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, December 6, 2014

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Lila, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson, is the story of Lila Dahl.  It is set primarily in the town of Gilead, which readers are acquainted with from Robinson’s previous novels Gilead and Home.  Lila is a nearly feral child, neglected and mistreated by people we assume are family.  Her savior is Doll, a woman with a violent past, who takes pity on Lila and cares for her.  After Lila is banished to the family’s front porch for complaining, Doll takes Lila and they begin traveling to find work, shelter, and food. 

Lila learns hard lessons from Doll’s experiences.  Although Doll doesn’t tell Lila everything—like the history of that sharp knife she carries—Lila knows life is hard and no one can be trusted.  Doll tells Lila, “You got to look after your own self,” and Lila learns to live on her own, finding shelter, food, and work along the way, vaguely aware of people from her past who could be looking for her. 

Lila’s life takes a turn when she arrives in Gilead.  When she tells the widowed preacher, John Ames, “You ought to marry me,” she wasn’t quite sure what she was asking for or why.  Even after they are married, she doesn’t seem to trust the elderly pastor, despite his acceptance of her—including her failure to attend church regularly, her cursing, or her petty theft from his garden or his clothes before they were married. 

Robinson details both Lila’s and Pastor Ames’ introspection and self-discovery as they come to know each other and develop their unusual relationship.   They are childlike and open as they learn about themselves, while gently unfolding their past lives, with the pain and memories that come with them. 

Lila was a finalist for 2014 National Book Award.  It was published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, will alternately entertain, enlighten, enrage, and move readers.  Fowler’s prose is witty and modern and the book’s narrator, Rosemary Cooke, rises above most first-person accounts by being painfully honest without painting herself as heroic or admirable or self-destructively attractive.   In fact, Fowler spins out the story in pieces through Rosemary’s narrative, so that it’s nearly a third of the way into the book before the reader learns that one of the main characters, Rosemary’s older sister, is in fact, a chimp.  And this is critical to the book. 

Rosemary’s father is a scientist, who, along with a troop of graduate students, studies communication between chimpanzees and humans.  Specifically, they study Rosemary and her “sister,” Fern, who are being raised together in the Cooke household.  Rosemary found this unexceptional and in fact, felt jealous of Fern’s abilities like any warring siblings would.  But they were also exceptionally close, and Rosemary alone felt she could translate Fern’s feelings.  Eventually, Fern is sent “to a farm” to live which is the family’s turning point.  Lowell, Rosemary’s human brother, disappears, later to turn up wanted by the FBI and Rosemary struggles with feelings of guilt well into her adulthood about why Fern was sent away.  The story starts “in the middle” as Rosemary narrates, with Rosemary in college and Fern gone since Rosemary was five years old.  

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves gives us relatable and mostly likable characters along with an entertaining plot with occasionally witty if not snarky narration.  Her story turns a bit heavy-handed from time to time when introducing details of animal testing and activism.  Elizabeth Strout took on a similarly emotionally charged topic in The Burgess Boys, but guided the reader to draw their own conclusions through introducing characters with different perspectives.  Fowler, on the other hand, provides the reader with text that could be coming from activist brochures—not to suggest that it isn’t true or worthy of outrage, but she doesn’t give the reader the opportunity to arrive at that conclusion themselves. 

We Are all Completely Beside Ourselves was published by Putnam in 2013. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is the story of a young boy who is present at a museum the day it is bombed by terrorists.  Having survived the blast, he stays at the side of an older man, also a patron at the museum, until the older man dies.  During those last moments, the young boy retrieves a painting, called The Goldfinch, from the rubble and understands from the man that he should take it with him which, in his concussed and confused state, he does.  He intends to return the painting safely, but as time passes, he fears the punishment that would come with confessing his theft.  What follows is the story of the passage from his young teenage years to adulthood, with the purloined art always in his thoughts. 

The Goldfinch requires an investment by its readers.  At 775 pages, the book not only spans time in its characters’ lives, it details an emotional and physical journey that draws in the reader.  Theo Decker, the young boy who walks away from the museum with The Goldfinch, is homeless after the blast.  His mother, who took him to the museum on that fateful day, is killed by the explosion, and it is some time before Decker’s estranged father returns to his life.  Theo alternately earns the reader’s sympathy and disapproval.  His disintegration is the product of circumstances inflicted on him by an act of terrorism, but he exacerbates this downward spiral through drug abuse and dealing in counterfeit goods. 

There’s no doubt The Goldfinch is well and powerfully written.  As the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, that description is clearly deserved.  Its story is intense, at times almost too painful to read.  Readers ponder the painting from time to time—it’s unique beauty, the simplicity of the goldfinch as the central figure in the work,  the chain holding it to its perch—and look for similarities between the subject of the painting, and the existence of the painting itself, to Theo’s life.  Was he chained by the tragic event that took his mother’s life and left him injured and emotionally scarred?  Was he chained by the theft of the painting, or by the painting itself?  Was he chained by his love of Pippa, the young girl who was also injured in the blast?  Was the survival of the painting itself, and the life of the artist, a parallel to Theo’s life? 

The Goldfinch was published in 2013 by Little, Brown and Company.  Donna Tartt is the author of two other books, The Secret History and The Little Friend.  

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, is the disturbing story of two disturbed characters, creator and player in a story of their own making.  For the reader, it's a psychological drama and page-turner, one that will keep you alternately feeling sympathy and disgust for the characters, all the while intrigued and mystified by their actions.

The story features Nick and Amy Dunne, two displaced Manhattanites who have relocated to Nick's hometown.  Nick's mom is critically ill and his dad suffers from Alzheimer's.  Nick and Amy return to Carthage, Missouri, to help Nick's twin sister Margo care for his parents.  Because they are both out of work, Nick borrows money from Amy's trust fund to partner with Margo and buy a local bar.  Amy is the daughter of a writers, the authors of the "Amazing Amy" series for which she is the namesake, which amplifies the spotlight on her sudden disappearance.  

The book is written in the alternating voices by chapter of Nick and Amy.  Amy's chapters are her diary entries, and Nick's are equally straightforward and compelling versions of his reactions to events as they unfold.  He tells us, for instance, how many times he has now lied to police, which is the reader's first inkling that things may not be as they seem.  When Amy disappears in what appears to be a violent kidnapping, Nick is identified as a person of interest in the investigation.

As the novel progresses, we learn that Amy has manipulated the reader as she has others in her life. Her history of deceit is long and complex, and includes harm to herself and others.  While one might be tempted to feel sorry for Nick, it's clear he has trapped himself in Amy's story.  And, he may be the only one who knows Amy well enough to know what she is capable of.

Gone Girl was published in 2012 by Random House.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman, is the story of a dedicated lighthouse keeper and his wife caught in a heartbreaking deception.  Tom Sherbourne is a veteran who relishes the seclusion of the Janus Rock lighthouse.  He reveres the regularity of the light and thrives under the rigorous requirements of record-keeping and light maintenance.  When Tom marries Isabel, they plan to raise a family on the island.  Unfortunately, Isabel tends their babies’ graves as they lose their children by miscarriage or stillbirth. 

When a small boat washes up to Janus Rock with a dead man and a healthy baby, Isabel is smitten.  She rationalizes that a mother would never leave her baby and must not be alive, and that there would be no harm in caring for the child.  Tom worries that he is required to report this arrival and feels they should return the child and try to find the dead man’s family.  But Isabel can’t imagine parting with the child and convinces Tom to allow her to claim the child as their own, and bury the man on the island.    

As the story unfolds, Tom and Isabel’s decision has tragic consequences.  Both Tom and Isabel continue to find ways to justify the wrongness of their actions, but when baby Lucy’s birth mother discovers she is alive, what is best for the baby becomes unclear, and the deception around the burial of the dead man puts Tom in a dire situation. 

The Light Between Oceans is tragic and heartbreaking.  Stedman skillfully weaves a story that presents to readers a fine balance between right and wrong.  The Light Between Oceans was published by Scribner in 2012. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, is a story of betrayal, loss, love, sacrifice, and reconciliation.  Hosseini’s frontispiece is a quote from Jelaluddin Rumi from the 13th century, which well describes the complexity of the story, the decisions his characters face, and the circumstances in which they find themselves:
                Out beyond ideas
                of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
                there is a field.
                I’ll meet you there.
It is this meeting place that readers arrive at intervals in the novel, weighing the wrong and right, seeing the consequences play out in the lives of the characters, considering what would have happened “if,” mostly unable to condemn or praise anyone without reservation for their choices.  Their motivations were strong:  love, family pride, greed, honor, commitment.  As his character Nabi says, “ . . . I have come to see  . .. that one is well served by a degree of both humility and charity
when judging the inner workings of another person’s heart.” 

