Review ~ Presto!

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

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

Cover via Goodreads

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)


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.


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.


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.


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

Review ~ I Lie for Money

I Lie for Money: Candid, Outrageous Stories from a Magician’s Misadventures by Steve Spill

Cover via Goodreads

In this funny, irreverent, unique, eccentric memoir, magician Steve Spill reveals how he managed to survive decades inside a rarely profitable, sometimes maddening, but often deliciously rewarding offbeat showbiz profession—magic!
Spill tells of how his tailor grandfather sewed secret pockets in a magician’s tuxedo back in 1910, which started his childhood dream to become a magician. This dream took Spill on a journey that started with him performing, as a young boy, at a “Beauty on a Budget” neighborhood house party to engagements in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, to today in Santa Monica, California, where he’s been starring in his own shows since 1998 at Magicopolis, the theater he designed and built himself.

Being a magician has given Spill the opportunity to interact with the world’s most famous and fascinating people. In his memoir, Spill reveals the many unique encounters that his profession has led him to enjoy and endure: hosting Sting as his opening act one night, spending two days on camera with Joan Rivers, and selling tricks to Bob Dylan, as well as encounters with Adam Sandler, Stephen King, and other celebrities.

I Lie for Money is a literary magic show that captures the highs and lows of an extraordinary life that will delight and amaze you with wit and wickedness. This book should be an obligatory read for anyone considering a creative career, and it serves as an inspiration to those who desire to craft an independent life. (via Goodreads)

Steve Spill is a working magician. He’s spent five decades not only honing his magic skills, but his skills as a performer. He’s worked every sort of venue you might associate with magicians…and a few you wouldn’t. He has stories about some of the great magicians of the 20th century and even some celebrity dish. He designed and runs his own theater in LA. All that is interesting and entertaining, but the parts of I Lie for Money that spoke to me weren’t the stories about achievements. They were the stories about failures. Not every performance goes smoothly, and not every trick is a good one. Spill isn’t shy about those things, but his success proves that setbacks aren’t the end of the line. *That* is what makes this book a good read for anyone in a creative endeavor. It’s certainly something I need to be reminded of.


I have a soft spot for ducks (and geese, I suppose). Here’s Steve Spill and the mind reading goose, a performance from the mid-1980s.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, Skyhorse Publishing, 2015
Acquired: July 20, 2015, Amazon (I bought this book a year ago!)
Genre: memoir

Review ~ Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Cover via Goodreads

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. With an original voice that combines fearless curiosity and mordant wit, Caitlin tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters, gallows humor, and vivid characters (both living and very dead). Describing how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes), and cared for bodies of all shapes and sizes, Caitlin becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the deceased. Her eye-opening memoir shows how our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead). In the spirit of her popular Web series, “Ask a Mortician,” Caitlin’s engaging narrative style makes this otherwise scary topic both approachable and profound. (via Goodreads)

When asked if there are books that have changed my life, that have caused a paradigm shift in the way I think about something, Mary Roach’s Stiff is high on the list. That might seem to be an odd choice, but Roach’s book on “the curious life of human cadavers” was the first time I had considered what I would prefer to have done with my earthly remains and start having conversations with my loved ones about it. Roach’s book is practical in approach—the writer is a curious investigator into the ways to make the object of a corpse useful post-death rather than the usual burial or cremation.

In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Caitlin Doughty moves past the more clinical corpse-as-object point of view. She uses personal memoir to examine what we humans routinely do with our dead and how that reflects our attitudes toward death itself. Because of this Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is probably less for the faint of heart than Stiff. On one hand, when Doughty tells of her work at the crematory, you do get the almost comforting sense that no matter what the job is, it’s a job. On the other, all her stories are personal in nature. She knows the names of the dead and often their circumstances. Those details are in mind when she relates the details of the death industry.

