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At Dockside: Mermaids and The Bomb

"109 EAST PALACE: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos" by Jennet Conant. Simon & Schuster, nonfiction, 425 pp. $26.95.
THEY WERE TOLD AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE. Their orders were to go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and report for work at a classified Manhattan Project site, a location so covert it was known to them only by the mysterious address: 109 East Palace. There, behind a wrought-iron gate and narrow passageway just off the touristy old plaza, they were greeted by Dorothy McKibbin, an attractive widow who was the least likely person imaginable to run a front for a clandestine defense laboratory. They stepped across her threshold into a parallel universe—the desert hideaway where Robert Oppenheimer and a team of world-scientists raced to build the first atomic bomb before Germany and bring World War II to an end.
Brilliant, handsome, extraordinarily charismatic, Oppenheimer based his unprecendented scientific enterprise in the high reaches of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, hoping that the land of enchantment would conceal and inspire their bold mission. Oppenheimer was as arrogant as he was inexperienced, and few believed the thirty-eight-year-old theoretical physicist would succeed.
Jennet Conant captures all the exhilaration and drama of those perilous twenty-seven months at Los Alamos, a secret city cut off from the rest of society, ringed by barbed wire, where Oppenheimer and his young recruits lived as virtual prisoners of the U. S. government. With her dry humor and eye for detail, Conant chronicles the chaotic beginnings of Oppenheimer's by-the-seat-of-his-pants operation, where freshly minted secretaries and worldly scientists had to contend with living conditions straight out of pioneer days. Despite all the obstacles, Oppie managed to forge a vibrant community at Los Alamos through the sheer force of his personality. Dorothy, who fell for him at the first sight, devoted herself to taking care of him and his crew and supported him through the terrifying preparations for the test explosion at Trinity and the harrowing aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Less than a decade later, Oppenheimer became the focus of suspicion during the McCarthy witch hunts. When he and James B. Conant, one of the top administrators of the Manhattan Project (and the author's grandfather), led the campaign against the hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer's past left-wing sympathies were used against him, and he was found to be a security risk and stripped of his clearance. Though Dorothy tried to help clear his name, she saw the man she loved disgraced.
In this riveting and deeply moving account, drawing on a wealth of research and interviews with close family and colleagues, Jennet Conant reveals an exceptionally gifted and enigmatic man who served his country at tremendous personal cost and whose singular achievement, and subsequent undoing, is at the root of our present nuclear predicament.
"The Mermaid Chair" by Sue Monk Kidd. Penguin Group, fiction-hard cover, 326 pp. $24.95.
Sue Monk Kidd's stunning debut, "The Secret Life of Bees," spent 77 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, selling more than 3 million copies and transforming Kidd into a genuine literary star. Now, in her much-anticipated new novel, Kidd has woven a transcendent tale that will thrill her legion of fans and cement her reputation as one of the most remarkable writers at work today.
Jessie Sullivan's conventional life has been "molded to the smallest space possible." But when she is called home to tiny Egret Island and meets Brother Thomas, a monk who is soon to take his final vows, she discovers a freedom that feels overwhelmingly right. Also on the island is a beautiful and mysterious chair that is dedicated to a saint who, legend claims, was first a mermaid. Is its power only a myth? Or will it alter the course of Jessie's life? "The Mermaid Chair vividly illuminates a woman's awakening with a brilliance and power that only a writer of Kidd's ability could conjure.
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