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!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Shopkeeper, by James D. Best

The Shopkeeper is the entertaining story of Steve Dancy, a New York shopkeeper who has relocated to the "wild west" to experience what he's only heard stories about. But Dancy isn't a typical shopkeeper. Readers quickly learn that Dancy is a gunsmith with financial resources to spare.

The setting is a rough-and-tumble silver mining town in the late 1800s called Pickhandle Gulch. Dancy describes the town this way: "Transients and a get-rich mentality gave Pickhandle Gulch a bawdy and rowdy temper, but the overriding characteristic of the town was dust." The Cutler brothers, a couple of local henchmen, goad Dancy into a gunfight early in the story, which pits him against the most powerful and dangerous man in the territory.

Dancy prefers a mental fight than a physical one, although there is plenty of good old-fashioned gun play in the story. Because of his gunsmith business dealings, Dancy has the wherewithal to challenge the powerful bad men in the story. Money, to him, was "just the score. A way to keep track of who's winning and who's losing . . . and I like to win." But Dancy ultimately settles the score a different way.

The book is rife with stereotypical western themes: warring mining camps, good-hearted local businessmen cowed into "protection payments," a damsel in distress (although she handles herself quite well), and a romantic team of Pinkertons to assist the protagonist in his fight against corruption.

There is typical cowboy violence and a sprinkling of R-rated language, but for the most part, the Steve Dancy series of cowboy stories are suited for any age. The Shopkeeper is the first in the series, Leadville follows, with Murder at Thumb Butte still in the writing stage. The Shopkeeper is quick and fun to read, perfect for a vacation escape.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker

The Mezzanine is quirky little book, short on plot but lushly if not obsessively descriptive. Howie, the book's protagonist, rides an escalator from the ground floor of his office building to the mezzanine, where his office is located. This is the plot, more or less. During the short ride, readers are treated to lavish and detailed descriptions of everyday objects or recalled occurrences that are delightful at times in their familiarity: the satisfying clunk of a staple being pushed through a stack of papers (now "one controversy" as Baker describes it, rather than separate ones), the graceful swoop of a date stamper as it traverses down to ink a new date on a page, the interlocking teeth and the efficient revolution of escalator treads. But Baker doesn't discriminate; he also spends passages describing the wear on shoelaces--what makes them break within a day of each other? Is it the mechanism of tying, or the flexing of the shoe with each step, or the gait of the wearer, or the material, or the type of the bow tied in the laces?

But his treatment of these mundane topics is often inventive. After discussing the various techniques of tying shoelaces, Baker describes the differences in knots this way:

"You could imagine a sneaker-shoelace knot and a dress-shoelace knot standing side by side saying the Pledge of Allegiance: the dress-shoelace knot would pronounce each word as a grammatical unit, understanding it as more than a sound; the sneaker-shoelace knot would run the words together."

In this passage, Baker wisely describes how new hires adapt to their office surroundings, justifying the number of bathroom trips they take:

"For new-hires, the number of visits can go as high as eight or nine a day, because the corporate bathroom is the one place where you understand completely what is expected of you. Other parts of your job are unclear: you have been given a pile of xeroxed documents and files to read; you have tentatively probed the supply cabinet and found that they don't stock the kind of pen you prefer; relative positions of power are not immediately obvious; your office is bare and unwelcoming; you have no nameplate on your door yet, no business cards printed; and you know that the people who are friendliest to you in the first weeks are almost never the people you will end up liking and respecting . . ."

This kind of detail can become tedious at times, but will also bring back clear childhood memories -- such as the way cigarette machines dispensed packs of Marlboros. This book could be a primer for budding writers who need to learn to write descriptive narratives.

Finally, readers should know that a good third of the book consists of footnootes. Long, detailed asides Baker uses to allow Howie to further explore shoelaces, for instance, or the practice of buying bandaids in all size assortments. On an eReader, this can be difficult. I'd recommend a paper copy of this book to make flipping back and forth more manageable.

The Mezzanine was originally published in 1986 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson but was recently released in paperback version by Grove Press in 2010.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall

Same Kind of Different as Me is the story of two men, Ron Hall and Denver Moore, who meet in a Fort Worth food kitchen. Hall, a successful art dealer, and Moore, a former sharecropper, build an unlikely friendship that brings their two worlds together in an uneasy detente. To mirror these differences, each chapter is written from the perspective of Hall or Moore.

Early in Moore's story, he describes sharecropping this way:

"So you done worked all year and the Man ain't done nothin, but you still owe the Man. And wadn't nothin you could do but work his land for another year to pay off that debt. What it come down to was: The Man didn't just own the land. He owned you."

Hall described his early years like this:
" . . . I did not start out rich. I was raised in a lower-middle-class section of Fort Worth called Haltom City, a town so ugly that it was the only one in Texas with no picture postcard of itself for sale in the local pharmacy."

There are underlying themes to their friendship, as well: poverty and ignorance in rural Louisiana due at least in part to the sharecropper culture that thrived there at one time, the plight of homeless people in Fort Worth (or in any large city), adult illiteracy, religious beliefs--how they move some people to action or sustain them in times of grief, and cancer which strikes Hall's wife Deborah, a cruel disease that taunts with a clean bill of health followed by its malicious return.

There are moments of inspiration, indignation, and grief. There are times that one questions Hall's commitment to his faith or to Denver, whom he declares as his friend. And there are questions about the narrative. The anecdotes of visions and prescience are a little fantastic, but some readers may not be troubled by them.

Same Kind of Different as Me is a moving book with new perspectives to consider about the challenges facing those around us. Some may be apparent and some may not be. Moore summarizes his lesson this way:

"There's somethin I learned when I was homeless: Our limitation is God's opportunity. When you get all the way to the end of your rope and there ain't nothin you can do, that's when God takes over."

The book's website can be found here, and you can see Denver Moore's art here. Same Kind of Different as Me was published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. in 2006.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables is the classic children's story of Anne Shirley, an orphaned girl of eleven, adopted by unmarried siblings, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. The Cuthbert's family farm and home is "Green Gables, " and located in the settlement of Avonlea, Prince Edward Island. Written in 1908, the story retains elements young and pre-teen girls would find historically interesting and relevant to their school and social lives.

Anne is an unusual child, given to flights of imagination that tend to impair her ability to accomplish her household chores, and lead to several interesting scrapes involving friends and boys. With red hair, which she hopes will turn a lovely shade of auburn when she gets older, pale features, and no dimples like her best friend Diana, Anne uses her curiosity, imagination, and intelligence to her advantage as she matures. In this conversation with Matthew, Anne tries to gain some discipline with her studies:

"Well, I suppose I must finish up my lessons. I won't allow myself to open that new book Jane lent me until I'm through. but it's a terrible temptation, Matthew. Even when I turn my back on it I can see it there just as plain. Jane said she cried herself sick over it. I love a book that makes me cry. But I think I'll carry that book into the sitting room and lock it in the jam closet and give you the key. And you must not give it to me, Matthew, until my lessons are done, not even if I implore you on my bended knees. It's all very well to resist temptation, but it's ever so much easier to resist if if you can't get the key."

Later, she learns the "(k)indred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It's splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world." With Anne's history of "not belonging"--being shuttled from one foster home to another since her infancy and the deaths of her biological parents, finding "kindred spirits" was important to her.

Anne of Green Gables is a sweet story and pleasant to read. There are good lessons for children (and adults) in Anne's trials and challenges. Grosset and Dunlap published the novel, and it has since been followed by a series of stories about Anne and adapted into movie versions. Anne of Green Gables can be downloaded free of charge from Google Books.