If you're looking for a holiday gift for an animal aficionado, look no further than these six new books, which celebrate (and justify!) our fascination with and devotion to our furry friends. From photography-laden treats to amazing true stories to beautiful poetry, these cat-and-dog tales will be well-received, indeed.
GRACEFUL AND GORGEOUS
The Elegance of the Cat: An Illustrated History will incite ooh-ing and ahh-ing among cat-lovers and photographers alike. But this large-format beauty isn't just about pretty kitties—it's also a cat-historian's (catstorian's?) delight. Author Tamsin Pickeral offers a thoughtful examination of the role of the cat through the centuries, plus detailed information on 50 breeds. Pickeral notes that, in the Middle Ages, cats were persecuted due to a rise in Christianity and a mistrust of cats' link to polytheism and magic. This cat-hatred had stunning big-picture consequences: "[T]he mass slaughter of cats across Europe during the Middle Ages neatly coincided with the sweeping devastation of the Black Death," which was spread via flea-infested rats—whose numbers swelled in the absence of their chief predators.
Felines fared better in subsequent eras and are, of course, the object of much affection today, whether in homes worldwide, "Garfield" comic strips, or any number of videos online. Then there are the cat shows, which became popular in the late 1800s. The two world wars were a fallow time for cat-breeding, Pickeral reports, but enthusiasm redoubled after WWII and continues apace. Cat-breeders and readers seeking a purebred cat will find The Elegance of the Cat a valuable tool, thanks to descriptions of 50-plus breeds' appearance, personality and origins—plus Astrid Harrisson's stunning photos of cats in nature, at play, or perhaps practicing their cat-show poses.
A FELINE OMNIBUS
In the cat-book universe, The Big New Yorker Book of Cats surely is high on the Most Wanted list: Its 300-plus pages are a feline-appreciation wonderland of fiction, poetry, essays, cartoons and covers culled from the magazine's nearly nine decades in print—and its contributors' seemingly endless willingness to ponder, and attempt to capture, that which makes cats so . . . cat-like. According to the magazine's film critic, Anthony Lane, it's an ever-entertaining and, often, ultimately fruitless pursuit. Lane writes in the foreword, when musing on why there are no cats in the New Yorker offices, "[Y]ou cannot fact-check a cat. . . . In contrast to the magazine, and to this capacious book, cats are unreadable, and happy to remain so. Unlike writers, and related pests, they cannot be controlled." That's thoroughly celebrated here, in four sections (Fat Cats, Alley Cats, Cat Fanciers, Curious Cats) and a sizable amalgam of words and pictures—all reflecting the kaleidoscope of emotions and beliefs cats can provoke, from fascination to frustration, curiosity to an overwhelming urge to cuddle.
Writers including James Thurber, Jamaica Kincaid, E.B. White and Margaret Atwood, plus numerous cartoon and cover artists (cover-cats had their heyday in the 1970s, it seems), pay homage to cats in their many guises. The Big New Yorker Book of Cats is thought-provoking, fun, and great to look at — plus, it's the perfect size to comfortably host a sprawling cat (or a couple of kittens).
OH, GO AWAY ALREADY
Grumpy Cat probably doesn't like Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book. The first-time author has a career many would envy. This year alone, she's been on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, the cover of New York magazine, TV shows like "Good Morning America" and "CBS Evening News," and made an appearance at SXSW. Not bad for a one-and-a-half-year-old, but Grumpy Cat isn't just any toddler. She's a cat who's also an Internet meme, thanks to her perma-frown, which her owners say is due to feline dwarfism. Grumpy Cat has 1.9 million Facebook likes and a lot to say, and her writerly debut lays it out like so: "I dream of a world in which everyone sulks in their own corner, occasionally emerging to judge one another and feel disgust for everything around them." Grumpy Cat explains why she hates dogs, shares her arrest record and creates a gift guide "for the person who doesn't deserve anything," including such choices as an "ergonomic litter box" (unmade bed) and "bouncing ball" (fragile vase). There are also plenty of photos: family pictures, meme-ified shots, and some un-skillfully Photoshopped ones—though it must be said, using a paw to manipulate a computer-mouse is nothing like handling a real mouse, so rough edges are to be expected.
Reading Grumpy Cat in one sitting, while easy to do, might be a bit much for cheerier sorts: The negativity, while often visually adorable, is relentless and may result in a bad mood, which . . . wait a minute. It works! She's a grumpy genius.
Rebecca Ascher-Walsh's author photo for Devoted: 38 Extraordinary Tales of Love, Loyalty, and Life with Dogs is notable not only because it's adorable, but because the image of her—smiling broadly, eyes squeezed shut as the pit bull she's holding gives her a big, wet kiss—is the embodiment of her book: the pit bull is a dog she helped get adopted. Presumably Ascher-Walsh, an animal activist, didn't adopt the dog herself because she's already got a couple of her own (photo, page 6), but there's seemingly no limit to her affection for animals, especially the ones she's profiled here. Each story is accompanied by photos, and dog-centric facts are sprinkled throughout. For example, "Dogs can distinguish smells 1,000 to 10,000 times better than a human"—fascinating on its own, and even more so when that ability is central to the story of Effie, who sniffed out her owner's cancer. Then there's Shana, who saved her owners during a snowstorm (she dug a tunnel and dragged them to safety), and Rose, who works as a courthouse dog (she comforts children testifying about traumatic events).
Devoted is filled with fascinating true stories of canine heroism, dare-devilry (Hooch and his owner scuba-dive), and always, love.
Dogs let it all hang out in the spectacular stop-action photography of Carli Davidson's Shake.
Shake is a full-color compendium of full-on adorableness, featuring all sorts of dogs in mid-shake. Some squint as if caught in a wind tunnel, others maintain eye contact while their twisting jowls release astounding arcs of drool, and still others transform from merely poofy to fantastically fluffy. In 2010, photographer Carli Davidson began taking pictures of rescue dogs mid-shake. She posted the shots on Facebook, they went viral in 2011, and a book was born: 61 dogs, a stark black background, and glorious side-by-side photos. Davidson notes in her introduction that she borrowed the idea of photographing an animal mid-motion from Eadweard Muybridge, who photographed horses in 1878. She adds that the project "has given me insight into the universality of how much we love our pets, and how excited we are to see our heroes in a new way."
Davidson's high-speed photography technique, plus her dog-wrangling ability, make for a fun new way to look at dogs—and an inevitable yearning to hug a hound, starting with the ones in this book. Those faces
PRAISE AND JOY
Poet Mary Oliver has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and her 2012 collection, A Thousand Mornings, was a New York Times bestseller. Oliver has another hit on her hands with Dog Songs: Poems, in which we learn that the talented poet is just like the rest of us in at least one way: She loves her dogs—the ones she grew up with, the ones who've departed this earth, the ones she shares time with today. In this book of poems (plus one poetic essay), Oliver honors and reflects on the human-canine connection through her experiences with Percy, Ben, Bear, Henry and Ricky, the winsome Havanese with whom Oliver shares her author photo. Finely done line-drawings of Oliver's dogs add to the warmth of the Dog Songs experience, which is a lovely gift for dog-lovers, or anyone who smiles at lines like these:
Running here running there, excited,
hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
until the white snow is written upon
in large, exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
the pleasure of the body in this world.
"Because of the dog's joyfulness, our own is increased," Oliver writes, and the reader responds simply, "Of course."