Thursday, October 22, 2015

Houdini and Lee

I read two books recently that were so excellent that I'm going to feature them here.

The first is The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, and it's a recounting of Houdini's fierce war against spiritualism. I'd read about this subject before, but never in this depth, and it's a remarkable story. Spiritualism had an extraordinary rise in popularity after WWI, and in the context of millions of bereaved families hoping to "speak" to their war dead, it makes sense.

The mediums weren't authentic, of course, but they were incredibly convincing (and stunningly influential). Their techniques were lifted from magicians, primarily, but spiritualists used them (and the emotional desperation of the individuals present) to create "miraculous" communication with the "spirit world".

Houdini made it a personal crusade to unmask the mediums, and he did so with a savage relentlessness. The story of how he did so makes for fascinating reading.

The second book is The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee's Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History. I had no idea until I read this book about the deep bonds between Lee and Washington's family. He married the daughter of Washington's adopted son, and Lee's father delivered the eulogy for Washington.

What I particularly appreciated about this book was that it gave a nuanced portrait of Lee. He was a noble man, and very honorable, except when he was being ignoble and dishonorable. Lee has been made so mythic by history that he has never been allowed to be human, but he is very human in Jonathan Horn's hands.

If you're interested in the Civil War but are tired of polemics, this is a worthwhile departure and an excellent read.

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