Nuclear stories

Kristen Iversen grew up in Colorado, in a small town near a secret nuclear bomb factory, although she didn't know it at the time. The factory was so under the radar that many believed the plant made cleaning supplies, like Scrubbing Bubbles. After years abroad, Iversen returned home, and the result is Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. It's part memoir, part investigation and, as Rebecca Skloot, author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," put it, "as personal and powerful as Silkwood."

Especially after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, Iversen's story of Rocky Flats, one of the most contaminated sites in the nation, makes for haunting reading about Cold War life. As she tells the national story of the sustained efforts to repress information about the effects of radioactive and toxic waste, Iversen weaves in her own nuclear family's struggles, including its failure to accept the meaning of her father's hidden bottles of liquor. The effect is a powerful book about our Atomic Age and the culture of secrecy.

Just as Iversen looks at nuclear waste from a different perspective, with a family twist, Shelley Emling has a different approach in her new book, Marie Curie and her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science's First Family. With a new cache of letters from Curie's only granddaughter, Emling explains how the two-time Nobel Prize-winner Marie Curie defied expectations as a scientist — and a mother. While Curie was recognized as a pioneer in the field of radiation therapy for cancer patients, she is often seen as a wife in the shadow of her husband, Pierre. Emling celebrates Curie's scientific accomplishments, but she also points to her as a resilient mother who led her daughters, and then their children, into the world of radioactivity. She was matriarch, one might say, of the first nuclear family.

Marie and Pierre Curie make one of the alphabetically arranged mini-essays in Pulitzer Prize-winner Wayne Biddle's A Field Guide to Radiation. The book is irreverent and free of jargon. Biddle — one is tempted to say — illuminates how radiation is a part of everyday life through everything from cell phones to X-rays. In chapters like Fission/Fusion, Gamma Rays and Geiger Counter, Biddle smartly explains these topics and refuses to use the technical language that isolates scientists from the rest of the world.

Any scientist worth her or his salt realizes the role of chance. In Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings, Craig Brown sees the world as a version of LinkedIn. Brown, a British columnist who writes the "Private Eye" celebrity diary, has found all sorts of funny connections between people. Martha Graham taught Helen Keller to dance, and years later, at her school, Graham met a young Madonna. The book begins with an essay explaining how Adolph Hitler was hit by a car driven by thoroughbred breeder John Scott-Ellis and circles back to Hitler, who has tea with the Duchess of Windsor. Brown quotes the Queen Mother in her old age: "'The two people who have caused me the most trouble in my life … are Wallis Simpson and Hitler.'" One shudders to realize that if Scott-Ellis had been driving a little bit more recklessly, he would have altered the course of history.

A serious book, Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond by neuroscientist and psychologist Robert R. Provine, is trying to optimize its chance of finding an audience. Publisher Harvard University Press must not have thought the book could stand a chance. It sent a Whoopee Cushion to promote the book.

Elizabeth Taylor is the Tribune literary editor.

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