Lots of Running, Impressive Hair, and a Not-Boring Book for Christmas

In 1820, James Fenimore Cooper read aloud to his wife Susan from a boring English novel. At least legend suggests that he thought it was boring and he expressed as much to his wife. She allegedly responded that if he thought he was so clever, he should just write a better book himself.

Cooper accepted the challenge. The result was his first novel, Precaution, a book written in a style similar to the works of Jane Austen, which though widely beloved, probably are found boring by most husbands reading aloud to their wives.

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James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote a book because he was bored before writing some more books because he was kind of good at it. By John Wesley Jarvis, Public Domain

But the book sold okay in England. It was accredited to an anonymous Englishwoman, rather than to the New York man who would go on from that mild success to create the first big fictional American action hero, one that would one day become Daniel Day-Lewis running across the big screen in a distinctly American and probably slightly less boring fashion. To an epic soundtrack I might add.

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757—published in 1826—became one of the most widely read novels of its day and firmly established James Fenimore Cooper as one of the greats. It’s the second book in the Leatherstockings five-book series that features Natty Bumppo, an American frontiersman raised by Delaware Indians to become a fearless warrior who runs a lot and has super impressive hair.

The series is also often referred to as the first real example of the western genre of literature, the same genre that before too long introduced the world to the heroic card-playing, gun-fighting, whiskey-drinking cowboy who finds himself in the middle of the conflict between Native Americans and settlers, outlaws and hard-working ranchers, or war and a life of farming in peace. Often while wearing an impressively large hat.

It’s a genre that has waxed and waned in popularity through the years and I admit it’s not one I usually gravitate toward. But I did recently read a western novel I liked quite a lot. The book is Guerilla Bride by author J.J. Zerr, who is not an anonymous Englishwoman. And this is a not-boring book.

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A not-boring book I enjoyed.

It follows the story of Emerson Sharp, an unlucky young man trying to find his moral compass and a good horse in the border states at the height of the American Civil War. In the process he becomes a talented gambler, fumbles into the war, accidentally becomes an accessory to murder, and falls in love a time or two. And yes he runs a lot, though usually on a horse and with much less impressive hair than Daniel Day-Lewis’s Natty Bumppo.

I don’t know if you like western fiction, or know someone who does, but I enjoyed this one. And you know, Christmas is coming up and books make great gifts. I often hesitate to recommend reads because I’m afraid that if the person I gave a title to ends up not loving the book, I will be judged harshly. Still, I am definitely willing to venture that this is probably not the most boring book you or the western fiction reader on your Christmas list has ever read. And if it is, well then you should write a better one.

By the way, if you happen to have a special someone on your shopping list who enjoys humorous books about history, family life, sheep and experimental rocketry, I may have another not-boring suggestion for you.

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So You See It Could Be A Lot Worse

In November of 1922, a young foreign correspondent writing for the Toronto Star, kissed his wife goodbye at their home in Paris and boarded a train for Switzerland to cover the Lausanne Peace Conference. Like many young writers just starting out, Ernest Hemingway had not yet found his way into publishing the kinds of works he really wanted to produce, but he managed to get some networking done while working his day job and soon editor Lincoln Steffens expressed an interest in his fiction.

At that point, Hemingway did what any writer looking for his big break would surely do. He contacted his wife Hadley in Paris and asked her to bring his writing to Switzerland. Hadley readily agreed and packed up her husband’s work, carbon copies and all, into a small suitcase. Then she boarded a train just as soon as she could.

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There could be some very valuable papers stuffed in a suitcase in someone’s attic somewhere. photo credit: FUMIGRAPHIK_Photographist Travel via photopin (license)

Before the train pulled out of the station, Mrs. Hemingway stowed her bags and left them just long enough to locate and buy a bottle of water. When she returned, the suitcase containing all the written works of her future Pulitzer Prize winning ex-husband was gone.  The works lost included several short stories as well as a novel about World War I.

I don’t know about you, but to me this is a soul-crushing kind of a story. I’ve borne witness to the agony authors feel when their laptops self-destruct and swallow partial manuscripts. I myself have misplaced thumb drives or failed to back up scenes and lived to regret it. Thousands of words have tripped from my fingertips and fallen, for one reason or another, off the face of the earth, never to be recovered.  No matter how careful we are it happens.

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Ernest Hemingway writing bigger and better things. (Public Domain)

And it’s not always the worst thing ever. Often it leads to better scenes, more careful word choices, more thoughtful expressions, and all around improved creative works.  Sometimes, it even pushes us to find new ways to share our work with the world.

Recently I lost a novel. I didn’t leave it unattended in a suitcase at the train station, though some days it feels like that’s what happened. Instead I entrusted it to a publisher that fell on hard times and proved unable to care for the work as promised.

The somewhat complicated situation has caused me many sleepless nights and no shortage of agony, but I also count myself lucky. As the author of a project that had not yet reached publication (something that after a previous one-year delay was finally supposed to happen this past month), my position is not as difficult as many of the authors this publisher used to work with before ceasing all communications and leaving everyone scrambling for a way to reclaim their rights.

I know that some of you lovely readers will want to venture legal advice and while I appreciate the desire to help, I assure you I’ve explored a lot of options and carefully considered my best course of action. I’ve had a long time to watch this play out. I just wanted to include you in the loop, and also assure you that the book is going to make it into the world in the coming year, albeit at first only as an audio book.

That’s certainly not the first format I would have chosen, but it’s a format to which I still legally own the rights. The advantage of this is that because a companion novel to the first is already almost ready to go to press, and is in no way connected to the defunct publisher, I’ll be able to release the two together, which will be a great experiment in marketing.

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What’s the best way to cope with losing a book? Write another one, of course!

So you see it could be a lot worse.

Hemingway never attempted to re-write the novel he lost. Instead he went on to write bigger and presumably better things, but it seems he may have never totally recovered from the loss either. In some of his drunker moments, he was known to occasionally admit that the loss of all of his work at once was a big factor in his decision to divorce his first wife.

All I need to do is divorce a publisher.

 

By the way, if you would like to receive updates as I approach launching not one, but two books into the world in the coming months, you can sign up to do just that right here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

A Most Inestimable Piece of Balderdash

In 1834, not long after submitting to the Southern Literary Messenger the disturbing story “Berenice,” in which a man yanks the teeth from his wife’s corpse only to discover that she wasn’t quite dead after all, Edgar Allan Poe sent something equally disturbing to the magazine. What he offered was a harsh critical review of the book Confessions of a Poet by Laughton Osborn, who may have been somewhat less cheerful than his name suggests.

In the beginning of his book, Osborn (publishing anonymously) claimed he would commit suicide upon completion of the work and that as he began the book, he placed a loaded pistol on the table beside him for that purpose. Poe astutely pointed out that even were he to work quickly, the poet would not likely complete a book in less than thirty days. By then the powder in the load would no longer be usable and the world might be unfortunately subjected to a sequel of Confessions.

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I have pretty thick skin, but this is not a man I’d want to have leaving a review for my book. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even for a man known for writing dark words, that’s pretty heartless. A few months later, Poe was charged with writing a review for a novel by well connected New York journalist Theodore S. Fay titled Norman Leslie. Poe called the book a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or villainously insulted.”

It wasn’t long before Poe earned something of a reputation as a literary critic, that reputation being mostly that he was an insufferable jerk. Of course, today Poe is far more well-known than either Osborn or Fay, and there were a few authors whose work he actually appreciated.

One of those was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who Poe wrote about in a review of Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an old Manse for Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1847. There Poe claimed Hawthorne was unoriginal, peculiar, and “infinitely too fond of allegory,” but possessed “the purest style, the finest taste…the most delicate humor…the most consummate ingenuity.” That’s about as high praise as anyone might be able to expect, I think, from the author of a story about getting a man drunk and burying him alive behind a brick wall.

