Book report: Fresh insights into Robert Oppenheimer

Last week I wrote about yet another book about Lawrence of Arabia.

Today, it’s about the father of the Atomic Bomb, who has been written about endlessly because of the stink caused by the McCarthy era and the suspicions of the brilliant physicist’s loyalties.

However “Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center,” by Ray Monk (Doubleday $37.95) brings more fresh insights to the character in the signature flat-top porkpie hat who stirred up so much controversy.

(In fact the hat as so famous that in Physics Today journal, editors would simply show a picture of the hat to inform readers there would be a story inside by or about Oppenheimer.)

What fascinated me in this outing by a British historian was the settings in which Oppenheimer found himself, especially in the 1930s when he had finally arrived at the physics forefront.

The environment was basically Bohemian.  He and his brother Frank belonged to all kinds of left-wing front organizations when he was teaching at Berkeley.

Little wonder and he paid for those associations when the McCarthy era appeared after World War II.

He denied ever belonging to the Communist Party, but said he had belonged to more front organizations than his communist wife.

Later he said that remark was meant to be a joke.

His wife, Kitty, was a real piece of work.

At one point Monk describes her as a woman “despised by all” and the glossy photos that stud the book show her as grim indeed.

She was married, by my count, four times, to Oppenheimer and before that a homosexual drug addict musician, an English doctor, a communist labor organizer in Youngstown Ohio, where she joined the Communist Party and tried to sell copies of the Daily Worker on the streets of Youngstown..

She claimed to be a “German princess” and was indeed related to Queen Victoria, King Albert I of Belgium and was the second  cousin of Nazi Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel.

Kitty disliked living in Los Alamos, where Oppenheimer supervised the race to build the atomic bomb and took to drink.

At one point after the birth of her daughter, she took off with her four-year-old son for Pittsburgh, leaving the baby behind…for three months.

Oppenheimer occasionally dropped in on the babysitter and asked her if she’d like to adopt the little baby.
Here was a man wedded to his work.

I don’t know if Minneapolis author John Coy knows his onions as they used to say, but I’m certain he knows his potatoes.

A decade ago, he wrote a children’s book called “Two Old Potatoes,” which was published by Dragonfly Books.

Now it has been reissued by Norton Stillman’s Nodin Press in a beautiful new edition, with illustrations by Carolyn Fisher.
It enjoyed great reviews a decade ago and little wonder.

It teaches kids lots of the basic attributes, like patience, industry, the value of family  and practical matters like agronomy and economy.

Reading it brought to mind a yearly argument between my mother and my father.

Mother said if you peel your potatoes properly during spring, you can use them for planting rather than buying expensive seed potatoes.

My devil-may-care father threw caution and economy to the winds and purchase store-bought seed.

One year, mother planted a row with peelings. How did that turn out?

To find out a fictional version of the outcome, just read Coy’s book, in which a little girl finds two old sprouted potatoes which she wants to throw out of the home of her recently divorced father.

Father says maybe those sprouts will grow.

The girl’s grandfather concurs and so they go to work, carving up the sprouts, planting them, watering them, composting them, hoeing them and picking off potato bugs which threaten to defoliate the plants.

Then comes time to dig down and see what’s under the foliage.

You’ll have to buy the book (Nodin Press, $7.95 paper) to find out what happened.  It’s a bargain.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Crtitics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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