Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Last Days of Night

Graham Moore: Historical Novel ( 2016 RandomHouse)
The major characters and events in this historical thriller are real; the connecting conversations and timing are from author Graham Moore's creative imagination, to produce an intriguing . portrait of American big business in the 1880's. Electric lighting is just beginning to replace coal gas lights in America's homes and streets, and whoever controls the manufacture of light bulbs will reap billions of dollars. George Westinghouse, creator of sturdily built electric appliances, Thomas Edison, creator of new ideas, and Nikola Tesla, an unsociable, introverted genius whose thick Serbian accent is understood only with difficulty; all three are in conflict over the best way to develop electricity.
Central to “the current war” is the nature of electricity itself. Edison powers his light bulbs with direct current (D/C) which at that time could not travel more than a few hundred yards from its generator. He holds the patent for light bulbs, and is inundating Westinghouse with paperwork, three hundred twelve separate lawsuits, to drive him out of business. If Westinghouse can devise a different type of light bulb – not necessarily better, but different design – he can win his own patent; if not, he will go bankrupt.
Edison fired Tesla as a nut case four years previously, and Tesla has only just now reappeared on the scene with a new concept of alternating current (A/C) which can travel many miles through wires. He demonstrates his simple generator at a lecture at New York's Columbia University.
The story's leading character, Paul Cravath, has just joined a law partnership in New York. He will soon have two clients. One is George Westinghouse, the other is a twenty-four year old woman, already a celebrity in Europe, Agnes Huntington, now bringing her singing voice and beauty to her native America. She is suing a fraudulent tour-manager for back pay.
Paul, in his role as Westinghouse's counsel, attends Tesla's demonstration. When he sees the audience, mostly electrical engineers, busily taking notes he realizes that this man, scorned by Edison, has something important going, and he recommends that Westinghouse hire Tesla to his engineering staff.
Tesla's strange personality has made him the social amusement of the month for partying young socialites in Manhattan. Paul arranges to meet him socially by asking his client, Miss Huntington, to act as his access to a party where Tesla will be “on exhibit.” She agrees, not because he is her lawyer, but because it will give her an evening's freedom from her mother's close supervision. The meeting is a success, and Tesla invites Paul to tour his laboratory.
Paul's tour of the lab turns into disaster when fire breaks out and he is severely injured when the burning roof falls in on him. He is in the hospital for three months, and Tesla has disappeared again. The New York police suspect arson. Paul believes that he, and perhaps Tesla, are being targeted by Edison's cohorts. Westinghouse's finances grow more endangered with each passing month. Things take a turn for the better when a note arrives from Miss Huntington, urgently summoning Paul to her dressing rooms at the Metropolitan Opera House. Tesla is there; he sought her out as a friend he remembers while he is recovering from the emotional shock of his lab fire.
She agrees that both men may be in danger from some one in Edison's employ, and shelters Tesla in her home (over her mother's objections) where Paul can communicate with Tesla under the guise of his visiting her. As the “current war” heats up, Edison asserts that A/C current is deadly dangerous, and tries to prove it with the invention of the electric chair. Paul, Tesla, and Agnes flee New York for Paul's father's home in Tennessee, where Tesla develops a way of using the new Roentgen rays to produce “shadow pictures” of human bones, giving Westinghouse's factories profitable new vistas to explore.
Author Moore creates a picture of New York City and its denizens where no one trusts anyone else –- no, not even Paul and Miss Huntington–-and where Thomas Edison is forced to retire from his own company, Edison General Electric, whose new owners shorten the name by cutting out the first word. Moore thoughtfully supplies a few pages of research notes at the end of his book, separating fact from fiction. And his revelation of which is which will surprise you.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Downfall, book review

DOWNFALL, A Suspense Novel by J. A. Jance; Book Review (2016, Harper)

