I reviewed two sets of cat books last year, one in April and another in October. When you start looking, you realize there are endless pet books out there, with cat books seemingly second only to dog books in popularity. In the past few months I’ve encountered five more books about cats: a Christmas classic, a scientist’s introduction to cat behavior, an anthology of church-themed fiction, an installment of a charming children’s series, and a very funny memoir.
The Cat Who Came for Christmas by Cleveland Amory
In the late 1970s Amory was a bona fide animal lover (he’d founded the NYC-based Fund for Animals, after all) but didn’t have a pet of his own until he was involved in the rescue of an unprepossessing stray one Christmas: Polar Bear, the cat who would introduce his fussy habits to a bachelor’s household and complicate his life in all kinds of ways. Cat owners will recognize so many things – the 3 a.m. bowl-emptying snack, testy relations with various other species – but I found the book strangely belabored and irrelevant as it goes into the history of the domestic cat, the business of naming cats, and Amory’s travels on behalf of the Fund. [Public library]
- “For an animal person, an animal-less home is no home at all.”
- “The fact is that most cats, most of the time, have already met everybody they care to meet.”
Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed by John Bradshaw
Bradshaw is the founder and director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol. He writes as both an expert in animal behavior and a cat lover. I only skimmed this one rather than reading it in full because I expected it would repeat a lot of the information in Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room. There is indeed a fair amount of overlap in the discussion of domestic cat evolution and the environmental effects of cats’ hunting instinct, but Bradshaw’s book is unique for the amount of time it gives to cat genetics and behavior, especially things like breeding and how cats interact with other cats and with people. This would be a good halfway house if you want a readable but quite scientific book about cats. The Lion in the Living Room is the better all-round introduction, though. [Public library]
- “Part of the pleasure of owning a pet comes from projecting our thoughts and feelings on to the animal, treating it as if it were almost human. We talk to our cats as if they could understand our every word, while knowing full well that they certainly can’t.”
- “Purring therefore seems to convey a general request: ‘Please settle down next to me.’ In the gentlest way, the purring cat is asking someone else, whether cat or human, to do something for it.”
The Church Cat: Clerical Cats in Stories and Verse, edited by Mark Bryant
This seems like an impossibly narrow category: stories and poems that combine cats with a church setting. But Bryant has found some real gems that fulfill just that criterion. A few of the short stories, by Ellis Peters, M.R. James and Ernest Dudley, are compact murder mysteries. I most enjoyed Arnold Bennett’s “The Cat and Cupid,” about spinster sisters and “notorious cat-idolaters” who squabble over the handsome new organist; W.L. Alden’s “The Yellow Terror,” about a ship’s cat who insists that his owner hold church services onboard; and Christopher Park’s “The Case of the Cross-eyed Sphinx and the Holy Ghost” (my overall favorite) in which a newly married man meets his wife’s family, including a defrocked chaplain in a wheelchair and his barking mad wife, all of whom have “had an overdose of cat worship.” Of the 21 pieces, only five or six stood out for me (and none of the poetry, really). [Charity shop]
The Church Mice Adrift by Graham Oakley
This 1976 picture book was my introduction to the 14-strong “Church Mice” series. The town of Wortlethorpe is looking to modernize: tearing down all its heritage buildings in favor of glass-fronted monstrosities. This leaves a troop of rats without a home, but they spy an opportunity when they sneak through Sampson’s catflap in the church door. The wily creatures displace the church mice and even Sampson the ginger wonder cat can’t take back his territory. So the cat and his mice are forced to get creative, and come up with a plan that involves a doll’s house turned into a floating café for rats…
I loved the illustrations (the 1970s clothing on the few human characters cracked me up!) and the plot, a good mixture of humor and mild peril. There’s a fair number of words on each page, yet not too many. I can see this being ideal to read aloud with young children before having them take over the reading at age 5 or 6. I look forward to experiencing more of the church mice’s adventures. My thanks to Margaret of From Pyrenees to Pennines for recommending this charming series. [Public library]
Cats in the Belfry by Doreen Tovey
Do you think your cat is noisy and troublesome? Be thankful you don’t have Doreen Tovey’s Siamese cats! This 1957 book was the first of her many cat-themed memoirs and is perfectly delightful for any animal lover. Their first Siamese was Sugieh, who loved nothing more than to jump into a full bath and frighten the life out of the bather. They bred her and kept two of the littermates, Solomon and Sheba, a mischievous pair whose first three years of antics fill much of the book: terrorizing dogs, pulling down the curtains, following horses, and developing, er, ‘refined’ tastes – “What with spiders, string, and the occasional butterfly caught napping on a cabbage which he ate wings and all, Solomon was, of course, frequently sick. But never, ever, was he so gloriously sick as the day he ate the cream cakes.” [Charity shop]
- I have Thomas McNamee’s The Inner Life of Cats (coming out on March 28th) and Jason Hazeley’s The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Cat (coming out on April 4th) on my e-readers.
- I’m sure to borrow more books from the public library by Tovey and Bradshaw, who has a book about training your cat (ha!).
- I covet I Could Pee on This, Too: And More Poems by More Cats by Francesco Marciuliano.
Whether you consider yourself a cat lover or not, do any of these books appeal?
Below I’ve chosen my 10 favorite nonfiction books published in 2016, followed by five older nonfiction reads that I only discovered this year. I find it nigh on impossible to compare different genres of nonfiction, so I’m not ranking these but simply listing them alphabetically by author (interestingly, all but one of the 2016 books are by women).
As with yesterday’s fiction choices, many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
The Best of 2016
This Is Cancer by Laura Holmes Haddad: A stage IV inflammatory breast cancer survivor, the author wrote the “What to Expect” guide she wishes she could have found at the time of her diagnosis in 2012. Throughout this comprehensive, well-structured book, she uses her own experience to set out practical advice for dealing with the everyday medical and emotional realities of cancer.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: With witty anecdotes and recreated dialogue, Jahren tells about her Minnesota upbringing, her long years in education, her ultimate specialization in geobiology/botany, crossing the country to take up academic posts in Atlanta, Baltimore and Hawaii, her long-time platonic relationship with eccentric lab partner Bill, and zany road trips across America for conferences and field work. What I think she does best is convey what it’s like to have true passion for your work, a rare thing.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: Kalanithi was 36 and just completing his neurosurgery residency in Stanford, California when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that did not respond well to treatment; he devoted his last year to writing this. I would recommend this cancer memoir to anyone for the beauty of its prose – a fine blend of literature and medicine – and the simple yet wholehearted picture of a life cut short.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: A remarkable piece of work fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Squirrel Pie (and Other Stories): Adventures in Food across the Globe by Elisabeth Luard: Broadly speaking, this is about indigenous and peasant cooking traditions, a remit that allows Luard to include and adapt travel pieces she’s written over the past 20 years. It’s a cozy and conversational book for anyone who enjoys cooking or eating food from different cuisines (from Maui and Romania to Gujarat and Ethiopia); Luard’s own sketches and line drawings provide a lovely accompaniment.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant: Marchant, a journalist with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, investigates instances where the mind seems to contribute to medical improvement: the use of placebos in transplant recipients, hypnosis for IBS patients, virtual reality to help burn victims manage pain, and the remarkable differences that social connection, a sense of purpose, meditation and empathic conversation all make. I finished the book feeling intrigued and hopeful about what this might all mean for the future of medicine.
Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin: Ptacin’s wonderful memoir is based around two losses: her brother in a collision with a drunk driver, and a pregnancy in 2008; she skips back and forth in time to examine the numb aftermath of trauma as well as the fresh pain of actually going through it. I loved so much about this book, especially her memories of growing up in the cereal capital of America in Michigan and the account of her mother coming to America from Poland and setting up a fine-dining restaurant.
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe: An erudite, elegiac work of literary biography that takes in Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter. What Roiphe observes of Sendak’s habit of drawing the dead and dying could equally be applied to The Violet Hour: it’s about seeing the beauty in what terrifies you.
Beyond the High Blue Air: A Memoir by Lu Spinney: In March 2006 Lu Spinney’s twenty-nine-year-old son, Miles King, was on a snowboarding holiday in Austria; on the final morning of the trip he took a fall that would leave this athlete, intellectual, and entrepreneur with a traumatic brain injury. Spinney tells her sad tale remarkably well, in a consciously literary style: with no speech marks and present-tense narration, thought and action flow lucidly into dialogue and daydream; she always chooses just the right metaphors, too.
The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World by Abigail Tucker: From the earliest domestication of animals to the cat meme-dominated Internet, Tucker marvels at how cats have succeeded by endearing themselves to humans and adapting as if effortlessly to any habitat in which they find themselves. This is the amazing cat book I’d been looking for, but I don’t think you even have to be a pet person to find this wide-ranging book enthralling.
If I had to list an overall favorite nonfiction book of the year, it would be The Violet Hour.
The Best of the Rest
Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor (2015): At age 28 Fechtor, then a graduate student in history and Yiddish, collapsed on a treadmill with a brain bleed; a subsequent surgery to clip the aneurysm left her blind in one eye. She gives a glimpse into an ordinary existence turned upside down and the foods that helped her regain a zest for life by reconnecting her with her family and her Jewish heritage.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977): Over the course of three years in the 1930s, starting when he was just 18, Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople; this first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary. His descriptions of the landscape and the people he interacted with are as fresh as if they happened yesterday; the precious glimpse of pre-war history and the damn fine writing make this a true masterwork of travel writing.
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris (1996): Norris draws lessons from the time she spent as a lay Benedictine oblate but also simply reflects on her own life: the blessings and challenges of being a freelance poet and theologian; the daily discipline involved in marriage, keeping a house and gardening; and childhood memories from Virginia, Illinois and Hawaii. This is an impressively all-encompassing and eloquent set of essays on how faith intersects with everyday life.
One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad (2015): An utterly engrossing account of Anders Behring Breivik’s July 22, 2011 attacks on an Oslo government building (8 dead) and the political youth camp on the island of Utøya (69 killed). This is a book about love and empathy – what they can achieve and what happens when they are absent; it shows how wide the ripples of one person’s actions can be, and how deep individual motivation goes.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman (1986): Spiegelman drew these allegorical tableaux to illustrate what, from a distance of decades, his Polish father Vladek told him about his almost unbelievable series of escapes, including time in Auschwitz. The only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, this brings the Holocaust home in a fresh way and paved the way for comic artists like Roz Chast and Alison Bechdel.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll list some runners-up for the year, and award a few more superlatives.
Back in April I reviewed five books about cats, several of which proved to be a mite disappointing. I’m happy to report that in the meantime I have searched high and low and found some great books about cats that I would not hesitate to recommend to readers with even the slightest interest in our feline friends. I’ve got a book of trivia, a set of heart-warming autobiographical anecdotes, two books of poems, a sweet memoir, and – best of all – a wide-ranging new book that combines the science and cultural history of the domestic cat.
Fifty Nifty Cat Facts by J.M. Chapman and S.M. Davis
This one’s geared towards children, but I enjoyed the format: each page pairs a cute cat photo with a piece of trivia you might or might not have known. I learned a few neat things:
- a cat’s internal temperature is higher than ours (more like 101.5° F)
- cats have no sweet taste buds and have a dominant paw
- all calicos are female (orange spots being an X-linked genetic trait)
- cats could actually drink seawater – their kidneys are effective enough to process the salt
- people who say they are allergic to cat fur are actually allergic to a protein in the saliva they use to wash themselves!
Cat Stories by James Herriot
When I was a child my mother and I loved Herriot’s memoirs of life as a primarily large-animal veterinarian in Yorkshire. One story from this volume – the final, Christmas-themed one – is familiar from a picture book we brought out around the holidays. The rest are all drawn from the memoirs, though, so the fact that I don’t remember them must be a function of time; it could be as many as 22 years since I last picked up a Herriot book! In any case, these are charming tales about gentle medical mysteries and even the most aloof of stray cats becoming devoted pets. I especially liked “Alfred: The Sweet-Shop Cat” and “Oscar: The Socialite Cat,” about two endearing creatures known around the village. I also appreciated Herriot’s observation that “cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” With cute watercolor illustrations, this little book would make a great gift for any cat lover.
I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats by Francesco Marciuliano
Cat owners must own a copy for the coffee table. That’s just not negotiable. You will recognize so many of the behaviors and attitudes mentioned here. This is a humor book rather than a poetry collection, so the quality of the poems (all from the point-of-view of a cat) is kind of neither here nor there. Even so, Chapter 1 is a lot better than the other three and contains most of the purely hilarious verses, like “I Lick Your Nose” and “Closed Door.” Favorite lines included “I trip you when you walk down the stairs / So you know I’m always near” and “I said I could sit on your lap forever / Don’t you even think of trying to get up / Well, you should have gone to the bathroom beforehand”. “Sushi” is a perfect haiku with a kicker of a last line: “Did you really think / That you could hide fish in rice? / Oh, the green paste burns!”
Well-Versed Cats by Lance Percival
A cute set of poems, most of them describing different breeds of domestic cats and a few of the big cats. There are a lot of puns and jokes along with the end rhymes, making these akin to limericks in tone if not in form. My favorite was “Skimpy the Stray?” – about a wily cat who wanders the neighborhood eliciting sympathetic snacks from various cat lovers. “The routine still goes on, so I mustn’t be too catty, / But she ought to change her name from ‘Skimpy’ into ‘Fatty’.” Our cat had a habit of stealing neighbor kitties’ food and a history of “going visiting,” as the shelter we adopted him from put it, so this particular poem rang all too true. The illustrations (by Lalla Ward, wife of Richard Dawkins) are also great fun.
Raining Cats and Donkeys by Doreen Tovey
Originally from 1967, this lighthearted memoir tells of Tovey’s life in a Somerset village with her husband Charles, two demanding Siamese cats named Solomon and Sheba, and Annabel the donkey. “Nobody misses anything in our village,” Tovey remarks, and along with her charming anecdotes about her pets there are plenty of amusing encounters with the human locals too. In my favorite chapter, Annabel is taken off to mate with a Shetland pony and Solomon has a tussle with a hare. I can recommend this to fans of animal books by Gerald Durrell and Jon Katz. Tovey wrote a whole series of books about her various Siamese cats and life in a 250-year-old cottage. I found a copy of Cats in the Belfry on my visit to Cambridge and will probably read it over Christmas for a cozy treat.
The Lion in the Living Room by Abigail Tucker
Now this is the amazing cat book I’d been looking for! It’s a fascinating interdisciplinary look at how the domestic cat has taken over the world – both literally and figuratively. A writer for Smithsonian magazine, Tucker writes engaging, accessible popular science. The closest comparison I can make, style-wise, is to Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, even though that has much heavier subject matter.
The book traces domestic cat evolution from the big cats of the La Brea tar pits to the modern day, explaining why cats are only built to eat flesh and retain the hunting instinct even though they rarely have to look further than their designated bowls for food nowadays. Alongside the science, though, is plenty of cultural history. You’ll learn about how cats have been an invasive species in many sensitive environments, and about the bizarre, Halloween-scary story of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. You’ll meet the tender hearts who volunteer for trap, neuter and release campaigns to cut down on the euthanizing of strays at shelters; the enthusiasts who breed unusual varieties of cats and groom them for shows; and the oddballs who buy into the $58 billion pet industry’s novelty accessories.
From the earliest domestication of animals to the cat meme-dominated Internet, Tucker – a cat lady herself, as frequent mentions of her ginger tom Cheeto attest – marvels at how cats have succeeded by endearing themselves to humans and adapting as if effortlessly to any habitat in which they find themselves. A must for cat lovers for sure, but I don’t think you even have to be a pet person to find this all-embracing book pretty enthralling.
Up next: The Church Cat, an anthology from a recent charity shop haul; The Cat Who Came for Christmas by Cleveland Amory, Cat Sense by John Bradshaw, and Talk to the Tail by Tom Cox from the public library.