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 Amazon.com 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!

Friday, December 31, 2010

Cats and a Book Names Top Ten Books of 2010

Happy New Year’s Eve! As we look toward 2011, it's time to name my favorite books of the year. Narrowing down the list to ten was challenging, but here are the books I think were most noteworthy:

1. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. The first book I read and reviewed for Cats and a Book, it remains one of my favorites. The protagonist of the story is Harrison Shepherd, a Mexican-American boy who is a cook, plaster-maker, secretary, and most importantly, writer. He chronicles his life and the book is, in a sense, autobiographical. The reader follows him through interactions with historical figures such as Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo, as well as with his mother, father, and secretary, Violet Brown. Kingsolver deals lightly with McCarthyism (Shepherd himself seemed apolitical) and homosexuality, so as to tell a story rather than to persuade. The reader is left to draw whatever conclusions he or she wishes and to decide the moral, if there is one, of the story. Read the full review here.

2. Hot, Flat, and Crowded, by Thomas L. Friedman. Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, spends the majority of the book convincing us how doomed we all are for our gratuitous and reckless use of Earth's natural resources and environment. He cites expert after expert and packs the book with facts like the alarming rate of CO2 growth in the atmosphere, what the analysis of the Greenland Ice Sheet tells us about our climate, and how all we need to do is to step outside our front doors. Daffodils in January? No snow on the mountain tops? Widespread flooding, unusual snowstorms, terrifying hurricanes? All signs of climate change. But the purpose of the book isn't to terrify or debate. It's to inspire America to greatness, to recognize what we need to do--no, must do--to survive in this new climate and thrive. Read more on Cats and a Book.

3. Noah’s Compass, by Anne Tyler. Tyler’s Liam Pennywell has moved down the academic career ladder with each job change, the latest being downsized out of his position as a teacher at a private elementary school. With this last change, he also downsized to a smaller living space. And this is where the book begins: Pennywell is attacked on his first evening there. The resulting loss of memory from a concussion obsesses him. This leads him to an unlikely relationship with a professional "rememberer" and greater interaction with his three daughters and an ex-wife, with their varying degrees of concern for Pennywell's health and happiness and demands for his attention. But Pennywell has plenty of memories which he shares throughout the book, though his inability to remember the attack is like a puzzle he can't solve. Read more about this charming story in the blog review.

4. Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder. Sophie’s World novel centers around fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen who one day receives in her mailbox a letter with three words: Who are you? A second envelope addressed to Sophie asked, Where does the world come from? And finally, a postcard appeared addressed to Hilde Moller Knog, written to Hilde by Hidle's father, which raised the perplexing questions, Who was Hilde? And why was it addressed c/o Sophie Amundsen? Followed by these initial questions and Sophie's ponderings on what they meant, Sophie begins to receive philosophy lessons--short, easy-to-read explanations of philosophical theories. Sophie's thoughts about the material help the reader assimilate the ideas, too, so that Sophie and the reader are progressing together toward a deeper understanding of each philosophical theory. Read the review on Cats and a Book.

5. The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. This fun book to read is an account of author Gretchen Rubin's personal quest for happiness. Rubin suffered from "midlife malaise"--not being unhappy, but not being particularly happy, either. It's not that Rubin didn't appreciate her life. In fact, she was grateful for what she had. But the nagging question remained, "Is this really it?" More disturbing was the recurring answer she provided, "Yep, this is it." Thus, the Happiness Project was born. Rubin studied happiness--what did it mean, how did others obtain it, how is it measured--until she settled on an "I'll know it when I see it" approach. Rubin decided to create twelve "resolutions"--one for each month, except for December, in which she'd attempt to do all twelve. Rubin leaves readers with lots of ideas on how to create and sustain happiness in their own lives. Read more here.

6. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The Help is a complex story of African American maids and the whites who hired them. Rooted in the deep South during the Civil Rights movement, The Help is written from the perspectives of two of the maids, Aibeleen and Minnie,and Skeeter Phelan, a white woman raised by a maid. The plot centers around the white woman's fledgling journalism career and her attempt to capture the stories of Aibeleen, Minnie, and others. Having been raised by a maid she loved and who was unceremoniously fired by her parents, Skeeter felt empathy for the maids and their working conditions. Although some maids had close relationships, particularly with "their babies" (the white children they raised) many were subject to whims, superstitions, and mistreatment at the hands of their employers. Class within white society is also explored in the book, as Skeeter's project is unveiled and she is ostracized by old friends. Read the full review here.

7. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a lovely book. Charming and funny, Helen Simonson’s first novel is a gem. Major Pettigrew is of one of the older families in Sussex, England, the sort of quintessential British military man characterized by loyalty to one’s country, character, and politeness above all else. He is stung by his only son’s banking career and attachment to an equally ambitious and far too casual American woman (she called him “Ernest” when first meeting him, instead of his preferred “Major”). He is a widower, and the sudden loss of his only brother, Bertie, brings to mind an array of emotions, some of which he hadn’t expected, particularly with regard to the bequest of a hunting gun which matched his own. Complicating his life was Mrs. Ali, a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper who aroused in him an unexpected but not unwelcome passion. A charming book, it is one of my favorites this year, and was selected by One Book of Rutherford County for 2011.

8. The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall. The Lonely Polygamist is a rich, enjoyable novel written by Brady Udall. Udall doesn't attempt to address the real-life tragedies of polygamy, choosing instead to take a humorous and bittersweet approach to the fictional story of Golden Richards, husband to four women and father of twenty-eight children. Golden is a surprisingly sympathetic character. He was raised alone by a depressed and emotionally absent mother. After reuniting with his father, Golden finds religion in the form of a fundamentalist Mormon sect and marries his first wife, Beverly. The demands of his growing family result in a schedule, created by his wives, which determines when and where he spends his time. There's the Old House with one wife and her children, The Big House, with two wives and their children, and a condo across town with his newest wife and her daughter. In addition to the demands of attention from the wives, there are the demands of running three households and meeting obligations for 28 children: band concerts, school meetings, doctors' appointments, and so on. His construction business supports them all, and a recent job building a brothel keeps him away from home much of the week while creating an ironic moral dilemma. Recommended to me by WPLN's GM Rob Gordon, I also reviewed The Lonely Polygamist for the Examiner.com.

9. The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, by Julia Stuart. This delight of a novel features Balthazar Jones and his wife Hebe, who live at the Tower of London. Jones is a Beefeater, or more properly "Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and member of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary." But what he typically did was give visitors tours of the Tower, regaling them with tales of torture and escape, and dutifully pointing out the restrooms. It wasn't a terribly glamorous position, notwithstanding the public's perception and the traditional uniforms, and the living quarters were damp, round (it was a tower, of course)--which made picture hanging and furniture placement dicey--and haunted. When the Queen decides to reestablish the Royal Menagerie at the Tower, the role of its overseer falls to Jones, mainly due to his ownership of a geriatric tortoise named Mrs. Cook. A quirky and charming love story, The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise ranked among my top five favorites this year, and reviewed here on Cats and a Book.

10. Run, by Ann Patchett. Ann Patchett's Run is a delight. An interesting story with unpredictable elements and rich and likable characters, Run focuses on the nontraditional story of a former mayor of Boston, Bernard Doyle. A widower, he raised to adulthood a biological son and two adopted sons, but finds that his family may not yet be complete. Doyle was a former Boston politician who still had a passion for public service. He and his wife, who were both white, adopted two African American boys, Tip and Teddy, as very young children, in what some criticized as a political move. Just three blocks away from their affluent neighborhood, Kenya Moser lived with her mother, Tennessee, in a apartment project. At the book's opening, a disagreement between father and son following a political speech leads to an accident in which the former mayor and his sons' lives collide with 11-year-old Kenya and her mother Tennessee, leaving the families merged in a unexpected way. The full review of Run can be found here on Cats and a Book.

