Category Archives: Books

“Mistborn” by Brandon Sanderson


The setting is a fantasy world where, a long time ago, the bad guy won.  The world is a heap of ashes; few trees or living things still exist.  The Lord Ruler, immortal and omnipotent, rules from his palace of dark spiral towers.  The aristocracy cruelly use and abuse the enslaved majority “skaa” population, who have little hope of change in the future.

There is magic in this world, called allomancy.  Allomantic powers are hereditary and only available to those of aristocratic descent.  Each power is linked to a certain metal, like bronze or tin, which is ingested in small quantities and then “burned” as needed to provide the user with specific superhuman abilities.  Most allomancers are only able to use a single metal.  But, rarely, a “mistborn” comes on the scene who is able to use them all.

Probably the most dramatic/cool of the allomantic powers is the “push” and “pull”, which turns the allomancer into something of a supermagnet able to reverse polarity at will.  Essentially, this allows the mistborn to pretty much fly around, provided enough metal objects are sufficiently available in the nearby environment to use as anchors, either to push away from or pull oneself toward.

(The allomantic magic system is interesting, but very formulaic.  I though back to Jonathan Strange – magic in that book is very vague, mysterious, and undefined; here in “Mistborn” is an opposite, well-defined and limited system. )

Vin is an orphan skaa teenage girl who ends up in a thieving crew, a risky business of scamming and stealing from the aristocracy.  She ends up joining Kelsier, a crew boss turned Mistborn.  Although hereditary, it usually takes a unique, stressful event to awaken allomantic powers in an individual — for Kelsier, he was captured in a failed job and sentenced to labor in the Mines of Hathsin until death, but his power awoke and he escaped.  Now Kelsier has a plan to overthrow the Lord Ruler.  Early on, the book has Kelsier assemble his team, Ocean’s Eleven style.  Then they get to work on the plan, even though no one but Kelsier really believes they have a chance.

Kelsier realizes Vin is a mistborn like himself and sets about training her for the good fight.  Later, she is given the task of impersonating a noble in order to infiltrate the series of balls attended by most of the aristocracy and dig up rumors and information that might be useful to the team.  Along the way (gasp!) she ends up falling in love with a seemingly fair and change-minded young heir, Elend Venture.

I thought the author did a very good job with pacing.  At the beginning, the reader is in the dark about the world itself, and bits and pieces are slowly revealed.  Then, the mystery and revelations smoothly transition to the origin of the Lord Ruler – how did he go from Hero of the world to evil overlord?

SPOILERS BELOW>

  • Turns out that there was a prophesied Hero of long ago, who undertook a journey to the “Well of Ascension” to do …. something …. which somehow stopped an evil called the Deepness from eating the world.  Or something like that.  Very vague.  Well, anyway, one of his guides became very jealous, particularly because the guide was a Terrisman, which race had made and kept the prophecies whereas the Hero was a foreigner.  Somehow the guide took the Hero’s place, and became the Lord Ruler.
  • The Lord Ruler’s power is from a combination of allomancy and feruchemy.  One character speculates that maybe the Well of Ascension granted allomancy itself, as it wasn’t present in the world prior to that.  Feruchemy is a Terrisman skill similar to allomancy, but users are only able to “store up” their own strength or other abilities to use later by voluntarily becoming equally weak or impaired for an equal amount of time.  Somehow the combination yields almost omnipotent power as well as effective immortality.
  • Atium, the metal mined in Hathsin, is also a key part of … something.  Part of the team’s plans involve stealing the Lord Ruler’s suspected large stash of atium, but as it turns out it can’t be found anywhere.  It is implied that the Lord Ruler, evil as he is, was doing something to keep the Deepness at bay … perhaps using atium?  If so, not a good setup for our friends in the near future, as Kelsier ends up destroying Hathsin and all atium production for several centuries.
  • Kelsier’s plan, ultimately known only to him, was kind of unique.  He thinks the only way the world stands a chance is if the skaa gain hope and rise up, and the best way to do that is to give them a martyr/savior to look to.  He becomes that savior – builds up an almost-religion around himself, then challenges the Lord Ruler and is killed … which results in exactly the effect he intended.
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“Orange is the New Black” by Piper Kerman

Prison doesn’t sound too bad – just kind of a pointless state of limbo for the prisoners.

“Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom” by Stephen R. Platt


An account of the last few years of the Taiping Rebellion, with a focus on British involvement.  Although sparked by a religious movement, the author characterizes the Taiping as a long-suppressed reaction of the majority Chinese to centuries of (mis)rule by the foreign Manchu invaders, ie. the Qing Dynasty.  The Qing were ripe for overthrow and quite ineffectual by this point; their demise was postponed 50 years or so by two factors; first that the British (eventually) threw in their lot with the Qing against the Taiping on rather flimsy and biased reporting by just a few officials, and second that Zeng Guofan declined to take power for himself when he definitely could have done so.

British policy during this period flip-flopped or otherwise struggled to find a direction.  Technically, they claimed to be neutral in the Chinese civil war … but at one point, they were fighting separately against both parties.  British in Shanghai were defending against a Taiping assault while a British fleet attacked the Qing’s Taku forts and the Summer Palace at Beijing in the climax of what is now called the Second Opium War.  Soon after, the British were persuaded by Frederick Bruce that the Taiping were up to no good and the only hope for stability in China would be to help the Qing stay afloat.

Many others, including historians today, believe the Taiping were on the road to victory and would have done alright, in spite of the somewhat crazy behavior of the founder, Hong Xiuquan.  (Sidenote – not much on Hong Xiuquan’s rise or Taiping doctrine or society in this book; really just about the war.  At one point though it said that Hong Xiuquan was claiming to be the new member of the Trinity, replacing the Holy Spirit…)

A fascinating character when thinking about what the Taiping might have turned into is Hong Rengan, Hong Xiuquan’s cousin.  Long before his cousin’s visions, Hong Rengan was a Christian convert in Hong Kong and worked as an assistant to foreign missionaries.  When the Taiping became ascendant, he was sent to his cousin with high hopes that “true Christianity” would replace the Taiping creole.  At first things seemed to go better than their wildest dreams – Hong Xiuquan heartily welcomed his cousin and offered him the title of “Shield King” and responsibility as the foreign minister for the Taiping government.  Hong Rengan had a grand plan of strong friendship and cooperation with Western powers in a bid jumpstart Chinese industry and technology, much like the reforms of the Meiji Restoration later in Japan.  (Another sidenote – the author points out the Japan profited well by observing China’s problems – first by opening up to the West peacefully whereas the Chinese went kicking and screaming via Opium Wars; second by accelerating technological progress to catch up to the West whereas the Qing stagnated.)  Despite his best efforts, Western perception of the Taiping went downhill and Hong Rengan’s plans were never to be.

Finally we have Zeng Guofan, the scholar-general.  A Qing government official (though not a Manchu) and product of the examination system, he became a local militia leader in Hunan in the fight against the Taiping mainly because no one else at all was left to take the job.  From the accounting in this book, he seemed very methodical in his leadership — he thought deeply about the problems at hand, devised a strategy with much careful deliberation, and then stuck to that strategy no matter what until the goal was achieved.  He became something of a warlord and ignored direct orders from the Emperor when they went against his own strategy — not out of disloyalty, but because he knew that the Emperor didn’t know as much about the “situation on the ground” as he did.  Anyway, at the end of the day, Zeng’s army conquered the Taiping capital of Nanjing, effectively killing the movement.  He very well could have taken his army on to Beijing and toppled the severely weakened Qing, but did not.  Perhaps something of a George Washington character (leaving after two terms instead of becoming King George) or maybe he just didn’t want to take on all the empire’s problems any longer.

