Reluctant Genius – The Passions and Inventions of Alexander Graham Bell by Charlotte Gray

Reluctant Genius Book Cover
This is the story of a Genius At Home. There are lots of books about Alexander Graham Bell and the discovery of the telephone. What Charlotte Gray has done is tell the story of this inventor and his equally inventive wife, who was herself deaf, but successful in making their home work.
Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh in l847, at a time when the Scottish Enlightenment was bursting with ideas in science,medicine, philosophy and the arts. Both Bell’s grandfather and father had worked in speech therapy. His mother was deaf. His father studied phonetics and encouraged his son in his hands-on experiments after school. Alec taught at a school for the Deaf in London. Double tragedy struck when both his brothers died of TB. His father moved the family to Brantford,Ontario. Here Alec turned frantically to experimenting with vibrations created by human speech. Morse’s electro-magnetic telegraphs had been in use for 25 years. The race was on to find a harmonic telegraph that would use sympathetic vibration to send several messges on a single wire simultaneously. Bell got a job in Boston, at the School of Oratory, Boston University.
One day he met a newly-enrolled deaf student, Mabel Hubbard. Bright and confident, she was the daughter of prominent Boston lawyer who was also President of the Clarke Institute for Deaf Mutes. By reading lips, Mabel had always functioned in the speaking world.She had no trouble relating to the young professor but was baffled by his dishevelled appearance and rough, impatient manner. Alec was fascinated by her gentle beauty, and driven to work day and night.
At home in Brantford, he hit on the key to creating an electric current to carry sound along a telegraph wire. The telephone was born. Back in Boston, Gray describes the struggle in which Mabel’s father, an astute entrepreneur, saw the possibilities in the young professor’s ideas, but also wanted to protect his beloved daughter. He helped Bell get the patent for his invention, before he agreed to Mabel marrying him. The rest is history…both Bells and Hubbards had made their fortune.
Gray then sketches in a marriage with huge potential difficulties, but bound by great affecion on both sides. Mabel learned to handle her husband’s periods of desperate energy when he would work until exhaustion made him sick. The consideration went both ways. Alec at all times included his wife in everything he did, reading her lips, never assigning her to the side-lines with sign language only. They had two daughters (and later two sons who died prematurely). In New York, and later Washington, Bell became a celebrity, sought after by people like Helen Keller. Mabel had a hard time getting him away from his work. With his father-in-law he backed two publications,SCIENCE, and the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.
In l889, Bell travelled to Nova Scotia and found a spot in Cape Breton that stole his heart. His home, Beinn Bhreagh, was on the Bras d’Or Lake near Baddeck. It became a haven for his family for the rest of their lives. The daughters married happily and Bell became a devoted grandfather. He spent more and more time there and built a complete research laboratory. A wide range of experiments included a huge tetrahedral kite, and the JUNE BUG, the first flying machine to fly one kilometre in a public demonstration. In l9l5, Bell agreed to speak on the first transcontinental call at the New York headquarters of the American Telephone and Telegraphy Company.
On August 4,l922, Bell died at Baddeck. His wife developed terminal cancer and died five months later. Gray tells us in her Epilogue that she visited the Bell National Historic Site in l997 and immediately resolved to write about both Alexander Graham Bell and his wife. She does so with skill and grace. Born in England, Gray has lived in Ottawa for many years and published a number of successful biographies. In this one her voice is transatlantic – much as Bell’s was – and it works very well. It might have been better if she had told us up front what she intended to do, but it is well worth the deliberate pace by which she brings these remarkable people to life.
Thanks to Anne for the review!

