Favorite Books (2): Insurgent Mexico by John Reed

insurgent mexico

Before John Reed chased down the Russian Revolution and wrote his eyewitness account in Ten Days That Shook the World, he rode with the legendary Pancho Villa in 1914, during the Mexican Revolution. His dispatches from the front were gathered together in an exciting account called Insurgent Mexico.

And what an account it is! The reporting is startling vivid, and Reed instantly puts the reader in the middle of the action, the words and images poetically visceral. His portrait of Villa, an uneducated but wily outlaw turned revolutionary, is both an ode to the common man and the power of personality. Reed rode with, drank with, sang with, danced with, but above all, fought with the peon revolutionaries who sought to wrest a little piece of land for themselves from the giant Hacienda landowners in that feudal-like society.  Villa was the Revolutionary leader of the Northern army, while the more politically sophisticated Emilio Zapata controlled the South of Mexico. The history of the Mexican Revolution is littered with betrayals and leaders jumping from one side to the other, but Villa was always true to the peons he served, and to their revolutionary fervor. While Villa was untutored, his instinctive cunning saw that it would be good for the Revolution to have such a reporter as Reed send back dispatches to the United States, and so he welcomed Reed’s company with open arms.

Reed slept, ate, and fought with Villa’s troops. While Reed’s account is non-fiction, the strength and immediacy of the prose is something that any fiction writer could envy and learn from. Here’s a passage that describes the revolutionaries encountering the Federal troops:

We could see them now, hundreds of little black figures riding through the chaparral; the desert swarmed with them. Savage Indian yells reached us. A spent bullet droned overhead, and then another; then one unspent and a whole flock singing fiercely. Thud! went the adobe walls as bits of clay flew. Peons and their women rushed from house to house, distracted with fear. A trooper, his face black with powder, and hateful with killing and terror, galloped past, shouting that all was lost…

Apolinario hurried out the mules with their harness on their backs, and begin to hitch them to the coach. His hands trembled. He dropped a trace, picked it up, and dropped it again. He shook all over. All at once he threw the harness to the ground and took to his heels. Juan and I rushed forward. Just then a stray bullet took the old mule in the rump. Nervous already, the animals plunged wildly. The wagon tongue snapped with the report of a rifle. The mules raced madly north into the desert.

Reed said himself that when he wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, he was striving to make his prose as objective as possible. But fortunately for us, in this earlier work about Mexico, Reed was not afraid to let the full force of his literary talent be displayed. This is a fast read, and a pleasurable one, and it makes me sad to think that the talent that produced this work at the age of twenty-six was lost at his premature death, only seven years later. But this book is a testament to a great journalist and a great writer.

Bob’s Bammo Bible: The Bammo Ten Card Deal Dossier


Those familiar with the Jewish Passover Haggadah will be familiar with the invocation of the ritual word “Dayenu,” meaning “It would have been enough.” The Bammo Ten Card Deal Dossier inspires hosannas along a similar line:

If he had given us the Bruce Elliott Phoenix write-up, but not the Harry Lorayne routine; Dayenu! It would have been enough.

If he had given us the Harry Lorayne Routine, but not the Stewart James spelling idea; Dayenu! It would have been enough.

If he had given us the Stewart James spelling idea, but not the Paul Curry “Cider!” innovation; Dayenu! It would have been enough.

If he had given us the Paul Curry “Cider!” innovation, but not the Bruce Bernstein Psyche Out routine; Dayenu! It would have been enough.

And so on.

Fortunately, Bob Farmer, the entertaining Canadian magic creator, writer, and all around flim-flam man has given us all of the above, and more, in his new treatise on the Ten Card Deal, The Bammo Ten Card Deal Dossier.

The Ten Card Deal is the classic card effect which, in its most basic form, has the performer deal out two hands of poker; and yet despite the spectator having all kinds of choices in the distribution of the cards, the performer repeatedly wins.

The method behind the trick is devastatingly simple, and its very simplicity has inspired literally scores of devilish variations. Farmer, while disavowing that he is trying to document every version, has collected and described in his book dozens of the best variations, so that only the most churlish could dispute the word encyclopedic. If you have any intention of performing a gambling routine, you would be foolish to pass this book up—even if you are familiar with the original version of the trick.

The key problem in a book like this is how to organize the material. If it indeed is to be, intentionally, an encyclopedia, then the key is consistency: find an organizing principle and stick to it. That could mean alphabetically or chronologically, for example. But the Farmer book is organized about a much happier principle than an encyclopedia. In my opinion, its guidepost is readability. The chapter headings are grouped more by methodological considerations than anything else, and while this often coincides with the historical chronology, sometimes it doesn’t. The book begins with an overview of the history of the effect and the various stratagems employed, and then gets down to the individual routines. The book in many ways reminds me of another book solely devoted to one classic magic effect, Switch, Jon Lovick’s treatise on the Bill Switch. Both are comprehensive, intelligent, but above all, useful readable guides to a great effect.

Oh, and funny, too. The copyright page reads: “Thieves will be tracked down and torn apart by packs of pit bulls that have been starved for days, given the offender’s scent and told, “It was this man who took your mother away.” And each chapter begins with a quotable quote such as “I became a policeman, because I wanted to be in a business where the customer is always wrong.”

Like Switch, the writing and descriptions are so clear, and the material so clever and compelling, that one can almost read through the book straight through rather than just dip in and out of, as you would most reference books. Again, because Farmer has not restricted himself too strictly to any one organizing scheme, he is able to connect one effect to another in a loose, associative way which makes for more enjoyable reading. My only quibble would be that I think all the gaffed-card versions should be separate from the ungaffed versions, but that is a matter of taste.

So let’s get down to the routines themselves. For me, the strongest routines are just that—routines. It seems to me, that an important aspect of the effect of the Ten Card Deal is the fact that the magician repeatedly keeps winning, despite increasingly more difficult conditions. Though there are quite a few descriptions of variations here that have only one phase, I think those are much less successful, no matter how clever the method or how free the deal appears to be. Because, when it comes down to it, in my opinion, in a two-handed situation the audience’s perception of just one round of poker is that it is a fifty-fifty proposition. Either the performer wins or the performer doesn’t. Either the spec wins or the spec doesn’t. More important than what the odds would actually be, is what the audience feels the odds to be (see ACAAN!). And, again, in my opinion, the payoff for a one phase trick, with procedure to boot, is just not enough.

So early on, we are given Harry Lorayne’s ground-breaking routine. And if Harry Lorayne has given card magic nothing else, it’s the ability to milk all the entertainment value possible from a card trick. Most magicians know the basic principle behind the Ten Card Deal, but the beauty of the reprint of Harry’s routine here is that it gives every nuance, joke, and scripting idea that Harry has applied to this routine over the years. Memorize the script and structure of this routine and not only will you have a killer anytime, anywhere card routine out of the box, but you can use the same structure and script to fashion other variations from the other ideas in this book that might strike your fancy.

Speaking of fancy, my favorite routine in the book is Bruce Bernstein’s five-phase eighteen-card deal called Psyche Out. It is based on Nick Trost’s brilliant observation that with eighteen cards, it is possible to have two alternating nine-card stacks, with the all-important tenth card being a card from the other stack. The beauty of this arrangement is that because the tenth card is always different, there is no pattern for the spectator to discover, and the ensuing procedure can have far greater latitude. Bernstein’s routine has a great dramatic build, and again it is an anytime, anywhere killer. The performer keeps giving the spectator more and more freedom in the choice of the cards to be selected, yet somehow the spectator can never win.

Well I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the entries  by J. K. Hartman, Alex Elmsley, Jon Racherbaumer, Tomas Blomberg, John Bannon, and Joshua Jay, among others, assure that the reader will have the toolkit to put together a routine that will fit his or her liking.

In the latter half of the book, Bob reprints some of his Flim-Flam columns originally written for Magic Magazine, and he has an extensive section on Blackjack effects. Most of the Blackjack effects are single phase, but Bob suggests some ways to use them as lead-ins for a ten card poker routine, and this might make for a complete gambling act. To round out the book, Farmer has a chapter on packet switches, and a nicely annotated bibliography.

The physical book itself is quite attractive. Published by David Ben’s Magicana, it is in a format similar to The Feints and Temps of Harry Riser book. It’s a 9″ x 11″, sturdily bound 400 page volume, with quality paper. It was edited by Matthew Field and Michael Vance, with useful illustrations by Tony Dunn. There is a last minute one-page addendum tipped in, the addition of another routine with some very good presentation ideas.

The one problem with a book like this is that there are so many great ideas that I wish there were more signposts along the way, saying: Don’t Miss This One! Of course, part of the fun is in the re-reading and finding those nuggets in paragraphs that you’ve read or skipped over before. Read it and learn the Cardperson’s true Bible story of Jonah!

Favorite Books (1): Letting Go by Philip Roth


LETTING GO is Philip Roth’s brilliant first novel, published when he was only 29 years old. Even at that young age, Roth did nothing by half measures. How ambitious and how clear his calling, even then! He unabashedly swings for the home run.

It’s a book that’s sometimes overlooked when discussing Roth, yet it already contains all that elements that he would be lauded for in his later books, without the patina of unconscious self-parody that marred some of that later work.

The book is a portrait of a young novelist, an English professor, and the two women with whom he falls in love. I’m going to skip talking about the theme, or even the story itself, in order to focus primarily on what can be learned about writing from this book.

Roth is rudely audacious in his scene construction: where anyone else would have turned off the narrative camera long before, he keeps the film rolling and rolling and rolling, mercilessly, capturing the whole arc of an event or conversation. He lets it run even as it’s bitterly petering out, describing the inevitable inconclusive conclusion. Because for Roth, that is where the truth is, as much as in any climax—the inevitable compromises and disappointments that are constructed in the negotiation of any relationship.

And Roth does the same at the other end of a scene—he begins much earlier than the climax. The characters talk, talk, talk, and only at length does a scene finally take shape;  another writer, perhaps, would have cut out all the seemingly extraneous lead-in, and gotten to the core long before. But for Roth, this is the core. Life is precisely the extra stuff beyond the bottom line: life is the decoration, the justification, the innovation, the defenses, and the blockades, that are put up against the core. That is what character is.

Roth has a wonderful eye for detail. And his ear is good enough to rival the best of the comic playwrights. He is, it seems to me, a very theatrical writer; it is surprising to me that he has never written for the stage. Roth once said in an interview that in New York as a young man, he hung around actors, and he often did imitations to make the actors laugh. This makes sense, because in his writing, the man can mimic voices as easily and accurately as if he were Rich Little.

And has anyone written children better than Roth has done here? It’s probably the only time in the whole Roth canon that young children play a major role in one of his books. I tend to think of Roth as the dissector of adult neurosis, but his look into the mind of the two young children here is tremendous. Not only the exterior actions of the children, but the interior monologues as well are deeply satisfying.

Roth, however, in his epic ambition, does stumble once in this book. For some critics, it’s a fatal mistake; I don’t feel it’s fatal—the book is just too stuffed with goodies to have it discounted because of one mistake. However, his stumble, born out of ambition, is a great lesson for writers. He makes almost exactly the same mistake that Alfred Hitchcock famously made in his film, Sabotage. In one scene of Sabotage, a young boy is unwittingly carrying a package that contains a bomb. The audience is in suspense, but inwardly it feels safe; after all, the audience knows the convention is that in this kind of a movie little boys don’t get blown up by bombs. But the bomb goes off anyway. And at that point, not only has the bomb exploded, but the audience’s trust has exploded as well. The audience will no longer follow the narrative line. Because if that action is permitted, then anything is permitted, and the audience is no longer willing to go on the journey with the director. Hitchcock had betrayed his audience.  He later said to Francis Truffaut, “I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb…[He] was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful.”

