Bookworm: A wild takeover in ‘Council of Animals’

‘How Magicians Think,’ you can walk yourself through a trick, shake your head, and still be wow'd

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“The Council of Animals”

  • By Nick McDonell
  • c.2021, Henry Holt
  • $25.99, $34.99 Canada; 208 pages

All eyes are on you. Twelve of your peers have decided your fate, and you haven't a clue what they'll say. None of their faces are readable. Nobody's smiling but then again, there are no scowls. Will they find this court case favorable for you, or will this go bad? You just can't tell because, in the novel “The Council of Animals” by Nick McDonell, their faces are all furry.

“The Council of Animals” by Nick McDonell.

The abandoned yacht was perhaps not the best place to call a meeting, but that's where everyone was told to gather. The dog arrived first, followed by the horse and the bear. The cat arrived just before the crow, and the baboon called them all to order.

Nobody denied the argument the crow put forth: Humans caused The Calamity. The Calamity destroyed nearly everything, including the humans, all but maybe a dozen or so. And now the animals needed to decide if they should eat the humans that were left.

Aye or nay?

"The Council of Animals" author Nick McDonell.

Now, you might be surprised that there wasn't more confusion at the meeting. Making a point, the baboon threw a stick for dog to fetch. Horse talked non-stop about sugar cubes. When the representative for the mice arrived, the cat pounced. It was chaotic but remember that animals were always able to communicate amongst themselves by speaking grak and so their behavior, however shaky this time, was natural.

Almost immediately, the dog and the bear said “no” to killing the humans. Horse said she loved her jockey but her vote was still “yes,” probably because the baboon found some sugar inside the abandoned yacht. The cat said “no,” the crow said “kill,” and when the mythical creature arrived with its “yes” vote, it appeared that the decision was made.

But before the proceedings could move any further, the dog, the bear, and the cat escaped to forestall the deaths of humans. They needed time to think, and the cat's cave was the perfect place to do it...

Though this book is a little hard to describe, let's try: if “Lord of the Flies” and “Animal Farm” hatched a clutch of large reptile eggs underground beneath a theme park, the result would be “The Council of Animals.”

That's not to say that this book is weird. It's just not like anything you'd expect in a book about animals taking over, and aspects of it – godas and giant lizards, or maybe the comic-like, blatant anthromorphism that snags the story toward the end – feel jarring enough to almost ruin things sometimes. And yet, because author Nick McDonnell's story is narrated by a “historian” who's looking back at what happened from decades past The Calamity, there are laughs here and a quasi-parable that some readers might appreciate.

Some, but not all because, well, okay, this book is a little more than a little different and you'll need extra suspense of belief with it. If you can manage that and you like allegories, “The Council of Animals” might be a book to lay your eyes on.

More:Bookworm: ‘Change Sings’ a joyous book for your child

“How Magicians Think: Misdirection, Deception, and Why Magic Matters”

  • By Joshua Jay
  • c.2021, Workman
  • $27.50, higher in Canada; 310 pages

Pick a card. Any card. Don't show it to anyone. Just look at it, quick, and put it back in the deck anywhere at random. Now think about that card. Think about the number, the suit, how many symbols were on it, the color, the shape. Concentrate hard on the card you chose and then wonder – as in the new book “How Magicians Think” by Josuha Jay – what the magician is concentrating on.

How did he do that?

If you're like most people, that's your first reaction when you catch a magic act: how did the person with the tricks manage to fool you, right in front of your face? That question, says Joshua Jay, is the wrong “mindset.”

“How Magicians Think: Misdirection, Deception, and Why Magic Matters” by Joshua Jay.

“Magic tricks aren't puzzles,” he says, “but most of us see them that way..”

Still, it's natural for you to wonder about Jay's world.

Being a magician, for example, seems like a glamourous life but Jay says that touring means that he misses birthdays, holidays, and “all the important stuff.” He practices constantly and because his hands are essential to his work, he's given up previously-enjoyed hobbies in order to avoid possible injury. Jay says he's traveled all over the world to perform and to watch others perform – he says magic is done differently in every country – and he's been to the famed Magic Castle. He's invented a number of tricks that he knows can be teased apart by other magicians but he's not worried because “Magic has a strict code of ethics.”

“How Magicians Think: Misdirection, Deception, and Why Magic Matters” author Joshua Jay.

If you love being surprised and you love the show, good for you, he says. Magicians work hard to keep the illusion, and if you want that, too, then listen: a magician's words are very important distractions, but they can also ruin the trick. Never watch the same show twice and never try too hard to find the secret.

“When nothing is left to the imagination,” Jay says, “there is nothing left to imagine.”

On our most mawkish days, we sometimes like to romantically think that we've managed to maintain the innocence of a child. That's not good, from a magician's POV, says author Joshua Jay; in reality, kids are the hardest customers to fool.

And so that coin-behind-the-ear trick you planned on doing at Thanksgiving? Throw it out and read “How Magicians Think” instead. Here, Jay explains why even the most jaded among us need magic these days, and how today's magic has gone beyond the tired tropes to become the big-stage attraction that it is, even when some of it is bigger-than-life and often dangerous.

In that, he assures readers that what they see is real.

But how can that be? Jay (no relation to Ricky Jay) isn't telling. What you read in this book – including his list of favorites and tales of performing and creating – won't ruin the illusion for you. You can enjoy “How Magicians Think,” you can walk yourself through a trick, shake your head, and still be wow'd. In fact, slack-jawed awe ... yeah, it's in the cards.

More:Bookworm: Concerned about climate change? Read ‘Trashlands’

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.