Review ~ Houdini and Conan Doyle

Cover via Goodreads

Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford

In the early twentieth century, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were two of the most famous men alive, and their relationship was extraordinary:

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ultra-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, nonetheless believed in the supernatural. After eleven family members, including his son and brother, were killed in the First World War, he searched tirelessly for word from the dead.

Harry Houdini, the great magician, was a friend of Conan Doyle’s but a sceptic when it came to the supernatural. As a master of illusion, he used his knowledge to expose psychics who he believed exploited people’s insecurity and grief.

Drawing on previously unpublished archive material, this sensational story of two popular geniuses conjures up the early twentieth century and the fame, personalities and beliefs that would eventually pull them apart.

(via back of the book)

Usually, I copy-paste book summaries from Goodreads, but none where very good. So I used the text from the back of the book and still… Well, Doyle had been interested in spiritualism before WWI. And technically, he didn’t lose his son in the war, but the horrible outbreak of Spanish flu near the end of the war. So, this one was at least 97% accurate…

I’ve had this book on my want-to-read list for 5-ish years under the title Masters of Mystery, before finding this edition at Half Price Books. Going in, I knew the basics of this story. If you’ve read a biographical sketch of either man, this contentious relationship comes up. Further, I read David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street a few years back, which focuses on Houdini’s (sort of) dedunking of Margery Crandon, who Doyle strongly supported. But I hadn’t read anything in-depth about Houdini and Doyle’s friendship and falling out.

Sanford gives each man a decent biography before their encounters with each other, though the story feels more weighted toward  Doyle. There are a few possible reasons for that. Doyle was in his 60s when they met; Houdini was 15 years his junior. Therefore, Sanford simply had more of Doyle’s life to tell. But the imbalance might also be due to my personal bias. I simply didn’t know as much about Doyle. I’ve read (more than enough) Houdini biographies, but never a good one about  Doyle. Something that surprised me was just how prolific he was. I never really imagined Doyle writing thousands of word per day on multiple projects. It puts his dissatisfaction with Holmes’ popularity in a different light.

One thing I didn’t like about the pre-meeting biographical sections was Sanford’s attempts to make Houdini and Doyle’s lives parallel. It felt like he was trying too hard to make their families and careers match up, as well as, sometimes, their proposed psychological states.

Personally, though, I found this book a little depressing. As a skeptic myself, it was hard to read about Doyle being so wrong about things and, as a non-fan of the magician, Houdini being so annoyingly right. I’m also not sure I actually buy their “friendship.” It feels more like a publicity story that took on a life of its own. Yes, they hung out a bit. Houdini liked knowing other famous people, especially ones with some intellectual weight. Doyle would have considered it a major coup if he’d been able to “turn” Houdini to spiritualism. That’s not really friendship. As much as I’d like for them to be the Mulder and Scully of the 20s (or even the Houdini & Doyle of the 00s), they weren’t.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Duckworth Overlook, 2012
Acquired: 11/15/17, Half Price Books
Genre: history


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Deal Me In, Week 38 ~ “The Day of an American Journalist in 2889”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“The Day of an American Journalist in 2889” by Jules Verne (or maybe Michel Verne)

Card picked: 10
Found at: East of the Web

Little though they seem to think of it, the people of this twenty-ninth century live continually in fairyland. Surfeited as they are with marvels, they are indifferent in presence of each new marvel. To them all seems natural. Could they but duly appreciate the refinements of civilization in our day; could they but compare the present with the past, and so better comprehend the advance we have made!

The Story
Less a story and more of a flight of fancy, Jules Verne (or maybe his son Michel) walks us through a day in the life of “newspaper” magnate, Fritz Napoleon Smith. More than a simple journalist. Verne (whichever one) posits some semi-accurate things about a focused, on-demand form of news delivery service that a cross between 24-hour TV news channels and online news aggregation.

Other things, though… It’s hard to read about technology when it’s so far off from reality. For every impressive leap, there’s a lapse. And of course there’s the issue of our current technology, in mere 2018, being in most ways quite beyond Verne’s 2889. I think Verne would be impressed at how far we’ve gotten in 120 years.

And, yes, as our narrator observes in the opening, how often do we forget how much of a wonderland we live in?

Review ~ Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician

Cover via Goodreads

Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician by Donald Brandon & Joyce Brandon

Want to know how magicians make a jet airplane disappear???

Want to know how magicians make a human being float and fly around the stage???

Want to know how magicians make it actually snow inside a theater???

All of these questions and many more are answered in this book plus the often hilarious exploits of two if the great premiere magicians who have a total of over 100 years of performing for millions of people. One is credited with being a forerunner of today’s Rock Concerts who attracted huge audiences of teenagers, numbering in the thousands, nightly for his midnight ghost shows. Informative, intriguing and compelling reading. You will love it! (via back cover)

Why was I interested in this book?
75% of my reading about magic and magicians is centered around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that’s an era with a lot of literature connected with it. Magicians of the period often wrote their own memoirs and modern day academics revel in that golden age. But I also like hearing about the day to day nitty-gritty of modern working magicians. …Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician falls into this category.

What Worked
Don Brandon had a fifty year career as Brandon the Magician. He began under the tutelage of Willard the Wizard in San Antonio. South Texas was its own interesting magic community in the mid-20th century with several acts, Willard and Brandon among them, headquartered there in order to travel in the southeastern and southwestern states. Memoirs and Confessions is an apt title. This book is half about Donald Brandon’s memories of Willard and half about his own career.

One of Brandon’s highlights are his very popular spook shows. Spook shows were piggy-backed onto monster movies when many of the old vaudeville theaters were converted into movie houses. The spook shows were an innovative use of magic principles to provide an immersive “spooky” experience after the movies. The book cover blurb engages in a little mythologizing, but what else does one expect from a magician?

What Didn’t Work
Not enough dates. I understand that perhaps remembering isn’t really conducive to putting dates on events, but it’s really helpful for readers. This is also a bit of a “dip-in” book. The chapters are short and, while not entirely repetitive, they don’t vary in tone and jump around a bit. Reading straight through is tiring.

Overall
Memoirs and Confessions does offer a nice slice of magic history: Texas in the 30s and 40s. Yes, there are magical secrets revealed, but mostly this book is stories and gossip and personal histories.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Tag Publications, 1995
Acquired: Jackson Street Booksellers, July 2015
Genre: memoir

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Deal Me In, Week 35 ~ “The Enemy of All the World”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“The Enemy of All the World” by Jack London

Card picked: J
Found at: East of the Web

It was Silas Bannerman who finally ran down that scientific wizard and arch-enemy of mankind, Emil Gluck. Gluck’s confession, before he went to the electric chair, threw much light upon the series of mysterious events, many apparently unrelated, that so perturbed the world between the years 1933 and 1941. It was not until that remarkable document was made public that the world dreamed of there being any connection between the assassination of the King and Queen of Portugal and the murders of the New York City police officers.

I was intrigued by a Jack London story with a “sci-fi” designation. London doesn’t really spring to mind when I think of speculative fiction. But then I remembered, in the early 20th century *everyone* was excited by science and technology. It wasn’t until years later that “genre” fiction became an ill-regarded thing.

London presents us with Emil Gluck, mad scientist. But other than the introduction above, before we get to Emil’s crimes, we are given Emil’s background and London is definitely in the “nurture” camp when it comes to behavior. Emil’s parents died when he was young, he was sent to live with a cruel aunt, and his early scientific theories are lambasted by the press. Despite this, he has a multiple degrees and successful electroplating concern. After Emil is framed(?) for the murder of a woman who scorned him, he spends his time in jail plotting his revenge, the crux of which is reliant on a strange thing that once happened at his  electroplating plant.

Published in 1908, this story is set in the future relied on some scientific speculation on London’s part. It does remind me somewhat of Edward Page Mitchell’s “The Ablest Man in the World,” the protagonist of which was worried about the fate of the world when in the hands of a competent (not entirely human) genius. Neither story has a particularly optimistic outlook.

Review ~ The Perfect Storm

Cover via Goodreads

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger

October 1991. It was “the perfect storm”—a tempest that may happen only once in a century—a nor’easter created by so rare a combination of factors that it could not possibly have been worse. Creating waves ten stories high and winds of 120 miles an hour, the storm whipped the sea to inconceivable levels few people on Earth have ever witnessed. Few, except the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing boat tragically headed towards its hellish center. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I watched the movie a few years ago and thought it was good. Having been a bestseller, there are a plethora of copies of The Perfect Storm in used bookstores, the one I own I found in the neighborhood little library.

What Worked
The core of The Perfect Storm is missing ship, the Andrea Gail. Now, what exactly happened to the Andrea Gail and her crew, no one knows. That kind of creates a problem for a possible narrative. Junger does an really good job of speculating without going wild. He offers a lot of grounding context—the history of fishing in New England, the day-to-day realities of swordfish longlining, stories from the family and friends of the  Andrea Gail‘s crew, historical weather data—so nothing ever comes across as fanciful.

There were also many other catastrophes that occurred during the 1991 “perfect” storm that we do know the details of, and those stories are harrowing. I’m a little mad at the film because I don’t recall it going into detail about these other events.

There are many technical details about sailing and the weather that I’m not sure complete sank in for me, but I was also never lost.

What Didn’t Work
I wish that there had been a better or more maps. So much in The Perfect Storm is dependent on the location of ships, storms, helicopters, buoys… And all this book gave me was a paltry map that even lacked latitude and longitude! Publishers, never underestimate the need for good maps!

Overall
The Perfect Storm is a compelling read. For me, it fits in the “I didn’t know I wanted to know about this” category of nonfiction.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Harper Perennial, 1999
Acquired: neighborhood little library, April 3, 2017
Genre: nonfiction

20 15 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books

 

Deal Me In, Week 33 ~ “Dark Warm Heart”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson

Card picked: 8 – My horror suit.
Found at: Tor

Noel caught her wrist, the not-sore one, and folded both hands around it. “I’m sorry about last night,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in my head, sometimes.”

The Story
Kristine and Noel are newlyweds, but Noel’s work collecting the oral tales of the Canadian Inuits has kept him away for an extended time. When Noel returns, after being caught in a freak blizzard, he’s changed. He can’t eat and is obsessed with finishing the English translations of the stories he’s recorded. Kristine is haunted by the phone call she received from Noel after his rescue, of what he told her he saw in the blowing snow.

Larson is very strong with his use of color to evoke the cold throughout this story. I’m kind of glad I read it on a toasty summer day rather than a cold winter night (though the kind of cold and snow that is in this story doesn’t exist in Arizona). Also, I’ve started to think about Readers Imbibing Peril, which doesn’t start until September, and this story was a nice little taste of horror to tide me over.

 

Mini Reviews, Vol. 14

The Black Dove cover The Black Dove by Steve Hockensmith

Holmes On the Range Mystery #3 – I know, look at me reading all the series!

Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer end up “deducifying” in Gold Rush San Francisco, looking to solve the mystery of Dr. Chan’s death. Hockensmith does a good job of keeping these mysteries fresh; changing up the settings while staying true to the Old West. I listened to this on audio; the dialog shines with William Dufris.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea cover Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Think of every ocean/undersea adventure ever. Toothy whales? Check. Giant squids? Check. Antarctic sailing? Check. Atlantis? Check. Island of savages? Well, check. Generally, I really enjoyed this book. Published in 1870 (1872 in English), Verne revels in science. The submarine, the underwater breathing apparatuses, the natural classifications of so much aquatic life—all of it gets good press. Honestly, the only bits I glazed over during were discussions of where the Nautilus was and where it was going. Seaman, I ain’t.

alt text Lizzie: The Letters of Elizabeth Chester Fisk 1864-1893, edited by Rex C. Myers

I bought this last summer at The Old Sage Bookshop in Prescott.

I’ve read a few memoirs and collections of letters by 19th century pioneer women. Usually, they are from the prairie or southwest. In this case, Lizzie Fisk lived in Helena, Montana. Instead of a farmer or a rancher, her husband was a newspaper man. Many of her letters are about the Herald, her husband’s, newspaper and the politics of the city and the state. Fisk was an abolitionist and a suffragette, but she was also terribly judgemental and, as a woman of her time, selectively racist. In all, her letters filled out my notion of the American frontier, but honestly, Fisk isn’t someone I would have liked to spend time with. (And I doubt she would have thought much of me either…)

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20 15 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books