Tag Archives: biography

Magic Monday ~ Review: The Amazing Harry Kellar


I like Mondays. I also like magic. 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.

The Amazing Harry Kellar: Great American Magician by Gail Jarrow

Cover via Goodreads

Presenting the amazing Harry Kellar! The first magician to receive international fame! The most well-known illusionist at the turn of the twentieth century! The model for the Wizard of Oz! Author Gail Jarrow follows Kellar from a magician’s assistant traveling and performing across the United States during the Civil War to an international superstar with a show of his own, entertaining emperors, kings, and presidents. Jarrow uses Kellar’s own words and images—his amazing four-color promotional posters—to tell his riveting story in this first Kellar biography for young readers. And she reveals the science behind Kellar’s illusions and explores nineteenth-century entertainment and transportation as well as the history of magic, spiritualism, and séances. (via Goodreads)

For a while now I’ve wished that there existed a good, in-depth biography of Harry Kellar. Jim Steinmeyer touches on Kellar in his book on Howard Thurston, but Kellar seems to me to be interesting enough guy to deserve his own biography. Gail Jarrow’s The Amazing Harry Kellar isn’t that biography. It is an over-sized hardback aimed at 8-10 year-olds (according to Amazon). It is a really nicely made book, full-color with a fair amount text and lots of posters. Kellar had great posters. Which I’m assuming might be part of the reason why Jarrow decided to make a kid’s book about a magician that is generally less well known that some of his peers. *cough*Houdini*cough* The information and the writing are good though. Really, it was a joy to read because there was obviously care involved in this books existence.


Publishing info: hardback, Published June 2012 by Calkins Creek
Read: 7/26/16, at Tempe Public Library
Genre: nonfiction

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

The Sisters Brothers Northanger Abbey Summerlong

Still reading The Sisters Brothers, which I think I’ve been calling The Sister Brothers. The S on Sisters is killing me. It’s such an odd book. It sort of meanders, but the chapters are bite-sized so you don’t notice.

Next up: Either Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (which I keep wanting to call Northgranger Abbey) or Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle. Summerlong is an ARC with a pub date a ways in the future, but I’m not sure I can resist much longer.

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

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 Reviews ~ Houdini: A Life Worth Reading & Vera Van Slyke stories


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.

Houdini: A Life Worth Reading by Higher Read

Cover via Goodreads

Houdini was a man of magic and mystery. He was also a pilot, an author, an actor, and a rabid opponent of the Spiritualist movement. He was impatient of charlatans and imitators and loving to his family. He had an impressive ego. If any of these facts are new to you, then Houdini: A Life Worth Reading is the perfect primer on the man who was, by the end of his life, known only as Houdini. (via Goodreads)

I picked this up as a freebie from Amazon back in March. I don’t know what’s up with Higher Read as an “author,” but this short biography was well written and included chapter overviews and study questions. If, you know, you find Houdini to be an important enough guy to study. (Higher Read also has books on Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Thomas Jefferson.) In fact, I was pretty impressed with how neutral the biography is. It makes no bones about Houdini’s greatness as a showman and publicist or his massive ego. If I learned anything from this Houdini bio, it was that Houdini was sued more often than I had thought!

Publisher: Higher Read, LLC
Publication date: January 30th 2014
Genre: Biography

“The Minister’s Unveiling” & “The Ghost of Banquo’s Ghost” by Tim Prasil

vera-lida-oval-on-white1Tim Prasil’s Help for the Haunted stories are based on the manuscripts left to him by his great-grandaunt. The stories involve his great-grandaunt, Lucille, and her friendship with Vera Van Slyke, a journalist and occult detective in the early 1900s. Vera investigates hauntings and tries to put ghosts to rest. She’s smart, if occasionally absent-minded about frivolous details like personal names, and makes no apologies for it. Lucille, a debunked spirit medium, likes adventure a little more than a proper lady should and is game to help Vera in her investigations. They’re a great Holmesian/Watsonian(?) duo. The stories are fun with an appealing mixture of skepticism and the supernatural. Also it’s nice to see two women *doing things* in fiction. Both of these stories are currently free on Tim Prasil’s website, but only for a little while longer as he offers new stories. The third story “Skittering Holes” was released over the weekend!

Publisher: To be published later in the year in novel form from Emby Press
Genre: Ghost mysteries.

