Calendar Girl

Back in the days before the Internet, the most common way to obtain the lyrics to a song was to play the record over and over obsessively (which you were probably doing anyway). The problem with this method, however, was that it was inevitable that you couldn’t make some of the words out, and you would embarrass yourself by singing the wrong words.

So plan number two was to buy a monthly magazine—I forget its name, maybe someone can remember—which printed the lyrics of the top twenty songs of the month. I remember being so excited to find this magazine. I posted a list of the top ten songs on my bedroom wall, and sung all the songs in order, pretending I was both the WMCA DJ and the radio pop singers.

This song by Neil Sedaka was the first song I remember learning from the magazine. I thought, at eight years old, that it was the epitome of brilliant songwriting.

Monday starts the week off fine. Click on the video to play.

Thanks to YouTuber nucker2001

Time for Enlightenment


Natalie Goldberg’s book The True Secret of Writing, like many of her other books, talks about the relationship of Zen meditation practice to writing. Reading it recently reminded me of a favorite Zen story not in the book, this:

The eager student seeks out the Zen Master and at last is able to get a meeting with him. “Master, please, tell me how long it will take to achieve enlightenment.”

The teacher replies, “Twenty years.”

“Twenty years? No, no, you don’t understand. I am going to follow your instructions to the letter, I have a will of iron, I will meditate every day for as long as necessary, twice as long, I will not stray nor will I rest until I achieve enlightenment.”

“In that case,” says the teacher, “Forty years.”

Take the Star Out of the Window: John Prine

Sometime in the early 1970s, on a very cold winter day, I was walking along Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan and saw a stash of record albums in a trash can. Never one to miss an opportunity for free, I grabbed them even though I had never heard of any of the musicians. One of them appeared to be an album of country-western tunes, and though NYC had recently gotten its first country-western radio station, WHN, back then that wasn’t the kind of music I usually listened to.

However, I put John Prine’s Diamonds in the Rough album on the turntable, and it became one of my favorites of the year and thereafter. There were so many great songs on it, including Take the Star Out of the Window, which to the best of my knowledge they never dared play on WHN. In a time of polarized madness over the Vietnam War, though, this song seemed to be a few minutes of sanity and reality.

When Nature Calls

When Nature calls, if you are lucky, you will have a camera with you. Luckily enough, I did. I was sitting on the pot of an outdoor Port-O-San-type toilet near the beautiful Ashokan Reservoir, and I almost fell off the pot with laughter when I read the sign on the inside door, facing me:


(Click to enlarge)

The name of the toilet company, by the way, was CALLAHEAD.

The Way of the Storyteller


A few days ago I came across a used copy of The Way of the Storyteller by Ruth Sawyer. I had never heard of this 1942 publication before, but as I read the first few paragraphs in passing, I was hooked by its old-fashioned sense of wisdom, practicality, and humanity. There was something about reading this book that made me feel that I was in the presence of a true artist, a master teacher, for the message that runs through the book stands undiluted, even after all these years. I went to look up the book on Wikipedia later, and my instinct was confirmed—I was not the only one so captured by the book. It turns out that The Way of the Storyteller is an enormously influential book in the field, and Ruth Sawyer is the patron saint of storytelling.

The storytelling that Sawyer is talking about here is mainly the storyteller of the oral tradition. And though there has been a resurgence of the modern day griot in some quarters recently, this book from 75 years ago reminds us of just what an integral part of everyday life oral storytelling used to be, intimately woven into the social and educational fabric of the day. Sawyer talks about her storytelling in elementary schools, libraries, reform schools, and prisons all across the country. She talks also about the restorative power of folk tales, and how by telling the myths and folk tales of a culture, one generation raises another.

Sawyer takes her art very seriously and has the aura of a tough taskmaster with no time for foolishness. She warns would-be storytellers that there are no shortcuts available and that telling stories requires lots of hard work. The tale must be chosen with the audience in mind, and the storyteller must be absolutely familiar with the folk tradition of the tale, she warns, otherwise there is no chance of getting to the heart of the story.

