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Fallout, by Steve Sheinkin

We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but we do need to acknowledge that the planet is now covered with toothpaste.

After the bombs dropped at the end of World War II, the government encouraged scientists to create an even more destructive weapon using nuclear fusion, instead of fission. At first, they couldn’t figure out how to ignite the fusion bomb without obliterating the launch pad, but at last, of course, they got it. As we learned in Sheinkin’s earlier works, even deadly secrets don’t stay hidden for long, and so, the world moved rapidly from having zero nuclear weapons to a world where the two superpowers at the time— the United States and the Soviet Union— were armed to the teeth with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire planet many times over.

Transitioning from the Eisenhower administration through Kennedy’s presidency, Sheinkin details the confrontations between Nikita Khrushchev and the American leader, not in physical battles, but in the excruciating brinksmanship that dragged on over years in what is called the Cold War. He spends many pages explaining the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis, not only in the overt actions by both sides, but also in each leader’s political posturing and private considerations, showing that Khrushchev thought of the new American president as young and weak, while Kennedy struggled against both physical pain and his own bellicose generals. If it had been left to General Curtis LeMay or Cuba’s new dictator, Fidel Castro, the Cold War would have been short and catastrophic. It is sickening to read of the many close calls that took place just within the few days of the Missile Crisis: prank phone calls, US pilots straying into Soviet airspace accidentally, and misinformation falling into the wrong hands. Complete destruction was just a breath away.

Sheinkin is the master of young adult historical nonfiction. His previous books have won multiple awards, and I’ve reviewed Bomb, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, and Most Dangerous in this blog space. To be honest, the 342 pages of this book are just about right for most adults who want to be conversant on the topic without slogging through excessive, tedious detail. Sheinkin’s writing is more like a spy novel than a textbook, and readers will gain context for why the Berlin wall was such a big deal and how building rockets for exploring the universe turned into the Space Race. Even though I was a child for some of these events, I learned a lot! My brother and I spent hours discussing this book. Not only is he ten years older than I am, he is also a historian, so I knew he would be up on all of it. He told me that Barbara Powers, the wife of the downed pilot/spy Francis Gary Powers, had lived in our hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, while he was in a Soviet prison, and that our next-door neighbor, who owned the radio station where my brother worked, had interviewed her for national television. The federal government was openly encouraging citizens to dig bomb shelters in their backyards at the time, and he clearly remembered a few obvious ones in our town.

Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown is a thrilling nonfiction read for anyone twelve or older. The toothpaste is most assuredly out of the tube, and the most chilling thing about this book is that the world is far more fractured now than it was then, and there are even more nuclear bombs in many more hands today.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Most Dangerous, by Steve Sheinkin

Most DangerousWhen I was a little girl, my older brother enlisted in the army during the Vietnam War. I remember my parents anxiously watching the news each night, appalled and afraid of the massive casualties being inflicted on U.S. troops. The numbers we see in a year now could be killed in one day in that brutal slaughter. However, because my brother had already had experience with radio work, he was sent into intelligence and did not have to go to the front lines.

A few years later, I remember watching the resignation of Richard Nixon with my family in a hotel room in Williamsburg, Virginia, while we were on vacation. It was one of those moments in history that stays locked in one’s mind. My parents were staunch Democrats and were relieved that he was leaving.

And that is about it for my knowledge of the Vietnam War, which had become swirled in my mind with the Korean War as portrayed by the TV show M*A*S*H. The name of Daniel Ellsberg was vaguely familiar, but when I decided to read this book by Steve Sheinkin, I only did so because, 1) it is getting rave reviews, and 2) I know that Steve Sheinkin is a fantastic author, and I loved his book, Bomb, a couple of years ago. Happily for me—and for all of his readers—Most Dangerous reads like a spy thriller, but also makes the controversies and protests of the times understandable and immediate.

Daniel Ellsberg was a low-level analyst for the Pentagon, working under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. When he started, Ellsberg was a Cold Warrior like everyone else he knew, believing that his government was doing what was best for the people of the United States. After some time working in the government, as well as spending time in Vietnam, he began to think differently. The unending, brutal bloodshed, both on the American and Vietnamese sides, revealed itself to be politically motivated and pointless. Eventually, he found some secret files—the Pentagon Papers—and he felt obligated to bring them to the attention of the wider world. Although his freedom and even his life were threatened, Ellsberg remained so committed to his plan that Henry Kissinger called him “the most dangerous man in America.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book that may be astounding to teens is that documents were entirely made of paper at this time. For Ellsberg to get these papers to other people, he had to sneak them out of buildings, go to copy shops at night and manually copy them, then sneak them back in. There were also no cell phones, and land lines were often tapped. Ellsberg had to develop elaborate plans to get himself and the recipient of calls to pay phones to communicate. (What’s a pay phone?) These laborious maneuvers form some of the most nerve-wracking scenes in the book. Teens will be incredulous that it could take months to accomplish a task that now takes just the click of a mouse.

Sheinkin does a superb job of spinning a true story that not only informs, but also raises so many issues that are glaringly relevant today. What does it mean to be a patriot? Is it moral to continue to wage a war without a plan to actually win said war? Where is the crucial line between a government’s duty to keep the country safe and its lust for power afforded by the deception of those very same people? The epilogue tells the story of Edward Snowden. Sheinkin leaves room for discussion on both sides.

Although the publisher says that this book is written for 10- to 14-year-olds, I cannot imagine a ten-year-old enjoying it. Furthermore, the language can be quite salty; for example, some of the Nixon Tape transcripts are written out, and you probably know what they contain. Fourteen-year-olds, however, will devour it, as will adults. I read some aloud to my husband, and he picked it up when I was done. I am really hoping for at least a Printz Honor for this book, which was a National Book Award finalist.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, by Steve Sheinkin

ImageQuick quiz: Did you know that someone had tried to rob Lincoln’s grave? I didn’t until this book. You know a nonfiction book is good when you begin to annoy your family and everyone around you by starting every sentence with “Did you know…?”

The late 1800s were a bustling time for counterfeiters. One particularly gifted artist spent an entire year creating a copy of a twenty dollar bill, but then it paid off when the bills passed as genuine over and over. Coins were even easier: just make a mold of a real coin, fill it with cheap metal and paint on a very thin veneer of gold or silver, and there you are. There was an entire industry built around counterfeit currency, and at one time it was estimated that up to half of the money circulating in the U.S. was counterfeit! It was such a problem that the government created an entire department called the Secret Service just to catch counterfeiters. Yes, you read that right! Those guys in sunglasses originally tracked down fake money. It took three presidential assassinations in less than forty years for them to come up with the novel idea of assigning someone to watch over the president, and they chose the Secret Service for the job. I’m sure it was not because they had run out of counterfeit money.

What does the counterfeiting underground have to do with Abraham Lincoln, you’re asking? Here’s the connection: Billy Boyd, the talented engraver I mentioned above, had been captured and imprisoned, and the “coney men” missed him. The bills created by other artists were not passing as readily, and things were getting dicey. One small group of crooks decided to barter for Boyd’s release by planning to break into the Lincoln Monument in Springfield, Illinois, and steal Lincoln’s body, which they would then hide as ransom until the government met their conditions.

Naturally, there are always law officers watching the criminals, and there are also always weak men whose cooperation can be bought. I won’t tell you the details of the case, but it’s a tangled cat-and-mouse game with plenty of players on either side and a monument guard caught in the middle. Thankfully, Sheinkin provides a list of characters in the beginning of the book and helpful maps throughout. There are photographs and original documents—plus a bonus section on body-snatching— sprinkled through the book to help you remember that you’re reading a true story, not just an exciting crime novel.

Steve Sheinkin is one of the best narrative nonfiction writers out there for kids. Last year, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. The Newbery Committee liked it, too, and it won a Newbery Honor medal. This year, Sheinkin is in the running again with Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, and since the committee likes to have a nonfiction book in the mix, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up on the list. I have to admit that I enjoyed Bomb more than this one, and that the old-fashioned typewriter font distracted me from the story, although it coordinated nicely with the old photographs and documents. Still, boys (and girls) who love a good crime story or historical fiction will relish this page-turner that will open up a relatively unknown chapter in America’s past.

Recommended for ten and up.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Boom & Bang

David and I are Big Bang Theory fans. Ha! David and I are fanatical devotees of The Big Bang Theory, and have watched each season in order on Netflix. Now that Time Warner has given us an insanely great deal, we’ve been recording the current season on DVR and are completely caught up to date! Now I am in mourning that I don’t have anything else to watch. Michael will not watch it, saying that it hits way too close to home. However, he has been able to explain the more gaming-related episodes, although it makes him depressed that he can do that. David and I get all of the other jokes, as we are located somewhere on the periphery of the geek/nerd spectrum.

A couple of weeks ago, I brought home the new teen nonfiction book Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin, not because I am tremendously interested in nuclear weapons, but because it is getting lots of Newbery buzz, and I feel a moral obligation to read everything that is a contender for the Newbery. I put it on the coffee table in the living room, which is my sneaky way of getting my husband and son to read things they wouldn’t see otherwise. (I guess that jig’s up now.) David read it first and loved it, so I had to give it a go. He was upstairs when I started it, and when I got to page 11, I yelled up the stairs, “Sheldon is Robert Oppenheimer!” I could not believe it. Yes, I know that Sheldon and Leonard are physicists on the show, but I did not realize that they were based on actual people. I’m still not sure of Leonard, but Robert Oppenheimer was a tall, skinny, arrogant young physicist when he was chosen to head up the Manhattan Project. He was the type of guy who would audit other professors’ classes and call out things like, “Oh, please! Don’t insult our intelligence!” In other words, Sheldon Cooper.

Last week, Bomb was nominated for the National Book Award for Young People. I have finally finished it, and I agreeBook Cover that it is an excellent work of nonfiction. I learned so much!—although that may not be very impressive, since I must admit that the middle-school boys in the Newbery Club that I visited yesterday were way ahead of me in terms of scientific knowledge of things that go “boom.” The book begins with the discovery of fission in Germany and continues in detail through the Manhattan Project and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The very last chapters relate the development of the hydrogen fusion bomb and the last years of the major characters in this brilliant and horrifying passage in our history.

Another book that just came out in the past couple of months is Shadow on the Mountain, by Margi Preus. When I read the reviews, I thought, “the Norwegian resistance?” This must be a much larger topic than I realized, however, since Bomb devotes several chapters to the Norwegian resistance to the Nazis, and what a thrilling adventure it was! There are so many little-known people who give everything for the cause of freedom every day. We should be so thankful for them!

On the other hand, I was shocked and saddened to realize how little it takes for some people to become traitors to their country. Right from the beginning, the government worried about the physicists’ loyalty, since many of them had come from Germany and Russia. In some cases, their worries were unfounded, but very often, they were right to keep a close eye on these guys. The most crushing, to me, was Ted Hall, who graduated from college in physics at age 18 and was recruited for the Manhattan Project at age 19. Once he started working at Los Alamos, the other scientists thought he was just a quiet loner, but he was really spending a great deal of time deep in thought. He was considering whether it was appropriate for only one nation to have this enormous secret about how to build an atomic bomb. He decided that, since Russia was not our enemy, but was also fighting Germany, they should also have a nuclear weapon. So he found a convenient KGB agent and passed on the information. Everything. He knew everything, and he told them everything. And that is how Stalin tested a nuclear bomb very shortly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman was stunned. If you don’t know much about Stalin, please allow me to highly recommend last year’s Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys, a story based on the author’s grandparents. I was amazed to find out that there has been a human being even more evil than Hitler.

You might be able to tell by now that I really appreciated this book. At about 250 pages (depending on how much of the resource notes section you want to read), it is appropriate for teens and adults. There is some mild bad language in the quotes from the physicists, but they were scientists, not sailors, so you may be able to overlook it.

Now I have to go back to the Big Bang episode where Sheldon gets depressed and buys all those cats that he names after famous physicists. I may recognize some of the names this time!

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October 20, 2012 · 7:08 pm