Because reading is better than real life b00k r3vi3ws


Review ~ Houdini: The Handcuff King

Houdini: The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes (Writer), Nick Bertozzi (Illustrator)

Cover via Goodreads

Harry Houdini mesmerized a generation of Americans when he was alive, and continues to do so 80 years after his death. This is a “snapshot” of Houdini’s life, centering on one of his most famous jumps. As Houdini prepares for a death-defying leap into the icy Charles River in Boston, biographer Jason Lutes and artist Nick Bertozzi reveal Houdini’s life and influence: from the anti-Semitism Houdini fought all his life, to the adulation of the American public; from his hounding by the press, to his loving relationship with his wife Bess; from his egoism to his insecurity; from his public persona — to the secret behind his most amazing trick! And it’s all in graphic form, so it’s fresh, original, and unlike anything previously published about this most fascinating of American showmen. (via Goodreads)

Quick read last week; quick review this week. I can’t do a better job summarizing than the above. The storytelling is good and I appreciated the attempt at making Houdini flawed. Like Nikola Tesla, the world wants to make Harry Houdini an uber-hero. This is never the case with anyone, no matter how famous and lauded. Lutes also did a good job showing the some of the behind-the-scenes people involved in the act and the Houdini publicity machine. (Working entirely on one’s own is another aspect of hero-ization.)  The art was good, especially illustrating the underwater parts of the stunt. An enjoyable read.

Publisher: Hyperion
Publication date: April 1st 2007
Genre: Graphic novel, biography
Why did I choose to read this book? Interest in magic and therefore Houdini

Review ~ Adventures of a Psychic

Adventures of a Psychic: The Fascinating and Inspiring True-Life Story of One of America’s Most Successful Clairvoyants by Sylvia Browne & Antoinette May

Cover via Goodreads

In this uniquely fascinating book, world-renowned psychic Sylvia Browne recounts her captivating life as a clairvoyant, telling of her earliest “readings” as a young child in Kansas City, and of her first contact with “Francine”, her spirit guide.In engrossing detail, Sylvia tells how her “gift” has assisted police departments in their search for missing children and dangerous criminals — and how her predictions of deaths, plane crashes, and momentous world events were sometimes heeded — or tragically ignored.

But more than anything else, this is the remarkable story of one woman’s psychic odyssey, for it offers illuminating insight into how we can better understand ourselves and our own psychic abilities. (via Goodreads)

Why did I read this book… I have been researching the techniques spirit mediums have used historically and I’m strongly skeptical of Sylvia Browne and her modern colleagues. And I will recuse myself, as I often find myself doing here on my blog: I am not a believer. I did not even try to be objective while reading Ms. Browne’s book. I was curious, I guess, about how a late 20th century psychic presents her history.

The first thing that struck me was the similarity in presentation of Browne’s early history and the semi-fictional biographies of magicians. Some details are over-blown: Browne stating that her ancestors are from a noble Rhine family. Other details are obscured. Dates are few and far between, so some details are hard to pin down. Like the wandering magician, Ms. Browne had an older mentor, in this case her grandmother Ada.  She is physically described several times in the book (more than most fictional characters)  and is always portrayed as good-looking. Model-esque and doe-eyed. These things are meant to accentuate the positive. They’re a sales job. Even Robert-Houdin knew the value of a good sales job.

Speaking of the positive, Sylvia Browne is never wrong in this book. She might relate times when her talents predict something unfortunate, but she’s never wrong. The book paints herself as completely and uncannily reliable.This is in contrast to a statement made after one of her more recent failures: “Only God is right all the time.” Or maybe it’s her spirit guide Francine who is wrong and, considering what a party the afterlife is, spirits are sometimes too busy to talk.

Francine is also an interesting throwback to mediumistic history. Ms. Browne redubbed her spirit guide with a European name, but like many spirit guides of the Victorian and Edwardian era, Francine is the helpful spirit of a Native American woman.

(Another incredibly co-incidental connection to mediums of old, and something not mentioned in this book, is Sylvia Browne’s criminal conviction involving selling securities in a gold-mining venture under false pretenses. The money solicited from investors was not used for operating costs, but to establish Browne’s psychic research foundation. David Abbott tells of “spirit mine” case in the early 1900s that at least involved a boulder of gold quartz materializing at a seance.)

Much of this book is a presentation of Browne’s religious and philosophical beliefs. Biographical stories are turned into catechism-like Q&A sessions. The afterlife, it seems, is for extroverts, full of parties and discussion groups. Reincarnation exists, as long as you feel the need to work through issues in your next life. There is a God, but he/she is loving and all-knowing, interested in what’s best for us little people. In general, it’s all pretty…general. If I could credit Ms. Browne with anything, it’s devising system of spirituality that is encompassing and tolerant. It seems to be designed to be appealing to a wide range of people. Unfortunately, these very didactic sections make the case-study anecdotes feel vague and glib.