But in the same review, Poe also states that it’s not for him to say whether Hawthorne, or any other author, has impressed his readers. And he’s right. Because ultimately the people who read a work, the majority of whom probably don’t write harsh critical reviews for a living, get to decide whether or not they enjoyed it.

I have to assume that Poe would find the state of book reviews today pretty irritating, full of flattery and lacking (hopefully) in the suggestion that the author’s suicide would be preferable to a sequel. But I think it’s kind of great that in this era of Amazon and social media, the book reviews that matter most are the simple ones in which readers tell other readers the gist of what they thought.

And reviews really do matter, not only because word of mouth and recommendations are the way most people figure out what to add to their pile of books to read, but also because the fairies that live inside our computers give the numbers of reviews a great deal of weight when determining what to present to the next reader to come along in search of a book.

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Sample review: “Five Stars…This book has absolutely given new life to my furniture!”

I’ve been very fortunate so far. My book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense has been out for about three weeks and in that time it has received ten reviews on Amazon and several on Goodreads. As a bonus, not one has called it a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash.” Yet.

I am so grateful for all those who have added Launching Sheep to their pile of books to be read (both real and virtual), for those who have already flipped through it, and to the folks who have actually even read it and are already using it to prop up the wobbly ends of their sofas. And I am overwhelmingly grateful to the people who have taken the time to offer their thoughts, especially on Amazon where the computer fairies are particularly nosy.

If you have read the book, and think it might be worth someone else’s time, would you please consider leaving a review? It really doesn’t have to be long and pretentious, or cleverly harsh. Just a simple sentence or two about what you liked or didn’t like is all it takes. If you genuinely don’t have the time or inclination, though it might briefly occur to me that you’re unoriginal, peculiar, and infinitely too fond of allegory, I promise I will still think you’re a lovely person, and I really am delighted you were interested enough to read it at all.

One Brick at a Time: The Greatest Book on Earth

I don’t usually post on Tuesdays. But today is a special day, because five years ago, on May 9, 2012, I posted for the first time in this space as the Practical Historian. I didn’t really know what the blog would be about back then. I mean, I had a vague notion that since I write historical fiction, I should probably blog about history, but that was all I knew.

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Five years of blogging means I deserve a cupcake, right?

I was also a little scared, because I never liked history all that much. That is, until I started to research it as a storyteller. When I did that, I began to discover all of these weird and wonderful moments that make up the story of this world full of weird and wonderful people.

But right away I had a problem. You see, I’m not a historian. And I certainly never wanted to claim to be one, so I decided to take a very lighthearted approach to the subject, and to do my best along the way not to claim any authority I had no right to claim. I started to slowly build up the blog one brick at a time until it took on a distinctive, if somewhat unusual, shape.

What I ended up with was a blog that was a little bit history and a little bit me, one that was kind of funny, and sort of smart, and occasionally silly. And then all you readers started to show up, and you turned out to be funny and smart and occasionally silly, too.

Week after week, I found myself laying down bricks, and more and more of you followed along to see what I was up to, winding through history with me, with really no rhyme or reason at all to the path, and usually ending up somewhere surprising.

It’s like what the fine citizens of New York found themselves doing one sunny afternoon when a few of them noticed a poorly dressed gentleman laying bricks. When I say he was laying bricks, I don’t mean he was a mason busy with a construction project. Instead, this man was laying a brick here and then moving down the walkway to lay another one there, lined up just so. Whatever he was doing, he did it with precision, and in complete silence. The crowd that soon gathered found him fascinating, and as the man walked on, placing his bricks, they followed.

They followed him around the block and straight into Barnum’s American Museum where many of them purchased a ticket and continued their pursuit through the unusual displays they found there. As the crowd became distracted by the wonders and oddities in P.T. Barnum’s museum, the curious man and his bricks slipped out the back to continue on the path, where he picked up and replaced each precisely set brick as he came to it.