The Communist’s Daughter, by Dennis Bock

Communist DaughterThis is a fictional account of a man whose life already reads like fiction. “The Communist’s Daughter” conjures up a daughter Dr. Norman Bethune never had and imagines six envelopes of letters he might have written to this girl in his last days with the sick and dying of the Eighth Route Army in China before he himself got blood poisoning and died.
Dennis Bock writes dramatically of Bethune’s trip in l938 by train, foot and mule to join the Red guerillas behind the Japanese lines. He met Mao Tse-tung. He got funds to build a hospital, as well as a portable operating table. He st arted a school for doctors and nurses and wrote medical textbooks at night after operating all day. Even the stoic Chinese had never seen anything like the tireless pace he set.
But Bock dwells on the other side of Norman Bethune: the lonely, isolated man who had had trouble with personal relationships all his life. In throwbacks we are told of his harsh Presbyterian pastor father in Ontario whose thrashings he never forgot. When Bethune went to Spain to fight the Fascists, he did brilliant work with a mobile blood transfusion unit which he invented. At the same time he undercut colleagues,who had him shipped back to Canada. Even the mother of his “daughter”, who was an actual person, not a fiction, seems to have been abandoned. Bethune married a Scottish girl, after the First World War, whom he met in London. He divorced her when he got tuberculosis in the U.S. They remarried, but she did not stay.
Bethune’s drive was for causes and it cut into any other loyalties. For Canadians it has made him an uncomfortable hero. For the Chinese, however,. he is one of the few Canadians they have ever heard of and they celebrate him at schools, in books, in statues.
Bock’s book is 70% fiction. He certainly embellishes Bethune’s already colourful life. I’m not sure he adds much to his emotional stature, but the book does round out this aspect, whether Bethune would have agreed or not.
Thanks to Anne for the review!

Heart Matters, by Adrienne Clarkson

Heart MattersMaybe she shouldn’t have written it now – maybe never – you will hear both criticisms – but I find Adrienne Clarkson’s “Memoirs” complete readable, as frank and self-promoting as she is herself.
It is full of startling information on her family’s life in China and on their early days in Canada. Her description of their suffering under the Japanese in Hong Kong, subsequent flight by ship to the new world, and then return visits to her father’s village in China, go a long way toward explaining the courage with which this immigrant family dealt with their new life in Ottawa. Her father was a gambling, horse-back rider with an unquenchable belief in his family’s ability to live a dream of success. This dream sustained his daughter in a way that I, at least, find convincing.
In Ottawa the lived in a small house opposite the Mint on Sussex Street, the same street as Rideau Hall, where she would live to have a grander address. Mme. Clarkson explains how she came to learn French so expertly and with such affection. She tells of years at Trinity College in Toronto, of her attachment to the Anglican Church, of her first marriage, the loss of a child, the sadness she lived through while estranged from her two daughters and subsequent relief and happiness in a reunited family. I find the personal writing candid and convincing.
For her career, as you might expect, she writes with verve about her first experience in television on TAKE THIRTY and later the FIFTH ESTATE. She has been called an actress and sure enough, she plays it up and why not? As for being Chinese, she wonders if it helped and acknowledges that it made her different and perhaps easier forthe CBC to accept her. There are interesting accounts of stories she covered.
Her first serious encounter with politicians came when she became Agent-General for Ontario in Paris. She learned early to distinguish them from all other professions and treat them accordingly. And this of course was useful in her final big job as Governor General.
She examined the responsibilities of being GAG very carefully and shares herviews. She and John Ralston Saul traveled widely, to meet and bring the government’s presence and caring to hundreds of people across this country. They watched and traveled to military action, bringing encouragement to the troops. They put time and thought into making Rideau Hall a beautiful place to visit, full of Canadian paintings and, when possible, down-to-earth hospitality. They redeemed the grounds and gardens, opening them to public visits, games, etc.
She does address her disappointment at the last, widely-publicized trip abroad when the expenses for a distinguished retinue were denied and the trip fell apart. Most of us knew about this, although not the details which made the trip perfectly legal. It might have been better if someone, other than the ex-Governor General, had taken this matter in hand. But nothing in Adrienne Clarkson’s life has stopped her from doing what she felt appropriate, so here it is.
“Heart Matters” is a good book. You feel what you might have felt all along, that we were lucky to have had such a Governor General. I also feel the people coming to this country in the future will be lucky if Adrienne Clarkson goes ahead with what she plans next : work with the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.
Thanks to Anne for the review!