And the heart of the story is what is always important. She never lets go of that. She believes deeply in the need for, and nourishment of, folk stories for all children. She believes that if children are told such stories when they are younger, that then they can learn to be full adults. But, she warns, the stories are not for the sake of teaching lessons or morals, but for the sake of imagination, for the sake of inner freedom, for the sake of the sacred bond formed between storyteller and listener.

When I read such a unapologetic humanistic view of education and art, it makes me sad and happy at the same time. Sad, because when I look at the educational system at this point in the US, it is so far from what Ruth Sawyer envisioned. She doesn’t talk about “achievement” or “college readiness” or “testing” or “assessment.” Instead, she talks about how to lead children through delight onward to wisdom by telling stories. On the other hand, I am happy to have stumbled across this classic, because the knowledge that in all times and in all countries there have always been those who have championed the message of true relation, communication, and the importance of art, gives courage and permission for one to be courageous as well. There’s so much nonsense all around us that it’s a blessing to hear from someone who reminds us what it’s all about.

It’s a flashlight beam cutting through the dark, illuminating a pathway. This is a classic book with classic wisdom.

Supreme Advice

One of the genres of 50s and 60s pop music was “The Advice Song,” wherein the singers would impart to their teen audiences hard-earned wisdom, like Dion’s “Keep away from Runaround Sue!” But the girl groups gave the best advice, and this Monday, Diana Ross and the Supremes give advice doubly certified by their Mamma. Click on the video to increase your love knowledge.

And if you play it three times in a row, who’s going to know?

Thanks to YouTuber matsuri777

Putting The CIA in MagiCIAn


In 1953, Frank Olson, who without his knowledge had been slipped a dose of LSD some days earlier, flew through a plate glass window of New York City’s Statler Hilton Hotel, ending up dead on the sidewalk, ten floors below. His son, Eric, says he was pushed; The CIA, Olson’s employer, said it was suicide. The CIA said they should know, since the only other person in the hotel room at the time of the death was another CIA agent. When Olson’s body was later exhumed by the family, an autopsy showed blunt instrument trauma to the middle of his forehead.

Olson was a victim of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, a program meant to investigate and utilize all manner of covert weapons that could be useful in the interrogation and manipulation of the minds of enemy agents. LSD, a relatively new drug at the time, was seen as a leading candidate for such duty. There was one major problem, however: the covert administration of the drug, and chemicals like it, required a certain measure of sleight-of-hand, artifice, ruse, and subterfuge. An expert in the highly specialized technology of deception was put onto the CIA payroll, his charge to write a manual of trickery to be used by The Company’s field agents. The expert’s name was John Mulholland; he was, at the time, perhaps the most well-known and knowledgeable magician in the world.

Writer Michael Edwards got wind of this story, meeting with Eric Olson, Frank’s son, and through Edwards’s major investigative reporting utilizing the Freedom Of Information Act, and the records from The Rockefeller Commission’s 1970s investigation into the CIA’s illegal domestic spying, Edwards was able to piece together many of the details in this story of conjuring and CIA history. His report was published by Richard Kaufman in the April 2001 issue of Genii Magazine, the world’s best-selling monthly magic magazine. Two years later, in the August 2003 issue of Genii, Kaufman published the text of Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception, the title of Mulholland’s CIA manual.

In 2008, Ben Robinson, a student of magician Milbourne Christopher, a contemporary and friend of Mulholland, published a book called The MagiCIAn: John Mulholland’s Secret Life.  Robinson’s book, is really three books in one, and it’s hard for me to say which is the most fascinating: the bio of scholar-magician-collector John Mulholland; the story of CIA covert ops in the 50s and onwards; or the intersection of the two, how Mulholland provided service to the CIA through the utilization of his conjuring knowledge.

