Review ~ Exclusive Magical Secrets

Cover via AbeBooks

Exclusive Magical Secrets by Will Goldston

Exclusive Magical Secrets, along with the later More Exclusive Magical Secrets (1921) and Further Exclusive Magical Secrets (1927) were part of the “locked books” by Will Goldston. Each book came with a padlock and key with a clasp built into the book to keep the book, in a cheap red leather binding, closed. Thus, you were not able to walk in a magic shop (Goldston’s, mainly) and browse the book. (via Magicpedia)

Why was I interested in this book?
I was particularly interested in the chapter on Buatier de Kolta and his expanding cube mystery. Buatier’s was a forerunner to Joseffy’s similar trick. The chapter did not disappoint. It presented a nice-sized bio of Buatier and De Kolta, since the origins of the act involved two men.

What Worked
Exclusive Magical Secrets is a weird little collection of magic subjects. There is an range of how-tos from small pocket magic to theater-scale stage illusions, but then there is also the de Kolta bio—the only biography in the book— and individual chapters on subjects like a whist-playing automaton, quick-changes, juggling effects, and a nice bit of philosophy concerning comedy before a section on comedic tricks. (And, yes, a couple escapes contributed by Houdini…)

It took Goldston a decade to put the book together, but he didn’t seem to end up with a cohesive treatise. Instead Exclusive Magical Secrets is sort of a survey on different types of magic that might actually be more useful than if he delved into only one aspect.

Will Goldston magician
Will Goldston, 1911
What Didn’t Work
Reading about how magic tricks are done can be really boring. Goldston actually has a pretty light touch, but if you’re not really intending to perform the tricks, any instruction can be a little mind-numbing.

Originally published in 1921, it’s also a somewhat dated. Many common objects and situations aren’t so common any more. Also, “Chinese magic” was a prominent fad at the time of the publication. Goldston doesn’t hide the fact than many Chinese acts were performed by white Western magicians, but he also has no problem with that.

Overall
If you don’t want to know how magic tricks are done (even ones that are 100 years old), this isn’t the book for you. If you do want to know how modern magic is done, there are a few tidbits here and there that are still applicable. If you’re into magic history, this is a glimpse into the style of the time with a few glances back to even older magic acts. I picked up my copy used at Bookmans and it was well worth it for the chapter on de Kolta alone.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Dover Publications, Inc, 1977
Acquired: 11/19/16, Bookmans
Genre: non-fiction

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Review ~ Ghostland

Cover via Goodreads

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

Colin Dickey is on the trail of America’s ghosts. Crammed into old houses and hotels, abandoned prisons and empty hospitals, the spirits that linger continue to capture our collective imagination, but why? His own fascination piqued by a house hunt in Los Angeles that revealed derelict foreclosures and “zombie homes,” Dickey embarks on a journey across the continental United States to decode and unpack the American history repressed in our most famous haunted places. Some have established reputations as “the most haunted mansion in America,” or “the most haunted prison”; others, like the haunted Indian burial grounds in West Virginia, evoke memories from the past our collective nation tries to forget.

With boundless curiosity, Dickey conjures the dead by focusing on questions of the living—how do we, the living, deal with stories about ghosts, and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed, for whatever reason, haunted? Paying attention not only to the true facts behind a ghost story, but also to the ways in which changes to those facts are made—and why those changes are made—Dickey paints a version of American history left out of the textbooks, one of things left undone, crimes left unsolved. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I enjoy reading/hearing about hauntings. I was browsing through the library’s audio catalog and Ghostland had a good narrator.

What Worked
Like a lot of folklore, ghost stories are strongly tied to the history and culture of place. In Ghostland, Colin Dickey takes some of the most famous haunted places in the US, fact checks the story’s details (when applicable), and then takes a look at how the setting and history of the location has played a part in the narrative’s current form. There are differences between ghost stories in Athens, GA and Hollywood, CA after all.

Dickey also examines how modern society views ghosts. On one hand, there is a cachet to having a ghost “destination.” Many of the hauntings in Ghostland have been featured on ghost hunting TV shows. In many cases, like the Winchester Mystery house, not-quite-true stories continue because that is the narrative that sells. On the other hand, no one *really* wants to live somewhere they believe to be haunted, even if phenomena can be easily debunked. Ghost are good if you want a tourist trap, bad if you want to sell a house.

