Review ~ Eyeing the Flash

Cover via Goodreads

Eyeing the Flash: The Making of a Carnival Con Artist by Peter Fenton

The year is 1963, the setting small-town Michigan. Pete Fenton is just another well-mannered math student until he meets Jackie Barron, a teenage grifter who introduces him to the carnival underworld — and lures him with the cons, the double-dealing, and, most of all, the easy money. The memoir of a shy middle-class kid turned first-class huckster, Eyeing the Flash is highly unorthodox, and utterly compelling. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
There is a connection between stage magic and carnivals; and between magicians and con men…

What Worked
Fenton provides a (maybe) warts-and-all recollection his late teen years working in a basement casino (set up to fleece his high school classmates) and working his way up through the games (from Duck Pond to the Flat Store) in a travelling carnival in the 60s. I say “maybe” warts-and-all. I have no particular reason to question the author as narrator…other than he’s a carny con man. While most of the abuse and double dealing is at the figurative  hands of his friend/boss, Jackie, Fenton possibly doesn’t share how often marks became belligerent. Mostly, he shows his prowess at lying to the marks and working the rigged games.

What Didn’t Work
For me, one of the great sadnesses of my life is that con men aren’t Danny Ocean. They are not suave. They aren’t noble Robin Hoods, or even in it for revenge or moral lessons.

It’s your life. Which side are you going to be on? Are you an ulcer giver or an ulcer getter?

That’s pretty much Jackie’s early pitch to Peter. Causing harm to cause harm is distasteful to me. I know intellectually that’s what con men do, but it’s still disappointing that there are people who easily decide to put their life choices in that either/or.

Overall
Eyeing the Flash is well-written and provides a look into a world that is often off-limits to regular people.  It also emphasizes that callousness of a con man.

By the way, “flash” is the especially attractive prizes at a carnival game booth. In the book, the most flashy piece of flash was a 17″ color television set. While carnivals are somewhat more on the level these days, Mark Rober has a great set of YouTube videos about modern carnival scams.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Simon & Schuster, 2005
Acquired: Amazon,April 5, 2013
Genre: memoir

This book counts for two challenges:

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Review ~ Hunger

Cover via Goodreads

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her own past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes. (via Goodreads)

Thoughts
As I read Hunger, I struggled with how I was supposed to interact with this text.

Hunger is split into sections in which Gay writes about the sexual abuse that led her to turn her body into a fortress, society’s reaction to very large people, her own thoughts and tribulations concerning weight loss, and the slow process of finding self-worth and dealing with the loneliness she’s felt.

But… Am I allowed to commiserate with Gay if my own weight problems are only metabolism-related and I’ve only ever been “Lane Bryant fat”? I can certainly relate to the tension of wanting to lose weight because “thinner is healthier”/”*I* would like how I looked if I weighed less”/”being thinner is what society expects” and accepting that maybe this is just how my body is. Does my bringing my narrative in cheapen hers?

Maybe this is a problem I have when reading memoirs. I don’t really know what to do with Gay’s narrative. Feel horrified by it? Yes, I do. Understand why she’s done the things she’s done? Yes, I can. But otherwise, it’s hard for me to say much about someone else’s honestly-told story.

Publishing info, my copy: OverDrive Read, HarperCollins, June 14, 2017
Acquired: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection
Genre: memoir

Hunger was the first quarter read for the 2018 Nonfiction Challenge.

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Review ~ Here Is Real Magic

This book was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth

Nate Staniforth has spent most of his life and all of his professional career trying to understand wonder—what it is, where to find it, and how to share it with others. He became a magician because he learned at a young age that magic tricks don’t have to be frivolous. Magic doesn’t have to be about sequins and smoke machines—rather, it can create a moment of genuine astonishment.

The paradox is that the better you get at creating wonder with magic for other people, the harder it gets to experience it yourself. After years on the road as a young professional magician, crisscrossing the country and performing four or five nights a week, every week, Nate was disillusioned, burned out, and ready to quit.

