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Review: ‘Fooling Houdini’ by Alex Stone

by Kim on July 19, 2012 · 17 comments

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Title: Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind
Author: Alex Stone
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2012
Publisher: Harper
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★★

Review: I have struggled for more than a month now to write a review of Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone, and I haven’t managed to write a single word. The only cause I can come up with for this reviewing writer’s block is that I’m feeling pressure to write a review that expresses just how totally delightful this book is and will convince everyone to go pick up a copy as soon as you can.

Admittedly, Fooling Houdini is a book that was almost tailor-written to my nonfiction weakness for quirky, first person accounts of secret societies and worlds I will never get to experience myself. Throw in some psychology, true crime, and history… and, well, it would have been hard for this book not to be at least mostly enjoyable. Happily, Stone more than exceeded my none-too-modest expectations for the book.

Fooling Houdini opens at the Magic Olympics in Stockholm. Stone, a life-long fan of magic, is an unexpected and, as he soon finds out, unprepared competitor. After being told to get off the stage in the middle of his routine, Stone vows to quit magic, giving up his love to pursue a graduate degree in physics at Columbia University. But he can’t quite quit magic cold turkey and decides to take up his craft again:

Having spent several years futzing around on my own only to have my ass handed to me at the Magic Olympics, it occurred to me that if I was truly serious about magic, I might want to see out formal training. What I needed was a place where I could learn the real secrets of wizardry, a place like Hogwarts, except not fictional and not British. I decided, in short, that it was time to go to a magic school, and I persuaded myself that this was a perfectly reasonable adult ambition.

Throughout the rest of the story, Stone chronicles his time in both formal and informal magic schools, learning from magician mentors, visiting Las Vegas training centers and even taking to the streets to hone the perfect three-card monte. At the same time, Stone explores the history of magic as well as the psychology, mathematics and neuroscience that go into the perfect magic trick as he tries to develop a signature trick he can use to return to the world of competitive magicians once again.

As a narrator and guide through the world of magic and magicians, Stone strikes a perfect balance between insider and outsider, giving away just enough of the most basic magic tricks to prove he knows his stuff while still maintaining some secrecy for the most coveted tricks. Stone also manages to reveal much of what it is like to be part of the society of magicians, and how important secrecy is to this particular underground world.

Aside from Stone’s delightfully nerdy and self-deprecating narration, my favorite sections of the book were places where Stone made connections between magic and bigger questions in science, history, religion and psychology. Although it seems like common sense, it was interesting to read about the reasons our brains love magic, and how much we enjoy being fooled (especially if we know how a trick is done, but still fall for it anyway).

This is getting to be on the long side, so I suppose I’ll make myself wrap things up now. Suffice it to say that I truly loved every moment I spent reading Fooling Houdini, and I’ve already recommended it to several people that I hope will love it just as much. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of this book — exploring the world of magic has never been quite to fun or quite so smart.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah July 19, 2012 at 9:37 am

Great review, sounds like a terrific book for sure. Like you, I sometimes find the books I like most end up being the hardest for which to write a review post. I’m happy you managed to get this one done.

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Kim July 21, 2012 at 11:39 am

I wish it wasn’t so hard to write well about the things we love… but I always have to resist the urge for exclamation marks and gushing :)

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Katie @ Doing Dewey July 19, 2012 at 11:53 am

I’m convinced :) Definitely going on my TBR shelf. I also agree with you and Sarah – sometimes the hardest thing is to convey how awesome a book was. For me, I think at least part of the problem is that if I really enjoy a book, I get more caught up in it and do less analysis as I read. So when I get to the end, I know I liked it, but it can be hard to explain exactly what made me like it so much.

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Kim July 21, 2012 at 11:40 am

That’s absolutely true! When I go back to my notes for books I loved, they’re often very detailed for the first few pages, then taper off dramatically.

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Stephanie July 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm

This sounds really interesting, especially since I enjoy readable books about different aspects of psychology and neuroscience. Thanks for the great review.

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Danielle July 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm

So glad you enjoyed it, Kim! I was hoping to see a review of this one from you as I knew you’d be an awesome advocate for the book. Great review.

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Kim July 21, 2012 at 11:40 am

It was really a perfect book for me — the whole concept is just filled with things I love to read about. I’m so glad to have read it and to be able to recommend it to others.

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Mandy July 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Oh this sounds like fun! I have a friend who’s super into magic, so this may make the perfect gift. :)

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Kim July 21, 2012 at 11:42 am

Totally. I’d love to hear what a magician (or amateur magician) thinks about the balance that Stone took in how much he did and did not reveal the society of magicians.

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Jen - Devourer of Books July 19, 2012 at 1:32 pm

I wasn’t sure about this one when I saw the description initially, but now I regret not getting it!

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bermudaonion(Kathy) July 19, 2012 at 3:18 pm

I’ve been dying to read this ever since I met Alex in New York. I’m thrilled to see it’s so good.

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Jae @ Book Nympho July 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm

This book sounds excellent! I love books like this and am so glad you were able to finally write the review so I could find out about it! :)

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Kim July 21, 2012 at 11:43 am

This book is very much in the style of my favorite types of nonfiction — I’m glad to hear it’s your style too :)

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Nikki Steele July 21, 2012 at 8:20 pm

You definitely sold it! I love the idea of looking at magic through the lens of science and religion, while also exploring a personal journey for the author. Seems like a layered, interesting book.

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Kim July 29, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Yes, I like that — it is layered. I always like when I read a book with a compelling narrator who takes me on a journey and to a world I don’t know anything about.

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FABR Steph July 22, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Don’t you just hate it when you get stumped on writing a review? The end result is that you have written a great review. This is my first look at this book and I am sold.

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Kim July 29, 2012 at 8:24 pm

I hate being stuck! Usually I have at least one idea of something to say, but I was totally unsure where to go with this one. I hope you like the book!

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