Posts Tagged With: book review

Atomic Times A Candid Memoir Of 1950s Testing Site

atomic-timesWhen I picked up The Atomic Times: My H-Bomb Year at the Pacific Proving Ground on Kindle, I was immediately drawn in by the conversational writing. But the subject matter is hardly casual. The book looks at the military personnel’s exposure to excessive levels of radiation while isolated on the island of Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific during the H-Bomb tests of the 1950s.

Michael Harris was 22 when he landed a one-year assignment on the island — dotted with aluminum buildings and three-eyed fish swimming in the lagoon. Although, the memoir could have been written from a ‘I can’t believe the Government did this to me’ angle, Harris does not take that approach — and does not come off as even remotely bitter about the experience.

What he does, though, is take the reader inside the barracks, the office buildings and throughout the island while casually reporting some of the oddities that happen when you packed a large amount of men into such a small space. The book, would probably be rated PG-13 — maybe R in a couple of chapters  — has the typical ‘boys’ humor of misdeeds, quarks and indiscretions. He openly addresses how most of the men deal, each night, with their lack of female companionship. But, Harris also reports on the acts of violence soldiers committed against each other, how men dealt with fallout and what the Military Police obsessed over.

The further you get into the book, the more you realize the island — or the tests — are starting to ‘mess with’ the soldiers’ minds.

It is the amount of mistakes and poor decisions made by military and political leaders, though, that seems unfathomable. Although it was known a nuclear blast can permanently damage a person’s eyes, googles were not issued to enlisted men like Harris. In a recent interview, Harris explained why enlisted soldiers did not receive googles like officers wore.

We were told we had to wear high density goggles during the tests to avoid losing our sight but the shipment of goggles never arrived—the requisition was cancelled to make room for new furniture for the colonel’s house.

On multiple occasions, the blasts were detonated in front of the soldiers — exposing them to additional risks. In the book (and the interview), Harris explains how a couple unlucky servicemen died while on the island.

Servicemen were sent to Ground Zero wearing only shorts and sneakers and worked side by side with scientists dressed in RadSafe suits. The exposed military men developed severe radiation burns and many died.

Harris began writing the book while on the island and a friend smuggle it out. This first rough draft was mailed by his buddy to Harris’ father. Harris, though, did not complete the book for 50 years.

The book was released in 2014.

Rating 4 out of 5

Most sites — like Amazon, Barnes & Noble or GoodReads — give the book a 4-star rating which I would agree with. I only have two criticisms of the book: in a few places the story bogs down and — I want to know what happened to all his buddies. Although it is a memoir, the book does include statistics associated with the tests and accurate descriptions of the detonations, which Harris researched after the military operation was declassified.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger wrote this about the book,

A gripping memoir leavened by humor, loyalty and pride of accomplishment. A tribute to the resilience, courage and patriotism of the American soldier.


Learn More

The website Critical Past has some of the videos from the Eniwetok Atoll tests. Although they are a commercial site (selling the video), you can watch a low-resolution version free. Another website, A/V Geeks LLC, sells DVDs from that era, but also offers a free viewing of a different testing film.

Learn why Michael Harris took so long to finish writing the book in this interview.

Categories: American History, Books I have read | Tags: , , , , ,

Books I’ve Read: Owning It — Zen and the Art of Facing Life

First, let me start by saying I know very little about Zen — and even less about practicing it. This is one of my thrift store books — when my wife and I go to thrift stores, I always pore over the shelves to find interesting books to read — especially about topics I know little about.

Even though this book is about koans — those philosophical questions that when truly contemplated lead to valuable insights — it’s really about current people with current problems. It’s about finding ways to handle change, deal with uncertainity and how to thrive in our day-to-day existence. Zen, as part of the Buddhist tradition, sees life as suffering and seeks to comes to term with what is — in the moment — by learning not so much how to change things, but how to become what is.

…there’s a difference between coping with the ebb and flow of our lifes and becoming the ebb and flow. We suffer most when we buck up against changing circumstances, but once we own them, dropping our bodies and minds into them, even changes that are hardest to take can release us from suffering.

As you may expect, this is the theme the book keeps coming back to — owning your situation. In many ways, this book offers no answers and it definitely places the ultimately responsibility of living a fulfilled life on you the reader, but the author does keep leading the reader into a deeper understanding of the benefits of Zen practice.

She does this without being preachy — just practical. Near the end of the book, she notes,

Life’s toughest moments — the ones that toss us the changes we don’t want — offer the best opportunities for spiritual insight, provided, of course, if we are ready to own them.

Categories: Books I have read | Tags:

Books I’ve Read: First You Have to Row a Little Boat

For some reason, I have recently started reading ‘meaning of life’ type of books and came across this one in a thrift store. The book landed on the best sellers list and once you read it you can easily see why.

First You Have to Row a Little Boat, by Richard Bode

The book starts off in a peaceful place — Bode’s youth and his overwhelming desire to own a sailboat.  You quickly learn that Bode, who does not try to evoke self-pity, has lost both of his parents. After their death he first lives with his grandparents, but he is eventually raised by an aunt and uncle when his grandmother becomes too ill to care for him.

You, the reader, follow along this quick trip through his childhood and beyond, by meeting the characters that teach Bode how to live. They do not sermonize or preach, instead offer small bits of wisdom along the way that Bode eventually latches onto as life lessons. The boat, although real, is a metaphor for his life, as he learns how to navigate through good and bad weather, how to control the wind and and figures out his destination.

Regardless of where you are in your life, at least one of the chapters will resonate with you. After his first boating accident on his sloop (he hit a log puncturing a hole in the vessel), he is relunctant to go sailing again.

I stood on the shore, looking at my sloop thinking about all the terrible things that might happen to me, and for a while I did not want to leave the harbor. For the truth is to sail, to even contemplate sailing, calls for a fundamental faith in one’s self, at that moment I was only aware of the barriers between myself and my destination..

Of course, he will go back out. He will learn and he will master seamanship. Eventually he win even place in a sailing race.

Even though I know little (nothing) about boating or sailing, Bode writes in a way I didn’t need to, giving just enough information about boating to explain what I needed to know. Although, he handles some pretty ‘heavy’ stuff for such a short book, you walk away with an appreciation that life does not have to be perfect, it just has to be lived.

And just like Bode as a young boy, you realize have to stop worrying about what might be and sail.

Categories: Books I have read, Middle age | Tags: ,