Sorry about the trick title. I am well aware that all people are fascinated by the cities of Ohio, and that some of you will be disappointed to learn that "Cleveland" refers to the author of the book I'm going to discuss, not the city. Yes some of you may be inclined to throw this post down in disgust, but I'm guessing you won't be able to. "Fine" You will say. "It may not be about Cleveland, Ohio, but if the author's name is Cleveland he must be some kind of author!"
He's pretty good. Of all my vacation reading Cleveland Amory's The Cat Who Came For Christmas has been one of the real surprise pleasures. It is the author's story of rescuing a stray white cat on the streets of New York City and of their first year together.
I have been on a quest for The Great Cat Book for some time now. I have discussed how Great Dog Books exist, but The Great Cat Book remains strangely elusive. As a person enormously fond of cats and generally unhappy about dogs, this has always, even though I have my theories, been strange to me. And I would so dearly love to find a corrective.
About a third of the way through The Cat Who Came For Christmas I thought I could possibly, maybe, hopefully be in the presence of The Great Cat Book. The writer is a good one. He is distinctly charming. It is consistently about a specific cat (Polar Bear is his name) rather than being, as can be an occasional problem in cat books, about cats in general or about things around the cat under the guise of being about the cat. Nevertheless, despite being about Polar Bear the cat, it is also often about our author in relation to the cat and includes interesting things about his life as the head of an Animal Protection Organization. It never gets carried away about this though, and keeps it largely to how his personal and professional endeavors relate to his cat ownership. It includes just the right amount of cat lore, background on cats, and excellent quotes about cats. And furthermore, The Cat Who Came For Christmas regularly makes use of a charming conceit that involves discussions between Cleveland Amory and Polar Bear in which the cat is not ridiculously made to speak, but one in which he is presumed to make himself clear in a kind of heightened interpretation that mostly rings true and is quite acceptable the rest of the time.
So with all the ducks, er, kittens in a row, what keeps Mr. Amory's book from cracking into The Great Cat Book pantheon that currently consists of precisely zero books?
I am sad to say, the answer is Polar Bear the cat. Would I like this cat in person? Yes, sure, if I could get him to come out from under the sofa to talk to me. Do I like him in the book? Yes, he seems like a fine enough cat as cats go. But, remember, I am a cat lover. For greatness a cat book will need a memorable cat, a cat that defies type, expands type, undercuts type, and deepens type. Polar Bear the cat never really surprises us, or dazzles us. He is a cat, shy of strangers, fierce about his routines, capable of occasional charms, and not interested. A cat.
Mutt, from the great Farley Mowat book The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, a Great Dog Book, is an animal I will never forget. Polar Bear the cat is just one of those cats watching me balefully from some neighbor's from window as I walk in my city.
The Cat Who Came For Christmas rises on its many virtues, but it falls back to earth on its principle subject. It is still a fine and entertaining book, and I readily recommend it. Beyond itself and the engaging and interesting (but alas, more general) Tribe of Tiger by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, there are precious few excellent cat books to choose from, making The Cat Who Came For Christmas all the more valuable. So read it indeed, and enjoy it, but know that the ultimate magic eludes it in the end, and the great crown of cat books remains, to my regret, unclaimed.