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Book News

Still a classic, second time around

'Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women'

by Ricky Jay

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20

Review by L.D. Meagher

(CNN) -- "Stone Eaters, Mind Readers, Poison Resisters, Daredevils, Singing Mice, etc., etc., etc." That's what the book cover promises, and that's what Ricky Jay delivers in his paean to memorable and bizarre performers.

First published in the mid-1980's and now available in trade paperback, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women" is crammed to overflowing with tales of talented animals and unique people. Not only are pigs learned, so are horses, and it's not just the ladies who can brave the flames. Many of the characters are fascinating. Some are just plain weird. And in the end, you'll find out where Mel Brooks got the name for Governor Lepetomane in "Blazing Saddles."

Jay is an amazing performer in his own right. He is a master at manipulating playing cards. He has appeared in TV specials performing with "His 52 Assistants," and hosting specials on the history of legerdemain. He is obviously enthralled with the subjects of his book -- Unthan, the Pedal Paganini; Fred Rithlow, the horseback riding escape artist; Philion, who would climb inside a sphere 28-inches in diameter and roll it up a 50-foot spiral ramp six inches wide. Jay's enthusiasm is infectious.

Copiously illustrated with period etchings and photographs, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women" also includes reproductions of more than a dozen colorful posters and playbills for the men, women and livestock whose stories he tells.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

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