Aug 5, 2010

“What the Cat Told Me” by Diana Wynne Jones (and a giveaway)

What the Cat Told Me by Diana Wynne Jones

Before I discovered book blogs, I had the habit of raiding random message boards of all sorts for book recommendations. And I remember that in one of them there was a thread about favourite short stories, and someone mentioned “What the Cat Told Me” by Diana Wynne Jones. Even if we discount the fact that this is DWJ we’re talking about(I loved her then, but probably not quite as much as I do now), the title alone made me want to read it. Things being told by cats! Who wouln’t want to know what a cat would have to tell?

A few years later I bought the DWJ-edited anthology Fantasy Stories, and it actually took me a while to realise it included this particular story. Oh joyous moment! I read it in a single gulp (sadly, the rest of the book remains neglected to this day), and I thought I’d revisit that lovely reading experience for Diana Wynne Jones Week.

“What the Cat Told Me” begins with the words, “I am a cat.” Our narrator then adds,
I am a cat like anything. Keep stroking me. I came in here because I knew you were good at stroking. But put your knees together so I can sit properly, front paws under. That’s better. Now keep stroking, don’t forget to rub my ears, and I will purr and tell.
Isn’t there something delightfully feline about that? I can imagine a similar sort of inner monologue going through my cats’ heads as they try to get me to sit in the position that is the most comfortable to them.

But back to the story: I don’t want to say too much, as spoiling the plot of a short story is far too easy, but “What the Cat Told Me” is a cat-narrated tale about a young man apprenticed to a cruel old magician - and about his cat, of course. There are also secrets, curses, spells, a touch of romance, and a mostly happy ending to wrap it all up. If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it should – the traditional fairy tale elements are obvious, but as usual Diana Wynne Jones manages to make them fresh.

Another thing that makes this story stand out is the tone of the narrator. She’s very different from, say, Kij Johnson’s fantastical cats, who retain a mystery and a wildness that clearly marks them as members of another species. This cat is clearly much more anthropomorphised than that - she’s more of a representation of our idea of catness than an actually cat. But there are reasons within the story that justify why this is so, and she’s just as compelling in her own way. She’s a Story Cat, which is exactly what a tale like this needed.

Because this is a short story, the characterisation isn’t quite as rich as in DWJ’s novels (not that this is necessarily the case with short stories, of course, but it’s harder for one to be several things at once than it is for a novel, I suspect). But Diana Wynne Jones more than makes up for that by adding depth to the world, which to me is the clear mark of a great fantasy writer. As Fiona put it in her recent review of Eight Days of Luke, “What I do love about her books is that I always feel that they never end and that they just carry on after the pages stop. She always leaves you satisfied with the end, but she doesn’t let the characters or the world die, just because that part of the story is over.” This is also true of her short stories – the glimpse she gives you of this magical world is more than enough for you to imagine that it has a life of its own.

Most of all, I loved “What the Cat Told Me” for allowing me to enjoy the pure pleasure of storytelling. And this is no small thing. You can find this story in the collection Unexpected Magic (Fantasy Stories sadly seems to be out of print).

I thought I’d wrap up my participation in Diana Wynne Jones Week with a giveaway of another title that is TRAGICALLY out of print – a fact I was seriously shocked to learn earlier this week. If you’ve known me for more than a few months, you’re likely to have heard me rave about Fire and Hemlock at one point or another. Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer - in a way - and it’s also a story about growing up and love and family and creativity and not trying to own and control the people you care about. It’s one of my absolute favourite novels, and I’d love to give one of you a used copy of it. If you’d like to be entered, just leave me a comment telling me why you would like to read it. I’ll announce the winner at the end of the week.

Many, many thanks to Jenny for hosting this lovely celebration of Diana Wynne Jones’ work.


Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/higgystfc/1074590008/

43 comments:

  1. I'm not a huge cat person, but that first line has me hooked, I totally want to read this story!

    Please enter me in your giveaway! I've never read anything by Diana Wynne Jones and would love to start with a novel that you say is one of your favorites!

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  2. The only DWJ short stories I've read are in Mixed Magics (the Chrestomanci ones). I should look for more. Our library system has a pretty good DWJ selection.

    Can I try for Fire and Hemlock even though I just read it? I know it will be one that I want to re-read but I borrowed it from the library. I really hate that so many of these books are out of print right now!

