For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.
It’s not as though I wasn’t aware of the intense rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla – one can hardly exist on the Internet without knowing the deep love that Tesla gets as an underappreciated, neglected genius. But for all of that, I didn’t know all that much about the actual relationship between the two men before reading Graham Moore’s surprisingly gripping, vivid historical fiction The Last Days of Night. Using at its focus the legal battle over the light bulb, Moore gives us portraits of Edison, Tesla, and George Westinghouse, following the legal struggles over the future of the light bulb and the various claims of ownership of that idea.
Moore’s smartest move in telling this story is his choice of protagonist: lawyer Paul Cravath, hired by Westinghouse to help defend his claims of ownership. While the focus on Cravath tends to keep our sympathies with Westinghouse over Edison (a sensibility echoed by the book in general), it allows Moore to explore each of these men though the eyes of another party, weighing each of them for their strengths and their faults. As Moore himself seems to conclude, the men are so different, with their different strengths and weaknesses, that they neatly complement each other, with each filling a critical role in America’s development into an electricity-based country. And even if Moore’s sympathies are clearly against Edison, that doesn’t keep him from humanizing him in interesting ways towards the end of the novel, nor does it keep him from finding the flaws – and strengths – of each of these key figures.
The Last Days of Night serves as a solid legal thriller, but its primary interest is bringing this period of time to life. That focus generally serves the book well, even if it leads to some uneven subplots and some lackluster sections of the book (I never really cared about Paul’s love life, and some late-book revelations about a fire in Tesla’s lab felt tacked on and irrelevant in the way they were handled). Indeed, the book often is in service to its history more than its characters, and Moore’s background as a screenwriter often shows through, with more focus given to character’s dialogue and actions than ever fleshing them out.
And yet, none of that stopped me from absolutely tearing through the book, or from being fascinated by the research that went into it or the stories being told. If Moore takes a couple of liberties here and there, and if the book stumbles whenever it gets away from this court case, I’ll take it if it gives me a book this compelling and satisfying, both as a piece of historical fiction and as a novel. Rating: **** ½
I’ve raved enough about John Connolly on this blog that you should know how I feel about him: that his writing is stunning and poetic; that his horrors are unmatched, unsettling, and terrifying; that his plotting is strong, but his characters are even better; that, in short, he’s one of the best writers working today in the thriller OR horror genres, and that you should be reading him. So is it any surprise that I loved the latest entry in the Charlie Parker series, The Woman in the Woods? No, it’s not. But the fact that it’s one of the best in the series – if not the best – is no small thing. How many series continue to get better and better as they go? How many series keep improving and topping themselves? How many times can you say that the 16th entry in a series is its best? And yet, here we are.
The plot, as usual, is deceptively simple-sounding: a long-buried woman’s corpse is discovered in the woods, and Parker is asked to help discover her identity and see to it that she’s laid to rest. More importantly, though, he’s asked to discover what became of her child, because it’s evident that this woman gave birth not long before she died. But Parker is not the only person on this trail, and the other party is leaving a trail of butchered dead in its wake as it hunts down the lead.
The Woman in the Woods does more with the overarching Parker mythology than most, making it a hard book to recommend to non-fans. Indeed, from conversations about The Backers to the health status of Angel, from references to the list of names from The Wrath of Angels to the ongoing questions about Parker’s daughter, The Woman in the Woods is partially about the way in which Parker’s story is continuing in the background, without his knowledge. (What’s more, The Woman in the Woods has heavy, heavy connections to The Fractured Atlas, a knockout horror novella from Connolly’s previous short story collection, Night Music; it should almost be required reading for those interested in The Woman in the Woods.)
But even if you didn’t know about Parker’s ongoing saga, The Woman in the Woods delivers everything I love about John Connolly and then some. Are there vague, supernatural horrors that constantly lurk just beyond the edges of the page, suggesting more than is ever confirmed? Is there beautiful, poetic prose that muses on the nature of reality and morality without ever becoming pretentious? Is there the effortless blending of comedic beats and very funny dialogue with the dark tone of Parker’s universe? Is there an unflinching look at the darkness and violent inherent to humanity, and the constant grappling with the question of how we can fight such evil? Is there’s compelling, effective plotting that unfolds carefully and inexorably? There’s all of that and more.
