Tesla: Man Out of Time

August 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

teslaTesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney

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Many years ago, I owned this book because I knew enough about Tesla to want to know a bit more about all the mysterious inventions he created. I never got around to reading it, but when it came time to pick my next audio book, fresh off of all the Sagan and science books, this one rose to the top of the list. I’ve learned more about Tesla since then, and wanted to get a more complete picture of his life.

Man Out of Time is less an examination into his inventions and more an examination of his personality. This is fine — his personality and claims drew me more to the enigmatic figure than the formulae of his inventions — but I can see people being disappointed with how little it covers his inventions. That’s not to say that we don’t learn about his alternating current generators, the War of Currents, his remote controls, or his X-ray experimentation, but the focus here is on his quirky nature and how it played into all that research.

In short, though, Tesla was crazy. He was brilliant, no doubt, but so much of what he claimed was so out there as to strain credibility. Parts of it were verifiable — his acute senses were demonstrated without question at a young age — but other parts seem to be the source of legend. He claimed to hear a fly landing on a table as a loud, chair-shaking thud. I suppose it’s possible that Tesla knew how to trick people into thinking his senses were that acute, especially when you consider how much of a showman he was as an inventor, but there’s no way to test it with any veracity. Later in life, the inventions he claimed to have never appeared in public, and with no detailed notes left for later researchers to duplicate his results, no one seems to be able to duplicate what he claimed. How much of his legacy is science, and how much of it showmanship?

This is all known to a casual researcher, but Cheney pulls the details together into a cohesive narrative that’s roughly chronological. The narrative compartmentalizes Tesla’s achievements to make it easier to understand what he accomplished and how it had an affect on the world, so it jumps around a bit during his most productive years around the turn of the 20th century, but it makes more sense to organize Tesla’s story this way.

The most interesting takeaway from this book, for me, was how modern inventors continue to run up against the patents that Tesla filed during his lifetime. This was mentioned in a foreword to the book, written at least ten years after the book’s original publication, which is useful since high speed internet and wireless internet was still in its infancy when the book first went to press.

Less interesting was the afterword, where the author raises some questionable theories regarding the final resting place of Tesla’s research papers. There was definitely some scrambling for them after Tesla died, considering that Serbia wanted to claim them as much as the US, but Cheney writes about how the papers wound up in the hands of the US government before mysteriously disappearing. Despite claims that the papers were destroyed, she floats the theory that they still exist, and that the US is using them to develop questionable weaponry. For a thoroughly-researched and scientific book, it ends on a hint of a conspiracy theory, which is disappointing.

Overall, the book is informative, well-written, and engaging. Engineers, scientists, or researchers may feel frustrated at the lack of technical detail therein, but anyone interested in the life of Nikola Tesla will find this to be a comprehensive look at his life, as much as it can be (the author notes that details on his early life are hard to come by).

Started: July 20, 2018
Finished: August 2, 2018

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Stitches: A Memoir

August 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

stitchesStitches: A Memoir by David Small

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I stumbled across this book while browsing Goodreads one day. That’s nothing of note (a lot of the books that wind up on my to-read list come from there), but that particular day, I happened to be browsing the site after installing a browser extension that linked to my library. The summary and artwork both looked promising, and my local branch had a copy, so I gave it a test run, and what do you know? It works!

Stitches is a memoir of David Small’s early life. It’s a heavy story. Small’s parents were cold and distant, more interested in their own well-being than his own, and they often saw him as a burden more than anything else. His father, a radiographer, tries to cure Small’s pulmonary problems by dosing him with X-rays, so when he’s in his early teens and develops cancer, it’s not much of a surprise. Well, it’s not much of a surprise to his parents. It is to Small, because he goes into surgery expecting the doctors to remove what he’s been told is a sebaceous cyst, but when he wakes, he’s missing his thyroid and one of his vocal cords, and is effectively mute. It’s only then that he discovers he had cancer.

Dysfunctional families are the subject of many a memoir, so the memoir itself isn’t anything new, nor does it provide any particular insights into why families can be dysfunctional. What drew me to the story was the anecdote about his surgery and his ignorance of his own health, and once that point is passed in the story, it ceases to be as interesting. Small carries the story through to its conclusion, offering some small explanations for why his parents were like they were, and offering some small bit of closure to the relationship with his mother, but it doesn’t feel engaging. The story is compelling enough, and Small’s illustrations are evocative (there’s a break in the middle of the story where the style changes, and that change is used to great effect), but in the end, I couldn’t feel much more than pity for the author and his family, and I don’t feel that’s the appropriate emotional response for what happened to him.

Memoirs aren’t really my thing, but every so often a graphic memoir catches my attention enough to make me want to read it. Fun Home was another one I read and only just barely enjoyed, and Stitches is about the same for me. Part of it is they’re so one-sided; family dynamics, even in the healthiest families, are complicated, and it’s impossible to get the entire story of a family just by listening to one member. In his afterword, Small suggests that he did a lot of research into his family when writing the book, but it’s still a story told entirely from his viewpoint. I can’t help but feel we’re not getting the entire story, but maybe that’s the point of any memoir. Again, they’re not a genre I typically read.

I wasn’t impressed with Stitches, but I admit I’m not the target audience. I liked Maus, but most other memoirs I’ve read have felt pointless and self-indulgent. Fans of memoirs, or fans of stories about terrible families, might enjoy it (is “enjoy” even the right word here?), but for the most part I didn’t get it.

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As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

December 22, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

wishAs You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes, et al.

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The Princess Bride is among a lot of people’s favorite movies. I think it’s safe to say that one can judge the worthiness of a friend by asking them what they think of the movie; if they don’t say that it’s one of the best stories ever, they’re probably not worth the time.

As You Wish is Cary Elwes’ autobiography about making the film. He gives the reader a lot of information about the production itself, including some of the pre-production details that he learned while making the movie. He speaks of how wonderful Rob Reiner is as a director, how wonderful Robin Wright is as an actor, how wonderful Andre the Giant was as a person, how wonderful William Goldman is as an author and screenwriter … he pretty much talks about how wonderful it was to make the movie. Based on this book, one can only wish they had been a part of the movie, just to get to know all of the people involved.

Aside from Cary’s insights, the book includes a lot of thoughts from other actors and principles in the movie, so we get more than just Cary’s take on things. Everyone involved seems to agree, though, that it was a wonderful experience to make this movie. The people involved all seem to be good-hearted, warm individuals, which is no surprise, since the movie gives off a similar vibe. I listened to this as an audiobook, and the production brings in the individuals to tell their own parts of the story (save for a few people, who have a stand-in to read those parts).

The book does have a lot of repetition, which is its only downside. On top of that, Elwes covers a lot of the story of The Princess Bride, and one point explains the entire plot from start to finish. I’m not sure why he felt the need to go into that much detail; surely the only people reading this book are the ones who already know and love the story, right? I can overlook his repeating some of the most famous lines from the story, since that part of the book is where he’s highlighting Goldman’s writing talents, but the rest of it seemed to be there just to pad out the page length of the book. Myself, I would have preferred to know more about what went on behind the camera.

To his credit, Elwes covers the behind-the-scenes details I wanted to know (the background behind the sword fight is lengthy, and is the running teaser throughout the book), and how much one will enjoy the book is probably contingent on how much one likes to know behind-the-scenes trivia. Myself, I love it; as soon as I see a movie, I bring up IMDB and check the trivia for it to see what kinds of neat details I can learn. Others, though … well, what are they doing reading this book if they don’t like that sort of thing? It tells us right there in the title — Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.

The book is a joy to read, and even more of a joy to listen to, and it makes me want to re-read the book and re-watch the movie. I already know that both are wonderful stories, but Elwes’ excitement about both, and his pride in having been involved with making the movie, is contagious enough to make me want to revisit them both. His recollections make me wish I could be involved with something as memorable and important as The Princess Bride.

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