CATS A – Z by Martha Knox

CATS A - Z

A while back I received an e-mail from artist Martha Knox asking whether I’d like to review her book CATS A – Z. In recent years I’ve become wary of these requests because most of the time the cat books I’m offered are either annoyingly humourous (sorry but I’m not into Lol cats or “I haz” cats) or too mawkish. Of course, I love my cats and think they are cute but they are far more than that. They are interesting, fascinating and complex. Something told me that Martha’s book would be quite different. I was right. The book she sent me is simply amazing.

Just look at this woodcut of a sleeping cat. It serves as the end pages of the book.

Endpages Martha Knox

In her book Martha Knox goes through the alphabet sharing true stories and mythology, accompanied by bits of information and illustrated with gorgeous woodcuts. Some of the stories are stunning, some are sad, others are informative. Some stories are about famous cats like All Ball, a kitten adopted by a gorilla in a zoo. Others about unknown cats or literary cats like Raton from Jean de La Fontaine’s fable The Monkey and the Cat.

Zombi by Martha Knox

The picture above shows Zombi, the cat of British poet Richard Southey. Southey claimed in a letter that his cat saw the devil.

Martha Knox

I truly love this book and think that many poeple would enjoy it just as much. It would make a wonderful gift for any cat or art lover.

For those who want to find out more, maybe buy the book, read something about Martha or even buy a print, here are a few links:

The book’s release announcement on Martha’s blog: click here 

Impressions of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives

Caroline, in her kitchen, near the city center, Europe, January 2012. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. I had a feeling I wouldn’t finish The Savage Detectives. 700+ pages is just a tad too long for me these days. Still, I was full of good intentions and even bought the German translation early in December thinking that if it had to be a chunky book it might be wise to read it in German and not in the Spanish original. It’s been far over a year since I’ve read my last Spanish novel and I didn’t want to tempt fate. Chunky novels have always been a huge turn off for me but these days, with so little spare time, I’m even less in the mood for a longterm reading committment.

Despite all these length related reservations and after having read the first 50 pages I thought I might finish easily. The whole of Part I was a surprisingly quick and amusing read. Admittedly, it was occasionally a bit exasperating to read the fictitious diary of a breathless, overenthusiastic and over sexed young man but it was at the same time refreshing. The reason why I didn’t manage to finish was a pure case of “wrong reader-right book ” or something like that. Listening to Juan García Madero telling the story of how he got involved with the movement of visceral realism, frantically wrote poetry and discovered the joys of sex made me feel as if I had met one of my teenage friends again. We were reading the same books as Juan Gracía; the Surrealists, Perec, Lautréamont. We were fascinated by experimental literature, the nouveau roman and anything that smelled avantgarde and nontraditional. It seems that most people who experiment with writing and literature revisit the same masters. Meeting a literary figure like Madero was almost eerie. Now, apart from not doing well with chunky books I often don’t do too well with novels about writing.  As much as I love memoirs and non-fiction books about reading and writing, I find a novel about the same topics artificial.

By the time I started part II, which consists of several dozens of short chapters, all told by another narrator who adds information and elements to the whole story, I knew I couldn’t finish. There were too many other books calling me. First Nick Hornby’s essay collection Housekeeping vs The Dirt, then I started Henry Green’s Party Going and my own readalong title Zennor in Darkness and finally I developed an obsession. All the books on my TBR pile which were written by someone named Elizabeth started calling me. First it was Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, then Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, after that Elizabeth Berridge’s Across the Common followed by Elizabeth Jane Howard’s After Julius and finally Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris. I know, this sounds serious and I will have to analyze this weird obsessive compulsion at a later date. I would say the name is a pure coincidence but what is not is the size of their books, all just under 200 pages.

There is one thing that puzzled me a great deal while reading The Savage Detectives. While all these people in Bolaños novel celebrate short literary forms, like poetry, their author chose this traditional form of the long novel. Is that why part I is composed of short diary entries and part II – a 500 pages long sequence – of short chapters? To make us believe he does, after all write a short form? He is cheating, isn’t he?

