Magic Monday Review ~ Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena by William E. Robinson

Magicians and spiritualists have pretty much been at odds since the spiritualist movement began. Contrary to popular belief, Houdini wasn’t the first to butt heads with fraudulent mediums. Not even close. William E. Robinson’s Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena was published in 1898 and it isn’t the first.

Before writing his treatise, Robinson (known later in his career as Chung Ling Soo) had dabbled in mediumistic performances. Notably, he was almost arrested in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair when his collaboration with magician Zanzic took a turn for the worse. They had built a sensational seance parlor with effects so realistic that it was impossible to convince sitters that no spirits were involved, not that Robinson or Zanzic were terribly interested in telling the truth. It was maybe a sense of guilt that later prompted the writing of Spirit Slate Writing, but more likely it was an opportunity to make a last little bit of money off some tricks that Robinson was no longer interested in.

The book covers various methods of slate writing and billet tests as well as some mentalism and a few more “magician” oriented tricks. The methods are broad, but not as in depth as David Abbott’s Behind the Scenes with the Mediums. That’s okay. Robinson’s text is much more accessible to a common reader.

There are occasions while reading this sort of book that I wonder if the author is putting me on. I know that part of magic is going to a ridiculous amount of effort for an effect, but… For example, there’s the Head Telegraph through which a confederate would signal the medium with answers to questions. The line ran to a device hidden in the mediums hair that would tap on her head in Morse code. This almost seems like a comedic parody method.

HeadTelegraph

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What Am I Reading?

  • “Strigoi” by Lavie Tidhar – the third in a set of short works which I’ll review Thursday for #COYER
  • Continuing Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Started last week even though I’m in the middle of Great Expectations: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” by Tad Williams for Deal Me In

On the Blog

I’m moving my review day to Thursdays (from Tuesdays) to even out my posting schedule. I’d also like to find a way of adding some posts related to Eric’s & my books, but I haven’t decided how to gracefully do that.

So, what are you reading? Any magic to share?

Deal Me In, Week 30 ~ “Rain”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Rain” by Steven Millhauser

Card picked: Seven of Diamonds

From: The Barnum Museum

Review:

“Rain” is a short vignette. There’s not so much a plot as a series of what-happens-to Mr. Porter when he comes out of a movie theater to find it raining. I know I’ve said it before, but I love the visual quality of Millhauser’s writing. A rainy night in the city is a beautiful thing and it’s captured so well in this story. It is an interesting companion to “The Sepia Postcard” which was full of daytime rain in wash-out tones of white and gray.

Mr. Porter is a very plain man. He’s well-dressed. He has an okay car and a cat at home. And if his life isn’t worth anything, he might just melt in the rain.

Is This Your Card?

Now You See Me was my favorite movie of last summer. This clip introduces each of the Four Horsemen with a signature trick. I had kind of assumed that a little movie magic had been used to isolate the seven of diamonds, but actually it’s an easy trick. Well, aside from the use of a building in the reveal. In fact, unlike a few other scenes in the movie, each of these four tricks is within the realm of what can be done.

(This is a fairly PG-rated clip. You’ve been warned.)

Review ~ Vaclav & Lena

Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

Cover via Goodreads

Vaclav and Lena, both the children of Russian émigrés, are at the same time from radically different worlds. While Vaclav’s burgeoning love of performing magic is indulged by hard-working parents pursuing the American dream, troubled orphan Lena is caught in a domestic situation no child should suffer through. Taken in as one of her own by Vaclav’s big-hearted mother, Lena might finally be able to blossom; in the naive young magician’s eyes, she is destined to be his “faithful assistant”…but after a horrific discovery, the two are ripped apart without even a goodbye. Years later, they meet again. But will their past once more conspire to keep them apart? (via Goodreads)

While reading this book, I did something I never do. I went on Goodreads and looked at some reviews. I was interested to know what Russian immigrants and their children thought of Vaclav & Lena. To me, it felt like there were a lot of stereotypes being presented. The voice of the book, especially when the narrative was focused on Vaclav, was full of a “was having, am being” dialect that really wore on me. Not surprisingly, the reviews of this book are pretty divided. Mostly, anyone who has emigrated from Russia to the US or is a child of immigrant parents doesn’t care for it. Aside from the stereotypes, the other most common comment was about how long it takes for young children to learn a second language (not long at all) and how many Russian parents only speak Russian in the home as a way of preserving heritage.

So, this isn’t an accurate presentation of the immigrant experience, and I wonder why Tanner, whose experience this isn’t, chose to write it.

Then there is the story. The first third of this book is about our titular characters at age nine. Vaclav is magic-obsessed and has been Lena’s only friend. He believes in two things: that he will be a great magician and that Lena will marry him and be his assistant. His ambitions are somewhat wince-worthy especially since Vaclav seems utterly blind to anything else going on. But then again, he is nine years-old.

The next two sections of the book outline the next eight years of their lives as they are apart, and also Lena’s past before she knew Vaclav and his family. The last section is their meeting again, at age seventeen. Lena has a traumatic past, some of which she cannot remember. On her seventeenth birthday she decides to find her parents and that the only person she feels she can trust to help her is Vaclav. So, she calls him up because he still lives where he’s always lived. (And I kind of wonder why she never called before.) What follows is…a lot of drama. Most of which seems very out of place. I found the ending, how characters ultimately choose to treat Lena, to be somewhat distasteful.

For all of that, I read this book very quickly, almost compulsively. Despite its faults, I wanted to know what was going to happen to Vaclav and Lena, or rather what had happened. The story bears comparison to Eleanor & Park, but less well written and a much less satisfying ending (and if you know how Eleanor & Park ends, you know that’s saying something).

Publisher: The Dial Press
Publication date: May 17th 2011
Genre: Literary/YA
Why did I choose to read this book? *sheepishly* You did notice the part about Vaclav wanting to be a magician, right?

Magic Monday Review ~ Optical Illusions

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

This book was provided to me by Dover Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Optical Illusions: An Eye-Popping Extravaganza of Visual Tricks by Gianni A. Sarcone & Marie-Jo Waeber

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An image on a page appears to vibrate, a face gradually disappears, and a puzzling cat makes an appearance in this feast of fascinating optical tricks. Children and adults can discover the fascinating intersection of art, science, and magic in a series of geometric illusions, delusions, distortion effects, and other impossible images.

Designed and drawn by a famous puzzle maker, the book is intended to perplex readers, to excite their sense of wonder, and to encourage them to question the nature of reality. The optical illusions, which combine visual interest with elements of psychology and recreational logic, include many original illusions as well as new adaptations of lesser-known visual tricks. Each of the images is accompanied by a simple commentary that explains how it works. (via NetGalley)

A nice selection of shape, color, and figure illusions with a test/experiment chapter at the end. Of course, people are variable and some illusions don’t work as well as others depending on who you are. I realize this is a book aimed at kids, but I would have liked a little more science in the explanations, or maybe just the explanations closer to the illusions. It will be easier to page back and forth to the “solutions” in a physical book, but it might have been nice to have the explanations illustrated a little more.

I was also surprised that there were no full-page illusions. If you’re going to make my eyes go buggy, go big!

Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: Jun 18 2014
Genre: Non-fiction, puzzles
Why did I choose to read this book? Optical Illusions are fun!

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What Am I Reading?

Wicked Wildfire Readathon continues until Thursday. In the queue for this week:

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – Meant to have this read by, um, today. Other shiny books got in the way.
  • On the magic side of things, Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena by William E. Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo
  • Back to Steven Milhauser this week for Deal Me in with his story “Rain”

So, what are you reading? Any magic to share?

Deal Me In, Week 29 ~ “Every Mystery Unexplained”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Every Mystery Unexplained” by Lisa Mason

Card picked: Five of Spades

From: Tales of the Impossible, edited by David Copperfield and Janet Berliner

Review:

Magician “Professor” Flint ends each performance by endeavoring to contact the Spirits of the Dead. An illusion only, of course. Surely, the audience knows that the white handkerchief dancing around the stage is the work of Flint’s assistants, not spirits. His sword fight with an apparition is only a matter of a well-placed pane of glass and proper lighting. No one can really contact the dead. Unfortunately, when lovely Zena Troubetzskoy offers the down-on-their-luck magic act a fat payment for a seance, Flint and his son, Daniel, can’t say no. But, there is more to Zena and the man she wishes to contact, the man she left in the mountains, than meets the eye.

This is the type of story I was hoping for from these anthologies: a blend of fiction and magic history. The setting is 1895 San Francisco . Professor Flint and his act have been trekking westward through cow-towns, rail-road towns, and mining towns, complete with horses, wagons, and misfortunes. Quite similar to Howard Thurston’s tour of, as Mason puts it, the far West. The story is a nice juxtaposition between the magic ethos and spiritualism ethos and the Victorian era and the Old West. Mason knows her magic history (the title is from a Harry Kellar quote) and she knows San Francisco. I kind of saw where the plot was going, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story.

About the Author:

I’d never heard of Lisa Mason before this story. Her writing seems to include time-travel and cyberpunk stories set in San Francisco past, present, and future. She bibliography doesn’t extend past 2000 according to Wikipedia, but much of her back-catalog is available via Amazon and the like.

Is This Your Card?

I don’t have a card trick for the Five of Spades, but the story makes mention of the blue room illusion. This is a modern staging, I believe constructed for this TV special by Jim Steinmeyer.

Review ~ Nevermore

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

Cover via Goodreads

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini team up to search for a literary-minded killer…

It is 1923 and a beautiful young woman has just been found outside a tenement, bones crushed, head ripped from her shoulders. A few stories above, her squalid apartment has been ransacked, and twenty-dollar gold pieces litter the floor. The window frame is smashed. She seems to have been hurled from the building by a beast of impossible strength, and the only witness claims to have seen a long-armed ape fleeing the scene. The police are baffled, but one reporter recognizes the author of the bloody crime: the long-dead Edgar Allan Poe.

A psychopath is haunting New York City, imitating the murders that made Poe’s stories so famous. To Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the killing spree is of purely academic interest. But when Poe’s ghost appears in Doyle’s hotel room, the writer and the magician begin to suspect that the murders may hold a clue to understanding death itself. (via Goodreads)

Not only does this book have Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, but also literary personality Damon Runyon!

I am alternately intrigued by and dubious of fictional works that involve historical people. Obviously, there are certain celebrities that intrigue writers. Arthur Conan Doyle is one of them. This is the third book I’ve read in the past year with Doyle as a character and the second with Houdini (in the other case, it was a Houdini/Sherlock Holmes). For that matter, it’s the second with Poe as well, though the specter of the author plays a fairly minor part here. The Conan Doyle and Houdini team-up is particularly enticing. They knew each other, first as friends and later as semi-adversaries as their philosophies about spiritualism diverged.

There seems to be a couple of issues to consider when writing this kind of fiction. One is fidelity to events. Another is the richness of the world. For me, authors can get away with a certain amount of rearranging of events if they don’t interfere with the history of the world. Move the disastrous Atlantic City seance ahead a year and Houdini’s underwater endurance test back three years and it doesn’t bug me too much, especially if the author notes the changes. (But, have a magician sawing a woman into halves before 1920 and I’ll doubt he’s done his research.) The worse sin, in my opinion, is name- and event-dropping in an effort to show historical world-building. Like an incredibly dense chocolate cake, a little goes a long way when meeting celebrities of the day and hearing of their exploits. Mobsters, sports stars, politicians, and other entertainers come and go through Nevermore without really adding anything to the story.

In general, Nevermore suffers from having too many facets. I’m possibly going to go into the realm of spoilers here, consider this a warning. One plot involves Conan Doyle seeing the fairly miserable ghost of Poe. This causes him to question spiritualism, but not overly much. One plot involves Houdini being seduced by a beautiful medium. Priding himself on a certain level of moral standing, this causes him some consternation, but not overly much. The third plot involves the Poe murders. Houdini brags that Conan Doyle will solve them and Damon Runyon writes lurid newspaper articles about them. Unfortunately, even when there is a pattern defined, no one spends much time even attempting to put the pieces together before the last twenty pages of the book. Events come and go like cities on Conan Doyle and Houdini’s respective tours. Even the schism between Houdini and Conan Doyle doesn’t last more than a couple of pages.

There’s also a lot of fake tension. As a reader, I know that nothing will happen to Harry Houdini or Arthur Conan Doyle. This doesn’t mean they can’t be involved in peril, but the focus needs to be different. For example, and spoilers again, late in the book Houdini flies a plane from Chicago to New York in a storm. The point of this hasty trip is to beat a time constraint, but it’s written with the emphasis of “Will Houdini be killed in a fiery crash?!” I know Houdini won’t die, but I don’t know whether he’ll make it to NYC in time. That’s where the tension should be focused.

Honestly, the book could have been fine with one less plot thread, and the expendable one would be Arthur Conan Doyle’s. Runyon and Houdini would have made for a much more fun and focused team.

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication date: October 1st 1994
Genre: Historical fiction.
Why did I choose to read this book? The Houdini/Conan Doyle team-up

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#COYER Fairy Tales with a Twist Reviews

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July 11th – 13th: Fairy Tales with a Twist
Read fairy tale re-tellings and give those childhood favorites a twist!

Supernatural Fairy Tales The Storyteller's Wife Never Ever After: Three Short Stories

Supernatural Fairy Tales by Dorlana Vann

With nods to some classic fairy tales, this collection certainly fit the bill. “Blueberry Eyes” is the easiest to identify as a twisted tale, but as Vann notes in her afterword, all are inspired by classic fairy tales. How do the Emperor’s New Clothes look on a vampire? What happens when an artist finds “His Soul Inspiration” in the old tales and paints his wife as a mermaid? There are a few neat concepts in Supernatural Fairy Tales. My only criticism is that the stories often play with the concept of memory and the narratives end up being a little muddled. My favorite: “The Gift” because I can’t resist the Weird West.

The Storyteller’s Wife by Eugie Foster

“If this was…a real fairy tale, she knew her lines.”

Not a twisted tale, but a tale of faerie and one so very bittersweet. Eugie Foster might be my favorite fairy tale writer. Yes, beating out even Peter S. Beagle.

Never Ever After: Three Short Stories by Ruth Nestvold

It’s hard to get into an already existing fantasy world, which is what it felt like I was doing in “A Serca Tale.” Even the title leaves me a bit short in the info department. I did not finish  “King Orfeigh” because I can’t get my head into a second person POV.  “Happily Ever Awhile” was the best of the trio with the best title of the entire readathon.

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