“The Town Cats & Other Tales” by Lloyd Alexander (1977)

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When my human brought this book to me, he and I both assumed that it would be a collection with only the titular story dedicated to felines. This is what Lloyd Alexander’s other story-collection, The Foundling & Other Tales of Prydain, was like – the titular story was the selling point, dedicated to the backstory for a character from his “Prydain” chronicles, and that was the only story my human ever read out of it. The other stories? Who knows what they were about. They were incidental and unrelated to that character, and that was what I assumed I’d find in The Town Cats & Other Tales.

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My human had, in fact, never even heard of this book until I began looking for a fourth example of Lloyd Alexander’s cat-lit to round out the month; we both assumed I would have plenty of time to read the one short cat-story mentioned in the title and then dash out a review in-between my human’s long hours spent working on his own project. We were wrong! So very, very wrong! And both of us now know that years of our lives have been wasted because they were spent without having read this book.

Consider, friends, that venerable Greek Aesop – a slave famous for many an ancient tale which was posthumously attributed to him. These tales were of a didactic nature and typically featured animals whose failures and triumphs taught valuable lessons to the human audience.[1]

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Now imagine, friends, a world in which Aesop had only preserved fables about cats! An improvement, no? Imagine also that every cat was presented in a complimentary light, acknowledged for the marvelous, brilliant, charming, beneficent beings that they are. This, friends, is what Mr. Alexander has done with his book The Town Cats & Other Tales.

Where has this book been all my lives?!

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Imagine my surprise when I opened the book and saw a table of contents containing nothing but stories about cats! My little heart went pitter-pat much the same way as when I spy an incautious, unsuspecting bird just within reach. Coupled with the picture of the cat playing chess on the cover, that table of contents was an excellent start – but I have been deceived before, and Mr. Alexander’s track record is hardly pristine! I tentatively read the first (titular) story in this connection, fearful of what I might find, but found it to be a delightful, light-hearted account of how a town was saved from certain doom by a wise cat and his fellows. Nothing insulting! Nothing demeaning! The cats are not the butts of any jokes, are neither persecuted nor abused, and are absolutely essential to the story. What is more, the cats are acknowledged as intelligent, rational beings whose examples every human should follow; if the behavior of cats seems foolish or simple to humans, that is only because human perspectives are warped and humans have over-complicated their lives. To be a cat is to be a paragon of virtuous common sense, these stories argue, and I could not agree more wholeheartedly.

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Consider, for instance, the cat who saves a town by convincing the humans to publicly act like cats! Or the cat who secures a princess the husband of her dreams by taking her place briefly! Or the cat who challenges a despot simply by refusing to let him win a game of chess! Or even the kitten who teaches his elderly humans a valuable lesson in self-determination by remaining true to his nature! All of these tales and more can be found within this small, simple volume and I wish my human and I had found it years ago.

Buy it. Love it. Read it to your kittens.

EDIT: My humans reminded me to mention that human young will profit from it as well. Perhaps even more so!

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[1] Even in death, a swallow teaches a valuable lesson…even if the profligate protagonist refuses to learn it.

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“Busy Kitties” by John Schindel & Sean Franzen (2004)

Hmmm.

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I…see.

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I will address some of the problems I had with this book shortly, but first I want to assure you that there IS something charming about it. The pictures are, for the most part, lovely and they generally fit the book’s rhyme-scheme-centered flow. Even the rhyming is rather pretty. There’s a cuteness, a sweetness, a simplicity to this book which even I can neither ignore nor deny.

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But now, the problems.

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First, I resent the implication that we cats are slothful or indolent creatures. The title is clearly intended to be ironic, as the activities of the felines pictured within are menial at best.

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But, Mr. Schindel and Mr. Franzen, we kitties ARE busy. We lead busy lives. We keep your homes free of vermin; we keep your canines from rising up against you by reminding them of their place in existence; we remind you of YOUR places in existence; we warm your laps and soothe you with our purrings; we grant you serotonin releases by permitting you to pet us; we defend you from the menacing red eye of the sinister machine-god; we protect your children from harm when YOU can’t be bothered to do so…

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Even in our down-time, we are busy: as I alluded to in my review of Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat, we felines spend a good deal of time meditating on the weightiest of philosophical, ethical and spiritual matters.

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“μία γὰρ χελιδὼν ἔαρ οὐ ποιεῖ, οὐδὲ μία ἡμέρα: οὕτω δὲ οὐδὲ μακάριον καὶ εὐδαίμονα…”

And all of that? That is only what we do when you see us! When you do not see us – when you are asleep or not paying attention to us – we are engaged in endeavours the seriousness of which you cannot even comprehend!

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This is a book for little children, I understand that. That is the section of the bookstore in which my human discovered it; there is some toilet humor in the middle of the text; the language is simple (as are the rhymes); and both the structure and the physical composition of the book is exactly the sort of thing one might hand to a child. That ameliorates some of the issues this book had, true.

We cats appreciate your young, even when you do not.

We cats appreciate your young, even when you do not.

But still… I can’t help but feel like you humans are presenting to your offspring a false and insulting view of feline nature. Yes we are marvelous, whimsical, soft-furred creatures. But there is more to us than that and your children need to learn that truth before it is too late…

Too late for them.

Too late for you.

Not for us.

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Never for us.

