Review ~ Duped

This book was provided to me by Perseus Books via NetGalley for review consideration.

Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married

Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married by Abby Ellin

From the day Abby Ellin’s went on her first date with The Commander, she was caught up in a whirlwind. Within five months he’d proposed, and they’d moved in together. But there were red flags: strange stories of international espionage, involving Osama Bin Laden and the Pentagon. And soon his stories began to unravel until she discovered, far later than she’d have liked, that he was a complete and utter fraud.

When Ellin wrote about her experience in Psychology Today, the responses were unlike anything she’d experienced as a reporter. Legions of people wrote in with similar stories, of otherwise sharp-witted and self-aware people being taken in by ludicrous scams. Why was it so hard to spot these outlandish stories? Why were so many of the perpetrators male, and so many of the victims female? Was there something universal at play here?

In Duped, Abby Ellin plunges headlong into the world of double lives. Studying the art and science of lying, talking to women who’ve had their worlds turned upside down, and writing with great openness about her own mistakes, she lays the phenomenon bare. It is a strangely relatable trip to the fringe of our normal world. You’ll come away with a new appreciation for just how strange and improbable our everyday lives really are.

Why was I interested in this book?

A hobby subject for me is magic, and the basis of magic is deception. I’ll also cop to being fascinated by con men, especially someone like Frank Abagnale (of Catch Me If You Can fame), who seemed to be very proficient at having multiple lives. Granted, just like the mirrors, invisible threads and gaffers tape of magic tricks, con men are not at all glamorous. That still hasn’t satisfied my want for tales of people being duped.

What Did This Book Do Well?

Abby Ellin is very upfront about her experience being duped despite the stigma attached to it. No one wants to believe that they can be deceived by someone close to them. It is easy to perceive that as a personal failing that should be so easily avoided.

Ellin is also very curious about why people lie, how people are deceived, and what the aftermath is for all involved. She found that for herself and others, being duped is a form of trauma. She also talks to dupers and how their lives play out once the truth is known.

Her intentions for the book seem very ambitious.

What Didn’t This Book Do Well?

To a degree, I had an expectation for this book which was different from what Duped actually is. I was hoping for a crunchier, more scientific investigation of deception.

Ellin presents many anecdotes (including her own) and touches on many theories and studies, but only the stories get any real attention. For example, in the chapter “In God We Trust—Everyone Else We Polygraph,” Ellin mostly writes about attending a deception detection workshop without really telling much about the content of the class and writes about talking to a polygraph expert without really giving much background about polygraphs. Everything is treated in a fairly shallow, pop science manner.

I also felt that the anecdotes skewed heavily toward male liars. I supposed that’s not surprising considering Ellin’s experience, but I was hoping that eventually there would be a step toward a more objective tone. Also, while I’m not a particularly political person, I feel some of her references to the current administration aren’t going to age well.

Overall

Duped is a mixture of compelling memoir and pop science with a little bit of self-help narrative mixed in, but it isn’t an organized deep-dive into deception.

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Review ~ Surviving the Angel of Death

This book was provided to me by Tanglewood via NetGalley for review consideration.

Surviving the Angel of Death

Surviving the Angel of Death by Eva Mozes Kor & Lisa Rojany Buccieri

Eva Mozes Kor was just 10 years old when she arrived in Auschwitz. While her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, she and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man known as the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele. Subjected to sadistic medical experiments, she was forced to fight daily for her and her twin’s survival. In this incredible true story written for young adults, readers will learn of a child’s endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil.

The book also includes an epilogue on Eva’s recovery from this experience and her remarkable decision to publicly forgive the Nazis.Through her museum and her lectures, she has dedicated her life to giving testimony on the Holocaust, providing a message of hope for people who have suffered, and working for causes of human rights and peace.

Summary via Goodreads

In a way, this is a hard book to review. Eva Mozes Kor’s story is amazing. Her will to survive, to keep herself and her sister alive, at 10 years-old(!) is extraordinary. If it were fiction, I would say that it is completely unbelievable. The entire thing. Rounding up entire populations for incarceration or elimination? Twins saved by a deranged doctor intent on performing dubious medical experiments on them? This is the stuff of third-rate dystopian fiction. But it isn’t fiction. This is a true account of what humans can do to other humans. Remembering that Kor’s account, and the innumerable other holocaust accounts, are real is what’s meant when we say never forget.