    (And yes, this week was FANTASTIC! Jenny is the best!)

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  3. I'm charmed by this story already, without even having read it! Thus is the power of an Ana review. :D

    Don't enter me in the drawing--I already have it. Now I just need to make the time to read it!!!

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  4. What?! Out of print?! Well, thank heavens for the internet...I guess that means we have much more of a chance to find it! Fire and Hemlock is on my TBR because of you -- if you say it is a good book, I believe it! I can't say I'm truly a DWJ fan since I've only read Howl, but I definitely plan on becoming one. :)

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  5. I know this isn't the right thing to say amongst bookbloggers but I'm not a cat person at all. However, that quote makes the story seem great.

    I'd love to be entered in the giveaway. If only because I haven't read any Diana Wynne Jones and because how could I resist reading a book that is one of your absolute favourites?

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  6. I have to admit, after reading all these DWJ posts, I'm completely overwhelmed and don't know where to start!

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  7. I know some people are turned off when a story is told from an animal's point of view, but I'm not one of them! This sounds fantastic!

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  8. Squeal! Ana you're awesome to do a giveaway. As I've bemoaned, I've never read anything by DWJ, and like Amanda, I have no idea where to start. :)

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  9. ANOTHER cat-narrated book?! Well, you know I'm adding that to the wishlist...

    As for the chance to win Fire and Hemlock, it's one of your absolute favourite novels so I don't need any other reason to read it.

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  10. I have been meaning to read Fudoki for a very long time. This story sounds quite interesting- I'm always intrigued by how other species view the world. (This is why I like science fiction, I suppose.)

    I decided Fire and Hemlock just had to be my first Diana Wynne Jones before I learned it was out of print. Therefore, I toss my hat in the ring for your lovely giveaway.

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  11. This short story sounds like it would be perfect for my daughter, who loves all things cat! I will have to try to score a copy for her.

    I also would like to be entered in your giveaway because I have heard a lot of great things about Fire and Hemlock, and have wanted to read it, but didn't know it was out of print!!

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  12. I never thought I would enjoy anything starring cats until Neil Gaiman's Dream of a Thousand Cats. Strange how Gaiman has the ability to modify my brain. And I'd love to be entered in the giveaway!

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  13. What the Cat Told Me?! Brilliant! I want to read that! I'll be on the lookout :D

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  14. Wow is Fire and Hemlock out of print? I will put extra guards around my copy :) I love anything to do with cats and this short story sounds delightful.

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  15. I profess DWJ love, but I haven't read anywhere near the majority of her books. I'd love to receive Fire and Hemlock because I've never read it, and I'm less likely to the longer it's out of print. Save me from ignorance! *grin*

    Thanks for the chance to win, and for that lovely summation about the short story.

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  16. As someone whose title is appallingly plain, I have to say that I admire tremendously the ability to come up with that eye-catching title!

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  17. I love that little bit of the story you posted! While I'm not a cat owner, I'd still love to read this. I'm sure it's an interesting perspective to read from!

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  18. Can I be entered in your giveaway? I'm not sure how much longer I'll have access to Jenny's books!

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  19. I am a cat person myself, and I think they are fascinating and narcissistic little things. Stein gave us The Art of Racing in the Rain, narrated by a dog. I would like more of them narrated by cats. Not wild ones, like the Warriors series, but domesticated ones. I'd love to read this short story, but I know I'd be wanting more.

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  20. That first line sounds remarkably like my flatmate's cats.

    I've been interested in FIRE AND HEMLOCK since Jenny and Eva started tweeting incessantly about it a few weeks back, so I'd love to entered to win.

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  21. Oh, and I forgot to say that I would love a chance to read Fire and Hemlock because I am thinking this author sounds more and more amazing after each review I read :)

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  22. I love DWJ - I could read Howl's over and over again :) Obviously I need something new :)

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  23. I am stopping on by from Jenny's Books, and she had posted about this giveaway! Great site, and I will be following!

    Yes, please enter me in this giveaway chance!! I haven't read this book before, but I remember it being out in the stores as a kid and I never did pick it up!

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  24. I would like to read it because I've never read any of her work. After reading this post I went to amazon and looked up more of her books, and they look like a lot of fun.

