Tag: animals

Review: A Street Cat Named Bob

A Street Cat Named Bob is part of the extensive and well-selling genre of sentimental true stories about animals, to be filed alongside Marley and Me and Dewey the Library Cat. In this case, street musician James Bowen tells the story of how ginger tom Bob appeared on the doorstep of his sheltered housing one evening and just never left. Bob and his human charm London: what, after all, is more adorable than a cat that catches the bus every day? And Bob gives James the impetus he needs to kick his methadone addiction and start turning his life around.

That’s…pretty much all there is to say. The bits about the cat are predictably heartwarming – and he is still alive and well at the end of the book (indeed, there are two sequels), avoiding the sting in the tail of most animal fiction. Equally predictably, Bowen is no stylist, even with the help of professional writer Garry Jenkins. So, though I did find myself racing through some of the tenser bits of the story – Bowen going cold turkey with Bob at his side, Bob getting lost in London, Bowen being arrested after being framed by hostile Underground staff – I don’t think I was really as emotionally engaged as I could have been.

I do think, though, that it’s a slightly less egregious bit of sentimentality than most animal books, shining a light on a social ill that doesn’t really get talked about very much in Britain: homelessness. Bowen may not have been sleeping on the streets during the period he describes in A Street Cat Named Bob, but his life circumstances were very precarious indeed. He worked as a Big Issue seller after his fears for Bob’s safety drove him out of playing street music, and this is where Street Cat is doing its most important work if not its most interesting – because we all see Big Issue sellers on the streets on a regular basis, and this book, with its straightforward narration of what it’s like to try to sell the magazine, I think gives us an opportunity for empathy. We shouldn’t need books to make us empathise with the people our society dispossesses; but, because we are human and imperfect, we do.

A Street Cat Named Bob is, in sum, a short, easy read which opens a window on homelessness. It won’t set the Thames on fire, but read it if you like cats.

Review: A Natural History of Dragons

The first in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, A Natural History of Dragons sets up the conceit that will power the next five books. Isabella Trent is a gentlewoman in a secondary-world analogue of Regency England. Having become a famous naturalist for her study of dragons, she’s now writing her memoirs, with this first book seeing her overcome social prejudice to accompany her husband abroad on her first dangerous expedition to find out more about these evasive beasts.

Its project is similar to that of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, with which its subject matter and setting invite inevitable comparisons: it’s using fantasy – dragons – to push against mainstream forms of discourse (autobiography, natural history) that are traditionally reserved for straight white men, creating space in those discourses to tell the stories of the marginalised and of those who are invisible to the mainstream. In short, it makes the invisible (dragons; women who did early science) visible. So this is a story about a woman who does science, who’s better at writing about anatomy than emotion, who has romance but isn’t defined by it. It’s also a story that critiques the more exoticising forms of travel writing we find in history, and even today: the village where she and her husband go to find dragons to study is not quaint and rustic, its inhabitants not disarmingly friendly in a homely way. Drustanev is cold, the food is over-garlicked, the inhabitants are resentful of the party’s intrusion. This is pointed up specifically in the text, when Isabella mentions writing an early travel memoir where, as was the fashion for young ladies travelling at the time, she does exoticise the place and its people.

There are plenty of other such ripples, where the conventional ideal text (male-authored autobiography) fights with the female scientist it was never designed to contain. Isabella makes a lot of the fact that she is willing to discuss sex, in biological terms, while her readers may be scandalised at a woman so doing – despite the fact that she does it in her books on dragon anatomy.

A more interesting example is her experience of marriage. As I’ve already indicated, Isabella isn’t really a romantic figure: we see little of her marriage and home life until it becomes entangled with her career as a scientist, because she’s not terribly interested in sharing it. Although her marriage eventually turns out to have a lot of love in it (not a euphemism, although…), it is at least initially very much a social contract, assuring financial security for Isabella, while for her husband it represents a chance to have a wife with some intelligence. It’s an interesting alternative relationship paradigm for a Regency story, writing against a tradition of Regency romance – see not Austen’s actual novels, which are invariably more complex than we give them credit for, but our cultural reception of them, which casts them as romantic, airy-fairy chick lit. In particular, Brennan writes about the strangeness of the sudden intimacy between Isabella and her husband, the move from absolute social propriety to sharing their lives and their bed. It’s a nice defamiliarisation of the “romantic” trope of saving yourself for marriage.

