Category Archives: Male Author

#20BooksOfSummer22 ~ Hiding the Elephant

cover: Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer

Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear by Jim Steinmeyer

Hiding the Elephant is perhaps the polar opposite of Psychic Blues. Jim Steinmeyer loves stage magic. He loves the history of it and the nuts and bolts (sometimes literally) of how tricks work. He’s also a good writer, able to present both things in tandem. Which, by the way, if you are a reader who does not want to know how tricks are done, this isn’t the book for you. Hiding the Elephant presents some magic history through the lens of one trick: Harry Houdini’s disappearing an elephant in 1918 at the New York Hippodrome. A lot of cabinet mysteries are described in detail. While many of these tricks are on the older side, we are talking about magic from the turn of the 20th century, some of the concepts are still used in modern magic.

This is the second book about stage magic that I wanted to reread this summer, as a magic refresher. It was one of the first magic history books I’d read back in 2013 and it was fun to revisit it after reading a dozen or so more books about “golden age” magic, including Steinmeyer’s book on Howard Thurston (The Last Greatest Magician in the World).

#20BooksOfSummer22 ~ Magic in Theory

cover: Magic in Theory by Peter Lamont & Richard Wiseman.

Magic in Theory by Peter Lamont & Richard Wiseman

The full title of this book Magic in Theory: An Introduction to the Theoretical and Psychological Elements of Conjuring. The name is almost as long as the book, but it’s pretty crunchy nonfiction. This is probably the third time I’ve read it straight through and have referred to it occasionally when writing magician characters.

Magic in Theory doesn’t address how specific magic tricks are done. Rather, it offers nine categories of magic effects (appearance, vanish, transposition, transformation, penetration, restoration, extraordinary feats, telekinesis, and extrasensory perception) and how audience perception can be swayed by various forms of misdirection. It also has a lengthy chapter on how these concepts are different when presented in a pseudo-scientific way, rather than a stage magic way. Wiseman and Lamont readily confess that these theories are not a be-all or end-all of how to perform magic, but I find the categories helpful.

I originally bought my copy of Magic in Theory in December of 2014 (probably with birthday money) about two years into reading about magic and magicians. Probably not for a casual reader, but if you’ve watched enough Fool Us, and don’t mind thinking about how magic tricks are done, it might be of interest.

#20BooksOfSummer22 ~ On Stranger Tides

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Channeling past summer blockbuster fun, I decided that I’d kick off 20 Books of Summer with Caribbean adventure and undead pirates: On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers.

Yes, the book was loose inspiration for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. I haven’t seen the movie. I jumped ship on that franchise after the third film (I think), after very much enjoying the first one. That I can’t remember whether I’ve seen At World’s End is indicative of my philosophy here: I can forgive many sins for undead pirates, but even I run out of grace.

On Stranger Tides starts out pretty well. Jack, a young man bent on avenging wrongs to his father, is waylaid during a trip to Jamaica by pirates and pressed into their service. He also becomes wrapped up in the doings of a father taking his beautiful daughter to the Fountain of Youth for nefarious purposes. The first half of the book is concerned with traveling to the Fountain and avoiding the ghosts and insanities that plagues the path. It’s creepy and reminded me somewhat of Hodgson’s “The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig'”. Unfortunately, the second half of the book is mostly a chase with Elizabeth becoming everyone’s McGuffin. It’s repetitive and, after giving Elizabeth a personality earlier in the book, disappointing. (I will admit that, while this is definitely not the Elizabeth of the films, my opinion of the character is probably colored by the movies.) There are also some instances of thick exposition and twist coincidence at the end that didn’t feel very earned.

Beat the Backlog: I purchased On Stranger Tides on Aug. 22, 2017 as a Kindle ebook.
20 Books of Summer: This is book #1 of (hopefully) 20.

Reading Notes, 6/2/22

Read

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood has been on my TBR list for a good long while. I’m pretty sure the copy I have is from Paperback Swap, and it’s been ages since I’ve used them. For a time I contemplated writing a true crime book myself, so it seemed incongruous that I hadn’t read one of the most famous true crime books; one that is often cited as a great American work of literature.

It was quite different than I expected. The writing is breathless and occasionally lurid. I actually kind of have trouble completely calling In Cold Blood nonfiction due to its style as well as due to accusations of literary license by people involved. I didn’t dislike the book, but I can tell that my taste for true crime has soured. It’s hard for me to take much enjoyment from the tragedy others.

Deal Me In, Week 20

7❤️, “Barleycorn” by Cae Hawksmoor – I don’t encounter enough folk horror. The setting is top-notch.

Reading

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers has been the perfect read to kick off 20 Books of Summer. What’s better than creepy pirate horror? I also question my decision to have not included Treasure Island on my initial books of summer list.

Still keeping up with my poor friend Jonathan Harker via Dracula Daily.

Book ~ Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

I love cover songs. I find that there are several sorts of covers. The low hanging fruit is the cover that is faithful to the original, but probably not done quite as well, often due to the talents of the vocalist. An example: Miley Cyrus’s cover of “Heart of Glass.” It’s fine, but Cyrus is not Debbie Harry. My favorite type of cover is when an artist brings their own signature style to a familiar song. Marilyn Manson is particularly good at this sort of cover. He does not try to be Annie Lennox; he makes “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” a Marilyn Manson song, while still keeping faithful to the original song’s mood and structure.

What does this have to do with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Because there is the rare cover that takes an original song, reworks it in a different style, and the new version become what is thought of as the standard. The most notable example of this is the song “Tainted Love.” Pretty much everyone knows the Soft Cell 1981 cover, but fewer people are familiar with the 1964 song (released as a B-side) by Gloria Jones.

Blade Runner, the 1982 film, is the Soft Cell cover: well-known enough to have spawned sequel novels, a sequel film, short films, comics, an animated series, and an upcoming limited series. Far fewer people have read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the 1968 novel by Philip K. Dick. And the two are more different than versions of “Tainted Love.”

Blade Runner. The term is never used in the novel. In fact (according to Wikipedia), The Bladerunner is a novel by Alan E. Nourse (about a dystopian society in which comprehensive health care is provided under eugenics laws). That novel was adapted into a screenplay by William S. Burroughs. The eventual screenwriter for Do Androids Dream . . ., Hampton Fancher, had a copy of the Burroughs treatment and thought the title was a good one.

Rick Deckard, Roy Baty, Pris, Rachel. These characters exist in both, but are fairly different. In general only the bare-bones of the plot make it to the movie: Deckard is a cop whose job it is to hunt down androids (never called replicants in the book) who have come to Earth and “retire” them. In the book, the pressures of wanting a better life for his wife—in the form of class status—overwhelms Deckard’s growing doubts about whether androids are people too (or whether he’s no better than an android). In the movie, Roy becomes the voice for these thoughts. In the book, Roy’s the mastermind, but is never given much to do. The female androids are a much bigger deal, mainly because Deckard’s attractions to them get in the way. Pris and Rachel are, in the book, duplicates of the same model.

Mercerism. Mercerism is absent from the films. Empathy is a big deal in the novel and Mercerism is this sort of new tech religion based on connecting with Mercer, a man who toils continually up a hill while being pelted with rocks. The whole human race can seemingly come together via communing with Mercer and his plight. Androids, of course, feel no empathy (maybe?) and cannot partake of the religion.

Electric Sheep. Faux animals provide a plot clue the 1982 Blade Runner and there are several comments in passing about the cost of real animals. In the book, there is a very middle class, keep-up-with-the-Jonses kind of pressure to own a real animal, which honestly give the novel too much of a 60s feel for me. On the plus side, real animals are given an almost religiously protected status, which makes the empathy test questions make sense .

Voigt-Kampff test. One of the few things that is lifted nearly word for word from the book are the Voigt-Kampff questions (Voight-Kampff in the movie). In the context of the book when presented with the scenario of “you’re given a calf-skin wallet” and the response is “I’d report them,” it’s because making something so frivolous as a wallet from an animal is illegal and immoral. In the movie, the questions serve as a slightly confusing bit of world building. Which is fine, not everything needs to be explained.

In general, though, I found the novel to be a product of its time. It’s big on ideas, fuzzy on details, and lacking in characterization. It is nice to know that Dick, who was dubious of Hollywood, was fairly positive about the movie adaptation. I can’t say I felt as immersed in Dick’s world as I have in Blade Runner or Blade Runner 2049 (2017), which is a shame for book. It’s certainly a case of liking the cover better than the original.

#BeatTheBackLog Reread ~ The Last Unicorn

Picture of two editions of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. One is a fairly beat-up trade paperback. The other is a like-new hardback.

Katherine, how can a reread be part of #BeatTheBackLog?

For me, Beat the Back Log includes editions of books I’ve spent money on, but have not read. I don’t often buy multiple copies/editions of books, unless I’ve shamefully forgotten that I own the book in the first place. Usually, there is some reason for the repurchase/re-acquistion. My original copy of The Haunting of Hill House was water damaged during a trip to Florida. I decided to invest in a copy of Moby Dick instead of only rereading the Gutenberg ebook version because I want the experience of reading it in physical form and might decide to scribble in the margins.

In the case of The Last Unicorn, I purchased the copy on the right above in 1993 when I visited UNL’s bookstore the first time. I knew the animated movie that I had adored as a kid was a book, but that was the first time I saw it on a shelf. It had some wear on it when I purchased the hardback deluxe edition when it came out in 2007-ish. I figured, my old copy was getting worn out and this new one included the novella Two Hearts, which is a soft sequel to the original novel (which I also own in a collection). But then, every time I time I decided to reread The Last Unicorn (it’s one of my favorite books), I’d use the old copy.

At first, it was because of good college memories associated with the beat-up paperback: finding it at the bookstore, purchasing it along with a very over-priced chemistry textbook, reading it on a Lincoln–Omaha car trip. Then, it was because of negative associations with the hardback. See, in the 2000s–early 2010s, Peter S. Beagle had a resurgence as an author, seemingly sparked by his new business manager. This business manager was unfortunately a very unscrupulous man who ended up not only defrauding Beagle, but many fans of the author. His fingerprints are all over this deluxe edition. There’s an introduction by him, an author interview moderated by him, and just seeing his name by copyright symbols makes me a little sick. (If you don’t know the tale, Mr. Beagle eventually ended up suing said manager and won the suit. I don’t know how the fans have fared.)

But, I decided to finally read the deluxe hardback this month. And, honestly, I like my tatty paperback better. It has a nice font (I wish I knew what it was called) and I missed the illustrations by Mel Grant. The hardback also had some odd typography issues and was harder on my hands. As for the story? I’m always a little worried, on my fourth or fifth reading of a book, that I might this time find it boring. But I didn’t. There are always little things in The Last Unicorn that catch me, different things that resonate each time I read it.

Book ~ Beowulf

Cover for Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, featuring the head and shoulders of a figure (including the face) covered entirely in chain mail.
Cover of Beowulf, translated by Maria Dahvana Headley. The bright blue cover features a dragon intertwined with a red Gothic font B with a gold crown atop,

The first time I read Beowulf was in college, in a history class rather than a literature class. It was a prose translation, probably the ubiquitous one by E. Talbot Donaldson. I came away not very impressed. That mass market paperback hasn’t survived my occasional library culls, even though the notes from the class have (due more to the art on the back of the notebook). The class, History of the Middle Ages, emphasized what the social value might have been for its original audience: an ideal leader is one who is brave, generous, and, most importantly, tied to his community.

I gave Beowulf a second chance when Seamus Heaney’s translation was published. I was already familiar with Heaney as a poet, and it seemed to me that there was probably some literary value to the poem that I hadn’t seen previously. I love Heaney’s translation and it’s become a work I reread every-so-often. When I sat down to Beowulf a couple weeks ago, I got curious about Marie Dahvana Headley’s 2020 translation and queued it up in audio book form.

In Headley’s introduction, she states that she wished to provide a more female forward translation of Beowulf. It’s true, the original author fails to give any details to the women and gives only negative attributes to Grendel’s mother. Headley also wanted to liven up and modernized the language of the poem. What would Beowulf sound like if it were being told today by the dude at the end of the bar, three drinks in?

I’m not sure Headley is entirely successful in either of these two goals. I’m going address the language first, because I realized that is why I reread Beowulf. It’s not for the story (even though I like competent heroes) or the literary value* or even to chew on the interplay of Judaism/Christianity within the narrative. I reread Beowulf, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, for the language. For me, his translation does feel like an old seaman telling a (tall) tale to a bar full of serious fisherman who want a story of honor and derring-do because their profession is full of mundane danger. That said, I think Headley’s hip-hoppy “Bro” tone could have worked if it were consistent and avoided references that are already past date (yes, like “hashtag blessed” (Also, I looked at excerpts from the printed version, why isn’t it written as “#blessed”? I call the publishers cowards here.)). As it is, I feel like Vin Diesel is the only person who could read this aloud and even out the grandeur and the gutter.

On the second point, I’m going to recuse myself: I only listened to Headley’s translation to just after Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother. (The language was that jarring to.) While Headley does make efforts to point out that many of the women in Beowulf, queens even, aren’t given the names and lineages similar to male characters, there doesn’t seem to be much done to make Grendel’s mother less of a monster. And that’s fine with me. I’m assuming that translations, including Headley’s, have been generally faithful and there just isn’t much to work with. Grendel and his mother are spawns of Cain. Though they anger and hunger and grieve, they are still the monsters of this piece and Beowulf, the hero.


*Co-current to my delve into Beowulf, I’ve been reading Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing lectures, which cover the nature of English literature. He touches on Beowulf:

The pretence that our glorious literature derives its lineage from “Beowulf” is in vulgar phrase ‘a put up job’; a falsehood grafted upon our text-books by Teutonic and Teutonising professors who can bring less evidence for it than will cover a threepenny-piece.