All I need to be entertained are cats within ear-scratching distance and a good book . . .OK, maybe that's not ALL I need, but it's a good start.

I love to read. And I love to get recommendations for books to read.

I started Cats and a Book to share the books I read with others. Some I love, some I don't, but you may love the ones I don't, so you're welcome to post your own comments and suggestions.

To make it easier to purchase books you may read about on the blog, I've linked to through The Cats and a Book Bookstore, which is located on the bottom of this page. Your purchases are fulfilled and handled through Amazon. To assure your privacy, Cats and a Book doesn't handle any of your payment or contact information.

Happy reading!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

White Dresses, by Mary Pflum Peterson

Mary Pflum Peterson’s White Dresses:  A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mother and Daughters reads like a novel.  White dresses are the thread the story is strung upon—christening gowns, graduation dresses, wedding dresses.  To Mary Pflum’s mother, white meant “cleanliness, innocence, simplicity, sophistication, and above all, possibilities.”  As Pflum write, “for her, white—a blank canvas—was the embodiment of hope and the promise of new beginnings and good things to come.”  The memoir’s opening scene finds the author searching through a disaster-struck house for the white dresses from her childhood. 

Pflum’s story is remarkable.  Her mother, Anne Pflum, was an outstanding student who turned to religion to salve a broken heart.  Following her short stint as a nun, Anne met and married Mary’s father, who never seemed able to meet the family’s needs, often absent, angry, or moody.  After the marriage disintegrated, Anne Pflum began a downward spiral that wasn’t apparent to others.  She became a hoarder, and her home became off-limits to everyone, including her children in order to hide her disorder. 

Mary Pflum herself became a successful reporter, working for a time for CNN, and an awarded television producer.  Despite her personal successes, she was pulled back home, only to find she was unwelcome in the home she grew up in, her mother preferring to meet at a local hotel. 

Pflum bares all in this memoir, bravely exposing her family’s struggles so that others might find strength in their kinship or learn compassion.  White Dresses was published in 2015 by Harper Collins. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, by Vendela Vida

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, by Vendela Vida, is a study in identity—how we construct it, how we prove it, and how we change it.  Written in second person, Vida tells the story as if you are the female protagonist (“You call to cancel your bank card”) whose personal documents, including passport and wallet are stolen in Casablanca.  This gives the reader a sense of personal stake in the outcome.  It helps us feel her panic and frustration and perhaps understand her logic as she attempts to regain control of her situation. 

Vida’s character is suspicious, but as her true story is revealed, readers may better understand her perspective.  She weaves fairly unbelievable conspiracy theories which in her mind support the creation of alternate identities.  For example, when the police return a black backpack to her, similar to the one stolen from her, she senses that they are attempting to close the matter through a tacit agreement that she would take what was offered.  And she does, including the identity of the woman whose backpack she now possesses, at least for the time being.  Legal documents, physical appearance, the trappings of a career all lend themselves to creating her multiple identities while she struggles with recreating her own concept of who she is and how to move forward with her life.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is an entertaining read and a thought-provoking story about identity—legal, constructed, and imagined.  It was published by Harper Collins in 2015. 

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, is the delightful story of genetics professor Don Tillman’s search for a life mate. Having decided through a logical process that he was in need of a wife, Professor Tillman develops a questionnaire which he contends will identify his perfect match. Unfortunately, his questionnaire isn’t quite as precise as he believes, and even his “perfect match” turns out to be flawed.

Tillman’s charm is his vulnerability and his lack of understanding of nuance. He interprets comments literally, which leads to a number of amusing situations and misunderstandings, but it also leads him to Rosie, a very unlikely match for a life mate. Serving as a balance to Tillman’s more innocent charm is his friend Gene, whose womanizing ways are a sharp contrast to Tillman's naiveté.

Simsion followed The Rosie Project with The Rosie Effect, for those readers who must know what became of Don and Rosie.  The Rosie Project was published by Simon and Schuster in 2014.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper

In Etta and Otto and Russell and James, Etta Vogel sets out from her native Saskatchewan to Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaving her husband Otto with a short note and a collection of recipes on the kitchen table.   She also leaves him their only vehicle, the truck.  She has decided to travel on foot. 

Emma Hooper’s bittersweet story chronicles not only Etta’s journey, but the story of her life as a rural school teacher, her involvement with best friends Russell and Otto, and her growing memory loss.  Otto is stoic in the face of Etta’s disappearance, as if he understands it is something she is driven to do.  He puts on Etta’s apron and using her recipes, learns to cook.  Russell is anxious when he discovers she has set out on foot for the coast, and attempts to coax her to return.  In order to round out the quartet, James appears later in the story as Etta’s quite unusual traveling companion, providing her with company and advice. 

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  It is a true story of commitment:   to neighbors, friends, and lovers.  Hooper creates characters readers not only care about, but urge on.  Readers want Etta to reach her destination, and then realize why she so badly wanted to. 

Etta and Otto and Russell and James was published in 2015 by Simon and Schuster.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz

The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz, takes us back to 221B Baker Street in London, to the apartment of the famed detective, Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson, Holmes’ biographer and partner in the original adventures, again chronicles a thrilling adventure that will not disappoint fans of the original works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

"The game's afoot” when an art dealer asks for Holmes’ assistance after being followed by a mysterious man in a flat cap. The dealer and his partner sold a series of paintings to a collector in the United States, but the paintings are destroyed in a botched train robbery. In an effort to bring the thieves to justice, the art dealer and collector place an ad for information leading to the gang’s whereabouts. When the collector is killed, the art dealer escapes home to London. He is now convinced that the man in the flat cap is indeed a member of the notorious “Flat Cap Gang” who killed the collector and is now coming to exact his revenge on him. What Holmes uncovers is far more sinister than a simple plot for revenge, but instead sordid criminal activity at the highest levels of social and political power, which preys upon the most weak and defenseless.

What follows is a fast paced, thoroughly enjoyable story, in which Holmes uses his incredible powers of observation, dons disguises, gets arrested, engages in thrilling chases, and of course, identifies the evil-doers--that is, everything you’d expect from a Sherlock Holmes story.

The House of Silk was published in 2012 by Mulholland Books.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Best of 2014

Early in the new year is the time to reflect on the previous one, and in the case of the Nashville Book Examiner, to reflect on books read in 2014 that were impactful: stories elegantly written, or rife with conflict and raw emotion, or impossibly complex. They were the books recommended, talked about, and gifted. Although it is difficult to narrow the list to only 10, these titles stand out:
1. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. This beautiful novel is a story of betrayal, loss, love, sacrifice, and reconciliation. Hosseini’s frontispiece is a quote from Jelaluddin Rumi from the 13th century, which well describes the complexity of the story, the decisions his characters face, and the circumstances in which they find themselves:
Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
It is this meeting place that readers arrive at intervals in the novel, weighing the wrong and right, seeing the consequences play out in the lives of the characters, considering what would have happened “if,” mostly unable to condemn or praise anyone without reservation for their choices. Their motivations were strong: love, family pride, greed, honor, commitment. As his character Nabi says, “ . . . I have come to see . .. that one is well served by a degree of both humility and charity when judging the inner workings of another person’s heart.”
2. The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan. Another gem from the prolific pen of novelist Amy Tan, as her protagonist leaves behind her early life in a courtesan house in China to find her destiny.
3. Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple, is an identity journey--witty, touching, and memorable. From Bernadette’s interaction with the other mothers to the way she keeps (or doesn’t) keep house, Bernadette’s journey to find meaning in her life is both entertaining and relatable.
4. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is well and powerfully written. As the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, that description is clearly deserved. Its story is intense, at times almost too painful to read. Readers ponder the painting at the center of the story and the object of its main character’s obsession from time to time—it’s unique beauty, the simplicity of the goldfinch as the central figure in the work, the chain holding it to its perch—and look for similarities between the subject of the painting, and the existence of the painting itself, to our protagonist’s life. Was he chained by the tragic event that took his mother’s life and left him injured and emotionally scarred? Was he chained by the theft of the painting, or by the painting itself? Was he chained by his love of Pippa, the young girl who was also injured in the blast? Was the survival of the painting itself, and the life of the artist, a parallel to Theo’s life? The Goldfish is an arduous read, but one that will remain with the reader for some time.
5. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, is the story of family, whether by blood or adoption, as our young heroine bonds with the lover of her beloved Uncle Finn, who died of AIDS during the 1980s.
6. Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner. Two Russian immigrants meet as children and find solace in dreaming of a world famous magic show. When Lena’s difficult home life leads to a long separation between the two, their reunion is a poignant reminder of the bonds of friendship forged years ago.
7. Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger, is at its core, a murder mystery. But it is much more the story of a small town, it’s pastor and his family, their history and connections with others in the town, loves and loves lost, and their faith.
8. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson is set primarily in the town of Gilead, which readers are acquainted with from Robinson’s previous novels "Gilead" and "Home." Lila Dahl is a nearly feral child, neglected and mistreated by people we assume are family. Her savior is Doll, a woman with a violent past, who takes pity on Lila and cares for her. After Lila is banished to the family’s front porch for complaining, Doll takes Lila and they begin traveling to find work, shelter, and food.
Lila learns hard lessons from Doll’s experiences. Although Doll doesn’t tell Lila everything—like the history of that sharp knife she carries—Lila knows life is hard and no one can be trusted. Doll tells Lila, “You got to look after your own self,” and Lila learns to live on her own, finding shelter, food, and work along the way, vaguely aware of people from her past who could be looking for her.
9. The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, is a unique, disturbing, and yet satisfying novel, which combines science fiction, fantasy, and contemporary literature in one tome. Mitchell seems to enjoy snatching readers from one genre to another, all the while maintaining our bond with the characters so that we continue to care about their well-being, a remarkable feat considering the complexity of the plot.
10. The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer, is the story of Jewish brothers, born in Hungary, prior to World War II. The story focuses on Adras Levi, an architecture student in Paris at the beginning of its occupation by the Nazis and the deprivation and cruelty his family faces at the hands of their enemy.
More to come in 2015!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Lila, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson, is the story of Lila Dahl.  It is set primarily in the town of Gilead, which readers are acquainted with from Robinson’s previous novels Gilead and Home.  Lila is a nearly feral child, neglected and mistreated by people we assume are family.  Her savior is Doll, a woman with a violent past, who takes pity on Lila and cares for her.  After Lila is banished to the family’s front porch for complaining, Doll takes Lila and they begin traveling to find work, shelter, and food. 

