Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

I believe no one should be labeled as ‘crazy’ for loving a pet.—David Williams, MIC

Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship is a fun collection of photos and stories by David Williams that breaks the stereotype that only crazy ladies care for cats. Williams himself is a freelance photographer who lives in New York with his wife and their two cats. Men With Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship was recognized as a New York Times Best seller shortly after its release in 2016.

Each two-page spread of this 140-page delightful photo book consists of a professional photo, identification of the male cat owner and his cat companion(s), and a quote that highlights the feline friendship. How each met differs: A mother cat followed Louis home; A burned cat slated for euthanasia was rescued by Al; Cats abandoned at an auto shop catch Alex’s attention. How the bond developed is unique: Brent loves how his cat jumps on his chest, kneads his paws in his beard, and licks his face; Reuben appreciates how relaxed his cat is and tries to emulate that lifestyle; Dennis admires the array of sounds his cat will use to communicate, with his favorite being a chirrup that acknowledges his presence. The way the men describe the friendship devotion varies: Benn refers to his relationship with his cat at being like an old married couple; Brian jokes that his cat is a dog except evil instead; Dustin shares that when he and his cat make eye contact there is a deep inner connection.

Photo books are not my typical fare. I’m more of an information sort of reader. One of my favorite parts of Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship is the section labeled “What is the hardest part of cat ownership?” I wanted to see several other spreads like this. But I must admit that a couple rereads of Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship revealed more than I expected about living with cats.

Williams started this photography project back in 2009 not only to shuns stereotypes, but also to celebrate feline friendship. In his preface, he expressed the hope that his book would inspire readers to rescue and adopt pets or donate time and resources to animal welfare groups. Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship certainly increased my appreciation for the quirky and intense bonds that can exist between men and their cats.

A good owner is just anyone that shows love and compassion towards their pet — whether it be a cat, dog, or rabbit.—David Williams, Refinery 29

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Before I started to blog, if you had asked me to name jobs that pets do, I could have named several … and all of them would have been related to dogs. Should I have even thought of cats, I might have pointed out their ability to catch rodent. Yet cats are much more clever and versatile that most of us give them credit. You just need to read Lisa Rogak’s Cats on the Job to discover not just one or ten but fifty ways that cats purr, mouse, and even sing for their supper. In her colorful and photo-rich book, Rogak shares well-written true tales of cats around the world who are happily earning their keep.

Through blogging, I had heard of a few famous cats. Granted most of them were known for their quirky looks or unique talents such as the ability to play a piano. But there were also cats who starred in movies and even those who had run for mayor. The more I kept my ears open, the more stories I heard. And so, I knew about cats in bookstores, hospitals, libraries, and train stations. I’d also glimpsed stories of the current trend of cat cafes. I highly enjoyed reading Rogak’s examples of cats performing these jobs, as well as multiple accounts of cats that catch rodents.

Rogak also wrote about a host of jobs that cats perform which are new to me. One is that of Acro-Cats, a group that is devoted to “promoting the mental and physical health benefits of cat training through clicker training…a positive reinforcement based training method”. Learning about them inspired me to renew my own efforts at clicker-training my cats, and seeing the circus act in-person is on my bucket list. Another story that piqued my curiosity is that of rescued cats in Australia that create paintings. I’m sure at least one of my cats would be up to the challenge! I also found intriguing the idea of catflexing, a fitness routine that involves exercising with a cat. One of my cats has already shown interest in this! Another notable tale is of Carlow, a cat who works at a firehouse. Anyone remember Esther Averill’s story The Fire Cat from their childhood? Sometimes there’s truth in fiction!

Aside from the quality writing and design of Cats on the Job, what stands out most to me is the broad scope of jobs that cats can perform. To name a few in America: In Washington, a cat named Sable shows up like clockwork twice a day to serve as a school crossing guard; In Michigan, two lucky cats serve as furniture testers; and in New York, cats have a long history of acting as hotel concierge. Rogak didn’t just limit her tales to American cats either: In England, a toy company hired a cat to guard its warehouse of toys; In Great Britain, a cat named Jessi helps an autistic boy to express himself. In Japan, a cat named Iemon serves on the police force and helps fight crime. For some of these positions, it may seem obvious how the cat does its job. For example, cats who test furniture are cats who are encouraged to scratch, bite, and jump on furniture to test its durability. For other positions, such as that of how a cat that serves on the police force, you’ll have to check out Rogak’s book to learn how exactly cats can fight crime.

Now that I’ve read Rogak’s book, if anyone were to ask me to name jobs that pets do, most of them would be related to cats. Cats on the Job is an informative and fun read about an idea which is gaining popularity. Working cats are both a way to help the homeless cat population and to develop comradery with cats.

Through email, I asked Rogak how she found out about the cats she profiled. Her answer?

“I found the cats online, in older books–many of them were sadly long deceased–and by posting queries online. There were several that didn’t make it in because there wasn’t enough information or the photos weren’t great.

“The occupational hazard of writing books about cats is that several are not going to be around by the time the book comes out. The train stationmaster cat died a few months before publication date… but I’ve also discovered that having their stories immortalized in the pages of a book is a great way to honor their memory.”

What do you get when a cat behaviorist and a cat-friendly environment designer team up to write a book? You get a colorful and informative guide to designing a happy and stylish home for your cat. Catification is written by Jackson Galaxy, the host of My Cat from Hell, and Kate Benjamin, the founder of the cat design website Hauspanther. Together they walk readers through a step-by-step process of designing an attractive home that is also an optimal environment for cats.

Catification is divided into two parts. Part one explains how cats are hard-wired with their senses honed as both predator and prey, overviews cat archetypes, breaks down what environments are most comfortable for cats based on their personalities, and introduces the concept of cat superhighways. Some content served as a review for me; the rest had me trying to define my cats and their needs. For example, based on the descriptions given of cat personalities, my one cat is a hostess, my second is a overthrower, and the third is a wallflower. When it comes to where they prefer to reside, my one is likely a beach dweller because she likes exploring and none are fridgers because they rarely hide in high places. The most important concept of Catification is that of cat superhighways or paths that allows cats to navigate rooms without touching the ground, and is the focus of the bulk of the book.

Part two provides real-life catification stories submitted from cat owners across the United States. Each example describes an original house layout, explains, why it wasn’t meeting the needs of the cats, and presents the various solutions found. Before and after photos are provided. Just as important, so are diagrams, lists of materials needed, and instructions. Finally, Jackson and Kate add their own critique, noting likes but also any concerns or suggestions of ways to extend the cat superhighway. One of my favorite stories is about a cat who guarded her window space so religiously that she attacked anyone who came near it including her owners. The owners called on Jackson and Kate for help. Simply by redesigning her space, so that it became an area of fun, they could break the cat of her pacing and help her become friendlier and more relaxed.

At first glance, Catification seemed impractical to me. I thought it would require my husband and I to alter our home to the point that it no longer functioned for us. Jackson and Kate stress that the design needs to work for the owners too. You’ll find that many redesigns build on structures already in place and are often artistic or practical. I thought the projects might cost too much or require handyman skills. Instead some projects came in under $25 and very few cost more than a couple hundred. In addition, while some of the fanciest projects were designed by those with craftsman skills, others were imagined by those with no previous Do-It-Yourself skills.

After a few peruses of Catification, I found myself eager to set aside time to try out some of the ideas in our home. For example, the barrier used to prevent the cats in one home from jumping onto a range hood might work for preventing our three from jumping into the upstairs banister. And maybe we could use glass to cover our Victrola top to protect it from scratches when the cats land on or leap off it. I love the idea of using large old flower pots for new hiding spaces and of using PVC pipes and fabric to create an activity gym. Catification is in my shopping cart; if you have cats in should be in yours too!

In The Tent of Abraham, three leaders from different faiths find a common ground in the Biblical story of Abraham. By listening to one another’s interpretation of a shared tradition, they model how to create unity amid diversity. In addition, they offer a way to use stories to remind us of God’s call for peace and reconciliation.

The Tent of Abraham is divided into three parts. The first part presents the classic version of Abraham’s journey as presented in the Torah which became foundation for the story in Judaism and Christianity, and the story as presented in the Quran which is the central religious text of Islam. The second part offers three sections of essays that interpret the story from the perspective of those in three different faiths: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. The last section includes resources created by a small group of scholars from these three faiths who met to pray, study, and together.

One thing I appreciate about The Tent of Abraham is the opportunity to hear how those of other faiths recount the Biblical story of Abraham. We share some common ground. All three leaders recognize that Abraham lies about his relationship with his wife Sarah to keep an Egyptian pharaoh from taking her. They all recognize that Sarah becomes jealous after her handmaiden, Hagar, bears a son to Abraham. And each tells of God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son. There are also ways in which the leaders varied greatly in their interpretations. But none of them attempted to condemn or even convert. They simply shared their viewpoints, as people might tell stories around a campfire. And so, I discover new ways to see old stories: I learned how essential wells were, how important safety was to travelers, and how often struggle, anger, withdrawal, and reconciliation happen within families in Biblical stories. There are numerous situations today where people are at odds with each other, not just over religion, and choose to react with hate. What if instead we took time to listen and learn? We still might agree to disagree. But we might also better understand each other’s viewpoints, and thereby become a more compassionate people.

