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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Not All ‘Enchanted Islands’ Are Paradise

  • Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend (Doubleday), 2016
  • In 40 words or less: Loosely based on a woman who lived with her husband on the Galapagos Islands prior to WWII,  a novel of a woman striving to overcome the poverty of an immigrant home, using her skills and life-long secretiveness to become a US spy.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Duluth, Chicago, San Francisco, Galapagos Islands
  • Time: 1890-1964
  • Readers who enjoy exotic settings will find the descriptions of life on the islands fascinating. The lives of the fictional Frances and Ainslie Conway are far more complicated than just their intelligence mission and likely than their real lives.

Allison Amend had taken a lovely nugget, two memoirs of Frances Conway’s experience in the Galapagos Islands, and used it as a springboard for this novel of hardship, transformation, and love. Amend imagined Frances as one of seven children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants to Duluth in the 1880s. The early portions of the novel contrast her family life with that of her friend Rosalie, the only child of educated German immigrants. Despite the relative comforts of Rosalie’s home, dark secrets propel the two to leave for Chicago at fifteen.Woven into the plot are historical details about the roles young women on their own could take at the turn of the 20th century. Franny and Rosalie sought out the Jewish community to provide a lifeline as they first arrived in Chicago but had no interest in assimilating into that life. In the course of her secretarial work, Franny also becomes involved in the surreptitious publication of early Zionist newsletters, not out of interest but rather through happenstance.

Franny and Rosalie take differing paths to securing their futures. After a blow-up with Rosalie, Frances heads west, initially to live on a farm, later to California as a secretary in military intelligence.  These experiences become the qualifications she needs to enter into an arranged marriage with an intelligence officer who is to be posted to the Galapagos Islands to keep an eye on the German residents suspected of providing information to the growing Reich. Before leaving San Francisco, Franny and Rosalie reunite. Rosalie is now a wealthy society matron, involved in the civic and Jewish community, living a life she’d like to share with Franny, her oldest and only true friend.

Franny’s marriage to Ainslie Conway is a creation of spycraft. Neither had been married or expected to. The cover story for “going native” was to remove Ainslie from the temptations of alcohol, apparently one of the facts this story hangs on. As the narrator, Franny’s vulnerability and desire for all levels of intimacy are revealed. Reading with 21st-century sensibilities, the challenges to their marriage are clear.

Amend does a wonderful job of describing the daily challenges that the rough terrain, limited supplies, and communications cause during their time in the Galapagos. On an island with less than a dozen residents, most of whom were German,  privacy was highly valued and there was little cushion between basic survival and potential disaster.  Medical care and any other services from more populated areas were days, if not weeks, away. Given the intelligence operations, using the hidden military radio was limited to specific purposes. As the war approached, US naval vessels periodically approached the island for reconnaissance purposes.

As is clear from the start, Franny and Rosalie are destined to reconnect again and the story comes full circle. Amend has an ambitious agenda with Enchanted Islands. She takes on the Jewish immigrant experience, the exploitation of young women, early feminism, spycraft and life in an exotic locale. Throughout it all, loyalty and friendship are key. While there is a lot to learn about life just before the war in the Galapagos, don’t expect to meet the real Frances, Ainslie or Rosalie.  Knowing this up front is good enough for me.

 

 

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Emma Donoghue has a thing for mothers

  • The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Company, September 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A nurse trained by Florence Nightingale travels to rural Ireland to confirm/refute that a young girl is surviving on faith and water alone.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Rural Ireland
  • Time: 19th century
  • In both her earlier novel, Room, and here, Emma Donaghue creates women characters desperate to protect children in their care. The Wonder juxtaposes faith and science, the authority of men versus women, and the power and damage of keeping secrets.

Many readers shied away from Donoghue’s Room. Most of that story took place out of sight, in a bunker where a young boy was raised by his mother, both captive to her rapist. In The Wonder, Lib, a Nightingale-trained nurse travels from London to the Irish countryside to observe a phenomenon -a young girl, Anna, seemingly surviving for months without consuming any food. Visitors have been flocking in search of blessings. The church and local leaders are concerned about the spectacle and the possibility of a hoax.

Lib and a Sister nurse are charged with observing Anna round the clock, documenting her physiological status and any possibility of food being provided. The nurses are charged to observe and record, not consult. Any judgments are to be left to the community leaders.

Lib is a fish out of water. A Londoner through and through, it is unclear why she would take this position. She has little good to say about the community or its people. And there is no evidence of contact with family or friends, seemingly both physically and emotionally alone. Only with the arrival of a journalist does she appear to have a connection in the community, though with risk.

In many ways, this is a novel of silence and secrets. The question of Anna’s family’s honesty is at the crux of the plot. The family had recently experienced the death of Anna’s brother, to whom she was devoted but it is barely noted. As the narrator and a main figure in the novel, it might be expected to learn about Lib but she is a closed book in public and in private. It is only by coming to grips with their secrets that each can be saved.

Emma Donoghue is very skilled in building tension in her stories. In Lib she has created a watchful and intelligent protector who sees her responsibility as much to Anna as to those who hired her. Anna is at the same time angelic and strong as steel, unwavering and faith-filled. Neither friends nor adversaries, each holds her own as the novel unfolds.

The Wonder was chosen by many critics as a top book of 2016. It is impossible to separate the essence of spirituality from the plot of the narrative.  As a reader, one’s individual connection with the spiritual likely will have an impact on the appreciation for the book.

 

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Taking in the big picture with ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

  • The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunne Books, translation 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A window into the difficult life in Jerusalem primarily between the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State of Israel.  Yishai-Levi weaves together stories of four generations of a family descended from the exiles of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 20th century
  • This book, a bestseller in Israel, is a cross between a love letter to the seven generations of Jerusalemites in her family before her and a revelation of genuine cultural elements that created the boundaries in which her characters lived. Ideal for book group discussion.

Sometimes the appeal of a book goes beyond the story.  Sarit Yishai-Levi’s novel is rare in time, setting and community.  For those Israelis descended from Spanish Jews who migrated to Jerusalem in the early 19th century or earlier (often via Greece), the language and culture of the Ermosa family and their neighbors ring true.

In the Spaniol community, it is vital that marriage partners come from within the community. Many of the marriages are arranged, formally or less so. For several generations, it has been the curse of the Ermosa men that they fall in love with unsuitable women. Reined in by their parents, they marry more “suitable” partners and live with a longing for what they have lost. This disaffection is similarly passed down from generation to generation.

The pivotal character in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is Luna, the eldest and most beautiful of the three Ermosa daughters. Luna is her father’s favorite but a thorn in her mother’s side. She aspires to a fashion magazine lifestyle, separating herself as much as possible from the expected path.

The family’s life is circumscribed by the neighborhood and the family business. The expectation is that daughters will receive a basic education, get married and settle near family, working in the store only if truly needed. Everyone lives in close quarters with none of the conveniences one might imagine of a merchant family in the 1940’s. Their world begins to change dramatically as local boys return from serving with the British in WWII. These young men are looking to establish themselves and to choose their partners. Some become a part of the growing cells working to undermine the British Army enforcing the Mandate. These are some of the external forces compelling change in Luna’s generation.

Most Israeli novels seen in the US marketplace have been written by men. These men are usually the sons or grandsons of Eastern European immigrants that arrived either in the pioneer days or came as a consequence of the Holocaust. Less frequent are writings by the descendants of Jews of the Middle East, North Africa or the Iberian peninsula. The strength of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is the window it provides into the lives of the deeply rooted community where Ladino, not Yiddish, is the language of the home, and the cultural orientation is to the Middle East, not Europe.  The success Yishai-Levi has received with this novel is as much a testament to the love she shows for her Sephardic roots as it is for the story she has told.

 

Texas, 1870 in ‘News of the World’

  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Harper Collins, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A 70-year-old former soldier and itinerant news reader is asked to return a young girl kidnapped by the Kiowa Indians to her remaining family. Jiles beautifully paints a picture of the land, their growing relationship and the challenges they face.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Texas
  • Time: 1870
  • This book, based on actual historic figures, captures the hardship and beauty of life in Texas at the cusp of statehood. It was deserving of National Book Award consideration.

One of the most difficult things a writer can do is tell a straightforward story simply and with beautiful language. News of the World is such a success.

Texas in 1870 was a very rough and unforgiving land. Paulette Jiles’s poetic skills are everywhere in the sparse yet descriptive language she uses to bring the story alive. In a surprising small novel, Jiles tells the story of a young girl taken to live with the Kiowa Indians after they murdered her parents and sister. Rescued by the army, she is entrusted to a seventy-year-old former military officer who commits to bringing her back to her surviving relatives.

While this is historical fiction, both of the primary characters are grounded in fact. Knowing this gives the reader a platform to better understand the dynamics of life during this period.

Both are outsiders. He is an itinerant news reader, paid to read selected stories from newspapers around the world to audiences in saloons around the country. He has a keen awareness of schisms in the country and picks and chooses what he shares to avoid creating additional unrest. She no longer speaks English and is completely acculturated to the Kiowa way of life. He becomes her teacher and protects her from men who wish to victimize her further. She, too, feels a responsibility towards him and uses the skills she gained to save them both.

This is a turbulent time in Texas. There is great lawlessness with predatory alliances, some as an outgrowth of the Civil War, others familial or opportunistic. Few women live in the towns and many of them are in brothels. The Captain and Johanna are forced to travel under cover of darkness for their own protection. The land itself is a major character in the book. Jiles language is so precise you can see the terrain and feel the dust as they travel.

Despite the seriousness of their circumstances, this is not a doom and gloom novel. As they come to know and understand one another, there is a genuine affection that develops. There are cultural differences that must be bridged and there is humor.

It is rare to find a book that tells its story so well in such a compact package. For that reason, I hesitate to divulge any additional elements of the plot. As Captain Kidd’s and Johanna’s journey together draws to an end it is difficult to read because these are characters I would like to spend much more time with. This is a book I can recommend without reservation.