{Books} Two Short Reviews

The Haunting of Tram Car 015

Cover: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark was the July pick for the Occult Detective Book Club (a group on Facebook and Goodreads, if you’re into such literature). It is set in the same universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” which I read and enjoyed back in January of this year. “Djinn” is available online, so I reread that before diving into Tram Car 015.

As I mentioned with “Djinn,” the world building is very deftly done. I’ve generally had a problem with steampunk because usually it’s not just retro science-fiction, but 19th-ish century sci-fi mixed with Gothic/supernatural elements. It’s just too much. Clark, though, blends “advanced” technologies and the supernatural seamlessly. The supernatural is, in fact, why this version of 1912 Egypt has the technologies it does.

I felt like the characters in Tram Car 015 were a little less compelling. Agents Hamed and Onsi are fine, but Fatma (from “Djinn”) is such a great character that they suffer in comparison. Both stories are good though; they’re set in the same world, but not directly connected. I’d definitely read more if Clark wanted to spend more time in this setting.

Levels of the Game

Cover: Levels of the Game

I found Levels of the Game by John McPhee while looking for McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (recommended by Deb @ Readerbuzz). The latter was listed in my local library’s online system, but really the license had expired and I’m on a wish-waiting list for it if the library decides to renew the license, but! Instead I noticed another book in McPhee’s catelog with a tennis court on the cover. Nonfiction about tennis? Yes, please. (Tennis is my summer sport. But there are no sports this year. Sadly, this doesn’t mean there’s no summer this year…)

Additionally, the structure of this book is rather curious, and since I’m thinking about writing a nonfiction book, I wanted to see how McPhee would pull it off. Levels of the Game is fairly short, less than 150 pages. In it, McPhee profiles two tennis players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, as they play a match at Forest Hills in 1968—the first US Championship tournament of the open era (meaning both amateurs and professionals could compete). As is mentioned in the book’s summary, McPhee begins with the first toss of the ball. Interspersed with the action of the match are biographical digressions comparing and contrasting the players.

Ashe and Graebner met in the semi finals of the tournament. Why write about a semi final? The two players were both American and Davis Cup teammates. But they were also very different. Ashe was a quick, finesse player; Graebner was more reliant on power and consistency. Ashe was a black, raised by a disciplinarian single father who held down multiple jobs to support his family. Graebner, white, was the son of a doctor and wanted for nothing in his life. Politically, one was of course more liberal and one more conservative. McPhee contends this influenced their styles of play as well.

I’m not sure if the conceit of the book, the stories told during the match, entirely works. The match itself didn’t seem that interesting and I was unaware while reading that this was the first US Open and that Ashe would be the only amateur player to ever win it. I did appreciate how McPhee moved smoothly between past and present and didn’t burden himself further by telling things in absolute chronological order.

I also didn’t realize until after I checked this book out that I read McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are, a profile of basketball player Bill Bradley, back in 2011. I enjoyed that too. If anything, now I want to read Draft No. 4 more.

{Book} In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the New Germany, she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

I read both Thunderstruck and The Devil in the White City in 2010, which means I became a fan of Erik Larson right before In the Garden of Beasts was published. I probably obtained my used copy in 2011 because the book started to show up in earnest on my TBR list in January of 2012.

But while I wanted to read In the Garden of Beast, I was never in the mood to read it. I waited for the right time, but there’s never a good time for Nazis. Even less so in recent years. In the relative political quiet of a pandemic (and I stress the word “relative” here), I figured it would be perfect for the Unread Shelf Project’s May prompt: a backlist title by an author with a newer book out. (Larson just released The Splendid and the Vile, about Winston Churchill.)

Without knowing much about history, it’s easy to think that someone like Hitler abruptly took power and “boom” Nazi Germany is in place. The reality is much more insidious, that there is a rise to power and the violence and policies against certain groups came about gradually. When Dodd begins his tenure, there is still some optimism that Germany’s new government would become more moderate. We know know that it doesn’t.

I was also unaware of how much in-fighting there was between the higher ups in the Nazi party. Maybe that’s just what happens when a group of individually ambitious men take control. There is a continual grappling for power and loyalty.

Is there a cautionary aspect to reading In the Garden of Beasts? Knowing history is often helpful in avoiding repeats of situations, although these seem to be lessons hard earned and often over-looked. But mostly, there’s never a good time for Nazis.

