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, August 27, 2011

The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker

The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker, is the story of "the watery part of the world"--the coast of North Carolina, where hurricanes reshape the tiny barrier islands, form new ones, create new waterways, and lash the islands with a ferocity that forces its inhabitants to retreat.  The central characters in this story span generations, and the chapters alternate between the two, giving the reader a deeper understanding of the intricate and complex relationships that have developed through the years.  

Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Aaron Burr, is the sole survivor of a brutal attack on her ship just off the coast of North Carolina by Thaddeus Daniels, the "black-heartedest pirate of them all."  Daniels spares her life when her erratic behavior and attachment to a self-portrait made her seem to him as being "touched by God."  Stranded on  Yaupon Island, she is befriended by Whaley, himself a seaman, who allows her to live with him.  Eventually, he leaves but not after providing her with help in Hezekiah Thornton.  Whaley leads Theodosia to believe he purchased Thornton but gives him his freedom shortly thereafter so that there was no obligation for Hezekiah to stay under her employ. 

The book skips ahead to Whaley and Theo's descendants, Miss Whaley and Miss Maggie, elderly sisters now living on the nearly deserted island.  Although at one time the population of the island was more robust, continuous storms even drove natives to the mainland.  Also living on the island are Thornton's descendant, Woodrow and his wife, Sarah.  Although Woodrow has no obligation toward Miss Whaley and Miss Maggie, it is as if he has inherited them.  He picks up their mail by meeting the mail boat.  He runs errands and shares his catch of fish.  Their relationship is close, but it seems as if fates have ordained it.  The reader wonders if it is truly a voluntary arrangement.  

Parker describes the fateful storm that changes the island and the lives of its inhabitants forever during the book's narrative, which he alludes to many times.  The reader is aware something terrible happened, but the entire story with the accompanying guilt, fear, and grief that each of the characters experience is only gradually revealed, as if even the narrative can't bear to describe something so painful all at once. 

The story is compelling, the relationships perplexing yet believable, and the history and culture of the islands intriguing.  The Watery Part of the World was published in 2011 by Algonquin Books. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder is Ann Patchett’s most recent offering, the gripping story of a top secret scientific breakthrough, a powerful pharmaceutical company, and a man presumed dead and lost in the jungles of the Amazon. If this combination of factors isn’t thrilling enough, add a colleague who goes searching for the missing man, an eccentric scientist, and poison-dart-wielding cannibals, and your attention ought to be grabbed and held for the duration of the story.

Anders Eckman is a scientist, sent by the pharmaceutical company for which he works to meet with Dr. Swenson, herself a scientist working in the Amazon on a project so mysterious that the details are secret from almost everyone outside of her cadre of assistants. She is funded by the pharmaceutical company, which is becoming anxious to gain some return on their investments. Eckman disappears, is reported dead due to some jungle malady, and Marina Singh, as a colleague and someone the company trusts to reach Swenson, is sent there to complete his assignment.

Eckman’s wife Karen continues to believe he isn’t dead. Without a body or any of his personal effects, she keeps hope. “Hope is a horrible thing, you know, “ she said. “I don’t know who decided to package hope as a virtue because it’s not. It’s a plague. Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody just keeps pulling it and pulling it.”

Singh enjoyed a complex relationship with Swenson—she was Swenson’s student in medical school. When Singh locates Swenson, after no little difficulty, she becomes enmeshed in Swenson’s research, despite Swenson’s initial desire to have no “outsiders” joining her team. In the meantime, Singh learns the true reason for Swenson’s secrecy around her research, and begins to understand how Swenson’s philosophy of non-interference in the local culture and her dogged commitment to her research may explain Anders Eckman’s disappearance. As Swenson explains, “The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects indigenous people.”

Singh suffers from nightmares, jungle insects, and Swenson’s demands. She gradually discovers what Swenson is researching, how it impacts the indigenous people, and the facts around Eckman’s disappearance. The revelations continue to surprise until the last page of the story.

State of Wonder is a suitable addition to Patchett’s formidable library, following Run, Bel Canto, and The Magician’s Assistant. Published in 2011 by HarperCollins, State of Wonder is available as an eBook and paperback, as well as in hardcover.