by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

With more than 30 million cat owners in the United States, The Tribe of Tiger may have nine lives on the best-seller list. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, whose previous blockbuster, The Hidden Life of Dogs, was optioned by Disney, has applied her animal-observation skills to felines and come up with fascinating insights.

Thomas, who is adept at seeming to write about animals from the animals' point of view, here considers cats in both their wild and domestic states. She makes the case that cats have a distinct culture, a set of behaviors that prove them to be more social than we might imagine. Purring, meowing, tail-twitching, body-arching, scratching and spraying make up only a part of their vast repertoire of expression. If they seem at times aloof, Thomas argues, it is only because we humans are not particularly skilled at communicating with them.

Thomas began her study of cats in the 1950s in southern Africa, where she observed the relationship between lions and the native Bushmen, a fascinating interdependence forged over millions of years of living side by side. She recounts, for example, how a band of hunters who had wounded a wildebeest were able to persuade a pride of lions not to eat the beast when it fell. As the Bushmen have recently given up their nomadic lives, however, that relationship has changed. Lions today live mostly in preserves away from humans, Thomas notes, and without that continued familiarity, they have become more dangerous.

Turning her attention to the current state of the big cats, she asks what might be the preferred lifestyle of a captive lion or tiger. She compares life in a zoo to life in a department store window display, with all its static, nonfunctioning objects. A circus, on the other hand, in her opinion gives cats more of what they need—an opportunity to interact and exercise their intelligence and powers of observation.

As she did in The Hidden Life of Dogs, Thomas draws upon her training as an anthropologist to create a unique bridge to the animal world, finding a common ground where all species meet. Balancing sentiment with science, The Tribe of Tiger is full of life and the wonder of life. (Simon & Schuster, $21)

by Cynthia Bass

With his famous march to the sea, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman brought the Confederacy to its knees. In this exciting fictional account of Special Order 120—Sherman's plan to end the war by devastating the countryside—Cynthia Bass brings a chapter of Civil War history to life.

Sherman justifies his march as a quest for peace, claiming the only way to end the war is to have civilians feel its sting. He comes across as clever, human, witty—and as the quintessential soldier. Army captain Nicholas J. Whiteman, however, is more reluctant. An illustrator before the war, he struggles to maintain his morality after four years of both boredom and bloodshed. Southern widow Annie Saunders Baker's feelings are not so complicated; compassion turns to hatred after her home is torched by Union soldiers and she joins the flood tide of refugees.

A mesmerizing story, Sherman's March conveys the glory and the horror of battle through the personal experiences of three very different characters. While Nick and Annie undergo profound change, General Sherman holds fast to his image of himself as peacemaker: "Oh well. It's hard to become immortal without being misunderstood. Look at Christ." (Villard, $21)

by Thomas Flanagan

Built around Ireland's struggle for independence from Britain after World War I—and the civil strife that ensued—this rich, stimulating novel spins its dolorous story through characters both real and imagined. The most compelling of the latter is Janice Nugent, a young Irish war widow who falls in love with Christopher Blake, a propagandist for Sinn Fein, the political movement for independence. Their furtive, tender but haunted affair symbolizes the bittersweet nature of the nationalists' Pyrrhic, bloody victory.

Flanagan, an American whose lauded previous novels The Year of the French and The Tenants of Time also dealt with the Irish struggle against British rule, completes his trilogy in masterly fashion. He evokes not only a historical period (Winston Churchill, then Great Britain's colonial secretary, appears in Hunt, as does the charismatic Irish revolutionary Michael Collins) but also a landscape—the misty countryside where rebels hide and the seemingly civilized Dublin, where life goes on amid sudden assassinations. Flanagan, makes you want to learn more about this broken nation and the troubles that continue to this day. (Dutton, $24.95)

by Richard Dooling

Western due process meets cryptic African ritual in the maze of Richard Dooling's ribald second novel. Grave begins when a mysterious parcel containing a bundle of rags that looks "like a dark, petrified egg, laid by some huge, extinct bird of prey" arrives at the law office of Randall Killigan. Then comes news that Randall's son Michael, a peace corps volunteer in Africa, has been missing for the past two weeks. Michael's disappearance is compounded by the fact that his village is located in Sierra Leone, which is being besieged by Liberian guerrillas. A well-connected lawyer who can troubleshoot the circuit courts of Indiana and call in favors from powerful senators, Randall can do nothing to remedy his son's fate.

Michael's childhood friend Boone Westfall has already traveled to Paris, where the two had planned to meet and then travel onward throughout Europe. The moment Boone gets word that his friend is missing, he squanders his hard-earned savings on an expensive plane ticket to Sierra Leone, entering a labyrinth of witchcraft and black magic. Life in the bush is so hostile that the first Westerner he meets describes it as a "white man's grave." Dooling's novel becomes a satire of American and African culture, of wheeling-and-dealing lawyers manipulating the legal system to work to their advantage and of shamans and soothsayers trying to harness the forces of their world. It's an admirable addition to the canon of belly-laugh-culture-clash literature. (Farrar Strauss Giroux, $22)

Beach Book of the Week

by Patricia O'Brien

WHEN FAITH PAIGE, THE PRESIDENT'S QUICK-witted, vivacious press secretary, is found dead in the Potomac, her four closest friends refuse to believe she killed herself. These members of the so-called ladies' lunch—Sara Marino, nominee to the Supreme Court; Leona Maccoby, one of D.C.'s primo caterers; Carol Lundeen, a congresswoman from Maryland; and journalist Maggie Steadman—all accept that Faith had seemed a bit depressed of late, distracted and frantic about money. As they become more and more certain that foul play—in very high places—is involved, Faith's death becomes the catalyst for the ladies to reexamine their lives and priorities. O'Brien isn't a particularly felicitous stylist—the dialogue rarely rises above the level of slick soap opera—but this is pulp with plenty of juice. (Simon & Schuster, $22)

>Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

A PLACE OF ENCHANTMENT...

AS A YOUNG GIRL GROWING UP IN Cambridge, Mass., Elizabeth Marshall Thomas "ate, slept, dreamed and breathed" animals. In fact, the first book she wrote—at age 5—was about tigers. Cats were her earliest fascination.

"When I was little," she remembers, "we had two black cats, Lilith and Eve. Our house had cat doors, and the male cats would come in, and they all would gather in the basement. I would hear through the radiator their meowing, and I would go down and see all these eyes and forms up in the pipes. It was a place of enchantment that had nothing to do with anything human."

Today, Thomas lives in Peterborough, N.H., with her husband, three cats, three dogs and an Amazon parrot. Like the cats of her childhood, these animals come and go as they please. "Except at night," she says. "There's a great horned owl and a coyote that hunt in the field outside. They make it very dangerous, especially for our cats."

The cats compensate by hunting during the day. "They bring all sorts of creatures into the house and turn them loose to hunt. Snakes, frogs, mice, voles—it's a field biologist's dream," she explains. "We don't encourage it, but sometimes there's nothing we can do. You see, cats are hunting machines. If they weren't so sweet and beautiful, we'd probably never keep them as pets."

After publishing The Hidden Life of Dogs a year ago, was it difficult to start thinking about cats?

"It is harder to get into the mind of a cat than a dog," Thomas avers. "Dogs touch us with their need to belong to a group. They need us more than cats do, and we can feel that. Cats are more self-sufficient." Yet despite their independence, she marvels that cats willingly let us into their world, where we can rest with them in a moment of trust and understanding.

  • Contributors:
  • Thomas Curwen,
  • Louisa Ermelino,
  • Dick Friedman,
  • Joseph Olshan,
  • Joanne Kaufman.