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« February, 2004 »
Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear

It’s been hard for me to find the time to write up this book because it was just so good that it’s tough putting what I liked about it into words. For one, the author is a real pro himself, helping design tricks and illusions for some of the best known magicians out there. Second, he’s a history buff, so he’s dug around to find out some truly interesting magical history. Last, he’s a skilled storyteller. He tells you just enough about how the magicians do their tricks to keep you interested, and not so much that every trick is revealed and all secrets are uncovered. You learn some stuff, and some stuff stays a mystery.

This book traces the lives and intertwining paths of a number of magicians at the intersection of technology and mysticism. As some magicians were wowing audiences with spirirtualism, others were using smoke and mirrors to create wholly new illusions. The field of magic was changing and Steinmeyer explains the evolution of the craft, the odd personalities of the players -- including Houdini along with many other less-known but better-skilled practitioners -- and the basic building block The Trick. He explains some tricks, declines to explain others and the thread going through the book is trying to reverse engineer how Harry Houdini made an elephant disappear at the Hippodrome in NYC at the turn of the century. Fascinating and fun stuff.

Digital Fortress

This was my least favorite of brown’s books but even so it was still okay. The digital fortress is the NSA’s super-duper computer system that can crack any code currently known. When it comes across an unbreakable code, trouble starts. As someone who is into computers, it’s tough for me to read books that seem to be written by people who only sort of understand technology. I’m sure brown has able researchers, but a lot of the little plot hooks in this story didn’t really ring true to me. He is writing about people who spend their lives working with computers and yet they make dumb little mistakes that were tough to reconcile with what we know to be true about the NSA. Over all this was the weakest of Brown’s books and yet still a pretty engaging romp in the same style as the other ones.

The Reading Public

Found this little 29 page gem when I was waiting at Yale in the library for Greg to be done with his conference. It’s a private printing of a short essay written by Jessamyn West on the subject of readers and their writers, or the reverse. It was sent to friends for New Year’s and I’d never heard of it before

Like many private printings, this one is quite attractive, though not too precious. In it, West recounts a talk she went to in which the speaker [identified by her, forgotten by me] extolls the virtues of flowerly, even purple, prose and castigates those who simply write in plain language. West disagrees with this approach and writes the remainder of this short essay explaining why. She posits three rhetorical questions to her audience

  1. Is an unread book a book?
  2. Can a writer exist without a reader?
  3. What is the influence of the reader on the writer?

As part of her answering of these questions, she examines letters from some of her readers, explaining and reading into their letters what they had expected to find in her books and in her writing. The book, or long pamphlet really, is completely delightful and really shows some of West’s amusing and thoughtful critical style of writing in addition to her skill with the English language.

Nobody Nowhere

Donna Williams was either born autistic or became autisitc through relentless abuse and neglect from her family. This book reads more like Sybil than anything Temple Grandin has written as Williams seems to split into multiple personalities inside her head in order to cope with the overwhelming and perplexing world around her. As a first person account of autism, it can seem repetitive and strained from time to time and hearing about the author’s string of failed relationships and bad choices can be somewhat exhausting. Williams gives as much of a look inside her head as you suspect she is able to give, yet because she is not used to or conditioned in ways of relating emotionally to people the events she describes can seem somewhat like a laundry list.

The other side to this is, of course, if that’s how it comes off to us, imagine what it’s like to be inside this woman’s head? Williams is Australian and her experience with schooling and travel will be different-seeming to American readers. She wasn’t diagnosed with autism until she was in her twenties and seems to write off some of her worst problems as vitamin and food-allergy related. I was curious when she started discussing these things, if there were other people who have had similar problems. Since Williams is not the most reliable narrator throughout most of the book, many of her conclusions at the book’s end seem a bit suspect. In any case, it’s a remarkable book about overcoming adversity, but a bit rough to read.

Secret Look: Poems

A chance look in the OPAC at Yale found this book lost in the statcks with an incorrect barcode. No one had looked at it in thirty years it seemed. Jessamyn West is better known for her prose, but her command of the language is so strong that seeing what she can do with poetry is worth a look at this book. Many of her poems dwell on traditional themes such as nature, relationships and observations on daily living. A few poems notably depart from this theme including one on war and another one whose name I have forgotten that seems to be a poem explaining why no one calls her Mary anymore.

The poems in general display an impressive lexicon, interesting rhyme variations and reveal the practiced observer that West was. It’s a lovely little book worth tracking down if you’re a fan of her more poetic work.

Morality for Beautiful Girls

More of the same. Charming and fun, lighthearted mysteries with a fat lady detective in Botswana.

Tears of the Giraffe

Another in the series. A fun read, not really worth explicating the plot. More of the same, in a good way.


The next in my continuing attempt to read all the books-about-books that I can while the weather sucks and I am bedridden with distaste for the subzero... The author himself mailed me an advance copy of this book, which happens sometimes. I got a few pages into it and was noting little problems I had [too many adjectives, characters who don’t eat food] which also sometimes happens when I approach books as a copy-editor and not a reader. The next thing I knew it was several hours later and I was sucked in.

The story is one of those ones you’re probably familiar with, book novice uncovers mystery of book that may or may not exist. Search begins. Even if you haven’t read this specific book, the archetypal quest for the thing that may not be real is known to many of us. This particular story involves some rich people from the UK, a young investment banker with some hacker friends in the US, a mousy book historian, and an awesome book collection. The story takes place in the present day and this was what most impressed me about this book... one of the side-themes is this sim-style computer game that our protagonist gets sucked in to. I have read exactly two novels that have computer games as a plot device that don’t suck: this one; and Snowcrash. It’s quite an accomplishment. Grossman even manages to use the word “blog” in a sentence and not sound like a total tool. The man has done his homework, dropping in little words like palimpsest and steganography. While this novel doesn’t approach the depth and multi-layeredness of a book like The Grand Complication -- reamining a bit more plot-driven like Dan Brown’s books -- it was fun and bookish enough that book smarties like me don’t feel like we’re among amateurs.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

It’s like Encyclopedia Borwn for grown-ups! This book is the first in a box set that my landlady got for xmas. She has torn through them and now I think I will as well. The basic premise is that there is a woman whose father died and left her some money and she opens a detective agency. It is set in Africa and for the first few pages I was still getting used to the somewhat formal narration which is more standard in African stories. She is most likely the only lady detective in the country and she has hurdles to overcome as she solves crimes and fends of potential suitors. Common sense and ingenuity help her wokr out solutions to many of the problems she faces both inside and outside the job. The writing style is first person narration and very straightforward. You like the fat lady detective from the start and it’s fun to go touring around Africa with her.

Dykes And Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life-FormsTo Watch Out For

New on the shelf at the library, just as good as the others. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage now because Bechdel’s strips are actually available in my semi-local paper so I had read about half the strips that were included in this book. There’s a short intro by Bechdel reflecting on the fact that it’s been 20 years since she started the strip and how things have changed, both for her and for the world, since then.

Reefer Madness

This book goes into the category of "magazine articles that became books". My general review if such books is that I bet the articles were more interesting and filled with less filler to get up to book-length page counts. Schlosser is a methodical researcher and an ept storyteller, relating three sections of the US’s underground economy to us and sharing some stories of how it goes badly. However, he is only that. I didn’t think I would find a book about sex and drugs boring, but I did. Not badly boring, but a bit on the dry side. And, I think this is Schlosser’s point -- you take these tittilating parts of the black market economy and reduce them to their gritty financial realities [which Schlosser quite interestingly relates] and it’s just about who makes money how.

Schlosser tells us about a porn magnate gone bad who is relentlessly tracked by the FBI, a guy who was a middleman in a drug bust who goes to jail for decades, and a strawberry farmer and his migrant workers. Each of these people tries to run a profit doing something that is illegal in one sense, but totally normal in another. This is the line that Schlosser treads on -- we all know that sex and drugs are part of most American’s realities [otherwise, at some base level, there wouldn’t be any more Americans] and yet most of these economies flourish way underground. And a lot of American legal time is spent trying to eradicate their very existence, unsucessfully. This is more true for drugs now and it was more true for sex in the seventies, and it’s getting more and less true for migrant workers depending on who is in office. Schlosser sounds like the sane guy, the objective narrator who sees the foaming-at-the-mouth crew for what they are and yet you get the feeling that it’s the tawdriness of some of these topics that interests him as well as the newsworthiness, little throwaway lines here and there imply this. And so, if he’s actually interested in these subjects as a person and not just as a reporter, I wish he’d made them more interesting. Schlosser is a very good writer, and an even better researcher, I just wish he put more of his soul into books like this.

Angels & Demons

Having just finished the Da Vinci Code, I went to the library to see what else Dan Brown had written and came home with this. Upon reading it I realized that what had seemed like a shrewd plot in the other book seemed more formulaic in this one. Basically: someone’s Dad gets killed horribly in some ritualistic way, the symbologist is called in the middle of the night, the death, or elements of it, is hidden, Langdon goes to work trying to solve the time-sensitive puzzle with the professional, lovely intelligent daughter of the deceased. If they don’t solve the puzzle then life as we know it will irretrievably alter. Puzzles get solved along the way. Both books take place in a span of under 24 hours, and involve one, of not more last minute plot twistss. Langdon gets busy with the girl, or will soon, by the last five pages of the book. By the second book, Langdon had managed to ditch the girl from the first book, I don’t quite know how. And yet, the books work for me. Brown is clearly an author who enjoys the things he discusses and has researched his subjects intently. One of the most impressive things about his books is the prefatory remarks abotu just how much he is discussing is actually real architecture, real secret groups and real conjecture. If the Da Vinci Code floated your boat, likely this one will too.

Sixpence House

I should have liked this book more. In fact, I did like this book more while I was reading it, it just didn’t stick through past the end, the liking that is. This is a charming tale about an American writer and his wife and son who decide to move to the UK, more specifically to Hay-on-Wye, this little town in the middle of noplace that has recently become known for having a preponderance of booksellers. There’s a nutty old anarchist who lives in part of a ruined castle and the usual folks you meet abroad. Collins has just finished his first book and is awaiting the reports from the proofreader and he and his wife try to find a house to call a home in this wacky little town.

Except they don’t, really. Stay, that is. They seem to be intending to move to the UK with all the changing countries and putting the kid in a new school and leaving their families behind, etc. It seems like a real commitment. However, I was about 2/3 of the way through the book before I realized “Hey, they haven’t even found a place they want to buy yet...” when I realized they weren’t staying, they couldn’t stay. This is a book about people who thought they were going to stay and didn’t. They move back to Oregon in the end.

The book also talks a lot about Hay-on-Wye which I’m sure is charming as all hell and probably an interesting place to visit. The locals were portrayed as just a bit too lovable-eccentric for my tastes, but overall the author is a guy who loves books and likes to be around them and can tell you why. It’s interesting to read his observations, even if in the end he turns out to sort of be a quitter. I read his acknowledgements at the end, saw where he thanked Dave Eggers, and thought “Hmmph, figures.”