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!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! opens with Hilola Bigtree’s daring high dive into the “Gator Pit,” the star attraction at Swamplandia!, the island sideshow for which the book is named. Travelers to the Sunshine State might recall the attractions that used to dot highways designed to lure tourists to see alligator exhibits or purchase counterfeit Native American tomahawks and moccasins. The Bigtree’s island park was the quintessential attraction of its time, with a museum of Bigtree memorabilia, an alligator wrestling event, and of course, Hilola’s thrilling dive and swim through a holding pool of live alligators. Reclaimed from swampland fraudulently sold to the Bigtree family a generation ago, Swamplandia! was also the home of Chief Bigtree, his wife Hilola, their son Kiwi and two daughters, Osceola and Ava.

Written by Karen Russell, Swamplandia! is the story of another world, a parallel island universe, which offers its inhabitants only limited interaction with the mainland world, consisting of paying guests who were willing to part with their money to ride the ferry to the island amusement park. But, Hilola’s illness and tragic death leaves her family bereft and disintegrating and the future of Swamplandia! uncertain. Chief Bigtree temporarily relocates to the mainland, leaving the three children on their own. Kiwi, the only son, leaves the island to work for a rival amusement park, and dreams of living a normal life and going to school. The oldest daughter, Ossie, finds a book about the occult and believes she is communication with a young man who died tragically many years before while working on a dredge boat in the swamps. And Ava, the youngest daughter, meets with tragedy as she attempts to follow her sister into the Underworld to prevent Ossie’s marriage to the dead dredger.

Russell interjects some interesting similes, like “ . . . our mom’s cooking strategy was to throw a couple of raw things into a greased pan and wait to see what happened, like watching strangers on a date.” And pieces of good advice, “But if you kept thinking about a fight you’d lost, Mom said, you were programming yourself to lose again.” Some of the stories are humorous, and some are intriguing, but there is tragedy, too, enough for the reader to feel how damaged the characters are by their circumstances.

Elements of the book might suggest to a potential reader that it is a whimsical story, somewhat fantastic and lighthearted, with the notion of a created “tribe” of Bigtrees, along with their manufactured heritage and the fascination with wrangling alligators. But the family’s isolation and subsequent move to the mainland from their created world will be a difficult adjustment. Readers are left to wonder if the resilient ones will make it.

Swamplandia! was published in 2011 by Knopf.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, is centered around Bennie, a successful music producer, who is struggling to protect his reputation, his relationship with his son, and an old friend.

The first chapters of the book suggest that her opening character, Bennie’s kleptomaniac administrative assistant, might be the “main” character in the book. But she continues to introduce multiple characters, who at first seem tangential—but pay attention, they are likely to appear again in a more prominent role, and the one you thought might carry throughout the book does not. Yet, once you adapt, this doesn’t feel disjointed or confusing.

The other skill Eagen has is moving the book back and forth through time. She unveils the past and gently revisits it, so that the character is richer and more complete. In the final pages of the book she ventures into the future, and describes a possible reality that doesn’t seem far-fetched or silly. Texting, for example, is the preferred method of communicating any private or personal thoughts. Threats like global warming and national security play prominent roles in the new, future reality. And, Egan’s characters adapt to their own losses and private griefs. As Bosco, one of Bennie’s oldest musician friends, says, “Time’s a goon, right?”
Another homage to the modern world is an entire chapter created from SmartArt so that the story flows like a diagram in a PowerPoint presentation. A note of caution, if you’re reading this book on an eReader that can’t adjust the size of embedded pictures or diagrams, they may be difficult to read.

Egan’s novel is a richly woven tapestry of a story, taking the reader along like a loom’s shuttle, moving in and out of time and drawing in the threads of characters as it unfolds, so that by the end of the book, the story’s cloth is tight, intricate, and complete. A Visit from the Goon Squad was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was published in 2011 by Anchor.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

Bossypants, by Tina Fey, is a laugh-out-loud account of Fey’s rise to success in the comedy and entertainment world. While dispensing snippets of her biography--Fey gives carefully measured glimpses into her personal life, including giving her husband an alias that she ‘forgets’ to use--she shares her personal philosophy on an array of topics, including women in comedy, raising girls, and leading others. Pretty heady topics for a comic but it’s clear, if you didn’t already know this about Tina Fey, that’s she one bright person. In addition to being funny on screen, she’s a talented writer and producer. The other thing you quickly discover about Fey is that she’d be a hoot to hang around with, and she writes the book as if you’re already a pal. She’s honest and approachable.

Some topics will probably resonate more with women readers. In one passage, she describes how her young daughter had a reversible doll, with Snow White on one side and Sleeping Beauty on the other. Her daughter clearly preferred the Sleeping Beauty side. Why? Because Sleeping Beauty’s hair was blond (or as Fey insisted she call it, “yellow”) instead of brown. Fey goes on to discuss female body image and how grateful she is for a long list of what she considers to be her less-than-desirable body parts.

Even with philosophical interjections, Fey is unfailingly witty. She refers to a class at the YMCA, where she briefly worked, as “Toddler Gym N Stuff N Mommy N Thangs.” She gives a short lesson on improvisation, and how using those basics can improve collaboration and creativity. She advises readers on dealing with difficult people and achieving your personal goals by referring to an old film piece by Sesame Street called “Over! Under! Through!” Fey’s advice is firmly rooted in her own approach, “Do your own thing and don’t care if they like it.”

Yes, Fey talks about her scar, but only briefly. It’s clear she doesn’t think it’s material to her story and readers just don’t need to know that much about it. She tells about her experience impersonating Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, and actually meeting her, including an unusual offer by Palin to have Bristol babysit Fey’s young daughter during the show. But there’s much more to Fey’s story than these curiosity lightning rods.

Bossypants is serious funny business. It was published by Little Brown and Company in 2011.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination, by Hugh MacLeod

Evil Plans is a delicious little book of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.  Illustrated with MacLeod's cartoons, the book seeks to inspire those who feel they're on "the hamster wheel" as MacLeod describes it, and don't like working for others anymore.  They need an "evil plan"--something so simple yet so rich with potential that in the right hands, it cannot fail.  But you're not ready for your "evil plan" until you have what MacLeod calls the "Moment."  That's "when we stop futzing around and actually start behaving like proper adults," according to MacLeod.  "That moment we actually start acting like officers in command of our own lives." 

MacLeod's theory includes the belief that it's important to connect with buyers on a different, more human, level.  He writes, "It's no longer enough for people to believe that your product does what it says on the label.  They want to believe in you and what you do."  MacLeod reiterates this philosophy several times in the book.  "It is your soul, and the purpose and beliefs that your soul embodies, that people will buy into."  If you're making a product or providing a service and don't feel inspired after reading MacLeod's theories, then you may not be cut out for building your own business. 

The book is a fast and easy read, and the cartoons are enjoyable and artfully drawn with bits of pithy advice or observations. MacLeod's modus operandi for success is clear:  hard work, long hours, multiple means to success, and few luxury needs. He describes being involved in multiple endeavors at once, all the while cartooning and working his connections in the art community. 

A word of caution for eReader users:  the lettering on some of the cartoons is light and small, so they can be difficult to read.  On some eReaders, only the font size (and not embedded pictures) can be enlarged, so efforts to change the size of the text don't affect the cartoon lettering.  This might be a book best purchased to read on paper if your eReader can't adjust the size of pictures. 

Evil Plans was published in 2011 by Portfolio Hardcover.  MacLeod is also the author of Ignore Everybody:  And 39 Other Keys to CreativityMacLeod's blog is, where you can subscribe to receive a daily cartoon. 

Cover photo from the author's website: