Category Archives: Nonfiction

Reading Notes, 6/3/21

Finished Reading

The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale

Heard about this book from What’s Nonfiction’s fabulous blog.

I’ve read quite a few books about magicians and, tangentially, spiritualism due to the vocation of many magicians to debunk (or, alternatively, learn from) mediums. As a skeptic myself, I find mediumship curious. So much of it is a con, but there is also often an aspect of self-delusion. Even magicians who have done mind-reading or séance type acts—professionals who know they are not communing with spirits or guides—have reported the feeling of working beyond what they’re capable of. But they also realize that this is a feeling and not reality.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding begins in 1938 when a normal British housewife begins to be harassed by poltergeist activity. Nandor Fodor, a “ghost hunter” for the International Institute for Psychical Research, investigates. Fodor believes in psychic phenomena, but he wants badly to have scientific proof of it. When we begin this story, he’s in some hot water with the IIPR because he has, disappointingly, proved several mediums to be frauds. He is desperate to find a true case of a haunting, but has also begun to theorized that these poltergeists might be manifestations (still psychic in nature) of trauma. As Alma begins to get attention, from the press and the IIPR, the poltergeist activity shifts to being apports (manifested objects) and mediumship, things that Fodor wants to see of her. There is an interplay between the expectations of Alma and Fodor. Their relationship becomes maybe too co-dependent. And Fodor eventually finds out that Alma isn’t as simple as she seems. This is all against the backdrop of a Britain under increasing pressure as WWII become immanent. Summerscale mentions that there was an increase in news-worthy cases of poltergeist activity during this era, which is a interesting detail.

At times, the book was maybe a little repetitive and there were a few too many a names. I had a tough time remembering who everyone was after putting the book down for a day or two. For me, this is a good addition to my framework of magic and spiritualism. It brought me further into the 20th century than my usual reading.

Mosses from an Old Manse by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This was my May Classics Club Spin book, which I did finish in May. Barely.

I forget sometimes that Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe were contemporaries. What wonderful dinner parties those would be… Anyway. Like Poe, I’m not a fan of Hawthorne’s straight-up allegories. We’ve talked about this before when I touched on “Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent” during Deal Me In. To me, the only way a writer should present allegory is if they can do it with a level of actual story. So, a few of the stories in Mosses (“The Celestial Rail-road ” & “The Procession of Life”) were rather torturous for me to get through. But so many others are such wonderful, if cynical, stories. I’m still a Hawthorne neophyte, so I’m still surprised by the very dim view Hawthorne takes of humankind. I’m not used to that from authors. Ironically, while I am not a fan of allegory, I am a fan of speculative fiction genres and the two go hand in hand, especially in the pre-pulp days. “Young Goodman Brown” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and even “Feathertop” and “Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent” have gooey horror fiction cores.

Deal Me In

4♠️ – “The Cold Embrace” by Mary E. Braddon
Speaking of early horror fiction… Ever read a story where you say, “Oh, you naive boy. You don’t know what kind of story you’re in”? Yeah, I did that here and enjoyed every second of our main character’s comeuppance.

Currently Reading

Started on my summer reading and then was quickly sidetracked my an impulse read, All the Flavors by Ken Liu, while I was cataloging the books on my Kindle. Next up is The Hypno-Ripper: Or, Jack the Hypnotically Controlled Ripper; Containing Two Victorian Era Tales Dealing with Jack the Ripper and Hypnotism, edited by Donald K Hartman and then back to Journey to the Center of the Earth.


Reading Notes, supplemental (5/27/2021)

Willa Cather Short Story Project

The Willa Cather story for May was “The Conversion of Sum Loo.” This was a deviation from the schedule (a chronological list of Cather’s early works) because this is a bit of a rework of last months story, “A Son of the Celestial.”

Without getting too far into the plot weeds, “A Son of the Celestial” is more of a two-person story focused on how Ponter and Yang change each other and relate to their communities. “The Conversion of Sum Loo” widens the scope, somewhat, while being even moreso about Sum Chin and his wife, Sum Loo. The Ponter character is taken up by Girrard, a young man who is torn between the priesthood and art. The Sums are a fairly successful Chinese immigrant couple, though Sum Loo is much younger than her husband, and more open to the Christian influences in her community. Sum Chin is very concerned about the well-being of his son, possibly his only chance for securing a legacy and making sure that there is a next generation to take care of him and his wife. He does not object to his wife having the baby baptized; the more Gods favoring his child, the better, right? The conclusion of this story was quite the gut-punch.

The two stories were published seven years apart and Cather’s craft has absolutely improved in that time. “A Son of the Celestial” is not much more than a sketch, where “The Conversion of Sum Loo” is a more well-rounded story.

