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Review: Memoir

Bestsellers have gone to the … cats? Add to ...

If the non-fiction bestseller lists of the past few years are any indication, the publishing industry has gone to the dogs. Marley and Me may be the most famous pet memoir - those ubiquitous Labs are not popular for nothing - but it has plenty of company in the genre.

While we can thank (or blame) publishers for this phenomenon, it cannot be the result of mere cluster-marketing. Social psychologists might say that we increasingly seek solace in animals - in our own homes or in the pages of books - as life becomes more fragmented, and loneliness grows into a silent epidemic.

At the same time, the none-too-subtle sentimentality in a typical pet saga is at a disconnect with the plight of food animals, indeed, of most domesticated animals in general, North American pooches included. Perhaps our ambivalence toward non-human life explains the widespread need to unload personal experiences with animals (of any kind), and the equal if not greater delight found in reading about them.

Dogs are always crowd pleasers, but cats have a sizable fan base of their own. Vicki Myron's Dewey (2008), the story of a kitten dropped into a library book-return chute on a frigid day in the American Midwest, sold more than a million copies worldwide and stayed on bestseller lists for six months. Dewey Readmore Books (his full name) survived frostbite and indignity to grow into a handsome, incredibly friendly (even intuitive) ginger tabby, who warmed the hearts of everyone, especially that of the woman who rescued him.

As a single mother divorced from an alcoholic, Myron related to the cat's tenacity and goodwill. Dewey also inspired a large number of other people in that economically compromised region. The re-establishment of the library's rightful place in the community was a bonus. When Dewey's chronic infirmities finally caught up with him, at the age of 19, Myron took him to the vet one last time. A special memorial, which still draws visitors, was set up outside the library's children's section.

Then came the inevitable sequel, Dewey's Nine Lives, based on the volumes of touching letters Myron received during Dewey's life, and long after. Men and women from all over, some of whom were definitely not self-described cat lovers, reported being "chosen" by an abandoned cat or kitten. Their surprisingly profound new interspecies relationship plugged them into a community, either the literal one in which they lived (and with which the cats facilitated a deeper connection) or the wider, cat-appreciation club out there. That is the legacy of the small-town kitty with the big heart.





Myron tells a series of frankly sad stories about people and cats knocked about by life and finding homes with each other (among them, a man she's now planning to marry). Each story is, by turns, bleak and uplifting. (Many cats are discovered half-dead from neglect or abuse before finding a loving home, but there are few happy endings.) The writing is plain and direct, and largely devoid of sentimentality.

She writes, "We don't love cats out of need. We don't love them as symbols or projections. We love them individually, in the complex manner of all human love, because cats are living creatures."

Although some people experience an easy rapport with non-human life starting in childhood, others - notably several cat lovers featured in Dewey's Nine Lives - turn to animals only when they run out of opportunities with their fellow humans. Do they finally realize that other species belong in their daily lives, or are they simply seeking an emotional refuge?

Myron's compilation in honour of her late little friend may not be the most consistently comforting read, but it is a surprisingly provocative one.

Montreal science writer, critic and poet Louise Fabiani will tell anyone about Pablo - her unforgettable black domestic shorthair, who died in May - but doubts she ever will write a book about him.

 

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