Lila learns hard lessons from Doll’s experiences.  Although Doll doesn’t tell Lila everything—like the history of that sharp knife she carries—Lila knows life is hard and no one can be trusted.  Doll tells Lila, “You got to look after your own self,” and Lila learns to live on her own, finding shelter, food, and work along the way, vaguely aware of people from her past who could be looking for her. 

Lila’s life takes a turn when she arrives in Gilead.  When she tells the widowed preacher, John Ames, “You ought to marry me,” she wasn’t quite sure what she was asking for or why.  Even after they are married, she doesn’t seem to trust the elderly pastor, despite his acceptance of her—including her failure to attend church regularly, her cursing, or her petty theft from his garden or his clothes before they were married. 

Robinson details both Lila’s and Pastor Ames’ introspection and self-discovery as they come to know each other and develop their unusual relationship.   They are childlike and open as they learn about themselves, while gently unfolding their past lives, with the pain and memories that come with them. 

Lila was a finalist for 2014 National Book Award.  It was published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, will alternately entertain, enlighten, enrage, and move readers.  Fowler’s prose is witty and modern and the book’s narrator, Rosemary Cooke, rises above most first-person accounts by being painfully honest without painting herself as heroic or admirable or self-destructively attractive.   In fact, Fowler spins out the story in pieces through Rosemary’s narrative, so that it’s nearly a third of the way into the book before the reader learns that one of the main characters, Rosemary’s older sister, is in fact, a chimp.  And this is critical to the book. 

Rosemary’s father is a scientist, who, along with a troop of graduate students, studies communication between chimpanzees and humans.  Specifically, they study Rosemary and her “sister,” Fern, who are being raised together in the Cooke household.  Rosemary found this unexceptional and in fact, felt jealous of Fern’s abilities like any warring siblings would.  But they were also exceptionally close, and Rosemary alone felt she could translate Fern’s feelings.  Eventually, Fern is sent “to a farm” to live which is the family’s turning point.  Lowell, Rosemary’s human brother, disappears, later to turn up wanted by the FBI and Rosemary struggles with feelings of guilt well into her adulthood about why Fern was sent away.  The story starts “in the middle” as Rosemary narrates, with Rosemary in college and Fern gone since Rosemary was five years old.  

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves gives us relatable and mostly likable characters along with an entertaining plot with occasionally witty if not snarky narration.  Her story turns a bit heavy-handed from time to time when introducing details of animal testing and activism.  Elizabeth Strout took on a similarly emotionally charged topic in The Burgess Boys, but guided the reader to draw their own conclusions through introducing characters with different perspectives.  Fowler, on the other hand, provides the reader with text that could be coming from activist brochures—not to suggest that it isn’t true or worthy of outrage, but she doesn’t give the reader the opportunity to arrive at that conclusion themselves. 

We Are all Completely Beside Ourselves was published by Putnam in 2013.