Nixon in China by Margaret MacMillan

Neither Nixon, nor China, have a particularly Christmassy sound.
Yet this new book by Margaret MacMillan is a wonderful Christmas
present. Written in the clear,crisp style of the best-selling author of
Paris l9l9, it gives an enthralling picture of the week in February,
l972, when U.S. President Nixon went to China and met its leaders.
The very fact of the visit changed diplomatic relations in all
directions – especially with the Soviet Union. MacMillan builds on this
one week to give background history of China which is very relevant to
events of today.

MacMillan is a Canadian who did her graduate work at Oxford, and
returned to Canada to teach (Chinese history among other things ) at
Ryerson, Toronto. She says history is story-telling and “is
very often about how a fascinating event changes should be
entertaining.” MacMillan herself went on to become Provost of Trinity
College and professor of history at the University of Toronto. In 2007,
she will become the Warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University.

We are fortunate that she has been able to get Nixon in China
published in the midst of such a busy academic career. It is
interesting that she makes Nixon as sympathetic as she does. She finds
him a lonely, tortured man with a longing to “dare greatly” on the world
stage combined with self-doubt and bombast which led to the notorious
Watergate lying and cheating. His meeting with Chairman Mao is quite
memorable, as described in her book.

The visit is described intimately. The Chinese were fascinated by
the preparations for the American press. They had never seen a Xerox
copier and had to be sure, for example,that there would be phone lines
at the Great Wall. Two chartered planes carried the reporters, camera
crews and support staff, just ahead of Nixon.

And then MacMillan sums up the week that changed the world -how it
affected events in the Soviet Union, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, as well as
the two main countries, the U.S. and China. As we try to keep our
footing in our own fast-changing world, this is a book that helps you
get your bearings.

Review by Anne McDougall

Piano, Piano, Pieno

Piano, Piano, Pieno Authentic Food From A Tuscan Farm by Susan McKenna Grant Translated, the title means “Slowly, Slowly, Full.” And this offering from another Canadian turned property owner in Tuscany is a fine offering in the world of cookbooks that also try to mingle regional history and recipes. Susan McKenna Grant covers meat, fish, poultry, pasta, and deserts. Bread making, salad dressings, various stuffings, and making gnochi are featured as well.

Piano, Piano, Pieno offers recipes for those who like to cook with seasonal sensibilities and for those cooks who have no hang-ups producing a bechamel sauce for a summer’s evening dinner.

With over 420 pages of Tuscan treats Piano, Piano, Pieno covers so many culinary areas it may replace a few of your other Italian cook books. And you won’t get ‘full’ trying!

Thanks to Gary M. for the review!

The King’s English

The King's Englishby Betsy Burton. The title of this book is the name of a long-established independent bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah. Written by one of the founders, it is an engaging account of bookselling: its ups and downs and its often very humourous situations. Tales of famous authors who have visited the store add to the charm of this very interesting book and it discusses the struggle of the independent stores in modern times. A wonderful added feature are many booklists covering various genres, bestsellers and childrens’ books etc. through the years.


Cyranoby Geraldine McCaughrean. Romantic and heroic this beautiful re-telling of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac is a treat for young adults and adults alike – a real treasure!



The Left Bank

The Left Bankby Kate Muir. This is a wonderful, funny and bittersweet book which tells the story of the marriage of Madison and Olivier and of their daughter; it is so Parisien in its descriptions both geographical, culinary and socially and is hard to put down.

Bound to be a store favourite!

Angels in the Gloom

Angels in the Gloomby Anne Perry. Set in England, it continues the story of the Reavley brothers’ search for the Peacemaker who killed their parent and plots to reshape Europe and the world. It is filled with tension and excitement and peoples’ relationships in a time of strife and horror and grips one to the very end.

The Various Haunts of Men

The Various Haunts of Menby Susan Hill. In the vein of Ruth Rendell and P.D.James this book is much more than just a murder mystery; filled with interesting characters and situations it grips the reader until the very unexpected ending. It is available in paperback.