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Battle of the Books

Archives for March 28, 2013

Round 3, Match 1: Bomb vs The Fault in Our Stars

 3_1_Bomb_Fault
Bomb
by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook/Macmillan
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
Dutton/Penguin

Judged by
Lynne Rae Perkins


I would secretly like to be Barbara Tuchman.  That is, to be historically knowledgeable, to have an encyclopedic yet Big Picture understanding of history, or some slices of it.  Even just one slice.  I want to know and understand stuff.  I like knowing stuff.

But (how do I say this without embarrassing myself?) as interested as I feel myself to be, there comes a time in many nonfiction books when I begin to feel overwhelmed by minutiae, a time when I lose track of who is who.  Followed shortly by a time when I fall asleep.

When I received word that one of my books would be Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: the Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, my heart dipped a little.  Would I be able to get through it?  The book jacket was a mottled tan and had a picture of an airplane on it.  A part of me that I’m not proud of said, “Boy Book.”

I decided I would read Bomb first and save the second book, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, as a reward.

My husband was going to be out of the house all Saturday running a pond hockey tournament at the ice rink down the street.  I set myself up in the living room with a pot of coffee, good lighting and determination, and read the first sentences of the prologue:

“He had a few more minutes to destroy seventeen years worth of evidence.  Still in pajamas, Harry Gold raced around his cluttered bedroom . . .”

A page of black and white photos showed this Harry Gold: dressed in graduation regalia, he had a round, calmly pleasant face that would have been comfortable in a book of nursery rhymes with a cow jumping over it.

Really? I thought.  This guy was a spy?

Next came the story of how the physicist Robert Oppenheimer wandered away from the car where he had been sitting with his date, looking out over the San Francisco Bay.  Absorbed in thinking about theoretical physics, he walked and walked until, finding himself at his own apartment, he went in and went to bed.  He had forgotten his date, and his car, entirely.

One well-chosen, telling, and well-told anecdote followed another.  Before I knew it, I was eavesdropping on the conversation between two physicists sitting on a log in the Swedish snow, speculating about how a speeding neutron might cause an atom to split in the same way that a “wobbly droplet” of water can stretch, until it splits in two.  I was eavesdropping, imagining the diagram being drawn in the snow with a stick, and thinking I almost understood it.

Story by story, Steve Sheinkin pieces together the very big story he wants to tell us of the scientific and political developments that led to the making and using of the first atomic bomb.   He never lets us forget that this big story is the result of the accumulating, intersecting smaller stories, each with individuals, human beings, at the center.

We feel the physicists’ pure love of science.

We understand how different individuals made the choice to become spies.

We see half-starved Norwegian resistance fighters jumping between floating chunks of ice and climbing the rocky cliffs to destroy the Nazi heavy water plant.

We feel horror with the scientists as they realize the destructive power of what they worked so hard to create.

We experience the great multiplicity of the events that together make life, which we later call “history.”

At one particularly colorful point, I wondered if things had really happened that way or if Mr. Sheinkin was maybe juicing it up a little bit.  How could he know these things?  I flipped to the back, to the extremely clear appendix that tells just where each quote or anecdote was found.

The text is filled with striking images.  So are the 16 pages of black-and-white photos.

Together, the text and the photos help us to an understanding of this slice of history, one of the most significant of the twentieth century.

This kind of story can’t include every detail.  There were a few details I thought could have been thrown in without mucking things up.  For example, when Robert Oppenheim’s wife was mentioned,   I thought, Wife? How does this guy have a wife?  When FDR died, I thought, can you just remind me what killed him?  When the scientists knew that fallout was deadly, I wondered how they knew.  Wasn’t this the very first bomb?

But, hey — wanting to know more — that’s a good thing.  And the appendix tells me right where I can find the answers to these questions.

Steve Sheinkin, you won me over.  I am a new fan of yours and hope to read more of your books.  I am glad to know so much more than I did about this slice of time.

On day 2, I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a novel of the true love of Hazel and Augustus, two teenagers living with/dying of cancer, in Indianapolis.