Unfortunately, though, Brennan’s just not as good at this textual subversion as Novik is. Her Regency voice, unlike Novik’s, is an odd mix of contemporary directness and Regency formality, and comes across as stilted and artificial – rather undermining the work of writing against a patriarchal discourse when the discourse isn’t quite right. (Incidentally, this reminds me of Brennan’s Midnight Never Come, which also didn’t carry through its historical setting quite right.)

Additionally, the fact that her story is set in a secondary-world analogue containing a place that’s clearly meant to recall Regency England while not actually being it is tricky. While it does avoid some of the issues of appropriation that could spring from Isabella’s expeditions round the world (which I assume continue in the rest of the series), it also sort of defangs Brennan’s critique of Regency discourse and attitude. What the book’s trying to do and how it tries to do it don’t quite map together.

I’ve been comparing A Natural History of Dragons implicitly with Novik’s series all the time I’ve been reading it and thinking about it, which perhaps isn’t quite fair, and it might be that if I hadn’t read about Temeraire before I read about Isabella I might have enjoyed this more. I would probably read more of Brennan’s series if the books came my way – but, for me, Novik’s series does the same thing better.

Review: Crucible of Gold

crucible-of-gold-the-temeraire-series-book-7-137958127The seventh novel in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Crucible of Gold sees William Laurence recalled to the Aerial Corps for a diplomatic mission to Brazil, where the Tswana, who we met in Empire of Ivory, have taken over a key port city in pursuance of their stated intention to retrieve every Tswana slave. The city being Portuguese territory, and Portugal being central to the latest British plan against Napoleon, it is vital to win it back. Apparently Laurence, despite being generally held in contempt by everyone ever, is best placed to negotiate with the Tswana because he has met them before.

The novel from there is fairly standard Temeraire series stuff: a sea voyage, a long journey by air, a new society with dragons playing a startling and unexpected role, culture clash, gritted-teeth politeness, and a play-off between Laurence’s duty and his morality.

If Novik has any project this far into a series that’s become quite formulaic while generally retaining its delightfulness, it’s telling the stories of people who have been left behind by the “official” narrative of history. So we have the Tswana, rulers of Novik’s Africa, fighting against the slavery inflicted on their nation by the West; we have a captain in the Aerial Corps (Granby) coming out as gay; we have an unmarried female military member, Emily Roland, who is open about the fact that she regularly has sex with a black Tswana Corps captain (Demane). This is all couched in Novik’s propriety-bound Regency prose, in forms of dialogue and social interaction never designed to hold, or allow, any of these things, and observed by straitlaced Regency gentleman Laurence, as close to a cultural default as Novik can get: the radical energies of rebellion tug and swirl around a historical narrative trying desperately to exclude them.

This is also, and connectedly, a story about culture shock. As Laurence and the gang journey into the heart of the South American continent, they stumble across situations which highlight the ridiculousness of the proprieties they, and especially Laurence, still cling to. When an mutinous member of the crew sleeps with a local girl, Laurence offers her money, assuming that her chances at marriage will have been affected; she and her caretaker dragon react with incomprehension. Similarly, when the same crew member, lured by the promise of gold, steals away to live in a local village, Laurence refuses to take what he sees as payment for him from the dragon that protects the village: we can’t sell this man! Why not? the dragon asks, and we do, too, I think: he will only be hanged for mutiny if he stays with the British party, and he is, after all, willing to stay behind. In this strange land, with its radically different culture, the defaults of propriety and morality twist and shimmer and become strange: unable to contain these new realities, they lose their privileged position with regards to dictating “normality”, and become simply another set of strange customs.

None of this is very much different to what the rest of the series is doing; but it does it engagingly and enjoyably, and Novik’s Regency prose really is a joy to read. And it’s exactly the kind of book the world needs right now.

Planet Earth II Review: Deserts

David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II is admittedly not this blog’s usual fare.

But I did watch last Sunday’s episode, after a day’s hard NaNoing, having had no previous experience of it (including the 2006 series), and two things really struck me about it, both of them things you wouldn’t necessarily expect from what’s essentially a wildlife documentary.

The first was the self-conscious artistry of the show: it’s stunningly shot, artfully narrated and constructed with a very obvious eye to storytelling.

The second was the taut and ambiguous environmental politics that clusters around it. It’s obviously going for observational objectivity, at least on the surface, observing the wonder of nature without commenting on wider-world issues – a kind of snapshot of desert life, without interpretation or commentary. But, of course, true objectivity doesn’t exist, and we should be wary of anything that makes a claim to it.

Where do I start? Well, if Deserts has a theme it’s that of fragility. This is an episode that’s keen to remind us that nature is red in tooth and claw indeed; that all the ways mankind has invented of killing each other is matched and more than matched by the inventive barbarism with which evolution has equipped the animals of our planet. Here, we see the butcher bird (a cheerful creature that looks not unlike a jay or a magpie) impale prey animals on spikes as a larder; the blind and extremely fluffy golden mole which swims through desert sands swallow insects whole from beneath (surely the inspiration for China Mieville’s Railsea); the sand grouse risk its life carrying water (in its chest feathers) to its family 120 miles away.

But it’s about fragility in a wider sense, too: no wildlife documentary can skim over the fact of dramatic and possibly catastrophic climate change, and with deserts getting hotter and drier by the year there’s an ever-present sense of threat hanging over everything that happens in the episode, the warning that all this wonder and strange savagery could be swept away in the blink of an eye.

And I think this temporal, this historical fragility is encapsulated in the case of the locusts. One of the episode’s segments features an enormous locust swarm, which the episode’s HD filming captures lovingly, as a thing wondrous and amazing and “wow, look at what nature can do”.

And yet – we’re told, both in the narration of this sequence and the diary section at the end where the filmmakers relate how difficult it was to find any bloody locusts (my favourite part being where they were in a helicopter saying “Look! Is that a swarm?” and the pilot said, “No, it’s just smoke”) that such swarms devastate crop fields that people are relying on to survive.

It’s a segment that’s brilliantly demonstrating the constant tension between the need to conserve nature and the need to keep people safe and alive and happy.

It’s not a conundrum to which Sir David offers any answers; partly, I suppose, because there aren’t really any good ones. But it’s this tension, this focus on the fundamentally untenable state of affairs in which what’s good for nature isn’t what’s good for us, that made Deserts, for me, so much more memorable than wildlife documentaries usually are.

Top Ten Books on My TBR

  1. The King – Kader Abdolah. This seems to be a novel about historical Persia – I borrowed it from the library as part of my ongoing effort to read more (or, indeed, any) books by POCs. It sounds like it could be either fascinating or extremely dull.
  2. A Gathering of Shadows – V.E. Schwab. Another library book and the sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, which I rather liked. I’ve seen some slightly iffy things recently about Schwab’s conduct on social media, though, so my enjoyment might be coloured by that.
  3. Steampunk Fairy Tales. A work colleague gave me this because, in her words, “I know you like fairy tales and I know you like steampunk”. And, yes, that’s a pretty perfect combination. #excited
  4. A Street Cat Named Bob – James Bowen. A present from the Circumlocutor’s mother. Alongside fairy tales and steampunk, cats are one of the best things you can ever expect to find in a book.
  5. The House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard. Part of my enormous Nine Worlds haul, this sort-of urban fantasy is also part of my diverse reading project and has been on my radar for ages. It sounds awesome and I just cannot wait to start.
  6. The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor. Another Nine Worlds book and another diverse read. I read Lagoon earlier in the year and enjoyed it rather a lot. I’ve heard this is a prequel, though, so I’m slightly worried I might be missing out on other bits of story when I read it.
  7. Deja Vu – Ian Hocking. I got this free in my Nine Worlds goody bag and it looks like it could be mildly interesting? It sounds like it might be a vaguely cyberpunk-y SF thriller – I’m imagining a cross between Neuromancer and Channel 4’s Humans, though that may have something to do with the cover.
  8.  The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett. I got this at the wedding of some TolkSoc friends I went to over the summer where they gave out second-hand books as wedding favours (how lovely an idea is that?). A story apparently about the Queen becoming a bookworm, it sounds like it will be a fun read with heart.
  9. The City’s Son – Tom Pollock. Yes, OK, another Nine Worlds purchase. I actually accidentally bought the second in this series a while back thinking it was something else and figured that since I was already saddled with it I might as well read the series in the right order. Serendipitously, it looks like it might be a rather enjoyable urban fantasy.
  10. The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley. I promise, this is my last Nine Worlds purchase, as well as possibly the one I’m looking forward to most. Hurley became one of my favourites when I read God’s War earlier in the year and it was awesome and powerful and gutsy and sure. And, yay feminism!

