I’m afraid that I may be a little of a Johnny-come-lately in a addressing this much talked about publication, but I also think that I would be remiss if I were to overlook it entirely.
My reluctance to review the 365 Kittens a Year 2010 Calendar until the summer of 2011 has a lot to do with my conflicted feelings on the book. But I will say straight out that there’s a lot to like here. Primarily, the cats. There are literally hundreds of them. Each one looks out at you as if to say, “I’m a cat!” or “We’re cats!” or “I’m tired!” or “I’m filthy!” and so forth. It’s all wonderful.
But you’ll notice that I wrote “cats,” and not “kittens.” I know that a very large portion of kittens eventually turns into cats, and that this is a necessity if we’re to maintain a functioning kitten industry, but the fact is plain that despite the title these are not all kittens. Many of them are cats. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle to enjoying the calendar in itself, but it’s perhaps indicative of contradictions yet to come.
I should also say at this point that over the course of the last year, I did damage 365 Kittens a Year fairly extensively in my efforts to cut out cat heads to paste on the subjects of my other 2010 calendar, Women at Work 2010, given for free with a $50 purchase at Olde Towne Liquors. This is not a review of Women at Work, but I can say that that would have been, in many respects, the superior calendar, were it not for a few significant problems. For one, I simply can’t imagine any professional metalworker running an arc welder with so little protective clothing, or while she was so thoroughly oily. At any rate, you should be confident that I’m accurately reproducing the content of the cut-out portions of 365 Kittens for this review. Because I am.
The basic format of 365 Kittens is as follows: For each of the 12 months we are presented with an ostensibly cat-related quote from an author, a passage on one of the apparently innumerable exciting characteristics of kittens, and a veritable sawed-off blast of “kitten” photographs.
January, as you would expect, starts the year off strong with a quote from Mark Twain, and a brief column regarding the introduction of a kitten to your home. “A young kitten’s introduction to her new home is an exciting milestone for everyone!” Indeed it is (although, I don’t know why the kitten must be a “her.” Many are female, but not all of them, as far as I know.) Aside from the fact that only 28 cats and kittens are featured in January, it’s a promising start. (While some days, like January 17, feature a pair of cats, more often a cat will greedily stretch across two or three days by itself. Pumpkin of Lenexa, Kansas, and Nicky of Salt Lake City are two such thieves.)
Unfortunately, our playful journey takes a confusing turn as soon as February rears its snowy head. The reader is greeted by two loosely ribboned tuxedos, one so wide-eyed and startled that I can only assume it was being presented with the barrel of a loaded weapon. The other cat is incongruously relaxed, with suspiciously dilated pupils. February’s quote, from an issue of The Spectator published more than one hundred years ago, is this: “Cats are to be loved because they are cats, and for no other reason.”
At best, I read this as simply begging the question, but I don’t think it ends there. It’s an unsettlingly subjective statement. Depending on the cat, it may hold very little intrinsic value. With no other reasons to love it, said cat could be a very hated creature indeed. Now, we might wonder if 365 Kittens is intentionally provoking the reader into examining what a cat truly means to him or her, but the monthly cat primer passage leads me to question whether it’s simply more likely that the calendar was written by someone without the capacity for such introspection; “Surely, there is no more delightful sound in the world than a purr, yet how kittens and cats create this noise is subject to debate. One popular theory suggests that impulses from kitty’s brain travel to his voice box, making the muscles vibrate.” Yes, this seems likely. In fact … how could there even be debate on the subject? If the hypothesis is in question, it’s laudably verifiable. I wouldn’t typically propose vivisection, but if the question is such an intellectual barrier, well … (Although I’ll concede that coaxing a purr during this process could be a challenge.)
The text descends into an even more mystifying pile of dates and “facts” from February on. In March the previous month’s kittens stare pleadingly through a hole I cut, as if begging for insight on the “A Real Glamour-Puss” section, a passage where allusions to magical ability are mixed with statements on a cat’s need for more hours of sleep than there may exist in a day. In the spring, Carl van Vechten cryptically informs us that “an ordinary kitten will ask more questions than any five-year-old.” How many five-year-olds he knew and just what he thought he was hearing from his kitten are left to our imagination.
In June, William Ralph Inge tells us that “a cat can be trusted to purr when she is pleased, which is more than can be said for human beings.” Is this meant to illuminate a shortfall of our species, or is William needlessly pointing out how wonderful it is that most people do not purr? The primer offers no answers, nor does it even point us in a productive direction. It tells us, instead, of the 30 muscles in each feline ear. We are halfway through a yearlong ride on a mental Tilt-a-Whirl, thought and sensation bleeding into each other, while a drunken ride operator looks on uncomprehendingly … if he is there at all.
Lewis Thomas later posits, “cats are a standing rebuke to behavioral scientists wanting to know how the minds of animals work. The mind of a cat is an unscrutable [sic] mystery.” I don’t believe this to be true of housecats—predators with brains smaller than apricots—but he might as well be referring to 365 Kittens itself. “Even Kitty Has an Agenda,” says the primer … but, for God’s sake, what is it? Do you even know, 365 Kittens? What about you suggests that you have ever considered what it might be?
I’m not sure. The calendar actively deconstructs itself, but it reveals nothing, and does not make an effort to reconstruct the pieces into something new. A discussion of a cat’s three types of hair may be a coded philosophical argument, but it’s one beyond my ken. And the nearer we come to the end, the more I’m inclined to think that it’s a joke at the reader’s expense. Says Walter Chandoha, “His gracefulness is surpassed only by his agility. And, along with these, he has a sense of humor.”
That is certainly debatable, but, if nothing else, I’d agree with November’s Cynthia E. Vernado: “It is impossible to keep a straight face in the presence of one of more kittens.” True enough, Cynthia. And, indeed, what might one’s face do in the presence of hundreds of kittens? To that question, for better or worse, The 365 Kittens a Year 2010 Calendar will leave you entirely on your own.