Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

In the wake of World War One, Spiritualism, a religious movement centering around contact with the dead, was on the rise.  With this came a fad for mediums who claimed to be able to channel those unquiet spirits, both for the knowledge they had and to create uncanny physical effects.  Understandably, there were many who were skeptical, but felt that these mediums should be scientifically investigated.  Just in case there was any quantifiable evidence that wasn’t fake.

The Witch of Lime StreetScientific American, the leading popular science magazine of that time, offered a cash prize to the first medium to pass rigorous scientific examination and be proved genuine.  And on that five-man jury was one man who had a reputation for spotting fakes and chicanery–the magician and master escape artist Harry Houdini.  Most candidates for the prize were easily disproven.  But then there was Mina “Margery” Crandon, wife of a respectable Boston surgeon.

Her gifts, brought to her through the spirit of her dead brother Walter, were impressive indeed.  But was she the Queen of Mediums, or simply a master of parlor magic to rival the great Houdini himself?  This is the story of their meeting and what came of it.

Told in bite-size chapters and a handful of photographs, this book starts with Arthur Conan Doyle learning of the end of WWI, and his involvement with the Spiritualists.  His tours in support of the movement helped create interest in the United States, and indirectly led to the prize competition.  He tried to recruit Houdini, but the showman was less than convinced.  As became something of a pattern, Sir Arthur took Houdini’s politeness in not calling out a fake at the time as impressed belief.

We also learn of how Mrs. Crandon became a medium, but certain aspects of her and her husband’s earlier life are kept from the reader until much later in the story.  (And some mysteries are never solved.)  It should be noted that some conversations are reconstructed from later recollections, which may be fallible.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here for those interested in the mystic lore of the period, including a cameo by Theodore Roosevelt.  But once the investigation of Margery begins, the chapters start to drag, and it feels like the author stretched this part to fill out the page count.  Those of you who are history buffs will already have figured out that Mrs. Crandon didn’t win the magazine’s prize.

There’s a list of helpful sources for further reading, and an index.  There’s quite a bit of discussion of female private parts, from whence mediums were supposed to issue ectoplasm (and, it was alleged, where fake mediums often hid props.)  That might make the book unsuitable for readers below senior high level, depending on their parents’ discretion.

Overall, this is a helpful book for the reader who wants a quick look at Harry Houdini’s investigation of mediums from the aspect of his most famous case, and how it fit into events of the time.  There are several fine biographies of Houdini that will be more helpful if his career is the reader’s primary interest.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 by Various

In 1976, Marvel Comics felt the time was right for another try at a overtly feminist superhero to appear in a solo book.  (Their first stab was 1973’s The Cat, who became Tigra.)  Someone, probably Gerry Conway, who would be the first writer on the series, remembered the existence of Carol Danvers, a supporting character in the Captain Marvel series who early on had had an experience that could be retconned into a superhero origin.  The name was deliberately chosen to reference feminism, and the first issue had a cover date of January 1977.

Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Ms. Marvel’s backstory came out in bits and pieces over the course of the series, so I am going to reassemble it in in-story chronological order.  Carol Danvers was a Boston, Massachusetts teenager who loved science fiction and wanted to become an astronaut and/or a writer.  She was very athletic and whip-smart.  Unfortunately, her father was a male chauvinist pig who felt that the most important thing for a young woman to do was marry a good man and have kids.  (In his partial defense, this would have been in the Fifties.)  He told Carol that he would not be paying for her to go to college, as the limited funds would be needed for her (not as bright but his dad’s favorite) brother’s education.

Carol pretended to have given up, and after graduating high school with honors, continued a part time job until her eighteenth birthday.  At that point, without telling her family, she enlisted in the United States Air Force.  Her father never forgave her for this defiance.  Somehow Carol got into flight school and became an officer and one of the Air Force’s top jet pilots.  Then she transferred into intelligence and became a top operative, partnering with her mentor/love interest Michael Rossi and rising to the rank of major.  (At some point, her  brother died in Vietnam.)

NASA recruited Major Danvers out of the Air Force to become their security chief at Cape Canaveral.  While there, she became entangled in events surrounding Mar-Vell, the Kree warrior who became known to Earthlings as Captain Marvel.  Carol was attracted to the mysterious hero, but that went nowhere as he already had a girlfriend.   During a battle with his turncoat superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, Mar-Vell saved Carol from exploding Kree supertechnology.  At the time, no one noticed that the Psyche-Magnitron’s radiation had affected Ms. Danvers.

While the Mar-Vell mess wasn’t really Carol’s fault, she hadn’t covered herself in glory either, and her security career floundered.   Between the time we last saw her in the Captain Marvel series and her own series, Carol had decided to try her other childhood dream and wrote a book about her experiences at NASA.  (Apparently it was a bit of a “tell-all” as some at the agency are angry about it when they appear in this series.)  She also began experiencing crippling headaches and lost time, and consulted psychiatrist Michael Barnett.  Dr. Barnett was at a loss for a diagnosis but began falling in love with his client.

Which brings us to Ms. Marvel #1.  An amnesiac woman in a “sexy” version of Captain Marvel’s costume (plus a long scarf that was a frequent combat weakness) suddenly appears in New York City to fight crime.  She soon acquires the moniker of Ms. Marvel.  At the same time, Carol Danvers has been tapped by J. Jonah Jameson to become the editor of Woman magazine, a supplement to his Daily Bugle newspaper.  JJJ is depicted as being rather more sexist than in his Spider-Man appearances to better clash with Ms. Danvers over the direction the magazine should be taking.

Mary Jane Watson befriends the new woman in town (her friend Peter Parker appears briefly, but Spider-Man never does in this series.)  But their bonding is cut short by another of Carol’s blackouts.  Across town, the Scorpion, who has a long standing grudge against Jameson, has captured the publisher and is about to kill him when Ms. Marvel appears to save the day.

Eventually, it is discovered that Carol Danvers and Ms. Marvel are the same person, but having different personalities due to Ms. Danvers being fused with Kree genes and having Kree military training implanted in her brain.  Thanks to this, she has superhuman strength and durability, and a costume that appears “magically” and allows her to fly (until she absorbs that power herself.)  From her human potential, Ms. Marvel has developed a “seventh sense” that gives her precognitive visions.  Unfortunately, they’re not controllable and often make her vulnerable at critical moments.

Much later, the personalities are integrated as Carol learns to accept all of her possibilities.  Ms. Marvel fights an assortment of villains, both borrowed from other series (even Dracula makes a cameo!) and new ones of her own, especially once Chris Claremont starts writing her.  The most important is the mysterious shape-shifter Raven Darkhölme, who considers Carol Danvers her arch-enemy, even though they have never met.  Carol doesn’t even  have Raven on her radar!

In issue #19, Ms. Marvel finally meets up again with Mar-Vell for the first time since her transformation, her origin is finalized, and they part as friends.  The next issue has Carol change her costume to one that looks much less like Mar-Vell’s. but is still pretty fanservice oriented (like a swimsuit with a sash, basically.)  It’s considered her iconic look.  Shortly thereafter, Carol is fired from Woman (she missed a lot of work) and Dr. Barnett starts getting pushy about advancing their romantic relationship.

And then the series was cancelled.  Ms. Marvel was still appearing as a member of the Avengers team, but that was about to change as well.

In the now notorious Avengers #200 (not reprinted in this volume), Carol Danvers is suddenly pregnant despite not having been in  a relationship in some time.  The pregnancy is hyperfast, and the baby is delivered within 24 hours.  The child, Marcus, rapidly ages to young adulthood and explains that he is the son of time traveler Immortus, who’s been stuck in  the Limbo dimension all his life.  In order to escape, he had brought Ms. Marvel to Limbo, and seduced her with the aid of “machines” so that he could implant his “essence” inside her.  He then erased her memories of these events and sent her back to Earth so that Marcus could be born within the timestream.

Marcus’ presence is causing a timestorm, and a device he is building only seems to make the storm worse, so Hawkeye destroys it.  Sadly, it turns out the device was meant to “fix” Marcus so that he would not be detected as an anomaly, and without it, Marcus must return to Limbo.  Ms. Marvel volunteers to go back with him, because she is now in love with the man and wants to stay with him forever.  None of the other Avengers find this the least bit suspicious, and it’s treated as a happy ending for the character.

But come Avengers Annual #10, which is in this volume, Chris Claremont got the chance to respond to that.   Raven Darkhölme had since been revealed as Mystique, leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants  One of the Brotherhood, Rogue, ambushes Carol Danvers in San Francisco, where Ms. Danvers has been living incognito.  Rogue is a power parasite, able to steal the abilities and memories of her prey.  Still clumsy with her powers, Rogue steals Ms. Marvel’s powers and memories permanently; attempting to hide the results, she dumps the victim off a bridge.

