Magic, Wide and Deep

taschen***

When I saw the UPS man stooped over as he was delivering the package to my mailbox, I knew that it had finally arrived. I’m talking about Taschen’s Magic 1400s-1950s, an amazing book of posters and essays that is hands down the most magnificent book of any kind that I own.

It seems impossible to believe, but what I ordered from Amazon is actually the abridged edition. Abridged in this case means 540 pages instead of 650 pages, 2 inches shorter in length, and 1 1/2 inches narrower; but the book is still massive, two inches thick, measuring 16″ x 11″, weighing twelve pounds.

You can open this tome at any point and you will be greeted by the most wonderful historical magic posters and photos in beautiful color. And every once in a while you will also be greeted by the most lovely of two-page spreads. The illustrations on the posters are truly delicious, and many of them have not been in print in book form before. In the centuries before social media, the variety arts were advertised through posters that promised the most extraordinary of delights, and the wonders of Kellar, Thurston, Houdini, and countless others were communicated in large part through this medium.

But, you say, you are one of those people that buys Playboy for the articles and doesn’t care about the pictures. In that case, you are still in luck. The book is also filled with fascinating essays by the great Jim Steinmeyer, Ricky Jay, and Mike Caveney, all Godfathers of magical knowledge, both historical and practical. The essays (and picture captions) are all in three languages: English, French, and German. But the nice thing about this is that though the text is repeated, there are different pictorial elements for each, so the 540 pages is really a full 540 pages of content, not just repetition. It seems incredible to me, that when you consider that the original edition cost $250, that Amazon can currently sell this for under $50. Oh, and did I mention that for that price, the book is also provided with a handsome slip cover as well?

As my wife says, this is the kind of book that makes you want to run out and buy a coffee table, it’s that good. I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who has the slightest interest in the magical or the illustrative arts. I guarantee you will spend many delightful times with this book.

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EverythingIOwnHasAHandleOrWheels***

The other book that I’ve been reading this week is also a magic history book, but at the other end of the spectrum. Where the Taschen book covers 500 years of history and spans multiple countries and genres of magic, Dick Oslund’s self-published Road Scholar is quite the opposite. It is highly specific, and covers a very narrow, but deep, slice of American magical history. To wit, the good-natured Oslund spent forty-plus years on the road as a performer touring the “knowledge boxes,” that is, the school Lyceum circuit. Oslund made a career of performing his 45-minute show in up to four different schools a day as he traveled an average 500 miles a week, through the tiniest towns of Michigan, South Dakota, Kansas and parts West. If the definition of success is to find a niche and to fill it, then Oslund was successful in spades. He tells literally hundreds of stories of his visits to schools around the country, and by the end, you are exhausted, but feel that he must have encountered every possible situation that could ever be encountered by a school performer.

The production values here are, as I said before, on the opposite spectrum of the Taschen book, but in its own way, it is no less comprehensive. There’s not a whole lot in the way of editing, and the photos are all in glorious black and white, but in the chatty conversation here, there’s a lot of wisdom born of hard experience. The casual magician will be most interested in the latter half of the book, what Oslund calls “The Book Within a Book.” In this section, which follows the anecdotal section (and 82-year-old Oslund must have kept the most amazing notes or have the most amazing memory!), Oslund talks about his trick set list and magic philosophy, while also including his road-tested scripts and precious bits of business. This section begins with Oslund’s nine sacred rules for choosing effects for a school audience, and it’s advice that can be followed by all who want to make sure that their platform show can be performed under any condition.

There will probably be some who feel that Oslund could have just published the latter half of the book, and I can’t say that I totally disagree; the opening material while interesting does start to get repetitious. There’s also lots of  biographical information about all the other school performers he met along the way; while this is important to document for historical reasons, for the casual reader it probably holds less interest.

But… but…

In a way there’s a method to Oslund’s madness. In his insistence to document just about every school in which he ever performed, and every performer that he ever met, he creates the context for the second part of his book. Because in a way, you can’t really understand the full value of the trick part of the book without understanding that, subliminally, Oslund has been telling you all along the real secret: all those folks he met along the way, all those home-cooked meals given to him by comrades, some newly met, all those “jackpots” and stories swapped convivially, were the real secret of his success. Without ever explicitly saying so, Oslund makes you understand that he was actually in the people business, and that he was a success in his field because he loved people and had a genius for friendship. He knew what people wanted, and could give it to them. I can’t say that this is a book for everyone, but Oslund paints a little seen portrait of the vast network and isolation of the rural school systems across America, hungry for outside input. I can truly say I learned a lot about both American magic history and American education from this Road Scholar.

Favorite Cartoons, Comedy Clips, and Music Posts of the Past Year

photo***

Last week I posted a top 30 list of favorite under-the-radar posts. Those posts were all pieces that I had had some hand in creating. Today I’m listing my favorite under-the-radar posts of the past year that were other people’s creations including cartoons, comedy clips, and music.

Cartoons

Assumption

Satisfaction guaranteed

Cliffhanger

Mouth piece

Inspiration

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Comedy Clips

The dressing room: Buster Keaton

The inimitable mr bean: Rowan Atkinson

The driving instructor: Bob Newhart

The one the only the great flydini: Steve Martin

Pop Haydn explains it all for you

Lets squish our fruits together: Improv Everywhere

The last angry moose: Rocky and Bullwinkle

The great stone face: Buster Keaton

On being white: Louis C.K.

She was only sixteen: Coogan and Brydon

Worst party ever, the moose: Woody Allen

Rainy day activity: Donald O’Connor

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Music

One fine day: Carole King

A different drum: Linda Ronstadt

A year to go by: Phil Ochs

Take the star out of the window: John Prine

Lovin you: Minnie Riperton

Meredith Monk

Hellzapoppin

I’ve just seen a face: Ray Kennedy

The harder they come: Jimmy Cliff

A fine romance: Ella FItzgerald

Perfection: Ella Fitzgerald

Karma Chameleon: Boy George

One last adult christmas song: Liz Callaway

Death of A Salesman in Yiddish (with English Super-Titles)

salesman***

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Death of a Salesman is an American classic. In this new production by the New Yiddish Rep of New York City, Arthur Miller’s play achieves further resonance by being performed entirely in Yiddish, with English supertitles projected onstage. The Yiddish locates the play squarely in the world of the immigrant, and Willy Loman is no longer just the universal white collar worker with a shoe shine and a smile; he is also the universal immigrant, charged to teach the values of his adopted land to his second generation children, with all the urgency that that mission requires.

The supertitles are unobtrusive, and non-Yiddish speaking audiences will understand every single word. The intimate theater space highlights the dramatic tensions in the play. This is a very good production of a very powerful play. Click on the gray triangle above to hear my complete review broadcast on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI.

Update: You can hear my interview with the director of the cast, Moshe Yassur, and actor Avi Hoffman, by clicking here.

Book Nook (2)

Time Enough at Last***

A little catching up with some books I’ve been reading lately is in order. Here are some brief reviews:

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a sweet novel of a curmudgeonly widower who owns a bookstore on an isolated island but still manages to find love. There’s not a lot that’s new here, and the language is fairly plain, but the premise is amusing and the story is relaxing to read. There’s a bit of a tearjerker ending, not unexpected with a storyline that includes a foundling orphan.

I read Mission to Mars by Buzz Aldrin as part of my research for my interview with Aldrin ( which you can listen to here), and I have to say that as someone who was pretty skeptical about the whole idea of space travel, I fell under the book’s sway. The arguments for a manned mission to Mars in the near future are hypnotic. Looking back, I realize I was entranced by an illusion, but the book is a very good read. Lots of information about the moon landing, Aldrin’s experiences with his fellow astronauts, his tangling with politicians and NASA, and above all his detailed plan about how he thinks the United States government should go about preparing a mission to Mars. He’s a highly unorthodox guy, but that’s part of what makes this so much fun to read.

Moving onto magic-related items, Paralies by Joshua Quinn is a book of original mentalism effects, all with a powerful impact. Quinn is a very clever creator of effects which simulate mind-reading, and this book shows off some of his most powerful ideas. Quinn’s hallmark is in the synergistic layering of different methods, making backtracking by the spectator very difficult indeed. He also has some really excellent work on equivoque, including a full-deck equivoque to one card. Whether you use his exact scripting or not, the lessons drawn in creating such a sequence are valuable. This book also outlines Quinn’s propless “Thought Chunneling,” an effect which allows a spectator to just think of a word—nothing written down—and even after the spectator changes the word several times, the performer can still reveal what the word is. I have no idea how well this plays, as it requires quite a bit of practice on the performer’s part, but perhaps sometime in the future I’ll give this the practice it needs in order to road test it. Warning: the book is quite pricey, but there are lots of solid ideas here for the informal performer.

I’m a great fan of the comedians of the silent film era, so I was naturally attracted to Patrick Page’s Book of Visual Comedy. Page was a well-known British entertainer, and among the magic community, he was applauded as a kind of all-round utility man, as comfortable as performing with a deck of cards close-up as he was onstage with the Linking Rings. In this book, illustrated with humorous cartoon drawings, Page describes some of the classic bits of physical humor that stage performers have used for eons. Gags with hats, chairs, microphone stands, eyeglasses, neckties, fingers in bottles, pratfalls, and so on make for delightful reading, and I felt as if there were more than a few ideas that I would enjoy taking out for an onstage spin. Very enjoyable quick read.

Out on the Wire, written and illustrated by Jessica Abel, is a cartoon graphic narrative of “The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.” By “Masters of Radio” she is referring to NPR storytellers like Ira Glass of This American Life and Chana Joffe-Walt of Planet Money. There’s lots of very good information here about how such radio programs are created from scratch, and the book consciously tries to guide would-be radio storytellers through the process. The tone of the book, however, I found annoying, with its constant lionization of All Things NPR.  In particular, the privileging of radio technique over actual critical thinking about ideas is pervasive in the book and on the station. We get very detailed panels, for example, explaining the laborious collaborative editing process that brings a segment of Planet Money to the air, but unfortunately, that process does not include real critical examination of the economic ideas presented. The ideas are all pre-digested mainstream dogmas that upset no capitalist applecarts, even while great thought is given to producing an entertaining story.  So what we end up with (and Ira Glass is quoted as saying that radio is basically a didactic medium) is a formula for making slick propaganda. Decide what the story is first, even before you go out to do the interviews; then meticulously edit it to arrive at a pleasing form. But I would be misleading you if I said that there wasn’t some useful (to use an awful NPR-ish word) “takeaway.” I just think it’s advice much more applicable to fiction storytelling than actual non-fiction reporting.

Still in the queue for next time: Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven by Steve Stern, a set of short stories; Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora; The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander on the continuing racism faced by African-Americans in the United States; The Marxists, a classic survey of the major trends in Marxist thought by C. Wright Mills; and The Paper Engine, Aaron Fisher’s careful dissection of how to perform some of the most important sleights in card magic.

Rubik’s Cube Magic

rubiks_cube

Steve Brundage is a very clever magician whom you may have seen fool Penn and Teller on their show Fool Us. Steve’s act is unique to him—at least for the short term. He does astounding things with a Rubik’s cube, performing with a mixture of brains and ballsiness, wrapped up in a very unassuming persona. Actually, P and T’s show was not the best venue for him, even though he was very impressive there. I think Steve’s real talent comes out best in his busking performances, which you can find on YouTube (I posted a link to quite an engaging street performance of his, here, down in the comments section).

The reason I say his act is unique for the short term is this:uh–wait, if you’re not a magician, close your eyes and pretend that the next few paragraphs is a Marxist-Leninist deconstruction of Miley Cyrus’s capitalist guitar chord progressions, which you’re not really that interested in anyway.

Okay. Just us? So Brundage has decided to release his work on the Rubik’s cube to the general magic buying public. Now he actually started work on this quite a bit before his Fool Us outing, but synchronistically for all of us, the release of this happened just now. If Brundage is smart—and who am I kidding, he’s super smart—he’ll stop selling this, or he’ll have to change his act completely and move on to solving 10×10 KenKens in his head. I figured he might change his mind and pull this off the market quickly, so I grabbed it. But maybe it’s not a problem for him anyway—because the secret to Steven’s success is not a secret that everyone is going to be happy with. The secret is: you have a long road of work ahead of you if you want to accomplish what Steve does with a cube.

Amazingly enough, the magic effects that Steve has created do not depend on a gaffed cube. They can all be achieved with a regulation cube, and a lot of muscle memory. What Steven does provide you with is a high quality cube, which turns silently and quickly (both important virtues here) and two DVDs worth of information and explanation. The way I purchased it was through a download, and I’m waiting for the cube itself to arrive by snail mail. Fortunately, I have a few cubes in the house, so I was able to jump in immediately.

The first of the DVDs is devoted to solving the cube. Now strictly speaking, for all of Steven’s effects you don’t necessarily need to know how to solve the cube; but you’ll look like a dork if you can’t solve it if someone challenges you—or even if you mess up and need to start from the solved position. So even though you might be tempted to shortcut it, you need to learn this. Over the years, I’ve managed through YouTube videos and booklets to eke out a way of solving the cube, but I’ve never practiced it intensely, so I didn’t remember much when I started reviewing this material. Let me say that Steve’s DVD is hands down the best way for a beginner to learn to solve the cube. The high quality video is extremely professional, the explanations are very clear, very detailed, the camera point of view is from many angles, and there is a lot of redundancy in terms of the directions and examples given. All in all, if you want to learn how to solve the cube, I pretty much guarantee you will be able to do it by following the directions here.

