Monthly Archives: April 2013

“The Girls of Atomic City” – Denise Kiernan

While reading The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan, I surprised even myself with the strength of my response to the book: part anger at the way the world used to work, part appreciation at how much has changed.  I had to constantly remind myself that it was a different era, and that it isn’t fair to apply modern standards to past events.  Beautifully written, and an absolutely fantastic read, but it still was unsettling to see what my life could have been like, not too long ago.

Kiernan tells the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II, and more specifically, the story of the women who lived and worked there, making the atomic bomb possible.  Thousands of civilians (most of them female) worked in secrecy for over two years, hidden from the outside world, and told nothing about the jobs they were doing.  Workers knew enough to perform their assigned tasks, and no more.  Questions were forbidden; curiosity frowned upon.  Even those who did manage to piece together a few suspicions didn’t talk about their conclusions.  The simplest social cues became fraught with unintended meaning: asking a friend or spouse “How was your day?” could cause serious problems.  All of this secrecy and silence, on top of the pressures and difficulties of war that the rest of the country dealt with on a daily basis.

As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder how well I would have fared in such an environment; could I have done what these women (and men, too) did?  I honestly don’t know.  We live in such a different age, a more cynical one, less inclined to take things at face value and more inclined to question everything we’re told.  In a society accustomed to information overload, I don’t know that I could have stood having such a sudden paucity.  Constrained silence isn’t my style, either; I love to talk, and very often speak before I think – another facet of life at Oak Ridge which only increases my admiration for these remarkable women.

The anger I described in my first paragraph comes purely from the fact that this is an accurate snapshot of the period – and all the casual and ingrained sexism that comes with it.  To take one of the more egregious examples, Jane Greer, one of the statisticians who tracked production at the Y-12 plant, initially wanted to be an engineer.  However, while registering for courses at the University of Tennessee, she was yanked out of line and told that females weren’t allowed to matriculate in engineering.  Instead, she could study statistics.  This was just one example among many in the book – situations where these ladies handled themselves with incredible grace and poise, whereas I doubt I could have managed such sangfroid in their shoes.

Okay, rant over; I’m going to step down off my soapbox, because this really isn’t what the book is about.  The treatment of women as second-class citizens, pervasive as that attitude is throughout the era, was only one aspect of life at Oak Ridge.  For the most part, Kiernan’s cast of characters persevere, working around or through this mindset as best they can, and ignoring what they cannot change.  It’s the fault of the historical setting, nothing more.  Moving on.

I loved this book.

It’s a fascinating read, peering behind the veil of secrecy and classified information, but at times a frustrating one.  Kiernan has deliberately constructed her narrative to reflect (at least partially) the same sense of compartmentalization that dictated every aspect of life at Oak Ridge during the war.  Code names are everywhere, and even uranium and plutonium are never described by their proper names, at least until the “Girls” discover (to some degree, anyway) exactly what they were doing for over two years – which doesn’t occur until the bombs are dropped on Japan.  In between narrating the lives of individual women, Kiernan places the work at Oak Ridge in the larger context of both the scientific discoveries that led up to the bomb, and World War II making the bomb a necessity.  Again, the focus is on the female contributions, and the story is usually told through their eyes.  Men aren’t ignored­, far from it – they make vital contributions and are important characters, but this just isn’t their book.

Overall, it’s a remarkable story, one not really told until now; a more nuanced look at the “Rosie the Riveter” image.  By the end, you really care about the women – their stories are occasionally sad, often hilarious, but always entertaining.  After the war, some left Oak Ridge; other stayed and made their lives in what was supposed to be a temporary installation.  Amazingly, most of the “Girls” mentioned by name are still alive, and Kiernan was lucky enough to interview them in writing her book.  As with other World War II veterans, however, they are growing older, and their experiences will vanish with them.  This is a story that needed to be told, now, before it’s too late.



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“A Grown-up Kind of Pretty” – Joshilyn Jackson

There is so much to love about Joshilyn Jackson’s A Grown-up Kind of Pretty that I have trouble knowing where to begin.  The title is what first caught my eye, I suppose – it’s so Southern, so concise, and so evocative of a common thread throughout the novel.  the novel revolves around three generations of women, two of whom know only too well the price to be paid for growing up too soon, and desperately seeking to prevent that same fate from befalling the third.  Funny, tragic and tender by turns, the novel made me both laugh and cry – occasionally at the same time.  At the heart of the story is a mystery, and a very literal skeleton in the closet that sends all the characters digging through their pasts, in an effort to unsnarl a suddenly very tangled future.

Every fifteenth year is a “bad year” for the Slocumb women; it’s an unlucky number for them.  Ginny (usually called Big) got pregnant at fifteen, and her daughter Liza followed in her footsteps.  Now the bad year has come around again, and both women are doing everything in their power to keep granddaughter Mosey from continuing the cycle (as everyone in Immita, Mississippi expects).  To further complicate matters, Liza has suffered a debilitating stroke, and now Ginny has unearthed a box containing tiny bones in the backyard.

The narrative rotates amongst the three as they deal with the fallout from this revelation, which could destroy everything they hold dear.  Big wants the problem to go away, and is determined to protect her family, no matter the cost.  Mosey, being a headstrong teenager, is just as determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.  In contrast, Liza knows the answers the questions raised the macabre discovery; her difficulty lies in finding a way to communicate them, silenced as she is by her “brain event”.

Each narrator has a unique voice, each character strongly defined and yet clearly related.  Big and Mosey tell their stories in the first person (which is a delight) – something of which Liza is simply incapable.  Her stroke severely impaired the language center of her brain, almost completely robbing her of words.    Liza’s thoughts come in images and memories as she struggles to come back to herself.

I love the Liza chapters precisely because Jackson manages to convey Liza’s thought processes and personality while at the same time demonstrating exactly how limited she still is, imprisoned in her damaged brain and body.  She has to constantly fight against the waves of oblivion that threaten to overwhelm her as she struggles to dredge up the memories that will pull all the pieces together, and must work even harder to share those answers with others.

The language throughout the novel is simply incredible: expressive, insightful, quirky and usually downright hilarious.  All Slocumbs apparently have a very dry wit (even Liza manages withering sarcasm inside her head), and nothing and no one is immune from their verbal jabs.  With every page I turned, I found myself constantly grinning at various turns of phrase – Big in particular can’t resist snarking at or about everyone and everything around her, even if the topic at hand is a tragic one.  Her account of the night of Liza’s stroke?  I kept cracking up at her descriptions and observations, even as I held my breath, heart pounding, waiting for the penny to drop.

Mosey has inherited the family sense of humor, use of language and way of speaking, although she is very much her own person.  The poor girl has kissed a boy exactly once, in the sixth grade, and yet she squirrels away pregnancy tests, using a steady stream of negatives as a talisman, hoping to ward off her family’s legacy.  She carries the weight of the town’s expectations on her shoulders; everyone assumes that she will turn out exactly like her mother and grandmother, no matter what she does to defy their predictions.  Fortunately, she has two amazing best friends to help her get to the bottom of the mystery buried in the backyard.  I’m actually jealous of her in that respect – I want friends like Patti and Roger.

The conclusion leaves many issues unresolved, which is no small part of its charm; the lives of our girls are still messy, still complicated, loose threads left dangling.  Yet it is satisfying for all its incompleteness, because it ends  with hope.  Liza has made several steps along the road to recovery, continuing to improve, and “will regain the two-sided smile that Mosey remembers”.  Mosey is at peace, out from under the hovering shadow of her family’s legacy – she’s come to terms with it, and is able to develop an identity of her own.  Big is slowly learning to look for joy in life, instead of just watching out for trouble and keeping her head down.  It’s not perfect, and there are plenty of pitfalls ahead of them – the “bad year” isn’t over yet.  But at the end of the day, they have each other, things are slowly getting better, and that’s enough.


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“Hello, Goodby, Hello” – Craig Brown

“Some are funny.  Some are painful.  Some are unpleasant….  All are true.”

-Roald Dahl, Boy

 One of my favorite features of signed books is that they are fantastic gifts: the author’s signature puts the cherry on top of an already great present, even if it’s a book that individual has already read, or already owns.  A sizeable chunk of our customers come in specifically to find the right signed book for a particular occasion: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, or just because.  In most cases, they already have a pretty clear idea of the intended recipient’s tastes in literature, and we on the staff are able to make recommendations accordingly: non-fiction, history, biography, southern writers, fantasy, mysteries, or a specific author.

Sometimes, however, someone truly has no idea what he or she is looking for in a gift, only that it should be a signed book.  This can be rather tricky: the last thing you want to do is give the exact wrong book as a present.  Ideally, then, we try to recommend a title that has a little something for everyone.

For me, the go-to book in these scenarios is Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings by British satirist Craig Brown.  Other reviewers have no doubt done it far greater justice than I possibly could – including The New York Times.    Certainly, I love the book in and of itself, and it’s one of my “Staff Picks”.  However, aside from its value as an incredibly entertaining read, it’s an excellent choice as a gift, for any occasion, for anyone.

