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BOOK REVIEW – Driving Mr. Albert, A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain

I first picked up this book about three years ago, but with so little time to read, it just sat on my overcrowded bookshelf. I always joke to friends that I am a Book Buyer, not a Book Reader, and as a result my shelves are full of interesting tales just waiting for my life to slow down a bit so I can enjoy them.

I regret that I let this one sit idle for so long!

As a writer myself, I always appreciate a fresh story, and it has been a long time since I read a book that was this original. What began as an article in Harper’s Weekly has been magnificently transformed into a real page-turner.

Author Michael Paterniti became interested in a story, an urban legend actually, about a pathologist named Dr. Thomas Harvey who was charged with performing Albert Einstein’s autopsy and subsequently absconded with the genius’s brain in 1955. For over 40 years, he has been preparing a study on his specimen, causing controversy at every turn. At best, some believe he is unqualified for such an important scientific task. At worst, he is accused of stealing something that did not rightfully belong to him.

Eventually Michael tracks him down, they become friends, of sorts, and ultimately embark on a road trip from New Jersey to California to meet with Einstein’s granddaughter Evelyn.

The unlikely pair begin the cross-country journey of a lifetime, visiting museums and friends along the way, taking in the scenery, and trying to figure each other out. Michael is at a crossroads in his relationship with girlfriend Sara, and he uses the time to think about what she means to him, what their future might hold, and what he really wants out of life.

They stop at a strange cement sculpture museum called the Garden of Eden, created by “American maverick” Samuel Perry Dinsmoor. The museum’s deceased founder’s body is the grand finale of their tour, as they are led into a dark mausoleum with a coffin specially designed by Dinsmoor himself.

Michael and Dr. Harvey also stop at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library & Museum, and a small place called the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, site of the infamous Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb.

I was struck by Michael’s observation that “The museum…is most glaringly defined by what its curators seem to have forgotten about the bomb.” He goes on to describe how the exhibits never mention the Enola Gay, the horrific aftermath of the explosions, or the scores of Japanese civilian casualties. It made me think about how powerful we curators are as the “editors” of history, how what we choose to leave out is sometimes as important as what we choose to include.

At times, the book is a bit repetitive, especially when the duo repeatedly orders their food in some slice of Americana diner, or when Dr. Harvey yet again dismisses Michael’s request to see the brain for himself. But such episodes are not common in the pages of this book. (At times, the scientific explanations were a bit over this historian’s head, but that is to be expected from someone who never set foot in a physics class – not even in high school!)

Seamlessly woven into the story, the author shares biographical snapshots of Einstein’s life, insights from people who knew Dr. Harvey, and all kinds of tidbits to delight the trivia aficionado.

Michael’s sense of humor really resonates. His writing style is readable, yet full of depth. His similes are original and his words are fresh. I wholeheartedly agree with the Boston Globe, who wrote, “In a world in which it seems that all the good ideas have been taken, it is singular.”

I couldn’t put it down. I’m only sorry I didn’t pick it up sooner!


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