17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
I read about Oh Pure and Radiant Heart in a blog that is on my regular reading list. The blog writer was more enthusiastic about this book than I have ever heard him be about any other book he discussed. On that basis, I thought it was worth giving it a try.
I *loved* the book for the first 150 pages. I could not believe how much I loved the writing, and how connected I felt to the characters. It is really magical how Millet is able to make the surreal situation so very real. I really dreaded the moment when the book would end.
Be careful what you wish for, right? The second half of the book is unfortunately nowhere near as compelling as the first. It had a little bit the feel of a book where the author had painted herself into the corner. It felt as though Millet did not really know where to go with the wonderful premise that she had imagined. I may be wrong about that, but I can at least say that as a reader it was very difficult to hold on to the thread. I cannot help but wonder if a little bit more help from an editor would have prevented the problem.
In any case, Millet is hugely impressive as a writer. I certainly will not be giving up on her work. Recommended (with my caveats above) for fans of smart speculative fiction. If you like a lyrical tone to your prose, Millet should appeal to your taste.
29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on July 1, 2005
In this marvelous book, a Santa Fe librarian named Ann has strange dreams about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called "father of the atomic bomb." She thinks of it another sign of her disrupted sleep patterns, but this is before an armed man comes into the library and begins shooting it up. Before he is killed by one of his own ricocheting bullets, he tells Ann that "the old ones are coming."
Shaken, Ann goes to a friend's restaurant for a drink. Next to her at the bar is a man reading a biography of Oppenheimer who looks just like the Oppenheimer in her dream. He is joined by an elfin man speaking Italian. They talk about what will happen to them in the future. The Italian, now speaking accented English, will die in 1954. The tall, skinny Oppenheimer-type, will live until 1967, and they will both die of cancer. They joke about this uneasily, and then leave.
They are not alone. In author Lydia Millet's vision, both Oppenheimer and the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi disappeared from the Trinity nuclear testing site at the moment the test bomb went off, and reappeared in Santa Fe on March 1, 2003. In Chicago, a fat rude dynamo named Leo Szilard awakes under a table in the undergrad dining room at the University of Chicago at the same moment. Szilard and his buddy Albert Einstein had written a letter to President Roosevelt in 1939 warning him about German research into an atomic weapon, thus starting the race for the bomb. Szilard, as brilliant as he is exasperating, puts two and two together faster than the other physicists and hops a bus for New Mexico; the train is too expensive for his 1945 dollars.
Ann is already fascinated by the three, and before long the scientists are living at her house, smoking, surfing the Web, and inhailing donuts, barely tolerated by her tolerant husband. The scientists have been researching what happened post-Trinity. They need to see it for themselves. What ensues is part personal revelation and part world circus as the scientists and a growing number of acolytes take what they've learned and head for Washington.
Millet's graceful writing and wry humor bring her story exploding to life. Those iconic men of science Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Szilard are rendered human and are no less brilliant for their frailty and quirkiness. If the detonation of the atomic bomb brought forth Godzilla, couldn't it also propel its very creators into another time zone? She informs, teases, moves, and enchants her readers with this masterful work of imagination and heart. This novel is terrific reading and shoud not be missed.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2005
After reading Lydia Millet's latest book, "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart," I bought all her books. In a week I devoured "George Bush, Dark Prince of Love" and "Everyone's Pretty." Sadly, I have just finished "My Happy Life" and am down to the last, "Omnivores." I admit I am obsessed with Millet's writing: It is exquisite, flowing, the subject matter jarring, disturbing, crazy-ass weird and captivating. I haven't been this enthralled with a writer since I discovered Vonnegut as a teenager(before that, of course, there was Judy Blume and, I'm sort of embarrassed to say, V.C. Andrews). Millet is a brilliant, beautiful writer. I am so grateful for her work and can't wait for her next feat.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2005
I was looking forward to reading this book, and actually started it on the 60th anniversary of the Trinity test. I agree with other reviewers that Lydia Millet can write with grace, humor and insight. In fact, I was carried away with the beauty of her writing in the first half of the book, but it wasn't enough for me to enjoy the time travel fantasy she created for Oppenheimer, Szilard and Fermi. Although she was very perceptive about the media frenzy of our times and the polarization of American values, I believe the impact of nuclear weapons, the ambiguity experienced by many of the Manhattan Project scientists and the changes wrought by The Bomb were trivialized by the end of the book. Maybe I missed the point of this novel since others have regarded it highly. However, the tone of the book rubbed me the wrong way and I thought it overly long.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2009
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
by Lydia Millet
Interspersed with Ben & Ann's personal story is Ann's contemporary 21st Century caregiving to 3 mysteriously arrived 1945 nuclear scientists are powerful factoid clips regarding the horror et al of the use of nuclear weapons & the after effects of tests at Bikini, in Nevada, at Almagordo. These are powerful & ugly reminders of what we have done as a country.
But it is a rather discontinuous sort of book, one of the sort that one has frequently to turn back a page to make sure one has not been passed over unintentionally. The narrative is often like log book entries. Or like card file notes that haven't been integrated into a cogent theme. Stream of consciousness-like & very bumpy.
Textual breaks are helpfully marked with a wingding; quotations marks are nowhere, with the em dash indicating the beginning of a speaker's words. Not bad ideas for this piecemeal style. As these cuts are shown perhaps Millet was hoping for a movie. It would make a good one, with the usual Hollywood alterations. It has fantasy & a cast of characters that includes Oppenheimer, Szilard & Fermi, as well as assorted Jesus freaks, rich former hippies, junkies, feds & government spooks, it suits the screen (but would not please anyone wearing "establishment" colors).
The powerful & bitter medicinal truth about the atomic weapons & related industries needs to be taken, but the honey is missing from this very long (532 pp), many mouthsful of a book. Yet the persistent reader will be relieved at the end, which rises to something like a consistent & nicely written philosophy, even though not one that seems to value mundane life or secular meaning, but rather seems to offer an existentialist anomie.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Pure and Radiant Heart has at its own heart a wonderfully beguiling premise--that at the moment the first atomic bomb was tested at the Trinity site, three of the "fathers" of the bomb--Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilar--are transported to modern day America to see what the world has made of what they wrought. And at its start, Millet does a good job with the concept, mostly in the book's sharp focus on the three scientists themselves as characters. The other major character is Ann, a librarian who recognizes Oppenheimer and Fermi and ends up taking them into her house, much to the dismay of her husband Ben who considers them elaborate con men.
Unfortunately, the book's strongest section is the first, as the men adjust to the new world (or not) and as Ann and Ben adjust to the men (or not). The book starts to lag when they decide to tour Hiroshima, a surprisingly and disappointingly pallid segment of the book. Afterward, when the trio decides to work for disarmament, suing the govt. to gain evidence of their death and re-birth, leading protests across America, and then finally using and in turn being used by the Rapture movement and thousands of fundamentalists, the book goes completely off the rails-bogging down in mind-numbing detail of the inner working of the protests, losing the "realism" part of the magical realism from earlier, creating two-dimensional characters to populate the movement, and becoming overly repetitive with regard to the effect on Ben and Ann's relationship. In short, it simply becomes dull. By then, the interwoven short segments on the history of nuclear testing and warfare have also become dully repetitive, losing much of the impact, serious or humorous, earlier segments had in the first half, where they drew morbid chuckles or lingered painfully in the reader's mind. The sole saving grace of the last third or so of the book is the turmoil within Fermi, but his character is on the page too infrequently. Oppenheimer's transformation could have been equally engrossing, but is surrounded by too much noise. Meanwhile, the other characters are either too inconsequential, too two-dimensional, or too dull (Ann and Ben) to carry the reader through.
A strong editor who could have convinced Millet to lop off about one-third of the book, say 150 to 200 pages, could have salvaged the great premise and the best sections, turning this into a truly great piece of fiction. Instead, the book peters out far too early and then drones on, leaving the reader to think of what might have been as he/she forces themselves to finish. Not recommended.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2007
While this may seem like your everyday, average book about reincarnated physicists, the author goes beyond the plot quite often in her writing style. Sometimes it is in what characters say, and other in narrative observations, but she frequently sticks little nuggets of "other" into the story that make me do a double take and have to reread the sentence and rethink.
One of these is on page 121. "People don't like syllables anymore, mused Szilard." I personally have gone through my life without noticing this, but the author points it out and we can see that it is very truthful. Acronyms, nicknames, abbreviations, all of these are because people do not like syllables anymore.
Another cutting remark from Szilard is on page 114. "It was the last gasp of pure science in this country, uncorrupted by commerce. You know, before the corporations owned the universities." Szilard is often the conveyor of these tart little statements, often in the middle of other conversations. He is also a source for humor. On the same page, he asks, "They grow halibut in the desert these days?"
One line on page 111 that I will still have to think about later is from Ben. "He was hoping that his collusion in the fantasy would set her free to be bored." I am still not sure of all that this sentence means, but perhaps something like he is humoring her until she is ready to go back to their normal, quiet lives.
I feel like this story is going very slowly. This may be because I have to stop every 10 sentences or so and reread the complex sentences such as above. The words are not complex, but the ideas behind them are.
Whatever the reason, at this point it does not seem like all that much has happened besides conversation, eating, sleeping, and Szilard crashing Ben's truck. I may not be as far into the book as I had hoped to be by now, but I am getting the feeling that if I just skipped to the end I would not miss much, as far as action and plot movement are concerned.
There has been a lot going on with Ann and Ben growing apart, and Ann distancing herself from her current situation and moving toward life revolving around three self-centered, egocentric displaced scientists. I am ready for less talk and more action, however.
I find this work to be depressing, cynical, and full of gloom and doom. Al Gore's movie was full of unhappy news, but he at least gave hope at the end- what you can do to change this. What is Millet's message of hope? What is she hoping to change?