In any case, even though Mrs Cat started supervising my reading progress, I had to throw in the towel and put The Savage Detectives on the half-read chunkster pile where it’s sitting right next to Anna Karenina. A far better fate than the one that befell Dumas’ La Reine Margot. That one was disposed of.

I have not given up on Bolaño. Far from it. There are still many others of his books on my piles and one of them will be my first one in 2012. Not sure which one though. 2666, Amulet, Last Evenings on Earth or Monsieur Pain?

If you want to read a few proper reviews of The Savage Detectives, please make sure to visit the hosts of the readalong Rise and Richard and the other participants. Here is Bellezza’s post and Sarah’s.

On Negative “Reviews”, Bookmark Ripping and Nick Hornby

In German a slating review is called a “Verriss” which comes from the word “verreissen” – pull to pieces. When I discovered yesterday what the kitty had done to one of the free bookmarks I got in the bookshop, I thought it was somehow apt to use a picture of it for this post.

I’m not the first nor the last who will mention the debate that was raging on Goodreads, Twitter, a few blogs and even in the newspapers last week. Some of the discussions, although heated, were interesting, while others were alienating or downright offensive. In any case they got me thinking about “reviews” in general and “negative reviews” in particular.

The first incident started on Goodreads where a reader posted a negative review of a YA novel (see here). For reasons I do not understand this triggered a massive response from YA novelists who slagged her off collectively. More and more people entered the debate and in the end it looked like some sort of author versus reader war. I have read her review and while it was easy to see that she didn’t like the book, I didn’t think she was offensive. A lot of these debates were going on on blogs and twitter and were picked up by mainstream media like the guardian here. The guardian article then triggered further responses, one from the YA novelist Maggie Stiefvater (here) which annoyed many bloggers but which I personally find very interesting and balanced.

The next incident happened on the page of the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons where a reviewer posted a very negative review (you can find it here) of a Fantasy novel that many like. This has created a response and an intensity of response I found amazing in itself. I was so captivated I could hardly stop reading. At some point a lot was censored.

Sure, the question comes up whether such heated debates only happen when it comes to genre but I do not think so. When you write literary books you even may end up being torn apart by professional critics which may prove to be more fatal. In the cases mentioned above, there were at least people supporting the author.

Much of the debate was circling around the notion of “proper review” and taking into account what a “proper review” is or should be. It was said that a review can be negative or positive but it shouldn’t manipulate the reader or be guided by intense emotions. With this interpretation of review in mind, it was stated that one shouldn’t write an emotionally charged negative review. If you do so, it’s rather an attack than a review.

I for one do not enjoy writing too negative or snarky book reviews. I have seen too many positive reviews of books I didn’t like on other blogs to find it appropriate to be snarky. Why would I want to ridicule a book? That’s like ridiculing someone’s taste in books. Very often I find that negative reviews are not balanced and are used to make the reviewer look good. They often work along the same lines and are aggressive and offensive. They also often rely on saying negative things about the author and ultimately about his readers.

Still this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say what we like or don’t like but there is always so much that works in a book anyway or that we know will work for others that we should try to emphasize it. I have found wonderful books through someone else’s careful and thoughtful negative review.

Last week, instead of reading The Savage Detectives, I spent a lot of time with Nick Hornby’s wonderful essay collection Housekeeping vs The Dirt which he wrote for the magazine Believer. One of their mottos, as he writes is Thou Shalt Not Slag Anyone Of. As he explains further

As I understand it, the founders of the magazine wanted one place, one tiny corner of the world, in which writers could be sure that they weren’t going to get a kicking; predictably and depressingly, this ambition was mocked mercilessly, mostly by those critics whose children would go hungry if their parent’s weren’t able to abuse authors whose books they didn’t like much.

When I visit a new blog I read a few posts here and there and I’m very glad if I see the writer has written about books he/she likes and about some he/she doesn’t like and I will pay extra attention when reading negative reviews. Not too long ago I was on a blog who reviewed a book that another blogger had recommended as being particularly great. Said blogger not only hated the book but found it to be insulting his/her intelligence. The blogger went on and on how weird it was that another person did recommend this. He/she took it apart in minute detail, making herself/himself look good and witty in the process and of course that person got a lot of applause. People loved the snark, couldn’t get enough of it. I wonder if anyone else felt as bad as I did. What about the person who did recommend the book (mercifully the name wasn’t given)? Funnily it is a book that I have read and think in its genre it is a very good book. If said blogger only reads romance or even only literary fiction he/she wouldn’t get it and shouldn’t even bother reading it. Reading it and then emphasizing that this isn’t what we would normally read because it is beyond us, is a bit shameful. Maybe the person did sound intelligent, she certainly didn’t sound kind.

