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, February 26, 2011

Prayers for Sale, by Sandra Dallas

“I’ve got a nickel. Is that enough for a prayer?”

“Lordy, are you needing one? No money will buy a prayer. I tell you, but I”ll give you one for free, if you’re in need of it.”

Prayers for Sale opens with the introduction of Nit Spindle, a young married girl new to the gold mining camp called Middle Swan, to Hennie Comfort, widow of Jake Comfort and town matriarch. Hennie’s husband Jake had teasingly posted the sign “Prayers for Sale” on their fence when Hennie commented that she didn’t think she had anything left she needed to pray for. But, Nit was a young woman with troubles, and she needed Hennie’s prayers.

Prayers for Sale is a collection of stories gathered from the days during the Civil War through life in the mining camps of Colorado, as told primarily by Hennie Comfort to Nit Spindle, usually over a quilting piece. The novel also tells the stories of the women who made their homes in the harsh conditions of the mining camp, their lives and livelihoods at risk daily. Women died in childbirth, the unprotected were swindled of their homes or property, and men died horrible deaths on the dredge boats.

Despite the inherent tragedy in some of the stories, the book isn’t gloomy. These are the facts of life, and Hennie infuses the stories with wit and wisdom as she shares them with Nit, who is beginning to show storytelling prowess of her own. Hennie’s own story is revealed throughout the book, bringing the reader through the conclusion of Hennie’s journey and the beginning of the next.

Sandra Dallas, through Hennie, is a wonderful storyteller. If you enjoyed books like Ava’s Man, Cold Mountain, On Agate Hill, or Roseflower Creek, you might also enjoy Prayers for Sale.

Prayers for Sale was published in 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Lost on Planet China, by J. Maarten Troost

Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid, is a record of the author’s visit to China. The subtitle is a cue to the reader to expect a book that is part political and social commentary and part witty, if not graphic, tales of adapting to Chinese food and culture.

The author, Maarten Troost, reveals that he was prompted to visit China when he met Chinese businessmen on a far-flung and tiny island in the Gilbert chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The economic reach of the country, and its possible impact on the next generation (in particular, his own children) drove him to travel to China to research possibly moving there for a while, at least long enough for his sons to learn Chinese.

The author quickly discovered that China was truly a land of contrasts. While there were large and bustling cities, there was also inordinate risk, from toxic levels of air and water pollution to wildly uncontrolled traffic. “He drove as if to kill,” he wrote about one of his taxi drivers, after noting that he didn’t seem like a bad guy.

Troost’s narrative is witty and opinionated. While watching live scorpions being grilled, he noted that “it would take more than (knowing they had medicinal value) for me to eat one. Some kind of sauce at least. Or seasoning. Perhaps a dry rub.” He describes a trip to a local market as being “lost in some grim Humane Society nightmare” with vendors “selling frogs, chickens, eels, turtles, cats, scorpions--big and small—dogs in cages, ducks in bags, and snakes in bowls. There were 2,000 stalls in this market, and this, apparently was where Noah’s Ark unloaded its cargo.” 

But he makes an important point about China’s growth, its economic reach around the world, and the huge challenges it faces, from limited natural resources, dangerous levels of pollution, the strain between traditional and modern Chinese thought, and its continued recovery from the reign of Chairman Mao. For those who are truly interested in China’s economic impact, there are more scholarly books, but Lost on Planet China would give anyone a fair representation of what you might expect traveling there as a tourist.

Lost on Planet China was published by Broadway Books in 2008.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Widower's Tale, by Julia Glass

"I have always been an avid and fairly ecumenical reader of fiction:  I relish the pretend, the invented, the convincingly contrived." -Percy Darling, The Widower's Tale

Julia Glass's The Widower's Tale is a beautifully written story, full of the vagrancies and unpredictability of real life.  Glass spares nothing--bigotry, passion, naivete, love, and death--all find a place in her pages. 

The story centers around Percy Darling, a retired reference librarian, a likable curmudgeon living in an old house in the small New England town of Matlock.  His wife Poppy died when his two girls were young, and the grief and guilt associated with her death lingers.  When he agrees to allow his barn (Poppy's former dance studio) to be converted into "Elves and Fairies," a preschool for precocious and well-funded tots, his life takes an unexpected turn involving the mother of one of the children. 

Glass's narrative dances between the stories of Percy, his grandson Robert, a naive and bright college student, Celestino, a talented landscaper and illegal alien, and the beleaguered Ira, an instructor at Elves and Fairies. Robert is drawn into an underground protest group by a charming roommate, and unwittingly becomes involved in a dangerous scheme.  Celestino loses his immigration status because of a young love affair, and is forced to alter his path from higher education to labor.  Ira, and his partner Andrew, work through their own relationship issues, which are overlaid by a campaign against Ira at his previous employer to have him ousted because of his sexuality.  Darling's two daughters, their relationship with Percy and with each other, also add the realistic touch of sibling relationships. 

Glass is a wonderful writer.  Her novel Three Junes won the 2002 National Book Award for Fiction.   She has also written The Whole World Over and I See You Everywhere (which won the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Books Award).  The Widower's Tale was published by Pantheon Books in 2010. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

In celebration of the Chinese New Year, this weekend's selection features the story of a Chinese-American boy growing up in Seattle during the early years of World War II. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford, is the story of his first love and his coming of age in a world that is complex and contradicting. 

Twelve-year-olds Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe attend a "white school" on what Henry's dad called "scholarshipping," presumably because of their outstanding academic performance.  "Scholarshipping" status meant that they both worked in the kitchen during lunch, alongside a gruff but sympathetic lunch lady.  Although both were born in America, Henry and Keiko are targets of unrelenting teasing by classmates because they are Chinese and Japanese, respectively.  Henry's parents are more traditional, speaking to him only in Chinese but insisting that he speak nothing by English, creating a wide communication gap in their own home.  Because of hostility toward Japanese following the attack on Pearl Harbor, they require Henry to wear a pin that says, "I am Chinese."

Henry and Keiko share an interest in jazz, which is forbidden in Henry's household but encouraged in Keiko's, and when Henry's friend Sheldon lands a gig with Oscar Holden, they are delighted to sneak into his club one night.  The budding romance, secret from Henry's parents, is suddenly challenged by the requirement of all Japanese and their descendants to report to internment camps.  While Henry manages to see Keiko a few times until she is relocated further east, her letters stop after a time and their two lives spin apart.

The hotel for which the book is named is a landmark called The Panama Hotel in the Japanese district of the city, Nihonmachi.  During the process of it being remodeled, a cache of Japanese family belongings, hastily stored prior to their relocation, is found.  Many remain unclaimed, but Henry sorts through the piles of keepsakes to find items once belonging to Keiko's family. It is this discovery that leads Henry to find out if things that are broken can be fixed. 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet weaves information about the Japanese internment during WWII into this love story that transcends ethnic boundaries and countries of origin.  A light read, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was published in 2009.