October 15, 2009


Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. By T.S. Eliot. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Harcourt. $16.

Cat Dreams. By Ursula K. Le Guin. Illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Epossumondas Plays Possum. By Colleen Salley. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Harcourt. $16.

The Two of Us: Why I’m Nuts about You. By Bob Elsdale. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     There is something about the silence, the slinkiness, the inherent mystery of cats, that makes them fascinating, at least on the page, even to many people who are not cat lovers in the everyday world. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was a source of delight long, long before it became the basis for the musical Cats. T.S. Eliot did his own cover illustrations for the first (1939) edition, and the entire book has been illustrated by Nicolas Bentley (1940) and Edward Gorey (1982). The whimsicality rather than some of the slightly more serious elements of Eliot’s poems comes to the forefront in the wonderful new illustrations by Axel Scheffler; and, happily, this new edition keeps the poetry intact, even if that may confuse some young 21st-century readers unfamiliar with “caviare, or Strassburg Pie,/ Some potted grouse, or salmon paste.” All 15 of Eliot’s cat poems are here, including “Cat Morgan Introduces Himself,” which was added to the original set in 1952. The cats’ names roll off the tongue as elegantly as ever: Growltiger, the Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffeles, Macavity, Bustopher Jones and all the rest. And the creativity of the verse makes this book as much fun to read aloud as silently: “I have a Gumble Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;/ Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.” Eliot was as superb a versifier in these lighter poems as in The Waste Land and his other far more intense and serious works. Scheffler’s illustrations are a joy, too: Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer talking to a friendly policeman, old Gus the Theatre Cat looking bemused as smiling rats play around and even on him, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat supervising “the bagmen playing cards” – all these and more are as lively as the words they support.

     S.D. Schindler enlivens Ursula K. Le Guin’s very simple but evocative text in Cat Dreams with a series of dreamlike but realistically drawn depictions of things that a cat just might enjoy while asleep: a rain of mice, a fountain spouting cream, a catnip tree. The animals here, including the cats and birds in the dream, are beautifully rendered, and there is a sense of spaciousness in the pictures that belies the reality of the cat asleep inside an ordinary house. But when the dream turns briefly (and not very frighteningly) nightmarish, the cat wakes up and realizes, “I need a lap” rather than a pillow to lie on, and climbs over to its human companion: “Her lap is the best, best place for a nap” – to fall purringly, peacefully asleep again, perchance to dream once more.

     There’s a cat in Epossumondas Plays Possum, too, but this one is “a ferocious, terrifying ol’ critter-eating swamp cat” that leaves Epossumondas alone when the possum plays dead – saying, “I don’t eat no dead meat.” The hero here is of course Epossumondas himself. He is an animal variant on the character Epaminondas, once popular in the tale Epaminondas and his Auntie but no longer well known because Epaminondas, like Little Black Sambo, was a stereotypical black character. Colleen Salley’s transformation of the human into the possum (abetted by Janet Stevens’ delightfully humorous illustrations) works quite well, since the essential naïveté and tendency to get into trouble are preserved without any hint of what would nowadays be considered racist overtones. The original tale’s “you ain't got the sense you was born with,” for example, is transformed into: “He’s not a naughty possum. But he is a forgetful possum.” In Epossumondas Plays Possum, the possum forgets the warning he has been given against wandering into the scary swamp, where the terrifying loup-garou (a sort of werewolf) is thought to roam. Epossumondas, following a butterfly, goes where he shouldn’t, gets lost, and responds by “playing possum” whenever he hears a sound. And it works – not only with the swamp cat but also with a snake and a swamp hog. But the fourth time Epossumondas plays dead, he almost gets into real trouble. He escapes, though – thanks to being ticklish – and his human mama finds her “clever little patootie,” and all ends happily. This is the fourth Epossumondas book, and it is every bit as enjoyable as the first three.

     There have been who-knows-how-many books comparing humans to animals, and the small-size, hardcover gift book called The Two of Us: Why I’m Nuts about You continues the trend. With that title, you might think the featured animals are squirrels, but no – they are chimpanzees, which are so closely related to humans genetically that their human-like behavior is scarcely a surprise. For that reason, and because some of the pictures do not quite match the text, Bob Elsdale’s book gets a (+++) rating. It will still be fun to give to a lover or really good friend, because some pictures are wonderful: the serious face that goes with “but you also think deep thoughts”; the wide-open-arms photo for “unabashedly affectionate”; the heartfelt hug for “fiercely protective.” The descriptions of the recipient’s positive qualities are always well chosen, even if it is hard to see what “an unwavering sense of right and wrong” has to do with a chimp on a sofa offering ones of its hands to its companion. But it’s hard not to like the final closeup of two chimp hands clasped tightly together – a single photo encapsulating what a close relationship, both human and almost-human, is all about.

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