Friday, January 11, 2019

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

One of the great things about book clubs is that you read books that, maybe, you wouldn't have otherwise chosen to read. I wasn't quite sure how The Last Days of Night was going to be when I first looked at it. But, again, what a great read. 

It begins in 1888, the time that electricity was first becoming commercialized. It chronicles the fight between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse as they struggled to gain the upper hand in the production and selling of the commodity and the accoutrements that went with it. This story is told through the eyes of the young lawyer, Paul Cravath, who is hired by Westinghouse to fight for his patents. The 312 lawsuits were filed because Edison invented a light bulb and received a patent for it. Westinghouse followed with a better bulb, and filed for a patent. However, Edison contended that Westinghouse's bulb violated the patents that he had filed. Edison demanded one billion dollars in damages and Cravath needed to prove that Westinghouse's bulb was better and different and didn't infringe on the patents that Edison held. 

Enter Nikola Tesla, a genius, who was determined to make his own statement with AC electricity and its superiority for wide range use in electrifying the country.  What results is a novel of intrigue, high powered machinations, criminal activity, and a bit of romance. The characters are real but fictionalized in the daily comings and goings. Moore includes at the conclusion of the book a detailed listing of what is real and what isn't. 

 Cravath meets and becomes infatuated with the Metropolitan Opera singer, Agnes Huntington. He co-opts her to aid him in protecting Tesla whose life, he fears, may be in danger. Another historical figure who is prominently featured in the novel is J.P. Morgan who shows what the power of money can do. 

The novel is beautifully written and fascinating with all the geniuses springing to life within the fabric of the individual personalities. Moore describes Tesla as the visionary, interested in dreaming up inventions; Edison as the showman, interested in the performance; Westinghouse, the produce who wanted inventions crafted and produced to be the best. As Moore delves into the personality of the men, the reader is enlightened to see how they lived and worked.  The inventiveness and creativity of the mind brings it home that we need to foster intellectual curiosity. 


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

 There are some books that will stand the test of time as being a true classic. An
American Marriage might just be one of those books. It has gained critical acclaim from all reviewers and was one of President Obama's summer reads of 2018. 

Told from the perspective of the protagonists, it is the story of Roy and Celestial, a black couple in Atlanta, who are well-educated and and financially in good standing. On a trip to visit his mother the couple opt to stay in a motel rather than at his mother's home. The decision has dire consequences for he is accused of raping another guest at the hotel. He is arrested and sent to jail despite being innocent. Much of the novel is recounted in the form of letters between Celestial and Roy while he is in prison. Through those very personal missives the reader is given insight into the early days of the relationship and then to how each deals with his imprisonment. During that time period Celestial's Uncle Banks, a lawyer, works endlessly to prove Roy's innocence. 

In addition the narration by Celestial and Roy, there are chapters devoted to Andre Tucker, a childhood friend of Celestial's. He does not hide the fact that he has always been in love with her since their prom date. She never shared those feelings and he has respected her for that. As a stalwart companion during the time Roy is in jail, the two rekindle a friendship and more. Other strong characters in the book are Roy's parents, Roy Senior and Olive, and Celestial's parents. Franklin and Delano Davenport. Each weighs in on the tragic situation as well as how they first viewed the couple. 

Without giving away most of the plot, suffice it to say that a tangled web is woven among the three. This was a wonderful read, tho so disturbing to think of how race plays such a part in the judgment that members of a jury can put forth. In some respects it reminded me of the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, that was written 60 years before. Has all that much really changed in America? With themes as racism and class, the influence of fathers in our lives, and the strengths and weaknesses of a marital state there is much to be digested in the reading of An American Marriage. 

Probably one of the best lectures I have ever heard was given by Tayari Jones on 19 November 2018 as a part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series. She was candid, articulate and made the voices and narration of her novel come alive. The book was wonderful and so was she.