Sheriff Joanna Brady, of Cochise County, Arizona, investigates a possible double homicide when the bodies of two women are discovered at the base of a cliff. No gunshot or knife wounds. A single car and campsite nearby, and a phone with several unanswered calls identify one body's address in Tucson, a hundred miles away, and one of Joanna's deputies is sent there to notify next-of-kin. The other body has no ID, but fingerprints taken at autopsy match those of Mrs. Susan Nelson, a school teacher at a charter school in nearby Sierra Vista.
Joanna and a deputy go to her husband, the pastor of a small congregation in that town. Reverend Nelson is relieved to learn his wife is dead; she has been nothing but trouble to him for the past four years. When Joanna asks where he wants her buried, he is dismissive. “The nearest landfill, for all I care,” he replies.
At the school where she taught English and coached the state champion debate team, faculty and students alike are devastated, and can't praise her enough. But no one the detectives question can offer any information connecting the two women. The one from Tucson was a graduate student at the U. of Arizona, doing research on a rare variant of cactus found growing at the top of “Geronimo”, as the locals call the small mountain where the women died.
The two boys who discovered them had been on their way to swim in a small pool nearby, and had been prompt and cooperative in notifying the police. The crime scene yielded no evidence beyond the cell phone and wounds consistent with the hundred-foot fall to the rocks below the cliff. Security cameras at Susan's school show her walking out of the school Saturday afternoon in the grip of a tall man whose face is obscured by a hoodie. It looks like the whole school, faculty and students, will have to be interviewed. It also raises the issue of a possible kidnapping, which brings in the FBI from their Tucson office.
Joanna already has a lot on her personal plate: sending her nineteen-year-old daughter Jenny off to college, her five-year-old son Denny to start kindergarten, being five months into her third pregnancy, and making arrangements for a memorial service for her parents, both of whom died in a freak highway accident on their way home from vacation in Minnesota. But she is the sheriff of a large county, and has a job to do.
Five booths are set up in the school library next morning, each with a trained homicide investigator. Debate team members are seen first; they had closest contact with their coach, who has often given them individual sessions after school. At the end of the day, only one or two students maybe should be re-interviewed. The debate club members thought Susan walked on water and took an active interest in their lives. Susan's fellow teachers also spoke of her favorably. One teacher who had co-chaired last spring's junior/senior prom with her, remembered that Susan's husband demanded his wife be removed from the committee because he believed dancing was the devil's handiwork. Susan had commented later that her husband could be “a real jerk on occasion.”
As Joanna is getting into her car, a student approaches her. “Sheriff Brady? Can I talk to you for a minute?” She recognized him as Kevin, a student who had once interviewed her for his journalism class. “I didn't exactly come in for an interview . . .”
Because I'm not a snitch and because I didn't want to get someone else in trouble.
But you want to talk now?”
Because Mrs. Nelson is dead, and I may know who did it.”
According to his story, Mrs. Nelson had been having an affair with his sixteen-year-old buddy Travis for the past year and she had become pregnant. Travis had asked her to marry him; she had refused. “Now I'm scared,” Kevin said.
Scared that he killed her?”
Scared that he might maybe kill himself. That's what he said he was going to do if she wouldn't marry him.”
Sheriff Brady had contacted parents prior to the interviews that day; now she gets a search warrant for Susan Nelson's home. One of Susan's bedroom drawers holds a collection of intimate letters from quite a few of her students, some of whom had already graduated. Susan appeared to be a sexual predator, preying on her teen-age students.
Joanna has an ever-widening group of “persons of interest”, including a new homicide by a grand-mother-like golfer, who freely admits killing her husband with a golf club on hole seven in front of witnesses. Joanna knew how Susan Nelson was killed, and probably why, but still no “who.” .
She is in her office clearing up paperwork and having a last-minute conference with her chief deputy, Tom Hadlock. She will be off work Friday for her parents' memorial service. She clears her desk, turns out the lights and steps outside to go to her car. Someone fires a taser at her shoulder. She falls on her back, cracking her head on the sidewalk. That's when everything went black. . . .