Much of the material for the last two parts was similar to what Edwards had already written, but independently verified based on Mulholland’s personal files. On Christopher’s death, Maurine, his widow, had given over to Robinson certain personal papers and effects of John Mulholland’s that had been in Christopher’s possession, relevant to the story.

Robinson’s book, which I recently finished reading, is engrossing, and anyone interested in the history of conjuring will be enthralled by it. The meat of the story—Mulholland’s involvement with the CIA—is put into its proper context, situating Mulholland as the perfect person in the perfect places at the perfect time. Robinson also gives a very good overview of the MK-ULTRA program and the subsequent experiments in Psi and ESP that the agency obsessed over.

But a couple of things were more than curious to me as I read Robinson’s book. First off, there is no mention of Edwards at all in the main text of the book. The only mention of him is in an alphabetical listing of acknowledgements that includes around one hundred names, and, later, a reference in the extensive bibliography. This seems to me remarkably ungenerous as Edwards’s lengthy article was the first to approach the story from a magician’s point of view. Edwards’s name does not appear in the index. Stranger still, the first 2008 edition of Robinson’s book makes no mention that the text of the Mulholland manual had already been printed in Genii five years earlier. To read the book, one would think that the text was unavailable to the public.

And again: in the 2010 revised edition of MagiCIAn, no mention is made of Genii‘s printing the text of Mulholland’s manual. But the strangest part is that Robinson describes a lecture he gave about Mulholland to an audience that included former CIA agent Robert Wallace and CIA head (and magician) John McLaughlin. Following that description, Robinson points out that Mulholland’s manual had been recently published in a 2009 HarperCollins edition that was edited by the same Robert Wallace, with a forward by McLaughlin.

Surely this must be a first in CIA history, the printing and authorization of one of its covert manuals for the general public. So the CIA is celebrating the outing of one of its covert programs? How can this make any sense other than to believe that they are hoping to take control of the narrative? Robinson hints that there was a second manual written by Mulholland, but the CIA wouldn’t approve its release. Is there any other information that the CIA is still seeking to keep secret about Mulholland’s participation, the Olson affair, or the MK-ULTRA program? A few days before Olson died, after he had ingested the LSD, he became extremely paranoid and agitated, and told family members he wanted to quit the CIA. Two CIA men took him to see a Dr. Abramson, who was affiliated with The Agency. What was Abramson’s method of “calming Olson down”? He gave Olson a bottle of bourbon and the barbiturate Nembutol, an obviously potentially deadly combination. The next day, Olson was taken to Mulholland “to cheer him up.” Three days later, Olson was dead on the NYC sidewalks.

Those of us who grew up in the Nixon years may recall Tricky Dick’s method of covering up insalubrious activities: “the limited modified hangout.” That is, you give them part of the story—the part they already know, in order to pacify them, and then claim the story has been told, nothing to see here, move along. We’ve seen how the CIA has been doing exactly the same thing recently with its attempt to cover up its involvement with the psychologists of the American Psychological Association who participated in torture at Guantanamo; they persistently did “the limited modified hangout,” as each new piece of damning evidence appeared. Fortunately, the efforts of Arrigo, Reisner, Soldz, and others were able to penetrate the fog and get to the truth.

Now I am not suggesting that Mulholland helped to kill Olson. What I am saying is that I am not happy with a book that lays out as much information as Robinson’s does and yet then makes a blanket statement that “Mulholland was a patriot” and “Conclusively, John Mulholland was incapable of murder” even while saying “He did nothing wrong by teaching covert operatives the world of sleight of hand. While he may have trained people to kill, he did not ever commit murder…” I do not believe these are the words of an objective scholar; Mulholland is certainly entitled to the presumption of innocence in the absence of other evidence; but that should not mean that the book is closed either on Mulholland or MK-ULTRA. The CIA’s covert programs have done much harm to Americans as the Rockefeller Commission detailed. And just as there are real ethical questions about whether psychologists should lend their knowledge to the torture of others, there are real ethical questions about magicians teaching the technology of deception to those who have such a long record of abuse of that information.

So get a subscription to Genii and get access to all the back copies and read Edwards’s article and the manual. And get a copy of Robinson’s book for an incredible overview of the life of John Mulholland and his employment by the CIA.

Celebrating Sentences


A first look at Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon might make you think that it’s as dry as an organic chemistry manual, and in some ways you would be right. This book of sentence building, sentence making, sentence improving is simultaneously a taxonomy and textbook of the humble sentence. And if that seems like an off-putting combination, it sometimes is—but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

The special case that Building Great Sentences pleads runs counter to much of the advice about writing one finds in many modern manuals—or at least the advice I’ve been reading. These books revel in the celebration of Hemingway-like simplicity, the ruthless eradication of the extraneous word, the superfluous modifier, the unnecessary adjective and adverb—prune them, sentence surgeon!—and let the verbs and nouns do the brunt of your heavy lifting. Indeed, when I first took that simplification advice to heart, I believe that it improved my writing immensely. So what to do with a book that takes precisely the opposite tack: a book that tells you that good writing is about complicating things, about moving the basic clause forwards and backwards, about explaining, about explaining again in more detail, about adding modifying phrase on top of modifying phrase, about culminating in some final periodic unforeseen conclusion, or, finally, to allow for the scope of thought to find its way, to take pleasure in the very movement of thought, as in this moment, this sentence?

Yes, this was new to me.

And yet reading through the book’s example sentences, sentences that I wanted to rail out against, argue against, defend against, even as I had to admit their power, because what, I screamed to myself, could a sentence possibly mean outside of the context of a paragraph, a page, a story, a novel? How could you devote a whole book to the sentence? The particularity of words I understand. But sentences? The whole project was foreign to me.

It reads like this: anaphora, epistrophe (at last, I knew where that Thelonious Monk tune got its name!), polysyndeton; if this was the stuff of writing then perhaps I should be studying Linnaeus.

But. But.

Taxonomy is not necessarily a bad thing. Taxonomy, naming things, allows one to see better, more, differently: a bird’s call is heard because that was a Northern Cardinal; sounds that were unheard are heard; the seed-eating bill is not the insect-eating bill; beaks I had never thought to look at before, beaks I had never seen before, sentence structures I had never seen before, I now see.

There’s a ton of interesting, useful information here. I especially liked the section that talked about binary structures and serial structures. We all have a rhythmic sense of these things if we do any of it at all, but the explicit statement of forms here is eye-opening. Landon quotes Winston Weather’s theory of the rhetorical effects of serial constructions: the balanced binary form speaks of authority and expertise—“on the one hand, on the other”—it’s a commanding structure. A triple series, however, “has connotations of the reasonable, the believable, and even the logical.” But the four-part series rhythm is indicative of “the human, emotional, diffuse, and inexplicable.”

Writing is, in a sense, looking through one side of the telescope and building things up by accretion, one little thing on top of another little thing. This book is an excellent guide to the accumulation of such effects. Like most advice of this kind, it has to be absorbed, forgotten, and made to dwell wherever such knowledge lives unconsciously and automatically. Otherwise, like the centipede who tried to verbalize his process of walking, there is the danger of getting entangled in explanations and losing the ability of taking action.

Instrumentality, or Something Ventured


So it’s the summer of 1960 something, before the Beatles, and you have an electric guitar because you got it for your birthday or you worked in Ernie’s candy store all year after school in order to buy it, and the band you begged together with your two high school drum and bass-playing friends gets hired to do the Sweet Sixteen of one of your classmates, and as the evening wears on it’s time to prove you’re serious badass musicians, no more of that Everly Brothers crap, so what do you play? Only one thing, obviously.

Walk Don’t Run.

The Ventures are instrumental in starting off this Monday with a kick. Click on the video to play.

Thanks to YouTuber MusicMike’s “Flashback Favorites”

Something To Crow About


We’ve been away in the country, and each day we do a little birding. Even after all these years, I’m still a novice, and Lord knows I still can’t sort out the warblers and vireos, but I greatly enjoy it. We can hardly move an inch from our house without running into all sorts of interesting birds. Here’s what we’ve identified in the last two weeks:

Tufted Titmouse

Hairy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

White-breasted Nuthatch

Black-capped Chickadee

Dark-Eyed Junco

House Finch

House Sparrow

Song Sparrow

American Goldfinch

Northern Parula

American Robin

Northern Cardinal

Pileated Woodpecker

Blue Jay

American Crow

European Starling

Eastern Bluebird: f.

Eastern Phoebe

Wild Turkey: m, f, +8 juvs.

Cedar Waxwing

Mourning Dove

Rock Pigeon

Carolina Wren

Gray Catbird

Northern Mockingbird

Common Grackle

Chimney Swift

Barn Swallow

Turkey Vulture

My favorite find so far was the Pileated Woodpecker, a bird I had never seen before. For a few days previous to viewing it, we had come across its huge rectangular nesting holes dug into the trees, and heard its laughing call, but we couldn’t see it. Then a few days ago I heard the call very close by, and turned to see that brilliant Pileated head low on a nearby tree trunk. It was thrilling. I should have gotten a photo of it, but I didn’t—I was too afraid of scaring it away by making any movement. So the picture above is just a stock photo, but it looked exactly like that. Then a day later, a family of Wild Turkeys came tromping through our front lawn and across the street, seven juveniles following their large father and smaller mother, with an eighth straggler, a little runtier than all the rest, pulling up the rear. It was like a Disney movie. For this city dweller, it was a real treat.

Perx of The Jerx


I’d like to recommend a magic blog to you: The Jerx. The Jerx, whose name and logo are a satirical tribute to Ted Annemann’s mentalism periodical, The Jinx (which in turn was a satirical tribute to the magic periodical, The Sphinx), is the reincarnation of the legendary Magic Circle Jerk blog that ran from 2003–2005. The main goal of the MCJ then was to bedevil and taunt the owners and staff of The Magic Cafe, a noble mission, good even onto itself. However, about three months ago, Andy, the one-named former proprietor of the MCJ, started a new daily magic blog, the aforementioned The Jerx. And even though once in a while it still ridicules The Magic Cafe, this time Andy has cast his net wider to include thinking deeply about what makes an audience enjoy a magic effect. It’s well worth reading every day.

In its new incarnation, The Jerx is still profane, funny, at times hopelessly adolescent, sexy, maybe at times sexist, and oh yes, more than occasionally tinged with genius.

The Jerx‘s operating assumption is that the single most important way for magicians to improve their magic is to focus on the audience’s experience; to this end Andy puts in a ridiculous (no, the correct!) amount of thought to scripting and performance. Andy’s descriptions of the elaborate set-ups he devotes to entertaining his friends and colleagues in everyday situations are downright inspiring, favoring effects that grow out of the organic relationships already present. If reading the description of his Borrowed Money Teleported to Paris effect doesn’t move you to scrap everything you’re doing in magic and start all over, then maybe you should apply to be a Grammar Host at The Magic Cafe. (And, no, I’m not going to link to that post. Dig and find it yourself, it’s worth the effort.)

What I like about Andy’s work especially is that he goes back and forth between theory and practical experiments to see if a proposed theory holds water. He experiments to see which of several hypotheses work out best for him in his world. By this method, he has found a fascinating corollary to the Whit Haydn theory of magic—that theory which states that the best magic is when the audience confronts the experience of the insoluble dilemma: There’s no such thing as magic / There’s no other answer to explain what just happened.

Andy, in one of his recent posts, provides a very nice extension of that theory. You should read the whole post, but the essence of it is this: A successful effect according to Haydn is one that puts an audience member onto the horns of that dilemma and provides no escape. But a big problem that Andy addresses is that spectators will try to dislodge themselves from those horns one way or another. If you give them no possibility of a method, they give up and surrender, falling on one side of the dilemma—which is okay, but not as good as keeping them dangling. If, on the other hand, you give them a believable implied method, even if its wrong, they’ll take comfort in that, and again dislodge themselves from those horns. But the most diabolical strategy is to give an implied method that on quick audience reflection cannot be true. It’s as if

“you’re in a sealed room with a little tiny door the size of a cereal box. You’re trapped, but there’s this thing that beckons you as if it’s an exit. Your rational mind knows it’s not. You know you’ll never fit through it, but you can’t help but keep returning to it and shoving a hand or a leg out and seeing if maybe there’s some way to work your way through. Rationally, you know it’s not the way out, but it’s the only thing that even suggests a way out, so your mind keeps returning to it.

And this is where Mr. Haydn and Andy would like their audiences to end up—endlessly going over each part of the trick over and over again, to take home and re-tell later to their friends and family. The most effective magic, in this view, is the magic that gives the spectator’s brain no rest.

You can read a lot of fancy books about magic detailing the latest tricks and the newest micro-variation of Triumph and Ambitious Card, but if doing and thinking about informal magic is something you enjoy, and you like starting each day with a laugh, The Jerx is required daily reading.

The Driving Instructor

The classic Bob Newhart piece done live, some 50 years after the release of his record The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, which first contained the routine. Sorry for the abrupt ending, but at least it’s all there. Newhart’s timing is as impeccable as ever.

Thanks to YouTuber B. V. Dahlen

A Warning


See I went into this under false pretenses. Well, partly false pretenses. I had heard the stuff about writing being a calling, and I thought, well that’s not me, it had never called to me, I was never one of those people who as a teen wrote by flashlight under his bed covers in small scrawly pencil in a locked-with-a-key diary, one of those who just had to write; nope, not me.

And neither was I the kid whose imagination was so capacious that he had written seventeen science fiction novels by age fourteen that detailed the lust and ligaments of a planet existing but not existing at exactly the same time as this one, but in a parallel universe at right angles in a direction that we here on Earth could not even begin to fathom.

Nor was my memory so eidetic that I was compelled, as some of my high school contemporaries were, to give a scene by scene description of the latest Italian spaghetti western movie watched, down to the camera pans and the dialogue of the characters played by Strother Martin and L. Q. Jones dying in the desert. That wasn’t me. No, nor did I carry a memo book at all times on my person, the better to record all the wonderful observations to be made every day as I wandered through the vast, immense, carnival and wheel of life, The Great Mandela, making sure I missed nothing, the follies and foibles of my fellow human beings chronicled in the unblotted scribblings of my quill.

No. Not me. I understood that. I was more wary. I entered with fewer stars in my eyes, or so I liked to think.

Writing a novel was, I thought, just a challenge. Not an earth-shaking one, but a mild challenge to myself. Something interesting, something to occupy myself in a somewhat worthwhile way, I thought. I had some time, why not? You understand? That’s all it was. And, um, no, not poetry or short stories, I figured a novel would keep me more engaged for a longer amount of time.  I was intrigued by the sheer length of the thing, the need to sustain. Heck, a poem, a short story, anyone could toss that off—right?—that was no challenge. That was like learning to play the tuba or do the shot put. You heaved a bit, put forth some effort, and boom you made your mark on the world. Seemed much too easy.

So the siren call was this: not as a calling or a sacred duty, but as a task. That I could understand. The length was the point of it. I understood it as I could understand the lure of the marathon. A sprint told of your speed, but a marathon spoke to something else. And then, too, I could understand that maybe it’s not the final product, the ten pounds of paper in my hand when I finish the thing that was important, but the journey. All those little steps accumulating into distance covered, pages written, miles tracked, chapters completed. Oh, Kumbaya, Oh, the journey. Who will I meet on the way?— the process, not the product, the opportunities for self-discovery and enlightenment. The promise (by whom?) that by writing I will access sides of myself that I had never looked at before. I would learn discipline as well. Who cares what the final outcome is, I will have traveled the road, pilgrim, I will have Machado-ed a path of my own, and I will be able to look back to see the gentle grasses tamped down by my insistent nudging through the brush. It is good, even of itself.

No, no, no, no, no. it’s a trick, it’s all a trick. I’m putting up the warning sign now. Disregard at your own peril. It’s like those bamboo finger traps, don’t you see? You put your fingers in, and the harder you try to pull them out, the more stuck you get.

After eight drafts of one yet unfinished novel, and 90,000 words of another novel that’s still in first draft, I can see what they’ve done. If you think it’s like running the marathon—here’s what they didn’t tell you: this marathon isn’t twenty-six miles. You get to what you thought was the end, and now you have to turn around and run back for another twenty-six miles. And the worst part is that there’s really no choice—you’ve come this far, and you’re stuck. You’re stuck with these thousands and thousands of words, and dozens of incomplete characters who haven’t a way out, no chance, and if you abandon them, if you dump them in a pile by your side, there’s no one to help them. So, you’ve got to throw them on your back and carry them across your shoulders, without even the benefit of Gatorade, and really at this point you’re the last person in the world who should be doing this, because frankly, you’re exhausted, and sick of the world, and certainly sick of the very ones whom you’ve been carrying. It’s not fair, and you want to drop them off right now, let them roll down onto the ground, but the problem is this: if you do, you will have nightmares every single night and even in the day, but worse than that, without them, there’s no way you can find your way back. Yes, I forgot to mention this: that place you ended up at, when you thought you had reached the finish line, turns out it was the middle of the freakin’ desert, and all memory of how you got there has been erased. It’s as if you were blindfolded, herded onto a bus, and then thrown out the back door without food or water in some insane survivalist experiment. So there are no markers back. The only thing you know is this: if there is to be any chance at all of you getting back alive, it’s only because somehow the movements of the bodies you’re carrying across your back will guide you there.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here. The only cure for a novel is another one. It doesn’t say anywhere in the myth that Sisyphus was a would-be novelist. But then again, it doesn’t say anywhere that he wasn’t. You’ve been warned.

Monday, Full of Grace

Paul Simon in New York’s Central Park invites you to Graceland this Monday morning.

Hear the crowd roar at the line “There is a girl in New York City/ Who calls herself The Human Trampoline.” For me, this song is Paul Simon at his songwriting best.

Book Nook


(Remember that Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith?)

I thought it would be fun to talk a little—but not too much!—about what I’ve been reading in the last few months. I seem to go in four month cycles with reading—four months on avidly reading, and then four months off when I don’t want to read at all. Since this seems to be my four months on…

A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle–a very fine writer in my opinion. This is the first novel in a trilogy about the life of Dublin-born Henry Smart, IRA gun runner, explosives expert, and lover. Doyle writes with great lyricism and imagination, and each scene is brought vividly to life, both visually and aurally. The fictional character Henry Smart has interactions with the real-life Irish Republican Army figures of Michael Collins, James Connelly, and Ernst O’Malley, and Doyle describes the passion, cynicism, and double-dealing that goes into the making of a revolution and a revolutionary.

Last year I read Doyle’s second book in the trilogy, Oh Play That Thing! and also greatly enjoyed that book. It  has the disillusioned Henry jumping ship to the United States where he manages to land a job working as the bodyguard of Louis Armstrong. It sounds improbable, but somehow Doyle makes it all sing, and the book itself is a jazzy improvisation of plot and character that Doyle brings to a stunning conclusion.

The Secret Miracle, edited by Daniel Alarcon, is an excellent set of interviews with contemporary authors, focusing on the writers’ work strategies. The book is organized by question, so that all the interviewees’ answers are recorded as if they were in conversation with each other. The authors interviewed include Stephen King, Jennifer Egan, Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Danticat, Roddy Doyle, Allegra Goodman, Jonathan Letham, Haruki Murakami, and many others, so you expect an absorbing read, and it is. They answer questions about their influences, how they prepare to write a novel, their work habits, how they go about revision, how long it takes them to write a draft, whether they draw on real life for their characters or not, who they allow to read their drafts, how they know when they’ve reached a final draft, and so on.

