The Invention of Everything Else

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From the moment Louisa first catches sight of the strange man who occupies a forbidden room on the thirty-third floor, she is determined to befriend him.Unbeknownst to Louisa, he is Nikola Tesla—inventor of AC electricity and wireless communication—and he is living out his last days at the Hotel New Yorker.Winning his attention through a shared love of pigeons, she eventually uncovers the story of Tesla’s life as a Serbian immigrant and a visionary genius: as a boy he built engines powered by June bugs, as a man ...

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The Invention of Everything Else

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Overview

From the moment Louisa first catches sight of the strange man who occupies a forbidden room on the thirty-third floor, she is determined to befriend him.Unbeknownst to Louisa, he is Nikola Tesla—inventor of AC electricity and wireless communication—and he is living out his last days at the Hotel New Yorker.Winning his attention through a shared love of pigeons, she eventually uncovers the story of Tesla’s life as a Serbian immigrant and a visionary genius: as a boy he built engines powered by June bugs, as a man he dreamed of pulling electricity from the sky.The mystery deepens when Louisa reunites with an enigmatic former classmate and faces the loss of her father as he attempts to travel to the past to meet up with his beloved late wife. Before the week is out, Louisa must come to terms with her own understanding of love, death, and the power of invention.
The Invention of Everything Else immerses the reader in a magical mid-twentieth-century New York City thrumming with energy, wonder, and possibility.

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Editorial Reviews

Louisa Thomas
Without mistaking idiosyncrasy for vitality, Hunt shows what it's like to have a heart. Walter is weird, but his grief is real. Tesla—real or not—is absurd, but he's also funny, and the intensity of his ambition is palpable. When these characters speak, you may not believe them. But when they feel, you do.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In Hunt's (The Seas) overstuffed and uneven novel set in New York, circa 1943, an aging Nikola Tesla lives at the Hotel New Yorker and cares for (and chats with) pigeons while planning what could be his boldest invention yet. He forges an unlikely friendship with Louisa Dewell, a 24-year-old chambermaid at the hotel who also keeps a pigeon coop. The book alternates between Niko's reminisces of turn-of-the century Manhattan and Louisa's current domestic dramas; Niko revisits old grievances concerning the usurpation or dismissal of his many inventions, and Louisa gets ensnared in her zany father's mission to travel back in time and reconnect with his dead wife via a time machine built by his lifelong friend Azor Carter. Assisting in the scheme is Louisa's mysterious beau, Arthur Vaughn, who may or may not be from the future. Although many events are drawn from Tesla's life, he and his peers, including Thomas Edison and John Muir, are cartoonish. Likewise, the city backdrop is drenched in rosy nostalgia (even Hell's Kitchen is a quaint neighborhood). Each individual plot thread has potential, but the cumulative effect is dulled by an unwieldy structure. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Hunt (The Seas) delivers a breathtaking novel that is both difficult to classify and impossible to ignore. The year is 1943, and famed inventor Nikola Tesla lives quietly in a New York hotel with his memories and his pigeons. However, when an inquisitive chambermaid discovers Tesla's personal papers, she and Tesla form an unlikely bond with far-reaching consequences. The narrative, which relies heavily on interior monolog, alternates between Tesla's personal history and the secret longings of others who were strongly influenced by the great man's inventions. Hunt's deft blend of sf elements and romantic subplots may remind readers of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, while her prose style and attention to historical detail are on a par with Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Hunt's greatest triumph, however, lies in her depiction of Tesla, who wavers between genius and madness with carefully controlled charm. Peppered with literary quotations, historical figures, and subtle eroticism, this book will please readers who enjoy experimentation and uncertainty in both their fiction choices and their worldview. Recommended for medium to large fiction collections.
—Leigh Anne Vrabel

Kirkus Reviews
In her second novel, Hunt (The Seas, 2004) imagines the final days of Nikola Tesla. On New Year's Eve, 1942, the 86-year-old inventor bitterly muses over his past: "I am broke. I have given AC electricity to the world . . . radar, remote control, and radio to the world, and because I asked for nothing in return, nothing is exactly what I got." He talks to a pigeon and a statue of Goethe in Central Park, and he believes they reply-no wonder the staff at the Hotel New Yorker, where Tesla hasn't paid his bill in months, think he's crazy. He's forbidden them to clean his room, but Louisa, a chambermaid who frequently snoops through the guests' belongings, can't resist reading some of his papers, a device that allows the author to provide backstory about Tesla's rivalry with Edison, his love for the wife of a friend and his idealistic refusal to profit from the inventions he believes should be freely available to all. This material doesn't fit comfortably with the story line about Louisa's burgeoning romance with the mysterious Arthur and her father Walter's yearning for his long-dead wife. When an old friend of Walter's surfaces with the news that he's built a time machine, the novel really goes off the rails: past and present, real and unreal are jumbled murkily together; Walter's lengthy recollections of his wife (not quite the paragon he'd led Louisa to believe) awkwardly precede his disastrous flight above Queens in the time machine. Gorgeous descriptions of New York City in another age, an engaging portrait of imaginative but sensible Louisa and a poignant one of Tesla can't disguise the fact that Hunt's ambitious narrative structure simply doesn't work. There's much food for thoughthere and some very beautiful prose. Unfortunately, plot developments that come perilously close to being ludicrous undercut Tesla's lyrical insistence that "wonders are possible here on Earth."A bold but failed attempt to combine magic realism and intellectual fiction.
From the Publisher
"An engaging portrait...and a poignant one of Tesla...There’s much food for thought here and some very beautiful prose." Kirkus Reviews

“Hunt (The Seas) delivers a breathtaking novel that is both difficult to classify and impossible to ignore." Library Journal

"Oddly charming and pleasantly peculiar, Hunt’s novel offers a unique perspective on hope and imagining life’s possibilities." Booklist, ALA

“Inspires both awe and envy…Hunt seems to achieve this blend effortlessly…making it more remarkable still with her own offbeat sensibility." Bookpage

"A New York City chambermaid sparks a friendship with oddball inventor Nikola Tesla in Samantha Hunt's dazzling novel." Vanity Fair

"Sophisticated pastiche of science fiction, fantasy, melodrama, and historical anecdote...It all adds up to a precocious math of human marvel." Elle

"Former real-life scientist Nikola Tesla befriends a fictional hotel chambermaid in Samantha Hunt's ingenious work of historical fiction." Marie Claire

"Hunt's magical new novel is a love letter to one of the world's most remarkable inventors…For a moment…everything seems possible." The Washington Post

“[Hunt] puts her considerable talents to work…Tesla's story…is crafted with an intensity...that makes the heart beat faster.” Los Angeles Times

"Full of vivid imagery, sounds, memories…this novel is a sweet story of just how normal it is to be different." Boston Globe

“Hunt's history-steeped tale…reminds us that science necessitates creativity, which also, of course, is the essence of literature." The San Francisco Chronicle

"In her vivid reimagining…Hunt pursues the links between science and creativity and storytelling and invention to their logical extreme.” New York Magazine

“Glorious…pages of prose: daring and delicious, perfectly calibrated, fresh but not raw, original but neither off-putting nor disconcertingly strange." The Chicago Tribune

“[INVENTION is] a smart, colorful novel about aspiration and wish fulfillment in a world…engineers can’t control." - The Believer

"Hunt's fascination with language is unmistakable, resulting in beautiful, intimate observations . . . elegant, inspired." The Village Voice

"Marvelous…one wishes these scenes would never end…[it] takes its readers back to a kindler, gentler New York.” - LA Weekly

"Hunt weaves the stranger-than-fiction facts…into an engaging novel…that crackles with the possibility and promise of scientific innovation." - Seed

"An electrified, magnetized concoction that pleases, teases and dazzles…takeoff soaring with her, you will not be disappointed..." - The Oregonian

”The author is rapturous, vividly in love with her subjects and her characters." - New York Observer

"[Hunt’s] novel might be 2008's 'Special Topics in Calamity Physics'…soulful and scientific at the same time." - Velocity Weekly

“Hunt weaves history and imagination to create a seductively original world…”—Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment

“A highwire performance by a soulful and wildly intelligent writer.”—Rene Steinke, author of the NBA-nominated Holy Skirts

“You hold in your hands an important, fun, educational, magic read."—Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618801121
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 2/7/2008
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

SAMANTHA HUNT’s novel about Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, was a finalist for the Orange Prize and winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. Her first novel, The Seas, won the National Book Foundation's Five Under Thirty-Five prize. Hunt’s work has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the New York Times, Tin House, A Public Space, Cabinet, Blind Spot, the London Times and in a number of other fine publications. Her books have been translated into ten languages. She has performed with Jim Jarmusch and Luc Sante at All Tomorrow’s Parties, at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum and REDCAT, with the National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA) at PS122, in the PEN/Faulkner Reading Series, at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival, and as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival. Her work has been performed on This American Life and on WNYC's Selected Shorts program. She lives in Tivoli, New York, and teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

