Last year I chose All God's Children, a terrific book that deserves to be more widely known. This year I'm going for a book that could hardly be better known. Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb scooped the big three prizes – the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award – and turns out to be every bit as impressive as its immense reputation. How did one man write such a book? The story converges on two dates, in two places – Hiroshima and Nagasaki – but to tell it Rhodes has to start waaay back and spread his reach to take in the discovery of the atom, the use of weapons against civilians, the flight of Jews from Nazi Germany, military strategy, engineering, political wrangling, and god knows what else. The cast of characters is huge, the command of narrative unerring, and the science is compelling even if it remains – to me – largely incomprehensible. A great, great book that reminded me of something I tend to forget. The thought of starting out on a 1000-page book of non-fiction is rather off-putting, especially if you are doing so with no particular aim in mind. But once such a book has you in its thrall it feels like it takes no more time or effort to get through than a three-hundred page novel. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
At the risk of telling American readers something they already know all about, Fox Butterfield’s All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence is brilliant and devastating. First published in 1995 (and reissued by Vintage in 2008 ), it begins with Butterfield's reporting on a young prison inmate, Willie Bosket, who, in 1988, was tried for stabbing a prison guard. Bosket had committed a double murder when he was fifteen, and as Butterfield delves into his history he discovers that Bosket’s father had also been convicted for a double murder. And so he looks back at the lives of generations of the Bosket family, right back to emancipation, the Civil War, and slavery. In Britain these days "respect" is the most debased word in the English language; each year numerous murders result from the notion that the perpetrators had been treated with insufficient respect by someone whom they promptly stabbed. The same thing has been going on in America where, I'm guessing, the verb "to diss" originated. Butterfield convincingly traces this ghettoized idea of respect to the white southern "honor" code - itself imported from the European aristocracy - which demanded satisfaction (in the form of duels) in the face of any slight. The narrative of this investigative genealogy is valuable in itself (even if there are moments when Butterfield seems in danger of being swayed by his own rhetoric) but it’s the close-up story of Willie and his father that makes the book so compelling: the constant, cliffhanging hope of the possibility of redemption matched by the attendant fear of something ever more dreadful about to be unleashed. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.