{Book} The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski

Nearly a century after Harry Houdini died on Halloween in 1926, he feels as modern and alive as ever. The name Houdini still leaps to mind whenever we witness a daring escape. The baby who frees herself from her crib? Houdini. The dog who vanishes and reappears in the neighbor’s garden? Houdini. Every generation produces new disciples of the magician, from household names in magic like David Copperfield and David Blaine to countless other followers whose lives have been transformed by the power of Houdini.

In The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, award-winning journalist and #1 New York Times bestselling author Joe Posnanski enters Houdini World to understand why the magician still enthralls people. Posnanski immerses himself in Houdini’s past and present, visiting landmarks, museums (including one owned by Copperfield), attractions, and private archives. Filled with false histories and improbable facts, Houdini’s life is an irresistible contradiction. His sweeping afterlife is no less fascinating.

(via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
I’ve been reading books about magic for the past seven or so years. I feel like I’ve read *so many* Houdini biographies, but I really haven’t. Early on, I realized that I don’t really like Houdini very much. That may be because one of the first magic books was Hiding the Elephant and its author, Jim Steinmeyer, isn’t the biggest Houdini fan either. Mostly my focus has been on Houdini’s investigations into fraudulent spiritualists, but every book seems to include a biography anyway… So, why did I bother with this book? Joe Posnanski is a sports writer. I wanted to know what his take might be.

What Did I Think?
I really enjoyed this book. Yes, it is a biography of Houdini, but around it, Posnanski asks, “Why Houdini?” Why is Houdini known, at least as a word, to nearly *everyone* nearly one hundred years after his death? Why is he the inspiration for so many modern magicians? Why was he name-dropped in the horror movie I’m going to review after I review this book?

Posnanski, as a magic enthusiast as well as a sports writer, was intrigued by the GOAT status of a magician who by many accounts wasn’t that good of a nuts-and-bolts magician. Houdini was a tenacious and shrewd promoter. As an escapologist, he was a consummate showman. He made his myth and was a bulldog about it being truth. Posnanski isn’t interested in exposing Houdini’s tricks, but he does debunk some of Houdini’s tales.

The other thing I think Posnanski brings as a sports guy is his interest in the fans. He brings in stories about John Cox and Patrick Culliton and many of the other magic enthusiasts who pick at every detail of Houdini’s life and career. And one thing holds true for me: I really do enjoy reading about/listening to people discussing things they love—even when I don’t fully engage in that fandom.

Original Publishing info: Avid Reader Press / Simon Schuster, 2019
My Copy: Overdrive Ebook, Phoenix Public Library
Genre: nonfiction, biography

Writing Update, 9/26

Writing Update pic
How’s It Going?
I’m 95% satisfied with the cover I’ve come up with for The Case of the Sorrowful Seamstress. That percentage might go down after I post this and see it in a new context.

Next up: Another editing pass (I’ll probably put the manuscript through a text to speech program) and writing the dreaded “back of the book” blurb.

About This WIP
One Ahead is a series of mystery novellas focusing on David P. Abbott, a magician who lived in Omaha, NE at the beginning of the 20th century. Aside from being an accomplished magician, David Abbott was a debunker of fraudulent mediumistic practices. I’ll be delving into the history of Omaha in 1915 as well as visiting some of the magicians, mediums, and skeptics that lived in that era.

Writing Update, 9/12

Writing Update pic
What’s Going on Work-wise?
I spent time last week and the week before formatting Eric’s Martian Engineer’s Notebook series. It took a little longer than I expected. The books are a deep dive into the science behind Andy Wier’s The Martian and have a lot of mathematical and chemical equations. The biggest hurdle, though, was wading through the Kindle previewer/exporter’s error messages. I’ve been formatting in HTML/CSS and creating my own .opf and .ncx files which are what Amazon uses to build the book’s .mobi file. I understand what I’m doing with each file, but that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally typo a link, save a file to the wrong folder, or designate something as a “class” instead of an “id.” Figuring out what I’ve done wrong from the error log is amusing/frustrating, but ultimately satisfying as are most debugging endeavors.

