Here are condensed versions of this week’s book reviews:
“Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster” by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan and the Union of Concerned Scientists; New Press (320 pages, $27.95)
On March 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake had rattled a complex of six nuclear power plants known as Fukushima Daiichi, roughly 150 miles northeast of Tokyo. Then came nature’s second, more devastating blow: a tsunami that swamped the complex, flooding its electrical generators and putting its three operating reactors out of commission. The reactors were soon out of control, the plant effectively disabled by that most feared event in the nuclear industry: a “station blackout,” when no power is available to run any of the safety systems designed to defend the public from a runaway reaction.
In the days that followed, three explosions blew apart portions of two reactor buildings, and the reactors’ fuel cores at least partly melted down. Public officials steadily expanded the evacuation zone around the plant, eventually to 19 miles; the evacuation of Tokyo itself was briefly considered.
These events and more are meticulously reconstructed in “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster” by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman and Susan Q. Stranahan of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Followers of Fukushima and its consequences for the nuclear power movement have come to rely on Lochbaum and Lyman for their scientific expertise on the topic. Stranahan, a journalist and writer whose experience with nuclear power dates back to her coverage of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, is evidently responsible for the book’s lucid and gripping narrative.
No one with an interest in the present and future of nuclear power in the United States should miss it.
“The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man” by Luke Harding; Vintage (346 pages, $14.95 paper)
I’d like to think that somewhere in Russia, which has been playing host to both the Winter Olympics and Edward Snowden, the world’s most wanted whistle-blower was cheering, “USA! USA!” the past few weeks — though maybe sotto voce.
Nearly nine months ago, he rocked the U.S. government and many of its allies and antagonists by leaking top-secret documents that exposed massive surveillance programs by Washington’s National Security Agency. Along with its brief to spy on bad guys, it was bugging world leaders and monitoring the telephone and Internet traffic of millions of ordinary people at home and abroad.
Snowden, now 30, dropped his bombshell in early June, while in Hong Kong, and was indicted by the U.S. government for espionage on June 21. The unquiet American flew to Moscow two days later, seeking asylum with another superpower not known for respecting privacy — or extradition efforts.
“The Snowden Files,” the first book on what British journalist Luke Harding calls “the biggest intelligence leak in history,” is a readable and thorough account. The narrative is rich in newsroom details, reflecting Harding’s inside access as a correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper, which broke the story.
“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert; Henry Holt (319 pages, $28)
Elizabeth Kolbert’s revelatory new book, “The Sixth Extinction,” about the rapid and radical changes man is wreaking on the Earth, is one of those works of explanatory journalism that achieves the highest and best use of the form. After you read it, your view of the world will be fundamentally changed.
Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has gone all over the world to walk with, talk with and debrief a cadre of eminent scientists who are tracking humanity’s transformation of our global home. Kolbert builds an effective case that the pace of change is proceeding at a rate that imperils all species, including, eventually, Homo sapiens.
As “The Sixth Extinction” unfolds, a clear pattern emerges. Mass extinctions have occurred in the past (there have been five, most recently in the late Cretaceous). But the current rate of species die-off, caused by man’s exploration and exploitation of the globe, is occurring at an unprecedented rate in geologic time. Kolbert writes that the exinction rate among amphibians could be more than 45,000 times higher than the “background” rate (expected extinctions in normal times). Furthermore, “it is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed towards oblivion,” she writes.
Kolbert is an astute observer, excellent explainer and superb synthesizer, and even manages to find humor in her subject matter. But “The Sixth Extinction” is an alarming book. The last chapter, “The Thing with Feathers,” suggests hope, but it is mostly about an endangered Hawaiian crow.
“Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America” by Howard Blum; HarperCollins (496 pages, $27.99)
History is all about retelling tales that need telling. In “Dark Invasion,” Howard Blum has rescued a batch of compelling ones and woven them into grim, fascinating remembrance.
How many recall Frank Holt, aka Erich Muenter? This adoptive son of Dallas was a bird as strange as Lee Harvey Oswald.
Outwardly, he was a professor of German, married to the daughter of a Dallas Methodist minister. Behind the facade, Frank Holt was a fanatic in the clandestine service of the Imperial German government.
Over the July 4th weekend of 1915, Holt bombed the U.S. Capitol, took the train to Long Island and put two bullets into J.P. Morgan. Arrested at the scene of his attempted murder, Holt fed police tantalizing clues about his past as a Harvard professor who poisoned his wife, about hundreds of missing sticks of dynamite and about another mysterious act of espionage soon to occur.
Howard Blum brings Frank Holt back to life in this history of German espionage.
