Jan 3, 2009

A Curious History of Cats by Madeleine Swan

As the title indicates, A Curious History of Cats looks at cats and their relationship with humankind throughout history – starting in Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece and Persia and moving through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the Romantic, Victorian and Modern periods. It also particularly looks at cats and their relationships with writers: which writers were cat lovers, cats in literature, etc.

A Curious History of Cats is a short book, so I wasn’t expecting a comprehensive history. What I expected (and got) was a charming and satisfying collection of information about cats in art and in lore, cat and cat-owner anecdotes, and fun facts – as well as some not so fun ones. I was maybe a little happier before knowing the exact origin of the expression “raining cats and dogs”, or about the existence of such a thing as a “cat organ”, or about the habit of shutting a cat inside the walls of a new building “for luck” (a cat skeleton was found inside the walls of Westminster Abbey, as well as several other London buildings).

But hey, that’s history for you. Not all of it is going to be pretty. Some of the book was upsetting, but I like learning about things. Cats were prosecuted for centuries, and they were the target of horrible cruelty. But you know, despite knowing that animal cruelty is by no means gone, the fact that it’s no longer as socially acceptable does give me some hope.

In addition to all the information, this book has really nice illustrations. Not only lovely pencil drawings, but several full-page illustrations of cats in art from several different periods in history.

Like I said, I found A Curious History of Cats a very satisfying book, and I would definitely recommend it to cat lovers. However, there are two things I have to vent about. First, the book is in need of more careful editing. There were a few strange sentences (“the cat seems to have been just as great a favourite with men than with women”), and a couple of misplaced commas of the “John, went for a walk” type. I really have no idea where the notion that if the subject is longer than one word then it’s okay to separate it from the verb with a comma comes from. Fortunately, there weren’t enough of them to really annoy me, and I’m actually quite easy to annoy with commas. (And yes, I know I'm the last person who should be complaining about grammar, but this is where I reach for my not-a-native-speaker badge.)

Secondly, I'm afraid I have to call shenanigans on this, which strikes me as a bit of a ridiculous thing to say:
There are many examples of a natural affinity between writers and cats. Writers tend to be self-contained, rather solitary people, who find it difficult to share their emotions readily, or even to be the recipient of the boisterous love that a dog may display. Cats suit the personality of the writer better.
Yes, I know she says “tend”, but it’s still an absurd generalization, and I very much doubt there’s such a thing as a special “personality of the writer”. I’m sceptical about the whole idea of “artistic temperament” and of writers being almost like an alien species. I’m sorry, Byron and company; I know that’s what you wanted us all to think. But I don’t buy it. Fortunately, this was the only annoying generalization in the book.


  1. Since I'm an animal lover, I think this book looks delightful.

  2. Fun book. I'm kind of a sucker for things like that, especially when I'm tired and need something really light for before bed. Poor kitties. Such darling creatures who get such a bad rap sometimes.

  3. LOL!! That passage about writers not being able to share their emotions totally cracked me up!! Who writes stuff like that? lol. And we once had a cat stuck in the walls at the hospital I work at :( I think he would get out and get back in there though because we heard meowing through the wall for like a year! It was crazy!! I'm morbidly curious about where "raining cats and dogs" came from...I probably really don't want to know though :/ And don't worry, bad grammar drives me nuts too!! Really nuts...to the point where it can ruin a book totally for me.

  4. I'm with Chris-grammar mistakes drive me crazy too! And just bad editing overall makes me cranky. :) And that last passage is pretty hilarious. Good to know the rest of the book was better!

  5. Hmmm...I better tell Annie she needs to give up her dreams of being a writer. She's way too extroverted. :)

    And bad grammar bugs me as well! You know, like starting sentences with conjunctions. ;) Of course I'm faaaaar from perfect (and I don't even have any excuses).

    All in all, I'm not sure I would have liked that book. The parts about abuse would have overshadowed everything else for me, I'm afraid. I know it's history and all, but I just have such a hard time reading things like that.

    Well, I feel kind of bad that it wasn't a better book, but I hope you'll read The Lorax soon. I guarantee you'll like that one a lot more!

  6. This looks like one I would gift to my cat loving friends. :)
    I am a bit of a cat lover myself but I never get myself books like this.

  7. Channeling T.S. Eliot now ...

    Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macacity,
    There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
    He always has an alibit, or one or two to spare:
    And whatever time the deed took place--MACAVITY WASN'T THERE!
    And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
    (I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
    Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
    Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

  8. Sounds like a good one for cat lovers. (I'm allergic lol)
    Its funny how we notice grammatical errors while reading books.

  9. LOL--I have to admit that I really enjoyed reading your qualms/quarrels with the book/writing. The grammar has to be pretty darn bad for me to notice (although I used to be much pickier).

    I have always found cat lore to be fascinating--and especially interesting that cats are more often disliked than dogs. Don't get me wrong, I really love my dog, but I don't have the same bond that I do with my cat. And if I see a cat anywhere, I have to make friends with it. My husband, though, *hates* cats and I know several others who just don't like them. Never really understood where the whole cat hatred thing came from. Rambling. Sounds like a book that I'd find really interesting.

  10. I have never even heard of this book before... I think I will leave it at that. My terrible sleep habits this week have caught up with me and I am falling asleep here.

  11. I love books about cats! I've noticed this at the bookstore for quite some time, and was curious about it. Now I know for sure I want to read it :)

    I don't usually notice grammatical errors in books, but it really does annoy me when I do. Unfortunately my own grammar is questionable most of the time - I never pay attention to my tenses. Some people say it's because in Malay we don't have different tenses, but I don't think that's the case (since I speak worse Malay than English). I literally have no sense of time :p

  12. My daughter is a big cat lover. I will make note of this title as it sounds just up her alley. And she's terrible at grammar so that won't bother her a bit. :-)

  13. I may have to check this one out. Thanks for the review, Nymeth.

    A couple of years ago, a cat slipped into my office building and was living in the ceiling panels. None of us considered it might be lucky, I'm afraid. He was eventually captured and set free.

  14. That such a stereotyped idea of writers!I would have been annoyed too. And I hear you about the commas, I'm the same:P
    But overall I think I'd like to read this book, I love animals in general,and I can't wait to have a kitten all for myself :P

  15. Curious..I'd be interested in this. But putting cats in the walls for luck?! Poor things!

    I used to teach english as a foreign language, so poor punctuation really drives me nuts!

  16. Lately I've found myself becoming more and more annoyed with evidence of poor editing in books. The errors always jump right out at me!

    This sounds like a charming book. I love cats. I often think of how resilient and tenacious they are, to have survived so many years of persecution in the past.

  17. I like the sound of this one. Cats are such independent and fascinating creatures.

  18. bermudaonion: It is!

    Daphne: So true. And books like this are indeed great for those times.

    Chris: lol, who indeed. Poor cat :( These were actually plastered in, though :S And about "raining cats and dogs", a few hints: no drainage in old London, heavy rains, lots of street animals :S Grammar can ruin a book for me too, but fortunately it wasn't consistently bad in this one.

    Eva: That passage was at the end of the book, and fortunately it was the only one of its kind. I really have no idea why people make up things like that.

    Debi: lol, sad news for Annie indeed :P She'd better become hermit or give up! I hope you didn't get the impression I didn't like the book, though! I really, really did, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate that you gave it to me. Because otherwise I might never have heard of it, and I learned a lot of neat facts. I have a hard time reading about animal abuse too, but those stories were actually in the minority. Maybe they stood out more because horrible things tend to be memorable, but most anecdotes were actually quite sweet. And I will indeed read The Lorax soon!

    Mari: This was my first time reading a book of this kind too. I guess I might not have enjoyed it as much otherwise, because like I said it wasn't very in-depth or anything.

    Loren Eaton: Gotta love Old Possum :D

    Naida: Sorry to hear about the allergies!

    Trish: It's interesting, isn't it? You often find dog lovers you really can't stand cats, and yet the opposite seems to be much rarer. Cats seem to be easier to hate for some reason, a fact that a cat nut like myself has a hard time grasping :P They're PERFECT! Why can't the whole world see it? :P
    (About that challenge: Hmm, I'll think about it :P Maybe for the second half of the year?)

    Kailana: lol, I hope you got a good night's sleep!

    Marineko: I hope you enjoy it! And you made the linguistics nut in me all curious about the tenses things in Malay English. Now I want to read about it :P

    Petunia, I hope she enjoys it!

    Literary Feline: This is definitely a book for a bookish kitten :D And I'm glad the cat ended up okay!

    Valentina: It totally is, and I'm surprise it's still around. But the book is definitely still enjoyable.

    Mariel: Poor things indeed :( And fortunately, the misplaced commas weren't consistent. It really looked like poor editing.

    Jeane: I know...it makes the writer/editors seem so careless.

    Jenclair. They are...I love them :)

  19. I am not sure how awake I was at all last night. After that comment I went to bed and finished the first volume in Fables, but this morning I was thinking I had more to read... Then, I remembered how it ended and picked up the second volume instead!

  20. This one sounds like a good read to especially the cat lovers. I've never had a cat as a pet before so I'm interested to learn more about them so books like this one sounds good to me.

    I don't agree with the passage about the writers too... especially about them being self-contained and having difficulty of sharing their emotions which I find unfair and ridiculous.

  21. I don't have very good tolerance for grammatical mistakes, typos, etc. Not that I'm perfect (nobody is) but I do expect that in the books I read.

    Having said that I love books about cats or any animal for that matter. :D

  22. Kailana: lol! Sometimes I read before falling asleep and dream that I'm continuing to read the book. Then in the morning I have trouble remembering what was in the dream and what I actually read.

    Melody: You never had a cat! You poor deprived soul :P And yeah, it's totally ridiculous.

    Alice: But we're not editors, who are PAID to be perfect. Or close to it, anyway :P And I'm not surprised that you do!

  23. Yikes! I had to send Amanda out of the room for fear that she may read what happend to some of her ancesters. I'm the history isn't all bad.

  24. I'd love to read this! I'll have to see if my library will let me ILL it.

  25. Hello,

    Since everybody here loves cat, I might just ask frankly I have this situation. My family and I are planning to go back to my mom's home country..But I have several cats which we rescued from the street..arrgh It's very hard to find people are actually wanting to adopt local cats..maybe if anyone here could help find someone wants to adopt my cats? just send me an email Ana.Guindel@gmail.com


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