Two Nonfiction Mini Reviews

Unmentionable Cover via Goodreads

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

Have you ever wished you could live in an earlier, more romantic era?

Ladies, welcome to the 19th century, where there’s arsenic in your face cream, a pot of cold pee sits under your bed, and all of your underwear is crotchless. (Why? Shush, dear. A lady doesn’t question.) (via Goodreads)

So, there’s this movie called Kate & Leopold. It came out in 2001, starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman. In it, Jackman’s gentlemanly, but smart Leopold falls through a time hole linking 1876 and 2001 and falls in love with Ryan’s successful, but lonely ad exec Kate. All in all, it’s one of those generally smart, funny rom coms that populated the 90s, but died out in the 2000s. It has a great supporting cast (Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, Bradley Whitford) and a soundtrack song by Sting. I would utterly adore this movie (did I mention Hugh Jackman in a rom com?)…except for the ending. Spoiler for an 18 year old movie: Kate goes back to 1876 with Leopold to stay. She obviously hadn’t read Therese Oneill’s Unmentionable.

I love reading newspapers from the late Victorian era and I’ve been interested in the manners/health books of the era, but haven’t had the time to get into them. Oneill has done that work for me. Unmentionable goes into all the distinctly un-romantic aspects of being a woman (and really a white, upper-class woman) in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. The snarky tone is mostly funny, especially paired with illustrations and advertisement from the period. My one nag is that I wish dates were used a little more.

Original Publishing info: Little, Brown and Company, 2016
My Copy: OverDrive Read, Tempe Public Library
Genre: history, pop culture

Cover via Goodreads

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic, and the Paranormal by Matthew Tompkins

In The Spectacle of Illusion, professional magician-turned experimental psychologist Dr. Matthew L. Tompkins investigates the arts of deception as practiced and popularized by mesmerists, magicians and psychics since the early 18th century. Organized thematically within a broadly chronological trajectory, this compelling book explores how illusions perpetuated by magicians and fraudulent mystics can not only deceive our senses but also teach us about the inner workings of our minds. Indeed, modern scientists are increasingly turning to magic tricks to develop new techniques to examine human perception, memory and belief. Beginning by discussing mesmerism and spiritualism, the book moves on to consider how professional magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini engaged with these movements – particularly how they set out to challenge and debunk paranormal claims. It also relates the interactions between magicians, mystics and scientists over the past 200 years, and reveals how the researchers who attempted to investigate magical and paranormal phenomena were themselves deceived, and what this can teach us about deception. (via Goodreads)

The Spectacle of Illusion was published to coincide with Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, an exhibit at the Wellcome Collection in London. (The exhibit is open until Sept. 15th, so if you’re in London and interested, you’re lucky and should go.) The book delves into how from the 18th century through the present we have approached the paranormal (a relatively recent term) from the point of view of science. The problem, though, is that science hasn’t always been good at dealing with human deception. Enter those masters of deception: the magicians. Of special note are the debunkers, like Maskelyne and Houdini, and the modern discipline of experimental psychology which investigates how our brain experiences non-normal experiences like magic tricks and “paranormal” events.

A Goodreads reviewer referred to this book as “specialist” and it occurs to me that I might have read so much on the above subjects that I don’t know what that means anymore. I think Thomkins provides a good introduction to these subjects without going too deep. This book didn’t break new ground in my knowledge base, but I highly enjoyed it.  The strength of The Spectacle of Illusion is the hundreds of pictures and illustrations found throughout. It’s a beautiful book, more on the coffee table book end of the spectrum than dry academic text.

Original Publishing info: Distributed Art Publishers (DAP), 2019
My Copy: Hardback purchased from Amazon
Genre: history, psychology, magic

Review ~ Magic is Dead

Cover via Goodreads

Magic Is Dead: My Journey into the World’s Most Secretive Society of Magicians by Ian Frisch

Magic Is Dead is Ian Frisch’s head-first dive into a hidden world full of extraordinary characters and highly guarded secrets. It is a story of imagination, deception, and art that spotlights today’s most brilliant young magicians—a mysterious club known as the52, who are revolutionizing an ancient art form under the mantra Magic Is Dead.

