I’ve written book reviews for several different sites over the years, all of which are now defunct. This is the first in a series of mini-reviews that will parcel out some of my favourite reads over the past few years.
CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL
by Glen David Gold
Carter Beats the Devil opens with Carter the Great executing a particularly risky trick. He murders President Warren G. Harding on stage before feeding him to a lion, only to have Harding burst from the lion’s stomach alive and well. The show is an unbridled success. But a few hours later Harding is found dead in his hotel room and Carter is considered a prime suspect. He flees, only to be pursued by Secret Service agents, most notably aging Serviceman Jack Griffin.
The novel then jumps back in time to tell Carter’s life story, of how he came to perform magic, how he met the girl of his dreams and then shot her out of a cannon to her death, how he befriended Houdini, made arch-enemies, married a blind woman, and used the invention of the electric television to propel him to heights no other magician had ever dared.
Still, what’s most fascinating about the book is the time it’s set in. Taking place in San Francisco during the roaring 20s, magic and science are on a converging path. The public is constantly being informed of astounding scientific breakthroughs, to the point where many question if anything is possible.
“There was a thin line between pulling rabbits out of hats and turning water into wine. And when one dealt in wonders, the temptation to pretend divinity, when people so wanted divinity, was extreme … As the world now had odorless gasses that ate away flesh and molds that prevented disease, why not a device to speak with the dead? No one really knew what was possible anymore, and further, whether the means to a given miracle were technical or a mystery. Carter had noted how strictly physical explanations, like X rays showing the skeleton within, were ultimately a disappointment. What the public wanted was to marvel twice, once at what they’d seen, and then again at how progress, in which they had faith, could still be trumped by the hand of God.”
This was the last great era of magic. With 20th century scientific breakthroughs and widespread education, the public could no longer be fooled into believing that an elephant could simply appear and disappear on stage. Carter Beats the Devil is a long, drawn-out love letter to a time gone by, one we’ll never see again (no matter how hard Criss Angel tries).
THE GOLDEN MEAN
by Annabel Lyon
In 343 BCE, King Philip II of Macedon engaged the philosopher Aristotle as tutor for his 13-year-old son. Philip, who was well on his way to taking control of the entire Greek peninsula, and had his eyes on the Persian Empire, had already taken care to have Alexander schooled in the arts of war. But wishing to temper warrior passions with the influence of philosophy and the arts, he turned to the celebrated philosopher, a former playmate from his own boyhood.
Aristotle is initially reluctant to set aside his own ambitions in Athens in order to tutor the rebellious future king of the world. But the philosopher soon realizes that teaching this charming, yet mercurial teenager is a necessity amid the ever more sinister intrigues of Philip’s court. But as Alexander grows older and seems destined to transform the world for better or for worse, Aristotle’s lessons may be all that stands between a benevolent king and a hungry conqueror.
The underlying theme of the novel, as asserted in its title, is Aristotle’s quest to find the “golden mean” within Alexander. The golden mean is that desirable middle between extremes, the perfect equilibrium between excess and insufficiency. In Alexander’s case, the stable center between war and academia, the physical and the mental, arrogance and humility.
The Golden Mean is a graceful re-imagining of one of history’s most fascinating relationships—that between the legendary philosopher Aristotle and his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great. Lyon writes clearly, sometimes beautifully, and the book is an absolute pleasure to read. It’s a stunningly accomplished work from a first-time novelist.
“I accept that the greatest happiness comes to those capable of the highest things … That’s where you and I walk away from the rest of the world. You and I can appreciate the glory of things. We walk to the very edge of things as everyone else knows and understands and experiences them, and then we walk the next step. We go places no one has ever been. That’s who we are. That’s who you’ve taught me to be.”
LAND OF THE BLIND
by Jess Walter
In Land of the Blind, Jess Walter has written a heart-rending thriller about a man who wants police detective Caroline Mabry to witness his confession to a crime that has yet to be reported. With legal paper in hand, Clark Mason proceeds to write a long story of a childhood friendship gone horribly wrong—a “story of weakness, not of strength”—one in which he alternately befriends and betrays oddball Eli Boyle.
Years later, Eli agrees to let Clark turn his recreational, hobby-like fantasy game, Empire, into a computer game. Eli also bankrolls Clark’s attempt at Congress. But when the techno boom busts and Clark’s platform runs out of steam, Eli enacts a final, horrifying revenge on those who made his childhood a living hell, including the woman Clark has been in love with since grade school.
The strength of Land of the Blind is its theme: that the scars of childhood often last our entire lives. They shape us, as adults, in ways we never fully understand. Clark’s physical scars are evident—including the eye he lost as a child. Full of allusions to sight and vision, the book shows us that emotional scars are far more debilitating and every bit as permanent.
Clark’s honest portrayal of his life—one laced with poignancy—comes from a gutsy clarity that comes from a person with nothing left to lose. For all his flaws, Clark remains sympathetic, thanks to his relentless attachment to Eli Boyle and Jess Walter’s enthralling script. Somehow, Walter is able to transform a book about life’s failure to deliver on the promises of youth into a book you can’t possibly put down.
I highly recommend Land of the Blind, especially those who were teased in school, or humiliated, or moved by the fear of any of the above to act against their better nature.