Review ~ Houdini and Conan Doyle

Cover via Goodreads

Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford

In the early twentieth century, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were two of the most famous men alive, and their relationship was extraordinary:

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ultra-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, nonetheless believed in the supernatural. After eleven family members, including his son and brother, were killed in the First World War, he searched tirelessly for word from the dead.

Harry Houdini, the great magician, was a friend of Conan Doyle’s but a sceptic when it came to the supernatural. As a master of illusion, he used his knowledge to expose psychics who he believed exploited people’s insecurity and grief.

Drawing on previously unpublished archive material, this sensational story of two popular geniuses conjures up the early twentieth century and the fame, personalities and beliefs that would eventually pull them apart.

(via back of the book)

Usually, I copy-paste book summaries from Goodreads, but none where very good. So I used the text from the back of the book and still… Well, Doyle had been interested in spiritualism before WWI. And technically, he didn’t lose his son in the war, but the horrible outbreak of Spanish flu near the end of the war. So, this one was at least 97% accurate…

I’ve had this book on my want-to-read list for 5-ish years under the title Masters of Mystery, before finding this edition at Half Price Books. Going in, I knew the basics of this story. If you’ve read a biographical sketch of either man, this contentious relationship comes up. Further, I read David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street a few years back, which focuses on Houdini’s (sort of) dedunking of Margery Crandon, who Doyle strongly supported. But I hadn’t read anything in-depth about Houdini and Doyle’s friendship and falling out.

Sanford gives each man a decent biography before their encounters with each other, though the story feels more weighted toward  Doyle. There are a few possible reasons for that. Doyle was in his 60s when they met; Houdini was 15 years his junior. Therefore, Sanford simply had more of Doyle’s life to tell. But the imbalance might also be due to my personal bias. I simply didn’t know as much about Doyle. I’ve read (more than enough) Houdini biographies, but never a good one about  Doyle. Something that surprised me was just how prolific he was. I never really imagined Doyle writing thousands of word per day on multiple projects. It puts his dissatisfaction with Holmes’ popularity in a different light.

One thing I didn’t like about the pre-meeting biographical sections was Sanford’s attempts to make Houdini and Doyle’s lives parallel. It felt like he was trying too hard to make their families and careers match up, as well as, sometimes, their proposed psychological states.

Personally, though, I found this book a little depressing. As a skeptic myself, it was hard to read about Doyle being so wrong about things and, as a non-fan of the magician, Houdini being so annoyingly right. I’m also not sure I actually buy their “friendship.” It feels more like a publicity story that took on a life of its own. Yes, they hung out a bit. Houdini liked knowing other famous people, especially ones with some intellectual weight. Doyle would have considered it a major coup if he’d been able to “turn” Houdini to spiritualism. That’s not really friendship. As much as I’d like for them to be the Mulder and Scully of the 20s (or even the Houdini & Doyle of the 00s), they weren’t.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Duckworth Overlook, 2012
Acquired: 11/15/17, Half Price Books
Genre: history


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Review ~ Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician

Cover via Goodreads

Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician by Donald Brandon & Joyce Brandon

Want to know how magicians make a jet airplane disappear???

Want to know how magicians make a human being float and fly around the stage???

Want to know how magicians make it actually snow inside a theater???

All of these questions and many more are answered in this book plus the often hilarious exploits of two if the great premiere magicians who have a total of over 100 years of performing for millions of people. One is credited with being a forerunner of today’s Rock Concerts who attracted huge audiences of teenagers, numbering in the thousands, nightly for his midnight ghost shows. Informative, intriguing and compelling reading. You will love it! (via back cover)

Why was I interested in this book?
75% of my reading about magic and magicians is centered around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that’s an era with a lot of literature connected with it. Magicians of the period often wrote their own memoirs and modern day academics revel in that golden age. But I also like hearing about the day to day nitty-gritty of modern working magicians. …Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician falls into this category.

What Worked
Don Brandon had a fifty year career as Brandon the Magician. He began under the tutelage of Willard the Wizard in San Antonio. South Texas was its own interesting magic community in the mid-20th century with several acts, Willard and Brandon among them, headquartered there in order to travel in the southeastern and southwestern states. Memoirs and Confessions is an apt title. This book is half about Donald Brandon’s memories of Willard and half about his own career.

One of Brandon’s highlights are his very popular spook shows. Spook shows were piggy-backed onto monster movies when many of the old vaudeville theaters were converted into movie houses. The spook shows were an innovative use of magic principles to provide an immersive “spooky” experience after the movies. The book cover blurb engages in a little mythologizing, but what else does one expect from a magician?

What Didn’t Work
Not enough dates. I understand that perhaps remembering isn’t really conducive to putting dates on events, but it’s really helpful for readers. This is also a bit of a “dip-in” book. The chapters are short and, while not entirely repetitive, they don’t vary in tone and jump around a bit. Reading straight through is tiring.

