Brief Chronicles: A Book Lover’s Elegy

diary

I’m looking at all these books on my bookshelves, and wondering about how they have followed me all these years. There are other books, too, books I once thought indispensable which are now sitting in a basement, books that have now not been touched in over two decades. I always thought I would have them. They are still there, as far as I know.

There were more, the books that I grew up with, before my marriage, that I stored in my parents’ house. When my parents remodeled the house, they packed them up, and eventually the boxes of books were moved to the garage. Years later, they told us they were selling the house. We went to the garage to scavenge and sort through the books, eagerly anticipating the reunion of old acquaintances, but on opening the boxes it became clear that there would be no homecoming for these books—they were filled with mold, little bugs, covers were stained, pages were crumbling. I left my friends behind.

When I was in my twenties, I would move from apartment to apartment, roommate to roommate, as one does at that age, and I’d always leave something behind—an old coat in the closet, a sweater in some bottom drawer, a throw rug underneath a piece of furniture. But never, never, ever did I leave behind so much as one book, they traveled with me, as if they were my children.

I remember once in those days, when I was a college student, walking along Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan, near where I lived. I saw a pile of books on the sidewalk,  and they stopped me. They looked interesting—the sort that appealed to a geek like me—vintage mathematics books, some science, some history. Never too proud when it came to books, I rummaged through them until I saw the nameplates inside them; I was stopped in my tracks when I realized that they were the books of the professor who had just died in my girlfriend’s apartment house. I didn’t know then, you see, that that’s what happens. It’s not like the books get adopted by the ASPCA. When all is said and done, the contents of the apartment gets dumped once the family has gone through the belongings, while the rest ends up on the sidewalk waiting for the garbage truck. At the time, this was a horrible revelation to me. That a person’s life—for what else, I thought, could you call the books that a person has owned?—would just be dumped on the sidewalk unceremoniously when he or she dies, was just too sad for me to contemplate.

So I look around at all my books now, and I wonder how many of them are going to get dumped on the street when I go. I’ve got a fair amount of magic-related items that, let’s face it, nobody normal is going to want. I’m in generally good health, but I’m at the age where I’m wondering what to do about this. I suppose they could be sold for some money for my family, but the truth is, my wife and surviving relatives wouldn’t know what to do with them, nor would they know how to evaluate and value each item. And yet I think it would be a shame were they to end up on the street or in the dump. So what I’m thinking about now is, to whom could I give them before I go? I guess this is a morbid thought, but if there’s anything that gets me going, it’s the thought of my limited time on this planet. It’s probably the thing that has kept me at the writing keyboard these past few years—knowing that if I don’t do it now, it’s not likely to get done later.  And if I don’t figure out now what to do with these books, they’ll end up on the sidewalk. So I’m trying to get to know some young magicians who one day might appreciate such a collection.

The Players, Shakespeare said, are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. What is it that we who are the brief chroniclers do in this brief time? Artists hope that what they’ve made is forever, or at least has a lasting impact. It never seems consciously that what I do is a fight against the dying of the light, but the closer I get, the more I understand. Do not ask for whom the sanitation worker comes. S/he comes for thee.

This Land Is Mine

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Nina Paley is a brilliant animator/cartoonist whose work is simultaneously smart, beautiful, and provocative. She is probably best known for her epic video called Sita Sings The Blues. There’s nothing quite like her animation videos. This short film above, This Land is Mine, about the violence in Israel/Palestine over the past centuries is a fine example of her oeuvre. Click on the video to play.

Waving A Red Flag

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One more great scene from Charlie Chaplin’s wonderful movie, Modern Times. The set-up is that he’s just been released from the hospital (nervous breakdown from his last factory job), so he’s not fully aware of what is going on in the outside world.

The flag, of course, is red.

The Millionaires’ Magician: Steve Cohen . . . and A Contest Update

steve cohen***

Steve Cohen bills himself as the Millionaires’ Magician, and while this spectator and his wife fall more into the category of the 99%, Steve did manage to make us feel like a million bucks.

Steve has very cleverly carved his niche by marketing himself as the heir to such conjurors as Malini, Hofzinser, and David Abbott; they were magicians who entertained in posh salon venues performing for select, intimate-sized audiences. In this case, our posh salon is a suite in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, a suite that seats about fifty people. The magic happens before our eyes, no more than a few feet away. In Steve’s introductory remarks, he tells us that our suite is just down the hall from the Presidential suite, the suite where US Presidents going back to Herbert Hoover have stayed. He also tells a true story about what happened when the Clintons came to spend the night, a story that gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening.

The show starts off with a few entertaining card effects, then a coin effect with a Malini-esque twist, but the bulk of the show is weighted heavily towards mental effects. Part of the pleasure of the show is the inherent surprise of the effects themselves, so I don’t want to describe too much, but rest assured that you will be very mystified and delighted. These are all classic effects, and Steve’s methods are devious enough that even if you are familiar with these tricks, the odds are that you will be scratching your head over them. Steve has an obvious joy of performing. His skill in anticipating audience reaction and improvising when the needs arises is part of the fun. His audience management skills are superb too—he reminds me of that teacher in high school who you knew could make the noisiest, most chaotic classroom snap to attention with just a look. You never doubt for a moment that he is in complete control of the situation.

One effect that I will mention is the famous Think-a-Drink effect. First popularized by a vaudeville performer called Charles “Think-a Drink” Hoffman, the effect is simply this: people call out drinks, and those drinks are immediately poured out from one magic tea kettle. At the performance I saw this evening, the drinks called out included an Apple Martini, Rum and Pineapple, a Banana-Strawberry Smoothie, a Rob Roy, and Pomegranate VitaminWater. Lo, all those drinks were poured out from the tea kettle on command! All the drinks were then handed out to different audience members who verified each drink’s identity by downing each potion. Really a great effect, and one that Steve has now made his own.

Several other strong mental effects followed, but the one that shook my wife the most was Mr. Cohen’s Q and A, where people wrote down facts about themselves and Steve seemed to know all, apparently reading minds. Again, very well done, Steve does a lot of quick thinking on his feet, and the illusion of real mindreading is very strong.

Ninety minutes of powerful magic, not a moment is wasted. In my opinion, if you’re visiting New York City, and you only have the time and money for one show, skip Broadway and catch Steve Cohen’s show. Thanks, Steve Cohen!

In other news, I was thinking maybe we could expand this idea of the Millionaires’ Magician into other areas. The Millionaires’_____________ —fill in the blank! How about The Millionaires’ Poet, who only reads poems in the salons of the wealthy? Or the Millionaires’ Delicatessen Worker, who only makes pastrami-on-rye sandwiches for a select few in posh venues.

And so on.

Update on The Contest for Magicians: Entries have been coming in, but there’s still time to get your entry in, and to win a great prize. See here for details. I’ll be taking entries until midnight this Tuesday night, October 27th; then I’ll take a few days to read them all, put together the pdf, and award the prizes. I’ll announce the winners formally here on November 1st. So don’t delay, get in your entry today!

Toyt Fun a Salesman

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Wednesday, I posted my review of the New Yiddish Rep’s production of Death of a Salesman. After the show, I caught up with Moshe Yassur, the director of the production, and Avi Hoffman, the actor who played Willy Loman. You can hear the enlightening interviews I conducted with them by clicking on the grey triangle above.

Death of A Salesman in Yiddish (with English Super-Titles)

salesman***

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Death of a Salesman is an American classic. In this new production by the New Yiddish Rep of New York City, Arthur Miller’s play achieves further resonance by being performed entirely in Yiddish, with English supertitles projected onstage. The Yiddish locates the play squarely in the world of the immigrant, and Willy Loman is no longer just the universal white collar worker with a shoe shine and a smile; he is also the universal immigrant, charged to teach the values of his adopted land to his second generation children, with all the urgency that that mission requires.

The supertitles are unobtrusive, and non-Yiddish speaking audiences will understand every single word. The intimate theater space highlights the dramatic tensions in the play. This is a very good production of a very powerful play. Click on the gray triangle above to hear my complete review broadcast on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI.

Update: You can hear my interview with the director of the cast, Moshe Yassur, and actor Avi Hoffman, by clicking here.

My Boy Lollipop: Millie Small

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Before there was Reggae, there was ska. Millie Small’s delightful “My Boy Lollipop” was the first international ska hit. She was a teenager when she recorded it, but this live version is from a decade later.

On Monday morning she makes “my heart go giddyap.”

The Art of Magic

cardini

Cardini, by Juan Rubiales.

Juan Rubiales is not only an accomplished magician himself, but also a wonderfully artistic profiler of famous magicians. I first saw his work on The Magic Cafe, and he generously gave me permission to reprint these portraits. Rubiales’s style reminds me of the great celebrity caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Juanlu, as he is known to his friends, also sent me this brief autobiographical note:

JUAN LUIS RUBIALES, began magic as a child, and later studied directly from some master magicians. Tamariz was his mentor, and Juan had the good fortune to meet him and be in contact with him since the age of 14. Today, Juan is 36 years old, and is not just a direct student of Tamariz, he is also a good friend of him.

He is an original and creative magician, he is a member of the “Escuela Mágica de Madrid”(Magical School of Madrid), and he is an assistant at the prestigious “Jornadas catomágicas del Escorial” (Cardmagic Days of the Escorial).

He performs extraordinary magic with coins, knives and cards; he has created new techniques of this form of art, developing some original routines that mark its creative magic.

He is also an extraordinary cartoonist. He likes to make magicians’ portraits.

He has three DVDs in English:

“Con Denominacion” which means “with guarantee of origin,” a DVD about coins.

“The Opongobox,”  about a new coin box, a DVD produced by Luis de Matos at the 33 Study

“The Bound Deck” another production of the Essential Magic Collection, this time with one card trick.

In December we can enjoy his DVD “Olé!” a pack of four DVDs by Luis de Matos collection with close up, parlour, and stage magic.

Testimonials:

“He is very creative, he has an authentic and unique style. Like his Magic, authentic and genuine, a real marvel. Thank you Juanlu for what you are doing”.

JUAN TAMARIZ

“His Magic is absolutely brilliant”.

WILLIAM KALUSH

“I am very excited with Juanlu Rubiales and his new DVD. He is a great Magician.”

ERIC MEAD

And now, some of my favorite portraits of his:

juan tamarizJuan Tamariz.

ricky jayRicky Jay.

kapsFred Kaps.

imageJames Randi.

penn and tellerPenn & Teller.

edmarloEd Marlo.

dai vernonThe iconic pose of Dai Vernon, both young and old.

Thank you Juanlu!

Would You Be Happy With This Teacher Or Would You Transfer Out?

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Diane Ravitch, that tireless fighter for students and teachers, brought the above video to my attention on her blog. I re-posted it elsewhere, but got some reactions which I had not expected. I’m very curious to hear what you have to say. The high school teacher in the video, Joshua Katz, asks his students to watch the video as their first assignment. What do you think of Mr. Katz? Would you do well in his classroom?

And Then…And Then…And Then…

update

A little update on a few things:

  1. Novel #1, which used to be called The Longest Winter of Holly Walker, has a shiny new name. At least for the moment. The spine of the novel keeps eluding me, but it’s become clear the character who I thought was the protagonist cannot carry the story herself. Will it be a problem that the thrust of the story is told through several pairs of eyes? Maybe. But I think the way I’m telling this story is integral to the novel, and I can’t force it into being what it isn’t. It’s an ensemble piece with several strong characters. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work.  I’ve gotten some excellent advice from recent readers, and I’m working to incorporate their feedback into the latest revisions.
  2. Novel #2 is really a mess. I understand why it’s a mess, but it’s a mess nevertheless. I started #2 as a way to keep myself distracted while I awaited feedback from revisions of #1. Now I fully expect a first draft to be awful, but I’m only halfway through the first draft, and its already 100,000 words. That’s 100,000 words of awfulness—which I could accept, if I knew that I could start revising now, but, as I say, I have another 100,000 words to go before I can even begin to re-write. So I’m stuck in this awful place for a long time more, and I don’t know how long my patience is going to hold out. The novel moves around in time and depends on an important historical event, and my lack of knowledge about the period is really a problem. I did do some research before I started, but clearly not enough. I figured that I would go back later and fill in the context, but now I see that without the proper context it’s an empty shell. Of course, I could stop writing and do more research, but I’m afraid that if I get wrapped up in research, it will be too tempting and I’ll get lost in it. So I’ve decided that what I have to do is just grin and bear it, know that this is bad, and hope that in revision, I can fill in and re-write what needs to be taken care of.
  3. I wrote last week about Steve Brundage’s Rubik’s Cube effects. I’ve been going through his material and I can now reliably solve any mixed Rubik’s Cube in under six minutes. So having achieved that, I have moved on to Steve’s second DVD where he talks about his magic effects. The key sleights involved are one-handed, and while not difficult, they do need careful placement and analysis initially, and then a lot of repetition to get it into muscle memory. To me, it’s a lot like learning a coin sleight such as a Tenkai pinch or a coin roll. You have to train the muscles of your hand and your fingers to do things which they have not done before. So I’m at the repetition/muscle memory stage now.
  4. Sunday I posted the rules to my first ever CONTEST! Win cool prizes! I’m keeping the contest open for the next week or two, so don’t be shy, send in an entry!

A Contest for Magicians

trophy oprah***

I thought it might be fun to run a contest about things magical.

So here it is: explain three actions or ideas that you think were the most helpful in the improvement of your magic or mentalism. Your explanations don’t have to be profound, although profound is fine, too. But if you just want to talk about how your little pinky sticking out this way instead of that way made everything a lot better, that’s okay, too. And you don’t need to be a professional or anything like that, hobbyists are welcome to participate as well.

No criteria here other than what strikes me as interesting and useful.  Details and specifics are key. Extra points for humor and entertainment value. It would be especially helpful if you could analyze why the actions or ideas were important to you.

First prize is first choice from the little grab bag of magic books and DVDs I’ve put together; second prize is second choice from the grab bag, and third prize, in a pleasingly parallel harmonic consecutive manner, is third choice from the grab bag. The items in the grab bag are all commercial books or DVDs, at least one of which, I guarantee, you will be happy to have.

And in the spirit of everyone being a winner, I’ll ask all entrants to allow me to make up a pdf file which includes their entry. This pdf will NOT BE SOLD, but will be offered only as a free download on this website to all those who entered.

Send your entries please to jshalom@worldshare.net

Make sure to put the word CONTEST in the subject line

I’ll keep this open for a week or two, based on the number of responses I get.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

The Dressing Room

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How the greats did it:

Take a simple premise and play the hell out of it.

Buster Keaton, from The Cameraman.

The Marx Brothers stole this premise seven years later for A Night at the Opera.

I highly recommend that you watch this one full screen.

Book Nook (2)

Time Enough at Last***

A little catching up with some books I’ve been reading lately is in order. Here are some brief reviews:

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a sweet novel of a curmudgeonly widower who owns a bookstore on an isolated island but still manages to find love. There’s not a lot that’s new here, and the language is fairly plain, but the premise is amusing and the story is relaxing to read. There’s a bit of a tearjerker ending, not unexpected with a storyline that includes a foundling orphan.

I read Mission to Mars by Buzz Aldrin as part of my research for my interview with Aldrin ( which you can listen to here), and I have to say that as someone who was pretty skeptical about the whole idea of space travel, I fell under the book’s sway. The arguments for a manned mission to Mars in the near future are hypnotic. Looking back, I realize I was entranced by an illusion, but the book is a very good read. Lots of information about the moon landing, Aldrin’s experiences with his fellow astronauts, his tangling with politicians and NASA, and above all his detailed plan about how he thinks the United States government should go about preparing a mission to Mars. He’s a highly unorthodox guy, but that’s part of what makes this so much fun to read.

Moving onto magic-related items, Paralies by Joshua Quinn is a book of original mentalism effects, all with a powerful impact. Quinn is a very clever creator of effects which simulate mind-reading, and this book shows off some of his most powerful ideas. Quinn’s hallmark is in the synergistic layering of different methods, making backtracking by the spectator very difficult indeed. He also has some really excellent work on equivoque, including a full-deck equivoque to one card. Whether you use his exact scripting or not, the lessons drawn in creating such a sequence are valuable. This book also outlines Quinn’s propless “Thought Chunneling,” an effect which allows a spectator to just think of a word—nothing written down—and even after the spectator changes the word several times, the performer can still reveal what the word is. I have no idea how well this plays, as it requires quite a bit of practice on the performer’s part, but perhaps sometime in the future I’ll give this the practice it needs in order to road test it. Warning: the book is quite pricey, but there are lots of solid ideas here for the informal performer.

I’m a great fan of the comedians of the silent film era, so I was naturally attracted to Patrick Page’s Book of Visual Comedy. Page was a well-known British entertainer, and among the magic community, he was applauded as a kind of all-round utility man, as comfortable as performing with a deck of cards close-up as he was onstage with the Linking Rings. In this book, illustrated with humorous cartoon drawings, Page describes some of the classic bits of physical humor that stage performers have used for eons. Gags with hats, chairs, microphone stands, eyeglasses, neckties, fingers in bottles, pratfalls, and so on make for delightful reading, and I felt as if there were more than a few ideas that I would enjoy taking out for an onstage spin. Very enjoyable quick read.

Out on the Wire, written and illustrated by Jessica Abel, is a cartoon graphic narrative of “The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.” By “Masters of Radio” she is referring to NPR storytellers like Ira Glass of This American Life and Chana Joffe-Walt of Planet Money. There’s lots of very good information here about how such radio programs are created from scratch, and the book consciously tries to guide would-be radio storytellers through the process. The tone of the book, however, I found annoying, with its constant lionization of All Things NPR.  In particular, the privileging of radio technique over actual critical thinking about ideas is pervasive in the book and on the station. We get very detailed panels, for example, explaining the laborious collaborative editing process that brings a segment of Planet Money to the air, but unfortunately, that process does not include real critical examination of the economic ideas presented. The ideas are all pre-digested mainstream dogmas that upset no capitalist applecarts, even while great thought is given to producing an entertaining story.  So what we end up with (and Ira Glass is quoted as saying that radio is basically a didactic medium) is a formula for making slick propaganda. Decide what the story is first, even before you go out to do the interviews; then meticulously edit it to arrive at a pleasing form. But I would be misleading you if I said that there wasn’t some useful (to use an awful NPR-ish word) “takeaway.” I just think it’s advice much more applicable to fiction storytelling than actual non-fiction reporting.

Still in the queue for next time: Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven by Steve Stern, a set of short stories; Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora; The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander on the continuing racism faced by African-Americans in the United States; The Marxists, a classic survey of the major trends in Marxist thought by C. Wright Mills; and The Paper Engine, Aaron Fisher’s careful dissection of how to perform some of the most important sleights in card magic.