What Didn’t Work
The structure of Ghostland was roughly chronological, but also broken into specific types of locations—domestic places (houses), commercial places (bars, hotels), public works places (prisons, cemeteries, parks), and even cities themselves. I probably would have preferred a more strict chronological order.

This is also a popular nonfiction work, not a scholarly work. Some of the tenants of Ghostland aren’t exhaustively investigated. For example, it’s argued that the ghost stories of the American south edit out the horrors of slavery in favor of more romantic stories, like Myrtles Plantation’s Chloe. But a good investigation of such an assertion could take a book itself. Ghostland is a sip from the well instead of a deep dive.

Overall
Overall, thumbs up. It was good to listen to during my reading slump. If you’re a fan of podcasts such as Lore or Just a Story, this is definitely up your alley.

Publishing info, my copy: OverDrive Listen audiobook, Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, October 4, 2016
Acquired: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection
Genre: nonfiction, pop culture, history

Review ~ Fascist Lizards from Outer Space

This book was provided to me by McFarland & Company via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Fascist Lizards from Outer Space: The Politics, Literary Influences and Cultural History of Kenneth Johnson’s V by Dan Copp

When Kenneth Johnson’s science fiction miniseries V premiered in 1983, it netted more than 40 percent of the television viewing audience and went on to spawn a sequel, a weekly series, novelizations, comic books and a remake. Entertainment Weekly named the show one of the 10 best miniseries of all time and the franchise continues to enjoy ardent fan support at science fiction conventions around the world. Yet the 2009 V reboot was cancelled in its second season, despite a robust premiere. Both versions of V were products of their respective times, but the original was inspired by classic works by the likes of Sinclair Lewis and Leo Tolstoy. Johnson’s predilection for literature and history helped give his telling of V a sense of heart and depth that the contemporary version sorely lacked.

At first impression the original two-part alien invasion epic may seem a mishmash of science fiction cliches. Yet behind the laser pistols, anthropomorphic reptiles and flying saucers lies a compelling treatise on the nature of power, oppression and resistance, inspired by both classic literature and historical events. Featuring exclusive interviews with cast and crew, this book examines V’s cultural impact and considers the future of the franchise. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I was eight years old when the original V miniseries premiered on NBC. Living in a household that appreciated science fiction, it was certainly a viewing event for us. In my wider world, even Star Wars wasn’t playground fodder, so I had no concept of how popular V was.* What I knew then was: V aired in the 8pm-10pm time slot and my bed time was 9pm. I begged and begged to be allowed to stay up. My mom relented. I could watch on the little TV in my room (black and white, btw), but I had to be in bed and the TV was to be turned off at 10pm sharp.** I was glad to have my covers to hide under, because the second half of the first night, when the villainous Diana eats a hapless guinea pig whole, was pretty heady stuff for an eight year old.

At that age, I knew nothing about WWII or the Holocaust, but I still felt that V had a different weight to it than its TV contemporaries (Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica). V‘s story was happening in something closer to the real world than other sci fi. When the character of Abraham Bernstein, a Holocaust survivor, refers to the past, it’s actually the real past. While I didn’t understand it, it wasn’t lost on me as a kid.

* Note also: I’m a girl. Maybe the boys were playing Visitors vs. Resistance…
** Even though it was kind of a big deal to have my own TV in my room, I don’t recall abusing the privilege. My parents might remember differently.

What Worked
Dan Copp does a really good job showing how Kenneth Johnson, writer and director of V (and many other sci-fi shows), grounds his speculative fiction stories in literature. V is more or less a retelling of Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, a novel published in 1935 about the possible rise of fascism in the United States, with strong nods to the scope of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Copp also looks at Johnson’s career before V for evidence of science fiction strengthened by literature and finds it in the classically heroic underpinnings of Johnson’s The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman episodes. Copp also notes how, without Johnson’s influence, V: The Final Battle and the V television series in 1983 and 2009 rarely rise above a shoot-em-up or the usual prime-time drama.

One of the other things the V does really well that  its later siblings doesn’t do, Copp points out, is show the use of media to control a population. In 1983, that was easily achieved by the Visitors taking over the small number of TV networks. The 2009 TV series (which I personally had forgotten existed until mentioned in Fascist Lizard‘s introduction) missed a great opportunity to similarly take advantage of how a fascist regime might levy social media.

What Didn’t Work
Much of Fascist Lizards from Outer Space is about how bad both TV series are. There is a nearly episode-by-episode breakdown of things that the TV shows do wrong. Some of it illustrates the choices that NBC (the 1983 series) and ABC (the 2009 series) made concerning the show’s budget and what they thought made the original popular. That part is interesting, but after a few strong examples, the litany of errors just gets boring.

I was also a little disappointed that Copp didn’t extend his evaluation past V to include Johnson’s Alien Nation. I was inspired by Fascist Lizards to rewatch both the original V and the Alien Nation TV series (1989). It’s hard not playing the “currently relevant” card right about here.

Overall
If you like reading about the history of science fiction in the movies and on television, this is solid choice.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub ARC, McFarland , April 1, 2017
Acquired: 1/17/17, NetGalley
Genre: nonfiction, pop culture

Review ~ Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans

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

Cover via Goodreads

Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: The Life and Times of Henry Louis Rey by Melissa Daggett

Modern American Spiritualism blossomed in the 1850s and continued as a viable faith into the 1870s. Because of its diversity and openness to new cultures and religions, New Orleans provided fertile ground to nurture Spiritualism, and many seance circles flourished in the Creole Faubourgs of Treme and Marigny as well as the American sector of the city. Melissa Daggett focuses on Le Cercle Harmonique, the francophone seance circle of Henry Louis Rey (1831 1894), a Creole of color who was a key civil rights activist, author, and Civil War and Reconstruction leader. His life has so far remained largely in the shadows of New Orleans history, partly due to a language barrier.

Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans focuses on the turbulent years between the late antebellum period and the end of Reconstruction. Translating and interpreting numerous primary sources and one of the only surviving registers of seance proceedings, Daggett has opened a window into a fascinating life as well as a period of tumult and change. She provides unparalleled insights into the history of the Creoles of color and renders a better understanding of New Orleans s complex history. (via Goodreads)

I was attracted to Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans because I hadn’t considered that there might be regional differences in how Spiritualism was approached. I had thought of the rise and popularity of Spiritualism in this era as a mostly homogeneous experience, with at most rural/urban differences. Of course, I was wrong.

At its beginnings, Spiritualism was regarded with suspicion in the Confederate South. It was seen as just another Yankee “-ism,” along with abolitionism and feminism. Spiritualism did notably take hold in the Creole community, especially among free men of color.  Beautifully, from a research point of view, these séance circles kept detailed logs of their sittings. Though written in French, the logs of Henry Louis Rey survived to present day and offer a wonderful primary source. The spirit guides were often important personages  to the community, lost during the war, and their hopeful messages often reinforced the political issues of the day.

Melissa Daggett grounds her look at Spiritualism in the life of Rey and the history of New Orleans. That is this book’s strength, but also its weakness. Occasionally, I felt bogged down in the general history of the era. Additionally, while based on an incredible primary source, no translations of the log were extensively quoted. That seems to me to be a missed opportunity.

Publishing info, my copy: PDF, University Press of Mississippi, Jan. 3, 2017
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: nonfiction

wintercoyer-16-17

More #COYER Reviews
Generator Points Earned: .5 (I started this book a little early.)
Generator Points Total: 1.5

Review ~ Judas

Cover via Goodreads

Judas: The Most Hated Name in History by Peter Stanford

In this fascinating historical and cultural biography, Peter Stanford deconstructs that most vilified of Bible characters: Judas Iscariot, who famously betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Beginning with the gospel accounts, Stanford explores two thousand years of cultural and theological history to investigate how the very name Judas came to be synonymous with betrayal and, ultimately, human evil. But as the author points out, there has long been a counter-current of thought that suggests that Judas might in fact have been victim of a terrible injustice: central to Jesus’ mission was his death and resurrection, and for there to have been a death, there had to be a betrayal. This thankless role fell to Judas; should we in fact be grateful to him for his role in the divine drama of salvation? “You’ll have to decide,” as Bob Dylan sang in the sixties, “Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.” An essential but doomed character in the Passion narrative, and thus the entire story of Christianity, Judas and the betrayal he symbolizes continue to play out in much larger cultural histories, speaking as he does to our deepest fears about friendship, betrayal, and the problem of evil. (via Goodreads)

I.