In Letting Go, Roth has that same moment of overreaching for effect that Hitchcock had. Maybe it is an ambitious beginners’ mistake: trying too hard to be different, breaking convention too soon, and in the wrong way. But once Roth missteps towards the end of the novel, the last sixty pages of the journey loses its fizz. It’s a relationship where finally the reader is merely tolerating the author because prior betrayal has frozen all emotion. The reader feels: You can’t play with my emotions like that. You betrayed me. I can’t allow you to manipulate me like that again.

But ending aside, reading Letting Go is a master class in the art of writing. Every detail is fresh; every character, from the principles to the smallest walk-on, speaks in a distinct, honest, and often very humorous voice. If Roth had written this after Portnoy, perhaps it would have been hailed as his best book. Unfortunately, you have to hunt a bit to find a copy of it nowadays, but it’s certainly a book worth hunting for.

The Devil’s Staircase–An Important New Card Magic Book


Usually when I talk about magic in this blog, I try to make it accessible to even the readers who are not involved with magic. But you’ll excuse me if I go magic geek on you today. This post is about a new magic book that I had a peripheral involvement in producing, and is primarily aimed at those already familiar with the technology of card magic.

Greg Chapman’s new book is called The Devil’s Staircase. If you do any kind of gambling material and know the difference between an out-faro and an in-faro, stop reading this post and go order it right now at: http://www.thedevilsstaircase.com

You must have this book. You will thank me for it later.  I’ll wait.

The rest of you take a look at this video: http://vimeo.com/111080641

If you have a belt handy, strap it around your head while watching the above video so your brains don’t fall out. No, it’s not trick photography.

Everybody back? Okay. Now, clearly the must-haves will love this book. But there is also a whole group of magicians who are the should-haves who will also enjoy and benefit from this book. I’ll describe who I think this group should be a little later in the review. But first, let me describe the book in more detail so you can get a sense of why I am so excited about it. (Full disclosure: I proofread a late version of this book. I didn’t know Greg beforehand.  It was hard sometimes to focus on the proofreading because as I read it, I got so engrossed. I realized it was an excellent book.)

In the first chapter, Greg introduces his weapons of choice for the cardician. They will not be unfamiliar to the practitioner: the stack, the faro, the run up, the false shuffle, the memdeck, the estimate, the glimpse, and the joker. In this introduction, Greg lays all his cards, as it were, on the table. He assumes the reader has the same tools available for use as well.

The next chapter takes us into a collection of FASDIU (from a shuffled deck in use) effects that are just knockouts. Learn the material in this chapter and you have an evening’s set of killer entertainment that you can do impromptu. Here’s a description of the first effect in the book, Snap Transposition:

Four kings are removed from a deck of cards. One red king is placed on a participant’s hand and the other red king is inserted face-up between the face-down black kings and held, spread at the fingertips. In a snap all four cards instantly change places. That is, the red kings are now seen to sandwich a black king and the face down card on the participant’s hand is shown to be the other black king.

It’s a beautiful effect, and an instant visible transposition.

There are several other excellent tricks in this section including Thought Card Across, a plot which has been explored by others including Bruce Bernstein, but Greg’s version has some decidedly superior features, and Searchers Undone which has a plot similar to the video above, but can be done entirely impromptu.

Greg’s teaching and explanations are detailed and clear; if you’re a fan of Simon Aronson’s books, you will immediately see Aronson’s influence on the way Greg takes such care with his explanations. As with Aronson’s books, you’ll find much to read and re-read carefully because sometimes what seems like a throwaway comment actually contains within it a door that opens up a whole new avenue of magical thought.

You’ll run across that in the next few chapters especially. Chapter 3 details Greg’s personal MD stack, one especially suited for those who enjoy doing gambling effects. However, even if you don’t do such material, it is well worth reading as there are certain concepts employed that are useful to anyone wanting to create her or his own stack. In the following chapter, you’ll find the Switchable Pairs concept, a simple but intriguing idea with some fascinating implications. This should lead the creative enthusiast to a field of fertile explorations. The Fixed Floating Key Card concept is another idea that could be very helpful to any memdeck worker.

