BOOK REVIEW: Here Is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth

Here Is Real Magic: A Magician's Search for Wonder in the Modern WorldHere Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

When stage magician, Nate Staniforth, becomes disillusioned with traveling around America performing magic tricks on college campuses — and the distinct lack of wonder that it entails, he packs his bags and flies to India to explore the centuries old magic traditions of the subcontinent. Part memoir and part travelogue, the first part explores how Staniforth got into magic and his struggle to achieve everything he always wanted, i.e. the ability to make a living performing magic – a desire far more would-be magicians have than the market will support. However, he finds a disjoint between the feeling of wonder and surprise that made him love magic and what he witnesses in the audience night after night – which include a heaping mix of indifference, skepticism, hostility, and even the occasional pious fear that he is dabbling in dark arts.

In India, he finds a mix of some of the same but also some very different perspectives on magic. One the one hand, he learns that magic tricks aren’t just a good way to break the ice with strangers, but also a means to bridge cultural divides. Sleight of hand doesn’t require perfect communication to build bonds between people. As he travels from Kolkata to Varanasi to Rishikesh to Hardiwar to Delhi to Jodhpur, he shares magic tricks with young and old alike, as well as getting to witness some of India’s magic. The highlight of the trip is when he meets with a family of street magicians from Shadipur Depot slum in Delhi, and can at last exchange ideas and learn about their long lineage as illusionists.

However, Staniforth also finds many Indians who are hostile toward the practice of illusions and magic tricks. To understand this hostility, one must know that historically “godmen” who used illusion and sleight of hand to convince individuals of their divinity were more common than those who practiced it as entertainers. This resulted in a couple different types of hostile witness to magic in India. On the one hand, there is the scientifically-minded individual who is distraught by the image of India as a land of superstition and naively pious followers. (A war on superstition in India probably made it harder to research this book because doing street magic is largely prohibited because of the history of duping people for personal gain.) On the other hand, there are those who are ardent believers who dislike magicians who do magic tricks because it contributes to a general skepticism about their gurus — who such individuals believe can actually do magic. It should be said that variations of those two types of individual could be found almost anywhere, including his home nation of America. What is more uniquely Indian is the individual who fits into a third category of simultaneously believing both of the aforementioned criticisms. That is, said individual believes that any illusion someone like Staniforth performs can be scientifically explained and is merely a deceit against the gullible, but at the same time this person believes that there are spiritual masters who can do “real magic.”

The title, “Here Is Real Magic,” could be received in many ways. However, taking it literally, as though the author believes that there are those in India with supernatural powers, isn’t consistent with the book’s message. In one sense, the title is meant to be controversial, but Staniforth is also indicating that he rediscovered wonder in India — not through the supernatural, but through surrender to the experiences he had there.

As an American who has lived in India for many years now, I found this book to be fascinating in places. I believe that it’s useful both as a call to rediscover the wonder that we usually lose somewhere before adulthood, as well as a primer into the similarities and differences between the Indian and Western mindsets on magic in the modern world. I’d recommend this book, particularly for anyone who has interest in magic.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Houdini: The Ultimate Spellbinderby Tom Lalicki

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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the MindFooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind by Alex Stone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book operates on two levels. The first is the autobiography of a magician, telling a tale from being gonged off stage at the “Magic Olympics” through a rising obsession with the craft before rolling into his redemption. On a second level, it’s a history of magic in the modern age (although there are occasional forays into more ancient history.) The author tells of the magicians that inspired him, some of whom he learned from personally and some were from the preceding generation, such as Dai Vernon—the magician who actually fooled Houdini. However, the book’s title doesn’t come from Vernon’s feat with the Ambitious Card Trick, but is instead a more general statement about the challenge of tricking magicians—an accomplishment a great deal more prestigious than fooling a pod of eight year olds at little Timmy’s birthday party.

Stone was a science writer turned Physics graduate student, and so the science of magic and mentalism comes out frequently. However, this book is distinct from one such as “Sleights of Mind” by Macknik & Martinez-Conde, which is focused entirely upon conveying the science of how magic tricks work (primarily neuroscience with a focus on how the sense organs and brain interact to a magician’s advantage.) In truth, I expected this book to more along the lines of “Sleights of Mind.” However, in a way, it’s a good thing that it wasn’t. Stone reviews the science that Macknik and Martinez-Conde drill down into enough so that it’s a good review if one has read that book (I had) or an introduction if one hasn’t. What Stone does a great deal more of is describing the perfection one’s craft. Along the way he shows us a blind card handler with a preternatural capacity for tactile control of the deck, he takes us to clown college to improve showmanship, and he meets up with some street hustlers of the 3-card monte variety.

Throughout the course of the book are ups and downs that maintain the tension. In fact, one chapter is actually entitled “It’s Annoying and I Asked You to Stop,” about the inevitable point at which a magician’s obsession with improving his/her skills stops being cute to loved ones. There is also a chapter about Stone’s [almost] being blackballed from the magic community for revealing secrets in a general readership magazine (I guess that’s a muggle-mag?) An important part of the story is Stone’s search for a Yoda, a wizened member of the magic community who can give him the deeper insight needed to fool a room of experts. He eventually finds said individual, but is not quickly adopted. (It has a hero’s journey feel through this part.)

I thought that the author did a good job of building an interesting story arc within a work of nonfiction. This increases the book’s readability, particular if one has no particular interest in magic. One need not be knowledgeable about the discipline to find the story interesting and to learn some fascinating tidbits. If nothing else, one will learn how con men cull marks, so one can avoid falling prey to their potent psychology (though I expect the subset of readers of books and those tricked into gambling 3-card monte is probably not huge.)

One area in which a reader might be dissatisfied is in the coverage given to mentalism and math-based tricks. The alliterative subtitle makes reference to “magicians, mentalists, and math geeks…” but the bulk of the book is about close-up magic; mentalism and mathematical methods don’t come in until the last few chapters. If you’re expecting that the coverage of those topics will be on par with that of close-up magic, this may not be the book for you. Still, while this was different from I expected, it didn’t hurt my impression of the book.

I enjoyed this book, and received some intriguing insights from it. I’d recommend it for those interested in magic and in particular the craft and science of it. Even if you aren’t that interested in magic, you might find the story of one man’s development of his discipline to be worth reading.

View all my reviews