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, May 29, 2010

The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol is the latest in a line of suspenseful, written-for-the-big-screen novels featuring the intrepid Robert Langdon, professor and symbologist. Langdon was the hero of Brown’s Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Code, portrayed by the actor Tom Hanks in the film versions. It’s not difficult to imagine Hanks in the lead role of Langdon in The Lost Symbol, nor picture the scenes as they might unfold at the theater soon.

The book features a goon (the bad guy, obviously), good guys (or are they bad guys?), a wise mentor or two, and a potential love interest for Langdon. The plot centers around a “lost symbol” which is the key to the “Ancient Mysteries.” Langdon, of course, needs to decode a message which will 1) save his friend Peter Solomon from the goon, and 2) expose some information that, in the wrong hands, would cause grave and irreparable harm. Following the formula in the previous two books, there’s no time to lose and only Langdon can solve the mystery.

What Brown did less effectively in this book was the second of these two objectives. The information to be revealed included secret rites associated with the Masonic Order and that important people in Washington, D.C. were taking part in them. The ramifications of this information being revealed didn’t feel as devastating as Brown wanted to convey, but perhaps many in his audience would react differently. Brown does touch on topics such as eternity, the evidence of the soul, and Unitarian principles, and perhaps these topics might invite more emotion in some readers.

If you are claustrophobic, a particular passage—you’ll know it when you get there—may cause you anxiety. If you want to avoid those pages altogether or learn how it’s going to turn out, email me once you’ve gotten your ragged breathing under control and I’ll fill you in.

The Lost Symbol is what Dan Brown does best. A terrific beach read, The Lost Symbol is fast-paced and gruesome at times, but offers an exciting mystery that is hard to put down.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

Elizabeth Kostova sets the scene early in The Historian, with clues that lead to the resurrection of Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula. A letter addressed to "my dear unfortunate successor," a strange old book, blank except for one page with a wood block printed word "Drakulya," and several mysterious disappearances suggest to Kostova's characters that the Dracula of myth is still alive.

The book's protagonist is the daughter of a prominent diplomat and historian. As she begins to uncover his secret life, he reveals the subject of his research and the necessity and purpose of his travels, all of which relate to his involvement with Vlad and the disappearance of Helen, her mother. Through her father's narrative, letters addressed to "my unfortunate successor," and postcards and notes from Helen, the mystery unwinds leading to a tense but satisfying ending. Suffice it to say that The Historian requires the reader to set aside reality, to be willing to skip (or flee, which is more appropriate in this book) down the halls of fantasy, and be swept away by the story.

The Historian is light literature for mystery fans or those who enjoy a more adult Vampire pop culture book. It does become fairly deeply mired in the culture and history of central and eastern Europe, which would appeal to fiction readers who require their fantasy writing to be factually accurate on the periphery of the story. This rescues the book from being something purely supernatural and fantastic.

A page-turner, the hardback version is 632 pages long, but it is a quick read and would be a good choice for the beach or vacation. It was published in 2005 by Little, Brown, and Company. Kostova recently published her second novel, The Swan Thieves.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Say You're One of Them, by Uwem Akpan

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan, was an Oprah's Book Club selection. For some, this would be enough indication whether this is a book you'd enjoy. Oprah's books often force the reader to turn a full face to the human condition. Well-written, raw, and tragic, Say You're One of Them meets the criteria well.

This is a collection of short stories, although one ("Fattening for Gabon") is long enough to be a novella, all set in Africa. In "An Ex-Mas Feast," a family receives a Christmas meal from their 12-year-old daughter, who prostitutes herself to raise money for her family to pay for her brother's schooling. "Luxurious Hearses" centers around a young man fleeing his hometown to find his mother's family, but he must hide his Muslim beliefs in a bus full of Christians in order to survive. The thread of identity runs through each of the five stories--often depicted in a frantic and life-threatening need to prove religious belief, ethnicity, or cultural belonging.

Graphic and brutal at times, the stories show us a world we know exists but few Westerners experience. Uwem Akpan, the author, was born and raised in Nigeria and is an ordained Catholic priest. Akpan wanted to publish this collection of stories to enlighten others about the common daily struggles for African children, whether it is to find food, make money, become part of the dominant religious group, hide or proudly display their ethnicity, or even to join in or declaim violence.

Say You're One of Them was originally published in 2008 by Little, Brown and Company. Akpan won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book (Africa Region) and has received several other recognitions for his work. He continues to work at Christ the King Church in Nigeria.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Power of Place, by Winifred Gallagher

The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions by Winifred Gallagher is a study in science, geography, psychology, and mythology, with each chapter addressing a different way in which our physical location affects us. For example, in "The Climate Indoors," Gallagher describes the human need for sunlight, and how most "office-bound" Americans get less than a half hour of sunlight a day. She talks about the effect of long days of sunlight or darkness in the Arctic and Antarctic regions and the condition known as SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.

In chapters entitled "Subtle Geophysical Energies" and "Sacred Places," Gallagher addresses shared mystical experiences and sudden revelations that some report at particular geographic locations. Whether they are due to electromagnetic field changes or "chronic environmental weirdness," the author doesn't discount the reports of the bizarre but chalks them up to possible "ghost in the machine" phenomena.

Gallagher's chapter on "Stimulation: Less is More, More or Less" focused on the concept of feng shui and the affect of noise on our environment. "Different People, Different Worlds" introduces the fascinating concept of "flow" best described in this quote from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

"When we're in flow, whether while playing the violin or climbing a mountain, our actions merge with our awareness. We stop being spectators of our own experience, which eliminates that ruminative self-consciousness that's such a burden. We feel a sense of oneness with something larger than the self, whether it's a musical tradition or nature or a diety."

The Power of Place covers a broad range of topics Gallagher relates to physical place. The Power of Place was published by Poseidon Press in 1993. For more books on place, consider The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner.