Friday Book Whimsy: To Capture What We Cannot Keep

searchBeatrice Colin’s novel To Capture What We Cannot Keep could have been complete drivel, and I would still have read it front to back simply to learn about the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the novel’s focus.

Thankfully, it wasn’t drivel. It was, in fact, a passably readable love story, love between two people, but more importantly, love for a creation that turned sheets of metal into one of the most, oh heck, THE most recognizable structure in the world.

I found Colin’s novel, though about a difficult love affair, interesting mostly in its portrayal of 19th Century Paris and the incredible changes that were taking place at this time and in this place. Impressionist art was becoming more palatable to more people. Women were becoming increasingly independent. The city was abuzz in preparation for the 1889 World’s Fair, for which Gustave Eiffel’s tower was going to be the entrance.

Cait lost her husband to a weird accident when still a young woman. Left nearly penniless, she becomes the paid companion for the two teenaged children of a wealthy Scotsman. As part of her duties, she accompanies them to Paris, where preparations are underway for the upcoming World’s Fair. There she meets and falls in love with Emile, the engineer in charge of the tower’s construction. The seemingly-doomed love affair comes to a head at the end of the book in an amazing scene in which Cait climbs to the top of the tower despite a fear of heights to seek out Emile.

Aside from Cait, Emile, and Eiffel, the characters are insipid and self-absorbed and quite unlikable, just as I suspect the author crafted them. But as I mentioned before, the main character is the Eiffel Tower itself.

I have been lucky enough to stand in front of the Eiffel Tower and have my breath taken away by its beauty. Colin’s novel made me think for the first time just how NUTS people must have thought Eiffel was to think that a tower made out of metal was going to be anything but hideous. Metal and bolts and nothing else.

And I had also never thought about the difficulty involved in building such a structure, especially given the times and the lack of computers to measure the wind and the air pressure and the seismic activity. Lots of best guesses and fingers crossed.

I was actually quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel. As with The Last Days of Night from which I learned about the invention of the light bulb, Capture What We Cannot Keep taught me a great deal about architecture, engineering, and the construction of one of our most endearing landmarks.

Here is a link to the book.

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Friday Book Whimsy: 2016 Favorites

pile-of-booksMy reading goal every year is 100 books. I’m not sure I have ever hit my goal, but I have come close. For example, in 2015, I read a total of 93 books. I’m afraid in 2016, I was a bit of a slacker, having only read 88 books – a couple of which were, quite honestly, novellas. In my world, they counted! Especially since I’m not graded on quantity. And I’m thankful I’m not rated on quality, because I don’t use the New York Times Book Review for my book choosing. Actually, I’m not graded on anything being retired and all….

Anyway, I post a book review each week, so if you are a faithful Friday Book Whimsy reader, you will be familiar with all of the books I am going to feature as my favorite five books of the year. The books may or may not have been published in 2016; they have just been read by me in the past year.  Frankly, most are books published in earlier years.

My five favorite reads in 2016, in no particular order….

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrick Backman
Britt-Marie is a 60-something woman who leaves her controlling husband after she learns he is having an affair. She is compulsive and entirely set in her ways. She has been since she was a little girl and her much-adored sister is killed in a car accident. It should have been you, is the message that Britt-Marie got regularly from her mom, whether or not it was spoken out loud. So Britt-Marie begins the process of starting a new life. The only job she is able to find is the manager of a recreation center in a very small town. She has spent most of her life taking care of others and has no idea who Britt-Marie is and why anyone would care. But she learns that people do care, and begins to put together a new life where people accept her for who she is.

What I liked best about the book: Britt-Marie. I loved the main character so, so much. The book was entirely feel-good, and who didn’t need that this past year?

The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore
The novel examines the invention of the light bulb, and the eventual replacement of gas lighting with electric lights in this entirely readable, eminently fascinating account of the legal battle waged between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. There is no one less interested in science than I, and yet I found the book to be fascinating. Moore uses real characters such as Edison, Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and Paul Kravath to give readers a snapshot of life in NYC in the late 1800s and how progress is REALLY made. It unexpectedly provided me with one of my favorite reads of the year.

What I liked best about the book: I love to learn about history and science via novels, as I find that so much easier to read. Moore was able to pique my interest in the notion of inventing and patents. It takes good writing to successfully accomplish that task.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
This novel is everything I would hate in a book. The entire story is told via emails, text messages, flashbacks, school documents, and so forth. There is no driving narrative and virtually no dialogue. It is really all about the characters, but Semple does it so well that this book was a total pleasure to read. I had it in my library for a long time before I finally picked it up and read it, almost straight through. Bernadette is the star of the show, despite her quirky, agoraphobic nature. She is likable and believable. I would like to have her as my best friend. I don’t regularly reread books, but I will read this book again and again.

What I liked best about the book: The author’s characters are the best thing about the novel. Despite the fact that there is no driving narrative, she was able to paint clear and distinct pictures of each character through her unusual writing style.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
There is a plethora of novels available about World War II, and lots of good ones. I found The Nightingale to be one of the best I’ve read (and I’ve read more than my share) simply because it offered a different perspective on the awful war. Two sisters from a small village in France experience the war from entirely different perspectives – one as the woman and wife left behind to care as best she can for everyone around her, and one who becomes part of the French resistance. The look at the war from the women’s perspective, as well as Hannah’s beautiful writing, made this one of my favorite reads of 2016.

What I liked best about the book: There are many books – novels and nonfiction alike – about the horrific treatment of the Jews, and about the miserable conditions of the fighting men and women, but I liked reading about what it was like to try and keep your world in order under wartime conditions as the woman back home.

Tiny Little Thing, by Beatriz Williams
Christina “Tiny” Schuyler was the so-called good sister of the three Schuyler girls. She did everything the right way. She was good in school, she married well, and she was the perfect political wife to her ambitious husband. But what is missing is love. It made for a wonderful book with a thoroughly satisfying ending. Tiny Little Thing was the first book I had ever read by author Beatriz Williams, and I have read several since. They almost always have some connection to the Schuyler family, and they are very good. But Tiny Little Thing is my favorite.

What I liked best about the book:  Blackmail, adultery, Vietnam, dirty politics – all wrapped in a 1960s package. It took me a bit to get into the novel, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.

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Friday Book Whimsy: The Last Days of Night

imgresWhen I was young, there was a section of the children’s area of our public library that featured a series of biographies ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Florence Nightingale to Booker T. Washington. I read them all.

And so I remember that I read all about how Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. That’s it. Nothing murky.  He was responsible for those light bulbs that we use every day of our life to light up our world.

But was it really that simple? Of course not; nothing ever is. What is unarguably true is that he was the first person to hold a patent for the direct charge light bulb.

The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore, examines the invention of the light bulb, and the eventual replacement of gas lighting with electric lights in this entirely readable, eminently fascinating account of the legal battle waged between Edison and George Westinghouse, who had also invented a light bulb, but his used alternating current.

It’s hard to imagine that someone who cares about or understands science as little as I would enjoy this novel. Nevertheless, I loved this book. It will undoubtedly be among the top five books that I’ve read this year.

Not only could I not put it down, but I drove my husband (who studied engineering for a time in college) practically crazy with my unending did you knows.

Do you know the difference between direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC)? (He did.)

Did you know that they used alternating current (AC) the first time they used the electric chair, and it was a horrific and unimaginable failure? (He didn’t.)

Moore’s story begins in New York City in 1888. George Westinghouse hires a young, untested attorney named Paul Cravath to handle his literally billion-dollar case in which Thomas Edison is suing him over the simple question: who invented the light bulb.

Moore (who was the screenwriter for the wonderful movie The Imitation Game) uses real characters and real situations to tell an absolutely riveting story about the battle, which takes the young Cravath into the heights of society in New York City in the late 19th Century. His portrayals of the key figures – Edison, Westinghouse, Cravath, Nikola Tesla – paint a different picture from what I read in those little biographies as a child. They fought a seemingly unending battle over power – both electrical power and social power.

Don’t let the fact that this is a novel about the light bulb stop you from reading this book. It is an absolutely glorious story that involves corruption, romance, intrigue, and rollicking fun.

I have scarcely enjoyed a novel quite as much.

Here is link to the book.  

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