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Read an Excerpt

Lightning first, then the thunder. And in between the two I’m reminded of a secret. I was a boy and there was a storm. The storm said something muffled. Try and catch me, perhaps, and then it bent down close to my ear in the very same way my brother Dane used to do. Whispering. A hot, damp breath, a tunnel between his mouth and my ear. The storm began to speak. You want to know what the storm said? Listen.
Things like that, talking storms, happen to me frequently. Take for example the dust here in my hotel room. Each particle says something as it drifts through the last rays of sunlight, pale blades that have cut their way past my closed curtains. Look at this dust. It is everywhere.
Here is the tiniest bit of a woman from Bath Beach who had her hair styled two days ago, loosening a few small flakes of scalp in the process.
Two days it took her to arrive, but here she is at last. She had to come because the hotel where I live is like the sticky tongue of a frog jutting out high above Manhattan, collecting the city particle by wandering particle. Here is some chimney ash. Here is some buckwheat flour blown in from a Portuguese bakery on Minetta Lane and a pellicle of curled felt belonging to the haberdashery around the corner.
Here is a speck of evidence from a shy graft inspector. Maybe he lived in the borough of Queens. Maybe a respiratory influenza killed him off in 1897. So many maybes, and yet he is still here. And, of course, so am I. Nikola Tesla, Serbian, world-famous inventor, once celebrated, once visited by kings, authors and artists, welterweight pugilists, scientists of all stripes, journalists with their prestigious awards, ambassadors, mezzo-sopranos, and ballerinas. And I would shout down to the dining hall captain for a feast to be assembled. “Quickly! Bring us the Stuffed Saddle of Spring Lamb. Bring us the Mousse of Lemon Sole and the Shad Roe Belle Meunicre! Potatoes Raclette! String Bean Sauté! Macadamia nuts! A nice bourbon, some tonic, some pear nectar, coffees, teas, and please, please make it fast!” That was some time ago. Now, more regularly, no one visits. I sip at my vegetable broth listening for a knock on the door or even footsteps approaching down the hallway. Most often it turns out to be a chambermaid on her rounds. I’ve been forgotten here. Left alone talking to lightning storms, studying the mysterious patterns the dust of dead people makes as it floats through the last light of day.
Now that I have lived in the Hotel New Yorker far longer than any of the tourists or businessmen in town for a meeting, the homogeneity of my room, a quality most important to any hotel décor, has all but worn off. Ten years ago, when I first moved in, I constructed a wall of shelves. It still spans floor to ceiling. The wall consists of seventy-seven fifteen-inch-tall drawers as well as a number of smaller cubbyholes to fill up the odd spaces. The top drawers are so high off the ground that even I, at over six feet tall, am forced to keep a wooden step stool behind the closet door to access them. Each drawer is stained a deep brown and is differentiated from the others by a small card of identification taped to the front. The labels have yellowed under the adhesive. COPPER WIRE. CORRESPONDENCE. MAGNETS. PERPETUAL MOTION. MISC.
Drawer #42. It sticks and creaks with the weather. This is the drawer where I once thought I’d keep all my best ideas. It contains only some cracked peanut shells. It is too dangerous to write my best ideas down. “Whoops. Wrong drawer. Whoops.” I repeat the word. It’s one of my favorites. If it were possible I’d store “Whoops” in the safe by my bed, along with “OK” and “Sure thing” and the documents that prove that I am officially an American citizen.
Drawer #53 is empty, though inside I detect the slightest odor of ozone. I sniff the drawer, inhaling deeply. Ozone is not what I am looking for. I close #53 and open #26. Inside there is a press clipping, something somebody once said about my work: “Humanity will be like an antheap stirred up with a stick. See the excitement coming!” The excitement, apparently, already came and went.
That is not what I’m looking for.
Somewhere in one of the seventy-seven drawers I have a clipping from an article published in the New York Times. The article includes a photo of the inventor Guglielmo Marconi riding on the shoulders of men, a loose white scarf held in his raised left hand, flagging the breeze. All day thoughts of Marconi have been poking me in the ribs. They often do whenever I feel particularly low or lonely or poorly financed. I’ll shut my eyes and concentrate on sending Marconi a message. The message is, “Marconi, you are a thief.” I focus with great conceentration until I can mentally access the radio waves. As the invisible waves advance through my head I attach a few words to each—“donkey,” and “worm,” and “limacine,” which is an adjective that I only recently acquired the meaning of, like a slug. When I’m certain that the words are fixed to the radio waves I’ll send the words off toward Marconi, because he has stolen my patents. He has stolen my invention of radio. He has stolen my notoriety. Not that either of us deserved it. Invention is nothing a man can own.
And so I am resigned.
Out the window to the ledge, thirty-three stories above the street, I go legs first. This is no small feat. I am no small man. Imagine an oversized skeleton. I have to wonder what a skeleton that fell thirty-three stories, down to the street below, would look like. I take one tentative glance toward the ground. Years ago power lines would have stretched across the block in a mad cobweb, a net, because years ago, any company that wanted to provide New York with electricity simply strung its own decentralized power lines all about the city before promptly going out of business or getting forced out by J. P. Morgan. But now there is no net. The power lines have been hidden underground.
That’s not why I’ve come here. I have no interest in jumping. I’m not resigned to die. Most certainly not. No, I’m resigned only to leave humans to their humanness. Die? No. Indeed, I’ve always planned to see the far side of one hundred and twenty-five. I’m only eighty-six. I’ve got thirty-nine more years. At least.
“HooEEEhoo. HooEEEhoo.” The birds answer the call. Gray flight surrounds me, and the reverse swing of so many pairs of wings, some iridescent, some a bit duller, makes me dizzy. The birds slow to a landing before me, beside me, one or two perching directly on top of my shoulders and head. Mesmerized by their feathers—such engineering!—I lose my balance. The ledge is perhaps only forty-five centimeters wide. My shoulders lurch forward a bit, just enough to notice the terrific solidity of the sidewalks thirty-three stories down. Like a gasp for air, I pin my back into the cold stone of the window’s casing.
A few pigeons startle and fly away out over Eighth Avenue, across Manhattan. Catching my breath, I watch them go. I watch them disregard gravity, the ground, and the distance between us. And though an old feeling, one of wings, haunts my shoulder blades, I stay pinned to the window. I’ve learned that I cannot go with them.
Out on the ledge of my room, I maintain a small infirmary for injured and geriatric pigeons. A few tattered boxes, some shredded newspaper. One new arrival hobbles on a foot that has been twisted into an angry knuckle, a pink stump. I see she wants nothing more to do with the hydrogen peroxide that bubbled fiercely in her wound last night. I let her be, squatting instead to finger the underside of another bird’s wing. Beneath his sling the ball of his joint has finally stayed lodged in its orbit, and for this I am relieved. I turn my attention to mashing meal.
“Hello, dears.” The air of New York this high up smells gray with just a hint of blue. I sniff the air. “It’s getting chilly, hmm?” I ask the birds. “And what are your plans for the New Year tonight?” The hotel has been in a furor, preparing for the festivities all week. The birds say nothing. “No plans yet? No, me neither.” I stand, looking out into the darkening air. “HooEEEhoo?” It’s a question. I stare up into the sky, wondering if she will show tonight. “HooEEEhoo?” Having lived in America for fifty-nine years, I’ve nearly perfected my relationships with the pigeons, the sparrows, and the starlings of New York City. Particularly the pigeons. Humans remain a far greater challenge.
I sit on the ledge with the birds for a long while, waiting for her to appear. It is getting quite cold. As the last rays of sun disappear from the sky, the undersides of the clouds glow with a memory of the light. Then they don’t anymore, and what was once clear becomes less so in the darkening sky. The bricks and stones of the surrounding buildings take on a deeper hue. A bird cuts across the periphery of my sight. I don’t allow myself to believe it might be her. “HooEEEhoo?” Don’t look, I caution my heart. It won’t be her. I take a look just the same. A gorgeous checkered, his hackle purple and green. It’s not her.
She is pale gray with white-tipped wings, and into her ear I have whispered all my doubts. Through the years I’ve told her of my childhood, the books I read, a history of Serbian battle songs, dreams of earthquakes, endless meals and islands, inventions, lost notions, love, architecture, poetry—a bit of everything. We’ve been together since I don’t remember when. A long while. Though it makes no sense, I think of her as my wife, or at least something like a wife, inasmuch as any inventor could ever have a wife, inasmuch as a bird who can fly could ever love a man who can’t.
Most regularly she allows me to smooth the top of her head and neck with my pointer finger. She even encourages it. I’ll run my finger over her feathers and feel the small bones of her head, the delicate cage made of calcium built to protect the bit of magnetite she keeps inside. This miraculous mineral powers my system of alternating-current electrical distribution. It also gives these birds direction, pulling north, creating a compass in their bodies, ensuring that they always know the way home.
I’ve not seen my own home in thirty-five years. There is no home anymore. Everyone is gone. My poor, torn town of Smiljan—in what was once Lika, then Croatia, now Yugoslavia. “I don’t have wings,” I tell the birds who are perched beside me on the ledge. “I don’t have magnetite in my head.” These deficiencies punish me daily, particularly as I get older and recall Smiljan with increasing frequency.
