Of Cats and Men: Stories

( 3 )

Overview

Haughty Bengals, faithful Maine coons, and feral strays: These are the haunting familiars that animate Nina De Gramont's critically acclaimed debut collection of short fiction. Prowling through every story, these enigmatic creatures expose the hidden fears and passions of the female heart, and illuminate the profound truths of men and love.

A young woman finds two dark surprises in her home: a magpie dismembered by her mischievous cat, and an ...

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Overview

Haughty Bengals, faithful Maine coons, and feral strays: These are the haunting familiars that animate Nina De Gramont's critically acclaimed debut collection of short fiction. Prowling through every story, these enigmatic creatures expose the hidden fears and passions of the female heart, and illuminate the profound truths of men and love.

A young woman finds two dark surprises in her home: a magpie dismembered by her mischievous cat, and an unsettling glimpse of her fiancé’s secret inclinations...

A pregnant housewife quietly suffers a visit from her troubled brother-in-law while her hidden anger comes to life in the suddenly hostile behavior of her docile house cat...

A frustrated newlywed clings to the last vestige of her well-appointed upbringing--a pampered Himalayan high point--until a rangy stray cat shows her the true meaning of marriage...

As clever, finessed, and keen as the feline disposition it celebrates, Of Cats and Men marks the arrival of an exciting new voice in fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“These stories are superbly crafted, dark and funny, at times as enigmatic as the two beasts in the title. Of Cats and Men is a sensuous and wickedly honest book about women and men and the sly, aloof, casually beautiful animals who pad through their lives.”
—Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men

“The author weaves cats into each story so deftly that they function as both poetic figures and complex characters.”
Mademoiselle

“An utterly pleasurable discovery. . .the sort one enjoys in the fiction of Carol Shields, Pam Houston, Melissa Bank.”
The Washington Post Book World

“Acute perceptions and an intelligent voice are evident throughout De Gramont's collection. You need not be a cat-lover to appreciate it.”
Newsday

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
While cats make an appearance in each of the 10 stories in this accomplished debut collection, there's nothing kitschy or cute about de Gramont's feline tales. In each case, a cat subtly teaches the protagonist something essential about human relationships. The cats, which all manifest distinctive personalities, act according to their natures (ailurophiles will be delighted with acutely observed details), and their natural, instinctive behavior contrasts with that of the conflicted, variable human characters. In "The Wedding Bed," an act of charity toward a feral cat mends a rift in the marriage of a couple from different social classes. The WASP half of another socially mismatched couple in "The Politeness of Kings" is too paralyzed by good breeding to confess that a fat Bengal cat aggravates her asthma until she finds that the cat represents a freedom she craves. In one of the collection's standouts, "By His Wild Lone," an edgy former stray adopted and later abandoned by a wife and mother who leaves her family teaches the narrator some surprising truths about emotional independence. De Gramont bases her tales in Colorado and Cape Cod, evoking the atmosphere of each region with deft assurance. While several of the stories, notably "In His Shoes" and "The Closest Place," don't quite ring true, the remainder are beautifully and deftly crafted. In cleverly demonstrating how human beings reveal themselves in their relationships to animals, de Gramont has produced illuminating and moving narratives about fear and loss, connection and love. Agent, Peter Steinberg. (May 8) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As the title states, this collection of ten stories revolves around cats and men. Set all over the country, from Colorado to Cape Cod to California, the stories concern the variety of human relationships, deftly illustrating the challenges men and women face in all stages of life, whether they're setting up a home together, relocating for a spouse's career, dealing with a first pregnancy, or creating a relationship of trust. The cats Maine Coon, Siamese mix, Blue Himalayan High Point, strays, etc. figure prominently and are used to reveal and underline these tensions. The characters, including the cats, come alive in this well-written collection of slice-of-life tales. Recommended for general fiction collections; even readers who normally don't pick up a short story collection will enjoy this. Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut collection of linked stories focusing on an all-too-common contemporary type: a tense, persnickety woman on one side or another of 30, beset by vague feelings of disappointment and the dawning realization that she doesn't know it all and can't have everything. So what? Well, there's a gimmick: a cat in every tale somehow advances the plot, perhaps expressing emotions hitherto hidden or dragging secrets into the light (if a husband's girlie magazines still count as a big secret). A scrawny stray teaches a self-absorbed young wife raised in affluence to recognize the sacrifices her working-class husband makes for her. A mysterious cat triggers a psychotic rage in a stranger. Another cat unnerves a new mother who, overwhelmed with fatigue and postpartum depression, imagines it sucking the breath from her baby. A stray befriends a lonely girl piqued by the unsentimental attitude toward animals at her boyfriend's Colorado cattle ranch. Very much the kind of fiction that used to be featured in potluck-and-potholders women's magazines, especially since all's well that ends well (more or less) for these undifferentiated heroines. The premise is too slight, though, and the tone too tepid to sustain much interest.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385335034
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.35 (w) x 8.16 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Nina de Gramont teaches fiction at the Harvard Extension School. She lives on Cape Cod, with her husband, David Gessner.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

