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Drawing on previously unpublished archive material, this sensational story of two popular geniuses conjures up the early twentieth century and the fame, personalities and beliefs that would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


hosted by Doing Dewey

 

Advertisements

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

hosted by Doing Dewey

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

 

Review ~ Heaven’s Ditch

Heaven's Ditch cover via Goodreads

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal by Jack Kelly

The technological marvel of its age, the Erie Canal grew out of a sudden fit of inspiration. Proponents didn’t just dream; they built a 360-mile waterway entirely by hand and largely through wilderness. As excitement crackled down its length, the canal became the scene of the most striking outburst of imagination in American history. Zealots invented new religions and new modes of living. The Erie Canal made New York the financial capital of America and brought the modern world crashing into the frontier. Men and women saw God face to face, gained and lost fortunes, and reveled in a period of intense spiritual creativity.

Heaven’s Ditch by Jack Kelly illuminates the spiritual and political upheavals along this “psychic highway” from its opening in 1825 through 1844. “Wage slave” Sam Patch became America’s first celebrity daredevil. William Miller envisioned the apocalypse. Farm boy Joseph Smith gave birth to Mormonism, a new and distinctly American religion. Along the way, the reader encounters America’s very first “crime of the century,” a treasure hunt, searing acts of violence, a visionary cross-dresser, and a panoply of fanatics, mystics, and hoaxers. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I won this book from Doing Dewey almost two years ago! It falls firmly into the category of “I know nothing about this…let’s read a book about it!”

What Worked
There are many story threads in this book. I found each of them really interesting and learned a lot. The Erie Canal. The Masons. The Mormons. Millerism. Rivivalism. Abolitionism. Honestly, I probably knew the most about the history of the Mormons, but that isn’t saying much. It’s really amazing how many concepts in American religion—and American politics—came into being in this area during this time period.

What Didn’t Work
There are many story threads in this book… The organization of how they were interwoven didn’t always work for me. Granted, this is probably the most difficult thing to do well in this sort of nonfiction book.

I also really wish there would have been more about building the canal. In the early 1800s, a 363 mile was a marvel of human engineering. I’m kind of a sucker for people building amazing things. There was a lot of heaven but not enough ditch for me.

Overall
Each of the individual narratives were compelling, though my reading was slowed down by shifting gears when the “scene” changed. Good history though!

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Acquired: Won it from Doing Dewey!
Genre: nonfiction, history

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

hosted by Roof Beam Reader

Review ~ A Dirty, Wicked Town

Cover via Goodreads

A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha by David L. Bristow

Omaha, Nebraska, is a laid-back city in America’s heartland. In the nineteenth century, however, it had a very different reputation. Omaha grew from a speculative scheme in 1854 to a booming city. Along the way there were scores of great stories.

“It requires but little if any, stretch of the imagination to regard Omaha as a cesspool of iniquity, for it is given up to lawlessness and is overrun with a horde of fugitives from justice and dangerous men of all kinds who carry things with a high hand and a loose rein. . . . If you want to find a rogue’s rookery, go to Omaha.”—Kansas City newspaper. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Omaha! It’s my hometown. Sadly, when I lived there I was much less interested in its history. History is wasted on the young.

What Worked
David Bristow does a really good job making this book light enough to be popular nonfiction, but also with some historical “crunch” to it. All the stories are well-cited as well as well-written.

There is also a good variation in tales. Omaha began its life with the reputation of being a “wide open” city. Crime of all sorts was rampant. (It could be argued that crime boss Tom Dennison, not covered in this book since he didn’t come into power until post-1900, was at least an organizing influence.) But along with tales of gambling, prostitution, and sadly, a lynching, there are stories of newspaper editor dust-ups, hot air balloon hijinx, the other White City, and (of course) weather.

While the book doesn’t go into a extreme detail, the many first-person accounts quoted give a good idea of what it was like to live in Omaha in the late 19th century.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Caxton Press, 2000
Acquired: Amazon, March 11, 2013
Genre: nonfiction, history

hosted by Doing Dewey

Review ~ Ghostland

Cover via Goodreads

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review ~ Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans

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

Cover via Goodreads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wintercoyer-16-17

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