AMORALMAN: A True Story and Other Lies by Derek DelGaudio
Early last year, I watched Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself, the filmed version of his one-man show. DelGaudio is a very talented magician and his illusions are wrapped in a semi-autobiographical stage-play that strongly includes the audience. He doesn’t so much do tricks in In & Of Itself as much as he creates effects to augment his storytelling. And in that venue, he’s a really good storyteller.
Amoralman, for me, isn’t as successful. Partly, this is because I’m used to magician biographies being fairly divorced from the theatrics of the stage. For me, the most interesting parts of Amoralman are the more biographical details, including DelGuadio’s time working as a “bust-out” dealer at a private poker game—basically, he worked as a card cheat. When DelGuadio brings in philosophy regarding his situation, the writing takes on a pretentious air. This works in his stage show, backed by deft magic; in writing, the theatrics just don’t work.
The full title of this book Magic in Theory: An Introduction to the Theoretical and Psychological Elements of Conjuring. The name is almost as long as the book, but it’s pretty crunchy nonfiction. This is probably the third time I’ve read it straight through and have referred to it occasionally when writing magician characters.
Magic in Theory doesn’t address how specific magic tricks are done. Rather, it offers nine categories of magic effects (appearance, vanish, transposition, transformation, penetration, restoration, extraordinary feats, telekinesis, and extrasensory perception) and how audience perception can be swayed by various forms of misdirection. It also has a lengthy chapter on how these concepts are different when presented in a pseudo-scientific way, rather than a stage magic way. Wiseman and Lamont readily confess that these theories are not a be-all or end-all of how to perform magic, but I find the categories helpful.
I originally bought my copy of Magic in Theory in December of 2014 (probably with birthday money) about two years into reading about magic and magicians. Probably not for a casual reader, but if you’ve watched enough Fool Us, and don’t mind thinking about how magic tricks are done, it might be of interest.
David Copperfield’s History of Magic by David Copperfield, Richard Wiseman, David Britland & Homer Liwag (photographer)
Magician David Copperfield has been putting together a private museum of magic history for years now. This big, beautiful coffee table book highlights certain pieces in his collections in order to tell a short history of stage magic, from Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin’s mystery clocks through Copperfield’s own Death Saw illusion. Each chapter is only a half dozen pages long; these are biographical sketches, not anything too in-depth. If you’re newly interested in magic, this is a great primer, but don’t expect any techniques to be outlined. (Or, if you’re interested in magic history, but don’t want the secrets spoiled, worry not: this book is mostly spoiler free.) The true value for someone who already knows some of the history is in the photography. Seeing some of these items, like one of Adelaide Herrmann’s dresses, in full color is really great. It’s easy to think of history in black and white or sepia tones. Or, with magic, in the garish colors of posters. The true colors of things make them ever more real.
In related news, I won a pack of cards related to the book. I will be using them as my Deal Me In deck for 2022.
Me: “I’m going to finish the two books I have in progress and start new ones on Jan. 1st.” Also Me: *starts reading several more books*
Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill
Have you ever wished you could live in an earlier, more romantic era?
Ladies, welcome to the 19th century, where there’s arsenic in your face cream, a pot of cold pee sits under your bed, and all of your underwear is crotchless. (Why? Shush, dear. A lady doesn’t question.) (via Goodreads)
So, there’s this movie called Kate & Leopold. It came out in 2001, starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman. In it, Jackman’s gentlemanly, but smart Leopold falls through a time hole linking 1876 and 2001 and falls in love with Ryan’s successful, but lonely ad exec Kate. All in all, it’s one of those generally smart, funny rom coms that populated the 90s, but died out in the 2000s. It has a great supporting cast (Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, Bradley Whitford) and a soundtrack song by Sting. I would utterly adore this movie (did I mention Hugh Jackman in a rom com?)…except for the ending. Spoiler for an 18 year old movie: Kate goes back to 1876 with Leopold to stay. She obviously hadn’t read Therese Oneill’s Unmentionable.
I love reading newspapers from the late Victorian era and I’ve been interested in the manners/health books of the era, but haven’t had the time to get into them. Oneill has done that work for me. Unmentionable goes into all the distinctly un-romantic aspects of being a woman (and really a white, upper-class woman) in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. The snarky tone is mostly funny, especially paired with illustrations and advertisement from the period. My one nag is that I wish dates were used a little more.
