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, 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."