Overall
Memoirs and Confessions does offer a nice slice of magic history: Texas in the 30s and 40s. Yes, there are magical secrets revealed, but mostly this book is stories and gossip and personal histories.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Tag Publications, 1995
Acquired: Jackson Street Booksellers, July 2015
Genre: memoir

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Review ~ The Perfect Storm

Cover via Goodreads

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger

October 1991. It was “the perfect storm”—a tempest that may happen only once in a century—a nor’easter created by so rare a combination of factors that it could not possibly have been worse. Creating waves ten stories high and winds of 120 miles an hour, the storm whipped the sea to inconceivable levels few people on Earth have ever witnessed. Few, except the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing boat tragically headed towards its hellish center. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I watched the movie a few years ago and thought it was good. Having been a bestseller, there are a plethora of copies of The Perfect Storm in used bookstores, the one I own I found in the neighborhood little library.

What Worked
The core of The Perfect Storm is missing ship, the Andrea Gail. Now, what exactly happened to the Andrea Gail and her crew, no one knows. That kind of creates a problem for a possible narrative. Junger does an really good job of speculating without going wild. He offers a lot of grounding context—the history of fishing in New England, the day-to-day realities of swordfish longlining, stories from the family and friends of the  Andrea Gail‘s crew, historical weather data—so nothing ever comes across as fanciful.

There were also many other catastrophes that occurred during the 1991 “perfect” storm that we do know the details of, and those stories are harrowing. I’m a little mad at the film because I don’t recall it going into detail about these other events.

There are many technical details about sailing and the weather that I’m not sure complete sank in for me, but I was also never lost.

What Didn’t Work
I wish that there had been a better or more maps. So much in The Perfect Storm is dependent on the location of ships, storms, helicopters, buoys… And all this book gave me was a paltry map that even lacked latitude and longitude! Publishers, never underestimate the need for good maps!

Overall
The Perfect Storm is a compelling read. For me, it fits in the “I didn’t know I wanted to know about this” category of nonfiction.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Harper Perennial, 1999
Acquired: neighborhood little library, April 3, 2017
Genre: nonfiction

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

 

Mini Reviews, Vol. 14

The Black Dove cover The Black Dove by Steve Hockensmith

Holmes On the Range Mystery #3 – I know, look at me reading all the series!

Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer end up “deducifying” in Gold Rush San Francisco, looking to solve the mystery of Dr. Chan’s death. Hockensmith does a good job of keeping these mysteries fresh; changing up the settings while staying true to the Old West. I listened to this on audio; the dialog shines with William Dufris.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea cover Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Think of every ocean/undersea adventure ever. Toothy whales? Check. Giant squids? Check. Antarctic sailing? Check. Atlantis? Check. Island of savages? Well, check. Generally, I really enjoyed this book. Published in 1870 (1872 in English), Verne revels in science. The submarine, the underwater breathing apparatuses, the natural classifications of so much aquatic life—all of it gets good press. Honestly, the only bits I glazed over during were discussions of where the Nautilus was and where it was going. Seaman, I ain’t.

alt text Lizzie: The Letters of Elizabeth Chester Fisk 1864-1893, edited by Rex C. Myers

I bought this last summer at The Old Sage Bookshop in Prescott.

I’ve read a few memoirs and collections of letters by 19th century pioneer women. Usually, they are from the prairie or southwest. In this case, Lizzie Fisk lived in Helena, Montana. Instead of a farmer or a rancher, her husband was a newspaper man. Many of her letters are about the Herald, her husband’s, newspaper and the politics of the city and the state. Fisk was an abolitionist and a suffragette, but she was also terribly judgemental and, as a woman of her time, selectively racist. In all, her letters filled out my notion of the American frontier, but honestly, Fisk isn’t someone I would have liked to spend time with. (And I doubt she would have thought much of me either…)

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

Review ~ The Secret History of Magic

Cover via Goodreads

The Secret History of Magic by Peter Lamont & Jim Steinmeyer

If you read a standard history of magic, you learn that it begins in ancient Egypt, with the resurrection of a goose in front of the Pharaoh. You discover how magicians were tortured and killed during the age of witchcraft. You are told how conjuring tricks were used to quell rebellious colonial natives. The history of magic is full of such stories, which turn out not to be true. Behind the smoke and mirrors, however, lies the real story of magic.

It is a history of people from humble roots, who made and lost fortunes, and who deceived kings and queens. In order to survive, they concealed many secrets, yet they revealed some and they stole others. They engaged in deception, exposure, and betrayal, in a quest to make the impossible happen. They managed to survive in a world in which a series of technological wonders appeared, which previous generations would have considered magical. Even today, when we now take the most sophisticated technology for granted, we can still be astonished by tricks that were performed hundreds of years ago.

The Secret History of Magic reveals how this was done. It is about why magic matters in a world that no longer seems to have a place for it, but which desperately needs a sense of wonder. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer are two of my favorite magic writers, and the history of magic is one of my favorite subjects.

