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 ~ 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

Review ~ The Man from the Train

The Man from the Train cover

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James & Rachel McCarthy James

Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Jewelry and valuables were left in plain sight, bodies were piled together, faces covered with cloth. Some of these cases, like the infamous Villasca, Iowa, murders, received national attention. But few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station.

When celebrated baseball statistician and true crime expert Bill James first learned about these horrors, he began to investigate others that might fit the same pattern. Applying the same know-how he brings to his legendary baseball analysis, he empirically determined which crimes were committed by the same person. Then after sifting through thousands of local newspapers, court transcripts, and public records, he and his daughter Rachel made an astonishing discovery: they learned the true identity of this monstrous criminal. In turn, they uncovered one of the deadliest serial killers in America. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
So, one of the things I like doing, as research for my historical fiction, is reading old  newspapers. In a 1915 issue of the Omaha Bee I came across a sensational story about an axe murder that had taken place in Omaha. I haven’t quite followed that story to its conclusion—they were still looking for the culprit months later—but I found it to be a compelling case, maybe something for later fiction. After all, axe murders are the things of Hollywood slasher movies, right?

Boy, was I wrong…

While researching another project, I was also looking at small towns in Iowa near railroad tracks. Which led me to the Villisca, IA axe murders in 1912. Oddly, I had never heard of Villisca. I wanted to know more. Among the shallow investigations of the murders was a full-length book about them: The Man from the Train.

What Worked
It turns out there were several spates of axe murders throughout the early 1900s. Villisca was particularly noticed: the whole family, plus a couple of neighbor girls who stayed over, were brutally murdered with the blunt side of an axe. The victims’ faces were covered. The house was found with all the shades drawn, mirrors covered, and locked up tight. Nothing was taken. The house was not far away from the railroad tracks. The things is, when Bill James started looking into this crime, he found that there were other instances of axe murders that occurred that had similar staging. There was a pattern. It was likely that the same man was responsible.

The Man from the Train is a feat of research. At some point in the process, James hired his daughter to help wade through the sources. The string of murders reached back much further in time than expected and led to a possible suspect, who was never caught. That’s only half the story though. How did the Man from the Train get away with this for so long? And what happened in the communities in the wake of such murders? The answers to those questions are often disheartening.

What Didn’t Work
James made a very specific choice on how he presented information. He sort of started with a cluster of information and then works backward and forward from it. In general, I liked this decision. It does give the book a mystery/thriller feel. But I feel like things could have been cleaned up and an reiterated more efficiently. There are a lot of names, places, and dates to keep up with. Maps would have been a big help since we’re dealing with actions over time.

James spends a lot of time trying to convince the readers of his theory. On one hand, a reason that the Man from the Train wasn’t caught was due to what James calls irrational skepticism. Police decided to focus on hastily found suspects instead of looking for patterns or even seeing patterns when presented with them. On the other hand, today’s reader lives in a post-profiling world. The notion that a killer might have a signature pattern is wildly accepted. James didn’t have to convince me. The pattern is there; I’ll buy that acre of land. Continuing with the hard sell was tedious.

Lastly, the tone was occasionally uneven. There were some fourth-wall-breaking comments that were unnecessary.

Overall
Man, history. The more I learn about history, the more I see how much things haven’t changed. There have always been serial killers. There have always been the want for tidy closed cases, especially when murder is involved. The Man from the Train wasn’t an easy read for a few reasons, but the detective work behind it is admirable and the story really is an interesting one.

There was one mistake within the book that I caught: David Abbott (the whole reason I was reading a 1915 newspaper in the first place) wasn’t from Oklahoma, he was from Omaha. I’m going to assume that since Abbott was only mentioned in passing, it was a mistake that isn’t indicative of others unseen.

Publishing info: Scribner, 2017
My Copy: hardback, Tempe Public Library
Genre:
nonfiction, crime


All the Details: 2019 Nonfiction Reading Challenge

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

Review ~ Houdini and Conan Doyle

Cover via Goodreads

Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford

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

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

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

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

(via back of the book)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Review ~ The Perfect Storm

Cover via Goodreads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review ~ Thieves, Rascals and Sore Losers

Cover via Goodreads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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