Column: A few words on Summer Reading

0
225

Lightning strikes

A man is accused of brutally murdering his wife and becomes the object of a manhunt that the entire world watches through the miracle of technology – with the suspect unaware of his place in the global searchlight.

This chase, however, has nothing to do with a slow white Bronco.

It took place almost 100 years ago and is  the climax of Erik Larson’s “Thunderstruck,” which parallels Marconi’s development of wireless communication with one of the most infamous crimes of Edwardian London and the pursuit that benefited from his invention.

Larson weaves together crime and mass communication, in the person of Dr. Hawley Crippen, a patent medicine salesman in an unhappy marriage, and Guglielmo Marconi, the young, self-taught inventor who struggled against nature itself and the prejudices of his time to bind the globe together in a world-wide web.

As in his previous books, including “Devil in the White City” and “Isaac’s Storm,” Larson is at his best illuminating little-known slices of history and vividly setting his scene.

In “Thunderstruck,” it is a fog-shrouded, gaslit London, with a population fascinated with spiritualism and the hereafter. The advances presented by Marconi were so mysterious as to seem almost supernatural to many people.

Marconi is emblematic of an era that produced other self-made geniuses, such as Edison and the Wright Brothers, who worked with little formal schooling and in relative anonymity to achieve  the seemingly impossible.

Some readers will find the details of Marconi’s experiments enlightening.  Others  will be more drawn to the story of the demure, diminutive Dr. Crippen and his blowsy bride, their growing estrangement and the slowly developing plot the harried husband hatched to free himself to marry his mistress.

Throw in a dogged Scotland Yard detective, a deboned corpse buried in the basement, and a manhunt spanning the continents with the aid of near-magical electromagnetic waves, and Larson’s true-crime account comes to a satisfying end.

Off to See the Wizard

Henry Ford called him “the world’s greatest inventor and the world’s worst businessman.”

Entire industries bear his stamp and his name (deservedly or not) but he failed to grasp the commercial potential of most of them.

Perhaps his greatest invention was his name, and the celebrity that grew from it, observes Randall Stross in “The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World.”

Even today, Edison remains the most recognized American worldwide.

At the height of his fame, Edison only had to attach his name to a product to attract the attention of the public, without having much insight into their wants.

This led the Wizard to miscalculate the market for music on phonograph records, preferring to cling to his own vision of the device as an educational tool and a dictating machine.

He quickly lost interest in this toy, choosing to direct his attention to perfecting the incandescent light bulb. Edison then put his resources into developing an electricity transmission system that would deliver power to homes.

Most of Edison’s major successes came early in his life. He struggled to repeat those triumphs.

He missed out on perfecting motion pictures, preferring to work on an ultimately unsuccessful scheme to separate iron ore.

His work on an auto battery was subsidized by a worshipful Henry Ford, with whom Edison developed a close association.

The Wizard’s real passion was lab work, and he put in longer hours than employees decades younger (to the neglect of his family).

At the time of his death in 1931, Edison’s estate was valued at $12 million, a figure that shrank to $2.9 million in the first accounting of his will four years later. It is a paltry sum for the man associated with the phonograph, electric light and motion pictures.

By comparison, Ford left a $70 million estate and a $109 million endowment when he died in 1947.

But when the Wizard of Menlo Park died, lights all over the country were turned off in his honor, demonstrating the illumination he had brought to the world. His inventive spirit and the power of celebrity still shones and extends to Bill Gates and Steven Jobs.

Quien es?

He was known during his lifetime as Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim, William Bonney, El Chivato.

It wasn’t until the last few months of his short life that he acquired the name by which he is best remembered.

Michael Wallis pieces together what little is known about the mythologized outlaw in “Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride,” while rendering a vivid portrait of the harsh and violent Old West.

It is ironic that the man about whom so little is known (and about whom so much as been written) was killed as he whispered into the darkness “quien es?,” Spanish for “who is it?’

That is the question Wallis attempts to answer, not an easy task. Not even Billy’s parentage or his place or date of birth have been definitively determined.

Wallis sifts through the lies and legends about Billy the Kid in this well-researched and documented work.

The author also touches on the roots of violence in the West, as bitter, battle-hardened and well-armed Civil War veterans (many from the defeated South) flooded the frontier and vented their anger on virtually defenseless Indians and Hispanics.

Greed played an equal role in contributing to the carnage, as large landowners fought for control of the territory and employed rootless young men to enforce their own rule.

According to Wallis, these forces used the myth of Billy the Kid to direct attention away from their own nefarious deeds, trumpeting up a manhunt for a 21-year-old who had played only a minor role in their  Lincoln County War.

Wallis offers a portrait of the Kid that is somewhere between the romanticized Robin Hood of the West of dime novels and the “Dirty Little Billy” of more recent vintage. His Billy is a boy caught up in a violent world, a thief credited with four murders, two during a daring jail break.

He also is remembered for being handsome, friendly and fond of singing and dancing at the festive bailes held by the Hispanics who revere him to this day.

Billy the Kid left behind little more than a name, one that continues to confound and fascinate.

What are you reading this summer? Send recommended titles and a brief summary, with your name and hometown, to eastside@columbusmessenger.com.

John Matuszak is eastside editor and managing editor for the Columbus Messenger.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.