What Worked
Magicians are liars. Most magicians are okay with that epithet. Likewise, the stories and histories they relate are filled with embellishments and fabrications and are prone to a certain amount of revision when it suites a narrative. Did people in the Ye Olde Olden Days really believe that magicians had supernatural powers? Probably not. But did it become convenient for magicians to wink at a contemporary audience and say, “But you all are too sophisticated to believe that nonsense”? Well, it doesn’t hurt to flatter an audience that might not give you the benefit of a doubt.

The Secret History of Magic drills down past some of these not-entirely-true stories to highlight the performers who perfected their craft and worked hard for their notoriety or, at least, their living. This book is light on the secrets behind tricks, but doesn’t shy away from a little exposure when needed. But those types of secrets aren’t really what this book is about. Instead, Secret History about how magic has changed with the times while not really changing much at all.

What Didn’t Work
There is a lot of repetition of certain ideas in close proximity to each other. If a concept were presented at the beginning of a chapter and is then perhaps reiterated at the end of the chapter, that’s one thing. If the idea is presented at the beginning of a paragraph and the end of the same paragraph and then maybe again a paragraph later, repetition may be a problem. And this isn’t done once for emphasis, it happens over and over. Sometimes it felt like similar, independent articles had been imperfectly stitched together. I don’t know whether this was due to the collaboration, but some of the more directly historical sections were smoother.

I’m also not sure I’d suggest this as a “beginner” text. While someone like Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin is given ample page space (because his “memoir” is one of the core “histories” of the profession), many other magicians are mentioned by name only, possibly relying on knowledge of them that the reader may or may not have. I don’t think this is the magic history book for someone who has only heard of Houdini.

Overall
Regardless, I enjoyed this book. I’ve been thinking about magicians and their histrories, their versions of their truths, for some time on my own. As a writer, it’s a layer of storytelling worth consideration. And for me, reading about magic history is like that quote about sex: even not-great magic history is pretty good magic history.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Tarcher Pedigree, 2018
Acquired: Amazon, 7/16/2018
Genre: history

Review ~ Thieves, Rascals and Sore Losers

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Thieves, Rascals and Sore Losers: The Unsettling History of the Dirty Deals that Helped Settle Nebraska by Marilyn Coffey

On they came, from Belgium and New Hampshire, from Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia, from the Chicago fire, from the territories: Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, the Dakotas.

All the way they brawled, about Indians, about border lines, about slavery, about who was the bigger imbecile.

And then they fought County Seat Wars in most of the 3,000 new counties.

A thousand of those remaining ended up in south central Nebraska, scrapping about Harlan County and which still-imagined town should hold the seat of government. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
After River City Empire and A Dirty, Wicked Town, both about Omaha, I thought I’d read more about history in the rest of Nebraska.

What Worked
Marilyn Coffey starts out at home. Herself a native of Harlan County, Nebraska, she has first-hand knowledge of the lasting hurt-feelings that have occurred over the location of  the county seat—events that happened over a hundred years ago. Getting the county seat of government could make or break a town. It was a hotly contested responsibility. In frontier Nebraska, that was only half the story. Maybe not even half. These “petty” political battles were fought against the backdrop of “Indian wars,” the Civil War, and the harsh environment. Coffey does a great job giving scope to Harlan County’s story.

What Didn’t Work
There are a lot of names and a lot of back and forth details. It gets a little muddled, no matter how many times Coffey points out a personage that will be important later. Also, occasionally, the light tone of the narrative is out of place. Something like the Sand Creek massacre is more than a “dirty deal.” And many of the absurdities of frontier politics don’t need any gilding.

Overall
There’s lots of great information in this book. Even in Omaha (Douglas County), there is some tension between us and our county brother to the south (Sarpy County to the south). Thieves, Rascals and Sore Losers is a look at this type of smaller intra-state conflicts against a national stage.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, Omega Cottonwood Press, 2015
Acquired: Amazon, 12/1/2017
Genre: history

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

 

Mini Reviews, Vol. 13

After a readathon, a mini review post is usually appropriate.

The Science of Illusions cover The Science of Illusions by Jacques Ninio (trans. Franklin Philip

I bought this book last year at The Open Book when visiting my sister in Santa Clarita. I was intrigued because Science! Illusions! What could be more up my alley? Alas, this book is very broad and not very deep. The categories on the back list it as “psychology, history of science, philosophy” and, so, it’s lighter on the hard science than I had hoped. Granted, this book was published in 1998. Our understanding of neuro-biology has increased immensely.

Challenges: #20BooksOfSumer, Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Q's Legacy cover Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff

A reread that I started back in June. The thing that has always made Helene Hanff inspiring to me is, not her faith, but her unflagging stick-to-itiveness to keep doing something related to writing and reading until something worked out. Her path to fame was circuitous, unexpected, and a little lucky. I sometimes need to remember: life goes that way.

Jane cover Jane by Aline Brosh McKenna & Ramón Pérez (Illustrator)

I read this more because I’m a fan of Ramón Pérez’s art (I’ve been a fan since his stint as an illustrator at Paladium Games) than a fan of Jane Eyre. That’s probably a good thing. While this is an adaptation, it takes some modern liberties with the story. It’s a good story, but it doesn’t quite have Brontë spirit. But the art is gorgeous!