Instead, he went to India in search of magic. Here Is Real Magic follows Nate Staniforth’s evolution from an obsessed young magician to a broken wanderer and back again. It tells the story of his rediscovery of astonishment—and the importance of wonder in everyday life—during his trip to the slums of India, where he infiltrated a three-thousand-year-old clan of street magicians. Here Is Real Magic is a call to all of us—to welcome awe back into our lives, to marvel in the everyday, and to seek magic all around us. (via Goodreads)

I.

“Do you want to keep doing magic?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to do anything else?”

“No.”

If you replace “doing magic” with “writing,” I’ve pretty much had this same conversation in the recent past with Eric, my husband. Staniforth has it with his wife after several years of successful touring as a magician. He had fallen out of love with magic, so to speak. The wonder he originally felt when doing magic and had seen on the faces of his audience had faded. This book is the travelogue of his trip to India to find wonder again.

II.

There is an aspect of this books that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I’m aware of the cultural appropriation that occurred within magic in the late 19th/early 20th century. The exotic Far East was all the rage and many western magicians took on the persona of Indian fakirs for tricks. The Indian rope trick, a hoax, only solidified the notion that people in India believed in mysticism and needed civilizing. Staniforth is aware of this too. He mentions Peter Lamont’s The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick both in the text and in his acknowledgements, yet, when he wants to see “real” magic, India is his first (only?) thought.

I can understand the want to visit a radically different culture in an effort to find a new perspective on magic. India has that, but Staniforth also shares his notion that wonder comes easier when you’re less burdened with knowledge. Which leave the possibility of an uncomfortable a==b==c comparison. I don’t think that Staniforth intends that, and he’s pretty quick to check his privilege, but why then just India? Why not travel the world looking for wonder?

III.

It’s hard to critique someone’s personal experience of the world. Staniforth is very earnest in his want to find wonder and inspire it in others. That also occasionally comes off as self-importance. He insists that magicians are a ridiculous lot and he isn’t satisfied with the wonder of magic only lasting to the theater door. I’m in the ridiculous profession of creating stories, but I don’t mind so much if the magic of the story fades when the book is closed. I also don’t have much trouble finding moments of wonder in my life,  but I’m the sort that finds a rainbow to be more incredible because of the optics behind it.

Staniforth does find wonder, but finds it more in the people and beauty of India than in its magicians. His take-away is that we can find wonder when you slow down and let yourself. And really, I can’t argue with that.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub, Bloomsbury USA, 1/16/18
Acquired: NetGalley, 10/11/17
Genre: memoir

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Review ~ Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic

Cover via Goodreads

Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic by Adelaide Herrmann, Margaret B. Steele (Editor)

Madame Adelaide Herrmann (1853-1932) was a superstar of the Golden Age of Magic and now her story is finally told, and what a story it is! Entitled “Sixty-Five Years of Magic,” Madame takes us on an amazing adventure, from her beginnings as a dancer and trick bicyclist, to her marriage to Alexander Herrmann and their subsequent tours of the U.S., Mexico, South America and Europe. She peppers her memoir with hilarious anecdotes, misadventures, accidents and the continuous outrageous antics of the husband she adored. She describes their show in minute detail, including her husband’s magic repertoire and their baffling illusions which drew standing-room only audiences wherever they went. In heartrending detail, she tells the story of her husband’s death. She then reinvents herself into the first great female magician, and takes us through yet another thirty years of solo adventures. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
This is the memoir of the greatest female magician of the early 20th century (perhaps ever). Are you kidding me?! Of course I was interested in this book!

What Worked
Often there are two kinds of magic books: the cheaply made public domain scanned reprints or the beautifully made limited editions that are beyond my budget if available at all. This book is thankfully neither of those things. It is a very nicely made trade paperback full of black and white pictures. Finding Mme. Herrmann’s memoir and collecting her writings and ephemera together was a labor of love for magician and editor Margaret Steele, and it shows. And…it’s available!  Because why wouldn’t you want to make Adelaide Herrmann’s memoir available?

