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!

Friday, December 31, 2010

Cats and a Book Names Top Ten Books of 2010

Happy New Year’s Eve! As we look toward 2011, it's time to name my favorite books of the year. Narrowing down the list to ten was challenging, but here are the books I think were most noteworthy:

1. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. The first book I read and reviewed for Cats and a Book, it remains one of my favorites. The protagonist of the story is Harrison Shepherd, a Mexican-American boy who is a cook, plaster-maker, secretary, and most importantly, writer. He chronicles his life and the book is, in a sense, autobiographical. The reader follows him through interactions with historical figures such as Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo, as well as with his mother, father, and secretary, Violet Brown. Kingsolver deals lightly with McCarthyism (Shepherd himself seemed apolitical) and homosexuality, so as to tell a story rather than to persuade. The reader is left to draw whatever conclusions he or she wishes and to decide the moral, if there is one, of the story. Read the full review here.

2. Hot, Flat, and Crowded, by Thomas L. Friedman. Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, spends the majority of the book convincing us how doomed we all are for our gratuitous and reckless use of Earth's natural resources and environment. He cites expert after expert and packs the book with facts like the alarming rate of CO2 growth in the atmosphere, what the analysis of the Greenland Ice Sheet tells us about our climate, and how all we need to do is to step outside our front doors. Daffodils in January? No snow on the mountain tops? Widespread flooding, unusual snowstorms, terrifying hurricanes? All signs of climate change. But the purpose of the book isn't to terrify or debate. It's to inspire America to greatness, to recognize what we need to do--no, must do--to survive in this new climate and thrive. Read more on Cats and a Book.

3. Noah’s Compass, by Anne Tyler. Tyler’s Liam Pennywell has moved down the academic career ladder with each job change, the latest being downsized out of his position as a teacher at a private elementary school. With this last change, he also downsized to a smaller living space. And this is where the book begins: Pennywell is attacked on his first evening there. The resulting loss of memory from a concussion obsesses him. This leads him to an unlikely relationship with a professional "rememberer" and greater interaction with his three daughters and an ex-wife, with their varying degrees of concern for Pennywell's health and happiness and demands for his attention. But Pennywell has plenty of memories which he shares throughout the book, though his inability to remember the attack is like a puzzle he can't solve. Read more about this charming story in the blog review.

4. Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder. Sophie’s World novel centers around fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen who one day receives in her mailbox a letter with three words: Who are you? A second envelope addressed to Sophie asked, Where does the world come from? And finally, a postcard appeared addressed to Hilde Moller Knog, written to Hilde by Hidle's father, which raised the perplexing questions, Who was Hilde? And why was it addressed c/o Sophie Amundsen? Followed by these initial questions and Sophie's ponderings on what they meant, Sophie begins to receive philosophy lessons--short, easy-to-read explanations of philosophical theories. Sophie's thoughts about the material help the reader assimilate the ideas, too, so that Sophie and the reader are progressing together toward a deeper understanding of each philosophical theory. Read the review on Cats and a Book.

5. The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. This fun book to read is an account of author Gretchen Rubin's personal quest for happiness. Rubin suffered from "midlife malaise"--not being unhappy, but not being particularly happy, either. It's not that Rubin didn't appreciate her life. In fact, she was grateful for what she had. But the nagging question remained, "Is this really it?" More disturbing was the recurring answer she provided, "Yep, this is it." Thus, the Happiness Project was born. Rubin studied happiness--what did it mean, how did others obtain it, how is it measured--until she settled on an "I'll know it when I see it" approach. Rubin decided to create twelve "resolutions"--one for each month, except for December, in which she'd attempt to do all twelve. Rubin leaves readers with lots of ideas on how to create and sustain happiness in their own lives. Read more here.

6. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The Help is a complex story of African American 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. Read the full review here.

7. 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. A charming book, it is one of my favorites this year, and was selected by One Book of Rutherford County for 2011.

8. 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 surprisingly 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. Recommended to me by WPLN's GM Rob Gordon, I also reviewed The Lonely Polygamist for the

9. The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, by Julia Stuart. This delight of a novel features Balthazar Jones and his wife Hebe, who live at the Tower of London. Jones is a Beefeater, or more properly "Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and member of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary." But what he typically did was give visitors tours of the Tower, regaling them with tales of torture and escape, and dutifully pointing out the restrooms. It wasn't a terribly glamorous position, notwithstanding the public's perception and the traditional uniforms, and the living quarters were damp, round (it was a tower, of course)--which made picture hanging and furniture placement dicey--and haunted. When the Queen decides to reestablish the Royal Menagerie at the Tower, the role of its overseer falls to Jones, mainly due to his ownership of a geriatric tortoise named Mrs. Cook. A quirky and charming love story, The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise ranked among my top five favorites this year, and reviewed here on Cats and a Book.

10. Run, by Ann Patchett. Ann Patchett's Run is a delight. An interesting story with unpredictable elements and rich and likable characters, Run focuses on the nontraditional story of a former mayor of Boston, Bernard Doyle. A widower, he raised to adulthood a biological son and two adopted sons, but finds that his family may not yet be complete. Doyle was a former Boston politician who still had a passion for public service. He and his wife, who were both white, adopted two African American boys, Tip and Teddy, as very young children, in what some criticized as a political move. Just three blocks away from their affluent neighborhood, Kenya Moser lived with her mother, Tennessee, in a apartment project. At the book's opening, a disagreement between father and son following a political speech leads to an accident in which the former mayor and his sons' lives collide with 11-year-old Kenya and her mother Tennessee, leaving the families merged in a unexpected way. The full review of Run can be found here on Cats and a Book.

In my next entry, I’ll briefly describe ten additional books which were also noteworthy and considered for my Top Ten list.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Wishin' and Hopin', by Wally Lamb

Wishin' and Hopin' is Wally Lamb's entry in the Christmas novel genre, reminiscent of Jean Shepherd's In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash on which the classic movie "A Christmas Story" is based. Lamb's version is set in a 1960s Catholic school, St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School in New London, Connecticut, during the time that "subscription television" is a new concept, which Felix helpfully suggested, ". . . would be like going to a store and buying water instead of just getting it out of the sink."

Lamb's main character is fifth grader Felix Funicello, whose third cousin is the famous Annette Funicello of Mouseketeer fame. Felix's father is manager of a bus station diner, and his mother the state winner of the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Characters from his classroom include his buddy Lonnie, his nemesis Rosalie Twerski, and a foreign student from the USSR (this was set during the Cold War) named Zhenya. When Madame Frechette, one of the two "lay" teachers at the school decides her grade will perform tableaux during the Christmas pageant, all manner of hijinks ensue.

Wishin' and Hopin' is a light but fun read for the holiday season. Published in paperback in 2010, the hardcover version was published in 2009 by HarperCollins.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Redbird Christmas, by Fannie Flagg

In the spirit of the holidays, a Christmas story seems appropriate, and none better than from the consummate Southern storyteller Fannie Flagg. Flagg is best known for her book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, but also produced bestselling novels Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, and Standing in the Rainbow. A Redbird Christmas features Oswald T. Campbell, an orphan named for the can of soup found with him when abandoned as a baby. At age 52, he is diagnosed with untreatable emphysema and told to put his estate in order. As a piece of additional advice, his doctor suggested he move from his native Chicago to a more hospitable climate and produced a brochure for an inn in Lost River, Alabama. Divorced and without family, Campbell decides to visit Lost River and make it his temporary home, figuring that he won't make it more than a few months anyway.

Lost River is a charming little community in which everyone knows everyone else. The inn had long since burned, so he finds a room to rent instead. Although a small town has its advantages and disadvantages, groups like "the Mystic Order of the Royal Polka Dots Secret Society" spiced things up a bit with their secret attempts at doing good, such as decorating the community Christmas tree. The club's motto was "To Toot One's Own Horn is Unattractive."

Campbell becomes a cause celebre in the small community of Lost River, with every available female in the area vying for his interest. He makes friends with the best fisherman in town, learns about an old feud between this side of the river and the other side, struggles with alcoholism, befriends an abandoned girl who needs medical treatment, meets the local storekeeper who keeps a pet redbird, and miraculously, Oswald begins to return to health.

A popcorn read, and caramel popcorn at that, A Redbird Christmas is predictable but sweet. Flagg is an engaging storyteller, spicing her narrative with humor, realistic characters, believable dialogue, and just the right amount of eccentricity.

A Redbird Christmas was published by Random House in 2005.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Matchmaker of Perigord, by Julia Stuart

Julia Stuart's first novel, The Matchmaker of Perigord, is as delightful and quirky as The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, reviewed earlier this year on Cats and a Book. The Matchmaker follows the career of Guillaume Ladoucette, a barber who set up shop in the tiny hamlet of Amour-sur-Belle. This peculiar town features characters as eccentric as the geographic quirks of the town itself, including a persistent breeze that seems limited to the city limits and whips up into a "mini-tornado" from time to time. When the barber discovered that Amour-sur-Belle males were growing bald or visiting a barber in a neighboring town for their coiffures, he determined "there was no role for a man of forty-three who had dedicated his life to conquering the cow's lick, the double crown and dandruff," and decides to take up matchmaking.

His initial attempts result in awkward conversations and disappointed would-be lovers, but eventually, the tide begins to turn. As the former barber opines, relationships are not unlike cassoulets--sometimes you find a bit of succulent duck and sometimes you find something rancid. Or, as the author says of one character, "it never dawned on him that his life's greatest misfortune was not that he had never married Florence Ladoucette, but that he had married the love of his life and never realized it."

His own love-of-his-life, Emilie Fraisse, had left town but wrote to Ladoucette, who was too intimidated by love to respond. Eventually, she marries another, but returns to town after her marriage dissolves leaving the matchmaker to decide if he will make a match for himself.

The Matchmaker of Perigord is not only the story of Ladoucette and Fraisse, but a collection of sweet love stories, tempered by intensely imaginative events and charming descriptions. It was published in 2008 by Harper Collins.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, is a suitable follow-up to Franzen's most recent offering, The Corrections. This epic novel follows the lives of the Walter and Patty Berglund, beginning with the release of an unflattering article about Walter in the New York Times. The subsequent five hundred pages chronicle the lives of the Berglunds before they were a couple, during their idealistic courtship complicated by Richard, his college roommate, their early marriage, and its unraveling. The book is darkly funny while calling out the reader's own moral decisions as Freedom's characters live with the consequences of their decisions.

Walter is a highly moral person, determined to press his view of the world on others. Eventually, he becomes entangled in a questionable business deal which he convinces himself is a means to achieve a moral end. Finally, he "was compromised and losing on every front." Patty is unhappy and has her own moral dilemma with her longstanding attraction to Richard, who is also Walter's best friend. The theme of "freedom" pervades the story--freedom from family, freedom from situations, freedom from obligations. This freedom has consequences which are not always pleasant or expected. "Mistakes Were Made," as Patty entitles her own memoir, included in the text of the novel.

Freedom was published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.