No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

2 book reports and a lunch report

In one of my occasional fits to read the classics, I picked up a cheap Penguin copy of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. I enjoyed the first two 'books', but the amount of enjoyment steadily declined throughout the text. I got the feeling that the Church authorities must have pressed him harder and harder to keep his satire from offending anything important. Throughout, there are some hilarious parts, and there are also thoughtful parts, where Rabelais addresses philosophical questions with both insight and satire. On the whole, I'd have to say that I find Rabelais similar but inferior to Swift. Swift packs far more insight into far fewer pages. However, if you are titillated by fart jokes, Rabelais is your man.
I enjoyed his speculation on why there are so many births 9 months after Lent. He blames the Lenten preachers for giving speeches that damn husbands to a place below the lowermost pit of hell for their adulteries. Consequently, the silly husbands cease rogering their maidservants and are forced, poor souls, to take up their wives again.

The second book, which I found much more entertaining, is entitled Hiding the Elephant, which may sound like a euphemism for something naughty, but is actually a sort of history of stage illusions. It offers a history of the greatest names in magic from maybe 1800 up to 1930 or so. Although there are good character sketches of the main players, the focus is more on the development of the tricks of the trade. If you're wondering, yes, many secrets are given away in the book. But that's not the good part either.
In a strange way, the book reminds me a lot of Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers, which is a history of science. The developments of science are followed from scientist to scientist as each one pushes knowledge a little bit further. In Hiding the Elephant, we get to see the progress of deception. The connection between science and conjuring is even stronger than one might think. Some of these illusions were first demonstrated at the Royal Polytechnic Institute (now the University of Westminster) in London. Foremost among these illusions is Pepper's Ghost, an effect familiar to all of us from the ballroom in the Haunted Mansion.
Pepper's ghost got its first practical applications in theater, and it's amazing some of the other effects that were used in theaters of the day to add spectacle. Gradually, stage magicians also incorporated these effects and elaborated them. The title refers to a trick carried out by Houdini on stage at the gargantuan Hippodrome in New York, in which he made an elephant disappear. The author, Jim Steinmeyer, doesn't think much of Houdini as a magician (though no one could touch Houdini as an escape artist). His reasons are quite sound, and he offers reasons why the Disappearing Elephant wasn't that great a success. But Steinmeyer is really after the secret of the Disappearing Donkey. Not only is it more surprising than Houdini's elephant trick, but the secret had been lost for 75 years.
Steinmeyer is perhaps not the best storyteller in the world, but the whole book really works as a detective story, and it ends with the revelation of the secret of the Disappearing Donkey. He offers little hints along the way, but not enough to give it all away until the final reveal. Bravo!

Oh, a lunch review. Some officemates wanted to go to Hometown Buffet, so I went along. I had way too much to eat there, and I can see why the clientele is mostly fat. The disturbing thing, I thought, was that all of the food was almost, but not quite, enjoyable. That hamburger was almost tasty. That taco was nearly acceptable. That salad was practically good. So, if you lose your sense of taste and have a desire to gain weight, I heartily recommend Buffets, Inc.
Tags: book

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