There are multiple historical tidbits about seals whose eyeballs are crushed and birds whose feet are blasted up into their bodies and the growing likelihood of nuclear assaults. She describes in vivid detail the horror the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki went through. But she also shows through the story how thousands of people cannot effect change. What does she expect us to do?
I feel like people write books with a purpose. The author puts it well with her discussion of entertainment and enlightenment. I feel this book was not meant to entertain, so it must be the latter. But she drives her point home so many times that it begins to lose its value. Just as she tries to prove the point that there is too much to see for anyone to see anything, she is hitting us with too much for us to feel anything.
This is not the worst book I have read, certainly, but the author's goal and method of achievement do not strike me as "shattering and beautiful" or "genius."
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2009
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
I first discovered Lydia Millet with My Happy Life, as I was wandering aimlessly through the library waiting for my husband to be finished with his browsing. It was a happy find. When I went back to return the book I looked for more Lydia Millet and discovered Oh Pure and Radiant Heart.
A larger book, with much more of an informative side. I loved it. It was the kind of book I found myself thinking about even when I wasn't reading it. I used to think I had an imagination, but Millet's idea to bring 3 dead physicists largely responsible for the first atom bomb back to life in 2003 is pure and radiant genius.
The characters were engaging and believable. The story the stuff science fiction is made of, but compelling drama, even if that is not your favorite genre. A lot of allegories. A lot of very understated satire. And a lot of factual knowledge about the making and deployment of atomic weapons and the men and the countries that moved that era forward into today.
While there is some political statement here, it is not heavy-handed. Millet directs but leaves it up to you to choose to follow or just enjoy the story. I like a book that educates and entertains. I'm going back for more Millet books.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2005
"Afterward she remembered the name. She could not forget the name, in fact in the way a bad jingle overstays its welcome, tinny and insistent, lodged in the neutral pathways of the brain...it was Oppenheimer, J.R.; also the words The Father of the Atomic Bomb."
And so begins Ann's involvement with the head of the Manhattan Project some 60 years after the detonation of the first Atomic bomb in White Sands, New Mexico in July of 1945. How, Who, Why did the three, the "Trinity" of the Atom bomb come to be among the living in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2003 and why does Ann, a research librarian take it upon herself to care for Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard:
"The scientists were hers (Ann's), the only cause she had ever held dear. Causes had always kept her at a distance: they cried out for attention but left her numb. There were just too many of them, mostly hopeless. But now there was only one."
Bewildered at first, and aghast at the world they helped create, Oppenheimer, Szilard, and Fermi along with Ann and her reluctant and skeptical husband, Ben convene in Los Alamos for what turns out to be a whirlwind tour of the blast sites in Los Alamos and Nagasaki, the Marshall Islands and ultimately to Washington D.C. leading a caravan of fundamentalist Christians who look upon Oppenheimer as the Messiah: "...more than any of it, Oppenheimer murmured, what astounds me is the blindness of you people now. A civilization that is blind to itself. I mean blind. In my day there was ignorance too: ignorance is timeless. But at least we were ashamed of it."
The Atomic bomb has several fathers, most of them dead for decades: Nobel-winning Enrico Fermi died in '54, Leo Szilard, who persuaded Einstein to sign a letter to FDR stressing the weapon's necessity, joined him a decade later--three years before cancer claimed pork-pie hat wearing, chain-smoking Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer. Only Edward Teller made it into the new Millennium.
Millet is after something here and what that is I am not fully sure. But when someone can write a paragraph like this, clarity and purpose almost become irrelevant: "At certain moments of shock or stupefaction it is clear, she thought, that doing anything is a waste of time, that effort itself is a waste. Doing something appears more wasteful than doing nothing, while only doing nothing seems safe. This may be because something is always, at base, a distraction from nothing. Paradoxically nothing is full whereas something is often surprisingly empty; yet in nothing all things are possible, whereas in something there are limits on all sides."
Ultimately, "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart" is not great Millet (she's already got that covered with the sublime, "My Happy Life") but it is good Millet and sometimes better than that particularly when it is being wickedly funny...which it is a lot of the time. But a Millet book always contains passages of writing that make you gasp in recognition, wonder or both and "Radiant Heart" is no exception:
"Now and then she thought she dreamed his dreams, that his dreams had been entrusted to her. Why else had she seen him before she even knew him, kneeling in the sand? Before she had even met him, when she barely heard of him, she believed she had been infused with his sentiment, as though it had bled from him. And here they were on the sand again, the ocean instead of the desert, on the sand with dry mouths and wet eyes, yearning.
A wave came in and wet his leather shoes, soaking a dark line across the toe."
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2005
One of the stranger books that I have read deals with Sci-Fi, the resurection of Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard, the Book of Revelations, and the atomic bomb. It is a mix that makes for a mystery read that was compelling. There is a narrative the brings some science fact to mix with the story in a manner that made me wonder whether the story was a dream to be revieled. The story was compelling enough to finish the read, and puzzle at its meaning.