May 29, 2014

Novel of the Year

Light spoilers.

Karen Joy Fowler's new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, came at an opportune moment in my life. After spending years looking for the "Not Tested on Animals" label on products in a desultory manner, I decided to do some research and found out just how little that phrase means. It can go on products from companies that subcontract out their testing or that buy their ingredients from suppliers that test. Finally landing upon the Leaping Bunny certification website, I found that only a few mainstream beauty companies' products are completely free from testing: Paul Mitchell hair products, Burt's Bees, The Body Shop, Urban Decay, and a few others. And I resolved to buy only from those companies.

The existence of animal testing in the U.S. is curious. We are a country that loves animals. We share our lives with our pets, care for them when they're sick, take them out for exercise when we're sick, roughhouse with them when we'd rather sit on the couch. All over my neighborhood, probably like yours, poor sods troop through the mud to walk their dogs when it's pouring rain. We post photos of kittens and puppies online and are genuinely, deeply moved when we watch videos of cross-species friendship, be it between a goat and a donkey or a dog and a baby. We know that there is something precious, even holy, at work here.

And then we go to the store and pay companies to torture animals.

The twentieth century has been called an age of horrors because of the multiple genocidal acts that plagued it. But it also saw the rise of an unprecedented attention to the rights and well-being of others. The intensity of our moral gaze deepened and spread, from women to children to gays to the poor. And to animals. It's clear to us how contradictory it was for the ancient Greeks and Romans to expound on ethics while taking slavery for granted. For the Victorians to  moralize while sending children to work in factories. Just so, generations to come may scratch their heads at our blithe acceptance of torturing animals for the sake of eyeshadow or laundry detergent. We can connect, morally, the slaves and the slaveowners, the children workers and the rich industrialist. But we don't connect ourselves to the animals we pay other people to torture.

This disconnect is the starting point for Karen Joy Fowler's powerful new novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Rosemary is five years old when her sister Fern is mysteriously sent away from the family. Fern and Rosemary had been almost like twins: nearly the same age, constant companions. But, in an early reveal that I hate to uncover here, we learn that Fern is a chimp that her parents brought into the family when Rosemary was born in order to study their comparative development. Both Fern and Rosemary have spent nearly every waking hour of their lives in each other's company, and when Fern is sent away (for reasons that are slowly revealed throughout the book), Rosemary is devastated, not only by the loss of Fern but by the anger and eventual disappearance of her beloved older brother.

The rest of the novel tracks the effect of Fern's departure on the family. And while Fowler's plot is strong, it constitutes only one portion of the genius of her novel. The novel delves deeply into issues that have rarely been treated in literature, like attachment. Attachment, in the technical sense, refers to the psycho-physiological state that results from the steady, reliable presence of a particular person or people in one's life. It is the foundation of health for humans; babies who are not able to attach to a parent figure (because of neglect, for example) develop, essentially, permanent brain damage . Literature often deals with grief and pain from loss or death. But I can think of only one other novel that, obliquely, deals with the fallout from broken attachment: the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, in which all humans are connected from birth to a "daemon" animal by a thread of soul.

Because Fowler's theme is our interconnectedness, she never lets Fern out of her sight. The agony of the novel is not just the life of Rosemary's family without Fern but the terrible glimpses they have into Fern's life without them. The role of sight, the imagery of windows and mirrors, is key to Fowler's art. Rosemary's brother Lowell, who left home as a teenager to try to find Fern and became an animal activist, says it this way: "The world runs . . . on the fuel of this endless, fathomless misery. People know it, but they don't mind what they don't see. Make them look and they mind, but you're the one they hate because you're the one who made them look."

If this sounds like a difficult novel, it is. But, unlike the pain of animals caged and tortured for bubble bath, it's not a pointless pain. The novel is rewarding, which is the best thing you can say about a work of art. And it's complex and literary in more ways than could be recounted in one sitting. Like Cloud Atlas, it's a novel about morality, about "issues," and yet manages to be a complete work of art, never for a moment becoming a tract or essay. Like Cloud Atlas, it's a novel I'll treasure for both its artistry and heart.

