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, January 29, 2011

Miss Hargreaves, by Frank Baker

Miss Hargreaves, by Frank Baker, is a psychological thriller, the story of a harmless prank gone bad, with implications for larger questions about human existence. The book’s protagonist is Norman Huntley, the son of an eccentric bookshop owner in Cornford, England. Huntley plays the organ for services at the local church and was otherwise something of a bon vivant character from a Wodehouse Jeeves book, having a taste for mischief (he admits to having “a fanciful imagination”) but without the ready funds.

The mystery begins when Norman and his friend Henry decide to take a vacation to Ireland. During a sudden storm, they stumble upon an old church. Since Norman is a church organist, he has passing interest in the old building, and they find a sexton to allow them inside. Once there, the sexton mentions the name of the former reverend Mr. Archer. It is at this point that Norman invents an old friend of the reverend’s, on what his father calls a “Spur of the Moment,” named “Miss Hargreaves.” Norman and Henry goad each other into making Miss Hargreaves more and more quirky, claiming that she played the harp, had a cockatoo named Dr. Pepusch and a dog named Sarah, and that the former pastor gave her a bathtub as a gift. They are highly amused by this stubbornly eccentric character they created, and after a visit to the local pub, even posted a letter to the elderly woman inviting her to visit.

When a telegram arrived from “Miss Hargreaves” after they returned home, Norman was certain someone, probably Henry, was playing an elaborate joke on him. A book of her poems, (called “Wayside Bundle”) which he also invented in his conversation in Ireland, then appears in his dad’s bookstore, and Norman becomes annoyed, thinking that someone has taken the joke too far. When Miss Hargreaves actually arrives for her visit, Norman questions his sanity. What began as a boyish lark quickly becomes a consuming and controlling incursion into his life.

The narrative drags a bit as Norman wrestles with the existence of Miss Hargreaves, and in particular, her growing influence on his family, his girlfriend, and his town. But, the intriguing plot carries the book along, so that readers feel satisfied with its conclusion.

Miss Hargreaves was first published in 1940 and most recently reprinted by Bloomsbury USA in 2010.

Book Club Discussion Questions for Miss Hargreaves

Norman had had an encounter with his imagination at a young age, at which time his father ominously warned him, “Always be careful, my boy, what you make up. Life’s more full of things made up on the Spur of the Moment than most people realize. Beware of the Spur of the Moment. It may turn and rend you.” Think about a time that your own story has taken a turn because of a “Spur of the Moment” decision. Were the results what you expected? Were there unintended consequences?

How does Miss Hargreaves change when Norman “loses control” of her? How do you think this happens? What do you think could happen if Norman doesn’t regain control?

Near the end of the book, Miss Hargreaves says, “I am not as other people . ( . . .) For a little while . . . I broke into a life which I was never intended to lead.” What implications does this concept have for any mortal?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Letters of a Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

Letters of a Woman Homesteader is a rare collection of personal letters from Elinore Stewart to "Mrs. Coney," a woman who had previously employed Ms. Stewart as a housekeeper and laundress.  Candid, engaging, and full of adventure, Stewart's letters reveal what Western life was like for a woman in the early 1900s. 

Stewart moved to Denver with her two-year-old daughter Jerrine following the death of her husband, and placing an advertisement in the local newspaper, found work as a housekeeper for a Scottish rancher in Wyoming.  She made a claim for her own farm adjacent to his, and although they eventually married, she retained a good deal of her independence and became a helpful if not equal hand managing their adjacent properties. 

The letters are full of narratives that describe Stewart's life in the West. She tells of meeting Zebulon Pike Parker, also a displaced Southerner like the author, who went West after the war and "jist stayed."  When Parker learned that the love of his life had died while he was away from home, he poetically said, "I am not sorry Pauline is dead.  I have never shed a tear.  I know you think that is odd, but I have never wanted to mourn. ( . . . ) I am happy and at peace because I know she is mine. ( . . . ) So I have not lost her, she is mine more than ever." 

