Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

09 APRIL, 2013

Lost Cat: An Illustrated Meditation on Love, Loss, and What It Means To Be Human

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“You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell indignated in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs. Though hailed as memetic rulers of the internet, cats too have enjoyed an admirable run as creative devices and literary muses in Joyce’s children’s books, T. S. Eliot’s poetry, Hemingway’s letters, and various verses. But hardly ever have cats been at once more about cats and more about something else than in Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, she of many wonderful collaborations — a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity. (You might recall a subtle teaser for this gem in Wendy’s wonderful recent illustration of Gay Talese’s taxonomy of cats.) Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love.

After Caroline crashes an experimental plane she was piloting, she finds herself severely injured and spiraling into the depths of depression. It both helps and doesn’t that Caroline and Wendy have just fallen in love, soaring in the butterfly heights of new romance, “the phase of love that didn’t obey any known rules of physics,” until the crash pulls them into a place that would challenge even the most seasoned and grounded of relationships. And yet they persevere as Wendy patiently and lovingly takes care of Caroline.

When Caroline returns from the hospital with a shattered ankle, her two thirteen-year-old tabbies — the shy, anxious Tibby (short for Tibia, affectionately — and, in these circumstances, ironically — named after the shinbone) and the sociable, amicable Fibby (short for Fibula, after the calf bone on the lateral side of the tibia) — are, short of Wendy, her only joy and comfort:

Tibia and Fibula meowed happily when I arrived. They were undaunted by my ensuing stupor. In fact they were delighted; suddenly I had become a human who didn’t shout into a small rectangle of lights and plastic in her hand, peer at a computer, or get up and disappear from the vicinity, only to reappear through the front door hours later. Instead, I was completely available to them at all times. Amazed by their good luck, they took full feline advantage. They asked for ear scratches and chin rubs. They rubbed their whiskers along my face. They purred in response to my slurred, affectionate baby talk. But mostly they just settled in and went to sleep. Fibby snored into my neck. Tibby snored on the rug nearby. Meanwhile I lay awake, circling the deep dark hole of depression.

Without my cats, I would have fallen right in.

And then, one day, Tibby disappears.

Wendy and Caroline proceed to flyer the neighborhood, visit every animal shelter in the vicinity, and even, in their desperation, enlist the help of a psychic who specializes in lost pets — but to no avail. Heartbroken, they begin to mourn Tibby’s loss.

And then, one day five weeks later, Tibby reappears.

Once the initial elation of the recovery has worn off, however, Caroline begins to wonder where he’d been and why he’d left. He is now no longer eating at home and regularly leaves the house for extended periods of time — Tibby clearly has a secret place he now returns to. Even more worrisomely, he’s no longer the shy, anxious tabby he’d been for thirteen years — instead, he’s a half pound heavier, chirpy, with “a youthful spring in his step.” But why would a happy cat abandon his loving lifelong companion and find comfort — find himself, even — elsewhere?

When the relief that my cat was safe began to fade, and the joy of his prone, snoring form — sprawled like an athlete after a celebratory night of boozing — started to wear thin, I was left with darker emotions. Confusion. Jealousy. Betrayal. I thought I’d known my cat of thirteen years. But that cat had been anxious and shy. This cat was a swashbuckling adventurer back from the high seas. What siren call could have lured him away? Was he still going to this gilded place, with its overflowing food bowls and endless treats?

There’s only one obvious thing left to do: Track Tibby on his escapades. So Caroline, despite Wendy’s lovingly suppressed skepticism, heads to a spy store — yes, those exist — and purchases a real-time GPS tracker, complete with a camera that they program to take snapshots every few minutes, which they then attach to Tibby’s collar.

What follows is a wild, hilarious, and sweet tale of tinkering, tracking, and tenderness. Underpinning the obsessive quest is the subtle yet palpable subplot of Wendy and Caroline’s growing love for each other, the deepening of trust and affection that happens when two people share in a special kind of insanity.

The inimitable Maira Kalman blurbed the book admiringly:

The writing and drawings are funny. Nutty. Heartwarming. Smart. Loopy. Full of love.

“Every quest is a journey, every journey a story. Every story, in turn, has a moral,” writes Caroline in the final chapter, then offers several “possible morals” for the story, the last of which embody everything that makes Lost Cat an absolute treat from cover to cover:

6. You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want.

7. But that’s okay, love is better.

Images courtesy Wendy MacNaughton

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04 APRIL, 2013

The Bed Book: Sylvia Plath’s Vintage Poems for Kids, Illustrated by Quentin Blake

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“Most Beds are Beds for sleeping and resting, but the best Beds are much more interesting!”

In 1959, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer — penned a lovely children’s story about the perils of self-consciousness. But it turns out it wasn’t her only: In 1976, Faber published The Bed Book (public library) — a series of fanciful poems about different kinds of beds, written for Plath’s own children, sprinkled with fantasy and escapism. The original British edition, of which I was fortunate to track down a copy, was illustrated by the celebrated and prolific children’s book artist Quentin Blake, best-known for illustrating Roald Dahl’s stories as well as the first Dr. Seuss book not illustrated by Seuss himself.

Alas, the American edition, published in 1989 by HarperCollins, did away with the Blake illustrations — but used copies of the British one can still be found online or borrowed at some libraries.

Complement The Bed Book with other lesser-known children’s books by literary titans, including William Faulkner, James Joyce, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Mary Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes.

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03 APRIL, 2013

Advice to Little Girls: Young Mark Twain’s Little-Known, Lovely 1865 Children’s Book

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“Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.”

In the summer of 2011, I chanced upon a lovely Italian edition of a little-known, playful short story young Mark Twain had written in 1865 at age of 30, with Victorian-scrapbook-inspired artwork by celebrated Russian-born children’s book illustrator Vladimir Radunsky, mischievously encouraging girls to think independently rather than blindly obey rules and social mores. I was instantly in love. So I approached my friend Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Brooklyn’s Enchanted Lion Books, whom I’d befriended through her beautiful books and with whom I’d already begun collaborating on another side project, to see if she’d be willing to take a leap of faith and help bring this gem to life in America. It took a bit of convincing, but we eventually joined forces, pooled our lunch money to pay Vladimir his advance, and found a printer capable of reflecting the mesmerism of the Twain/Radunsky story in the book’s physicality — rich colors, crisp text, thick beautiful paper with a red fabric spine.

I’m enormously delighted to announce that Advice to Little Girls (public library) is officially out this week — a true labor of love nearly two years in the making. (You might recall a sneak peek from my TED Bookstore selections earlier this year.) Grab a copy, enjoy, and share!

While frolicsome in tone and full of wink, the story — like the most timeless of children’s books — is colored with subtle hues of grown-up philosophy on the human condition, exploring all the deft ways in which we creatively rationalize our wrongdoing and reconcile the good and evil we each embody.

Good little girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offense. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.

If you have nothing but a rag-doll stuffed with sawdust, while one of your more fortunate little playmates has a costly China one, you should treat her with a show of kindness nevertheless. And you ought not to attempt to make a forcible swap with her unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.

One can’t help but wonder whether this particular bit may have in part inspired the irreverent 1964 anthology Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls and its mischievous advice on brother-sister relations:

If at any time you find it necessary to correct your brother, do not correct him with mud — never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is better to scald him a little, for then you obtain desirable results. You secure his immediate attention to the lessons you are inculcating, and at the same time your hot water will have a tendency to move impurities from his person, and possibly the skin, in spots.

If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.

Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.

There are no words to describe how much Advice to Little Girls makes my heart sing — let’s make a choir.

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