Review ~ The Nazi Seance

The Nazi Seance by Arthur J. Magida

Cover via Goodreads

World War I left Berlin, and all of Germany, devastated. Charlatans and demagogues eagerly exploited the desperate crowds. Fascination with the occult was everywhere – in private séances, personalized psychic readings, communions with the dead – as people struggled to escape the grim reality of their lives. In the early 1930s, the most famous mentalist in the German capital was Erik Jan Hanussen, a Jewish mind reader originally from Vienna who became so popular in Berlin that he rubbed elbows with high ranking Nazis, became close with top Storm Troopers, and even advised Hitler.

Called “Europe’s Greatest Oracle Since Nostradamus,” Hanussen assumed he could manipulate some of the more incendiary personalities of his time just as he had manipulated his fans. He turned his occult newspaper in Berlin into a Nazi propaganda paper, personally assured Hitler that the stars were aligned in his favor, and predicted the infamous Reichstag Fire that would solidify the Nazis’ grip on Germany. (via Goodreads)

Before the era of television and movies, magicians had to engage in a certain amount of myth-making. The magician was selling the story of himself before an audience ever saw him pull a rabbit out of his hat. When Arthur J. Magida examined some of the stories Erik Jan Hanussen wrote in Meine Lebenslinie, an account of Hanussen’s early years, Magida wasn’t surprised that there were few corroborating details. The tale of how Hermann Steinschneider became Erik Jan Hanussen is full of exaggeration with Hermann always cast as the hero. This is the backdrop that must be kept in mind with Hanussen. If the rumor was that Hanussen was the personal advisor to Hilter, why would he refute that?

Magida does a good job sifting through the rumors and the exaggerations. Hanussen played a very dangerous game, being a Jew with ties to the Nazi party. He was obviously a very talented psychic, using a combination of cold reading, muscle reading, and his own intuitions. Unfortunately, he let fame and ego blind him to the danger he was in after Hitler became chancellor.

This books is also an interesting look at the rise of the Third Reich. What I know about WWII is based around the Holocaust. That’s an important narrative, but I think remembrance needs to stretch back to how it came about. Hanussen wasn’t a pure, naive victim of the Nazis, but he was an entertainer who loved Berlin. It was his home; it was were he wanted to stay and he was willing to jockey for good position no matter what the cost.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: nonfiction

And I really can’t mention Hanussen without a shout-out to  Neil Tobin’s “interactive biographical comedy-drama” Palace of the Occult. Check out the trailer!

Magic Monday ~ I Saw David Abbott

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature. I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

More David Abbott!

A month or so ago, Dean Carnegie had a post on his blog about Frederick Eugene Powell and linked to footage of Powell from the Society of American Magician’s Vimeo account. It’s always cool to see film of magicians long gone, and I clicked over to watch some of the others. The compilation videos aren’t well annotated and the title cards are hard to read, so imagine my surprise when a segment included a portly gray-haired man and a tea kettle. Yep, footage of David P. Abbott!

Magician Chris Charlton filmed many magicians in the 20s and 30s. Clips of Abbott and Joseffy were included in the deluxe edition of House of Mystery. This, according to the title card (at 0:36), is Charlton with Abbott, presumably on the streets of Omaha. It’s just a short clip, nothing particularly magical happens, but to me, it’s still pretty cool.

I was hoping that some of the Joseffy footage was included too, but no luck.

SmallAce

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

Good Girls I Lie for Money: Candid, Outrageous Stories from a Magician's Misadventures

I have a pretty busy week ahead. My parents are coming into town today and will be here until Thursday. Then Saturday and Sunday is New Year Fest, our annual ultimate frisbee tournament. Might not get too much reading done.

I ended up DNFing Ghostwalkers by John Maberry. It really wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t the book for me right now. Instead I dove into Good Girls, the second in Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Children trilogy. I’m also reading I Lie for Money by Steve Spill and “The Slype House” by A.C. Benson for Deal Me In.

It's Monday! What Are You ReadingIt’s Monday! What Are You Reading, hosted by Book Date!

What Am I Writing?

Didn’t get as much editing done as I wanted last week and ended up juggling the table of contents again. I realize I have a stumbling block: I don’t think my two longer short stories are very good. Certainly not as good as some of their shorter companions. I’m going to try a new (to me) way of rewriting them. I’m going to put together a pretty in depth outline of the story from what I have and then start over. If the story turns out better, good deal. If not, I’ll scrap it and move on.

Magic Monday ~ Omaha’s Magic Man

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature. I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

I’m starting to get itchy; ready to get back to the David P. Abbott stories I want to tell. This is a really nice piece about Abbott done by Omaha’s KMTV. It aired around Halloween, but I missed it until yesterday.

SmallAce

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

Deadlands: Ghostwalkers Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys I Am Legend and Other Stories

Finished White Plume Mountain. Such a fun novel. The Oliver Sacks audio book didn’t go so well (the narration was annoying), so I ended up listening to You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day while taking down my Christmas tree.

This week I’m going to finish Deadlands: Ghostwalkers by Jonathan Maberry, an ARC I am woefully behind on reading and reviewing. My next audio book will be Still Foolin’ ‘Em by Billy Crystal. And another Richard Matheson story for Deal Me In.

It's Monday! What Are You ReadingIt’s Monday! What Are You Reading, hosted by Book Date!

What Am I Writing?

Saying that I’m going to write a humorous story on demand is kind of like walking up to someone and saying “Quick, say something intelligent!” Mostly, you’re going to get a lot of unintelligent noises. Last week reaped nothing but writer’s block. I’m going to do some hard core editing on the stories I have, and work on a cover until the end of the month. Title? Bounded in a Nutshell. Haven’t decided if I want to add editorial notes.

Review ~ The Witch of Lime Street

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

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher

Cover via Goodreads

The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics—and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.

Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery’s powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee.

David Jaher’s extraordinary debut culminates in the showdown between Houdini, a relentless unmasker of charlatans, and Margery, the nation’s most credible spirit medium. (via Goodreads)

This book covers a lot of ground.

It begins with Arthur Conan Doyle’s conversion to spiritualism after the deaths of several family members before, during, and after World War I. In a way, Jaher sees Doyle as a prototypical convert for the time: a previously semi-religious man who finds solace in a new belief system that emphasizes life after death. Doyle has a run-in with the prototype from the extreme other end of the spectrum, the zealous skeptic Harry Houdini, but remains unchanged. Houdini’s militant debunking, on the other hand, was due to the frauds he found in the wake of his mother’s death.

The second portion of The Witch of Lime Street is about the formation of the American Society for Psychical Research and Scientific American‘s contest. By the late 1910s and early 1920s, it seemed that spiritualism might provide scientific proof of the afterlife and Scientific American was covering some forms of mediumship under the guise of theory. Partly to put the issue to rest and partly as a publicity device, the magazine offered $2500 to any medium that could produce phenomena under controlled circumstances. Jaher details the members of SA‘s control and judging committee (which includes Houdini) and outlines the early contenders for the prize. We also meet Mina (or, later Margery) Crandon, a beautiful socialite who begins to channel her dead brother Walter after her husband takes an interest in spiritualism. It isn’t really until the halfway point of the book that we get to Mina’s tests and the committee’s experiences with her.

This is a very well researched book. I knew the basics of the Margery/Houdini kerfuffle, but few of the details. The Witch of Lime Street is full of details. There are in fact many, many names and many, many sittings with Margery. There are passages and phrases that seem repetitive. (Since I was reading an uncorrected proof, I wonder if some of that changed in the final publication.) While mostly presented chronologically, some details of certain people’s background are held back and only brought out when especially sensational in terms of the rest of the story. All in all, though, Jaher is fairly neutral in his treatment of all parties involved.

Publishing info, my copy: ARC/Uncorrected Proof, Crown Publishers, 2015
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: Nonfiction

#15in31 ~ Three Short Reviews

I will be honest: I might be attempting #15in31—reading 15 books in the 31 days of October—but I’m going to be choosing some short works. My reviews? Maybe as short.

Tesla_colorado_adjusted
A multiple exposure picture (by photographer Dickenson Alley) of Tesla sitting in his laboratory in 1899.