Original Publishing info: Little, Brown and Company, 2016 My Copy: OverDrive Read, Tempe Public Library Genre: history, pop culture
The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic, and the Paranormal by Matthew Tompkins
In The Spectacle of Illusion, professional magician-turned experimental psychologist Dr. Matthew L. Tompkins investigates the arts of deception as practiced and popularized by mesmerists, magicians and psychics since the early 18th century. Organized thematically within a broadly chronological trajectory, this compelling book explores how illusions perpetuated by magicians and fraudulent mystics can not only deceive our senses but also teach us about the inner workings of our minds. Indeed, modern scientists are increasingly turning to magic tricks to develop new techniques to examine human perception, memory and belief. Beginning by discussing mesmerism and spiritualism, the book moves on to consider how professional magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini engaged with these movements – particularly how they set out to challenge and debunk paranormal claims. It also relates the interactions between magicians, mystics and scientists over the past 200 years, and reveals how the researchers who attempted to investigate magical and paranormal phenomena were themselves deceived, and what this can teach us about deception. (via Goodreads)
The Spectacle of Illusion was published to coincide with Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, an exhibit at the Wellcome Collection in London. (The exhibit is open until Sept. 15th, so if you’re in London and interested, you’re lucky and should go.) The book delves into how from the 18th century through the present we have approached the paranormal (a relatively recent term) from the point of view of science. The problem, though, is that science hasn’t always been good at dealing with human deception. Enter those masters of deception: the magicians. Of special note are the debunkers, like Maskelyne and Houdini, and the modern discipline of experimental psychology which investigates how our brain experiences non-normal experiences like magic tricks and “paranormal” events.
A Goodreads reviewer referred to this book as “specialist” and it occurs to me that I might have read so much on the above subjects that I don’t know what that means anymore. I think Thomkins provides a good introduction to these subjects without going too deep. This book didn’t break new ground in my knowledge base, but I highly enjoyed it. The strength of The Spectacle of Illusion is the hundreds of pictures and illustrations found throughout. It’s a beautiful book, more on the coffee table book end of the spectrum than dry academic text.
Original Publishing info: Distributed Art Publishers (DAP), 2019 My Copy: Hardback purchased from Amazon Genre: history, psychology, magic
Magic Is Dead: My Journey into the World’s Most Secretive Society of Magicians by Ian Frisch
Magic Is Dead is Ian Frisch’s head-first dive into a hidden world full of extraordinary characters and highly guarded secrets. It is a story of imagination, deception, and art that spotlights today’s most brilliant young magicians—a mysterious club known as the52, who are revolutionizing an ancient art form under the mantra Magic Is Dead.
Ian brings us with him as he not only gets to know this fascinating world, but also becomes an integral part of it. We meet the52’s founding members—Laura London, Daniel Madison, and Chris Ramsay—and explore their personal demons, professional aspirations, and what drew them to their craft. We join them at private gatherings of the most extraordinary magicians working today, follow them to magic conventions in Las Vegas and England, and discover some of the best tricks of the trade. We also encounter David Blaine; hang out with Penn Jillette; meet Dynamo, the U.K.’s most famous magician; and go behind the scenes of a Netflix magic show. Magic Is Dead is also a chronicle of magic’s rich history and how it has changed in the internet age, as the young guns embrace social media and move away from the old-school take on the craft.
As he tells the story of the52, and his role as its most unlikely member, Ian reveals his own connection with trickery and deceit and how he first learned the elements that make magic work from his poker-playing mother. He recalls their adventures in card rooms and casinos after his father’s sudden death, and shares a touching moment that he had, as a working journalist, with his childhood idol Shaquille O’Neal.
“Magic—the romanticism of the inexplicable, the awe and admiration of the unexpected—is an underlying force in how we view the world and its myriad possibilities,” Ian writes. As his journey continues, Ian not only becomes a performer and creator of magic—even fooling the late Anthony Bourdain during a chance encounter—he also cements a new brotherhood, and begins to understand his relationship with his father, fifteen years after his death. Written with psychological acuity and a keen eye for detail, Magic Is Dead is an engrossing tale full of wonder and surprise. (via Goodreads)
Why was I interested in this book?
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that interested in this book. It was marketed *very* heavily to me on Amazon, which was a little off-putting, due to my purchase history of other magic books. The Amazon recommendation algorithm, combined with the publisher’s marketing push, didn’t really notice that magic history is more my thing. Plus, secrets in magic are sort of bullshit. The aura of secrecy is more important than actual secrecy. So, a super secret society of magicians really isn’t a selling point for me. But, it was available through the library, so I figured, “Okay, fine.”
Actually, I’m glad I read it. I learned a lot about how the new generation of magicians are using social media. I knew that YouTube has been changing the way that younger magicians are learning magic. Instead of in-person pilgrimages to meet old masters, many performers are learning techniques from peers via online videos. And of course there is the argument that amateur learning from amateur doesn’t lead to excellence, but that’s not the entire story of what’s been going on in magic in the last decade. YouTube and Instagram are being used more as advertisement for products that these young magicians are creating. Instead of playing vaudeville circuits or being booked as a night club act, series of single trick videos have established these magicians’ brands.
With the title Magic is Dead, I expected a level of irreverence toward the older generations. That really isn’t the case. Performers like Chris Ramsay and Daniel Madison do respect where magic has come from even as they deviate from it. Frisch provides an occasional primer on magic history in the course of the narrative. For me, it wasn’t anything I didn’t know.