Another thing I appreciate about The Tent of Abraham is the opportunity to learn how the Israli-Palestinian conflict is viewed by those who live it. Is the struggle about the blending of opposites or about uniting Abraham’s offspring, which includes Isaac and Ishmael? And if it’s about uniting two factions, how can this even happen when each thinks the other is in the wrong? Is the loss of children on both side worth the conflict? Each leader varied in the stories they shared. But each also shared the desire for peace and reconciliation. For without these, violence would continue, and bloodshed and destruction would remain the norm. There are no easy answers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor are there any easy answers to America’s strife. Can we find unity in the fact we’re all part of humanity? Can we listen to the cries of people who say that we are victimizing them when we feel that they are victimizing us? Can we find a way past our differences to build a bridge of love?

It’s not often that I step out of my comfort zone to read books that I know upfront will not mesh with my own beliefs. And I’m not encouraging anyone to read this book with the idea that it might change their faith. The Tent of Abraham reminded me of the importance of listening, talking, and sharing. Three things that we all should do more of, to make the world a better place.

Everyone wants and needs role models. One handy reference guide is 50 Women Every Christian Should Know by Michelle DeRusha. Published in 2014, the selections begin with the early 1100’s and end with the mid-1900s, and they include figures lesser known to me such as Dorothy Day along with those more familiar to me such as Madeleine L’Engle. What I most appreciated is that DeRusha dedicates an average of six to eight pages to each heroine. This allows her to weave a story, while at the same time provide enough detail to encourage further reading, which one can do by looking up her sources that our listed in the back pages.

One featured Christian woman who I intend to read more about is Dorothy Day. She grew up in a home where neither parent was religious but, after attending a church service, Dorothy fell in love with the Psalms and with hymns. This conflict in values would be one that remained with her throughout her life. During high school, Dorothy became engrossed in the American labor movement, and found her purpose. The problem is that at the time she saw the church as lined up with capitalism, while she felt driven instead by social justice. After five years of searching for a way to reconcile the two, a knock came at her door. A French immigrant and soapbox philosopher by the name of Peter Maurin wanted to establish a newspaper dedicated to helping the poor and unemployed, and he believed Dorothy was the right person for the cause. May of 1933, one part of his plan came to fruition when 2,500 copies of the first issue of The Catholic Worker were printed and distributed. Yet the conflict in values continued for Dorothy, for on one hand readers rallied before the publication and on the other hand she received criticism for helping drunks and freeloaders. Three things in her biography resonated with me. The most obvious is that she followed the path of journalism. Another is that she struggled with reconciling her faith with her calling in life. An ongoing passion of mine is animal welfare, one that isn’t necessarily top priority in religious circles. The third reason I appreciated her story is that her life wasn’t squeaky clean, and I relate most to those who rather than being saints are ordinary people.

It’d be remiss of me to not highlight a female Christian heroine and ignore Madeleine L’Engle. She’s one of my favorite authors and her books helped me stay strong in my faith during high school. At age forty, Madeleine quit writing after yet another rejection from a book publisher. Deciding that the rejection was a sign from heaven, she covered her typewriter and decided to make cherry pie. The irony is that at that very moment, she found herself also busily working out a novel in her head about failure. Fast forward four years to 1963, after A Wrinkle in Time was rejected more than two dozen times, the novel found a home. It also won the Newbery Medal. As with Dorothy Day, Madeleine wasn’t always a person of faith. For the first years of her marriage, neither she or her husband attended church. With the birth of two children and an adoption of a third, she discovered that she wanted her children to know God. But she also realized that she couldn’t very well send her children to Sunday School without attending herself, and so began her road back to God. Writing and faith quickly became intertwined. I appreciate L’Engle, because used her creativity to explore her religious questions.

There are plenty of examples from Christian women who pursued other vocations too such as singers, teachers, nurses, missionaries, and preachers. I admire all of them, to the extent that I’ve been checking out the sources DeRusha listed in the back pages. A year ago, I pulled back from regular reviews so that I could pursue more personal reading passions. I’m now keen on reviewing the biographies I can find of those featured in 50 Women Every Christian Should Know.


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Fall 2017: Focus on Cats!

All things cats ahead! I will post roundups of cat training books, cat Trap-Neuter-Release books, cat coloring books, and cat cozies. For all other animal lovers, I will also post roundups of dog cozies and zoo books.

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