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 Amazon.com 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, March 27, 2010

Hideous Kinky, by Esther Freud


Either the title attracts or repels you—hideous sounds distasteful, kinky sounds, well, weird. But because Hideous Kinky made the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die AND was made into a major motion picture, surely it warranted a read. After all, shouldn’t a book that made a list entitled “books you must read” be memorable? And if it was made into a movie, isn’t there is a plot worth dramatizing?

To quell your curiosity, and I’m not spoiling much here because this is explained in the earliest pages of the book, “hideous kinky” are merely two words our narrator’s seven-year-old sister Bea liked to repeat. Children often latch onto the sounds of words completely independent of their meaning, which is the case here. She and her sister would use these words in playing tag or other pretend games (p. 20):

“The key rule to the game was one invented by Bea to extricate herself in the unlikely event of her ever being caught. As I brushed the edge of her sleeve with my outstretched hand I would have to say something, a word invented by me, but if she saw me coming she could free herself by screaming 'Hideous!' or 'Kinky!' or both a second before I touched her, thereby freeing herself to race away between the tables and chairs while I panted behind – running good words over in my head.”

Incidentally, she also likes the word roofrack. The publisher must have thought Hideous Kinky Roofrack was too difficult to explain.

The narrator is five years old, which gives the reader a limited view of the characters and the facts integral to the plot. Her father is not identified, although we believe he lives in England, and her mother has left England with her two daughters for Marrakesh to “have adventures.” Although the time isn’t specified, we also suspect it may have been along the same time as that Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, “Marrakesh Express.”

The children suffer while their mom has adventures. They are hungry, poorly clothed, and befriend strangers. They learn to beg. Our narrator develops a rash that won’t go away and her sister has a gum infection that threatens to make all of her teeth fall out. Their mother has relationships but seeks a spiritual fulfillment. It’s not clear that she finds satisfaction in her relationships or in her seeking, and because the narrator's perspective is limited, it's difficult to guess.

Hideous Kinky was published in 1998 by Ecco Press. More information about the author can be found on the Contemporary Writers website. Freud most recently wrote the novel, Love Falls.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin


There's not a much more romantic notion than that of going away and starting anew elsewhere. Particularly appealing are stories of immigrants who voluntarily left their homelands to forge a new life, bringing little more than the belongings they carried. Colm Toibin's Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman who is swept away to New York City from Enniscorthy, Ireland. But her story diverges from the romantic almost at its outset. Rather than arriving with a sense of gritty determination or driven by a sense of desperation, there seems to be little that arouses Eilis's passion throughout the book. The reader gets the sense that life is happening to her, rather than her participating fully.

In Ireland, Eilis lived with her mother in a home beset with loss and grieving for her late father. Rose, Eilis' older sister, escapes by living a glamorous single life, and Eilis' brothers have left Enniscorthy to find work elsewhere. Rose enlists the help of a local priest to secure the necessary travel documents for Eilis to emigrate, arranges a place for Eilis to live and a job as a sales clerk when she arrives. Once in Brooklyn, Eilis enrolls in an accounting program and proves herself a capable saleswoman. Eilis shows only mild pleasure in her work success and her relationship with Tony, whom she meets at a church dance. He's nice. They don't argue. She just wishes he was two inches taller.

Eilis does return to Ireland for a visit, and assumes an almost ghostly version of her sister, taking actions that once again seem orchestrated by others rather than at her own hand. Eilis's pliancy makes it impossible to understand how she really feels about the direction of her life. In this passage on page 79, the author describes how Eilis dealt with her feelings of homesickness:

"No matter what she dreamed about, no matter how bad she felt, she had no choice, she knew, but to put it all swiftly out of her mind. She would have to get on with her work if it was during the day and go back to sleep if it was during the night. It would be like covering a table with a tablecloth or closing curtains on a window . . . "

There are moments when the reader might be tempted to shake Eilis to gain her attention, if nothing else but to ask her to think for herself. On the other hand, we may all have felt that at times, our motives and desires were the least effective determinants of our choices. Someone else or other circumstances were more impactful. With Eilis, one has the sense that her life's path has been the result of someone else's decisions.

There are times that Toibin's writing is so factual and bare-boned that it feels clunky, especially as he introduces characters early in the book. This isn't a pervasive problem, though, but one shouldn't expect flowery descriptions and prose either.

Brooklyn was published by Simon and Schuster in 2009. Toibin has written five novels, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize twice. More information about Toibin can be found on his website.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Flying Troutmans, by Miriam Toews


In the Flying Troutmans, Hattie Troutman leaves behind a failing relationship in Paris to return to her family home in Canada to care for her mentally ill sister. Upon arrival, she discovers her sister's 15-year-old son Logan driving without a license and 11-year-old daughter Thebes with purple hair and a penchant for art projects (specifically, creating and awarding 'big checks'). Min, Hattie's sister, must be institutionalized, and Hattie is left with the two children. Unsure of what to do, she decides to take the children into the U.S. to find Doug Cherkis, their biological father, an itinerant artist.

Hattie faces a number of challenges. She reflects on her failed relationship and abrupt departure from France, feels the weight of her lifelong caregiver responsibility for Min, who has struggled with mental illness for many years, and she adapts to a surrogate parenting role for Logan and Thebes. The reader gets the sense that the children have been raising themselves, developing defenses against their mother's mental illness but still deeply loyal to her. Hattie has borne Min's illness the longest, and the reader feels her burden. By the end of the novel, there is some feeling of rescue for at least one of the children, but there is no long-term resolution.

Despite the theme of loss in this book, there are funny and bittersweet interactions with the children. Thebes talks almost nonstop, resists baths, and refuses to wear clean clothes. Logan is a poet and an avid basketball player, and in many other ways, a typical teenage boy, reluctant to share his feelings. In this passage on pages 126-127 between Hattie and Logan, she is attempting to find out how Logan feels about looking for his father:

Can I ask you a question? I said.

Yeah.

How do you feel about this whole, you know, odyssey?

Odyssey?

Like, this trip we're on. What are you thinking?

Um, I don't know, he said. Fine?

Okay, but are you saying that because you think that's what I want to hear?

Uh, sort of .. . . I guess . . . I don't know.

So you're sort of feeling fine and sort of feeling something other than fine?

Maybe.

And what is the thing other than fine that you're feeling?

I don't know.

Well, is it scared? Or nervous?

I don't know.

( . . . )

Can it be two words? he said.

Yes! It can be as many words as you want. Let's talk all night!

Okay, um, let's see, he said. Four words.

And they are . . .

Really, really, really angry, he said.

The Flying Troutmans is an easy and quick read. Interactions with the children have an accurate feel. Even if you don't always understand the actions the characters take, Toews' characters generate empathy.

The Flying Troutmans was published by Counterpoint Press in 2008. Information about Toews and a list of her books may be found at the Manitoba Author Publication website.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper


This Is Where I Leave You is a witty, bittersweet novel about a family that gathers to mourn its patriarch. The story is told from the perspective of Judd, the middle son, who in the throes of an ugly divorce, so there are elements of the story that are decidedly adults-only, both in language and content.

Judd's father's dying wish is to have the family sit Shiva, which is a Jewish custom that requires the immediate family to gather and accept mourners for a period of seven days. Considering that the family is not particularly close and experiencing life as adults, those seven days are quite eventful. Wendy, Judd's only sister, seems to be in a loveless (or at least unromantic) marriage; Paul, Judd's older brother, is trying to keep afloat the family business that he inherited from his dad; and Phillip, the youngest son, is a ne'er-do-well who arrives late for the funeral with his life coach at his side. Add Judd's fresh marital troubles and a grieving yet spirited widow, and the reader is treated to a seven-day healing period that is funny, sad, and well, healing.

Tropper provides regular comic relief, like a description of "Today's Inappropriately Self-Absorbed Shiva Caller" and a guide to paying a shiva call in this passage on page 234:

"There are tricks to paying a shiva call. You don't want to come during off-peak hours, or you risk being the only one there, face-to-face with five surly mourners who, but for your presence, would be off their low chairs, stretching their legs and their compressed spines, taking a bathroom break, or having a snack. Evenings are your safest bet, after seven, when everyone's eaten and the room is full. Weekday afternoons are a dead zone. Sunday is a crapshoot."

But ultimately, the shiva was a chance for the family to heal. In this short conversation between Judd and his younger brother Phillip, they discuss their relationship with their father:

"'Do you think Dad was a good father?'

Phillip ponders this for a moment. 'I think he did his best. He was pretty old-school, I guess. He didn't always get us, didn't always appreciate us, but come on, look at us, right?'"

This Is Where I Leave You has likable characters and is a quick read. It's a good story, too, with themes of reunion, hope, and forgiveness. Published by Dutton in 2009, This Is Where I Leave You is a bestseller, and the author is working on a screenplay. You can visit the author's website at www.jonathantropper.com.