Extraordinary Exhibitions: The Wonderful Remains of an Enormous Head, The Whimsiphusicon and Death to the Savage Unitarians by Ricky Jay (Quantum Lane Press, 172 pages, $49.95). Until you actually see Ricky Jay split ripe fruit with a playing card flung with sufficient force from across a stage, you don't believe it's possible.
The only trouble with Ricky Jay's life as showbiz scholar and actor ("Boogie Nights," the first season of "Deadwood") is that it somewhat deprives the world of the routine miracles of the man who may be the greatest sleight-of-hand virtuoso alive (there are those who think Jay can do more with just a deck of playing cards than Siegfried and Roy could do with a menagerie of white tigers and disappearing Buicks.)
The good news, though, is that Jay's books are quite stupendous in their own way (his "Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women" is a cult classic.)
The newest is an irresistible exhibit between covers of showbills and broadsides from 17th through 19th century carnival attractions: Beginning with a Milanese horse named Marocco circa 1618 who told time in three languages, did card tricks, played dead, collected money, "fetched wine and drank to the health of the audience" and ending with Cinquevalli "King of the Jugglers" in 1898 who, it's said, could hold in his teeth a wine glass containing two billiard balls on which "was placed a cue, on which he balanced not one but two additional balls." In between, you'll find, among others, a singing mouse, some people who caught bullets in their teeth, and arm wrestler Quirin Muller, who could lift six men with his teeth "with additional two hundred pound weights suspended from his shoulders."
What this apostle of Arcana routinely assembles are not perhaps the greatest shows on earth. They may well be the greatest between covers.
Responsible Men by Edward Schwarzschild (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 331 pages, $23.95). His father is a textile salesman working on "1 or 2 percent" commission. So was his grandfather who "started the business in 1926." His great-grandfather too.
So, Edward Schwarzschild writes, "growing up I felt bound to become a salesman myself."
He didn't. He became an assistant professor at the State University at Albany and a writer.
His first novel "Responsible Men" is about a salesman in a family of salesmen. It's also about coming of age, some Kosher boy scouts, the dreams of a big score and the credos of scoundrels.
It's, by now, archetypal American literary territory (see Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" for instance) and yet the book is absolutely fresh.
Schwarzschild will come to Buffalo to read and sign books at 7 p.m. Friday in Talking Leaves Books, 3158 Main St.
Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen by Stephanie Harrison (Three Rivers Press, 620 pages, $15.95 paper). It's certainly been done before but never as well -- not nearly.
Stephanie Harrison has assembled 35 short stories that inspired movies -- not just obvious ones like Hemingway's "The Killers" (which turned into Robert Siodmak's movie starring Burt Lancaster) and Cornell Woolrich's "It's Got to Be Murder" (which became Hitchcock's "Rear Window"), but such flaming obscurities as Frank Rooney's "Cyclist's Raid" (which turned into Laszlo Benedek's "The Wild One" with Marlon Brando) and Richard Edward Connell's "A Reputation" (the seed of Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe.")
Are you ready for the obscure literary ancestors of "Bringing Up Baby," "All About Eve," "Rashomon" and "A Man Called Horse?" And the comics that inspired "Ghost World" and "American Splendor?" Her introductions to them all are equally full of rare information and insight.
It's that rare book that isn't just welcome in the world but one that's long been needed.
-- Jeff Simon