I’ve also finished the formatting for One Ahead: The Case of the Sorrowful Seamstress and this week I’m working on an editing pass. I’m 2/3rds through. And then I’ll start working on the cover. …I have very little idea what I want to do for a cover…

Since the beginning of September, I’ve also been reading up on the structure of mysteries. I’m not super great with plot, so I think I might want to try my hand at a more formulaic genre. While not exactly a “how-to” article, one of the more interesting essays on the subject that I’ve found is W. H. Auden’s “The Guilty Vicarage.” I’m toying with the idea of really planning a book leading up to NaNoWriMo. I do already have a character and setting in mind.

Recent Research Topic:
Related to that possible NaNo project, I’ve done a little research on how far into the 20th century the chautauqua edu-tainment movement lasted. Turns out, into the 20s, which is perfect for my purposes. As a shock to none, I’ve also been reading issues of The Sphinx to get a feel for what opportunities there were for working magicians post-WWI.

Review ~ The Nazi Seance

Cover via Goodreads

The Nazi Seance by Arthur J. Magida

World War I left Berlin, and all of Germany, devastated. Charlatans and demagogues eagerly exploited the desperate crowds. Fascination with the occult was everywhere – in private séances, personalized psychic readings, communions with the dead – as people struggled to escape the grim reality of their lives. In the early 1930s, the most famous mentalist in the German capital was Erik Jan Hanussen, a Jewish mind reader originally from Vienna who became so popular in Berlin that he rubbed elbows with high ranking Nazis, became close with top Storm Troopers, and even advised Hitler.

Called “Europe’s Greatest Oracle Since Nostradamus,” Hanussen assumed he could manipulate some of the more incendiary personalities of his time just as he had manipulated his fans. He turned his occult newspaper in Berlin into a Nazi propaganda paper, personally assured Hitler that the stars were aligned in his favor, and predicted the infamous Reichstag Fire that would solidify the Nazis’ grip on Germany. (via Goodreads)

Before the era of television and movies, magicians had to engage in a certain amount of myth-making. The magician was selling the story of himself before an audience ever saw him pull a rabbit out of his hat. When Arthur J. Magida examined some of the stories Erik Jan Hanussen wrote in Meine Lebenslinie, an account of Hanussen’s early years, Magida wasn’t surprised that there were few corroborating details. The tale of how Hermann Steinschneider became Erik Jan Hanussen is full of exaggeration with Hermann always cast as the hero. This is the backdrop that must be kept in mind with Hanussen. If the rumor was that Hanussen was the personal advisor to Hilter, why would he refute that?

Magida does a good job sifting through the rumors and the exaggerations. Hanussen played a very dangerous game, being a Jew with ties to the Nazi party. He was obviously a very talented psychic, using a combination of cold reading, muscle reading, and his own intuitions. Unfortunately, he let fame and ego blind him to the danger he was in after Hitler became chancellor.

This books is also an interesting look at the rise of the Third Reich. What I know about WWII is based around the Holocaust. That’s an important narrative, but I think remembrance needs to stretch back to how it came about. Hanussen wasn’t a pure, naive victim of the Nazis, but he was an entertainer who loved Berlin. It was his home; it was were he wanted to stay and he was willing to jockey for good position no matter what the cost.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: nonfiction

And I really can’t mention Hanussen without a shout-out to  Neil Tobin’s “interactive biographical comedy-drama” Palace of the Occult. Check out the trailer!

Magic Monday ~ I Saw David Abbott

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature. I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

More David Abbott!

A month or so ago, Dean Carnegie had a post on his blog about Frederick Eugene Powell and linked to footage of Powell from the Society of American Magician’s Vimeo account. It’s always cool to see film of magicians long gone, and I clicked over to watch some of the others. The compilation videos aren’t well annotated and the title cards are hard to read, so imagine my surprise when a segment included a portly gray-haired man and a tea kettle. Yep, footage of David P. Abbott!

Magician Chris Charlton filmed many magicians in the 20s and 30s. Clips of Abbott and Joseffy were included in the deluxe edition of House of Mystery. This, according to the title card (at 0:36), is Charlton with Abbott, presumably on the streets of Omaha. It’s just a short clip, nothing particularly magical happens, but to me, it’s still pretty cool.

I was hoping that some of the Joseffy footage was included too, but no luck.

SmallAce

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

Good Girls I Lie for Money: Candid, Outrageous Stories from a Magician's Misadventures

I have a pretty busy week ahead. My parents are coming into town today and will be here until Thursday. Then Saturday and Sunday is New Year Fest, our annual ultimate frisbee tournament. Might not get too much reading done.