J. A. Jance has written more than sixty novels including more than a dozen featuring Sheriff Joanna Brady in Arizona and two dozen of Detective J. P. Beaumont in Seattle. Her writing is notable for both the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and the life-like functioning of the police with whom they work. Ms. Jance has given several book readings and signings in Spokane, and her knowledge of Seattle and Washington State qualifies her as a regional author.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Hidden Figures, a book review

Book Review: HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly; 2016; history

Although slavery was outlawed in USA in the 1860's, non-white people were still treated as inferior for the next hundred years. Excluded from “white” schools, universities, restaurants, and all but the most menial jobs; even required in southern states to use separate toilets and drinking fountains, and separate seating on public buses. “Colored” women working outside their own homes, could only hope for work as servants, laundry, or cleaning. They could become teachers, but only in “black” schools.

The second World War began to change all that. Firstly, air power became dominant over tanks and ships. Secondly, most men were required to join the armed forces. Women often filled the vacancies on factory assembly lines, a la “Rosie the Riveter”. By 1943, America was building tens of thousands of planes per year, not only for its own needs, but for its allies. President Roosevelt signed an executive order desegregating the defense industry, making government jobs open to blacks – including black women. The application form for the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory required no photograph, only the applicant's qualifications. Black teachers studied mathematics, and some of them excelled at it.
Dorothy Vaughan was one such. Her step-mother taught her to read before she entered school. She was valedictorian of her high school class and earned a full-tuition scholarship to
Wilberforce University, the nation's oldest private Negro college. She chose mathematics as her major. Then came the Great Depression; she switched to a degree in education and become a teacher to help support her family. In 1943 she saw a notice in the post office about a federal agency in Hampton, Virginia, seeking women to fill mathematics jobs relating to airplanes.
Katherine Coleman was another girl with special talent in math. She graduated from high school at age fourteen, then attended West Virginia State Institute, where a
math professor, one of the first black PhDs, created advanced classes just for her. Kathrine married a fellow school teacher, Jimmy Goble, and raised a family. but in 1952, she and Jimmy moved to Newport News, Virginia, where he had a good job and she heard that there were jobs for female mathematicians. She applied, and found she already knew her boss, Dorothy Vaughan as a neighbor from West Virginia days. She was hired, and assigned to the Flight Research Division. Three years later, Jimmy died of a brain tumor. Katherine was a single mom to her daughters for three years, while continuing her work at Langley. Then she met an army captain in church, Jim Johnson. In 1959 they married.

In May, 1957, Soviet Russia launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, causing panic among many Americans. Russia, once America's ally against Hitler's Germany, now had the atomic bomb, and with Sputnik, had the ability to drop one anywhere in America. The nation entered the space age, and the Langley Research Center, including its staff of mathematicians became the first home of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA).

NASA's task was more complicated than just handling aircraft. A spacecraft had to be launched like a missile, had to attain a speed sufficient to maintain it in continuous orbit. Then, most critical of all, bring its human cargo safely back to earth in an area of a few square miles of water where a ship or aircraft will already be waiting. The “brakes” (retro-rockets) must be applied at a precise spot with precise force to hit that target area thousands of miles ahead, considering many factors such as temperature, weight, shape of the earth (not a perfect sphere, but flattened by a few miles at its poles.) What if a power source failed in the mechanical computers? A human computer needed to stand by during the critical entry mode. For that first spacecraft flight, the human was Katherine Johnson standing by. In that first re-entry landing, her own brain's data matched that of the mechanical computer almost exactly.

Vaughan and Johnson are representative of several hundred human computers, of course, female and male, white and colored. Their importance is not only about space travel, but even more about human equality. The black women mathematicians proved beyond any doubt that high intelligence and ability occur in humans of any race or gender.

Author Shetterly provides an interesting corollary to her research: In the popular TV series “Star Trek” the producer populated the officer crew of the star ship Enterprise with many races – among them Lieutenant Uhura, the ship's communications officer and fourth in command, played by actress Nichelle Nichols. Ms Nichols wrote a letter of resignation after the first year, in order to pursue her stage career. At an NAACP fundraiser, she was told that her greatest fan wanted to meet her. She found herself facing Martin Luther King, Jr. King never missed an episode, and it was the only TV show his children were allowed to watch. She thanked him, and mentioned her resignation. King interrupted her. “You can't leave the show. We are there because you are there. . . . This is not a black role, this is not a female role. This is a unique role that brings to life what we are marching for: equality.” And that is what the black mathematicians fought for too.

The book is inspiring but hard to follow, switching back and forth among several dozen characters. The movie of the same name is easier to follow, but is without the very helpful index.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Gray Mountain

Book Review: GRAY MOUNTAIN by John Grisham; Action novel, 2014; Dell Publishing

The year is 2008, two weeks after Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Samantha Kofer, 29-year-old third-year associate in a large Manhattan law firm finds herself suddenly on unpaid leave, being escorted out the company door with a list of ten volunteer organizations that might be accepting interns. Hundreds of young lawyers are in similar straits, and most openings are already filled. The last on her list, Mountain Legal Aid Clinic, in Brady, Virginia, population 2,200, has other applicants, but is willing to interview her.
She is stopped on the outskirts of Brady “for speeding”. Suspicious of her New York ID and her rental car's Vermont plates, the cop arrests her, allowing no argument. As she sits alone in the county jail waiting area, a young man enters. “Miss Kofer? My name is Donovan Gray and I'm your attorney. I've just gotten all your charges dismissed.” He hands her a business card which looks legitimate. He turns out to be the nephew of Mattie Wyatt, the director of Mountain Legal Aid, and explains that his aunt is in court, but wants to see Samantha at five.
He drives her back to her car, then guides her to the Aid Clinic.
So, do I owe you a fee?”
Sure. A cup of coffee at the cafe down the street. You have time to kill before Mattie is free.” This is her introduction to small town law practice in the Appalachian coal country. Much different from the big firm in New York.
Mattie's clients are mostly unemployed coal miners, or chronically ill, or victims of con men, unable to afford a lawyer. Nephew Donovan has his own separate practice, mostly suing coal companies for victimizing their employees, or for environmental pollution. Mattie's orientation advice is practical: “Just take notes, frown a lot, and try and look intelligent.”
The first client's husband had been arrested in the next county, fined for a minor infraction, had no money and was jailed. His debt was turned over to a collection agency, who added multiple “service charges” that he also couldn't pay. Debtors' prison has been outlawed in USA for 200 years, but the collection agency counted on their victim's inability to afford a lawyer. Mattie had dealt with them before, and rattled off a dozen ways she would deal with them.
Another client's husband beats her severely when he gets drunk, and is now enraged that she called the police. She is terrified of him, wants a divorce, and protection.
An old lady wants her will changed. Her only asset is eighty acres of land that a coal mine wants. She fears that her five children will sell the property as soon as she dies, and the coal mine will strip the land to get the coal beneath it. She wants to cut her children out of her will and donate the land to a non-profit organization.
A divorced woman and her two kids are homeless after a collection agency garnisheed her wages, her employer fired her, and her landlord evicted her. She and the kids have been living in her small car for two weeks; she is down to her last two dollars and needs gas for the car and food for the kids.
But the big case of the year is one of Samantha's new clients. Buddy Ryzer has had 'black lung disease' – a common disability in coal miners – for ten years, but Lonerock Mining Co.. refuses to pay compensation. Their lawyers routinely appeal the government's order, and have goons to punish anyone who objects. “We gotta have a lawyer, but nobody will take our case.” Buddy had no choice but to go on working, but he can barely breathe. He and his wife brought two shopping bags of papers – who's gonna look through all those, right? Samantha does, and finds incriminating evidence that the company has known all along that Buddy is disabled and they chose to ignore it.
By the the time the dust settles, Donovan has died under suspicious circumstances; his younger brother, Jeff Gray – not a lawyer, but a bulldog who won't let go – vows to avenge him. The FBI has seized the Clinic's computers, Samantha's life is endangered, and she has to decide her next move.
Author John Gresham is justly famous for his legal action novels. I have read several and enjoy his style, except that he often ends them with the hero or heroine safe from danger and with $10,000,000 stashed away somewhere. Not this time. But the reader will identify with the parade of down-in-their-luck clients and the way he handles them and their toxic surroundings in this story. Well worth reading.