Before Jobs vs Gates there was Edison vs Westinghouse

  • The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore (Random House), 2016; Random House Audio, Johnathan McClain narrator
  • In 40 words or less: The US was on the cusp of electrification in 1988. Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were battling it out to see whose company and which technology would change the nation.  Moore makes history read like a twisted fairy tale.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: US
  • Time: 1888
  • This is an ideal audiobook. The story is narrated by Westinghouse’s lawyer, Paul Cravath, who later achieved fame as the designer of the modern law firm. A key figure in the book is Nikola Tesla, whose genius was matched by his idiosyncratic and accented English. McClain’s reading really does the various characters justice.

Thomas Edison is lauded as a genius to be emulated in creativity and business. In truth, he was not a very nice man at all. Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night is truthful in its telling of one of the most expensive market battles and patent lawsuits in U.S. history – worth a billion dollars in 1888. The fight between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison was two-pronged: whether AC (Westinghouse) or DC (Edison) current would be the standard for wiring and electrifying the country; and who owns the rights to the design and sale of the light bulb.

In the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass

Moore has chosen Paul Cravath, a young and inexperienced lawyer hired by Westinghouse to handle the suit, as the narrator of the tale. Cravath has a chip on his shoulder. He is disaffected from his family and is not as well connected as his fellow law classmates. Barely out of school, he is caught up in high stakes on-the-job training on the front page of America’s newspapers. Fighting for market share was a very dirty business with bribery, physical violence, even kidnapping part of the game. Cravath later made an indelible mark in legal circles by creating the modern American model of progression within legal firms.

A third major scientific player in this future of America’s homes and businesses was Nikola Tesla, brilliant and only interested in the purity of the idea. Tesla’s knowledge was part of a continuing tug-of-war between Edison and Westinghouse.

There was plenty of real life drama to go around in Moore’s telling of the story. He enriched Cravath’s role, and the human intrigue, by embellishing the details surrounding Cravath’s wife, a beautiful singer named Agnes, who seemingly came out of nowhere into the heights of society.

This book has it all – genius, intrigue, romance, blackmail and corporate greed. Many additional luminaries of the period appear.  After all, they traveled in the same business and social circles. There is more than enough American industrial history to satisfy a history buff, details about the taming of electricity for the scientist, and an awkward courtship to entertain a romantic.

Were that not enough, The Last Days of Night will be coming to the screen this winter starring Eddie Redmayne as Paul Cravath.

 

 

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All My Puny Sorrows

  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (McSweeney’s, US publication), 2015
  • In 43 words or less: Sisters Elfrieda and Yolandi are closer than close. Now adults, Elf is a renowned pianist and Yoli a struggling mother and writer. Their Mennonite family and Elf’s mental illness overtake their lives. Funny and heartbreaking, this well-written novel isn’t for everyone.
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Canada
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Toews gives a glimpse into a less-than-traditional Mennonite family and the forces that shape it. Warning: Themes related to mental illness, living with a loved one with mental illness.

Miriam Toews is an acclaimed writer in Canada and less known south of the border. For more than two decades she has been amassing honors for her writing which includes six novels, the latest being All My Puny Sorrows. It either won or was shortlisted for most of the major Canadian fiction prizes upon its publication.

All My Puny Sorrows draws upon Toews’ family life as a child of an unconventional Mennonite family in Manitoba. Being unfamiliar with this community, her descriptions of communal norms and the choices her family made that set them apart were particularly interesting. The relationship of Elfrieda and Yolandi brought to mind the Helen Reddy song “You and Me Against the World.” Elf is a brilliant concert pianist who feels music, poetry and all aspects of life deeply and darkly. Yolandi, the younger sister, is her foil and protector, dropping everything to cushion Elf from harm.

Yoli hasn’t attended to her own needs as carefully. Her romantic relationships have failed, though her two children seem surprisingly well adjusted. A writer, she earns a meager living writing children’s novels she dislikes and is regularly a step away from financial ruin. Fortunate to have a friend who steps in when she can, Yoli’s first priority remains Elf and keeping her safe.

I regularly encourage people to visit independent bookstores when traveling and to buy local authors as a way to bring the trip back home.  A kind friend gave me All My Puny Sorrows after a visit to Toronto. While the book is beautifully written, the realism Miriam Toews brings to Yoli and Elf is so personal and painful I read it in small bites. Despite the darkness, there is a lot of humor and the story is filled with familial love across three generations. Even though there is little difference between American and Canadian English, there is something distinctly Canadian beyond the locations that are periodically mentioned.

Miriam Toews is a survivor of familial suicide and has written a nonfiction book about her father and his suicide. Her experiences clearly have informed her fiction. For this reason, prospective readers may want to avoid this book if it hits too close to home or is otherwise too disturbing.

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Bestsellers, blockbusters and just plain good reads!

Some days you get lucky.  It just so happens that 2 articles appeared in my inbox that provide a peek into what differentiates a strong selling book from a phenomenon.  Summer is the perfect time to make this assessment.  Since June some of the biggest names in books have released their latest. There are those who won’t head out on vacation without the latest John Grisham or Daniel Silva in hand.

Publishers Weekly is the arbiter for what is selling and how many are sold. Each week the list has the ranking, number of weeks on the list, copies sold that week and calendar sales year-to-date. Grisham’s Camino Island has been on the list for 7 weeks, always at #1 or #2. Over 400,000 copies have been sold already and almost 25,000 last week alone. Now that’s a blockbuster!

Farther down on the list at #8 is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It was published 10 months ago, in September 2016. Towles has a strong following and the book debuted on the list, but not even in the top ten. Since January, over 160,000 copies have been sold but it only takes a bit over 6 thousand to be in the eighth position for the week. Publication of the paperback has been delayed since hardcover sales remain so strong.

So why did I choose A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles for the comparison?   Continue reading Bestsellers, blockbusters and just plain good reads!

So many choices for a summer read

Stone fruit, long days, baseball and endless reading choices are some of my summer favorites. Come summer I have less pressure to read books for upcoming discussions and tend to range farther afield in my choices.

Since we do spend time on the road each summer, e-books and audiobooks have a greater presence than when I stick closer to home. The public library is my go-to source for audiobooks that Dan and listen to long trips.  Once you get the hang of it, it’s not hard to download titles that are available for up to 3 weeks. An inexpensive Bluetooth speaker makes it much easier to hear if your car is not so equipped.

We’re hoping to listen to The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, a fact-based novel of Westinghouse, Edison, and Tesla in 1888. Joshua Hammer’s telling of the rescue of Mali’s treasured Islamic and secular manuscripts from impending destruction by Al Qaeda is the narrative of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Mysteries or thrillers can also be a good traveling pick. I’m looking at The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King, the first in a series of Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes stories. We have also enjoyed John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, and Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927. Any of their books would be fine picks – good readers with easy on the ear accents, engaging narratives that sustain your attention without distracting from the road ahead. Try out a new genre, if you dare.  We loved Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. A mix of dystopic and classical storytelling, it was a great listen.

Above is a photo of some of the books I hope to read as the summer progresses. A bit of everything, fiction based on fact, memoir, literary fiction and mystery. I’ve listed them all at the end of the post. The plan is to review as many as possible. Some are certain to appear on my book groups lists. If the library waitlist treats me kindly, I’ll also read Daniel Silva’s latest, House of Spies, and  Louise Penny’s Glass Houses.

Right now I’m finishing up Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Toews is an award-winning Canadian novelist. This is a family story of two sisters, Elfrieda, a concert pianist, and her sister, who has a more well-rounded life despite some poor decisions. I’ve been listening to Behold the Dreamers since before it became one of Oprah’s Book Club picks. It is Imbolo Mbue’s story of two families, one in the 1% but with many problems money cannot solve, the other an immigrant family desperate to stay in the U.S. with the father working as the driver for the wealthy family. Set in New York where spectacular wealth and barely-scraping-by live barely a few miles apart.

