Gods of Metal

Reading challenge book 3 – A book by an author you’ve never read before

Gods of Metal, by Eric Schlosser

Amazon link here

Gods of Metal was published by Penguin as a standalone book in 2015 as part of the 70-year commemoration of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. This is an expanded version of an article published in the New York Times about nuclear security. It also outlines the history of Plowshares, an pacifist anti-nuclear protest group whose members break into ‘nuclear facilities’ (e.g. Oak Ridge and nuclear warhead plants), and effectively graffiti property a with their own blood ‘to symbolize the death of innocent human beings’

This wasn’t a topic I knew a huge amount about, so I did find this book informative. In places, the descriptions of security (or the lack of) were horrifying. It left me thinking about the morality of the existence of nuclear weapons and wanting to read more, which I did (reviews to follow).

I don’t have much analysis here, but here’s some of the content from Gods of Metal that I particularly took to heart.

Who wants a selfie with a nuclear missile?

If you want to see a Minuteman missile site, it’s pretty easy: the launch sites are spread throughout the Great Plains, to prevent all missiles being taken out by one hostile strike, and many sites are visible from public roads.

The air force has tactical-response forces to protect the sites, but equipment as at 2013 was antiquated (e.g. helicopters are not equipped for night-time or bad-weather operations, lack offensive weapons, and rely on paper maps for navigation).

Why waste money on security when you could spend it on [fill in the blank]?

During the 50s and 60s, the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) did not issue any guidelines for the USA concerning how private companies with weapons-usable nuclear material had to secure such stocks. Instances have been identified where plutonium was shipped across the USA without armed guards.

During the 60s, hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade uranium went missing from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation plant in Pennsylvania, and it is believed that it was shipped to Israel. An aide at the AEC told Gerald Ford, ‘The good news is that Israel definitely has the Bomb and can take care of itself. The bad news is that the stuff came from Pennsylvania.’

But once we entered the twenty-first century, the USA started securing its nuclear materials, right? Especially after 9-11?

Y-12, the USA’s fabrication and storage complex for weapons-grade uranium is located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The US government however outsources the running of the facility (and other storage facilities) to private contractors, for profit, because privatisation makes everything better. For a number of years, the running of Y-12 was outsourced to Wackenhut, a company which was acquired by G4S in 2002. (Yes, that G4S.)

Wackenhut regularly undertook security performance tests at Y-12, and had a clear incentive to earn positive test scores under the terms of its contract with the government, failure might result in a reduction of its fees. In 2004, external inspection of the tests results and processes at Y-12 identified, that prior to mock attacks, Wackenhut officers were told in advance which building at Y-12 would be targeted, which wall would be attacked, and whether their adversaries would use diversionary tactics.

So the US government fired Wackenhut, as they deserved?

Nope. The external inspection results did not result in Wackenhut losing its security contract.

In 2012, a break-in by three Plowshares protesters, including one eighty-two year old nun with a heart-condition, famously occurred. The protesters were baffled that they successfully reached the outside of the main storage facility, and experimentally struck the building with sledgehammers, ultimately knocking off a chunk of concrete, to see what would happen. Nothing.

The protesters’ success wasn’t because they were super-sneaky. On the date of break-in a fifth of the cameras on the fences surrounding the Protected Area were out of action, and security officers ignored alarms that sounded during the break-in because hundreds of false alarms occurred at the site every month. When the protesters hammered on the outer walls of the facility with sledge-hammers officers inside the facility ignored the sounds, assuming that they were made by workmen doing maintenance.

So Wackenhut’s contract to run Y-12 was ultimately terminated. Wackenhut does, however, continue to provide security to the Savannah River Site, in South Carolina, which holds about 20,000 lb of plutonium.


So where does that leave us?

Nuclear material and nuclear weapon secrets have been stolen before from the USA before. The above summary makes it hard to argue that the USA is fully committed to nuclear security. Furthermore, nuclear security in the USA is probably better than in most other places in the world.

I’ll leave you to think about that. Sweet dreams.



The Holy Woman

Reading challenge book 2 – a book set in a different country

The Holy Woman, by Qaisra Shahraz

Amazon link here


After a month of reading about British history, I was completely desperate to read some fiction, stayed up till three in the morning reading this, and finished it within twenty-four hours.

The Holy Woman is set in Pakistan and I would describe it as a contemporary novel with romantic elements rather than a romance. However, the focus on the romance might be too strong for any gents out there. The protagonist, Zarri Bano  – who becomes the holy woman – is the eldest daughter of a wealthy Pakistani family. She is not religious, but is a feminist who loves modern life – fashion, socialising, working in Islamabad  – who falls in love and is planning to marry. Following the death of her brother, the only male son and heir to the family fortune, she is pressured by her father into forsaking her life as she knows it and accepting a life of religious study and devotion. Crucially, this means that she will never be able to marry.

For this element of the reading challenge, I was keen to read a book set in a culture which I was not familiar with (e.g. not a book set in Paris). The Holy Woman certainly met this criterion by illustrating village life in Pakistan and the interplay between traditional and modern lifestyles. I found the descriptions and world-building vivid and fascinating.

The Holy Woman shows the lack of self-determination available to Pakistani women, at least in the environment in which Zarri Bano lives, and the ultimate authority of men in the household. One element I loved was that, while Zarri Bano was initially appalled by her fate of being a holy woman, she decides to embrace the role and her responsibilities as a scholar of Islam, becoming more devout than her family (especially her father) ever foresaw. For me, her decision to make the most of her new life, despite its constraints, and to live it as fully as she could, was really empowering. From looking at a few Amazon reviews, this feeling wasn’t shared by all readers.

Having said this, I saw Zarri Bano as a Mary-Sue in many respects – incredibly beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, everyone falling in love with her. She was also the only character who had two names, and for me, this just accentuated her Mary-Sueness, though I think this was my issue, rather than the book’s!

Gradually  as the book progresses, Zarri Bano’s father regrets his decision to force Zarri Bano to become a holy woman, and her whole family puts a huge amount of pressure on Zarri Bano to forsake her vow of chastity and marry. There’s a subplot here where her original fiancé (who her father had not liked) has since married and been widowed, and has a son who needs a mother.

However, Zarri Bano is adamantly opposed to the idea of marrying. She has made vows and forsaken her old life, and doesn’t want to be pushed backwards. Highlight the text below for spoilers. 
Zarri Bano eventually caves to the pressure of her family, and marries her ex-fiancé , for the woman he had previously married was her sister and therefore his motherless son, who she loves, is her own nephew. The Holy Woman ends with her falling back in love with her ex-fiancé, and it is implied that she will live ‘happily ever after’. 

This was the weak point of the book for me. While I was happy that Zarri Bano ultimately had the chance to have her own family, I didn’t want to see her pushed into changing her life again against her will, even if this would restore the life she had always planned. I felt this undermined the sense of empowerment that I saw earlier, especially as her family was telling her that she needed marriage to be fulfilled, and hey presto, she was ultimately fulfilled in her marriage. As a happily-married woman, I’m not arguing that love and family do not contribute to greater happiness for some people, and having any long-term relationship in Pakistani society would have to mean marriage. However, Zarri Bano’s transition from not wanting marriage, to agreeing to marriage in name only, to married happiness occurred too quickly for me. 

I wrote earlier that this book wasn’t a romance, but contained romantic elements. The ending was very ‘romance novel’, and maybe that was my disconnect: I didn’t think I was reading a romance novel, so the ending felt clunky.

One of the themes explored through some of the secondary characters was caste. In this book the son of a wealthy, high-caste family falls in love with a lower-caste village girl, but his mother opposes the match. There was serious conflict between the two women, and the resolution of this story arc made me uncomfortable. I felt as though the girl was condemned by the author, not just for her disrespect to an older woman – which is a judgement I can understand –  but for her disrespectful behaviour to woman of a higher caste, which is a judgement I cannot empathise with. I think that caste politics are very uncomfortable for any Westerner to read about.

In summary, I loved the world-building in this book, and the vivid portrayal of Pakistani life and traditions, particularly the contrast between wealthy and poorer families. I found the plot really interesting, though I did not buy into the ending.

A History of Modern Britain

Reading Challenge book 1 – a book with more than 500 pages

A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr


Amazon link here

Hilariously, I keep referring to this book as a ‘Brief’ History of Modern Britain. Actually it was a very long read indeed – it took me about a month, which is about as long as I’ve spent reading any book – and there is a huge amount to take in.

The book covers the history of Britain, with a focus on politics, in the period from 1945 to 2007 (at least, in the paperback edition). My knowledge of this period before reading this book was, embarrassingly, pretty much nil as we didn’t study it at school, I didn’t read newspapers regularly through secondary school, and I hadn’t read around the subject. While I could have told you that there were strikes and blackouts in the 70s, that Britain’s success in the Falklands was a triumph for Margaret Thatcher, and that Blair was the leader of New Labour – that was pretty much it.