The one area where Ms. Browne shows her warts is her love life. She’s been married or nearly married many times. And I have to wonder, why do so many people follow someone who has made a great hash of her life in this arena? Or, is this weakness calculated? Who hasn’t been foolish in love? Are people inspired because she has seemingly become a success despite these really bad decisions?

I have to be most harsh when Ms. Browne describes the medical applications of her talents. She has no science background and when she mentions something scientific it’s just…wrong. Seven levels of abnormal behavior? The spirit enters through the pituitary gland?  Arthritis is described as energy bulging from the joints. Heart attacks are caused by broken-heartedness. In an effort to be scientific during sittings, controls are used to make sure there is no telepathy involved, not to prove that Ms. Browne isn’t using earthly means instead of her clairvoyance. I would find Ms. Browne to be less dangerous if she limited herself to spiritual matters. Leave policing to police and doctoring to doctors.

Genre: Biography/Autobiography
Why did I choose to read this book? Curiosity
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes.
Format: In-Browser eBook
Procurement: Phoenix Digital Library

Review ~ The Last Greatest Magician in the World

Cover via Goodreads

The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards by Jim Steinmeyer

Here is the seminal biography of the magician’s magician, Howard Thurston, a man who set the standard for how stage magic is performed today.

Everyone knows Houdini–but who was Thurston? In this rich, vivid biography of the “greatest magician in the world,” celebrated historian of stage magic Jim Steinmeyer captures the career and controversies of the wonder-worker extraordinaire, Howard Thurston.

Thurston’s story is one of the most remarkable in show business. During his life, from 1869 to 1936, he successfully navigated the most dramatic changes in entertainment–from street performances to sideshows to wagon tours through America’s still-wild West to stage magic amid the glitter of grand theaters.

Steinmeyer explores the stage and psychological rivalry between Thurston and Houdini during the first decades of the twentieth century–a contest that Thurston won. He won with a bigger show, a more successful reputation, and the title of America’s greatest magician. In The Last Greatest Magician in the World, Thurston’s magic show is revealed as the one that animates our collective memories. (via Goodreads)

Houdini. Houdini, Houdini, Houdini. If I asked you to name one non-contemporary magician (i.e., not Criss Angel, David Blaine, Penn & Teller, or even David Copperfield; in other words, a long-dead magician), Houdini would probably be who you’d name. Harry Houdini masterfully built his own legend on a basis of spectacle, controversy, and no small amount of talent as an escape artist. If I were to ask you to describe the prototypical old-timey magician, you might think of a man in white tie and tails, dignified yet amusing, pulling a rabbit from a hat, levitating a princess, or maybe chastely sawing a lady in half. That magician that you’re thinking of? That’s Howard Thurston.

In Hiding the Elephant, Jim Steinmeyer presented the history of stage magic through the lens of one trick. In Last Greatest Magician, he turns his focus  to tell the story of Howard Thurston, warts and all. As a young man, before he delighted kids and parents with magically-produced bunny rabbits, Thurston  hopped trains and conned people into buying fake watches until he was caught and put into reform school. He was married three times. He was absolutely terrible with money. Like many front-men, he was not the architect of his more elaborate tricks.

Where he excelled was on the stage. He was charismatic performer with a minister’s voice. He had a sense for putting on a memorable show, even if he suffered from the-bigger-the-better syndrome late in his career. He was incredibly adept at close-up magic and could “sell” an apparatus better than anyone else.  Behind the scenes, he bought the best tricks and hired some of the best engineers to shore up weaknesses. Magic is an industry reliant keeping secrets and obtaining them. Thurston was shrewd and more than occasionally conflicted about decisions he made to keep his business afloat.

Jim Steinmeyer gives Thurston all his shades of gray and writes about the man and the magic with the same palpable love that oozes from Hiding the Elephant. Thurston’s story would make a great AMC / History channel series. While this isn’t a “reveal” book, the secrets behind some magic tricks are discussed. As a designer and inventor, Steinmeyer doesn’t shy away from nuts and bolts when telling his stories.

History is all about who gets remembered. Many, many other magicians have pulled rabbits from hats and made ladies float. Even Houdini did some of these tricks though, by most reports, not very well. Despite invoking Houdini’s name to give Thurston some street cred with modern audiences, it’s Thurston who has given us the cultural memory of “magician.”

As for the rivalry between Houdini and Thurston? It’s there. The two exchanged many letters. Houdini had a mercurial personality and was always in conflict with someone, and usually someone notable. If the general public remembers Thurston in relation to Houdini, there are worse things. If I’ve learned one thing about magic, it’s that it’s a continual narrative. Every magician, every trick, every performance is the sum of its history and often defined by its associations and lineage. It’s a concept that is very appealing to me.

Genre: Non-fiction. Biography.
Why did I choose to read this book? Research! But also because I find that I really enjoy Jim Steinmeyer’s writing and magic history.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes.
Format: Trade paperback.
Procurement: Won from Take Control RAT raffle!
Bookmark: Yellow note card with notes from my current project on it. Well, pre-rewrite notes.

Related to my current writing project and as a further example of defining by association, this is an anecdote related by Jim Steinmeyer in an article about the magician Joseffy:

Joseffy was once asked to present [Balsamo, The Living Skull] to Howard Thurston and his staff. He obliged, placing the skull on a table between Thurston’s knees. “You’re not going to work it this close?” Thurston asked.
Joseffy nodded.

“But I am Thurston!”

“Yes, but I am Joseffy,” the wizard responded.


(Jim Steinmeyer. Magic. September 1999, Vol. 9, No. 1. pg. 46)

Throwback Thursday ~ A Sense of Where You Are

Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by The Housework Can Wait and Never Too Fond of Books!

Noting that book blogging often focuses on new releases, here’s how Throwback Thursday works:

  1. Pick any bookish or literary-related media (or non-media item) released more than 5 years ago.
  2. Write up a short summary of the book (include the title, author, and cover art) and an explanation of why you love it.
  3. Link up your post at The Housework Can Wait or Never Too Fond of Books.
  4. Visit as many blogs as you can, reminisce about books you loved, and discover some “new” books for your TBR list!

A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton by John McPhee

Cover via Goodreads

When John McPhee met Bill Bradley, both were at the beginning of their careers. A Sense of Where You Are, McPhee’s first book, is about Bradley when he was the best basketball player Princeton had ever seen. McPhee delineates for the reader the training and techniques that made Bradley the extraordinary athlete he was, and this part of the book is a blueprint of superlative basketball. But athletic prowess alone would not explain Bradley’s magnetism, which is in the quality of the man himself—his self-discipline, his rationality, and his sense of responsibility. Here is a portrait of Bradley as he was in college, before his time with the New York Knicks and his election to the U.S. Senate—a story that suggests the abundant beginnings of his professional careers in sport and politics. (via Goodreads)

From my original post, February 24, 2011:

I’m not a big sports fan. I didn’t grow up with sports. Attending UNL made me into a mild Husker fan. I’ve never been to a Nebraska football game, and I had never watched a basketball game at all until Eric decided to take me to one on a whim back when we were still on campus in 1998-ish. Incongruously, I had picked up a slight interest in professional tennis before I met Eric.

Moving to Arizona intensified my sports fandom. Partly because sports are a means of maintaining allegiance to my home state. Partly because I now play a sport and am around more people who are sports fans, Eric included. And part of it is also because sports have become my seasons. The move from NE to AZ meant no more seasons as I knew them. No falling leaves, no snow, no thaw, no bloomin’ spring, but lots of what a Nebraskan might consider summer. It started with football season becoming my fall. Tennis (French Open, Wimbledon, US Open) became my respite from the heat of summer. And basketball has become my winter. I’m a newbie fan to all these things. My history/knowledge of these sports only goes back a few years, so I pick up a sports book here and there.

I have always enjoyed a good sports story. I’m a total sucker for overcoming the odds and triumphs of the spirit and all the associated tropes. A Sense of Where You Are isn’t one of those sports stories. It’s a profile. Bill Bradley was an outstanding player. While he himself might have downplayed his physical abilities, he was not particularly handicapped in any manner. Growing up, he had support for his ideas and goals. From McPhee’s profile, it seems that Bradley took what ability and talent he had, worked damned hard, and became an outstanding basketball player. While he obviously had passion for the game, it wasn’t his end goal and that’s an interesting story in itself, but not one told in my edition of the book.

My edition, published 1967, only includes Bradley’s collegiate career. It is assumed, at the end of this edition, that Bradley will go on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, utterly leaving basketball behind. This older edition kind of leaves off in the middle of the story. But still, I came way with a slightly better understanding of basketball and bit of its history. That was worth the quick read.

It’s March. The Huskers won last night by two. It was a great game filled with the extra drama and excitement of senior night and the last game played at the Devaney Center. I’m in a basketball mood and digging this review from the archives seemed appropriate. It’s a good thing, sometimes, to read outside your box.