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 9, 2013

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan, is a cautionary tale about the dust storms that swept the great grasslands of the United States in the 1930s.  Egan interweaves the stories of individual settlers, immigrants, homestead-seekers, and displaced city folks, with the history of the former Native American lands in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska. 

Thousands relocated to the grasslands in the early 1930s seeking a new life, lured by false promises of vibrant new cities, rich land, and abundant water.  Few arrived to much more than flat grasslands fit for grazing, which formerly fed bison.  Many of those who arrived set out to tame the grassland into farms and for a time, were successful raising crops while rain still came.  With their newfound prosperity built on rising grain prices, the settlers moved from dugouts and makeshift shelters to real homes, bought luxuries, and enjoyed a comfortable life. 

But grain prices dropped, the rain stopped coming, and a years-long drought cast a pall on the growing communities.  Temperatures that varied with the seasons from baking to bitterly cold combined with harsh winds to whip the soil into huge, rolling dust storms, with enough static electricity to kill small animals and crops.  What were once acres of cultivated fields now looked like sand dunes, with the dust defeating all efforts to keep it out of their homes.  Farmers began to suffer from “dust pneumonia” as their lungs struggled to breathe through dust that made visibility so low that during the height of storms, it was impossible to see at all.  Settlers died in their yards, smothered by the dust, unable to see well enough to find the shelter of their own home.   

Neighboring states were unreceptive to farmers who tried to relocate there.  The country’s economy was struggling everywhere, but the plight of the dust bowl farmer was too distant to spur the nation’s lawmakers into action--that is, until the dust clouds reached the capital.  Efforts more serious that the rainmakers hired by locals had greater effect—in particular, the soil conservation initiatives that sought to change the way the land was used and cultivated.  With a collective effort by many landowners, some of the land could be reclaimed so that dust storms were less frequent.   

There are lessons to be learned from Egan’s book that are applicable to finite natural resources other than the prairie grass and soil it protected.  His book is well researched and empathetic to all parties—those who encouraged settlement as well as those who turned the prairie grass into ill-fated fields.  The Worst Hard Time won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2006, and was first published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

In Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel, "Flight Behavior," she interweaves a natural aberration with her character’s struggle for freedom. The tenuous life cycle of the Monarch butterfly and the life of Kingsolver’s central character share many characteristics: a displacement to an unforgiving environment, an unlikely opportunity to flourish, and an opportunity to escape, along with a colorful appearance—fiery orange wings and fiery red hair. Dellarobia, the story’s heroine, describes herself as having skipped the frosted pink lipstick of innocent teenage girls, “heading straight for Immoral Coral and Come-to-Bed Red.” Trapped into an early marriage by an unplanned pregnancy Dellarobia struggled to live the life she’d chosen, with overbearing in-laws nearby and no clear means of escape.
Dellarobia, the unhappy wife of Cub (son of Bear), lives in the rural mountains of Tennessee in a community called Feathertown. Dellarobia and Cub live hand to mouth, subsisting on his meager take-home pay, while raising two small children, shopping at the second-hand store, and splurging on shakes at the local fast food restaurant. Dellarobia is considering leaving Cub when she sees an amazing sight—the trees on the mountain behind their home “on fire” but not burning—millions of Monarch butterflies roosting in the trees. This makes her home not only a tourist attraction, but the hallowed site of a religious awakening, the center of an anti-logging campaign, and the draw for an intriguing scientist and his crew.
Ovid Byron sees Dellarobia’s natural penchant for science and detail, and enlists her help in leading teams of volunteers who count and catalog the data from butterfly research. The troubling element is the butterflies’ appearance in Tennessee at all, since their usual migratory routes are much further away. Ovid hypothesizes that the butterflies are doomed, since temperatures in the mountains of Tennessee would be too harsh to support them. In the meantime, Dellarobia is entranced by Ovid and the breadth of potential he sees in her, and battles to protect her privacy from the onslaught of national media and sort out the scientific from the superstitious.
Flight, escape, and survival are repeated themes throughout the book, as well as birth and death. Kingsolver’s descriptions are spot on. She describes a congregation singing an old time hymn like they were “dragging it like a plow through heavy clay.” Dellarobia’s “every possession was either unbreakable, or broken.” She masterfully describes Dellarobia’s environment in a way that helps readers feel her frustration while dramaticizing the effect of potential climate change.
"Flight Behavior" was published in 2012 by Harper Collins.