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EDITOR'S CHOICE

Mysterious Stranger: A Book of Magic by David Blaine (Villard, 214 pages, $24.95). To get attention (at which he is a widely acknowledged modern master), David Blaine likes to bury himself alive for a week. Or "entomb" himself (his word) in a large block of ice in Times Square for 61 hours (the New York Times covered it daily). Never mind that this is just "Jackass" raised to the level of carnival theater. It's always tough to ignore. Whether or not his reported consortings with famous actresses (Madonna, for instance) and supermodels and the like are similar exercises in well-crafted attention-getting, this delightful book by the "street" magician Blaine comes front-loaded with a fascinating and tantalizing piece of real information: Blaine's fascination with magic began at the age of 5 with the cover picture of a library book. The book was "The Secrets of Houdini" and the cover -- reproduced in the book -- had Houdini "bound and tied, lying on his side while balancing on the edge of a roof. He had such an intense look in his eyes; it looked like he was fighting for his life. This image never left my mind. I intuitively understood that magic is an incredible art that in one mysterious moment can make you question everything."

And then, at the end, one finds the details of "Mysterious Stranger's" piece de resistance -- Blaine's "challenge" in which readers are instructed to figure out the clues enclosed in the book to a $100,000 treasure concealed somewhere in the United States.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

This wonderfully designed and lavishly illustrated book is a good deal of fun on its own. Scratch any magician, it seems, and you will almost invariably find a happy scholar -- a deeply devoted student of the history of his craft as well as a nicely remunerated practitioner. The great Ricky Jay, who can slice a potato in two with a playing card thrown from 20 yards away, is a tireless raconteur, collector and scholar in the lore of magic and freak showbiz (see Jay's classic book "Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women"). Even with the help of bibliophilic ghostwriter Larry Sloman (Blaine calls him "Ratso"), Blaine isn't close to the Jay class. Still, this rollickingly odd autobiography is jammed front to back with irresistible morsels of magic history and lore. One discovers, for instance, that Houdini (real name Erich Weiss) was dismayingly averse to bathing and changing his underwear. On the other hand, when heckled by newly crowned heavyweight boxing champ Jess Willard, Houdini calmly informed the great boxer "I will be Harry Houdini when you are not heavyweight champion of the world." One man's name is now a household word, one's isn't. Case closed.

Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces by Wislawa Szymborska (Harcourt, 233 pages, $24). Ignore the similarities to the title of an aggressively alternative new anthology edited by Dave Eggers. "Nonrequired Reading" was the name of a newspaper book column written for several decades by the 1996 Nobel laureate, a poet who is, by all odds, one of the wittiest and most incisive minds extant. "Sometimes the book is my main subject" she admits, "at other times, it's just a pretext for spinning out various loose connections." These brilliantly compressed micro-essays (less than two pages is the common length) cover everything from absent-minded professors, Hans Christian Andersen's manners and Szymborska's notorious difficulty with statistics (she wrote a great poem about it) to divas, vandals, dreams, Roman myths and the histories of cleanliness and buttons. ("They didn't really sprout on trees," she notes merrily, "some tribe must have thought them up and used them. This probably occurred sometime in the early middle ages.")

She likes scientific subjects, that's for certain. The books she covers may be almost entirely Polish, but she is as far from provincial as a writer can be. References, for instance, to Fellini and Woody Allen movies and the Three Tenors fly by easily.

That there is an art to the miniature is ancient news -- known, above all, to poets. You'll find it here in eccentric abundance.

-- Jeff Simon

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