Weekend reading / Nuclear war, office drama

The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor

I came upon the work of jour­nal­ist William Lang­weis­che in pre-Inter­net times, read­ing a fad­ed and dog-eared pho­to­copy of "The World In Its Extreme," a series of Atlantic Month­ly arti­cles that trace his trav­els across the Sahara desert. A vivid scene leaps to my when­ev­er I'm in an air­plane: He is on his way to a remote Sahara out­pust, fly­ing at a low alti­tude above the swel­ter­ing desert in a rick­ety old plane and sur­vey­ing an end­less expanse of what appears to be noth­ing­ness. I think of this as I pass over (my home­land) the Mid­west. Like the Mid­west, he finds that it's only most­ly noth­ing­ness, that there are actu­al inhab­i­tants and real-life oases, and his accounts of the peo­ple, places and cul­tures are real­ly riv­et­ing. (He expand­ed this piece in a book called Sahara Unveiled). Langewiesche's new book, The Atom­ic Bazaar, was the cov­er sto­ry of this week's NYT Book Review. I have no doubt that it will be great, even though the top­ic is one that I'd almost pre­fer to think about less: The cir­cum­stances under which a group of ter­ror­ists could acquire high­ly enriched ura­ni­um and then build a bomb. If you lis­ten to these NPR inter­views with him (part one; part two), you get the sense that it's a lot eas­i­er than it should be, but that the like­li­hood is still there. Now that the book is out there, I know I have to read it. 

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End

Then We Came to the End: A Novel

Ear­ly this week, I plowed through Then We Came to the End, the debut nov­el of Joshua Fer­ris. It's a book about office life at ad firm in the ear­ly 2000's, specif­i­cal­ly about how the fat, hap­py days of the late 90's give way to the slow, scary days of the ear­ly 2000's. In a nut­shell, real­i­ty crash­es into the fairy­tale; nor­mal­cy is shat­tered; there are efforts to deny the inevitable; the inevitable hap­pens; a new nor­mal­cy is even­tu­al­ly erect­ed amidst the rub­ble. It's good, though: Lots of inter­est­ing, authen­tic char­ac­ters, fun­ny dia­logue, a few geni­une­ly mov­ing moments. Geeks will appre­ci­ate that the nov­el is writ­ten in first-per­son plur­al omni­scient, mean­ing that the sto­ry is told from the point of view of "we," but the iden­ti­ty of the "I" behind the "we" is nev­er estab­lished. It works, I think. After 50 pages or so, I thought to myself: "Is he real­ly going to keep this up for the whole book?" But Fer­ris nev­er gets cutesy with it, and it effec­tive­ly evokes a very office-like sense of dis­as­so­ci­a­tion, of total incor­po­ra­tion into the whole, of mem­ber­ship in a group that has com­plete­ly assim­i­lat­ed the iden­ti­ties of its constituents.