There is an instance in which I find a negative review acceptable and that is when the book is morally unacceptable. When it glorifies oppression, racism, sexism, or is a vehicle of harmful propaganda. In that case the negative review could serve as a warning for the reader and is even necessary.

Another instance in which I find it acceptable is when a literary writer who is extremely smug in his utterances about others and dismissive of other’s craft writes something that is bad. In that case you can say, he or she had it coming.

How about you? Do you like to read snarky reviews? Do you write them?

To end on a positive note, here is a picture of  the bookmark ripper and, no, that’s not my bed, excuse me, that’s one of his own. Fluffy and comfy, original Icelandic eider-down.

Colette: La Chatte – The Cat (1933)

I’m so pleased that I actually found a picture of the old 60s paperback of La Chatte that I bought second-hand a few years ago. These old Le Livre de Poche editions have such an incredible charm.

The book is available in English as Gigi and The Cat which is very misleading as Gigi is an independent story in its own right as much as The Cat and pairing them like this sounds as if that was the book’s title. I realised this when reading the review of the two books on Literary Relish’s blog.

Reading tastes change, at least mine do, but some authors will always remain favourites. One of those authors who is special to me and has always been is Colette. She is such an accomplished writer, a masterful stylist, a great storyteller and a psychologist of superior order. She can take a story that looks simple and nondescript and turn it into a complex piece of writing, revealing the numerous layers of motives and motivations behind actions. Her descriptions of people and settings are some of the best I have read. Her vocabulary is selected and she tried to find the exact and appropriate expression at any moment. Still there is no superfluous word or unnecessary adornment in her writing.

La Chatte is no exception. It has a subject to which I relate but it is far more than the story of a relationship between a man and his cat. It is a subtle analysis of love versus passion, of marriage versus celibacy, of childhood and growing up, of change and permanence. The story also captures the dynamics of disenchantment following the recognition that one’s object of desire is flawed.

The story is simple and can be told in a few words. Childhood friends Alain and Camille are going to be married. The lively and insensitive Camille is looking forward to her new life but Alain, who has to leave behind his beloved cat and the home of a happy childhood, is not as joyful as the bride. The relationship he has with the Chartreux cat Saha is very intense and emotional. They share rituals and habits and are deeply attached to each other. The cat doesn’t like Camille and the young woman thinks her future husband is slightly silly when it comes to the animal.

The newlyweds are meant to live at the old house with its splendid garden but at first they move to a friend’s apartment while Paul’s old rooms and the family home are being transformed into a bigger apartment for them.

Paul cannot adjust to his new life and sneaks off to his parents’ house frequently. Whenever he returns the cats looks thinner and thinner. She misses him and doesn’t eat anymore. Finally he takes her with him to his new home. To make things easier for the cat and his wife, Alain tries to teach her the cat’s ways but Camille couldn’t care less.

What unfolds is a story of jealousy and hatred between Camille and Saha. It is an uneven fight, shocking at times. Most of it happens behind Alain’s back but in the end, after something horrible has occurred, he notices what is going on. Camille’s reactions to the cat and the way she treats her opens an escape route for Alain and tells him a lot about his wife that he hadn’t seen before.

I really liked Alain who is a dreamer and so unprepared  for married life. He is an only child of very rich parents and the beautiful family home is stately and imposing and so is the old garden. One of Alain’s and the cat’s biggest joys is sitting quietly on a chair, watching birds, smelling the flowers and do nothing else but contemplate their surroundings.

One wonders what motivated Alain to get married in the first place. He was so content before, enjoying a life of leisure.  He shares everything with the cat apart from a sexual relationship which seems the only reason why he let Camille sweep him away into marriage. He realizes that he doesn’t need to be married to get what he needs. He can always have girl-friends.

The deep affection he and the cat have for each other is very touching. Colette loved cats but I think the cat could be replaced by a friend or a brother, a sister, anyone with whom one wouldn’t have a sexual relationship. I think Colette also shows that love in its purest form can come from many sources.

La Chatte is a novel full of beautiful descriptions and the tension that slowly builds up between the two rivals makes this a very engrossing read.

I read Colette’s novel as a contribution to Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris In July.

Black Cat Awareness Month

P1030196

As much as I like Halloween, I do believe that this custom does a great disservice to black cats. Seeing as it is coming up at the end of the month I decided to declare October to be the Black Cat Awareness Month.

I have another reason however to choose October as this is the month when I got the first of my two black cats. The story is a sad one actually even though it turned out to be a lucky one for them.

It was a cold October morning in 2008 when me and my boyfriend decided to drive to a cat shelter in Colmar, France, just about 40 minutes from where we live. I had wanted a cat for quite a while and seen the homepage of the shelter. When we arrived I was shocked. I had never seen a place like this before. The place looked rundown and there were only dilapidated houses and  shacks. Most of them were lacking any kind of heating. Dozens of mangy looking stray cats were roaming the place and big noisy dogs in cages barked frantically. It was noisy, dirty and off-putting. Total chaos. We looked around a little bit and finally asked someone for help. They were quite nice and later I understood that these people are doing a terrific job. None of them gets payed and they really struggle. That week they had received far over 100 new cats, many of them not older than a few days. Usually in French shelters the animals get put down within a month, if no one takes them but in this one they don’t do it and they often take those from the so-called “killing-shelters”.

“What type of cat are you looking for?” the woman asked us.

“Preferably a quiet one.” I said.

“Really?” I did not understand her emphasizing this word as I did not know that quiet meant shy, meant maybe difficult. A combination no one would want. “Long hair, short hair, any ideas about the color?” she asked next.

“Black. Short hair.”

“Black?”

“Black”

I have hardly ever seen anyone speed like this. She ran in front of us to a little house and up some horrible stairs that looked as if they were going to cave in any minute. When we stood in front of the door she asked again “Black, right?”

I nodded and then she opened that door and I swear, until the end of my days, I am never going to forget this. The little house was swarming with black cats.

“You know,” she said, a little embarrassed. “In France, we are still quite superstitious. No one wants a black cat. That’s why we have at least two houses full of black cats.”

There was one very tiny, little cat, a female that had already been at the shelter for almost a year although she was barely 1.5 year old. I looked at her and I knew:  That’s her. I realised later that if we hadn’t taken her, no one would have. Too little, too timid and – let’s face it – hard to handle as she was a stray.

We had to come back the next day as she needed a rabies shot to be allowed to cross the border. At home we spoke about names and decided to call her Isis as she looked quite Egyptian. The next day when we returned she had received her shot and her international passport had been fixed.

“I’m sorry,” said the girl who was there. “I had to put a name in the passport, else she cannot cross the border but you can always change it later.”

Guess what name she chose? Right, Isis.

A month later we decided to get another one because she did not like to stay alone during the day. And that’s how we got another black cat. Little Max. He was only 4 months old but extremely sick when we got him. He almost didn’t make it.

They are both lovely cats, although Isis is difficult and accepts hardly anyone but me. She was frankly bad when we got her. She seemed traumatized and had probably been hit and one leg looked as if it had been broken.

I often ask people what they think of black cats and mostly get the same reactions. I asked the vet if she knew if it was any better in Switzerland or Germany and she said that it was the same as in France. Black cats will sit in shelters endlessly. Until they get sick or lose their mind. Apart from England, where black cats are said to bring luck, they are not appreciated. I think this is very sad. When I watched the IKEA TV commercial with the cats in it I was stunned once more.  Not one black cat in it.

Black cats are not more difficult than other cats. They are not moodier or less friendly. They have wonderful shiny fur and their eyes look so smashing in those dark faces.

Should you consider to take a cat from a shelter, think of the black cats who have a much smaller chance of being taken.

Do you have any thoughts or stories to share about black cats?