Tag Archives: biography

{Books} Two Short Reviews

The Haunting of Tram Car 015

Cover: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark was the July pick for the Occult Detective Book Club (a group on Facebook and Goodreads, if you’re into such literature). It is set in the same universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” which I read and enjoyed back in January of this year. “Djinn” is available online, so I reread that before diving into Tram Car 015.

As I mentioned with “Djinn,” the world building is very deftly done. I’ve generally had a problem with steampunk because usually it’s not just retro science-fiction, but 19th-ish century sci-fi mixed with Gothic/supernatural elements. It’s just too much. Clark, though, blends “advanced” technologies and the supernatural seamlessly. The supernatural is, in fact, why this version of 1912 Egypt has the technologies it does.

I felt like the characters in Tram Car 015 were a little less compelling. Agents Hamed and Onsi are fine, but Fatma (from “Djinn”) is such a great character that they suffer in comparison. Both stories are good though; they’re set in the same world, but not directly connected. I’d definitely read more if Clark wanted to spend more time in this setting.

Levels of the Game

Cover: Levels of the Game

I found Levels of the Game by John McPhee while looking for McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (recommended by Deb @ Readerbuzz). The latter was listed in my local library’s online system, but really the license had expired and I’m on a wish-waiting list for it if the library decides to renew the license, but! Instead I noticed another book in McPhee’s catelog with a tennis court on the cover. Nonfiction about tennis? Yes, please. (Tennis is my summer sport. But there are no sports this year. Sadly, this doesn’t mean there’s no summer this year…)

Additionally, the structure of this book is rather curious, and since I’m thinking about writing a nonfiction book, I wanted to see how McPhee would pull it off. Levels of the Game is fairly short, less than 150 pages. In it, McPhee profiles two tennis players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, as they play a match at Forest Hills in 1968—the first US Championship tournament of the open era (meaning both amateurs and professionals could compete). As is mentioned in the book’s summary, McPhee begins with the first toss of the ball. Interspersed with the action of the match are biographical digressions comparing and contrasting the players.

Ashe and Graebner met in the semi finals of the tournament. Why write about a semi final? The two players were both American and Davis Cup teammates. But they were also very different. Ashe was a quick, finesse player; Graebner was more reliant on power and consistency. Ashe was a black, raised by a disciplinarian single father who held down multiple jobs to support his family. Graebner, white, was the son of a doctor and wanted for nothing in his life. Politically, one was of course more liberal and one more conservative. McPhee contends this influenced their styles of play as well.

I’m not sure if the conceit of the book, the stories told during the match, entirely works. The match itself didn’t seem that interesting and I was unaware while reading that this was the first US Open and that Ashe would be the only amateur player to ever win it. I did appreciate how McPhee moved smoothly between past and present and didn’t burden himself further by telling things in absolute chronological order.

I also didn’t realize until after I checked this book out that I read McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are, a profile of basketball player Bill Bradley, back in 2011. I enjoyed that too. If anything, now I want to read Draft No. 4 more.

{Books} Charles Fort & The Book of the Damned

The Book of the Damned (Illustrated)

The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort

Time travel, UFOs, mysterious planets, stigmata, rock-throwing poltergeists, huge footprints, bizarre rains of fish and frogs-nearly a century after Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned was originally published, the strange phenomenon presented in this book remains largely unexplained by modern science. Through painstaking research and a witty, sarcastic style, Fort captures the imagination while exposing the flaws of popular scientific explanations. Virtually all of his material was compiled and documented from reports published in reputable journals, newspapers and periodicals because he was an avid collector. Charles Fort was somewhat of a recluse who spent most of his spare time researching these strange events and collected these reports from publications sent to him from around the globe. This was the first of a series of books he created on unusual and unexplained events and to this day it remains the most popular. If you agree that truth is often stranger than fiction, then this book is for you. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
This is a book from my Classics Club list. Fort is often mentioned hand in hand with some of science fiction and horror writers of the early 20th century.

What Did I Think?
First of all, I didn’t really know what I was getting into with The Book of the Damned. You can read the above summary, but that doesn’t prepare you for the recitation of weird phenomena punctuated by jabs at both science and religion. It is much more a round-about statement of philosophy than anything else.

Second of all, I did not finish this book.

The deluge of weirdness was amazingly boring. I read a few chapters. I skipped ahead. It didn’t make any difference. Was Fort really serious in his conclusions that these things were extra-terrestrial? Did he truly believe that it was a better solution than what science could offer? I decided that I needed to know more about Charles Fort.

Original Publishing info: Boni and Liveright, 1919
My Copy: Project Gutenberg ebook
Genre: nonfiction

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural by Jim Steinmeyer

Historian Jim Steinmeyer goes deeply into the life of Charles Fort as the man saw himself, first and chiefly as a writer, a tireless chronicler of inconvenient facts for which science has no answer. Steinmeyer makes use of Fort’s correspondence, providing a portrait of the relationship between Fort and his friend, champion, and protector Theodore Dreiser. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
As luck would have it, one of my favorite authors had written a biography of Fort. And it fit the Unread Shelf Project’s April challenge: the book you most recently acquired.

What Did I Think?
Not my favorite book by Steinmeyer, but his others are about magicians and Bram Stoker, subjects I enjoy.

Fort was sort of interesting. He was rather hermity with few friends other than his wife and author Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser was instrumental in getting The Book of the Damned published. I’d say he’d handle safer-at-home orders well, but he and I do have two things in common. We like going to the library and to movies. He went to the library every day to do research. He would note down strange phenomena on slips of paper and file them at home.

Fort had his supporters (some of them established the Fortean Society) and his detractors (among them H. G. Wells). I am a strong proponent of science, so obviously Fort’s books are a challenge to me.  Somewhere along the way, I realized what bothered me about his criticisms: like many people, he didn’t understand that science is a “continuing exploration,” to borrow a phrase from Wells. Science only starts at “We saw this and we think this is the explanation…”

Original Publishing info: Carroll & Graf, 2007
My Copy: Kindle ebook
Genre: biography

{Book} The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski

Nearly a century after Harry Houdini died on Halloween in 1926, he feels as modern and alive as ever. The name Houdini still leaps to mind whenever we witness a daring escape. The baby who frees herself from her crib? Houdini. The dog who vanishes and reappears in the neighbor’s garden? Houdini. Every generation produces new disciples of the magician, from household names in magic like David Copperfield and David Blaine to countless other followers whose lives have been transformed by the power of Houdini.

In The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, award-winning journalist and #1 New York Times bestselling author Joe Posnanski enters Houdini World to understand why the magician still enthralls people. Posnanski immerses himself in Houdini’s past and present, visiting landmarks, museums (including one owned by Copperfield), attractions, and private archives. Filled with false histories and improbable facts, Houdini’s life is an irresistible contradiction. His sweeping afterlife is no less fascinating.

(via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
I’ve been reading books about magic for the past seven or so years. I feel like I’ve read *so many* Houdini biographies, but I really haven’t. Early on, I realized that I don’t really like Houdini very much. That may be because one of the first magic books was Hiding the Elephant and its author, Jim Steinmeyer, isn’t the biggest Houdini fan either. Mostly my focus has been on Houdini’s investigations into fraudulent spiritualists, but every book seems to include a biography anyway… So, why did I bother with this book? Joe Posnanski is a sports writer. I wanted to know what his take might be.

What Did I Think?
I really enjoyed this book. Yes, it is a biography of Houdini, but around it, Posnanski asks, “Why Houdini?” Why is Houdini known, at least as a word, to nearly *everyone* nearly one hundred years after his death? Why is he the inspiration for so many modern magicians? Why was he name-dropped in the horror movie I’m going to review after I review this book?

Posnanski, as a magic enthusiast as well as a sports writer, was intrigued by the GOAT status of a magician who by many accounts wasn’t that good of a nuts-and-bolts magician. Houdini was a tenacious and shrewd promoter. As an escapologist, he was a consummate showman. He made his myth and was a bulldog about it being truth. Posnanski isn’t interested in exposing Houdini’s tricks, but he does debunk some of Houdini’s tales.

The other thing I think Posnanski brings as a sports guy is his interest in the fans. He brings in stories about John Cox and Patrick Culliton and many of the other magic enthusiasts who pick at every detail of Houdini’s life and career. And one thing holds true for me: I really do enjoy reading about/listening to people discussing things they love—even when I don’t fully engage in that fandom.

Original Publishing info: Avid Reader Press / Simon Schuster, 2019
My Copy: Overdrive Ebook, Phoenix Public Library
Genre: nonfiction, biography

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

Mini Reviews, Vol. 16 ~ Audio Edition

Trust Me, I'm Lying cover Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday

DNF. I listened to maybe an hour and a half of Trust Me, I’m Lying. The first 60 minutes were interesting and a little sickening as Holiday describes how he (and others) create buzz, hype, and news stories out of virtually nothing. But then, the stories/explanations of how and why got repetitive. The audio book was recorded by Holiday. While the quality wasn’t bad, there was a lack of pauses at what would be section/chapter headings in a book; it all ran together.

Accidental Thief cover Accidental Thief by C.J. Davis & Jamie Davis

DNF too. I wanted to check out the phenomenon of LitRPG, which if you are like me old and out of touch aren’t familiar is a narrative with heavy RPG conventions including things like character stats. First, maybe this works better in non-audio format. Listening to the main character check his stats over and over again (“Name: Hal Dix. Class: Rogue. Level: 2. Attributes. Brawn: 8. Wisdom: 8. Luck: 18+5. Speed: 10+1. Looks: 18. Health 16/16. Skills… “) was not scintillating. Second, the tropes that are used are especially and purposefully (?) not unique. The protagonist is a boring guy stuck in a office job (with nice wife and young child) who is sucked into a mysterious game where he framed for a murder and ends up fighting spiders in the sewer with a mysterious stranger who is obviously a girl. Apparently, the challenges will become increasingly more difficult. But I’d rather spend my time playing an RPG rather than reading/listening to one.

Tesla cover Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney

Not a DNF! I read about half of this book and listened to about half of it. I had previously read W. Bernard Carlson’s Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age which emphasized where Tesla’s innovations fit within the technologies of the time. Cheney’s  book takes a much more personal look at Tesla, without being overly sensational or speculative. There is still science, but also things like letter excerpts from friends and colleagues that give a more human aspect to Tesla.


All the Details: 2019 Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Review ~ The Lady from the Black Lagoon

This book was provided to me by Hanover Square Press via NetGalley for review consideration.

The Lady from the Black Lagoon Cover via Goodreads

The Lady from the Black Lagoon
Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara

As a teenager, Mallory O’Meara was thrilled to discover that one of her favorite movies, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, featured a monster designed by a woman, Milicent Patrick. But for someone who should have been hailed as a pioneer in the genre there was little information available. For, as O’Meara soon discovered, Patrick’s contribution had been claimed by a jealous male colleague, her career had been cut short and she soon after had disappeared from film history. No one even knew if she was still alive.

As a young woman working in the horror film industry, O’Meara set out to right the wrong, and in the process discovered the full, fascinating story of an ambitious, artistic woman ahead of her time. Patrick’s contribution to special effects proved to be just the latest chapter in a remarkable, unconventional life, from her youth growing up in the shadow of Hearst Castle, to her career as one of Disney’s first female animators. And at last, O’Meara discovered what really had happened to Patrick after The Creature’s success, and where she went.
(via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I’m a horror movie and special effects buff. The story of a woman working in early Hollywood as a Disney animator and creature-feature designer sounded good to me.

What Didn’t Work… For Me
Full disclosure: I did not finish reading this book. Usually, I don’t post reviews of books I haven’t finished, but I want to make an exception in this case. I read over a third of The Lady from the Black Lagoon while slowly realizing that this book is not to my taste. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a bad book.

There is an adage that biographies and memoirs should have a compelling story at their heart. The problem with this quip is that “compelling” is subjective. There are plenty of perfectly good memoirs in existence that don’t interest me at all; I do not find them compelling for whatever reason. There are two narratives at play in The Lady… . One is life of Milicent Patrick, animator and creature designer. The other narrative is about the author Mallory O’Meara’s career as a woman in the modern horror movie industry and, especially, how she researched this book. Maybe it’s because I’ve done my own research work, but O’Meara’s portion of the book, bogged down Patrick’s story for me.

O’Meara is also very close to her subject and her attitudes continually bleed into history. That is something that is very attractive to some nonfiction readers. For me, I guess I’m a more stodgy in my attitudes. I feel like if you present history well enough, I can make my own comparisons to current events. I’ve also read a few biographies this year that weren’t afraid of being slim. The Lady… ended up feeling padded out instead of being a quick 200 page biography. Again, this might be more due to my particular taste in books lately.

Overall
I think Milicent Patrick is an interesting subject, a woman who lived an extraordinary life. I think Mallory O’Meara’s telling can add scope and context for some readers, just not me.

Publishing info: Hanover Square Press, published 3/5/19
My Copy: ePub, NetGalley
Genre:
memoir, biography

Review ~ Laurant

Laurant: Man of Many Mysteries

Laurant: The Man of Many Mysteries by Gabe Fajuri

In 1896, Eugene Laurant became a professional magician. 21 years earlier, as Eugene Greenleaf, he was born on the frontier, in the horse and buggy town that was Denver, Colorado.

Billed as the “Man of Many Mysteries,” Laurant spent almost 50 seasons on tour. His stage-filling magic show brought wonder and delight to millions of spectators across North America.

The bulk of Laurant’s career was spent not in major metropolitan centers, or hustling, bustling cities like New York. Unlike his contemporaries—Houdini among them—Laurant, for the most part, confined his routes to rural America. It was there that he made his mark. Eugene Laurant was, arguably, king of the small town showmen.

Laurant carried a full compliment of assistants, livestock, baggage and thousands of pounds of equipment-the tools of mystery making-over the rough-and-tumble back roads of America. He logged millions of miles on the road.

His greatest successes were made on the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits, which enjoyed immense popularity between 1900 and 1920. During those years, Laurant headlined for the most prominent organization in the business, the Redpath Bureau.

Drawing on Laurant’s own unpublished writings, scrapbooks, and new research, this book paints a revealing and complete portrait of this early American magician. From his earliest dime-museum days, to Wild West adventure, vaudeville shows and much more, Laurant: Man of Many Mysteries tells the tale.

via Squash Publishing

Quick Review

When I ordered Laurant as a late Christmas present / “let me get this guacamole seasoning shipped for free” add-on item, I didn’t entirely realize how relevant it would be to the book I’m currently writing. I was somewhat aware of Eugene Laurant as one of the many magicians of the early 20th century, but I didn’t know that his career was mainly as a performer in the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits. Not only is this book a well-detailed biography of Laurant, but it has lots of crunchy details about the workings of the Chautauqua.

My one beef is that the book is rather slim for the price, but it is a very nice hardback, glossy and full of pictures. Perfect for my second read of the year.

Other Info

Genre: biography, history
Published: Squash Publishing
Release Date: May 31, 2005
My copy: hardback purchased via Amazon