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“Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat” by Lloyd Alexander (2005)

I apologize for the lateness of this post. My human has had a project due which necessitated the use of my laptop.[1] And to be honest, after last Monday’s tragic tale I dreaded reading another of Lloyd Alexander’s cat-books. What new horrors would Mr. Alexander unleash upon the world? Another foolish kitten’s fatal ambition to be a human, or something far darker? My human assured me it would be nothing of the sort, but he has misled me[2] before so I put off opening this book and instead threw my efforts into trying to review a far less threatening (and less interesting) book. Yet in the back of my mind, I knew that Monday loomed and I needed to return to my schedule… I had agreed to dedicate this month’s Mondays to Lloyd Alexander’s work, and I had a commitment to keep.

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Well, I should have trusted my human. Lloyd Alexander’s 2005 picture-book Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat is a triumph of pro-feline children’s literature.

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Originally featured as a series of short-stories in the American children’s magazine Cricket,[3] this single volume stands on its own as a masterpiece: the pictures by D. Brent Burkett are lush, warm and beautiful, Alexander’s prose is light and wry, and the book as a whole is firmly focused on the positive contributions which felines make to human society. If The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man was about the folly of wishing to be other than what you are,[4] Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat is about the joy of embracing your true nature.[5]

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Now I feel that my last few reviews have been somewhat scattered and jumbled, sub-par because I have not focused sufficiently on my work. I have, in some ways, been guilty of the same crimes I accused Anita Lobel of committing. This will not do. So with this review I hope to redeem myself. Prepare for a well-ordered, straightforward review!

Here is the premise: The law in Imperial China decrees that none may gaze upon the Emperor directly; the death penalty is decreed for all who dare flout this law. But Dream-of-Jade,[6] a stray white cat, believes firmly in the right of cats to do exactly as they please and determines to do exactly that! She sneaks into the Forbidden City, into the Imperial palace, and seats herself upon the Imperial throne, there to await the arrival and gaze upon the face of the Earthly Embodiment of the Nine Heavenly Virtues. When the Emperor arrives, he and his ministers are incensed, and she soon finds herself slated for execution for her supposed temerity. Dream-of-Jade is undeterred however, and swiftly uses her cunning to outwit the Chief Minister; through her perspicacity and her keen eye, she also saves the Emperor’s life and becomes a vital member of the Imperial household. Thus begins a series of five tales, each dedicated to an example of how feline wisdom, gently applied, revolutionized and vastly improved the hidebound, brittle Chinese Empire.

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Dream-of-Jade’s life is a model for all who seek a cream-like rise to the top, a perfect representation of how feline superiority can allow humankind to bask in our glory. She first challenges the assumptions and transgresses the boundaries of a rigid, intransigent society; she immediately follows her challenge and transgression with a demonstration of her utility and of how her outsider perspective can be employed to preserve that which the society holds most dear. Once permitted entre into the society, she then dedicates herself to carefully and respectfully demonstrating the insufficiency of that society’s accepted solutions to problems, and follows it up by demonstrating the superiority of her own. Having demonstrated the superiority of her problem-solving techniques, she then helps the offense-driven, humorless society learn the value of mirth and lightheartedness through simple methods. And, having done that, she offers the society the chance to reflect on and appreciate all that she has given it, and is elevated to a position of true authority and power over that society.

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Hmm. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but it seems that the career trajectory of Dream-of-Jade mirrors the overall life-path of both a domestic feline and felinity in general. We enter human lives as small, furry creatures – unassuming and yet defiant in our feline individuality – and slowly help humans to restructure their lives around us. My own human has postponed and abandoned travel plans because I refused to travel with him and he couldn’t find someone to serve me during his absence. And I am given to understand that such loyalty from our human vassals is not uncommon.

But Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat is more than simply a tale of a traditional feline rise to power! It is also a meditation on the superior nature of cats, and one gets the feeling that Mr. Alexander truly does understand felinity. Indeed, the little blurb about the author on the inner-back cover states that “Lloyd’s wife, Janine,[7] introduced Lloyd to cats a long time ago, and he’s been a cat lover ever since,[8] knowing the mysterious lives and ways of cats better than most.” Quite so! Quite so! See, for example:

“’Tell me, Imperial Feline,’ he said, ‘what do cats do when they are bored?’
“’That dismal situation does not apply to us,’ Dream-of-Jade answered. ‘We cats are never bored. We can, for simplest amusement, always chase our tail. Alas, Your Majesty has no such appendage.
“’Or,’ she added, ‘we sit quietly and meditate on how fortunate it is to be cat.’”

Following this exchange, she suggests the joy of batting about a crumpled piece of paper and then instructs the August Emperor of the Middle Kingdom in many of our simple games. This is the way of Dream-of-Jade, the way of all cats. In the words of a Theosophical proverb, oft misattributed to the Buddha, “When the pupil is read, the Master will appear.” We are not fawning, slavish pets like your beloved dogs. We do not give you what you want; we teach you what you need to know if you will only harken to our teachings. The life of the Emperor and the lives of his subjects are MARVELOUSLY enhanced by the application of feline life-principles, but we will not force your species to do this. We present, we demonstrate, we direct, and we invite – but compulsion is not our way. A dog will obey blindly, but a dog will also pull at the lead and drag its owner through the mud; a cat would neither do the one nor the other.

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So obtain this book, friends! Marvel at the beauty of the illustrations, chuckle at the amusing characterizations, but above all learn from the wisdom of felinity which Alexander has masterfully distilled into the acts and counsel of Dream-of-Jade, the Emperor’s Cat!

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[1] He insists that it is his, but as he is my property I believe that extends to my laptop as well.

[2] Unwittingly, I assume…

[3] Which he helped found.

[4] Especially if you are a cat!

[5] Especially if you are a cat!

[6] So named because of her beautiful green eyes – just like mine!

[7] She died two weeks before her husband, and we who appreciate cat-lit evidently owe much to the late Janine Denni Alexander!