My Inventions by Nikola Tesla ~ Nikola Tesla is one of the most famous and most innovative inventors of the 19th and 20th centuries. A lot has been written about him (one of my favorite books of 2014 was Bernard W. Carlson’s biography), but I hadn’t realized that Tesla himself had written about his life. My Inventions is a collection of articles that were originally published in Electrical Experimenter magazine in 1919 when Tesla was 63 years old.

Tesla is actually pretty readable. Well, at least I thought so, but I *am* used to the company of engineers. These articles were also much more about the inventing than the inventions. Tesla does think very highly of himself, obviously with good reason most of the time, but somewhat incongruously at other times. For example, knowing how wildly over-budget some of his later projects were, I’m skeptical of his claim that he was able to perfectly design an apparatus in his head, without the need for testing.

My Inventions by Nikola Tesla is available online for free!

abbottjoseffyCard
Left: An older Joseffy with Balsamo, the Talking Skull.
Right: An illustration from the book – Joseffy performing a not entirely accurate Rising Card trick.

The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy by David P. Abbott ~ I got in the mood to read Tesla because I was in the mood to read about Joseffy. Joseph Freud, known by the stage name Joseffy, was a magician and mechanician in the early 20th century. He too was an inventor, not on the level of Tesla, but with a number of patent to his name outside of being a wonder-worker on stage. Published in 1908, The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy is a short treatise on the magician’s signature tricks written by David P. Abbott. It’s an outlier in the world of magic books. It describes the tricks without exposing them. (Most magic books of the era, written by magicians, did explain the methods behind tricks. Fellow magicians have to learn their craft somehow!)  Additionally, the book is illustrated with photographs, but they are slight exaggerations of the actual tricks and sometimes don’t really match Abbott’s descriptions. It’ss a level of misdirection which can probably only be appreciated by magicians.

This is a reread for me. Abbott is the subject of my fiction and Joseffy is probably going to make an appearance one of these days. Joseffy was a bit of a mad scientist and I’m sad that he’s relatively unknown outside of magic history circles. As I noted on Twitter, after reading about Tesla and Joseffy all weekend going back to a book about Houdini seemed rather bland. The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy is also in the public domain, but the version I read is part of House of Mystery, the complete works of David P. Abbott, collected and commented on by Teller and Todd Karr.

Cover via Goodreads

When I’m Dead All This Will Be Yours! by Teller ~ Speaking of Teller, half of the magic duo Penn & Teller…

If it weren’t for Eric, I wouldn’t own this book. Never a browser, Eric took a seat in the humor section at A Novel Idea bookstore in Lincoln, NE to wait while I shopped. I’ve been mostly scouring bookstore for books on magic and Nebraska history. “Nothing,” I stated, ready to leave. “There’s a book by Teller,” he said, pointing. “Where?!” I said, blind.

Of course this book was in the humor section. It isn’t about magic at all. At least not *that* kind of magic. Instead, it’s a quiet and funny little memoir about Teller and his parents. At the age of 50-ish, Teller learns that his father, an artist, tried his hand at cartooning in his younger days. This discovery leads him through his parent’s boxes of art and letters from the 1920s, 30s and 40s before he was born. It’s a charming little book that I was happy to snag. And I didn’t realize it when I bought it, but my copy is signed!

Review ~ The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick

Cover via Goodreads

The Rise Of The Indian Rope Trick: How A Spectacular Hoax Became History by Peter Lamont

We assume that the Indian rope trick is a piece of ancient Hindu magic. But think again: it is actually the product of a hoax which appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1890. This wonderfully researched, playfully written book takes us on a journey through Victorian society where we discover the interest in magic of Charles Dickens; Alfred Russell Wallace; Edward, Prince of Wales; Lord Northbrook and Charles Darwin. We learn how in an age of reason the British came to love all things Oriental and how the legend of the rope trick came to be perpetuated throughout the 20th century as fanatical public figures and aristocrats went to India in search of it and returned claiming to have seen it being performed. This is a charming history book filled with colourful characters, known and unknown, all of whom pursued an obsession. Some were respected members of society, some were incredibly eccentric and utterly deluded. It is set against the background of Victorian society and shows how the writing of history itself can perpetuate myths and legends. (via Goodreads)

