Gwen Cooper comes home to Miami with a bestseller
Gwen Cooper returns home this week wreathed in glory. Homer’s Odyssey, her memoir about life with a “blind wonder cat,” is both bestseller and a critic’s darling, abetted by rave reviews and a recent appearance on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.
Born and raised in South Florida, Cooper will be at Books & Books on Friday evening at 8 to read from Homer’s Odyssey. Even more important, she will be this month’s guest on Chauncey’s Book Club, an internet book-chat forum, tomorrow at noon.
Cooper already had two cats and no interest in adopting another twelve years ago when her vet called. At 24, she’d just been dumped by her boyfriend, and, working for a Miami nonprofit, was chronically underpaid. But once Cooper picked up and held the kitten with no eyes, she knew she’d be taking him home.
A cynic might be justified in attributing the popularity of dog and cat memoirs to the sentimentality of the pet lovers who buy them–Homer’s Odyssey reached No. 14 on last week’s New York Times bestseller list. But no animal book gains enduring popularity without good writing, a strong story, and human as well as animal interest. Just ask John Grogan (Marley & Me) or Vicki Myron (Dewey).
The subtitle, slightly wordily, hints at the richness of Cooper’s book: “A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat.” Okay, that sounds schmaltzy, but Cooper writes with intelligence, clarity and conviction, thereby saving the story from melodrama, mawkishness and, most of all, anthropomorphism.
Instead of investing Homer with questionable human characteristics, Cooper enables the reader to see what’s special about him as a cat. He turns out to be fearless, energetic, playful, resourceful, and unconditionally affectionate. He leaps five feet into the air to snatch flies in mid flight, protects Cooper from a burglar, and generally charms everyone he meets.
This is Cooper’s story, too, with romantic and professional reversals, leading to her move to Manhattan in 2001 and her eventual marriage to another writer — and dog lover. Her account of her experiences during 9-11–marching out of lower Manhattan with thousands of other shocked New Yorkers and her desperate quest to get home to take care of her cats –is gritty and powerful.
After Hurricane Katrina, I wondered why disaster resources are wasted on stranded pets when people are suffering. Cooper’s 9-11 account showed me that the love between a person and her animals can be as real and valid as any other human attachment. That’s why.
Homer’s Odyssey is Cooper’s second book. She’s also the author of Diary of a South Beach Party Girl, a pop novel of uncommon emotional texture, psychological depth and narrative confidence, that, with slight alteration in the alignment of the stars could have made a bigger splash. It’s worth seeking out.
If you only read one animal book this decade, though, I recommend Homer’s Odyssey. My last one was Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas, published in 1987 — and it may well be twenty-two years before I read another. You don’t have to own a cat to enjoy Cooper’s deeply human story.
Meanwhile, join me for an online chat with Gwen tomorrow at noon, and don’t forget her appearance at Books & Books on Friday.