Other important people are their parents, their friend Isaac who also has cancer, and a reclusive writer whose book about a girl with cancer becomes important to both of them.

Every sentence is kind of brilliant.  Okay, don’t hold me to that.  There are probably some pedestrian sentences in there.  But I was so rapt and laughing so much that I was on page 104 before I said to myself, Someone is going to die here and you’re going to be bawling before this is over.

True, and true.

That was also the point at which I wondered if the book was going to end in the middle of a sentence.  If you read it, which you should, you’ll see why I wondered.  But I decided not to peek.  And sometimes I do peek, so that is significant.

Hazel and Augustus are sharp, articulate, funny.  They are resolutely unsappy about their situations.

I was so grateful for that.   They know for real that “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”

Mostly, they want a no-bullshit way of understanding life and death that allows for beauty and meaning.

Actually, what they mostly want is to live.  They want to be able to marvel at the way the light hits the grass, even when they are noticing this because they have fallen on their faces.

And they do.

But “Some infinities are larger than others.”

Their infinity includes a “Wish” trip to the Netherlands to meet the famous author.  Some important things happen while they are there.

I didn’t really buy it later in the story when circumstances brought the reclusive author from Amsterdam to Indianapolis.  I bought it even less when he was still there a week later, popping up in the back of Hazel’s family’s minivan.

“What?” I said.  Out loud.  I’m still wondering if he was supposed to be a hallucination.  Maybe I missed something.  But such was my investment in the characters at that point that I said, Okay, whatever.  To paraphrase what Hazel wrote in a letter to the favorite author, I would read a grocery list if John Green wrote it.

You might consider that last sentence a foreshadowing.

My first reaction on learning which two books I was to choose between was, But that’s apples and oranges.

It is, and it isn’t.

Each book is looking for truths, important ones.  Each book is interested in what it means to be human.  I realize the broadness of these statements could be matched by, Each book is written with words.  English words.

Fault laments the prospect of oblivion, of living and dying and leaving no trace.  And then concludes that it might not be such a bad thing.  Bomb tells us about individuals who did leave a trace, and how some came to feel deep regret, or at least ambivalence, about having done so.

I am so glad to have read both of these books.

I had some tentative ideas about how to choose one.  I considered, Which one has more post-it notes?  Each had eight.

Which one did I want to share with more people?  Again, a similar number, though different people.  How to choose?

Which one would I be reading again?

The train began to pull away. The conductor told me I could only choose one.

I reached out and grabbed The Fault in Our Stars.

For its clear-eyed funny transcendence.

 

— Lynne Rae Perkins

And the Winner of this match is……
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS


For me, this is the best round of the tournament because each book—BOMB, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, and NO CRYSTAL STAIR—has already beaten two books to get this far. Sure, one judge can make a “wrong” decision, shutting a good book out, but it’s hard to argue that what remains is unworthy of winning the whole tournament. While it’s probably no surprise that I would have picked BOMB here, I’m starting to feel as if, indeed, there is actually no fault in the stars of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Each judge has praised the sentence-level writing, the impressive characterizations of Hazel and Augustus, and those grand themes of love and death, living and dying.

We have a history of picking the popular books that got passed over, most notably THE HUNGER GAMES and OKAY FOR NOW. Will this one join them?

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

Of course. This has to happen.

But I’ve been thinking a little bit. I love The Fault in Our Stars – it deserves all the praise the judges have given it – yet I’m unsure if I want it to win. Is it because it’s a favorite? Yes. But more than that, while it’s a great book, it’s a big book. It seems as if its sole purpose is to make readers think about love, life, death, infinity, being; like Ms. Perkins, I was invested in Augustus and Hazel, but their story seems somewhat contrived, unreal. And then you get into a complicated question: is it another one of those “magical” books? Perhaps. Is that a good thing?

I really don’t know, so I’m conflicted in this battle. For Bomb, too, comments on very important issues, in a much more natural way.

— Kid Commentator RGN