The Nature of the Beast

I found the magazines one weekend when Jack was winter camping. I'd been looking for the letter he'd just received from Stella, his ex-girlfriend, which we'd both agreed I shouldn't read. Prior to me, Stella had been the undisputed love of Jack's life, the topic of pages and pages of his most passionate prose. Though married now and living back east, Stella had no compunction about writing long and lovelorn letters to my fiancé. The fact that she'd been equally faithless when she was Jack's girlfriend did give me a little comfort. I soothed myself by recalling tales of her many blatant infidelities, and contrasting them to my own example of unwavering devotion. Still, I'd hoped that our engagement — several months old by now — might curb Stella's correspondence. I liked to think of myself as tolerant, confident, and progressive. Stella's boundary-crossing made me feel just the opposite: narrow-minded, jealous, and insecure.

A month earlier, Stella had called Jack in tears. His first collection of short stories had just hit the bookstores, and she was dismayed that her name did not appear in the acknowledgments. Sitting just a few feet away from Jack as he reasoned with Stella — within earshot of her inappropriately tearful voice — I decided to ignore the issue altogether. This was an important time in Jack's life: his first book, the beginning of his career after years of hard work. I did not want to dampen his happiness. And I could even, to some degree, understand how Stella felt — watching Jack achieve his goals long after her exit from his life. Jack's romantic dedication ("to Eve, my only Muse") clearly marked me as the winner. While she whined about the acknowledgments, I reminded myself that I, not Stella, sat beside Jack now — sharing his good fortune, his home, his two cats. His future.

Still. It was hard not to be curious. "Why bother?" Jack said, when I asked if I could read Stella's latest letter. "It doesn't mean anything to me, and it's just going to make you angry." I agreed, recognizing Jack's words as rational and mature. When his friend Tony arrived Friday morning to pick Jack up, I bid him good-bye with the purest intentions. I watched them drive away, then headed to work — Stella's letter the furthest thing from my mind.

That day turned out to be particularly grueling. At my desk in the district attorney's office, I spent the afternoon trying to convince a well-dressed, well-spoken woman, who asked to be called Mrs. Lloyd, not to return home with Mr. Lloyd — who'd just been released on bail after blackening both her eyes. If I had ever suspected that spousal abuse was limited to the lower income brackets, its victims uneducated, this job had taught me otherwise. Four years before I'd taken the position as a victim's advocate, considering it a possible segue to law school. At the time I hadn't imagined any crimes were actually committed in our picturesque university town. Every window in the Pearl DA's office framed a view of the Rocky Mountains, making the utilitarian building seem more like a resort hotel.

But while Pearl lacked its share of murders and back-alley stabbings, it had no dearth of domestic violence, and thanks to the college, there were plenty of acquaintance rapes. My job provided ample stimulation and frustration — as much if not more than a career in law, without the accompanying debt and pressure.

Now, in response to my gentle but persistent prodding, Mrs. Lloyd took the safe house address, her silk blouse rustling as she reached, but said no thank you to a ride. "My car's right outside," she explained, smiling through swollen lips. She promised to drive directly to the shelter. With Amy, the other victim's advocate, I watched through the window as Mrs. Lloyd met her husband in the parking lot. Standing against a backdrop of blue skies and mountains, the couple embraced.

Then she handed him the keys to her BMW.

"Eve," Amy said. "I think we need a martini."

That night, when I crawled into bed, my brain slightly fuzzy with gin, I remembered Stella's letter. But the sheets smelled comfortingly of Jack: that good mix of sandalwood soap, cotton bond paper, and worn flannel. And finding me alone in bed, the cats had curled up companionably. More than a year after I'd moved in they had barely accepted me as their own, but were always very affectionate in Jack's absence. Beatrix slept politely at my feet, while the more brazen Pip took Jack's place, cuddled against my chest with his head on Jack's pillow. I smiled. Who cares about Stella, I thought. I fell asleep slowly, able to enjoy the vague loneliness, knowing that Jack would be home soon.
*
• *
Saturday unfolded more gently. In the morning I met a friend at the autumn farmer's market and went for a long run by Pearl Creek in the afternoon. Weaving around the cheerful crowds on the bike path — college students, strollers, everyone looking healthy and happy — renewed my faith in the town's wholesomeness. At home, I refused to be upset by the message from Stella on our answering machine — her second call in just over a week.

At dinnertime I picked up videos and take-out Chinese, and never entertained a thought of disturbing Jack's study. I'd already erased Stella's message, deciding not to mention it. That, I thought, should be duplicity enough. I concentrated on remembering my place in Jack's heart, my permanence in his life. Long-gone Stella, I reminded myself, was not a threat.

But by Sunday morning the temptation and opportunity became too much to bear. I knew Jack would keep the letter — he kept everything of an emotional nature, not necessarily out of sentimentality, but for possible use in his writing. I got out of bed, brushed my teeth, and still wearing pajamas, let myself into Jack's study.

The first thing I found, as I crawled under Jack's desk on my hands and knees, was an enormous dead magpie — its wings spread and its neck broken. The bird undoubtedly had been murdered by Pip. Jack's cats each had a hunting style as signature as a serial killer's. Fat, long-haired Beatrix was meticulous and persnickety. Spare, rangy Pip was savage and hedonistic. I could always tell when Beatrix had killed a cricket because its left leg would be missing, while Pip's crickets turned up half-eaten with their little heads crushed. Unlike Beatrix, who preyed almost exclusively on insects and small rodents, Pip's trophies ran the gamut, including other unfortunates as startlingly large as this magpie — ravens, pigeons, even an occasional rabbit. If Pip meant to make a gift for Jack, the animal would be left — pristine as a stuffed teddy bear — on the floor at the end of our bed. Usually he presented Jack with his larger kills, and we often awoke to corvid or rabbit corpses proudly laid at our feet. Beatrix, on the other hand, would provide for Jack by leaving mice on the back doorstep. If she wanted the animal for herself, she would either eat the entire body, down to its tail, or roll her victim on its back and eviscerate it. To our later horror, we'd stumble upon the gleaming mouse guts on our lawn or living room rug, the tiny torso gaping as if a miniature cardiologist had wandered off in the middle of open-heart surgery. Pip never left mice for Jack, but always treated himself by eating their heads and immediately vomiting — leaving a doubly revolting mess.

I crawled backward, away from the dead bird, without considering cleaning it up. Though I usually rejected gender roles, disposing of corpses struck me as a man's job. Besides: Jack's cat, Jack's study. Clearly, the onus of the dead bird belonged to him.

I stood up and slid back the closet door. Though Jack claimed to be hyper-organized, the haphazard placement of boxes, shoes, sporting equipment, and piles of manuscripts suggested otherwise. The first half-open cardboard box I peered into contained his tuxedo, dusty and ringed with tufts of cat fur — a favorite napping spot for Beatrix.

Underneath it lay a more solid, heavier box which — below a few bank statements and university catalogues — contained a naked woman.
I sat back, vaguely surprised. At a glance, the woman in the photograph looked comical and unreal: gazing up at me with smug triumph, apparently disdainful of my baggy flannel sleepwear.

The letter from Stella still my foremost mission, I pushed the magazine aside. Beneath it lay another, and another, and another — an impressive and lovingly frayed collection. I couldn't help but smile, the way I might at stumbling across a little boy's stash of Snickers bars. Jack's penchant for pornography did not exactly come as a shock. One of the stories in his book, an anecdotal piece that had also appeared in Granta, hilariously detailed an attachment to commercial smut.

But while I knew he'd enjoyed this literature in the past, he'd led me to believe this indulgence was behind him. In fact, Jack often complimented me by claiming he hadn't "perused" a magazine in the two years we'd been together. What's more, Jack had promised that his collection had been tossed into the Dumpster just before I moved into this very house.

I sat back and let the cardboard flap drop shut, feeling suddenly dirty and ashamed of myself. Not only for breaking Jack's trust and rooting through his belongings, but for asking him to throw out the magazines in the first place. Who was I to police his primal inclinations? Couldn't a demand like the one I had made (subverting a relatively harmless fetish) be likened to a kind of psychic castration? Why be so controlling? So shrewish?

Poor Jack, I thought. I returned the bank statements and university catalogues to their pathetic attempt at camouflage, then carefully balanced the tuxedo box in its original position. The only magazine I'd seen — the one on top — had some vaguely exonerating data printed to the right of the sneering bimbo: February 1989. Obviously, the magazines in Jack's closet were long-ago favorites, no longer needed but still too precious to discard. What if I left him? What if I died? Surely, Jack was entitled to some sort of sexual security blanket.

I closed the door to his study tightly, resolved to develop a more generous heart, and a more open mind.

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Table of Contents

The Nature of the Beast 1
The Closest Place 23
Scuffling 39
The Wedding Bed 54
Human Contact 76
In His Shoes 97
The Politeness of Kings 117
By His Wild Lone 143
Stealing Baby's Breath 174
Lieutenant Island 201
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Introduction

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Nina de Gramont’s highly praised short fiction collec-tion, Of Cats and Men. We hope they will enrich your understanding of the work.

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Foreword

1. In the story “By His Wild Lone,” Mia says, “How much of a pet can a cat really be? Remember how the cat walks? ‘Through the Wet Wild Woods, waving his wild tale, and walking by his wild lone.’ That’s the thing. Cats will accept what comfort they can get, but when it comes down to it, they’ll always take care of themselves.” On the whole, does this statement apply to the cats in the stories? What about the men and women?

2. After discovering that her brother-in-law has let her cat run away in “The Closest Place,” Tessa says to her husband, Ben, “If we were a pride of lions or a pack of wolves, we’d devour him. We’d fall on him and destroy him. Tear him from limb to limb for the good of the pack. The protection of the family.” Are there other stories in Of Cats and Men in which a character expresses similarly intense feelings of family loyalty and protectiveness?

3. In both “Scuffling” and “The Closest Place,” something happens to a feline character that mirrors what a human character desires. What are these incidents and what do they indicate about the characters’ ability to control the behavior of cats versus people?

4. In “The Wedding Bed,” Camille, a graduate student from a wealthy, sophisticated, upper middle class family, describes her Persian cat Penny as a “luxury,” and says of her husband, who works as a roofer, “Joe could live anywhere. He would be just as happy inside the van, with the yellow cat.” Yet, Camille sets out to “court” the stray. Is Camille’s attempt to befriend theyellow cat an effort to compensate for feelings toward Joe? Is Camille aware of the similarity between her father’s disparaging remarks about her husband and the alley cat? Do you think these attitudes influence her feelings and behavior?

5. Several of the stories revolve around an outsider (human or feline) who significantly alters the dynamic between a couple. In which stories does this happen? In each of these stories, is there an existing flaw in the relationship that is magnified or is it a case of a new element being introduced?

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Reading Group Guide

1. In the story “By His Wild Lone,” Mia says, “How much of a pet can a cat really be? Remember how the cat walks? ‘Through the Wet Wild Woods, waving his wild tale, and walking by his wild lone.’ That’s the thing. Cats will accept what comfort they can get, but when it comes down to it, they’ll always take care of themselves.” On the whole, does this statement apply to the cats in the stories? What about the men and women?

2. After discovering that her brother-in-law has let her cat run away in “The Closest Place,” Tessa says to her husband, Ben, “If we were a pride of lions or a pack of wolves, we’d devour him. We’d fall on him and destroy him. Tear him from limb to limb for the good of the pack. The protection of the family.” Are there other stories in Of Cats and Men in which a character expresses similarly intense feelings of family loyalty and protectiveness?

3. In both “Scuffling” and “The Closest Place,” something happens to a feline character that mirrors what a human character desires. What are these incidents and what do they indicate about the characters’ ability to control the behavior of cats versus people?

4. In “The Wedding Bed,” Camille, a graduate student from a wealthy, sophisticated, upper middle class family, describes her Persian cat Penny as a “luxury,” and says of her husband, who works as a roofer, “Joe could live anywhere. He would be just as happy inside the van, with the yellow cat.” Yet, Camille sets out to “court” the stray. Is Camille’s attempt to befriend the yellow cat an effort to compensate for feelings toward Joe? Is Camille aware of the similarity between her father’s disparaging remarks about her husband and the alley cat? Do you think these attitudes influence her feelings and behavior?

5. Several of the stories revolve around an outsider (human or feline) who significantly alters the dynamic between a couple. In which stories does this happen? In each of these stories, is there an existing flaw in the relationship that is magnified or is it a case of a new element being introduced?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 24, 2013

    Interesting stories. The first few stories are good but the last

    Interesting stories. The first few stories are good but the last few stories were drawn out; slightly depressing. The women lack direction & purpose in life. The cats lurk in the shadows in the stories. Where's the cat? Where's waldo? It's fun getting to know the cats.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2003

    Cats are the Coal Mine Canaries of Relationships

    I noted famed librarian Nancy Perle recommended this book for cat lovers in her 'Book Lust' topical reading list. While 'Of Cats and Men' entertains the reader it reveals to us that cats do know and judge us more accurately than we do in these perfectly crafted stories. Two major themes cleverly weave the cats and couples together like strands of DNA. One is the relationship of men and women, the other is the personality of cats connected to the couples and way each party responds to the other. Watch the man who loves, disdains or is oblivious to the cat, and you get a pretty good idea of how he will nurture the relationship with the women. Listen to the thoughts of the woman and how she learns (or fails to observe) from the cat what is the worth of her mate or potential lover. Nina de Gramont evokes Guy de Maupassant or O Henry in a very modern milieu of coupling and language. Occasional four-letter words lend an authenticity to these cat-tails. I found the story collection to be like an exquisite series of miniature paintings, full of interesting details that only a skilled observer could detect and only a superb writer could put into words.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2001

    Lessons of the Heart

    In each of these cleverly crafted tales, lies a lesson of compassion and of compromise. Through feline companionship and through the characters own revelations these stories conclude to an emotional evolution. Deeply touching and at times very humorous, Nina de Gramont has written a beautiful collection of short stories that run deeper than an entire novel. If you desire a book to tug on every human emotion and stories that you never want to come to an end, then this is the book for you. Bravo Nina.

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