Goodbye, Millie, hello, Socks! To welcome the furry member of the First Family, reviewer JILL RACHLIN surveys the litter of cat books now on the market, hardy hits as well as brand new titles, and culls the meows from the miasmas.

Executive Purrrvilege

Socks may be our new First Feline, but he is far from the first feline to take up residence at the White House (that distinction goes to Siam, a Siamese given in 1878 to Rutherford B. Hayes's wife, Lucy). In the clever and amusing PRESIDENTIAL PETS (Abbeville Press, $10.95), Niall Kelly covers the dogs and cats as well as the horses, cows, parrots, alligators and—still describing the animals, mind you—the jackasses (Washington) and snakes (Teddy Roosevelt) of our first families. Not only Bill Clinton but Carter, Teddy R., Wilson, Coolidge, Truman and JFK were ailurophiles. History is not always kind: During the Spanish-American War, Ida McKinley ordered her maid to drown two of Ida's cats. Their crime: One was named after the Spanish ambassador, the other after the Governor of Cuba.

To properly brief yourself for the next four years, you may want to consult THE 125 MOST ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT CATS (Morrow, $13) by John Malone and the 1986 classic CATWATCHING (Crown, $13; $8 paper) by Desmond Morris. Malone tries to answer those both philosophical and practical questions that have perplexed cat lovers for centuries—everything from why cats purr (it's a reaction left over from kitten-hood, usually indicating contentment, but it can also be a call for help) to whether they can be trained to use a scratching post (yes, maybe). In Catwatching, Morris, a world-famous zoologist, does his part to answer the eternal cat questions such as can cats predict earthquakes? (Yes.) His appreciation of the feline disposition is clear: "The domestic cat is a contradiction. No animal has developed such an intimate relationship with mankind while at the same time demanding and getting such independence of movement and action."

Cats and Cameras

One cat picture is worth a thousand meows—at least, if the photographer is Tony Mendoza. Mendoza practically invented a genre in 1985 with his enduring ERNIE: A PHOTOGRAPHER'S MEMOIR (Capra Press, $6.95). Crawling around a New York City loft for two years in pursuit of a rambunctious black-and-white cat named Ernie, Mendoza produced a remarkable study of catness: Ernie pouncing, flopping, licking, lounging. The pictures, in black and white, were animated, imaginative, humorous (Ernie "jealously" attacking a newspaper with a photo of another cat on the cover) and, thanks to Mendoza's breakthrough use of flash, sharp down to the last hair. With a clever narrative written from Ernie's viewpoint, the book never got cloying, or is that clawing?

Ernie proved so popular that Mendoza followed up in 1989 with ERNIE'S POSTCARD BOOK (Capra Press, $6.95). Both are still in print. But the greatest tribute to the Ernie books is paid by their imitators. CLAUDE (Putnam, $14.95) by Randy Moravee fuzzily mimics Mendoza's visual style, with a forced and fussy text that tongue-in-cheek marvels at the habits of the finicky creature. Another Ernie homage is LIVING WITH DICKENS (St. Martin's, $25) by Tom Bianchi. It's packed with competent black-and-white photos of Dickens, an Abyssinian, at rest and at play, each with a short cutesy label like, "Oh, no, the vacuum cleaner." Still, there are some amusing photos, particularly one of Dickens with his head tucked inside a copy of Mendoza's landmark book.

Cartoon Book Boom

Cat humor, already a steady bestseller, is sure to expand in the Socks administration—or perhaps we should call him Chaussettes. Maisoui. For those who have had their fill of Garfield, FRENCH FOR CATS in 1991 (Villard, $9.95) taught upwardly mobile Americats how to address their owners in French, translating such key phrases as "Remove yourself from my nap place at once." Now author and illustrator Henry Heard (Henri de la Barbe) returns with ADVANCED FRENCH FOR EXCEPTIONAL CATS (Viliard, $12). In this funny sequel, M. de la Barbe leads his feline pupils into appreciation of gastronomy and philosophy ("I nap, therefore I am").

Less enticing is A CAT'S LITTLE INSTRUCTION BOOK (Dutton, $10), by Leigh W. Rutlege. A takeoff of the bestseller for humans, it offers 201 ideas to help confused eats sort out all nine of their lives: "Begin each day with a long hard stretch." Or, "Never be discouraged by the words no, stop that, or bad cat." Yawn. Instruction for cat owners is provided in the irreverent, amusingly perverse HOW TO MASSAGE YOUR CAT (Chronicle Books, $8.95), written and illustrated by Alice M. Brock of Alice's Restaurant fame. Sample: "Draw front legs out at right angles to the body and tug sharply, rotate fully extended limbs until they ride free in sockets." Your cat won't be able to thank you enough.

There may come a time when your cat has had enough of being treated royally. Then he may be ready for FINAL EXIT FOB CATS (HarperCollins, $6), a totally tasteless spoof of the best-selling suicide manual. In this cartoon book, Michael Viner recommends many ways cats can leave the planet, such as putting the blender on their heads and hitting puree or slicking their fur with hair gel so that they can sneak into a mink farm and get in line to be electrocuted.

Haven't cracked a smile yet? Step up to the best of the breed, THE NEW YOBKEB BOOK OF CAT CARTOONS (Knopf, $19; $8 for a palm-size paper edition). The magazine's all-star roster (Addams, Booth, Koren, Roz Chast et al) cleverly captures the foibles of both cats and their devoted owners. In one Gahan Wilson drawing, for example, a woman tries to cheer up her friend as her cat strolls aloofly away: "I've never seen him pause next to anyone longer!"

The Literary Kitty

As Michael J. Rosen, editor of The Company of Dogs, observes in the preface to his new fiction anthology, THE COMPANY OF CATS (Doubleday, $20), "Stories with dogs concern families, corroborations, communities and collective reconciliations; stories with cats concern independence, individual solitudes...separations and insights into personal and family identities...Primarily, the cat is a character of being; the dog, a character of doing." This impressive collection is replete with absorbing tales of fated meetings between felines and humans told by modern writers such as Alice Adams, Bobbie Ann Mason, Amy Hempel and Phillip Lopate. (Also included are photos by Tony Mendoza and cartoons by Roz Chast.) Any animal lover will be pleased to discover that the profits from this book are donated to animal welfare agencies. Equally literate and comprehensive, THE SOPHISTICATED CAT (Dutton, $23), assembled by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern, offers a historical and multicultural look at cats. It features classic stories by Zola, Chekhov, Twain and Italo Calvino as well as poetry by Keats, T.S. Eliot, Baudelaire et al. Similar but more specialized is FELINES: GREAT POETS ON NOTORIOUS CATS (Chronicle, $14.95), with strong, striking black and white linocuts by Martha Paulos.

If you'd prefer one long cat tale, there's THE CAT WHO WENT TO PARIS (Fawcett Columbine, $9), a humorous story of a modern man and his even more modem cat. Author Peter Gethers thinks he hates cats until he's given a tiny gray Scottish Fold kitten, which he names Norton. The devoted duo become inseparable: They travel New York City's subways, go for long walks on Fire Island, fly to California, and, yes, travel to Paris—more than once—to help director Roman Polanski write a script. This memoir makes entertaining reading that reveals as much about the nature of man as beast.

Doris Lessing, the South African author of The Golden Notebooks, explores a lifelong fascination in PARTICULARLY CATS...AND RUFUS (Knopf, $20). She delves into the complicated bond between felines and humans with an unusual blend of pragmatism and appreciation. Lessing tells of the many cats in her life, from an early pet she treasured to the mean, wild ones she'd shoot on her South African farm to the strays she has taken into her heart, such as Rufus, the big orange cat who came to live in her London apartment. In her sphere, cats are often stoic, neglected creatures, pitiful and helpless, objects of pathos, a far cry from our sentimentalized spoiled princelets, Morris and Garfield.

  • Contributors:
  • Jill Rachlin.