Deal Me In, Week 21 ~ “Blood Doesn’t Come Out”

20140105-160356

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Blood Doesn’t Come Out” by Michael Crichton

Card picked: Jack of Clubs

From: McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon

Thoughts: Thrilling Tales have not been so thrilling lately…

This is the semi-hard-boiled noir-ish story of Los Angeles private detective Ray Chambers. Ray isn’t having a good day. He’s screwed up his current investigation, his car payment is late, and his actress girlfriend Janis has left him. Janis’s main accusation is that Ray is stuck in the past. She can’t even move the photo of Ray’s mother on the piano without Ray getting annoyed. Thing is, Ray doesn’t even like his abusive mother. She’s been in a home for a few years, but maybe she still holds sway over Ray’s life. Ray decides to do something about that.

Ray isn’t a sympathetic character or even an interesting character. His life doesn’t seem *that* bad and he doesn’t really blame his screw-ups on his mother’s attitude toward him. As a reader, we see that she’s always been an abusive alcoholic, but we’re only given a one day look into Ray’s life (one morning, really) and the incidents feel singular. These isn’t much of a build-up to a life gone wrong.

About the Author: In light of the 1990 blockbuster novel Jurassic Park, it’s easy to forget that Michael Crichton published his first novel in 1966 (under a pseudonym). In light of this short story, I think longer works with a good dollop of science and technology probably suit him better than semi-hard-boiled noir-ish private detective character studies.

Review ~ On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown

On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown by Theodore Wheeler

Cover via Goodreads

The story of an immigrant boy who’s caught up in a race riot and lynching, based on events surrounding the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. While trying to find a safe place in the world after being exiled from his home during World War I, Karel Miihlstein is caught in a singular historical moment and one of America’s most tragic episodes.

Written in the tradition of the historically-set work of Don DeLillo, Denis Johnson, and Colum McCann, On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown depicts its characters in deep personal detail and wide social panorama—from a contentious Interrace baseball game on the Fourth of July to the ear-splitting clatter of a race riot—while revealing the folly of human nature in an age of astonishing ambition. (via Goodreads)

Last week I wrote about Orville D. Menard’s River City Empire, a book about Omaha’s political and criminal boss Tom Dennison. During the 1918 elections, reformists gained a political foothold after over a decade of Dennison’s picks being elected, namely perpetual mayor Jim Dahlman. In response, crime seemed to increase in the city. The lesson: Dennison’s brand of corruption was better for the city than unchecked activity. Of course, there is also evidence that Dennison and his cronies were behind some of the high profile incidents, including men in blackface assaulting white women. Dennison had influence over the Omaha Bee daily newspaper and it reported on the assaults as well as racial unrest around the country in shrill detail. Add to that, preexisting tensions in the city due to unemployment. The accusation against Will Brown—of raping 19-year-old Agnes Loeback—was the match that lit the powder keg. A mob of thousands of white men laid siege to the Douglas County Courthouse until Will Brown was turned over to them.

Into this historical event, Theodore Wheeler places Karel Miihlstein. Karel is an immigrant, as many were in culturally diverse Omaha. He’s a good kid with four sisters, no mother, and a father focused very much on his own work as a repairer of violins. Karel has some knack at baseball, a sport that is nationally popular and an important entertainment. I don’t know how much of the July 4th baseball game is fact or fiction, but it feels real; it feels like an event that could get lodged in a young man’s mind and could lead to bad decisions later. Wheeler does a wonderful job with the setting, but an even better job giving his characters motive for behaving as they do.

Publishing info, my copy: Edition Solitude, Kindle Edition, 2015
Acquired: Amazon
Genre: Historical
Previously: I came across Theodore Wheeler while, surprise, doing research into Tom Dennison and early 20th century Omaha. According to his webpage, there is a novel length version of this novella in the works.

Deal Me In, Week 20 ~ “The Albertine Notes”

20140105-160356

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Albertine Notes” by Rick Moody

Card picked: Queen of Spades

From: Thrilling Tales, ed. by Michael Chabon

Thoughts: At week 20, I have come upon my first DNF story of the year. More of a novella than a short story (weighing in at 61 pages), I gave “The Albertine Notes” twenty pages to keep me interested. Honestly, I only made it seventeen pages.

The premise seemed good: After an atomic bomb is detonated in New York City, many disenfranchised people turn to the drug Albertine. Albertine allows for perfect and immersive recall of memories. And even the ability to “remember” the future. I was willing to suspend disbelief; memory doesn’t work like this, but I’d go for a speculative fiction ride. Unfortunately, the telling of this story is really muddy and repetitive.

Kevin Lee, our narrator, is a journalist tasked with investigating the claims that surround Albertine. There are long circular explanations of how the drug might work and how it might have been connected to the bombing mixed in with paranoid conspiracies involving the government and drug dealers. It reminded me of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but without the weird feeling of impending doom. It just didn’t work for me.

About the Author: Rick Moody is pretty notable in the realm of literary fiction. Alas, I’m only familiar with his works via a movie adaptation. The Ice Storm is rather good.

