More Lynda Barry at https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/author/lynda-barry
I’ve been working on a radio project about the Russian humorist and storyteller, Sholom Aleichem, and while researching his life, I came across some quotes of his that you may enjoy. Like Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde, there are so many quotable writings, that the problem becomes limiting oneself to only a few. Here are some of my favorites.
* “And books — she swallows like dumplings.”
* “While I kept playing chess with him, his mind was elsewhere. I took his queen and he took my Rose.”
* Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.
* The rich swell up with pride, the poor from hunger.
* When you die, others who think they know you, will concoct things about you… Better pick up a pen and write it yourself, for you know yourself best.
* No matter how bad things get you got to go on living, even if it kills you.
* A bachelor is a man who comes to work each morning from a different direction.
* If somebody tells you that you have ears like a donkey, pay no attention. But if two people tell you so, buy yourself a saddle.
* This is an ugly and mean world, and only to spite it we mustn’t weep. If you want to know, this is the constant source of my good spirit, of my humor. Not to cry, out of spite, only to laugh out of spite, only to laugh.
* A wise word is not a substitute for a piece of herring.
With thanks to the following websites:
What did Ray Bradbury, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Ernest Hemingway, and Hannah Arendt all have in common? They were all victims of FBI surveillance under J. Edgar Hoover. You can listen to my radio interview, which ran yesterday on Arts Express WBAI 99.5 FM NYC, with J. Pat Brown, editor of Writers Under Surveillance, a collection of FBI files obtained through the Freedom Of Information Act, by clicking on the grey triangle above.
Recently, I’ve been enjoying reading a few magic biographies. All three books are highly recommended, and any one of them would make a nice gift for that magic aficionado in your life.
1) “If there was any doubt that Guy Jarrett was nuts, it ended in 1936.” That’s how magic inventor and writer Jim Steinmeyer in Jarrett introduces the cantankerous illusionist, author of the eponymous Jarrett, Magic and Stagecraft, Technical. It’s not hard to see why Jim Steinmeyer was drawn to write about Jarrett. Jarrett was not just a magician but, like Steinmeyer, a stage illusion inventor of extraordinary ingenuity. Couple that with Jarrett’s eccentric life, acerbic wit, and amusing public persona and you have the kind of subject that an author loves to write about.
Jarrett enjoyed publicly trashing the magic royalty of the day. Houdini, Goldin, Thurston, —none of them were off limits. With the introduction and annotations by Steinmeyer, it soon becomes apparent that Jarrett’s curse and glory was his perfectionism. To Jarrett’s mind, the shaving of a few inches off the side of a production cabinet or table was the difference between beauty and illusion on the one hand, and utter crap on the other. Practicality and budget were excuses to him, and as far as Jarrett was concerned most of the illusionists of the day like Thurston were satisfied to settle on crap.
As befits a man who spoke his mind so openly and contemptuously, Jarrett didn’t retain a wide circle of friends. With his characteristic self-sufficiency, Jarrett published his book himself, setting all the type himself on a foundry typesetting press, pretty much as Gutenberg had done centuries before.
But the eccentric Jarrett (my favorite photo in the book is Jarrett at 74 years old standing upside down in the top of a tree) according to Steinmeyer was the real deal when it came to designing illusions. Jarrett’s efficient descriptions and drawings of such illusions as “The 21 Person Cabinet” and the disappearance of Bela Lugosi in the original Broadway production of Dracula make for entertaining reading and broadened my appreciation of illusion design.
2) Dai Vernon: A Biography, by David Ben, is the authorized biography of the man who revolutionized the study and performance of close-up magic. and it draws upon many previously unseen original sources. It has some wonderful photos, including the famous one, repeated many years later, of Vernon, cigarette in hand, staring down at the Ace of Clubs. Ben’s prose is pretty pedestrian, but it gives a fully rounded picture of the man and his times. What one really gets from this portrait of Vernon is just how tenaciously Vernon strove to carve out his own artistic path. As an art student at the Art Students’ League an artist he met told him that continuing in art school would ruin him for creativity and originality. Vernon took that to heart and never allowed himself to swerve from a life that would allow him the freedom to explore and play to his heart’s content. Many times he could have traded on his skill and connections to become famous with the general public, but at each turn he almost compulsively avoided or sabotaged those opportunities in favor of living a Bohemian lifestyle, free from the hard spotlight of fame and stultifying routine. He was a brilliant ne’er-do-well who was terrified of being tied down to any responsibility but his art.
Another wonderful revelation in the book is the portrait of his wife, Jeannie. She was a Coney Island magician’s assistant, full of practical knowledge and no mean slouch either when it came to art. She was a very creative person in her own right, an accomplished costumer and mask maker (there’s a wonderful photo of her beautifully lifelike mask of Cardini) and she was essential in costuming Vernon’s Harlequin turn. She understood her own predicament in being the creative spouse of another more talented and obsessive creative person. Once she had left Vernon she wrote her own account of what it was like to live with him in her manuscript, I Married Mr. Magic, or Laughter is the Only Shield.
This volume, the first of two, only covers the years 1894-1941, when Vernon had the construction accident which was to break his arms and change his life. Unfortunately, there is no word on Ben’s website as to when Volume II is expected (it’s been over a decade now), so we’ll have to be patient. But surely, that too promises to be fascinating, as it will cover the Magic Castle years to Vernon’s death. This is a compelling portrait of genius at work and play.
