Review: The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

Review: The Last Days of Night by Graham MooreThe Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Random House on August 16th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A thrilling novel based on actual events, about the nature of genius, the cost of ambition, and the battle to electrify America—from the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game and New York Times bestselling author of The Sherlockian
New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history—and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?
The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society—the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal—private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?
In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.

My Review:

This is one of those stories that if it weren’t mostly true, would absolutely shred the willing suspension of disbelief. But it is mostly true. And it is fascinating.

The story is about the birth of the modern technological world, as midwifed by three extremely different men. Men without whom the world as we know it would be much the poorer – and also still in the dark.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s the United States (and the rest of the world) was on the edge of a technological revolution. And that revolution was in the midst of a great battle, admittedly one being fought in law offices and courtrooms, and not with rifles and bayonets.

But this story still begins with a death. Young (very young) attorney Paul Cravath witnesses a man’s electrocution on the streets of New York. It was an accident, but it certainly sets the stage for what happens next.

And for the rest of Cravath’s life.

Electricity as a public utility was in its infancy. In fact, the country was still deciding whether Direct Current (DC) or Alternating Current (AC) would be the way to go. The conflict was heightened, exacerbated and pushed to greater levels of mania by the antipathy between the leaders of the competing schemes.

The great inventor, Thomas Alva Edison was a proponent of direct current. George Westinghouse was the leading proponent for alternating current, and was building generators to push his movement. As history knows, AC won the “War of Currents”, but no one knew that at the time.

Edison and Westinghouse were locked in epic, if metaphorical, battle. But the battleground wasn’t actually the current. Edison took the fight in a direction he was certain he could win. Westinghouse was also selling light bulbs. And Edison seemed to have an iron-clad claim, and the legal and monetary resources to back it, that Westinghouse was infringing on his patent.

Enter young Cravath. He was too young and too inexperienced to have a clue just what he was letting himself in for. So when Westinghouse offered him the job of lead attorney on his case against Edison, he jumped for it. It was the opportunity of a lifetime – if he could pull it off. And Cravath was just young enough at the beginning of the case to be certain that he could. That his career would end in ignominy if he failed wasn’t something he saw at first – and when he does it nearly flattens him.

So the young lawyer placed himself in the middle of the battle between two titans. And into the fray he introduced a third, Nikola Tesla. For years, Westinghouse and Edison fought over the provenance of the lightbulb, the question of which current would power the country, and the life and fate of Tesla, who was a bit too lost in his dreamworld of inventing to know just how much of a catspaw he really was.

In the end, Cravath doesn’t exactly win. But he doesn’t actually lose, either. And the way he gets there, and what he experiences, keep the reader glued to the page until the very end.

And there’s light.

Escape Rating A-: This is a story that rewards sticking with it. It takes a while to build its momentum, partly because Cravath doesn’t start out to be a particularly interesting character. We see things from his point of view, but he isn’t half as interesting as the three giants at the center of the controversy, Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla.

At the halfway point, the story lights up with a flash, and as Cravath finally figures out what he’s doing. From that point on, it’s hard to stop.

Part of what makes the story interesting is the way that Cravath changes. He’s pretty naive at the beginning. By the end he’s a cynical mess, betrayed on all sides. But he’s also finally an adult. And still operating way above his head.

Another point that fascinates is the different perspectives on the three inventors, Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla. They are alike, and they are all different. Tesla is a pure dreamer; he doesn’t need to see his dreams built, he gets satisfaction from the invention just by thinking it up. Westinghouse is the engineer who gets his satisfaction from building the device itself. Edison, the figure who towers so tall over American invention, does not come off nearly as well as the others. Edison wants to win at all costs, and is definitely a proponent of the ends justifying the means.

In order to beat him, Cravath has to become the same. He nearly destroys his life to win. Watching him step up to the line and just barely pulling back from the brink makes the story, and his life.

That most of what occurs in the book also happened in real life just makes the story that much more fascinating. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

Review: A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder

Review: A Truck Full of Money by Tracy KidderA Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, internet, nonfiction
Pages: 320
Published by Random House on September 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Fortune, mania, genius, philanthropy the bestselling author of Mountains Beyond Mountains gives us the inspiring story of Paul English, the founder of Kayak.com and Lola. Tracy Kidder, the master of the nonfiction narrative (The Baltimore Sun) and author of the bestselling classic The Soul of a New Machine, now tells the story of Paul English, a kinetic and unconventional inventor and entrepreneur, who as a boy rebelled against authority. Growing up in working-class Boston, English discovers a medium for his talents the first time he sees a computer. As a young man, despite suffering from what would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, he begins his pilgrim s journey through the ups and downs in the brave new world of computers. Relating to the Internet as if it s an extension of his own mind, he discovers that he has a talent for conceiving innovative enterprises and building teams that can develop them, becoming a Pied Piper of geeks. His innovative management style, success, and innate sense of fair play inspire intense loyalty. Early on, one colleague observes: Someday this boy s going to get hit by a truck full of money, and I m going to be standing beside him. Yet when English does indeed make a fortune, when the travel website Kayak is sold for almost two billion dollars the first thing he thinks about is how to give the money away: What else would you do with it? The second thing he thinks is, What s next? With the power of a consummate storyteller, Tracy Kidder casts a fresh, critical, and often humorous eye on the way new ideas and new money are reshaping our culture and the world. A Truck Full of Money is a mesmerizing portrait of an irresistibly endearing man who is indefatigable, original, and as unpredictable as America itself.

My Review:

soul of a new machine by tracy kidderThe first book of Tracy Kidder’s that I ever read was The Soul of a New Machine, an inside look at the development of a new 32-bit minicomputer at Data General in the late 1970s. In internet years, that feels like several centuries ago.

The universe of computing, and the universe of the ways in which our lives are impacted by computers and related technology, has changed immeasurably since that “soul” was put into that “new machine”. But those giants at Data General are to a significant extent the ones whose shoulders the subject of this new book stand. As is Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web in 1989.

Without the evolution in computer technology that took us from computers that filled rooms to what were then called minicomputers because they were considerably smaller than that to the PC revolution to the Internet, our world would be immeasurably different. So, just as The Soul of a New Machine was the story of a group of people who helped build the revolution, A Truck Full of Money is about the soul of the new tech economy, as seen through the eyes of a man who is one of its avatars, and one of its success stories.

The story follows the career of Paul M. English, the creator of numerous companies throughout the internet age, including Boston Light, the very successful Kayak.com and his current company, Lola Travel. English has a knack for not just having a great idea for a company, but building a team that can carry it through to success, and subsequent sale for “a truck full of money” to someone else. And then he starts all over again.

Not every one of his ideas succeeds. But the ones that do, really, really do. Like Kayak.com.

The author uses English’s biography to tell his story, making it both a look into the tech economy of start-ups, venture capital and failing frequently, often and hopefully upwards as well as the biography of one individual who has been mostly successful in that environment.

English himself is a fascinating character to watch, from his beginnings in working-class Boston in the 1970s to his hyper success in nearly every decade afterwards – interspersed not just with a series of failures but also with his coping with, and sometimes failing to cope with, a bipolar disorder that causes episodes of hypomania. Sometimes the black dog of depression bites hard, but more often the demons of hypomania gave English incredible amounts of energy and very little ability to process the rapid firing of his brain or the people that he needed to carry out any of his visions.

And in the middle of all of his success, his desire to help people. Not just on the intimate scale of taking care of the people who are close to him, but in the broader humanitarian goal of helping with several crises around the world, particularly in Haiti and in his Boston hometown.

Escape Rating B-: A Truck Full of Money is an interesting book, but it didn’t grab me as much as I remember The Soul of a New Machine did when I listened to it sometime in the 1990s. Admittedly, a long time ago.

One issue is that A Truck Full of Money isn’t told in a linear fashion. Each of the vignettes is interesting, but the coherent whole doesn’t emerge. Thinking about it, the non-linearity probably reflects the subject, who, when he is on, sparks ideas in multiple directions simultaneously.

We also don’t see much of the subject’s relationships with colleagues and family, except on a superficial level. The characters in this biography seem to brought on to show their function in the work rather than their place in the life. This may be a reflection of what these relationships actually are, but it feels a bit hollow.

We see a lot more of the what than the why.

While this isn’t a book about bipolar disorder, there is more depth in dealing with this part of the subject’s life than anything else that hits close to the bone.

One of the most interesting parts is seeing the way that this economy, which has powered so much of the development of the technology sector, really works. The way that venture capitalists deal with fledgling businesses, and the how and why of where their funding comes from and how they decide what to do with it, explains a lot about the way things work now.

If you’ve ever worked for a company that was bought by venture capital firms, or in an industry that is dominated by such firms, that part is fascinating.

All in all, A Truck Full of Money makes an interesting and readable bookend to The Soul of a New Machine. In a strange way, that feels like the beginning of a story, and this one feels like, not the end, but maybe the end of its middle.

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth StroutMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 193
Published by Random House on January 12th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout is cause for celebration. Her bestselling novels, including Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, have illuminated our most tender relationships. Now, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, this extraordinary writer shows how a simple hospital visit becomes a portal to the most tender relationship of all—the one between mother and daughter.   Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.

My Review:

My Name is Lucy Barton is literary fiction. Which means that not much happens. So fair warning, this is going to be one of those reviews where I end up talking a lot about how the book made me feel, rather than what the book was about.

Because I’m not quite sure what this book was about, at least in the sense of what the plot might have been. Or even if there is one.

Instead, this is a novel about relationships. And it is also very much a story about secrets, especially the ones where the need for secrecy becomes so ingrained, that we no longer even tell them to ourselves.

The ostensible story is about Lucy’s unexpected extended hospital stay, but it is clearly told from a point much later in her life. And as her thoughts roam over the whole of her life, she hints at memories from her childhood and adolescence.

It’s clear that there was a lot wrong in the Barton household while Lucy was growing up. The family was poverty-stricken, but that wasn’t either the real or the whole of the problem. Sparked by an extremely unexpected visit from the mother she hasn’t seen for years, in the quiet of her own mind Lucy hints at the things that went wrong. But she never speaks of them, not even to herself, at least not in detail.

There’s a monster lurking somewhere in that dim past, but the habit of never revealing that truth, whatever it was, is so ingrained that Lucy doesn’t even let herself think it. Consequently, the reader never does know precisely what happened.

What we do know is that those long ago troubles shaped Lucy’s life, and that her mother’s inability to even touch on those difficulties is part of their estrangement. At the same time, Lucy longs for real connection with her mother. And even though she is terribly grateful that her mother is there for those long, uncertain days in the hospital, Lucy still doesn’t get what she needs.

Escape Rating B-: I finished this, I found it interesting enough to keep turning back to over and over throughout the day, but in the end, it didn’t move me. There was no catharsis, no true ending.

Throughout the story, Lucy hints at terrible secrets, but she never reveals them, even to herself. As a reader, I felt let down at the end. I expected a resolution, or at least a reveal, that never came.

At the same time, part of what kept me coming back was the tenuous relationship between Lucy and her mother, which had some uncomfortable parallels to my own relationship with my mother. And maybe that was the point of the whole story. Not that Lucy tells us what happened to her, but that it makes the reader reach for the resonances in their own story. It’s not what the story gives us, but what we bring to it.

And that’s an uncomfortable thought.