Novellas in November: Short Nonfiction

Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. This week the theme is short nonfiction and these are some I’ve read in previous years.
  1. Alive, Alive Oh and Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (21 December 1917 – 23 January 2019). She was a British literary editor, novelist and memoirist who worked with some of the greatest writers of the 20th century at the London-based publishing company Andre Deutsch Ltd. This book contains her memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approached her 100th year, covering events from her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s, her post-war life, visits to Florence, and in the Club Mediterranee in Corfu in the 1950s, and the friends and lovers she has known upto 2009 when she moved into a home. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life. And it is this love of life that is evident in her writing that makes it such a remarkable book. I loved it.
  2. Ink in the Blood: A Hospital Diary by Hilary Mantel, another short memoir. I read this in 2011 after Hilary Mantel’s talk at the Borders Book Festival at Melrose had been cancelled in the previous summer.  She had to cancel that because she wasn’t well – I didn’t know just how ill she was. Ink in the Blood reveals all – how she had surgery to remove an intestinal obstruction that ended up in a marathon operation, followed by intense pain, nightmares and hallucinations. Illness she found knocks down our defences, revealing things we should never see, needing moment by moment concentration on breathing, on not being sick and being dependent on others for your well-being. Writing was Hilary Mantel’s lifeline – it was the ink, as she wrote in her diary, that reassured her she was alive.
  3. James Herriot’s Cat Stories is a collection of ten stories clearly demonstrating his love of cats. In the introduction James writes that cats were one of the main reasons he chose a career as a vet. They have always played a large part in his life and and when he retired they were still there ‘lightening’ his days. This is a short book of 158 pages with illustrations by by Lesley Holmes.

I’ve recently read Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and I’ll post a review later.

James Herriot’s Cat Stories

In August I read a beautiful little book- it was a birthday present – James Herriot’s Cat Stories. It was a great relief to read this book after some of the books (about war and disasters) I’d been reading lately and this book with its lovely illustrations by Lesley Holmes cheered me up immensely. That’s not to say it has no drama or desperate situations of the feline type that tugged at my heart strings. (An aside the heart does have strings – I saw them on Alice Roberts’ programme Don’t Die Young.)

I must have watched all of the programmes in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small about “James Herriot’s” vet practice in Yorkshire.  There are many James Herriot books and I’ve read a few of them in the past. This book contains ten short stories, all about cats. In the Introduction James writes that cats were one of the main reasons he chose a career as a vet. They have always played a large part in his life and and now he has retired they are still there “lightening” his days. When he studied to become a vet he was astounded that he couldn’t find anything about cats in his text book Sisson’s Anatomy of Domestic Animals. Yet when he began his practice there were cats everywhere and every farm had its cats. Things have moved on since then and now “Large, prestigious books are written about them by eminent veterinarians, and indeed, some vets specialise in the species to the exclusion of all others.”

Cats have always played a large part in my life too (see here and here). 

James Herriot’s Cat Stories is not large; in fact it’s very small (158 pages) but the ten stories clearly demonstrate his love of cats. Inevitably there are some spoilers in my summaries:

  • There is Alfred the Sweet-shop Cat, “a massive, benevolent tabby”, belonging to Geoff the sweet-shop owner. When he starts to lose weight and becomes gaunt and listless, Geoff too begins to wilt and become bowed and shrunken.
  • Oscar the Socialite Cat who loves people often goes missing as he visits his human friends. Everyone loves him.
  • Boris by way of contrast lives in household full of cats taken in mainly as strays by Mrs Bond. Boris is a “malevolent bully” who regularly beats up his colleagues, so that James was always having to stitch up ears and dress gnawed limbs.
  • Three stories are about Olly and Ginger were two little strays who came to live, not with the Herriots but who sat on the wall outside the kitchen window, too wild to actually venture into the house. When they become desperately ill will they let James treat them?
  • Emily, a dainty little cat, has adopted Mr Ireson, “a gentleman of the road”. When Emily becomes pregnant, seemingly full of kittens she needs a caesarean operation.
  • Moses – Found Among the Rushes. He was rescued by James, looked after by a farmer’s wife and adopted by a large sow. 
  • Frisk the Cat with Many Lives (don’t they all). Why does Frisk, old Dick Fawcett’s faithful companion keep falling unconscious?
  • Buster the Christmas Day Kitten – the little orphan born on Christmas Day who grows up playing with dogs and behaves like a feline retriever.