Stewart also writes of encounters with people of many ethnicities and countries of origin, including Mr. Stewart himself with his Scottish brogue, Mrs. O'Shaughnessy, the Mexican couple who offered them shelter on a long trip one night, the Mormon families who were in need of supplies while their men were away.  They formed a tolerant, interdependent community.

The author encouraged other women to become "homesteaders" like herself, and wrote, "To me, homesteading is the solution of all poverty's problems, but I realize that temperament has much to do with success in any undertaking, and persons afraid of coyotes and work and loneliness had better let ranching alone.  At the same time, any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the wash tub, will certainly succeed; will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a home of her own in the end."

Letters of a Woman Homesteader is a time capsule, but holds lessons for the present, as well. Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and published in 1914 by Houghton Mifflin, the book is also available electronically.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, by David Sedaris, is not a children's book.  The stories are not fables, Sedaris says, because they have no morals, a comment he gleefully made at an appearance in Nashville not long ago.  After a hearty round of laughter from the audience, Sedaris read from Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, which was not yet published.  (In fact, it was fascinating to see him take a pencil from his jacket pocket and make small notes on his text here and there as he read.) 

I mention that I heard a few of them read aloud because hearing him read them is a different experience than reading them yourself.  Reading them yourself provides you with none of his charm or warmth or self-effacing delivery.  And this is also the distinction between some of Sedaris' earlier works and his later ones, including Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

Not that it isn't easy to see yourself or those you know in some of these stories.  "The Cat and the Baboon" for instance, is dead on with its description of conversations that take place between a hairstylist and customer:  the repeated attempts by the stylist or barber to read the customer and make appropriate conversation.  The Baboon tiptoes around her Cat customer's preferences for favorite party foods, "write your own vows" weddings, and harps at weddings.  She was finally able to get agreement from the Cat by talking about dogs and their common dislike for them, even though the Baboon didn't actually feel that way.   

Another story that might strike a chord is "The Mouse and the Snake," the Mouse having the Snake as her "animal companion," convinced that she could communicate with it, and spoiling it with treats.  "The Parenting Storks" strikes firmly at the beliefs people hold and their values.  These stories are not particularly pleasant or comfortable to read.  Not that we find facing hard truths about our society or ourselves difficult, but that there are few, if any, happy endings.  Sedaris' ironic humor feels bitter and jaded.  When read to an audience, they seem lighter and funnier because of his delivery.  When read from a page, they seem to embody an entirely different side of Sedaris. 

Given the feel of the book's content, it seems most incongruous that the book is illustrated by Ian Falconer, the Cadecott Honors book author and illustrator of the Olivia books.  He does a wonderful job as illustrator, but there is quite a difference between Olivia and Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk was published in 2010 by Little, Brown and Company.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Year of Living Biblically, by A. J. Jacobs

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A. J. Jacobs, is stunt nonfiction at its best. Jacobs, a journalist, is well suited for a structured, disciplined project like this one, in which he attempts to follow the Bible’s diverse and sometimes unexplainable rules for an entire year.

Jacobs is admittedly agnostic. He decided to follow his previous book about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica by delving into religion. His reasons were simple: 1) the Bible is “the most influential book in the world, the all-time best seller,” 2) trying to live the Bible would be his “visa to the spiritual world,” and 3) study for the book allowed him to further explore Biblical literalism, which he found fascinating.

Jacobs struggles with how to determine which Bible laws to follow and how to interpret them. He wonders why God would care, for example, if we wore mixed fibers (or as Jacobs drolly put it, “an unkosher blazer”), which violates one of the laws from the first five books of the Bible. What he determines is, “We don’t know.” But Jacobs gives a more artful and philosophical explanation than simply that we don’t know. He provides a couple of theories—one of a parent setting guidelines a child can’t understand, and one that says “you never know what’s important in the long term.” So, Jacobs attempts to follow the spirit of the law when possible (including stoning adulterers) but sometimes following the intent (no actual eye for an eye).

The author handles the experts he interviewed with respect, even though he might not have agreed with them. He is charitable in his descriptions, and fairly recounts their expressions of faith. He is free with descriptions of his own shortcomings including his marital woes, ranging from their infertility issues to his wife’s disapproval of his strict adherence to some of the purity laws dealing with women.

As the book progresses, Jacobs begins to find himself changed. Not in the sense that he becomes an Orthodox Jew or a Fundamentalist Christian Literalist, but in the sense that he becomes more reflective about his own life and the actions he takes. He considers how he disciplines his son, how the magazine he writes for encourages a lifestyle that contradicts the one he has adopted, and how he fits into his place in his family and their history.

Jacobs’ book is well-researched and documented, and he cites all manner of religious experts and students of the Bible. He doesn’t make any declarations about what is right or wrong, but recounts how he sees things differently in light of his research. There’s no heavy-handed proselytizing here—simply the story of one man’s foray into Biblical living and perhaps, what is right and wrong for him.

The Year of Living Biblically was published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ten More for 2010

Happy New Year! Choosing ten books of 2010 was a challenging task. There were many books that were memorable and important I didn’t include in my list published on Cats and a Book December 31, but deserve mention here.

Of books that cause readers to consider their place in the world, I chose Hot, Flat, and Crowded for my Top Ten. However, the powerful book Say You’re One of Them by Uwen Akpan, would also have been a good choice, which forces the reader to turn a full face to the human condition. Akpan published this collection of stories to enlighten others about the common daily struggles for African children, whether it is to find food, make money, become part of the dominant religious group, hide or proudly display their ethnicity, or even to join in or declaim violence. Graphic and brutal at times, the stories show us a world we know exists but few Westerners experience. Other notable books in this category include Strength in What Remains, by Stacy Kidder, which is the true story of Deogratias, an immigrant from Burundi, Africa, and Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, the fictional story of sixteen-year-old Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who represents thousands like her caught between their homeland and an opportunity for a new life.

A couple of books were remarkable for their unique and inspired narration. The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak, was told by Death. The book's prologue and the first few chapters introduce you to this unusual narrator and to the colors he sees, which figure prominently in the descriptions of taking souls from the dying. The story is set in Germany. It is 1939, and Hitler is in power. Death is very busy. Death is also weary of his work, and tells of emotions one wouldn’t expect the Grim Reaper to have. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated is a moving and complex story--more accurately, it is a story within a story within a story. The author is Jonathan Safran Foer, which is also the name of one of the main characters in the novel, and referred to as "the hero" by the narrator. Foer hires Heritage Tours to escort him in Ukraine on his search to find a mysterious woman named Augustine. The book's narrator is Alexander Perchov, who serves as Foer's guide in Ukraine, and reads Foer's manuscript ("the hero" is a writer), which is a kind of history of Foer's family and their hometown of Trachimbrod.

Of current popular fiction, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert tops the list. The book and movie were wildly popular, in part because 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. 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. Other books worth a read include Room, by Emma Donoghue, the story of Jack, a five-year-old boy who had lived his entire life within four walls, The Matchmaker of Perigord, which follows the career of Guillaume Ladoucette, a barber who set up shop in the tiny hamlet of Amour-sur-Belle, and Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, the epic story of the lives of the Walter and Patty Berglund, beginning with the release of an unflattering article about Walter in the New York Times.

Finally, a nonfiction book that is particularly timely as we begin 2011 is Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. This is a primer on how people successfully make behavior changes and how to effect changes in others. This is a perfect choice for the reader about to embark on another round of resolutions.

This brings my list of notable books to twenty for 2010. I invite your comments and suggestions for the Top Ten (or Twenty) of 2010, or to add to our reading lists for 2011.