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, February 27, 2010

Hot, Flat, and Crowded, by Thomas L. Friedman

Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded could have been titled Hot, Flat, Crowded . . . and Scary. 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. Here's what Friedman tells those who still might not buy global climate change:

"If those of us who have become concerned about climate change turn out to be wrong--but we refocus America anyway on producing clean electrons and the most energy-efficient vehicles, appliances, and buildings in the world, and we make America the global leader in aiding the protection of tropical forests with cleaner habitats, what is the worst that will happen? Our country will have cleaner air and water, more efficient products, more workers educated in the next global industry, higher energy prices but lower bills, greater productivity, healthier people, and an export industry in clean power products that people across the world will want to buy--not to mention the respect and gratitude of more people around the world than ever. And we'll have to fight fewer wars over natural resources--because if the human race cannot create greater abundance, we will fight over everything that is in shortage, which is going to be a lot of things in a world that is flat, hot, and crowded."

I don't know about you, but by page 213, which is where this paragraph appears, I'm on board. Sign me up. And now tell me what we have to do.

If there is a flaw in Friedman's approach, it is that he doesn't truly address the individual in this plan. While we know that corporations and industry must experience painful change and that increased (initial) energy costs will be painful to the consumer, what becomes of the worker? The one who is laid off because her company is experiencing that painful change, or the worker who can no longer afford the commute to work because of the cost of gas (and the lack of available mass transportation)? This is all part of that pain, too. Pain that significantly impacts our economy in the short term, which has the potential to derail the painful change Friedman opines is required at the political level.

I urge you to read this book. This isn't about recycling cardboard or aluminum cans. In fact, you may find it discouraging to be rinsing and compacting your trash when you consider what is happening in Dubai and China. However, change is happening--both to our climate and our industries. This book will sharpen your awareness and soften your resistance to what must come.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America (Release 2.0-Updated and Expanded edition) was published in 2009 by Picador. Also read The World is Flat, by Friedman, which will give you a sense of what globalization can do and how global corporations can (and have) positively impacted the world. Check out Friedman's website here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The first thing you should know about The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, is that it is narrated by Death. The book's prologue and the first few chapters introduce you to the narrator and to the colors he sees, which figure prominently in the descriptions of taking souls from the dying. You will quickly discover why Death is the book's narrator. The story is set in Germany. It is 1939, and Hitler is in power. Death is very busy.

At one point, Death lamented the pace of his work:

"There were certainly some rounds to be made that year, from Poland to Russia to Africa and back again. You might argue that I make the rounds no matter what year it is, but sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of faraway guns." (p. 308)

The book's central character is Leisel Meminger, who is 9 years old at the beginning of the novel. She is being transported, along with a brother, to a foster family. Her brother dies en route (Death's first exposure to Leisel), and she is haunted by his loss and that of her parents, who are mysteriously linked to the word "Kommunist." She comes to feel they were enemies of Hitler, and develops a special sensitivity to the plight of the Jews. Her foster family is also sympathetic, and as time passes and war visits their city, there are costly and dangerous opportunities for them to demonstrate their sympathy.

It is at her brother's funeral that Liesel steals her first book. She picks up a copy of gravedigging instructions dropped at the gravesite. She learns to read, and discovers the power of words to entrance and soothe, command and destroy. The significance of words and books is an engaging element of this story. A copy of Mein Kampf plays a special role as passport, both for an escaping Jew and for Leisel.

The narration style is odd, especially in the prologue and beginning chapters, with short, bold insets of facts, descriptions, and definitions. This becomes more expected and comfortable to the reader as the book progresses. Death also has a tendency to reveal what has happened first, and then provide the details. While you'd think this would spoil the ending, in fact, it offers relief to the reader. Death is sympathetic to the readers's sense of loss, and describes how he gently cradled a soul as he carried it away.

The book was distributed as teen literature, and was a Michael L. Printz honor book. The book's powerful themes, complex characters, and tragic realities make it appropriate for adults. In fact, aside from the age of the main characters, I saw little that would necessarily make it more appealing to teens than adults.

The Book Thief was copyrighted in 2005 and published by Alfred A. Knopf. Zuzak is also the author of I am the Messenger. You can learn more about Zusak at Random House.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is honest. Sometimes painfully so, but more often than not, with gentleness and humor. Her stories don't always have happy endings, but they're real endings, the kind real people have. Her characters face life the way we do. They take chances, they make mistakes, they live with the consequences of their choices. Some events are tragic, some are funny, some are happenstance, some are by choice--but they are experiences we all have.

In Tyler's most recent novel, Noah's Compass, 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.

The reader shouldn't expect any great resolution at the conclusion of the book, although I felt Pennywell had managed to keep himself afloat, which seemed to be his goal. I won't spoil the concept of Noah's compass, except to say that the book is aptly named.

Noah's Compass is easy to read and hard to put down. This is Anne Tyler's 18th novel, and she won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel Breathing Lessons. I'd recommend Breathing Lessons and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant if you enjoyed Noah's Compass, two of my Anne Tyler favorites.

Noah's Compass was published in 2009 by Alfred A. Knopf. Her website can be found here.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a mysterious, macabre, and Poe-like page-turner. I'd previously read The Shadow of the Wind, and knew Zafon is a good storyteller. The Angel's Game is darker and more gruesome than Shadow, although some of the same themes surface--libraries and booksellers and mysterious abandoned mansions.

Our hero is David Martin, who was abandoned by his mother and raised by his father. He was orphaned at a young age, and due to a wealthy sponsor and a crusty but caring editor, Martin became a popular writer of sensationalist serials. As the sordid association with a team of greedy publishers becomes too much for Martin to bear, a French publisher named Andreas Corelli makes Martin an offer he can't refuse. Not that he doesn't try. Factor in the daughter of his sponsor's chauffeur and a saucy teenaged would-be writer/housekeeper/roommate, and you very nearly have the complete cast of characters.

The book's appeal is the story. It's not that we care very much for Martin or any of the other characters (the bookstore owner and the crusty editor are likeable enough, but our exposure to them is so infrequent that any connection is too light to sustain any particular interest in their fates), it's that we want to solve the mystery. Is Corelli real? Is he "the undead"? Is he a puppet? Is he a figment of Martin's imagination? Are the gruesome murders that are interspersed throughout the book by the hand of Martin, as the police suspect? Is Martin simply insane?

The reader shouldn't be overly hopeful that all of these questions are answered by the book's end. I won't spoil the ending, except to say that you are left with the impression that Martin will have some peace.

Zafon's novels are translated from Spanish. The Angel's Game was published by Doubleday in 2009. Zafon's website can be found at Random House.