Five Books about Cats

I always used to be more of a dog person than a cat person, even though we had both while I was growing up, but now I’m a dedicated cat owner and have tried out some related reading. You’ll notice I don’t rate any of these five books about cats particularly highly, whereas there have been a number of dog books I’ve given 4 stars (Dog Years by Mark Doty, Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby, A Dog’s Life by Peter Mayle; even books that aren’t necessarily about dogs but reference life with them, like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck). What’s with that? Maybe dog lovers don’t have to worry so much about striking a balance between a pet’s standoffishness and affection. Maybe dogs play a larger role in everyday human life and leave a more gaping hole when they shuffle off the canine coil. Still, I enjoyed aspects of or specific passages from each of the following.


guest catThe Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

As a cat-loving freelance writer who aspires to read more literature in translation, I thought from the blurb that this book could not be more perfect for me. I bought it in a charity shop one afternoon and started reading right away. It’s only 140 pages, so I finished within 24 hours, but felt at a distance from the story the whole time. Part of it might be the translation – the translator’s notes at the end explain some useful context about the late 1980s setting, but also conflate the narrator and the author in such a way that the book seems like an artless memoir rather than a novella. But the more basic problem for me is that there’s simply not enough about the cat. There’s plenty of architectural detail about the guesthouse the narrator and his wife rent on the grounds of a mansion, plenty of economic detail about the housing market…but the cat just doesn’t make enough of an impression. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why this has been such a bestseller. Quite the disappointment.

My rating: 2.5 star rating


fur personThe Fur Person by May Sarton

I’m a huge fan of May Sarton’s journals – in which various cats play supporting roles – so for a while I’d been hoping to come across a copy of this little novelty book from 1957, a childish fable about a tomcat who transforms from a malnourished Cat-About-Town to a spoiled Gentleman Cat. Luckily I managed to find a copy of this one plus the Lessing (see below) in the Nature section at Book Thing of Baltimore. In a preface to the 1978 edition Sarton reveals that Tom Jones was, indeed, a real cat, a stray she and her partner Judy Matlack adopted when they lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wonderful coincidence: when they were on sabbatical in the early 1950s, they sublet the place to the Nabokovs, who looked after Tom while they were away!

IMG_0074I found this a bit lightweight overall, and the whole idea of a ‘fur person’ is a little strange – don’t we love cats precisely because they’re not people? Still, I enjoyed the proud cat’s Ten Commandments (e.g. “II. A Gentleman Cat allows no constraint of his person … III. A Gentleman Cat does not mew except in extremity”) and spotted my own domestic situation in this description: “while she [‘Gentle Voice’ = Judy] was away the other housekeeper [= Sarton] was sometimes quite absent-minded and even forgot his lunch once or twice because she sat for hours and hours in front of a typewriter, tapping out messages with her fingers.” The black-and-white illustrations by David Canright are a highlight.

My rating: 3 star rating


particularly catsParticularly Cats…And Rufus by Doris Lessing

A book about cats that I would almost hesitate to recommend to cat lovers: it contains many a scene of kitty carnage, as well as some unenlightened resistance to spaying and neutering. Lessing grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe that was at one point overrun with about 40 cats. Her mother went away, expecting her father to have ‘taken care of them’ by the time she got back. He tried chloroform to start with, but it was too slow and ineffective; in the end he rounded them all up in a room and got out his WWI revolver. And that’s not the end of it; even into her adulthood in England Lessing balked at taking female cats in for surgery so would find occasionally herself saddled with unwanted litters of kittens that they decided had to be drowned. It’s really a remarkably unsentimental record of her dealings with cats.

That’s not to say there weren’t some cats she willingly and lovingly kept as pets, particularly a pair of rival females known simply as “black cat” and “grey cat,” and later a stray named Rufus who adopted her. But even with cherished felines she comes across as tough: “Anyway, she had to be killed and I decided that to keep cats in London was a mistake” or “I smacked grey cat” for bullying the black one. The very fact of not giving the pair names certainly quashes any notion of her as some cuddly cat lady. All the same, she was a dutiful nurse when black cat and Rufus fell ill. The book ends on a repentant note: “Knowing cats, a lifetime of cats, what is left is a sediment of sorrow quite different from that due to humans: compounded of pain for their helplessness, of guilt on behalf of us all.”

IMG_0066

My favorite thing about the book is the watercolor illustrations by James McMullan.

My rating: 2.5 star rating


unadulterated catThe Unadulterated Cat: A Campaign for Real Cats by Terry Pratchett

Like Douglas Adams or Monty Python, Terry Pratchett is, alas, a representative of the kind of British humor I just don’t get. But I rather enjoyed this small novelty book (bought for my husband for Christmas) all the same. For Pratchett, a “Real” cat is a non-pampered, tough-as-nails outdoor creature that hunts and generally does its own thing but also knows how to wrap its human servants around its paws. I like his idea of “cat chess” as a neighborhood-wide feline game of strategy, moving between carefully selected vantage points to keep an eye on the whole road yet avoid confrontation with other cats. It’s certainly true on our street. And this is quite a good summary of what cats do and why we put up with them:

What other animal gets fed, not because it’s useful, or guards the house, or sings, but because when it does get fed it looks pleased? And purrs. The purr is very important. It’s the purr that makes up for the Things Under the Bed, the occasional pungency, the 4 a.m. yowl.

 My rating: 3 star rating


on catsOn Cats by Charles Bukowski

“In my next life I want to be a cat. To sleep 20 hours a day and wait to be fed. To sit around licking my ass.” I’d never read anything else by Bukowski, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from this book, which is mostly composed of previously unpublished poems and short prose pieces about the author’s multiple cats. The tone is an odd mixture of gruff and sentimental. Make no mistake: his cats were all Real cats, in line with the Pratchett model. A white Manx cat, for instance, had been shot, run over, and had his tail cut off. Another was named Butch Van Gogh Artaud Bukowski. You wouldn’t mess with a cat with a macho name like that, would you? My favorite passage is from “War Surplus,” about an exchange he and his wife had with a store clerk:

“what will the cats do if there is an explosion?”

