Review ~ Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women

Cover via Goodreads

Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women by Ricky Jay

Ricky Jay is one of the world’s great sleight-of-hand artists. He is also a most unusual and talented scholar, specializing in the bizarre, exotic, and fantastic side of the human species. The youngest magician to have appeared on television, Jay has become well known for his astonishing stage show as well as for his cameos in such movies as Glengarry Glen Ross and, most recently, Boogie Nights.

Jay’s unparalleled collection of books, posters, photographs, programs, broadsides, and, most important, data about unjustifiably forgotten entertainers all over the world made this unique book possible. An investigation into the inspired world of sideshows, circuses, and singularly talented performers, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women is history of the most unusual–and irresistible–sort. (via Goodreads)

Amusing that the above summary was written so long ago that it doesn’t mention Ricky Jay’s work on The Prestige, The Illusionist (as a consultant), and Deadwood.

Why was I interested in this book?
Ricky Jay is a fabulous magician. He’s probably my favorite behind Teller/Penn & Teller. He’s also a magic historian and a historian of singular entertainments. Many acts, like pigs that can do math and women who can withstand the heat of an oven to emerge with perfectly cooked steaks, share an aspect of deception with the only slightly more respectable profession of magician.

What Worked
A few years back I read Harry Houdini’s Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, which covers a similar territory, but in a much more shallow way. Ricky Jay truly loves his subjects and knows their histories. You might think that fire-resisters, poison-eaters (as well as frog-eaters—I’m looking at you David Blaine),  mnemonists, and “carnie” acts like extraordinary artists with physical disabilities are of 20th or even only 19th century origin, but you’d be wrong. Many of these acts have lineage in the 17th and 18th centuries.

For example, one of Jay’s favorite subjects, Matthew Buchinger, was born in 1674. Buchinger was a magician, musician, and calligrapher despite being twenty-nine inches in height and lacking legs, feet, or hands. All of the stories in this books are well-sourced and the book contains a goodly number of plates, poster, and photos (on the rare occasions that Learned Pigs ventures beyond the 1850s).

Matthewbuchinger.jpg
By Matthew Buchinger (1674-1740) – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Smooth_O using CommonsHelper. Original uploader was Kingofspades, Public Domain, Link

Unlike Houdini’s book, Jay isn’t really interested in “their methods.” But if it comes up, there isn’t any modern-day supposing. Fire-resister and poison-eater Chabert was taken to task by medical professionals of his day because he claimed he had cures for scurvy and typhoid. The exposure of other parts of act followed in the press.

What Didn’t Work
Less, “what didn’t work” and more “why it took me over two years to finish this book”: It’s dense. It’s diverse. Ricky Jay’s writing style (and patter style) is very much informed by the histories he’s obsessed with. To illustrate, this is one of my favorite routines of his, entitled “The History Lesson.”

The book is written in beautiful, entertaining language, but it isn’t a quick read.

Overall
This is definitely a dip-in book. Read a chapter here, dazzle at a poster there. Worth the time, but not to be consumed in one sitting. Unless you have a stone-eater’s fortitude.

Publishing info, my copy: over-sized paperback, Villard Books, 1987
Acquired: Jackson Street Booksellers, July 2015
Genre: nonfiction

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Deal Me In, Week 45 ~ “After You, My Dear Alphonse”

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

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

“After You, My Dear Alphonse” by Shirley Jackson

Card picked: 5
From: text

The Story
Despite her horror credentials, Shirley Jackson is the queen of the painfully awkward moment, often moments that only the reader is witness to.

The phrase “After You, My Dear Alphonse” is (and I had to look this up) a catchphrase based on an early 20th century newspaper comic strip. In the case of this story, it’s a bit of nonsense being repeated by Johnny and his new friend Boyd.

Each boy says it as they come in for lunch, politely refusing to enter before the other.  “After you, My Dear Alphonse.” “No, after you, My Dear Alphonse.” Jackson doesn’t give them any dialog attribution when they enter.

Boyd is “a Negro boy, smaller than Johnny but about the same age.” Mrs. Wilson immediately becomes concerned about everything. Johnny shouldn’t let Boyd carry all the wood kindling—that Boyd has collected and means to take home. Does Boyd’s father work? Yes, at a factory—as a foreman. What about his mother, what does his mother do? She stays home with the kids—just like Mrs. Wilson does, Johnny points out. Mrs. Wilson has lots of Johnny’s old clothes and a few old dresses, would Boyd’s mother like them? …”But I have plenty of cloths, thank you,” Boyd informs her. “Thank you very much, though.”

