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!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder


Strength in What Remains is the true story of Deogratias, or Deo for short, an immigrant from Burundi, Africa. Burundi, which is south of Rwanda in East Africa, was historically subject to bouts of genocide as power shifted between the cultural divides of Hutus and Tutsis. Deo fled to New York City with $200 in cash and the ruse of being in the coffee business. In fact, Deo was a medical student when violence erupted, his commitment to improving the health of his community stalled. His story, which is told in the first part of Strength in What Remains, recounts his start as a grocery delivery man in New York, for which he earned $15 per day, hardly enough for subsistence. He gave up his square on the floor of an abandoned tenement building when it became too dangerous and started spending his nights in Central Park.

Silenced by his lack of English skills, illness, and trauma from the horrors he witnessed, Deo struggled to face his abrupt change in direction and deal with the losses of family and community. Eventually, he was able to unravel some of his story--his escape from medical school and the brutal murders he witnessed as he made a desperate attempt to reach the border of Rwanda--and he gradually made friends who were able to offer him assistance and shelter.

In the second part of the book, the author explains the history of the conflict in Burundi and what factors contributed to the slaughters that plagued the country for many years. Finally, in the third part of the book, Kidder narrates his visit to Burundi with Deo, who takes him on a tour of the important places in his life--his hometown, the schools he attended, many memorials to the dead, the town where his mother and father were able to start a new life, and the site of the health facility Deo was determined to build.

Deo's courage, naivete, perseverance, and ability to engage others in his dream, helped him recruit those who understood the connection between health of the people and health of the country, education, and their ability to resolve tribal, ethnic and cultural issues. Deo's project, Village Health Works, is now a fully functioning health clinic for Kigutu and surrounding communities, and he has returned to his medical training while serving as Vice President of the organization. The Village Health Works website states that their programs recognize that "the relationship between socio-economic status and health is obvious to members of poor communities who, in their daily lives, witness the link between ill health and lack of food, shelter and clean water. VHW works to simultaneously address the social determinants of ill health and provide quality, compassionate health care."

There are many lessons from Deo's powerful story--how one person can be driven to help thousands despite spirit-breaking and immovable roadblocks; how responding to a need may give another person the foothold from which to reach great heights; how people who work together can help themselves and multiply the benefit. It's an inspiring story.

More information about the Village Health Works project can be found at http://villagehealthworks.org/.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement, by Rodney Rothman

Rodney Rothman's book, Early Bird, has all the makings of a witty, entertaining, and bittersweet story. Rothman, who was laid off from his writing job for Letterman, decides to retire to Florida at 28 years old. It's an experiment, a sort of "trying on" of retirement, so he'd be ready when the time came. Since he was underage to live in most retirement communities, he finds a roommate named Margaret, a 60-something widow in a Boca Raton retirement community called Century Village. Margaret also shares her condo with cats and birds, which is against Century Village rules and are a source of annoyance to Rothman.

Readers might expect Rothman to toss off stereotypes of Florida retirees or older people in general, but he does a fair job of describing his new friends. He even interjected information he researched about successfully retiring and aging well, including staying active, being involved, and maintaining a social network, and he observed and reported on those who were doing well and those who were not. One who wasn't doing so well was Rothman's roommate, Margaret. It became clear to him that she was still grieving for her husband, and when he learned she used to teach piano, Rothman coaxed Margaret into giving him lessons.

To ease his transition to the retirement community, he joined the Newcomers Club, the Shuffleboard Club, the Not-for-Ladies-Only Club (which seemed to have only women members), and attempted to work his way into the tight Canasta circle. He took a part-time job (for no pay) like many retirees do, in order to stay active and make a little extra money. Being the youngest resident in the community had its challenges, such as finding an accepting social circle, but it also had its advantages. After spending time with an elderly golf partner he wrote, "I would recommend that anybody with a need for a mother or father figure spend six months testing out retirement early in Florida. There are millions of elderly people there in need of a child figure."

There were times Rothman seemed to skim over details that could have enriched the story, and later in the book, the author frequently brags to dates about how he is doing this or that "for the book." The reader gets the sense that much of what he did was nothing more than a book premise. He sends up what he calls "weather balloons" to gauge reactions, such as telling his friends that he had sex with a seventy-five year old woman. He didn't, but for some reason, he wanted to know how his friends would react. Again, this reinforces the feel that this is gimmick literature, and that he was conducting nothing more than play experiments "for the book."

In the book's Epilogue, Rothman admits he "wasn't so changed" from the experience. Although he does admit that having so many elderly friends was enriching, there were many opportunities to learn from his interactions with them. It's a shame he missed them.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert


Eat Pray Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia is the author's story of her journey from severe depression to bliss. Elizabeth Gilbert suffered from suicidal depression as her marriage dissolved. A bitter divorce and an intense love affair left her feeling needy and rootless. Fortunately, her publisher funded a spiritual trek beginning with four months in Italy, four months at an ashram in India, and four months in Bali. This funded journey gives Eat Pray Love the flavor of "stunt nonfiction," but Gilbert didn't set out to become suicidally depressed for the sake of a potential book. And the book doesn't have the gimmicky feel of similar "I Did (fill-in-the-blank) for a Year" books.

Gilbert had always wanted to learn to speak Italian and had made some attempts prior to her trip. In Eat Pray Love she recounts her attempts to learn the language while in Italy, distracting herself from her relationship pain and ongoing divorce negotiations by sampling the country's sensory pleasures, mostly gastronomic since Gilbert had taken a vow of abstinence. By this time her marriage officially dissolves, and she spends the next four months in spiritual study in her guru's ashram, where she makes friends and achieves some spiritual solace. Finally, she goes to Bali to find an old medicine man who, years before, told her fortune and declared that she must come back to Bali someday, teach him English, and live in his home. Although she does find the medicine man and learn from him, she also befriends natives and expatriates, forming deep bonds that impact all of their lives. At one point, Ketut, the medicine man responds to Gilbert's observation that "some people like to argue about God." He says:

"I have a good idea, for if you meet some person from different religion and he want to make argument about God. My idea is, you listen to everything this man say about God. Never argue about God with him. Best thing to say is, 'I agree with you.' Then you go home, pray what you want. This is my idea for people to have peace about religion."

Gilbert is an honest narrator, and writes her story in an entertaining way. Rather than being self-indulgent and self-absorbed, Gilbert manages to avoid the blog-like self-obsession many writers fall victim to. At one point in the Bali section of the book, though, the reader has the feeling they're reading a private diary or at best, a fictionalized account, since it graphically illustrates Gilbert's passionate affair with Felipe, her Brazilian lover. And, she regrettably includes a nickname she and her gardener-pal use for each other ("homo") which could have easily been omitted.

Eat Pray Love is an entertaining story which may make the reader pine for a year in Italy, India, and Bali. A "search for happiness" book with a happy ending, Eat Pray Love will leave the reader feeling buoyed by Gilbert's experiences and the lives which touched hers. Eat Pray Love was published by Penguin in 2006, and in paperback in 2010.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

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. Resolutions included a different area of focus that affected her overall happiness. For instance in February, her focus was on love. Her plan included "quit nagging, don't expect praise or appreciation, fight right, no dumping, and give proofs of love." For July, the focus was on money. Her money goals were to "indulge in a modest splurge, buy needful things, spend out, and give something up."

She devised a chart on which to record her progress, and created a list of Twelve Commandments which she'd apply throughout the year. Commandments were guidelines that would apply all year, like "Let it go, " "Act the way I want to feel," and "Be Gretchen." This last one came in handy several times when faced with choices that seemed appealing but Rubin knew were contrary to her nature. And for fun, she created a list of Secrets of Adulthood, lessons she'd sometimes learned the hard way, like "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," "What's fun for other people may not be fun for you--and vice versa," "Bring a sweater," and "People don't notice your mistakes as much as you think."

Rubin dutifully recorded her successes and struggles, all the while providing insights from her blog readers who were following the project online. In addition, Rubin encouraged her blog readers to start their own projects, recognizing that her project was personal to her. Readers should develop their own areas of focus based on their needs, write their own commandments, if they chose to, or even create their own Secrets of Adulthood lists. In order to encourage readers to develop their own projects, Rubin included blog entries from readers in the book. (When Rubin was criticized for writing "stunt nonfiction"--doing something for a year and then writing about it--she turned those feelings into pride in doing something "on the cutting edge," following her Happiness Projects guidelines!)

The Happiness Project is full of useful advice. For the goal-oriented, it offers a structured way to enrich your life. But for those who prefer a less examined approach, there is much to learn. If you're interested in starting your own Happiness Project, Rubin's website is loaded with information, discussion guides, and more.

Gretchen Rubin is a former attorney and author of Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at JFK, and Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide. The Happiness Project was published by Harper Collins in 2010.