Part memoir, part essay, part history, Fooling Houdini is an incredibly readable book.    We’re brought along as Stone remakes himself from a haughty know-it-all who is publicly disgraced to humble student who finds his master.

The author had always dabbled in magic tricks and illusions.  He writes:

 Eventually my fascination with the mysteries of magic, and my quest for new material, led me to immerse myself in a world of meetings, lectures, and workshops — an underground community of like-minded obsessives for whom magic is more than just a hobby: it’s a way of life.  In any given week in New York City, where I now lived, there were a dozen private gatherings: in the backs of diners, a split-level veterans’ lodges, in spare rooms at medical centers and universities, and in various other undisclosed locations.  I quickly learned that the juiciest secrets were seldom printed in books or packaged in magic kits.  The most valuable knowledge — the real work — was passed along in secret session and backroom conclaves.  Deception, I cam to realize, was one of the few remaining oral traditions.                                                                 ~ Pg. 7

But after an embarrassing outing at the Magic Olympics (yes, they exist), Stone gives up his rabbit and top hat for a time.  When he finally decides to revisit his passion, he approaches it not only with new found respect, but also a great deal more circumspect.

He researches and studies psychological experiments, goes undercover into a three-card monte scheme and muses on the ethics of deception.  All the while, earning a Masters in Physics from Columbia University.  In fact, he becomes obsessed with what science and magic have in common, rather than viewing them as mortal enemies.

Stone’s writing style is jaunty and one imagines him to be likewise.  Though clearly nerdy,  he seems to have truly found his calling and is unabashed about it.

Stone posits:

Magic is a science as well as an art, and in science, knowledge serves only to deepen the mystery.  Each new find opens vistas on an uncharted territory at the edge of human understanding.  Nestled within each answer lies another riddle in an endless web of unknowns.

‘The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light.  A vast pattern — of which I am part … what is the pattern of the meaning or the why?  It does not harm the mystery to know a little more about it.’  This from physicist Richard Feynman, and it seems to me that it applies as much to magic as it does to physics.                                          ~ Pg. 152

This is not a manual for magic, though he does explain the principles behind a few tricks.  He mentions his various run-ins with “breaking the magician’s code”, but these are hardly giving away anything.  As Stone points out, no one believes three-card monte is magic; it’s the psychology and the physics behind it that make it appear so.   This is a long essay on the fundamental ideas behind magic — both for audience and magician — as well as an exploration of what modern science can tell us about how perception and deception work in our minds.

Many thanks to Danielle at Harper for the ARC.

Hear more from Alex Stone at foolinghoudini.com
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ISBN: 9780061766213
ISBN10: 0061766216
Imprint: Harper
On Sale: 6/19/2012
Format: Hardcover
Trimsize: 6 x 9
Pages: 320
$26.99
Ages: 18 and Up

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