And after that, Mrs. Wilson becomes a little indignant; mainly, because she’s made  fool out herself by continuing to follow her stereotyped notions. She takes out her embarrassment on the boys and withholds dessert. The thing is? The kids are oblivious. Johnny shrugs it off as his mother is “screwy sometimes,” and they continue on with their day.

“After you, My Dear Alphonse…”

Deal Me In, Week 44 (catch-up) ~ “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead”

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

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

“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander

Card picked: 3
From: Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 57, Feb. 2015 Note: there is a bit of adult language in this story.

I was going to post for week 44 & 45 together, but the stories are so different. Sometimes the magic of Deal Me In is that there isn’t any happy coincidence of matching stories.

The Story
I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 yet despite it being directed by Denis Villeneuve and shot by Roger Deakins, both personal favorites of mine. Mostly, this is probably because movies are a bit expensive these days. 1994 Katherine might have seen it twice by now since she could catch a student-priced matinee for $3.25. Until the movie shows up on Netflix, I’ll just have to reread “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead.”

In reality, this story is a bit of a mashup between Blade Runner and The Matrix, all enveloped in cloak of pulpy noir. Rhye is a skin-job, a created human, who has been discarded. Her world is full of violence, from the contests she wins (sometimes) to the jobs to be hired muscle. The only soft spot in her world is Rack, a hacker who somewhat elevates her selection of jobs.

As with any good noir heist, this is a job gone wrong. Rack is shot, but his consciousness lives on within Rhye’s head. The only way Rhye can survive the situation she’s in is to disable, within a virtual/real world Rack’s security protocols (based on Rhye herself) and rescue/download a mobster’s adopted skin-job son.

Does it all entirely make sense? Not really, but it does hold within its own internal consistency.

Review ~ The Overneath

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

Cover via Goodreads

The Overneath by Peter S. Beagle

An odd couple patrols a county full of mythological beasts and ornery locals. A familiar youngster from the world of The Last Unicorn is gifted in magic but terrible at spell-casting. A seemingly incorruptible judge meets his match in a mysterious thief who steals his heart. Two old friends discover that the Overneath goes anywhere, including locations better left unvisited.

Lyrical, witty, and insightful, The Overneath is Peter S. Beagle’s much-anticipated return to the short form. In these uniquely beautiful and wholly original tales, with new and uncollected work, Beagle once again proves himself a master of the imagination. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Peter S. Beagle is one of my favorite authors and I’m always excited to see a new collection of his short stories.

What Worked and Didn’t Work
The majority of stories in this anthology follow something of a theme: unicorns and other mythological friends. Three of the fourteen stories are about unicorns, whether the traditional western European version or the chi-lin of China and Indian karkadann. There is also an assortment of dragons and trolls and other shape-shifters. My favorite of the anthology was “Trinity County, CA: You’ll Want to Come Again and We’ll Be Glad to See You!”, positing the creation of an organizational cross between the ATF and SPCA if dragons were a part of this world and possibly used by California marijuana growers for “security.”

Another two  stories are about the early days of  Schmendrick the Magician, from The Last Unicorn. While always nice to have his narrative expanded, neither “The Green Eyed Boy” nor “Schmendrick Alone” come close to the pathos and complexity of “The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon,” a story from the 2011 collection Sleight of Hand. My second favorite story of the book involves a different “wizard” and gives the book its title. In “The Way it Works Out and All,” a fictional Beagle and fictional Avram Davidson embark on an adventure into the Overneath, an alternate plane of sorts—navigable, if careful.

The setups for a couple of the stories were rather long and the collection might have been better if it were about one story shorter. My nomination would be  “Music, when Soft Voices Die” or “Olfert Drapper’s Day,” though the latter does fit the theme better.

Overall
A whimsical collection with definite high points.

Additional Note
Many of Peter S. Beagle’s ebooks are being sold by Conlan Press. Currently, Peter S. Beagle and Connor Cochran, the founder of Conlan Press, are involved in a legal dispute. I doubt that money from Conlan Press ebooks will get to Mr. Beagle. (Not to mention the many, many customers of Conlan Press who purchased physical merchandise, but have never received it.) Be aware when you purchase.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, Tachyon Publications, 11/07/17
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: fantasy

Mini Reviews, Vol. 10

alt text The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James

On the heels of WWI, temp girl Sarah Piper takes work as an assistant to two ghost hunters; one posh, one rough, both scarred by the war.