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P. T. Barnum, the publicist I would hire, if only I could. By unattributed – Harvard Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier in the day, the man had asked Barnum for a handout and what the great showman and even greater salesman offered instead was a job. Directed by Barnum, the man’s nonsensical bricklaying drew a crowd so large that after a few days, the police forced him to stop because traffic couldn’t get through. And many of the people who flocked to observe the brick man, paid to follow him into the museum. That’s some clever marketing by a man who called his own circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and got us all to go along with it.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for the last month or so, you may have seen that as I approached this big blogiversary, the way I decided to celebrate was to publish a collection of some of my favorite posts from the past five years. If you’ve enjoyed the blog, I think you’ll enjoy the book (which features much better editing and a lovely cover). And if not, then maybe you know someone who would.

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Available today from Amazon and anyone else who sells books. I think there are still a few others.

So, I want to ask you for a favor. If you have appreciated the blog at any point over the last five years, would you be willing to share this post, or tell someone about the book, or mention it on Facebook, or give it a shout out on your blog, or send out a Tweet, or pin it, or Snapchat it to your grandma, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days?

Because as much as I love to write and as proud as I am of the blog and the book, I’m no P.T. Barnum and promotion scares me silly. I’ll do my best, but I’m pretty sure I will never be bold enough to call this the Greatest Book on Earth (if you feel so compelled, please feel free). And I sure would be grateful if you could lay down a few bricks along your path.

Thank you so much for five years. You are, without doubt, the Greatest Blog Readers on Earth.

 

If you’re into Twitter, here are a couple of ready-to-place bricks you can use:

Tweet: A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+

Tweet: History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+

A Paper Book Smack Dab in the Middle of Nowhere

The intersection of State Route 206 and Morton Hill Road in Sullivan County, New York, could legitimately be considered the middle of nowhere. It’s a few miles north of Roscoe, New York, which sports a population of around 550 people, excellent fly fishing opportunities, and an allegedly haunted castle. But it’s Roscoe’s northerly neighbor, at that intersection in the middle of nowhere that might be the most interesting thing about the area.

Because that’s where, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the town of Agloe, New York was imagined into existence by Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company. On their map of New York State, Lindberg and Alpers chose to set a trap for potential copyright infringers; and so right there in the middle of nowhere, where no one would ever have a reason to go, the mapmakers placed a dot they decided to label Agloe.

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Agloe is an anagram of the initials of Lindberg and Alpers, a good name, I think, for a dot in the middle of nowhere. By OpenStreetMap contributors (OpenStreetMap) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Copyright infringement was a big problem in the mapmaking industry at the time (before GPS and the worldwide fleet of mapmaking Google cameras mounted on cars, boats, snowmobiles, and camels), and “paper towns” (because they exist only on paper) weren’t uncommon. And you can bet Lindberg and Alpers were glad they’d included Agloe when Rand McNally produced a New York State map a few years later that included the name of their made up town.

The problem was that Rand McNally’s lawyers had a pretty tight defense, because at some point along the way, a New York State couple saw the name Agloe on a map and decided to honor the little vanished town by naming their business in that approximate location the Agloe General Store.  Rand McNally claimed that their cartographers had visited the site, discovered the business, and concluded that this was one tiny New York hamlet that most certainly existed.

Still, the “town” and the business were in the middle of nowhere at the intersection of lightly traveled roads and, not surprisingly, the Agloe General Store didn’t last too long. Today, you can still visit Agloe, though you’ll have to plan your route to the intersection rather than the town since Google Maps removed the name in 2014. Once there you’ll find a nice sign welcoming visitors to the former site of the Agloe General Store and the made-up town it legitimized. You won’t find much else.

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Author John Green thought the concept of paper towns was pretty cool, too, and Agloe features prominently in his novel.

