Staff Favorites

Ray Bradbury
Reviewed by Nathan
A Pleasure to Burn

Shortly before Ray Bradbury’s death in 2012, Harper-Collins published a collection of Bradbury’s short stories entitled A Pleasure to Burn. Containing numerous short stories, many of which are thematically related to Bradbury’s best-known work, Fahrenheit 451, A Pleasure to Burn is a must read for fans of Fahrenheit 451 and science fiction.

The stories in A Pleasure to Burn have much in common with Fahrenheit 451. Like the latter, these are science fiction and fantasy stories that are concerned with real world issues. Themes Bradbury explored throughout his career are all present, including censorship, government surveillance, our infatuation with mass media and technology, conformity and resistance to conformity, and our marginalization of art and literature. Critics have noted that Bradbury’s work often seems prophetic and A Pleasure to Burn is no different. Mildred’s seashell ear thimbles are a lot like an Ipod, and the reduction of meaning to a few lines of text sounds suspiciously like a meme.

One of the most surprising aspects of A Pleasure to Burn, and something that seems to have gone largely unnoticed, is how meta some of Bradbury’s work was. This is literature about literature, but more specifically it is fiction about fiction. Classic horror authors (along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who complains he doesn’t belong) are the main characters of “The Mad Wizards of Mars.” The plot of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is re-enacted in “Carnival of Madness,” with an element of black humor as the censor who gets chained up in a wall by a former librarian doesn’t understand the reference.

There’s a couple downsides to A Pleasure to Burn. More than half the book is taken up by earlier versions of what would become Fahrenheit 451, so it’s sort of redundant. Fans of Bradbury’s work may find the work unnecessary, since much of A Pleasure to Burn has been available for some time in other short story collections. However, for those like myself who have not read much of Bradbury outside of Fahrenheit 451, A Pleasure to Burn is also a pleasure to read.

Denise Kiernan
Reviewed by Nathan
The Girls of Atomic City

In The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women who Helped Win World War II Denise Kiernan explores the lives of the residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Oak Ridge was the location of the Clinton Engineer Works, whose purpose (unbeknownst to most of the workers) was enriching uranium for the atomic bombs. Many of these workers were young women, including many recent high school graduates, and interviews with the surviving workers form the core of Kiernan’s work.

The Girls of Atomic City works best as a recollection of daily life in Oak Ridge. We get numerous anecdotes about the challenges workers faced, including difficulties with housing, rations, working conditions, and, as the book repeatedly stresses, the necessity of keeping everything going on in Oak Ridge a secret. We follow the lives of a rather large cast of women through their time at Oak Ridge, many of whom would meet their husbands while working on the project. The book also excels at providing insight into the largely unknown women scientists who helped develop the science behind the bomb and explaining that science in an accessible way.

Still, there’s too much left unsaid in The Girls of Atomic City and Kiernan seems intent on avoiding many important issues. How black workers felt about segregation, how women felt about sexism in the workplace, health problems arising from handling nuclear material, and whether the workers had any moral dilemmas about the need for secrecy or guilt over the destruction the project produced are only touched on briefly, if at all. And there’s too much feel-good patriotism in the book; Kiernan has produced a linear story of American ingenuity in which we collected the scientists, we built the bomb, we won the war, and the workers lived happily ever after. The legacy of atomic weapons and government secrecy is, of course, much more ambiguous than that.

Despite these flaws The Girls of Atomic City is an interesting read on an important subject. Its emphasis on the everyday women whose work was instrumental in winning WWII is fascinating, even if I wish it was more analytical and less anecdotal. 

 

Robert S. Wistrich
Reviewed by Nathan
Hitler and the Holocaust

Few events in history are as difficult to understand as the Holocaust. Debates over how and why it happened continue to rage in academic circles, to say nothing of the vast amount of fiction the topic has produced in film and literature. Robert Wistrich’s Hitler and the Holocaust is an admirable attempt at writing a concise and accessible introduction to this immensely challenging subject.

Wistrich’s approach is straightforward and chronological. It covers Hitler’s rise to power, early anti-Semitic legislation, the beginnings of World War II, Nazi collaborators, Jewish resistance, and the camps themselves. Wistrich focuses much of the book on the role of anti-Semitism in producing the Holocaust, reminding us that regardless of how historians choose to interpret the Holocaust or its meaning, it could not have happened without anti-Semitism, the war, and the personality of Hitler himself. Wistrich also neatly summarizes and adds to other historical topics, like the role of bureaucracy and modernity in the Holocaust.

Few books are as concise and as informative as Hitler and the Holocaust. Historical scholarship, in an attempt to explain an extremely complicated subject, has gotten increasingly specialized, so a good overview that attempts to be comprehensive and interesting to non-historians is important. At providing such an overview, Wistrich succeeds brilliantly.

Stephen King and Peter Straub
Reviewed by Nathan
The Talisman

The Talisman is the first collaboration between Stephen King and Peter Straub. It features the tale of a 12 year old boy named Jack Sawyer on a quest to retrieve a magical artifact known as the talisman, which has the power to save Jack’s terminally ill mother. The problem is Jack has to travel through another world (known as the Territories) in order to reach the talisman, and is pursued by his father’s business partner, Morgan Sloat, who wants the talisman for his own purposes.

While The Talisman is much more of a work of adventure fantasy than horror, it should come as no surprise that there are horror elements present. Jack encounters all sorts of monsters (both human and non) during his travels and his best friend for much of the novel is a werewolf simply named Wolf. Meeting Wolf is in many ways the turning point of the novel; before Wolf it seems as though Jack is just kind of wandering from place to place as he makes his way towards the talisman, after meeting Wolf the story takes a darker, more suspenseful turn, especially as Wolf does what werewolves tend to do.

The Talisman has some minor flaws. It takes a while to get going, at least until Jack meets Wolf. Jack is likable enough as the main protagonist, but doesn’t feel as fully fleshed out as many of the other characters, particularly Wolf and Jack’s other main travelling partner, Richard Sloat. While this may not be a reasonable complaint, The Talisman pales in comparison to what each author is capable of individually; King’s Dark Tower series is a classic, as is Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.

Still, those looking for a good fantasy book should check out The Talisman. It’s world-building, character development, and story make it a consistently enjoyable book.

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