16 April, 2008

Hiding the Elephant, by Jim Steinmeyer - a review

Hiding the Elephant
So I have just literally this morning finished consuming the last few pages of the incredibly entertaining "Hiding the Elephant" by Jim Steinmeyer, he who designed David Copperfield's illusions and provided stage FX for several Broadway shows (including the staggeringly impressive transformation scene at the climax of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" that Flyingpops and I marvelled/scratched our heads at when in New York)...as such an accomplished creator of the seemingly impossible, Mr Steinmeyer is probably the most uniquely appropriate person to write a definitive history of the "Golden Age of Magic", and he definitely doesn't disappoint.

The story opens in gas-lit Victorian London to the terrified gasps from the audience as "Pepper's Ghost" takes it's first shimmering steps across the stage, through the birth of the Spiritualist movement (and the frauds that both perpetuated, and grew rich from it), onto the lavish productions of the Egyptian Theatre as magic shows came of age, then across the ocean to America, following the desperate attempts by competing shows to clone each others illusions, resorting (on occasion) to robbery, bribery, spying and even (staggeringly) blatantly walking on stage during a show! Watch, through all this as Houdini dreams and struggles for recognition in a field where he is destined to be forever mediocre at best, the crowd clamoring only for his escapes (much to his frustration) leading, eventually, to him lashing out at his idols and crushing competitors around him until his sad undoing by his own arrogance...

At each stage, the seven (yes, only seven) basic concepts behind the most famous illusions in history are clearly explained, with simple diagrams, and even snippets of the originators notes or memoirs to accompany them...where no clear idea remains how the tricks were accomplished (Houndini's vanishing Elephant at the Hippodrome, for example), a very good argument is made for a possible solution, and then, at the last, the author himself takes on the task of re-creating (using masterful detective work, his own considerable experience, and detailed historical research) the final remaining mystery from the time - that of the Vanishing Donkey - an illusion that was somehow never solved until we read of his attempt to perform it live before an audience of fellow magicians in the final chapter...

An unmissable book...

5 comments:

Mum said...

Fascinating!

Tom Hopwood said...

I've read Hiding the Salami by Julian Clarey but this one is Magic.

-Mr X- said...

All my "reading" these days is on audio CD in my car on the commute to work. This book doesn't come in audio CD format - but fortunately I'm still working through the entire audio CD collection of Harry Potter (on book 3 now ;-) )

-Mr X-

Kev Brown said...

This book sound fascinating! I should really look into buying a copy, thanks for sharing your review with us!

¨°º©[ Fink ]©º°¨ said...

Mum, it's yours next if you want it... :)

Tommo, anything to do with Clarey's "sticky moments" I would treat with extreme caution... :0

Mr.X - I'm back on book 2 on my new Nokia (makes the tube so much more pleasant)... ;)

Mr Brown - It's a pleasure... ;)