Review ~ The Infamous Harry Hayward

This book was provided to me by University of Minnesota Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads: Infamous Harry Hayward

The Infamous Harry Hayward: A True Account of Murder and Mesmerism in Gilded Age Minneapolis by Shawn Francis Peters

On a winter night in 1894, a young woman’s body was found in the middle of a road near Lake Calhoun on the outskirts of Minneapolis. She had been shot through the head. The murder of Kittie Ging, a twenty-nine-year-old dressmaker, was the final act in a melodrama of seduction and betrayal, petty crimes and monstrous deeds that would obsess reporters and their readers across the nation when the man who likely arranged her killing came to trial the following spring. Shawn Francis Peters unravels that sordid, spellbinding story in his account of the trial of Harry Hayward, a serial seducer and schemer whom some deemed a “Svengali,” others a “Machiavelli,” and others a “lunatic” and “man without a soul.”

Dubbed “one of the greatest criminals the world has ever seen” by the famed detective William Pinkerton, Harry Hayward was an inveterate and cunning plotter of crimes large and small, dabbling in arson, insurance fraud, counterfeiting, and illegal gambling. His life story, told in full for the first time here, takes us into shadowy corners of the nineteenth century, including mesmerism, psychopathy, spiritualism, yellow journalism, and capital punishment. From the horrible fate of an independent young businesswoman who challenged Victorian mores to the shocking confession of Hayward on the eve of his execution (which, if true, would have made him a serial killer), The Infamous Harry Hayward unfolds a transfixing tale of one of the most notorious criminals in America during the Gilded Age. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
19th century crime! In the Midwest! In a city that isn’t Chicago! (Not that I have anything against Chicago, but it gets a lot of attention. There are plenty of interesting cities between the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains in the 19th century. Or in this case, on the Mississippi River.)

What Worked
This is a nice look into Minneapolis at the end of the 19th century. It was, like many Midwestern/Heart Land cities, on the rise full of hustle, bustle, excitement, and vice. Harry Hayward dabbled in many areas of crime and Peters gives each a good deal of background of their own. I especially enjoyed learning about the counterfeiting and money laundering schemes.

Another crime-adjacent subject important to the story is yellow journalism. Much of Hayward’s reputation as a “master criminal” was made in the press. Dueling newspapers didn’t entirely fabricate stories, but they certainly latched on to the juiciest, most lurid tidbits of the police’s initial investigation and Hayward’s trial. To an extent, the “Murder and Mesmerism” subtitle of this book has similar sensationalism. The mesmerism aspect of Hayward is really very minor. I hoped that this would be the story of an out-and-out charlatan performer, a hypnotist using his abilities to bilk and murder! Alas, not the case, though it seems strange that I should be disappointed by a charismatic con man and the murder of a young woman.

What Didn’t Work
A very minor thing: There was some repetition of details between the telling of what happened to Kitty Ging and Hayward’s eventual trial. This is a slight stumbling block with true crime: to tell about the crime accurately, an author ends up using facts based on the testimony of those involved.

Overall
Good telling of a historical true crime. Peters has a light touch with his presentation of details and keeps the narrative rolling.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub, University of Minnesota Press, April 3, 2018
Acquired: NetGalley, Feb. 2018
Genre: nonfiction, crime

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Review ~ Eyeing the Flash

Cover via Goodreads

Eyeing the Flash: The Making of a Carnival Con Artist by Peter Fenton

The year is 1963, the setting small-town Michigan. Pete Fenton is just another well-mannered math student until he meets Jackie Barron, a teenage grifter who introduces him to the carnival underworld — and lures him with the cons, the double-dealing, and, most of all, the easy money. The memoir of a shy middle-class kid turned first-class huckster, Eyeing the Flash is highly unorthodox, and utterly compelling. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
There is a connection between stage magic and carnivals; and between magicians and con men…

What Worked
Fenton provides a (maybe) warts-and-all recollection his late teen years working in a basement casino (set up to fleece his high school classmates) and working his way up through the games (from Duck Pond to the Flat Store) in a travelling carnival in the 60s. I say “maybe” warts-and-all. I have no particular reason to question the author as narrator…other than he’s a carny con man. While most of the abuse and double dealing is at the figurative  hands of his friend/boss, Jackie, Fenton possibly doesn’t share how often marks became belligerent. Mostly, he shows his prowess at lying to the marks and working the rigged games.

What Didn’t Work
For me, one of the great sadnesses of my life is that con men aren’t Danny Ocean. They are not suave. They aren’t noble Robin Hoods, or even in it for revenge or moral lessons.

It’s your life. Which side are you going to be on? Are you an ulcer giver or an ulcer getter?

