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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

“Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count”, by Jill Jonnes

368 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670020607

Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count is not just a biography of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel or the incredible tale of the building of one of the world’s most magnificent architectural wonders; it is so much more.

The setting is 1899 Paris, it is the time for creating the magic for the new World’s Fair, but the story begins in 1897 with Eiffel’s dream to design a magnificent, modern the tower as the centerpiece of the upcoming fair. This is an absorbing story of how one man fought against many people who were opposed to the building of the tower and how he persevered to win the prestigious slot to use his dream tower to be the showcase of the future Paris World’s Fair. Revealing to us the engineering feat of what it took to design and pull off this ingenious iron marvel, the book is simply fascinating; I learned a tremendous amount of how the Eiffel Tower was constructed and of the many talents and physical demands of the men who strived to make Eiffel’s dream come true. Interesting, too, are the little biographical tidbits that the author intersperses around the long lived years of Eiffel’s life and of his many other astounding achievements (he had a hand in other major engineering projects around the world that readers will certainly recognize, never realizing he had been involved with their development).

As the Eiffel Tower slowly soars skyward, the author also pulls together various stories of the menagerie of famous and prominent people that also exhibited and entertained the many millions of tourists who flooded Paris with their enthusiasm to see the newest wonders of the world. Alternating between Eiffel’s daily setbacks and conquests involving the erection of the tower, are delightful snippets of enchanting characters such as: Buffalo Bill Cody; Annie Oakley; Thomas Edison; Charles Otis; Vincent Van Gogh; Paul Gauguin; James Whistler; and many others besides. Jonnes paints an evocative panoramic picture of what it was like to bring the World Fair’s exhibits to fruition. 

The biographical sketches of Annie Oakley and Thomas Edison in particular were very captivating as we learn many more interesting facts about each of their lives and talents that I doubt most people are aware of. I thought the author did a sensational job of developing the story of Paris’ Victorian year of extravagance, giving the reader a fun and informative book of mechanical marvels, innovative scientists, inventors and engineers, and outlandish artists and prominent celebrities that at the time, dazzled every household around the globe. Eiffel’s Tower was an engaging and delightful read that will be enjoyed by all lovers of history, Victorian era fans, World’s Fair enthusiasts, and especially by all engineers and inventors. To view Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti Paintings, to see Edison’s new phonograph, to listen the blood curdling whoop and holler of the American red Indians of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and to hear the daily newsboys hawking “Read All About It” as news of the fair and tower progress, had me feeling I was right there in Paris taking it all in, walking the faux streets of Cairo, boarding the trolley train, swaying to the music as Javanese dancers mesmerized the crowds, and ending the day by boarding an elevator 1000 feet up in the air to the top of Gustave Eiffel's electric lit crowning glory. Reading this book was a memorable experience that allowed me to feel I had stepped back in time.

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