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Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind Hardcover – June 19, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2012: Before reading this book, I thought magic was a little inane. The magicians of my memory wore capes and makeup. They pulled doves from their hats and deployed a lot of smoke. But in Fooling Houdini, Alex Stone reveals a world far deeper and fascinating than I ever imagined. After failing at the Magic Olympics in Stockholm, Stone gets serious about the art of illusion. He attends magic schools and seeks out one of the best "card mechanics" in the world. Along the way, he learns how criminal empires were built on age-old magic scams. He studies the art of mind-reading. And he explains how magicians exploit cognitive blind spots to make the impossible happen in public. He pursues every dark nook of the magic world in pursuit of the ultimate goal – a routine so mindboggling that it would fool other master magicians. Does he succeed? I'd tell you the answer, but that would ruin the magic. --Benjamin Moebius
“An enthralling journey into the inner world of magic. Alex Stone writes with a winning voice that you’ll want to follow anywhere.” (Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein)
“Alex Stone’s Fooling Houdini is a delight. In the physics Ph.D program at Columbia, he drops everything to pursue the murky world of magic. He writes with wit and scientific sharpness and grand humor. He immerses us in a fascinating world few have ever entered.” (Buzz Bissinger, author of Father's Day and Friday Night Lights)
“What I loved most about Fooling Houdini is the world it takes us into: these huddled cliques of obsessed magicians reinventing their art. . . . This book makes you want to do magic tricks, and convinces you just how hard it is to do them well.” (Ira Glass, host of "This American Life")
“Fooling Houdini is a totally smart and engrossing study of one of America’s most misunderstood sub-cultures, and at the same time the story of one man’s quest to probe the mysteries of magic, science, and where the two meet.” (John Hodgman, author of The Areas of My Expertise)
“Fooling Houdini is an eye-opening, irresistible journey into the world of magic. Stone has written a masterful story that is bursting with energy, inventiveness, and a sense of wonder on every page. I couldn’t put it down!” (Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics)
“In a memoir studded with historical factoids, charming anecdotes and a variety of behind-the-curtain insider secrets to classic magic tricks, stone serves as a winsome tour guide. . . . There’s plenty of eye-opening knowledge on display. . . . Magically engrossing.” (Kirkus)
“Part insider’s look at the high-stakes world of casinos and cardsharps, part scientific examination of deception, this page-turner gives an intriguing peek behind the magician’s curtain.” (Discover)
“A hilarious and illuminating memoir. . . . Less a how-to guide, and more about the bizarre-personalities, the infighting and the jaw-dropping dedication and dexterity required to be a truly great magician.” (The New York Post)
“A cheery, inquisitive book about a world where math, physics, cognitive science and pure geeky fanaticism intersect. . . . This book is more than a series of anecdotes. It’s an effort to explore the colorful subculture of magic devotees and the serious, theoretical basis for the tricks they do.” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)
“The narrative is compelling because it comes veined with a very human question: What is truth? That may sound too philosophical for such a fun memoir, but when Stone invokes this question it comes across as pitch perfect.” (The Boston Globe)
“Fooling Houdini is not only informative, but highly entertaining. Stone has pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat.” (USA Today)
“I’ve always been intrigued by secret societies and artistic subcultures. Stone opens up the obsessive and hidden world of magicians with intelligence and sly humor.” (Molly Ringwald, The New York Post)
“An affable new book. . . . What differentiates Fooling Houdini is Stone’s determination to understand the science behind his craft.” (The Daily Beast)
“This book is clever and winning—and well written, too. In turning our attention away from the magic and towards the magicians, Stone has pulled off an excellent trick.” (The Sunday Times (London))
“The book treats magic more as science than superstition, and here Stone’s point is well made. . . . As he shows us the limits of our logic, Stone’s enthusiasm rubs off.” (The Financial Times)
“A fascinating ramble around a subject that, Stone convincingly argues, raises all sorts of big questions about how our brains interpret the world.” (Reader's Digest (UK))
“The funniest book I read all year.” (Bob Schieffer)
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Top customer reviews
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 than 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.
Early on, Stone is embarrassed after his performance at the Olympics of Magic with a amateur display more like that of a magician at a child's birthday party. As Stone decides to get serious about his passion, he travels the country, taking various classes and meeting an eccentric cast of characters to hone his skills and performance technique. Stone broadens the story to focus on the origins of magic, the deep connection of magic to mathematics and the powers of the mind. This is a fun and entertaining read and while I do think there are some lulls in the storytelling, "Fooling Houdini" kept me quite interested. Ultimately, it reminded me quite a bit of Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking with Einstein", although I do think Foer was a better writer with a strong sense of humor.