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Oct
31

Harry Houdini died on Halloween, but his mystique lives. Relive the magic in these books: One for the kids, and one for you.

Harry Houdini continues to fascinate, 85 years after his death on Halloween.  Considered the greatest escape artist of all time, there was not a lock he could not unfasten.  He was bound up with chains and handcuffs and dropped into rivers and lakes, but he escaped every time. Houdini was the greatest performer of his day, touring all over Europe and America. His life-threatening stunts thrilled audiences: Burial alive, submersion in a giant milk can filled with water, and the Chinese water torture cell.

Although Houdini himself did not believe in psychic and supernatural powers, there remains something haunting about the man and his magic even today.  Perhaps it is the drive to discover the truth behind the magic, which has yet to be revealed.  Perhaps it is the drive to discover the man behind the magic, the son of poor Hungarian Jews who immigrated to America.

These books take a stab at capturing Houdini’s magic and mystique.  When the frenzy of trick or treaters dies down, why not escape?  (Pardon the puns!) Here’s one for the kids and one for you:

1.)  The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick. (CHILDREN’S BOOK)  In a mix of fact and fiction, this book tell the story of ten-year old Victor’s fascination with Houdini. After several unsuccessful attempts at escaping from locked boxes, holding his breath for 5000 seconds under water, and running through walls, Victor meets his hero at a train station. Later, Victor receives a  mysterious box engraved with “E.W.”  Victor puts the box away, and years later as a grown man realizes EW is Houdini.  He  finally realizes his childhood dream, and escapes in that box.

Selznick is better known for his books The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. The beautiful pencil drawings that permeate those works also greatly enhance this Houdini novella. There is not a wealth of factual information about Houdini,  but Selznick does a great job of capturing the wonder inspired by the magician.  The performance posters and advertisements capture the period, and a biography capsule is included at the back.  The story of a childhood passion lost and found will also appeal to adults.

AGES:  7 and way up.

2.) Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. A patchwork novel about 1906 America, which weaves stories of Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and other factual and fictional characters into a plot-filled quilt.  Although not a biography about Houdini, Ragtime captures the”beat”and famous personalities of America during his time.  Houdini makes frequent appearances in the novel, and one learns interesting tidbits about his personal life and about the impact he had on his generation.  There is much made about Houdini’s relationship with his mother, which I found very interesting.  I believe  that Doctorow used Houdini to introduce themes of escape from the chains of racism, class, and poverty during that era.

I don’t think this book is a great piece of literature, although many people would beg to differ.  It has an interesting plot, and it presents a good snapshot of upper-class, middle-class and working class America in 1906 New York.  I just did not enjoy Doctorow’s style of writing, which to me lacked depth and quality.  I saw the film years ago, and thought it was better than the book.  In any case, it’s an entertaining read and the plot moves along quickly.

Hope you have a sweet and magical Halloween!

 

 

 

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