HOUDINI

MASTER OF ILLUSION

Among the outpouring of new releases and reprints on the life of Houdini comes Cox’s (African American Teachers, not reviewed, etc.) biography with only Houdini’s piercing eyes, now a symbol of the man still known as the world’s greatest magician, gracing the cover. Born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874, Houdini and his family moved to the US in 1876. He grew up in poverty, until he bought a secondhand copy of the memoirs of Robert-Houdin, a famous magician of his time, and the rest, as the saying goes, was history. Cox reveals a man who, obsessed with breaking away from poverty and becoming famous, literally renamed himself and maintained a personal façade as illusive as his magic acts. Houdini’s obsessive personality carried over into his relationships, particularly with his mother, and because he was uneducated, it led him to develop an extensive library of magic books, letters, and other realia. Later in life, it served him to discredit fake mediums, eventually leading up to testimony before Congress. And of course it was his obsessive nature that drove him to dream up new acts, train athletically, and perform death-defying stunts, all to the detriment of his health. What will really keep readers turning the pages are Cox’s descriptions of Houdini’s legendary feats, including the Metamorphosis, Milk Can Escape, and the Vanishing Elephant, and his genius as an escape artist. Cox sparks additional interest through depictions of the political sentiments of the time, such as the rampant discrimination the Jewish Houdini experienced throughout pre-WWI Europe. Gleaning information from Houdini’s journals (perhaps Houdini’s only truthful statements about himself) and primary sources from the time period, Cox presents a well-researched and fascinating account of a man whose life continues to mystify us. (b&w photographs, bibliography, index) (Biography. 11-15)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-590-94960-8

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2001

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A YEAR DOWN YONDER

From the Grandma Dowdel series , Vol. 2

Set in 1937 during the so-called “Roosevelt recession,” tight times compel Mary Alice, a Chicago girl, to move in with her grandmother, who lives in a tiny Illinois town so behind the times that it doesn’t “even have a picture show.”

This winning sequel takes place several years after A Long Way From Chicago (1998) leaves off, once again introducing the reader to Mary Alice, now 15, and her Grandma Dowdel, an indomitable, idiosyncratic woman who despite her hard-as-nails exterior is able to see her granddaughter with “eyes in the back of her heart.” Peck’s slice-of-life novel doesn’t have much in the way of a sustained plot; it could almost be a series of short stories strung together, but the narrative never flags, and the book, populated with distinctive, soulful characters who run the gamut from crazy to conventional, holds the reader’s interest throughout. And the vignettes, some involving a persnickety Grandma acting nasty while accomplishing a kindness, others in which she deflates an overblown ego or deals with a petty rivalry, are original and wildly funny. The arena may be a small hick town, but the battle for domination over that tiny turf is fierce, and Grandma Dowdel is a canny player for whom losing isn’t an option. The first-person narration is infused with rich, colorful language—“She was skinnier than a toothpick with termites”—and Mary Alice’s shrewd, prickly observations: “Anybody who thinks small towns are friendlier than big cities lives in a big city.”

Year-round fun. (Fiction. 11-13)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2000

ISBN: 978-0-8037-2518-8

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2000

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JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWED THE KEY

From the Joey Pigza series , Vol. 1

If Rotten Ralph were a boy instead of a cat, he might be Joey, the hyperactive hero of Gantos's new book, except that Joey is never bad on purpose. In the first-person narration, it quickly becomes clear that he can't help himself; he's so wound up that he not only practically bounces off walls, he literally swallows his house key (which he wears on a string around his neck and which he pull back up, complete with souvenirs of the food he just ate). Gantos's straightforward view of what it's like to be Joey is so honest it hurts. Joey has been abandoned by his alcoholic father and, for a time, by his mother (who also drinks); his grandmother, just as hyperactive as he is, abuses Joey while he's in her care. One mishap after another leads Joey first from his regular classroom to special education classes and then to a special education school. With medication, counseling, and positive reinforcement, Joey calms down. Despite a lighthearted title and jacket painting, the story is simultaneously comic and horrific; Gantos takes readers right inside a human whirlwind where the ride is bumpy and often frightening, especially for Joey. But a river of compassion for the characters runs through the pages, not only for Joey but for his overextended mom and his usually patient, always worried (if only for their safety) teachers. Mature readers will find this harsh tale softened by unusual empathy and leavened by genuinely funny events. (Fiction. 11-13)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-374-33664-4

Page Count: 154

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1998

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