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BOOK REVIEW: Houdini: The Ultimate Spellbinderby Tom Lalicki

Houdini: The Ultimate SpellbinderHoudini: The Ultimate Spellbinder by Tom Lalicki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a biographical sketch of the life—mostly the professional life–of Harry Houdini. I call it a sketch rather than a biography because it’s a short work (less than 100 pages) and it’s not the case that Erik Weisz (a.k.a. Ehrich Weiss, a.k.a. / stage-name: Harry Houdini) led a life too dull to merit full-length biography. There are several biographies available. I present this not as a criticism, but to make the reader aware that one will be reading the condensed version of Houdini’s story. If what you seek is a short and sweet description of the highlights of Houdini’s life, this is the book for you. If you are a huge fan and want to know as much as you possibly can including the intimate nitty-gritty, you might start with one of the full biographies and / or even the books written by Houdini [Full-disclosure: most of them were ghost-written as I understand it.]

Houdini was a fascinating person in many ways. Parallels have been drawn between Houdini and fictional heroes, notably Bruce Wayne / Batman. At first this seems like an inappropriate comparison because Houdini was a showman to the core—not one to hide his light under a bushel. However, what such comparisons get to is that Houdini was preternaturally fit for his time and his approach to illusions relied not only on his smarts but on his conditioning. He developed some tricks that other magicians couldn’t repeat even if they knew the trick in great detail. The average man just wasn’t physically capable of pulling them off. Today there are artists such as David Blaine who follow in Houdini’s footsteps, but Houdini blazed a trail in this regard.

There’s another way in which the Batman comparison may be more apropos than it first seems. While Houdini didn’t fight violent criminals like the Joker or Bane, he did take on the con artists—most notably mediums who preyed on grieving family members. Like most magicians today—notably Penn & Teller and James Randi—Houdini was adamant that his tricks were products of skill and involved no supernatural powers whatsoever. As I say, today magic is heavily populated by science nerds who love that magic is the exploitation of the limitations of our sensory and nervous system organs, and who reject the supernatural, but in Houdini’s day there were still many frauds and charlatans in the industry. (It should be noted that Houdini invariably discovered these medium’s tricks or the restrictions that he insisted upon to study the act were unacceptable and the mediums and they backed out, but when he put out a challenge that he could figure out any magic trick he was shown three times he was stumped. However, the magician who stumped him, Dai Vernon, made no claims of supernatural abilities. He was just a supremely skilled close-up magician and—to be fair—showed Houdini multiple versions of the same trick, making it virtually impossible for Houdini to pin down the trick. Note: this story isn’t in Lalicki’s book, but is something I read in another book, I think in “Fooling Houdini“.)

The book has quite a few graphics, notably photos and old posters. There is also a brief chronology and a biography at the book’s end.

I enjoyed this book. While it’s concise, it’s not colorless. It reads well. If you are looking to get a quick look at the life of this fascinating person, check it out.

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