August Newsletter Now Here!

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It’s here! The August issue of the  Arts Express Newsletter. Eighteen full color pages!

Highlights include:

* Prairie Miller interviews legendary journalist Peter Arnett who talks about meeting Osama Bin Laden and trying to report the truth about the Vietnam War.

*A portfolio of the haunting photographs of Antony Zacharias

*Dennis Broe reviews Spike Lee’s new film about Vietnam veterans, Da Bloods

*Our staff and listeners weigh in with their Summer Reading Picks.

*Plus The Guest List, News and Gossip, and more!

To get your free pdf copy every month to your email address, just send an email to ArtsExpressList@gmail.com and put Subscribe in the subject line. We’ll do the rest!

 

Now On Your Virtual Doorstep…

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Eagle-eyed readers of this blog may have noticed that recently I put up a new website link at the top of the blogroll over there on the lower left hand side of the page.

That’s a link to the shiny new Arts Express Newsletters archive. As you may be aware, every month we’ve been putting out a full color newsletter filled with interviews, scripts, essays, photos, and more. It’s a kind of companion to the Arts Express radio program. We offer a continuing subscription to the newsletter for free as an email attachment to those who drop us a line at artsexpresslist@gmail.com and put the word “subscribe” in the subject line (Try it and see!)

Recently, we were requested to create an archive of past newsletters which we’re glad to do. By clicking on this link or the picture above, you’ll be taken to the archive of past newsletters, where you can access any of the individual issues.

So now there are two ways to get your monthly Arts Express Newsletter fix: either rushed to you by email on the first of each month, or by accessing past issues at the archive.

Chaplin and The Great Dictator

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Charlie Chaplin’s birthday occurs on April 16th, but really we can celebrate him anytime we like. Simply the greatest comedian on the big screen ever. Here’s a piece I produced that was broadcast today on WBAI’s Arts Express, WBAI.org, and on Pacifica affiliates across the nation.

Click on the triangle or mp3 link above to listen.

Arts Express April Newsletter Preview!

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And here we are with a preview of our third free issue of the Arts Express Newsletter, the jam-packed, super-duper April Issue.

As always, think of the Arts Express newsletter as a print extension of the conversation started on our global radio arts magazine, Arts Express, heard on WBAI 99.5 FM in NYC, WBAI.org, and Pacifica affiliates across the country, in Paris, Beijing, and Berlin.

Every month, it’s full color pages of Arts Express goodness, filled with fascinating interviews, reviews, scripts of our radio drama, photo features, gossip, film, theatre, book recommendations and more.

Here’s a preview of what’s in our April issue, which if you subscribe (just send an email to ArtsExpressList@gmail.com and put Subscribe in the subject line) , you will receive for free the first week in April and every month thereafter:

* Prairie Miller’s  interview with South African writer and anti-apartheid activist Tim Jenkin, who talks about his film Escape From Pretoria, which details his escape from Pretoria Maximum Security Prison, and his work setting up a communication system for the imprisoned Nelson Mandela.

*A joyful portfolio of photographs of the world’s largest flower parade held every year in Zundert, Netherlands, the birthplace of Vincent Van Gogh.

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* Red Vienna: An Arts Express Extra: Culture critic Dennis Broe writes about the city of Vienna in the 1920s, when a socialist city government planned and built public housing and public facilities throughout the city, which to this day makes Vienna one of the most livable cities in Europe.

* The poetry of Trinidad and Tobagoan poet Camryn Bruno, also known as “Queen Bee,” from her book Queen Bee Cavity.

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*And Announcing the Arts Express Community Call-in. Would you like to join your fellow listeners in a telephone conversation about culture in a time of pandemic? Write us at artsexpresslist@gmail.com and we’ll give you more details!

*Plus: The Guest List–our recent and upcoming guests; The Back Room–news and gossip about WBAI and the Arts Express crew; and information about exclusive giveaways, and how to win an opportunity to broadcast your own work on the air.

It’s all in the new free Arts Express Newsletter.

If you’re not yet subscribed, you can get your free pdf copy every month to your email address, by sending an email to ArtsExpressList@gmail.com and put Subscribe in the subject line. We’ll do the rest!

And don’t miss our next radio show, Tuesday 3/31 at 4am NYC time, which you can hear on WBAI.org or WBAI 99.5FM NYC., featuring:

 Film: Mrs. America – Actress Margo Martindale discusses playing Bella Abzug in this upcoming feminist mini-series

TV: Asian American actress Keiko Agena on Prodigal Son, Gilmore Girls, Better Call Saul

Report From The Front: Europe And The Coronavirus. Arts Express Paris correspondent Professor Dennis Broe’s news and analysis from the European pandemic epicenter. And what all of this may have to do with austerity and automation; Shakespeare, the plague, King Lear and Macbeth; and Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal – where the poor are served up as a source of nutrition and fine dining.

