Curl Up with a Good Cat Book: Gwen Cooper’s “My Life in a Cat House”

I first met Gwen at a vegan dinner for the speakers of the inaugural Cat Fest London.  I knew I would like her a lot right after she ordered her Scotch within a sea of white wine drinkers. Past her taste in good liquor, within a few moments of conversing I recognized someone down to earth, funny, open and not just a lover of cats but dedicated to the causes of cats.  When I heard about her new book My Life in a Cat House, it gave me an opportunity to not just review on Kittentoob, but to talk with Gwen about her journey as a writer and feline advocate.  (Yes, I know, I didn’t say advocat. )

“My Life in a Cat House” is a collection of stories from her online digital “Cat Tale” series. There are eight separate stories, each of them focusing on one of five cats: Scarlett, Vashti, Clayton, Fanny and of course Homer.  The stories all take place from different times in her life and they are so relatable to all cat lovers. If you don’t have a Vashti, you probably have a Clayton, if you know what I mean.

I was struck right away by what a good writer she is.  In the very first story on page one, she describes her boyfriend Jorge’s mother’s fat Siamese cat Pandy this way,

The tiny, porcelain-doll perfection of her head and neck made for a jarring contrast with the enormous belly—ballooning out on each side of her body— that swayed ponderously as she walked.”

The melonious description immediately created a vision in my head and caused me to do a little more research on Gwen.  Just as expected, Gwen was a published novelist prior to writing her New York Times Best Selling Book “Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat.”  Her early novel Diary of a South Beach Party Girl has some great reviews on Good Reads and seems like a great book to put on your summer reading list.

The first story catalogues how she, as a member of a family of dog lovers, came in possession of her first pet as an adult, a cat named Scarlett .  The thing that struck me about this story is Scarlett isn’t really the kind of cat that would engender one to become a ‘cat lady.’ But Scarlett helped Gwen to understand early one of the most important lesson about our pets: “it isn’t always about what we want, it is also about what they want,” Gwen would tell me.  Although Gwen wanted a loving lap kitty, what she got was Scarlett, but like with any relationship theirs grew into a unique and special one which Gwen would not have changed for the world. Part of what makes this book so engaging is the breadth of time that spans over Gwen’s journey as we see her ‘cat house’ come together brick by brick. The charm of Gwen’s writing is how comprehensively Gwen creates of the ‘conversations’ she has with her cats.  Scarlett pops up intermittently in all the stories and as Gwen further illuminates Scarlett’s character we effortlessly “hear” her voice and almost see her rolling her cat eyes at the humans and even the other cats in the book.

Meanwhile, Gwen uses a different voice when communicating with Clayton,  She reluctantly admits she talks down to him a bit. Clayton, who is painted as a big, simple, loving cat is certainly a feline many readers recognize their own naive simpleton in Gwen’s accounting of Clayton. He is the kind of cat people who don’t know cats, don’t realize exist. They are the needy, bonded, happy-go-lucky lovers who never fail to bring a smile to your face. Clayton, whose joyous tale is about playing fetch, is a real charmer.  

“MEEEEEEE!” Clayton’s meow has no “ow” at the end, so he lives perpetually in the insistent first person. His voice is comically high-pitched and squeaky for such a stocky cat, and under different circumstances I’d probably laugh as he repeats “MEEEEEEE!” picking up and rattling the toy mouse once more for good measure.

Clayton is one of Gwen’s current cats and  only has three legs, but like Homer, his disability doesn’t come into play. He is just a great cat.  His sister Fanny is cat number two in the current household and these two Bombay cats were adopted as a bonded pair.  Truly, is there a better poster mom for shelter adoptions than Gwen?

Gwen didn’t realize that she or her books would become symbols for the animal welfare world, even though from the very start she had pledged 10% of her royalties to animal welfare organizations.  That all changed very early on when she started receiving letters from other adopters of blind and special needs cats and rescue workers around the country. She has taken the responsibility seriously and has forged deep connections to the animal welfare world.  Her book tour for her cat themed novel “Love Saves the Day” skipped the traditional bookstores and instead was held nationwide at rescues around the country. The tour was corporately sponsored and the rescues received in kind donations and PR for participating. Gwen is always looking for innovative ways to continue to give.  She currently has Homer apparel being sold with 100% of the profits going to help the cats of the California Wildfires.

For those of you long time Homer fans, you will love the story of his first real press shoot at a fancy hotel with a film crew flown in from Los Angeles and loads of suits all ready to make some magic happen..  I was so curious about the outcome of shoot, so I did a little digging on YouTube and found the piece referenced here. So read it book and then watch the final product here!

For me the biggest draw in the book is Gwen herself.  She is a woman keenly aware of her flaws and doesn’t spend time trying to hide or excuse them.  This makes the ‘character’ of Gwen open, relatable and of course, very, very funny! A moment that stands out for me is the story “Cat Carrier Tango”, where she has to sneak her three cats out of her doorman building, a building that doesn’t allow pets, and get them to the vet. Needless to say, everything goes wrong and when she ends up in the waiting room with her hair aimless and untamed, and her mascara crawling down her face, she writes about the perceived judgement of the other pet parents staring at her in the waiting room.

Their owners gazed at me—sitting there alone, taking up three chairs, cat carriers surrounding me like a pillow fort—and then down toward my bare ring finger with an air of bemusement and pity. How is it even possible, I imagined them thinking, that some lucky person hasn’t already snatched up this gem? I felt a childish, almost irresistible impulse to cry out, I do so too have someone! He just isn’t with me right now, is all.”

When I asked Gwen about her portrayal of herself in her books, she said that “Cats force you to be self deprecating.  You have to take yourself with a grain of salt because your cats always are.” Well, we all know there are differences in cat people and dog people but I think Gwen put it perfectly, “Cats force you to up your game.”

My Life in a Cat House” is a great stocking stuffer for Christmas, or a fabulous present for your co-worker who has her cat’s photo on her desk, or even better for any cat lover dating a ‘non believer’.  Gwen’s book depicts a life of felines, filled with love and laughter that any of us would fancy to slip into. Plus, Laurence, her partner in crime, was not an animal person when they met and you can tell from the book he is happy he took the plunge.  Keep getting Gwen’s engaging and original stories all next year by signing up for the Curl Up With a Cat Tale” series, monthly digital stories delivered directly to you (or a friend). This way you can continue reading the irresistible stories of  Scarlett, Vashti, Clayton, Fanny and Homer without having to wait for her to publish a new book!

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