Ian brings us with him as he not only gets to know this fascinating world, but also becomes an integral part of it. We meet the52’s founding members—Laura London, Daniel Madison, and Chris Ramsay—and explore their personal demons, professional aspirations, and what drew them to their craft. We join them at private gatherings of the most extraordinary magicians working today, follow them to magic conventions in Las Vegas and England, and discover some of the best tricks of the trade. We also encounter David Blaine; hang out with Penn Jillette; meet Dynamo, the U.K.’s most famous magician; and go behind the scenes of a Netflix magic show. Magic Is Dead is also a chronicle of magic’s rich history and how it has changed in the internet age, as the young guns embrace social media and move away from the old-school take on the craft.

As he tells the story of the52, and his role as its most unlikely member, Ian reveals his own connection with trickery and deceit and how he first learned the elements that make magic work from his poker-playing mother. He recalls their adventures in card rooms and casinos after his father’s sudden death, and shares a touching moment that he had, as a working journalist, with his childhood idol Shaquille O’Neal.

“Magic—the romanticism of the inexplicable, the awe and admiration of the unexpected—is an underlying force in how we view the world and its myriad possibilities,” Ian writes. As his journey continues, Ian not only becomes a performer and creator of magic—even fooling the late Anthony Bourdain during a chance encounter—he also cements a new brotherhood, and begins to understand his relationship with his father, fifteen years after his death. Written with psychological acuity and a keen eye for detail, Magic Is Dead is an engrossing tale full of wonder and surprise. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that interested in this book. It was marketed *very* heavily to me on Amazon, which was a little off-putting, due to my purchase history of other magic books. The Amazon recommendation algorithm, combined with the publisher’s marketing push, didn’t really notice that magic history is more my thing. Plus, secrets in magic are sort of bullshit. The aura of secrecy is more important than actual secrecy. So, a super secret society of magicians really isn’t a selling point for me. But, it was available through the library, so I figured, “Okay, fine.”

What Worked
Actually, I’m glad I read it. I learned a lot about how the new generation of magicians are using social media. I knew that YouTube has been changing the way that younger magicians are learning magic. Instead of in-person pilgrimages to meet old masters, many performers are learning techniques from peers via online videos. And of course there is the argument that amateur learning from amateur doesn’t lead to excellence, but that’s not the entire story of what’s been going on in magic in the last decade. YouTube and Instagram are being used more as advertisement for products that these young magicians are creating. Instead of playing vaudeville circuits or being booked as a night club act, series of single trick videos have established these magicians’ brands.

With the title Magic is Dead, I expected a level of irreverence toward the older generations. That really isn’t the case. Performers like Chris Ramsay and Daniel Madison do respect where magic has come from even as they deviate from it. Frisch provides an occasional primer on magic history in the course of the narrative. For me, it wasn’t anything I didn’t know.

What Didn’t Work
Frisch is a journalist and his writing is pretty bare bones. He’s better at telling smaller stories than weaving them into a something longer. I also generally find memoirs by young people to be suspect. No matter how many improbable things might have happened in their relatively short lives, I feel like a good memoir should have a bigger scope. I expected there to be more of a twist or, in faux magic parlance, a turn to his inclusion in the52, but really this is Frisch’s story of finding a hobby, maybe a profession, maybe an art that has led him to some current truths.

But the one thing I really didn’t care for in Magic is Dead (and in Nate Staniforth’s Here Is Real Magic, which I read last year) is the air of self-importance that seems to surround many of the younger magicians. Frisch had been part of the magic scene for two years when he starts working on a trick with the intent to be impactful, not just to innovate, perform and market a trick.  Actually, if you’ll allow me my old curmudgeon hat for a moment, I think this is an aspect that many young people suffer from. Everything must be Special and Important. While most people might what to achieve something of that level, it’s very odd to me and a little distasteful to come out and state, “I’m going to be important in this field.”

Overall
As I said, I did find value in reading Magic is Dead. If you like modern magic, this is a decent read. Frisch does know his stuff. Below is the magic trick he created. I know I recently saw it performed by a different magician, but that’s Frisch’s intent. I also think this is a very talented lot; magic will and already has been impacted by the members of the52.