In exactly 1001 words each, Brown recounts 101 meetings between truly remarkable individuals – all of which happened almost exactly as written.

“Everything in this book is documented.  Nothing is invented. When accounts of the same meeting differ, as they almost always do, I have sided with the most likely.”

Furthermore, he manages to link all 101 stories together in a perfect circle of coincidence.  He opens with a chance encounter between a young man named John Scott Ellis, and Adolf Hitler.  Ellis then meets Rudyard Kipling, who in turn meets Mark Twain, who is introduced to Helen Keller, and so on and so forth.  In the concluding account, he winds the chain up neatly by documenting the meeting between the Duchess of Windsor and Hitler.  There is also a handy “Note to the U.S. Edition”, which gives some context for readers (like myself, despite my rampant Anglophilia) who may not be quite as familiar with certain celebrities from across the pond.

The first anecdote in the collection is particularly memorable: John Scott Ellis is learning to drive in 1930s Munich when he runs into a man stepping off the curb.  Fortunately, the man is uninjured and gracious about the incident, brushing it off as nothing.  Only later does Ellis’ traveling companion inform him of the victim’s identity.

Yes, young Mr. Ellis hits Hitler with his car, and as a result gets to spend the rest of his life wishing he’d been going just a little bit faster.  Of course, as every good sci-fi writer knows, you can’t kill Hitler  , so perhaps he should have been less hard on himself.

Because the book is divided up into short, bite-sized segments, one can read it for three hours or three minutes: perfect for both the hard-core reader and the dilettante.   Readers who prefer nonfiction will be engrossed; since most of the accounts are so outlandish and improbable, those who favor fiction will be equally fascinated.  It contains good, solid, thoroughly-researched history – but is not so densely written as to be overwhelming.  Brown combines truly biting sarcasm with a rare gift for understatement, for an engaging and enthralling read.  There is comedy and tragedy in equal measure, often in the same chapter.

Something for everyone, indeed.


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Why Signed Books?

Why signed books? 

This question (or some variation thereof) gets asked all the time, especially by first-time visitors, and even more so after our remodel and conversion last summer.  What is the benefit of buying a signed book over an unsigned one?  Why should we buy a signed book from you guys, rather than just order it from Amazon, which has a larger selection of titles?  What’s the logic behind exclusively carrying signed books?

We actually do have some method to our madness – there are three main reasons to buy a signed book.

1) Owning a signed book gives you a fantastic warm fuzzy feeling.

I’ve just started my personal collection of signed books, but I treasure each and every one that I own.  There is something just so incredibly cool about the knowledge that the author signed my personal copy of that particular book.  You own something the author has touched and personalized, giving you a connection with him or her that you really can’t get from an e-reader.

I probably would have decided that Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm would be my Christmas present to myself, even unsigned (yes, yes, I’m mentally twelve).  I enjoy his other work, and the idea of a new, annotated translation of classic fairy stories was intriguing, to say the least.  There was still a pretty good chance, however, that I would have just checked it out from the library, instead of buying it.

With a signed bookplate inside, that “probably” became a “definitely”.


2) A signed book makes a much more personal gift than an unsigned one.

Signed or unsigned, books make incredible presents.  I have a tote bag printed with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read.”  I’m inclined to agree – the best gift I can possibly receive is a book (hint, hint).

But a signed book also gives the recipient that warm “I-own-a-signed-book” glow: two gifts for the price of one.

A new customer came in the other day, shopping for a friend who loves Richard Russo.  I showed him Elsewhere, and he whipped out his phone to call the intended recipient, to make sure he didn’t already have that particular book.

Then he realized that this copy was a signed first edition, and the phone went back in his pocket.  Whether or not his friend already owned Elsewhere was irrelevant – he didn’t have a signed copy.


3) A signed first edition is a great investment.

Not all of our signed books go up in value, but a lot of them do, especially the ones we choose for our Signed First Edition Club each month.  To pick one example among many, signed first editions of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (which we selected in February 2009) are now valued at several hundred dollars each.  We have signed first editions by Pat Conroy, Rick Bragg, E.O. Wilson, Erin Morgenstern, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Robert McCammon and many others – all worth far more now than when they were originally published.  We also have other signed firsts that are currently selling for the recommended retail price – but not for much longer.


Warm fuzzies inside, fantastic gifts, and a good investment, all in one neat little volume.

That’s why signed books.


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