“Bark: Stories” by Lorrie Moore; Knopf (176 pages, $25)
If you view the human condition through a dark lens — as opposed to those rose-colored glasses happier people prefer — you might feel that we’re all a bit like the doomed baby sea turtles in Lorrie Moore’s story “Paper Losses.” Plucked from the night beach by hotel personnel and held for the tourists’ pleasure, they’re released to make their way to the ocean far too late the next morning, their “wee webbed feet already edged in desiccating brown. … (O)ne by one, a frigate bird swooped in, plucked them from the silver waves, and ate them for breakfast.”
This isn’t to say that the fiction in “Bark,” Moore’s first collection of short stories since 1998’s “Birds of America,” is entirely gloomy and desperate. Her sharp sense of humor and pointed wit are evident throughout. “Paper Losses,” about an estranged couple’s last family vacation, begins: “Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other.”
Such fractured relationships — between men and women, parents and children, friends — fill Bark. Also the author of the collections “Like Life” and “Self-Help” and the novels “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital,” “Anagrams” and “A Gate at the Stairs,” Moore measures our weaknesses against the absurdity of contemporary America and delivers an uncompromising, amusing yet disturbingly authentic account of modern life.
“Still Life With Bread Crumbs” by Anna Quindlen; Random House (272 pages, $26)
The only thing that might have made “Still Life With Bread Crumbs” more enjoyable would have been a summer’s day so I could have read it outside, instead of huddled near a space heater.
It’s the seventh novel from Anna Quindlen, the former New York Times columnist who won the Pulitzer Prize, wrote regularly for Newsweek and published the slender “A Short Guide to a Happy Life,” which has sold more than 1 million copies, many to moms, aunts, grandmothers, family friends and others looking for a little something special to wrap and pair with a check tucked into a graduation card.
She wrote the novel “One True Thing,” turned into the film earning Meryl Streep her 11th Oscar nomination as a dying wife and mother. I could see “Still Life” as a movie, with a superb role for a 60-year-old actress or someone younger but willing to play older such as Annette Bening.
In a world where publishers and studios are looking for the next young-adult trilogy with a teen or twenty-something heroine in a post-apocalyptic world, Quindlen isn’t afraid to write about a woman of a certain age and life experiences.
“The Good Luck of Right Now” by Matthew Quick; Harper (284 pages, $25.99)
Matthew Quick, the author of “The Silver Linings Playbook” and several YA novels, has written another book for adults, “The Good Luck of Right Now.” Fortunately it is already optioned by DreamWorks, and you can wait for the movie — because the last thing you should ever do is read this deeply wacky book.
Written as a series of letters to Richard Gere after the protagonist’s mother dies and he finds one of Gere’s “Free Tibet” fundraising letters in her drawer, this book will certainly have a key role for that actor when it gets to the screen. At first, while his mother is still alive, Bartholomew decides to actually become Richard Gere “and give Bartholomew some well-deserved time off, if that makes any sense to you, Mr. Gere. Bartholomew had been working overtime as his mother’s son for almost four decades. Bartholomew had been emotionally skinned alive, beheaded, and crucified upside down, just like his apostle namesake, according to various legends, only metaphorically — and in the modern world of today and right now.”
After the impersonation phase wraps up, the actor continues to appear to Bartholomew, who apparently has something wrong with him that has kept him home with Mom all his life, though he is too smart to be low-IQ and too empathetic to be autistic.
So what, after all, is the Good Luck of Right Now? According to Bartholomew’s mother, it’s the fact that “whenever something bad happens to us, something good happens — often to someone else.” No kidding! Well, look, in this case, Quick’s characters suffer from domestic abuse, home invasion and gang rape — and you get to read a silly book about it. Or better yet, wait for the movie.
“The Counterfeit Agent” by Alex Berenson; Putnam (384 pages, $27.95)
Global politics continue to be complicated and contemporary spy thrillers must match that with Byzantine plots if they are to be believable.
Timely stories and labyrinth plots, meticulously researched, are a hallmark of the geopolitical thrillers from Alex Berenson. The author’s eye for details about global issues was honed when he was an award-winning investigative reporter, two stints as a correspondent in Iraq, at the New York Times. For his novels, the Edgar-wining Berenson conducts his own research, often in war-torn areas.
Ex-CIA agent John Wells, making his eighth appearance in “The Counterfeit Agent,” works undercover and off the books to stop a CIA station chief from being assassinated in Iran. Wells is up against a secret international agency that is trying to deceive the American government into bombing Iran.
Berenson ratchets up the action to the highest degree while keeping his characters balanced and intriguing. Despite John’s penchant to rush into situations, no matter the danger, he is a believable character.
“The Counterfeit Agent’s” gripping plot leaves no doubt a sequel is coming.