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, April 30, 2011

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler, is a descriptive tome of the author’s two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, a remote Chinese town on the banks of the Yangtze River. Hessler was assigned to teach English literature to college students in the Sichuan province. While there, he chronicles everything from his progress toward learning to speak and read Chinese to the villagers’ attitudes toward the Three Gorges Dam project. The latter was of particular interest to his students, since the project was scheduled to flood older parts of Fuling, as well as other towns similarly situated.

Hessler’s descriptions of life in Fuling are detailed. He inserts excerpts from actual essays by his students to describe their feelings about politics or topics of current interest. Although he taught English literature and was cautioned against politicizing his role, he sometimes used Shakespeare or other old masters as opportunities to understand how his students assimilated their history. His insights are interesting and he is careful to state that his observations were limited to this particular area at this particular time, and are not necessarily representative of the entire country. His descriptions of the pollution, constant horn honking from cars and cabs, and crushing crowds is similar to descriptions of more urban settings in China.

He describes how he learns to live with teasing about being a ‘foreign devil,’ deflects interest from women (romantic relationships were strictly discouraged), and finds local restaurants that are hospitable to an outsider. Toward the end of the book, Hessler begins to refer to himself as two people, as if the personality who bears his Chinese name (which they were assigned when relocated to Fuling) is a different person. The readers begins to think Hessler has become a bit unmoored after living in Fuling so long.

Hessler’s narrative is relatively humorless, although it is an interesting read. At one point, he does relate how he helped his Chinese students name themselves. In the past, some names didn’t quite suit the student--one young man named himself Daisy, for instance. This year’s class wanted to give themselves last names as well, so Hessler suggested to the one who called himself “Mo” the last name “Money.”

River Town was published by Harper in 2006. Hessler has also written Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones and Butter:  The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef is the memoir of Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and owner of Prune restaurant in New York City. Hamilton, whose relatively small restaurant commands a large following, has appeared on Martha Stewart’s show on Food Network and has been published in The New Yorker, Saveur, and Bon Appetit.

Blood, Bones and Butter chronicles Hamilton's life in stages beginning with her relatively happy childhood with many siblings and eccentric parents on Pennsylvania farmland, the dissolution of her family upon her parents’ divorce, and her subsequent lack of any parental influence as a pre-teen, which led her to petty thievery, breaking and entering neighbors' homes and pawning their valuables, and drug and alcohol abuse. In order to earn money, she worked bussing tables and washing dishes at local restaurants.

As she seems to gain focus, she finishes college and earns a MFA, all while continuing to work in the food service business. However, her skill level seems to jump considerably from washing dishes to catering elaborate events. Soon after, we find her mulling the notion of opening her own restaurant.  Management of the restaurant isn’t clearly described, except when dealing with the odd character or two. Some time after opening the restaurant, she meets and marries her Italian doctor husband, who has green card issues. There isn't much description of Hamilton's actual training as a chef, so some readers may find the subtitle misleading.  There is more focus on Hamilton's personal life and issues than being a chef or restaurant owner. 

The marriage is an odd interlude in the book. Her descriptions of their annual jaunts to Italy are warm and engaging, although Hamilton doesn't speak Italian well and finds communicating in words challenging. Food and family tied her to the clan, and she seems to find a way to feel comfortable there. But, as the marriage disintegrates, Hamilton feels alienated and as if she never belonged.

Prune is still a thriving enterprise for Hamilton. The book may interest some but to others it may seem that Hamilton intended to shock her readers with what she called being “badass.” In fact, she bragged about inducing labor for her second son so she could manage her restaurant staff, but said that “ . . . badass is the last thing I am interested in being. Badass is a juvenile aspiration.” She follows that statement with a recap of her stealing cars and smoking when she was 13, and being “coked out of my head” at 16. Hamilton may have “being badass” out of her system, but she seems to want her readers to know that she was at one point in her life  . . . and still is.

Blood, Bones, and Butter was published by Random House in 2011.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Last Time I Saw You, by Elizabeth Berg

The Last Time I Saw You, by Elizabeth Berg, chronicles the return of a senior class to its 40th high school reunion. Berg does an exceptional job describing how their lives have changed:  how some have emerged like a butterfly from a chrysalis, how others have seen their lives take unexpected turns, and how each is affected by the passing years.

Divorcee Dorothy Shauman struggles to recover her youthful appearance for the event, to gain the affections of the popular Pete Decker. Lester Hessenpfeffer, widower and veterinarian, has no desire to attend the reunion, but agrees at the urging of his office staffer who hopes he would find a companion. Mary Alice Mayhew wants to attend the reunion, against the advice of friends who feel she was unfairly treated in high school. Berg successfully introduces classmates into the mix of characters who faithfully capture the diversity of any high school class.

