People's fascination with cats is unceasing. And that's true whether a purr and a soft fur rub about the ankle says "I love you" or "About time you're home; get that can opener out and start cranking."

While dog owners invariably chat about training their pets and how preferable they are to cats, cat owners quietly find themselves trained by their meowers, learning a lot about life and themselves in the process.The training process, from the cat's point of view, is described in one of the books reviewed below.

No matter what cat-haters may blather, all cats are not alike. While some display persistent qualities of arrogance, independence and an absolute assuredness that proper care will be forthcoming, others have it in them to be almost doglike in their devotion as well: greeting owners at the door with rumbling amity; spitting, all hackled up, at strangers; cozying in beside owners when they sit or sleep, always touching.

And they inspire dotty devotion in return. In "More Strange Powers of Pets," Brad and Sherry Hansen Steiger (Donald I. Fine Inc., $18.95) tell the story of a rich Muslim widow in Egypt in 1813 who left a large fortune to charity, with the income to be devoted solely for the spiritual upliftment of cats, selecting 52 each year to go on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, in baskets, aboard a thoroughbred camel, with a venerable old man known as the "cat father" to look after them.

In all, perhaps cats fascinate because they are just themselves, muscular, lively little art forms who teach us quality living and who tell us that being oneself, and that alone, is most of what life is all about.

No one capitalizes on collective cat leanings better than book publishers. They don't just rev up their cat books around winter holidays. They parcel them out all year.

In 1994, five remarkable cat productions have crossed our desk, along with a host of cat amusements, and some oh-by-the-way-have-you-seen cat books.

One of our favorites is a re-issue of Jean-Claude Suares' "The Indispensable Cat." This is an aficionado's amalgam of gorgeous art, provocative photographs, and fascinating anecdotes detailing a 5,000-year relationship between humans and cats.

Socks Clinton, the president's cat, is featured in one of the 70 full-color magical art reproductions. Wanda Landowska is photographed, hands in motion (Goldberg Variations, no doubt), as a cat ruminates atop her harpsichord, and there's Salvador Dali, in a snapshot with tossed cats, set up 26 times in order to arrive at the version presented.

This is an art book, really, first published three years ago by Stewart, Tabori & Chang (192 pages, 70 full-color reproductions, $21.95, in paper only in this printing, alas). The company had no plans to reprint it. Popular demand changed its mind.

The book is awash with cat lore, cat history, cat mythology, and cat poems, sufficient to keep one occupied the better part of several snowy Saturdays. The photographs and art are to be memorized, as a favorite poem, to savor in memory when the book is not at hand.

The wonderful James Herriot's "Cat Stories," with gorgeous color illustrations by Lesley Holmes (St. Martin's Press, 161 pages, $16.95) has the old storyteller sharing tales of cats that touched his life and his heart while working as a veterinarian. There is the all-black Boris, who shared a retiree's house and made trouble for the innumerable other cats in residence (she loved them and never turned one away). There is Alfred, the sweetshop cat, whose owner declined, and, in domino effect, the number of his patrons also declined. Herriot to the rescue, saving cat, man and business.

The story of Oscar, the socialite, and Olly and Ginny, peoplephobes until they fell ill, were especially tender and illustrate so well Herriot's gentle, accepting nature and his recognition of the individuality of animals as well as of people. He pulls heartstrings, stokes aspirations and is just irresistible.

Asking the cat question of the '90s - "Why Cats Paint" - is Ten Speed Press's remarkably illustrated treatise, subtitled "A Theory of Feline Aesthetics." New Zealand critic Burton Silver takes a "serious" look at this compelling issue, seeking assistance from artist Heather Busch.

Readers gain entree into the rarely seen cat art world tracing back to the Etak and Tikk, Aperia cats of ancient Egypt entombed with paw-printed scrolls, and moving forward to Fluff and Radar, California mixed media installation artists.

A discussion of feline art theory is followed by the book's key ingredient, profiles of 12 major contemporary cat painters. The list includes the collaborative team of Wong Wong and Lu Lu; Misty, who is pushing the limits of the canvas with her newest action work; Rusty, the psychometric impressionist outdoor painter, and Bootsie, the Trans-Expressionist.

Think chimps and elephants are the only four-legs able to wield paintbrushes? This book buries that notion, as well as scratching at today's pompous, unintelligible mainstream art criticism.

Hans Silvester's "Cats in the Sun" (Dutton, 144 pages, $29.95), is chockful of luminous, to-die-for photographs that make art of Greek island cats against the dazzling backdrop of rocky, sun-drenched terrain. In an introductory essay, Silvester, who spent three years shooting the photographs, offers insight into the ways of the people on the island and their relationships to their cats.

Finally, there is Maria Polushkin Robbins' "Puss In Books," with 257 pages of quips and commentary about cats, including this from Jeff Valdez: "Cats are smarter than dogs. You can't get eight cats to pull a sled through snow." And this by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: "If a dog jumps up into your lap, it is because he is fond of you; but if a cat does the same thing, it is because your lap is warmer."

Our next best favorite is "Feline and Famous - Cat Crime Goes Hollywood," a collection of original feline mystery stories edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Ed Gorman. Included is author Barbara Collins, who, the editors say, loathes cats. Her work about one-upmanship among two women with cat as pawn is breathtaking.

A bit too cutesy is Colleen Q. O'Shea's and Crumbum Q. McIntosh's "The 50 Secrets of Highly Successful Cats," a little $7.95 paperback put out by Dell. The two are touted, presumably by their owners who have copyrighted the book, as "two experts in the art of people-training." And they are doozies.

Their feline success tips range from strategic uses of accidents (to get people to clean the litter box or to stop paying so much attention to everyone else) to ignoring scratching posts, which, they say, people seem to worship as art forms.

On a lower rung, and of more recent vintage, is poet-screenwriter-author Merrit Malloy's "I Purr, Therefore I Am" (Price Stern Sloan, $10.95), an 80-page treatise dubbed a cat-echism of quips, quotes, and humorous thoughts about cats, including this from the author: "Dogs teach you how to love, cats teach you how to live." It's dispensable.

Then comes Willard Books' "Poetry for Cats," Henry Beard's "definitive anthology of distinguished feline verse," 87 pages, $12.95 - a compilation of verses set to the rhyme or meter or fashion of more illustrious poets. One is called "Treed" by Joyce Kilmer's cat: "I think that I shall never see/A poem nifty as a tree. A tree whose rugged trunk seems meant/To speed a happy cat's ascent."

A tiny, paperback tome, at $5.95, on "101 Reasons Why a Cat Is Better than a Man," by Allia Zobel and published by Bob Adams Inc. in Holbrook, Mass., is another in the same genre, but more spiritedly hostile and funny. Some of the whys: "Cats don't need high-tech toys, a grocery bag will do" . . . "A cat would never go on `Oprah' and talk about you" . . . "Cats don't have beer bellies" . . . "Cats are not afraid of commitment."

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These little books come on the heels of Barron's more serious cat health care book, "Caring for Your Sick Cat," by Carol Himsel Daly (D.V.M., 182 pages, $8.95); "Catfantastic III," edited by Andre Norton and Martin H. Greenburg, a compilation of cat stories by many authors, including Norton, in paper (DAW Books, Inc., 319 pages, $4.99); and about the same time as the paper edition of Cleveland Amory's bestseller, "The Best Cat Ever," a tribute to his late buddy, Polar Bear (Little, Brown, 262 pages, $10.95).

And in case you missed it in May, there is Roger A. Caras's "The Cats of Thistle Hill - a Mostly Peaceable Kingdom" (Simon and Schuster, 236 pages, $22). Thistle Hill is Caras's Maryland farm, and the 10-plus cats that inhabit it, each with its own personality and its own story, are the main characters.

This is a gentle book, illustrated with home-variety snapshots of varying quality.

Intriguing was "The Tiger on Your Couch," a paperback reprint of a 1992 book by Bill Fleming and Judy Petersen-Fleming (Quill, 224 pages, $12), full of tips about living comfortably with your cat. Make that cats - they recommend two kittens rather than one, especially if there's no one around most of the time to be sociable. It helps avoid neurosis.

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