According to the epilogue, Surviving the Angel of Death is a YA version of Kor’s previous memoir, Echoes from Auschwitz. To me, it didn’t feel “YA” while I was reading it. The writing and organization of the book and clear and good, though maybe not stylistically outstanding. Kor felt that getting her story into younger hands was important. After her marriage and immigration to the US, she relates that it was difficult to tell her story because most people didn’t really have a frame of reference for the holocaust. It wasn’t until the 1978 TV miniseries The Holocaust that she had a basis from which to speak. To me, it seems strange that people might not know, but even I, who read The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night in school, don’t know all the stories.

I read Surviving the Angel of Death right after finishing a book called The Coddling of the American Mind. The authors of that book present three fallacies that they believe people (Americans especially) are falling victim to. One of these fallacies is “the world is a battle between good people and evil people.” It would be easy to read Eva Mozes Kor’s memoir and say, “That isn’t a fallacy. Look at the evil she overcame!” But the antidote to the good/evil fallacy is to remember that we have everything in common as humans.

In 1993 I traveled to Germany and met with a Nazi doctor from Auschwitz, Dr. Münch. Surprisingly, he was very kind to me. Even more surprising, I found I liked him.

Eva Mozes Kor, Surviving the Angel of Death, pg 131

That Eza Mozes Kor was able to forgive what had been done to her, that she found peace in that forgiveness, is maybe what shouldn’t be the most extraordinary thing of all.

Review ~ Memoirs of an Elusive Moth

Cover via Goodreads

Memoirs of an Elusive Moth: Disappearing Nightly with Harry Blackstone and his Show of 1001 Wonders by Adele Friel Rhindress

Harry Blackstone presented a full-evening production called the Show of 1001 Wonders. It lived up to that billing, as a stage-filling spectacle combining spectacular illusions, magnificent costumes, gorgeous girls, a corps of assistants, humor, dancing, and intimate conjuring, into a magnificent stage production. Blackstone toured North America ceaselessly and by 1947, after over four decades entertaining the public, was unquestionably one of America s greatest and best-known magicians. It was in that year, at the age of 17, that Adele Friel was swept into Blackstone’s world of magic. She joined the ranks of his show unexpectedly, making the transition from solo song-and-dance act to one of Mr. B’s gorgeous girls in the blink of an eye. It was a decision that would change her life. For the next three seasons, she trouped with Blackstone, playing an integral role in his show, both onstage and backstage. Memoirs of an Elusive Moth gives readers a rare and intimate first-person account of one of America’s greatest touring magic shows. Laid bare in its pages are many of the secrets behind Blackstone s magic, as well as details of life in the theater, behind the scenes, on the road, and more all told here for the first time. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Books about and by female magicians and magician’s assistants are fairly rare (at least in my experience). And, honestly, I’m almost more interested in assisants’ stories. In big illusions, it’s really the assistant who does a lot of the work. So, I was pretty happy to pick up this book fairly inexpensively earlier in the year.

What Worked
Memoirs of an Elusive Moth is an eloquent, though brief, accounting of Adele Friel Rhindress’s time working with Harry Blackstone’s Show of 1001 Wonders. I had originally slated this book for later in the month, but for NaNoWriMo, I’m writing a character who ends up as a magician’s assistant, so I decided to bump it up. Rhindress’s story and the one I’m writing are not the same, but hers definitely gives mine some context. One of the things that I was surprised about was how quickly Rhindress was included in the show. She was pretty much hired and in the show as soon as costume fittings were done. I would have thought that a little more training would be required to be a “box jumper” in a huge 1947 magic stage show.

Rhindress doesn’t rub shoulders with many other magic celebrities, as seems to happen in magician memoirs, but instead she gives a better view of what happens behind the scenes. The secrets behind a few illusions are mentioned; something to be aware of if you’re sensitive about those sorts of things. Rhindress also learned a little sleight of while traveling with the troupe.

