Staff Picks: Aurora’s Anticipated Non-Fiction, July

Catland: Feline Enchantment and the Making of the Modern World by Kathryn Hughes 

Before there were cat memes, there was Louis Wain. The British illustrator was the Victorian era’s foremost feline portraitist, famed for his drawings of goggle-eyed cats and kittens partaking in such genteel pastimes as playing cricket, Christmas caroling, tea-partying in the garden, and consulting with the local phrenologist. Frequently outfitted in human attire and as often brooding or manic in expression as mirthful, Wain’s cats so delighted the masses that they became virtually ubiquitous, appearing on postcards and advertisements, in magazines and books numbering in the hundreds. The contemporary viewer, however, may find themselves more alarmed than charmed by Wain’s creations, which start out weird and only get weirder as his cat art career progressed. Although some have attributed the deepening weirdness to artistic experimentation and a sympathy with the avant-garde trends of the day, others theorize that it had more to do with the documented fraying of Wain’s psyche. The sad fact of it is that Wain was institutionalized in 1924 and would spend the remainder of his life in mental hospitals, where he continued to draw cats as well as other, decidedly psychedelic creatures evolved somewhat beyond standard feline anatomy. The story of Louis Wain’s life is a gloomy one, and historian Kathryn Hughes charts it admirably, but Catland is more than a simple biography of the ill-starred illustrator. Rather than dwelling on the tragedy of Wain’s personal struggles and decline, Hughes alternates between biography and essays on the Victorian cat craze, which saw the species elevated from a back-alley nuisance to a beloved bewhiskered fixture of hearth and home. This was an age of cat shows, cat burglars, royal cats, cat food street vendors, and cat ladies, all of which Hughes covers with lively wit and an encyclopedic knowledge of her era of choice, highlighting the surprising connections between the cat obsession and seemingly more serious social concerns like class tensions, urbanization, and colonialism. Catland is also a font of cat trivia, for example: Did you know that Charles Dickens owned a butter knife made from the taxidermied paw of his deceased pet? Or that, during WWI, the British army drafted 500 cats to sniff out poison gas? Hughes’ exuberance for cataloging feline Victoriana takes what in less agile hands could have been either bleak – a stolid chronicle of Wain’s misfortunes – or a trifle – a frolicsome romp through the kitty curiosity cabinet – and crafts a thoughtful yet entertaining reflection on the roots of our cat-mad culture. 

Recommended for cat lovers, obviously.  

 

Triumph of the Yuppies: America, the Eighties, and the Creation of an Unequal Nation by Tom McGrath 

Perhaps you remember Patrick Bateman, the sharply dressed, business-card-coveting, serial-killing Wall Street investment banker at the center of Brett Easton Ellis’s satirical horror novel American Psycho (1991) and the film adaptation of the same name. If so, you will understand what I mean when I write that, if Kathryn Hughes’ thesis is that cats made the modern world, journalist Tom McGrath takes the darker view that we are today living in the world Patrick Bateman – or a million Patrick Batemans, more or less morally bankrupt – created for us. This is a chilling thought, but McGrath manages to serve up his grisly diagnosis in a suitably slick history of 1980s America and its easiest to loathe monster-spawn, the Yuppie (an abbreviation of “young urban professional”). Between digressive ruminations on ’80s phenomena like primetime soap operas and Jane Fondian dance aerobicizing, McGrath tracks the ideological shift of a certain segment of the Baby Boomer generation from 1960s-era idealism to unbridled rapacity, with careerist striving and a fetishistic worship of luxury commodities as the primary symptoms of the syndrome. The long-lasting effect of the Yuppie’s “Decade of Greed,” McGrath writes, has been an increasingly cavernous schism between the urban professional elite and a working class left to flounder in the sludge seeped as byproduct of the economic policies instated by the Sharper Image set. A quote from uber Yuppie Patrick Bateman seems fitting here, to close: “My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for others.” 

Recommended for socially conscious pop culture enthusiasts, ’80s fiends, and anyone who ever cringed flipping through a ratty old copy of The Yuppie Handbook.

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