In Chapter 5, you’ll find memdeck effects that are stack independent. While the plots here are not novel,  the treasure is in the care that Greg takes to make every step seem absolutely innocent looking. He explains what he thinks some of the pitfalls of memdeck work are, and how to overcome them. If you do any kind of memdeck work, this chapter will improve what you do, no matter what stack you use.

Chapters 6 and 7 are for the hard-core gambling demo guys and gals. These chapters concentrate on the use of the overhand run-up shuffling system to stack hands. This will also enable you to get even further ahead with a memdeck. It is frankly quite technical material, but well explained and Greg strikes a nice balance between holding the readers’ hands and treating them like adults. In the right hands, it’s powerful stuff. If it’s not your cup of tea, you could probably skip these chapters for now, with the knowledge that if you do decide to learn this later, Greg’s teaching here is very good.

Chapter 8 uses Greg’s stack to illustrate the built-in effects possible with it. Some will be happy to know that there are two different plausible Texas Hold’em deals that are available. Also, fairly easily, the stack can be gotten into from NDO and back into NDO as well,  certainly a nice little way to end a set.

Finally in the last chapter, Greg spills the beans on the effect in the video above, Dirty Tactics. (You did watch it didn’t you? If not, go back now.)  Greg’s diabolical thinking is in full bloom here, and if your pleasure as a magician includes driving your fellow magi crazy, you will definitely enjoy learning this effect.

There are some magicians who are good technicians; there are some magicians who are good writers; there are some magicians who can illustrate their work well; there are some magicians who can create inventive fooling effects. It is relatively rare though in the world of magic to find someone who is all of the above.  I think Greg Chapman is such a magician and his book will become a classic in the field of smart, inventive, demanding but do-able card magic. If you like the work of Darwin Ortiz, Simon Aronson, or Dennis Behr, then this book is for you.

I have yet to meet Greg Chapman in person–all our correspondence has been through email. But I can say without reservation that Greg is a man who cares intensely about his work and has taken the care to produce a really excellent book of card magic. Highly recommended.

Fumbling, Failing, Falling: Wild Mind–Living the Writer’s Life


There are lots of good books about writing, but this one is still reverberating. The premise of this little book is that the essence of good writing comes from being able to access that part of us that doesn’t know what it is doing: the Wild Mind. We are lurching through a desert in a car with no brakes at 150 miles per hour, our eyes straining through the windows and our job is to write it all down as fast as we can. Better yet, kick out the car windows, feel the hot air rush against our cheeks, smell the sulfur night, hear the wolves bay.  And when we crash into the twelve-foot cactus that was hidden around the bend, at all costs hold onto your pencil. Your Monkey Mind has just crashed into your Wild Mind and the skid marks are your next poem or story.

Natalie Goldberg’s book is part memoir, part writing advice. She does not separate life from writing. Life is practice; practice, life.

She writes about the day she got permission. About how every artist needs that nod from another, more respected, artist which says, “It’s okay, you’re one of us, you have permission to continue.” Permission to fumble, fail, fall. Who would want permission to be in such a club! But the journey is helped with the encouragement of others.

Her writing exercises are very practical but not at all like What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Start with “I remember” and keep writing. When you can’t remember anymore, start again: “I remember.”  Do this for ten minutes.  When you are finished, repeat, only this time begin with, “I don’t remember.”

I like her recommendations for revision as well. In order to keep the new material as fresh as the original, she suggests you make a notation next to the paragraph that needs revision. Then on a separate paper let yourself run free with that paragraph’s subject. It may go anywhere. The idea is to let your Wild Mind out so that even in revision the language is chewy and alive.

She talks of her life, how it is not different from writing, how lovers, family, jobs have disappeared and changed but the one commitment she could keep, she had to keep, was her writing.

The sickness and the cure are the same. Pick up the pencil, keep the hand moving.