But it will take work and time. How much time? Well, this kind of thing varies for everyone, but let’s say in a lot less time than it take to learn a good classic pass or even a good palm. The method of solving the cube here is not the fastest, nor is it unique to Steven, but it is quite agreeable for beginners.  In this method, you solve the cube layer by layer until all three layers of the 3x3x3 cube are in the correct orientation. Conservatively, I estimate that within two days, most people will learn to solve the first layer quickly. In the next two days, most will be able to do the second layer. The hard part, admittedly, is the last layer. It’s much more complex and requires much more memorization. Steven provides a couple of pdf cheat sheets to help you along as you’re learning, but of course eventually you’ll have to do without those crutches. Based on what I know about myself, I’d say I could learn that third layer in a week or two if I applied myself each day. Now admittedly, I have a knack for this kind of memorization, but if you don’t, what the hell, give yourself the rest of the month off to get it down.

Now your speed won’t be great, but for these effects, the speed in solving the cube is not really the issue. It’s just important that you’re able to get the cube back into solved position, as that is the default home position for most of the effects that Brundage has created.

So having mastered solving the cube, now you’re ready to move on to DVD #2, which is where Brundage teaches his brand of Rubik magic. The effects are basically variations on the theme Shuffle Cubed to Solved Cube—Instantly. For example, the magician puts a shuffled cube in a paper bag, shows it again to be shuffled, reaches in and pulls out a solved cube. Or this: the cube is shuffled; a quick one-handed toss behind the back and the cube lands solved. There are a few effects where the change is achieved more in slow motion, and one that mimics an Erdnase Color Change. They are all quite stunning. I’m not sure you would want to include all of these effects in the same act, but they are all suitable for walkaround and impromptu, assuming that impromptu means you’re in a house that has a Rubik’s Cube—which is fairly likely, since according to Brundage, the Rubik’s Cube is the best-selling toy of all time.

What will it take to perform these effects? Given that you’re able to solve the cube, surprisingly, the additional skills you’ll need to perform these effects require no more difficulty. And since I think anyone can eventually learn to solve the cube, I think these effects are accessible to any magician, again, who puts in some focused practice and attention.

Steven Brundage has been very generous to release this material, and you can see he has done it in such a way as to do justice to his work. I think this is a great item to add to your bag of tricks, and it certainly packs small and plays very big.

Addendum: I see on the magic boards that while Brundage has been the most visible magician explaining magic effects with the Rubik’s cube, there are a few others too, including Karl Hein, Henry Harrius, and Takemiz Usui. There have been crediting questions among the different parties, which now appear to have been cleared up for the most part.

Demian, Herman Hesse, The Banal, and The True

demian

When I was a teen-ager, most of my friends were reading something by Hermann Hesse—the most popular titles then were Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. The books appealed to the dreamy, druggy adolescent sense of self-involvement that naturally arose at that age. Later, in my twenties, looking back, I thought of them as silly and somewhat banal. From time to time I would eye the thick pages of Magister Ludi, but I would always demur, not ready to deal with that much woo-woo at once.

The other day, I saw Demian sitting on my bookshelf, one of Hesse’s shorter novels, which I hadn’t read since I was a teen, but which I remembered as being my favorite of Hesse’s novels. I was in the mood for reading something short, and I thought I would look at it again for a few reasons: 1) to see whether the book held up as a novel;  2) to see if I held up as a reader, and 3) to look at it from a writer’s point of view to see how it was constructed. Would I still think it was worthwhile, but for different reasons from when I was a teen, or would I, as I did in my twenties, see it as New Age-y nonsense? Okay, so I’m being impolite.

I was surprised by my reactions to reading it this time. The first surprise was that I found the book absolutely compelling. From the first pages, I was drawn in to the story of a youth who was trying to understand the darker forces of his own and others’ natures. And though at times I had to put the book down for awhile, I was eager to pick it up again. I wasn’t putting it down because it was boring, but on the contrary because it was too interesting, and I felt I needed time to digest it as I went along. At the same time, the book’s shortcomings were very clear to me—the lack of any political analysis, the Jungian simplifications of life that teeter on the edge of, and sometimes fall into, the well of banality, the repressed homoeroticism that is never really addressed, the stubborn refusal to ground sexual feeling into sexual action, the German Romanticism of the period which today seems hopelessly sappy, all these are glaring, and my getting older didn’t make them go away.

But here’s the thing. I was still compelled to read. And I was compelled by the kernel of truth that the novel contains, so deep and so important that it stays and lingers as a feeling not able to be articulated, but a feeling that something of life that was known yet previously unsaid or pushed out of consciousness was brought back into view again. Exactly like a drug trip or an a-ha moment of meditative or otherwise enlightenment.

And now with my being older, and being interested in the writing process itself, I wanted to know how Hesse was doing this. The thing is so simple—about forty thousand words, and yet its impact is considerable. I wanted to pull it apart like a child pulls apart a favorite toy, and yet when I did that with this novel I felt like I was pulling apart a dandelion, for there doesn’t seem to be anything to see.

