December 03, 2009


Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats. By Bradley Trevor Greive. Photographs by Rachael Hale. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

Pure Cute. By Beverly West and Jason Bergund. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     If you are looking for a perfect gift book for a dog lover – or a contentious cat lover – or someone who loves both dogs and cats, albeit for different reasons – or someone who enjoys Bradley Trevor Greive’s small-size books, in which animal photos are coupled with strangely apt observations on the human condition – or someone who likes to pick fights (gently, though) over trivia – or someone who enjoys silly reasoning that appears, on its face, to be perfectly logical – you really ought to take a look at Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats. Between Greive’s tongue-in-cheek narration and Rachael Hale’s excellent photography, this handsome, oversize hardcover volume is just the thing for pet lovers – and is just provocative enough to start some good-natured (well, hopefully good-natured) holiday arguments. The thing about Greive is that he manages to give backhanded compliments with a certain amount of elegance, acting as if the whole dogs-vs.-cats subject is one of tremendous importance even while making it clear that, you know, it’s not. So he delivers chapter titles such as “Dogs Are Social, Cats Are Sociopaths,” and “Cats Are Not without Their Charms,” in the latter of which he comments, “Despite their fabled curiosity, cars are completely uninterested in the needs of others and, so long as their basic desires are met, are content to keep their own company and pursue their own pleasures. As such, they are not really a pet according to any reasonable definition – they are more akin to a kinetic sculpture with sadistic tendencies.” Of course, to get the full effect of the writing, you have to see it adjacent to Hale’s wonderful photo of a dark gray cat sitting atop a pedestal and looking straight out of the page. “Cats operate as largely independent life-forms within the climate controlled ecosystem of your home,” Greive writes in a chapter called “The Downside of Dogs.” But dogs “can be needy and when left alone too long, they may become anxious and fret.” Besides, “even a happy dog makes more mess than an unhappy cat.” On the other hand, Greive points out, “caring for a dog is not a hobby or a part-time responsibility – it’s a real relationship.” And having made this serious comment – which is really the heart of the book – he then footnotes it to make sure everyone keeps things light: “This is somewhat true of cats, as well. The relationship may be weirdly one-sided and kind of embarrassing but you still have to turn up.” (The footnotes are uniformly delightful. Of how many books is it possible to say that?) The delightful photos take the sting out of the few words that do sting (“Cats don’t know what we want, and they don’t care”). Hale captures all the expressions that make dogs precious to “dog people,” all the beauty and aloofness and intensity that endear cats to “cat people,” and throws in a couple of elephant, pig, turtle and ostrich pictures for good measure (in a chapter about all the animals that did not turn out to be man’s best friend). Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats is really a marvelous book, allowing readers (or lucky gift recipients) to focus for a while on an age-old “which is better?” question that has no importance whatsoever and is, for that very reason, worth contemplating for a while.

     Much more in line with Greive’s usual small-size gift books – although not involving him at all – is Pure Cute by the wife-and-husband team of Beverly West and Jason Bergund. This is a stocking stuffer, plain and simple, with photos of adorable baby animals accompanied by indulgent (if rather treacly) prose. This is really a picture book above all: a tiny, super-fluffy puppy held upright in a hand that is almost as large as the puppy itself; a sleeping kitten; a thoughtful-looking koala; two baby bunnies snacking on a leaf, one eating from one side and the other from the other side; five identical ducklings, all in a row; side-by-side guinea pigs; and so on. Sometimes the words go directly with the photos – the guinea-pig page is opposite one that says, “Two is cuter than one.” At other times, the photos inspire a slightly wry comment: opposite a picture of a dog looking hopefully at treats that are inside a tightly covered container are the words, “Indulge yourself. Cute has no calories.” And sometimes there are observations that would be nothing special without the photos: “Life is much cuter when you’ve got friends” goes with a really sweet picture of three kittens lying next to and on top of an obviously very tolerant dog. Pure Cute makes no claim to profundity and is not the sort of book you are likely to pick up again and again (unlike Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats, which is worth a second and third look). Indeed, Pure Cute is purely…well, cute. That may not be much, but it’s certainly something – indeed, something worth having, and not only in a gift-giving season traditionally devoted more to excess than to the benign power of cuteness.

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