Published: Crown Publishers, 2011
My Copy:
paperback, 2011, probably from Paperback Swap

Unread Shelf Project

{Books} Charles Fort & The Book of the Damned

The Book of the Damned (Illustrated)

The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort

Time travel, UFOs, mysterious planets, stigmata, rock-throwing poltergeists, huge footprints, bizarre rains of fish and frogs-nearly a century after Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned was originally published, the strange phenomenon presented in this book remains largely unexplained by modern science. Through painstaking research and a witty, sarcastic style, Fort captures the imagination while exposing the flaws of popular scientific explanations. Virtually all of his material was compiled and documented from reports published in reputable journals, newspapers and periodicals because he was an avid collector. Charles Fort was somewhat of a recluse who spent most of his spare time researching these strange events and collected these reports from publications sent to him from around the globe. This was the first of a series of books he created on unusual and unexplained events and to this day it remains the most popular. If you agree that truth is often stranger than fiction, then this book is for you. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
This is a book from my Classics Club list. Fort is often mentioned hand in hand with some of science fiction and horror writers of the early 20th century.

What Did I Think?
First of all, I didn’t really know what I was getting into with The Book of the Damned. You can read the above summary, but that doesn’t prepare you for the recitation of weird phenomena punctuated by jabs at both science and religion. It is much more a round-about statement of philosophy than anything else.

Second of all, I did not finish this book.

The deluge of weirdness was amazingly boring. I read a few chapters. I skipped ahead. It didn’t make any difference. Was Fort really serious in his conclusions that these things were extra-terrestrial? Did he truly believe that it was a better solution than what science could offer? I decided that I needed to know more about Charles Fort.

Original Publishing info: Boni and Liveright, 1919
My Copy: Project Gutenberg ebook
Genre: nonfiction

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural by Jim Steinmeyer

Historian Jim Steinmeyer goes deeply into the life of Charles Fort as the man saw himself, first and chiefly as a writer, a tireless chronicler of inconvenient facts for which science has no answer. Steinmeyer makes use of Fort’s correspondence, providing a portrait of the relationship between Fort and his friend, champion, and protector Theodore Dreiser. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
As luck would have it, one of my favorite authors had written a biography of Fort. And it fit the Unread Shelf Project’s April challenge: the book you most recently acquired.

What Did I Think?
Not my favorite book by Steinmeyer, but his others are about magicians and Bram Stoker, subjects I enjoy.

Fort was sort of interesting. He was rather hermity with few friends other than his wife and author Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser was instrumental in getting The Book of the Damned published. I’d say he’d handle safer-at-home orders well, but he and I do have two things in common. We like going to the library and to movies. He went to the library every day to do research. He would note down strange phenomena on slips of paper and file them at home.

Fort had his supporters (some of them established the Fortean Society) and his detractors (among them H. G. Wells). I am a strong proponent of science, so obviously Fort’s books are a challenge to me.  Somewhere along the way, I realized what bothered me about his criticisms: like many people, he didn’t understand that science is a “continuing exploration,” to borrow a phrase from Wells. Science only starts at “We saw this and we think this is the explanation…”

Original Publishing info: Carroll & Graf, 2007
My Copy: Kindle ebook
Genre: biography

{Book} The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski

Nearly a century after Harry Houdini died on Halloween in 1926, he feels as modern and alive as ever. The name Houdini still leaps to mind whenever we witness a daring escape. The baby who frees herself from her crib? Houdini. The dog who vanishes and reappears in the neighbor’s garden? Houdini. Every generation produces new disciples of the magician, from household names in magic like David Copperfield and David Blaine to countless other followers whose lives have been transformed by the power of Houdini.

In The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, award-winning journalist and #1 New York Times bestselling author Joe Posnanski enters Houdini World to understand why the magician still enthralls people. Posnanski immerses himself in Houdini’s past and present, visiting landmarks, museums (including one owned by Copperfield), attractions, and private archives. Filled with false histories and improbable facts, Houdini’s life is an irresistible contradiction. His sweeping afterlife is no less fascinating.

(via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
I’ve been reading books about magic for the past seven or so years. I feel like I’ve read *so many* Houdini biographies, but I really haven’t. Early on, I realized that I don’t really like Houdini very much. That may be because one of the first magic books was Hiding the Elephant and its author, Jim Steinmeyer, isn’t the biggest Houdini fan either. Mostly my focus has been on Houdini’s investigations into fraudulent spiritualists, but every book seems to include a biography anyway… So, why did I bother with this book? Joe Posnanski is a sports writer. I wanted to know what his take might be.