(There is also the ongoing story of Louis’s attack upon a truck emblazoned with the Confederate flag, a story that seems to upset people as “political” as opposed to “justified” and “funny,” which I found it. Also, any suggestion that this felt forced doesn’t consider what it might be like to be a violent, dangerous black man who has been oppressed and dealt with hatred throughout his life who finds a chance to send a message. Nor does it consider that perhaps racism and hatred shouldn’t be viewed as “political” so much as “intolerable,” but hey, you view the world as you want. For me, the fact that an Irish writer gets to the dark heart of American culture and hatred so much better than most Americans says far more about us than it does the author.)
Look: by now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I loved a John Connolly book. It’s beautifully crafted, it’s surprisingly funny, it’s genuinely terrifying, it’s unputdownable, it’s richly detailed and fleshed out. Its characters are brilliant and complex, its plotting satisfying, its mythology rich, its world unnerving and yet instantly recognizable. It’s another brilliant entry in the best thriller series in existence, and you should be reading it. Rating: *****
I’ve long heard that I should read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, often held up as one of the great pieces of nonfiction of the 20th century. The story of Christopher McCandless, who decided to get away from civilization and live on his own in the woods – and his subsequent death of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness – has grabbed hold of something in the public consciousness. Does McCandless represent something universal – a desire for simplicity in lives, and a retreat from the complexities and horrors of modern life? Or is it the story of a spoiled kid who thought he was a survivalist and died a pointless, stupid death that meant nothing except being another example of people who don’t respect the wilderness they profess to love?
The answer, according to Krakauer, lies deeply in the former. Krakauer’s bias here is undeniable, and indeed, Krakauer wrestles with his own attitudes toward McCandless as part of the narrative (more on that in a moment), but there’s little denying that he’s got a lot of empathy for McCandless and what he was trying to do. McCandless viewed himself as a modern descendant of Thoreau, one who saw through the issues with society and its complexities, and longed for a more natural existence, free of the encumbrances and hypocrisies of the modern world. And as Krakauer depicts him, from the elided depictions of his home life (in which much is implied, but would not be confirmed until McCandless’s sister came forward with her own memoir) to his writings, McCandless was painfully, incredibly earnest, espousing his beliefs without a hint of irony or condescension. There’s little denying that, in his own eyes, McCandless respected the wilderness and wanted its simplicity for his own life.
There’s also little denying, though, that it’s hard to read Into the Wild without Krakauer’s bias covering everything. From the overly lengthy closing (including the new afterword) arguments as to McCandless’s poisoning to his multi-chapter story of his own efforts in the wild, Into the Wild is inescapably Krakauer’s take on events, and that can get frustrating. The aforementioned two chapter story of Krakauer’s own Alaskan trip, for instance, is far too long, getting away from the story of McCandless for so long that one starts to wonder if this book is really just about Krakauer. And the arguments for McCandless having been poisoned, while thoughtful and persuasive, feel again too long, as though Krakauer’s feelings about the story rely on how people feel about McCandless.
Because, make no mistake, there’s a lot of dislike for McCandless out there, and a lot of feelings that his death was largely self-inflicted and the result of his own failings – which, in turn, led Krakauer to argue so vehemently in favor of McCandless’s death being an accident, and through no fault of his own. The truth, I think, is somewhere in the middle; yes, McCandless was young and naive, and there’s little denying that there’s something appealing and intrinsically understandable about his goals. But even in Krakauer’s depiction, he’s also a young man who thought he could survive on his own, who thought it would be easy and natural to do that, and cared nothing for the advice of others – and went out there deeply unprepared, despite warning after warning. Is there something tragic about that, something sad about the way this dream failed? Undeniably. And when Into the Wild taps into that, it’s an effective, powerful book; it just gets less so the more Krakauer forces himself and his readings into the narrative. Rating: *** ½