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Monday, September 19, 2011

Off Broadway, Off Bestseller List~Often Best Book Gems! "My God, What Have We Done?" by Susan V. Weiss

Published by:  Fomite Press, Burlington, VT
Pages:  479
Courtesy of:  TLC Book Tours

Book Summary:

In a world afflicted with war, toxicity, and hunger, does what we do in our private lives really matter?

Fifty years after the creation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, newlyweds Pauline and Clifford visit that once-secret city on their honeymoon, compelled by Pauline’s fascination with Oppenheimer, the soulful scientist. The two stories emerging from this visit reverberate back and forth between the loneliness of a new mother at home in Boston and the isolation of an entire community dedicated to the development of the bomb. While Pauline struggles with unforeseen challenges of family life, Oppenheimer and his crew reckon with forces beyond all imagining.

Finally the years of frantic research on the bomb culminate in a stunning test explosion that echoes a rupture in the couple’s marriage. Against the backdrop of a civilization that’s out of control, Pauline begins to understand the complex, potentially explosive physics of personal relationships.

At once funny and dead serious, My God, What Have We Done? sifts through the ruins left by the bomb in search of a more worthy human achievement.

About the Author:

Susan Weiss is a writer and a teacher who lives in Burlington, Vermont. Her stories have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies. In addition to teaching adult literacy and expository and creative writing, she has initiated community-outreach writing projects for offenders, refugees, and homeless people.

Visit Susan at her website, susanvweiss.com.  And, for more information visit:  http://gallery.pleasantstreetweb.com/ for a live interview of Susan and a reading from the novel; as well as, reviews from other authors.

Now~The Dame's Review:

My entry title here expresses the Ayn Rand-based theory I have that not all of the best authors and books make it to the "Matinee'" of the Bestseller's List.  As Ms Rand tells us by way of "The Fountainhead," it's often the CRITICS (the "they's" whoever they are) who determine what that list means...who gets on it, which books are best, which authors are fabulous and approved, which art works are genius; well, you know exactly what I mean.  We all saw President Obama get the Peace Prize, didn't we?  :]

In the case of "My God, What Have We Done?" we've left this extraordinarily telling book and its author off the list of new voices in literature!  That is to say, some have; but I'm not going to. 

This is an odd-duck of a book, an unlikely storyline that makes one shake her head at first glance.  Let's face it, it's one of those books that may not engage anyone but the connoisseur of strange books.  It's one that begs the question, why not just two books on either subject?  Ha!  But there are those of us who are the scrappers and connoisseurs of excellent books not discovered by the ordinary readers.  Does this make us book snobs? Hmmm

This is one of those gems all bookish scavengers hope to find when they go hunting on Sundays at old and new bookstores.  This is the kind of book you ferret out at the old "Book Nook" on Main Street that's had hand-selected books for the past 92 years...chosen by Miss Alice who is still so bright she can make a grown man cringe for lack of knowledge of a book past or present!   This is The Book you gratefully take away with you to your reading retreat because she recommended it.  I think some of you understand what I'm saying.

Let me talk about the book as it pertained to me as an example of my generation post-WWII: 

I was born in 1950, just a whisper after the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.  What I recall of my early days is not hearing at all about the Japanese and their sufferings, but about the fears of the hydrogen bomb and who might have it and who might use it...against us...and how we need to be prepared for survival. 

I certainly recall the clothing of that age, as described in this delicious, historically-painted book.  I can see the hat that Oppie (Dr. Oppenheimer) wore so clearly in my mind's eye.  Ms Weiss brings me back to my childhood with her descriptions of the scientists in their white shirts and skinny ties, the military brass, fat Sears catalogs, women's fashions and early uses of condoms(I had no idea it wasn't for birth control!).  Her descriptions of the glories of the desert in New Mexico, and Los Alamos in particular, create a sadness in me for those who loved it like Oppie and his brother.  Certainly what they did was a blasphemy to him, and forever marred it's beauty. 

I recall at the age of 8 yrs. old spending play time in my little friend's family bomb shelter because it was filled with toys, food and bunk beds.  When she asked me if my family had one, I said I didn't know what it was.  And, when she told me, I was still confused at first. What was the bomb? How could we live in a world our parents thought might kill us? Why didn't we have our own bomb shelter?  We didn't have one, so that meant we were going to die.  Simple deduction for an 8 yr. old, especially one living in FL in the 1950's.

When I was 13 years old, my military father told me if war was declared he would shoot each of us and then himself so we wouldn't have to suffer through it.  What?  We were living in Germany at the time.  He said we would make a run for the mountains, but if we couldn't get there, he would have to kill all of us to keep us from suffering, so he was going to shoot us in the head. He just wanted me to know. I believed him.  He meant it.  My dad was not an insane or vicious man. He was very protective of us, in fact. What it said to me was there were horrors of war we hadn't even imagined out there! Before he died a couple of years ago, I asked him about the state of the world and what he thought of the terrorists and the Middle East.  He just looked at me and shook his head, he said, "I have no idea anymore.  I don't know now what to expect. It's more frightening than I've ever seen it."

This is the world the Manhattan Project left for the children of my generation...its generation...to live with.  And, so, the legacy continues.  The legacy continues.  We are inundated with dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels mostly in the young adult genre.  Surprising?  What are we telling our children?

Susan Weiss gives a brilliantly gorgeous portrait of Robert Oppenheimer, the man, the scientist, the husband, and the military guardian of the Manhattan Project.

I found her story of him, his dedicated staff of scientists (fizzlers=physicists & stinkers=chemists), their wives, General Groves the military command officer, the security/concentration camp-like quarters and the deprivations they endured just absorbing. 