Plus…Pandemic radio drama, Syrian comic pandemic satire in the No Laughing Matter Comedy Corner episode – and Bernie Sanders in performance.

 

 

 

Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre

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I’ve always been fascinated by rehearsals, both as a spectator and performer. Sometimes, as an actor, I enjoy rehearsals more than performances. The most amazing things can happen in rehearsal that somehow are never re-captured in performance.

A few weeks ago I attended a rehearsal of the Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre. Here’s my report as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the country.

Click on the triangle to listen.

The Book Nook, Magic Edition (4)

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Here’s an update on three magic books I’ve received recently, each of which I can recommend to aficionados.

First, The Top Change by Magic Christian. Christian, a seasoned performer and recognized expert on 19th century card magic history (he wrote the massive two volume work on his Viennese forerunner, J. N. Hofzinser: Non Plus Ultra) has written a monograph on the top change and its variants, illustrated with over 200 sharp black & white photographs, and includes an extensive bibliography from Denis Behr. It begins with a chapter on the history of the sleights, then gets down to basics teaching them.

The section describing the basic top change that Christian prefers is actually fairly brief—four pages of Christian’s general philosophy about the top change, and then about ten pages of photos and text  breaking down the move, step by step. Those familiar with the description of the move in Expert Card Technique or Giobbi’s Card College may be surprised by some of Christian’s recommendations. He prefers a subtle, subdued approach: he does not try to cover the move with wide sweeping arm movements, and he prefers not to move both hands.

The top change is one of those sleights which is extremely useful in card magic—Christian calls it “the most useful, the most regal sleight” in all of card magic. I have to admit that while technically it’s a much easier move than palming or doing a classic pass, I feel much more comfortable with the latter sleights than doing a top change. Like many, I am afraid of being caught out because of the boldness of the move. But I can say that with some study of the book and practice, I have been gaining in confidence, and my current efforts, as recorded on video, are not too awful. So thank you, Magic Christian.

Next up is David Regal’s new book, Interpreting Magic. It’s a big book, with the usual kind of Regal attention to close-up card and coin magic. Regal is a guy whose roots are in improv and scripting (no, not mutually exclusive at all!) and his focus is always on presenting an entertaining story and premise for his audience.  If you’ve seen any of Regal’s other books, you know he’s got literally scores of such workable effects. But curiously, my favorite part of the book was not the close-up magic, but rather the platform magic section. His imagination really lets loose with the larger effects.  He’s got very original, ingenious premises and presentations with props that are more unexpected and amusing than the usual card or coin routines. Also, scattered throughout the book, he has some great interviews and essays. There’s not a whole lot of organization to this huge book, so at 500+ pages it’s a bit of a hodge-podge, but I really like dipping into it at random. Definitely recommended.

And finally, there’s Thinking Of You, the latest annual offering from Andy of the magic website, The Jerx.  The previous book from The Jerx, Magic for Young Lovers, was one of my all-time favorite magic books. The current book is also quite good, though unsurprisingly, not in the same league as its predecessor.  MFYL set a high bar to reach and Andy seems to be aware of that. While the earlier book was conceived as a whole philosophy and approach to amateur magic—and largely succeeded—this one is much more modest in its aims. Thinking Of You is mainly concerned with the performance of mentalism in an amateur social context, and as such it’s more of a toolkit—okay, a bag of tricks—rather than some overarching vision, despite some valuable advice on how to approach social mentalism. That said, many of the individual ideas and effects are quite strong and without the comparison to the other book, it’s quite a respectable piece of work. The book is physically similar to the last two Jerx books, though there are no illustrated endpages as the previous books had. However, for those complaining about the high price of subscribing to the site and receiving the book, here’s a hot tip: some of the best ideas and effects in the book are already on the Jerx site for free, if you comb through the site. Either way, Andy has a ton of great advice for those performing in an amateur social context.

And upcoming: the gambling subset of magic fans has been eagerly awaiting Steve Forte’s new double volume opus on gambling sleights i.e. false deals, shuffles, switches, and so on. It’s Forte’s name that’s the draw here, as his status as a card worker is legendary, and his knowledge and invention of gambling sleights is second to none. In any reasoned list of the best living card workers, Forte’s name is probably going to be right at the top. Forte printed up a first run of 1000 copies, and by the time you read this, it probably will be all sold out, despite the fact that it won’t even be published for another few weeks. A special section on Erdnase’s Expert At The Card Table in the book promises to be a paradigm-breaking re-imagining of the old master. It will be interesting to see if Forte’s book, called Gambling Sleight of Hand, lives up to its high expectations.

All of the books are very good. Depending on your taste in magic, at least one of these books will make a worthwhile read for you.

Get Your Arts Fix Here!

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Woo-hoo! It’s the new monthly Arts Express Newsletter, edited by yours truly and it’s free, free, free!

Think of it as a print extension of the conversation started on our global radio arts magazine, Arts Express, heard on WBAI 99.5 FM in NYC, WBAI.org, and Pacifica affiliates across the country, in Paris, Beijing, and Berlin.

Every month, it’s eight pages of Arts Express goodness, filled with fascinating interviews, top ten film lists, reviews, gossip, film, theatre, book recommendations and more.

Here’s a preview of what’s in our inaugural February issue:

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* An extraordinary interview with Bill Wyman, the legendary guitarist for The Rolling Stones.

* Broadcast Film Critics and Women Film Critics Circle reviewer and host Prairie Miller’s Top Ten Films of 2019–and the year’s worst!

* An Arts Express Extra: Jack London’s Preface to The War of the Classes–a supplement to our recent radio performance of London’s powerful essay, “How I Became A Socialist.”

*Plus: The Guest List–our favorite recent guests; The Back Room–news and gossip about WBAI and the Arts Express crew;

*And information about exclusive giveaways and how to win an opportunity to broadcast your own work on the air.

It’s all in the new free Arts Express Newsletter.

To get your free pdf copy every month to your email address, just send an email to ArtsExpressList@gmail.com and put Subscribe in the subject line. We’ll do the rest!

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Jack  London

 

 

 

 

Magic Magazine Junkie

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I’m a magazine junkie, but unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, magazines are fast becoming a thing of the past. It’s a precarious business. And magic magazines historically have been even more precarious than most other categories of periodicals. It’s not unusual at all for a magic magazine, first announced with the boldest of intentions and good will at the beginning not to make it through even a year. The subsequent cancelling of subscriptions, unreturned money, late and missing issues are the stuff of legend and also often enduring acrimony in the magic world.

And yet new magic periodicals are announced all the time, and folks plunk down their dollars, hoping to get their latest magic fix in measured doses. But to a true magazine junkie, there’s nothing sweeter than pulling down a bound volume of ancient magic magazines from days past and thumbing through it. There’s a saying that if you want to hide the secret of a magic trick, write about it in a book. My corollary to that is if you want to fool the book readers, do something from a magazine. That’s where you’ll find your really obscure effects.

But the pleasure of reading the old magazines is not just to find another magic trick, but to get a sense of the smell and taste of the time, the ads, the news of who was playing in what theater, which dealers were pushing which effects, what the in-group gossip and backbiting was, but most gratifyingly, the imprint of the editor. Because really that is the most important factor in my enjoyment. I love a rag with a voice, an opinion, a personality, a sensibility, even if it’s not one I share with the editor.

Here is a list of five of my favorite classic magic magazines of the past, all of which can be found in bound volumes.

The Sphinx has had a long, long publication history. It ran from 1902-1953,  quite a feat in a field where it’s often a wonder when a publication makes it to issue #2.  I’ve written a series of posts about this magazine, but even that only scratches the surface in describing its wonderfulness. It is filled to the brim with great stage magic, photographs, and feature articles on famous magicians of the day. The complete print run costs thousands, but the entire number is available on CD for a ridiculously low price.

The Jinx was the newsletter started by Ted Annemann, which ran from 1934 to Annemann’s suicide in 1942. The magazine’s name was a play on its predecessor, The Sphinx. Annemann was a clever inventor of tricks who preferred subtlety over sleights: unlike The Sphinx which focused more on stage and apparatus magic, The Jinx was oriented more to close-up and parlor magic. The Jinx specialized in particular in mental magic, and the bible of mental magic, Annemann’s book Practical Mental Effects, was drawn from effects first printed in The Jinx. Annemann’s honest editorials in every issue managed to offend many, but his observations were often quite sharp.

The Phoenix, which ran from 1942 to 1954, was writer Bruce Elliott’s tribute to Ted Annemann’s The Jinx. In format it was much the same: a newsletter every two weeks or so with some featured tricks and then a column of observations by the editor. Elliott had more outside interests than Annemann, which gave it a bit of a more varied texture than The Jinx. There were lots of contributions from the great names of the day, including Paul Curry, Dai Vernon, Ed Marlo. Like Annemann’s periodical, Elliott’s taste ran to the kind of thing you could show to the boys after the poker game without too much practice. The first Phoenix volume was the first I ever bought from Tannen’s as a youngster, and it holds a special place in my affection. Elliott gave it up in 1954 after 300 issues, and it was succeeded by The New Phoenix for 100 issues with different editors. The magic content of the periodical remained high, but without Bruce Elliott’s savvy Back Room columns, I didn’t find it as enjoyable a read.

