Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Books Yay!: The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

So okay here's the concept: the three Andreas sisters - named after characters from random Shakespeare plays despite there being numerous Shakespearean sister triplets that could have been used for greater effect - exist in the sense of the weird sisters from Macbeth, speaking in the first person plural and knowing each other intricately except for when it's convenient to the plot for them to not understand each other.  They are gathered at home to deal with their mother's cancer, but they of course all carry their own drama and in Shakespearean fashion there are all kinds of relationship movements and familial woes and mysterious debts and pregnancies.  Things happen and things get resolved.

I would like to be nice about this book, particularly since the concept is a neat one and it apparently was an Amazon.com Best Book of the Month for January of 2011.  Unfortunately, this distinction only serves to make me nervous about the mental health of my fellow Internet denziens, because this book is just not...best anything. 

I thought a little bit about that last paragraph, went back and wrote the first one, and then came back here and I wonder if I'm being a little harsh.  I'm sure there are some things that The Weird Sisters is in fact the best at.  Let me see if I can come up with a few.

Best Random Smattering of Shakespearean Naming Conventions
The three sisters are named after Rosalind (As You Like It), Bianca (The Taming of the Shrew) and Cordelia (King Lear).  Brown references Rosalind's in-play disguise as a male by putting her in what Brown appears to consider a male profession - college teaching - and putting her in the masculine role in her marriage according to tired gender roles.  Bianca is a temptress character who always seems to get her way with men.  Cordelia is distant and has trouble taking her father's advice.  But of course Brown wants to get tricky with this, so Rosalind winds up taking a more feminine role and moving to Oxford to join her husband, Bianca sees her powers of seduction fail and must find a way to cope without them, and Cordelia winds up learning the true meaning of family.  Why Brown picked these three characters and pulled in three plays when she was already overtaxing herself with the weird sisters conceit is beyond me.  Oh!  And the actual weird sisters are from Macbeth, so there's literally no connection anywhere. 

Best Frequency of Tense Shifts
Thanks to the weird sisters first person plural concept, Brown is forced to engage in some truly horrendous tense shifts.  Though the period of time that the story covers is not large - several months, plus some flashbacks - there are some truly awe-inspiring tense shifts that make the whole enterprise a convoluted mess.  It makes it difficult to track the progress of the story and quite frankly the idea sounds a lot more interesting theoretically than it IS in practice. 

Best Heap of Bullshit About a Family's Interaction
The girls' father is a renowned professor at the local university - though the college is pooh-poohed as being somewhat podunk and not that prestigious, so it's hard to say what the hell a professor of his apparent world-class status is doing at a piece of shit college, but whatever - and apparently we are supposed to believe that he speaks almost entirely in quotes from Shakespeare.  I have a healthy respect for Shakespeare's incredible linguistic talents and the breadth of his catalog, but I'm sorry, you do not transact your life in Shakespearean verse in the 2000s, and you certainly don't do it without your family murdering you and hiding your body in the woods.  Oh, and of course we're also supposed to believe that the professor's wife and three daughters have all memorized Shakespeare's complete works as well so that they can communicate and toss off vague witticisms.  

Apparently my "bests" aren't really that besty.  I found this book incredibly pretentious and irritating, all in the service of a plot that was cribbed from the latest and greatest Lifetime movies.  It's a shame, because I think in the right hands, a book written in the voice of the weird sisters would be interesting.  Unfortunately, Eleanor Brown decided to take up the project.  I'm not actually saying she's a bad writer - there's good work hiding under the crap in this book - but this simply exceeded her grasp of Shakespeare and her ability to execute. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Books Yay!: In The Woods, by Tana French

I could not put this book down.

In The Woods is ostensibly a crime novel about the murder of a young girl, but in reality, it's more about the relationships we form and the way our past affects us.  The detectives investigating the murder are Cassie Maddox and Adam "Rob" Ryan.  Ryan was the sole survivor of a mysterious incident in the same woods in which the murder victim was found, and has come a long way from that incident to his current position.  He has totally excised the incident - of which he remembers nothing - from his life, only to have it forcibly dragged back in when this case comes to the department. 

French's intermingling of the two mysteries, past and present, heightens the tension in both, and her handling of the plot is really spectacular.  Still, the centerpiece of the book is actually the friendship between Maddox and Ryan, a strange connection between tomboy and shy man that continually dances the line between solid professional partnership and romantic interest.  One of the things I appreciated most is that French has Ryan - in whose voice the story is told - engage in the same kind of self-justification that we all do from time to time, telling someone that everything is copacetic when in fact you're trying to convince yourself.  The relationship is clearly beyond the bounds of their professional partnership, even though that aspect of their relationship certainly benefits from their closeness.  I think it's a more honest look at the way people occasionally wind up at work when they're employed in very intense environments; certain jobs just demand that you involve more of your humanity, and being able to do that well is contingent on having people around you who you can reveal that to and whose humanity will align with your own.

To unravel the plot of In The Woods would really be unfair to you as a reader, because there is absolutely no reason for you to pass this one by.  Whether you like good writing, mysteries, police novels, psychological drama, romances, you name it...this is just a damn good book, and you should pick it up.  French's writing has that beautiful quiet tone that you sometimes find in Irish writing, and the world in which she sets her story is lush and incredibly tactile.  You feel like you have been to these towns and offices and woods - but always as an outsider.  Holding you at an arm's distance maintains the fog of mystery over the whole situation and makes for an incredible reading experience.  I highly recommend this book and hope you'll pick it up!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Books Yay!: The Ruins, by Scott Smith

I read this book after Rich Juzwiak of FourFour (and so many other locations) published a defense of the movie version of The Ruins. I hadn't really paid much attention to trailers for the movie and certainly didn't know it was a book adaptation.  However, Rich's defense of the concept and his references to the book itself got me intrigued, so I downloaded the book and waded in.  Rich loves the dregs of pop culture, so I was expecting a so-bad-it's-good experience, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a genuinely good book lurking between the covers. 

The Ruins is a pretty simple story: a bunch of dumb kids go out into the jungle and run into insidious forces that ultimately lead to bad things.  But there's more going on than just that somewhat typical trope.  For one, not all of the vacationers know each other or even share a language.  The danger they face isn't simple either.  There's the general danger of being out of their element, but there are also menacing, mysterious villagers surrounding them and imprisoning them on the ruins, and then, of course...there are the vines.  The vines turn out to be the biggest problem of all.  As it turns out, the vines are sentient, evil plants (don't laugh), and the longer the kids stay on the ruins, they more then understand how dire their straits are. 

It is a mark of Smith's ability that this premise doesn't wind up utterly ridiculous in practice.  The book is full of tension and genuine horror, far more than a book about evil death plants should be.  Part of this is because he plays on the other factors threatening the characters' survival to produce the overwhelming effect people in their situation would likely feel.  There are problems with water and food supplies, since they cannot leave the ruins and the vines exude a stinging sap.  They don't understand why the armed villagers have the ruins surrounded and won't let them leave, and they don't know if the person they followed to the ruins made it or if others are likely to follow.  They have to deal with sunburn and with some massive injuries as a result of falls down an open shaft and other accidents.  On top of all of this, Smith has produced a set of realistic characters, which is to say that there are some that are bossy (though knowledgable), some that are panicky and helpless, some that are straight up jerks.  Having realistic characters in play makes everything much more appealing and much more tense. 

Then there are the vines.  They are truly creepy in all they do.  They grow incredibly quickly and are drawn to blood, even snaking out to suck up pools of it.  The characters eventually realize that the vine has eaten several people, including the ones they followed out to the ruins in the first place.  They also are able to make noise, mimicking voices to turn the captives against each other and making other unnatural sounds to trick them.  It's a great effect and of course you can read as much "Nature's Revenge!!!!" into it as you want to. 

Overall, a surprisingly great read.  It's not long but it packs in the tension and is a creative concept handled really well.  I'd definitely recommend this one!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Books Yay!: The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, by Karen Karbo

This is a sweet, short little read about the epic figure of Coco Chanel. It's couched in the story of the author's search for the perfect little Chanel jacket, and that adds an interesting flavor to the book itself.  Through the lens of that search, the author shows us - without ever really saying as much - that there will never be anyone quite like Coco Chanel, nor will there be the equal of her work.  Karbo emphasizes the differences between "Chanel-Chanel" and "Lagerfeld-Chanel" and notes that while Karl Lagerfeld has preserved a lot of the stylistic traditions of Chanel's house, the manufacture and temporal significance of the house is simply not the same.

