Review ~ Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician

Cover via Goodreads

Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician by Donald Brandon & Joyce Brandon

Want to know how magicians make a jet airplane disappear???

Want to know how magicians make a human being float and fly around the stage???

Want to know how magicians make it actually snow inside a theater???

All of these questions and many more are answered in this book plus the often hilarious exploits of two if the great premiere magicians who have a total of over 100 years of performing for millions of people. One is credited with being a forerunner of today’s Rock Concerts who attracted huge audiences of teenagers, numbering in the thousands, nightly for his midnight ghost shows. Informative, intriguing and compelling reading. You will love it! (via back cover)

Why was I interested in this book?
75% of my reading about magic and magicians is centered around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that’s an era with a lot of literature connected with it. Magicians of the period often wrote their own memoirs and modern day academics revel in that golden age. But I also like hearing about the day to day nitty-gritty of modern working magicians. …Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician falls into this category.

What Worked
Don Brandon had a fifty year career as Brandon the Magician. He began under the tutelage of Willard the Wizard in San Antonio. South Texas was its own interesting magic community in the mid-20th century with several acts, Willard and Brandon among them, headquartered there in order to travel in the southeastern and southwestern states. Memoirs and Confessions is an apt title. This book is half about Donald Brandon’s memories of Willard and half about his own career.

One of Brandon’s highlights are his very popular spook shows. Spook shows were piggy-backed onto monster movies when many of the old vaudeville theaters were converted into movie houses. The spook shows were an innovative use of magic principles to provide an immersive “spooky” experience after the movies. The book cover blurb engages in a little mythologizing, but what else does one expect from a magician?

What Didn’t Work
Not enough dates. I understand that perhaps remembering isn’t really conducive to putting dates on events, but it’s really helpful for readers. This is also a bit of a “dip-in” book. The chapters are short and, while not entirely repetitive, they don’t vary in tone and jump around a bit. Reading straight through is tiring.

Overall
Memoirs and Confessions does offer a nice slice of magic history: Texas in the 30s and 40s. Yes, there are magical secrets revealed, but mostly this book is stories and gossip and personal histories.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Tag Publications, 1995
Acquired: Jackson Street Booksellers, July 2015
Genre: memoir

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Mini Reviews, Vol. 14

The Black Dove cover The Black Dove by Steve Hockensmith

Holmes On the Range Mystery #3 – I know, look at me reading all the series!

Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer end up “deducifying” in Gold Rush San Francisco, looking to solve the mystery of Dr. Chan’s death. Hockensmith does a good job of keeping these mysteries fresh; changing up the settings while staying true to the Old West. I listened to this on audio; the dialog shines with William Dufris.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea cover Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Think of every ocean/undersea adventure ever. Toothy whales? Check. Giant squids? Check. Antarctic sailing? Check. Atlantis? Check. Island of savages? Well, check. Generally, I really enjoyed this book. Published in 1870 (1872 in English), Verne revels in science. The submarine, the underwater breathing apparatuses, the natural classifications of so much aquatic life—all of it gets good press. Honestly, the only bits I glazed over during were discussions of where the Nautilus was and where it was going. Seaman, I ain’t.

alt text Lizzie: The Letters of Elizabeth Chester Fisk 1864-1893, edited by Rex C. Myers

I bought this last summer at The Old Sage Bookshop in Prescott.

I’ve read a few memoirs and collections of letters by 19th century pioneer women. Usually, they are from the prairie or southwest. In this case, Lizzie Fisk lived in Helena, Montana. Instead of a farmer or a rancher, her husband was a newspaper man. Many of her letters are about the Herald, her husband’s, newspaper and the politics of the city and the state. Fisk was an abolitionist and a suffragette, but she was also terribly judgemental and, as a woman of her time, selectively racist. In all, her letters filled out my notion of the American frontier, but honestly, Fisk isn’t someone I would have liked to spend time with. (And I doubt she would have thought much of me either…)

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20 15 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books

Mini Reviews, Vol. 13

After a readathon, a mini review post is usually appropriate.

The Science of Illusions cover The Science of Illusions by Jacques Ninio (trans. Franklin Philip

I bought this book last year at The Open Book when visiting my sister in Santa Clarita. I was intrigued because Science! Illusions! What could be more up my alley? Alas, this book is very broad and not very deep. The categories on the back list it as “psychology, history of science, philosophy” and, so, it’s lighter on the hard science than I had hoped. Granted, this book was published in 1998. Our understanding of neuro-biology has increased immensely.

Challenges: #20BooksOfSumer, Nonfiction Reading Challenge

Q's Legacy cover Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff

A reread that I started back in June. The thing that has always made Helene Hanff inspiring to me is, not her faith, but her unflagging stick-to-itiveness to keep doing something related to writing and reading until something worked out. Her path to fame was circuitous, unexpected, and a little lucky. I sometimes need to remember: life goes that way.

Jane cover Jane by Aline Brosh McKenna & Ramón Pérez (Illustrator)

I read this more because I’m a fan of Ramón Pérez’s art (I’ve been a fan since his stint as an illustrator at Paladium Games) than a fan of Jane Eyre. That’s probably a good thing. While this is an adaptation, it takes some modern liberties with the story. It’s a good story, but it doesn’t quite have Brontë spirit. But the art is gorgeous!

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:

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!