Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

09 APRIL, 2013

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


“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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09 APRIL, 2013

Jackson Pollock on Art, Labels, and Morality, Shortly Before His Death


“Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”

In 1957, writer, public intellectual, lifelong art aficionado, and self-described “aging anthologist” Selden Rodman collected several dozen of his informal, lively, amusing, and insightful interviews with iconic artists and architects — including Frank Lloyd Wright, Willem de Kooning, and Saul Steinberg — in Conversations with Artists (public library). Among the conversations is one with Jackson Pollockbeloved artist and son of one particularly great dad — which took place eight weeks before Pollock, driving under the influence of alcohol, crashed in his Oldsmobile convertible into a tree and died.

But on that June evening in 1956, Rodman bumped into a tipsy Pollock en route to a dive bar party following the opening of Willem de Kooning’s show at the Sidney Janis Gallery. When Rodman, tipsy as well, runs into Pollock near Astor Place, the painter suddenly reaches out, grabs the runt of a nearby tree, and weaves into an oddly philosophical meditation:

“What’s the use of going further than this?,” he muttered. “The tree’s got everythin’. Leave it alone and it’ll grow and grow an’ be beautiful. … No need to leave New York at all. … Thish tree’s got everythin’ … beautiful … beautiful …!” And he drifted off into the moonlit fog of dawn, dropping a package of matches. I stopped over and picked it up. The words printed on it said: “There are good jobs for everyone in the telephone business.”

About a month later, Rodman calls Pollock — who famously doesn’t answer letters — to arrange a visit. He coordinates with his wife, Lee Krasner, an abstract painter herself. Eventually, he makes his way to the family’s home in East Hampton, where Pollock emerges to greet him “in nondescript blue slacks and a T-shirt, bearded and bleary-eyed, like a bear.” Pollock’s way of conversation, Rodman notes, bespeaks a great deal of his character:

He talks with difficulty, searching painfully, almost agonizingly, for the right word, with constant apologies “for not being verbal.” The sincerity of the man is overwhelmingly apparent. He is uncouth and inarticulate and arrogant and very sure of his place in art and of the importance of the movement with which he is associated, but there is not a race of showmanship or phoniness in his make-up. He is friendly and warm-hearted — though he resists showing it, and no doubt would like to be though ruthless and without sentiment. In respect to his art, of course, he is; and this may be the tragic conflict that both makes his painting what it is and accounts for his inability to carry it further.

Jackson Pollock

When asked “to elaborate on the business of labels,” Pollock grunts:

“I don’t care for ‘abstract expressionism,'” he said, “and it’s certainly not ‘nonobjective’ and not ‘nonrepresentational’ either. I’m very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time. But when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge. We’re all of us influenced by Freud, I guess. I’ve been a Jungian for a long time.

When Rodman probes about Pollock’s process, the painter offers a strikingly articulate addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

Something in me knows where I’m going, and — well, painting is a state of being. … Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.

Later in the conversation, Pollock reflects on the inherent duality of human character:

It’s a different age we live in. It’s an age of indeterminacy, perhaps. Morals are indeterminate compared with other times. YOu don’t call a thing or a person ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the way you could one. We know there’s good and bad in everyone. This indeterminacy comes out in our painting. Perhaps it’s why we’re not interested in making portraits. That would be too precise a statement to lend itself to painting as we practice it.

He admonishes against vacant imitation:

When you try to emulate the old masters … you get corn, real corn. Bits of Renaissance pastiche are still bits of Renaissance pastiche, no matter how blurred you make them.

'Autumn Rhythm' by Jackson Pollock, 1950, enamel on canvas

Later, he takes a jab at Frank Lloyd Wright, who had designed the Guggenheim Museum’s iconic cylindrical structure, and the very notion of museums:

As for Wright, he’s a great architect, I guess, but what a *%@#! That museum! We’ve had all this trouble in doing away with the frame — and now this. Paintings don’t need all this fooling around. The hell with museums! Put the paintings in a room and look at ‘em — isn’t that enough? You remember that old building where the Museum of Modern Art started? What was wrong with that? I was in a house designed by Mies once; I felt so taut I couldn’t say anything.

Pollock is equally dismissive of another facet of the art establishment, the critics and the press:

None of the art magazines are worth anything. Nobody takes them seriously. The’r a bunch of snobs.