Hugard’s Magic Monthly had a run from 1943-1964, basically contemporaneous with the two Phoenix publications, but it had a very different flavor about it. The individual issues had a higher page count, and in its stride it had a number of regular columns and features by contributors in each issue. There were regular book reviews, listings of the latest stage shows, excerpts from books,  and historical features. Although it was printed on newsprint like The Jinx and The Phoenix, and illustrated mainly by line drawings, it had a larger sense of worldliness than those two publications. Because Jean Hugard and Milbourne Christopher, the two main editors and often pseudonymous contributors, had extensive experience in stage magic and the world of show business, their magazine combined the more professional, international feel of The Sphinx with the  magic clubbiness of the other two periodicals.

Apocalypse was a monthly magazine put out by Harry Lorayne from 1978 to 1997. Richard Kaufman, the current editor of Genii magazine, started it with Lorayne when he was a young man, but by its second year, Lorayne was the sole editor. The magazine featured close-up magic effects from the top magicians of the time, with many contributions from Lorayne himself in the field of card and coin magic. Lorayne was a tireless self-promoter and writer, and managed to get great material from his contributors. Lorayne also always provided yearly trick and author indices with each volume, a welcome addition, especially in a day and age before digital searches were possible. Harry famously would include his “Afterthoughts” to many effects including his own, which were short paragraphs of variations and additions to a given effect, sometimes useful, sometimes not. While there’s no doubt that Harry had (and still has in his 90s) a distinctive voice and take on magic, for many, including myself, his narcissism and pettiness make it hard to enjoy the more newsy items he reported on. Still, the magic contained within (check out all the great contributions by David Regal over the years) make this a nominee for desert island reading.

Some of my other past favorite periodicals were Karl Fulves’s publications: Chronicles, Pallbearer’s Review, and Epilogue, though they don’t have the voice or editorial content that the others mentioned above have. Another favorite of mine, too, is Steve Hobb’s more recent periodical Labyrinth. It, also, has little editorial content but contains lots of very clever card magic and sleights.

And, finally, if you don’t find something appealing here, you might take a look at this list of magic periodicals:

https://geniimagazine.com/wiki/index.php?title=Magic_Periodicals

Magicpedia estimates there have been over a thousand different magic periodical publications since 1895. So magic magazine junkies take heart—you have plenty of choices to keep you busy for a very long time.

 

 

 

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Permanent Record: Edward Snowden

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“My name is Edward Joseph Snowden, I used to work for the government but now I work for the public. It took me nearly three decades to recognize that there was a distinction, and when I did it got me into a bit of trouble at the office.”

That’s the opening to Edward Snowden’s thrilling new memoir. You can listen here to my commentary on the book, as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC, by clicking on the triangle above.

Coriolanus: The Nihilism of War

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Corn. After a long war against the Volscians, the hungry Roman peasants demand the release of the captured stores of corn. The victorious general Caius Marcius, later crowned Coriolanus, finds the revolting peasants revolting; he mocks their demands even as they agree to crown him Emperor. All they ask of him in return is that he say a word or two in support of the common people. But the narcissistic Coriolanus refuses to repeat niceties as any usual politician would; finally, all the various political factions find him so intractable and so obstinate that he is exiled. In bitter resentment, Coriolanus offers to lead the opposing Volscian army to victory against Rome, only to fall in crushing defeat.

It’s with some trepidation that I attend a Shakespeare play that I’m not already familiar with, but in Dan Sullivan’s recent excellent Public Theater production of Coriolanus at the Delacorte, the story line was always crystal clear, and each scene unfolded understandably even to these virgin ears.

It’s a play that has an obvious double in Julius Caesar: the Roman setting, the questioning of the godliness of the Emperor, the fickleness of the public, the perfidy and two-faced nature of professional politicians, the arrogance of the powerful, and the persuasive power of words. In terms of language, there are passages in Coriolanus that are the equal to anything in the Shakespeare canon, and characters that are as rich and complex as any that Shakespeare has written. And yet the play is not frequently performed in modern times. The Public Theater’s last production of Coriolanus was forty years ago. What is it about Coriolanus that makes it so … unpopular?

Perhaps because, as Dan Sullivan’s production suggests, the play is a remarkably uneasy and bleakly nihilistic tale. It’s an indictment of society’s glorification and morbid fascination with all things military, including the worship of military heroes, and the fetishization of them as a separate breed. There’s no easy patriotism, no stirring celebration of valor as in Henry V. Here, war is horrible, brutal, thoughtless, and accomplishes nothing; worse, each class in society is more self-serving and deluded than the other. It’s a play with not one hero. No one remains unscathed, the audience can applaud no one.

