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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Driving Mr. Albert

Michael Paterniti

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To purchase Driving Mr. Albert

Title: Driving Mr. Albert
Author: Michael Paterniti
Genre: Road Trip Memoir
Written: 2000
Length: 207 pages
Availability: Driving Mr. Albert - US
Driving Mr. Albert - UK
Driving Mr. Albert - Canada
Unterwegs mit Mr. Einstein - Deutschland
  • A Trip across America with Einstein's Brain
  • Based on an article originally published in Harper's Magazine
  • The film rights for the book were snapped up by Paramount Pictures and producer Scott Rudin, apparently for a seven-digit figure. Go figure.
  • To our knowledge, no one has yet optioned it for a TV series. We don't understand why not: it sounds like a great sit-com premise to us -- two guys driving around America with Einstein's brain in the trunk. Think of the potential !

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly well-written road trip book with a good hook (Einstein's brain in the trunk). But really just a puffed-up magazine piece.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age B+ 24/12/2000 Owen Richardson
Daily Telegraph C 11/8/2000 Sara Wheeler
Newsweek A 31/7/2000 Malcolm Jones
The NY Times . 17/7/2000 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. A 30/7/2000 Adam Goodheart
Salon C 6/7/2000 Craig Seligman
Time B- 10/7/2000 Josh Tyrangiel
The Washington Post A- 9/7/2000 Curt Suplee

  Review Consensus:

  No real consensus, though the enthusiasts are quite enthusiastic. All agree that the book is quite slight, but some like the "adventures" along the way.

  Note that, in the opinion of the complete review, coverage of this book has been both too extensive and too gushy. It is actually featured on the cover of the July 30, 2000 The New York Times Book Review -- symptomatic, perhaps, of how low standards have fallen in the (once) literary world. For heaven's sake, it's a magazine article, puffed up between book covers !
  Sure, it's not a bad book -- it's a decent summer toss-away read (like a magazine) -- but it certainly isn't a particularly good book. And there are actually good books out there which deserve your attention and which are more worthy of cover-coverage from The New York Times Book Review.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(Y)ou can't not like a book with a story like this. (...) The writing itself is patchy and when Paterniti is being self-conscious, which is too often, it comes across forced and fancy." - Owen Richardson, The Age

  • "(T)he best chapter in this curiously unsatisfying book describes an earlier trip to Kinki university in Japan to meet one of the world’s most prolific collectors of Einsteiniana." - Sara Wheeler, Daily Telegraph

  • "A splendid peek into the weird side of American life where, often as not, things simply do not add up, Driving Mr. Albert is a work of (...) uncommon intelligence." - Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

  • "Eager for newsworthy encounters Mr. Paterniti brings Dr. Harvey to visit William Burroughs (.....) This is easily one of the more newsworthy encounters along the book's otherwise pedestrian journey." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Paterniti seems to have been favored by that happy little god of travel writers who sits on one shoulder and whispers in your ear, giving you the perfect anecdotes, the perfect set pieces at the perfect moments." - Adam Goodheart, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Throughout Driving Mr. Albert (...), Paterniti's instinctive skepticism remains at cross-purposes with his hucksterism." - Craig Seligman, Salon

  • "Driving Mr. Albert's provenance as a magazine article -- albeit a National Magazine Award-winning one -- becomes painfully clear when Paterniti resorts to rehashing a few well-known biographical details about Einstein, musing about the (yawn) magic of the road and relating the minutiae of his girlfriend trouble, all seemingly to stretch his tale to book length." - Josh Tyrangiel, Time

