"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembering War: Laura Fermi and Finding the Enemy

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada, Veterans' Day in the US, the end of the Great War.  Not a bad day to read Laura Fermi's Atoms in the Family--or for that matter my  Finding the Enemy.

It's been 100 years since a start of that conflict which set the stage for so much of the history o the 20th century.  The wearing of red poppies to honour--or glorify--those who fought is something I stay away from.  War is Hell, and while those who died should be remembered, nothing is gained from jingoism or patriotic chest beating.

But having said that, it's worth mentioning a series of photos in The New York Times today as well as the two books named above.  The pix are recently declassified ones of young men preparing the two A bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The Second World War ended then, and the debate will go on for decades more about whether that was necessary.  What is clear is that things changed dramatically afterwards.

What is also clear is that the people involved were all very young.   The birth rate at the secret research and bomb test site in New Mexico was very high, and life a little complicated for the young families who were moved there so the men (and they were almost all men) could build the bomb.  Laura Fermi, the wife of Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi and a mathematician herself, was one of them, and, clearly not completely challenged by being a housewife, wrote a book about their experience.  If only for a glimpse at how much intelligent women were up against 70 years ago, the Atoms in the Family is worth reading.  But it also is a look at war on the home front, amusing, touching and ultimately serious.

My own book of short stories is the fruit of a lot of reflection about war.  The title comes from the cartoon strip Pogo, who says "We have met the enemy and he is us."  What are our responsiblities when faced with situations of conflict?  How do we separate a "just war" from an unjust one?  The main characters are a nuclear physicist who has to ask himself these questions after participating in the construction of the A bomb, and his family. The time frame ranges from the first A bomb test to the First War in the Persian Gulf in 1991.  The stories are intimate, personal and, I hope, thought-provoking.  The book is still around in many libraries and can be picked up from several on-line sellers.

And the photo?  Well, it's not the usual red poppy shot.  I took it in Portugal last summer, not far from the ruins of Conímbriga, a Roman town abandoned to attacks of the Visigoths about 300 AD.  War seems to be about as ever present as death and taxes. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Time Out for Writing...

I find that keeping up with the blog and trying to make progress on my next book Road through Time is becoming very difficult.  At the moment I'm deep in the chapter about the mysterious roads Native Americans took to settle the Western Hemisphere. Please excuse my lack of posts....

The photo, taken in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on Vancouver Island, gives a hint of how those early adventurers got from near the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America in a few thousand years.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Jonas Salk and Philip Roth: the Nemesis

Google opened this morning with a tribute to Jonas Salk, the developer of the first inactivated polio virus vaccine on what would have been his 100th birthday.  I'm old enough to remember polio scares--no swimming, no crowds, no fun during the summer--and the relief apparent on our parents' faces when a vaccine was found.

But it is very easy to forget just what a mysterious threat the disease was, which is one reason it's worth reading Philip Roth's Nemesis now.  The book is told from the point of view of a man who'd been a kid during a polio epidemic in New Jersey during World War II.  His idol and mentor was a teacher who apparently carries the disease to a summer camp before succumbing himself.  Both the narrator, who also get it, and the teacher carry with them years of suffering and struggle post-polio--and its consequences.

The tone is naive at first, as befits the observations of a boy, but becomes increasingly nuanced and philosophical as the story progresses.  Roth says that he doesn't write books of philosophy but the question of responsiblity--and the teacher is haunted all his life by the suspicion that he was an agent of death--and the unfairness of life is paramount.  An example: "He was struck by how lives diverge and by how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstance. And where does God figure in this?”

One of the things notable about the story is the implicit comparison between mainstream religion (in this case moderate Judaism) and a kind of primitive magic (a made-up Native American ritual that is part of the camp's schtick). Roth seems to be saying that there isn't much difference, in the end. 

Also striking is the way the narrator is able to build a reasonably good life for himself even though he is badly damaged by polio but the teacher remains mired in a sort of noble self-pity.  Roth introduces the possiblity of individual choice and will into the equation.

Polio is a thing of the past throughout much of the world now (only in Pakistan does it seem to be markedly on the increase.) But Roth's novel is a good and deceptively simple read that raises a host of concerns that we all must consider.

That's Salk in the photo on the right, and Roth on the left, in case you hadn't guessed.