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!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated is a moving and complex story--more accurately, it is a story within a story within a story. The author is Jonathan Safran Foer, which is also the name of one of the main characters in the novel, and referred to as "the hero" by the narrator. Foer hires Heritage Tours to escort him in Ukraine on his search to find a mysterious woman named Augustine. The book's narrator is Alexander Perchov, who serves as Foer's guide in Ukraine, and reads Foer's manuscript ("the hero" is a writer), which is a kind of history of Foer's family and their hometown of Trachimbrod.

"The hero" sends sections of the book and his journal of the trip to Alex after Foer returns to the United States, who reads them and offers edits by return mail. He also questions Foer's meanings in his letters to Foer, and sometimes suggests changes in how Foer has written the story. This is a nifty way to involve the reader in exploring what the author meant and what his motivations might have been for writing the story the way he did. Alex often asks questions the reader may also have, or express a sentiment about the outcome of the story. At one point Alex asks about a specific character that Foer has described as perpetually sad, "If I could utter a proposal, please allow Brod to be happy. Please. Is this an impossible thing?"

Foer's primary purpose for the trip was to find a woman named Augustine, who saved his grandfather from death at the hands of the Nazis. The facts of the event are unclear, and it's not certain from the photograph "the hero" has brought with him that the girl pictured is Augustine. However, the photograph is meaningful to Alex's grandfather, who serves as the tour driver during "the hero's" visit. The unraveling of this mystery absorbs Alex, changing his family and himself forever.

Despite sad and shocking elements of the story, the book's style is entertaining, frustrating, and entrancing at intervals. Once the reader realizes that Alex's command of English is best described as unique, it's easier to understand what he means when he refers to someone "spleening" him or how he is a "premium person." Alex is an endearing character. The banter between Alex and his grandfather (which is conducted in their own language, with Alex asking questions of "the hero" in English in between and translating for his grandfather) is charming. On page 65, "the hero" reveals something about himself that stuns Alex and his grandfather:

"You are very hungry, yes?" "I am a vegetarian." "I do not understand." "I don't eat meat." "Why not?" "I just don't." "How can you not eat meat?" "I just don't." "He does not eat meat," I told Grandfather. "Yes, he does," he informed me. "Yes you do, " I likewise informed the hero. "No, I don't." "Why not?" I inquired him again. "I just don't. No meat." "Pork?" "No." "Meat?" "No meat." "Steak?" "Nope." "Chickens?" "No." "Do you eat veal?" "Oh, God. Absolutely no veal." "What about sausage?" "No sausage either." I told Grandfather this, and he presented me a very bothered look. "What is wrong with him?" he asked. "What is wrong with you?" I asked him. "It's just the way I am," he said. "Hamburger?" "No." "Tongue?" "What did he say was wrong with him?" Grandfather asked. "It is just the way he is." "Does he eat sausage?" "No." "No sausage!" "No. He says he does not eat sausage." ( . . . ) "Well, let him deduce what he is going to eat. We will go to the most proximal restaurant." "You are a schmuck," I informed the hero. "You're not using the word correctly," he said. "Yes I am," I said.

Alex's language skills improve as Foer coaches him in their letters, but more importantly, Alex learns about his own history and sets out to change his future and make a better future for those he loves.

Everything Is Illuminated was published by HarperCollins in 2002. Froer has since written Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Eating Animals.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder

Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy, is an absorbing read that requires your full attention. The author, Jostein Gaarder, brings to life figures from the past and weaves them with the present in a way that is informative, challenging, and entrancing.

The 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. The author of these lessons, whom Sophie thinks of as "the unknown philosopher" introduces himself in an unusual video, as Alberto Knox. Sophie later meets Knox in person as her lessons continue.

A quick glance at the chapter titles gives the reader a sense of the seriousness of the study--Hellenism, Descartes, Hume, The Enlightenment--but Gaardner teaches each lesson gently, enriching it with Sophie's questions and the ongoing mystery of Hilde. And while there is a philosophical "aha" at the book's end, it is simply that--philosophical and theoretical. The reader is left to draw her or his own conclusions.

This book would be an excellent introduction to philosophy for a precocious teen or a refresher for the adult who studied philosophy in college. Although there are times that Sophie's comments seem too modern or bold for the circumstances, it adds to the surreal nature of some of the scenes.

Sophie's World was an international bestseller, and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2007.

Friday, April 16, 2010

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.

Doyle works tirelessly to ignite the passion for public service in one of his two younger sons, but finds they have little interest in becoming the next President of the United States, as he hoped. Tip was a brilliant student, loved fish, and wanted to become an ichthyologist. Teddy was taller, a year younger, and tended toward being late and misplacing things. If Tip was the brain, Teddy was the heart. Sullivan Doyle, the eldest son, was 12 years older than the boys, and appeared in the story in time for a "late Christmas" visit with his family. His arrival wasn't for precisely sentimental reasons, but because of legal complications that necessitated an unplanned departure from Africa, where he had been most recently living. He finds Kenya living with his family, her mother hospitalized, and uncovers his own path of personal discovery.

In the meantime, the Doyles discover that Kenya Moser is a runner. In this passage on pp. 239-240, Kenya is Tip's guest on the college running track:

"She was hopping up and down now, a manic pink spring, ready to spend the ounce of herself she had been holding on to tight, tight, tight. She put her hands on the ground and tried to make herself stretch but she didn't think she had the time. She felt certain if she waited another minute she was going to explode. It would all come raining down on her and the last thing she wanted to be was a girl crying on the Gordon Track. That would get her thrown out for sure. She stood and for an instant went up on her toes and then, at the crack of a gun that she kept in her head, she was gone."

Run is one of my favorite Ann Patchett novels, and was published by Harper Collins in 2007. A favorite local author, Patchett has written a number of bestsellers, including The Magician's Assistant, and Bel Canto, which won the Pen/Faulkner Award.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

It takes special determination to continue reading Tatiana de Rosnay's Sarah's Key beyond page 15, on which we find our heroine, Julia Jarmond, musing, "Why did I have such an impossibly attractive husband? I wondered for the umpteenth time." But, de Rosnay hooks the reader with the startling arrest of the book's title character in the first few pages, and curiosity about the significance of the title makes us more tolerant than we might be otherwise. Knowing that Sarah's Key is based on true, horrific events makes us more forgiving of the storyteller.

Sarah's Key is the story of the historic roundup of French Jews by French police officers in July 1942. The event was called Vel' d'Hiv'. In de Rosnay's story, a modern-day American reporter living in France covers a memorial service honoring Jews who were imprisoned in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup. Snatched from their homes, they were herded into the bicycle racing stadium with what they could carry and left there under guard--thirsty, hungry, ill, and sometimes dying. Later they were transported by rail to concentration camps where most of them died.

Between short chapters narrating Sarah's story is the story of Julia Jarmond, a reporter living in Paris, married to a Frenchman. As Jarmond covers the memorial event, she encounters a dismissive and uninterested attitude about Vel' d'Hiv' from her husband and his family, and discovers a startling connection between Sarah and Jarmond's in-laws. Jarmond is challenged by the lack of information and interest from French citizens about Vel' d'Hiv' and the role of their government, acting at Hitler's direction. De Rosnay draws this to the reader's attention while highlighting the betrayal French Jews felt at the hands of French police officers who had, until their arrest, protected them like any other French citizen.

Sarah's story is more compelling than Julia's, and that is what makes the book appealing. Sarah is a 10-year-old French girl captured in the roundup. She is too young to understand why she wears the yellow star and why the French police are taking her and her mother away. She doesn't understand why her mother is so afraid. When the police arrived to arrest them, her little brother refused to go with her and her mother, and hid instead in a special cabinet that had been their hiding place. Sarah locked the cabinet and hid the key, promising to return as soon as they were released. As the hours turned to days of imprisonment in the bicycle stadium, Sarah became frantic, determined to escape to save her brother.

De Rosnay's story is engaging, and her handling of the arrest and imprisonment of Sarah and her family is powerful. Her characters, however, are predictable: the kindly French police officer who helps Sarah, the grandparent-like couple who offer Sarah shelter, the philandering French husband going through a mid-life crisis, the spunky teenage daughter who is wise beyond her years, the crusty but caring editor, the gay couple who offer Julia a shoulder to cry on, the cold mother-in-law, the wise but dying grandmother--but you get the idea. Although Julia Jarmond is a seasoned reporter, de Rosnay seems to feel it necessary to educate the reader about what Julia's and her photographer's jobs are (p. 28):

"Nothing wishy-washy," he (Jarmond's editor) said. "No sentimentalism. Facts. Testimonies. And"--glancing at Bamber (the photographer) --"good, strong, photos. Look up old material as well."

Why de Rosnay didn't have Jarmond respond on behalf of her readers, "Well, duh," is beyond me.

De Rosnay deserves credit for educating her readers about Vel' d'Hiv' and pricking the French conscience about their involvement. You can learn more about Vel' D'Hiv' through this Economist Article, "Remembering the Vel d'Hiv'", the Memorial de la Shoah, or the Wikipedia article on the subject. Sarah's Key was published in 2007 by St. Martin's Press. This printing includes a book club guide. De Rosnay's website can be found here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Culture Code, by Clotaire Rapaille

The Culture Code, by Clotaire Rapaille, is a study in what makes us buy what we do. And it turns out that we have deeply held attachments to certain products which are practically formed at birth. Why? It's our culture.

Rapaille studies what people buy and why they buy it. He consults with companies that want to develop a new advertising campaign in another country, for instance, or have attempted to market a product unsuccessfully. His technique has three parts: Ask a representative pool of potential customers to describe the product as if he's unfamiliar with it; have them associate words with the product cut from magazines or other print; and finally, ask them what they are feeling when they think about the product. This third step often reveals early memories, and people with positive early memories are more likely to find a place for it in their lives (and spend money for it) as adults. He calls this link from feelings to pocketbook, "the Code."

In the United States, "the Code" for Jeep is "horse." Americans, he found, tended to associate the vehicle with the freedom of riding on the open range--a feeling that one can "go anywhere" and that there are no boundaries. But in Europe, Jeep wasn't synonymous with horse at all. The Code for Jeep in Europe was "liberator." To French and German car buyers, jeeps were the vehicles American servicemen drove in World War II. An American marketing campaign equating a Jeep to a horse wouldn't work at all in Europe.

Nestle wasn't "on Code" in its first efforts to sell coffee in Japan. The Japanese were traditionally tea drinkers. They had no memories of waking to the smell of coffee or the example of parents who drank coffee while reading the morning paper. Coffee sales were poor. Marketing efforts to sell coffee failed because they weren't "on Code." An education in "the Code" led Nestle to try a different approach--build a history by appealing to the younger generation with coffee flavored desserts. Early imprinting makes the flavor of coffee more familiar and opens the market to coffee as a beverage when the younger generation reaches adulthood.

If you've ever wondered why Disney struggled to find success with its theme park in France or why a wildly successful Jeopardy! winner appeals to the television viewing public, knowing "the Code" will give you some insight.

The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy As They Do was published in 2007 with an updated afterword by Broadway Books, a division of Random House. It is dedicated by the author "to the GI who gave me chocolate and chewing gum on top of his tank two weeks after D-Day . . . and changed my life forever."