His Dark Materials Omnibus (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass)

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A Year in Reading: Dan Chaon

Let’s face it.  2016 sucked.  It will go down as one of the cruddiest years in the 50 or so that I’ve walked the earth.

It started sucking right away, with the death of one of my favorite musicians, David Bowie, on Jan. 10, and the death of one of my favorite poets, C.D. Wright, two days later.  Maybe it’s not fair to call Bowie’s Blackstar a literary achievement, but it’s an act of deep hubris and generosity and fearlessness that I aspire to as a novelist.  So it’s on my list.  So too is the first of C.D. Wright’s posthumous collections of poetry,  Shallcross, which shows her at the height of her astonishing powers, a book that helps me grieve and shakes me up at the same time.

In February, Peter Straub, one of my literary heroes, put out a collection of his selected stories, Interior Darkness, which I recommend to anyone who thinks the “New Weird” is a new thing. I also discovered the cartoonist Michael DeForge, whose new graphic novel, Big Kids, is a trippy, disturbing, utterly original coming-of-age tale that is still haunting me today.

Also in February: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee died. “Uptown Funk” won a Grammy.

In March, there were primaries,  and I read Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot,  a dazzling and inventive novel about orphans and ghosts and swindlers and religious fanatics. I also read Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal, also about orphans and ghosts and swindlers and religious fanatics.  It was good but upsetting in many many ways.  That Thomas Frank is too cynical!, I thought to myself, hopefully.

In April, Prince died.   

Prince? Died?  2016, could you be more sadistic?

So I read some poetry, which sometimes helps: The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May, who is one of my favorite younger poets; The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay, which has an amazing long poem about the childhood of Neil deGrasse Tyson; Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a very painful and sad book by Ocean Vuong.

Then, I immersed myself in The People in the Castle, selected “strange stories” by Joan Aiken, published by the wonderful Small Beer Press, with an introduction by Kelly Link, and Aiken’s tales were a kind of balm for troubled times.  Another balm was the novel Rich & Pretty by my former student Rumaan Alam, which is so funny and beautifully written and precisely described I almost forgot how depressed I was getting.

Summer came at last, and 2016 immediately killed off Muhammad Ali, just to show us it meant business.  There was a convention in my home town of Cleveland which I was trying to ignore,  so I read A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford, whom Joyce Carol Oates calls “…a beautifully disorienting writer, a poet  in an unclassifiable genre…,” and I decided that Jeffrey Ford is an important figure who needs to be recognized more.  I read Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams, who is another one of my idols, and I love that she’s still so weird and crazy, after all these years.

Another of my former students, Sam Allingham, sent me his new book of stories, The Great American Songbook, and it is so good!  He is super-talented and gives me hope for the future!

And a kind acquaintance, Jacob M. Appel, sent me his new book of stories, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and it was also really good, very Grace Paley and smart and wise (he’s a psychiatrist and a lawyer and a professor and has, I kid you not, seven master’s degrees), and then I realized that I was supposed to blurb his book and I screwed up and forgot to do it, so I was ashamed. I’m sorry, Jacob. Your book is awesome.

And then it was August. I read The Fire This Time, an anthology of essays about race, edited by the brilliant Jesmyn Ward; I read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. I had a panic attack, and I got some medication — not a moment too soon, because 2016 then decided to take Gene Wilder, and if it wasn’t for Clonazepam I’d still be watching YouTube clips from Young Frankenstein and Willie Wonka, singing along with “Pure Imagination” and weeping, weeping.

Afterwards, I spent a good part of the fall rereading a YA fantasy series by Garth Nix. It was a retreat of sorts,  I guess.

One of my fondest memories is reading with my two sons, which we did all through their childhood. They loved fantasy series. Yes, we read all the Harry Potter books, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus booksThe Chronicles of Narnia

One series that we were particularly fond of was Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. We listened to them in the car on audiobook: read by Tim Curry in a rich, plummy, intensely funny and felt performance.  We were mesmerized by the adventures of Sabriel, the girl necromancer who inherits the heavy weight of her father’s obligation to protect the world from the Dead; her half-sister, Lirael, a lonely librarian who goes on a journey with her magical companion,  The Disreputable Dog, finds that she is the only one who can save the world from evil. There is also Mogget, a powerful  magical creature who has been imprisoned in the body of a house cat. (Tim Curry’s performance of Mogget is a particular hammy delight.)

In any case, reading these books with my kids was an intense, formative experience, and I was excited to learn that Nix had a new book in the series that was coming out in October.  I prepared for it by listening to the entire oeuvre — about 50 hours of audio — and it lent me a crutch to hobble on through our hideous American Autumn. Reading these books again, along with the new one, Goldenhand,  brought back a certain kind of joy,  a certain kind of honest excitement, to return again to this wide, richly imagined world that Nix has created with such breadth and texture. I got to relive those times I had with my kids, which is not an insignificant thing. My boys are now 25- and 26-year-old men, but for a time, reading this book, I was able to commune with the children they once were.

I was also able to remember the way that certain kinds of books could help in a dark time — I remembered the kid I once was, living in a difficult and abusive and violent family situation — and how books may have saved me.

I worry that this last bit seems stupid and childish and cowardly?

But so what? I lifted out of the dream of those books a sliver of faith in bravery and honesty and courage, and a hope that evil won’t win in the end.  I could use the reminder.

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Elegy for a Grey Cat: On Grief, Books, and His Dark Materials

Zoe the Cat

1.
I recently got out of a three-year relationship with a cat. Her name was Zoe, and I got her from a shelter the first year I lived in Chicago. She was 10 or 11 when I got her, they weren’t sure, and she had a bevy of trust issues. The family who gave her to the shelter said she’d been bullied by a dog, but I call bullshit on that. Zoe was not afraid of dogs, she was afraid of people and plastic bags.

When I took her home for the first time, she ran into the closet and only came out to eat and use the litter box — only when I was gone — for two weeks. Gradually she warmed up to me. After a month she would sit nearby while I read. One evening, after two months, she sat in front of my chair for a while looking studiously at me and then, having made her decision, jumped into my lap for the first time. “Finally!” I shouted, which scared her and she ran away.

But soon after, and permanently, we were best friends. She followed me everywhere, slept next to my pillow, and greeted me at the door every night. She never warmed up to anyone else, though. When people came over she would hide for the majority of their visit. Sometimes I had catsitters who never saw her. She epitomized the cat that people describe when they roll their eyes and say they hate cats.

This was all fine with me. Her personality, her elegant apathy, and the way she would jump into dresser drawers when it rained, were my secrets, and I was the entirety of her universe. (Sometimes I would shout this at her if I couldn’t get her to stay still so I could brush her hair: “I’m the entirety of your universe!”)

Unironically loving a cat when you are a single woman is not socially savvy. Sometimes, when I would mention Zoe, I could see people wince as they tallied the facts in their head: bookish, lives alone, knits a lot, watches Charlie Rose. There’s a moment in an old MST3K episode where a cop in his squad car is dubbed to say, “Ehh, if I stop and get donuts I’ll just be reinforcing the stereotype.” That’s what it was like when I got a cat.

But I loved Zoe. I loved having six pounds of unconditional love waiting for me every time I came home, and why wouldn’t I? The sense remained, though, that loving a cat was something I should chiefly keep to myself. I could present her to the world in some absurd, deprecating fashion — pictures of her stuck under things, making human faces, like I kept her around as performance art — but the fact that she was a little creature who mattered to me enormously was too lame to admit.

2.
When I was five I went to afternoon kindergarten. After my brothers went to school in the morning, my mom would read to me from The Little House on the Prairie series. The Wilder family had a bulldog named Jack that went with them everywhere, protected them on several occasions, and was Laura’s first playmate. In the beginning of the fifth book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Jack dies in his sleep. My mom didn’t know this was coming, and as she was reading she started skipping the more expository passage, and the description of the Wilder girls starting to cry. She thought she had made it vague enough that the truth wouldn’t sink in. But when she finished the chapter and closed the book, I looked at her and said, “Is Jack going to wake up?”

She went over to the phone, called the school, and said, “Janet isn’t coming to kindergarten today. She just learned about death.”

I thought a lot about this story in the past few weeks, as I realized Zoe was sick, and we tried a few treatments, and she kept getting worse. We’d had three cats when I was a kid, and they’d all exited our lives quite gracefully. Muffin fell asleep under a bush and died. Scratches died in an accident while I away visiting my grandparents. Skittles annoyed my mom so much that she eventually sent her to live on a farm. (I’ve given her many dignified opportunities to back of out this claim, but she maintains its truth.)

It became clear that the rest of Zoe’s life, or death, would have to be managed, and managed by me. It’s an agonizing process. Every decision felt selfish. It was heart-rending to have Zoe come sit on my lap while I was thinking about whether it was worthwhile to keep her alive.

Being the entirety of her universe, I was the only person who cared about Zoe, and I would be the only person to mourn her. My friends and family were wonderfully sympathetic, but what I needed was empathy. I needed a story to turn to, and I couldn’t think of one. For grief there’s A Year of Magical Thinking, for breakups there’s A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, but what could I read when I lost my cat? Cats usually show up in books as witches or set dressing for spinsters. I remembered the story of the Wilders’ bulldog, and there are certainly enough books for every dog situation, but I didn’t have a Marley, I had shy, loyal, damaged, affectionate Zoe. Then I thought of Philip Pullman.

3.
In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, each character has a dæmon. A dæmon is a visible extension of your soul standing beside you in animal form. Dæmons mimic the emotions of their humans, sleep when they sleep, and cannot be physically separated from them by more than a few yards. When you’re young your dæmon changes form depending on your mood, but at adolescence they “settle” into a permanent form. A particularly malicious character’s dæmon is a golden monkey, for instance, where a soldier might have a wolf. It’s considered grossly invasive to touch another person’s dæmon.

I’m not saying that Zoe was an extension of my soul. I am saying that we were unique to each other. Cats choose their people, unlike their more egalitarian canine counterparts, and don’t bother with anyone else. I tend to think that all she thought about all day was noises, whether or not she was cold, and where I was. This is why deciding to put her down felt so cruel, because I was the only thing she relied on and I gave up on her.

Pullman’s main character, Lyra, needs to travel to the underworld. The only way she can do this and survive is to leave her dæmon, Pantalaimon, behind, breaking the body-soul connection so that both halves will survive. It’s betrayal, selflessness, guilt, and grief all at once.

“Lyra was doing the cruellest thing she had ever done, hating herself, hating the deed, suffering for Pan and with Pan and because of Pan; trying to put him down on the cold path, disengaging his cat-claws from her clothes, weeping, weeping.”

I found this chapter in my copy of The Amber Spyglass and read it the afternoon I came home without Zoe. I felt as alone in grieving for Zoe as I had in loving her, and an old beloved book — magically, just like they’re supposed to — was the companion that understood.

Image courtesy of the author.

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