When I was a child I had a tiny laboratory that I’d constructed in an alcove of trees. I nailed tin candle sconces to the trunks so that I could work into the night while the candles’ glow crept up the orange bark and filled my laboratory with odd shadows—the stretched fingers of pine needles as they shifted and grew in the wind.
There is one invention from that time, one of my very first, that serves as a measure for how the purity of thought can dwindle with age. Once I was clever. Once I was seven years old. The invention came to me like this: Smiljan is a very tiny town surrounded by mountains and rivers and trees. My house was part of a farm where we raised animals and grew vegetables. Beside our home was a church where my father was the minister. In this circumscribed natural setting my ears were attuned to a different species of sounds: footsteps approaching on a dirt path, raindrops falling on the hot back of a horse, leaves browning. One night, from outside my bedroom window, I heard a terrific buzzing noise, the rumble of a thousand insect wings beating in concert. I recognized the noise immediately. It signaled the seasonal return of what people in Smiljan called May bugs, what people in America call June bugs. The insects’ motions, their constant energy, kept me awake through the night, considering, plotting, and scheming. I roiled in my bed with the possibility these insects presented.
Finally, just before the sun rose, I sneaked outside while my family slept. I carried a glass jar my mother usually used for storing stewed vegetables. The jar was nearly as large as my rib cage. I removed my shoes—the ground was still damp. I walked barefoot through the paths of town, stopping at every low tree and shrub, the leaves of which were alive with June bugs. Their brown bodies hummed and crawled in masses. They made my job of collection quite easy. I harvested the beetle crop, sometimes collecting as many as ten insects per leaf. The bugs’ shells made a hard click when they struck against the glass or against another bug. So plentiful was the supply that the jar was filled to brimming in no time.
I returned to my pine-tree laboratory and set to work. First, by constructing a simple system of gear wheels, I made an engine in need of a power supply. I then studied the insects in the jar and selected those that demonstrated the most aggressive and muscular tendencies. With a dab of glue on their thorax undersides, I stuck my eight strongest beetles to the wheel and stepped back. The glue was good; they could not escape its harness. I waited a moment, and in that moment my thoughts grew dark. Perhaps, I thought, the insects were in shock. I pleaded with the bugs, “Fly away!” Nothing. I tickled them with a twig. Nothing. I stomped my small feet in frustration and stepped back prepared to leave the laboratory and hide away from the failed experiment in the fronds of breakfast, when, just then, the engine began to turn. Slowly at first, like a giant waking up, but once the insects understood that they were in this struggle together their speed increased. I gave a jump of triumph and was immediately struck by a vision of the future in which humans would exist in a kingdom of ease, the burden of all our chores and travails would be borne by the world of insects. I was certain that this draft of the future would come to pass. The engine spun with a whirling noise. It was brilliant, and for a few moments I burned with this brilliance.
In the time it took me to complete my invention the world around me had woken up. I could hear the farm animals. I could hear people speaking, beginning their daily work. I thought how glad my mother would be when I told her that she’d no longer have to milk the goats and cows, as I was developing a system where insects would take care of all that. This was the thought I was tumbling joyfully in when Vuk, a boy who was a few years older than me, entered into the laboratory. Vuk was the urchin son of an army officer. He was no friend of mine but rather one of the older children in town who, when bored, enjoyed needling me, vandalizing the laboratory I had built in the trees. But that morning my delight was such that I was glad to see even Vuk. I was glad for a witness. Quickly I explained to him how I had just revolutionized the future, how I had developed insect energy, the source that would soon be providing the world with cheap, replenishable power. Vuk listened, glancing once or twice at the June bug engine, which, by that time, was spinning at a very impressive speed. His envy was thick; I could nearly touch it. He kept his eyes focused on the glass jar that was still quite full of my power source. Vuk twisted his face up to a cruel squint. He curled the corners of his fat lips. With my lecture finished, he nodded and approached the jar. Unscrewing the lid he eyed me, as though daring me to stop him. Vuk sank his hand, his filthy fingernails, down into the mass of our great future and withdrew a fistful of beetles. Before I could even understand the annihilation I was about to behold, Vuk raised his arm to his mouth, opened the horrid orifice, and began to chew. A crunching sound I will never forget ensued. Tiny exoskeletons mashed between molars, dark legs squirming for life against his chubby white chin. With my great scheme crashing to a barbarous end—I could never look at a June bug again—I ran behind the nearest pine tree and promptly vomited.

On the ledge the birds are making a noise that sounds like contentment, like the purr of the ocean from a distance. I forget Vuk. I forget all thoughts of humans. I even forget about what I was searching for in the wall of drawers until, staring out at the sky, I don’t forget anymore.
On December 12, 1901, Marconi sent a message across the sea. The message was simple. The message was the letter S. The message traveled from Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada. This S traveled on air, without wires, passing directly through mountains and buildings and trees, so that the world thought wonders might never cease. And it was true. It was a magnificent moment. Imagine, a letter across the ocean without wires.
But a more important date is October 1893, eight years earlier. The young Marconi was seated in a crowded café huddled over, intently reading a widely published and translated article written by me, Nikola Tesla. In the article I revealed in exacting detail my system for both wireless transmission of messages and the wireless transmission of energy. Marconi scribbled furiously.
I pet one bird to keep the chill from my hands. The skin of my knee is visible through my old suit. I am broke. I have given AC electricity to the world. I have given radar, remote control, and radio to the world, and because I asked for nothing in return, nothing is exactly what I got. And yet Marconi took credit. Marconi surrounded himself with fame, strutting as if he owned the invisible waves circling the globe.
Quite honestly, radio is a nuisance. I know. I’m its father. I never listen to it. The radio is a distraction that keeps one from concentrating.
“HooEEEhoo?” There is no answer.
I’ll have to go find her. It is getting dark and Bryant Park is not as close as it once was, but I won’t rest tonight if I don’t see her. Legs first, I reenter the hotel, and armed with a small bag of peanuts, I set off for the park where my love often lives. The walk is a slow one, as the streets are beginning to fill with New Year’s Eve revelers. I try to hurry, but the sidewalks are busy with booby traps. One gentleman stops to blow his nose into a filthy handkerchief, and I dodge to the left, where a woman tilts her head back in a laugh. Her pearl earrings catch my eye. Just the sight of those monstrous jewels sets my teeth on edge, as if my jaws were being ground down to dull nubs. Through this obstacle course I try to outrun thoughts of Marconi. I try to outrun the question that repeats and repeats in my head, paced to strike with every new square of sidewalk I step on. The question is this: “If they are your patents, Niko, why did Marconi get word—well, not word but letter—why did he get a letter across the ocean before you?” I walk quickly. I nearly run. Germs be damned. I glance over my shoulder to see if the question is following.
I hope I have outpaced it.
New York’s streets wend their way between the arched skyscrapers. Most of the street-level businesses have closed their doors for the evening. Barbizon Hosiery. Conte’s Salumeria, where a huge tomcat protects the drying sausages. Santangelo’s Stationery and Tobacco. Wasserstein’s Shoes. Jung’s Nautical Maps and Prints. The Wadesmith Department Store. All of them closed for the holiday. My heels click on the sidewalks, picking up speed, picking up a panic. I do not want this question to catch me, and worse, I do not want the answer to this question to catch me. I glance behind myself one more time. I have to find her tonight.
I turn one corner and the question is there, waiting, smoking, reading the newspaper. I pass a lunch counter and see the question sitting alone, slurping from a bowl of chicken soup. “If they are your patents, Niko, why did Marconi send a wireless letter across the ocean before you?” The question makes me itch. I decide to focus my thoughts on a new project, one that will distract me. As I head north, I develop an appendix of words that begin with the letter S, words that Marconi’s first wireless message stood for.
1. saber-toothed 2. sabotage 3. sacrilege 4. sad 5. salacious 6. salesman 7. saliva 8. sallow 9. sanguinary 10. sap 11. sarcoma 12. sardonic 13. savage 14. savorless 15. scab 16. scabies 17. scalawag 18. scald 19. scandal 20. scant 21. scar 22. scarce 23. scary 24. scatology 25. scorn 26. scorpion 27. scourge 28. scrappy 29. screaming 30. screed 31. screwball 32. scrooge 33. scrupulousness 34. scuffle 35. scum 36. scurvy 37. seizure 38. selfish 39. serf 40. sewer 41. shabby 42. shady 43. sham 44. shameless 45. shark 46. shifty 47. sick 48. siege 49. sinful 50. sinking 51. skewed 52. skunk 53. slander 54. slaughter 55. sleaze 56. slink 57. slobber 58. sloth 59. slug 60. slur 61. smear 62. smile 63. snake 64. sneak 65. soulless 66. spurn 67. stab 68. stain 69. stale 70. steal 71. stolen 72. stop stop stop.

