Tag Archives: magic

Review ~ Memoirs of an Elusive Moth

Cover via Goodreads

Memoirs of an Elusive Moth: Disappearing Nightly with Harry Blackstone and his Show of 1001 Wonders by Adele Friel Rhindress

Harry Blackstone presented a full-evening production called the Show of 1001 Wonders. It lived up to that billing, as a stage-filling spectacle combining spectacular illusions, magnificent costumes, gorgeous girls, a corps of assistants, humor, dancing, and intimate conjuring, into a magnificent stage production. Blackstone toured North America ceaselessly and by 1947, after over four decades entertaining the public, was unquestionably one of America s greatest and best-known magicians. It was in that year, at the age of 17, that Adele Friel was swept into Blackstone’s world of magic. She joined the ranks of his show unexpectedly, making the transition from solo song-and-dance act to one of Mr. B’s gorgeous girls in the blink of an eye. It was a decision that would change her life. For the next three seasons, she trouped with Blackstone, playing an integral role in his show, both onstage and backstage. Memoirs of an Elusive Moth gives readers a rare and intimate first-person account of one of America’s greatest touring magic shows. Laid bare in its pages are many of the secrets behind Blackstone s magic, as well as details of life in the theater, behind the scenes, on the road, and more all told here for the first time. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Books about and by female magicians and magician’s assistants are fairly rare (at least in my experience). And, honestly, I’m almost more interested in assisants’ stories. In big illusions, it’s really the assistant who does a lot of the work. So, I was pretty happy to pick up this book fairly inexpensively earlier in the year.

What Worked
Memoirs of an Elusive Moth is an eloquent, though brief, accounting of Adele Friel Rhindress’s time working with Harry Blackstone’s Show of 1001 Wonders. I had originally slated this book for later in the month, but for NaNoWriMo, I’m writing a character who ends up as a magician’s assistant, so I decided to bump it up. Rhindress’s story and the one I’m writing are not the same, but hers definitely gives mine some context. One of the things that I was surprised about was how quickly Rhindress was included in the show. She was pretty much hired and in the show as soon as costume fittings were done. I would have thought that a little more training would be required to be a “box jumper” in a huge 1947 magic stage show.

Rhindress doesn’t rub shoulders with many other magic celebrities, as seems to happen in magician memoirs, but instead she gives a better view of what happens behind the scenes. The secrets behind a few illusions are mentioned; something to be aware of if you’re sensitive about those sorts of things. Rhindress also learned a little sleight of while traveling with the troupe.

One of weaknesses of Donald Brandon’s …Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician was a lack of dates and chronology. Memoirs of an Elusive Moth avoids this problem. Rhindress was helped by a diary kept by her colleague Nick Ruggiero.

What Didn’t Work
Really, the only thing I wanted was more. The writing is better than competent. The books is a well-made hardback with plenty of photos. Alas, it’s only 116 pages!

Overall
I really enjoyed learning more about magic behind the scenes in the late 1940s-early 1950s. I’ll have more about women in magic in Monday’s #NonFicNov “Be the Expert/Become the Expert” post.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Squash Publishing, 2011
Acquired: Amazon, May 27, 2018
Genre: memoir

It’s Monday, What Are You… 3/19

…Reading?

The Chronological Man: The Monster In The Mist The Infamous Harry Hayward: A True Account of Murder and Mesmerism in Gilded Age Minneapolis All the Crooked Saints

It's Monday! What Are You ReadingIt’s Monday! What Are You Reading, hosted by Book Date!

…Watching?

At this very moment, Deception:

So far (about half an episode in), it’s what I expected: not terrible, not great, but enjoyable. Although, if you didn’t like the Now You See Me movies (and there were plenty of magic aficionados who didn’t), this probably isn’t for you. Also, I had forgotten that Vinnie Jones is in it.

…Doing?

Pretty ordinary week planned…except that I might have jury duty tomorrow. I have to call in tonight to see if they need my pool. I’ve never done jury duty before.

What Was I Doing?

