Image by Brooke Shaden
Cujo by Stephen King
I have spent most of my life chasing that elusive feeling of freedom that the months of June through August afforded me when I was grade school age. This “freedom” was mainly comprised of stretching out on a sticky, sweaty chaise lounge on the back porch screened room in Florida during the lazy midday heat, devouring a stack of manky paperbacks with lurid covers, procured from the used book store downtown. One of the employees was my mother’s boyfriend during those years, and for my every birthday, he gave me a $20 gift certificate–and at $.50 a title, I could afford to pick up a vast number of repulsive reads. Even at that age, my reading stack was never-ending! It was the summer of my eleventh year that Stephen King’s Cujo terrified me for the first time. I’m pretty sure that everyone knows this story. To sum up: a local family’s doggo contracts rabies and spends a few days terrorizing a woman and her small child, trapping them in their broken-down car during a brutal heat wave. There’s other things going on, of course–Stephen King doesn’t ever tell just one story at a time–but it’s the titular Cujo that most people walk away remembering. Me? At that age, I was more terrified by the monstrous ghost of Frank Dodd in the closet than I was of Cujo, and though it is only a small part of the story, I never questioned the validity of that fear. Examining these feelings as an adult, I mean…is it so strange to be afraid of the spirit of a nasty rapist/murderer more than you might fear a sick, vicious animal? After all, you hear more about human violence on the news and your facebook and twitter feeds than you do animal violence. So I maintain my position. Frank Dodd was a scary motherfucker.
This July, in the grips of ennui where nothing from my (still enormous, 30 years later) to-read stack appealed to me, I concluded that only something well-loved and familiar would do, and I brought Cujo down from the shelf. Reading it now, I am struck by the character’s various adult concerns that didn’t register the first time…the extramarital affair spurred by one’s fear of growing old, the desperation and gut-clenching terror of losing one’s job, the bitter resentment toward an abusive partner that you just can’t seem to leave…but more than that…and more even, than the horror of Frank Dodd lurking in a kid’s closet…is an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Cujo, an enormous, cheerful Saint Bernard, loved–and was loved by–his family very much. He would have done anything for his human boy; he would have died for him–he was, by all accounts, a Very Good Dog. By a twist of fate, and just a puppers doing playful puppers things, Cujo got bit on his snoot by a sick bat, and he turned into a monster. I know that some folks read into it that Cujo might have been possessed or something like that, but I think Stephen King’s just fucking with us on that point. Cujo was just a sick dog, and a terrible tragedy resulted. I think re-reading this particular book, while it didn’t cure me of my summer angst, it did prove to me that the “you can never go back” sentiment is ridiculous. Sometimes you need to go back. And you must. You should go there as many times as you can, see the new things that time and distance allow you to see, work through the shit it dredges up, and take the lessons away that you need to learn at that time. You learn what’s important. You learn what to lose. And then you pack it up for another summer day when you need to go back again.
Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu by Junji Ito
With Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu, long-time fans of this illustrator of the strangely monstrous and macabre were probably like, “what’s this heartwarming crap about pet cats? I want my grotesqueries and repulsive body horror!” If that’s your initial reaction to the concept of a slice-of-life sketch journal of a horror manga artist and his fur-babies, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by this wonderfully amusing little book, and trust me–you’ll get your Junji Ito grossness, just…in a different sort of way than you’re used to. J-kun writes about having to adapt, over time, to living with his fiancé’s felines: Yon, a sleek white cat with black spots and a “cursed face”, and Mu, an adorably fluffy Norwegian forest cat. His reactions to the cat’s antics and exploits take the form of appallingly disgusting facial expressions that are both repugnant and hilarious, and you grow to anticipate each and every interaction with a demented glee. The stories are captivating and creepy, and you’ll find yourself racing through it, sad to see it end for more reasons than one. What a fantastically charming addition to Junji Ito’s body of work!
Sleeping Giants (Themis Files #1) by Sylvain Neuvel
The first book in the ongoing Themis Files series, Sleeping Giants begins with a little girl named Rose Franklin as she follows a strange blue light deep into the woods only to fall down a hole and find herself in the palm of a colossal metal hand. 17 years years later Rose has grown up to be a renowned physicist. She now finds herself assembling a highly specialized team to work on the very project that began with her accidental discovery of that otherworldly artifact, which was followed years later by the discovery of an arm that seems to match the hand. How can these gigantic relics possibly be as old as tests indicate? Where did they come from? What are they for and what does their purpose mean for humankind? Sleeping Giants is told via interviews with Rose and her team conducted by an anonymous, enigmatic, and very powerful interrogator, along with the occasional journal entry. The cast of characters is small and it pleased me no end that in this, a science fiction novel, the strongest characters were women. The interview/diary format might make the book sound dry, but this gripping story moves along briskly thanks to fascinating discoveries, disasters, and ever-increasing interpersonal and international tensions. It also has a sharp sense of humor throughout, which I appreciated. Before I knew it, Sleeping Giants was over and now I can’t wait to read the second book.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
Little did I know that this book would be the perfect follow up to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which I read last month. Together they’d form a beautiful Venn diagram made solely of different shades of blue. This is my first foray into the writing of Rebecca Solnit – poignant and beautiful, and full of appreciation for the natural world and our ephemeral place in it – and I’m now hooked. In this book Solnit explores the different ways in which a person can get lost, both physically and psychologically, the power of wandering and of deliberately shedding or simply losing one’s sense of place, and the inestimable value of the unknown. In addition to overlapping themes regarding the color blue, A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Bluets are poetic kindred in their heady interweaving of history, art, philosophy, and personal memoir. Just as with Bluets, I found frequently myself marking passages so that I might easily find them again later. I used one of my favorites to begin the personal essay I shared on Haute Macabre last month. Here’s another:
“There is a voluptuous pleasure in all that sadness, and I wonder where it comes from, because as we usually construe the world, sadness and pleasure should be far apart. Is it that the joy that comes from other people always risks sadness, because even when love doesn’t fail, mortality enters in; is it that there is a place where sadness and joy are not distinct, where all emotion lies together, a sort of ocean into which the tributary streams of distinct emotions go, a faraway deep inside; is it that such sadness is only the side effect of art that describes the depth of our lives, and to see that described in all its potential for loneliness and pain is beautiful?”
And one more because I can’t help myself:
“The places in which any significant event occurred become embedded with some of that emotion, and so to recover the memory of the place is to recover the emotion, and sometimes to revisit the place uncovers the emotion. Every love has its landscape. Thus place, which is always spoken of as though it only counts when you’re present, possesses you in its absence, takes on another life as a sense of place, a summoning in the imagination with all the atmospheric effect and association of a powerful emotion.”
Kim & Kim, Volume 1: This Glamorous, High-Flying Rock Star Life by Magdalene Visaggio and Eva Cabrera
Kim & Kim is all about outrageous hijinks, death-defying adventure, and representation that does my heart a world of good. Bitch magazine described it as “Tank Girl set in the world of Cowboy Bebop” which feels wonderfully accurate to me. Kim Q and Kim D are 20-something “mostly-platonic best friends” and interdimensional bounty hunters. One of the things I love so much about this beautifully diverse comic is that it’s unabashedly LGBTQ-positive and celebrates the friendship of trans and queer women without making any of those things feel like token inclusions. These ladies simply are who they are (and they are fabulous) and it’s their friendship and their madcap, sci-fi adventures that take center stage with the entire universe, their bank balance, or simply whichever planet they happen to be on at the time always about to go up in smoke. This comic is colorful, sassy, inclusive fun and I can’t wait to read more.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
Last month Sarah wrote a wonderful review of this amazing graphic novel, so I had no intention of writing about it myself. But by the time I’d finished reading it I was so enamored that I had to write a few words about it too. Mostly I just want to say, “What Sarah said! All of that! Read this!” After even just a cursory flip through this great big book, you’ll understand why writer and artist Emil Ferris spent over six years working on it. Each page is a cross-hatched labor of love. It’s written as the heavily illustrated diary of a 10-year-old girl named Karen Reyes who’s obsessed with monsters (depicting herself as a wolfgirl), especially the undead sort, and longs for the day one finally pops out of the shadows to make her one of them. This singular story grabs you from page one with hairy, clawed hands and carries you along at a brisk pace as Karen investigates the suspicious death and mysterious life of her upstairs neighbor (drawing herself as a wolfgirl detective in a trenchcoat and fedora), navigates awkward friendships and gut-wrenching family issues, and discovers her own queerness. A Chicago native, Ferris set her tale in Chicago in late 60s. Having grown up there myself, I enjoyed recognizing city landmarks and it was a pleasure to explore the Art Institute of Chicago through Karen’s eyes, a place where I spent so much time myself. Karen’s voice and emotions feel so very real to me. For all the talk about and drawings of monsters, this is a very human story with wonderfully complex and well-realized characters. That combined with the numerous expressive drawings on each and every page (drawings that ought to be studied at length even though the story is a rapid page-turner), makes this an exceptional monster-girl coming-of-age story. I’m eager to read volume 2 which is due out next spring.
