Book Bytes

by Marylaine Block

Books Too Good To Put Down: Cat Books



There is a mysterious affinity between cats and people who read, a fact that publishers are beginning to take note of.

There is a plethora of feline detectives these days. The most well-known of these are Lillian Jackson Braun's matched Siamese Koko and Yum Yum in her The Cat Whoůseries, Mycroft, the bookstore cat in Garrison Allen's books (Baseball Cat, Dinosaur Cat, etc.), Midnight Louie in Carole Nelson Douglas's series (Cat in a Golden Garland, Cat on a Hyacinth Hunt, etc.), and the talking cats of Shirley Rousseau Murphy's books (Cat in the Dark, Cat to the Dogs, etc.).

Equally deserving are Marian Babson's less-known cat books. Murder at the Cat Show, in which Babson has done a convincing mind-meld with a charmingly unscrupulous cat, features Pandora, a Siamese show cat neglected by her owner who (serves her right) gets murdered. Pandora convinces the hero to adopt her, and helps him solve the murder. Another of Babson's funniest books, Nine Lives To Murder, is about a Shakespearean actor who, through an odd accident, trades brains with the theatre cat. While the cat's brain ambulates the actor's body, the actor's brain, inside the cat, has to figure out who is trying to kill him and why. This is well worth the suspension of disbelief it requires.

Equally charming is L.F. Hoffman's short novel, The Bachelor's Cat, in which an artist with an unpromising career and an irritating girlfriend takes in a stray cat who greatly improves his life and helps him find a much more satisfactory woman. It's full of lovely lines: when the man elicits his first purr from his well-skritched cat he wonders if there were any jobs in the Philadelphia Orchestra playing first kitten.

There is cat-centered fantasy, too, including Tad Williams' well-loved Tailchaser's Song (reissue, Daw Books, 1994), an epic quest by a brave cat, to find out why cats, including his friend Hushpad, are disappearing. The book is remarkably successful in presenting a world through feline eyes, and telling the story in believably feline language.

Those who loved Tailchaser will also enjoy Alan Dean Foster's Cat-a-Lyst (Reissue, Ace Books, 1999), in which feline monitors of the universe are responsible for controlling potential troublemakers. Throw in an actor, a costume designer, and an amateur archaeologist searching for the hidden fortune of the Incas, add a not entirely reliable time machine, the Original Founders (who look like large mobile carrots), and a National Enquirer reporter looking for a scoop, and you have a wonderfully entertaining concoction.

In Esther Friesner's amusing Majyk By Accident, Kendar Gangle, the least ept student of wizardry the world has ever known, chases a cat and accidentally goes through a cloud of majyk, which sticks to him. He now has amazing powers without a clue how to use them, while a host of wizards are determined to kill him and claim the majyk for themselves. Fortunately the cat (a wise-cracking American accidentally trapped in Kendar's dimension) is sharp, funny, and full of ideas.

Those who love to look at cats, and admire their elegance, will appreciate Hans Silvester's photograph books, Cats in the Sun (Chronicle Books, 1994) and The Mediterranean Cat (Chronicle Books, 1998). Against the bright sun, vivid skies, stark shadows, and ancient stone of Greek villages, cats who clearly understand that their primary function is to be design elements arrange themselves in elegant compositions.

Susan Herbert's books would also appeal. In Medieval Cats (Bulfnch Press, 1995), and The Cats History of Western Art (Bulfinch Press, 1994) she copies classic art works with such detail and precision that she might be charged with forgery -- had she not replaced each human figure with cats.

There is no end to ephemeral joke books about cats, like Mendenhall's cartoon guide to Cat Physics ("Law of Pill Rejection: Any pill given to a cat has the potential energy to reach escape velocity"). Worthy of preservation, however, is Henry Beard's Poetry for Cats (Villard, 1994), which is actually a wonderful collection of parodies -- great poems as they might have been written by the authors' cats ("The End of the Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe's cat). Nicole Hollander's book Everything Here Is Mine (Hysteria Publications, 2000), cartoons and all, is still a semi-serious book about cat behavior.

The best and funniest of the semi-serious humor books is The Silent Miaow (Crown reprint, 1985), by Paul, Gallico, who supposedly found and translated this advice manual, badly typed by his cat, telling young kittens how to worm their way into a household, take it over, and make sure that henceforth, nothing will ever be done without the cat's express permission. Having been seduced by stray kittens myself, I assure you, every word of this is God's own truth.

For a serious understanding of cats, you can go to Desmond Morris's book, Catwatching (Crown, 1993), which answers questions about cat behavior. The answers all seem plausible enough, though experienced cat-owners will continue to believe cats do what they do because they damn well feel like doing it.

An even better book is Barbara Holland's Secrets of the Cat (reprint, Ivy, 1994; originally titled The Name of the Cat), in which she tells true stories of the many cats she has known. In these stories cats do what people believe dumb animals cannot do --make moral choices, and exhibit intelligence, loyalty, and even love. In this beautifully written book, the sheer weight of evidence and close observation compels belief.

Those who can't understand why sane people are nutty about cats should read Cat Caught My Heart (Bantam, 1999), stories told by cat owners, gathered by Michael Capuzzo and Teresa Banik Capuzzo. The stories are hilarious, amazing, and moving - the cat who proved he should be adopted by presenting 9 dead rats to his prospective owners, the cat who jumped on a bird's back and flew, the cat who nursed a little boy with cystic fibrosis, and more.

For some of us, cats are simply the necessary quiet companions that entwine their lives with our own so that we can hardly speak of one without the other. Marge Piercy says her memoir, Sleeping with Cats, is primarily about her own life, but since that life "has had a spine of cats," it is inevitably also about them.

And I have no doubt that as long as cats crawl into the laps of readers and purr, there will be many more cat books to come.

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Last updated September 27, 2004

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Writer, Book Reviewer, and "Librarian without Walls."

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