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Film Review: The Jungle Book

“There’s no place in the jungle for these tricks.”

Bagheera the panther

Oh gods.

I knew, of course, that Disney’s live-action remake of its late 60s cartoon Jungle Book, based on the works of arch-colonialist Rudyard Kipling, would have to work very, very hard to be anything other than problematic.

I was seduced, however, by the theatrical trailer, with its lush, orchestral rendition of “Bare Necessities”, blatantly designed to induce nostalgia even in people who haven’t seen the film, into thinking: well, it can’t possibly be that bad…

For a film which is so overtly invested in looking back to its antecedent, The Jungle Book actually does very little to build on the original, and what it does do only serves to make the film, er, worse.

(I should note at this point that my memories of the cartoon version are very vague indeed.)

The film begins similarly to its predecessor: the presence of a human child, Mowgli, in the company of a pack of wolves in an Indian jungle draws the unwelcome attention of Shere Khan, a scarred and tyrannical tiger. In order to save the pack and restore the law of the jungle, Mowgli, accompanied by his panther mentor Bagheera, must return to the human village, hunted by the tiger at every step.

Which, OK. Fluffy exotic carnivores do make for a good children’s film. (See also: Ice Age.)

But then the remake veers off on its own, presumably in order to demonstrate that it is grown up now and can make its own mistakes. Mowgli meets Baloo the bear, who is a good deal more acquisitive than his original and wants Mowgli to fetch him some honey which Baloo can’t reach. Mowgli rises to this challenge by using (gasp) tools to create a rudimentary pulley. When Bagheera catches up with Mowgli and finds Baloo’s massive cave stocked with possibly more honey than he could ever eat, he’s furious: the jungle has no place for human tricks, he says. And this is where the film’s main failure lies: its insistent, perfidious refusal to address precisely why human tricks are bad for the jungle.

It certainly feels like there’s room for an ecological message here – looking at those vast racks of honey, I actually thought Bagheera might note how there’s now not enough for other jungle denizens, and I certainly don’t think it would be an egregious turn from the spirit of the original to reframe the story as an exploration of how humanity can interact with the flora and fauna of the forest to mutual benefit. But the ecological potential of the honey moment remains unstated: Mowgli shouldn’t use his ingenuity in the jungle just because. And although he does go on to use it later in the film, uses it, in fact, to save the jungle, it remains something that is exclusively his – the quintessence of humanity, if you like – something exclusively within his control, something that he imposes upon the jungle creatures instead of sharing it with them.

So let’s park that for a moment and think about the Red Flower (fire), which, like Mowgli’s tool-using abilities, is posited as an exclusively human possession. Apart from the fact that this is just obviously factually incorrect (forest fires, anyone?), the name the animals use for it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the kind of superstitious, childish speech which Western colonialist authors have patronisingly ascribed to native human populations for several centuries. The Jungle Book, with its essentialist emphasis on Mowgli’s – on humanity’s – innate superiority can be read as a colonialist fable, one perpetuated by its ending (again different from its original’s), which sees Mowgli remaining in the jungle, riding one of the previously untouchable holy elephants: a colonist not deigning to share his technology but expecting to reap the benefits of the jungle, and, what’s worse, ruling it by right, because of his nature. Quite apart from the colonialist overtones, it’s a profoundly anti-democratic sentiment.

