Two weeks ago, I finished reading two memoirs about cats: Homer’s Odyssey, by Gwen Cooper, and A Street Cat Named Bob, by James Bowen (and Garry Jenkins). They are similar to a book I read a few years ago, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron (and Bret Witter).
All three books feature special pet cats (that happen to be male) and were written by the pet owners. Two of the books were either ghost written or written along with the cat owner. Only Gwen Cooper is a writer, and her book shows it as it’s the most well written of the three.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the reader meets Homer, a tiny blind kitten when Cooper first took him home. I think Homer’s narrative is perhaps innately the “weakest” for memoir structure, based as it is only on Homer’s disability and his life with Cooper, but Cooper’s beautiful writing shapes a well-crafted story that begins when Cooper herself was young and underemployed. Later, when Homer and his two sister cats were home alone during the 911 tower attack and Cooper couldn’t get home to them for days, my heart was thudding for the poor cats because I’d fallen in love with Homer, as well as Scarlett and Vashti, thanks to Cooper’s writing.
In A Street Cat Named Bob, Bob is a street cat who lives with a street musician in London and becomes famous online for sitting very calmly while Bowen plays his guitar or, later, sells magazines. Bowen was a recovering drug addict who was able to pull his life together when he began to focus on making a better life for Bob. Although Bowen claims not to follow a 12 step program, it’s clear that Bob becomes Bowen’s “higher power.” The story is engaging because Bob is such a larger than life figure as seen through Bowen’s eyes. Although the book was written with a professional writer, the book is the least well written of the three and needs editing. I even found at least one run-together sentence. The story didn’t move quickly enough in a few places, but I enjoyed it and would love to meet Bob and James. Most important, it’s rewarding to see a man turn his life around because of his love for an animal.
Dewey is a library cat who saves the town library. In Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, Vicki the librarian meets Dewey when she finds the kitten who had been thrown into a frozen book chute overnight. Because the book begins with the tiny kitten saved from a horrific fate, I am immediately drawn in and engaged with the story. This is also true of Homer whose original owners wanted to euthanize him because he was blind. Bowen met Bob when Bob was already an adult cat, out on the street, so he’s never an adorable kitten in the story. But Bowen’s growing attachment to Bob is what hooks the reader.
Are these books about cats or about humans? Are they memoirs of the humans or biographies of the cats?
All three books have been successful.
Nevertheless, a few of the reviews on Goodreads didn’t like the feel good nature of the books–i.e., that a stray becomes an important part of keeping the library alive in small town America. I say those reviewers have hard hearts.
Some reviewers criticize these books for being memoirs about the writers’ lives. Ahem. All three books are memoirs about the pet owners, although the focus is on the cat and the owner’s relationship with the cat. Well, a memoir by its definition is written by a human being about an aspect or time period of his or her life. When we write about someone else’s life and not our own, it’s a biography.
Why are these books not just biographies of cats? Why are they also memoirs by and about the humans? I feel that this is the way these books work best and someone who wants a pure story of an animal should go read Bambi, which is an amazing orphan tale about a wild animal who doesn’t live with a human (although the original and non-Disney version does show what happens when one deer is taken in by humans).
Adult animal lovers enjoy memoirs such as the three I read because of the relationship between the animal and the human. It’s the human (sometimes humans) who grows and learns during the course of each story. The cats are amazing catalysts (sorry for the pun), muses, inspirations, and higher powers. But their ability to inspire the reader is innate to the animals. The story has to come from what the human learns from the cat. This is what makes a memoir like these more than merely a children’s story about a child thinly disguised as an animal, such as the Olivia (the pig) books. More than a biography of an animal, such as Smokey the Bear.
Or am I wrong? Is there a successful adult story about a real life animal where the plot is completely focused on the animal and not a human? I don’t mean a political satire like Animal Farm.
The success of these books stems, in part, from the marriage of memoirs and feel-good animal stories.
One last thought about the reviews of these books. The reviewers who criticize these books for being about the lives of the pet owners tend to be very judgmental about the writers. They find them to be whiny or self-absorbed or boring–or a combination. I suspect that these complaints are because they don’t want the human intruding on the story of the animal or because they only see the story through their own narrow, darkly filtered lenses (their own self-image and their own lives). These reviews are more revealing of the reviewers than of the books or the writers, to my way of thinking. They also don’t understand that the books are structured this way because that is the way you tell a story and sell a book. There has to be conflict and resolution. There has to be suspense and pacing. I found myself getting angry at these reviewers.
What does that reveal about me ;)?
On a completely unrelated note, I am bummed about Doll God sales, but for a weird reason. The number of people who have told me that they have bought it (including multiple quantities) is in no way reflected by the actual total the publisher tells me that have been sold. Maybe half? So are half the people who have said they bought it not telling the truth? Is Amazon not sending correct reports to the publisher? The publisher provided me with a royalty update, so the problem isn’t with her. Any thoughts?