  • "So astonishing are the anecdotes, so bizarre the characters, that eventually the reader has to suspend a truckload of disbelief. Generally, that's easy. Much of the hypnotic appeal of this story comes from the careful rendition of detail." - Curt Suplee, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       This book is, as the subtitle makes clear, about A Trip across America with Einstein's Brain. So bizarre is the premise -- transporting Einstein's brain in some Tupperware in the trunk of a car -- that it sounds like a can't-miss idea. Though, after some reflection (and certainly after reading the book), one wonders why one should really expect much of anything from the premise.
       The story of Einstein's brain is fairly well-known. Paterniti's own award-winning article in Harper's (the forerunner of this book) told it again, as did the documentary Einstein's Brain, and it is the stuff of a fair amount of lore and legend. Fact is when Einstein died in Princeton in 1955 Dr. Thomas Harvey performed the autopsy, during the course of which he removed the brain -- which he then kept. (Einstein's eye-doctor also helped himself to a souvenir -- Einstein's eyes. He takes them out every now and then to look at. Medical professionals -- you gotta love 'em.)
       This book has its origins in Paterniti getting hung up on this story of Einstein's brain and eventually seeking out Dr. Harvey, whose career went downhill after he made off with Al's brain. Paterniti tracked down Dr. Harvey, became vague friends with the old man, and when Harvey spoke of having to go to Kansas (where he had lived for a while) and California with Einstein's brain Paterniti -- who at this point in his life doesn't having anything better to do -- offers to drive him. Of such things are magazine articles, book deals, and movie options made.
       America is made for road trips: interstates criss-crossing the country, huge distances which nobody thinks twice about covering, a whole mentality of moving around at a moment's notice. This road trip pairs a young, still fairly aimless guy and an old former pathologist. And, of course, Einstein's brain in the Tupperware. Paterniti and Harvey also bring additional baggage on the trip: Paterniti stands at a crossroads in his personal life, not sure where he is headed with the girlfriend he leaves behind (though, since the book is dedicated to her, the reader can guess from the outset how that will work out). Harvey is weighed down by decades of an existence defined almost solely by this weird piece of property he is holding.
       The road trip is fairly short and not too exciting. There is a visit to one of Harvey's former neighbors, William Burroughs, which is vaguely surreal (he offers Harvey a joint, which the good doctor unfortunately does not accept). There are stops at motels and obscure tourist traps. There's an aside in Japan, another trip Paterniti took in search of Einstein's brain. There's a cop that stops them for speeding.
       Paterniti writes fairly well and the trip is harmless fun -- Theroux lite. Nothing of real note happens, but Paterniti captures some of America pretty well. There's too much fancy description of climatic conditions and some overblown (and simply bad) writing -- "the snow is nuclear powered, driving horizontally" -- but on the whole it is a fairly decent read.
       The point of the exercise is, of course, to dwell on Einstein's brain. The great Einstein, the fabulous brain that conceived all these thoughts. Paterniti relates the well-known Einstein story, spreading it carefully along the way, but his version is a pretty simple one. He dwells on Einstein's letter to Roosevelt without explaining quite enough of how Einstein came to "write" it, a necessary context that would help clarify Einstein's actual position. He gives a decent but superficial picture of the great scientist, though his focus on the difficulty of reconciling the public and the private persona is good.
       Paterniti spends a great deal of time thinking about what it means to be driving with Einstein's brain in the trunk, though without getting very far with his ruminations. Among the more amusing parts are those where he spills the beans and reveals to strangers they encounter along the way that Einstein's brain is in the trunk -- generally leading to predictable reactions. There is also a fair amount of wondering about what the brain actually looks -- and feels -- like. "Does it feel like tofu, sea urchin, bologna ?" he wonders, before finally getting to play with pieces of it.
       There is also a meeting with Einstein's granddaughter when they arrive in California, as well as a high school assembly at which the brain is also unveiled.
       Paterniti also tries to show the trip to be one these defining moments in a person's life (in his, that is), telling the reader way more than anyone needs to know about his relationship with the girl left behind, Sara. This part doesn't really work very well and seems fairly pointless. Either he should have emphasized it a lot more, or a lot less. As is it is an annoying distraction.
       Paterniti tries not to be too judgmental about what Harvey did. He describes what happened to the brain -- and goes into fairly interesting detail about other famous brains that have been preserved and lost and studied.
       Harvey took the brain, with or without permission, and had been the keeper of it since 1955, doling pieces out on occasion. Fixed in formaldehyde he chopped it up into a large number of pieces (some 240, Paterniti says). Some he preserved in paraffin, some he left floating around in his Tupperware, and he also prepared slices so they could be mounted on slides for study. Harvey's handling of the brain does not seem to have facilitated the study of it. His haphazard treatment and disposition of the various pieces is also a bit worrisome. The single most horrible scene in the book is when Paterniti describes Harvey giving Kenji Sugimoto -- another Einstein-obsessed soul -- part of Einstein's brain.

Harvey takes a steak knife from a kitchen drawer, places his hand in a glass cookie jar full of brain, and fishes out a slab, plopping it on a wood cutting board, where he silently begins slicing.
       Yeah, there's a scientist with the proper respect for this specimen.
       Of course, part of the fun is that Harvey is a peculiar soul. Harvey isn't really interested in studying the brain. It means something else to him, and Paterniti does convey that strange fascination quite well.
       Driving Mr. Albert is a fun little book, well-written though fairly shallow. It is, finally, nothing more than a puffed-up magazine piece. It is a good read, but there's too little to it to truly satisfy.

       The much more interesting story -- and the book we look forward to reading in a few years time -- is the saga and unlikely success of this story. This second thin strand already hinted at in the book is now the meaty one. When Paterniti first wrote the story it did the rounds at a couple of magazines, before finally landing at Harper's. Paterniti exaggerates when he says, in thanking the magazine: "Without Harper's Magazine (...) I would be painting houses," -- he is too talented a writer not to have found a gig somewhere. Nevertheless, the stunning success of the article (it won a major award) came quite unexpectedly.
       Then came the book deal (which led to this volume), and then came the movie deal -- reportedly a seven-figure option from Paramount. An unlikely success story, the details of which we'd love to hear some day. The movie -- well, we think we'll skip that.

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Driving Mr. Albert: Reviews: The saga of Einstein's Brain:
  • Einstein's Brain, a short story about Paterniti's Harper's piece, from 75Grand
  • Somebody else's experiences with Einstein's brain. (To our knowledge this poor guy did not get a seven -- or even six -- figure Hollywood deal for his story)
  • Doggy Style piece on the unusual tale of Einstein's brain. (Also apparently not optioned for even a five or four figure amount.)
  • Straight Dope story. (Not even any offers for a TV deal)
Einstein's Brain - the Movie:
  • IMDb page on Relics: Einstein's Brain, the 1994 movie that also helped inspire this book
  • (Bonus link: IMDb page on Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance, still the most significant Einstein movie.)
Michael Paterniti: Other books about Albert Einstein under review: Other books that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       American journalist Michael Paterniti has written prize-winning pieces for Harper's and Esquire.

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© 2000-2010 the complete review

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