many delicious details you'll eat up in this nonfiction story.
My journalism side admires Steve Sheinkin's creative use of quotations mixed with descriptive writing to create a strong sense of suspense and characterization. The description of Carl Eifler gives a clear picture of the character, "The thirty-seven-year-old Eifler already had a reputation for reckless bravery. Wounded by flying metal scraps earlier in the war, he'd pull out his pockektnife and dug the steel from his thigh. His idea of fun was to shoot cigarettes out of his friends' mouths." On his way to the CIA headquarters, Eifler spots a lawyer who once criticized him in a report and he "seized him by his jacket, lifted him off the floor, and smacked his back into the wall. Eifler leaned in close, glaring in the man's eyes. 'Listen, you son of a bitch,' he growled. 'If you ever interfere in my activities again, I'll kill you.' Eifler set the lawyer down, turned, and walked to his meeting. Eifler is then given the assignment to kidnap a top German physicist and escape to Switzerland. He asks the CIA officer what his orders are if the Swiss police capture him and the German. "'Very simple, Colonel,' said Buxton [CIA]. 'You are to deny Germany the use of his brain.' 'The only way to do that is to kill him,' said Eifler. 'So I kill him, and the Swiss police arrest me - what then?' 'Then we've never heard of you.'" Chalk this up as one of many "Mission Impossibles" planted in this nonfiction text that hit me like typhoon debris. Shucks, Sheinkin has such an extensive list of source quotes in the appendixes (this came from the book, "The Deadliest Colonel," by Thomas Moon and Carl Eifler) that I wanted to scream, "Ahhhh...stop it!" Stop giving me more books to add to my already bottomless book list that itches like an irritated mosquito bite.
The intertwined plot shows the Germans, Americans, and Soviets racing to build the bomb. Subplots such as the heavy water needed by the Germans to build the bomb and the Russians as tentative allies who like to steal from the Americans, are just a few elements that help build uncertainty and suspense. Bomb-making is not in my knowledge database and the author makes the fare anything but boring. The suspenseful description of scientists creating a chemical chain reaction with uranium on a cold day in a stadium, reveals the danger and tension as the silent crowd listens to the clickety-clack of the neutron counter hoping they can stop the reaction and not blow up Chicago. The chapter ends on the suspenseful question of one scientist thinking to herself, "When do we get as scared as we ought to?" These fictional elements elevate this book from what could be a dry expository text to a narrative, fast-paced read. Add to that the author's clarity in explaining the physics of building an atomic bomb and not once did my eyes cross or get glossy.
While reading I did have questions that came up. I wondered if the Germans did anything to Knut Haukelid's tough mother, how the radiation affected people on the project and those living around the town, what Oppenheimer did after being forced out, how does the gun assembly work, how did the absent-minded Oppenheimer find a wife and have an affair, and more. I don't see this as a flaw. It is good to have more questions and Sheinkin cannot possibly answer them all. Plus, it would sidetrack the book and would have steered it toward an older audience. Sheinkin wisely sticks to his overall message of the moral issues and political intrigue. Is it right to build a weapon that can destroy the human species? He shows that even the physicists who worked on bomb questioned what they had done at the end. Oppenheimer, in particular, had horrible doubts about this weapon of mass destruction. Even the double-agents who could easily have been one-dimensional villains are multifaceted. I was surprised to feel sympathy for the physicists and double-agents, even though I didn't agree with their actions. This type of character development is not one I expect in a nonfiction book and I appreciated Sheinkin's attempt to create such well-rounded characters. Not to mention the sober punch in the arm ending that details how many countries now have nuclear weapons and how easily humans can destroy the planet if a nuclear war breaks out.
A little two year old is torpedoing through the library yelling, "Jie Jie! JieJie!" over and over in Chinese causing a ruckus. Mom is a short distance behind but she can't seem to catch the little roadrunner. It sounds like "Gee Gee" and the celebratory ring suits my mood after reading this book. I have half a mind to join her sprint chanting, "Read! Read!"