Spider-Woman just happens to be nearby and rescues the amnesiac Carol.  The arachnid hero then calls in Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men to assist in figuring out what happened.  Professor X is able to restore many of Carol’s memories from her subconscious, but not all of the emotional connections.

Meanwhile, the Avengers battle the Brotherhood, which is trying to break some of its members out of prison.  Once that’s settled, they go to meet Carol.  She explains that Marcus made a fatal mistake in his calculations.  By being born on Earth, he’d not made himself native to the timestream, but he had made himself out of synch with Limbo.  Thus the rapid aging he’d used to make himself an adult on Earth couldn’t be turned off, and he was dead within a week.  This freed Carol from the brainwashing, and she was able to figure out just enough of the time travel tech to get home.  And then Carol rips into the Avengers for not even suspecting there was something wrong.  Once freed of the brainwashing, she recognized the rape for what it was and didn’t want anything to do with those who had condoned it.  Chastened, the Avengers leave.

(One bizarre bit is that Carol Danvers is established as being 29.  Nope.  Sorry, not even if she got promoted first time every time in her military career.  She’d be a minimum of 32 by the time she made major, was in that rank for at least a few years, and then there’s her next two careers.)

The volume also contains the Ms. Marvel stories from Marvel Super-Heroes Magazine #10-11, which have the plotlines originally intended for issues #24 & 25 of the series.   Here we learn that Mystique’s grudge against Ms. Marvel was caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy that Rogue meeting Carol Danvers would cost Rogue her soul/life.  As Mystique had adopted Rogue as a daughter, she felt that the best way to protect the power parasite was to kill Ms. Marvel in advance.   The last few pages are obviously drastically rewritten to have Carol vanish from the timestream (and thus invisible to precognition) for a while before returning and the plot of Annual #10 kicking in.

After the issues published in this volume, Carol Danvers went through several different name and power set changes, before becoming the current Captain Marvel.  She’s scheduled for a movie in the relatively near future.

Good bits:  Lots of exciting action sequences, and some decent art by Marvel notables like John Buscema and Dave Cockrum.  (Have to say though that Michael Golden’s art looks much less good without color.)  Despite some clumsiness at the beginning, Claremont does a good job with Carol’s characterization, peaking with her interactions with the mutated lizards known as The People.

Less good bits:  Carol’s costumes are clearly designed with the male audience in mind, rather than any kind of practicality.  Many male characters seem to feel obliged to use words like “dame” and “broad” much more than they came up in conversation even back in the Seventies.  Male (and male-ish) villains seem to default to trying to mind-control Ms. Marvel into serving them–this is one reason why Marcus succeeding at it jars so badly.  And Dr. Barnett suddenly getting so pushy about the relationship and his plans to convince Carol to give up being Ms. Marvel seems off-and we would never have found out why as he was scheduled to be murdered in the next issue.

Most recommended to fans of the current Captain Marvel series who want to see where the character came from; other Marvel Comics fans might want to check it out from the library.

Anime Review: Hataraki Man

Anime Review: Hataraki Man

Hiroko Matsukada is an “editor” at Jidai, a weekly magazine.  What this means in practice is that she researches and writes articles, as well as working with at least one outside author who submits a serialized novel for the magazine.  At 28 and still single, Hiroko sometimes worries that she’s missing out on a woman’s “proper” existence–she and her boyfriend Shinji haven’t had sex in months due to their conflicting schedules.  But when the deadline looms and her creativity is engaged, Hiroko enters “Hataraki” (hard-working) mode, shutting everything else out, and the thrill of being published makes it all seem worthwhile.

Hataraki Man

This 11-episode anime was based on a short manga series by Moyoco Anno (Sugar Sugar Rune) which has also been turned into a live-action TV drama.  Each episode focuses on Hiroko or one of the people in her life (including her masseuse!) as they deal with their work and personal issues.  For example, the photographer who would much rather be taking pictures of nature, but is stuck as a paparazzi, taking scandalous shots because that’s what sells magazines.

Many episodes compare and contrast Hiroko with other characters.  Hiroko has a relatively brash, serious approach that comes off to Japanese people as “masculine” as opposed to, say, her co-worker Yumi Nogawa, who projects a pliant, traditionally feminine image to succeed in the world of sports reporting (what often gets denigrated as “feminine wiles.”)  Hiroko also often clashes with rookie editor Kunio Tanaka, who is laid back and tries not to let his job take over his life, but often turns in slipshod work and evades responsibility.