Original Publishing info: HarperCollins, 2019
My Copy: Kindle ebook, Greater Phoenix Digital Library
Genre: memoir

Review ~ Conjure Times

Conjure Times cover

Conjure Times: The History of Black Magicians in America by James Haskins & Kathleen Benson

Throughout American history, black magicians have achieved great skill in both the magician’s tricks of the trade as well as the psychology of entertaining an audience. However, because of slavery and, later, racial segregation and discrimination, few have been able to make their living as magicians. Those who have succeeded are rare indeed, and although some have left a mark on history, many exist only as names on old playbills or in newspaper advertisements. Jim Haskins delivers an illuminating portrait of these unheralded pioneers — a tribute to African-Americans who paved the way for and will inspire future generations. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I’ve been reading about magic history for some time now, but I realized I knew very little about African-American magicians aside from Adalaide Herrmann’s mention of the black assistants in their show. The assistant was known as Boomsky, though several magicians played that part. Indeed, the last of the Boomskies, M. H. Everett went on to have a fairly good career after Herrmann’s death.

What did I learn?
African-American magicians have different career lineages. While some, like Everett, were assistants for white magicians, most learned magic from other black magicians—most of whom are relatively unknown to history. They didn’t learn from the likes of Kellar or Dai Vernon, but rather Alanzo Moore or Clarence Hunter. While it seems that white magicians weren’t opposed to helping and mentoring black students, they just really weren’t available due to different performance circles.

An early stage opportunity for black magicians was as part of minstrel shows. These eventually gained a little more legitimacy as vaudeville shows, but the stages and audiences were still segregated. Black magicians didn’t perform for white audiences because they prevented from doing so. Well, unless they wanted to take the persona of a “Hindoo” illusionist. Many did and made a decent living at it. Eventually, desegregation led to more and more performing opportunities.

There was also a barrier due to types of gaffed products available. For example, the thumb tip is  a versatile tool for many magic tricks, but not if it isn’t available in the proper skin tone.

What more did I want?
Conjure Times is aimed at young readers, so none of the biographies are particularly in-depth. There’s a list of sources that I’m definitely going to check out. Also, it was published in 2001 and deserves a new edition. Not included in the modern section, for example, is Kendrick McDonald, who was the first African-American to serve as the president of the Society of American Magicians.

You didn’t think I wasn’t going to include a video did you?

Overall
Informative and a good starting point.

Publishing info: Walker & Company, 2001
My Copy: Hardback, Tempe Public Library
Genre: history

Sunday Salon, 6/2/19

Sunday Salon

Reading

I’m setting those library books up and knocking them down! (Okay, not really…) Finished Poe: A Life Cut Short and Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters last week. I’ve already reviewed the first and I have the second queued up for later in the coming week.

Deal Me In: This week I pulled 2, the first wild card of the year! Yesterday, I got off on a tangent and ended up reading about one of favorite subjects: historical automata! I read “The Android Clarinetist by Cornelis Jacobus Van Oeckelen (1838)” by Albert Rice from the Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society (no. 40 (2014), pg 163-189). It was a summary of Van Oeckelen’s life as an inventor as well as a technical run-down of the automaton, which is currently owned by John Gaughan. Just a neat little slice of history.

DealMeIn
Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

In the coming week, I will be reading The History of Soul 2065 by Barbara Krasnoff, one of the few ARCs I’m reviewing this year. I’m also going to try to get to The Spectacle of Illusion.

The History of Soul 2065 Spectacle of Illusion

Watching

My movie pick of the week? Ocean’s 8 (2018). It’s not quite as sharp as Ocean’s 11, but it’s still a fun heist movie with a really great cast.

Doing

Watercolor Class:

The first “assignment” was to do an abstract using different techniques (wet on dry, wet on wet, etc.). I ended up doing it twice. There are things I like about both, but I’m pretty pleased with how the second one came out. I’m still struggling with the inexactness of watercolors. It’s a learning process in more ways than one.

What I’m Not Doing: Jury duty! I got a federal summons at the beginning of May, but luckily (for me) they don’t need a jury in the coming week. I’ve never done jury duty before. I was half looking forward to it for the experience, but going downtown and actually having to do it was another matter.


The Sunday Salon is a linkup hosted by Deb @ Readerbuzz

Review ~ Poe: A Life Cut Short

Cover via Goodreads

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

Edgar Allan Poe served as a soldier and began his literary career composing verses modeled on Byron; soon he was trying out his ‘prose-tales’—often horror melodramas such as The Fall of the House of Usher. As editor of the Literary Messenger he was influential among critics and writers of the American South. His versatile writings—including, for example, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and “The Raven”—continue to resonate down the centuries.

Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Poe opens with his end, his final days—no one knows what happened between the time when friends saw him off on the steam-boat to Baltimore and his discovery six days later dying in a tavern. This mystery sets the scene for a short life packed with drama and tragedy (drink and poverty) combined with extraordinary brilliance.(via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I believe Jay from Bibliophilopolis recommended this book to me when I was bemoaning a lack of good Edgar Allan Poe biographies. Poe’s work has been some of the most influential on me as a writer and a reader. By even the most inaccurate account, Poe lived a very interesting, if short, life.

What Worked
Poe: A Life Cut Short is part of Ackroyd’s “Brief Lives” series and I surprised at just how small this book is when I found it at the library. It’s only 205 pages, but it also has a small form factor—it’s the height and width are smaller than the usual trade paperback. Which considering the ginormity of my other current reads, The Count of Monte Cristo and Poe’s unabridged works, was kind of nice.

I liked the straight-forwardness of this biography. With Poe, there often is a want to explain him, whether via substance abuse or Freudian analysis or psychological diagnosis. Ackroyd resists that and  sticks to the facts as best as he can find them. He uses letters to and from Poe as well a public record. Poe himself even engaged in myth-making. He would write to people about events that clearly never happened, such as occasional arrests of which there is no record. Very often, contradicting impressions of Poe exist and the biography presents both, showing that Edgar Allan Poe was probably very charming and polite in some company and very much not when around other people.

What Didn’t Work
Lately I’ve been saying this about every nonfiction book I read: more dates, please. Also a rough-sketch timeline would have been great. These are minor quibbles.

I’d also like to read more of the actual letters used as sources, but that isn’t the purview of this book.

Overall
Good biography. It gives me a little firmer footing on Poe-the-man as I continue through his works this year. If I find a copy of this books cheap, I might add it to my collection.

Publishing info: Doubleday, 2008
My Copy: hardback, Tempe Public Library
Genre: biography

Review ~ Life Moves Pretty Fast

Life Moves Pretty Fast Cover via Goodreads

Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore) by Hadley Freeman

For Hadley Freeman, movies of the 1980s have simply got it all. Comedy in Three Men and a Baby, Hannah and Her Sisters, Ghostbusters, and Back to the Future; all a teenager needs to know in Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Say Anything, The Breakfast Club, and Mystic Pizza; the ultimate in action from Top Gun, Die Hard, Beverly Hills Cop, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; love and sex in 9 1/2 Weeks, Splash, About Last Night, The Big Chill, and Bull Durham; and family fun in The Little Mermaid, ET, Big, Parenthood, and Lean On Me.

In Life Moves Pretty Fast, Hadley puts her obsessive movie geekery to good use, detailing the decade’s key players, genres, and tropes. She looks back on a cinematic world in which bankers are invariably evil, where children are always wiser than adults, where science is embraced with an intense enthusiasm, and the future viewed with giddy excitement. And, she considers how the changes between movies then and movies today say so much about society’s changing expectations of women, young people, and art—and explains why Pretty in Pink should be put on school syllabuses immediately.

From how John Hughes discovered Molly Ringwald, to how the friendship between Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi influenced the evolution of comedy, and how Eddie Murphy made America believe that race can be transcended, this is a “highly personal, witty love letter to eighties movies, but also an intellectually vigorous, well-researched take on the changing times of the film industry” (The Guardian). (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
This was an addition to my TBR during Nonfiction November 2017. Books Are My Favorite and Best recommended it paired with Bret Easton Ellis’s Rules of Attraction. I really enjoy reading about movies and this book sounded like it might be fun.

What Worked
A couple years ago I realized that I didn’t find many recent comedy movies very funny. Or to be more specific, I didn’t really care for American comedies post-2000. I even caught myself thinking, “I don’t really like comedies as a genre,” which is a lie. One of my favorite movies, Ghostbuster, is a comedy. Many of my frequently re-watched movies are comedies. What I didn’t like about 2000s comedies was the raunchy, sort of dumb humor that many of them relied on. But was I seeing this clearly? Had the comedies really changed? Life Moves Pretty Fast presents a theory as to why there are more comedies like The Hangover these days and fewer comedies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “Lower” humor is easier to translate and there is a lot of money to be made by American films in foreign markets.