Which is not to say that the acting ability of some in this production is not heroic. The excellent actor Jonathan Cake’s approach to the role is to treat Coriolanus as an elite, highly trained specialist in the art of war who believes that the rest of society is incapable of understanding him. “You can’t handle the truth!” is always burning inside him, a hair’s breadth away from the surface. Cake reproduces the speech patterns we’ve come to associate with an Oliver North or a Navy SEAL.  He could have come from a television ad that extols, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” It’s  the persona of the man who thinks that in his ability to kill—and therefore to lead—he knows something that the rest of society is afraid to admit to itself: that nothing, nothing at all matters, not corn, not the trappings of power, not royalty, not politics. One thing and one thing only matters: the power of might, the power of the sword, the power of murder and death. It is only from that ability to kill that all other power flows.  And it is that knowledge, that absolute certainty,  that leads to the contempt of Coriolanus for everyone else.

Coriolanus was written around 1608, in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career. Shakespeare, like Coriolanus, had always been suspicious of the fickle rabble, and as Shakespeare settled more and more into his bourgeois life, it made sense that he would become even more intolerant of them.  It’s not surprising that an Elizabethan playwright would have a love-hate relationship with the common folk—he’s got to put bottoms into seats, or stiffs into the standing pit; if he fails to do that, then he’ll have as Hamlet says, a play that was “never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million…” And the peasants aroused to rebellion in Coriolanus were not just some far-off problem for the Romans; rather, A.L. Rowse reports that contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s later years there had been a peasant uprising in the English Midlands fueled by —wait for it—the price of corn.

And so Coriolanus is exiled. In about five years after Coriolanus‘s opening, Shakespeare, too, will himself become an exile, although in his case, self-imposed, leaving London for the big house, New Place, back in Stratford–Upon–Avon, some 100 miles from his theatre. He was a man of the theater who had gotten his hands dirty in London as playwright, actor, director, producer, financier—a man who had had his hand in all phases of the theater. The old legends had it that he had begun as a stable boy for the theaters; literally someone knee-deep in theater shit since his teen years. But now he must have been beginning to think of retirement. He’s come off a string of hits. He’s tired? Maybe. But I get the feeling of something else. What if this: what if for some reason he is in effect exiled from his own theater company? Maybe he thinks he’s entitled to more money or more shares in the theatre corporation that he and the others founded. Maybe he goes off in a huff because the rest of his company can’t get along with his dictatorial ways anymore. Maybe there are “artistic differences.” Maybe he feels disrespected the way Coriolanus feels disrespected. After all I’ve done for you. In this view, Shakespeare becomes what Coriolanus becomes—a talented bitter man who has done great service and who, betrayed by a fickle public, goes into exile.

This is all speculation of course. But that aspect of Coriolanus’s personality more than anything else stands front and center in this play: the disrespected man of action. What Coriolanus can’t see is that war is a monster that eventually swallows up everyone and everything. The business of making oneself a servant of war, a wager of war, is no guarantee that it won’t destroy everything for all time. Like theater, war is all encompassing.

In the end, in Sullivan’s production, the victorious soldiers of Volscia are as unpredictable as the Roman rabble: with Coriolanus’s dead body in front of them, they unexpectedly disobey their own general, Aufidius. They refuse to take up the body of Coriolanus as a respected fallen enemy general, as Aufidius commands them. Instead, the ragged soldiers seem to realize that Aufidius  has more in common with his enemy, Coriolanus, than with themselves. They are sick to death of other people taking their power and using it in the name of war and aggrandizement.  No, they will not listen to their general, and if Aufidius looks uneasy at the end of Dan Sullivan’s production, it’s because he knows that he may soon be the next to go.

In many of Shakespeare’s plays you see the old order restored, and the rightful heirs coming back to the throne, or the forces of good becoming the new line of royalty. But in Coriolanus there are no forces of good, and we see no glimmer of redemption. And maybe that’s why Shakespeare had to sell his story as a Roman one, safely distanced from his Jacobean reality: the leaders are no good, the public is no good, your patriotism is no good, your hero generals are no good, it’s all a pile of wreckage and ashes. Better to go back to Stratford, make out your will, and figure out who’s going to get that second-best bed.

Three Magic Biographies

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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.

 

Book Nook (6)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

How To Make Love The Steve Spill Way

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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.

 

The Color of Law

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Yesterday, the Arts Express radio show on WBAI FM broadcast my interview with Richard Rothstein, author of an important new book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

Rothstein makes a compelling case which challenges the Supreme Court’s view that nothing from a government standpoint can be done about segregation, due to segregation’s supposed de facto nature. Rothstein’s overwhelming brief charges that the construction and maintenance of segregation is in fact largely a governmental de jure set of policies, and thus demands immediate governmental remedy.

You can listen to my interview with Rothstein by clicking on the grey triangle above.

