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, 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.