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

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(Remember that Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith?)

I thought it would be fun to talk a little—but not too much!—about what I’ve been reading in the last few months. I seem to go in four month cycles with reading—four months on avidly reading, and then four months off when I don’t want to read at all. Since this seems to be my four months on…

A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle–a very fine writer in my opinion. This is the first novel in a trilogy about the life of Dublin-born Henry Smart, IRA gun runner, explosives expert, and lover. Doyle writes with great lyricism and imagination, and each scene is brought vividly to life, both visually and aurally. The fictional character Henry Smart has interactions with the real-life Irish Republican Army figures of Michael Collins, James Connelly, and Ernst O’Malley, and Doyle describes the passion, cynicism, and double-dealing that goes into the making of a revolution and a revolutionary.

Last year I read Doyle’s second book in the trilogy, Oh Play That Thing! and also greatly enjoyed that book. It  has the disillusioned Henry jumping ship to the United States where he manages to land a job working as the bodyguard of Louis Armstrong. It sounds improbable, but somehow Doyle makes it all sing, and the book itself is a jazzy improvisation of plot and character that Doyle brings to a stunning conclusion.

The Secret Miracle, edited by Daniel Alarcon, is an excellent set of interviews with contemporary authors, focusing on the writers’ work strategies. The book is organized by question, so that all the interviewees’ answers are recorded as if they were in conversation with each other. The authors interviewed include Stephen King, Jennifer Egan, Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Danticat, Roddy Doyle, Allegra Goodman, Jonathan Letham, Haruki Murakami, and many others, so you expect an absorbing read, and it is. They answer questions about their influences, how they prepare to write a novel, their work habits, how they go about revision, how long it takes them to write a draft, whether they draw on real life for their characters or not, who they allow to read their drafts, how they know when they’ve reached a final draft, and so on.

It’s the kind of book about the arts that I really enjoy reading—experts at their craft talking about what they really do. The most comforting part for anyone hoping to learn more about writing from such a book is the wide diversity of habits, styles, and practices that are described. Each author, Machado-like, has carved out his or her own path.

No Applause—Just Throw Money by Trav S. D. (Yes!) is a chatty, informative book about the creation and evolution of vaudeville. The author neatly explains the rise of vaudeville as the standardization and rehabilitation of the other forms of variety entertainments that had played across America at one time or another since the country’s inception. The lecture hall, the dime museum, the circus, the minstrel show, the medicine show were the sometimes measly but ubiquitous entertainments criss-crossing the country. After women got the right to vote, the theater entrepreneurs understood that they could make more money by sanitizing the previously primarily male enclaves of variety entertainment. So vaudeville provided entertainment to men, women, and children, and at the same time provided a venue for the audience to see themselves on stage in the form of immigrant singers and comedians.

The formula of variety family entertainment made huge stars of many, and the same formula was put to work with the advent of television, which catered to the same audience. The new medium eventually killed off vaudeville. The likes of Ed Sullivan and Saturday Night Live were the direct descendants of that format. The book also does a nice job talking about some of the well-known vaudevillians—George M. Cohan, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker—and some of the lesser known personalities, such as comedians Weber and Fields, and tap dancer Joe Frisco who were also huge stars in their time. Some great insight here on what it is to take an act, hone it to perfection, and perform it hundreds or even thousands (six a day!) of times a year.

And in the Magic Department we have The Chicago Surprise by Whit (“Pop”) Haydn. I first read Whit’s monograph detailing his unique handling of the classic card routine “Chicago Opener” quite a while ago, but it’s a booklet that I keep going back to. First of all, it’s a damn good trick, and as my skill at card magic improves, I want to make sure I’ve got it right. But even more importantly, it details a whole theory of performance magic

Briefly, the plot is this: a spectator chooses any card from an ordinary red-backed deck and it turns out to be the one card in the pack with a blue back. The blue-backed card is placed face down on the table.  The magician then gives the spectator another choice of cards—offering the spectator a chance to change to another card if so desired. The card is lost in the deck, but when the spectator names the chosen card, the face-down blue-backed card is turned over to reveal that it is the same one that the spectator chose.

What is so valuable about Whit’s booklet is that it’s not just a description of a trick, but the outlining of a whole philosophy of magic, his now famous “dilemma” theory. Haydn holds nothing back, and the routine is there with a complete script, and with some great tips about the use of the major sleights involved: the palm, the DL and the CF. But in addition, Whit tells you why he constructed the routine the way he did, and his explanation yields great insight into audience perception and psychology. What with an included bonus routine for the Brainwave Deck, this is a must for any card worker.

And in progress: Arthur Phillips’s first novel, Prague; C. Wright Mills’s survey and critique of marxisms, The Marxists; The inventive Swedish magician Tomas Blomberg’s compilation of eclectic conjuring effects, Blomberg Laboratories; Michelle Alexander’s  description of the new era of oppression for African-Americans through the criminal injustice system, The New Jim Crow; and a very interesting nuts and bolts book about writing, Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. I hope to report on all of these at another time. Until then, happy reading!