Al Pacino On Acting For The Stage and Screen

AARP's 2nd Annual Movies For Grownups Film Showcase - "The Humbling"

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Al Pacino is one of only a handful of Hollywood actors who have regularly gone back to their roots in the theater.  At a recent press screening of his re-released films, Salome and Wilde Salome, he held forth on, among other things, the differences between acting in film and acting in the theater. Even at age 77, Pacino is a funny, enlightening, and honest speaker.

You can listen to his talk, as broadcast yesterday on the radio segment I prepared for the WBAI Arts Express radio program, by clicking on the grey triangle above.

 

“Ze Little Grey Cells”

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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.

 

Philip Roth’s Ship Of Fools: When She Was Good

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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.

Giving the Devil His Due: Details of Deception

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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.

 

 

Lies Like Truth: “Inside” at St. John the Divine

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Yesterday the Arts Express radio program ran my audio essay on a new site-specific performance piece called Inside by PopUp Theatrics.  The more I tried to write a conventional review,  the more I realized I had to do it in another way.  Sometimes when a work of art leaves you feeling unsettled, it’s a good thing. For a meditation on the power of memories and stories, and the way they blur the line between truth and fiction, click on the grey triangle above.

The Comedian: Robert De Niro

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The Comedian is the new Robert De Niro movie in which he plays a washed-up comedian trying to make a come-back years after his initial fame. It has a great cast including Danny DeVito and Patti LuPone, and a raft of cameos. Is it worth seeing? You can hear my review of the film, which was broadcast yesterday on radio station WBAI, by clicking on the grey triangle above.

Notes From The Field: Anna Deveare Smith Explores the School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Anna Deveare Smith portrays 17 different people—students, teachers, parents, judges, Congessmen, social justice workers—in her new, almost one-woman play, Notes from the Field. Your intrepid reporter reviewed it for WBAI radio yesterday.

Click on the gray triangle to listen.

Book Nook: All Magic Edition

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This edition of Book Nook is going to be of interest primarily to magic geeks, so if that’s not your thing you can scroll on to another post. None of these books is particularly new, but they’re what I’ve been reading lately, and some of them may have escaped your attention.

Further Impuzzibilities by Jim Steinmeyer is another in Steinmeyer’s series of little pamphlets that describe mostly new takes on self-working tricks. Most of these tricks I treat as “cute” throwaways, but this time there is one very good three-phase blackjack deal that is easy to learn and very effective. It uses just ten cards, and it would be quite easy afterwards to switch out three cards either covertly or openly, and go into a Ten Card Poker Deal. You may also enjoy “The Great Silverware Scam,” which is the venerable Piano Card Trick as applied to knives and forks.

Naked Mentalism by John Thompson is a bold attempt to make psychological forcing more scientific. Every mentalist has his or her pet psychological force, but what Thompson does here is to back up his choices with statistical data. So there are tables and tables of data listing the responses of thousands of people to “favorite” this or “favorite” that, and combinations thereof. In the latter half of the book, he extends his ideas into the concept of a perfect booktest. It’s not foolproof, and your results may vary, but if you are able to take on all the memorization work involved, you have a pretty good shot at succeeding at a gaffless, sleightless, anytime, anywhere booktest, where a spectator can choose any word.

Caution: Practical Joker Ahead by Bruce Walstad is a compendium of 76 practical jokes that Walstad played on his fellow police officers with suggestions for the reader to follow. These are fairly simple, innocuous pranks. One of my favorites ideas was to put an inch-and-a-half-high stack of pennies under each leg of a colleague’s desk; then when someone accidentally bumps into the desk a bit, the whole desk comes clattering down in a lopsided manner.  You can see one of the pranks outlined here in a video I created and posted a few days ago.

ParaLies by Joshua Quinn is a book filled with a wealth of clever mentalism ideas and techniques. Highlights include a detailed section on equivoking a single card from a full deck, and then a very clever way to reveal it, as well as a section on using ambigrams for magical effect. The bulk of the book, however, covers the same territory as the Thompson book mentioned above, more or less, but with a different approach, one which I prefer. With Quinn’s technique, a performer can not only do a sleightless, gaffless booktest, but using his “chunnelling” technique, the performer can have a spectator choose any word mentally, have the spectator change the word several times in a genuinely free but limited way, and yet still the performer can reveal the resulting word accurately. Highly recommended.

Reel-to-Real Magic

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I just finished watching a wonderful conversation with actor Jason Alexander being interviewed by magician John Lovick. They talked about Alexander’s magic act at the Magic Castle a few years back. Alexander, of course best known as George from television’s Seinfeld, spoke expertly about how he put together his Castle act, the importance of overall premise, and how he scripted the act. There are some wonderful clips of him performing his act interspersed with the interview.  Now you might think it a little pretentious for an actor of Alexander’s stature to be “slumming” with magic, but it turns out that Alexander is no poseur when it comes to conjuring; he has been involved with magic since the age of ten, even before he got interested in theater. In fact, he says in the interview that when he first became interested in theater it was because he understood it through the lens of  illusion making.