Before I forget, plan to stop at local bookstores while you are visiting new places. Yesterday I picked up Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in narrative form while at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, WV. There are knowledgeable booksellers in independent bookstores just about everywhere. Invest in the future of the book. Patronize these shops wherever you find them. IndieBound is one good source to scout them out.

Finally, what have I finished already? Anita Shreve’s The Stars Are Fire, Joanna Trollope’s City of Friends, Charles Todd’s A Casualty of War, Bianca Marais’s Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow and Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend. All would be fine choices to pack in your carry-on and those I have reviewed are linked.

Titles Pictured Above

  • Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif
  • Celine by Peter Heller
  • The Leavers by Lisa Ko
  • The Golden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang
  • The World Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews
  • The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling

 

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Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

  • Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Putnam), July 11, 2017
  • In 40 words or less: Beginning with the Soweto uprising, a young white girl and a Xhosa woman are thrown together as a family. Their complementary narratives enrich insights into life under apartheid. Great book!
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Time: 1970s
  • Forty years after the uprising that began the end of Apartheid, this novel opens a door to the challenges of life for the Blacks and others in South Africa fighting for change. A wonderful novel of people in very difficult times.

Robin is a young Anglophone girl growing up in South Africa. Bullied by her Afrikaans schoolmates, she is very concerned about living up to her parents’ expectations. Her father is a manager in a mining operation, overseeing Black workers. When her parents receive a last minute invitation to a business function Robin’s life is changed forever. En route to the event, Robin’s parents are ambushed and murdered. So starts Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. Robin and her housekeeper are dragged to a notorious police station where the housekeeper is brutalized. Robin is turned over to her only relative, her Aunt Enid who lives in Johannesburg. After gathering up a small suitcase, Robin’s past life is left behind.

Beauty Mbali is a well-educated teacher living with her sons in the Transkei. Looking to improve her daughter’s life, she sends her to Johannesburg to live with relatives and attend a superior school. After receiving a message that her daughter may be in trouble, she travels for more than a day to Soweto to see her. Beauty arrives in the midst of the first day of the student marches, discovering that her daughter is in the leadership and is now missing. Beauty will do whatever it takes to find her daughter.

Robin isn’t the only one adjusting to her family’s trauma. Enid is a stewardess and modern single woman with no one to account to but herself. Though she tries, upending her life to provide the care Robin requires herself is neither practical nor within her skill set. She reaches out to her network of friends, many of whom are anti-Apartheid supporters, for help. Through these channels, Beauty becomes Robin’s caregiver, confidant, and lifeline. This allows Beauty to remain in Johannesburg, though illegally, so she can continue to search for her daughter.

Bianca Marais has created two rich communities to tell her story. Bit by bit, Robin’s world expands. Her one friend is a Jewish boy, homeschooled because of the anti-Semitic bullying he receives at school. His apartment becomes a safe space and his family’s customs a source of curiosity. Enid has several gay male friends who are at times endangered by the authorities. At times it is difficult for Robin to distinguish friend from foe.

During the continuing search for her daughter, Beauty reveals elements of her family and its past. Protecting all her children leaves her torn – caring for a white child while her sons are back home and her daughter missing. Her search takes her through Soweto, balancing secrecy with her goal. Vivid descriptions of afterhours gathering places and the leaders and hoodlums that are all part of the growing uprising enrich both the story and the reader’s understanding of the times.

Both Beauty and Robin are leading their lives as survivors rather than as victims.  Not always optimistic, each demonstrates inner strength consistent with her position in life. Neither is perfect and these flaws are key to the story.

As a blogger and book group leader, I have the chance to read some books before they are published or reviewed. It can be a crapshoot – some good, some meh and some not worth finishing. And then there are the special books.  I love Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. There are twists, even in the beginning. As I read I could see the story unfold, almost as if a movie was taking place in my mind. This is Bianca Marais’s debut novel. It has been selected as an Indie Next selection for this month and has gotten well-deserved advance accolades. It is a great pick for book groups and to share with friends.

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