Review of “The Last Days of Night” by Graham Moore

 

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I do not care so much for a great fortune as I do for getting ahead of the other fellows.  – Thomas Edison

Until I read this book, I had an impression of what it would have been like to see the night lit for the first time. It was terribly romantic. It was surreal, ethereal, and peaceful. (Sort of like this book’s beautiful cover.) There were scientists and engineers of all sorts slapping each other on the back, congratulating themselves on their enormous contribution to mankind.  Thomas Edison was one of these scientists, of course, and he was a jolly good fellow. He lead this collaboration of gifted men with the grace, elegance, and credibility only natural born leaders of that period possessed.

It seems I was mistaken.

Graham Moore’s  latest novel, The Last Day’s of Night, is the story of the War of Currents. Though it is a work of fiction, the majority of it is historically accurate and all of the characters did exist including Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, and Westinghouse’s attorney, Paul Cravath. Paul, a fresh-out-school attorney in is mid-twenties is hired by Westinghouse to defend him in a law suit Thomas Edison has brought forth demanding the outrageous sum of one billion dollars.

Paul is a thoroughly likable young man who quickly finds himself in over his head. He is, however, determined to win at all costs. He is ambitious, driven, and singularly focused. As time goes on he morphs from naive rookie to shrewd, calculating, savvy attorney. But that’s not to say there aren’t a few SNAFUs along the way… (Though I’d never heard of him, he is apparently quite well-known in the legal world. In fact, the firm he eventually started is still in existence and continues to use the Cravath Sytem which has been credited with changing the way lawyers practice and law firm are structured.)

This book is more intriguing that I could have imagined. All of the same components of modern corporate conflicts and greed existed then. And these scientists we’ve come to hold in such high esteem where not exempt from engaging in all manner of unscrupulous behavior in their quest to be the first and best. From patent infringement to character assassination, from corporate espionage to arson, nothing was off limits.

The author tells this story in such an amazingly engaging, page-turning way that I was fully entertained while being educated. That, I think, is the pinnacle of happiness for those of us semi-obsessed with historical fiction.

There is already a movie in the works. Moore has done the adaptation. My expectations are admittedly very high after having seen The Imitation Game which he adapted from the book Alan Turing: The Engima  by Andrew Hodges.

5/5 stars

Many thanks to Random House for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

May Book Club “Madamoiselle Chanel” and Circo

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A couple of weeks ago, (I am waaay behind on posting), the NYC Ladies Fine Dining and Fiction Book Club got together at Circo to discuss Mademoiselle Chanel, which was selected for the group by one of our regular members. It was a book I’d been excited about reading for a long time so I was quite happy with the choice.

I really enjoyed the book and it’s quite evident that the author did an amazing amount of research. I though I knew quite a bit about Gabrielle Chanel but I was wrong. (Who else thought the trademark interlocking Cs stood for Coco Chanel? Wrong!!)

She led an amazing life having been orphaned at an early age and rising through the fashion ranks to be what many consider the most influential designer in the history of fashion. Though we take many of designs for granted as classics, she was the fashion innovator of her time. Her styles reflected the changing times in Europe, much of which necessitated by WWII and the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Though, in many ways, I couldn’t really relate to her, I appreciated the sacrifices she made for her career and the difficulties she faced as a female entrepreneur, often forced to rely on men for money and opportunity, frequently not in complete control of her own destiny. Though she seemed to be a source of great fascination and enchantment to many men throughout her life, her relationships were often full of controversy and scandal, not the least of which was her romantic liaison with a Nazi officer.

I was also surprised to learn of the  history of Chanel No. 5. While the story if its origins and development were fascinating, the story of her relationship with the Wertheimer family, with whom she partnered to finance, market, and produce the fragrance, appalled me. Not only did she not want honor the contract she entered into with them, she tried to regain all of their interest in the company during the occupation under Hitler’s law that Jews could not own property of business enterprises.

Long-time book club member, Jane, found the story of the creation of the LBD to be fascinating. She also found the history of Chanel No. 5 to be intriguing. She loved Chanel’s idea that the woman should wear the dress as opposed to the standard at the time which was quite the opposite. Though Jane agrees with many of us that Chanel may not have been a very likable woman, she feels that Americans seems to be obsessed with the notion that creative geniuses also be nice people which she feels is often not possible.

As for the restaurant, I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed. One meal had to be sent back (not mine) and I think the consensus was that the food ranged from just okay to pretty good and the service was somewhat lacking. We were a group of twelve and while I can certainly appreciate that managing a group of that size may present some challenges, I don’t think providing water for the table in a timely manner should be one of them. And then there was the fire alarm which went off not once, not twice but THRICE during our meal!

As for my own meal, it was a mixed bag. I shared the Salsiccia pizza with a friend as an appetizer and it was excellent. For my entree, I ordered the Mafaldine Con Sugo D’Anatra, which is pasta with a duck and mushroom ragu. I didn’t love it but I think that had to do more with my own palate than the preparation. I’ve only been eating duck for a short time and had only ordered duck breast in the past. The sauce was more brown vs. the red sauce I was expecting. The homemade pasta itself was very good, however, and perfectly cooked.

Long-time (probably charter is more accurate) book club member Nadine felt that overall, the food was just okay; the risotto being a bit too al dente, the ravioli a tad bland, and the veal a bit too salty.

It wasn’t all bad, though. The decor provides a nice change from the typical decor you see in different versions of the same aesthetic throughout the city’s better restaurants. It’s colorful, whimsical, and cheery. The sommelier was very helpful and we were able to choose a red which suited everyone’s taste at a fair price point. And, as always, the company was fabulous and the discussions lively.

I wouldn’t necessarily discourage anyone from dining at Circo, and I’m glad I was able to get there as it had been on my list for a long time. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to make a return visit (With rare exceptions I try not to repeat. There are too many great places I’ve yet to get to.) but neither would I be horrified at the prospect of going back if I had a reason to.

After dinner, a few of us went out for drinks at Flute Bar which was a great place to enjoy an after dinner drink. It was not overly crowded, the DJ played great music at a decibel level that allowed for conversation when seated, the service was great, and all at reasonable prices. I would definitely return.

Ratings are my own.

The book 4/5 stars

The restaurant 3/5 stars

The bar 5/5

 

 

Review of “Modern Girls” by Jennifer S. Brown

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Rarely, upon finishing a book, am I at such a loss for words. What I want to know is: Where is the rest of the book?  Modern Girls had the potential to be so much more…

Rose and Dottie, a Jewish mother and daughter living in 1930’s Manhattan, become pregnant at the same time. Neither is exactly thrilled to learn that they are in the family way. Rose is in her early 40’s and will soon regain some freedom as her youngest son begins his education. Dottie is unwed and running out of options.

There were some very interesting twists and turns of events. And a nice illustration of a pretty ideal mother-daughter relationship; not without some strife, of course, but with maximum love and loyalty. The relationship Dottie has with her brothers is also very touching. As I was nearing the end of the book, however, I became concerned that nothing seemed to be coming to any sort of conclusion. I thought perhaps there was going to be some sudden, drastic event that would wrap up all of the loose ends. Not so. If the end was intended to be a set-up for a sequel, it is still far too lacking. It needed a prologue at the very least. If I’d had to rate the book half way through, I would have given it 3.5/stars. Unfortunately, the ending was too disappointing to overlook.

2.25/5

I received a free copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “Glory Over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House” by Kathleen Grissom

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“I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

-Harriet Tubman

I absolutely loved The Kitchen House and was thrilled when I heard Kathleen Grissom was writing a sequel. Though Glory Over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House is a stand-alone novel, I highly recommend reading The Kitchen House if you haven’t already.

James Burton (formerly Jamie Pyke) is passing as a wealthy white Philadelphia silversmith who has denied his true identity for many years after fleeing Tall Oaks, the Virginia planation where he was raised. He has fallen in love with Caroline, a white woman from a wealthy family. She becomes pregnant and he intends to tell her his secret, fearing that it will become obvious to all when the child is born. But before he gets the opportunity, his beloved servant, Pan, is captured and brought to the South to be sold into slavery. James embarks on a dangerous journey to save Pan, the son a friend to whom he owed his very life.

I really liked this book but I’m not sure I loved quite as much as The Kitchen House. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. I loved Pan’s character and wanted to jump into the story to protect him myself. In fact, all of the characters were crafted with the same depth and complexity as those I grew to love in The Kitchen House. Perhaps I simply had a difficult time reconciling certain aspects of James’s character. For example, while I could understand his reasons for wanting to maintain his identity as a white man, I took offense at his disdain toward slaves. That’s all I’ll say about that. There are other examples but I don’t want to include any spoilers. On the other hand, there are characters I absolutely adored. For example, the young but formidable Adelaide Spencer. She is the teen daughter of the man who owns the property adjacent to where Pan is being held. She’s a young woman of conviction; someone I would like to believe I would have been like had I lived in those times.

Kathleen Grissom has told us another beautiful story. Even when the story is full of unimaginable pain and hardship, she has a unique way of weaving in enough snippets of the good in humanity, and the awesome strength of good people working together, to prevent us from losing all hope.

4.25/5 stars

Thanks to Simon & Schuster via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of “The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and Californian” by David Dyer

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The Midnight Watch provides us with a beautifully written, compelling, and moving account of the failure of the Californian, a fellow White Star Line ship, to respond to the distress signals of the Titanic in those fateful early morning hours of April 15, 1912. Eight individual white rockets indicating distress were fired from the deck of Titanic. Second Officer Herbert Stone, of the Californian, reported this to Captain Stanley Lord and Lord chose to stay in bed, doing absolutely nothing about it! To make matters worse, he lied about and continued to deny any responsibility for his lack of action for his entire life.

David Dyer has certainly done the research here in terms of the gathering of historical information. But this book is so much more than that. He gives us the hardworking, hard-drinking, tenacious Boston reporter Steadman. Steadman is determined to expose the truth, give voice to the victims, and uncover why the Californian, the only real hope at minimizing or even preventing loss of life, failed to give aid for hours while only a few miles away. Steadman is a complex, well-developed character. Though not perfect, he gave me someone to root for, someone willing to risk his job and his skin in the name of justice. (If only Herbert Stone had been that strong…) The author does a fabulous job in bringing the crew members of Californian to life and weaving the historical facts in seamlessly with portions of the story that are partially or completely fictionalized. The Story of the Sage family, mother, father, and nine children, all of whom perished in the Titanic, brought me to tears and reminded me of those heart-wrenching scenes of the 1997 film Titanic.

I hadn’t been aware of this failure of epic proportions and I’m amazed at how little attention history has given to this aspect of the history of the Titanic tragedy. I was both saddened and infuriated with the characters and events responsible in this book. I highly recommend this book to anyone that loves great historical fiction but it is a must-read for those of us who, like the author, have been Titanic obsessed since, like, forever.

4.5/5 stars

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “Jane Steele” by Lyndsay Faye

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Jane Steele  is a well-written, fun, and quirky read. I haven’t read Jane Eyre and wondered if it would make a difference in my ability to follow the book. It didn’t. Each chapter begins with a passage from Jane Eyre but this book is its own story and you won’t be impeded in any way if you haven’t read it. (Though I wonder at how I, calling myself a reader, could have made it this many years without having read one of the great classics.)

Jane’s story begins in childhood at Highgate House where she and her mother are effectively shunned by her Aunt Patience, forced to live in a guest cottage on the property. Before her untimely death, her mother tells Jane that Highgate House will be hers by inheritance some day but she leaves out several important details. Jane is promptly sent off to boarding school after her mother’s death where a series of events unfold and, let’s just say, the story really gains momentum.

Unfortunately, during the second half of the book, some of the momentum was lost for me. Not all. But some. The second half simply lacked the pace and sense of adventure that had me loving the first half of the book. Jane returns to Highgate house as a governess hired by the new master of Highgate House, the beguiling Charles Thornfield. I did enjoy this part of the story, as there are many twists, turns, and revelations but feel it could have been told with a few less words. Overall, though, I would say I enjoyed the story very much and would read this author again.

3.5 /5 stars

Thanks to Penguin Group Putnam via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of “Behave” by Andromeda Romano-Lax

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Behave by Andromeda Romano-Lax is the story of Rosalie Rayner Watson and her marriage to psychologist John B. Watson, who came to be known as the Father of Behaviorism.

This happens to be another of those books that’s tough for me to review as there is a great disparity in what I feel about the author’s abilities as a writer and story teller and my overall impression of the book. I think the author did a fabulous job in articulating  Rosalie’s story despite the fact that aren’t a lot of historical documents, etc. available to fully shape Rosalie’s character. It was an easy, fast read and I enjoyed the author’s writing style. However, I found both Rosalie and John to be unlikeable; their story mundane.

Rosalie is a young Vassar grad when she meets John. She lands a job as his research assistant at Johns Hopkins where they perform somewhat cruel experiments, on infants to prove John’s incomprehensible theories on behavior, conditioning, and child-rearing. John is married but, as expected, they begin an a affair (not his first by any means) which ultimately results in John and his first wife divorcing. Also not surprising, Rosalie, through the years, becomes disillusioned. Why would she think he’d be faithful to her? Should she be surprised that he would be less than discreet with his paramours? What mother would want to have to hide her affection toward her children? Simply put, John is a bit of ass. But then again, perhaps she shouldn’t have been so naive. But it’s more than just naivete that I found objectionable about Rosalie. She was rather a cold-hearted and unfeeling in her approach to her test subjects and I was glad that I wasn’t forced to read too many detailed accounts of the morally reprehensible experiments she helped perform on babies. The few I did have to read about were quite enough, thank you very much.

As for John Watson’s contribution to the world, all I can say is I can’t even imagine anyone believing in this man and his theories and I’m glad we’re no longer referring to his parenting guides.

Though I didn’t love this book, I would give any future books by Ms. Romano-Lax another chance depending on the subject.

3/5 stars

Thanks to Soho Press via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.