This book was much too much of a romance for me. Sarah’s spends an overage of time believing that her beau (Matthew, the rough one) hates her for no real good reason and that she must never tell him how she feels for no good reason. The ghost story was passable, somewhat predictable. The Haunting of Maddy Clare was an audio book and the narrator’s portrayal of Matthew was disconcerting.

alt text Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Emily Carroll “tells” five stories of isolation and dread akin to Grimm’s fairy tales.

With a limited color palette and drawings that are by turns stark and detailed, these are new tales of old-fashioned creepiness. The stories and art evoke a coldness, a darkness that seems perfect for fall and winter reading. Through the Woods was an impulse pick-up for me for during readathon and it was the highlight. Might even become a yearly Halloween read.

Deal Me In Catch-Up, Week 41

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

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

“Tales from the Original Gothic” by John M. Ford

Card picked: Week 41: Q
From: The Architecture of Fear, edited by Kathryn Cramer and Peter D. Pautz

The Story
This story had so much potential. In an anthology about hauntings and houses, this offered up a ghost house: a house that periodically manifests full of its former occupants. A team of scientists and ghost busters anticipates the house’s appearance and decide to go in. So much potential.

The introduction to this story describes it as a “gestalt whirlwind.” I suppose that’s what this story is, but I couldn’t get through more than half of it. Six pages in, I had no idea what exactly was going on with our team of paranormal researchers.

 

Review ~ Dark Screams: Volume Eight

This book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Hydra via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Dark Screams: Volume Eight edited by Brian James Freeman & Richard T. Chizmar

Frank Darabont, Bentley Little, Benjamin Percy, Billie Sue Mosiman, Kealan Patrick Burke, and Glen Hirshberg share chilling tales of ancient evils and wicked desires in this spooky collection assembled by renowned horror editors Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Found it by searching for Glen Hirshberg at NetGalley, doubly interested because of Frank Darabont.

What Worked & Didn’t Work
Five of these six stories reminded me of the best episodes from late 80s/early 90s horror anthology TV shows (Tales from the DarksideMonstersFreddy’s Nightmares). Each had a great twist of an ending and variable levels of gore.

Frank Darabont’s “Walpuski’s Typewriter” sets the tone for the anthology. It’s a nasty piece of work (in a good way!) involving a writer and a demon possessed typewriter. Darabont is best known for his screen writing and adaptations; notably The Shashank Redemption and The Mist. I hadn’t read any of his prose. It did not disappoint.

“The Boy” by Bentley Little was the perfect followup. I found myself wondering if I was supposed to like Christine’s neighbors, especially as they make fun of a kid who supposedly smells. By the end of the story, I wasn’t sure who was worse. Christine solves their stinky kid problem, in a way that is probably more honest than her two-faced neighbors would consider.

With Benjamin Percy’s “Tumor,” we’re solidly back in the land of Tales from the Darkside. This is a simple short, tale, but full of gory glee.

A shift in tone happens in the latter half of Dark Screams, Vol. 8. The stories are more complex and a smidge more contemplative in their horror. The one story that didn’t work for me was right after the mid-point, “Twisted and Gnarled” by Billie Sue Mosiman. The story is told alternately through first person point of view of a serial killer, The Man, and a somewhat psychic mother, The Woman. The internal dialogue of both of these characters really didn’t work for me.

Quiet horror continued in “The Palaver” by Kealan Patrick Burke. Alluding to the stories of the late 19th century, this is a tale within a tale. Our narrator is the owner of the slowly failing Palavar Barbershop. He’s told a story of cosmic horror from the Great Depression that may or may not repeat itself in the 21st century.

The last story in the anthology is Glen Hirshberg’s “India Blue.” As with many of these tales, the “payoff” is at the end of the story, which means reading through one man’s endeavor to bring cricket to America. Not just cricket though, but America’s Rockin’ Professional Cricket, complete with cheerleaders and a showboat player who has been drummed out of respectable leagues. Luckily, the journey is possibly better than the ending.

Overall
Solid anthology. It’s release date is Halloween and it’s the perfect little reading treat.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/ePub, Random House Publishing Group, 10/31/17
Acquired: 8/17/17, NetGalley
Genre: horror