It’s been a while since I’ve done this, so here’s my recent summer reading:
The Black Book by Lawrence Durrell was Durrell’s first book. When I was in my twenties I read the Alexandria Quartet and it made a lasting impression on me. I’ve always wanted to go back to it, and there it is, just bought from the second-hand store, sitting on my table waiting for me, but I thought I would try this book first. I don’t know of any other writer whose sheer depth of vocabulary can make me more woozy with words. Reading Durrell is like eating a dense thick chocolate cake, every bite is rich and surprising, but one can’t eat too much at a time: “The Agon, then. Today there is a gale blowing up from the Levant. The morning came like a yellow fog along a roll of developing film. From Bivarie, across the foaming channel I can see the window, the river god has sent us his offering: mud, in a solid tawny line across the bay. The wind has scooped out the very bowels of the potamus across the way, like a mammoth evacuation, and bowled it across at us. The fisherman complain that they cannot see the fish anymore to spear them. Well the rufus sea scorpion and the octopus are safe from their carbide and tridents. Deep-water life utterly shut off, momentously obscure behind the membrane of the mud. The winter Ionian has lapsed back into its original secrecy.” That’s the first paragraph. The story itself is absolutely inscrutable, but it’s worth dipping into and out of, if only for the bejeweled language.
Switch by John Lovick was published about a decade ago, and it is the essential book for performing that great magic effect, The $100 Bill Switch. Lovick gives the history of the switch, as well as a myriad of routines and techniques. Lovick also has a panel of prominent magicians weighing in on such pithy questions as whether one should give away the bill at the end; tip or tipless? (Lovick describes several methods for each type); fast or slow?; and more. It’s pretty difficult to find anything that Lovick hasn’t covered concerning the effect, so if you’re looking to perform the bill switch, this book is invaluable.
With all that said, despite the numerous, well-thought-out illustrations, if this is your first exposure to learning the bill switch, it would probably help to consult first a video resource and then come back to the book. There are just too many subtle details of hand and finger placement and timing to fully grasp the mechanics of the switch without seeing an actual performance of it, both audience view and backstage. Once you get the general outline from video (Michael Ammar’s Classic Rendition video on the bill switch is one possibility), the book is a fantastic resource for the details and variations.
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro is an illuminating view of one of the most creative years of Shakespeare’s theatrical life. In that one year, he wrote and produced King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Shapiro’s thesis is that the form and content of those plays were definitively shaped by the political and social events in that turbulent English year. Shapiro takes us month by month through that year and explains how the failed Gunpowder Plot—the 9/11 of its time—gave an excuse to the recently crowned James I to push strongly for both the unification of England and Scotland, and also to crack down on political dissenters, especially on anyone still suspected of practicing Catholicism. Shapiro shows how those two historical facts were reflected in Shakespeare’s plays of that year. The book includes wonderful accounts of what rival companies were doing at the time, and also how the royal companies competed for royal productions.
In the latter part of the book, Shapiro has some very interesting research about the Plague and its effect on theater-goers and acting companies during that year. He paints a very vivid picture of the Plague’s almost unimaginable impact: the theaters in London were decreed to close when the death toll was over thirty a week—and they were closed for several months, death tolls going over a hundred a week in the latter part of the year. Families suspected of harboring the plague would be quarantined by their neighbors, some starving to death under the quarantine, whether the suspicion of disease was correct or not. The church bells would toll when a new dead body was found, and there were weeks when the bells of London seemed to be tolling continuously.
Overall, there was a lot about Shakespeare and English history in this book that was new to me. Slow going at times, but definitely recommended.
Le Petomane by Jean Nohain and F. Caradec is a slim volume about one of the Wonders of the World, a seemingly endless supply of natural gas named Joseph Pujol. Pujol, whose stage name was Le Petomane, had an act which featured his ability to fart at will. Pujol’s talent took him around the world, and he was the star at the famous Moulin Rouge theater in Paris from 1892 to 1914. The authors include several eye-witness accounts. Pujol was a showman who could fart various melodies, and he was also able to extinguish a candle at ten yards, solely through his gassy talents. There is also a funny account of how the King of Belgium traveled incognito to Paris in order to witness a private demonstration.
Pujol’s trick was that there was no trick: his anatomy was such that he was able to ingest air through his anus at will, and then expel it again. We may never see his like again, although the present Presidential candidates seem to be doing a good job of expelling hot air and pulling talking points from their backsides.