Category: Literature

Milk addictions, Nazi monstrosities & long-suffering canines: Three things about The Strain.

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011 by

“Once upon a time,” said Abraham Setrakian’s grandmother, “there was a giant.”

Young Abraham’s eyes brightened, and immediately the cabbage borscht in the wooden bowl got tastier, or at least less garlicky. He was a pale boy, underweight and sickly. His grandmother, intent on fattening him, sat across from him while he ate his soup, entertaining him by spinning him a yarn.

A bubbeh meiseh, a “grandmother’s story.” A fairy tale. A legend.

“He was the son of a Polish nobleman. And his name was Jusef Sardu. Master Sardu stood taller than any other man. Taller than any roof in the village. He had to bow deeply to enter any door. But his great height, it was a burden. A disease of birth, not a blessing. The young man suffered. His muscles lacked the strength to support his long, heavy bones. At times it was a struggle for him just to walk. He used a cane, a tall stick – taller than you – with a silver handle carved into the shape of a wolf’s head, which was the family crest.”

“Yes, Bubbeh?” said Abraham, between spoonfuls.

“This was his lot in life, and it taught him humility, which is a rare thing indeed for a nobleman to possess. He had so much compassion – for the poor, for the hardworking, for the sick. He was especially dear to the children of the village, and his great, deep pockets – the size of turnip sacks – bulged with trinkets and sweets. He had not much of a childhood himself, matching his father’s height at the age of eight, and surpassing him by a head at age nine. His frailty and great size were a secret source of shame to his father. But Master Sardu truly was a gentle giant, and much beloved by his people. It was said of him that Master Sardu looked down on everyone, yet looked down on no one.” (pp. 1-2)

Spoiler warning: minor plot details discussed below.

The Strain (2009)

So begins The Strain, a 2009 vampire novel co-authored by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) and novelist Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves: A Novel). Set in present-day New York City, the story follows Ephraim Goodweather – an epidemiologist with the CDC – as he races to stop the spread of an virus that essentially hijacks its host body, transforming human to vampire. (Nonhuman animals appear not to be affected, though this doesn’t preclude their consumption by vampires. Spoiler warning: the dog gets it!)

Transmitted via the exchange of bodily fluids (usually in the form of a “brutal” feeding frenzy as opposed to a more sophisticated and sexy neck bite), the virus is as old as the seven vampires – the Ancients – who are spread out among the “Old” and “New” Worlds. Kept under wraps by a tenuous truce between the Ancients for centuries, the virus is about to be unleashed upon humanity by a renegade vampire – the Dark One, Master, Sardu, The Thing – with the help of one especially evil, ambitious and self-involved human. (A billionaire, natch.)

Our hero “Eph” is accompanied by fellow CDC scientist Nora Martinez, along with a rag-tag team of unlikely experts, namely: Vasily Fet, an exterminator working for the City of New York and Abraham Setrakian, an elderly pawnshop owner and Holocaust survivor who has spent much of his life in pursuit of the Dark One.

I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, so I won’t go any further into plot details than this. One rave featured on the back cover describes it as “Bram Stoker meets Stephen King meets Michael Crichton”; I don’t know about Crichton, but if you’re a fan of Stephen King and/or modern-day vampire stories, you’ll love The Strain. Nor can I offer a comprehensive look at what I’ll call the story’s “animal ethics,” as The Strain is the first part of a trilogy. (I’m still waiting for a copy of The Fall to become available at my public library, and Eternal Night won’t be released for several more months.) I would, however, like to discuss several specific passages and plot details.

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“Beating a(n almost-) dead horse” in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Monday, February 8th, 2010 by

A mule in Bolivia

Since writing about Jon Stewart’s banter with Congressman Anthony Weiner about “beating” Michael Bloomberg “like a rented mule,” I haven’t been able to distance myself from the images evoked by this phrase. While our language is replete with speciesist terms and expressions, I find this one particularly troubling. After much contemplation, I think I finally understand why.

When I was younger, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was a favorite of mine. I first encountered the novel in either 10th- or 11th-grade English class, and it so appealed to my macabre, angst-ridden teenage sensibilities that I read it several more times over the years. I’ve long since forgotten all the story’s particulars, however, one scene has stayed with me, as if imprinted in my subconscious: protagonist Rodya Raskolnikov’s dream – related so vividly in the book – of watching his fellow townspeople beat an elderly and infirm mare to death in a drunken mob rage. While this scenario doesn’t quite line up with the idiom “I’d beat x like a rented mule,” the sights, sounds and emotions conjured up by the phrase are exactly the same – and horrifically so. (Ditto: “Beating a dead horse,” so charmingly illustrated on the Pocket English Idioms website.)

Adding another layer to the text is the dream’s symbolism:

Rodya’s dreams always have a symbolic meaning, which suggests a psychological view. In the dream about the horse, the mare has to sacrifice itself for the men who are too much in a rush to wait. This could be symbolic of women sacrificing themselves for men, just like Rodya’s belief that Dunya is sacrificing herself for Rodya by marrying Luzhin. Some critics have suggested this dream is the fullest single expression of the whole novel, containing the nihilistic destruction of an innocent creature and Rodion’s suppressed sympathy for it (although the young Rodion in the dream runs to the horse, he still murders the pawnbroker soon after waking). The dream is also mentioned when Rodya talks to Marmeladov. He states that his daughter, Sonya, has to sell her body to earn a living for their family. The dream is also a blatant warning for the impending murder.

After the jump, I’ve copied the entire dream sequence – but I should warn you that it’s extremely graphic and troubling. (And certainly nothing to laugh about, however much one may dislike Republicans who buy their way into public office.)

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Praise the Egg! New Musical by Mary Gage Premiers in State College, PA

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 by

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: United Poultry Concerns – news [at] upc-online.org
Date: Tue, Jan 19, 2010 at 11:53 AM
Subject: [UPC] Praise the Egg! New Musical by Mary Gage Premiers in State College, PA

Praise the Egg! New Musical by Mary Gage Premiers in State College, PA
Experience Life from the Chickens’ Point of View in this Endearing Performance
The State Theatre, Saturday April 3. 2010: 3:00pm. 7:00pm

“I think you should tell your readers that you were the inspiration for the musical.” Mary Gage to UPC president Karen Davis

Praise the Egg! A New Musical is based on the bittersweet novel by prizewinning writer, Mary Gage, showing life through the eyes of chickens. The book, and now the musical, captures the drama and pathos of the chickenyard with a cast of characters that includes Prudence, Granny Black, England the cock, “X and Y” from a battery-cage hen facility, and Man and Woman, the chicken-keepers. The story of these chickens is based on a little flock of chickens Mary kept while living in Perth in Western Australia in the 1970s.

Mary Gage, who now lives in State College, Pennsylvania, is directly involved in the musical production of Praise the Egg: She tells UPC: “The music is being written by a composer who directs Broadway musicals for kids in State College. He is casting these kids as chicks – ideal for his school, as the chicks grow so fast that a new class can do each scene. The set and costumes are being done by an artist whose paper cutouts of grass and trees will be projected huge on the backdrop. Huge hands with buckets or hoses intrude whenever Man and Woman come with the food and water.”

So how did UPC’s president, Karen Davis, “inspire” the musical performance of Praise the Egg? In an email to Karen, Mary Gage writes, “Someone alerted me to your talk about chickens in which you quoted from my book at the Yale Chicken Conference, in May 2002. This person inquired about Praise the Egg! She wanted to know the rest of the story. At that point the producer of the State Theatre invited me to put on another play, so I decided to rewrite my Australian chicken story as an American musical. Thank you!”

Here is the passage I quoted at the Yale Chicken Conference from Praise the Egg! It appears at the beginning of Chapter Two in my book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs:

Then they all settled down in the soft green shade of the lemon tree, with each little chick taking its turn to fly up to the best and softest seat on Granny Black’s back. And while they waited for the sun to go down again, she told them about the great big world outside the chick run, or the days when she was a chick, or the story they liked telling best of all – her Miracle story about Eggs. How the broken fragments they had hatched from were once smooth, complete shapes; how every chicken that ever was had hatched out in exactly the same way; how only chooks could lay such beauties; and how every time they did, they were so filled with joy that they could not stay quiet, but had to burst into song; and how their song was taken up by England the cock and echoed by every single hen in the Run. – Mary Gage, Praise the Egg

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They’re made out of…meat.

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 by

Crossposted from V for Vegan.

Mylène @ My Face Is On Fire recently wrote about scifi author Terry Bisson’s 1991 short story “They’re Made Out of Meat,” which she noted, “provides an interesting twist on how most humans view animals.”

Wiki’s entry is on the story is rather short (but then, so’s the story!) – and contains spoilers – so if you’d rather be surprised, skip right on down to the video and press play before reading further. The running time is 7 1/2 minutes, but it’s worth every second.

They’re Made Out of Meat is a Nebula Award-nominated short story by Terry Bisson. It was originally published in OMNI. It consists entirely of dialogue between two characters, and Bisson’s website hosts a theatrical adaptation. A film adaptation won the Grand Prize at the Seattle Science Fiction Museum’s 2006 film festival.

(The aforementioned award-winning short is what I’ve embedded below.)

The two characters are sentient beings capable of traveling faster than light, on a mission to “contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe.” Bisson’s stage directions represent them as “two lights moving like fireflies among the stars” on a projection screen. They converse briefly on their bizarre discovery of carbon-based life, which they refer to incredulously as “thinking meat.” They agree to “erase the records and forget the whole thing,” marking the Solar System “unoccupied.”

Interestingly, the only link listed under “See also” is “Carbon chauvinism“:

Carbon chauvinism is a relatively new term meant to disparage the assumption that extraterrestrial life will resemble life on Earth. In particular, it would be applied to those who assume that the molecules responsible for the chemical processes of life must be constructed primarily from carbon. It suggests that, as carbon-based life forms who have never encountered any life that has evolved outside the earth’s environment, human beings may find it difficult to envision radically different biochemistries. The term was used as early as 1973, when Carl Sagan described it and other human chauvinisms that limit imagination of possible extraterrestrial life in his Cosmic Connection.

From there, you can go to “Anthropocentrism,” “Chauvinism,” “Chemical evolution,” “Carbon-based life,” and “They’re Made Out of Meat.”

I always found our humanoid conceptions of aliens life forms to be unreal and egotistical, but never considered it a form of prejudice. But yeah, “carbon chauvinism” (carbonism?) sounds about right. How fitting, then, that “anthropocentrism” (which links to “speciesism”) is referenced in the entry.

Anyhow, this short adaptation of “They’re Made Out of Meat” is really well done, and – if you’re so predisposed (read: intellectually honest) – the themes can equally be applied to our treatment of non-human animals.

See also: Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man.”
 


 
If you can’t view the video above – or, if you can but would like to read the story as well – it’s available in multiple places online; Google “They’re Made Out of Meat” or try this link, for starters.

Many thanks to Mylène for the video!