One of weaknesses of Donald Brandon’s …Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician was a lack of dates and chronology. Memoirs of an Elusive Moth avoids this problem. Rhindress was helped by a diary kept by her colleague Nick Ruggiero.

What Didn’t Work
Really, the only thing I wanted was more. The writing is better than competent. The books is a well-made hardback with plenty of photos. Alas, it’s only 116 pages!

Overall
I really enjoyed learning more about magic behind the scenes in the late 1940s-early 1950s. I’ll have more about women in magic in Monday’s #NonFicNov “Be the Expert/Become the Expert” post.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Squash Publishing, 2011
Acquired: Amazon, May 27, 2018
Genre: memoir

Review ~ Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician

Cover via Goodreads

Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician by Donald Brandon & Joyce Brandon

Want to know how magicians make a jet airplane disappear???

Want to know how magicians make a human being float and fly around the stage???

Want to know how magicians make it actually snow inside a theater???

All of these questions and many more are answered in this book plus the often hilarious exploits of two if the great premiere magicians who have a total of over 100 years of performing for millions of people. One is credited with being a forerunner of today’s Rock Concerts who attracted huge audiences of teenagers, numbering in the thousands, nightly for his midnight ghost shows. Informative, intriguing and compelling reading. You will love it! (via back cover)

Why was I interested in this book?
75% of my reading about magic and magicians is centered around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that’s an era with a lot of literature connected with it. Magicians of the period often wrote their own memoirs and modern day academics revel in that golden age. But I also like hearing about the day to day nitty-gritty of modern working magicians. …Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician falls into this category.

What Worked
Don Brandon had a fifty year career as Brandon the Magician. He began under the tutelage of Willard the Wizard in San Antonio. South Texas was its own interesting magic community in the mid-20th century with several acts, Willard and Brandon among them, headquartered there in order to travel in the southeastern and southwestern states. Memoirs and Confessions is an apt title. This book is half about Donald Brandon’s memories of Willard and half about his own career.

One of Brandon’s highlights are his very popular spook shows. Spook shows were piggy-backed onto monster movies when many of the old vaudeville theaters were converted into movie houses. The spook shows were an innovative use of magic principles to provide an immersive “spooky” experience after the movies. The book cover blurb engages in a little mythologizing, but what else does one expect from a magician?

What Didn’t Work
Not enough dates. I understand that perhaps remembering isn’t really conducive to putting dates on events, but it’s really helpful for readers. This is also a bit of a “dip-in” book. The chapters are short and, while not entirely repetitive, they don’t vary in tone and jump around a bit. Reading straight through is tiring.

Overall
Memoirs and Confessions does offer a nice slice of magic history: Texas in the 30s and 40s. Yes, there are magical secrets revealed, but mostly this book is stories and gossip and personal histories.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Tag Publications, 1995
Acquired: Jackson Street Booksellers, July 2015
Genre: memoir

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Mini Reviews, Vol. 14

The Black Dove cover The Black Dove by Steve Hockensmith

Holmes On the Range Mystery #3 – I know, look at me reading all the series!

Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer end up “deducifying” in Gold Rush San Francisco, looking to solve the mystery of Dr. Chan’s death. Hockensmith does a good job of keeping these mysteries fresh; changing up the settings while staying true to the Old West. I listened to this on audio; the dialog shines with William Dufris.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea cover Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Think of every ocean/undersea adventure ever. Toothy whales? Check. Giant squids? Check. Antarctic sailing? Check. Atlantis? Check. Island of savages? Well, check. Generally, I really enjoyed this book. Published in 1870 (1872 in English), Verne revels in science. The submarine, the underwater breathing apparatuses, the natural classifications of so much aquatic life—all of it gets good press. Honestly, the only bits I glazed over during were discussions of where the Nautilus was and where it was going. Seaman, I ain’t.

alt text Lizzie: The Letters of Elizabeth Chester Fisk 1864-1893, edited by Rex C. Myers

I bought this last summer at The Old Sage Bookshop in Prescott.