Towards the end of the series, Hiroko’s relationship with Shinji hits a crisis point at roughly the same time she gets a huge career break that will decide if she’s going to be on the fast track for promotion.

Hiroko smokes and drinks (as do other characters) and grouses about the sex she’s not having.  We see her topless a couple of times (the camera angle keeping the audience from seeing too much.)  Sexism is a running theme, both in direct actions by Hiroko’s male co-workers, and the question of whether fitting into a gender role or defying it is a better life plan.

Overall, it’s a reasonably realistic look at working in the world of magazine publishing, full of little epiphanies and setbacks.  Even Hiroko’s large successes don’t come without their costs, and the ending is bittersweet.

Bonus feature–here’s the ending theme from the live-action version!

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park by Erin Peabody

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.

A Weird and Wild Beauty

In early 1871, the readers of Scribner’s Magazine, one of the best-selling periodicals in the United States, were treated to an article about a mysterious land south of the Montana Territory.  According to the article, there was a place of geysers that shot steaming water hundreds of feet into the air, where mud pools exploded on a regular basis, and trees were encased in stone.  This was the first widely-published  account of the Yellowstone, and many dismissed it as an absurd traveler’s tall tale.

But the Yellowstone River and its surroundings were very real.  It had been named “Mi tse a-da-zi” (Rock Yellow River) by the Minnetaree tribe, and translated to “Roche Jaune” by French trappers before English speakers gave it the present name.  Native Americans had often visited or lived there for its special properties, and stories of it were shared by the few hardy white people who’d managed to survive a visit.  They were generally disbelieved by those who had not been there.  It took a proper expedition organized by former banker Nathaniel Langford and staffed by sober, reliable citizens to show the reality.

This volume is a history of how Yellowstone became a National Park written for young adults by a former park ranger.  The primary emphasis is on the two important expeditions, first Langford’s and then a full scientific expedition led by government  geologist Ferdinand Hayden.  In addition to the hardy scientists and support staff, the expedition had two artists and photographer William H. Jackson, and their visual evidence was key in convincing Congress of the reality of the fabled wilderness.

The writing is clear and concise, rated for twelve and up, but quite readable for adults.  There are multiple sidebars about related subjects such as the Transcontinental Railroad and Henry David Thoreau, and many illustrations in both black & white and color.

The history section briefly covers what is known of the history of the Yellowstone area before the expeditions, and up to the point where the National Park bill was signed into law.  More recent events concerning the park are not covered in the main text, although some are mentioned in the sidebar.

After the history section, there’s a map of America’s National Parks and other federal preserves, then a couple of chapters on the science of why Yellowstone is a unique area.  There are endnotes, a bibliography, index and photo credits (in readable sized font!)

Part of Yellowstone’s importance is mentioned in the subtitle; it was not just the United States’ first National Park, but the world’s.  Previously, when land was set aside to preserve it, it was only for the powerful (“the King’s forest”) or the very wealthy to enjoy.  This was the first time a national government had set aside wilderness for the sake of the public at large.  And just in time, as the Hayden expedition had already run into people planning to exploit the Yellowstone area for private commercial gain.  (At this point in history, the U.S. side of Niagara Falls had already been completely privatized and commercialized!)

The book briefly touches on mistreatment of Native Americans, the extinction or near-extinction of animal species and other difficult topics, but these are not the main concern.  The bibliography contains books that go into much more detail on these matters.

Most recommended for teens interested in history and the outdoors, but also good (and affordable) for adults with similar interests.

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Economics can be a deadly dull subject, at least when dominated by stuffed shirts talking about trade deficits, returns on annuities or fiat currency.  But the basics of economic theory can be used to learn useful or amusing things about the world.  With a large enough set of valid data, you can tease out fascinating conclusions, such as the answer to the question “is there cheating in professional sumo wrestling?”  (Probably, or some really amazing and highly consistent coincidences.)

Freakonomics

This book, as the front cover, back cover and several pages at the front remind us, was a New York Times bestseller and all-round phenomenon back in 2005.  (I wonder if there’s some sort of data available on whether having eleven pages of praise for the book before you even get to the title page is a good investment; I skipped right over it.)  It talks about such concepts as positive and negative incentives, regression analysis and information inequality as they relate to cheating schoolteachers, crime rates, baby names and other offbeat subjects.

Perhaps the most controversial subject covered is the notion that legalized abortion led to a massive drop in crime rates in the United States.  The evidence seems sound, but as the authors remind us, the data only shows us what is there, not what should be there.  The same results might have been achievable by other, less painful means.

There are some major changes to this edition of Freakonomics; the chapter  with the story of how the Klu Klux Klan was beaten back had to be heavily revised when one of the sources was revealed to have been exaggerating his role.  There are also several newspaper articles covering subjects that only got a passing mention in the main text, plus the one that got Mr. Dubner interested in covering Mr. Levitt’s research in the first place.  The advertised “Author Q & A” is rather flippant, and more of an advertisement for their next book, Super Freakonomics.

As a semi-scholarly book, there are footnotes, and an index, as well as a list of baby names you might want to consider.

I found this an interesting book with some thought-provoking insights, though some of the conclusions seem a bit iffy.  Recommended to just about everyone, but especially those who’d like to know more about the less stuffy side of economics.

Book Review: The 66 Kid: Raised on the Mother Road

Book Review: The 66 Kid: Raised on the Mother Road by Bob Boze Bell

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The 66 Kid

Bob Boze Bell has been a rock musician, cartoonist, radio host, magazine publisher and other interesting jobs.  And he spent most of his youth in Kingman, Arizona, where his father had gas stations on Route 66.  This is his memoir of those years.

It’s a coffee table book, lavishly illustrated with photographs and Mr. Bell’s paintings.  Fortunately, he has many family pictures and old clippings to illustrate his anecdotes and historical tidbits.  It’s a fascinating (if possibly biased) look at life in Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s.  Mr. Bell is an accomplished writer, and his prose is excellent.

Note that this is not a comprehensive book about the highway itself; it primarily covers the Kingman area and how Route 66 affected Mr. Bell’s life.

At a suggested retail price of thirty dollars, this book is good value for money if you’re interested in Arizona or Bob Boze Bell.  Others might want to see if their library has it for borrowing, as it is a handsome volume.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to close without a reference to the famous song, so here it is:

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

TV Review: Front Page Detective

TV Review: Front Page Detective

This series was broadcast on the DuMont Network from 1951-1952, starring Edmund Lowe as David Chase.  Mr. Chase was a newspaper columnist in the style of Walter Winchell, seeking interesting tidbits of news and gossip, with many people sending him items.  Often, his column or his investigative activities involved him in crimes that he would solve.

Front Page Detective TV show

Like many of the DuMont shows, some of the episodes are in the public domain, and I watched three of them on DVD.

“Little Black Book” has Mr. Chase returning from Washington, D.C. by plane to discover his mail has piled up at the manager’s office, there’s a dead body in his closet, and two rival gangsters are looking for a little black book.  It turns out they don’t mean the one Mr. Chase’s girlfriends are listed in.  Mr. Chase is a flirt, and doesn’t treat women with much respect.  The case is more or less solved by the apartment manager finally delivering the mail.

“Murder Rides the Night Train” sees Mr. Chase taking the train back to Washington, D.C.  It seems that a prominent gangster has been subpoenaed to appear before a Congressional committee (this was the era of the Kefauver hearings) and there’s a rumor some of his former associates want to rub him out.  And gee, one of them is also on the train.  Despite Mr. Chase and the gangster’s bodyguard warning him to be careful, the gangster is shot.  When he’s alone in his compartment, Mr. Chase standing in front of the closed door, with the window locked from the inside.

Astute viewers will figure out how it was done fairly easily.  For everyone else, there’s a really annoying bit where a particular phrase is said over and over as Mr. Chase realizes where he heard it before.

“Seven Seas to Danger” involves diamond smuggling, with Mr. Chase becoming involved because he’s interviewing a particularly colorful old lady who runs a dockfront warehouse.  Some nice turns in this one, although the final resolution of the climactic showdown is a bit of a letdown.

All the episodes feature quite a bit of smoking.  That really stands out nowadays.  It’s a light diversion, but not a series that would be suitable for a remake.

Front Page Detective magazine

So far as I can tell, this show has little or nothing to do with the Front Page Detective magazine, a long-running periodical that featured lurid retellings of “true” crime stories.  Have a cover of one of their issues anyway.

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