Marconi is not the one to blame. But if he isn’t, I have to wonder who is.
About ten years ago Bryant Park was redesigned. Its curves were cut into straight lines and rimmed with perennial flower beds. Years before that a reservoir, one with fifty-foot-high walls, sat off to the east, filled with silent, still water as if it were a minor sea in the middle of New York City. As I cross into the park I feel cold. I feel shaky. I feel as if it is the old reservoir and not the park that I am walking into. My chest is constricted by the pressure of this question, by this much water. I look for her overhead, straining to collect the last navy light in the sky. Any attempt to swim to the surface is thwarted by a weakness in my knees, by “Why did Marconi get all the credit for inventing radio?” The reservoir’s been gone for years. Still, I kick my legs for the surface. My muscles feel wooden and rotten. I am only eighty- six. When did my body become old? My legs shake. I am embarrassed for my knees. If she won’t come tonight the answer will be all too clear. Marconi took the credit because I didn’t. Yes, I invented radio, but what good is an invention that exists only in one’s head?
I manage a “HooEEEhoo?” and wait, floating until, through the water overhead, there’s a ripple, a white-tipped flutter. “HooEEEhoo! HooEEEhoo!” The sight of her opens a door, lets in the light, and I’m left standing on the dry land of Bryant Park. She is here. I take a deep breath. The park is still and peaceful. She lands on top of Goethe’s head. Goethe, cast here in bronze, does not seem to mind the intrusion of her gentle step.
We’re alone. My tongue is knotted, unsure how to begin. My heart catches fire. “I watched for you at the hotel,” I say.
She does not answer but stares at me with one orange eye, an eye that remembers me before all this gray hair set in, back when I was a beauty too. Sometimes it starts like this between us. Sometimes I can’t hear her. I take a seat on a nearby bench. I’ll have to concentrate. On top of Goethe’s head she looks like a brilliant idea. Her breast is puffed with breath. Agitation makes it hard to hear what she is saying.
“Perhaps you would like some peanuts?” I ask, removing the bag from my pocket. I spread some of the nut meats out carefully along the base of the statue before sitting back down.
She is here. I will be fine. The air is rich with her exhalations. It calms me. I’m OK even when I notice that the question has slithered out of the bushes. It has settled down on the bench beside me, less a menace now, more like an irritating companion I long ago grew used to. I still my mind to hers and then I can hear.
“Niko, who is your friend?” she asks.
I turn toward it. The question has filled the bench beside me, spilling over into my space, squashing up against my thigh. The question presents itself to her. “If they were Nikola’s patents, why did Marconi get all the credit for inventing the radio?” “Hmm,” she says. “That’s a very good question indeed.” She fluffs her wings into flight, lowering herself from Goethe’s head, over the point of his tremendous nose, down to where I’d spread a small supper for her. She begins to eat, carefully pecking into one peanut. She lifts her head. The manifestation of precision. “There are many answers to that question, but what do you think, Niko?” It seems so simple in front of her. “I suppose I allowed it to happen,” I say, finally able to bear this truth now that she is here. “At the time I couldn’t waste months, years, developing an idea I already knew would work. I had other projects I had to consider.” “Yes, you’ve always been good at considering,” she says. “It’s carrying an idea to fruition that is your stumbling block. And the world requires proof of genius inventions. I suppose you know that now.” She is strolling the pedestal’s base. I notice a slight hesitation to her walk. “Are you feeling all right?” I ask.
“I’m fine.” She turns to face me, changing the subject back to me. “Then there is the matter of money.” “Yes. I’ve never wanted to believe that invention requires money but have found lately that good ideas are very hard to eat.” She smiles at this. “You could have been a rich man seventy times over,” she reminds me.
“Yes,” I say. It’s true.
“You wanted your freedom instead. ‘I would not suffer interference from any experts,’ is how you put it.” And then it is my turn to smile. “But really.” I lean forward. “Who can own the invisible waves traveling through the air?” “Yes. And yet, somehow, plenty of people own intangible things all the time.” “Things that belong to all of us! To no one! Marconi,” I spit as if to remind her, “will never be half the inventor I am.” She ruffles her feathers and stares without blinking. I tuck my head in an attempt to undo my statement, my bluster.
“Marconi,” she reminds me, “has been dead for six years.” She stares again with a blank eye, and so I try, for her sake, to envision Marconi in situations of nobility. Situations where, for example, Marconi is being kind to children or caring for an aging parent. I try to imagine Marconi stopping to admire a field of purple cow vetch in bloom. Marconi stoops, smells, smiles, but in every imagining I see his left hand held high, like victory, a white scarf fluttering in the breeze.
