November Selection: Lauren Belfer, A Fierce Radiance

Our discussion book for November is a selection from Burk. He provides the following information about his selection:
We have had some heavy nonfiction reading of late and I think it is time for a change of pace to some fiction.

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer published in 2010 by Harper Collins came to my attention quite by accident. In early September I was rowing at the world’s master’s championships in Poznan, Poland and following the races traveled around Poznan and vicinity with a rowing friend from Massachusetts and his wife. Before they returned home she offered me the book she had just finished. I did not start A Fierce Radiance till my return to Tacoma and have not quite finished reading it. I have found it to be a page turner set in the early days of WW II in New York City, One of the major themes seems to be greed – a timely subject in view of the current Wall Street protests. A good example of greed in the US is the finding that the ratio between CEO’s pay and that of the average worker in the US is way out of line with the rest of the world. See chart below:

Subject: Why we are the 99%

This is a chart of Ratio between CEOs pay and that of the the average worker in a variety of countries. Japan has the lowest at 11:1; Venezuela is the next to highest at 50.1; the US is 475:1



Note: For this month we will be meeting on November 10 (the SECOND Thursday) instead of our usual date of the first Thursday.


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2011 Selections, A Fierce Radiance and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to November Selection: Lauren Belfer, A Fierce Radiance

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    I notice that one other wordpress blogger has posted a review of Fierce Radiance:

  2. Ron Boothe says:

    There is a nice website illustrating the disparity in incomes and wealth in the USA:

    The most striking statistic for me is that the 400 richest Americans control as much wealth as the bottom half of the entire country!

  3. Ron Boothe says:

    Stirling brought this article published in The Guardian to my attention:

    Seems pretty relevant to our discussion of greed during today’s meeting.

  4. Stirling Smith says:

    Another view of: A fierce Radiance

    In A Fierce Radiance, we have an example I think of what is not mentioned in depth possibly becoming even a bigger and more shocking story. Of course this book with its multiple plots that carry us from downtown Manhattan to Greenwich Village to the Hamptons, from illness followed by death to meritorious recovery with penicillin. It also carries us from primitive almost “garage” experimentation to, up to date, state of the art laboratories of research and development. It parallels the rise of icons of Photography and of the media and of café society, of business and war. The story that I wish the book had delved into more in depth was the real development of the “cousins” antibiotics. In A Fierce Radiance the science writing was often confusing and misleading and could have been handled more adroitly.

    With easy dispatch the distinction between gram positive and gram negative organisms could have been established; it’s only a color reaction to dye on certain bacteria. Oddly this feature helps to separate out different species of bacteria. Also the sensitivities of different drugs are easily explained but here too the author decided to keep this part of the story a jumbled mystery. For me these were serious failings whose lack did nothing but sow confusion.

    While murder, espionage and world wars are the backdrop of this period piece, the more common story of human theft, exploitation, greed and dominance lies closer to the grain in the real “cousins” story: a personal human tragedy welling up from within American Business and Education to swallow Albert Schats, a real life struggling grad student at the heart of the discovery of Streptomycin.

    He comes back to the lab he left nine months or so after he was drafted into the U S Army during WWII as an Army microbiologist where he saw the human tragedy of septic death from gram-negative infections. He launches himself into trying to find a cure (Tiaj). He succeeds in three months to isolate Streptomycin from a throat culture and a manure sample (a similar species to ‘fierce radiance’ Actinomycin D). He then reveals his discovery to the head of the University lab where he was working and a Professor Selman Waksman proceeds to take essentially all the credit and money and demean the part he had in the discovery even up to the point of the Nobel Prize. When he complains, Albert Schats is blackballed out of microbiology. This is American justice. There is no “mea Copra” moment. Only theft, dominance, control and exploitation by individuals and institutions. This is not going to be on the cover of Life Magazine. This is real ‘Life’. In the mix is the first medical cure for the dreaded T.B., Plague, Cholera and the Gram Negative Infections. A book about a cure could mean much more if it was more sharply drawn and we know what was at stake. We could learn.

    Stirling Smith

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