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  25. What the cat told me is a tale I want to hear!
    Also I want to reread Fire and Hemlock, which I got out of the library because, as everyone now knows, it's impossible to find a copy, even at places like Alibris or the used book shops in the nearest big town (I've tried).

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  26. I'd love the chance to win the book and finally give DWJ a try. I'm really looking forward to reading her.

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  27. Oh, this sounds like a magical little read. Really, I can definitely see that passing through a cats mind when arranging themselves just so. I think something similar happens with my dogs. LOL.
    Thanks for sharing a look at this title...happy reading!

    (Not an entry. ^_^)

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  28. What the Cat Told Me was excellent, and I really enjoyed reading it a lot. The Cat is an excellent character, and the narration is top notch.

    I've never really thought about the idea that the characters just keep going, but I think now that I've read it, I agree with it.

    I would be interested in Fire and Hemlock, because I've never had the chance to read it before, and I love DWJ.

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  29. After reading the comments I realised that the fact that I asked why you want to read it kind of implies I'm excluding people who have read it but don't own it - which I totally didn't mean to! You're all welcome to enter of course!

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  30. Oh I HAVE to read this book! I love books, I love cats - it's perfect!

    The photo of the black cat you posted is what my cat The Boof looks like - so cute!

    I'd love to be entered to win a book you loved. Thanks for the comp, Nymeth x

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  31. I've loved DWJ since I was in middle school, but I haven't read Fire & Hemlock yet. Please enter me in the drawing. And you've also inspired me to start Unexpected Magic as well. I have so many more of her books I want to read and every recommendation makes me rethink my to-read list. Thanks for the posting!

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  32. Uhm, but wasn't Nikola Tesla a guy? *is confused*.

    Love the beginning. If a cat could talk, s/he would say exactly that. "I came in here because I knew you were good at stroking": hehehehehehehe. Love, love, love the picture of the black cat. It looks a bit like mine. So black and cuddly. *squishes kitty* *kitty desperately tries to escape from her clutches*. Lol.

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  33. Those first sentences of "What the Cat Told Me" *are* really wonderful. I'm not even that fond of cats, but that's great. (OK, I guess I'm pretty fond of cats, but less fond of cats than I am of dogs or rabbits.) It reminds me, too, of the cat-related parts of Dogsbody, which I just read - that same compelling representation of "our idea of catness," as you put it.

    Please enter me in the giveaway - I'm reading (and loving!) Fire and Hemlock right now - but it's a library copy. I'm just up to the start of the "where now?" section and seem to be annoying my boyfriend slightly by the fact that all I want to do in my free time right now is read this book. (On the train in the morning? Reading. At home post-work? Reading. Sitting in the park half-listening to a band I am not familiar with? Reading.)

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  34. OK, how do I not know about DWJ? HOW? Ok, am going to the library this weekend to recify this situation.

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  35. I was bummed when I learned Fire and Hemlock is out of print too. I tried to search my libraries but they don't have it. I want to read it because it's your and Jenny's favorite DWJ (also your top favorite books for my Best Books project!). Would love to be entered into the giveaway. Cross fingers! :)

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  36. This short story sounds fantastically awesome! Love the excerpt.

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  37. Beautiful post, Ana! I loved the first lines of the story! It made me remember a line from Rudyard Kipling's 'Jungle Book', where Bagheera, the Panther asks Mowgli to rub under his jaw. Panthers are also cats, aren't they :)

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  38. Oh Ana, your post made me miss my cat so much more! I have to read this story by DWJ - I don't know if I have it, so thanks for putting it on my radar. I love her work, and can't imagine that I've missed this story by her! DWJ and cats!

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  39. I am a huge cat lover but confess that I've never actually read a book about cats - might have to add this one to the list :)

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  40. I would love to win Fire and Hemlock because Diana Wynne Jones is my favorite author and it's the only one of her books that I don't own and can't get from my local library. I read it a long time ago and loved how Polly and Tom bonded over books.

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  41. I've been interested in reading Fire & Hemlock since hearing about it over at Jenny's Books. I'm a singer of and listener to English traditional music, so I'd like to take a look at a novelistic version of Tam Lin after hearing the song for so long. Also, my girlfriend is always going on about how good Diana Wynne Jones is, and I've only read the Dalemark books, so it'd be good to get some more exposure.

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  42. Thanks to everyone who entered - I'll announce the winner later today!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.