That’s pretty much Jackie’s early pitch to Peter. Causing harm to cause harm is distasteful to me. I know intellectually that’s what con men do, but it’s still disappointing that there are people who easily decide to put their life choices in that either/or.

Overall
Eyeing the Flash is well-written and provides a look into a world that is often off-limits to regular people.  It also emphasizes that callousness of a con man.

By the way, “flash” is the especially attractive prizes at a carnival game booth. In the book, the most flashy piece of flash was a 17″ color television set. While carnivals are somewhat more on the level these days, Mark Rober has a great set of YouTube videos about modern carnival scams.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Simon & Schuster, 2005
Acquired: Amazon,April 5, 2013
Genre: memoir

This book counts for two challenges:

Review ~ Hunger

Cover via Goodreads

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her own past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes. (via Goodreads)

Thoughts
As I read Hunger, I struggled with how I was supposed to interact with this text.

Hunger is split into sections in which Gay writes about the sexual abuse that led her to turn her body into a fortress, society’s reaction to very large people, her own thoughts and tribulations concerning weight loss, and the slow process of finding self-worth and dealing with the loneliness she’s felt.

But… Am I allowed to commiserate with Gay if my own weight problems are only metabolism-related and I’ve only ever been “Lane Bryant fat”? I can certainly relate to the tension of wanting to lose weight because “thinner is healthier”/”*I* would like how I looked if I weighed less”/”being thinner is what society expects” and accepting that maybe this is just how my body is. Does my bringing my narrative in cheapen hers?

Maybe this is a problem I have when reading memoirs. I don’t really know what to do with Gay’s narrative. Feel horrified by it? Yes, I do. Understand why she’s done the things she’s done? Yes, I can. But otherwise, it’s hard for me to say much about someone else’s honestly-told story.

Publishing info, my copy: OverDrive Read, HarperCollins, June 14, 2017
Acquired: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection
Genre: memoir

Hunger was the first quarter read for the 2018 Nonfiction Challenge.

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Mini Reviews, Vol. 11

alt text Baker Street By-Ways by James Edward Holroyd

I found this slim paperback at Book Vault, out in Mesa. I didn’t realize that Otto Penzler, whom I know as an editor of mystery anthologies, had put together a collection of Sherlockania in the mid-90s. I’d be interested in other volumes even though this one was a little uneven.

Originally published in 1959, the tone is very “boys-club.” Holroyd grumbles repeatedly about how fed-up his and his friends’ wives are with their Sherlock hobby.  He also doesn’t bother to attribute a quote to an “American woman writer.” Perhaps I should know who he means, but not even Goggle could come up with the mother of the quote.

There are a few good crunchy bits, mostly concerning London geography. The book could have used a few more maps though.

 

alt text The Box Jumper by Lisa Mannetti

My interest in this novelette featuring Houdini was stoked when it was nominated in 2015 for a Shirley Jackson Award. Houdini and “psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic“? Yes, please!

Alas, it mostly didn’t work for me. The story is told through eyes  of Leona, an assistant to Houdini. She’s not the most reliable narrator and that always bugs me. Still, several of the scenes were quite unsettling.

alt text Anything But Ordinary Addie by Mara Rockliff (Author), Iacopo Bruno (Illustrations)

One of my favorite books of last year was Adelaide Herrmann: Queen of Magic, edited by  Margaret B. Steele. This book was directly inspired by that biography. It is a beautiful over-sized picture book for young readers. I’m not super keen on every book needing to be a mirror for the reader, but I would have loved a book about a red-haired female magician. The excitement and empowerment is amped up for a younger audience, but it certainly captures the spirit of Adelaide Herrmann.

 

Review ~ Here Is Real Magic

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

Cover via Goodreads

Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth

Nate Staniforth has spent most of his life and all of his professional career trying to understand wonder—what it is, where to find it, and how to share it with others. He became a magician because he learned at a young age that magic tricks don’t have to be frivolous. Magic doesn’t have to be about sequins and smoke machines—rather, it can create a moment of genuine astonishment.

The paradox is that the better you get at creating wonder with magic for other people, the harder it gets to experience it yourself. After years on the road as a young professional magician, crisscrossing the country and performing four or five nights a week, every week, Nate was disillusioned, burned out, and ready to quit.

Instead, he went to India in search of magic. Here Is Real Magic follows Nate Staniforth’s evolution from an obsessed young magician to a broken wanderer and back again. It tells the story of his rediscovery of astonishment—and the importance of wonder in everyday life—during his trip to the slums of India, where he infiltrated a three-thousand-year-old clan of street magicians. Here Is Real Magic is a call to all of us—to welcome awe back into our lives, to marvel in the everyday, and to seek magic all around us. (via Goodreads)

I.