3) Milo and Roger: A Magical Life is the title of Arthur Brandon’s autobiographical account of his childhood, and his longtime partnership with Roger Coker as the comedy magic team Milo and Roger. If there is a sweeter and funnier account of one’s magical journey, I don’t know of it. Brandon devotes a lot of the book to his Norman Rockwell upbringing in small town Ohio, and he vividly brings to life the characters, the grifters, and the tradespeople who inhabited his childhood world. His parents—his mother in particular—were lovable eccentrics who were accepting and encouraging of their moony son’s infatuation with all things magical. Brandon goes on to small time fame by following his instinct and love for magic, meeting along the way his lifelong partner Roger who complements everything Arthur does. They travel the world together, much of the time only a few dollars short of broke, but somehow they always make it out to their next adventure, spurred on by their love for show business and magic. At turns nostalgic, laugh-out-loud funny, sweet, sour, and sad, this is one of the most entertaining show business autobiographies I’ve read. I can well understand why this is a favorite of many.
A big thanks to everyone who participated in the contest. It was really enjoyable reading the entries. The assignment was to elucidate what you considered the three greatest tricks in Our Magic.
At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what my criteria was going to be in judging the entries, but as I was reading them, it soon became clear that the best ones were the ones whose descriptions were so compelling that they made me say to myself, “Hey, that’s a trick that I want to go out and perform right now.”
The first-prize winner was Sean-Dylan Riedweg whose entry described exactly why he thought each of the three tricks he nominated were winners, and he also provided meticulous citations for each effect. Sean-Dylan chose Semi-Automatic Card Tricks Vol III by Steve Beam as his prize.
The second-prize winner was Abe Carnow. Abe made a very strong case for a trick which most of us have in our drawers, but disdain to use during performance. Sometimes we forget how good some of the most common ideas in magic are. He chose Stewart James: The First Fifty Years as his prize. We advise Mr. Carnow to get into good physical shape with a few bench presses before attempting to lift that weighty tome.
Third Prize went to Steven Go. Steven also advocated for a trick that most would consider very commonplace, but Steven provided a very wonderful description of the effect of the trick on his young daughter. He really brought to life what a special moment was created between the two of them because of that trick. He chose the DVD Time is Money by Asi Wind as his prize.
And finally Honorable Mention to Steven Bryant for his incredible poetic entry, which was part of an even larger Magic Castle New Year’s magical poetic ode.
Thanks again to all who entered. Sometime next week, everyone who participated will receive a pdf compilation of all the entries that were sent in.
Okay, rest up and if there’s enough demand, we’ll do this again next year.
A Walk in the woods, Anne Tyler, authors, B. Traven, Bill Bryson, book, books, Bruce Kayton, Clock Dance, Government, Jennifer Tepper, novel, Radical Walking Tours of New York City, review, The Untold Stories of Broadway, writing
For the past decade or more, my reading habits have been very cyclical: for months at a time, I can’t seem to pick up a book, and then all of a sudden, something will kick in and I’m reading a lot. So, since it’s been a while since I’ve done a non-magic edition of Book Nook, here are some of the books I’ve enjoyed reading lately:
Government by B. Traven
This is the first of the mysterious B. Traven’s Mexican “Jungle novels” a sharply provocative and humorous set of novels set in Mexico just before the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. This initial book is a masterpiece of dry humor and wry observation. It’s major subject is the petty and not-so-petty corruption of government officials at every level of society. But Traven makes clear that the corruption of the local officials in their drive to exploit every peso and drop of sweat out of the local Indian population is just a reflection of the larger overall exploitative capitalist system happening on the national level. The author pulls no punches and names things for what they are. It’s a system where friends and family catapult you into power, but you must always watch your back or you’ll get stabbed by one of them. The parallels to today couldn’t be more apt or timely. This is a book that shows you the blueprint. Especially remarkable as well is a contrasting passage where Traven describes how the tribe of local Indians choose their leaders democratically, in a way that ascribes grave responsibility and accountability to the chosen one.
Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
I enjoy Anne Tyler’s novels because when reading her books, I get the sense that she is in no hurry. She’s a writer who knows that after this one’s finished she’s going to write another one, and the current one is a wave in the larger ocean of her work. She doesn’t feel that she has to put everything she knows in one book. So this story is a small one of a woman’s life viewed at several milestone years. Externally, not a lot happens. But we see how a child of promise slowly has her options closed off as life proceeds and what it might take to find some sense of freedom in the end. Tyler’s characters always feel real enough so that you feel a sense of loss when a book is over, loss for the people who you have met in the course of reading the novel.
Radical Walking Tours of New York City by Bruce Kayton
It’s rare that one can read a guide book straight through like a work of fiction, but Radical Walking Tours of NYC is one such book. It takes us on over a dozen walking tours of several neighborhoods of NYC, and vividly depicts the rich labor and political history of this city which has been home and host to so many great figures and stories. Along the way you’ll learn a lot about history they never told you about in school. Whether it’s the location of Allen Ginsberg’s apartment or Emma Goldman’s massage parlor, you’re sure to find out something new here. Bruce Kayton is well qualified for the task as he for many years led such tours through the city.