The Beaver Show, Jacqueline Frances
I admit it, I LOVED The Beaver Show. It was funny and poignant and honest and absurd. I recognized myself about a hundred times, and found myself in a wave of nostalgia, with a sudden craving for a Malibu and Diet Coke. I loved that there was none of the morality play melodrama that eternally plagues stories like Dancing at the Blue Iguana or Pretty is a Face I Make (and those are the good ones). I loved that Jacq unabashedly loves the hustle, the girls, and yes, even the often infuriating clientele at her strip club. But most of all, I loved that this book read as if it really didn’t give one single fuck if anyone who wasn’t a stripper ever read it. This book was written for the ladies with the lucite heels. Considering how much awful drivel is written about dancers by and for non-dancers, reading something that was written to be read while sitting on a dead stage in the middle of Tuesday Day Shift was amazing.
The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber, Mel Gordon and Sebastian Droste
I was really looking forward to this book, because the idea of Anita Berber intrigues me. I love a biography of the sort of woman who is NEVER described without using the word ‘notorious’ at least once- a woman whose naked performances so blurred the lines between porn and art that critics are still dissecting them in detail a hundred years later. Berber’s influence on pop culture flies under the radar because she was such a scandalous creature that she never gained Hollywood status- but Marlene Deitrich’s glamorous androgyny was just a toned-down version of Berber’s already famous look. All that being said, the book was a pretty dry biography. I’m not even sure how that’s possible with such a remarkable subject, but I found myself skipping ahead to see the scattered pictures and catch some hint of the marvel of the woman herself, which feels entirely missing from this scholarly recounting of her life.
Everyday Psychokillers: A History For Girls, A Novel, Lucy Corin
I first heard of Lucy Corin’s book in this Electric Lit essay, which looks at “the violence of girlhood” in Corin’s Everyday Psychokillers and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. I’ve never actually read Eugenides’s book but I saw the movie, and always felt, uh, bothered by the way the male narrator fetishized girlhood — I didn’t get it and I didn’t get why people liked it and the whole thing felt supremely gross, so contrasting that book with one written by an Actual Woman intrigued me. “The boys peer through windows at them and collect their discarded objects. They want to understand the source of unexpected violence within them,” writes Charlotte Rutty, author of the essay. “Of course, there’s a better way to get inside the head of a thirteen-year-old girl than by studying her salvaged high-tops: ask her.” It’s a great book that I finished in maybe two baths, the universally acknowledged unit of measurement when it comes to books about girls and death. Rutty’s essay is so on-point as to any particulars I don’t want to take up space with my own musings — get thee to Electric Lit, and then to the bookstore of your choice. Rutty, in conclusion:
“Seeing women as tragic waifs, as beautiful ephemera, is a privilege reserved for boys. That’s why Everyday Psychokillers is a book written for girls?and The Virgin Suicides is one written for their spectators.”
Down Below, Leonora Carrington
Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet was recommended to me a few years back by Aubrey Bramble of Swan Children Alchemy / Golden Gardens. By the time I bought it AND was reading it, I’d forgotten entirely where I’d heard of it. This led to a funny situation likely experienced by many an absent-minded reader: over drinks, I recommended the book back to her. Sorry, Aubrey.
Down Below is Carrington’s account of madness and imprisonment, followed by her subsequent escape. There’s a really lengthy introduction by Marina Warner that goes into the Surrealists’ obsession with female madness and what it meant to be an actually mad female Surrealist and, please don’t hate me, I found that essay more compelling than the actual book. This creates an interesting dilemma, because obviously a person’s narrative is more important than analytical work based around the person, right? Down Below reads like a story and not a memoir, in that it lacks the pained introspection we’re used to seeing in autobiography. Undoubtedly this is because Carrington’s life, art, and everything that touched her was a sort of story — “[You] get the distinct impression that for Carrington, reality is malleable,” NPR’s Carmen Maria Machado said of the book.
The King in Yellow, Robert W. Chambers
I liked it but I’m not sure I got it: the Vatomsky story.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, Caitlin Doughty
I got an advance copy of Caitlin Doughty’s next book so that I could review it for Bitch Magazine, which means I can’t tell you what I thought. However, our own Samantha received an advance copy as well, so she will likely be more forthcoming with her thoughts. In the meantime, read the interview we ran with Caitlin earlier this year.
Sam read the side of a Pop Tarts box and it gave her an existential crisis. So…. that’s where she’s at. She’s also almost done with Caitlin’s new book and will have a separate post forthcoming!
Tell us what you’ve read this past month in the comments!