I find the concept of paper towns fascinating, and as a writer, I particularly love the story of Agloe, which is an example of something invented on paper and imagined into actual existence.

That’s what writers do, or at least that’s what we try to do. We think and imagine and plan (and copyright), and eventually we produce a book, our imagination on paper, and we hope that someone will read it and will find that it has meaning in the real world.

In some ways, I’ve found blogging to be that way, too. Every week (and much more often than that for some), we write our posts and float our dots out there into the blogosphere, a place that can sometimes feel like the middle of nowhere. But then, if we keep at it, along come readers, many of whom are floating their own dots out into the virtual world and we begin to find meaning in one another’s work.

But writing in the middle of nowhere in the blogosphere doesn’t always feel tangible. I’ve been at this for a while now, and have been fortunate to have interacted with many gifted writers and amazing people in this space. On May 9 I will have been blogging as the Practical Historian for five years, and I continue to love doing it. To celebrate this milestone, I am releasing a tangible collection, (on paper, but also in e-formats) of some of my favorite posts and essays on history, life, and nonsense.

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A whole box full of highly meaningful paper books that really do exist.

If you’re interested, the book is available to preorder pretty much wherever you like to order books (and yes, on Amazon, too) and I promise that even though you can’t actually hold this paper (or electronic) book in your hands quite yet, I just received a shipment of honest to goodness copies. I’m not convinced you’ll find any great meaning in it, but it’s a fun book that really does exist. And it’s waiting for you just up ahead at that intersection in the middle of nowhere, not far from the haunted castle.

A Spring Break Disappearing Act

This week my children have been on Spring Break, a time of staying up late, sleeping in, and generally making their mother panic about how to fill the many hours of a rapidly approaching summer break. At this point in their academic careers, it’s also a time for them to set aside school projects in favor of more leisurely passions.

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A top hat, a cape, and a rabbit. What more does a young magician need?

For my first born son, a bright 11-year-old, that means magic. I’m not actually sure when this latest obsession began to take root, but for months he’s been studying library books full of sleight of hand techniques and grand illusions. My basement is filled with discarded attempts at fashioning a cardboard vanishing cabinet. He has even worked hard to design schemes that can convince an audience of his psychic abilities.

This last one is pretty easy to unravel as he always recruits his little brother to be his less-than-subtle audience plant. Still, I’m reasonably confident that if he sticks with it, he will eventually figure out how to pull off some convincing illusions.

In fact, he’s already managed a few fairly impressive card tricks that I have a hard time figuring out. It’s these he’s worked on the most, mastering some classics and tweaking a few to make them his own. Now I’m thinking the book he might really need to read is what has become known as the “Card Sharp Bible,” The Expert at the Card Table: The Classic Treatise on Card Manipulation by S. W. Erdnase.

Originally published by James McKinney and Co in Chicago in 1902, this little book has been in continuous print for over one hundred years and is widely considered the most influential book on card manipulation ever written.

Erdnase’s work includes sixteen techniques of blind shuffles and card cutting, with illustrations. Bottom dealing, deck stacking, and second dealing are all thoroughly explained. There are discussions of card palming, sleight of hand illusions, and plain old card tricks.

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Pick a card, any card.

 

But the most impressive trick tackled by Erdnase is the author’s own disappearing act, because, even after more than a hundred years, and numerous exhaustive searches, no one is quite sure of the author’s true identity. We know only that S. W. Erdnase is a pseudonym (understandable given the potentially illegal applications of the subject matter in his book) and that the author sold his rights to the book a year after it was originally published.

There’s been A LOT of speculation about who he might have been. From an interview conducted forty years later with the original illustrator, we have a vague description of a short , well-spoken, and pleasant man, who may have mentioned a familial connection to political cartoonist Louis Dalrymple.

It’s not a lot to go on, but clever investigators quickly latched onto the fact that S. W. Erdnase is the backwards spelling of E. S. Andrews. This has led to a number of potential candidates and dead ends, including a notorious Chicago conman by that name and a Herbert Andrews whose business was located a few blocks from the book’s publisher and whose wife was Emma Shaw Andrews.

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Not the most elegant magical prop, but give him time.

 

Other clever investigators have put forward the suggestion of successful mining engineer W. E. Sanders, whose name anagrams nicely into S. W. Erdnase. Still others have proposed Peruvian magician L’Homme Masque whose prowess in the magic community at the time might at least recommend him as a contributor, or Harry S. Thompson, a salesman who was both a short, well-spoken man and a friend to Harry Houdini.

The debate rages on, but it seems unlikely that the true Expert at the Card Table will ever reappear. The real question, it seems, is how he managed to so completely vanish in the first place. Personally, I’m betting it had something to do with a vanishing cabinet, made of cardboard, in his mother’s basement.

No Historical Figures were Harmed in the Writing of this Book: A Review of The Magician’s Lie

On the night of January 19, 1897, illusionist and recent widow Adelaide Herrmann stood before a firing squad at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. In front of a large crowd of people that I imagine were sitting on the edges of their seats, the squad opened fire. When the guns were silent, Herrmann still stood, revealing to the audience that she had successfully caught six bullets and was completely unharmed.

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Famous performers of the simultaneous bullet catch, in which neither has yet died. But they’re not revealing how they do it. photo credit: Penn & Teller via photopin (license)

Not every magician who has performed a version of the bullet catch illusion has been so fortunate. The earliest performance that I could find reference to occurred around 1580, and was accomplished by a French magician who lived long enough afterward to be killed by a disgruntled assistant more than thirty years later. But there have been a fair number (both verifiable and not) of magicians injured and possibly more than a dozen killed in the course of performing the catch.

How exactly the illusion is accomplished I couldn’t tell you (though plenty of people have offered explanations on the Internet) and even Penn and Teller aren’t revealing this one. What is clear to me is that it’s both dangerous and enduring (and quite possibly stupid), as iconic to the illusion performance industry as sawing a woman in half.

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Adelaide Herrmann, the Queen of Magic, levitating, which is not nearly as dangerous as catching a bullet. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What makes Adelaide Herrmann’s performance notable is that this marked her debut as a headlining magician, taking the place of her deceased husband, illusionist Alexander Herrmann who’d been scheduled to perform it. Adelaide never included the illusion in her act again (an indication that she was not stupid), but she went on to become a highly successful illusionist in her own right, performing in Vaudeville circuits until finally retiring in 1928 at the age of seventy-four.

Her long and successful career as the Queen of Magic, highly respected by fellow illusionists, including Harry Houdini (a man who once announced that he would perform the bullet catch and later cancelled the performance citing concerns over the danger), in a field that was (and still is) male dominated, makes her a truly fascinating person in my book. But until recently I’d never heard of her.

And that is why I love to read historical fiction, because sometime I encounter truly interesting people with great stories. I was introduced to the Queen of Magic by the novel The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister. The story follows a fictional young female dancer turned illusionist named Arden at the turn of the century, who possesses a bit of true magical ability as well as a fascination with illusion and a love for the stage.

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Seems like a good week to take a break from the news and read a good book.

 

In the novel, Arden is mentored by Herrmann and eventually takes over her circuit, adding her own flare to the show, including an act in which she (a woman) has the audacity to saw a man in half. When one performance ends in the discovery of a murdered man stuffed inside her equipment, Arden attempts to convince a small town police officer (with plenty of issues of his own) to hear out her story before deciding her fate.

The novel does play with history a little (like by shortening the career span of Adelaide Herrmann) but I don’t think any historical figures were particularly harmed by those choices. All in all, this was a beautiful story, ultimately about the illusions we can create for ourselves, the lies we must believe in order to misunderstand our own predicament, and the very real danger of playing with magic and sometimes catching a bullet.