The story begins in the country in Afghanistan, as the young girl Pari is taken to her Uncle Nabi, who works for a wealthy family in Kabul.  Pari is too young to have many memories yet, and is given to Nabi to be raised by another couple as their own.  Pari’s brother, Abdullah, feels the loss keenly his entire life.  Intertwined with the stories of Pari, Abdullah, and Nabi, Hosseini introduces a plastic surgeon who came to Kabul in an effort to help the injured.  Using this doctor as a foil for Abdullah, Hosseini makes a sharp distinction between those who are in need of help and those who can. 

At every turn in the story, Hosseini does a masterful job making his characters’ bitter choices real to the reader.   Their excuses are ours.  Their reasons are ours.  And their emotions strike a familiar chord. 

And the Mountains Echoed was published by Penguin Books in 2013.  

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Best Books of 2013

The beginning of a new year finds me making lists of books for my “must read” list, which tends to grow rather than diminish even as I avidly read all year.  I also reflect on my favorites from the previous year—books that generated feelings or insights that stayed with me or books I simply found particularly entertaining.  It’s always difficult to pare them down to a small number, but my top five picks for books reviewed on this blog in 2013 are:

In Inferno, by Dan Brown, Robert Langdon, Brown’s recurring hero, returns to solve a new nail-biter. A mad scientist, intent on saving the world from its own population explosion, has created a viral time bomb. Accompanied by a smart and pretty blonde, Langdon attempts to decode the clues left by the suicidal scientist while being chased by corrupt government officials and a virtual private army through the streets of Florence and the canals of Venice. His task is complicated by the fact that he awoke in a hospital in Florence with amnesia, having no memory of how he got there or why. The only thing the reader knows for sure is that Langdon is the good guy, as always, and the other characters Brown introduces could be playing for either side. In fact, Brown cleverly pulls the rug from under the reader more than once, with unexpected revelations that induce literary gymnastics and the desire to return and reread sections of the book so the reader can be “in on” the surprise, too.
Beautiful Ruins
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, tells the story of Pasquale, an innkeeper in the tiny oceanside town of Porto Vergogna, who inherited the property after the death of his father.  Pasquale aches to build the property into a resort, complete with a mountainside tennis court, which will attract famous and wealthy Americans to the tiny town and mostly nonexistent beach.  When a Hollywood starlet, Dee Moray, arrives under unusual circumstances, he falls in love with her during her short visit. Stitched between modern day and the early 1960s, Pasquale and Moray lead separate lives which are eventually reunited.   Both Pasquale and Dee learn to accept what’s possible and what isn’t—like building a tennis court on the side of a mountain or luring Richard Burton away from Liz Taylor (Dee’s long ago wish)—but are still able to  find enrichment in the families they built while away from each other. 

The Burgess Boys
The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout, is named for Jim and Bob Burgess, who together with their sister Susan, grew up in a small town in Maine.  The incident upon which the novel’s action is centered involves Zach, Susan’s son.  Zach is a loner, searching for approval, depressed, and somewhat aimless.  What Zach does feeds bigotry against Somalis in his community but simultaneously lays a foundation for understanding. Strout allows the reader to anguish along with the characters in the book, hearing “their side” of the conflict and gaining understanding of their actions.  The Burgess Boys invites readers to adjust their perceptions, without leading them to choose one perspective over another, just as the characters do in the novel.   

The Dog Stars
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, tells the story of a world ravaged by a flu virus.  Hig, the central character in the novel, is a pilot and the guardian of a small airport near Erie, Colorado.  This post-apocalyptic setting is marked by rising temperatures, depleted animal communities and species, roving bands of scavengers seeking provisions and weapons, and a highly contagious disease referred to as “the Blood.” Together with Bruce Bangley, a ruthless tactician with a mysterious past, Hig defends a “perimeter” around the airport.   Flying “the Beast”, a 1956 Cessna 182, he scouts for wildlife, watches for marauders, and occasionally stumbles on salvage. When a faint signal from an airport closer to Grand Junction reached him, Hig was determined to know whether civilization survived somewhere else. 

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls
David Sedaris' most recent collection of stories and essays, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, is a quirky, honest, and hysterical collection of his work. While Sedaris admits he loves the attention of being on stage and reading from his work, he also reveals himself as a flawed character in the story of his life--flawed, but very also very funny, and some of those "flaws" may explain his unique approach to recording life.Sedaris doesn't limit himself to witty stories, but occasionally adds a touch of scathing social commentary--still funny, mind you--but clearly has an agenda of its own. Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls is an upbeat collection overall, and made even more enjoyable if readers have an opportunity to hear Sedaris read from his collection in person, either by audiobook or at a local appearance. 

Readers, what were your favorite books from 2013?  What are you planning to read in 2014?  Look for my 2014 reviews on soon!