Review ~ River City Empire

River City Empire: Tom Dennison’s Omaha by Orville D. Menard

Cover via Goodreads

More than any other political boss of the early twentieth century, Thomas Dennison, “the Rogue who ruled Omaha,” was a master of the devious. Unlike his contemporaries outside the Midwest, he took no political office and was never convicted of a crime during his thirty-year reign. He was a man who managed saloons but never cared for alcohol; who may have incited the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 but claimed he never harmed a soul; who stood aside while powerful men did his bidding. His power came not from coercion or nobility but from delegation and subterfuge.

Orville D. Menard chronicles Dennison’s life in River City Empire, beginning with Dennison’s experiences in Colorado mining towns. In 1892 Dennison came to Omaha, Nebraska, where he married and started a family while solidifying his position as an influential political boss. Menard explores machine politics in Omaha as well as the man behind this machine, describing how Dennison steered elections, served the legitimate and illegitimate business communities, and administered justice boss-style to control crime and corruption. The microcosm of Omaha provides an opportunity for readers to explore bossism in a smaller environment and sheds light on the early twentieth-century American political climate as a whole. (via Goodreads)

Of the mixture of Omaha history and magic history that I’ve delved into in the last couple years, Tom Dennison might be the oldest ingredient from a research standpoint. According to Evernote (which is probably more or less accurate for this tidbit of information), I first bookmarked Omaha’s entry at AmericanMafia.com back in September 2012. I had done a search on the Mafia and Omaha and had been surprised to find any thing at all. But that is because I didn’t know my history.

At one time, “nice” Omaha, Nebraska was known as an “open” city. Its fast growth in the mid- to late- 1800s allowed for all sorts of vices to flourish, and for organized crime to move in and take advantage. Tom Dennison was a force in Omaha from the early 1900s until the mid-1930s. As the blurb says, he never held office and he was never convicted despite being the head of a political machine that allowed gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution to thrive. That isn’t to say that crime went unchecked in Omaha. It was actually quite well controlled, to benefit Dennison, of course.

River City Empire is an incredibly information dense book and well-researched. Menard tries to hit every facet of political bossism at play. Unfortunately, the organization isn’t intuitive. After a few biographical chapters, Menard tackles individual topics in a sort of chronological manner which leads to jumping back and forth through the timeline. I sort of feel like I need to reread this book to get things properly sorted in my head. It was a very interesting read, but not an easy or fast one.

Publishing info, my copy: University of Nebraska Press, 2013, paperback
Acquired: Amazon
Genre: Non-fiction, history.

Deal Me In, Week 19 ~ “The Transformation”

20140105-160356

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Transformation” by Mary Shelley

Card picked: Four of Spades

From: Available online at Columbia.edu. This is another story inspire by a Women in Horror post by Paula Cappa.

Thoughts: Published in 1830, set during the reign of Charles VI, this is a cautionary tale about a timeless problem: debt. Supposedly, there are only seven basic plots for stories, or maybe it’s nine, or three… I don’t know; I can’t list them. But I should imagine that falling into and recovering from debt must be one of them. Debt often involves a heady mix of greed and pride that’s hard to beat for character incitement.

And debt is how Guido comes to make a deal with a magical dwarf on a beach. Guido il Cortese is a promising young man who blows his entire inheritance on a few years of fine living and being a cad. When it comes time to marry his childhood sweetheart Juliet (whose honor he defended years ago from an older guy when she was eight, ew…), his best plan is to kidnap her. Some of her father’s servants are injured in the fray and Guido is forced to go on the run. With no money and now no prospects, he contemplates revenge when a storm at sea washes a dwarf and a treasure chest on to the shore. The dwarf offers Guido all the riches in return for a three day body switch.  Is the dwarf an evil sorcerer? Or an angel in disguise?

About the Author: After having previously only read Frankenstein, this is the second Mary Shelley short story I’ve read in just over a month. The text note at Columbia.edu attributes this story to a volume of The Keepsake. Wikipedia expands: “…The Keepsake, which was aimed at middle-class women and bound in silk, with gilt-edged pages. Mary Shelley’s work in this genre has been described as that of a ‘hack writer’…” I’m guessing that the only thing that makes a story about a devilish dwarf in a gift-anthology marketed toward middle-class women a “hack” job is that the pay was good…

Review ~ Help for the Haunted

This book was provided to me by the author!

Help for the Haunted by Tim Prasil

Cover via Goodreads

Long before Houdini and Conan Doyle feuded over spiritualism, a journalist by the name of Vera Van Slyke attended and upended a séance led by one Lida Prasilova.

The results of this fortuitous meeting would be the formation of a lifelong friendship centered upon the exploration and explanation of when ghosts are not real, but also when they are!

Vera and Lida’s many adventures are documented here, in this wonderful collection of stories that will bring about as many smiles as hairs standing upon the back of one’s neck.

