January 16, 2020

Book Review - Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

by T.S. Eliot
illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Genres: Poetry, Children's Poetry, Classics, British Literature, Animal Literature, Humor
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Length: 80 pages
Published: October 19, 2019 (originally published in 1939)
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"T. S. Eliot’s playful cat poems have delighted readers and cat lovers around the world ever since they were first published in 1939. They were originally composed for his godchildren, with Eliot posing as Old Possum himself, and later inspired the legendary musical Cats. Now with vibrant illustrations by the award-winning Axel Scheffler, this captivating edition makes a wonderful new home for Mr. Mistoffelees, Growltiger, the Rum Tum Tugger, Macavity the mystery cat, and many other memorable strays. It’s the perfect complement to the beloved previous edition, which remains available."


“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, or George or Bill Bailey -
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter -
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum -
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover -
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

My Book Review:

This was my first time reading T.S. Eliot's full collection of cat poems (originally written for his godchildren). I haven't seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage adaptation, Cats, but like many people I'm familiar with the songs that have permeated popular culture. It sounds like the recent film adaptation was a bit of a mess, but longtime fans, cat-lovers, or those who are curious might want to check out the original inspiration for the adaptation that brought us songs like "Memories."

I must admit I definitely liked some poems in T.S. Eliot's collection more than others. I openly admit to not enjoying some at all. Overall, I particularly enjoyed the ones that had a more consistent meter and rhyme scheme.

Stand-out poems include "The Rum Tum Tugger" (the only one I'd read previously), "Macavity: The Mystery Cat," "Mr. Mistoffelees" (probably due to my familiarity with the song), "Gus: The Theatre Cat," and "The Ad-dressing of Cats" (which explains to children how cats' personalities are nothing like dogs').

While I wasn't surprised by the signature high level of Eliot's vocabulary which readers don't normally find in children's literature (words include raffish, sampans, terpsichorean, prestidigitation, and legerdemain), I was surprised to find I respected that Eliot didn't dumb himself down when writing for this new audience--if kids don't understand everything they hear, they'll ask. That trust feels implicit in his poetry and his love of language adds to the fun of this text, as do Axel Scheffler's accompanying illustrations. If you enjoy this, check out Edward Gorey's original illustrations as well.

Is anyone out there a fan of the musical? Has anyone seen the film and lived to tell the tale?

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