Following the devastation wrought by World War I, grieving Europeans and Americans sought the answer to the question: What happens to us after death? Many turned to Spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living, and popularized consulting mediums and psychics to contact their dead. But how would you know if the dead were really speaking through the medium, or if you were in the presence of a talented (or sometimes not-so-talented) fraud?
One answer: apply science and logic to test a medium’s abilities. David Jaher’s debut book The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction and Houdini in the Spirit World describes just such a test held in the mid-1920s and the furor that surrounded its most likely candidate. Sponsored by the magazine Scientific American, a large cash prize was offered to the medium who could provide proof of his or her abilities, proof that had to withstand scientific scrutiny by an investigative panel of judges.
What set out to be an objective experiment in psychic research became anything but, dominated by the personalities involved. Jaher’s cast ranges from the champion of Spiritualism and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to one of the judges, the escape artist who actively sought to expose fake psychics, Harry Houdini. Most important of all was the so-called Witch of Lime Street, a Boston woman known as Margery or Mina Crandon, who supposedly could call on her deceased brother to perform various ectoplasmic phenomena.
Jaher provides a deeper understanding for a little-known craze of the Jazz Age. His level of detail is meticulous and illuminating, capturing the complex relationships and beliefs of everyone involved, living or apparition. His objective recounting of the contest and the fallout that followed allows readers to make their own judgment of the people involved. Readers who enjoy learning about the more obscure events in history will definitely enjoy this book. But this book could also be enjoyed by those who have wondered if there is life after death, or who appreciate the complexity of human relationships.
Bestselling author Sarah MacLean brings TMZ to pre-Victorian times in The Rogue Not Taken, the first in her new Scandal & Scoundrel series. Lady Sophie Talbot preferred life as a commoner, but when her father’s success secured him an earldom she was thrust into the highest echelons of London society. Sophie shies from the spotlight until her philandering brother-in-law causes her to create a very public scene and earn the scorn of the aristocracy. Think along the lines of the Beyonce/Jay Z/Solange elevator incident and you’ve got the picture.
Vowing to leave London, she stows away in the carriage of Kingscote, the Marquess of Eversley. King is a charmer with an ill-deserved (but welcome) reputation as a rake. When Sophie is discovered, King is sure that she is trying to trick him into marriage despite her avowal that he is the last man she would ever marry. Sophie asks King to take her to her childhood home claiming a lost love is waiting for her. While he is disbelieving, he agrees to give her a ride.
This will turn out to be the journey of a lifetime for these two who are at odds from the beginning and continue to snipe along the way. Yet when trouble strikes, they have each other’s backs and slowly the bickering turns to flirtatious banter and the sparks begin to fly. This compelling story is enhanced by MacLean’s fast-paced storytelling, clever dialogue and sharp wit. Sophie and King are clearly drawn, engaging characters whose emotional connection is palpable. This intense romantic journey is peppered with comedy and action while also serving as a cutting commentary on pre-Victorian upper class society.
In the debut novel The Red Storm by Grant Bywaters, life isn’t easy for William Fletcher, former-boxer-turned-private-detective living in segregated 1930s New Orleans; not many white people are willing to respect, let alone hire, an African American private eye. When his former employer and mob associate, the violent Bill Storm, reappears in Fletcher’s life with a final request – to locate Storm’s daughter – Fletcher figures things couldn’t get worse.
But then, Storm is found shot in the head, and his killer seems to be gunning for his daughter. She hires Fletcher as protection, setting off a chain reaction of escalating violence between the police and different mob factions. Fletcher has to use all of his boxing experience and investigative instincts to survive the coming storm.
The Red Storm is a treat for any hardboiled detective or historical fiction fan and especially so for fans of boxing as the book is rife with references. Bywaters is frank in his depictions of violence, be it a boxing match or a fight between mobsters. He also never lets the reader forget the time period he’s writing in either; not only does he reference specific events and places in New Orleans history but he also doesn’t shy from the slang or the racial issues. Counterpoint to the rampant casual racism and segregation is Fletcher himself, who won’t let anything impede his investigations.