Join Vera and Lida as they prowl lonely mansions, bustling theatres, and underground train tunnels to unravel that fine line between everyday life and the spirit world and provide HELP FOR THE HAUNTED. (via Goodreads)

For a good while now, I’ve been slowly expanding my knowledge of spiritualism, focusing especially between 1850-ish to 1930-ish. Since I might write about a fraudulent medium debunker in the future, I’ve been reading both fiction and non-fiction and enjoying both. I don’t quite remember now whether I stumbled on Tim Prasil’s Vera Van Slyke stories while internet searching or through Nina’s Multo(Ghost) blog, but whatever the case, I’m glad I did.

Vera Van Slyke is a journalist and a debunker of fraudulent spirit mediums, but with an open mind about the possible reality of spirits. In fact, she has a theory connecting guilt and ghosts that is continually tested throughout Help for the Haunted. Lida Prasilova is a former medium,  one that Vera debunked in fact. She a smart young woman and, after going straight, is employed by Vera as an assistant. The first couple stories set up the premise behind Vera’s theory and lead us on investigations that could, while fun, become repetitive. But gradually, the stories widen in scope and become as much about the characters of Vera and Lida as the ghostbusting. I had previously read the first five stories as stand-alones, but I reread them as part of Help for the Haunted. I wanted to see them as a continual narrative. As a complete book, they work.

The stories have a lot of humor, but have chilling moments too. The ghosts of “An Unanchored Man” are always going to stand out for me. Can all creatures with *sentience* have ghosts? Think for a moment about what non-human creatures on our planet might have human level intelligence and self-awareness…*

It’s hard for me to talk about this investigative duo and not mention Holmes and Watson. Vera and Lida are NOT Holmes and Watson. That’s perfectly okay; we have enough H&W. Vera is intelligent, but also absent minded (exceptionally terrible with names) and maybe a tad oblivious when it comes to certain things. To me, she feels more like a field scientist, out testing her theory in the wild, where we mostly see Holmes relying on brute knowledge to get him through. Plus, she has an appreciation for beer and lunch. If I were given the opportunity to hang out with Sherlock Holmes or Vera Van Slyke, I’d choose Vera.

Never let the shadows of ghost hunting darken a radiant lunch!

Lida, our narrator, is not a nearly invisible teller of tales like Watson. Before becoming Vera’s assistant and friend, Lida moves to Chicago on her own, to make her own way. Vera eventually moves to Chicago too after the two are involved in a couple successful investigations. It’s also refreshing to see two female characters who are really friends. They tease each other, but when the chips down they’re supportive of each other, even when it’s not in their best interests.

I don’t like to get on fiction’s case for what it does and doesn’t have, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  it’s nice to see two women *doing things* in fiction.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle edition, Emby Press, 2015
Acquired: Compliments of the author, Tim Prasil. There’s a monthly “haunting” available at the Vera Van Slyke site and lots of great posts on historical occult detectives at  Tim’s blog.
Genre: Mystery/Horror

* SeaWorld, you’re so screwed.

Deal Me In, Lunar Extra ~ “The Ensouled Violin”

20140105-160356

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Ensouled Violin” by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

Card picked: A Queen

From: Available online at Gaslight. My first exposure to this story was at Paula Cappa’s blog.

Thoughts: There’s something about the violin. It mimics the sound of a voice, whether human or animal, maybe too well. I can’t think of an instrument that is wrapped in so much superstition. Mme. Blavatsky reminds us of the story of Tartini to whom the Devil came in a dream and played what would become Tartini’s “The Devil’s Trill”. Similar stories also sprung up around Paganini when he came on the scene. His techniques were unorthodox and he coaxed sounds from the violin that were new to the audience. Was his success based on talent and ability? Or had Paganini made other darker deals?

That’s the atmosphere in Paris when Franz Stenio and his teacher, Samuel Klaus, arrive. Franz is a very talented player and has a good share of adoration. He dreams of the muses and nymphs and Orpheus, and Mme. Blavatsky name-checks just about every personage from Greek myth that is applicable. Under Klaus’s tutelage and encouragement, there is no doubt that Franz could impress in Paris. If not for Paganini. In an effort to comfort Franz, Klaus decides that Paganini must have done something unnatural to gain his talent, and you can’t feel bad about not being able to compete with that, can you? Klaus’s theory is that Paganini uses human intestines for his strings…and Franz starts to wonder if he can’t tap into the mysticism he believes in to gain advantage.

I won’t give away the ending, but after some rather long passages of sometimes dry history, the last few paragraphs are a pretty nasty piece of work. (And I mean that in a good way.)

The final showdown between Paganini and Franz Stenio involves Paganini’s “The Witches Dance.” This video is not of that, but I couldn’t resist a clip from a movie about Paganini starring German violinist rockstar David Garrett. Supposedly, Paganini inspired fangirl shrieking and fainting long before The Beatles.

About the Author: From Mrs. Oliphant yesterday to Mme. Blavatsky today. I’m glad woman have been allowed to use their first names. (Don’t get me started on the Mrs. Husband’s-First-Name Last-Name thing. The only thing worse than researching a Mr. John Smith is researching a Mrs. John Smith…) I’m more familiar with Mme. Blavatsky as a spiritualist. I had no idea she wrote fiction.

Extra Diabolic Violin Showdown

One of my favorite bits of country music storytelling.