Just a short post this time. I call it serendipitous when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such incidents. I post these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)
- Characters sit for a portrait in The Confession by Jessie Burton and The Hoarder by Jess Kidd.
- An obsession with saints in Fifth Business by Robertson Davies and The Hoarder by Jess Kidd.
- A mention of the urban myth regarding why our fingertips prune in water (something about an outdated evolutionary strategy for gripping underwater) in The Body by Bill Bryson and Humiliation: Stories by Paulina Flores.
- Memories of childhood trips to Martha’s Vineyard in Chances Are by Richard Russo and The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall.
- The River Thames is the setting for Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem and Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield.
- Mentions of pelicans being clubbed to death in God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren and Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale.
- A character who speaks and writes backwards words in The Poisonwood Bible and The Robber Bride.
- Epigraphs containing folk names for the hare, and soon enough a dead hare, in Ring the Hill by Tom Cox and Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley.
- An unexpected THIRD set of conjoined twins encountered this year (after Cutting for Stone and The Girls) in Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie Macdonald.
- The song “Oh My Darling, Clementine” is quoted in The Robber Bride and Fall on Your Knees.
- Warming an orphaned lamb in a low oven in Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood and The Dig by Cynan Jones.
- A character is presumed incapable of laughter in Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann and Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken.
- Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is mentioned in The River Capture by Mary Costello and Surrender by Joanna Pocock.
It’s cats and butterflies in the spotlight this time, adding in a gazelle as a metaphor for Freddie Mercury’s somebody to love.
Travelling Cat: A Journey round Britain with Pugwash by Frederick Harrison (1988)
If Tom Cox had been born 20 years earlier, this is the sort of book he might have written. In 1987, saddened more by his cat Podey being run over than by the end of his marriage, Harrison set out from South London in his Ford Transit van for a seven-month drive around the country. He decided to take Pugwash, one of his local (presumably ownerless) cats, along as a companion.
They encountered Morris dancers, gypsies, hippies at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, sisters having a double wedding, and magic mushroom collectors. They went to a county fair and beaches in Suffolk and East Yorkshire, and briefly to Hay-on-Wye. And on the way back they collected Podey, whom he’d had stuffed. Harrison muses on the English “vice” of nostalgia for a past that probably never existed; Pugwash does what cats do, and very well.
It’s all a bit silly and dated and lightweight, but enjoyable nonetheless. Plus there are tons of black-and-white photos of “Pugs” and other feline friends. This was a secondhand purchase from The Bookshop, Wigtown.
“Cats hate to make prats of themselves. But then, don’t we all?”
(last lines) “Warm, fed, contented, unemployable, and entirely at peace with the world. Yes indeed. Cats certainly know something we don’t.”
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950)
(An example of a book that just happens to have an animal in the title.) I’d only read one other Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, a late and fairly melancholy story of four lonely older people. With her first novel I’m in more typical territory, I take it. The middle-aged Bede sisters are pillars of the church in their English village. Harriet takes each new curate under her wing, making of them a sort of collection, and fends off frequent marriage proposals from the likes of a celebrity librarian and an Italian count.
Belinda, on the other hand, only has eyes for one man: Archdeacon Hochleve, whom she’s known and loved for 30 years. They share a fondness for quoting poetry, the more obscure the better (like the title phrase, taken from “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love!” by Thomas Haynes Bayly). The only problem is that the archdeacon is happily married. So single-minded is Belinda that she barely notices her own marriage proposal when it comes: a scene that reminded me of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Pym is widely recognized as an heir to Jane Austen, what with her arch studies of relationships in a closed community.
There were a handful of moments that made me laugh, like when the seamstress finds a caterpillar in her cauliflower cheese and has to wipe with a Church Times newspaper when the Bedes run out of toilet paper (such mild sacrilege!). This is enjoyable, if fluffy; it was probably a mistake to have read one of Pym’s more serious books first: I expected too much of this one. If you’re looking for a quick, gentle and escapist read in which nothing awful will happen, though, it would make a good choice. Knowing most of her books are of a piece, I wouldn’t read more than one of the remainder – it’ll most likely be Excellent Women.
An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell (2003)
This compact and fairly rollicking book is a natural history of butterflies and of the scientists and collectors who have made them their life’s work. There are some 18,000 species and, unlike, say, beetles, they are generally pretty easy to tell apart because of their bold, colorful markings. Moth and butterfly diversity may well be a synecdoche for overall diversity, making them invaluable indicator species. Although the history of butterfly collecting was fairly familiar to me from Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust, I still learned or was reminded of a lot, such as the ways you can tell moths and butterflies apart (and it’s not just about whether they fly in the night or the day). And who knew that butterfly rape is a thing?
The final third of the book was strongest for me, including a trip to London’s Natural History Museum; another to Costa Rica’s butterfly ranches, an example of successful ecotourism; and a nicely done case study of the El Segundo Blue butterfly, which was brought back from the brink of extinction by restoration of its southern California dunes habitat. Russell, a New Mexico-based author of novels and nonfiction, also writes about butterflies’ cultural importance: “No matter our religious beliefs, we accept the miracle of metamorphosis. One thing becomes another. … Butterflies wake us up.”
I also recently read the excellent title story from John Murray’s 2003 collection A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Married surgeons reflect on their losses, including the narrator’s sister in a childhood accident and his wife Maya’s father to brain cancer. In the late 1800s, the narrator’s grandfather, an amateur naturalist in the same vein as Darwin, travelled to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies. The legends from his time, and from family trips to Cape May to count monarchs on migration in the 1930s, still resonate in the present day for these characters. The treatment of themes like science, grief and family inheritance, and the interweaving of past and present, reminded me of work by Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt.
(I’ve put the book aside for now but will go back to it in September as I focus on short stories.)
Other butterfly-themed books I have reviewed:
- Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (one of last year’s 20 Books of Summer)
- Ruins by Peter Kuper (a graphic novel set in Mexico, this also picks up on monarch migration)
- Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle (a novel about butterfly researchers in Colorado)
Happy Halloween! I enjoyed taking part in R.I.P. for the first time this year. My top two choices out of the six fantastical and/or spooky books I managed to read would be The Loney and The Graveyard Book (see below). For this second installment I’ve been reading eerie short stories that take place in the English countryside, a young adult fantasy novel set mostly in a graveyard, and a ghost story that unfolds in the Himalayas of the 1930s.
Help the Witch by Tom Cox (2018)
I knew Tom Cox for his witty books about his many cats, including The Good, the Bad and the Furry. His first foray into fiction was published by Unbound earlier this month; I pre-ordered it on a Kindle deal for £1. The settings are dilapidated cottages, moorland and villages, mostly in the North of England. Even in the spookier stories, there’s always a welcome touch of humor. “Seance” raises the ghost of a cyclist who was killed on his bike and now is destined to cycle evermore. He doesn’t, at first, realize that he’s dead. “‘Morning!’ he called to a middle-aged couple with a labradoodle, cheerfully, as he cycled past Whiddon Scrubs. They ignored him. ‘Shitbags,’ he said under his breath.”
The three sets of flash fictions, “Listings,” “Nine Tiny Stories about Houses,” and “Folk Tales of the Twenty-third Century,” particularly made me laugh, though each perhaps overstays its welcome a bit. My two favorites were proper ghost stories: “Speed Awareness,” about a peculiar mix-up with the course teacher, and “Just Good Friends,” in which a woman’s Internet dating experiences turn strange when she meets someone with inside knowledge about her past. I could see the latter being anthologized. These are enjoyable enough stories to flip through around Halloween.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)
Nobody “Bod” Owens has lived in a graveyard ever since the night he climbed out of his cot and toddled there – the same night that a man named Jack murdered his parents and older sister. He was the only member of his family to survive the slaughter. Although he passes a happy childhood among the graveyard’s witches, ghouls and ghosts from many centuries, he knows he’s different. He’s alive; he has to eat and craves human friendship. As valuable as his lessons in Fading and Dreamwalking prove to be, he longs to attend school and discover more of the world outside – provided he can keep his head down and avoid notice; previous trips beyond the cemetery walls, such as to a pawnshop, have bordered on the disastrous.
Bod’s japes with his returning friend Scarlett turn more serious when he learns that Jack is still after him. This is quite a dark book for its young teen audience, but as I remember from the only other Gaiman book I’ve read, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he’s a master at balancing sadness with humor and magic. The illustrations by Chris Riddell are terrific, too.
Silas, Bod’s guardian: “You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change.”
“Mother Slaughter’s headstone [was] so cracked and worn and weathered that all it said now was:
which had puzzled the local historians for over a hundred years.”
Thin Air: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver (2016)
In 1935 Dr. Stephen Pearce and his brother Kits are part of a five-man mission to climb the most dangerous mountain in the Himalayas, Kangchenjunga. Thirty years before, Sir Edmund Lyell led an ill-fated expedition up the same mountain: more than one man did not return, and the rest lost limbs to frostbite. “I don’t want to know what happened to them. It’s in the past. It has nothing to do with us,” Dr. Pearce tells himself, but from the start it feels like a bad omen that they, like Lyell’s party, are attempting the southwest approach; even the native porters are nervous. And as they climb, they fall prey to various medical and mental crises; hallucinations of ghostly figures on the crags are just as much of a danger as snow blindness.
This is pacey, readable historical fiction with a good sense of period and atmosphere. I enjoyed Pearce’s narration, and the one-upmanship type of relationship with his brother adds an interesting dimension to the expedition dynamics. However, I never submitted sufficiently to Paver’s spell to find anything particularly scary. I’ll try again with her other ghost story, Dark Matter, about an Arctic expedition from the same time period.
“The Sherpas are wrong. This mountain has no spirit, no sentience and no intent. It’s not trying to kill us. It simply is.” [famous last words…]
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
The past two years I’ve had biannual specials on cat books. You might think I would have run out of options by now, but not so! Granted, my choices this time are rather light fare: several children’s picture books, two slight gift books, and a few breezy memoirs. But it’s nice to have a fluffy post every now and again, and today’s is in honor of getting past a week of the year I always dread: June 15th is the U.S. tax deadline for citizens living abroad, so I’ve been drowning in forms and numbers. To celebrate getting both my IRS and HMRC tax returns sent off by today, here’s some feline-themed reads to enjoy over a G&T or other summery tipple of your choice.
Seven Bad Cats by Monique Bonneau (2018): “Today I put on my boots and my coat, and seven bad cats jumped into my boat.” This is a terrific little rhyming book that counts up to seven and then back down to one with the help of some stowaway cats and their antics. (They come in colors that cats don’t normally come in, but that’s okay with me.) To start with they are incorrigibly lazy and mischievous, but when disaster is at hand they band together to help the little girl get back to shore safely. If only cats were so helpful in real life!
Macaroni the Great and the Sea Beast by Whitney Childers (2018): Macaroni the cat has an idyllic life by the coast of Maine with his hipster fisherman friend, Sammy. Sometimes he helps steer the fishing boat; sometimes he naps on the deck. But when a fearsome sea beast rears its head from the net one day, Mac is ready to fight back and save the day. From the colorfully nautical endpapers through to the peaceful last page, this is a great picture book for cat lovers to share with the little ones in their lives.
You don’t so often hear blokes talking about their cats, do you? That crazy cat lady stereotype dominates. But Tom Cox has written several memoirs about his life with cats.
In Under the Paw: Confessions of a Cat Man (2008), Cox, who had previously published volumes of his journalism about music and sports, came out as a cat lover. By the end of the book he has SIX CATS, so this was not some passing fad but a deep and possibly worrying obsession. In essays and short list-based asides he traces his history with cats, reveals the wildly different personalities of his current pets, and wittily comments on cat behavior. I especially liked these entries from his “Cat Dictionary”: “ES Pee: The telepathic process that leads a cat to only get properly settled on its owner’s stomach in the moments when that owner is most desperate for the toilet” & “Muzzlewug: The state of bliss created by the perfect friction of an owner’s fingers on a fully extended chin.”
The Good, the Bad and the Furry (2013) is another fairly entertaining book. Cat owners will recognize the ways in which a pet’s requirements impinge on their lives (but we wouldn’t have it any other way). Cox starts and ends the book with four cats, but – alas – goes down to three for a while in the middle, with visitors upping it to 3.5 sometimes. The Bear, Ralph and Shipley are the stalwarts, with The Bear described as “the only cat I’d ever seen who appeared to be almost permanently on the verge of tears.” He’s melancholy and philosophical, whereas Ralph (who says his own name when he meows) is vain and sullen. “The Ten Catmandments” was my favorite part: “Thou shalt not drink the water put out for thee by thy humans” and “Thou shalt ignore any toy thy human has bought for thee, especially the really expensive ones.” Includes lots of photographs of cats and kittens!
How It Works: The Cat (2016) is a Ladybird pastiche by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris that we purchased as a bargain book from Aldi; it was published in the USA as The Fireside Book of the Cat. Tongue-in-cheek descriptions sit opposite 1950s-style drawings. Cat owners will certainly get a chuckle from lines like “Dogs have evolved to serve many sorts of human needs. And humans have evolved to serve many sorts of cat food.” (However, “It is a good idea to buy a lot of your cat’s favourite food. That way, you will have something to throw away when she changes her mind.”) Makes a good coffee table book for guests to smile at.
The Old Age of El Magnifico by Doris Lessing (2000): Pure cat lover’s delight. I wasn’t a big fan of Lessing’s Particularly Cats, which is surprisingly unsentimental and even brutal in places. This redresses the balance. It’s the bittersweet story of Butch, her enormous black and white cat, who was known by many additional nicknames including El Magnifico. At the age of 14 he was found to have a cancerous growth in his shoulder, and one entire front leg had to be removed. His habits, and even to an extent his personality, changed after the amputation, and Lessing regretted that she couldn’t let him know it was done for his good. She reflects on her duty towards the cats in her care, and on how pets encourage us to slow our pace and direct our attention fully to the present moment. Work? Chores? Worries? What could really be more important than sitting still and stroking a cat?
The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley: It is not good for a mouse to be alone. Arthur is lonely as the only mouse resident in the village church, but he has an idea: he proposes to the parson that if he will give all the local mice refuge in the church, they’ll undertake minor chores like flower arranging and picking up confetti. It seems like a good arrangement all around, but Sampson the church cat soon tires of the mice’s antics and creates something of a scene during a Sunday service. Luckily, he and the mice still work together to outwit a burglar who comes for the silver. There are quite a lot of words for a very small child to engage with, but older children should enjoy it very much. I find this whole series so charming. This was the first book of the 14, from 1972.
Cats in May by Doreen Tovey (1959): The sequel is just as good as the original (Cats in the Belfry). Along with feline antics we get the adventures of Blondin the squirrel, whom Tovey and her husband adopted before they started keeping Siamese cats. (He was just as destructive as the pets that came after him, but I had to love his fondness for tea.) Solomon and Sheba appear on the BBC and object in the strongest possible terms when Doreen and Charles try to introduce a third Siamese, a kitten named Samson, to the household. The flu, visits from the rector’s grandson, and periodic troubles with their old farmhouse, including a chimney fire, round out this highly amusing story of life with pets.
Not all cat books are winners. Here are two that, alas, I cannot recommend:
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa (2017): This is the fable-like story of Satoru, a single man in his early thirties, and his cat, Nana (named for the shape of his tail, which resembles a Japanese 7). Satoru adopted Nana about five years ago when the cat, a local stray, was hit by a car. Now he needs to find a new owner for his beloved pet. No spoilers here, but really, there are only so many reasons why a young man would need to do this, and readers will likely work it out well before the “big reveal” over halfway through. We bounce between Nana’s perspective, which is quite cutely rendered, and third-person flashbacks to Satoru’s sad history. The author spells out and overstates everything. It’s pretty emotionally manipulative. Pet owners will appreciate Nana’s humor and loyalty (“I’m your cat till the bitter end!”), but I felt like I was being brow-beaten into crying – though I didn’t in the end.
I Could Pee on This, Too: And More Poems by More Cats by Francesco Marciuliano (2016): Not a single memorable poem or line in the lot. Seriously. Stick with the original.
Whether you are a cat lover or not, do any of these books appeal?
Even when it’s not a book that’s specifically about cats, cats often seem to turn up in my reading. Maybe it’s simply that I look out for them more since I became a cat owner several years ago. Here are some of the quotes, scenes or whole books featuring cats that I’ve come across this year.
Cats real and imaginary
Readers see some of the action from the perspective of Polanski the cat in The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendáriz. While the feline might not grasp the emotional importance of the scenes he witnesses, we do. “The cat narrows its eyes when it sees the man lean against the window frame, overcome by a fit of sobbing that has nothing to do with sadness, or sorrow, but with an internal crumbling, like the collapse of a wave breaking on the shore of his skin and sweeping away his memory.”
From Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett: “Anna was disturbed by the arrival at the front door of the milk-girl. Alternately with her father, she stayed at home on Sunday evenings, partly to receive the evening milk and partly to guard the house. The Persian cat with one ear preceded her to the door as soon as he heard the clatter of the can. The stout little milk-girl dispensed one pint of milk into Anna’s jug, and spilt an eleemosynary supply on the step for the cat. ‘He does like it fresh, Miss,’ said the milk-girl, smiling at the greedy cat, and then, with a ‘Lovely evenin’,’ departed down the street, one fat red arm stretched horizontally out to balance the weight of the can in the other.”
From Kilvert’s Diary by Francis Kilvert: “Toby [the cat] sits before the fire on the hearthrug and now and then jumps up on my knee to be stroked. The mice scurry rattling round the wainscot and Toby darts off in great excitement to listen and watch for them.” (18 Oct. 1870)
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami starts with a missing cat. “So now I had to go cat hunting. I had always liked cats. And I liked this particular cat. But cats have their own way of living. They’re not stupid. If a cat stopped living where you happened to be, that meant it had decided to go somewhere else. If it got tired and hungry, it would come back. Finally, though, to keep Kumiko happy, I would have to go looking for our cat. I had nothing better to do.”
I’m also 64 pages into Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore; in Chapter 6 we meet another seeker of lost cats, Nakata, when he has an absurd conversation with a black cat named Otsuka. (Perhaps he’s the creature pictured on the cover of my paperback?)
Doorkins the Cathedral Cat by Lisa Gutwein: This sweet children’s book tells the true story of how a stray cat wandered into London’s Southwark Cathedral in 2008 and gradually made it her home. It proceeds day by day through one week to give a helpful idea of the range of activities the cathedral hosts – everything from a wedding to a regular Sunday service – but also showcases important events like visits from the Bishop and the Queen. In every case we get to see how Doorkins insinuates herself into proceedings. I liked how the bright colors of the illustrations echo the cathedral’s stained glass, and appreciated the photo gallery and extra information at the end. The author, a doctor whose husband is a verger at the cathedral, and illustrator Rowan Ambrose, a dentist, met at King’s College London, where I used to work.
The Church Mice in Action by Graham Oakley: My third from the series, I think. The mice suggest to the parson’s sister that she might enter Sampson into cat shows to earn enough to repair the church roof. They then do their best to rig the results, but couldn’t have predicted the consequences. I loved the late summer/onset of autumn atmosphere.
On the extreme reluctance to remove a cat from one’s lap.
From The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë: Miss Millward, Eliza’s older sister and the vicar’s daughter, when he passes her a ball of wool that’s rolled under the table – “Thank you, Mr. Markham. I would have picked it up myself, only I did not want to disturb the cat.”
From the essay “On Cat-Worship” in George Mikes’s How to Be Decadent: “Having joked for decades about how the English worship the cat, like the ancient Egyptians only more so, I have fallen for the cat myself. It has become my sacred animal. … I have been late for appointments, failed to go shopping and missed planes because Tsi-Tsa was sitting on my lap.”
Other cat-themed reading on the horizon:
- The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas by Cleveland Amory, borrowed from the public library, should make a good pre-holiday read.
- I’m keen to get hold of The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, which comes out in November.
- My husband gave me a copy of Tom Cox’s The Good, the Bad and the Furry for my birthday.
- I have Jason Hazeley’s The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Cat and Thomas McNamee’s The Inner Life of Cats on my Kindle.
- It’s not particularly geared towards cat lovers (see Eleanor’s review), but it is called My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci and is also on my Kindle.
- I have copies of Cats in May by Doreen Tovey plus a couple of anthologies of cat-related writing picked up in Hay-on-Wye.