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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.