Watch this video.
(Go ahead, I’ll wait here.)
Pretty cool, huh? Come on, how did he do that? Yes, his hands go off screen here and there but most of this magic is right there in full view. I mean, Alex Stone is performing this trick at a Book Expo: hardly turf for a YouTube spoof. One way or another, the guy has got some cool magic skills and I like his banter, too. He’s not trying too hard.
Okay, if you liked the video and if you have even a mild curiosity, skip the rest of this review. Go buy the book.
Me? I’m a sucker. I like to be amazed and amused. I’ve been to the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, love the magic segments on the variety shows when I was a kid (still do) and have perfected one jaw-dropping card trick that works on about 30 percent of the four-year-old population.
In “Fooling Houdini,” Alex Stone lifts the curtain on the world of magic. It’s not a full-scale exposure. It’s not a how-to or tell-all. It’s a peek inside the relationship between magician and audience, between the duper and dupee, those with the secrets and those who seek to be wowed.
“To truly understand the art of magic and its timeless appeal, you wind up asking questions not just about how the mind works—and why sometimes it doesn’t—but also about some of the most fundamental aspects of human nature,” writes Stone. “Why do people take pleasure in deceiving others? How does the brain perceive the world and parse everyday experience? What are the psychological consequences of secrecy? What is reality, and how much of it do we consciously take in? How much faith can we have in our memories?”
Stone sets up the magical mystery tour with a redemption arc—starting out with a moment when he gets red-lighted (told to stop) during a performance at the Magic Olympics in Stockholm. Utter humiliation.
But Stone is not to be denied and he plays grasshopper to a series of gurus and masters and he dives deep into various aspects of the magic and its history—the lore, the heroes, the science, the psychology, the art, the math, the quaint clubs, the characters, the goofy mentalists, the rules and how the whole world of magic has changed over time. We meet a whole raft of individuals, including Richard Turner, a card handler without equal, “a man whose prowess with a deck bordered on the supernatural.” (The chapter is called “The Touch Analyst” and Stone describes some skills here that probably have to be seen in person to be believed.)
Stone treats magic like a branch of science—something to be analyzed and studied carefully (with some very funny and self-effacing moments along the way).
Ultimately, “Fooling Houdini” is Stone’s search for an improved performance self—finding a “person” inside who can hit the right note of credibility on stage. It’s a tricky balance, as Stone notes, because “performing magic puts you in the awkward position of having to deceive the very people you seek to win.”
By the way, the hand is not quicker than eye. Read “Fooling Houdini” if you want to understand why.