Tag Archives: jay

Review ~ Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women

Cover via Goodreads

Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women by Ricky Jay

Ricky Jay is one of the world’s great sleight-of-hand artists. He is also a most unusual and talented scholar, specializing in the bizarre, exotic, and fantastic side of the human species. The youngest magician to have appeared on television, Jay has become well known for his astonishing stage show as well as for his cameos in such movies as Glengarry Glen Ross and, most recently, Boogie Nights.

Jay’s unparalleled collection of books, posters, photographs, programs, broadsides, and, most important, data about unjustifiably forgotten entertainers all over the world made this unique book possible. An investigation into the inspired world of sideshows, circuses, and singularly talented performers, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women is history of the most unusual–and irresistible–sort. (via Goodreads)

Amusing that the above summary was written so long ago that it doesn’t mention Ricky Jay’s work on The Prestige, The Illusionist (as a consultant), and Deadwood.

Why was I interested in this book?
Ricky Jay is a fabulous magician. He’s probably my favorite behind Teller/Penn & Teller. He’s also a magic historian and a historian of singular entertainments. Many acts, like pigs that can do math and women who can withstand the heat of an oven to emerge with perfectly cooked steaks, share an aspect of deception with the only slightly more respectable profession of magician.

What Worked
A few years back I read Harry Houdini’s Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, which covers a similar territory, but in a much more shallow way. Ricky Jay truly loves his subjects and knows their histories. You might think that fire-resisters, poison-eaters (as well as frog-eaters—I’m looking at you David Blaine),  mnemonists, and “carnie” acts like extraordinary artists with physical disabilities are of 20th or even only 19th century origin, but you’d be wrong. Many of these acts have lineage in the 17th and 18th centuries.

For example, one of Jay’s favorite subjects, Matthew Buchinger, was born in 1674. Buchinger was a magician, musician, and calligrapher despite being twenty-nine inches in height and lacking legs, feet, or hands. All of the stories in this books are well-sourced and the book contains a goodly number of plates, poster, and photos (on the rare occasions that Learned Pigs ventures beyond the 1850s).


By Matthew Buchinger (1674-1740) – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Smooth_O using CommonsHelper. Original uploader was Kingofspades, Public Domain, Link

Unlike Houdini’s book, Jay isn’t really interested in “their methods.” But if it comes up, there isn’t any modern-day supposing. Fire-resister and poison-eater Chabert was taken to task by medical professionals of his day because he claimed he had cures for scurvy and typhoid. The exposure of other parts of act followed in the press.

What Didn’t Work
Less, “what didn’t work” and more “why it took me over two years to finish this book”: It’s dense. It’s diverse. Ricky Jay’s writing style (and patter style) is very much informed by the histories he’s obsessed with. To illustrate, this is one of my favorite routines of his, entitled “The History Lesson.”

The book is written in beautiful, entertaining language, but it isn’t a quick read.

This is definitely a dip-in book. Read a chapter here, dazzle at a poster there. Worth the time, but not to be consumed in one sitting. Unless you have a stone-eater’s fortitude.

Publishing info, my copy: over-sized paperback, Villard Books, 1987
Acquired: Jackson Street Booksellers, July 2015
Genre: nonfiction

Deal Me In, Week 40 ~ “Weaving the Dark”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Weaving the Dark” by Laurie King

Card picked: Queen of Clubs, appropriate for one of this anthology’s few female writers.

From: Trilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon

Thoughts: In the midst of a lot of very popular YA fiction, I occasionally lament the lack of middle-age stories. I want tales of characters with pasts full of the mistakes made when they were young and, instead of the absent parent, the very present in-laws or the aging parents. Sadly, I suppose this might make for “depressing” fiction… Or not.

Suze has been an adventurer all her life, dealing with all life’s difficulties by leaving the situation for one that’s more dangerous, more emotionally charged. When recently out of an abusive relationship, Suze went backpacking around the world. Faced by the death of her mother, Suze took up skydiving. Unfortunately, now 48 and struggling with glaucoma and her lover’s stroke, Suze has been hobbled. She has to rely on the Christian charity of young Courtney to visit Janna in the hospital and to do most of the shopping and cleaning.

But Suze isn’t entirely useless. She weaves, and while all her rugs and hangings are now monochromatic, they are intricate in their textures. And Suze also decides to solve the mystery of the digging she hears in the woods outside her house at night. That’s were this story turns, not to the “inspirational,” but to the “everything is going to be okay.” Suze, despite everything, can still get things done.

King excels at using description that avoid sight. She also conveys the situations that Suze is confused by as well as the one’s she’s comfortable in. I did feel like Suze’s background had been bolstered to make her current actions more reasonable. I’m not sure if that makes sense from a reader point of view… Writers often go back to add details, but the trick is to make it seem like those details were there all along. Some of Suze’s adventures felt more like credentials.

About the Author: I knew the name was familiar, but I couldn’t place it and I knew I hadn’t read anything by Laurie King previously. Ms. King is the author of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series of mysteries which have been on my will-eventually-read-some-day list.

Is This Your Card?

It’s possible I’ve posted this trick, this video in fact, before. Or maybe I’ve watched it so many times that I don’t remember what I’ve posted at all. Whatever the case, it’s a good trick and applicable to queens of any suit.  And if a magician is going to do patter, let it be patter like this.

Magic Monday Is Back!


I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

First Magic Monday of 2015! (Last week was Bout of Books.) It seems like it’s been a while since the last one with all the “best-of”s and wrap-ups. I have some plans for future MMs, but they will require getting my feet under me work- & blogging-wise. It could happen!

Under the heading of Check Your Local Listings and Mark Your Calendars:

PBS will be airing the Ricky Jay documentary Deceptive Practice later in January. If you’re in the US, you’ll probably be able to catch it online as well.

(I would link to the PBS trailer, but the embedding doesn’t get along well with WordPress.)


What Am I Reading?

The Magician's Daughter: A Valentine Hill MysteryI need to finish Sleights of Mind this week and get it back to the library. Then it’s on to The Magician’s Daughter by Judith Janeway or The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I’d ear-marked reading Hound due to the gothic elements, I think. For Deal Me In, I’ve already picked a wild card. I think it will be given to “The Damned Thing” by Ambrose Bierce.

What Am I Writing?

Need to do a clean-up on Luck for Hire (today) and then have Eric read. Working on getting Lucinda at the Window back into rotation after its stint on KDP Select.