The first three-fourths of the book is Alelaide Herrmann’s memoir, written by her with some editorial help. It covers her life from meeting, marrying, and becoming the assistant to Alexander Herrmann (“Herrmann the Great”) to the end of her career in the late 1920s. It covers their love story, many of their adventures, and her trials and triumphs working on her own as a performer. The last fourth of the book is articles written by and about Mme. Herrmann, including several from women’s magazines encouraging young women to take up magic.

I have often wondered why more young girls do not turn their attention to the study and practice of magic, as it develops every one of the attributes necessary to social success—grace, dexterity, agility, easy of movement, perfection of manner, and self-confidence.

Here’s Margaret Steele performing one of Adelaide Herrmann’s signature tricks:

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Bramble Books, 2012
Acquired: Amazon, 12/17/16
Genre: memoir

This is 6/10 Books of Summer!

Review ~ Believe Me

This book was provided to me by Penguin Group and Blue Rider Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard

Critically acclaimed, award-winning British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard details his childhood, his first performances on the streets of London, his ascent to worldwide success on stage and screen, and his comedy shows which have won over audiences around the world.

Over the course of a thirty-year career, Eddie Izzard has proven himself to be a creative chameleon, inhabiting the stage and film and television screen with an unbelievable fervor. Born in Yemen, and raised in Ireland, Wales and post-war England, he lost his mother at the age of six. In his teens, he dropped out of university and took to the streets of London as part of a two-man escape act; when his partner went on vacation, Izzard kept busy by inventing a one-man act, and thus a career was ignited. As a stand-up comedian, Izzard has captivated audiences with his surreal, stream-of-consciousness comedy–lines such as “Cake or Death?” “Death Star Canteen,” and “Do You Have a Flag?” have the status of great rock lyrics. As a self-proclaimed “Executive Transvestite,” Izzard broke the mold performing in full make-up and heels, and has become as famous for his advocacy for LGBT rights as he has for his art. In Believe Me, he recounts the dizzying rise he made from street busking to London’s West End, to Wembley Stadium and New York’s Madison Square Garden. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
In 2005 (or maybe 2006), Eric and I were at the World Fantasy Convention in Madison (or maybe Austin). Seeking refuge from all the con activities, we went up to our room to rest and watch a little TV. We don’t have cable at home so HBO at a hotel is a little bit of luxury. And on HBO was a comedy special. The comedian was a man wearing heels, leather pants, a tunic blouse and a lot of makeup. He was very funny with a long-game comedy style that relies on clever call-backs. And so, Eddie Izzard gained two fans with his special Dressed to Kill.

What Didn’t Work
It’s hard to say that the first part of this memoir doesn’t work. Eddie Izzard’s early years were not super happy. His mother passed away when he was pretty young and he and his older brother were sent to boarding school because his father traveled often for work. Add to that Izzard’s growing sense that he had, as he puts it, a girl mode despite being very sporty and being interested in the army and the UK version of the scouts. This isn’t material that lends itself to a comedy take. I think Izzard knows this, but he does try to add some levity in the form of digressions. I think it was this juxtaposition that didn’t quite work for me in the first half of the book.

What Worked
The pace picks up in the second half as Izzard talks about the evolution of his career and the things that have become important to him. This seems to be more comfortable territory for Izzard. If, like me, you came upon Izzard as a successful stand-up comedian, it isn’t evident that he originally wanted to do dramatic roles. The path to playing  Wayne Malloy on The Riches or Abel Gideon on Hannibal wound through sketch comedy and street performance before the stand-up stage.

…if I wish to do something, I am quite happy to go back again and again and attack the brick wall of “no” and find a way to push through to the other side.

Izzard has carried this through in his personal life as well. His career as a stand-up comedian was just taking off when he decided to come out as transgendered. It could have destroyed his career or it could have led to becoming a “niche” comedian. Instead, Izzard simply persisted in being an intelligent and absurd. One gets the feeling that if the stand-up thing wouldn’t have worked, Izzard would have pivoted to the next thing. What that might have been is a question for the ages.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub, Blue Rider Press, 2017
Acquired: NetGalley, 5/30/17
Genre: memoir

This is 3/10 Books of Summer!