“Do you want to keep doing magic?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to do anything else?”

“No.”

If you replace “doing magic” with “writing,” I’ve pretty much had this same conversation in the recent past with Eric, my husband. Staniforth has it with his wife after several years of successful touring as a magician. He had fallen out of love with magic, so to speak. The wonder he originally felt when doing magic and had seen on the faces of his audience had faded. This book is the travelogue of his trip to India to find wonder again.

II.

There is an aspect of this books that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I’m aware of the cultural appropriation that occurred within magic in the late 19th/early 20th century. The exotic Far East was all the rage and many western magicians took on the persona of Indian fakirs for tricks. The Indian rope trick, a hoax, only solidified the notion that people in India believed in mysticism and needed civilizing. Staniforth is aware of this too. He mentions Peter Lamont’s The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick both in the text and in his acknowledgements, yet, when he wants to see “real” magic, India is his first (only?) thought.

I can understand the want to visit a radically different culture in an effort to find a new perspective on magic. India has that, but Staniforth also shares his notion that wonder comes easier when you’re less burdened with knowledge. Which leave the possibility of an uncomfortable a==b==c comparison. I don’t think that Staniforth intends that, and he’s pretty quick to check his privilege, but why then just India? Why not travel the world looking for wonder?

III.

It’s hard to critique someone’s personal experience of the world. Staniforth is very earnest in his want to find wonder and inspire it in others. That also occasionally comes off as self-importance. He insists that magicians are a ridiculous lot and he isn’t satisfied with the wonder of magic only lasting to the theater door. I’m in the ridiculous profession of creating stories, but I don’t mind so much if the magic of the story fades when the book is closed. I also don’t have much trouble finding moments of wonder in my life,  but I’m the sort that finds a rainbow to be more incredible because of the optics behind it.

Staniforth does find wonder, but finds it more in the people and beauty of India than in its magicians. His take-away is that we can find wonder when you slow down and let yourself. And really, I can’t argue with that.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub, Bloomsbury USA, 1/16/18
Acquired: NetGalley, 10/11/17
Genre: memoir

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Post Hodgepodge – November 2017

When I don’t have much to say, but still want to post…

NaNoWriMo 2017 ~ Week 3 Update

Went through my previous NaNoWriMo attempts and pieced together about 2/3 of a story. I’m working my way through rewriting, but it hasn’t been without a few snags. (Mainly due to my dithering.)

Review ~ Salvation on Sand Mountain

Cover via Goodreads

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington

For New York Times reporter Dennis Covington, what began as a journalistic assignment—covering the trial of an Alabama pastor convicted of attempting to murder his wife with poisonous snakes—would evolve into a headlong plunge into a bizarre, mysterious, and ultimately irresistible world of unshakable faith: the world of holiness snake handling. Set in the heart of Appalachia, Salvation on Sand Mountain is Covington’s unsurpassed and chillingly captivating exploration of the nature, power, and extremity of faith—an exploration that gradually turns inward, until Covington finds himself taking up the snakes. (via Goodreads)

This book was a random find from my neighborhood’s free little library. “Faith-based snake handling,” I thought. “There’s a topic I never knew I wanted to know about.” Unfortunately, though, Salvation on Snake Mountain has an identity crisis, one that Covington admits to in the 15th anniversary edition’s Afterword. What started out as a news item morphed into something personal for the author, but Covington tries to straddle the line between journalism and memoir, not committing to one or the other. I think that’s to the book’s detriment. Still, an interesting book about something I only knew about as a stereotype.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Da Capo Press, 1994 (2009)
Acquired: Neighborhood Free Little Library, 2/21/17
Genre: nonfiction, memoir

Deal Me In, Week 47

(What’s Deal Me In?)

“The Music of the Yellow Brass” by  Charles Beaumont

Card picked: 2 – Deuces are WILD!

Since I’m setting up my list for next year’s Deal Me In, I had no “loose” stories. Instead, through a convoluted wandering around the internet, I landed on an audio collection of Charles Beaumont’s stories and listened to the first one. I was vaguely familiar with Beaumont’s name. Turns out, he’s a golden age speculative fiction author, somewhat renowned for his work on The Twilight Zone TV show. And I ended up listening to a story with absolutely no speculative fiction aspects what-so-ever.

Jaunito is a skinny young man, a torero in training, who is miraculously given the chance at a fight with lots of money on the line for him and his mentor Enrique. It is all too good to be true. Sometimes, it’s not just the bull’s blood that the crowd wants to see.

I enjoyed Beaumont’s writing, providing a slice of bull-fighting life.

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