The action develops as characters prepare for the big weekend event and culminates in the event itself—a registration and box lunch, the dinner-dance, and brunch the following morning. Characters share lovely pieces of advice, artfully woven into the story, such as, “We lose something here, we get something there. The trick is to stop looking in the old place to find the new thing,” and “That’s what you need to do in your marriage. You need to give what you want,” and “Sometimes you just have to step back and get out of your own way, and things start coming to you.”

Berg is an excellent storyteller, and The Last Time I Saw You is an engaging and entertaining story. The characters are likeable, and she even imbues the ones a reader might expect to dislike with redeeming traits and qualities. A good book to read after the invitation to your next high school reunion arrives, The Last Time I Saw You was published by Ballantine Books in paperback in 2010 and by Random House in hardcover.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put, by Vivian Swift

When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put, by Vivian Swift, defies categorization. It is part self-indulgent memoir, part travelogue, part poetry, and part art collection. There are snippets of science—like her aside about the Abyssinian Roller (a bird)--and diary-like meanderings such as the following: 

1 My 1st fiancé was a Californian I met in Paris

2 My 1st husband was a Gemini I met in Levant

3 My 2nd fiancé believed in long engagements

Swift illustrates the pages with lovely water colors and sketches of clothes, buildings, maps, and landscapes. 

There are flashes of humor and humility, but mostly it is a book commemorating the author’s travels and daring escapades.  Now that she has reached the ripe old age of 40, she has settled down to reflect and record how she apparently now spends the bulk of her days-- going for long walks, collecting lost mittens, looking for feathers, sunning herself with her cat, and sketching the town’s landmarks.

In one travel story, she relates attending a party at the American Embassy. She describes the conversation as “suffocating: raising children, their boarding schools, the cost of living. It is my first important lesson in international bores.” Yet her readers may feel similarly smothered by her descriptions of men she flirted with in France, or the “big Irish college kid” she was sure had a crush on her, or how she was flattered by an NYPD mounted patrolman. There are occasional pieces of delightful imagery (her discourse about fireflies in particular), myths (including The Acre of Earth Theory of Life), poetic turns of phrases (“the weary dismals”), and good advice (get two old cats), but there is too much space devoted to description of the black items in her wardrobe, or her teacup collection, which is well, about as interesting as boarding schools were to her.

The book is a quick read. For art or poetry lovers, it is worth the investment for the delightful illustrations and charming turns of phrases. When Wanderers Cease to Roam was published by Bloomsbury in 2008.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, is the moving story of two women: Kavita, who gives birth in a remote village in India, and Somer, an American doctor who adopts Kavita’s daughter and brings her to the United States. But it is much more than that.

Secret Daughter is multi-layered and complex. While the plot centers around Asha, the biological daughter of Kavita and her life in America, it is also about family: how a family is created, how the creation of a family affects a marriage, and how cultural differences affect family relationships.

Gowda’s characters are likable and well-developed. For example, she skillfully interweaves the bitter truths of class distinctions in India to help the reader understand why Kavita would take her daughter to the orphanage in Bombay days after her birth. We learn how Somer’s miscarriages and the unlikelihood of future conception contribute to her intense possessiveness of Asha. And we are introduced to Somer’s mother-in-law, herself a mutli-faceted character, fiercely adherent to some traditions while simultaneously disregarding others.

Kavita’s life in India is hard. Her husband, Jasu, is a proud and traditional Indian man, who strives to create a better life for his wife and son. His character matures as the book progresses, and we see how Kavita and Jasu’s relationship deepens.

Somer Whitman Thakkar, Asha’s adoptive mother, is married to Krishnan, an Indian- born doctor. Gowda describes Somer’s struggles sympathetically. Somer feels alienated and threatened by Krishnan and Asha’s shared culture and is fearful of losing them both. She feels out of place in India with her husband Krishnan’s family and makes little effort to embrace Indian culture. Both she and Kris question, as their marriage unravels, their blindness to the differences in their cultures and their lack of motivation to address them.

Asha, now a twenty-year-old college student, returns to India for a journalism internship at a prestigious newspaper. Gowda allows the reader to discover along with Asha, that Kavita’s decision was not an easy one but necessary for Asha’s survival in a culture that favored baby boys. In addition, Asha learns about her father’s family and their customs and traditions, and that family is not necessarily inherited, but is cultivated and nurtured.

This is a lovely story about learning how to be a family, to respect differences, to seek understanding, and to give as well as receive. Secret Daughter was published by HarperCollins in 2010.