It’s the kind of book about the arts that I really enjoy reading—experts at their craft talking about what they really do. The most comforting part for anyone hoping to learn more about writing from such a book is the wide diversity of habits, styles, and practices that are described. Each author, Machado-like, has carved out his or her own path.

No Applause—Just Throw Money by Trav S. D. (Yes!) is a chatty, informative book about the creation and evolution of vaudeville. The author neatly explains the rise of vaudeville as the standardization and rehabilitation of the other forms of variety entertainments that had played across America at one time or another since the country’s inception. The lecture hall, the dime museum, the circus, the minstrel show, the medicine show were the sometimes measly but ubiquitous entertainments criss-crossing the country. After women got the right to vote, the theater entrepreneurs understood that they could make more money by sanitizing the previously primarily male enclaves of variety entertainment. So vaudeville provided entertainment to men, women, and children, and at the same time provided a venue for the audience to see themselves on stage in the form of immigrant singers and comedians.

The formula of variety family entertainment made huge stars of many, and the same formula was put to work with the advent of television, which catered to the same audience. The new medium eventually killed off vaudeville. The likes of Ed Sullivan and Saturday Night Live were the direct descendants of that format. The book also does a nice job talking about some of the well-known vaudevillians—George M. Cohan, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker—and some of the lesser known personalities, such as comedians Weber and Fields, and tap dancer Joe Frisco who were also huge stars in their time. Some great insight here on what it is to take an act, hone it to perfection, and perform it hundreds or even thousands (six a day!) of times a year.

And in the Magic Department we have The Chicago Surprise by Whit (“Pop”) Haydn. I first read Whit’s monograph detailing his unique handling of the classic card routine “Chicago Opener” quite a while ago, but it’s a booklet that I keep going back to. First of all, it’s a damn good trick, and as my skill at card magic improves, I want to make sure I’ve got it right. But even more importantly, it details a whole theory of performance magic

Briefly, the plot is this: a spectator chooses any card from an ordinary red-backed deck and it turns out to be the one card in the pack with a blue back. The blue-backed card is placed face down on the table.  The magician then gives the spectator another choice of cards—offering the spectator a chance to change to another card if so desired. The card is lost in the deck, but when the spectator names the chosen card, the face-down blue-backed card is turned over to reveal that it is the same one that the spectator chose.

What is so valuable about Whit’s booklet is that it’s not just a description of a trick, but the outlining of a whole philosophy of magic, his now famous “dilemma” theory. Haydn holds nothing back, and the routine is there with a complete script, and with some great tips about the use of the major sleights involved: the palm, the DL and the CF. But in addition, Whit tells you why he constructed the routine the way he did, and his explanation yields great insight into audience perception and psychology. What with an included bonus routine for the Brainwave Deck, this is a must for any card worker.

And in progress: Arthur Phillips’s first novel, Prague; C. Wright Mills’s survey and critique of marxisms, The Marxists; The inventive Swedish magician Tomas Blomberg’s compilation of eclectic conjuring effects, Blomberg Laboratories; Michelle Alexander’s  description of the new era of oppression for African-Americans through the criminal injustice system, The New Jim Crow; and a very interesting nuts and bolts book about writing, Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. I hope to report on all of these at another time. Until then, happy reading!

The Art Critics

The hilarious comedy team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were once a staple of British comedy in the 1960s. They were one half of the Beyond the Fringe foursome, which included Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, but Peter and Dudley had their own special rapport. Their rhythm, timing, and attempts to break each other up were a pleasure to behold, and fortunately this television sketch was one of the few that the BBC didn’t idiotically record over.

Click on the video above for a good time.