The book is, for all its apparent mysticism and near banality, transparent. There is no hiding behind words and sentences. As a writer, over the years I have become so much more conscious of word selection and the crafting of sentences and paragraphs, and yet here, it seems like nothing. There is no memorable vocabulary or phrase; no structuring of sentences or elements that seems to be writerly. It is seemingly just a story, that is all. A story that a boy might tell. There doesn’t seem to be any art in it. And yet it is as compelling as someone sitting across the table from you telling you this extraordinary thing that has happened to them. There is no apparent sense of craft.

And yet at the same time, there is no clumsiness of craft that distracts from the story, either, and that causes the reader to stumble.  It is writing that is decidedly (at least in the English translation that I read) pure; it never calls attention to itself, it never shines, but like an ordinary staircase it leads you along. When Hesse first published the book, he published it under the name of the storytelling youth of the book. It’s a craft of apparently no craft.

The particular lesson I take as a writer from this book is this: for all the attention we pay to words, sentences, paragraphs, the kernel of real truth about life is what ultimately determines the true power of a story. There is not only one way to do it, there are many; but in reading Demian I was forced to confront how powerful words can be when there is strong truth and revelation underneath them, and they are put out in plain view.

The Way of the Storyteller

sawyer

A few days ago I came across a used copy of The Way of the Storyteller by Ruth Sawyer. I had never heard of this 1942 publication before, but as I read the first few paragraphs in passing, I was hooked by its old-fashioned sense of wisdom, practicality, and humanity. There was something about reading this book that made me feel that I was in the presence of a true artist, a master teacher, for the message that runs through the book stands undiluted, even after all these years. I went to look up the book on Wikipedia later, and my instinct was confirmed—I was not the only one so captured by the book. It turns out that The Way of the Storyteller is an enormously influential book in the field, and Ruth Sawyer is the patron saint of storytelling.

The storytelling that Sawyer is talking about here is mainly the storyteller of the oral tradition. And though there has been a resurgence of the modern day griot in some quarters recently, this book from 75 years ago reminds us of just what an integral part of everyday life oral storytelling used to be, intimately woven into the social and educational fabric of the day. Sawyer talks about her storytelling in elementary schools, libraries, reform schools, and prisons all across the country. She talks also about the restorative power of folk tales, and how by telling the myths and folk tales of a culture, one generation raises another.

Sawyer takes her art very seriously and has the aura of a tough taskmaster with no time for foolishness. She warns would-be storytellers that there are no shortcuts available and that telling stories requires lots of hard work. The tale must be chosen with the audience in mind, and the storyteller must be absolutely familiar with the folk tradition of the tale, she warns, otherwise there is no chance of getting to the heart of the story.

And the heart of the story is what is always important. She never lets go of that. She believes deeply in the need for, and nourishment of, folk stories for all children. She believes that if children are told such stories when they are younger, that then they can learn to be full adults. But, she warns, the stories are not for the sake of teaching lessons or morals, but for the sake of imagination, for the sake of inner freedom, for the sake of the sacred bond formed between storyteller and listener.

When I read such a unapologetic humanistic view of education and art, it makes me sad and happy at the same time. Sad, because when I look at the educational system at this point in the US, it is so far from what Ruth Sawyer envisioned. She doesn’t talk about “achievement” or “college readiness” or “testing” or “assessment.” Instead, she talks about how to lead children through delight onward to wisdom by telling stories. On the other hand, I am happy to have stumbled across this classic, because the knowledge that in all times and in all countries there have always been those who have championed the message of true relation, communication, and the importance of art, gives courage and permission for one to be courageous as well. There’s so much nonsense all around us that it’s a blessing to hear from someone who reminds us what it’s all about.

It’s a flashlight beam cutting through the dark, illuminating a pathway. This is a classic book with classic wisdom.

Celebrating Sentences

building

A first look at Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon might make you think that it’s as dry as an organic chemistry manual, and in some ways you would be right. This book of sentence building, sentence making, sentence improving is simultaneously a taxonomy and textbook of the humble sentence. And if that seems like an off-putting combination, it sometimes is—but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

The special case that Building Great Sentences pleads runs counter to much of the advice about writing one finds in many modern manuals—or at least the advice I’ve been reading. These books revel in the celebration of Hemingway-like simplicity, the ruthless eradication of the extraneous word, the superfluous modifier, the unnecessary adjective and adverb—prune them, sentence surgeon!—and let the verbs and nouns do the brunt of your heavy lifting. Indeed, when I first took that simplification advice to heart, I believe that it improved my writing immensely. So what to do with a book that takes precisely the opposite tack: a book that tells you that good writing is about complicating things, about moving the basic clause forwards and backwards, about explaining, about explaining again in more detail, about adding modifying phrase on top of modifying phrase, about culminating in some final periodic unforeseen conclusion, or, finally, to allow for the scope of thought to find its way, to take pleasure in the very movement of thought, as in this moment, this sentence?

Yes, this was new to me.

And yet reading through the book’s example sentences, sentences that I wanted to rail out against, argue against, defend against, even as I had to admit their power, because what, I screamed to myself, could a sentence possibly mean outside of the context of a paragraph, a page, a story, a novel? How could you devote a whole book to the sentence? The particularity of words I understand. But sentences? The whole project was foreign to me.

It reads like this: anaphora, epistrophe (at last, I knew where that Thelonious Monk tune got its name!), polysyndeton; if this was the stuff of writing then perhaps I should be studying Linnaeus.

But. But.

Taxonomy is not necessarily a bad thing. Taxonomy, naming things, allows one to see better, more, differently: a bird’s call is heard because that was a Northern Cardinal; sounds that were unheard are heard; the seed-eating bill is not the insect-eating bill; beaks I had never thought to look at before, beaks I had never seen before, sentence structures I had never seen before, I now see.

There’s a ton of interesting, useful information here. I especially liked the section that talked about binary structures and serial structures. We all have a rhythmic sense of these things if we do any of it at all, but the explicit statement of forms here is eye-opening. Landon quotes Winston Weather’s theory of the rhetorical effects of serial constructions: the balanced binary form speaks of authority and expertise—“on the one hand, on the other”—it’s a commanding structure. A triple series, however, “has connotations of the reasonable, the believable, and even the logical.” But the four-part series rhythm is indicative of “the human, emotional, diffuse, and inexplicable.”

Writing is, in a sense, looking through one side of the telescope and building things up by accretion, one little thing on top of another little thing. This book is an excellent guide to the accumulation of such effects. Like most advice of this kind, it has to be absorbed, forgotten, and made to dwell wherever such knowledge lives unconsciously and automatically. Otherwise, like the centipede who tried to verbalize his process of walking, there is the danger of getting entangled in explanations and losing the ability of taking action.

Perx of The Jerx

jerx

I’d like to recommend a magic blog to you: The Jerx. The Jerx, whose name and logo are a satirical tribute to Ted Annemann’s mentalism periodical, The Jinx (which in turn was a satirical tribute to the magic periodical, The Sphinx), is the reincarnation of the legendary Magic Circle Jerk blog that ran from 2003–2005. The main goal of the MCJ then was to bedevil and taunt the owners and staff of The Magic Cafe, a noble mission, good even onto itself. However, about three months ago, Andy, the one-named former proprietor of the MCJ, started a new daily magic blog, the aforementioned The Jerx. And even though once in a while it still ridicules The Magic Cafe, this time Andy has cast his net wider to include thinking deeply about what makes an audience enjoy a magic effect. It’s well worth reading every day.

In its new incarnation, The Jerx is still profane, funny, at times hopelessly adolescent, sexy, maybe at times sexist, and oh yes, more than occasionally tinged with genius.

The Jerx‘s operating assumption is that the single most important way for magicians to improve their magic is to focus on the audience’s experience; to this end Andy puts in a ridiculous (no, the correct!) amount of thought to scripting and performance. Andy’s descriptions of the elaborate set-ups he devotes to entertaining his friends and colleagues in everyday situations are downright inspiring, favoring effects that grow out of the organic relationships already present. If reading the description of his Borrowed Money Teleported to Paris effect doesn’t move you to scrap everything you’re doing in magic and start all over, then maybe you should apply to be a Grammar Host at The Magic Cafe. (And, no, I’m not going to link to that post. Dig and find it yourself, it’s worth the effort.)

What I like about Andy’s work especially is that he goes back and forth between theory and practical experiments to see if a proposed theory holds water. He experiments to see which of several hypotheses work out best for him in his world. By this method, he has found a fascinating corollary to the Whit Haydn theory of magic—that theory which states that the best magic is when the audience confronts the experience of the insoluble dilemma: There’s no such thing as magic / There’s no other answer to explain what just happened.

Andy, in one of his recent posts, provides a very nice extension of that theory. You should read the whole post, but the essence of it is this: A successful effect according to Haydn is one that puts an audience member onto the horns of that dilemma and provides no escape. But a big problem that Andy addresses is that spectators will try to dislodge themselves from those horns one way or another. If you give them no possibility of a method, they give up and surrender, falling on one side of the dilemma—which is okay, but not as good as keeping them dangling. If, on the other hand, you give them a believable implied method, even if its wrong, they’ll take comfort in that, and again dislodge themselves from those horns. But the most diabolical strategy is to give an implied method that on quick audience reflection cannot be true. It’s as if

“you’re in a sealed room with a little tiny door the size of a cereal box. You’re trapped, but there’s this thing that beckons you as if it’s an exit. Your rational mind knows it’s not. You know you’ll never fit through it, but you can’t help but keep returning to it and shoving a hand or a leg out and seeing if maybe there’s some way to work your way through. Rationally, you know it’s not the way out, but it’s the only thing that even suggests a way out, so your mind keeps returning to it.

And this is where Mr. Haydn and Andy would like their audiences to end up—endlessly going over each part of the trick over and over again, to take home and re-tell later to their friends and family. The most effective magic, in this view, is the magic that gives the spectator’s brain no rest.

You can read a lot of fancy books about magic detailing the latest tricks and the newest micro-variation of Triumph and Ambitious Card, but if doing and thinking about informal magic is something you enjoy, and you like starting each day with a laugh, The Jerx is required daily reading.

Favorite Books (2): Insurgent Mexico by John Reed

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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.

Fool Us: Penn and Teller

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Magicians Penn and Teller, who have been fooling us for forty years, last night premiered the first episode of the new season of their CW network television show, Fool Us. It’s packed full of magic (and commercials), but it’s certainly entertaining for both magicians and non-magicians alike.  The format of the show remains the same as in the past; that is, several  performers, often well-known magicians in the magic community, perform tricks for Penn and Teller and the live audience. The performers’ goal is to fool P&T about the methods used to accomplish the magic. Teller, in particular, has a vast knowledge of the history and methods of magic, so that’s not an easy proposition.

Now the fun part for the magic-savvy audience tuning in, is that P&T have seemingly painted themselves into a corner: for if they know how the trick is done, how do they prove to the performer that they know the method? They can’t just outright say the method, because that would violate one of the venerable tenets of magic: magicians may not expose how tricks are done without very good reason to do so. So the fun for the at-home magician is watching P&T speak in a coded language that makes it very apparent to the challenging performers that P&T have caught them out. The performers understand right away that they’ve been busted when they hear P&T say, as they did last night, that  “the trick took my breath away” or “we think we’re one ahead of you” and so on.  When the performers hear such comments, they metaphorically hang down their heads, signaling that they’ve been busted; they have to admit to the audience that indeed P&T know exactly how their tricks were done.

So, yes, it’s fun for magicians and hobbyists, it makes us feel like we’re smart and on the inside. In fact, most likely, we are consciously being pandered to. Because at least two of the effects on last night’s show would not have fooled anyone with even the most basic knowledge of magic. There is no way in hell that the performers could have actually thought that P&T wouldn’t know their methods. Really, without exaggerating, the methods of two of the magicians in last night’s show could be found in many children’s magic books. I guess it’s nice for the performers to get national exposure, I’m not knocking them for that, but really what were the producers of the show thinking when they selected them? I can only think that it was to increase the number of viewers who could feel like they, too, were in on the joke.

That said, there were some fine performances. The highlight of the show was Steve Brundage, a very  clever and engaging young man who does a signature routine with a Rubik’s Cube. He tosses a mixed cube behind his back, and when he catches it, the cube is restored to its solved state. A very pretty effect. But the kicker was when he appeared to have failed, only to reveal that the cube was now in precisely the same mixed state as another mixed cube sitting between Teller’s previously closed palms. P&T had no clue as to method, and over here, I’m certainly still scratching my head.

But truth be told, I don’t want to know. It would only disappoint me. Much better to live with that feeling of amazement.

To round out each of their episodes, P&T do a trick of their own, and last night it was the ancient mystery of the “Cellphone to Tilapia’s Entrails.” It’s a classic in the P&T repertoire, but it’s always fun to see them work.

There’s much discussion about the show in the magic community, and the more negative comments seem to center around two things: first, though P&T generally do not expose any magician’s tricks on the air (except their own), they have been known in past episodes to be particularly rough on those who claim to be mentalists. Unless you clearly mark yourself as a comedy mindreader, as the performer in last night’s episode did, you can expect to get skewered—and exposed—by P&T.

The second criticism of the show—which I think is a very fair one—is that by naming the show Fool Us, P&T are inviting potential magic audiences to look upon magic as only a puzzle to be solved. Now there’s much intellectual satisfaction in trying to solve a clever puzzle, there’s no doubt about that. But magic is so much more than “the method.” In fact, a clever method is no guarantee at all that the effect is any good. In magic we don’t care if the method is clever or not—it only has to fool the audience, not Penn and Teller. Strangely enough, there is no correlation between a method’s ingeniousness and how good a trick is. The puzzle is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the performance of strong magic. What a magician cares about is the overall impact that the magic will have on a spectator. If clever puzzles were all that were necessary and sufficient, then magicians could hand out copies of the Sunday Times Cryptic Crossword Puzzle and go home.

But no, Our Magic (that is, stage conjuring) is a branch of the theatrical arts, albeit a very specialized one, and it’s subject to the theatre’s constraints and glories. In a magic performance, there are many other considerations that contribute to the overall effect and impact: acting, pacing, character, staging, music, lights, premise, participation, engagement, scripting, likability are all as important as “method” to the audience’s ultimate experiencing of a feeling of magic. And Fool Us, with it’s emphasis on puzzle-solving, neatly elides all those factors. “The method” is not the method. That’s the big secret. And watching Fool Us, you would never know that. You think you’re on the inside track, only you’re not. But you can be sure that P&T understand that as much as anybody. They show you their empty hands, while their other hands remain hidden. Clever boys, those rascals, Penn and Teller.

Making Stalin Laugh

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David Schneider’s compelling new play, Making Stalin Laugh, tells of Stalin’s suppression of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre, and the murder of its director, the beloved actor Solomon Mikhoels. The play is performed in Yiddish, Russian, and German, with English supertitles, You can hear my review of the fascinating play, and my interview of the excellent cast, by clicking on the grey triangle above.

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

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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

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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

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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:

Effect
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.

A Room With a View: Wagering It All on One Scene

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I have been working on a novel, and it’s always wonderful to see how the masters solved the problems with which I as a neophyte am still wrestling. A novel sets up certain expectations as the plot unfolds and the novelist must fulfill them. If the plot expectations are not fulfilled, it doesn’t matter what else s/he does, the novel will disappoint. Sometimes the success of that expectation hinges on the turn of just one scene. If that one scene doesn’t work, no novel.

I recently re-read E.M. Forster’s comic masterpiece A Room With a View,  and it is a perfect example of a novel whose success depends entirely on the execution of one crucial scene. This short turn-of-the-century novel, a social romp through the new 20th-century world of a rapidly changing society, is full of wry commentary and third person omniscient observation. The comedy of social manners of young people caught between the ways of their conventional elders and the almost-liberated woman was a popular subject of the time. With Women’s Suffrage movements as background, George Bernard Shaw and others were making a career out of writing plays about women who, much to the consternation of their elders and the men around them, were asserting their independence.

In a short time afterwards the hopes for change embodied in these plays and novels would turn sour with the aftermath of the Great War.  But in those pre-war years at the turn of the century, it was still possible to write humorously about the ways conventions could be overturned with a strong dose of Idealism and Passion.

Forster’s story is about a group of British guardians and their almost-of-age children who meet at at an Italian pensione during a sightseeing vacation. Conventions are upset by the unconventional socialists, the Emersons. They have the uncultured habit of saying what they mean. When the elder Emerson offers his Room with a View to the young filly Lucy, her older prudish cousin Charlotte is shocked at the impertinence and forwardness of such an offer. The younger Emerson, George, and Lucy have other ideas of propriety, and the rest of the novel very quickly becomes a vehicle for delivering the otherwise-engaged Lucy to her real love George. Unfortunately, Lucy herself is still bound to conventional ideas and is too scared to break with them. On her return to England, Lucy denies her love of George and instead sets off to marry the upper-class twit Cecil, in accord with her family’s expectations. But George and his father both know that Lucy is lying to herself and really loves George.

As the novel moves its scene from Italy to Britain, Forster has fun skewering the mores of the drawing room set. But ultimately the success of the book depends on whether he can pull off the culminating scene. Because delightful as the book’s whimsy, characters, and pointed humor are, if it doesn’t deliver on its obligatory scene where Lucy is confronted with her real feelings, then the book fails.

But Forster at the ridiculous age of 26 executes the scene so beautifully that this one scene in my opinion makes the novel a classic all by itself. Forster in the penultimate chapter of the book has Lucy, on the verge of marrying Cecil, running into the plainspoken father of George once more. In a remarkable monologue, George’s father talks to Lucy passionately of Truth and Love and Lying and Lucy breaks down. She can no longer run from her true feelings. She knows she must have George.

It’s a breathtaking and daring turn. The whole novel depends on whether the reader can be as persuaded as Lucy about the holiness of Love. If we don’t feel it, the novel, despite its other fine qualities, is a throwaway. In the otherwise wonderful 1985 movie, the filmmakers don’t entirely trust the moment. They end the scene too soon and Denholm Elliot’s wonderful performance as the father is somewhat short-changed. But Forster’s father’s full speech is a breathtaking tour-de-force and as a reader I was affected by every word. When I reached the end of that chapter, I felt as if I had been taken by the hand of a master and whirled around in the air, landing giddily with an exhilaration at hearing a truth so plain, yet so inspiring, that I was left, like Lucy, with the feeling of a renewed strength to face life.

Did Forster write that novel with that scene in mind first? I don’t know. But what a dare, what a wager, what an achievement. Set up the expectation, then brilliantly fulfill it. Lesson learned. Simple.