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, July 30, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

Emily, Alone is a touching story, a mere glimpse into the life of Emily Maxwell, 80 years old and living with her aging dog Rufus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Emily is widowed and both of her grown children live out of town. Her contact with them and her grandchildren is predictable and sometimes awkward, their visits a flurry of activity, welcome and wanted, but also a disruption to her routine. Emily resents growing older, and sympathizes with Rufus, who also is beginning to suffer symptoms of advancing age.

Emily has a routine she prefers. She likes to relax in the evenings with classical music and a glass of wine, takes a weekly trip to a local buffet brunch restaurant with her sister-in-law Arlene, and rotates her tissue boxes between all the rooms of the house based on use. She and Arlene attend funerals of old friends, critiquing the service and the food, all while making mental (or actual) notes for their own services.

Emily’s reflections may strike a chord with readers struggling to understand complicated relationships with family members. In one passage, Emily’s difficult relationship with her daughter Margaret comes to mind. “Margaret would still be battling her (after Emily’s death), just as, occasionally, Emily still fought with her own mother, both guiltily and, being eternally wronged, self-righteously. Though everything faded, nothing was ever done.”

Emily considered her life through her photographs, realizing how much thing change as the years passed—including hair and clothing styles—but also how perspective gives one wisdom. How “she wished she could go back and apologize to those closest to her, explain that she understood now.” These reflections, these lessons learned, will serve the reader well.

Emily, Alone is moving, funny, and inspiring. It is the sequel to Wish You Were Here, but it's not necessary to read these books in order.  Emily, Alone stands on its own merits.  It was published in 2011 by Viking, and due in paperback this December.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, follows the story of three women: a World War II news correspondent in London, a postmaster for a small town on the Massachusetts coast, and a young bride making a home with her town doctor husband in the same small town.

The woman whose narration begins the novel is Frances Bard, often referred to as Frankie. Frankie is a radio reporter, whose job is to, “Seek truth. Report it. Minimize harm.” Frankie was dedicated to finding and reporting the story, traveling to London during Germany’s persistent fire bombing in the early 1940s. When a friend was killed in the apartment they shared, she undertook to continue her line of investigation: the Jewish refugees fleeing German-held territories. When she accidentally becomes part of the story, she finds herself no longer able to report it, and questioning whether she was minimizing harm.

Iris James, the postmaster, finds comfort in the regularity and authority of her post, which she believes defends against chaos and disorder. As the author describes it, “One entered (the post office), as one did every day, and was immediately met with a sense of calm born out of rigid adherence to an unwavering routine.” And Iris enforces that sense of routine and calm by her adherence to duty.

Emma Fitch is married to Will, the town doctor. After a tragic loss for which Will felt responsible, he volunteers to provide medical care in London. He’d heard how bad things were there from Frankie’s radio broadcasts, and in a sense, he seems to want to put himself in harm’s way. Frankie meets him there, and it’s clear he seems happier knowing that bad things do happen without or despite anyone’s intervention. Emma is left at home to wait for news of his return when his letters stop coming.

And it is his letters that are the focal point of the story, and in particular, the dilemma for more than one character. As Frankie remarked to Iris, ‘“Something could be diverted, or stopped, and it would be your hand that fixed it, your hand that set the story going again. You’re like a good narrator.” Frankie paused, noting the flush rise in Iris’s face. “Or even, the author. You could choose who gets their mail and who—“‘ before she was interrupted.

Frankie’s reporting mantra proves to be a struggle for more than one of them, and it is the diversion from both their values and their job requirements that causes them to question when reporting the truth conflicts with minimizing harm.

The Postmistress was published in 2010 by Penguin.

Book Club Discussion Questions for The Postmistress

If the task for a “postmaster/postmistress” is to deliver the mail, who do you think the author was referring to in the title of her book? Why?

Several of the main characters faced turning points from which they seemed to stray from their core values or beliefs. What happened? Do you think they might have returned to these beliefs in time? Do you know people who have faced situations that drove them to abandon deeply held beliefs?

Did the Postmaster make the right decision to withhold “partial” news? Should the reporter have divulged her knowledge of the doctor’s fate? Are lies OK to protect others? Or to protect ourselves from the truth we find difficult to bear?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, is a funny and tragic novel that begins with the death of Daniel “Skippy” Juster, who collapses at the local doughnut shop. Juster is a student at Seabrook College, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Dublin. What follows is a meaty, multi-faceted story of grief and deceit.

It’s important to know that Skippy Dies is funny--a poignant reminder of school days, close friendships, exclusive cliques, cruel pranks, and bathroom humor. But Murray also illuminates the darker side of youth, with its loss of innocence, its dawning realization that parents and teachers are flawed human beings, and its “Lord of the Flies” rule through intimidation. Murray does more than show us how these children relate to each other. He shows us how the grown-ups live in their own “Lord of the Flies” world, with their own doubts, bravado, and tactical maneuvering so similar to the children they teach. They may not give each other toilet “swirlies,” but physical violence isn’t out of the range of possibilities. The administration and teachers at Seabrook, and most notably Howard (“Howard the Coward”) the history teacher and an alumnus of the school, are the central figures here, although parents occasionally feature in the interactions.

Murray's writing is funny and lyrical.  He describes one of the school's teachers as wearing "an eye-searing, headache-inducing houndstooth" with "shaggy eyebrows that bristle from his forehead like two Yetis about to hurl themselves from a cliff."  He spends great swaths of narrative that is dedicated to Ruprecht, Skippy's roommate, describing the time and space conundrums which obsess Ruprecht, a student whose grades alone bring up the average for the entire class year. 

Readers will quickly see how grief damages the characters, with Skippy’s demise being the trigger point. Another pervasive theme is deceit, from how the school handles Skippy’s death and the events that led up to it to how nations (and in this case Ireland), persuade their citizens to go to war to achieve objectives that may not be those touted as the rallying cry. There are many real-life issues in this book—poverty, sexual abuse by an authority figure, drug abuse, alcoholism, illness—and most of his characters find a way to cope. Some are successful.

Skippy Dies was published by Faber and Faber in 2010. It was shortlisted for the Costa Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010.  The paperback version of Skippy Dies is scheduled for release on August 30. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is titled for the two most impactful characters on Mario, the book’s protagonist, an 18-year-old Peruvian law student and News Director of Radio Panamericana. Written by Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is both a coming of age and a love story.

Mario is an aspiring writer, his law school status primarily to please his parents while he dreams of writing in Paris. As “news director” he rewrites news stories from other sources (a change to an adjective here or a different noun there) and keeps his staff from inserting too many graphic tales of death and destruction into the evening news. It is not the news at the station, however, that attracts listeners. It is the daily serials—soap operas—broadcast several times a day. So, when the scriptwriter Pedro Camacho, prolific writer and director of these popular serials is lured to the station from Bolivia, fortunes were sure to change, not only for the station, but for Mario as well.

At about the same time, Mario’s uncle’s sister-in-law arrives from Bolivia, fresh from a divorce. “Aunt Julia” is an experienced woman in her 30s who teases “Marito” (a nickname Mario deplored) and is courted by available suitors who aren’t put off by her divorcee status. Mario is intrigued by his “Aunt Julia,” and playful dalliances become more serious until Mario is convinced he and Julia must marry. Mario is underage to wed without his parents’ permission (who have by now gotten wind of the romance and are livid), so he and Julia engage friends and tolerant family members to help them arrange a hasty marriage by a sympathetic and corruptible officiant.

In the meantime, Senor Camacho’s gift for storytelling is becoming more and more bizarre, with characters from one serial suddenly appearing in another, or the same name being used for different people in different stories, or the plot line suddenly terminating in a disaster in which all the characters die. Camacho confides to Mario that his memory is failing and the threads of stories are confusing, and Mario tries to intervene with the station owners on Camacho's behalf. 

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is bittersweet, both funny and tragic.  There are delightful surprises, such as the author’s introduction of the serials to the novel so that the reader is suddenly immersed in a soap opera story. Llosa is such a good storyteller that readers may find they’d like the serial story to go on. Pedro Camacho is himself an odd character, and some of his habits are both amusing and sad. For example, he has an inexplicable dislike for Argentians, and interjects something derogatory about them into almost every story.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was published by Picador in 2007. Llosa is the 2002 PEN award winner and the 2010 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature.