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?
49 responses to “Cat Heroes”
I’ve read Homer and Dewey, finding them inspirational because of how they influenced the humans around them. There is another excellent cat book–Oscar (?) and how he knows when a patient is near death in the retirement home he is in residence. He helps the author/doctor develop compassion.
Woohoo, I’ll check that one out! Thanks for the tip!
I don’t know how a write could possibly pen a story with an animal character that didn’t in some way express human points of view. So for someone to harshly criticize a work because of that seems rather preposterous. Sure, the reader comes to a story with certain expectations, but if the work doesn’t meet those expectations, it’s hardly fair to blame the author entirely. It takes two to have a conflict, after all.
As for your book sales… knowing what I little know about Amazon, I wouldn’t be surprised that there is some disconnect there.
Maggie, YES! It seems very preposterous to me. Seriously, if they want a book from a cat’s perspective, why don’t they look for a work of fiction and not pick up a memoir? I found their reviews to be very irritating. I can imagine how the writers feel about them!
Disconnect. Haha, that’s one way to describe it!
I don’t read too many books involving animals, but these sound intriguing. I’m curious, is the narration from the pet’s POV or the human’s?
As for your numbers being off, I’ve heard from others that Amazon lags behind. With my own publisher, the numbers were often from two quarters earlier. Not sure if that’s the case here, but just a thought.
The narration is definitely from the pet owner perspective. While it can be fun to read from the perspective of the animals, that is more fanciful and more akin to fiction, I guess, whereas these truly are memoirs.
Interesting about the lag, Carrie. Maybe that is part of the problem!
I got an email about your book today. 🙁 Drats and double drats.
Thank you. I gave it a shot. I think the sensitive nature of the topic might be holding things back. At least that’s why a couple agents shied away from it. Oh well, I’ll keep pushing on with it. 🙂
Good luck with it, Carrie!
Amazon is often way behind in their tallies. But this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that. I’m sure they have a reason (excuse), but it does make you wonder.
It really does make me wonder. I kept a list for awhile of books I was pretty durn sure had been purchased and their list in no way matches it.
I’ve had that happen too.
I’ve read Dewey and also one of the Sneaky Pie Brown books. The best animal book for me was “Marley and Me.” I laughed out loud (and I’m a cat person rather than a dog person). I read most of it on a flight and the guy next to me asked with I was reading because I was laughing so much. I love animal books with a good ending. I can’t read them when there is abuse. Just breaks my heart. Marley and Me did have a good ending although he died. That dog had a fabulous life. We should all be so lucky. As a side note, I read a book called Circle Three Times (about a dog that could talk). I enjoyed it so much that I gave it to a friend. She didn’t think it was that well written which tells me that I’m kinder to authors of animal books. I couldn’t stand the Gray series because of the lousy writing.
Kate, I could have sworn that I wrote a review of Marley about a year ago, but I can’t find it on here. How stupid. I can almost remember writing it. Maybe almost isn’t good enough. Marley and Me was a wonderful book! Again, that one was written, like Homer’s Odyssey, by a writer. Circle Times Three. I’ve never heard of it. I love Sneaky Pie Brown books. Well, I love mysteries, especially cozies like those, and then of course, the animals: Mrs. Murphy, et al. 🙂 What Gray series?
Shades of Gray (or maybe Grey)
LOL, I didn’t read it. I heard too many people say how bad it was. Plus, the subject doesn’t really interest me. Not sex, but masochism and sadism. That’s what it is about, right?
Yes. I read about halfway through the first book. Between my lack of interest in the subject (I’m a prude but I didn’t know what most of the “instruments” were used for and I wasn’t going to google it for fear it would keep popping up on my computer) and the really lousy writing, I returned the book. Never read the other two. I don’t know how it got past an editor. No clue on why it was so popular. There is better written porn around.
I like that you KNOW there is better written porn around! Hehehe.
Sorry I should have finished with “I have heard.”
I also read John Grogan’s memoir. It was good but Marley was better (at least for me).
What was the main thread of his memoir? What did it involve besides a dog and a job and family?
It’s been a while since I read it but it was about his struggle with life. Getting started in his career. Bouncing around as a writer. Issues in his marriage. Dirty laundry stuff. I don’t remember the dog being a part of it.
I really have a copy, I swear! Poetry is such a hard sell…honestly I know people who were GIVING books away and still no one would take them. Unfortunately the market for poetry is so low. It is a labor of love in every sense of the word, unfortunately. But it is possible that the sales are not being reported properly too.
Hah, I believe you :). Yes, poetry market is lousy. It seems crazy that there was such a discrepancy, but I suppose people who intended to buy it might not have done so yet and then forgot. Or maybe Amazon is a little sketchy sometimes.
I wanted to write an animal book for some time, Luanne but never got around to it (I’ve got a lot of characters around the farm!) 😀
I bet you do have a lot of characters! I can’t think of farm animal characters without thinking of Charlotte and Templeton and Wilbur and the lot of them. Then there is my favorite movie, Babe!
Watership Down by Richard Adams?
Watership Down is a wonderful book that I think of when I think of Charlotte’s Web and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (oops, and Winnie the Pooh). Is Watership Down considered an adult or children’s text in the UK? I just wondered if people of all ages read it like Harry Potter, for instance.
It’s going back a few years now, but I think it was read by all ages – there was also a cartoon film which was scary in parts.
I really enjoyed your reviews of these books. And I happen to be a reviewer like you (when I write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, for example). If I don’t have something nice to say, I don’t review it. I find what I like in a book, and focus on that. Much more helpful to the author and to the reader, I think. That said, I’ve only read Dewey of the three books you review here. I don’t think I would have read it on my own (not a cat owner and know little about them) but I read it to my high school special ed students, who absolutely LOVED this book. And watching their reaction made me realize the importance of a sweet, simple book like Dewey. And I agree with your other commenters – how can you write a book about an animal without intertwining it with the human who shares its life in some way? I’ve written many blog posts about my dog Henry, and readers seem to love hearing about his antics with me. I’d love to write a book about him, but will probably just make sure that my characters in my books have an animal in their lives. Lastly, I’m enjoying a series by Blaize Clement about a cat sitter. It’s fiction, not memoir, but lovely images of cats and dogs while the main character solves a mystery.
Pam, I agree about the importance of a book like Dewey. The love so many humans have for their animals is a very important part of our existence, so to read about the interaction between a beloved animal like Dewey and the humans who are affected by him is very powerful. Great idea to make sure that your characters have animals! It actually gives me pause. That is something I need to think about as I don’t usually do it. I’ll put Blaize Clement on my list!
I loved your reviews, Luanne. Any cat who saves a library, is a star in my book. Yay Dewey!
Dewey is definitely a star. What a great cat. But then, most of them are great cats if their humans allow them to be!
Thanks for these reviews, Luanne. I haven’t read any of them (and, yes, I know that’s shocking since I’m a cat person). I had been interested in reading Homer, though, after reading a short piece about the author and Homer in a magazine. I have to wonder about the reviews we see on Goodreads and Amazon. I guess we need to keep in mind that these reviews are coming from your average person off the street, not a professional book reviewer who might be more understanding about how memoirs, etc. are structured. The thing for me is, when a book turns out to not be what I expected, I usually err on the side of my own ignorance and try to leave a reasonable review, if any. My favorite example is an audiobook I picked up once that sounded like a great Victorian-era mystery, based on the first chapter. It turned out to be a bodice ripper, once that nearly had me laughing out loud at some of the sex scenes! I was very disappointed, but in my review I pointed out that fans of bodice rippers might actually really enjoy the novel. I noted where I think the writing could have been better, but otherwise tossed it up as a lesson learned for me. Perhaps this is why I like your reviews so much. You carefully weigh your likes and dislikes of a book, such that I can make up my own mind whether I want to read it. As someone who works with data that may be transmitted electronically, there certainly may be a lag between your publisher’s numbers and Amazon’s. They probably don’t have a “real time” system so your publisher’s numbers may be a month or two behind. Hope that’s the case so you can look forward to continuing royalties 🙂
I’ve often wondered this about genre: if we don’t know what genre a book is, does it make us like it more or less. I sort of think that in many cases, if we aren’t expecting a certain genre and get it in the form of our current read, we are discombobulated and like the book less than if we knew what to expect. Do you think that’s true?
Thanks for good insight into Amazon, and your wonderful comments as usual, Marie.
I want to say that as long as a book is well written, the genre doesn’t matter. But right now I’m listening to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I had listened to Remains of the Day and anticipated something very similar. But it’s speculative fiction, which surprised me. Somewhere, in the reviews I read, I hadn’t picked that up. I’m not disappointed. It’s an unexpected treat, but it is taking some adjustment. Discombobulated is the perfect word 🙂
I don’t understand how a book could be entirely about a pet, since animals, as far as I know, don’t know how to write, so there would have to a human perspective. (Our cats do talk of course, and occasionally they type a message on the computer, but I don’t think they have literary ambitions. I could be wrong, of course.)
Could some of the people have purchased books from some other source?
There does need to be human perspective or else the writer has to imagine the interior life of the animal. And for the latter, adult readers tend to be pretty intolerant, in general. But I do wonder if it could work. I think I’m still waiting to see a book that can do it well that is written for adults and not for children.
No, my book is only available through Amazon.
I liked books with animals so much growing up, Luanne! Rascal, Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, Homeward Bound and all the Jack London books about animals. Of course, the humans tell the story but I liked Black Beauty’s point of view via author.
I liked how Kate expressed that it is more important to evaluate the author’s style and ability than the famous name behind the book. She mentioned author of Grey series. I dislike some of James Patterson’s recent books. Quality instead of quantity means a lot in the writing business to me. 🙂
Oh, I love those old animal books. Rascal! who knows that besides you and me? Love that book? And I used to teach Black Beauty. Such wonderful books. Kate’s right. No point in being a lemming in reading! When we know what we like and why it makes it much easier not to just follow the crowd when it’s going along the Twilight path.
Thanks for sharing my.love of Rascal, Luanne! Also glad Kate did so much in her comments I could just say, “I agree” or “Ditto,” Luanne. You have a smart group here who love books. No real explanation why some books appeal, but do sense a common thread of longing for original characters and unique plot lines. You are a creative writer and will always remember the girl on the airplane story you wrote. It was detailed so the the reader could picture the teen who needed a listener. 🙂
Some really good reviews on the three books here – was it Stephen King who said when we read, we should be careful because the book is judging us? Regardless, I get the same feeling when I read many reviewers…the books must surely be disappointed in what is written about them.
As for your book sales, I understand the frustration – so difficult to sell books – and yes very difficult to know what’s going on with Amazon, too. Once the secondary market opened up on my books and they could be purchased outside of my own personal inventory, I never got a dime. So I don’t know. Clearly I missed an important memo somewhere! 🙂
Keep at it! Your book is excellent – and I really did buy a copy and read it!
What a rotten story–that you never got a dime after a point. There are so many horror stories that I don’t know why we bother to keep writing! It probably goes back to that “moral victory” thing we were talking about haha. Are you feeling any better at all, Sheila?
And thank you, yes, I SO appreciated your review!
We write because we can’t stop writing.
I am feeling a little better…think all my illnesses are spooking my dogs and Pretty, too. This, too, shall hopefully pass soon.
Just to let you know I was raised in a dog-loving family and fell in love and was a ” Mommy” for 3 years to a calico named, Phoebe. She still loves me but lives with an ex. Cats have just as much love in their hearts as digs, just have their own special way of expressing it. ♡♡ Sorry about your loss and the photo of your daughter with her first kitty is precious, Luanne. ♡♡
Cats are very loving. They just don’t usually hop and jump around asking for petting. A good nudge with the head usually gets the desired petting! 😉
Interesting thoughts Luanne, I don’t see how a memoir can help but focus on the human perspective – because we can never know what the animals are thinking it would otherwise have to be a very straightforward listing of facts.
Andrea, so true. Or else an imaginative creative of the interiority of the animal. Without the interior, you’re right, it’s just a straightforward listing of facts!
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