What Did I Think?
I really enjoyed this book. Yes, it is a biography of Houdini, but around it, Posnanski asks, “Why Houdini?” Why is Houdini known, at least as a word, to nearly *everyone* nearly one hundred years after his death? Why is he the inspiration for so many modern magicians? Why was he name-dropped in the horror movie I’m going to review after I review this book?

Posnanski, as a magic enthusiast as well as a sports writer, was intrigued by the GOAT status of a magician who by many accounts wasn’t that good of a nuts-and-bolts magician. Houdini was a tenacious and shrewd promoter. As an escapologist, he was a consummate showman. He made his myth and was a bulldog about it being truth. Posnanski isn’t interested in exposing Houdini’s tricks, but he does debunk some of Houdini’s tales.

The other thing I think Posnanski brings as a sports guy is his interest in the fans. He brings in stories about John Cox and Patrick Culliton and many of the other magic enthusiasts who pick at every detail of Houdini’s life and career. And one thing holds true for me: I really do enjoy reading about/listening to people discussing things they love—even when I don’t fully engage in that fandom.

Original Publishing info: Avid Reader Press / Simon Schuster, 2019
My Copy: Overdrive Ebook, Phoenix Public Library
Genre: nonfiction, biography

{Book} The City on the Edge of Forever Teleplay

The City on the Edge of Forever Teleplay

The City on the Edge of Forever Teleplay by Harlan Ellison

The controversy has raged for almost 30 years–now readers can judge for themselves. Harlan Ellison wrote the original award-winning teleplay for “The City on the Edge of Forever, ” which was rewritten and became the most-loved Star Trek episode of all time. Ellison sued Paramount in protest and won. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
Was wanting an audio book to listen to while playing Minecraft. Saw this on hoopla, checked it out. I actually own this book in paperback form too, but it was nice to hear the teleplay as a full cast recording with Ellison reading the introduction.

What Did I Think?
The differences between the beloved Star Trek episode and the award-winning teleplay are interesting, worth your time if you like to examine different versions/translations of media. There’s also dirt on the beef Ellison had with Gene Roddenberry, which again, if you’re into that kind of thing… Ellison bolsters his arguments with testimonies from many people involved with Star Trek and Star Trek fandom, including original cast members. Including Walter Koenig (Chekov) whom Ellison had a contentious frenemy-ship with.

And I have stories about both Walter Koenig and Harlan Ellison.

In 1989, I went to a science fiction convention with my mom. It was the local Omaha convention, probably smaller than it is now. All of geekdom has become more mainstream. The big media guest was Walter Koenig. He did a short talk and took audience questions. I don’t remember much of the talk, it was pretty standard Trek stuff. Walter Koenig seemed like a pleasant, nice gentleman. After the talk, he hustled from the stage up the side aisle of the auditorium to get to the autograph table at the back. And he passed our row just as I was leaving. And I tripped Walter Koenig. It was pretty much a nonevent, but still…

In 2006, I attended the Nebula Award weekend here in Tempe. The grand master award that year went to Harlan Ellison. As part of the programming, Harlan Ellison gave a talk in ballroom. (He did not take audience questions.) I was sitting in an end chair along the center aisle. I remember it being late in the day, I was tired and I am short so I was sitting sort of crossways, leaning into the aisle. (No, I did not trip Harlan Ellison.) Ellison was introduced and started in on his schitck, then he stopped. “Are you alright?” he asked. “You know, they’re not going to put you in jail if you moved that chair two feet to the right.” I assured him I was fine.

I didn’t get either’s autograph.

Original Publishing info: White Wolf Publishing, 1996
My Copy: audio, Skyboat Media, 2016
Genre: science fiction, nonfiction

{Books} by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Road
So, this is how I remember becoming acquainted with the works of Helene Hanff:

In 1991, the movie The Silence of the Lambs came out. I immediately became a fan of Anthony Hopkins. He went on my watch-everything list (along with Jeremy Irons, Peter O’ Toole, and Anthony Perkins). Now, this was the early 90s. I couldn’t just search for Hopkins on Just Watch and find which streaming service are showing any particular movie of his. No. I had to scour through the satellite TV guide and plan my weekly movie watching/taping. One of those movie I managed to catch was 84, Charing Cross Road (1987, dir. David Jones). It was a lovely movie about one of my favorite things, books. And I discovered that it was in fact based on a book, which I promptly put on my must-read list. Now, again, this was the early 90s and I couldn’t go to Amazon and just order it. No. I pestered my mom to take me to bookstores. (These were my high school years, but I don’t drive.) I finally found a copy at Combs & Combs in the swanky area of Omaha known as Rockbrook. And then, I found out that Helene Hanff wrote other books… Lather, rinse, repeat.

