Thursday, July 22, 2010

looks at books

As promised, here are reviews of the books I brought home from the library last week.

Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies

This is a memoir detailing the break-up of the marriage of a television actress and a pompous, womanizing, poetry professor. Here's why it was a must read for me: The actress has a recurring role on Law & Order: SVU as the wife of detective Elliott Stabler. A life-long New Yorker, she left New York and followed her husband to his teaching position at --- Oberlin College. Yes, that Oberlin College. I probably need to devote an entire post to how deeply entwined the little college town of Oberlin, Ohio is with memories of my childhood and my dad and our time spent there. Suffice it to say, I know that town.

Gillies is not a professional writer, and the book is written in a conversational tone - pretty much like the tone I try to use here. You know me, you're interested in me, and in what I have to say. And I was interested in what she had to say. I was fascinated by the town as she described it, and was amazed to find that she lived right down the street from a friend of mine who has lived in Oberlin for years. (She didn't know the author - I asked her.) I tried to picture Gillies in the bead shop or the Ben Franklin, but I couldn't quite manage that.

The author doesn't pull any punches, and the gut-wrenching passage where she kneels in the snow to beg the other woman not to destroy her children's happiness is overly-dramatic, sure, but as the song lyrics say, love has no pride, and that rang true to me. I love how she frames that scene from the perspective of an elderly professor watching from his window, and the knowledge of him there is what gets her up off her knees.

This memoir offers what no one can resist - a peek inside the lighted windows of the lovely old house we walk past on a crisp evening, and the reassurance that the people who live there are, after all, just like us.


The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

I have been fascinated by Nikola Tesla since the first time we saw the huge statue of a seated Tesla on Goat Island near Niagara Falls. As I read the attached plaque, I wondered why I had never heard of this brilliant inventor who illuminated the entire world. I vowed to learn more about him, and in the years since have read everything I could find about this eccentric genius. There hasn't been much, so I was excited to read a review of this novel several months ago, and even more excited to find it on the library shelf.

I am very disappointed by this book. The author wrote in such a detached style that I could never get into the book. I felt like I kept waiting for the introduction to be over and the story to actually begin, but by the time I was fifty pages into the book, I realized the narrative wasn't going to change into a smooth readable style. The dual plots chugged along, but Hunt never lingered long enough to engage us. The passages where the author repeated what had been written elsewhere about Tesla were not well integrated and stood out like they had been written in neon ink.

Hunt had a good idea when she attempted to describe the New Yorker, the hotel where Tesla lived until his death in 1943, but her attempt fell short of the mark, and I will have to learn about it elsewhere. The author also failed to capture the magic of New York City at the turn of the century, something which I would think would be difficult to do. The secondary plot of the fictional chambermaid was depressing more than anything else, and really, Tesla's declining years were depressing enough on their own.

To learn about the greatest inventor of the 19th and 20th centuries - and, possibly, of all time - read Margaret Cheney's biography, Tesla: Man Out Of Time, or, really, just google Tesla. You'll be amazed by what you find. I guarantee it.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Good reviews. And I want to upvote your Nikola Tesla comments. Readers can start learning about him here.