29 September 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

I read Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane double-quick two weeks ago, knowing that whoever was next in the library queue had likely been waiting two months with bated breath like I did. Regrettably, since I didn't write it up right away, I shan't review it in much depth--luckily, pretty much of the rest of the Internet will have that covered.

What struck me most, though, is something I said on Tumblr: "It's a kids' book that's too scary for kids. It's as scary as a kids' book would be if a kids' book was real." (Not that Gaiman's actual kids' books aren't scary as heck: how the bloodthirsty eight-year-old I was would have rejoiced over the first page of The Graveyard Book: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.") In fact, it reminds me a great deal of A Wrinkle in Time or Grimms' folktales, stories that frightened and shaped me as a little girl; like them, Ocean deals with dark worlds bleeding into our own, protection and sacrifice, and a child's dawning realizations about the complex imperfections of the adult world.

22 September 2013

Comics binge

Spent a lovely late-summer morning a few weeks ago sitting on the back deck, ignoring my constantly rearranged to-be-read shelf (publication date? alpha by author? how long I've had the book without getting around to reading it?), and enjoying a stack of comics. Ahhhhhh.

Saga, Volume 1, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples: Sweet Jesus, is this title good. Vaughan's story, following a couple from opposite sides of a centuries-long war, searching for a safe place for themselves and their baby girl, has drive and heart and awesome cool stuff (obviously, I would love a Lying Cat). I'm totally in love in Staples's art. And in the immortal words of LeVar Burton, you don't have to take my word for it: it recently won the Hugo award for Best Graphic Story.

Tropic of the Sea, Satoshi Kon: Weird, sweet little manga about a sleepy seaside town where the Yashiro family has spent generations protecting mermaids' eggs in exchange for filled nets for the town's fisherman. The story's tension pulls between progress and tradition, the natural world and human prosperity, and keeps the central question--do the mermaids even exist? and even if they don't, is their metaphorical significance something worthy of preservation?--ambiguous for a satisfying chunk of the tale.

Criminal: The Last of the Innocents, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips: Jeez, how did I not know noir comics were a thing? This arc is (very very) loosely based on the world of Archie comics, but it's got grit to spare, murder and betrayal and corruption, all the delightful trappings of one of my favorite genres. And the art, which alternates between highly stylized, brightly colored Teen Shenanigans (rather less wholesome than their inspiration) and a muted, neutral and shadowy palette for an adult world rotten to its core, is phenomenal. I'll definitely be seeking out more installments of this title--luckily, there are plenty.

Helter Skelter, Kyoko Okazaki: Whoa nelly, this one's not for the faint of heart! Helter Skelter centers on supermodel Liliko, less woman than construct, whose full-body plastic surgery is beginning to fail in grotesque ways, her mind disintegrating in tandem. The art is purposefully ugly, erotic without being at all sexy, and never bothers with subtlety, fearless and assaultive in a way that's exceedingly rare in the work of female authors. I loved it, even as it made my skin crawl. I've never read anything like it. And I'm really looking forward to experiencing more of her work--Vertical publishes Pink, about a call girl with a pet crocodile, this November.

(FTC disclaimer: I received free copies of Tropic of the Sea and Helter Skelter from Vertical, Inc., in exchange for honest reviews.)

15 September 2013

I Am a Cat (Soseki Natsume)

Hmm, I wonder why I wanted to read this book? :)

Soseki Natsume's I Am a Cat was published serially from 1905-06, and (I'm reliably informed) is considered a modern classic in Japan, a book pretty much everyone has read--I'm super proud of myself for picking up that a curmudgeonly tomcat in the awesome manga Chi's Sweet Home is a homage to this nameless feline narrator's grouchy mentor, Rickshaw Blacky.

The novel's actually less Kitty Adventures and more a human-focused satire, as the cat observes (with jaded eye, natch) the humans of his acquaintance, most notably his schoolteacher owner, called "Mr. Sneaze" in the translation I read--I'm pretty sure everyone's names are punny in the original, but alas, I can't read Japanese and am unlikely ever to learn. Though Sneaze only teaches high school English (and is relentlessly mocked by his students), he considers himself an intellectual and a scholar, and hangs out with a gang of other mediocrities with similarly inflated views of themselves. There's Waverhouse, whose principal joy in life is telling outrageous stories with a straight face and then laughing at those hapless enough to take him seriously; prolific poet Beauchamp Blowlamp, happy to turn his verse to any occasion; perpetual grad student Avalon Coldmoon, whose thesis on "The Effects of Ultraviolet Rays upon Galvanic Action in the Eyeball of the Frog" is held up by his inability to grind a chunk of glass into a perfect sphere; Zen philosopher Singleman, who always has a portentous phrase at the ready. They endlessly discuss life, love, literature, politics--the book takes place during the late Meiji era, when Japan was first opening up to Western influence, a sudden mixing of traditions that caused massive cultural upheaval. There's a crazy chapter, for instance, that centers on Sneaze's battles with the students of the next-door boys' school, who are constantly hitting their baseballs over his fence.

