This Week's Reads

Edmund White and Mark Essig.


By Edmund White (Ecco, $24.95) Peter Carey is one of the learned friends Edmund White consulted while writing this bold change-of-pace historical novel. Ironically, the book served me as the antidote to the bad aftertaste of Carey's latest, My Life as a Fake. Both are fictions inspired by historical characters, but while Carey alienated me by making a muddled metafiction out of Australian reality, White is quite traditional in concocting the adventures of two actual Fannys: Fanny Trollope (1779-1863), the English author of the classic Yank-bashing best seller Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), and the Scottish feminist abolitionist Fanny Wright (1795-1852), here made Trollope's fast-and-loose friend in trans-Atlantic and cross-continental adventures. Instead of Carey's bewildering proliferation of hazy, mazy narrators, we get one mostly reliable one, Mrs. Trollope. Fanny takes the form of her alleged memoir (occasionally annotated by its fictional editor), but for the most part, it's just good, old-fashioned storytelling. Except for her comic impercipience of her son's apparent gay ways, Trollope's tale is rather straightforward if garrulous gossip, period dish with a bracing dash of anachronism. Granted, some of the fun of the book lies in White's embedded jests at the narrator's expense: "I've always liked a gentleman with whom I could have long conversations about myself," she writes, "and Auguste [a French painter fond of her son] was ideal, except he'd sometimes doze off due to his imperfect grasp of our language." White shows a perfect grasp of antique language, and it's a delight to explore the American folkways of the 1820s through Trollope's eyes. And the wild redhead abolitionist reformer Fanny Wright opens Trollope's eyes to a new world in the New World: Via Wright, she meets Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Lafayette, Jefferson (to whose horror Wright preaches miscegenation as the cure for racial strife), and the sexual egalitarian commune founder Robert Owen. (Trollope also endures the 42 varieties of Mississippi mosquito and acquires an ex-slave lover during her adventures.) Fanny Trollope writes that after encountering Fanny Wright, "life . . . became festive again." Carey's reality-bending novel is a dry head trip; White's is a feast. TIM APPELO Edmund White will appear at Bailey/Coy Books (414 Broadway Ave. E., 206-323-8842), 7 p.m. Thurs. Nov. 20. EDISON & THE ELECTRIC CHAIR: A STORY OF LIGHT AND DEATH

By Mark Essig (Walker, $26) Every last stray dog in the vicinity of Thomas Edison's lab in Orange, N.J., disappeared in the summer of 1888, rounded up by neighborhood boys and sold to the inventor for his experiments in electrical execution. Subjected to currents from 300 to 700 volts, the yelping, moaning dogs underwent convulsions, bled from the ears and eyes, and took many long, agonizing minutes to die. Two years later, murderer William Kemmler was strapped into the world's first electric chair, which proved no more efficient than Edison's doggie killer machine. Kemmler finally died after several minutes of electrocution (it was supposed to be nearly instantaneous), when his brain had been reduced to a carbonized lump, his skin burst into flames, and the stench of feces, urine, and burnt flesh overwhelmed the sobbing, vomiting onlookers. But why was Edison, an erstwhile capital punishment opponent, involved in this grisly business to begin with? Answer: George Westinghouse, whose alternating current (AC) was clearly superior to Edison's direct current (DC). As salesmen for Edison Electric fanned out across the country hawking DC systems to every city government that would listen, the strongest answer they had for the many advantages of ACit can travel greater distances, is cheaper, and can more readily be converted from high to low voltageswas that alternating current was impossibly dangerous. And what better way for Edison to fix this idea in the public mind than to stigmatize AC as the current of choice for executions? Essig, a recently minted American history Ph.D., tells this story with scrupulous clarity and thoroughness, if not a lot of style. But if it's dry at times compared with last year's fast-moving Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair by Richard Moran, Essig's is a better researched and more wide-ranging guide to the tortuous history of both capital punishment and electricity in America. Edison may have lost the battle of the currents, but we're still living with his gruesome legacy. DAVID STOESZ Mark Essig will appear at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Fri., Nov. 21.

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