Because the Cat Purrs

READING Because the Cat Purrs by Janet Lembke on the airplane, I find myself hunching over to hide the cover. The boy next to me is ripping through Crime and Punishment. Meanwhile, my book is bedecked with a photo of a fluffy kitten with eyes so blue they must be digitally enhanced. It looks like a two-hundred-page Hallmark card.

Then the author starts laying plans for the groundhog named “Big Beast” who is shredding her sunflowers. She reports with a hint of glee that a friend with a problem groundhog “beat it to death with a two-by-four and flooded another out of its burrow, whereupon her husband shot it.” Now who’s too sweet, Dostoevsky?

Lembke inspects plants and animals that live close, sometimes too close, to humans. Whitetail deer, harlequin beetles, red maples, English sparrows, E. coli — none of her subjects are found farther away than the garden or, in some cases, the small intestine. Digging into these relationships that many take for granted, she charts our mutual dependence and antagonism, layering in personal stories, literary references, and notes on evolution.

Lembke also translates Greek and Roman poetry, notably Virgil’s Georgics, and her unraveling of ancient stories provides some of the book’s greatest pleasures. It also marks her prose with a certain formality. A cat wonders, “Shall I leap upon the kitchen counter or shall I not?” Of people who might fall in love with a laboratory mouse, she writes: “woe betide them.” This, combined with cheerful animal line drawings and the chapter subtitles — “A Bird of Consequence: A Tale of Bargains” (about chickens); “A Bale of Chelonians: Tales of the Licit and Illicit” (about turtles) — give it the air of some nineteenth-century volume stamped with gold-embossed beetle, but with a dash of contemporary sauce. Both might cite Aristotle, but only Lembke quotes the Home and Garden Network, too.

In her book, creatures draw near to be named, petted, and examined under the microscope. A tender story about a rescued stray appears alongside this cold-eyed fact: “It’s noteworthy that a cat does not need a fully functioning brain in the first place; a cat with a brain injury that would turn a person into a vegetable continues to behave as usual — meowing, begging food, using a litter box, and purring.” Lembke hands us the pretty cat gift card, then presses us not about whether we like it, but why.