'The Key' by Jackson Pollock, 1946, oil on canvas (Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago)

And just when you think Pollock’s delightfully curmudgeonly side has blossomed fully, an incident out of an old Hollywood movie: He invites Rodman to see his studio, but finds it padlocked, with no key in sight. So he does the most natural — at least to Pollock, evidently — thing:

We waited while he went back into the house. In about five minutes he returned, shaking his head. “Lee hasn’t got one either. There just isn’t any key,” he smiled wryly. “There’s something for the analyst!” he said “The painter locks himself out of his own studio. And then has to break it like a thief.”

Before we could stop him he had smashed a pane of glass.

“Couldn’t we force the window?” I said.

He tried, but without success. There were wedges nailed in from the inside.

“Damn!” With his elbow he smashed another pane, and then another, tearing away the wooden strips between them. “Wait. I’ll get a hammer and really go to work on this.” He ran back to the house while we collected the splintered glass in a pile. Returning with the hammer, he finally managed to raise the lower half of the window and, shoving a table covered with dusty sketches out of the way, stepped in. We followed him. The main studio was an extraordinary sight. Huge paintings, some of them twenty or more feet long, demonstrated clearly enough what he had meant. They weren’t French, or even American. They were simply Pollock. Paint laced, slashed or dripped on canvas after canvas, but always arrestingly, authoritatively, as only he can do it: undeniably the expression of a tormented but vital personality.

As the afternoon’s adventure comes to an end, Pollock’s singular blend of single-mindedness and sensitivity shines through:

As we walked toward the window to climb out, he took a look back into the lair of creative devastation.

“These paintings, the ones I’ve kept, are my securities. They’re all I’ve got left.” He leaned out the window and looked at the view of the distant pond.

“Painting is my whole life…”

Conversations with Artists is a treasure trove in its entirety — highly recommended.

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09 APRIL, 2013

“Ode to the Book” by Pablo Neruda, Exquisitely Read by Tom O’Bedlam


“I learned about life from life itself, love I learned in a single kiss…”

“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” cosmic sage Carl Sagan memorably proclaimed. Books, indeed, are worthy of the deepest kind of cosmic awe, awe so profound it borders on the ineffable — so much so that only the most articulate of poets can fully capture its expansive magnitude. To celebrate National Poetry Month, I asked the inimitable Tom O’Bedlam — whose mesmerizing voice you might recall from “Gabriel” by Adrienne Rich and “Antilamentation” by Dorianne Laux — to read “Ode to the Book” by Pablo Neruda, translated by Nathaniel Tarn and found in the anthology Selected Poems (public library). Enjoy:

When I close a book
I open life.
I hear
faltering cries
among harbors.
Copper ingots
slide down sand-pits
to Tocopilla.
Night time.
Among the islands
our ocean
throbs with fish,
touches the feet, the thighs,
the chalk ribs
of my country.
The whole of night
clings to its shores, by dawn
it wakes up singing
as if it had excited a guitar.

The ocean’s surge is calling.
The wind
calls me
and Rodriguez calls,
and Jose Antonio–
I got a telegram
from the “Mine” Union
and the one I love
(whose name I won’t let out)
expects me in Bucalemu.

No book has been able
to wrap me in paper,
to fill me up
with typography,
with heavenly imprints
or was ever able
to bind my eyes,
I come out of books to people orchards
with the hoarse family of my song,
to work the burning metals
or to eat smoked beef
by mountain firesides.
I love adventurous
books of forest or snow,
depth or sky
but hate
the spider book
in which thought
has laid poisonous wires
to trap the juvenile
and circling fly.
Book, let me go.
I won’t go clothed
in volumes,
I don’t come out
of collected works,
my poems
have not eaten poems–
they devour
exciting happenings,
feed on rough weather,
and dig their food
out of earth and men.
I’m on my way
with dust in my shoes
free of mythology:
send books back to their shelves,
I’m going down into the streets.
I learned about life
from life itself,
love I learned in a single kiss
and could teach no one anything
except that I have lived
with something in common among men,
when fighting with them,
when saying all their say in my song.

Tom, whose exquisite spoken verse you can hear on YouTube, shares some words of wisdom on the fundamental challenge of reading poetry in translation:

Translations of free verse are particularly hard to read. The original poems have flow and melody — these are usually lost in translation. The translator creates phrases that are really difficult to utter with confidence and it’s always hard to choose a safe path through the syntax.

And yet the stroll along the path he takes us on feels effortless and beautiful — what a gift.

Complement with some invaluable thoughts on how to enjoy poetry.

Donating = Loving

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.