Judas Iscariot is mentioned only 22 times in the gospels, which are in essence the four retellings of the life of Jesus Christ. Judas’s involvement within Christianity, though, is pretty important. He was paid to point out Jesus to agents of the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas who turns Christ over to the Romans who execute him. Because of this Judas’s name has become a cultural touchstone synonymous with betrayal and treason. Worse though, Judas isn’t just Judas. For a very long time, Judas has been Judas the Jew.

II.

I was raised Lutheran. Not super conservative evangelical Lutheran, but as more of a tolerant, low-key, benevolent Lutheran. Honestly, until I went to public school in seventh grade, I didn’t realize that there were differences between  sects of Christians. A girl in my gym class took exception to my notion that she, a Catholic, and I were pretty much the same. Regardless, she seemed like a pretty nice person, smart, and a good volleyball player. Nearly 30 years later, I remain unconvinced that there is anything inherently virtuous,  or deplorable, about any particular religious affiliation.

III.

The first book I read by Peter Stanford, a Catholic theologian, was The Devil: a Biography. In it, Stanford provides a look at the Devil using the Bible, but also other literature, visual arts, and a survey pop culture. He does much the same thing with Judas.

The biblical references to Judas are scant, but provide an interesting first evolution in the story. John, the last of the gospels, provides a much more baroque tale than Mark, the earliest of the gospels. With only the Bible as source, Judas is, of course, the betrayer of Christ. But, he may or may not have done the deed out of greed. He may or may not have been possessed by the Devil when he did so. He may or may not have been remorseful enough to try and give his thirty pieces of silver back. He did commit suicide, but his entrails may or may not have burst forth upon his death.

It’s through later writings and art, though, that Judas the betrayer becomes not just a scapegoat (if the entirety of Christianity depends on the death and resurrection of Christ, doesn’t *somebody* have to be the betrayer?), but the template used to condemn an entire religion. If Judas the Jew is a betrayer, isn’t every Jew treasonous? Judas becomes not just a history of Judas, but a history of antisemitism.

VI.

In my initial religious education, Judas wasn’t mentioned overly much. Sure, I knew about his involvement in the events of Good Friday. I knew that calling someone “Judas” was to call them a betrayer, although I think I’ve personally heard Benedict Arnold invoked more.  “Judas the Betrayer == Evil Jews” never occurred to me before reading this book.  That this could be a kernel upon which to grow antisemitic rhetoric is by turns confusing and appalling to me. On a slightly comforting note, Stanford points out that, for most people in the post-WWII world, that connotation is less prevalent than it has been since the gospels.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Berkeley Counterpoint, 2015
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: nonfiction, history

Mini Reviews, Vol. 5 ~ Poe & Kidd

MiniReviews
alt textThe Unknown Poe, edited by Raymond Foye

I read this for #20BooksOfSummer rather than #RIPXI because I apparently have the philosophy of “Poe for any season.”

Two-thirds of this anthology is some of Poe’s lesser known poetry, some letters, and excerpts from a selection of Poe’s essays. Honestly, the poems were all included in The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe which I already owned, the letters were intriguing, but not enough of them, and the excerpts were tantalizing, but too short. Poe had a sort of unified theory of the universe which can be seen in his fiction, but was more clearly outlined in his letters and essays. The last third of the book is a collection of appreciations by contemporary French writers, most notably Baudelaire. Poe was very big in France, but mostly, it seemed to me, because he was underappreciated by boorish Americans.

I bought this slim little anthology a few years back with a gift card my sister sent me for my birthday/Christmas. It’s a nice addition to my library, but, man, now I really want a collection of Poe’s letters.

alt text

Descent into the Depths of the Earth by Paul Kidd

Descent is the second in a trilogy written by Kidd and set in the D&D world of Greyhawk. More specifically, this and a group of other novels that came out from Wizards of the Coast in 2000-2001-ish all contain elements from classic Greyhawk modules of the same names with some other plot built around them. I haven’t read any of the non-Kidd novels because, well, I don’t care all that much about the conceit. It’s the characters that make Kidd’s novels so much fun.

Instead of the usual band of adventurers, we have a grim sentient-hell-hound-wearing ranger, The Justicar, an only slightly larcenous fairy wizard, Escalla, a usually drunk teamster, and a young soldier is only a soldier because he lives in a war zone. There’s a lot humor and the majority of the plot revolves around the machination of the Seeley Court and a murder mystery. To, you know, balance out the dungeon delving.

 

Review ~ The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales

Cover via Goodreads

Meet the Bling Ring: six club-hopping LA teenagers accused of stealing more than $3 million in clothing and jewelry from the likes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson and other young members of the Hollywood elite-allegedly the most audacious burglary gang in recent history.

Driven by celebrity worship, vanity, and the desire to look and dress like the rich and famous, the Bling Ring made headlines in 2009 for using readily available sources-like Google maps, Facebook and TMZ, to track the comings and goings of their targets. Seven teens were arrested for the crimes, and instantly became tabloid fodder. The world asked-how did the American obsession with celebrity get so out of hand? And why did a band of ostensibly privileged LA teens take such a risk? (via Goodreads)

I.

I am a late edge Gen X-er. I am young enough to have still been in high school when the label “Generation X” became prominent in the early 1990s. I was told that my generation was a cynical bunch of slackers that would never be as successful as our parents. Those were the shoes I was apparently destined to fill when I started college in 1993. Way to inspire optimism, adults!

It’s easy to look at a younger generation and purposefully not understand them. In retrospect, what was taken for laziness in Generation X was caution. We’d spent our childhoods in the mess that was the 70s: huge financial recession, the wake of a divisive war that wasn’t a war, and social changes that led to a rise in divorce rates. Even if your parents stayed together and managed to remain employed, there was still a pervasive tension. As Gen X hit adulthood, we didn’t jump into the world. We slowly and deliberately made our way, doing things our way.

II.

Between October 2008 and August 2009, a group of upper middle class teenagers from Calabasas,  CA burglarized famous people. This wasn’t at all on my radar when it happened. I’ve never followed current fame culture. I do have an interest in heists though and I was intrigued when I learned that Sofia Coppola was making a movie based on events. Okay, not enough to see the movie, but I did bookmark the book at the digital library and decided to read it on a whim last week.

Alas, heist is a strong word for what these kids did. Pretty much, they used Google maps to scout the celeb’s houses and looked for easy entrance. Which they generally found. You’d think that really rich people would have kick-ass security systems. Instead they seemed to rely on the fact that their neighborhood (in some cases, gated community) is safe and crime-free. In many cases, the Bling Ring walked in and walked out. The better part of the story, for me, turned out to be the different versions of events that each Ring member told later. Whether misremembered or self-protecting lie, it’s a marvelous case of seven-way he-said she-said.

Nancy Jo Sales originally wrote a long-form article about the Burlar Bunch for Vanity FairThe Bling Ring is part further story, in light of concluded criminal proceedings, and part explanatory theorizing.  Why would these youngsters do this? In most cases, they didn’t need the money. Did they do it because they felt entitled to engage in these celebrity’s lives? Had reality TV made them envious of a certain lifestyle that they didn’t quite have? Did they do it to be famous too?

These are good questions. Unfortunately, Sales tinges her answers with a sort of cherry-picked nostalgia. In her eyes, current culture is to blame; this never happened in the past. I don’t have refuting details at my fingertips, but it seems that the more history I am exposed to, the more I realize that nothing is new.

III.

I try not to be too hard on Millennials. They spent childhood in an economic boom. Their parents, later Baby Boomers, had the resources to protect them and give them everything they could need. Millennials have been emboldened with the notion that they can be anything, do anything. In moderation, that’s a great thing! Unfortunately, the Millennials entered adulthood in the 2010s: huge financial recession, continually rising cost of education, and an increasingly connected social world that can be pretty damn hostile.

Having lived through the 70s,  I feel like Gen X-ers spent the economic boom time like any good survivalist would. Expecting that the world would go to pot again eventually, we built figurative bunkers, well-stocked with fresh water and canned goods. We know the world sucks, but it’s a survivable level of suck. So Gen X-ers, if a Millennial comes knocking, share a can of green beans with them. Millennials, please accept a can of beans in friendship and know they’ll at least be French cut. I mean, we’re not savages.

Publishing info, my copy: OverDrive Read, HarperCollins, May 21, 2013
Acquired: Tempe OverDrive Digital Collection
Genre: nonficton, popular culture

As a good Gen X-er, I felt inspired to make a mixtape, er, playlist reflecting the struggles of every generation: