Monday, February 04, 2008

The Chocolate Cat by Sue Stainton - review



It's a cliche to say that all librarians are fanatic cat people. For example, I can't stand our cats. But... I have cats. I think I'd have to turn in my MLS if I didn't.

Our cats, St. John Bosco and Buzz Aldrin, are inside cats. Sisters, scavenged by Bob and me from a shelter in Brooklyn 10 years ago as Valentine's Day presents to each other. Predictably, they hate each other. When they're not binging and purging on Hill's Science Diet, they're laying around making mats of cat hair on any item of clothing I have chosen to care about. They wake up in the middle of the night to fight and hiss at each other. Not a whiff of magic realism about them, unless that's that smell coming from the mattress in the guest room.

But then, we don't live in a picturesque village "nestled between the mountains and the sea". We don't have Anne Mortimer to illustrate our home life. And I am about as good a chocolate maker as I am a welder.

Sue Stainton and Anne Mortimer have a habit of making these lovely cat books - The Snow Cat, The Lighthouse Cat, and now The Chocolate Cat. And for Sue Stainton and Anne Mortimer - and especially for The Chocolate Cat - I am more than willing to suspend my distaste. You pretty much have to see this book to believe how luscious the illustrations are.

Cat lives with a grouchy chocolatier in a humdrum little town. One day, the chocolatier makes chocolate mice "with crunchy pink tails". Cat eats one, and is inspired. He delivers a mouse to the greengrocer across the street. As the grocer bites into a delectable chocolate mouse, he in turn is inspired. He visits the chocolatier, bringing his best fruits to experiment with. Together, they create delicious (and visually spectacular) new confections. The same thing happens with the baker, the florist, and the other business owners in the village. Each brings new ideas and ingredients to the creative process. Eventually, even the chocolatier becomes inspired, and the village thrives.

This is, in some ways, a "Stone Soup" story - except the result of all the pitching-in-together-ness isn't, like, SOUP (hard to get super-jazzed about soup, especially if it has turnips in it), but instead, truffles with candied violets, Turkish Delight, and "honeycomb fireworks that would sparkle in your mouth". That's what I call inspiring.

This book is pretty much the G-rated version of the movie Chocolat. Also, with its emphasis on creativity, beauty and quality, this is no gluttony book. The degree of craftmanship that goes into these creations implies that they are meant to be appreciated and savored. This message is delivered explicitly at the end:

Every now and then Cat is still given a chocolate mouse. But not very often because, as you know, you should never eat too much of scrumptious things. Because they lose their magic.
In Baltimore, visit Kirchmayr, Wockenfuss, or Rheb's. Buy half a pound of dark almond bark, or chocolate caramels, or mixed truffles with the cocoa powder dust on them. Rent Waitress or Brokeback Mountain or Shoot 'em up, as is your wont. Have a happy Valentine's Day, and don't let the cat eat your chocolate!