What Didn’t Work
Frisch is a journalist and his writing is pretty bare bones. He’s better at telling smaller stories than weaving them into a something longer. I also generally find memoirs by young people to be suspect. No matter how many improbable things might have happened in their relatively short lives, I feel like a good memoir should have a bigger scope. I expected there to be more of a twist or, in faux magic parlance, a turn to his inclusion in the52, but really this is Frisch’s story of finding a hobby, maybe a profession, maybe an art that has led him to some current truths.
But the one thing I really didn’t care for in Magic is Dead (and in Nate Staniforth’s Here Is Real Magic, which I read last year) is the air of self-importance that seems to surround many of the younger magicians. Frisch had been part of the magic scene for two years when he starts working on a trick with the intent to be impactful, not just to innovate, perform and market a trick. Actually, if you’ll allow me my old curmudgeon hat for a moment, I think this is an aspect that many young people suffer from. Everything must be Special and Important. While most people might what to achieve something of that level, it’s very odd to me and a little distasteful to come out and state, “I’m going to be important in this field.”
As I said, I did find value in reading Magic is Dead. If you like modern magic, this is a decent read. Frisch does know his stuff. Below is the magic trick he created. I know I recently saw it performed by a different magician, but that’s Frisch’s intent. I also think this is a very talented lot; magic will and already has been impacted by the members of the52.
Original Publishing info: HarperCollins, 2019 My Copy: Kindle ebook, Greater Phoenix Digital Library Genre: memoir
Conjure Times: The History of Black Magicians in America by James Haskins & Kathleen Benson
Throughout American history, black magicians have achieved great skill in both the magician’s tricks of the trade as well as the psychology of entertaining an audience. However, because of slavery and, later, racial segregation and discrimination, few have been able to make their living as magicians. Those who have succeeded are rare indeed, and although some have left a mark on history, many exist only as names on old playbills or in newspaper advertisements. Jim Haskins delivers an illuminating portrait of these unheralded pioneers — a tribute to African-Americans who paved the way for and will inspire future generations. (via Goodreads)
Why was I interested in this book?
I’ve been reading about magic history for some time now, but I realized I knew very little about African-American magicians aside from Adalaide Herrmann’s mention of the black assistants in their show. The assistant was known as Boomsky, though several magicians played that part. Indeed, the last of the Boomskies, M. H. Everett went on to have a fairly good career after Herrmann’s death.
What did I learn?
African-American magicians have different career lineages. While some, like Everett, were assistants for white magicians, most learned magic from other black magicians—most of whom are relatively unknown to history. They didn’t learn from the likes of Kellar or Dai Vernon, but rather Alanzo Moore or Clarence Hunter. While it seems that white magicians weren’t opposed to helping and mentoring black students, they just really weren’t available due to different performance circles.
An early stage opportunity for black magicians was as part of minstrel shows. These eventually gained a little more legitimacy as vaudeville shows, but the stages and audiences were still segregated. Black magicians didn’t perform for white audiences because they prevented from doing so. Well, unless they wanted to take the persona of a “Hindoo” illusionist. Many did and made a decent living at it. Eventually, desegregation led to more and more performing opportunities.
There was also a barrier due to types of gaffed products available. For example, the thumb tip is a versatile tool for many magic tricks, but not if it isn’t available in the proper skin tone.
What more did I want? Conjure Times is aimed at young readers, so none of the biographies are particularly in-depth. There’s a list of sources that I’m definitely going to check out. Also, it was published in 2001 and deserves a new edition. Not included in the modern section, for example, is Kendrick McDonald, who was the first African-American to serve as the president of the Society of American Magicians.
You didn’t think I wasn’t going to include a video did you?
Informative and a good starting point.
Publishing info: Walker & Company, 2001 My Copy: Hardback, Tempe Public Library Genre: history
I like Mondays. I also like magic. 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.
The magic world lost one of its great performers and mentors this past weekend. Johnny Thompson was known as a fabulous comedy magician and a generous collaborator. If you’re not familiar with his act, you’ve undoubtedly seen his influence on performers such as Penn & Teller, Piff the Magic Dragon, Mac King, and many others through his “in the booth” involvement with the show Penn & Teller: Fool Us. Here’s his signature act The Great Tomsoni & Co. (& Co. being his wife Pamela Hayes).
It’s Monday, What am I…
Reading? What’s that?
To be fair, I spent the first part of last week in Las Vegas and am otherwise speeding through a rewrite/third draft of the book I’m working on. But here’s what I might read this week:
As I mentioned above, I’m working through a rewrite/third daft of what was known as Jane Anderson Mystery (#1?), but now has a title: Deal with the Devil. I plan to have that finished by Friday. Granted, I haven’t entirely finished writing the book in the first place. (That won’t be finished by Friday.) I decided at the end of February, I wanted to solidify some shifts in plot before heading into the climax.
I’ll probably write up something about my trip to Las Vegas this week as well. Most things are taking a backseat to my getting writing work done, which is as it should be, but often isn’t.
Otherwise, ultimate frisbee (if we don’t get rained out) and some EverQuest 2.