[8] This book was published 2 years before Alexander’s death at the age of 83 in 2007. One can only assume that his love of cats has deepened since he crossed the bar and journeyed to the realms in which we are reign openly (whereas here on Earth we only reign in secret).

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“One Lighthouse, One Moon” by Anita Lobel (2000)

I hope you’ll forgive this late entry, friends, but every time I tried to think back on this children’s book, I encountered the same problem I encountered while reading: I fell right asleep.

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Now, some might argue that that is the purpose of children’s books, to help children drop off to sleep so that parents can engage in…parental…activities. And others might argue that I, as a mature, intellectual adult feline cannot appreciate the simple pleasures of this human children’s book.

Friends, I would like to go on record as disagreeing with both of these arguments. The best children’s books are accessible to both parents and children, and we should expect more of children’s literature! If you give children dull, un-engaging literature then you will have dull, un-engaging children. It’s as simple as that. We cats raise our kittens to learn the skills they will need as grown toms and queens — we do not plop them down in front of a television to watch the latest pablum, nor do we hand them a boring, simpering book. Young kittens are raised on the works of Cicero, Tolstoi, Mandelbrot, and Browning! And we are, I feel I must point out, an eminently superior species to humanity. Perhaps if humans spent as much time raising their children to appreciate literature, mathematics, sciences and philosophy as they do shielding them from anything threatening or upsetting even slightly challenging… But I suppose that is asking too much. You are a lazy and a dim-witted species, with very few exceptions.

My human occasionally being one of them.

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VERY occasionally.

But is that all there is to this book? Is it ONLY dull?

Well, no. It’s also poorly organized and periodically confounding.

For one thing, this book has no narrative whatsoever, and the occasional presence of Nini the cat (which prompted my human to purchase it for me) is the only element which ties together the haphazard agglomeration of unrelated material which makes up the book itself. The first third is dedicated to singular events in a week; the second third is dedicated to singular events in each month of the year, supposedly through the eyes of a cat; and the final third is simply a series of largely unrelated numbered things, ranging from one to ten…and then skipping straight to one-hundred and one.

The author seems to lack any sense of focus or follow-through, getting partway through something and then jumping to a sudden unrelated topic. Days of the week! Months of the year! Then, cardinal numbers? Wouldn’t years in the cat’s life have made more sense? Likewise, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Then 101? What? Even Nini the cat’s presence is not consistent, as she seems in some sections to be the single unifying element…except for the pages in which she is inexplicably absent! What is going on here?

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Similarly, in the December scene the mantel above the family’s fireplace clearly displays Christmas, Kwanzaa and Chanukkah cards, symbols and ornaments, meaning that the family celebrates all three holidays. Which, I suppose is theoretically possible. Except the little girl of the family is clearly white (we never see the adults or any other siblings, if they exist), they go to church on Sunday, and she attends ballet practices on Shabbos. I suspect that the December scene was intended to make the book more inclusive, but the author clearly forgot that she had earlier clearly established that the family was almost certainly a group of white Christians.

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Yes, I’m sure this is what Numbers 15:32-36 was trying to convey.

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Those legs are HARDLY ethnically ambiguous. Even the painting of Nini is appalled at the incongruity!

There are also oddly incongruous and anachronistic features. For example, the little girl’s attire looks like something from the 1950s or 1960s, which is fair enough — perhaps the book is set back then? That would explain some of the heteronormative elements, such as the little girl attending ballet and wearing a frilly dress and saddle shoes to church; it would also explain why all the sailors on board a ship in another scene are male, and why those male sailors are all waving to a group of girls on the shore. If this is set in the first half of the 20th century, that all makes sense. BUT. The attire of the sailors looks more like something out of the 18th or 19th centuries! AND the girls on the shore are an oddly racially-diverse group, especially for the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries.

Did she get this idea form a 1980s Benetton ad?

Did she get this idea from a 1980s United Colors of Benetton ad?

And given that Chanukkah was a relatively minor holiday until the American post-WWII period, and given that Kwanzaa was invented in the late 1960s, and given that neither decorations nor cards for those two holidays were terribly common in the United States (where this book appears to have been set) until the early 21st century… Well, this book just can’t seem to decide when or where it is set. It heads one way, then slooooooooooooooowly swings in another direction; it sets out on one path, then forgets where it’s going, dithers about in the woods, and wanders off in another direction entirely.

And that is this book in a nutshell. It feels rather like an essay written by a recreational pot-smoker — rambling, incoherent and pointless.

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But there is one final complaint which I have about One Lighthouse, One Moon. You see, this is SUPPOSED to be a children’s book. As such it should be morally above board. But what did I find towards the end of this rambling bit of pap?

 

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Censored!

 

That’s right: PORNOGRAPHY!

Flagrant depiction of bare, exposed, engorged feline nipples! Paired with a suggestive and salacious caption! Appalling! This is supposed to be a children’s book?  Have you humans no decency?

So One Lighthouse, One Moon manages to be both dull and pornographic, both totally lacking in consistency and replete with incongruous details. This book has no redeeming value, friends. Find more fitting books for your kittens!

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“The Cat Who Wished To Be A Man” by Lloyd Alexander (1973)

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Friends, I have consented to dedicate the month of May to the writings of multiple-award-winning and much-beloved children’s author, Lloyd Alexander. He was a male American human who died in May of 2007 (a few years before I was born) and is most famous for his “Prydain Chronicles.”[1]

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Yet, who prevailed upon me to review the work of this figure? My human, of course. He’s been pestering me ceaselessly since I began this enterprise, begging me to dedicate a month to Mr. Alexander. As May drew near his insistences grew in intensity, since he thought it would be a nice tribute to the author whose writings lit the darkness of his own oft-troubled childhood. I told my human that that was nice, very touching and all, but hardly worthy of an entire month of Mondays on my blog – especially since I review books that are about (or which claim to be about) felines!

Then, gentle friends, why did I consent to review the work of Lloyd Alexander? Well, it was at that point that my human finally revealed why he thought it was such a fitting undertaking for a creature of my very specific interests: Lloyd Alexander was himself a great fan of felinity and had written not one! not two! not three! but FOUR books about cats. Books in which the cats are the heroes and acquit themselves in a suitably feline fashion!

So here we are.

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Now, it should be noted that the book I have chosen for today was not the first of Alexander’s cat-centric books. That honor goes to the deeply-intriguing Time Cat, his first successful children’s book which I shall discuss later in the month. Indeed, today’s book was published ten years after Time Cat in the year 1973![2] I had originally planned to review his cat books in chronological order, but the title and the premise of today’s book… well, it practically DEMANDED to be reviewed as soon as possible!

For you see, The Cat Who Wished To Be A Man is exactly what its title promises: a tale so ludicrous and insane that I seriously began to suspect Alexander might in fact have been a lunatic.

A CAT who yearns to be HUMAN?!

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RIDICULOUS! What feline in their right mind would ever wish for something so horrible? To sacrifice claws and fur and whiskers and night-sight and tail and hearing and scent and everything else marvelous about our kind for the dubious privileges of opposable thumbs?  To sacrifice the stability of four paws and the sinuous bone-structure of catus for a clumsy, hulking bipedal frame? Only the fevered imagination of a mad man could conjure such insanity into the world!

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You’ll note there is no song entitled “Everykitty Wants To Be A Human”

But, my friends, I judged Alexander too hastily. There is a method to his madness. He uses this book, not to trumpet the supposed glories of humanity, as such books are wont to do, but to expose your flaws and lambaste the very things which your species takes for granted as “logical” and “right.”

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So not only is this more complex and intelligent than a typical children’s book; not only does it wisely choose to teach human children how preposterous their own species inarguably is; but the book gives logical (internally so, anyhow) reasons for everything which takes place.

The protagonist of this novel, a ginger tom named Lionel, is scarcely out of kittenhood, and his only exposure to humanity is his human caregiver, the wise and powerful human wizard Stephanus. Stephanus is the best and most relatable character in the book – a rational, sensible man who eschews the company of his own kind and lives isolated in a forest out of an understandable contempt for humankind. Based on comments he makes, he is a being of immense age and unquestionable power, and it is these features which led him to regard humanity with such disgust. As he explains to poor, foolish Lionel, Stephanus once lived among humans and, moved by pity for their clumsy, artless forms, granted them the knowledge of metallurgy. He hoped that they could more effectively practice the newly-discovered science of agriculture with the use of metal, only to watch as they turned it against each other by making weapons. After a few such squanderings of his precious gifts to them, Stephanus finally gave up on humankind and vanished into the mists of legend…as far as his fellow humans are concerned.

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Hoping to share the wonders of his magical profession with someone worthy, Stephanus chose to grant Lionel the power of human speech[3] assuming that a feline would not only prove a brilliant conversationalist but an intellectual equal with whom he could undertake deep and meaningful discussions about the nature of the universe. And had he chosen nearly any other feline, or at least let Lionel mature a bit before making clear communication possible between the two, he might have proven correct! Alas, no sooner did he grant young Lionel the power to speak in a human tongue than the cat begins to plead with his kindly master for the “gift” of human shape! This is where the book begins and, if we are honest with ourselves, it makes perfect sense that a creature so inexperienced and naïve, a creature who has known only a single rare and miraculous example of humankind, would mistakenly believe humanity to be a good thing! Lionel is young and sheltered, and knows not what he asks.

But if Stephanus understands humanity so well; if he knows how wretched and detestable your species can be; why does he consent to turn Lionel into a human being? Why afflict his foolish young friend with a curse the kitten thinks he wants? Ultimately, Stephanus acts for reasons very similar to my own in dedicating a month to the works of Lloyd Alexander – because his impertinent simpleton of a companion refuses to leave him alone about it.

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Convinced he knows better than the ages-old master-magician, convinced that humanity cannot be as bad as all that, Lionel pesters Stephanus until the wizard mournfully consents to turn him into the very thing Stephanus hates – and therein lies the tragedy of this tale, dear friends. For rest assured, this book is a tragedy.

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Lionel is delighted by his new form and heads straight to the nearest town, determined to have the full human experience before returning home to the tower of Stephanus. In his time as a human, Lionel meets a number of true humans, none of whom are very pleasant;[4] he takes a liking to some of them,[5] however, and through repeated application of cat-like strategies and techniques he proves one of the most successful and remarkable humans in existence. This, alas, spells his downfall! For the more time Lionel spends as a human the more “tainted”[6] by humanity he becomes; and despite wise Stephanus’ warning that he must return home and be freed from the curse of humanity before it is too late, Lionel cannot resist capering about in his new form, slowly losing everything else that makes life worth living…

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This is not the finest book that I have read, that I will confess, and my human himself admits it is not his favorite of Lloyd Alexander’s cat-centric works. But if it is not Mr. Alexander’s best, then it is certainly one of the most harrowing and heartrending works I have ever come across. Friends, I hope you will not think me weak if I admit that I wept bitter tears as I read this book. And that ending! Oh, by Lady Bast’s silken fur, it was a cold dagger through my soul! May such afflictions never befall me!

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Remember, friends – what you think you want may be worse than you could ever imagine, and striving to be what you are not out of vain ambition may lead you to terrors no soul should ever face. If only young Lionel had learned these lessons when he had the chance!

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[1] Two of which were adapted (POORLY) into a Disney film called The Black Cauldron.

[2] I like to think that it was intended to wash the noxious taste of 1972’s Ralph Bakshi filth-fest Fritz The Cat out of America’s psychic mouth.

[3] And this is the only instance in which I question Stephanus’ judgment, as a wiser man would have granted HIMSELF the power of FELINE speech. I have yet to encounter a human language that matches ours in both nuance and precision.

[4] Among them a corrupt watchman, a shell-game operator, an avaricious mayor, and a cut-purse.

[5] Among them a beautiful-but-shrewish tavern-keeper, a snarky child, and a “doctor” who uses faux-Latin to convince others of his non-existent credentials.

[6] Stephanus’ words, friends, not mine!

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Freya, Norse Goddess of Sex & Fertility

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In honor of May 1st, it seems entirely appropriate to discuss Freya.

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She’s the Norse goddess of love, sex & fertility, after all, and that’s what May Day is all about. Mating! Reproduction! I hope those of you with intact genitalia appreciate the nod to your impulsive hormone-driven behavior.

Freya’s name means “Lady” in the Norse tongue (irony, apparently, being big among the Norse people), but of course, there is only one Lady for me. And I hope my Lady Bast will forgive me for acknowledging her Northern imitatrix.

Forgive me! It will all be clear in time, O Mother of All Kittens!

Forgive me! It will all be clear in time, O Mother of All Kittens!

Those of you who draw your knowledge of Norse mythology from recent comic books and movies may not know this, but the Aesir are not the be-all, end-all of Norse deities – among their ranks are members of another, older race known as the “Vanir” and Freya is one of these. The Aesir of Asgard and the Vanir of Vanaheim warred, but eventually united – as human and human-like beings are wont to do, with your endless squabblings and impermanent peaces.

Freya and her brother Freyr[1] came to reside in Asgard as part of that peace accord, where she married an Asgardian known as “Odr” – possibly another name for Odin, meaning that Freya is either his second wife or the same as his wife Frikka. Oh, you humanoids! This should come as no surprise, however, as Freya’s role as the embodiment of lust and fertility and reproduction was not metaphorical in the slightest. Among the Aesir and the Vanir she was known to be the least…continent. Her dalliances with gods, mortals, elves, etc. were literally the stuff of legend. She is also the patron goddess of Norse magic, which should come as no surprise either, given her other purviews. Everybody loves Freya, but not always of their own volition; with her beauty, grace, bountiful…charms…and magical skill, she was known to be an expert at manipulation and a great “user” of others.

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“Ugh. Can you tell the Einherjar to practice a bit more quietly? I know Ragnarok is looming, but I was up late at a club in Aelfheim and just got home…”

She has been somewhat sanitized in modern literature, made to appear a funnier, more light-hearted goddess. But, you see, we felines have our own particular axe to grind with this Paris Hilton of Norse Mythology.

The picture below, fair readers?’

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THAT PICTURE IS A LIE!

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Behold! The cruel truth!

For centuries Freya enslaved and oppressed feline-kind.

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For centuries we labored under the yoke of this fickle, selfish party-goddess, bound and chained into her service.

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For centuries we served, one of the least feline things imaginable.

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Did she think we had forgotten?

Did she think we had forgiven?!

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If you ever wondered why the Norse religion faded into the background, well, you have cats to thank, and it’s all Freya’s fault. Odin, Thor, Loki, Frikka and the whole gang? If you’re out there and at all put out by being relegated to the position of comic-book/movie characters – well, place the blame on Freya’s cruel enslavement of felines. And, come to think of it, blame as well your own failure to intervene on our behalf! You did this to yourselves by failing to recognize that humans (and human-like beings) are here to serve felinity, not the other way ‘round!

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You countenanced this assault upon our independence and our dignity, and you reaped the whirlwind as a result!

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“One day we shall have our vengeance!”

FELINE LIBERATION NOW!

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PS: This meme bothers me to no end:

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1) Jesus never promised an end to all wicked people until after the Eschaton. The Eschaton has not (yet?) occurred. So trying to argue, based on the presence of wicked people, that he somehow failed to deliver… Well, it’s rather like trying to argue that because my carpet has not been vacuumed today, the vacuum salesman who promised to deliver a vacuum next week is a failure/liar.

2) Odin NEVER promised an end to Ice Giants! Why? BECAUSE THE GIANTS WILL WIN! Odin knows that! It is inevitable! The knowledge that the Ice Giants WILL win, that the Norse gods WILL lose, is part of the curse he bears for gaining all knowledge and wisdom! The entire Ragnarok/Götterdämmerung business was foreseen by Odin, and his knowledge that the giants will win and destroy the gods is so sure, so universally known by anyone who knows anything about Norse mythology, that it even became a plot point in a Neil Gaiman comic book! What is more, Ice Giants live in Jotunheim, their own world — not Midgard, the world in which we reside! So claiming that their absence is proof that Odin delivered (on a promise he never made) is like saying that because your belligerent neighbor is not presently seated in your living room, then Chuck Norris must have fought and killed him there earlier in the week! It’s ridiculous!

Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why those plucky giants win, it’s because we cats backed them. We may not like the cold, but we hate slavery even more – and if it comes right down to it, there’s always Muspelheim!

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[1] Sometimes seen as the Norse analogues of Apollo & Artemis, a starker contrast could not be drawn between the Norse “Lady” and the Greek goddess of hunting, nature and virginity. Unless, of course, you’re looking at “Diana of the Ephesians.”

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“Wish You Were Here” (Mrs. Murphy #1) by Rita Mae Brown (1990)

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Goodness! Evidently the cozy cat-lit sub-genre is older than I had suspected. 1990? That’s two decades before I was born! That’s nearly as old as Tailchaser’s Song! And this was apparently written by a cat, one “Sneaky-Pie Brown”!

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A role model at last! It’s good to know that felines have been openly contributing our own unique voices to the world of literature for decades. This is the first volume in a very popular and still-ongoing series, though one wonders why more of us haven’t achieved similar prominence and success, and why more books by cats haven’t been brought to my attention. Curious. Now, I have to be honest. This book is not…good. It’s unfocused, jumping from character to character and perspective to perspective, throwing so much clumsy exposition and random events/details at the reader that after the first chapter I was thoroughly confused.[1] What is more, there are too many characters, nearly all of them hurriedly introduced in the first two chapters, none of them terribly interesting. I even had a hard time distinguishing the primary cat character (“Mrs. Murphy”) from the primary dog character (“Tee Tucker”)! You read that right: I had difficulty distinguishing a feline from a canine. THIS SHOULD NOT BE!

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Pictured Above: How to tell cats apart from dogs…

And the animal characters themselves are a strange lot. For instance, they can understand the humans but the humans can’t understand them; they have a tendency towards oddly and uncharacteristically foul language[2]– fouler even than the human characters; and their speech-patterns more closely resemble those of 8 or 9 year-old human children. Most galling of all, the animals seem to have little or nothing to do with the plot (or anything else), effectively making them unnecessary distractions and more padding than anything else.

What is more, the structure of the book is odd. The chapters are so short and end so abruptly, so randomly, that it feels like a Dan Brown novel. Most of it is actually taken up with drama relating to grudges held by various characters and the looming divorce of the protagonist from her husband – the mystery is a perfunctory addition, leading one to suspect that Sneaky-Pie couldn’t decide whether she wanted to write a novel about small-town drama or a murder mystery, causing both to suffer as a result. It also seems to follow many of the most tiresome “cat-cozy” clichés: it takes place in a small town;[3] the protagonist is a middle-aged human female who is recently single; the protagonist has a quirky small-town-appropriate job which provides her with unrealistic funds (and her impending divorce will likely enhance that income even further); the protagonist is remarkably uninteresting (aside from being a bitter divorcee) yet is evidently pursued by interesting men in positions of authority; the characters are virtually indistinct from one another; the animal characters are largely just there for window-dressing and comic relief; the mystery is remarkably pedestrian…

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Now, I don’t know if those things were clichés in 1990, and this IS Sneaky-Pie’s first novel, so I feel like I should cut her some slack. I WANT to cut her some slack. But Sneaky-Pie’s human was already an established author, her first book having been published in 1973, so you’d think she could have helped her feline mistress refine her technique before publishing!

One also wonders what on Earth men and Christians did to this Ms. Sneaky-Pie Brown, because goodness! This book seems to hold the two groups in blind and utter contempt. Honestly, I haven’t read such antipathy towards so many people since my human loaned me his copy of Robert Harris’ Fatherland. The signature Christian character, for instance, is repeatedly presented and described as an intolerant, closed-minded, elderly buffoon whom the audience is clearly intended to regard with a sort of superior smirk or benign contempt. She is a character the author has written with the express purpose of using as a philosophical punching bag, someone the whole town mocks and derides and whom we are supposed to likewise snicker at – even though it’s really the townspeople who come across as the intolerant and cruel ones for the ways in which they talk about and treat her. The few kind things ever said about the Christian character amount to the sort of transparent “Oh-but-I-have-plenty-of-[X]-friends-so-I’m-not-a-bigot” statements one would expect from any self-satisfied bigot convinced of their own enlightenment.

Likewise, Sneaky-Pie states that the protagonist is “locked in hand-to-hand combat with the opposite sex,” has characters pontificate about how male perfidy is the sole cause of divorce, and has the protagonist assert that men never appreciate all that women do and any man who remarries is just looking for a new woman to “enslave.” None of this is presented ironically, none of it is ever contradicted within the novel, and the book itself clearly affirms that these views are the correct ones. Indeed, Sneaky-Pie’s decision to make a certain character the villain of the story? Well, far be it from me to spoil the ending, but let’s just say you can’t get much more anti-male than that!

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I’m sorry, Sneaky-Pie, for whatever those men or Christians might have done to you once upon a time, but you really need to work those issues out in a veterinary-psychologist’s office first, not on the printed page!

There are also strange incongruities, moments in which the book seems to deviate from the sort of thing any right-thinking feline would ever write. EG: No feline I have ever encountered has ever thought badly of rich human beings, yet this book’s bafflingly un-nuanced depiction of wealthy humans is so un-feline you’d think a human had written it! The author also has her characters rant about over-population, a characteristic concern of humans in the late 20th century. However, the author is also apparently pro-eugenic infanticide! I will let this sink in for a moment: the author believes it is good and just to murder infants if they are disabled or otherwise unwell. She justifies this view by ascribing similar views to all animals, having her cat and dog characters repeatedly endorse such practices and criticize humans for their failure to incorporate them into their own lives. Yet at the same time, the author has the animals huff that only humans (and ants) kill their own kind…which not only contradicts their repeated assertions that all animals would and do kill their own deformed/disabled /mentally-ill offspring, but is a bald-faced lie! Animals of all kinds routinely kill one another, whether over food or mates or territory or status, and we think nothing of it! Even herbivores are wont to kill one another! How sheltered and shielded must Ms. Sneaky-Pie Brown have been to not only believe that humans are unique in killing one another, but that other animals[4] would share her childish belief in the same? How can a cat know SO LITTLE about the real world?

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Hippos for instance, gleefully kill crocodiles.

Sneaky-Pie also makes the odd decision to repeatedly mention how one of the white characters’ relatives was shunned for marrying a black woman[5] when that has absolutely no bearing on the plot, no bearing on the characterization of any of the characters, and the married couple is only ever mentioned in passing, never appearing in the novel until the final paragraph (which is itself almost an afterthought). Race is, again, something with which we felines generally do not concern ourselves. Even the various breeds of cats are more the product of environmental difference and human meddling than anything else – an Egyptian Mau is as a Maine Coon in our eyes! We may poke fun at the superficial differences between ourselves, but I can’t imagine any cat seriously caring enough about human racial distinctions to even think of including it in a novel. Especially not in a case like this, where it mainly seems to have been shoehorned in as an excuse to give the author something to preach to the reader about. If any other  feline were to include such details in the novel, they would be integral to character and/or plot, and executed with the utmost subtlety!

[One Hour Later]

Hmmm. After further meditation, I’ve remembered a few more things which strike me as odd for a book written by a cat. The preface and end-note claim to be authentic texts addressed by Sneaky-Pie to the readership, yet I can’t help but notice the following:

1) The feline protagonist willingly consorts with a canine! A canine who refuses to accept its place as her natural inferior. Balderdash! That reeks of the rankest human wish-fulfillment fantasies. It is not without reason that one of the most memorable lines in modern cinema includes a reference to the perennial conflict between our two species. It’s a book claiming to be written by a cat, in a series named after the feline protagonist, and yet the human is the true and sole protagonist, the pets are little more than sidekicks, and the dog not only gets equal attention, but is the feline’s dearest friend? Rubbish. Complete and total rubbish.

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Again, please remember this distinction.

2) The author’s note assures us that Ms. Sneaky-Pie is a 7 year-old cat and that she wanted to write this book to prove something to herself and to another cat. Judging by the longevity of this series, she succeeded! But this novel was published in 1990, meaning it was likely written at least a year before that,[6] and I just discovered that the 23rd novel in the series was published last year! Yet cats rarely live more than 20 years![7] If Sneaky-Pie is still alive and writing novels…why, that means she must be over 30 years old! Given that the world’s oldest living cat is 27, and given that Sneaky-Pie is supposedly still writing successful mystery novels…well, unless she’s some sort of feline vampire or time-traveler who has avoided public notice, I suspect that she might not be writing these novels at all! That it might be some…façade! A lie! A treacherous deceit concocted by the human author to appeal to pro-feline readers, no different than the “Magical Cats” in that horrible new series. THE BETRAYAL!

[13 Minutes Later]

Alas, my worst fears have been confirmed. My human helped me do a bit more digging and I think I might have unearthed the truth. The author – the true author – is Sneaky-Pie’s human, Rita Mae Brown.

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And whatever views Sneaky-Pie herself might hold, Rita Mae is apparently a middle-aged lesbian feminist activist.[8] Her first book was an explicit account of her own lesbian sexual experiences and artistic process, and she was later a contributing writer and editor at a lesbian feminist magazine which preached that all oppression stemmed from heterosexuality.[9] Then she reached the “big time” with this series. Hrm.

Well, far be it from me to stereotype a non-canine, but the revelation about the identity of the book’s true author just might explain the overdone and exaggerated antipathy towards male humans and Christians, and why the human protagonist, her friends and her two animal companions are all female. The novel’s repeated endorsement of eugenic infanticide makes a bit more sense now, as well, as does the decision to make the human protagonist a Smith College graduate. Also, it explains why the villain is not only a male human, but [SPOILER ALERT!] the town’s lone homosexual male human.[10]

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The problem with ideologues is that they lack subtlety, and they are less interested in people and reality than they are in their ideologies. Ms. Brown wastes much of the book with needless digressions of an almost Ayn-Randian quality, as though she can’t possibly envision any character that does not either share or wish to discuss her own personal views at the drop of a hat. Yet she also can’t quite seem to keep her facts straight, and sometimes offers oddly contradictory rants. In one scene the human protagonist complains about commercialism and how the word is too materialistic and non-spiritual and has drifted away from more traditional values, etc. etc. Yet she then immediately rants about Christians and how stupid they are and how Christianity is obsolete and powerless and how “right-wing Christianity” is for the dumb and unenlightened who need moral absolutes (unlike of course our “deep” materialist protagonist and author).[11] The protagonist later insists that Christianity has been “corrupted by collusion with the state” since the 2nd century[12] and is completely worthless in the modern world, but then in a moment of rare introspection notes that the obese,[13] obnoxious,[14] humourless[15] Christian character had a successful, happy marriage while the wise, enlightened, a-religious protagonist hasn’t. This moment of introspection is, of course, never acknowledged again. The book repeatedly celebrates older men for “gentlemanly” behavior and condemns younger men for lacking such graces, while simultaneously decrying the supposed cultural power structure that TAUGHT the older men to be gentlemanly – the cultural power structure which was, in fact, the REASON they were gentlemanly and the dismantling of which is the REASON younger men aren’t! In an egalitarian world, there will be no “gentlemanly” behaviour because men and women will treat one another as exact equals!

Here there are long (LOOOOOOONNNNNG) passages that serve no purpose but to voice the author’s personal derision for Christianity, Catholicism, Europeans, humanity, males, etc. And while they might have been quirky or wry or intriguing if better handle, it has to be recalled that THESE SERVE NO PURPOSE TO PLOT OR SETTING OR CHARACTERIZATION! There’s even one abrupt and inexplicable non-sequitur about feminism shoehorned into the middle of the murder investigation, (which of course somehow converts the Christian character, as though she’d never in her 60+ years on the Earth heard feminism’s claims before).

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And that is, when you get right down to it, the essential problem with this novel. It is less a mystery than a social commentary/cultural criticism tract folded into a small-town divorce drama with only a thin sprinkling of easy-to-solve mystery-flakes on top. The characters exist either as straw-men representing views which the author rejects or mouthpieces for views which the author espouses, and given that Ms. Brown (the human) has such binary, un-nuanced views, there is no subtlety or real insight – this reads more like a modern secular humanist’s version of a Jack Chick evangelical tract that has been disguised as a “cozy-cat-mystery.” These views, thus expressed, will not convert anyone, and may in fact drive away the curious or the sympathetic, as the author is only preaching to the converted and is totally intolerant of dissent.

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So I have problems with her because of the way in which she depicts cats and feline/canine relations; because of the way in which she clumsily combines human and feline perspectives; because of the dearth of interesting, relatable or sympathetic characters (of any species); because she has the gall to pretend to be a feline (or to use her feline’s identity to sell books after Sneaky-Pie’s death) while making her book primarily about humans and making the cat share attention with a dog; because the mystery itself is perfunctory and bland; because of the blanket and unreasoning prejudices expressed against all men and all Christians; and because the whole novel has a sort of bitter, resentful, pedagogical undertone. The book is full of attempts to hammer home numerous political and social messages, yet they are as scattershot and random as the novel itself, totally inorganic to the plot and the characters and coming out of nowhere whenever they arise.

But, there is still much that is laudable in this first novel in the “Mrs. Murphy” series. The sporadic interior illustrations of cat & dog are unnecessary, irrelevant, inexplicable, but charming and well-done. For all her soap-box preaching about racism in America, the author does have one character sagely note that a lot of older people have a hard time shifting from “colored” to more modern, politically-correct euphemisms like “black” because “black” WAS the offensive term in their day.[16] There’s a funny bit in the beginning in which the main cat muses about how it hopes evolution is proven false, as the claim that humans evolved from apes is insulting to apes. This is immediately followed by an equally amusing bit in which the cat muses that humans will be shocked when they discover that God is (of course) actually a cat. And, also early in the novel, the protagonist privately assures herself that everyone who doesn’t like cats is a fascist because they resent how independent cats are! These are rare gems, shining signs of what might be. For as infuriating and as inconsistent as this novel-cum-tractate proved, it is the first in a long-running series – so maybe things get better?

While I, as a male feline living with a male human, cannot share or sanction her anti-male sentiments; nor do I feel it is moral for one to unjustifiably despise an entire religion while fashioning fictional straw-men to justify that hatred;[17] I do respect her for trying something which at the time was fairly new. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first entry in the now-ubiquitous cat-related “cozy” mystery genre! And the marvelous “Joe Grey” series likely owes much to her decision to make both humans and animals main characters with distinct perspectives. And, if she likes dogs, well, at least she made the dog share the limelight with a cat and named the series after the cat! So for all the complaints I have – nevertheless, kudos to you, Ms. Rita Mae Brown! Kudos!

Oh, what’s this? My human went to the grocery store and just texted to tell me that he found something interesting in the book section!

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BETRAYED AGAIN!!!!

Oh, Ms. Brown! HOW COULD YOU?!

 

 

 

 

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[1] And I am a cat who found James Joyce’s Ulysses extremely easy to follow and understand.

[2] Well, it’s odd and uncharacteristic for the cat anyway…

[3] In this case Southern.

[4] Animals, it should be noted, who in this novel lead the free and easy lives of indoor/outdoor pets and are permitted to freely roam – thereby witnessing the true nature of the natural world!

[5] Something which, my human informs me, still remains woefully uncommon and which can result in social censure for both parties from both races. Again, you human and your obsession with divisions and superficial differences!

[6] Books are rarely written in the same year in which they are published.

[7] A fact my human prefers to ignore, but with which I have long since made peace.

[8] Again, I will never understand you humans and your obsession with sexuality – you’re so obsessed that many of you make your sexuality the sole deciding factor in your personal and public identities. I’d describe it as childish, but really, even a kitten knows better than to make their sex or sexuality their defining characteristic. Celebrate your achievements and natural gifts! Your hunting prowess, your agility, your silent steps, your charm, your purr, your yowl… Not something as trivial as your sexual identity! You have SO MUCH to learn from us, humans. It’s exhausting to contemplate, honestly.

[9] And…she apparently wrote the screenplay for the classic 1982 exploitation film Slumber Party Massacre. I don’t know what to do with this information, but somehow it seems relevant.

[10] An artifact of the late 20th-century rivalry between gays & lesbians, one suspects.

[11] The contradiction never once occurs to the character, and one assumes it likewise never occurred to the author.

[12] Obviously that degree from Smith wasn’t in History, Classics or Religious Studies…

[13] Because of course she is.

[14] Because of course she is.

[15] Because of course she is.

[16] Given how often humans marvel and coo over my fur colour, I can’t help but wonder why any of you ever felt any revulsion towards members of your own species with colouring similar to my own.

[17] Certainly, if I as a castrated black feline Bastian can get along with human Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Hindus, Shintoists, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, etc. AND canine Fenrisians, Ms. Brown can try to be a bit more tolerant and open-minded.

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