“Please,” she finally says. “Not this old story, darling.” Her eye remains unblinking. She speaks to me and it’s like thunder, like lightning that burns to ash my bitter thoughts of Marconi.
Bryant Park seems to have fallen into my dream. We are alone, the question having slithered off in light of its answer. She finishes her meal while I watch my breath become visible in the dropping temperature.
“It’s getting cold,” I tell her.
“Yes.” “Perhaps you should come back to the hotel. I can make you your own box on the sill. It will be warmer there. It’s New Year’s Eve.” She stops to consider this. She doesn’t usually like the other birds that hang around my windowsill.
“Please. I worry.” “Hmm.” She considers it.
“Come back to the hotel with me.” “Excuse me?” a deep male voice answers. Not hers.
I look up. Before me is a beat cop. His head is nearly as large as Goethe’s bronze one. His shoulders are as broad as three of me. He carries a nightstick, and seeing no other humans around, he seems to imagine that I am addressing him. The thought makes me laugh.
Any human passing by would think that I am sitting alone in the park at night, talking to myself. This is precisely my problem with so many humans. Their hearing, their sight, all their senses, have been dulled to receive information on such limited frequencies. I muster a bit of courage. “Do we not look into each other’s eyes and all in you is surging, to your head and heart, and weaves in timeless mystery, unseeable, yet seen, around you?” “What in God’s name are you talking about?” the policeman asks.
“Goethe,” I say, motioning to the statue behind him.
“Well, Goethe yourself on home now, old man. It’s late and it’s cold.
You’ll catch your death here.” She is still perched on one corner of the bust’s pedestal. Old man. Karl Fischer cast the head in 1832; then the Goethe Club here in New York took it for a bit until they sent it off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum didn’t have much use for it, so they “donated” it to Bryant Park a few years ago. Goethe’s head has been shuffled off nearly as many times as I have.
“I know how you feel,” I tell the head.
Goethe stays quiet.
“Come on, old-timer,” the policeman says, reaching down to grab my forearm. It seems I am to be escorted from the park.
“This clown’s got no idea who I am,” I say to her. “He thinks I’m a vagrant.” She looks at me as if taking a measure. She alone cuts through the layers of years and what they’ve done. She is proud of me. “Why don’t you just tell him?” she asks. “You invented radio and alternating current.” Goethe finally speaks up. “Oh, yes,” he says. “I’m sure he’d believe you.” The policeman can’t hear either of them. Even if he could, Goethe is right—this officer would never believe a word of it. “You’re the King of England, I suppose,” the cop says. “We get about ten King of Englands in here every week.” The cop has his bear paws latched around my forearm and is steering me straight out of the park. Resistance, I have a strong feeling, would prove ineffective.
“Are you coming?” I ask her, but when I look back at the pedestal, she is gone. The solidity of the police officer’s grip is the one certainty.
She has flown away, taking all of what I know with her—the Hotel New Yorker, Smiljan, the pigeons, my life as a famous inventor.

• *
• *
• *

You already asked me that question.

Yes, but we are just trying to be sure. Now, you have said that you have no memory of your activities on January 4th, and yet you have also said that you are certain you did not visit with Mr. Nicola Tesla, who was at that time a guest in your hotel. What we wonder is, how can you be certain you did not visit with him when you say you can’t remember what you did?

I see.

Why don’t you just tell us what you remember.

Mr. Tesla didn’t do anything wrong.

Why don’t you just tell us what you remember.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Samantha Hunt. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2008

    Gorgeous Tale of a Forgotten Inventor

    This beautiful novel about the life of Tesla made me wish the book would never end. It recreates New York City in both the 1890s and 1940s. The novel goes far beyond a simple telling of Tesla's life, raising questions about contemporary corporately controlled invention. Tesla was the last of his kind, beautifully evoked and remembered in this novel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2008

    unexpectedly boring

    The only reason I kept reading even half of the book were the prior reviews indicating the author's extensive research into Tesla. That so-called research never evidenced itself... not in any depth at least. Tesla was a bigger than life inventor, and deserves more than a mere weakly developed storytelling of his life. Being as generous as I can, it was a trivial fictional tale of Tesla's time in New York.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2011

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    Posted December 7, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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