“lady, cats are different than we are, they are of a lower order.”

“I think cats are better than we are,” I said.

the clerk looked at me. “we don’t have gas masks for cats.”

 My rating: 3 star rating


Is there a terrific cat book out there that I haven’t read yet? I do hope so! Please add your suggestions in the comments.

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28 thoughts on “Five Books about Cats

  1. Gosh. Someone else who’ll admit to not liking Terry Pratchett. It seems to be a sin right up there with …. well, not reading at all. And despite the recommendations, which let’s face it, are on the whole less than ringing endorsements, I’m not that motivated to read books about cats. And I’m a cat person more than a dog person. Nice try though.

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    1. It’s true, none of these are exactly glowing recommendations. I’m hoping someone else will be able to suggest a truly great cat book!

      I feel I should try at least one of the Discworld novels since they’re my husband’s favourite books, but I’ll confess it’s not high on the priority list.

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  2. A book I’ve been meaning to read and forgot about until reading your post (thanks!) is Peter Tractenberg’s Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons. It received glowing reviews. Do you know Eileen Myles? She said: “This is Peter’s best book and if you don’t know what that means just imagine your sweetest, most perverse storytelling friend asks to meet because he has a confession to make. When you arrive he informs you that he loves his cat more than life itself, or exactly that much and then he opens his shirt and shows you the cat tattoo and then he begins to tell you of his love and in a puff hours vanish and it’s absolutely riveting.”

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  3. I just recommended Lost Cat to you via goodreads. Since you are open to older books on the subject, you might peruse Paul Gallico’s writing. He loves cats and metaphors.

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  4. Haruki Murikami can do no wrong in my eyes, I absolutely love all his work and it often features cats. Not sure if you have read anything by him (he’s brilliantly bonkers) but I can recommend Kafka on the Shore or The Wind Up Bird Chronicle – both have cats in them.

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  5. You are in for a treat then! Mind you, this being Murikami his cats maybe don’t behave quite in the ways you would expect them to especially in Kafka on the Shore……..I’ll say no more!

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  6. I wish I did have a tried and true suggestion for you, but I also have had a mixed relationship with cat books, even though I love cats! I think I’ll steer clear of the Doris Lessing book, but the last one reminds me of a very macho cat we used to have (when I was a kid) – he was the king of the neighbourhood and he only had one front paw, the other having been amputated after being caught in a trap. But his name was Fluff-Puff. A name we, the children, gave him when he was born. And, my grandmother was embarrassed to go with him to the vet and have his name called out when it was his turn – “Fluff- Puff MacKinnon”! 🙂

    What about Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World? I got that one for my daughter, but I haven’t read it yet.
    I love The Incredible Journey, but that one also has 2 dogs in it.
    Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper?
    I Could Pee on This and Other Poems By Cats?
    (I’m hoping you’ll try these out for me!) 🙂

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    1. Fluff-Puff — I love it! One of our neighbour cats is the alpha male of the street but underneath all his ginger fur is just skin and bones. Plus he emits the most high-pitched meows you’ve ever heard. It’s totally at odds with his bully image. I read Dewey many moons ago and thought it was a little on the sickly side, but harmless; a good Christmas read, maybe. I remember loving The Incredible Journey as a child. I Could Pee on This sounds unmissable! Thanks for the suggestions 🙂

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    1. I think I first started that series when I was about 10 or 11 years old, when I probably had much lower standards 😉 The installments used to be an annual treat my mom and I would look forward to getting from the public library. I wonder what I’d make of them nowadays; I expect they’re cookie-cutter mysteries, a genre I don’t really read.

      Several recommendations for Gallico now! I’ll definitely have to look out for his work in secondhand bookshops or libraries.

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      1. Oh, I love cats. Can’t have any because my husband is terribly allergic, but I’m also not terribly interested in reading about animals when there’s so much to know about people.

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  7. I love your blog post – I think it’s hard to find really satisfying books on cats. Maybe because they think of themselves as an enigma :). I’ll be interested in what you think about Another Insane Devotion. It got great reviews, but I abandoned it early on. Just couldn’t connect with the author.

    A book I really liked is The Cat Who Came for Christmas by Cleveland Amory. I’ll look for reviews on GR or maybe another cat-related blog post!
    Suzy Hillard (friend from GR)

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    1. Hi, Suzy! Good point — maybe cats are too elusive to be the subject of a whole book 🙂 I feel like the Amory was a book my parents had around the house when I was growing up, but I can’t remember if I ever read it. That’ll be one to seek out before this coming Christmas. Thanks for the idea.

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  8. Thank you for the excellent warnings there – I have a very low tolerance for horrible things happening to animals and have a theory that is often borne out that animals – esp cats – are only put into books to be a metaphor and then meet an untimely end. I am very careful when I encounter one in a book. Luckily people know this and don’t buy cat books for me!

    Having said that the Doreen and Michael Tovey siamese books are a hoot, if they can still be got hold of.

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  9. I remember all those good reviews of The Guest Cat. And I do love the cover. A cat sized gas mask made me laugh. I think the gentleman cat is the most appealing. I’m also a dog person who’s become a cat person and sometimes don’t really “get” cats!

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  10. Have you read The Wildlings and Thousand Names for Darkness by Nilanjana Roy? A duology about alley cats in Delhi. I absolutely loved them — they reminded me of an adult, somewhat magical version of Ursula Le Guin’s Catwings (which I loved as a kid).

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