It took me a few weeks to get through the book--it's long, and the register's rather formal, and I found it slow going at first...then somewhere around a third of the way through, I just fell in love. Part of that was getting used to the pace, which is somehow both madcap and leisurely (that's a cat for ya!); part of that was figuring out exactly what kind of book I was reading, picaresque and comic in a way that reminds me (and this is high praise) of Sterne's Tristram Shandy--which is, in fact, name-checked in the text! And while perhaps there's not as many feline shenanigans as I'd expected, when Soseki does turn his eye to cat behavior, he's got it down: "[H]uman beings being the nitwits that they are, a purring approach to any of them, either male or female, is usually interpreted as proof that I love them, and they consequently let me do as I like, and on occasions, poor dumb creatures, they even stroke my head." Or a lengthy passage about the cat's fitness regimen, assisted by an unwilling mantis:
[F]aced with such aggression, I have no choice but to give him a whack on the nose. My foe collapses, falls down flat with his wings spread out on either side. Extending a front paw, I hold him down in that squashed-face position whilst I take a little breather. Myself at ease again, I let the wretched perisher get up and struggle on. Then, again, I catch him. . . . Eventually, the mantis abandons hope and, even when free to drag himself away, lies there motionless. I lift him lightly in my mouth and spit him out again. Since, even then, he just lies loafing on the ground, I prod him with my paw. Under that stimulus the mantis hauls himself erect and makes a kind of clumsy leap for freedom. So once again, down comes my quick immobilizing paw. In the end, bored by the repetitions, I conclude my exercise by eating him.
And there's a gimlet eye for the people, too--I particularly loved the still-applicable passage about how "[m]ore often than not, modern poets are unable to answer even the simplest questions about their own work. Such poets write by direct inspiration, and are not to be held responsible for more than the writing. Annotation, critical commentary, exegesis, all these may be left to the scholars. We poets are not to be bothered with such trivia." Hee hee.

N.B. (and SPOILER ALERT): the book doesn't end well for the cat! I'm usually annoyed when the introduction to a book gives away the ending, but I'm glad I knew that going in, so I'm passing the warning along to you.

10 September 2013

Cat Sense (John Bradshaw)

Whelp, that's 80% of my Christmas shopping done...because nearly everyone I know needs to read Cat Sense. (And my eARC is gonna expire, so I need to get a copy for myself too!)

It's no secret that I'm a cat lady. I mean, I love dogs too, and our rabbit Bernie is a hoppity cilantro-noshing jeans-nibbling ambassador for his entire species, but kitties are the beasts closest to my heart. And I love learning about them--I remember dissecting a cat my first semester in college and then coming home at Christmas to our own kitties, running my hands over them and whispering, "I know what you look like inside." (OK, now I've written that, I sound like a serial killer. It was very awestruck and appreciative, I promise!) I've often thought they are really far better animals than we are--their perfect adaptations to hunting, how their sleek musculature rolls under their skin, those enormous eyes. And, of course, I've had important relationships with several, especially my wee yell-y Siamese, Julie, with whom I lived for sixteen years; I will never receive her kind of devotion from another creature. She helped me become who I am.

All of which is to say, of course I wanted to read this book the moment I discovered it existed. I was richly rewarded: Bradshaw's account of the history, biology, and behavior of the domestic cat  is extensive and full of buttonhole-worthy tidbits--and his ultimate argument that, in order to preserve their future, we need to start thinking seriously about actually finishing the job of domestication by breeding cats for sociability, really opened up a new avenue in my thinking. (And made me happy to think that Benny, who wasn't neutered until he was around four, almost certainly has descendants out there, and they must be terrific cats!)