Interested in reading along? Short Fiction of Willa Cather, Phase II

Finished Reading

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination by Robert Coles

During my second semester as an English major (being my fifth semester as a college student), I took a course called “Stories and the Human Experience.” At the time I worried that it was kind of a useless class because it didn’t fulfill any specific English requirement and I would easily end up having enough non-English department elective credits without it considering the amount of now superfluous math and science I had already taken. (The war between STEM and the humanities has always been strong in me.) But it ended up being a great course. The two sections were taught by different instructors with slightly different syllabi. We’d join up every couple of weeks to jam on what we’d all been reading. (It occurs to me now that my advisor might have been really working to fill the class since it was the first time is was offered and they needed two sections.) I remember that we read King Lear, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (a novel I found slightly traumatic), and selections from Robert Coles’ The Call of Stories. (There were other things on the syllabus, but I don’t remember them. It’s been a while.)

I decided a few years ago that I wanted to revisit Coles and the concepts he presented. On the surface, Coles argues a point that does come up time and again in the STEM vs. humanities debate: stories teach empathy. They present characters who model behaviors both good and bad. They potentially offer insight into characters similar and different from ourselves. Coles presents what the scientific world would call anecdotal evidence. The most compelling portion of the books is reading stories of his students (mostly medical students, but also a few in fields like law and business) who have read a novel or short story and strongly identified with characters and plot situations. These stories have made them think about the morality of their behavior in new ways.

What left me a little cold was the actual talk of morality. Some of the points of view struck me as pretentious and privileged. This might be my own prejudice, but I can’t shake the feeling that Coles and his students (all Harvardians) find people less fortunate than themselves to be, well, unfortunates. Or maybe it’s because all these people are discussing problems that maybe wouldn’t be problems if they were worrying about making the rent. The irony of reading a book about stories and empathy, but not being super empathetic to the people presented in the narrative, is not lost on me.

Also, I wonder what it says about me that the characters that have “lived with me” the most are Schmendrick, Molly Grue, Henry Palace, and a man called Ishmael.


Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4

I added this book to my TBR list a couple months back when Deb @ Readerbuzz was reading it. I’ve been looking for books on writing nonfiction, but most of what I’ve found have been about writing memoirs, which isn’t quite what I’m after. I didn’t realize at the time that I’m slightly familiar with John McPhee. I’d read his A Sense of Where You Are years ago.

I looked up Draft No. 4 at the local online libraries and found that the Phoenix library had it — except they didn’t have it. I put in a hold, but then realized I was on a wait list for 0 copies. I suspect this happens when an online library had the license for a book, but it expired and the book wasn’t an automatic rebuy (if such a thing exists) due to lack of interest. I’ve also had it happen with a little known book about a 1910s serial killer. So I went to Amazon. The ebook was $10; the paperback was $12.75. I tossed the paperback into my cart and waited until we needed to round out an order. I still have a hangup about buying ebooks for a near premium price. In the meantime I checked out McPhee’s Levels of the Game.

A word about the paperback. It’s white. And it has this texture to it. Arizona is quite dusty. My white book has gotten dusty and resists cleaning because of the texture. I do no recommend reading it while eating Doritos.

Draft No. 4 is a fairly slim book. It’s earned a spot on my desk with my other writing books to be sure, though (like most of my favorite writing books) the practical advice is buried amid career anecdotes.

The first two chapters cover, roughly, the things that were of most interest to me: what’s a worthwhile idea to write long-form nonfiction about and what do you do with it once you have it. Turns out in McPhee’s experience, a good idea for a piece of nonfiction is a thing that the writer can commit time and effort to. What form will it take? Where will it end up? These are variable things. McPhee’s advice seems to be: keep an open mind and go with the flow. To me, that’s fairly comforting.

Of course, there is McPhee’s progression of drafts which is the second thing of particular non-entertainment-only interest to me. The first draft is simply getting things down, the philosophy of you can’t fix what doesn’t exist. In McPhee’s second draft, he tinkers with shape. The third draft is smoothing out the rough spots after giving it a verbal read-through. And the fourth draft? In the fourth draft, he calls into question weak wording and cuts about 10%. This cutting comes from writing for a magazine like Time where space is a premium. Ideas need to be cut, trimmed, distilled in order for there to be the proper number of lines for the piece when published in a print magazine. Even when not under those constraints, McPhee has found that this practice tightens up writing. (I have found this to be the case myself in the past.)

John McPhee is an entertaining writer and an entertaining teacher too. Draft No. 4 has a lot of stories from McPhee’s long career and some writing advice as well. Suitable even for those who aren’t crazy enough to write a book on a topic no one cares about. Yet.

{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