Review ~ Heaven’s Ditch

Heaven's Ditch cover via Goodreads

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal by Jack Kelly

The technological marvel of its age, the Erie Canal grew out of a sudden fit of inspiration. Proponents didn’t just dream; they built a 360-mile waterway entirely by hand and largely through wilderness. As excitement crackled down its length, the canal became the scene of the most striking outburst of imagination in American history. Zealots invented new religions and new modes of living. The Erie Canal made New York the financial capital of America and brought the modern world crashing into the frontier. Men and women saw God face to face, gained and lost fortunes, and reveled in a period of intense spiritual creativity.

Heaven’s Ditch by Jack Kelly illuminates the spiritual and political upheavals along this “psychic highway” from its opening in 1825 through 1844. “Wage slave” Sam Patch became America’s first celebrity daredevil. William Miller envisioned the apocalypse. Farm boy Joseph Smith gave birth to Mormonism, a new and distinctly American religion. Along the way, the reader encounters America’s very first “crime of the century,” a treasure hunt, searing acts of violence, a visionary cross-dresser, and a panoply of fanatics, mystics, and hoaxers. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I won this book from Doing Dewey almost two years ago! It falls firmly into the category of “I know nothing about this…let’s read a book about it!”

What Worked
There are many story threads in this book. I found each of them really interesting and learned a lot. The Erie Canal. The Masons. The Mormons. Millerism. Rivivalism. Abolitionism. Honestly, I probably knew the most about the history of the Mormons, but that isn’t saying much. It’s really amazing how many concepts in American religion—and American politics—came into being in this area during this time period.

What Didn’t Work
There are many story threads in this book… The organization of how they were interwoven didn’t always work for me. Granted, this is probably the most difficult thing to do well in this sort of nonfiction book.

I also really wish there would have been more about building the canal. In the early 1800s, a 363 mile was a marvel of human engineering. I’m kind of a sucker for people building amazing things. There was a lot of heaven but not enough ditch for me.

Overall
Each of the individual narratives were compelling, though my reading was slowed down by shifting gears when the “scene” changed. Good history though!

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Acquired: Won it from Doing Dewey!
Genre: nonfiction, history

20 15 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books

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Review ~ The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton

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

Cover via Goodreads

The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton And Other Singular Tales from the Victorian Press by Jeremy Clay

HOLIDAYMAKER FIGHTS OFF AFRICAN LION IN WELSH HOTEL ROOM

MAN SWALLOWS MOUSE AND DIES

WIFE DRIVEN MAD BY HUSBAND TICKLING FEET

PALLBEARER KILLED BY COFFIN IN GRAVEYARD

LIBERALS EAT DOG

From the newspaper archives of the British Library, Jeremy Clay has unearthed the long-lost stories that enthralled and appalled Victorian Britain.

Within these pages are the riotous farces and tragedies of 19th-century life, a time when life was hard, pleasures short-lived, and gloating over other people’s misfortune a thoroughly acceptable form of entertainment.

Deliciously appalling and deliriously funny, The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton will have you, one way or another, in tears. . . (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
One of my favorite things about the digital age is scanned historical newspapers. Sure, they’re primary sources, but of course with a twist. The press is never neutral and what’s reported is only a subset of what’s really going on. In the cracks are stories like “The Burglar Caught By a Skeleton.”

What Worked
Jeremy Clay does a great job gathering up a selection of the skrewiest Victorian news stories. Think that dumb bets are the invention of the Tide Pod generation? Not so! An “election enthusiast” in 1892 probably died after losing a bet and swallowing a live turtle. And I can only imagine that Aymard traveling from Thoissey to Lyon along the Saone on an ice flow, making pancakes along the way, would be a YouTube sensation. Details may change but many things don’t. Still, I’m not sure I’ve read anything lately that left me so often speechless.

The articles are sorted into categories, each with a brief preface by Clay to get you in the mood.

What Didn’t Work
The only thing to note: this is a dip-in book. Sit down intending to read it straight through and you’ll come away in a muddle. Better to read a couple articles a day and leisurely enjoy them. Most are quite short. In fact, and this is no fault of our editor, many of the newspaper writers ended their stories abruptly, leaving me to exclaim, “…but I have questions!”

Overall
The stories in The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton are sensational, often funny and often gruesome. Occasionally both. I consider it a fun, light read and entertaining glimpse into the Victorian era.

Publishing info, my copy: PDF/Kindle, Thistle Publishing, May 21, 2018
Acquired: date, place
Genre: genre

20 15 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books

Review ~ A Dirty, Wicked Town

Cover via Goodreads

A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha by David L. Bristow

Omaha, Nebraska, is a laid-back city in America’s heartland. In the nineteenth century, however, it had a very different reputation. Omaha grew from a speculative scheme in 1854 to a booming city. Along the way there were scores of great stories.

“It requires but little if any, stretch of the imagination to regard Omaha as a cesspool of iniquity, for it is given up to lawlessness and is overrun with a horde of fugitives from justice and dangerous men of all kinds who carry things with a high hand and a loose rein. . . . If you want to find a rogue’s rookery, go to Omaha.”—Kansas City newspaper. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Omaha! It’s my hometown. Sadly, when I lived there I was much less interested in its history. History is wasted on the young.

What Worked
David Bristow does a really good job making this book light enough to be popular nonfiction, but also with some historical “crunch” to it. All the stories are well-cited as well as well-written.

There is also a good variation in tales. Omaha began its life with the reputation of being a “wide open” city. Crime of all sorts was rampant. (It could be argued that crime boss Tom Dennison, not covered in this book since he didn’t come into power until post-1900, was at least an organizing influence.) But along with tales of gambling, prostitution, and sadly, a lynching, there are stories of newspaper editor dust-ups, hot air balloon hijinx, the other White City, and (of course) weather.

While the book doesn’t go into a extreme detail, the many first-person accounts quoted give a good idea of what it was like to live in Omaha in the late 19th century.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Caxton Press, 2000
Acquired: Amazon, March 11, 2013
Genre: nonfiction, history

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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.