Paris in July 2018 – Willy Ronis’ Cats – Les Chats de Willy Ronis

I always try to participate in Thyme for Tea’s Paris in July event but I don’t always get the time. This year, time was just as scarce and so I was glad the event has been extended. I decided to participate with a beautiful book I discovered a while ago in a book shop: Les chats – The Cats by Willy Ronis.

The book has not been translated but since there’s only a short intro and the rest are photos, any cat or photography lover could enjoy this.

Willy Ronis, who lived from 1910 to 2009, was a French photographer who was famous for his post-war pictures of some of the lesser known Parisian districts like Ménilmontant and Belleville. Together with Brassaï, Doisneau, and Cartier-Bresson, he is one of the most important French photographers of his time, and by many called the most important Paris photographer.

Ronis was also known for his nudes, one of which you can see below, and for his love of cats. His cat photos have such a special charm. They come in so many variations. Close-up photos of his own cats, cats in landscapes, cats he saw on travels. All of his photos are black and white. They are simple and effortless, but when you look at them for a while you discover many charming details and you simply have to admire his compositions and his use of light and shadow.

The nude above, which shows his wife, is one of his most famous photos. I guess that’s why it was included in the picture although there’s no cat on it. The book also offers an intimate look at his family life. Many of the photos show his wife and son, together with a cat.

After the war, Ronis lived and taught  in the South of France, that’s why there are many photos in the book that haven’t been taken in Paris.

I’m sure this is a book that would appeal to many people, whether they love cats or photography. His delicate use of light and shadow alone transforms every picture into a work of art.

Here’s an interesting article from April 2018 in the New York Times about Ronis.

And there’s an exhibition of his work at the Pavillon Carré de Baudoin, which lasts until September.

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 

Puss in Books by Catherine Britton (2012)

I feel spoilt because I have received more than one great pre-Christmas book present from editors. One of them is Puss in Books, published by The British Library Publishing.

Catherine Britton’s richly illustrated book contains numerous examples of cats in books. It mentions  nursery rhymes, children’s books, novels and many other sources.  I thought I’ll write about it quickly as the one or the other may still be looking for a bookish present for a cat lover or anyone interested in cats in books.

The book as such is nice, with glossy paper and intense color illustrations.

Some of the earliest illustrations date back to the Egyptians but you can also find an illustration from Rudyard Kipling’s The Cat that Walked by Himself or of the Cheshire Cat, taken from Alice in Wonderland.

Fat Fredd’y s Cat has a chapter as well as Simon’s Cat and Splat the Cat.

One of the pictures I like the most is an engraving by Cornelis Vissher called The Large Cat from 1657.

As the blurb says the book is “a celebration of the feline wit, intelligence, aloofness and charm as presented in books, with examples from literature, folklore and popular culture.”

The book contains more than illustrations, it also offers a lot of information about the history of cats and how different cultures and societies saw them. It spans cultures as different as Egypt, England and Japan.

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.

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?