I’ve read a few memoirs and collections of letters by 19th century pioneer women. Usually, they are from the prairie or southwest. In this case, Lizzie Fisk lived in Helena, Montana. Instead of a farmer or a rancher, her husband was a newspaper man. Many of her letters are about the Herald, her husband’s, newspaper and the politics of the city and the state. Fisk was an abolitionist and a suffragette, but she was also terribly judgemental and, as a woman of her time, selectively racist. In all, her letters filled out my notion of the American frontier, but honestly, Fisk isn’t someone I would have liked to spend time with. (And I doubt she would have thought much of me either…)

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

Mini Reviews, Vol. 13

After a readathon, a mini review post is usually appropriate.

The Science of Illusions cover The Science of Illusions by Jacques Ninio (trans. Franklin Philip

I bought this book last year at The Open Book when visiting my sister in Santa Clarita. I was intrigued because Science! Illusions! What could be more up my alley? Alas, this book is very broad and not very deep. The categories on the back list it as “psychology, history of science, philosophy” and, so, it’s lighter on the hard science than I had hoped. Granted, this book was published in 1998. Our understanding of neuro-biology has increased immensely.

Challenges: #20BooksOfSumer, Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Q's Legacy cover Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff

A reread that I started back in June. The thing that has always made Helene Hanff inspiring to me is, not her faith, but her unflagging stick-to-itiveness to keep doing something related to writing and reading until something worked out. Her path to fame was circuitous, unexpected, and a little lucky. I sometimes need to remember: life goes that way.

Jane cover Jane by Aline Brosh McKenna & Ramón Pérez (Illustrator)

I read this more because I’m a fan of Ramón Pérez’s art (I’ve been a fan since his stint as an illustrator at Paladium Games) than a fan of Jane Eyre. That’s probably a good thing. While this is an adaptation, it takes some modern liberties with the story. It’s a good story, but it doesn’t quite have Brontë spirit. But the art is gorgeous!

Review ~ Eyeing the Flash

Cover via Goodreads

Eyeing the Flash: The Making of a Carnival Con Artist by Peter Fenton

The year is 1963, the setting small-town Michigan. Pete Fenton is just another well-mannered math student until he meets Jackie Barron, a teenage grifter who introduces him to the carnival underworld — and lures him with the cons, the double-dealing, and, most of all, the easy money. The memoir of a shy middle-class kid turned first-class huckster, Eyeing the Flash is highly unorthodox, and utterly compelling. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
There is a connection between stage magic and carnivals; and between magicians and con men…

What Worked
Fenton provides a (maybe) warts-and-all recollection his late teen years working in a basement casino (set up to fleece his high school classmates) and working his way up through the games (from Duck Pond to the Flat Store) in a travelling carnival in the 60s. I say “maybe” warts-and-all. I have no particular reason to question the author as narrator…other than he’s a carny con man. While most of the abuse and double dealing is at the figurative  hands of his friend/boss, Jackie, Fenton possibly doesn’t share how often marks became belligerent. Mostly, he shows his prowess at lying to the marks and working the rigged games.

What Didn’t Work
For me, one of the great sadnesses of my life is that con men aren’t Danny Ocean. They are not suave. They aren’t noble Robin Hoods, or even in it for revenge or moral lessons.

It’s your life. Which side are you going to be on? Are you an ulcer giver or an ulcer getter?

That’s pretty much Jackie’s early pitch to Peter. Causing harm to cause harm is distasteful to me. I know intellectually that’s what con men do, but it’s still disappointing that there are people who easily decide to put their life choices in that either/or.

Overall
Eyeing the Flash is well-written and provides a look into a world that is often off-limits to regular people.  It also emphasizes that callousness of a con man.

By the way, “flash” is the especially attractive prizes at a carnival game booth. In the book, the most flashy piece of flash was a 17″ color television set. While carnivals are somewhat more on the level these days, Mark Rober has a great set of YouTube videos about modern carnival scams.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Simon & Schuster, 2005
Acquired: Amazon,April 5, 2013
Genre: memoir

This book counts for two challenges: