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, October 30, 2010

At Home, by Bill Bryson

Bryson's latest book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, is an intriguing collection of historical facts and anecdotes loosely organized around the rooms in his own home, a former rectory in the eastern part of England. Bryson is an admirable historian and etymologist, as well as a prolific nonfiction writer, with such popular books as A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country. At Home, however, lacks Bryson's self-deprecating humor and biting wit that made A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country such entertaining reads.

At Home isn't without its charms, however. At Home is well-written and is enjoyable to read, but is more of a history book than personal memoir. Bryson packs in hundreds of little-known facts like how lawns became popular, why forks have four tines, how furniture came to be upholstered, how early wallpaper could be lethal, and why churches in the British countryside often appear to be sinking into the ground. He expounds on the development of cement, the advent of electricity, the development of steel, and the birth of modern plumbing, all in the context of describing the rooms in his own home. This works sometimes, but there are times that Bryson goes so far afield it's difficult to relate the topic to any room in a house. For example, in the chapter on the study or library, he dedicates many pages to household pests, describing the activities of rats, mice, bedbugs, lice, and other vermin, living with, on, or in the inhabitants of a house. This made sense to him, because this is where he was most likely to find a mouse in his mousetrap.

Bryson related many stories of inventors rising from the depths of anonymity, often poor but occasionally befriended by a wealthier benefactor, who created a wildly successful item, only to sell the patent, or have the proceeds of his success stolen from him, or to squander away his fortune, and to die in disgrace and poverty. Equally stunning were the numbers of "architects" with no formal training who built or attempted to build huge structures, with varying degrees of success.

It's clear that Bryson's research is extensive on many subjects, and people who enjoy knowing the "why" behind so many modern day conveniences and of course, the way your house may even be built and designed, will find this book satisfying. Bryson does a remarkable job making subjects that could be quite dry entertaining and in some cases, even amusing.

At Home was published by Doubleday in 2010.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cats and a Book Virtual Book Club Selection: A Journey, by Tony Blair

A Journey: My Political Life by Tony Blair is a hefty tome, more than 700 pages, which chronicles his rise to Britain's political pinnacle through his election in 1997 to his departure from office in 2007.

Blair recounts his role in monumental world events, including Princess Diana's death, the peace agreement with Northern Ireland, 9/11, and the Iraq War. In addition, he describes in great detail the inner workings of the party and the political system in Britain, including the Prime Minister's relationship with the Queen and the royal family. But Blair writes with candor, even if it's difficult to judge how significant his role really was in some of these events, writing that after the election--the Prime Minister role being his "first and only" government job--"I was scared." With a true sense of political realism, he wrote, "I realised I knew nothing about how government really works, most of all nothing about how I personally would react when the mood turned against me, as I knew it would."

Having served while three U.S. Presidents held the highest office in the United States, the Introduction seems to have been written for a U.S. audience, who might have been asking him to compare their leadership skills. And it also kowtows to U.S. book buyers through his praise of "the American ideal" which he describes as "about values: freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work." Although Blair was a "new" Labour leader, the book is diffuse with references to less socialist policy than one might imagine from a Labour leader, with many references to what appears is Blair's personal philosophy of working for what you get.

In addition to being history book, A Journey is also a textbook on leadership. From his discussion on the difference between being on the team and being the team's leader, to handling his calendar, to selecting his staff--all are lessons applicable to a political or corporate leader. A Journey: My Political Life, published by Knopf in 2010, is a book that requires time to read and absorb, but is well worth the effort.

Cats and a Book Virtual Book Club Discussion Questions

Blair identifies three "lessons" in what he calls political courage, but could also be lessons for any leader. These were "to think anew," "to be prepared to lead and to decide," and "to take calculated risk."

What lessons would you identify for leaders in your organization? Are there skills they must learn to succeed? What would your successor need to do well?
Tony Blair had a "few rules" about the people he worked closely with: "Work comes first. No blame culture. Fun, in its proper place, is good. Disloyalty has no place. Look out for each other. Stick together. Respect each other. It helps if you also like each other."

What do you think of Tony Blair's "rules"? If you had to write (or have written rules) for your team, what would they be?
What leadership lesson from A Journey did you find most applicable or insightful?
After reading A Journey, what's your impression of Tony Blair? It is different than what it was before you read the book? Better or worse? Why?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cats and a Book Virtual Book Club Selection: The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst, is a page-turner murder mystery published by Doubleday Books in 2010. The book's heroine is Octavia Frost, a successful author, whose current unfinished work is entitled The Nobodies Album. The name came from her son Milo, who as a child, would say that songs like "I've Been Working on the Railroad" performed by the Beatles would be on "The Nobodies Album." The recorded version didn't exist anywhere in the "real" world.

Frost took this title and applied it to a series of new endings for novels she had already published. She juxtaposed the original ending with her new ending, so that the unpublished and not yet complete book consisted entirely of existing and alternative endings.

Octavia and her son Milo had been estranged for four years. The estrangement began when he read one of her novels which included the sentence, "They were exactly the wrong two to die." Milo and his mother were the two survivors of a tragic accident in which Milo's sister and father drowned. Milo felt guilt and blame, and refused further contact with his mother, assuming that her character felt the way his mother did. Octavia knew he'd read that particular book, and felt certain it was that sentence which was the death knell for their relationship.

Milo was now living in San Francisco with his girlfriend Bettina, lead singer of a successful rock band. Milo's reconciliation with his mother is spurred by Bettina's murder, for which Milo is charged. Octavia flies to her son's city, not sure whether he will see her, much less allow her to help him, and discovers a granddaughter she didn't know existed. The murder investigation unfolds as does a new ending for Octavia and Milo.

The Nobodies Album is a quick read. The theme of "do-overs" is prevalent, mainly in order for characters to be restored to a closer relationship. Readers won't be disappointed by the ending of The Nobodies Album.

Cats and a Book Virtual Book Club Discussion Questions

Please join in the discussion and add your comments. All are welcome--including your own questions or discussion-starters!

Roland Nysmith doesn’t like Octavia’s new endings idea. He says, “The only way you got here, to the point you’re at now, is by writing those books the way you did . . . whatever ways you’ve changed, that’s going to show up in the new work without your even trying.” What do you think of Roland’s opinion?
When thinking about the changes Octavia could have made to her stories, she wrote, “Here I’d made a choice, and here, and here. It was all butterfly wings and tornadoes: even a slight deviation in any one of those places would be enough to set the whole book on course for a different outcome.” Do you ever consider how your life might be different had you made a choice at crossroads you’ve encountered? What about the tiny decisions you make every day? What is the consequence of weighing or not weighing your options?
Referring to her friendship with Lisette, Octavia says, “ . . . the romance of letting an old friend fade out of your life is a luxury of the past . . .we’re closer now as online ‘friends,’ than we ever were as friends in the flesh . . .” What has your experience been with “being found” by old friends? Does it serve to renew good friendships, bring closure, or do you long for anonymity again?
Have you ever wanted a better ending to a book you've read? If so, briefly what was the ending and what would you like it to have been?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tinkers, by Paul Harding

Tinkers, written by Paul Harding and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year, is the story of three generations of men as it is told during the last hours of the youngest one's life. The novel opens with George, having come home to a hospital bed in the dining room, surrounded by family, knowing he is dying. He is hallucinating, imagining his home is falling down around him. He barely recognizes the family members who keep him constant company as he reflects on his life. Harding returns to the hours before George's death throughout the short novel.

George repairs clocks, and Harding describes in detail how the mechanism of the clocks set time in motion. The concept of time, of losing it and restoring it, is a theme that echoes the time lost during seizures, and the resumption of "normal" life. George's father, Howard, suffered the same malady as George--they both had grand mal seizures as a result of epilepsy. Harding describes the seizures as an electrical event, the "voltage" from which the universe is made, and that "Howard, by accident of birth, tasted the raw stuff of the cosmos."

As a child, George was shielded from his father's epilepsy until he witnessed a seizure and was accidentally bitten. A visit to the local doctor started a series of events that led to Howard leaving home. After Howard left, George began experiencing seizures himself.

It is not what some might consider a gloomy plot that draws the reader to this short novel. It is the elegance of the writing, the stitching together of descriptive passages, and the artful use of words to give the reader insight into the lives of its characters.

Tinkers is beautifully written. It was published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2009.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, by John Fox, Jr.

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is another book in my "Grandma's bookcase" series. My grandmother grew up "in the country" in southwestern Virginia. She loved to read, and had a bookcase that fascinated me with its contents, including books like The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was written by John Fox, Jr. and published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1906. Although it is love story, the underlying theme of progress, greed, and its resultant blight, as well as the attempts to recover from these transgressions against nature, pervade the novel.

John Hale is an engineer and speculator (a "furriner" to the mountain folks) who comes to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, just over the state line with Virginia. He meets two feuding mountain families, the Tollivers and the Falins, and finds himself enmeshed in their decades old battle. Hale becomes enamored of June Tolliver, a girl on the verge of womanhood, and offers her formal schooling in Virginia. In the meantime, Hale and others exploit the coal resources of the mountain area, bringing civilization and "law and order" to the small outpost. While Hale builds his fortune, the area becomes home to transient coal workers, the creek runs black, and coal-mining equipment belches smoke into the sky. June becomes a young lady who doesn't quite belong in "society" or her mountain home, and the mountaineers' feud erupts into violence.

Modern readers may find the relationships between Hale and June Tolliver odd; however, mountain girls married at a young age at the time this book is set. Language includes stereotypes and terms that are dated and may be offensive to some readers. However, the story of the environment is not unlike our modern concerns about climate change and the ability to reverse the effect, and June's transformation is a classic and entertaining Pygmalion story.