And, yes, this is only to be expected in an adaptation of Kipling’s original Jungle Book, published at the end of the empire in 1894; but this present Jungle Book is a remake of something that hardly resembles that original. Besides, the more immediate source material (Disney’s ’67 cartoon) is actually less problematic, which is astonishing given the progress we’re supposed to have made since then. (It’s especially notable that the directors of the remake have made the evil snake Kaa female, without touching the gender of any of the other characters. Did the studio honestly not realise how offensive this is?) It quite honestly beggars belief that this kind of thing can keep getting made.

Film Review: Kung Fu Panda 3

“If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be better than what you are. ”

Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger

So…I went to see Kung Fu Panda 3 at the cinema on Saturday evening. By choice.

I mean, there’s nothing I can say that will make that fact any better. The first two films were pretty good, though.

In the third film of the franchise, Our Hero’s biological panda father turns up and offers to take him to a secret panda village in the mountains, making Po’s adopted duck father jealous. Meanwhile, an evil spirit named Kai escapes the spirit world and rampages through China.

The film introduces the concept of chi, a force strongly reminiscent of, well, the Force. Everyone, it seems, has chi, and Kai’s idea in rampaging through China is essentially to steal everyone’s chi, as it makes him more powerful. Po, it is revealed by his Jedi master kung fu teacher Yoda Shifu, must learn to wield chi in order to defeat Kai. Coincidentally, an old scroll informs us that the only place in the whole of China Po can learn this is in the secret panda village.

So…off we all go to the secret panda village, I guess.

There are almost certainly some issues of cultural appropriation around all of the fact that this is a Western film about a fictionalised (fantasised) China; I don’t know enough to comment on them, but it is worth noting that the films have been welcomed in China, and that while the film’s director is Korean, it does also feature a number of Chinese and Chinese-American actors and musicians. (This blog post offers an interesting redemptive reading of the first film from a Chinese perspective.)

So: from my perspective (which is Western), Kung Fu Panda 3 is, visually, an utterly beautiful film. Which is, admittedly, a strange thing to say about a children’s animation; but I defy you to watch the film’s opening sequences, set in a vast and strange spirit world of midair battles and abandoned temples, and not be impressed. Unlike many films of its type, this one is well worth seeing in 3D: it’s at its best when revelling in itself as film, as a visual and aural art form that doesn’t necessarily need any semantic content. The soundtrack is fantastic (Kai’s theme is particularly catchy, and reminds me almost of a gunslinger’s theme from a Clint Eastwood film), and the facial animation has a nuance I wasn’t expecting from a children’s animation: the expressions of the characters manage to capture some quite complex emotions utterly perfectly.

Where the film falls down is in its overt ideological content. Kung Fu Panda 3 wants to be a story about Po Finding Himself, realising who he is beyond all the kung-fuing and bravado; it wants to be a story in which an entire community finds who they are meant to be as people. Unfortunately, this noble objective rather clashes with the fact that, in a film called Kung Fu Panda, audiences do expect a certain amount of kung fu and epic (if sanitised) violence. The result of this clash is a certain superficiality to the plot of the film: Po’s plan for defending the secret panda village from Kai’s inevitable arrival is to capitalise on what the villagers most love doing. So ribbon dancers find themselves wielding numchuks, huggers find themselves  crushing tree trunks, keeper-uppers wield firecrackers. (What they did with all the writers and readers and thinkers I don’t know.) Apparently this has helped the villagers find out who they truly are, which feels like an impoverished way of looking at personal fulfilment; were none of these hitherto peaceable pandas pacifists? And the communal aspect of the film, the element that asks us to see success and fulfilment as constituted by communities rather than individuals, is underserved by the genre’s need to present us with a climactic battle between individuals. Po’s success at becoming a master of chi, at winning the film, feels unearned, failing to recognise the role that the secret panda villagers have had in his transcendence.

That the conceit of the film is creaking at the edges isn’t really a surprise: while “panda who knows kung fu” is a great idea, it is only one idea, which is not very much to spread out over three films. Kung Fu Panda 3‘s thinness, in other words, is a sign that the franchise probably needs to end here, and that doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

Of course, ending is always a bad thing in Hollywood, so inevitably we will be getting another six sequels, with a once-original franchise paling into indifference.

Oh, well.