Both Zeng, the other Qing, and the Taiping were very brutal in this conflict.  Entire populations of cities, whether the Manchu district if conquered by Taiping, or everyone if conquered by Qing, were murdered upon their capture.  Cannibalism became common in besieged cities and also in the countryside at large, being devasted by a decade of roving armies.  Not a fun time to be alive.

“Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” by Edwin Lefevre

Thoughts on stock trading from “Larry Livingston”, a pseudonym for Jesse Livermore, successful trader around the turn of the century.

  • “Give up trying to catch the last eighth, or the first.  These two are the most expensive eights in the world.”  In other words, don’t buy too early (without a clear upward signal) and don’t sell too late.
  • It’s more important to catch the big, market-wide bull/bear runs than the little fluctuations of an individual stock.  I think of the “buy the dip” approach — this only works if you are in a bull market.
  • Ease into positions.  If you think you want 500 shares, start at 100 shares and see how the market goes.  If it goes up 1%, then by the next 100 and wait again.  Repeat until you have your whole position.  Always have a -1% trailing stop in mind.
  • Price doesn’t really matter – what you want to know is the “line of least resistance.”
    • Maybe in our day and age, he would be a proponent of order book analysis?
  • Traders must reverse the natural inclination of hope and fear.
    • Natural:
      • Hope when your stock is down that it will come back up, so you hold too long
      • Fear when your stock is up that it will go down, so you sell out too soon
    • Must change to:
      • Hope when your stock is up – hope it keeps rising; don’t sell winners too soon
      • Fear when your stock is down – fear it could drop even lower; don’t hang on to losers
  • Tips are worthless — realize you are being manipulated.
  • Towards the end of the book, lots of stories about market manipulation that didn’t seem very applicable to us little fish, except to recognize such things happening amongst the whales.
    • If you get to be a whale, remember that liquidity matters.

“From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History” by Kenneth J. Hammond

Listened to another Great Courses sweeping history series during my commute.  Plenty of interesting stuff, but I admit I got kind of lost between the Han/Song/Ming etc.  I think I just don’t have the necessary framework.  Plus maybe learning some Chinese characters would help with visualizing different people’s names in my mind and actually remembering them.

Anyway, three takeaways:

  • History is always in flux.  China in particular is a series of high points and low points, with frequent takeovers by nomadic invaders like the Jurchen, Mongol, Manchu.  Yet through it all, what remained was still China; albeit changed somewhat by each conqueror.  Still, though, Chinese identity is linked to the Han Dynasty, back in 200 BC, and not to some plains people origin.  A testament to Chinese cultural superiority?  Or just that there are so many of them?  (Yes, a relatively high Chinese population relative to surrounding tribes and the world in general has been a constant feature throughout history.)
  • To continue with the above, China is currently emerging from an anomalous period (200+ years) of backwardness and is regaining its usual position at the head of world culture and leadership.  Kind of exciting.
  • The story of the Tai Ping movement really caught my interest and I plan to read more about it.  The founder read a few Christian missionary tracts (but never the Bible), had a vision and claimed he was the brother of Jesus.  Was a very charismatic leader and attracted millions of followers to a strict, fanatic lifestyle for many years and into a war.  In some ways (except the war part and some details of course), it seems similar to Joseph Smith and the rise of Mormonism going on at about the same time.

 

“A Deepness in the Sky” by Vernor Vinge

Ah, it’s been a while since I’ve had a can’t-put-it-down reading experience.  While I don’t think I liked it quite as much as its predecessor, “A Deepness in the Sky” was still very, very good.

The OnOff star is a mystery – a normal sun for around 40 years, then it turns off for the next 200, on a predictable cycle.  Remarkably, intelligent life exists on the system’s only planet – the Spiders, a civilization on the cusp of a technological revolution and spaceflight.  This draws the attention of two groups, both of which send fleets.  The Qeng Ho are a loosely affiliated group of traders, and the Emergent are a newly risen militaristic civilization, about which little is known.

The Qeng Ho derive their trader identity from Pham Nuwen, himself a native of a medieval world and taken in by a group of early Qeng Ho refugees.  He quickly learns their ways and marvels at the speedy rise and fall of civilizations across the inhabited worlds.  This cycle is very rapid indeed to traders hibernating in cryosleep for hundreds of years at a time, while their ships travel at slower than light speeds to their next destination.  He figures that the traders are perfectly positioned to try to ameliorate the suffering of failed civilizations, as well as preserve the best technology produced by civilizations at their peak.  The Qeng Ho freely broadcast some of their knowledge continuously, as a way to bootstrap fallen civs back to the top.  They strive to build up civs back to prosperity, because it is a good ideal itself and also (more importantly?) because it sets up a good market for trading.

But Pham sees a way to have more – he envisions the Qeng Ho itself as an interstellar governing empire, with ability to prevent civilization collapse in the first place.  As he builds up support for his ideas, he calls for a meeting of Qeng Ho at a place called Brisgo Gap.  Just as he is about to clinch victory, he is betrayed by his wife, Sura.  (While Pham has been traveling and thus is still in his prime, Sura who managed things at home, is many centuries old by now, and many of his descendants are physically older than Pham.  Weird.)  She opposes him because … “it’ll never work!  You’d need an army of loving slaves!”  (groan … that’s not a reason!  And such lame forced foreshadowing…)  Pham is forced into exile – put into a ship bound for a target several hundred lightyears away, and he fades from history.  An incognito Pham may or not end up in the Qeng Ho expedition to the OnOff star (spoiler: he does!), still bent on achieving his empire one way or another…

Ok, so the Emergents are Not Very Nice.  They co-opted a brain virus to serve as a form of mind control, called Focus.  The Focused individuals can be tuned to a specific set of tasking, and they obsessively perform their tasks with superhuman attention and ability.  For instance, a key character in the story is a Focused translator of the Spider language.  Coupled with traditional computer systems, Focus gives the Emergents effectively all the sought-for benefits of nearly unlimited AI, except without the “A” part I guess.  And only at the cost of mental enslavement of many individuals!  Most of the non-Focused Emergents serve in roles managing the Focused chattel.

When the Qeng Ho and Emergent expeditions meet in the OnOff system, it’s not long before the Qeng Ho are double-crossed, mostly afflicted with the Focus virus, and sneak-attacked.  When it’s all done, all the ships on both sides are incapacitated and only a few habitats and supplies remain out in L1 orbit.  Emergents and Qeng Ho are forced to live and work together for survival, although the Qeng Ho are clearly the conquered, and the morally bankrupt, manipulative Emergent leader Tomas Nau takes charge.

The survivors strategy is to “lurk” out in space, and wait for the rapidly progressing Spider civilization to mature to the point where the spacers can reveal themselves and receive help (Qeng Ho: by trading!  Emergents: no, by force of course) from a capable industrial base in fixing up their ships.  The OnOff star flares back to life shortly after the Qeng Ho-Emergent battle.

When the OnOff star turns back on, its solar output is extremely elevated for a short (a few weeks or months? years?) duration.  This turns the Spider planet into a fireball, destroying most of what was created by the previous generation.  The Spiders themselves stay safe, however, as they retreated two centuries ago to hibernation (ha! just like the spacers on their long voyages!) in their deep underground shelters, the “deepnesses,” when the star turned off and air-freezing temperatures ensued.

Much like Vinge did in the previous book, the Spider’s story is told in alternating sequence with the spacers; and although quite alien in ways they also seem very familiar and even … lovable?  Yes.  Lovable, monstrous, giant spiders.  Sherkaner Underhill is a Spider technological genius who guides most of his civilization’s progress, including a determination to find a way to live, awake, right through the Dark.  As the spacers observe Spider progress from their far-away orbit, they are able to subtlety alter events by injecting data at opportune times into the Spider computer networks.  <spoiler>In a twist, Sherkaner catches on eventually that aliens are out there, manipulating things, and sets up a great “counterlurk” — while everyone thinks he’s gone a little bit senile, he and his team secretly gain control over the spacer systems via the Focused translators, and in the end avert Tomas Nau’s war of conquest.  Pham also sees the light and realizes that even his dream of empire is not worth the moral price of Focus slavery – now he works out a plan to free the Focuses, first in the OnOff system but with plans at the end of the book to carry on the fight at the Emergent homeworlds.</spoiler>

Definitely a theme of the rise and fall of civilizations going on in this book.  First there’s the Qeng Ho’s observations of the inevitable fleeting nature of human governments, when viewed on cosmic timescales.  (This reminded me of a similar treatment in “House of Suns“.)  Then there are the Spiders, forced to rebuild their own world anew with each lighting of the OnOff star.

“Henderson the Rain King” by Saul Bellow

I sort of liked the “adventure” parts but the philosophy was pretty much lost on me.  Recommend skipping unless you are an English undergrad…

Eugene Henderson is born into wealth, but by his forties/fifties he is frustrated with a lack of purpose.  He thinks he might want to be a doctor; his wife humiliates him by laughing at such a dream at his age.  He has a chance to accompany a friend to Africa and feels like there, in the wild, he might find whatever he is looking for.

The first tribe he spends time with, the Arnui (sp? Audio book…), are friendly but suffering from a plague of frogs in their water cistern, which means they can’t give it to their cows.  Henderson thinks that here is my chance, here is my purpose – to help these poor people.  He had some experience with explosives in the war and so rigs up a bomb to kill the frogs.  It does; but also breaks the cistern, making the Arnui’s problems infinitely worse.

He and his guide quickly make tracks, and end up in the tribe of the Wariri (sp?).  They are kind of suspicious people, but during a rain ceremony he once again jumps in to “save the day” when the village strongman fails to budge the huge statue of their goddess Mumma.  Henderson is a big, strong fellow and is able to move the statue with some effort.  He didn’t know it beforehand, but this entitles him to be the Sungo, the rain king.  He becomes friends with the actual king, Dafu, and becomes familiar with their customs: when a king first shows signs of weakness, he is murdered by his harem.  The body is dragged to the bush and left, but kept under observation.  No beasts are allowed to eat the corpse, except for a lion cub.  The cub is marked and released – this cub is said to now possess the soul of the dead king.  The Sungo gets to be the new king, and after some period of time his duty is to capture the now grown up cub and keep him as a pet of sorts.

Well, King Dafu captures a different lion in his first attempt, and decides to keep it.  He therefore is now facing insurrection as all other lions besides the old king are considered to be magical troublemakers.  Dafu admires lions in general; and embarks on program of familiarizing Henderson with the lion in an up close and personal manner, so that he takes on some lion qualities – nobility, confidence.  Soon, the actual lion Dafu is supposed to capture his spotted, but Dafu dies in the capture attempt (might have been sabotage by his enemies).

Henderson is held captive until his “coronation” but wisely escapes this death trap.  Before he goes, he swipes the lion cub designated for Dafu and flies it back to the states.  He resolves to become a doctor after all.

What’s the meaning here?  Maybe to follow your dream.  Maybe it doesn’t really matter.  One quote from near the end: “What is the universe?  Big.  And what are we?  Little.  So I might as well stay at home, where my wife loves me.  Or, if she is only pretending to love me, maybe that’s good enough, too.”

“One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson

Excellent Bill Bryson as always.  A snapshot look at what was happening in America in the summer of 1927.  Of course, most of these events had backstory and aftermath that went beyond that summer, but nonetheless:

  • The biggest story by far was Charles Lindbergh‘s crossing of the Atlantic.  The event generated tons of enthusiasm; this was almost as big a deal and as incredible to imagine as the moon landing would be a generation later.   But, what really may have made the most lasting impact was Lindbergh’s follow-up cross-country tour, where he appeared in parades and other events in different cities day after day.  There was heavy press coverage; and reports of it taking him only a few hours by air to travel between cities which took a day or more by train caused interest and investment in aviation.
    • A side note to the Lindbergh story is that of Charles Levine, one of his competitors to be the first across the Atlantic by plane.  It’s almost a fable-like story: he (well, his plane the Columbia) probably would have been first if only Levine wasn’t such a big jerk.  He had two pilots lined up for the flight but kicked one out at the last minute in favor of taking a spot for himself; this pilot got an injunction that stopped the flight for a week or more.  Which is when Lindbergh took off.
  • Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs playing for the 1927 Yankees, considered by many the best team ever.  He was known as “Babe” because of his sheltered upbringing at a boys school/orphanage.  Apparently he quickly lost the boyish innocence; he was a well known womanizer and drinker.
  • President Coolidge spent the summer in South Dakota, modeling a fancy cowboy outfit.  Also he participated in the kickoff for Mt. Rushmore.  The creator, Gutzon Borglum, was an interesting fellow and a Mormon (or at least started out as one.)
  • Prohibition was in full swing.  I didn’t realize that the government intentionally poisoned “denatured” alcohol, an idea encouraged by Wayne Wheeler and the Anti Saloon League, so it wouldn’t be used for drinking – many thousands were killed anyway.
  • The curious Van Sweringen brothers were building the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, a prototype of the modern shopping mall.  They also invented the suburb in Shaker Heights.  The Van Sweringens lost everything in the Great Depression.
  • Error in the book!  Said Philo Farnsworth went to “Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City”.  It’s really in Provo, which no one outside of Utah would lump together with Salt Lake City.
  • The advent of “talkie” movies = start of dominant American culture worldwide.  Before this, many actors were immigrants – didn’t matter that they had an accent or couldn’t speak English well.  Now, the movie star image around the world became totally American.

“Misquoting Jesus” by Bart D. Ehrman

This is a very readable introduction to textual criticism of the New Testament.  Ehrman begins with his background as a youth in an evangelical church, one which accepted the Bible as the unerring word of God.  As he studied more, however, he realized that we most definitely don’t have the original words of the New Testament in our Bibles today – so how can we claim that the Bible is the pure, unadulterated word of God?  Especially in the first few centuries after Christ, individual books were written, passed around among congregations, and copied – sometimes with unintentional mistakes; sometimes with intentional changes to “correct” what was read to better reflect the scribe’s own beliefs.

Textual criticism is the process of trying to figure out what the originals actually said, generally by examining as many ancient manuscripts as possible.  (The earliest known manuscript of what’s now in our New Testament is a short copy of a part of John 18 dated to the early second century.)  Scholars trace the origins of these manuscripts (ie. find out what versions they themselves are copies of) and examine the historical context of their authors to determine what version is “right” when there are differences.  And there are many differences – Ehrman says more differences than there are words in the New Testament.  But, he also acknowledges that the vast majority of these are fairly inconsequential.  The remainder, though, can really change how the whole story is interpreted…

Ehrman points out what are probably the most striking examples in our modern Bibles which are almost certainly different from the originals.  While most changes are a word or phrase, there are two rather large passages which don’t seem to be in the originals – one is the story of the woman taken in adultery – “he who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone”; the other is the “longer ending” of the end of the book of Mark.

Most divergence occurred in the first few centuries, when congregations were small and not yet formalized, the doctrine was in flux, and professional scribes were not always available.  These “errors” take on three forms:

  1. changes to support a particular doctrinal belief or agenda.  One interesting one of these was Marcion – his philosophy was that the God of the Old Testament was separate from the God of the New Testament, who sent Jesus to save us from the God of the OT.
  2. Simple transcription errors: there just weren’t that many literate people; some early scribes could only copy letters but not understand them.
  3. Recognizing errors due to 1 and 2 and attempting to correct, but without access to any better sources.

The whole question of scriptural validity was very important during the Protestant Reformation.  The basic Protestant premise was that authority could be obtained from following the Bible alone, whereas Catholics claimed a historical authority from the apostles in the form of pope and priesthood.  Pointing out changes to the scripture would seem to weaken the Protestant position.  In response to something called Mill’s Apparatus, which pointed out thousands of errors in the commonly accepted Greek Bible vs earlier sources, Daniel Whitby ceded that the Bible may not be original, but claimed that God would not allow text to be corrupted​ so much to not adequately achieve its divine purpose.

Interestingly, the Greek translation that was in common use in Mill’s day was largely a product of Erasmus, who produced a side-by-side printing in Greek and Latin.  It was something of a rushed effort.  In some cases, he lacked Greek sources so he translated from the Latin Vulgate (4th century, Jerome) back into Greek…not original at all!

In the book’s conclusion, Ehrman returns to his own biography.  Since God obviously didn’t somehow miraculously preserve the original words of the Bible, he reasoned, maybe they weren’t inspired in the first place at all?  But then he thought that even if we did have the original books of the Bible, they would still be different and focus on different details, maybe even be contradictory, simply because they are the product of (or at least were given as intermediary to) very human authors, with their own beliefs and “agenda” – just like the scribes who would later copy them.  As an example, he points out the passion stories in Mark and Luke — Mark portrays Jesus in despair and full of suffering, while Luke’s Christ is calm, in control, and accepting of his fate as necessary for the salvation of all.  While it is accepted that Luke used Mark as a major source when writing his own Gospel, he chose to focus on something completely different.

Ehrman: “Readers completely misinterpret Luke” when they “take what Mark says, and take what Luke says, then take what Matthew and John say and meld them all together, so that Jesus says and does all this things that each of the Gospel writers indicate.  Anyone who interprets the Gospels this way is not letting each author have his own say; anyone who does this is not reading what the author wrote in order to understand his message; anyone who does this is not reading the Gospels themselves – he is making up a new Gospel consisting of the four in the New Testament, a new Gospel that is not like any of the ones that have come down to us.”

“Houdini!!!” by Kenneth Silverman

 

Houdini (FYI – he didn’t really like the “Harry” and not even “Mr. Houdini” – just “Houdini”) was a remarkable figure.  “He achieved afterlife as a fabulous archetypal being.”  How did he get to this point?

Skill and dedication to his craft certainly played a part.  He gained fame initially as the “Handcuff King.”  He claimed to be able to get himself out of any pair of handcuffs that were in working condition.  How it did it is not always known.  But, certainly part of the trick involved substantial research – knowing the intricacies of the 20 or 30 most popular models of handcuffs in current use, and having the master keys or relevant lockpicks hidden somewhere on his person.   (For the famous “naked” escapes … there were some rubbery capsule-like objects found in Houdini’s effects that could hold a key or two and then be inserted into some bodily oriface…)  Then there were the “strange” cuffs which were one-offs or custom-made jobs.  For these, he often made a show of testing them out with the owner’s key, then swapping out their key with similar looking one. Or he would make sure the strange cuffs were put higher up the arm so they could be wiggled off easier.  Or, finally, there was always old-fashioned bribery in order to get a copy of the key or obtain similar help.

Besides skill, being an extreme publicity hound undoubtedly helped Houdini find lasting success.  Starting out America, he claimed to be famous all over Europe before he’d even been there; after building up a reputation in the States he did go to Europe and found great success in England and Germany; then when he got back to America he was a really big star.  One successful technique was to visit the local police station when arriving in a new city, and offering to test out there security by being locked up and put in a cell.  Invariably, he would invite members of the press to attend the event, and they would obligingly write up wonderful stories after Houdini freed himself from the best the city’s police could muster after only a few minutes (undoubtedly using some of the methods described above).  He was also famous for being suspended by a crane or from the tallest building in town a hundred feet in the air or more, upside down, and extricating himself from a straightjacket (lots of wiggling!) in just a few minutes.