May 28, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Some books you don't remember after you read them. Some books you remember, but you don't remember reading them. Some books you not only remember but remember reading. Those are the special ones.
I was lucky to grow up in a more permissive age in terms of school curricula. We read this book in either 11th grade or 12th grade and I was captivated. I had never read anything like it. And I still remember, all these years later, how it FELT to read the book. It felt like a window open.
I also remember reading out loud the hilarious church service scene to my parents on a road trip. Snorting and barely able to get the words out.
In an early passage, the book tells how transforming it was for Maya to encounter Shakespeare. And I always wondered how it felt to her to know that SHE had written a book that affected people in the same way. That she actually accomplished that elusive thing: to produce a work of art that people loved and were transformed by.
God bless, Maya.

May 26, 2014

As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality

This fascinating book shows how today's fan culture (and more) arose from literary history, in particular the tales of Sherlock Holmes and Middle-Earth. The consequences of these works on modern Western culture has been huge and varied but here's just one thing that author Michael Saler points out: The construction of elaborate, realistic imaginary worlds "helped to legitimate the idea that Western adults could indulge their imaginations without losing their reason." They (re)introduced the idea of play as part of high culture.

And this is the dominant note of culture today. I'd go so far as to say that in the second decade of the twenty-first century, you can't be considered an intellectual or a cultured person if you don't appreciate fantasy, pop culture, and fandom. And if you've got a Loki action figure or a Yoda pez dispenser on your desk, thank Arthur Conan Doyle.

May 19, 2014

Because I Can

And so can you. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just put up high-res images of a ton of its collection on its website for free download and use. Gong Xian, here's to you:

Landscapes of the Twelve Months

May 16, 2014

Man on Wire

Great movie poster, or greatest movie poster ever??

Nearly forty years ago, in August 1974, an amazing event took place. A Frenchman named Philippe Petit snuck into the World Trade Center in New York, had his friends string a wire between the two towers, and walked across it without a harness or any other safety device. I say "walked," but really he skipped, jumped, and otherwise cavorted in ways that no human should be able to.

This stunning act is related in the documentary film Man on Wire. Watching it all these years later, you sense that you the viewer, who is simply watching pixels and knows that Petit survived, is more terrified than Petit ever was.

Petit is making the rounds on radio and TV in anticipation of the fortieth anniversary of his achievement. He also has a new book out. But there is no substitute for watching this movie, which documents not only the walk but the incredible logistics involved in preparation for it. The WTC has become a symbol of great sadness since 9/11. This film is a chance to celebrate it in a moment of joy and wonder.

May 7, 2014


Here's a movie that I saw in the 1980s that was one of my favorite movies of the decade and is, as far as I can tell, completely unavailable. It's about an herbalist in medieval France who is beautiful and the object of suspicion of the church. When a rigid priest comes to town, she is increasingly in the crosshairs of his anti-witch crusade. It has the same feel as The Return of Martin Guerre and has one of the best denouements ever, really powerful and perfect.

I didn't realize until I looked it up yesterday that it was directed by a woman, Suzanne Schiffman, who has done little directing work and yet created this masterpiece. Here's the IMDb link for those interested.

May 5, 2014

Finding Vivian Maier

This documentary has been garnering a lot of attention for its fascinating origin story. A young historian, John Maloof, looking for historical photos for his book, bought a few boxes of negatives from a local auction. He found a treasure trove of great photography by a woman named Vivian Maier. He soon began archiving the images and researching Vivian's life. She turned out to be  a strange figure who worked as a nanny for forty years, secretive in the extreme and mercurial to her charges, many of whom Maloof tracked down and interviewed for what became this documentary.

I always fear that documentaries will give me good information but not be interesting to watch. This one is interesting as a movie as well as a story. But it would have been great if all it had done was show Maier's photographs, one after the other, for an hour. In the end [slight spoiler here], it shows how great a cost mental illness is to both individuals and their culture. It's maddening, really.

To see a selection of Maier's great photography, click here.

May 3, 2014

Gustave Caillebotte

Just got a nice art book on Caillebotte, one of my all-time favorite painters. He combines the naturalistic gestures and body postures of Renoir with some of the compositional elements of Seurat and the attention to everyday workers and diagonal angles of Degas. Here are my three fave paintings of his: