Cats I've Known
On Love, Loss, and
Being Graciously Ignored
By Katie Haegele
160 pp. $14.95
Reviewed by John Timpane
The best thing about Cats I've Known by Katie Haegele, a frequent reviewer in these pages, is that it sounds so much like Katie Haegele. It won me over - a feat because I'm allergic to cats, even more so to cat books. But these 43 vignettes featuring felines of various names - Honeybunch, Grayson, Snickerdoodle, Ophelia, Neil Young - is by turns charming, dreamy, gritty, dark, and diverting.
Sometimes, the cats are the stars, and sometimes, they're just bit players. Through them we meet Haegele's friends and family, her Philly neighborhoods (wonderful evocations here of life on the block), and her world of DIY bookmaking, 'zine conventions, reading tours, essays, poetry, funky bookstores, bars, and rock shows. She is a city-lover, and, among cities, a Philadelphia-lover. Throughout runs the thread of "the backyard saga," the sweet little stories played out around you, the moments of pleasure and loveliness.
Haegele has a humorous, self-deprecating voice ("I walked quietly, my mind full of nonsense as always"), conversational, then - blam! - the arresting image (one house is "loud with silence") or clause ("that dirty kind of longing you feel when you don't get to make peace with something"). She has an eye for the character of a place. An Art Deco home in West Philadelphia is "the kind of place Wes Anderson might dream up - a sort of fantasy of bygone city living." One friend has "a formica kitchen set that looked like it belonged in a diner in a movie from the '50s." Another has a "flagrant love of things that are cheesy. Prom Queen tiaras, sweet mixed drinks, Jersey girl hair." Cats are vivid, such as Ricky, "a big, gorgeous old fella with the regal carriage of a hobo"; Coco, whose "coat has all the colors of a roasted marshmallow"; or a shy caged kitten that "didn't seem to want to lose the security of being locked in."
Cats teach us about death, grief, longing, the solitary life, and the fugitive nature of contentment. Perhaps the longest essay concerns Trixie, her family cat. When Trixie dies, Haegele doesn't believe she's gone: "My sense of a spirit world was alarmingly strong the year after she died, as if a window between this place and the other had been left open, and I could feel the breeze."
Cats are connected to love, disappointment, loss, and frustration. Haegele finds the world, especially herself, unexplainable, especially cats. This book liberally shares her pleasure and gratitude for them.