I ended up DNFing Ghostwalkers by John Maberry. It really wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t the book for me right now. Instead I dove into Good Girls, the second in Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Children trilogy. I’m also reading I Lie for Money by Steve Spill and “The Slype House” by A.C. Benson for Deal Me In.

It's Monday! What Are You ReadingIt’s Monday! What Are You Reading, hosted by Book Date!

What Am I Writing?

Didn’t get as much editing done as I wanted last week and ended up juggling the table of contents again. I realize I have a stumbling block: I don’t think my two longer short stories are very good. Certainly not as good as some of their shorter companions. I’m going to try a new (to me) way of rewriting them. I’m going to put together a pretty in depth outline of the story from what I have and then start over. If the story turns out better, good deal. If not, I’ll scrap it and move on.

Magic Monday ~ Omaha’s Magic Man

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature. I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

I’m starting to get itchy; ready to get back to the David P. Abbott stories I want to tell. This is a really nice piece about Abbott done by Omaha’s KMTV. It aired around Halloween, but I missed it until yesterday.

SmallAce

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

Deadlands: Ghostwalkers Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys I Am Legend and Other Stories

Finished White Plume Mountain. Such a fun novel. The Oliver Sacks audio book didn’t go so well (the narration was annoying), so I ended up listening to You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day while taking down my Christmas tree.

This week I’m going to finish Deadlands: Ghostwalkers by Jonathan Maberry, an ARC I am woefully behind on reading and reviewing. My next audio book will be Still Foolin’ ‘Em by Billy Crystal. And another Richard Matheson story for Deal Me In.

It's Monday! What Are You ReadingIt’s Monday! What Are You Reading, hosted by Book Date!

What Am I Writing?

Saying that I’m going to write a humorous story on demand is kind of like walking up to someone and saying “Quick, say something intelligent!” Mostly, you’re going to get a lot of unintelligent noises. Last week reaped nothing but writer’s block. I’m going to do some hard core editing on the stories I have, and work on a cover until the end of the month. Title? Bounded in a Nutshell. Haven’t decided if I want to add editorial notes.

Review ~ The Witch of Lime Street

This book was provided to me by Crown Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Cover via Goodreads

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher

The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics—and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.

Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery’s powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee.

David Jaher’s extraordinary debut culminates in the showdown between Houdini, a relentless unmasker of charlatans, and Margery, the nation’s most credible spirit medium. (via Goodreads)

This book covers a lot of ground.

It begins with Arthur Conan Doyle’s conversion to spiritualism after the deaths of several family members before, during, and after World War I. In a way, Jaher sees Doyle as a prototypical convert for the time: a previously semi-religious man who finds solace in a new belief system that emphasizes life after death. Doyle has a run-in with the prototype from the extreme other end of the spectrum, the zealous skeptic Harry Houdini, but remains unchanged. Houdini’s militant debunking, on the other hand, was due to the frauds he found in the wake of his mother’s death.

The second portion of The Witch of Lime Street is about the formation of the American Society for Psychical Research and Scientific American‘s contest. By the late 1910s and early 1920s, it seemed that spiritualism might provide scientific proof of the afterlife and Scientific American was covering some forms of mediumship under the guise of theory. Partly to put the issue to rest and partly as a publicity device, the magazine offered $2500 to any medium that could produce phenomena under controlled circumstances. Jaher details the members of SA‘s control and judging committee (which includes Houdini) and outlines the early contenders for the prize. We also meet Mina (or, later Margery) Crandon, a beautiful socialite who begins to channel her dead brother Walter after her husband takes an interest in spiritualism. It isn’t really until the halfway point of the book that we get to Mina’s tests and the committee’s experiences with her.

This is a very well researched book. I knew the basics of the Margery/Houdini kerfuffle, but few of the details. The Witch of Lime Street is full of details. There are in fact many, many names and many, many sittings with Margery. There are passages and phrases that seem repetitive. (Since I was reading an uncorrected proof, I wonder if some of that changed in the final publication.) While mostly presented chronologically, some details of certain people’s background are held back and only brought out when especially sensational in terms of the rest of the story. All in all, though, Jaher is fairly neutral in his treatment of all parties involved.

Publishing info, my copy: ARC/Uncorrected Proof, Crown Publishers, 2015
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: Nonfiction