Here, have some kitty facts that I've been bugging my husband with while he plays Candy Crush Saga:
  • You know who was totally all about the orange tabbies? THE FREAKING VIKINGS, THAT'S WHO. Brains' new nickname is obviously "my little Viking cat."
  • 4000 years ago, the Egyptians developed the first word for "domestic cat," Miw; soon, it was also a name for girls. Same thing happened with the Romans, for whom "Felicula" (little kitten) was a common girls' name about two millennia ago.
  • We all saw that medieval manuscript the kitty walked across with ink on its paws, right? Bradshaw cites several examples of places and times (like first-century Britain) where we know cats were well integrated into society because they left footprints on clay tiles.
  • We all know cats can see better in dim light than we do...but it'd never occurred to me that they see worse than we do in full daylight. Obvious in retrospect.
  • Oh, also I read about the most arduous scientific experiment ever, testing how the amount of handling kittens get in their second month of life affects their relationship with humans. It involved picking up 29 eight-week-old kittens (who are at their MAXIMUM CUTENESS), to see what they'd do. Science is awesome.
There's more, of course, including some great tips on keeping indoor cats happy, and info about the structure of feral cat societies that explains (ruefully) why Brains and my parents' cat, Juju, keep scrapping even after living together for three months--they're angling for matriarchal dominance. Unfortunately, I don't think there's much I can do about that, besides try to keep their stress down individually with lots of pets. Another arduous process!

I suppose it's not too much of a stretch to say that this book is highly recommended for cat folk--but I'm gonna say it anyway. Also, meow.

(FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Basic Books, in exchange for an honest review.)

09 September 2013

The Waking Dark (Robin Wasserman)

I loved Robin Wasserman's last novel, the occult thriller The Book of Blood and Shadow, so of course I scrambled to pick up The Waking Dark, a harrowing horror story set in small-town Kansas, and read it in a night or two. And while I generally like a soup├žon more of the straight-up supernatural chocolate in my horrific peanut butter, Waking Dark is definitely a first-rate novel: heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, thought-provoking, spine-tingling--really a workout for all your internal organs.

To begin with--quite literally--it has one of the best opening chapters I've ever read. It's an account of what Oleander, Kansas, refers to in its aftermath as "the killing day," when five ordinary citizens murder eight others--with shotgun, knife, fire, automobile, pillow--before turning on themselves. Five teenagers (and let me tell you, the age of the protagonists is the only thing making this YA) are at these scenes of sudden carnage: Daniel Ghent, son of the alcoholic, apocalyptic Preacher, who tries to protect his little brother from the worst excesses of their father and the world; Jule Prevette, whose notorious family cooks meth on the decaying outskirts of Oleander; Ellie King, fervently Christian, who witness her reverend crucifying a man before burning the church down with him inside; closeted football player Jeremiah West, whose boyfriend Nick is mowed down by a car; and Cassandra Porter, killer and victim, who smothers the infant boy she's babysitting before jumping out a second-story window. She is the only murderer to survive, incarcerated in what she believes to be a mental hospital, with no explanation to offer.

Oleander buries their dead, as they have done before. In fact, the current town is built on the ruins of the first Oleander, which burned to the ground in 1899, taking 1,123 inhabitants with it--the details of the catastrophe lost to history. A year after the killing day, a tornado sweeps through town, an EF-5 that destroys entire neighborhoods. And a facility on the edge of town, the one Cass has spent a year in, the one which she realizes was never a psych ward at all, as a "doctor" leads her out of the collapsing building and they step over armed and uniformed corpses. After the storm, Oleander finds itself cut off from the outside world--no phones, no internet, tanks and men with guns blocking the roads out. No one tells them why.

But it's clear that things are different: tempers shorten, speculations grow wilder, suspicion and violence creep into the hearts of the townspeople. As their small society begins to spiral out of control, Daniel, Jule, Ellie, West, and Cass, seemingly unaffected by the paranoia and rage flooding Oleander, search for answers. What has happened here? Has the Devil taken over? Or is it simply the darkness in every human heart, brought to the surface and let out to play?

I suppose you could call this a dystopia--Oleander certainly suffers the end of its little world--but like Blood and Shadow before it, Waking Dark is a "kids' book" with serious philosophical consideration behind it. At its core, it grapples with the central questions of human nature: are we, in our most essential selves, good or evil? How are these terms--self, good, evil--even defined? Wasserman doesn't offer answers, and doesn't shield her characters from the consequences of their own actions, giving us a tale that's complex, propulsive, and often genuinely frightening.

P.S. As a native Kansan, I've gotta point out a couple of inaccuracies--there's more than one abortion provider in the state (though not many more); and for Pete's sake, novelists of my acquaintance, the principal crop of this state is WHEAT, not corn. But Wasserman more than makes up for these quibbles with this haunting passage:
Tornadoes, unlike hurricanes, do not get named. A hurricane is an unwelcome houseguest, one you see coming. You can watch it from afar, learning its habits and its nature. The hurricane is the enemy you know well enough to hate, the lover who inevitably betrays. The tornado is the stranger at the door with a knife. It has no features, no habits, no face.
I knooooooow. That second-to-last sentence I will carry with me forever.

(FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Knopf Books for Young Readers, in exchange for an honest review.)
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