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Secrets of the Plutonium Pit, Growing Up in Parallel Universes, Strange Consequences of a Fictional Forest Fire, and More Books Available Now

A photorealistic illustration showing a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb explosion.
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NON-FICTION

Countdown: The blinding future of nuclear weapons
by Sarah Scoles
Bold Books, 2024 ($30)

The central premise of Sarah Scoles’ fascinating new book is at once simple and disconcerting: The United States is in the midst of a massive renewal campaign to upgrade its geriatric nuclear arsenal, and yet no one, not even the people charged with that task , knows exactly how. operate these weapons. The inner workings of the most destructive thing ever built by humans remains largely a mystery.

From that starting point, Scoles, who collaborates with American scientist, ventures into a kaleidoscopic interrogation of the strange and secret fraternity that is the United States nuclear sector. Traditionally, it is not a particularly explored space, despite our recent, oppenheimerObsession fueled by everything atomic. The reality of modern nuclear weapons work is both far less spectacular and far more intricate than one might imagine: an entire alphabet of agencies with acronyms responsible for everything from cleaning up radioactive spills to conducting nuclear-style investigations. CSI on hypothetical dirty bomb detonations.

In its most interesting form, Countdown is an exploration of uncertainty in a field whose impressive destructive capacity makes uncertainty deeply worrying. Due to bans on surface nuclear testing, the traditional method of finding out how nuclear bombs work (i.e., blowing them up) is no longer feasible. So scientists are left with computer models and other esoteric techniques to try to discover, for example, how radioactive matter in nuclear bombs changes over many decades of storage.

Unfortunately, the weakest part of the book is outside Scoles’ control. Few facets of government work are as classified as the nuclear program, and as a result, many anecdotes and narrative threads come to an abrupt halt, not at a satisfying conclusion, but rather when the paper trail becomes inaccessible or when an interview subject becomes inaccessible. becomes reticent.

However, Scoles gets to the heart of the many paradoxes that frame the nuclear age. The people he talks to (some of them inspired to do this work because they believe that nuclear weapons are a means of deterrence, a means of making the world safer) are clearly involved in their own internal struggles with doubts about themselves. In this way, a book that chronicles the administrators of our deadliest weapons of war sometimes becomes the story of people at silent war with themselves. —Omar El Akkad

Soon

twice lived
by Joma West
Tordotcom, 2024 ($26.99)

Joma West’s urgent novel imagines a reality in which, from the womb to adolescence, some children “change” at unpredictable intervals, disappearing into a parallel world, leaving their selves, their names, and their families behind until they return. At some point they settle into a single existence. This moving book explores how different upbringings can create different selves, focusing on a teenage girl (Canna in one life and Lily in the other) and her mother in each location, who fear that the coming change will mean Canna/Lily will never return. As each iteration of the protagonist strives to remain in the world she loves, West’s energetic, chatty set design proves as emotionally resonant as the premise is conceptually. —Alan Scherstuhl

A Fire So Wild: A Novel
by Sarah Ruiz-Grossman
Harper, 2024 ($25.99)

Sarah Ruiz-Grossman presents a passionate but critical observation of the devastating effects of a California wildfire that indiscriminately disrupts the lives of residents from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Wealthy Abigail hosts fundraisers for low-income housing, but now finds her own house reduced to ashes. Sunny, a homeless construction worker, was promised one of the new apartments, but the fire put him on hold. Gabriel, a middle-income high school teacher, and his ex-wife search for his teenage daughter, who was with Abigail’s son during the fire. Ruiz-Grossman’s insightful commentary reveals the inequality and injustices of climate change for people simply trying to live their lives. —wild lorraine

Birding to Change the World: A Memoir
by Trish O’Kane
Echo, 2024 ($29.99)

Trish O’Kane, struggling to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, becomes an “accidental birdwatcher” when her connection with a single cardinal opens her eyes to the hope and healing of birdwatching. As a Ph.D. A student and passionate amateur ornithologist in Wisconsin, O’Kane attempts to defend local bird populations against constant threats by emulating the birds themselves: a murmuring starling, a gallon of geese, a flock of squawking crows represent “attributes, talents and qualities.” of the birds”. skills our species urgently needs.” Fascinating revelations (even about the humble sparrow) punctuate this thoughtful discussion of complex birding topics, such as wildlife management and environmental justice. —Dana Dunham

Covers of the four books.

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