TRINITY: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb
By Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
Hill and Wang, 154 pp., $22
Its title taken from the code name for the first atomic-bomb test, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s account opens with the 19th-century discovery of radioactivity — a fairly long exposition of nuclear physics follows — but doesn’t truly come alive until it reaches Los Alamos, N.M. There, terse text and flat, angular images sketch the project’s hurried, secretive nature (military and government workers call it “the gadget” and “the gimmick” and even those living on the base didn’t know everything about its apocalyptic potential), as well as the enigmatic men at its center, especially General Leslie Groves and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer’s ambition warred with his ambivalence about his invention’s ruinous potential (and the warnings of eminent peers from Einstein to Bohr), but as Fetter-Vorm points out, “once a workable bomb was built, was there really any chance that it wouldn’t be used?”
The book’s most haunting images come not from the eventual devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (though these are harrowingly rendered), but rather from that first explosion, when even Oppenheimer wasn’t sure whether it would work — or what the fallout would be. As the countdown nears, Groves leaves to inform the governor of New Mexico that “[h]e might need to declare martial law.” The bomb’s terrifying success all but guaranteed what would follow; one narrative block simply reads: “The chain reaction had started.” Trinity’s aftermath persisted long beyond the end of World War II — Fetter-Vorm ends with images from a world dominated by a nuclear arms race and poisoned by the radioactive inheritance left by brilliant men whose ambition overpowered their ambivalence.
SLOUCHING TOWARD ADULTHOOD: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest
By Sally Koslow
Viking, 258 pp., $25.95
When her post-collegiate son moved home, Sally Koslow was like a lot of baby boomer parents: secretly thrilled at first to see her darling’s stubble-covered face at her table each morning (even if that meant noon most days). Eventually, though, she began to wonder why her family and others were hosting their adult children — and why so many in the millennial generation seem unwilling to enter into the obligations most of us recognize as marking adulthood: job, nonparental home, marriage, children. Sure, economic pressures account for a lot of these boomerang children, but Koslow wonders if there is more to it than that: whether boomers, who made a shrine of self-consciously perfect parenthood, perhaps erred in raising all these children to think they were naturally special. Are all these kids drifting through extended adolescence due in part to “some great, national coddling?”
Koslow, a veteran magazine writer and editor, leans heavily on the voices of parents, adult children, and experts she interviewed; while many are thoughtful and revealing, her own sharply funny voice is the book’s biggest strength. She has a lot of sympathy for her sons’ generation, one she sees as buffeted by “a perfect storm of overconfidence, a sense of never-ending time, and a grim reaper of a job market.” Still, she finds herself wishing her sons and their peers “would stop pretending that procrastination represents moral superiority and just try to get on with it.”
VICTORY: THE TRIUMPHANT GAY REVOLUTION: How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone
By Linda Hirshman
Harper, 443 pp., $27.99
In 1969, the year of the Stonewall uprising, gay Americans “were considered sinful by the church, their sexual practices were criminal in forty-nine states, the psychiatrists said they were crazy, and the State Department held that they were subversive.” Linda Hirshman tracks the progress of the gay rights movement starting several decades before Stonewall, but these smears against gay equality and citizenship form what she calls “the four horsemen” against which gays had to struggle to define themselves as moral, legal, sane, and patriotic. The movement’s success, the author argues, came partly because of the necessity to fight on such elemental and moral grounds. More than the civil rights and feminist movements, Hirshman writes, the fight for gay rights is based on a moral claim for respect for difference.
A lawyer and scholar of social movements, Hirshman chronicles the growth of America’s gay community in early 20th-century immigration and migration, and the “socially accepted criminality” of prohibition-era city life. As resistance grew to police intimidation and job discrimination, early gay organizers like Harry Hay took their cues from Marx, while the red scare nudged others toward more establishment-friendly, cautious advocacy. Then came Stonewall — where, as Hirshman writes, gays showed “willingness to die for their rights” — and after that, AIDS, which she calls “the making of the gay revolution,” both for ACT-UP’s creative rage and for the myriad examples of gay people as “morally upright caregivers.” Sharp and cogent throughout (though Hirshman’s comparisons among rights movements can feel a bit cold-blooded), “Victory” is ultimately a deeply moving narrative of a not-quite-finished freedom struggle.