I am in that fast-shrinking minority of Americans who remember the bewilderment of President Roosevelt's death and the lesser shock (because it happened during summer vacation, while Joe and I were bringing in the hay for 35 cents an hour) of atomic fission over Hiroshima. Of all possible futures, we could never have imagined that, 75 years on, a celebrity author would turn those few months into a book for quick reading at the beach. TV newsman Chris Wallace has done just that, with help from a Pulitzer-winning ghostwriter. The book flags a bit in the mid-section, but otherwise Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World is a grand gallop toward a rousing finish. Well done, Messrs Wallace and Weiss! There were a few howlers, to be sure. The authors regularly stress the billions spent on the Manhattan Project, as though it were the most expensive of the War. (Developing the plane that carried those bombs cost quite a bit more.) But the lapses are dwarfed by many brilliant touches. Harry Truman is called to the White House to learn that he is now the president -- but there's no Bible handy, until "a Gideon" is found in the chief usher's desk. Taking the oath, Truman places his palm on its cover, so the Chief Justice asks for a do-over, with the President's hand properly raised. We glimpse the weariness of his Secretary of War: "Henry Stimson's old bones ached." In the run-up to the mission, Before the mission, Enola Gay's pilot changes his call sign from "Victor" to "Dimples," and when the crew tidies the plane, the trash includes "a pair of ladies' panties." After the explosion, Enola Gay circles back toward Hiroshima so the crew can view the fantastic cloud, and a crewman wonders if it contains "all the souls of the victims rising to heaven."
Then, alas, Mr Matthews gives us his second thoughts, rehashing the tired old arguments about the use of Little Boy and Fat Man. I was particularly amused by his discovery of a generational divide on the subject: "Seven in ten Americans over age sixty said use of atomic weapons was justified. Less than half of those under thirty agreed." Well, sure! What does it cost the kids to disagree? Yet some of them wouldn't be alive today if their grandfathers had landed on Kyushu in November 1945, or on Honshu four months later. Read Countdown 1945 by all means, but skip the breast-beating that's tacked onto it.
We Top Gun groupies have waited 34 years for Tom Cruise to reprise his role in the great action flick, only to have Top Gun: Maverick postponed to some time next year, now that the big screens are closed for the Plague. Not to worry! Dave Baranek (call sign "Bio") has filled the gap with something I never thought possible: a coffee-table book for fighter jocks! Tomcat Rio: A Topgun Instructor on the F-14 Tomcat and the Heroic Naval Aviators Who Flew It was published on August 25, about the time we once expected to be heading off to the 'plex to see Mr Cruise blasting again through the air over Miramar, California. The book has no sound effects, of course, but the eye candy is here. The cover was digitally enhanced by Dorian Dogaru, but most of the images were shot by Bio himself, apparently as accomplished a photographer as he was a pilot. I was especially taken with an overhead view in the second photo section, showing a twin-tail, twin-engine F-14 Tomcat banking above and toward the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf. Its tail hook is deployed for landing, and the flight deck far below seems about the size of a postage stamp. I'd be terrified to turn onto final for that tiny target. Perhaps that's only because I was 67 when I was learning to fly. Perhaps I would have felt differently at 23. "It's great to be young," Bio recalls, "and doing something I truly loved."
Weirdly, The Book Thief seems to be classified as something for "Teen & Young Adult" readers. If that's the case, I haven't been paying attention, because I highly recommend this weird and wonderful book for adults who think they've read everything and can no longer be astonished at what a writer of genius can accomplish with words. Markus Zusak, an Australian whose parents emigrated from the former Third Reich in the 1950s, his mother from Germany, his father from Austria. He writes very well indeed, about such things as "the distant chitchat of guns," a wonderfully apt characterization. His hero is Liesel, who is indeed a young teenager, but one living in a time and a place (between Munich and Dachau) where one grows up very quickly. The narrator is none other than Death himself, who is kept very busy in the early 1940s, collecting the souls of the dead, as Germany first sows the whirlwind and then begins to reap it. Few writers today actually experienced the Second World War, and their books invariably get much of it wrong. (I was about Liesel's age during the War, though in a country where few bombs fell.) Mr Zusak was still in his twenties when he wrote The Book Thief, but he gets most of it right. It's an extraordinary accomplishment and well deserves the success that greeted it, translated into 63 languages (I didn't know there were that many!), 16 million copies sold, and prettified as the inevitable feature film. Skip the movie, read the book! — Daniel Ford
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