Chanel and her clothing were remarkable for their time.  Chanel was the one who ushered women out of the restrictive, ornamental age of frippery and into casual clothing that allowed them to actually function as active human beings.  Once you read a little more about her, you understand how she came to be this person - she was a tempestuous woman who rode horses, had affairs, and fought societal conventions tooth and nail. As are so many movers and shakers, she also appears to have been truly unpleasant and obstinate, which must have been somewhat startling for the delicate clients who sought out her work.   I kind of enjoy that, frequently uninterested in making nice as I am.  It's also nice to see a biographer hit a strange mixture of fangirldom and appreciation of her idols numerous flaws.  She doesn't shy away from addressing Chanel's business mistakes or her personal ones, like dating a Nazi during World War II.  It's almost BECAUSE she notes these problems that Chanel's successes seem so impressive, particularly when you consider the endurance of the Chanel name.

This is a light little book that's packed with a surprising amount of information about Chanel and her era.  The author can get a little trying - I found an incident where she and a friend took a picture they'd been expressly forbidden to take (of a dog, no less) particularly childish, unprofessional and stupid - and her idea of a life manual as directed by Chanel's chutzpah is a little clunky, because the sectioning she sets up at the outset of the book gets further segmented more or less at random.  That said, I'd definitely recommend it, particularly for those interested in fashion generally.  I think it speaks well to the way social conventions affect the way we look at fashion, which I always find interesting.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Books Yay!: The Crocodile Bird, by Ruth Rendell

The Crocodile Bird is a story constantly on the verge of something really special, but in the end remains firmly in beach book territory, slightly fluffier than it could be.  The book is the story of Liza Beck, daughter of a controlling, murderous woman named Eve who has kept Liza isolated for her entire life, bound up in Eve's fixation on the estate in which they live, Shrove House.  We meet Liza on the occasion of her escape from Shrove, as she flees before her mother's impending trial for murder.  Liza has run away to Sean, an estate gardener, for refuge, and must explain her life to him.

The story Liza tells is a dark one.  Eve is clearly deeply unwell, and is extremely defensive of Shrove, which she thought would be hers.  Traumatized by the outside world, Eve has decided to keep Liza isolated from it, teaching her at home and never taking her outside of the grounds.  Needless to say, this makes Liza's few experiences with strangers and civilization awkward and strained.  At an early age, Liza sees her mother kill her first victim.  Murder becomes understood as an acceptable response to threats to the life and station of the Beck women, and that intruder is not the only one Liza sees Eve kill.  Still, Liza's recollection of her childhood is not necessarily an unhappy one, and her mother has done an excellent job of educating her.

Liza understands that her mother kills when her life is threatened - or she perceives that it is - and when she inevitably runs in to tension with Sean, she begins to contemplate the same path.  Sean is kind of a controlling jerk, but it's not malicious, it's just that misguided relationship bungling you run into at a young age.  Tension emerges as Liza considers her options.

This isn't an intense piece of literature, but it's an engaging story with a lot of interesting and complex relationships.  I really enjoyed it and even though some of the plot was a little slow, it was never oppressively so, and the female characters in particular were really well developed.  It was nice to see - this will sound weird - strong, messed up women who were not painted as being a stereotypical kind of crazy.  Instead, they are presented as people with clear motivations, even if those motivations are deeply problematic.  Definitely a good vacation read!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Books Yay!: Beautiful Boy, by David Sheff

Addiction is really just incredibly hard.

That seems overly simplistic, but at the end of the day I think that's what it comes down to.   It's why it's so hard to kick, and why rehab works sometimes and not other times.  It's why what works for one person doesn't work for another person, even if that other person is their twin.  I think it's because addiction germinates in the brain, and as much as we study the brain and discover how it works, we'll never be able to find out what it is in there that makes each person so unique.  Addiction is just as unique as the brain in which it is born.

One of the greatest strengths of David Sheff's Beautiful Boy is his understanding that there is no silver bullet, and his admission that he often just plain did not know what to do about his son's meth addiction.  A lot of these books - and TV shows, etc. - strive for a control that is simply not possible, and Sheff does not do that.  Instead, he chronicles his research and his attempts at "fixing" Nic and all of his guilt and sense of failure and ends up somewhere like: "you have to try your best and hope that something will work."

I most appreciate the accounting Mr. Sheff does of his son's slide into addiction.  He is brutally honest about his own denial, and his agonizing over what the appropriate response is to each bump in the road.  The account reads like a horrible version of the frog-in-a-pot metaphor; had Sheff's son not been his son, but rather been presented to him with his addiction at its worst, Sheff would certainly have recognized the severity of the disease (dropping the frog in boiling water), but as it was, he kept being able to excuse the steps forward as insignificant, or as flukes (bringing the water to boil with the frog already in the pot).  It adds a whole other level of legitimacy to those hokey "talk to your kids early and often" commercials.  Sheff's belief that Nic was "a good kid" - and I think he was and is - totally interfered with his ability to assess Nic's addiction.

It seems like every time some youth drug story crops up in the news, someone connected to the case will appear on TV or in print saying that the kid in trouble was "a good kid."  We have to stop thinking of these kids as outliers.  The American attitude towards drugs is so ridiculously warped; we villify drugs and convince ourselves that only mysterious "bad people" use them, while we know that our population takes them by the literal tons.  This attitude renders us unable to assess drugs' actual dangers where they do exist.  By treating marijuana the same way we do heroin, we send the message that there is no disparity between drugs, and makes us blind to the idea that marijuana is simply not the hazard of heroin or meth.  The sooner we abandon this foolishness, the sooner we can start addressing drug abuse in a meaningful way and develop an understanding of drugs that is more realistic.

This is not a perfect book.  I found Sheff deeply irritating throughout, and he frequently comes off as a pretentious yuppie-ish figure, talking about all the upper-middle accoutrement he gave his son. like he's trying to prove he can't be held culpable.  While he does note that he understands that addiction is not about things people had when they were young, it is unclear how much he understands this.  You cannot say addiction is not contingent on childhood and then extensively detail all the benefits you lavished on your child with a silent "...unlike those people who sent their kids to *gasp* poor-people school" at the end.  I seriously doubt that if questioned, Sheff would actually say he thought this way, and I don't think he actually does look down on those who are less well off, but that he comes off like this indicates a serious need for an editor to police tone.  This book is very popular, and hit #1 on the NYT Bestseller list, but it regrettably reads in some places as though it was written by the worst stereotypes of NYT readers.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Books Yay!: Dracula, by Bram Stoker

As I was trying to save for my spring break trip to Florida, I was cruising through the free section of the Kindle store and saw Dracula.  I've been trying to read more classic literature in order to better understand the progress of modern literature, and I also had made a note to read more of the actual Dracula legend after finishing the terrifying and freaking SUPERB The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which is a brilliant...reworking? update? tinkering-with? of the legend. 

Even as a voracious reader, I often have a hard time working up the enthusiasm for older writing.  I was having a similar issue with H.P. Lovecraft, to the point of announcing that I hated his work.  However, when Rose invited me to start Pink Narcissus Press with her, she, our coeditor Dr. Bill and I went through a period of nailing down what each other liked in literature and from there, what we wanted to publish.  Dr. Bill basically forced me to read some Lovecraft - suggesting that I start with the glorious "Rats in the Wall" rather with the Cthulu mythos - and explained that older literature is often hard to read and seems cliche because they were the works that new authors in the genre needed to meet and exceed.  Yes, he basically said, new entries in various genres are easier to read, but it's because they are standing on the shoulders of giants.  It was with this in mind that I downloaded Stoker's Dracula.  I thought it would be worthwhile to explore the horror genre and the Dracula myth in particular.

Though still a worthwhile experiment in the spirit in which it was intended, there were absolutely no boredom problems with Dracula.  This book is riveting.  It's written as a series of journals and letters collected by the protagonist Jonathan Harker's wife, Mina.  They chronicle the strange occurrences surrounding the movements of Count Dracula, a clearly no good but mysterious individual.  The Harkers, along with a team of friends assembled to help get to the bottom of it all, wind up pursuing Dracula in the hopes of destroying him and freeing his various enchanted victims.

You already know most of the Dracula mythos, so I'll just make a few comments about the story that I found surprising.  First of all, Dracula's mesmerizing hold on humans extends beyond women.  I think we most commonly see Dracula as a great seducer of women, but in the opening letters of the book, it is Jonathan Harker who finds himself enthralled by Dracula, not for sexual ends, but simply to meet Dracula's own desire for control.  That adds a depth and true menace to the Dracula character for me, taking the effect from simple sexual goals to a more insidious control over the human spirit, over free will.

I was also intrigued by the incredibly strong female character of Mina Harker.  Strong female characters were not what one would call super-dominant during the time Stoker was writing (you can insert your own commentary about whether or not they are prevalent now), and Mina Harker is an exceptional character.  She is strong, smart and proves her worth as a valuable member of the team as they track down Dracula.  I also appreciate the portrayal of the strong, rewarding female friendship at the center of the book between Mina and her friend Lucy.  Not only is it unusual to see friendships portrayed so nakedly and intensely, but it's particularly so between women, who are often set up as rivals instead of friends.  This, too, added depth to the story and to Mina's character.

I heartily recommend reading this one - it does not have the drag that older literature sometimes does and it's really fun to explore the Dracula story in its original literary form. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Books Yay!: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

What I really want to do is cut and paste all of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness into a post and say "just read it," or somehow make it so everyone who clicks on the review gets a copy delivered to their home automatically.  The book explains the way our prison system, justice system, law enforcement and legislation all combine to create a new - or, depending on your level of cynicism, preserve the existing - racial caste system in America.  In the interest of full disclosure, I went into this book with a large degree of skepticism.  After all, even highly visible black public figures from President Obama to Bill Cosby have commented on the need for the black community, and particularly black men, to step up and fix their behavior, stay out of jail, and tend to their families.  Even if you assume that there is SOME environmental influence over these behaviors, surely if these public figures are making such statements, they must be at least MOSTLY true, right?

Ms. Alexander has convinced me that this is not the case, not even sorta-kinda.  Early in the book, Alexander mentions that institutional racism often becomes clear much like one of those Magic Eye pictures, swimming into view suddenly from just the right angle.  I know racism is still a major problem in our society, but the depth and breadth of our mass incarceration system as a tool and function of that racism was still a revelation to me.  I feel some sense of shame for not having seen this; of course, the reason I have not before now is because a white woman like myself is not forced into living this reality.  I have argued with several friends who feel that all people should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" by pointing out that not everyone HAS bootstraps to pull, but I have always considered that argument in an original or passive sense, i.e. that people often BEGIN with no bootstraps to pull, or that they may lose them through no fault of their own.  I had not considered that not only the bootstraps but the boot and sole would be forcibly taken by the justice system that I have always considered one of the best parts of our political construct.

Alexander's elegant prose cuts through many of the assumptions we make and ideas we are fed about black and brown people - primarily men - in prison and as criminals.  She sees an evolution from slavery to segregation during Jim Crow to mass incarceration and its attendant disenfranchisement.   She highlights the War on Drugs as the most influential feeder of this last section, with its mandatory minimums that keep offenders in jail even longer than those who have committed violent crimes.  The problems do not end with the service of the prison sentence.  The jailed are then turned back out into society with a felony conviction that prevents them from getting most jobs, professional licenses, public housing, food assistance, and from participating in political society in any meaningful way, since most lose their right to vote and serve on juries.  There is no "doing your time," as we often say, suggesting that you just hang out in prison for a while and then society welcomes you back with both arms and a smile.  Even when felons can technically regain their political rights, there are often fines and massive bureaucratic hurdles in their way, which would be daunting or impassable enough without the fear that this kind of persecutory system instills.

In other conversations, it has been suggested that if you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear from law enforcement.  It is interesting to note that this line usually came up when I was talking about the affront to the Fourth Amendment that is the newest TSA screening procedures (yes, I realize they have been ramped back, and no, I don't care, because the fact that it would occur to the government to create AND enact them is supremely problematic), which is only a concern for those far, far above the income brackets of the millions of incarcerated black and brown people that this book concerns.  It is an affront to liberty when the TSA does it, and it is an affront to liberty when the DEA and police do it to black and brown men.  Alexander launches a full on assault to show that black and brown men DO in fact have something to fear, even if they are innocent.  She describes the techniques and practices that law enforcement follow to keep a steady flow of these men into the prisons, regardless of their guilt.  She also shows us the shoddy legal representation afforded these people once they are in the system, where the accused are pushed into guilty pleas to avoid longer sentences and inadequate or flat-out wrong information abounds.  It is hard to read without a sense of desperation...and Alexander is giving us the information that the prisoners do not receive.  Just imagine how horrible it must be to be IN the system without it.

This book is exceptional for its clarity.  I don't think that anyone could read this and not feel both outraged and moved to Do Something.  This book is a call to action, and it is our responsibility to respond accordingly, recognizing that the problem of racism is far from over in this country.  Both of these objectives are difficult.  Addressing one's privilege is difficult, particularly because the phenomenon is frequently misunderstood.  It is uncomfortable to think about the idea that you receive often-intangible benefits simply by virtue of some quality we were born with.  We feel unable to do anything to remedy this privilege, and feel that those who are not privileged blame us for it.  But generally, this is not the case.  Rather, privilege is a lens - our corneas - through which we see the world, and though we cannot remove our privilege any more than we would remove our corneas, we can adjust our worldview to see the world more appropriately, just as one would get a pair of glasses.  This is the way we can begin to move forward, to create a fairer world.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Makeup is Easy!: Cat Eyes Two Ways

My friend Rose occasionally makes noise about having me come over every morning to do her makeup.  However, this weekend we narrowed her makeup needs down to one main skill: doing a good cat eye.  This is a great choice if you're going to master one makeup skill, because it can be dressed up or down for any occasion.  If you want something a little snazzier, you can throw sparkly shadow over the top of it to make it pop, but if you just have a quiet day at work and want minimal makeup, you can leave the cat eye on its own, and that's all before you get to lipstick - I don't think there's anything more simply pretty than a smooth cat eye and a bright red lip!

Rose also mentioned a fear of liquid liner, and I don't think she is alone in that fear.  I have two ways to do a basic cat eye, one with liquid liner and one with shadow, but I also want to take a moment to talk about liquid liner itself.  The main thing to remember is: not all liquid liners are created equal.  If you are just starting to experiment with liquid liner, you want to get one with the skinniest possible applicator.  Sephora makes a really good one that comes to a lovely sharp point.  The second liner tip is to remember that you can work in small dabs, and that pays off huge.  I think the tendency is to think you have to open that sucker up and just draw one continuous line, but that's just not necessary.  As you'll see in my tutorial, I don't even do one straight line, and I consider myself something of a liquid liner pro.  As always, slow and steady wins the race.  Liquid liner does make a hard line, so it's much better to take it slow and get it right. 

So without further ado, let's make our way to feline fabulousity!  The first approach is the liquid liner approach.  I am using SEPHORA COLLECTION Long Lasting Eye Liner in "Glittering Black", which I bought on a whim and am totally delighted with; I thought the glitter would inevitably either get stuck in the tube or gunk up the smoothness of my line, but no!  It applies in a really fun, smooth glittery black line.  I should have had more faith in Sephora. 

1. First, draw a little wing at the corner of your eye.  I use my bottom lid as a guide.  You don't want a huge angle, so you should think of it as extending the line of your bottom lid towards the top of your ear.  The longer the line from the corner of your eye, the more dramatic, so you can adjust accordingly.  If you're unsure, start small - you can always extend it later!  As you can see, I have kind of hooked the liner along my lower lid; we'll elaborate on this a little later.
2.  Next, draw a line from the middle-ish of your eyeball to the furthest point of your wing.  I like to do this in small dabs, extending the line from both the tip of the wing towards the eyeball and from the middle towards the wing, eventually joining them together.  How you do this depends on your dexterity - I am pretty good at working from any angle on my face, but there was definitely a point where one direction was more comfortable, so go with what works for you.  I will say that if you're going to draw from the center of your eyeball out, don't aim for the tippiest-tip of the wing, but instead aim for just below it, so you leave a little room for error. 
NB: there is some reflection over the center; draw a straight line.
3.  Once you have the outline sketched up, fill that sucker in!  Once again, little dabs will be helpful, and you want to get as close to the edges of your eye as possible.  I find that the toughest part is getting the liner worked right into the corner of your eye, because it takes a weird little dip.
4. You'll now want to tune everything up: double check everything and even it out, making sure you have a nice smooth line and continuing it towards your tear duct at the inner corner of your eye, narrowing it as you go along.  The narrowing bit can be hard and there are two methods I use, depending on the liner brush.  When I use narrow brushes with a fine tip, I can draw mostly with the tip, again using small dabs.  If I have a thicker brush, I like to lay the brush parallel to my lash line and just tap it on the very edge of the lid.  That tends to get a very fine and neat line.  (You can also use this technique with a narrow brush, and I think it's actually easier, no matter what kind of brush you have.)
5.  The next step is optional, but I think it gives a much more complete look.  This step involves lining your bottom lash line, and you can use a liner of your choice.  I think a smokier liner works better here, to take some of the edge off the look.  I used Guerlain Terracotta Khol Kajal Intense Indian Kohl, which is a really great smudgey crayon of liner.  [NB: As far as I can tell, Guerlain's eyeliners are 100% win at all times.  They are a little pricey but the quality is outstanding and they last forever.  I highly, highly recommend them.  Literally cannot do so enough.]  You want to line right along your waterline, as I am creepily demonstrating by pulling down my eyelid in this shot (sorry, people who get eyeball-related heebie-jeebies!).  I also lined along the waterline on my upper lid and around the outer corner of my eye again, just so everything was all connected.
6. If you do not add mascara, this will look creepy.  Fire that stuff up!  You can also add false lashes, but I think the cat eye look stands alone well.  I use Givenchy Phenomen'Eyes Waterproof Mascara but I also like MAKEUP FOREVER Smoky Lash.  I think the key to success with this look is making sure your lashes are as separated as possible, and getting a very light coat on your lower lashes.  Voila!
So there we have your more traditional cat eye look.  It takes some practice to get comfortable with liquid liner, but it's not an unattainable goal.  I actually like to draw a little bit on the back of my hand when I get a new liner, in order to get used to the way it applies.  I would also like to remind you of what I consider the most important rule of makeup: no one is looking that closely at your makeup.  That doesn't mean no one cares, but it does mean that they're not appraising your makeup for symmetry and perfection.  Don't worry too much about little bumps and unevenness!

Let's get started with the second method!  This one is all done with eyeshadow, though I think you could also use the technique with liquid liner or with a cream shadow.  I haven't tried it with either of those, but I see no reason it wouldn't work!

1.  Go to your desk and get your scotch tape out.

1a. Yes really.

1b.  Take a piece of tape and apply it to your face, following the curve of your lower lash line up and out just like we talked about with the initial wing in the liquid liner demo.  This will be your guide for a nice even line.
2. Take a makeup brush you are comfortable with and pick up a small amount of the eye shadow you're going to use.  I used the SEPHORA COLLECTION Double-Ended Smokey Eye Brush, without which I literally could not live, but you can use any brush you like.  This time, you're going to be applying shadow from the top lid out.  You are going to create the wing here, so feel free to go over the tape to get a nice narrow point.  It looks a little sloppy in the photo, but you'll be able to see better when the tape is removed.
I removed the tape at this point, but if you're worried about shadow fall-out, you can certainly leave it on.  As you can see, there's a nice sharp wing!
3. You're now going to continue the line across the top lid.  Keep using your brush to get the powder carried across the lid and over to your tear duct.  As always, a little bit goes a long way - you can always add more powder over the top, so start light!
5. I used a thicker line here to capitalize on the smokiness of the powder, but you can still keep it nice and thin if you prefer.  You can finish up with the same waterline liner application and mascara, and you'll be good to go!
I took a quick shot of all the products I used in this tutorial, and it's really amazing how few are needed - this is all you need for BOTH looks!
The pot on my palm is the shadow I used, and it's from the now defunct She Space, but any powder would work; I've also used pressed powder with the same technique.

Go forth, my glorious bewinged beauties, and fear the cat eye no more!