I was familiar with Doughty’s “Ask a Mortician” videos and her Order of the Good Death manifesto before her book came out. Simply, Doughty theorizes (and Roach to some extent, as well) that our very hands-off approach to dealing with the dead is a reflection of our own fear of mortality. Within the last hundred years, the funeral industry has grown and made its services seem necessary—that a dead body is a dangerous thing that should only be taken care of by professionals. We (primarily this is an American “we”) have gladly bought into this notion for better or worse. Doughty’s aim is to educate and to bring about death positivity. Everyone dies eventually, so why should it be something filled with fear or, weirdly, shame?

Does Smoke Gets in Your Eyes do a good job advocating her position? Doughty tries to cover a lot of ground in 270 pages: her own experiences in the industry, some of the history of the industry, other death rituals throughout the world, and her Order of the Good Death philosophies. I think it’s a good addition to her other media work, but I’m not sure that it’s enough of any one of these things to do work beyond an introduction to Doughty herself.

Publishing info, my copy: Overdrive browser app, W. W. Norton & Company, Jul 30, 2015
Acquired: Tempe Library Overdrive Digital collection
Genre: nonfiction, memoir

The Reason I Jump ~ Discussion Part 2

Info on The Reason I Jump
Info on the Nonfiction Book Club
My post for Part 1


What did you think of the short stories Naoki included?

I wasn’t particularly fond of them. They were…short stories written by a thirteen year-old. Also, by the last short story I was really thinking about the issue of translation. Translators make decisions. I’ve read different translations of Pushkin’s poems and been amazed at how different the same poem can be in English. I don’t doubt that Higashida is a smart, well-“spoken,” young man, but I think it’s important to remember that this is a translation.

I know some of us talked about this already, but I’m still curious – what did everyone think of his use of the word “we” to describe his feelings and experiences?

The “we” really bugged me, moreso in the second half when things got more spiritual/nature-oriented—things that seem perhaps more culturally-oriented than autism-oriented. (Also, is the “we” Higashida’s word or Mitchell and Yoshida’s word?)

When talking to my husband about this last night, he commented, “It’s like that story about the autistic kid with the dog. Now, suddenly, every autistic kid needs an animal in their life.”

What did you think of the book overall?

Continue reading “The Reason I Jump ~ Discussion Part 2”

The Reason I Jump ~ Discussion Part 1

Info on The Reason I Jump

Info on the Nonfiction Book Club

Initial Impressions

While I can understand that this might be a very comforting book to parents of an autistic child, I’ve had some reservations about The Reason I Jump. First, I don’t know about anyone else, but I knew nothing about myself at age 13. Anything I thought I knew, I was more or less wrong about. Has Naoki Higashida spent more time than the average kid in self-reflection? Maybe. Second, it’s acknowledged that autism a really wide thing, encompassing a lot of thought patterns and behaviors. It feels weird to me that “we” is used so much. The book isn’t called The Reason We Jump. It’s cool that this young man is giving us a look into his world, but I’m pretty sure his experiences aren’t universal for everyone on the autism spectrum.

On the other hand, there’s often a refreshing “Why? Because.” vibe that is sort of universal. I’d like to imagine that Higashida has as long of a list of things non-autistic people do that are as equally confounding. I mean, why do we like to hold hands anyway?

I’m glad that “normal” was acknowledged—that, for Higashida, autism is normal. The thought experiment in the intro wouldn’t work because all us neurotypical people would be too distracted by our losses to know what autism is like.

Interesting points about certainty—that the same comfy clothes, the same commercials, are touchstones of certainty.

Quote I wish were in the book’s “Popular Highlights” on Kindle:

I think it’s very difficult for you to properly get your heads around just how hard it is for us to express what we’re feeling.


Is the tone of the book what you expected, from someone with autism and/or from a thirteen year old boy? Tying into my earlier comment, Higashida seems very self-aware for 13 and maybe the encompassing “we” comes from that youth. The only other tone thing I found a jarring was some of the England-English slag: “told off”, “hacks me off”, etc.. These, I am assuming, are due to his translators.

Have you learned anything that has surprised you so far? I know quite a few adults on the spectrum and have considered autism a lot. It’s been interesting getting a different perspective on things, but nothing has surprised me.

Do you think that you would interact with someone who has autism differently after reading this book? Probably not, but I am a reserved person and, generally, I try to treat everyone evenly. When dealing with kids, I’m more likely to speak to them on an adult level anyway. That said, I have no idea how I’d deal with a raucous child that I couldn’t communicate with. I know I’m not the most patient person.

David Mitchell says that the problems of socialization and communication people with autism display “are not symptoms of autism but consequences.” What does he mean exactly…what is the difference as Mitchell sees it? Many of the difficulties are due to how people without autism deal with people with autism. Lack of patience. The assumption that “Oh, he just wants to be left alone” or “She doesn’t understand anyway”. Or  that everyone wants all the same things we do, which just isn’t the case.

Mini Reviews, Vol. 2 ~ The Woods (Real, Figurative, & Fantasy)


alt text A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson, read by Rob McQuay

I’d been meaning to finally read something by Bill Bryson and I was happy to find that my local library’s digital collection includes lots of his titles in ebook and audio formats. I’m not an outdoors person, which is exactly why I chose A Walk in the Woods.

Bryson does a wonderful job merging an entertaining narrative with lots of information about the Appalachian Trail, its statistics and history. I laughed out loud, a welcome diversion from some of the other reading materials I’m lately engaged in (not those below). I did find some of the environmental asides a bit heavy-handed, only because they seemed pushy in light of the rest of the tone. But this is definitely not the last book by Bill Bryson that I’ll be reading.

© 2016 Galen Dara, Now that I’m beyond the Triple Dog Dare, I’m back to reading online fiction. So far, there’ve been two great stories in April from Strange Horizons:

“This Is a Letter to My Son” by KJ Kabza – I always have an eye out for KJ’s fiction. Luckily, he’s on Twitter! What if we had a choice about how we intrinsically think about ourselves? Would we change? Should we change? Even if we seem to have a really good reason? This is a concise, beautiful near-future science fiction story about those questions.

“The Right Sort of Monsters” by Kelly Sandoval – Conversely, Kelly Sandoval was completely new to me (I think…). A fallen god (literally) and a grove of trees that provide a very special type of fruit for childless families. Of course, a sacrifice is required. (Art at left by Galen Dara.) Together, these two stories would make a great Mothers’ Day issue. And I’m counting “The Right Sort of Monsters” as my first official Once Upon a Time read.


Review ~ 84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Cover via Goodreads

It all began with a letter inquiring about second-hand books, written by Helene Hanff in New York, and posted to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. As Helene’s sarcastic and witty letters are responded to by the stodgy and proper Frank Doel of 84, Charing Cross Road, a relationship blossoms into a warm and charming long-distance friendship lasting many years.(via Goodreads)

I reread 84, Charing Cross Road at the end of 2015 because I wanted a book that I knew that I would enjoy…and because I wanted a quick read in an attempt to hit my reading goal. But, truly, this is one of my favorite books.

Funny thing, TJ at My Book Strings just included 84, Charing Cross Road in her Book to Movie feature. I came to this book in the opposite direction. I’ve been a Anthony Hopkins fan for ages and watched the movie for his performance. It’s a lovely, charming movie and I started to keep my eyes open for the book due to Helene Hanff’s wry voice. The movie does a great job adapting a book that is correspondence between (basically) two people.

And, since it’s Valentine’s Day week, I’ll point out that this is one of my favorite non-romantic romances. While there’s definite affection between Hanff and Frank Doel, it’s also a romance between Hanff and literature. I grew up in a household full of books with a mother that loved stories too, but it was something else to encounter someone that was in love with books. This was way before the book blogging community. 😉

I’m planning to reread all of Helene Hanff this year.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Moyer Bell Limited, 1991
Acquired: Gosh, I don’t remember. Probably the eclectic little bookstore in Rockbrook, probably in 1991. Definitely before 1993, because it was one of the books I took to college with me.
Genre: memoir