The Indian Rope Trick: A fakir throws a rope into the air. Or maybe chain, or maybe a simply a ball of twine. Or maybe he entices the rope skyward through the use of music played on a flute. A young boy climbs the rope, maybe willingly or maybe after an argument with the fakir, and disappears. After a while, the boy reappears and climbs back down the rope. Or reappears in a basket on the ground. Or maybe, the fakir shouts for him and, when the boy doesn’t return, the angered fakir draws his scimitar and climbs the rope himself. After bloodcurdling screams, the dismembered limbs of the boy are thrown to the ground, to be reassembled and resurrected by the fakir after returning to earth. All this is done in the open air.

This is a legendary trick. Literally, it is a trick based mostly in legend. What is considered an ancient magic of India is barely more than 125 years old, the product of Orientalism and a “hoax” article that went the equivalent of viral for the late 1800s/early 1900s. While the original Tribune story was widely syndicated, the correction was not. When the trick was refuted by some of the best skeptics and magicians of the time, many travelers to the Mystic East recalled actually seeing the trick performed. Unfortunately, memory is terrible to rely on for actually remembering things and many of the witnesses were “remembering” an event that happened in the far past. Lamont notes that the above story became more fanciful the further in the past the reminiscence.

The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick is also a book about history and how writing about history and using other works about history can be misleading. Part of the problem with the rope trick is that historians in the 1800s weren’t necessarily using primary sources when writing about India. Their point of view was skewed by writers who wished India to be seen either as a place full of superstitious natives (that Imperialism could save) or a place full of wondrous miracles (that could save the Empire from the downer of science).

Lamont is probably the second funniest non-fiction writer I’ve read, after Mary Roach, but I wish Rope Trick had been a little more intuitively organized. There was a bit of repetition that I think could have been avoided by going at it chronologically. Also, despite the blurb, this book is about the trick, not really about the personalities. Still, a solid read and I’ll be on the lookout for Lamont’s other books.

The Modern Rope Trick:

Publishing info, my copy: Abacus, 2004, trade paperback
Acquired: Paperback Swap
Genre: Non-fiction, magic
Previously: Read Magic in Theory, co-written by Peter Lamont, earlier this year.

Magic Monday ~ House of Mystery

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott by edited by Teller and Todd Karr

House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott (Volume #1)House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott (Volume #2)

A note from Teller:
This two-volume set includes Abbott’s Book of Mysteries, a collection of super-mysteries which, so far as I know, has never been surpassed. Abbott was a genius who built his work on the devious principles he learned from spirit mediums, who could not afford to get caught.
With these miracles, Abbott fooled Houdini, Kellar, Okito, Ching Ling Foo, and all the greatest minds in magic, and recorded his secrets in step-by-step detail in two of the most delightful and detailed books ever written on the art of magic.
This edition’s annotations and the newly-rediscovered articles and letters, including seven original hand-illustrated Kellar letters, make this set as essential for the history buff as it is for the professional performer.
— Teller (via Goodreads)

I’ve been wanting to get my hands on these two books for a couple of years now. And I still do! I read a browser-based scanned edition made available by the Conjuring Arts Research Center. I’d love to own my own copy. These texts are pretty lush. They contain all of David P. Abbott’s written works, as well as introductions and asides from Teller and Todd Karr that give each work context. There are crunchy historical bits: letters, photos, stories from contemporaries about Abbott and his performances. Included is an extended section on Joseffy in volume 2; Abbott’s The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy is given full treatment.

House of Mystery gives me further insight into the kind of man David Abbott was. His descriptions of his tricks are incredibly detailed. Almost mind-numbingly so. He was also a very peculiar skeptic. If he couldn’t find a complete explanation for phenomena, he was likely to officially say “I don’t know,” rather than to speculate publicly.

SmallAce

What Am I Reading?

Been a slow couple of reading weeks. I’m still working on Rebecca and Magic in Theory.

On the Blog

Took last week off from blogging, more or less. I was pretty busy and I’ve been a little slumpy as far as reviewing goes. I had intended to have Rebecca reviewed for Thursday, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Instead, I’ll probably do a Throwback Thursday.