Overseas markets and studio consolidation are two topics that Freeman returns to over and over in the book. Studios are less likely to take risks on films that have only a niche market. It could be argued that something as quirky as Back to the Future wouldn’t get made today by Disney or Universal (are there any other movie studios left?). Rom-coms and weepies (genres that often feature more female-centric casts) have also fallen by the wayside in an era when every movie needs to be a blockbuster with foreign appeal. Freeman makes very convincing arguments.

What Didn’t Work
Freeman is the first to admit that this is a book of personal favorites. She doesn’t cover the Star Wars franchise for example, because she’s never cared for the movies. By necessity, really, a lot of cherry picking occurred. Not all 80s movies are great, and many great movies have been made since 1990.  (One of my other favorite comedies is A Knight’s Tale, released in 2001.) Also, in an ironic nod to the title, though originally published in 2015, Life Moves Pretty Fast is maybe already a little out-dated. While the big movie studios might not make “80s” movies anymore, streaming services like Netflix might be moving into that space. Netflix as a content producer is a relatively recent thing. In the area of teen comedies, I think “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018) could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of John Hughes’ movies.

But What Also Worked
Life Moves Pretty Fast also includes interviews with actors and directors, and lots of crunch film history bits. Did you know that Taylor Sheridan was asked to rewrite the main character of Sicario (a really great not-80s film) as male, but he refused? Did you know that many of Eddie Murphy’s early roles were originally planned for white actors? Honestly, it was the stories about films in Life Moves Pretty Fast that I enjoyed most.

Publishing info: Simon & Schuster, 2016
My Copy: trade paperback, Tempe Public Library
Genre: essays

Review ~ I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I'll Be Gone in the Dark cover

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Utterly original and compelling, it has been hailed as a modern true crime classic—one which fulfilled Michelle’s dream: helping unmask the Golden State Killer. (via Goodreads)

Common conversations between my husband and I over the last few years revolve around two true crime investigations/court cases. The first is the murder of Hae Min Lee and the incarceration of Adnan Syed, which was profiled in season one of the podcast Serial and more recently an HBO docu-series. The second is the  murder of Teresa Halbach and incarceration of  Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, the subject of the docu-series Making a Murderer. To me, both of these cases reflect the actions of a (at best) desperate and (at worst) corrupt justice system where putting someone in jail for a terrible crime takes precedence over discovering what truly happened.

A variation on this came up in The Man from the Train. When faced with the possibility of truly random murders, police and other investigators reached for whatever fall guy they could find even when evidence didn’t fit. In the case of the Man from the Train, not only were men and women falsely accused and imprisoned, but they ended up dead at the hands of lynch mobs.

We humans don’t like uncertainty. And we absolutely want closure.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is about the Golden State Killer, but it’s also about Michelle McNamara and a bevy of investigators who tenaciously pursued the truth in spite of uncertainty. They didn’t want “a” guy for the rapes and murders that occurred for over a decade in California, they wanted “the” guy. McNamara writes honestly about her obsession with this cluster of crimes that took place in the 70s and early 80s. She had no personal connection to those specific crimes; she grew up in Oak Park, Illinois and the murder of a girl in her neighborhood was the spark of her interest in the hows and whys of these types of crimes.

While McNamara’s narrative doesn’t shy away from details, it doesn’t revel in them either. To contrast, The Man from the Train was very specific about the details of each murder and how they overlapped, but there the author is laying out the case that murders were the work of one man. In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, we’re stepping into a investigation in progress. McNamara doesn’t need to supply each and every detail. Instead, she is freer to tell the story of the investigations; where they failed in the past and what hope there might be for catching a killer by combing over every piece of information.

Michelle McNamara died suddenly before finishing this book. While writer Paul Haynes and journalist Billy Jensen organized her prodigious notes, the chapters that aren’t written by McNamara (they are clearly noted) provide information, but lack her deft touch as a writer. The third part of the book includes several methods that were being used to find the Golden State Killer, including the use of online genealogy tools to match DNA markers. Shortly after the book’s publication, Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested for the murders, tracked down using a similar technique.

McNamara wrote this book fueled by uncertainty and never got closure. Some of the police who originally worked the case retired before seeing this breakthrough. I can’t imagine what it’s been like for the victims and their families. But it seems strange to me that I should find their patience and their resistance to finding “a” guy for the crimes to be downright heroic.

Publishing info: Harper Perennial, 2018
My Copy: Kindle/Overdrive, Tempe Public Library
Genre: true crime, memoir


All the Details: 2019 Nonfiction Reading Challenge