(Funny, I’d never thought to look for Helene Hanff on You Tube. She is here pretty much exactly as I imagined.)

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street Underfoot in Show Business
Apple of My Eye Q's Legacy

Over the years, I collected more of Helene Hanff’s books. The are comfort reading for me, and beginning in mid-December, I needed some comfort reading. All five books are short and I read through them over the last three months. Underfoot in Show Business is chronologically the first Hanff published, pre-84, Charing Cross Road. It tells of her early years as a struggling playwright in New York in the 1930s and 40s. If you’ve already read Charing Cross, you will recognize some of the events and people from the letters in that book. They overlap. All of these books overlap as a sort of biography mosaic.

84, Charing Cross Road is a narrative told in letters between Hanff and a Frank Doel, a bookseller in England. Again in the background are Hanff’s money and employment woes as she writes plays, telescripts, and short histories for children. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and Q’s Legacy are what happened after 84, Charing Cross Road is a hit. Hanff finally visits London and surrounding England for the book’s release and later for the BBC’s TV adaptation. Apple of My Eye is sort of the odd book out, but not really. In it, Hanff showcases her other favorite city, New York City. These three books are travelogue heavy, but that’s okay. Hanff balances her experience of places with their histories.

I love Helene Hanff’s voice. She’s smart, opinionated, and funny, though occasionally a little unkind. She is eternally befuddled by how success came to her, however fleeting or conversely enduring. May we all be so lucky.

{Book} Bad Blood

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood tests significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.

For years, Holmes had been misleading investors, FDA officials, and her own employees. When Carreyrou, working at The Wall Street Journal, got a tip from a former Theranos employee and started asking questions, both Carreyrou and the Journal were threatened with lawsuits. Undaunted, the newspaper ran the first of dozens of Theranos articles in late 2015. By early 2017, the company’s value was zero and Holmes faced potential legal action from the government and her investors. Here is the riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a disturbing cautionary tale set amid the bold promises and gold-rush frenzy of Silicon Valley. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
I’m not sure how many Nonfiction November lists Bad Blood has been on since it came out in 2018. This was also my Moby-Dick rebound book. I needed a palate cleanser. I intended to read a magic-related book, but I decided instead to read a book about deception.

What Did I Think?
Wow.

Okay, first of all, despite my husband’s occasional mention of the company and seeing Bad Blood on many Nonfic November lists, I really had no ideas about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes. My husband follows tech and financial news and had commented on several occasions before and after the scandal broke that the company’s promised products seemed unlikely. He has degrees in computer engineering and computational biosciences, so he knows a few relevant things.

But I didn’t take an immediate interest in this story. I was worried that, well, occasionally, as much as we like to see women succeed, we also seem to revel in their failures. I didn’t really want to participate in reading a pile-on. But Bad Blood isn’t that. This story would still be a story if it were a 20-something Standford dropout guy behind it.

The level of deception perpetrated by Holmes and her partner Sunny Balwani is pretty staggering. Employees who asked questions were dismissed. Investors who asked questions were dazzled with (truth adjacent) tales. What’s the recipe for a decade-long con? Start with a charismatic spokesperson. Add an idea that everyone wants to believe in. To the true believer-ship, add one part of fear of missing out. Stir in millions of dollars until bubbling with a healthy head of sunk cost fallacy. Unfortunately, there was only a rock in the bottom of the pot…

I am an optimistic person; I like to think the best of others. I don’t think Holmes was ever entirely altruistic about Theranos, but I don’t think Theranos started as an utter scam either. The technology that Holmes originally patented is…science fiction. It was shooting for the stars. That doesn’t mean the company couldn’t have honestly pivoted its resources toward an innovation that was more down-to-earth. As I said, I started Bad Blood the day after finishing Moby-Dick. I can’t help but seeing some Ahab in Elizabeth Holmes. Her obsession, whether with being the next Steve Jobs or with a not-quite (or at least not-yet) possible technology sunk her and took a lot of people with her.

Fascinating tale, told well enough.

Original Publishing info: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2018
My Copy: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection, Kindle & Browser
Genre: nonfiction, science & technology