13 April 2010

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats: it's a three-fer keeper

It's not often that a book serendipitously meets multiple aims, uniting literary tastes and everyday life. But when it does happen, it's a beautiful thing. My daughter and I are reading the new edition of T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. It is an absolutely perfect selection right here, right now, because:

1) April is National Poetry Month! We're expanding our reading horizons and making bedtime poetry time;

2) Poetry is one of the categories I have selected for the 10-10-10 Reading Challenge. This will qualify towards my reading requirement;

3) We are going to see Cats on Thursday.

That Harcourt Children's Books has provided a bright new edition at this time is simply fantastic. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler, probably best known in this country for his collaborations with Julia Donaldson (think, The Gruffalo,) the practical cats have never looked more cheeky and full of Jellicle charm.

I first read this book back in the 80's, during the Lloyd-Webber craze, and to be honest--it didn't make a lot of sense at the time. I couldn't find Memory, for starters. And I didn't have an appreciation for the way Eliot was lampooning everyday cat habits and making them poetic. Which, considering I had three cats at the time, shows a real lack of understanding on my part. Now, as an adult, I get it. It drives me crazy when my cat sits at a door, despite the functioning cat-flap, and waits for me to open it for him--only to reappear outside that same door within minutes, ready to repeat the procedure. Or, as Eliot puts it:

my own jellicle cat
"He's always on the wrong side of every door,
And as soon as he's at home, then he'd like to get about.
He likes to lie in the bureau drawer,
But he makes such a fuss if he can't get out.
Yes the Rum Tum Tugger is a Curious Cat--
And it isn't any use for you to doubt it:
For he will do
As he do do
And there's no doing anything about it!"

Even though Eliot has made up words, like "jellicle" and "gumby cat", which didn't mean anything until he gave them a definition, these are not nonsense poems. For one thing, they are steeped in the characteristics and values of British society at the time (including a couple of racial, shall we say--'nicknames'--which prompted my, "this is a sign-of-the-times, but don't you dare let me hear you use these words" speech.) Gus the theatre (mind the spelling!) cat is familiar with all the standards of stage and pantomime. And Skimbleshanks the railway cat reminds me of one or two characters I used to know during my time working for the railway, hold-overs from the days when British Rail wasn't yet privatized. Above all, these poems capture the mystery behind a cat's inscrutable eyes; the sneaking suspicion that they've got a secret life we mere humans no nothing about. John Burningham touched upon this in last year's It's a Secret!  The mystery of the cat, practical or otherwise, continues to intrigue writers and readers alike.


Jan von Harz said...

Lovely post about a great book. Love T.S. Eliot.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Thanks!This new edition does him justice.

Bri Meets Books said...

That looks like my Lucky kitten. And that looks like a beautiful edition of Old Possium's Books of Practical Cats. I love the art. Must seek it out. Thanks!

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Yes, you must, Bri :) Whoever designated Schaefer to illustrate the book made an inspired decision

Kara Schaff Dean said...

That should, of course, read "Scheffler" :p

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