I greatly enjoyed this interview, and now I’m making kind of an enthusiastic plug here for the Reel Magic website which hosted this interview. I had primarily known Reel Magic as a DVD-based magic periodical which I occasionally picked up in the magic shops. It has reviews, tricks and interviews, and some blatant but relevant plugs. For the $12 or so it costs per issue, I considered it an entertaining watch. But it wasn’t until recently that I understood that Reel Magic also has a website as well as the DVD, and that therein lies an excellent magic bargain. For $5 a month ($60 a year), you get full online access to the site which is just jammed pack with great magical content, for as long as you remain a subscriber.

Let me just run down a couple of the resources available to you as a subscriber. (Full Disclosure: I have no connection with anyone who runs the site. I am just an enthusiastic subscriber.)  First off, you get access to every extant issue of Reel Magic magazine. They are up to issue 45 at this writing (Philippe Petit is on the cover) and still going strong,  so that alone is a useful archive.  The first thing I turn to in each issue are the reviews videoed by David Regal, who always makes me laugh with his witty takes on the latest effects. And then there have been some great interviews, such as the one with Jason Alexander, and I’m looking forward to watching the current issue’s interview with Philippe Petit.

Aside from the magazine, you also have access to all their “live” lectures by some excellent performers. There are about eight of these available presently , and so far I’ve watched some terrific ones by Carl Andrews, Chris Capehart, and Doc Eason. They are all of high quality and I only wished that each one could go on longer than the allotted two hours.

There are also downloadable lecture notes available from the likes of Paul Green, John Guastaferro, and Caleb Wiles (The video content above is not downloadable.) And then there are two Online Courses, each of which is a series of video instructions in some of the basics of close-up work. So far there is one on Coin Work taught by the incredible Kainoa Harbottle, and there is another one on Finger Rings taught by Garrett Thomas. Wow.

But wait, that’s not all says the man with the potato peeler and Svengali Deck in his hand: there are also some special projects unique to Reel Magic. One of these is an extraordinary record of legendary street magician Jim Cellini’s Baltimore and New Orleans Lectures.  I’d heard about Cellini for years, but one really sees in these videos what a truly humble and knowledgeable man he was.

There’s  more  on the site,  and each month more content is added. In my opinion this is definitely a Best Buy, and for an extra $3 more a month you can also receive  a hard copy of each Reel Magic DVD via snail mail. A new DVD comes out about every other month.

Reel Magic can be found at http://www.reelmagicmagazine.com where you can also find some free content without subscribing. If you like what you see, I highly recommend  a subscription for anyone who enjoys performing and learning about magic.

 

Book Nook (4)

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And here’s another installment of books I’ve been reading in the last few weeks, all recommended.

Impossible Vacation by Spalding Gray: Monologist Spalding Gray for years went around performing a one-man show called Monster-In-A-Box, his attempt to wrestle his unwieldy manuscript into a novel. The result was Impossible Vacation. I’d been in a period of non-reading recently, but I picked this up in a used bookstore, and it got me reading again. It’s a first person account of the life of a narcissistic and badly depressed actor/performer (a thinly disguised Gray), and while the language is not distinguished, this portrait of a would-be artist in the 1970s rang a lot of bells for me.  You can see Gray trying to wrestle meaning out of this, and it ends fairly arbitrarily as if he needed to stop somewhere, but I found the book to be truly affecting in parts and often funny.

Trouping With Dante by Marion S. Trikosko: In this memoir, a teen-age boy gets to troupe with the great magician Dante’s large illusion show throughout the country, while learning the inside story about show business and magic. It’s a difficult life, but he seems to have a lot of fun along the way. Decades later, Trikosko’s account confirms that Dante was a generous but exacting taskmaster, and Marion’s enthusiasm allowed him to gain, in a relatively short period of time, more and more responsibility in assisting the show. The author does a great job of setting up the context of the rigors of touring a large illusion show at a time when that way of performing life was starting to come to an end, and for magician readers there’s lots of inside information about the workings of the show. If you’ve ever wanted to run away and join the circus, or become Blackstone’s assistant, you’ll be charmed by this book.

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle: I can’t think of an author whose work I enjoy reading more.  Doyle, like most of the authors I admire most. has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and the language is vivid and memorable. While it’s a slight story—the limited rise and limited fall of a thrown-together Dublin bar band—the characters are humorous, sympathetic, and fun to read about. The short novel is a very quick, well-paced read, and I don’t even fault it’s feel-good ending. It feels like a film treatment, and of course it was made into a film, which I will immediately put onto my Netflix cue.

Williamson’s Wonders by Richard Kaufman: David Williamson is one of my favorite magicians, and here he tips some of his best routines, including “51 Cards to Pocket,” “Torn and Restored  Transposition,” and the real work on “The Striking Vanish.” Kaufman’s written descriptions and illustrations are very good, and while these are not beginner’s tricks, most of them seem to be attainable by the average magician after some work—at least the mechanics. Kaufman does a good job of laying out the nuts and bolts, but to really get the full potential of these items, it really pays to look up some of Williamson’s performances;  not to copy him, but to get an idea of the entertainment that can be wrung out of these items.

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton: This is a follow up to Stanton’s Human of New York. This time the portraits of New York City street life are accompanied by descriptions of the people photographed, accompanied by the subjects’ own words. They present a fascinating and sometimes moving collage of the life of the city.

Book Nook (3)

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This month’s Book Nook covers one book that’s taken me ages to finish, and then a few other quick short books.

First off is The Marxists by C. Wright Mills. Sociologist Mills is probably best known for his seminal work, The Power Elite, about the role of the rich in the formation of US policy and their usurpation of the democratic process. The Marxists, however,  is much less well known and not always easy to find.

Mills was a lapsed Marxist when he wrote it, but I think his project here is very useful, even today. His idea was to make a readable survey of the different varieties of Marxism that have evolved since the Russian Revolution. So here you’ll find descriptions of the myriad forms of socialism and communism variously championed by  Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, the Social Democrats, Tito, and Che Guevara, among others. Mills has an opening essay where he details what specifically belongs to Marx, and then, largely through primary source material quotation, he allows the various tendencies to speak for themselves.

I found it tough sledding, but worth it. By contrasting the different strains of communism, I was able to get a real grasp on what the key features of Marx’s philosophy were, and the subtleties of his thought. It also helped to explain for me the sometimes bewildering alliances and betrayals within the history of the left. Definitely recommended for those who want to get a further grasp on what Marxism means or could mean.

Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry is a series of essays by famous and not-so-famous authors concerning their brothers. The book opens with David Kaczynski talking about how he idolized his brilliant older brother while growing up, only to realize later on that the handwriting of the Unabomber’s letters was that of his brother, Ted. Gutwrenching. Other entries are touching and humorous, with Frank McCourt’s introductory essay about his brothers at a long postponed Christmas get-together a comic gem.

I’ve been attracted lately to short books! To that end, I recently completed Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano. In 1988, Modiano came across a small 1941 French newspaper notice which reported that a young girl, 15, named Dora Bruder had gone missing. Modiano attempts to find out who Dora was, and in so doing leads himself through a trail of memory of both the horrific French Occupation and his own childhood memories.  In this seemingly artless book made of scraps of information, Modiano weaves a fascinating tale of the ephemeral nature of historical experience.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an eloquent recounting  of Coates’s realization that as a Black man, his entire life has been spent worrying, literally, about the safety of his Black body. As he explores this theme under the guise of a letter to his teen-age son, he recounts both his personal experiences and the larger role of White Supremacy’s need to subjugate Black bodies as the central fact of United States history. Though some have seen Coates’s work as nihilistic, I don’t agree with that. He is suspicious of alliances with whites and insists that whites of goodwill will have to find their own path; he wants to spend his time relating to the wide spectrum of Black life he encountered once he was able to leave the confines of his Baltimore streets. My biggest issue with the book is that there is not much of a class analysis, but Coates’s point is that, in the US at least, notions of race are even more constricting than that of class. I think it’s arguable, but his own story provides strong testimony.

I had read Albert Camus’ The Stranger when I was in high school, but picked it up again because my wife was recently reading it in French. I’m probably an outlier here, but what struck me most about the book was how funny it was. Yes, there are all kinds of issues about personal responsibility and colonialism, but I couldn’t help but fixate on the notion that it was a story about a man whose actions were subject to the ridiculous interpretations of everyone around him for their own ends, while the man himself was erased. For me, the key scene is Meursault in the courtroom, on trial. Both the defense and prosecuting attorneys come up with all kinds of clever explanations for Meursault’s actions, explanations meant to bolster the strength of each side, respectively; but, instead, what both sides showed they had in common with each other was the complete irrelevance of their ingenious theories to the actual truth of the man standing before them. I laughed out loud at times.

Next time: Life in wartime France in Trains of Thought by Victor Brombert; Stephen Stern’s novel of Jewish life in a fantastical surreal Memphis, The Pinch; and When Strangers Cooperate by David Brown, an investigation into how social conventions are formed. And, for magic related items there will be a separate post soon where I cover some interesting magic videos and ebooks.