Later, as he expanded beyond magic into other endeavors, his publicity-seeking gene remained alive and well.  He bought a second hand plane and learned to fly it shortly before a trip to Australia; he whole motivation to learning to fly was to be able to claim being the first to fly a plane on that continent.  (Apparently that claim is now not really recognized.)  He wrote a large number of articles, books, and short stories, but used unattributed ghost writers so extensively it is hard to tell what’s really his own work.

Finally, he ensured an air of mystery about his life because he never really revealed how he did all his tricks.  Unfortunately, the author of this book is also a magician and follows the “code” – he doesn’t  explain the tricks either!  Being curious, I looked up most of them.  There are some good Houdini-specific explanations I found, but the best overall “reveals” were Youtube excerpts from the show “Magic Secrets Revealed.”  (Apparently, the “masked magician” from this show got a lot of heat, but justifies breaking the magician’s code for these tricks because they are so old and well-known anyway.)

Houdini was born as Ehrich (“Harry” comes from “Ehry”) Weiss in Hungary, to a Jewish rabbi father.  The family emigrated to the US when he was a child, but Mayer Weiss struggled to find steady work and provide for large family.  Houdini grew up in poverty.  But, apparently it was a loving childhood – he always respected his father and felt like he got a raw deal; and Houdini had an almost reverential affection for his mother.  Her death really depressed him for the rest of his life, and when he himself died, per his own request Houdini’s burial pillow was a stack of letters his mother had written.

That said, this book didn’t contain a whole lot of info on his childhood.  The story pretty much starts with him doing magic shows at cheap “dime museums” (aka freak shows). How did he get there? What made him want to be a magician?  Unanswered questions…

Houdini was always interested in magic history and used his fortune to build up a formidable collection of texts and artifacts.  While on tour around the world, he looked up and visited with elderly magicians of yesteryear.  One touching story in the book is about his visit to Wiljalba Frikell in Germany.  The aged Frikell was very excited anticipating the visit — but he died the same day Houdini was slated to arrive.  Houdini “retained all his life a small scrap of paper found in Frikell’s dress suit, on which the revolutionary magician had written his last words, in pencil, illegibly.”

This sentence may be a linguistic paradox: As a magician, Houdini knew that magic wasn’t real.  (After being impressed with one of his shows, Theodore Roosevelt asked Houdini whether there really was something supernatural about it all.  “No Colonel – it’s just hocus pocus.”)  Trained magicians like Houdini were well positioned to recognize the fraud of the popular Spiritualist movement, in which mediums claimed communication with dead spirits.   However, most hesitated to speak out, since the mediums’ tricks were often the same as their own: “such exposés came perilously near violating the cardinal rule of magic: Don’t Expose.”

Houdini, however, was famous enough to make a stand without worrying too much about incurring the wrath of his fellows (he was president of the Society of American Magicians, after all).   He was famously intransigent as a member of the Scientific American committee investigating the claims of “Margary“, when the committee was nearly convinced of the veracity of her paranormal claims.  Houdini quickly saw through her shams but nonetheless struggled to convince his academic colleagues.  “Men like <them> are menaces to mankind, because laymen believe them to be as intellectual in all fields as they are in their own particular one.”

Houdini’s death from appendicitis and subsequent infection was sudden, as often the case in a world before antibiotics.  It does seem like an overconfidence in his invincibility, and a failure to heed warning signs about his own health, sadly contributed to his demise.

All-in-all, it seems Houdini lived a genuine and a happy life.  I liked the little anecdote in the book’s appendix by one of his nieces — when she was 4 or 5, she would jump into Houdini’s bed in the mornings.  They would both have their arms outside the covers, but something would start pinching her legs!  Houdini’s dexterous toes were undoubtedly another factor, whether natural or practiced, which contributed to his escapes.