The Untold Stories of Broadway by Jennifer Ashley Tepper
Years ago, Mary Henderson wrote a seminal work on the history of New York City Theater buildings, The City and the Theater, and now Jennifer Ashley Tepper has come out with an oral history of the people who worked and performed in those buildings in The Untold Stories of Broadway. The multi-volumed series is organized by theater building, and in each chapter the people who worked in each theater on various productions tell what it was like to be part of that experience. The author has interviewed scores of people. The work is valuable in the 360-degree view that the book gives you of theatrical production. So, for example, in a chapter on the Shubert Theatre, you not only get the point of view of the actors who worked on such shows as Spamalot, Rent, and A Chorus Line, but you also get commentary from the house manager and even the concession stand operators. You’ll also learn a lot about the physical layout of each theatre, and why some theaters are suitable for one kind of show, while other buildings are better for other kinds.These stories are not necessarily juicy remembrances of gossip, but honest, workaday accounts of people’s experiences from the inside. Many books purport to give a “backstage” view–this one really does it. Highly recommended for Broadway Babies.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
For years, my friend Tom has been trying to get me to read Bill Bryson’s books, and now I finally understand why he is such a fan. Bryson is a very entertaining writer and this account of his attempt to walk the Appalachian trail is a fun read. A gentle humorist in the vein of Dave Barry, Bryson takes you along his sometimes grueling hike, and introduces you to a wonderful set of characters, both those who join him to walk the trail, like his unprepared but faithful companion Katz, and the variety of hikers he meets along the way. Bryson is funny, but he also succeeds at communicating the awe-inspiring nature of the path, and the sheer doggedness and courage it takes to accomplish completing the trail. At times, the tale proves unexpectedly touching. For myself, I was very happy to sit in my easy chair and nod my head saying to myself, “Yup, that’s why I’m sitting here.”
A socialist revolution in the United States in 2044? In activist Mike Albert’s new fictional journalistic account, RPS/2044, you can learn how it happened. This is the second part of the interview with Albert that I produced for the Arts Express radio program. Mike talks about what a Revolutionary Participatory Society might look like, why it’s important for present-day activists to lay out a vision for the future, and how we might get from here to there.
Click on the grey triangle above to listen.
You can listen to Part One here.
(And for local listeners to Arts Express on WBAI 99.5 FM and wbai.org be advised that Arts Express has been moved to the new edgier time slot of Tuesdays at 11pm.)
It’s the year 2044, and praise to the goddesses, a socialist revolution in the United States is well in progress. How did it happen? Fortunately we have an account of the 2044 revolution in this set of oral histories that journalist Miguel Guevera has conducted with many of the heroes of the revolution. Guevera (aka 2018 activist Mike Albert) talks about the workings of a Revolutionary Participatory Society and economy in this interview I produced, broadcast yesterday for the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NY.
Click on the grey triangle above to listen.
And you can hear Part Two here:
(And for local listeners to the show, be advised that Arts Express has been moved to the new edgier time slot of Tuesdays at 11pm.)
If Lenny Bruce were a magician, he would be Steve Spill.
Lenny has long since passed onto that great big comedy stage in the sky, but fortunately our friend Steve Spill is alive and well and has come out with a new book aimed at magicians called How To Make Love The Steve Spill Way. His first book, I Lie For Money, was aimed at a general audience and contained lots of advice on how to live a creative life. It was served along with large dollops of autobiography and spit-take funny stories about the people he met along the path while building an artistic life for himself. In this new book, Steve not only continues his general advice for would-be artists, but also gives up the details of a dozen of his most creative and hilarious tricks. It would be an understatement to say that I think everyone interested in performing magic should read this book.
It’s always a great gift when a wonderful performer tips the secrets of his act, but it’s an even greater gift when the performer himself does the literate and humorous writing chore. Because it’s in that act of writing that Spill divulges his biggest secret: the most powerful thing a performer can do is to find her or his own quirkiness and unique qualities and put them out on display in a performance-oriented way.
When you read one of Spill’s books, you instantly understand what he’s talking about when he says to trust your own personality, because the pages of his books are drenched in the unique persona which he has nurtured. While on the one hand it’s instructive to pick up a Dai Vernon book written by someone like Lewis Ganson, on the other hand, the fact that Ganson, not Vernon, wrote it deprives the reader of real insight into much of Vernon’s personality. With a writer like Steve, though, it’s all hanging out there, and it’s plain as day. You understand immediately that the twelve killer presentations that Spill has detailed are perfect for Spill. Those who are not Steve would most likely fall on their faces if they did his presentations verbatim, but that’s not the point. The point is…who are you?
There are so many lessons to be learned here, not the least of which is the courage of one’s convictions. I read the beginning chapters twice, because the first time through I was laughing too much at the jokes to pay attention to the content.
But if you’ve got as warped and crazy a mind as Steve does (that’s a compliment, I think) there are bound to be doubts about whether anyone else will appreciate what you’re doing. However, Steve’s examples of himself being true to form, along with his constant brainstorming, testing, discarding, and revising of effects, serve as a model of what can be done, and act as a spur to one’s own creativity.
For each of the twelve effects Spill describes, he gives the background story on how and why he created it, and these stories are useful adjuncts to understanding how to create your own effects. The methods are tried and true, and for the most part they probably won’t surprise you with their cleverness after the fact. But that’s not what Steve is after—what will surprise and delight you is the way that Steve takes an effect from column A and a presentation from column Z, and juxtaposes them to create something never seen before, something to amuse and mystify an audience, which leaves them with the impression of a strong magical personality and experience.
What’s in the tricks section? Well it’s a compilation of Spill’s greatest hits—The Lemon thing, the Needle thing, The Himber Ring thing, the drug and hemorrhoid jokes, they’re all there, with full scripts and extra handling and performance tips explained with loving care. The most audacious routine is one called “Abra Cadavers” which involves, well, a tale of cadavers wrapped in a personal story of tragedy. You would have to be nuts to perform it. I’m happy to report that Spill has done it many times, and tells you how to do it so that you too can be the object of abject speechless horror. I also thought that the presentation given for the UltraMental Deck was one of the best ideas for it I’ve ever come across.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the British magician David Devant expressed his appreciation of his audience with the tagline, “All Done By Kindness.” Likewise, Devant’s American contemporary, Howard Thurston, would prepare to go onstage by intoning in the wings to an imaginary audience, “Thank you, thank you for coming to my show tonight. God Bless You.” And now in the same spirit, as we navigate the twenty-first century, Steve Spill urges us to make love The Steve Spill Way. His love for magic, his love for his audiences and for his unique self are all part and parcel of How to Make Love The Steve Spill Way.
Author Philip Roth died yesterday. I can’t think of a novelist who has had more of an effect on me than Roth. Indeed, I don’t think I fully understood what a novel could be, and what a writer did, before I read Roth. When I am writing and I can’t figure out what to do, I ask myself WWRD–what would Roth do. The work ethic, the imagination, the dead-on ear for human speech and obfuscation, the love of language, all made him my favorite American author.
Above is an interview Roth did in 2004, where he talks about the obligations of writing. He also makes a startling prediction about the fate of novels in the near future. I hope he is wrong.
Thanks to Youtuber PBS NewsHour
Masercot of the very funny humor blog Potatoes and The Promise of More Potatoes has tagged me to play the blog game “Quote Tag.” The way it works is this: a blogger nominates from three to six other bloggers; then each blogger has to name a 19th-century author and provide three to nine quotes from that author. In order to keep the game going, each blogger subsequently nominates three to six other bloggers.
I’m going to cheat a little by picking George Bernard Shaw as my choice of author. His 94-year-old vegetarian life spanned across the 19th and 20th centuries—see that’s what happens when your diet is based on kale smoothies. The great thing about Shaw is that practically everything he ever wrote or said is quotable, so for lazy me, it’s an easy post.
So here we go:
1. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
2. “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
3. “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”
4. “We learn from experience that men never learn anything from experience.”
5. “My main reason for adopting literature as a profession was that, as the author is never seen by his clients, he need not dress respectably.”
6. “Forgive him, for he believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature!”
7. “In literature the ambition of the novice is to acquire the literary language; the struggle of the adept is to get rid of it.”
8. “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
And here are the names of some bloggers for whom I’d like to pass the game onto (and whose blogs you may very well enjoy visiting):
Learn Fun Facts: Edmark Law’s daily blog of historical, mathematical, and lexical facts
Every Day Another Story: Homespun folk music and stories
McPhillamyActorBlog: Actor Colin Mcphillamy’s blog about his life in the theater
Every once in a while I like to catch up and share the titles of conjuring books I’ve been reading, so here’s what I’ve been enjoying the last couple of months—and a little product review at the end as well:
1. Scripting Magic, Volume 2: Pete McCabe’s first volume, Scripting Magic, was one of my all-time favorite magic books. It contained scripts for dozens of excellent magic tricks, and what’s more, it told you why they were good scripts and compared them to the not-so-good examples. Anyone reading them could improve the effects they already did by following the advice in the book. Now, in Volume 2, McCabe continues with more wonderful tricks and scripts—including examples from America’s Got Talent winner Derek Hughes, and the script of Houdini’s performance of the Water Torture Cell. McCabe tells you not only what makes a good script, but also helps you to understand how to come up with a premise, and how to flesh it out. It’s terrific advice, but even if you choose to ignore it, there are some very good tricks here including “Pleasure To Burn” ( a fifty-two to one card equivoque) and the holiday-themed “Catching a Leprechaun.” While it’s always great to learn new sleights (and McCabe teaches a few here in the context of a given effect) probably no investment of time will improve one’s magic so much as focusing on script and presentation.
2. Malini and His Magic: Dai Vernon was always humble about the debt he owed to the magicians whose work he studied, including Emil Jarrow and Nate Leipzig, but none impressed him more than Max Malini. I’ve written about Malini before, but it is hard to overestimate what an important influence he was on Vernon’s generation of magicians. In an age where magicians mainly entertained with large illusions on stage, Malini changed the paradigm. Whether he was entertaining on the stage of a large theater, a hotel ballroom, or an intimate dinner party of the rich and famous, he needed only a couple of decks of cards and some silverware to make his presence unforgettable. In Malini and His Magic, editor Lewis Ganson collated Vernon and others’ thoughts and memories of Malini in order to produce a slim but valuable volume. It starts off with some basic biographical information, and then describes the presentation and methods of Malini’s full evening show, the highlight of which was his card stabbing routine. Later chapters deal with Malini’s more informal shows, and it’s wonderful to read about how audacious his effects and methods were. Malini was also quite a self-promoter, and not a small amount of his success was his ability to “schmooze” and make friends with wealthy patrons. The one secret that remains is the famous dinner table production of a block of ice from a lady’s hat. While Vernon describes the production and one aspect of the method, he admits that he does not know how Malini loaded up. That will have to be a mystery to all but Ricky Jay, who you can see perform the astonishing trick for a skeptical journalist in the documentary film Deceptive Practice. (Hmm, I just got an idea of what may have happened.)
3. Our friend Ron Chavis is now well along with the publication of his “Official Magazine for Mentalists,” Mystic Descendant, having released a solid four quarterly issues to round out the first year. The magazine continues with its friendly, good-natured, bar-room mate outlook, and as I have mentioned before, it focuses mainly on the casual performance of mentalism, with a focus on storytelling. I’ve finally caught up with the fourth issue, and in it you’ll find a lovely true story about a seance that unexpectedly turns into a tribute to a recently deceased mentalist; a presentation of an effect that leaves warm feelings of a spectator’s meaningful relationship; and an interview with South American mentalist Mauricio Jaramillo who talks about preparing for the time when things go wrong in performance. It’s light, pleasant reading, that may well stimulate mentalism thoughts of your own; if you haven’t picked up a copy yet, you can go to http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/mysticdescendant to order any issue.
4. On some of the internet magicians’ forums, you’ll find endless discussion of what are the best cards to use, and it may seem amusing to run into spirited online discussions that go into scores of pages on whether blue-backed or red-backed cards are best to use. A lot of magicians take such things quite seriously. Anyway, much virtual ink has also been spilled about what brand of cards is most suitable for card magic. For the past few years, the product of a relative newcomer in the field, the Phoenix deck by Card-Shark, has found favor with many magicians. I like Phoenix cards a lot, but I recently became aware of the new release by the US Playing Card Company of a special edition of their Maiden Back cards. I’ve been using them for a few months now, and I really like them, maybe more than the Phoenix cards. Here’s what I think the advantages of them are:
So if this sounds like something you might be interested in, I’d advise you to try a brick soon, as I don’t really see how they can keep selling them at this price. Happy magishing.
So, I was having my weekly freak out about what will happen if I die tomorrow—not that I have any indication that that is going to occur—and I realized that what I was worried about the most, besides my family, was my writing.
Specifically, what about the novel that I’ve been working on for the last five years, the one that’s still sitting on my computer? My nightmare is that it just stays there with no one even knowing that it’s there. Oh, my family knows I’ve been working on it all this time—how could they not with all the agita around it?—but they don’t know what file it is, or what version is the latest, and probably they’ll have other things to think of when I drop dead, so what am I going to do? It’s strange: we finally got around to making a will, so my family is okay; but I worry about my characters. I’m worried that they will not have a chance to live. It’s a crazy feeling, but it’s a real one. I want them to have a home if they don’t find one before I’m gone. I wonder if other writers experience this. Like Pirandello’s characters, my modest creations want to have a chance to play out their stories, too.
I mean, I have been doing due diligence, sending out my manuscript and query letters, but who knows if anyone will bite? A few close calls, but still nothing. But I believe in this book and these characters, and while I know the book is not going to appeal to everyone, I say immodestly that it is good and deserves to be read by those who would enjoy it.
So I finally figured out a way to lessen my anxiety around this whole thing. I decided that I would self-publish one copy, one copy that I could leave behind, so that when I go, at least there will be some tangible evidence of what I’ve been doing these last few years. It’s kind of amazing to me the effort it takes to write a novel, good or bad. At least, the effort it took me. I don’t claim it to be anything great, but I don’t want it just to disappear.
I went onto a popular online self-publishing site, Lulu.com, having no experience at all how this was going to play out. I assumed that I would have to order a hundred or more copies to get this done. It’s not really what I wanted to do, but I figured, okay, if I have a stack of these left in my office when I kick the bucket, they can give them out at my funeral or something. When I actually went to the website, though, I was pleasantly surprised. You don’t have to order a hundred copies. You could order fifty, or fifteen, or for goodness sake, you could just order one. Yes, one’s the ticket: that’s just what I wanted. Just one to document that I was here, that somewhere in my life I did this thing, and here it is.
The whole process was not too difficult to navigate. There’s a bit of a learning curve but if you follow the directions on the website, you can create your book without too much trouble. The first thing you do is choose the format for your published book: hardbound, softbound, paper quality, different sizes, and so on. I chose a 6×9 perfect bound paperback. If you eventually decide that you want to publish the book commercially, they recommend you ask for the premium paper. This option also provides you with an ISBN number should you ever decide to go commercial with the book. Next, you download a Word template from the website and import the Word document of your manuscript into it. You then upload that file back to Lulu, and they return a pdf that shows exactly how the manuscript will look when published.
When you’re happy with what you see, then it’s time to choose a cover. There is a very easy and flexible Cover Wizard which allows you to choose from a number of attractive looking cover themes. If you like, you can add photos to your front cover; also, on the back cover, you can add an author’s photo and any text you wish. In addition, the book automatically prints with the title of the book and the author’s name on the spine. Since I am not interested right now in publishing, I did not opt for any photos or even back cover text, so I just chose an abstract cover design that I thought was attractive.
At this point you can order your masterpiece, any amount from one proof copy to hundreds. There is a discount in the price per book as the quantity goes up, but I was amazed at how inexpensive it was, even for the one proof copy I wished to purchase. For a 250 page softcover, premium paper, with a designed cover, it only cost $6, plus $5 for shipping. In other words, it cost less than a paperback at the local book store, even with shipping.
I sent off my order and the book arrived about 10 days later. It was very exciting ripping open the package, and seeing the book. It looked and felt great—it was not just a cheap knock off. It was commercial grade paper, cover, and binding. I was very pleased with that. And when I read through my book, I was ready to weep, because the story actually worked as a book. It’s one thing to read a manuscript as a file on your computer, or a collection of printed out loose papers, but when you read it as a bound book, it is a whole different experience. I kept turning the pages, and kept feeling like I had done it. Of course, what I also found were typos and pages mis-formatted, even after literally dozens and dozens of revisions. My biggest mistake was something I thought I had accurately accounted for, but I was wrong—not all of the major chapter sections and title pages started on a right hand page. But I wasn’t too worried, because the cost of re-doing a proof was cheap enough that I didn’t mind just correcting the file, re-uploading it, and ordering a new proof. That’s what I did, and ten days later I was greeted by the new corrected copy.
I have to say this whole experience really helped me to put my mind to rest. Even if you’re not as neurotic as I am, preparing to keel over at any moment, I think that if you are shopping around a manuscript you would benefit from ordering a proof copy of your work. You will see mistakes and typos in a way that you may well have missed in electronic or loose manuscript form. If you do get an agent and a publisher, wonderful; but if not, you have the option of either buying copies from Lulu and selling them yourself, or you can have the book advertised on Lulu’s website. They will do print on demand if you wish, so that they only print the number of books that are actually ordered; Lulu, of course, takes a substantial cut of the cover price that way. You also have the option of listing the book on Amazon in a similar print on demand deal, but in that case, Amazon takes such a large cut, that it hardly pays for the author.
So, if my family is reading this, now you know what that book is that’s sitting next to my will…but I sure hope you get to read it before then.
Let’s say good-bye to the old year with two pensive haikus from David Bader’s Haikus for Jews:
BLT on Toast–
the rabbi takes his first bite,
then the lightening bolt.
The same kimono
the top geishas are wearing–
got it at Loehmann’s.
Agatha Christie, the Queen of mystery stories, not only wrote dozens of novels, but over 150 short stories as well. Recently, four of her short stories were read at New York’s Symphony Space, as part of the estimable radio series Selected Shorts, featuring a cast of well-known actors, and including commentary by essayist Fran Leibowitz. Click on the grey triangle above to hear my review, as broadcast yesterday on WBAI radio’s Arts Express.
I was happy to welcome back poet Constance Norgren yesterday to the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 NY to read from her latest collection of previously unpublished poems, Late In The Day. Click on the grey triangle above for some wonderful short poems.
Before Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth had already written two very accomplished novels: Letting Go and When She was Good. I’ve previously written about my appreciation of the former novel, and When She was Good is an equally intriguing, though quite different book.
In this novel unpleasant, not one of the eight major characters, neither man nor woman, is someone with whom the reader can sympathize. It is Philip Roth’s Ship of Fools. Each character is deeply flawed, but not in the grand tragic manner—for their lives are far too small, shallow, and petty to be tragic. Their problem is that they are ordinary human beings trying to make a life, dealing the best they can with their inevitable inadequacies.
The novel, set in small town, post-war America of the nineteen-fifties, describes the life of Roy Basart, just back from the service, his future uncertain, a young man of more desire than ability. He is at that awkward age in his early twenties when he is expected to become serious, find a career, marry, and make a family. He meets and marries a young woman, Lucy Nelson, whose life has been shaped by her alcoholic father. Lucy vows that she will never be the weak-willed woman her mother was, and that her child will have what she never had—a stable home, with a father who earns a steady living. But it is exactly her impatient and uncompromising will that leads her and all in her path to misery.
For her husband Roy is no hero, but an ordinary man with a wandering will who dreams of becoming an artistic photographer, though his head is full of cliches and other people’s ideas. His parents are strait-laced paragons of local virtue, emblematic of small town prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Lucy’s father, the ne’er-do-well alcoholic, beats Lucy’s forgiving mother, and in the defining action of the book, Lucy calls the police on her father, vowing that she will never forgive him.
Roth’s power as a writer is evident from the very beginning. His method of turning on the tape recorder and letting it run is in full effect here, as it was in his previous novel, Letting Go. Roth lets his characters talk—and talk and talk—but it is his brilliance as a writer that it is this talk that reveals everything we need to know about a character’s personality. The talk here is not just the talk between people, but the self-talk used to convince themselves. More than anything else, this book is about the power that we have for deceiving ourselves. There is not a character in the book who is not full of delusion, misconceptions fueled and propagated by what they say to themselves. Talk, for Roth, is not so much to persuade others, but to persuade ourselves of our own goodness, and especially of the reasonableness of the compromises we’ve had to make. In Shakespeare, it takes the most brilliant evocative words and imagery to persuade others; in Roth, it only takes the most mundane and unimaginative words repeated endlessly to persuade ourselves. The cliches that fill our self-talk are what allow us to continue our self-deceptions.
Not that the characters aren’t transparently foolish to others as well. Lucy can barely contain her sarcasm at the hypocrisy and blindness of her family. She is merciless in her dissection of their faults and expects them to live up to higher standards. She demands that they exert themselves more forcefully. But in her own relentless expression of her will, she comes to disaster. In her uncompromising demand for her own way at all times, she drives away the people closest to her, including her husband and child.
Roth clearly believes that it is inhuman to expect people to live without compromises, to believe in one’s own certainty, and to demand that others live that way, too. But Roth does not let the other side off the hook either. Lucy has good reason to be disgusted at the mediocrity and slackness of others. For much of the book, Lucy seems to be the most reasonable character out of all of them. It is really only in the last part of the novel where Roth chooses sides, and then he comes down heavily against Lucy. As if the reader might miss the point, Roth, in an uncharacteristically overdetermined way, has Lucy die in a frozen patch of snow, a result of her unrelenting obsession. It’s a misstep, I think, by Roth: in real life, such situations don’t usually lead to such histrionic endings, but continue with the dull repetition of recriminations and petty bickering on both sides. It’s surprising that Roth doesn’t just allow that, after being such a faithful observer of his characters’ lives.
While the book is a tragedy of personality, it also exists within a specific social and political milieu. It contains more than a little influence of Sinclair Lewis’s 1920s Babbit and Main Street: rural and suburban America coming of age under capitalism; however, in this later work, the post-world War II context is clearly the McCarthy era with its stilted vision of success, and its strictures on what people may say to themselves and others. The unspoken subtext of the novel is the inability to achieve the American dream: the dream is a fake, shored up by anti-communism. Roy has some inklings that maybe socialism is not as bad as everyone says, but it is no more than a vague thought, ultimately just a talking point for himself, another excuse for his own personal failures.
Strikingly, this is one of the few books by Roth where Jews and Jewish culture play no obvious part. Still, in a way, it’s a parable of Old Testament judgement versus New Testament mercy. Lucy represents the vengeful willful God of the Old Testament, while her grandfather, mother, and husband lean towards the charity and forgiveness of the New Testament. They are in a sense competing strategies for survival. But both ways under American capitalism in this novel lead to tragedy. There is no way to be. Neither ruthless will, nor temperate charity, can insure happiness or survival.
Because Roth as a novelist is as uncompromising as Lucy is as a person, the book can feel pitiless. Roth refuses to turn his head away from what he sees and hears. But the skills with which the 33-year-old Roth delineated the knots of relationship is bracing in its own way. To lay it all out on the table without flinching is a powerful achievement, and left this reader, at least, more sober and in a more reflective state about his own life.
The Devil is back, and the Devil is all in the details.
The Devil, in the guise of card man Greg Chapman, has returned with a new volume of mischievous pasteboard knowledge, Details of Deception: Artifice and Entertainment with Cards. If you thought Greg’s first book, The Devil’s Staircase, was a tour de force of gambling-themed card magic ideas, you’ll be even more delighted with this follow-up. The new book can certainly stand alone as a contribution to the literature, but when seen as a companion book to its predecessor, it really makes its full impact. (Full disclosure: I gladly did some proofreading on this as well as the earlier book.)
Dai Vernon liked to quote Da Vinci, “Details make perfection, but perfection is no detail.” Vernon knew that especially in the art of magic, the difference between the right detail and the wrong detail could mean the difference between success and failure. As Teller once pointed out, magic is very binary in the sense that an effect either fools an audience or it doesn’t. There’s no “sorta” or half pregnant in magic. A slight detail can be the difference between the audience experiencing a sense of verisimilitude or not.
Greg takes on a relatively narrow slice of the magic universe and focuses sharply on the details that make a difference. As he did in his first book, Greg here first introduces the tools he will be discussing: the peek, the key card, the stack, the crimp, even the humble ribbon spread. If you think you know everything about those tools, odds are, you are in for a pleasant surprise.
Greg’s focus as he circles back to these subjects is always how to get ahead while maintaining naturalness in action and speech. To this end, Greg is all about learning how to feel comfortable in one’s habitual environment—in Greg’s case, at the card table. His style is low-key, innocent, and absolutely fooling.
The second chapter of the book introduces effects which require little to no set-up (except for, in one case, the introduction of a gaffed card). Some of them, such as “Rubaway Switch” and “OHSD Switch” are transposition effects which can also be used as utility moves. Others, such as “Any Pair” and “Card at Number,” are basically self-working tricks with a strong impact. And with just a little more faro-ing effort, “The Accomplice” and “PUnDoM” are impressive quick demos of card control.
The following two chapters are, for me, the heart of the book. In the chapter entitled Stacks, Greg goes into greater detail regarding the tools that he mentioned at the beginning of the book. There is a lengthy and invaluable discussion of estimation that opens the chapter, and I can say that for me personally, it took a skill that seemed mysterious and out of my reach, and turned it into something achievable and usable. Greg even provides outs for those times when one’s estimations are a little off. I don’t have to tell anybody who does MD work what a valuable skill estimation is to have.
Equally useful to me was Greg’s discussion of the Ribbon Spread. It really opened my eyes to the devious uses to which this ubiquitous little flourish can be put. In the sections on peeks, shiners, and deck switches, there is also much of use: not only concerning the sleight-of-hand aspects of the moves, but also the timing and body gestalt as well.
The next chapter is devoted to memorized deck routines. There is a clever ACAAN, which has some important features: the spectator can genuinely name any card, and also has a wide range of numbers from which to choose. More importantly, the spectator can do the final countdown deal to the card. And . . . the method is essentially sleightless. Other tricks that I especially like in this section are “One Card Missing,” a snappy determination of a card missing from a deck under seemingly impossible conditions, and “That Old Trick,” a discovery of a selected four-of-a-kind that is quite enjoyable to perform, and is a painless and safe way to practice your Mexican Turnover.
The last chapter of the book is called Second Thoughts. It is a detailed mini-treatise on how to perform Greg’s version of a push-off second. This is painstaking, nuanced work, and probably will most interest those who can’t afford the slightest inkling of suspicion. If that sounds up your alley, there are lots of diagrams, advice, and encouragement here for those who decide to tread the path. The good news for the rest of us is that Greg includes in this section an excellent gambling deal effect, “Stacked To Win,” which while requiring some quick thinking and quick second dealing, actually demands less skill than the overall impression of the effect conveys.
Greg ends the book with a wonderful Cards to Pocket that will likely fool most magicians. It incorporates a very clever, efficient gaff. I don’t know if the gaff is original to Greg, but I’ve never seen it before, and I can well imagine its use in other situations as well.
If you have any interest in improving your card magic skills, I highly recommend that you sit down to a deal with the Devil, Greg Chapman’s Details of Deception.
Yesterday, WBAI-FM radio’s Arts Express broadcast part two of my interview with Peter Frase, author of the new book Four Futures.
Frase has an intriguing set of ideas about what the future might look like after capitalism destructs, given the ecological constraints of abundance/scarcity and the political constraints of equality/inequality. In this final segment we talk about what might happen if the world’s resources turn out to be strictly limited.
Click on the grey triangle above to tune in.
You can listen to Part One here:
Yesterday, WBAI-FM radio’s Arts Express broadcast part one of my interview with Peter Frase, author of the new book Four Futures. Frase has an intriguing set of ideas about what the future might look like after capitalism destructs, given the ecological constraints of abundance/scarcity and the political constraints of equality/inequality.
Click on the grey triangle above to tune in.
You can listen to Part Two here:
Othello demands from Iago the ocular proof, and I’ve spent the last month or so providing such, in a manner of speaking. I’ve been proofreading and copy editing an excellent new magic book, Details of Deception, by Greg Chapman, and I’m quite enjoying the process. That must seem a strange thing to say for such a potentially tedious assignment, but the book is so intriguing, and the author such a gentleman (not always the case in the niche world of conjuring), that I was glad to take on the assignment.
I’ve written before about some of the challenges of copy editing and writing a book of magic. Stephen Minch, one of the great writers and publishers of magic literature, has given magic writers a unique style guide. Because of magic’s technical nature, the text of a book about card magic in some ways more closely resembles that of a car repair manual than that of, say, a novel; so by all means if you are about to embark on writing a magic book, your first stop should be Minch’s guide. You can download it for free here.
I’d like to just briefly mention a few other practical things that I’ve learned to watch out for in an endeavor like this. Much of this can be applied to non-magic literature as well:
I hope these few pointers will be helpful. But more, I think if you’re a card person you’re really going to like this book. I hope you find it a good read.
The same, only different. That’s what the people want, so they say. But how same and how different? That no one can tell you.
I’m working on the manuscript of Novel #2. Presently, there is much good in it, and much that is not so good in it. The way the book is presently constructed, it has a frame story that takes place in the present, and a mystery of sorts leads one of the characters back in time to previous events. So a substantial amount of the book takes place in the past. And as I was going through the manuscript this time through, it became very clear to me: the parts that were not so good were mostly in the frame-story portion, the portion of the novel set in the present.
I tried to understand why this was so. It seemed to me that the characters in the frame story had less dimension, spoke more stiltedly, and seemed overall less real to me. When I first had the impetus to write this book, the incidents in the past are what propelled me to start writing. I grafted on the frame story, because I thought I could make a clever plot connection between the events in the present and the events in the past. And that is where I made my mistake. Because clever is very different from true. And what I’m learning now, for my taste at least, is that truth beats clever every time.
Not that there is no place for cleverness in a novel. But it can’t be the sole reason for its existence, unless it’s a genre-specific item, like a sci-fi story or a mystery. As an extreme example of this, I recently read a mystery called The Tokyo Murder Mysteries, recommended on one of the magic forums. It’s an extraordinarily clever locked-room style multiple murder mystery whose answer is literally the same as the method to a very clever close-up magic trick involving dollar bills. Now I enjoy this kind of book, it has a great power to amuse and entertain me, but on the other hand it has little power to move me. And if a piece of literary fiction doesn’t move the reader in one way or another, then for me, it hasn’t done its job.
So what then should literary fiction do, at a minimum? The formulation I came up for myself was that the kind of book I’m interested in reading and writing must speak a recognizable unspoken truth about the human condition. However, that stipulation is necessary, but not sufficient. It can’t keep saying the same thing in the same way as other books. So I amend it to, “To speak a recognizable unspoken truth—in a novel way.”
In a novel way. Oh my goodness, I never—stupid me—never made the connection between the two meanings of the word. A novel is something that talks about life in a novel way. There must be surprise and unpredictability. The same, only different. How much same and how much different? In a genre novel, very likely much of it is the same as others in its genre; if any of the rigid conventions of the genre are broken, it’s quite possible that the reader will feel badly disappointed. On the other hand, the need for surprise somewhere in the book is even greater, because of the necessity of distinguishing itself from the rest of its similar genre-soaked companions. So a genre book depends heavily on one twist, usually at the end, that does all the heavy lifting. If that twist doesn’t work, then the book has little value. To take the murder mystery example above, if the reader doesn’t appreciate the ingenuity of the solution to the multiple murder mystery, then as far as the reader is concerned, the time spent reading has been wasted.
But in literary fiction, the balance is different, there’s much more unpredictability. As a writer I am most happy when I surprise myself as I go along, because I know that if I am happily surprised as I am writing, then perhaps the reader will be pleasantly surprised as well. A tale full of sound and fury that’s been told before in the same way? Well, that signifies nothing.
The balance of those two imperatives—truth and novelty—is something that I must continually weigh as I continue to revise my manuscript. I can’t allow myself to be seduced by one side to the exclusion of the other. There must be both throughout the manuscript.
A novel should speak the recognizable unspoken truth in a novel way.
Crowds and Party by Jodi Dean is a fascinating must read for anyone interested in how political change happens, and what the left must do now. In this book, Professor Dean talks about those “beautiful moments” that have happened throughout history—think The Paris Commune and Occupy Wall Street—where The Crowd has created a disruption in the usual fabric of capitalist society. But those “beautiful moments” are short-lived, ephemeral, and seem to disappear into forgotten hope. How can a movement hold onto and build on these precious historical moments? Jodi Dean tackles crowd theory and the concept of a working people’s political party, reviews the relevant literature, and presents her analysis in her new book, Crowds and Party.
The book is not always easy reading, so I was happy to have the opportunity to engage in a spirited conversation with Professor Dean, broadcast on WBAI 99.5 FM NY radio yesterday on the Arts Express program. Dean was so interesting that we decided to do two parts to the interview, broadcast one week after the other.
You can listen to Part One by clicking on the grey triangle above.