In my next entry, I’ll briefly describe ten additional books which were also noteworthy and considered for my Top Ten list.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Wishin' and Hopin', by Wally Lamb


Wishin' and Hopin' is Wally Lamb's entry in the Christmas novel genre, reminiscent of Jean Shepherd's In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash on which the classic movie "A Christmas Story" is based. Lamb's version is set in a 1960s Catholic school, St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School in New London, Connecticut, during the time that "subscription television" is a new concept, which Felix helpfully suggested, ". . . would be like going to a store and buying water instead of just getting it out of the sink."


Lamb's main character is fifth grader Felix Funicello, whose third cousin is the famous Annette Funicello of Mouseketeer fame. Felix's father is manager of a bus station diner, and his mother the state winner of the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Characters from his classroom include his buddy Lonnie, his nemesis Rosalie Twerski, and a foreign student from the USSR (this was set during the Cold War) named Zhenya. When Madame Frechette, one of the two "lay" teachers at the school decides her grade will perform tableaux during the Christmas pageant, all manner of hijinks ensue.


Wishin' and Hopin' is a light but fun read for the holiday season. Published in paperback in 2010, the hardcover version was published in 2009 by HarperCollins.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Redbird Christmas, by Fannie Flagg


In the spirit of the holidays, a Christmas story seems appropriate, and none better than from the consummate Southern storyteller Fannie Flagg. Flagg is best known for her book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, but also produced bestselling novels Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, and Standing in the Rainbow. A Redbird Christmas features Oswald T. Campbell, an orphan named for the can of soup found with him when abandoned as a baby. At age 52, he is diagnosed with untreatable emphysema and told to put his estate in order. As a piece of additional advice, his doctor suggested he move from his native Chicago to a more hospitable climate and produced a brochure for an inn in Lost River, Alabama. Divorced and without family, Campbell decides to visit Lost River and make it his temporary home, figuring that he won't make it more than a few months anyway.

Lost River is a charming little community in which everyone knows everyone else. The inn had long since burned, so he finds a room to rent instead. Although a small town has its advantages and disadvantages, groups like "the Mystic Order of the Royal Polka Dots Secret Society" spiced things up a bit with their secret attempts at doing good, such as decorating the community Christmas tree. The club's motto was "To Toot One's Own Horn is Unattractive."

Campbell becomes a cause celebre in the small community of Lost River, with every available female in the area vying for his interest. He makes friends with the best fisherman in town, learns about an old feud between this side of the river and the other side, struggles with alcoholism, befriends an abandoned girl who needs medical treatment, meets the local storekeeper who keeps a pet redbird, and miraculously, Oswald begins to return to health.

A popcorn read, and caramel popcorn at that, A Redbird Christmas is predictable but sweet. Flagg is an engaging storyteller, spicing her narrative with humor, realistic characters, believable dialogue, and just the right amount of eccentricity.


A Redbird Christmas was published by Random House in 2005.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Matchmaker of Perigord, by Julia Stuart


Julia Stuart's first novel, The Matchmaker of Perigord, is as delightful and quirky as The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, reviewed earlier this year on Cats and a Book. The Matchmaker follows the career of Guillaume Ladoucette, a barber who set up shop in the tiny hamlet of Amour-sur-Belle. This peculiar town features characters as eccentric as the geographic quirks of the town itself, including a persistent breeze that seems limited to the city limits and whips up into a "mini-tornado" from time to time. When the barber discovered that Amour-sur-Belle males were growing bald or visiting a barber in a neighboring town for their coiffures, he determined "there was no role for a man of forty-three who had dedicated his life to conquering the cow's lick, the double crown and dandruff," and decides to take up matchmaking.

His initial attempts result in awkward conversations and disappointed would-be lovers, but eventually, the tide begins to turn. As the former barber opines, relationships are not unlike cassoulets--sometimes you find a bit of succulent duck and sometimes you find something rancid. Or, as the author says of one character, "it never dawned on him that his life's greatest misfortune was not that he had never married Florence Ladoucette, but that he had married the love of his life and never realized it."

His own love-of-his-life, Emilie Fraisse, had left town but wrote to Ladoucette, who was too intimidated by love to respond. Eventually, she marries another, but returns to town after her marriage dissolves leaving the matchmaker to decide if he will make a match for himself.

The Matchmaker of Perigord is not only the story of Ladoucette and Fraisse, but a collection of sweet love stories, tempered by intensely imaginative events and charming descriptions. It was published in 2008 by Harper Collins.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen


Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, is a suitable follow-up to Franzen's most recent offering, The Corrections. This epic novel follows the lives of the Walter and Patty Berglund, beginning with the release of an unflattering article about Walter in the New York Times. The subsequent five hundred pages chronicle the lives of the Berglunds before they were a couple, during their idealistic courtship complicated by Richard, his college roommate, their early marriage, and its unraveling. The book is darkly funny while calling out the reader's own moral decisions as Freedom's characters live with the consequences of their decisions.

Walter is a highly moral person, determined to press his view of the world on others. Eventually, he becomes entangled in a questionable business deal which he convinces himself is a means to achieve a moral end. Finally, he "was compromised and losing on every front." Patty is unhappy and has her own moral dilemma with her longstanding attraction to Richard, who is also Walter's best friend. The theme of "freedom" pervades the story--freedom from family, freedom from situations, freedom from obligations. This freedom has consequences which are not always pleasant or expected. "Mistakes Were Made," as Patty entitles her own memoir, included in the text of the novel.

Freedom was published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave


Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, is the fictional story of sixteen-year-old Little Bee, a Nigerian girl whose life becomes irrevocably entwined with an English couple whom she encounters on a beach there. The book is narrated from Little Bee’s perspective and that of Sarah, an British magazine editor, who is the wife of Andrew and mother of Charlie.

Little Bee comes into Andrew and Sarah’s life during their ill-conceived outing off the protected grounds of their Nigerian beach resort. Little Bee and her sister were fleeing soldiers when they sought help from the English couple. In order to free one of the girls, Sarah agrees to amputate a finger, while her husband Andrew refuses. Little Bee’s life is spared, but her sister suffers a horrible death. Little Bee manages to smuggle herself aboard an ocean-going vessel, and arrives as a refugee in England.

What follows is Little Bee’s nearly two years of interment in an immigration detention center. During that time, she practiced speaking “the Queen’s English,” which she described as “like scrubbing off the bright red varnish from your toenails, the morning after a dance. It takes a long time and there is always a little bit left at the end, a stain of red along the growing edges to remind you of the good time you had.” But her command of English made it easier for her to communicate after her “accidental” release, and was able to find Sarah and Andrew, only to have Andrew commit suicide shortly thereafter. Little Bee is surprisingly wise for her age, telling Sarah that, “You are making a mistake if you think it (her story) is unusual. I am telling you, trouble is like the ocean. It covers two-thirds of the world.” Little Bee strongly believed that suicide was preferable to the kind of brutal and torturous death her sister suffered. In order to feel safe, Little Bee spent inordinate amounts of time seeking tools of her own demise. How could she kill herself here, in this location, if “the men” should come? Knowing that Little Bee is not safe in England as an illegal immigrant, Sarah begins collecting stories similar Little Bee’s and which leads to their eventual return to that fateful Nigerian beach.

Little Bee is written to bring awareness about refugees, the conditions which made them flee, and the conditions they find themselves in once they are “free” of their homeland. It is not a happy story, but it is well-researched and credible. The book was published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Room, by Emma Donoghue


Room, by Emma Donoghue, is the story of Jack, a five-year-old boy who had lived his entire life within four walls. His mother, referred to as "Ma" throughout the story, gave birth to Jack while held hostage in a shed, especially soundproofed and secured against escape, by "Old Nick." Jack knew nothing other than those four walls; "Ma" fought for her freedom and attempted to create a normal life for her captive son. Jack's mom was inventive and creative, both in her attempts to attract help for their situation and in protecting and educating Jack. They had "scream times," used the lamp to signal for help through the one skylight they had, made toys out of paper tubes and eggshells, and had "physical education" sessions.


Jack eventually plays a key role in a daring escape attempt, and what follows is their adjustment to a new world. Jack, who has only known "Room" feels threatened and afraid of the outside, and "Ma" struggles to adjust to living in relative freedom again.


Donoghue does an admirable job imagining how children born in a captive environment must feel and the struggles they might have adjusting to the normal life of other children their age. The scenario that led to "Ma's" kidnapping is frightening but realistic. The author incorporates many contemporary references (Jack, for example, is a fan of Dora the Explorer), which adds to the book's credibility, but may date the book for future readers. Room was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2010.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle


A Wrinkle in Time is the classic story for youth by Madeleine L'Engle, and the winner of the Newberry Medal. It is the story of Meg Murry, an awkward pre-teen girl, who wears glasses and braces, loves math but struggles in other subjects, and is the prototypical heroine in this coming of age story. But the ordinariness of the story's heroine doesn't carry over to the plot, which involves the disappearance of Meg's father, the appearance (more or less--one doesn't quite materialize) of three fairy godmother-witches, and the discovery of time travel.

The main characters, Meg, her youngest brother Charles Wallace, and a friend from school named Calvin O'Keefe, embark on an adventure to find and save Meg and Charles Wallace's father from IT, an evil force that seems intent on stripping people (or other beings) of their free will. Their three witch friends turn out to be celestial beings who are helping combat the evil IT which is a force throughout the entire Universe. The children learn that their special gifts, and in particular, traits Meg might not have previously seen as positive ones, save the day.

Beyond the engaging and mysterious introduction, including the mention of the "tesseract"--the ability to travel through time--the plot becomes vaguely similar to Narnia series, with travel to unusual planets, an overarching battle between good and evil, and strong religious overtones. At least L'Engle leaves some room for different interpretations of the religious aspects of the story.

A Wrinke in Time was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1962. Older elementary readers or pre-teens would likely enjoy this book.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, by Julia Stuart


This delight of a novel features Balthazar Jones and his wife Hebe, who live at the Tower of London. Jones is a Beefeater, or more properly "Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and member of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary." But what he typically did was give visitors tours of the Tower, regaling them with tales of torture and escape, and dutifully pointing out the restrooms. It wasn't a terribly glamorous position, notwithstanding the public's perception and the traditional uniforms, and the living quarters were damp, round (it was a tower, of course)--which made picture hanging and furniture placement dicey--and haunted. When the Queen decides to reestablish the Royal Menagerie at the Tower, the role of its overseer falls to Jones, mainly due to his ownership of a geriatric tortoise named Mrs. Cook.

Hebe Jones works at the Lost Property Office for the London Underground, and deals with a unique array of lost items and unusual people. She's not happy at the Tower and doesn't relish her husband's new zookeeper role. They've drifted apart in grief over the loss of their son, Milo, and she questions her husband's strange new obsessions. It is a lost item and her search for it that sets the stage for the book's conclusion.

In addition to the charming and compelling main story, this book is full of subplots and rich characters. Stuart does a remarkable job leading readers through an entire range of emotions without feeling manipulative or contrived. If you liked Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Olive Kitteridge, or The Guernsey Library and Potato Peel Pie Society, you may also enjoy The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise.

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise was published in 2010 by Doubleday.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

At Home, by Bill Bryson


Bryson's latest book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, is an intriguing collection of historical facts and anecdotes loosely organized around the rooms in his own home, a former rectory in the eastern part of England. Bryson is an admirable historian and etymologist, as well as a prolific nonfiction writer, with such popular books as A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country. At Home, however, lacks Bryson's self-deprecating humor and biting wit that made A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country such entertaining reads.

At Home isn't without its charms, however. At Home is well-written and is enjoyable to read, but is more of a history book than personal memoir. Bryson packs in hundreds of little-known facts like how lawns became popular, why forks have four tines, how furniture came to be upholstered, how early wallpaper could be lethal, and why churches in the British countryside often appear to be sinking into the ground. He expounds on the development of cement, the advent of electricity, the development of steel, and the birth of modern plumbing, all in the context of describing the rooms in his own home. This works sometimes, but there are times that Bryson goes so far afield it's difficult to relate the topic to any room in a house. For example, in the chapter on the study or library, he dedicates many pages to household pests, describing the activities of rats, mice, bedbugs, lice, and other vermin, living with, on, or in the inhabitants of a house. This made sense to him, because this is where he was most likely to find a mouse in his mousetrap.

Bryson related many stories of inventors rising from the depths of anonymity, often poor but occasionally befriended by a wealthier benefactor, who created a wildly successful item, only to sell the patent, or have the proceeds of his success stolen from him, or to squander away his fortune, and to die in disgrace and poverty. Equally stunning were the numbers of "architects" with no formal training who built or attempted to build huge structures, with varying degrees of success.

It's clear that Bryson's research is extensive on many subjects, and people who enjoy knowing the "why" behind so many modern day conveniences and of course, the way your house may even be built and designed, will find this book satisfying. Bryson does a remarkable job making subjects that could be quite dry entertaining and in some cases, even amusing.

At Home was published by Doubleday in 2010.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cats and a Book Virtual Book Club Selection: A Journey, by Tony Blair


A Journey: My Political Life by Tony Blair is a hefty tome, more than 700 pages, which chronicles his rise to Britain's political pinnacle through his election in 1997 to his departure from office in 2007.

Blair recounts his role in monumental world events, including Princess Diana's death, the peace agreement with Northern Ireland, 9/11, and the Iraq War. In addition, he describes in great detail the inner workings of the party and the political system in Britain, including the Prime Minister's relationship with the Queen and the royal family. But Blair writes with candor, even if it's difficult to judge how significant his role really was in some of these events, writing that after the election--the Prime Minister role being his "first and only" government job--"I was scared." With a true sense of political realism, he wrote, "I realised I knew nothing about how government really works, most of all nothing about how I personally would react when the mood turned against me, as I knew it would."

Having served while three U.S. Presidents held the highest office in the United States, the Introduction seems to have been written for a U.S. audience, who might have been asking him to compare their leadership skills. And it also kowtows to U.S. book buyers through his praise of "the American ideal" which he describes as "about values: freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work." Although Blair was a "new" Labour leader, the book is diffuse with references to less socialist policy than one might imagine from a Labour leader, with many references to what appears is Blair's personal philosophy of working for what you get.

In addition to being history book, A Journey is also a textbook on leadership. From his discussion on the difference between being on the team and being the team's leader, to handling his calendar, to selecting his staff--all are lessons applicable to a political or corporate leader. A Journey: My Political Life, published by Knopf in 2010, is a book that requires time to read and absorb, but is well worth the effort.

Cats and a Book Virtual Book Club Discussion Questions

Blair identifies three "lessons" in what he calls political courage, but could also be lessons for any leader. These were "to think anew," "to be prepared to lead and to decide," and "to take calculated risk."

What lessons would you identify for leaders in your organization? Are there skills they must learn to succeed? What would your successor need to do well?
Tony Blair had a "few rules" about the people he worked closely with: "Work comes first. No blame culture. Fun, in its proper place, is good. Disloyalty has no place. Look out for each other. Stick together. Respect each other. It helps if you also like each other."

What do you think of Tony Blair's "rules"? If you had to write (or have written rules) for your team, what would they be?
What leadership lesson from A Journey did you find most applicable or insightful?
After reading A Journey, what's your impression of Tony Blair? It is different than what it was before you read the book? Better or worse? Why?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cats and a Book Virtual Book Club Selection: The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst


The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst, is a page-turner murder mystery published by Doubleday Books in 2010. The book's heroine is Octavia Frost, a successful author, whose current unfinished work is entitled The Nobodies Album. The name came from her son Milo, who as a child, would say that songs like "I've Been Working on the Railroad" performed by the Beatles would be on "The Nobodies Album." The recorded version didn't exist anywhere in the "real" world.

Frost took this title and applied it to a series of new endings for novels she had already published. She juxtaposed the original ending with her new ending, so that the unpublished and not yet complete book consisted entirely of existing and alternative endings.

Octavia and her son Milo had been estranged for four years. The estrangement began when he read one of her novels which included the sentence, "They were exactly the wrong two to die." Milo and his mother were the two survivors of a tragic accident in which Milo's sister and father drowned. Milo felt guilt and blame, and refused further contact with his mother, assuming that her character felt the way his mother did. Octavia knew he'd read that particular book, and felt certain it was that sentence which was the death knell for their relationship.

Milo was now living in San Francisco with his girlfriend Bettina, lead singer of a successful rock band. Milo's reconciliation with his mother is spurred by Bettina's murder, for which Milo is charged. Octavia flies to her son's city, not sure whether he will see her, much less allow her to help him, and discovers a granddaughter she didn't know existed. The murder investigation unfolds as does a new ending for Octavia and Milo.

The Nobodies Album is a quick read. The theme of "do-overs" is prevalent, mainly in order for characters to be restored to a closer relationship. Readers won't be disappointed by the ending of The Nobodies Album.

Cats and a Book Virtual Book Club Discussion Questions

Please join in the discussion and add your comments. All are welcome--including your own questions or discussion-starters!

Roland Nysmith doesn’t like Octavia’s new endings idea. He says, “The only way you got here, to the point you’re at now, is by writing those books the way you did . . . whatever ways you’ve changed, that’s going to show up in the new work without your even trying.” What do you think of Roland’s opinion?
When thinking about the changes Octavia could have made to her stories, she wrote, “Here I’d made a choice, and here, and here. It was all butterfly wings and tornadoes: even a slight deviation in any one of those places would be enough to set the whole book on course for a different outcome.” Do you ever consider how your life might be different had you made a choice at crossroads you’ve encountered? What about the tiny decisions you make every day? What is the consequence of weighing or not weighing your options?
Referring to her friendship with Lisette, Octavia says, “ . . . the romance of letting an old friend fade out of your life is a luxury of the past . . .we’re closer now as online ‘friends,’ than we ever were as friends in the flesh . . .” What has your experience been with “being found” by old friends? Does it serve to renew good friendships, bring closure, or do you long for anonymity again?
Have you ever wanted a better ending to a book you've read? If so, briefly what was the ending and what would you like it to have been?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tinkers, by Paul Harding


Tinkers, written by Paul Harding and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year, is the story of three generations of men as it is told during the last hours of the youngest one's life. The novel opens with George, having come home to a hospital bed in the dining room, surrounded by family, knowing he is dying. He is hallucinating, imagining his home is falling down around him. He barely recognizes the family members who keep him constant company as he reflects on his life. Harding returns to the hours before George's death throughout the short novel.

George repairs clocks, and Harding describes in detail how the mechanism of the clocks set time in motion. The concept of time, of losing it and restoring it, is a theme that echoes the time lost during seizures, and the resumption of "normal" life. George's father, Howard, suffered the same malady as George--they both had grand mal seizures as a result of epilepsy. Harding describes the seizures as an electrical event, the "voltage" from which the universe is made, and that "Howard, by accident of birth, tasted the raw stuff of the cosmos."

As a child, George was shielded from his father's epilepsy until he witnessed a seizure and was accidentally bitten. A visit to the local doctor started a series of events that led to Howard leaving home. After Howard left, George began experiencing seizures himself.

It is not what some might consider a gloomy plot that draws the reader to this short novel. It is the elegance of the writing, the stitching together of descriptive passages, and the artful use of words to give the reader insight into the lives of its characters.

Tinkers is beautifully written. It was published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2009.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, by John Fox, Jr.


The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is another book in my "Grandma's bookcase" series. My grandmother grew up "in the country" in southwestern Virginia. She loved to read, and had a bookcase that fascinated me with its contents, including books like The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was written by John Fox, Jr. and published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1906. Although it is love story, the underlying theme of progress, greed, and its resultant blight, as well as the attempts to recover from these transgressions against nature, pervade the novel.

John Hale is an engineer and speculator (a "furriner" to the mountain folks) who comes to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, just over the state line with Virginia. He meets two feuding mountain families, the Tollivers and the Falins, and finds himself enmeshed in their decades old battle. Hale becomes enamored of June Tolliver, a girl on the verge of womanhood, and offers her formal schooling in Virginia. In the meantime, Hale and others exploit the coal resources of the mountain area, bringing civilization and "law and order" to the small outpost. While Hale builds his fortune, the area becomes home to transient coal workers, the creek runs black, and coal-mining equipment belches smoke into the sky. June becomes a young lady who doesn't quite belong in "society" or her mountain home, and the mountaineers' feud erupts into violence.

Modern readers may find the relationships between Hale and June Tolliver odd; however, mountain girls married at a young age at the time this book is set. Language includes stereotypes and terms that are dated and may be offensive to some readers. However, the story of the environment is not unlike our modern concerns about climate change and the ability to reverse the effect, and June's transformation is a classic and entertaining Pygmalion story.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Shopkeeper, by James D. Best

The Shopkeeper is the entertaining story of Steve Dancy, a New York shopkeeper who has relocated to the "wild west" to experience what he's only heard stories about. But Dancy isn't a typical shopkeeper. Readers quickly learn that Dancy is a gunsmith with financial resources to spare.

The setting is a rough-and-tumble silver mining town in the late 1800s called Pickhandle Gulch. Dancy describes the town this way: "Transients and a get-rich mentality gave Pickhandle Gulch a bawdy and rowdy temper, but the overriding characteristic of the town was dust." The Cutler brothers, a couple of local henchmen, goad Dancy into a gunfight early in the story, which pits him against the most powerful and dangerous man in the territory.

Dancy prefers a mental fight than a physical one, although there is plenty of good old-fashioned gun play in the story. Because of his gunsmith business dealings, Dancy has the wherewithal to challenge the powerful bad men in the story. Money, to him, was "just the score. A way to keep track of who's winning and who's losing . . . and I like to win." But Dancy ultimately settles the score a different way.

The book is rife with stereotypical western themes: warring mining camps, good-hearted local businessmen cowed into "protection payments," a damsel in distress (although she handles herself quite well), and a romantic team of Pinkertons to assist the protagonist in his fight against corruption.

There is typical cowboy violence and a sprinkling of R-rated language, but for the most part, the Steve Dancy series of cowboy stories are suited for any age. The Shopkeeper is the first in the series, Leadville follows, with Murder at Thumb Butte still in the writing stage. The Shopkeeper is quick and fun to read, perfect for a vacation escape.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker


The Mezzanine is quirky little book, short on plot but lushly if not obsessively descriptive. Howie, the book's protagonist, rides an escalator from the ground floor of his office building to the mezzanine, where his office is located. This is the plot, more or less. During the short ride, readers are treated to lavish and detailed descriptions of everyday objects or recalled occurrences that are delightful at times in their familiarity: the satisfying clunk of a staple being pushed through a stack of papers (now "one controversy" as Baker describes it, rather than separate ones), the graceful swoop of a date stamper as it traverses down to ink a new date on a page, the interlocking teeth and the efficient revolution of escalator treads. But Baker doesn't discriminate; he also spends passages describing the wear on shoelaces--what makes them break within a day of each other? Is it the mechanism of tying, or the flexing of the shoe with each step, or the gait of the wearer, or the material, or the type of the bow tied in the laces?

But his treatment of these mundane topics is often inventive. After discussing the various techniques of tying shoelaces, Baker describes the differences in knots this way:

"You could imagine a sneaker-shoelace knot and a dress-shoelace knot standing side by side saying the Pledge of Allegiance: the dress-shoelace knot would pronounce each word as a grammatical unit, understanding it as more than a sound; the sneaker-shoelace knot would run the words together."

In this passage, Baker wisely describes how new hires adapt to their office surroundings, justifying the number of bathroom trips they take:

"For new-hires, the number of visits can go as high as eight or nine a day, because the corporate bathroom is the one place where you understand completely what is expected of you. Other parts of your job are unclear: you have been given a pile of xeroxed documents and files to read; you have tentatively probed the supply cabinet and found that they don't stock the kind of pen you prefer; relative positions of power are not immediately obvious; your office is bare and unwelcoming; you have no nameplate on your door yet, no business cards printed; and you know that the people who are friendliest to you in the first weeks are almost never the people you will end up liking and respecting . . ."

This kind of detail can become tedious at times, but will also bring back clear childhood memories -- such as the way cigarette machines dispensed packs of Marlboros. This book could be a primer for budding writers who need to learn to write descriptive narratives.

Finally, readers should know that a good third of the book consists of footnootes. Long, detailed asides Baker uses to allow Howie to further explore shoelaces, for instance, or the practice of buying bandaids in all size assortments. On an eReader, this can be difficult. I'd recommend a paper copy of this book to make flipping back and forth more manageable.

The Mezzanine was originally published in 1986 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson but was recently released in paperback version by Grove Press in 2010.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall

Same Kind of Different as Me is the story of two men, Ron Hall and Denver Moore, who meet in a Fort Worth food kitchen. Hall, a successful art dealer, and Moore, a former sharecropper, build an unlikely friendship that brings their two worlds together in an uneasy detente. To mirror these differences, each chapter is written from the perspective of Hall or Moore.

Early in Moore's story, he describes sharecropping this way:

"So you done worked all year and the Man ain't done nothin, but you still owe the Man. And wadn't nothin you could do but work his land for another year to pay off that debt. What it come down to was: The Man didn't just own the land. He owned you."

Hall described his early years like this:
" . . . I did not start out rich. I was raised in a lower-middle-class section of Fort Worth called Haltom City, a town so ugly that it was the only one in Texas with no picture postcard of itself for sale in the local pharmacy."

There are underlying themes to their friendship, as well: poverty and ignorance in rural Louisiana due at least in part to the sharecropper culture that thrived there at one time, the plight of homeless people in Fort Worth (or in any large city), adult illiteracy, religious beliefs--how they move some people to action or sustain them in times of grief, and cancer which strikes Hall's wife Deborah, a cruel disease that taunts with a clean bill of health followed by its malicious return.

There are moments of inspiration, indignation, and grief. There are times that one questions Hall's commitment to his faith or to Denver, whom he declares as his friend. And there are questions about the narrative. The anecdotes of visions and prescience are a little fantastic, but some readers may not be troubled by them.

Same Kind of Different as Me is a moving book with new perspectives to consider about the challenges facing those around us. Some may be apparent and some may not be. Moore summarizes his lesson this way:

"There's somethin I learned when I was homeless: Our limitation is God's opportunity. When you get all the way to the end of your rope and there ain't nothin you can do, that's when God takes over."

The book's website can be found here, and you can see Denver Moore's art here. Same Kind of Different as Me was published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. in 2006.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery


Anne of Green Gables is the classic children's story of Anne Shirley, an orphaned girl of eleven, adopted by unmarried siblings, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. The Cuthbert's family farm and home is "Green Gables, " and located in the settlement of Avonlea, Prince Edward Island. Written in 1908, the story retains elements young and pre-teen girls would find historically interesting and relevant to their school and social lives.

Anne is an unusual child, given to flights of imagination that tend to impair her ability to accomplish her household chores, and lead to several interesting scrapes involving friends and boys. With red hair, which she hopes will turn a lovely shade of auburn when she gets older, pale features, and no dimples like her best friend Diana, Anne uses her curiosity, imagination, and intelligence to her advantage as she matures. In this conversation with Matthew, Anne tries to gain some discipline with her studies:

"Well, I suppose I must finish up my lessons. I won't allow myself to open that new book Jane lent me until I'm through. but it's a terrible temptation, Matthew. Even when I turn my back on it I can see it there just as plain. Jane said she cried herself sick over it. I love a book that makes me cry. But I think I'll carry that book into the sitting room and lock it in the jam closet and give you the key. And you must not give it to me, Matthew, until my lessons are done, not even if I implore you on my bended knees. It's all very well to resist temptation, but it's ever so much easier to resist if if you can't get the key."

Later, she learns the "(k)indred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It's splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world." With Anne's history of "not belonging"--being shuttled from one foster home to another since her infancy and the deaths of her biological parents, finding "kindred spirits" was important to her.

Anne of Green Gables is a sweet story and pleasant to read. There are good lessons for children (and adults) in Anne's trials and challenges. Grosset and Dunlap published the novel, and it has since been followed by a series of stories about Anne and adapted into movie versions. Anne of Green Gables can be downloaded free of charge from Google Books.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman, is a curious blend of love, secrets, and greed, intermingled with genealogy, rare book collecting, and the stock market.

The book's heroine is Jessamine Bach, a free spirited graduate student and antithesis of her sister Emily, a driven, tech company CEO. Jess comes to work at Yorick's, a rare bookstore, between attending philosophy classes and volunteering for Save the Trees leaflet campaigns. She has a tendency to become involved with "inappropriate" boyfriends, while her sister Emily's long-term love, Jonathan, has a tech company start-up of his own. Both Emily's and Jonathan's IPOs are due to hit at any time, making them both "gazillionaires."

Goodman introduces readers to Jess, Emily, Jonathan, George (the owner of Yorick's), Jess's roommates, her neighbor Mrs. Gibbs, Richard and Heidi (Jess's father and step-mother), their two daughters, co-workers of both Emily and Jonathan, other Save the Trees volunteers, and friends of George's. It's a veritable soap opera of relationships in flux, money issues, and career concerns. About halfway through the book, we discover the relevance of the book's title and meet a woman who wants to dispose of her uncle's cookbook collection. (To be fair, she does appear twice briefly in the pages before, but only to attempt to sell a book or two to George.)

What we learn is that secrets abound. Who was Jess's mother? What was it about her family that she didn't want Jess and Emily to know? Why was Sandra afraid to sell the cookbook collection? What secret did Emily tell Jonathan? And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Along with secrets and lies, love and betrayal, Goodman deals with the dot com boom and bust as well as 9/11. The latter event is difficult to read about, even in a novel. Perhaps, especially in a novel. But nonetheless, it brings back to mind the post 9/11 reality--the endless horrifying videos, the grim-faced news anchors, the American flags.

The Cookbook Collector might not appeal to cookbook collectors. Although food and drink is part of the story, it is tangential at best. Rather than the aroma of yeasty bread baking, the book conjures the scent of newly minted money instead.

Random House published The Cookbook Collector in 2010.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lost Horizon, by James Hilton


Published by William Morrow & Company in 1934, Lost Horizon is a timeless tale of adventure and mystery. The novel begins with a prologue in which the story is described as true by an eyewitness. The hero is Hugh Conway, a member of the British Consular service, stationed in India. In the course of his evacuation, he and three others were kidnapped and flown to an area that they suspected was near Tibet, where they crash landed. Met by residents of the lamasery of Shangri-la, the group was introduced to a near perfect existence in a remote area--with no way in or out without assistance.

The term "Shangri-la" that is often used to refer to utopia, came from Hilton's book Lost Horizon. Hilton described Shangri-la in his novel as a place of beauty, simplicity, culture, and agelessness. Although the visitors attempt to discover why they were delivered to Shangri-la and what the secrets are to living there, differences in their cultures and religion make it difficult. In this passage, one of the travelers asks,

. . . you're a philosopher, I remember that remark of yours. 'Many religions are moderately true.' You fellows up on that mountain must be a lot of wise guys to have thought that out. You're right, too, I'm dead certain of it."

"But we, " responded Chang dreamily, "are only moderately certain."

Lost Horizon is a multi-faceted book and an engaging story. Hilton's fictional perfect place still captures the imagination.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann


The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann, is as riveting as the title suggests. The book is the story of Col. Percy Fawcett's forays into the Amazon in search of a lost city he called simply 'Z'. El Dorado, the mythical city which boasted great riches and an advanced civilization, was still the intense focus of speculation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Fawcett was one of several celebrated explorers who sought to find it in unmapped areas of South America, despite stories of hostile indigenous tribes and threats of cannibalism.

Fawcett's party, like many before it, failed to return on its final quest. Hundreds followed, searching for Fawcett, many of whom failed to return as well. The questions still haunt: What happened to Fawcett? Did he find "Z"? In fact, theories abound about what "Z" actually meant to Fawcett, and whether he could have chosen to disappear.

In the process of researching the book, author Grann deflects suggestions that he is "one of those Fawcett freaks" (those who became obsessed with the Fawcett mystery) but eventually follows Fawcett's path into the forests of the Amazon. Grann's personal experiences are interspersed lightly in the narrative as readers learn about Fawcett's explorations and the "fabulous kingdom" he hoped to find.

Grann doesn't look like Indiana Jones, but more like an accountant or an editor. That's appropriate, because Grann is a contributing editor to The New Republic and has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2003. He describes himself in Chapter 3, to give the reader a sense of his preparedness for a journey to the Amazon, and his commitment to his craft:

Let me be clear: I am not an explorer or an adventurer. I don't even climb mountains or hunt. I don't even like to camp. I stand less than five feet nine inches tall and am nearly forty years old, with a blossoming waistline and thinning black hair. I suffer from keratoconus--a degenerative eye condition that makes it hard for me to see at night. I have a terrible sense of direction and tend to forget where I am on the subway and miss my stop in Brooklyn.

Grann does a good job engaging the reader in Fawcett's story, while taking the reader along on his own adventure. It's an entertaining and educational story for all audiences, but the would-be Indiana Jones in your life would love it.

The Lost City of "Z" was published in 2009 by Random House.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Breakfast with Buddha, by Roland Merullo

Breakfast with Buddha is the story of Otto Ringling (no relation to the circus brothers) and his physical and spiritual journey from New Jersey to North Dakota. Ringling, a happily married father of two, is a successful editor. His sweet but "flaky" sister, Cecelia, has managed to give away or lose most of her material wealth, and currently earns a living performing past life regressions and tarot card readings. When their parents are suddenly killed in a car accident, Otto and Cecelia are faced with disposing of their parents' assets, which includes their family home and a large farm in North Dakota.

Since Cecelia is afraid to fly, Otto decides to drive with Cecelia to North Dakota from her home in New Jersey to sort through the family heirlooms. He didn't know he would be taking the trip with Cecelia's guru, the monk Volya Rinpoche. Rinpoche is from Russia, near the border with Tibet, and Cecelia has decided he should have part of the family farm for a spiritual retreat.

Otto's journey is the story of what he learns from the trip. He describes a "feeling of emptiness" before taking the trip that was "more than bereavement. It was a kind of sawing dissatisfaction that cut back and forth against the fibers of who I believed myself to be. Sometimes even in the sunniest moods I'd be aware of it. Turn your eyes away from the good life for just a second and there it was: not depression as much as an ugly little doubt about everything you had every done . . ." Rinpoche, with his enigmatic smiles and odd questions or comments, gradually leads Otto on a path to, if not enlightenment, at least a less judgmental view of his own life and the lives of others.

The book's author, Roland Merullo, cites numerous sources for the Rinpoche's spiritual theories, giving the reader the feeling of having met a reincarnation of the Buddha in modern times. The book does have a "self-help" flavor, though, as many "how to be a better X" books do. Fortunately, Breakfast with Buddha seeks a different result: a greater spiritual understanding, with love as its centerpiece. Breakfast with Buddha was published in 2007 by Algonquin Books. He is the author of many books including Golfing with God and Leaving Losapas.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

The Help is a complex story of black maids and the whites who hired them. Rooted in the deep South during the Civil Rights movement, The Help is written from the perspectives of two of the maids, Aibeleen and Minnie,and Skeeter Phelan, a white woman raised by a maid. The plot centers around the white woman's fledgling journalism career and her attempt to capture the stories of Aibeleen, Minnie, and others. Having been raised by a maid she loved and who was unceremoniously fired by her parents, Skeeter felt empathy for the maids and their working conditions. Although some maids had close relationships, particularly with "their babies" (the white children they raised) many were subject to whims, superstitions, and mistreatment at the hands of their employers. Class within white society is also explored in the book, as Skeeter's project is unveiled and she is ostracized by old friends.

Stockett does an admirable job describing Southern customs and traditions. After preparing a dish of grits, strawberries and marshmallows for the little white girl she is caring for, Aibeleen notes, "That's all a grit is, a vehicle. For whatever it is you rather be eating."

Later in the book, Minnie and Aibeleen talk about the "lines" between classes and between races. They disagree. Minnie says,

"Not only is they lines, but you know good as I do where them lines be drawn."

Aibeleen shakes her head. "I used to believe in em. I don't anymore. They in our heads. People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there. But they ain't."

The author, Kathryn Stockett, was herself raised by an African American maid during the late 50s and early 60s. She observed first hand the treatment of maids, the complex relationship between the white children and their black maids, and how unspoken rules governed their interactions with each other. In her epilogue, she writes "I'm pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie (their maid) what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn't something people felt compelled to examine." Stockett goes on to say that her inspiration for the book was "what her answer would be."

The Help was published by Putnam in 2009. This is her first novel.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a lovely book. Charming and funny, Helen Simonson’s first novel is a gem.

Major Pettigrew is of one of the older families in Sussex, England, the sort of quintessential British military man characterized by loyalty to one’s country, character, and politeness above all else. He is stung by his only son’s banking career and attachment to an equally ambitious and far too casual American woman (she called him “Ernest” when first meeting him, instead of his preferred “Major”). He is a widower, and the sudden loss of his only brother, Bertie, brings to mind an array of emotions, some of which he hadn’t expected, particularly with regard to the bequest of a hunting gun which matched his own. Complicating his life was Mrs. Ali, a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper who aroused in him an unexpected but not unwelcome passion.

Simonson does a remarkable job illustrating the messiness of culture, religion, and generation in this complex love story. Her writing is lyrical and wonderfully descriptive, so that the reader can smell the compost as the Major’s neighbor hides between her compost heap and hedge to spy on surveyors on her neighbor’s property, or feel the dampness of the air in the Colonel’s hunting cabin, or see the gaudy imitation flowers at the club dance. The narrative is funny and bittersweet, with the Major's dry humor and the situations that are nearly slapstick but entirely plausible. He describes the waitresses at the club as having "sullen charms" and "culled from the pool of unmotivated young women being spat out by the local school, (who) specialized in a mood of suppressed rage." And when offering commentary on his son's love life, the Major opines, "The human race is all the same when it comes to romantic relations. A startling absence of impulse control combined with complete myopia."

The author is an engaging story-teller, allowing the plot to develop to several points of crescendo, but also providing a pleasing resolution, so that the reader isn’t left to develop her or his own conclusions and suppose what might have occurred. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand raises many issues suitable for book club discussions and there are analogies to be made from the Major’s father’s grand endeavors and Major Pettigrew’s own, so that this book can be read for pure enjoyment, for the study of writing techniques, and for exploring larger topics of religion, culture, and generation differences in the world today.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is one of my favorite reads of 2010. It was published this year by Random House.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter

This week's review was inspired by a conversation I had with my mother-in-law about teen literature. She recalls seeing a movie adaptation of the book, A Girl of the Limberlost, as a young teen. A particularly dramatic scene in which someone was pulled down by quicksand stayed a vivid memory for her. With Nook in hand, I downloaded the free Google version of the book, and within minutes was able to remind her of the story of the character who had drowned. There have been numerous movie adaptations of the book and most recently, a made-for-television movie.

This timeless story, A Girl of the Limberlost, is fine entertainment for those weary of graphic reality often portrayed in books and movies today. Written in 1909, characters who aren't already morally sound and upright suffer for their sins, learn their lessons, and mend their ways. Although this may seem "pollyannish" or naive, the story is a good one for young teen or pre-teen girls.

The story begins with Elnora Comstock, the book's heroine, enrolling in secondary school. Elnora lives in a poor farmer's home on the edge of the Limberlost, a forest whose swampy pond claimed her father when she was an infant. Elnora's mother is a bitter, loveless woman, who denies Elnora her affection out of a misplaced notion that Elnora was somehow partially responsible for her husband's premature death. When Elnora begins secondary school, she learns that fees are required to attend and books need to be purchased and even more horrifying, she is woefully and inappropriately dressed to blend in with the other girls.

When confronted with the details of this dreadful first day of school, Elnora learns that her mother knew all along that fees were required (which she refused to pay) and felt that Elnora would likely not fit in with the more sophisticated crowd, even though Elnora proved herself to be the better student from the outset. Elnora was crushed, and thus began her efforts to collect and sell moths and arrowheads in order to finance her school fees in order to stay in school.

Eventually, a young man enters the scene, and a chaste romance is sparked. Katherine Comstock, Elnora's mother, as well as Elnora's beau and his ex-fiancee all learn lessons and grow over the years of Elnora's successful schooling. The story is a lovely one, light reading, and appropriate for all ages. Pre-teens can see by Elnora's example how a wise young woman stays true to her nature, despite the pressures of making a suitable match or blending in with a more glamorous crowd.

Even in 1909, themes of conservation and evolution are subtly addressed, and information about collecting and identifying moths add science to the story. A clever parent could easily weave in natural history lessons while their young student reads this story.

One of the other charming aspects of the book is the form of the chapter titles, which all begin with "Wherein . . . " such as "Wherein Elnora Goes to High School, and Learns Many Lessons Not Found in Her Books" and "Wherein a New Position is Tendered Elnora, and Philip Ammon is Shown Limberlost Violets."

A Girl of the Limberlost is available for free digital download, and is a delightful and charming story well worth the price.


Friday, July 9, 2010

The Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See

Lisa See’s The Shanghai Girls is a compelling story about the assimilation of Chinese immigrants in the United States during the first half of the 20th Century. The main characters, Pearl and May, are sisters raised in Shanghai during the city’s glory days in pre-Communist China. When war breaks out with Japan, the girls barely escape with their lives, due in part to the wisdom and resourcefulness of their mother, who dies along the way after being attacked by Japanese soldiers.

Their destiny is already set, having been married to sons of an American-born Chinese businessman through an arrangement with their father prior to their escape. Held at Angel Island for months, May gives birth and because only Pearl consummated her marriage, Pearl claimed the baby as her own. The interrogations at Angel Island are intense, but they are finally allowed to rejoin their husbands in California after the baby is born.

See’s book does an admirable job describing the ordeal many Chinese citizens faced in coming to the United States during this time. Because the breadth of the story covers more than 18 years, See gives only passing attention to major historic events which influenced the plight of Chinese citizens and immigrants. Segments of the books feel shallow and repetitive, as waves of anti-Chinese sentiment spread, business fare poorly, and characters face continued discrimination by schools, hospitals, and the police. The plot energizes again toward the end of the book, but See leaves the reader to determine what will happen to her main characters.

The Shanghai Girls is a engaging book and easy to read. The story is gripping at times, and is sufficiently historically accurate to educate readers about the plight of Chinese immigrants and citizens of Chinese descent. It was published in 2009 by Random House.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall


The Lonely Polygamist is a rich, enjoyable novel written by Brady Udall. Udall doesn't attempt to address the real-life tragedies of polygamy, choosing instead to take a humorous and bittersweet approach to the fictional story of Golden Richards, husband to four women and father of twenty-eight children.

Golden is a sympathetic character. He was raised alone by a depressed and emotionally absent mother. After reuniting with his father, Golden finds religion in the form of a fundamentalist Mormon sect and marries his first wife, Beverly. The demands of his growing family result in a schedule, created by his wives, which determines when and where he spends his time. There's the Old House with one wife and her children, The Big House, with two wives and their children, and a condo across town with his newest wife and her daughter. In addition to the demands of attention from the wives, there are the demands of running three households and meeting obligations for 28 children: band concerts, school meetings, doctors' appointments, and so on. His construction business supports them all, and a recent job building a brothel keeps him away from home much of the week while creating an ironic moral dilemma.

Udall describes a typical scene in this passage describing a family meeting with the wives:

Mother #2 gives the Father a smart slap on the shoulder, which startles him out of his trance. The wives are all looking at him, wanting his input. He lets his attention wander a few seconds and suddenly they are terribly interested in him, in what he has to say. He rubs his eyes and asks them to repeat the question, he didn't hear it clearly as he would have liked. Mother #4 gives him a look and Mother #2 puts her two index fingers behind her head like donkey ears, a secret sign the Mothers have been using for years to indicate when the Father is being a Jackass.

Mother #1 asks the Father what's wrong and he shrugs, and when Mother #2 asks him why he is moping he says he is not moping, which is what people who are moping tend to say. He glances down at the agenda, hoping to come up with a pertinent comment, when, in answer to a prayer he had not yet found the courage to offer, the phone rings. It is Sister Barbara, bless her soul, informing him there is a problem with one of his rental houses, a real emergency.

Golden's wives negotiate with each other to change his schedule to accommodate theirs and their children's needs. Udall does an admirable job describing the interplay of the wives, their weariness or good humor, their requirement to share their husband, and their own unmet personal needs. A couple of the children are described in more detail in the book than the others, including Rusty, a Huck Finn type whom readers easily become attached to.

Golden's job away from home gives him respite from his domestic responsibilities. While on the job in Nevada, Golden seeks the company of another woman who happens to be married to his boss. Golden's boss is not a man who takes treachery kindly, is mercurial on good days and on bad days terrifying. Udall unravels this deceit over the pages of the book, with Golden emerging from the conflict with a new determination.

Interwoven into the book's story is the impact of nuclear testing in the 1950s, when Udall's characters were exposed to fallout and suffer the consequences. Udall's unnerving description of the bomb tests and his characters' relatively casual reaction to their exposure was disconcerting. The author provides a list of references describing nuclear bomb tests and the results in his acknowledgements.

The Lonely Polygamist is an entertaining book, pricks the conscience at appropriate times, and brings to life cultures we aren't a part of. Although it is fiction, further study can provide a more serious look at the book's main themes. For example, for more about the victims of polygamy, consider Stolen Innocence, by Elissa Wall, Escape by Carolyn Jessop, or Favorite Wife, by Susan Schmidt. Udall references Dorothy Allred Solomon's book, Daughter of the Saints, as "the best account of polygamy ever written."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder


Strength in What Remains is the true story of Deogratias, or Deo for short, an immigrant from Burundi, Africa. Burundi, which is south of Rwanda in East Africa, was historically subject to bouts of genocide as power shifted between the cultural divides of Hutus and Tutsis. Deo fled to New York City with $200 in cash and the ruse of being in the coffee business. In fact, Deo was a medical student when violence erupted, his commitment to improving the health of his community stalled. His story, which is told in the first part of Strength in What Remains, recounts his start as a grocery delivery man in New York, for which he earned $15 per day, hardly enough for subsistence. He gave up his square on the floor of an abandoned tenement building when it became too dangerous and started spending his nights in Central Park.

Silenced by his lack of English skills, illness, and trauma from the horrors he witnessed, Deo struggled to face his abrupt change in direction and deal with the losses of family and community. Eventually, he was able to unravel some of his story--his escape from medical school and the brutal murders he witnessed as he made a desperate attempt to reach the border of Rwanda--and he gradually made friends who were able to offer him assistance and shelter.

In the second part of the book, the author explains the history of the conflict in Burundi and what factors contributed to the slaughters that plagued the country for many years. Finally, in the third part of the book, Kidder narrates his visit to Burundi with Deo, who takes him on a tour of the important places in his life--his hometown, the schools he attended, many memorials to the dead, the town where his mother and father were able to start a new life, and the site of the health facility Deo was determined to build.

Deo's courage, naivete, perseverance, and ability to engage others in his dream, helped him recruit those who understood the connection between health of the people and health of the country, education, and their ability to resolve tribal, ethnic and cultural issues. Deo's project, Village Health Works, is now a fully functioning health clinic for Kigutu and surrounding communities, and he has returned to his medical training while serving as Vice President of the organization. The Village Health Works website states that their programs recognize that "the relationship between socio-economic status and health is obvious to members of poor communities who, in their daily lives, witness the link between ill health and lack of food, shelter and clean water. VHW works to simultaneously address the social determinants of ill health and provide quality, compassionate health care."

There are many lessons from Deo's powerful story--how one person can be driven to help thousands despite spirit-breaking and immovable roadblocks; how responding to a need may give another person the foothold from which to reach great heights; how people who work together can help themselves and multiply the benefit. It's an inspiring story.

More information about the Village Health Works project can be found at http://villagehealthworks.org/.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement, by Rodney Rothman

Rodney Rothman's book, Early Bird, has all the makings of a witty, entertaining, and bittersweet story. Rothman, who was laid off from his writing job for Letterman, decides to retire to Florida at 28 years old. It's an experiment, a sort of "trying on" of retirement, so he'd be ready when the time came. Since he was underage to live in most retirement communities, he finds a roommate named Margaret, a 60-something widow in a Boca Raton retirement community called Century Village. Margaret also shares her condo with cats and birds, which is against Century Village rules and are a source of annoyance to Rothman.

Readers might expect Rothman to toss off stereotypes of Florida retirees or older people in general, but he does a fair job of describing his new friends. He even interjected information he researched about successfully retiring and aging well, including staying active, being involved, and maintaining a social network, and he observed and reported on those who were doing well and those who were not. One who wasn't doing so well was Rothman's roommate, Margaret. It became clear to him that she was still grieving for her husband, and when he learned she used to teach piano, Rothman coaxed Margaret into giving him lessons.

To ease his transition to the retirement community, he joined the Newcomers Club, the Shuffleboard Club, the Not-for-Ladies-Only Club (which seemed to have only women members), and attempted to work his way into the tight Canasta circle. He took a part-time job (for no pay) like many retirees do, in order to stay active and make a little extra money. Being the youngest resident in the community had its challenges, such as finding an accepting social circle, but it also had its advantages. After spending time with an elderly golf partner he wrote, "I would recommend that anybody with a need for a mother or father figure spend six months testing out retirement early in Florida. There are millions of elderly people there in need of a child figure."

There were times Rothman seemed to skim over details that could have enriched the story, and later in the book, the author frequently brags to dates about how he is doing this or that "for the book." The reader gets the sense that much of what he did was nothing more than a book premise. He sends up what he calls "weather balloons" to gauge reactions, such as telling his friends that he had sex with a seventy-five year old woman. He didn't, but for some reason, he wanted to know how his friends would react. Again, this reinforces the feel that this is gimmick literature, and that he was conducting nothing more than play experiments "for the book."

In the book's Epilogue, Rothman admits he "wasn't so changed" from the experience. Although he does admit that having so many elderly friends was enriching, there were many opportunities to learn from his interactions with them. It's a shame he missed them.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert


Eat Pray Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia is the author's story of her journey from severe depression to bliss. Elizabeth Gilbert suffered from suicidal depression as her marriage dissolved. A bitter divorce and an intense love affair left her feeling needy and rootless. Fortunately, her publisher funded a spiritual trek beginning with four months in Italy, four months at an ashram in India, and four months in Bali. This funded journey gives Eat Pray Love the flavor of "stunt nonfiction," but Gilbert didn't set out to become suicidally depressed for the sake of a potential book. And the book doesn't have the gimmicky feel of similar "I Did (fill-in-the-blank) for a Year" books.

Gilbert had always wanted to learn to speak Italian and had made some attempts prior to her trip. In Eat Pray Love she recounts her attempts to learn the language while in Italy, distracting herself from her relationship pain and ongoing divorce negotiations by sampling the country's sensory pleasures, mostly gastronomic since Gilbert had taken a vow of abstinence. By this time her marriage officially dissolves, and she spends the next four months in spiritual study in her guru's ashram, where she makes friends and achieves some spiritual solace. Finally, she goes to Bali to find an old medicine man who, years before, told her fortune and declared that she must come back to Bali someday, teach him English, and live in his home. Although she does find the medicine man and learn from him, she also befriends natives and expatriates, forming deep bonds that impact all of their lives. At one point, Ketut, the medicine man responds to Gilbert's observation that "some people like to argue about God." He says:

"I have a good idea, for if you meet some person from different religion and he want to make argument about God. My idea is, you listen to everything this man say about God. Never argue about God with him. Best thing to say is, 'I agree with you.' Then you go home, pray what you want. This is my idea for people to have peace about religion."

Gilbert is an honest narrator, and writes her story in an entertaining way. Rather than being self-indulgent and self-absorbed, Gilbert manages to avoid the blog-like self-obsession many writers fall victim to. At one point in the Bali section of the book, though, the reader has the feeling they're reading a private diary or at best, a fictionalized account, since it graphically illustrates Gilbert's passionate affair with Felipe, her Brazilian lover. And, she regrettably includes a nickname she and her gardener-pal use for each other ("homo") which could have easily been omitted.

Eat Pray Love is an entertaining story which may make the reader pine for a year in Italy, India, and Bali. A "search for happiness" book with a happy ending, Eat Pray Love will leave the reader feeling buoyed by Gilbert's experiences and the lives which touched hers. Eat Pray Love was published by Penguin in 2006, and in paperback in 2010.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin


This fun book to read is an account of author Gretchen Rubin's personal quest for happiness. Rubin suffered from "midlife malaise"--not being unhappy, but not being particularly happy, either. It's not that Rubin didn't appreciate her life. In fact, she was grateful for what she had. But the nagging question remained, "Is this really it?" More disturbing was the recurring answer she provided, "Yep, this is it."

Thus, the Happiness Project was born. Rubin studied happiness--what did it mean, how did others obtain it, how is it measured--until she settled on an "I'll know it when I see it" approach. Rubin decided to create twelve "resolutions"--one for each month, except for December, in which she'd attempt to do all twelve. Resolutions included a different area of focus that affected her overall happiness. For instance in February, her focus was on love. Her plan included "quit nagging, don't expect praise or appreciation, fight right, no dumping, and give proofs of love." For July, the focus was on money. Her money goals were to "indulge in a modest splurge, buy needful things, spend out, and give something up."

She devised a chart on which to record her progress, and created a list of Twelve Commandments which she'd apply throughout the year. Commandments were guidelines that would apply all year, like "Let it go, " "Act the way I want to feel," and "Be Gretchen." This last one came in handy several times when faced with choices that seemed appealing but Rubin knew were contrary to her nature. And for fun, she created a list of Secrets of Adulthood, lessons she'd sometimes learned the hard way, like "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," "What's fun for other people may not be fun for you--and vice versa," "Bring a sweater," and "People don't notice your mistakes as much as you think."

Rubin dutifully recorded her successes and struggles, all the while providing insights from her blog readers who were following the project online. In addition, Rubin encouraged her blog readers to start their own projects, recognizing that her project was personal to her. Readers should develop their own areas of focus based on their needs, write their own commandments, if they chose to, or even create their own Secrets of Adulthood lists. In order to encourage readers to develop their own projects, Rubin included blog entries from readers in the book. (When Rubin was criticized for writing "stunt nonfiction"--doing something for a year and then writing about it--she turned those feelings into pride in doing something "on the cutting edge," following her Happiness Projects guidelines!)

The Happiness Project is full of useful advice. For the goal-oriented, it offers a structured way to enrich your life. But for those who prefer a less examined approach, there is much to learn. If you're interested in starting your own Happiness Project, Rubin's website is loaded with information, discussion guides, and more.

Gretchen Rubin is a former attorney and author of Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at JFK, and Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide. The Happiness Project was published by Harper Collins in 2010.