So reading this book was hugely valuable to me. When I finished it, I was able to list out all the post-war British prime ministers in chronological order, which was pretty cool – sadly, I haven’t retained that much detail a couple of months later. What I do have however is more context into the history behind current events, for example:

  • An appreciation of what was actually meant by ‘New Labour’ and more understanding of how the party’s shifting policies and politics have led to the in-party wrangling of Labour today.
  • More knowledge of Britain’s history in the Commonwealth, as the US’s junior partner, and historic relations with the EU,  which has given me some thinking points in advance of the EU referendum.
  • Some background into Britain’s nuclear history, amid Jeremy Corbyn’s calls for us not to renew Trident.

Attempting to analyse 50-odd years of history in less than 700 pages does not allow for an in-depth discussion of historical events. However, reading this book is a good way to familiarise with some of the key events in this period, and could well provide a starting point for further research into areas of interest for readers.

Throughout the history, Andrew Marr provides commentary on the politicians of the period and various policies, such as his thoughts as to why Clement Atlee and Margaret Thatcher  were the two genuinely nation-changing prime ministers of modern history. This is where I would advise caution: I could sense bias as I was reading (which is typical when reading opinion pieces), but my knowledge of the events wasn’t good enough to identify its direction. I definitely feel the need for further reading into this period, and would for something offering a different perspective for comparison.

To summarize, I would recommend this history for anyone who doesn’t know much about this period and wants to learn more. It is a slow, at times heavy read, though this could be ameliorated by reading it in sections (covering administrations or periods of history), rather than cover to cover.

Popsugar 2015 reading challenge

Last year one of my friends did the Popsugar 2015 reading challenge, which involved reading 52 books from different categories in the year. When I found out that he was doing this towards the end of the year I was pretty jealous because it sounded so fun. I decided to do the 2016 reading challenge with him this year… but I didn’t like the categories so much, so I’m doing the 2015 reading challenge instead, one year behind. This seemed like an opportunity to jot down my thoughts about the books I’ve been reading. So here is the list, and my entries so far:

  • A book with more than 500 pages – A History of Modern Britain, Andrew Marr
  • A classic romance
  • A book that became a movie – Enigma, Robert Harris
  • A book published this year
  • A book with a number in the title – The One Plus One, Jojo Moyes
  • A book written by someone under 30 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
  • A book with nonhuman characters – A Dog’s Purpose, W Bruce Cameron
  • A funny book – The Apologist, Jay Rayner
  • A book by a female author – A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan
  • A mystery or thriller – Significance, Lise Sonntag
  • A book with a one-word title – Hiroshima, John Hersey
  • A book of short stories – Smoke & Mirrors, Neil Gaiman
  • A book set in a different country – The Holy Woman, Qaisra Shahraz
  • A nonfiction book – I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that, Ben Goldacre
  • A popular author’s first book – The Mystery at Stiles, Agatha Christie
  • A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet – All For You, Laura Florand
  • A book a friend recommended – The Song of Achilles, Madeleine Mann
  • A Pulitzer-Prize winning book – Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes
  • A book based on a true story
  • A book at the bottom of your to-read list
  • A book your mother loves – The Wild Rose, Doris Mortman
  • A book that scares you – The Noonday Demon, Anthony Solomon
  • A book more than 100 years old – Coriolanus, William Shakespeare
  • A book based entirely on its cover – When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanthi
  • A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t – A Collection of Letters, Pliny the Younger
  • A memoir – The Psychopath Inside, James Fallon
  • A book you can finish in a day – Chase Me, Laura Florand
  • A book with antonyms in the title – Up the down staircase, Bel Kaufman
  • A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit
  • A book that came out the year you were born
  • A book with bad reviews – Digital Fortress, Dan Brown
  • A trilogy (x3)
  • A book from your childhood – The Famous Five and the Blue Bear Mystery, Enid Blyton
  • A book with a love triangle – The Libriomancer, Jim C Hines
  • A book set in the future – Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
  • A book set in high school – Looking for Alaska, James Green
  • A book with a colour in the title – Brown-Eyed Girl, Lisa Kleypas
  • A book that made you cry – You Before Me, Jojo Moyes
  • A book with magic – The Tempest, Shakespeare
  • A graphic novel
  • A book by an author you’ve never read before – Eric Schlosser, Gods of Metal
  • A book you own but have never read
  • A book that takes place in your home town – Granchester Grind, Tom Sharpe
  • A book that was originally written in a different language
  • A book set during Christmas – Christmas in the Snow, Karen Swan
  • A book written by an author with your same initials – Stalking Sapphire, Mia Thompson
  • A play – Arcadia, Tom Stoppard
  • A banned book – Cancer Ward, Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  • A book based on or turned into a TV show – Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Jeff Lindsay
  • A book you started but never finished