Review ~ The Princess Diarist

Cover via Goodreads

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

When Carrie Fisher recently discovered the journals she kept during the filming of the first Star Wars movie, she was astonished to see what they had preserved—plaintive love poems, unbridled musings with youthful naiveté, and a vulnerability that she barely recognized. Today, her fame as an author, actress, and pop-culture icon is indisputable, but in 1977, Carrie Fisher was just a teenager with an all-consuming crush on her costar, Harrison Ford.

With these excerpts from her handwritten notebooks, The Princess Diarist is Fisher’s intimate and revealing recollection of what happened on one of the most famous film sets of all time—and what developed behind the scenes. And today, as she reprises her most iconic role for the latest Star Wars trilogy, Fisher also ponders the joys and insanity of celebrity, and the absurdity of a life spawned by Hollywood royalty, only to be surpassed by her own outer-space royalty. (via Goodreads)

I.

I started listening to The Princess Diarist as an audio book sometime back in December or January, but that wasn’t the right time for me. Instead, it wasn’t until I listened to Kevin Smith’s tribute to Carrie Fisher on an episode of SModcast that I finally really wanted to read this book.

II.

Often Doctor Who fans identify their era of Doctor Who with who their Doctor is. Is it Four (Tom Baker)? Or Ten (David Tennant)? James Bond fans do this too. (George Lazenby, anyone?) And maybe Star Wars fans will too. Is Rey your girl? Or Padme? Or Jyn Erso? Or, like me, is Leia your kick-ass, blaster-wielding diplomat alter-ego?

I was three years old when Star Wars came out. I remember seeing it at a drive-in and that was probably more than a year after it came out. I had lots of Star Wars action figures, and all the Leias.

Later in life, I remember being a little disappointed that Carrie Fisher had such a messy life. Forgive me, Carrie, I was young and dumb.

III.

The Princess Diarist is set up into three parts. In the first Fisher tells about her early education and career, getting the job on Star Wars, and how she came to be involved briefly with Harrison Ford.

The second part is the diary she kept during that period. It is, despite the singular situation, very much the diary of a 19-year-old girl. Of course, at the time, Star Wars wasn’t StarWars.  It was just some low-budget sci-fi flick that no one was getting paid very much for. It was a job and Carrie Fisher was an actress who wasn’t even sure she wanted to follow in her celebrity parent’s footsteps.

The third part of the book is Fisher’s musings on the celebrity that Princess Leia brought her. Imagine the nineteen year-old version of yourself being pretty much eternal. Imagine having fans who feel an intimate connection with you due to love of the film. Imagine fans who are a little disappointed that you aren’t entirely Princess Leia.

IV.

I’ll never be a blaster-wielding diplomat princess. I’m never going to be a quick-witted superstar writer either. But I wouldn’t mind being a woman who can age and keep a messy life together with and eye-roll and a glitter bomb. That’s something we can all reasonably aspire to.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle edition, Penguin Publishing Group, November 22, 2016
Acquired: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection
Genre: memoir

This is .5/10 Books of Summer!

 

Review ~ Presto!

This book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Cover via Goodreads

Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette

An unconventional weight loss tale from an unconventional personality—Penn Jillette tells how he lost 100 pounds with his trademark outrageous sense of humor and biting social commentary that makes this success story anything but ordinary.

Legendary magician Penn Jillette was approaching his sixtieth birthday. Topping 330 pounds and saddled with a systolic blood pressure reading over 200, he knew he was at a dangerous crossroads: if he wanted to see his small children grow up, he needed to change. And then came Crazy Ray. A former NASA scientist and an unconventional, passionate innovator, Ray Cronise saved Penn Jillette’s life with his wild “potato diet.”

In Presto, Jillette takes us along on his journey from skepticism to the inspiring, life-changing momentum that transformed the magician’s body and mind. He describes the process in hilarious detail, as he performs his Las Vegas show, takes meetings with Hollywood executives, hangs out with his celebrity friends and fellow eccentric performers, all while remaining a dedicated husband and father. Throughout, he weaves in his views on sex, religion, and pop culture, making his story a refreshing, genre-busting account. Outspoken, frank, and bitingly clever, Presto is an incisive, rollicking read. (via Goodreads)

I.