I was glued to my chair hour after hour, greedy for more information on Oppenheimer and his men; how the women survived without their husbands though they were on base, isolated, lonely, both men and women drinking too much alcohol and confined to their labs or houses....all sworn to secrecy and silence for years. I was appalled at what they all sacrificed because they believed in the effort. It was heartbreaking to have an inkling of how they may have felt when it dawned on them that their beautiful work, their dedication to truth and learning, to a higher good, would be used as a weapon of mass destruction; and soon!
That there would never again be a safe place on earth, but that the journey of life on earth itself was colored forever by death; and their devoted work had made it so.

Ms Weiss has much to say about the moral dilemmas of  creating the "gadget," as it was called for security purposes.  The men/scientists and Oppie started out earnestly believing that they were on a mission to create a weapon that would end the war with Hitler, and would end all wars forever. 

They believed it was a discovery that would be a valiant thing, something that would cause the world governments to stand down, to share and join in harmony.  Through their discovery, they thought to hand the world the greatest of moral blessings--the reality that this discovery could end the world, which meant no one would want to use it; which meant an end to all future wars. Because they all thought the same way, didn't they?  Well, not the President, not the military, not the Europeans, not the Japanese, not the Russians... 

Not until the war ended with Hitler, and as their work continued, did they actually realize that it would be more than they'd anticipated.  But, didn't they all want to continue the work?  Hadn't the work a life of it's own that was more than the sum of their individual parts?  Weren't they supposed to finish the race to be the first ones there?  People said Oppie was a pawn of the military and the government, that he was tricked--but was he, really? 

Oppenheimer became a shell of a man who fought with his own inner demons.  He was broken by what he had allowed to happen.  He ultimately felt he had "blood on his hands" and that he had committed a mortal sin.  This connection of the hydrogen bomb and its ultimate consequences drained the great scientist of his life's blood.  Though she doesn't mention it, I believe that Oppie spent a great deal of his last years in St. John's, Virgin Islands, walking the beaches.  I wonder if his spirit was ever the same.

That is one side, and now this is the other side of Ms. Weiss's novel: She juxtaposes the questions of the hydrogen bomb race and its affects on the humans involved, with the relationships of a young married couple 50 years after the bomb. 

The human condition; right and wrong, angst and an examination of why we engage in a commitment without really considering the far-reaching good and evil, is studied with her renderings of Pauline and Clifford.

 She has us consider the consequences of marrying someone when slightly in doubt of them, when there are serious differences in world views, and responses are nearly opposite to various circumstances. What happens when we "turn a blind eye" to something when it stands in the way of what we want to do more? Through the life of Pauline and Clifford, we see a microcosm of the struggles and moral consequences that took its toll on the Los Alamos "family" of Dr. Oppenheimer.

Pauline is a disbeliever.  She has a squinty-eyed perspective on life, sees the glass half empty, likes to accentuate the negative and grouse a bit.  After having considered various boyfriends and finding them lacking as marriage partners, she decides she finds Clifford the least offensive.  'though she's doubtful about whether his optimistic, kindly, accepting ways will wear well on her, ultimately.  She's hoping to learn to love him and that his ways will be melded with hers.

What occurs is the same sort of horrors that happen to the men and women who were at the Los Alamos encampment:
isolation in the move & job loss, a husband who's work is all-consuming, less than suitable living conditions, financial constraints, difficult pregnancy.  Lack of communication with each other, boredom, depression, loss of interest, lethargy and alcohol.  Like the women of Los Alamos, Pauline begins to drink just to get through the evening.  And, like Oppie, who is described as a manic chain-smoker, Clifford begins to reengage in smoking.  Self-destructive behaviors.   And, then the question of dissolving the marriage when there are children involved.  The legacy of destruction brought on by faulty decision-making?

 Weiss has written a book that is frankly one I would put on the Best New Author's list at any book store.  This is her first book, although when read it's apparent that she is a well-seasoned writer.  Her novel is a compelling read.  It's nearly 500 pages were worth every line and paragraph in interesting detail.  It's a book for full discussion over dinner with like-minded friends.

Her characters are lush and so fully developed I could almost identify them as people I've known.  The situations she places Pauline in that lead her into self-discovery are perfect!  Pauline's heartbreaking moments are so real.  Though Clifford is an unassuming guy, his character is strong and charming; his devotion, trust and love refreshing.  He's the man we want our daughters to marry because he'll always be good to them.  Won't he?  Or, is that unassuming charm hiding his passive aggressive tendencies? 

There are so many perfect and profound moments in this highly unlikely novel.  In this "find" of a novel, we have a lush and amazing story that has the ability to shake us someplace deep inside. 

There's a key here to the mystery we've been living.  There's some insight here to understanding.  Not that all is forgiven, but that if one looks at it from the perspective of one's own marriage or personal relationships...perhaps there's a glimmer of acknowledgement that our hidden agendas can become the undoing of us.  That not taking time to consider all the possibilities, and acting too hurriedly may ultimately cause a chain reaction of the deepest kind of regret. 

There are other epiphanies from this fine novel which I simply dare not disclose because you will want to find them yourself.  I urge you to go on the hunt, you lovers of a great book, you seekers and finders...

Deborah/TheBookishDame   gives this 5 shining stars!

I'm happy to have been a TLC Tour Host for this book.

Follow Susan's other Tours:

Tuesday, September 20th: “That’s Swell!”
Wednesday, September 21st: Lit Endeavors
Thursday, September 22nd: The Well-Read Wife



Wow, what a ringing endorsement! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page to help get the word out about this amazing read.

Thanks for the great review and for being a part of the tour.

Susan V. Weiss

This was an unusually interesting review. I enjoyed your personal recollections of the bomb era and believe I may even have learned something about my own book!
Thank you so much for "getting" my novel and for encouraging others to read it.

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