Gaby Wood attended Cambridge University and has been a regular contributor to The Guardian and the London Review of Books. She is the author of a short work of nonfiction, The Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness, and is now living in London, where she is a staff writer for The Observer. This is her first full-length book.
In five entertaining chapters, British journalist Wood describes the ways humans have built machines to resemble themselves over the past three centuries. Wood begins with the dynamic creations of the 18th-century Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson, explaining how his elaborate automatons, most notably a mechanical flute player and a mechanical duck apparently capable of eating and defecating, fascinated onlookers throughout Europe. She then moves to Wolfgang von Kempelen's chess-playing machine, constructed to look like a Turkish gentleman and capable of beating virtually any chess player in the 18th century, and Thomas Alva Edison's unsuccessful attempt to capture the American toy market by incorporating a version of his phonograph into the first talking doll. In her fourth chapter, Wood switches her attention from machines that look like humans to humans who look like machines. To wit, the Doll family: four midgets who toured with Ringling Brothers' Circus and appeared in The Wizard of Oz, in addition to other lesser known Hollywood productions. Some audiences refused to believe the Dolls were alive, assuming instead that they were sophisticated toys. Wood's anecdotes are delightful, though the book as a whole feels somewhat repetitive and short on analysis. She frequently reminds readers that these historical vignettes show the continuous struggle to determine what makes us human, but that's about as far as her commentary goes. (Aug.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
"A lively, elegant, and surprising book, packed with curious details and enticing anecdotes." --The New York Times Book Review
"Densely anecdotal and engaging, and almost frighteningly well-researched . . . A lovely and often brilliant book." --The New York Observer "A treasure trove of marvels and information. Wittily and cogently written, this unusual cultural analysis provides us with unsettling insights." --Joyce Carol Oates "Masterly, elegant and thoughtful cultural history . . .engaging and deceptively simple." --The Sunday Times (London) "Wonderful . . . a rigorously researched and grippingly narrated weaving of tales." --The Financial Times (London)