Apparently, I don’t do much on the 19th of March…

  • 2013: Review ~ Behind the Scenes with the Mediums
  • 2010: Nattering about disc – As an addendum, it was only last summer that I actually figured out a better technique for my backhand. If I move the heel of my left foot forward when I pivot for the backhand (or step for my forehand), it keeps my right shoulder down which leads to a more controlled, more powerful throw.
  • 2009: (More about ultimate) – Apparently, I realized the value of punting on a high stall count years ago, yet did not learn the lesson…

Mini Reviews, Vol. 11

alt text Baker Street By-Ways by James Edward Holroyd

I found this slim paperback at Book Vault, out in Mesa. I didn’t realize that Otto Penzler, whom I know as an editor of mystery anthologies, had put together a collection of Sherlockania in the mid-90s. I’d be interested in other volumes even though this one was a little uneven.

Originally published in 1959, the tone is very “boys-club.” Holroyd grumbles repeatedly about how fed-up his and his friends’ wives are with their Sherlock hobby.  He also doesn’t bother to attribute a quote to an “American woman writer.” Perhaps I should know who he means, but not even Goggle could come up with the mother of the quote.

There are a few good crunchy bits, mostly concerning London geography. The book could have used a few more maps though.

 

alt text The Box Jumper by Lisa Mannetti

My interest in this novelette featuring Houdini was stoked when it was nominated in 2015 for a Shirley Jackson Award. Houdini and “psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic“? Yes, please!

Alas, it mostly didn’t work for me. The story is told through eyes  of Leona, an assistant to Houdini. She’s not the most reliable narrator and that always bugs me. Still, several of the scenes were quite unsettling.

alt text Anything But Ordinary Addie by Mara Rockliff (Author), Iacopo Bruno (Illustrations)

One of my favorite books of last year was Adelaide Herrmann: Queen of Magic, edited by  Margaret B. Steele. This book was directly inspired by that biography. It is a beautiful over-sized picture book for young readers. I’m not super keen on every book needing to be a mirror for the reader, but I would have loved a book about a red-haired female magician. The excitement and empowerment is amped up for a younger audience, but it certainly captures the spirit of Adelaide Herrmann.

 

Review ~ The Prestige

Cover via Goodreads

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

In 1878, two young stage magicians clash in the dark during the course of a fraudulent seance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and revelation as they vie to outwit and expose one another.

Their rivalry will take them to the peaks of their careers, but with terrible consequences. In the course of pursuing each other’s ruin, they will deploy all the deception their magicians’ craft can command–the highest misdirection and the darkest science.

Blood will be spilled, but it will not be enough. In the end, their legacy will pass on for generations…to descendants who must, for their sanity’s sake, untangle the puzzle left to them. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
This is a reread for me. Sometimes, I get so caught-up in ARCs and the unread books in my “pile” that I don’t let myself reread intriguing books that I enjoyed the first time around. Boy, am I glad I decided to reread The Prestige.

What Worked
I first read it in 2010, about two years before my earnest interest in magic took hold. From the my standpoint as a slightly-beyond-layman, Priest knows his stuff magic-wise. Previously, I didn’t fully appreciate the differences between Borden and Angier’s performance philosophies. The division between dedication to theory and dedication to end-performance still exists in a world  that contains both Ricky Jay and David Blaine.

The voices of the two magicians (and Andrew and Kate in the modern wrap-around) are clear and distinctive. This is something I didn’t appreciate the first time I read the story. I also didn’t fully appreciate the crossing events in the narrative. Basically, we’re given two separate (and incomplete) narratives; first Borden’s and then Angier’s. And that’s it. Despite having two modern characters working to make sense of the narratives, readers are left to fit pieces together without any extra-narrative interference. It’s a nice puzzle of a novel.

What Didn’t Work
We won’t talk about the science…

Also, Andrew and Kate in modern times are the least interesting portion of the novel, aside from the rather tense last five pages.

Overall
I’ll echo what I said in my first “review” of The Prestige: I wish I had read the book before seeing the movie. The movie is much different (how did I forget that Angier started out as fraudulent medium in the book?), but there are two major plot points —the twists—that are paralleled. But now that I’ve also seen the film probably a dozen more times, I’m further impressed by how well the adaptation works. Stakes needed to be higher in the movie. So, kudos to Jonathan and Christopher Nolan for creating a story that is the prestigious twin  of the book.

Publishing info, my copy: mass market paperback, Tor (tie-in edition with a terrible cover, not the cover above), 2006 (orig. 1995)
Acquired: Paperback Swap
Genre: horror, science fiction

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).

Matthewbuchinger.jpg

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.

Overall
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

Review ~ Exclusive Magical Secrets

Cover via AbeBooks

Exclusive Magical Secrets by Will Goldston

Exclusive Magical Secrets, along with the later More Exclusive Magical Secrets (1921) and Further Exclusive Magical Secrets (1927) were part of the “locked books” by Will Goldston. Each book came with a padlock and key with a clasp built into the book to keep the book, in a cheap red leather binding, closed. Thus, you were not able to walk in a magic shop (Goldston’s, mainly) and browse the book. (via Magicpedia)

Why was I interested in this book?
I was particularly interested in the chapter on Buatier de Kolta and his expanding cube mystery. Buatier’s was a forerunner to Joseffy’s similar trick. The chapter did not disappoint. It presented a nice-sized bio of Buatier and De Kolta, since the origins of the act involved two men.

What Worked
Exclusive Magical Secrets is a weird little collection of magic subjects. There is an range of how-tos from small pocket magic to theater-scale stage illusions, but then there is also the de Kolta bio—the only biography in the book— and individual chapters on subjects like a whist-playing automaton, quick-changes, juggling effects, and a nice bit of philosophy concerning comedy before a section on comedic tricks. (And, yes, a couple escapes contributed by Houdini…)

It took Goldston a decade to put the book together, but he didn’t seem to end up with a cohesive treatise. Instead Exclusive Magical Secrets is sort of a survey on different types of magic that might actually be more useful than if he delved into only one aspect.

Will Goldston magician

Will Goldston, 1911

What Didn’t Work
Reading about how magic tricks are done can be really boring. Goldston actually has a pretty light touch, but if you’re not really intending to perform the tricks, any instruction can be a little mind-numbing.

Originally published in 1921, it’s also a somewhat dated. Many common objects and situations aren’t so common any more. Also, “Chinese magic” was a prominent fad at the time of the publication. Goldston doesn’t hide the fact than many Chinese acts were performed by white Western magicians, but he also has no problem with that.

Overall
If you don’t want to know how magic tricks are done (even ones that are 100 years old), this isn’t the book for you. If you do want to know how modern magic is done, there are a few tidbits here and there that are still applicable. If you’re into magic history, this is a glimpse into the style of the time with a few glances back to even older magic acts. I picked up my copy used at Bookmans and it was well worth it for the chapter on de Kolta alone.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Dover Publications, Inc, 1977
Acquired: 11/19/16, Bookmans
Genre: non-fiction

Visit my Magic Picks shop if you’d like your own copy.
(Amazon associates store)

Magic Monday & What I’m Reading, 2/6/17

MagicMonday

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.

Well, congratulations to the Patriots on their come-back Super Bowl win. It was something to see. But did you know that the Patriots have their own magician? John Logan is not only the team’s digital content associate, but resident mystifyer.

(Via iTricks)

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

I’m not off to a good start reading-wise in February. Ever have those moments when you’re just sick of words? No? Maybe just me. I’ll continue on. Here’s what I have on deck for the week:

The Good Soldier The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes Fascist Lizards from Outer Space: The Politics, Literary Influences and Cultural History of Kenneth Johnson's V
  • The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
  • The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes by Lyndsay Faye
  • Fascist Lizards from Outer Space: The Politics, Literary Influences and Cultural History of Kenneth Johnson’s V by Dan Copp
  • Lots of Eric’s PHYSICIaN.
  • Short stories here and there.

It's Monday! What Are You ReadingIt’s Monday! What Are You Reading, hosted by Book Date!