Presto!: How I Made 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales is not a diet book. Indeed, in the “Disclaimer” section, Penn Jillette makes it clear: don’t take medical advice from a juggler. Instead, this is a food narrative.

We all have a food narrative: what we eat, when we eat, why we eat,  and how we eat. For some, the narrative is short and simple. For others, once health and social conventions get mixed in, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s impossible to read Presto! and not think about my own food narrative.

II.

When I was kid, I bought (or was given) a planner that had a fill-in-the-blank section at the beginning. One of the questions was: “When my family gets together, we _________ .” And I filled in “eat.” Which is a true thing. While my grandparents only lived down the street, any get-together usually involved some sort of food. Fourth of July? Burgers, hot dogs, baked beans, potato salad, chips. Birthdays? Dinner out, cake and ice cream. Christmas? Cookies, cheese & crackers, other assorted nibblies. Random Friday night? Random dessert, or maybe a trip to Taco Bell. Food remains a social thing for me. If I want to spend time with a friend, it’s over lunch or dinner.

I was a skinny kid. That changed when I hit puberty. I stopped running around outside and started spending more time sitting and reading like a good student and a proper adult. My hormones weren’t particularly kind to me either. My family are all big people; I figured that it was fairly inevitable that I would be too. I ate what I thought was a healthy diet (a friend of mine in college boggled at how I seemed to innately balance my meals) and didn’t shirk walking, but my weight gradually increased. It didn’t really bother me, but it also really did.

III.

One of the things that struck me inPresto! is that at his heaviest, Penn Jillette didn’t really feel that he was particularly unhealthy. He was on several blood pressure medications. He was suffering from sleep apnea. He didn’t feel particularly good, but it wasn’t an unlivable state. He had accepted that he was a big guy (he uses a more alliterative blunt term) and that he was playing the hand that genetics had dealt him. That is, until he suffered a serious health crisis. Penn, never one to do things in halfway, decided to take a pretty extreme measure: a diet that included a two week potato fast to jump start his weight loss and reset his sense of taste.

Presto! is written in cable-TV-Penn style, which means it’s solidly NSFW. If you’ve watched Penn & Teller: Bullshit! or ever listened to the Penn’s Sunday School podcast, you know  what I mean. Presto! is full of sex, no drugs, rock & roll, and occasionally magic as well as Penn’s crazy diet journey. Some of the stories felt repetitive to me, probably because I do listen to Penn’s Sunday School, which is the only place Penn’s really mentioned his weight loss prior to this book. And, as much as I generally like him, Penn’s bombastic tone wears on me occasionally. I might have put this book down a couple of times, but then I’d come on a chapter where Penn talks about being alive for his kids or how insanely better he feels instead of only existing in a “livable” state. It was those smaller/bigger notions that made Presto! work for me.

IV.

The way I remember it, there was no particular reason why decided to lose weight aside from I had weight to lose. During my last summer in college, I was working full time on my feet and lost about 10lbs. The next semester I took a physiology class and met Eric. In a sort of parallel to Penn and Ray Cronise, Eric wondered, based on what we’d learned in class about metabolism, if I could lose weight by eating a high-protein low-carb diet. This was about five years before the Atkins diet became popular. I lost another 45, down to about 120lbs. My weight loss numbers here are approximate because, like Penn and like so many others, I didn’t really weigh myself at my heaviest. Also let me say here: Eric never asked me to lose weight, never pressured me. It was mostly, to my recollection, an experiment.

Seventeen years later, I don’t eat the same high protein diet and I’ve, of course, gained some of the weight back. Right now, I’m about 133±2 depending on how active I am. I don’t think there’s one right way to change your food narrative or sustain your narrative if health or looks or whatnot gets in the way. I know that I like running around and playing ultimate frisbee. I can’t imagine that would be as fun if I were carrying around an extra 40lbs. I know I also like donuts and beer and having dinner with family and friends. My narrative, like all of our narratives, continues on.

Publishing info, my copy: eARC, Simon & Schuster, Aug. 2, 2016
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: memoir