It’s easy to understand why Bywaters won the Best First Private Eye Novel Competition sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) and Minotaur Books, with his professional experience as a licensed private investigator adding authenticity to Fletcher’s fictional investigations. Reminiscent of Walter Mosley and James M. Cain, mystery fans will appreciate this new voice in hardboiled detective fiction.
Is David Spade’s memoir Almost Interesting? No way, I say! It's actually extremely interesting. Filled with hilarious childhood stories, Saturday Night Live anecdotes and embarrassing tales of life in Hollywood, it's both entertaining and quick to read. He serves up his life story, warts and all!
Told chronologically, he takes us on wild ride through his childhood in Arizona, to his days as a struggling L.A. comic, followed by his tenure at SNL and ends with his life as a Hollywood celebrity. Uncontrollable laughter will overtake you as you read his account of pledging a fraternity, losing his newly purchased car in Hollywood and being catfished by a model’s parody account. Seriously, that happened, and quite recently, too! Even the story of his crazed assistant Skippy attacking him is hilarious. You'll also enjoy his tales of working on SNL. He candidly offers up both his favorite and least favorite hosts and musical guests. Trust me, he goes there! My favorite is his account of the infamous Sinead O’Connor performance. Finally, you will feel his overwhelming sense of loss when he discusses his best friend, Chris Farley.
If you’re a fan or just like to read about celebrities, I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Almost Interesting. I’m not kidding. Do it! You can read it in quick bursts or in one long sitting, but since Spade is a comedian be prepared to laugh out loud, and even more so if you listen to the audiobook, since he narrates it. Be forewarned though, at times he is raunchy, but nothing wildly inappropriate. To see Spade in action on SNL, check out the DVD Saturday Night Live: The Best of David Spade. Knowing the backstories makes it much funnier.
In Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg, the title character is a flawed human being who reaches out to the poor around her yet never gives up on life’s pleasures. Mazie Phillips-Gordon is a self-proclaimed good time girl. Her favorite things in life are cigarettes, alcohol and having fun. Despite her hedonistic ways, Mazie is also a pushover for the vagrants who populate her Lower East Side world during the Great Depression.
Attenberg sets up the story as a documentary on Mazie told in part through her diary and also through the interviews and observations of people who knew her. By using different points of view, Attenberg allows us to see the good in Mazie that she often fails to see. She and her younger sister Jeanie are rescued by their sister Rosie who takes them away from their abusive father and ineffectual mother. However, both girls go through rebellious periods making life difficult for Rosie. In an effort to try and curb Mazie’s life spent in bars and speakeasies, Rosie’s husband has Mazie work in the ticket booth at his movie theater. Feeling confined in the box office – which she refers to as her ‘cage’— Mazie manages to keep her spirits up by helping the homeless people in her neighborhood. Attenberg may refer to Mazie as a saint in the title, but this book recounts the unvarnished world of a woman who lived life to the fullest.
Helen Ellis’ American Housewife is a satirical collection of 12 short stories featuring a group of enthralling, outrageous and disturbing women. There are humorous vignettes, such as “Southern Lady Code,” which offers biting translations of benign Southern phrases and “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady,” which provides tips on how to do just that. There are fleshed-out stories full of characters and situations that are just a little too bizarre to be real — a relocation program for child beauty pageant contestants, an email exchange between neighbors that escalates into all-out war. In “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” we meet a has-been writer who leads the competition in finding the best deals at yard sales and estate auctions, to the annoyance of the producers who would rather feature the Playboy bunny. “My Novel is Brought to You by Tampax” stars a writer working hard (or hardly working) on her next novel, sponsored by Tampax. A Tampax representative will do anything to make sure she meets her daily writing goal — starting with bribing her neighbors into bringing the writer meals in exchange for feminine hygiene products. The tales feel true enough to make readers uncomfortable even as they’re laughing at the absurdity. Don’t inane parodies of reality shows actually sound like plausible reality shows? And is it such a stretch that a tampon company could make the leap from sponsoring daytime television to sponsoring novels?
These stories are a fictional alternative for people who enjoy humorists like Jenny Lawson and Laurie Notaro. Ellis even received a nod from Margaret Atwood as one of her favorite books of the year: “Surreal tales of American weirdness, with details that ring all too true.” You probably haven’t murdered your neighbor over the tacky décor in your common area…but maybe you’ve briefly considered it.
There’s something magical about the fandom of Sherlock Holmes. For over 100 years, the fans have refused to believe that the detective isn’t real. They send him letters and marriage proposals, form historical societies around him and pay tribute with that most earnest form of flattery, fan-fiction. Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories is the mother lode of such tributes, collecting a whopping 83 short stories from such literary heavyweights as J. M. Barrie, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse.
Sherlock fans of all walks of life will find something to enjoy in this collection, because by density of volume: there has to be! There are modern classics such as Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case,” in which Holmes is barred from a crime scene due to an allergy to the victim’s cats, and Neil Gaiman’s “The Case of Death & Honey,” in which Holmes sets out to solve death itself, and succeeds astonishingly. There are also historically fascinating pieces such as the story Conan Doyle wrote for the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, and contemporary parodies in which such clever lines as “Elementary, my dear God!” are uttered.
In the last year alone there’s been a plethora of new stories about the Great Detective such as Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Heart, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes and the film Mr. Holmes, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. It is altogether shocking to observe the similarities between the Holmes of the 1800’s and the Holmes still captivating audiences today, and reading this century’s worth of stories will give you the humbling feeling of watching a small torch pass from writer to writer across decades. Consider giving this to anyone who’s impatiently awaiting the next season of Sherlock. And really, isn’t everybody?
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In her new memoir Find a Way, long distance swimmer Diana Nyad tells of her epic swim from Cuba to Key West, which she completed at age 64 after failing to do so in her 20s.
The seeds for her extreme dream were sown when she was just a child. On his daughter’s 5th birthday, Aristotle Nyad opened the dictionary and pointed to their last name: Nyad (naiad), from Greek mythology, a girl or woman champion swimmer. Nyad doesn’t believe in fate, but she locked onto the word “champion” and knew that it would one day describe her.
She also became interested in Cuba as a child, when the Cuban Revolution brought an influx of refugees to her hometown, and her new friends introduced her to their culture. She recalls standing on the beach at age 9 with her mother and looking toward the horizon. Her mother told her that Cuba was so close that she could almost swim there.
After enjoying numerous other successes as a swimmer, Nyad began to plan and train for her Cuba swim when she was in her 20s. She made her first attempt from Cuba at age 28 utilizing a shark cage, but after swimming for 42 hours and covering 76 miles, strong winds and swells had knocked her so far off course that she was heading not for Florida, but for Texas. The following year, after training for a repeat swim but being denied entry to Cuba, she instead swam 102 miles from North Bimini Island, Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida, this time without the shark cage.
At age 30, Nyad figured it was time to retire as a professional athlete and instead pursued a career as a sports broadcaster and journalist. Then at age 60, a Mary Oliver quote forced her to reevaluate her priorities: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” After pondering that question, the extreme dream was reborn. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. She no longer had the body of a world-class athlete. There would be grueling hours of training. There would be complicated logistics to work through. She would need to sell her dream to a support team of 35 people. There would ultimately be setbacks and failures and nearly fatal encounters with jellyfish. But Nyad’s mantra was: Find a way.
This isn’t just a story of an impressive athletic feat. Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Andre Agassi’s Open, Nyad’s story also delves into her family history and personal struggles, and how they informed and shaped her future. Nyad is an impressive storyteller — here’s one of her several TED talks — and this book will leave you feeling inspired to pursue something amazing with your own wild and precious life.