Anxious People

img_7587Book: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Date Read: February 1 to 7, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

After finishing A Man Called Ove, I knew that Fredrik Backman was an author that I was not done with. I was super excited when I learned that he had a new book coming in 2020, and even more so when I won this advance reader’s edition in a giveaway on Instagram. This was a giveaway copy from the original recipient after the release of the book, and not sent to me from the publisher. I chose it for the February prompt for the Unread Shelf Project: a book you got for free. Most of the books I have gotten for free have been gifts, so this one and only book I have ever won seemed like a perfect creative twist for the prompt.

This is a story that could be about numerous things: a town, a robbery, a father and son, a divorce, a bridge, a couple (or several couples), a hostage situation, a second chance. In the end, it was about all but not quite any one of these. It reminded me of the term “sonder”—defined as a feeling of realizing that every person who passes through our lives, however briefly, has a life as complex as our own. To me, it is a sentiment that makes me feel both small and significant. An unusual sort of connection to the world at large, and one that I think we all could use just a bit more of in our lives.

Backman certainly knows how to spin a beautiful, although sometimes meandering, narrative. There are a few parallel storylines going on, each with seemingly spurious connections that all come together nicely in the end. There is enough information shared to pique the reader’s interest and generate some ideas of where things are headed, before another string is woven in to complicate and sometimes challenge our thinking. It reminded me somewhat of the tendency for conversation or thoughts wander. The type of journey where you begin by talking about where you would like to go to dinner, but somehow end up in a debate over whether it was 2 or 3 summers ago when you bought a particular lawn chair—there were logical connections along the way, but it takes a bit of effort to track them back.

One of the things that I found most intriguing is how Backman starts with a cast of characters who are not particularly likeable, but uses that to as an asset to the story rather than a hindrance. There are some glimpses of potential good qualities, but nothing that outright makes you want to root for them. Each one of them comes with their own agenda, challenges, and anxieties, but they all have something to offer, and somehow manage to make the story better for all of their flaws.

Along the way, I definitely found myself generating ideas about the overall picture, just as the police officers were trying to put together the pieces of the situation. I found myself needing to revise quite a bit—often as a result of assumptions that I had made about the information given thus far. I think that is part of the beauty of this story, its ability to challenge the reader while still keeping interest and staying true to life. There are twists that are not really twists, and coincidences that seem too convenient until you realize that perhaps in a small town they are not.

Circling back around to my comments on sonder, to me, this was a story about our connections to the people around us. A commentary on how we impact one another, whether we realize it or not. Even the best of us are sometimes unsure, anxious, lonely, or idiots—that is part of being human. After the year of uncertainties and anxieties that we have all experienced in some way, this story is a comfort to me.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Ahh. A feeling of connectedness without having to leave home. Sounds perfect. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for February

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 268

What Cat Is That?

img_7622Book: What Cat Is That? By Tish Rabe

Illustrated by Aristides Ruiz and Joe Mathieu

This fun book is from the Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library—a series of nonfiction children’s books inspired by the work of Dr. Seuss. These books are meant as an introduction to the world of nonfiction for young readers, keeping the easy reading rhymes of Seuss, but pairing it with real world information. It’s a great way to introduce the concept of “reading to learn,” while still maintaining the fun aspects of many of the books children are used to when they are learning to read. I was not familiar with the series until I was gifted this book, but cannot help thinking there is a stroke of genius here.

In this book, the Cat in the Hat returns to visit the children from his original story, taking them on an adventure in his Kitty-Cat-Copter to see as many cats as possible. Then they are off to explore a wide array of cats, from the famous big cats to the different types of house cats. It also manages to include a variety of cat facts, while maintaining the ABCB rhyming pattern throughout and even includes a visit from Thing 1 and Thing 2! The illustrations are a really interesting mix—there is enough detail to show the differences in many cat types and breeds, while still maintaining elements readers will recognize from classic Seuss works. The colors are more realistic, of course, but the overall look is very similar.

Although this is the only book I have read from the Learning Library, I think these would be a great fit for kids around Second to Third Grade. This would be around the age when school begins to focus less on the foundations of reading, to working on comprehension and using books to find information. This is a entertaining transitional book that kids can still get excited about, rather than viewing it as purely informational.

Minka’s Thoughts: “That cat is this cat! This cat is me cat! All the cats; all the paws!”

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

img_7578Book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Date Read: December 20 to 26, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I had been eyeing this book for quite awhile before finally picking it up at one of my local stores. Despite hearing the title and seeing a few different renditions of the cover, I did not know much about the premise when I started. Based on the cover art for one edition, a house made of burnt matches, I suspected that fire would play a role in the story. Other than that, I was mostly drawn in by the title, and the belief that I would discover that Eleanor Oliphant was not actually completely fine.

To start, I have to say that I found this story to be both hysterical and quite moving, with the perfect balance between humor and sadness. I found my feelings about Eleanor changing pretty quickly as I read, although not always in a positive way. Upon a first impression, she is not particularly likable. She is rigid, rude, and very quick to judge others. She is very certain of the “rightness” in how she lives, although her view of the world does not fit into the norm defined by everyone else. I suppose you could argue, in a way, that she is “completely fine”—the version of completely fine that is constantly teetering on the edge of disaster.

As the layers of Eleanor’s life begin to slowly peel back, her awkwardness shifts from off-putting to endearing. Although we do not see the full picture of Eleanor’s background, there is enough revealed to allow the reader to begin to sympathize with her. She is certainly misguided and unaware of social expectations—although she does her best with her ill-conceived interpretations of social skills. She knows that she does not quite fit in, and many of her efforts to do so lead down the path of hilarity. At the same time, it becomes clear that the surface of Eleanor’s perfectly organized life is hiding some deep issues.

My favorite thing about this book was that it was absolutely not a romance. Although she would not admit it, Eleanor is profoundly lonely. She creates a romance in her head with who she imagines could be the perfect partner, without realizing that she is also quietly cultivating some much more real connections. When she reaches a breaking point and heads into a downward spiral, it is these friendships that help to set her on a course toward recovery. I loved that the author did not seek to “cure” or “fix” Eleanor’s problems by throwing her into a romantic relationship. Her experience is much more true to real life, and the bumpy ride that many find themselves on.

Boris’s Thoughts: “See? Who needs romance? All of Eleanor’s problems start to get better when she gets a cat. This is clear proof that cats fix everything. 4 paws.”

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

img_7212Book: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Date Read: December 17 to 20, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I picked up this book as a new addition to my states collection a few years ago, when a friend and I took a trip down to Louisville for a few days. While we spent most of the trip enjoying beverages and tacos on patios, we did a fair share of neighborhood exploring as well. Carmichael’s Bookstore was only a couple miles from where we were staying, so we set out to patio hop our way to and from the store one afternoon. I was unsure of what book I might choose to represent Kentucky in my collection, but Carmichael’s made it easy: this book set in Kentucky and by a Kentucky-based author was a new publication, as well as being on the staff recommendations list.

This unique historical fiction is a book for people who love books. It combines two aspects of history that I previously knew little about: the Depression era Kentucky Pack Horse Library Service and the historic blue-skinned people of Kentucky. The latter, actually, I had not heard of before seeing this book. The book follows Cussy Mary, a packhorse librarian and the last in the line of a blue-skinned family. She loves reading, and is passionate about her job of sharing books with the hill people of Kentucky. She travels a weekly route exchanging books for her patrons. She connects to each of them through a mutual appreciation of the books, always keeping an eye out for new materials to suit each of them from the library’s extremely limited catalogue.

Initially, I thought that blue-skinned was an exaggeration—perhaps referring to people who were abnormally pale or sickly appearing. However, as I was reading it became clear very quickly that it truly meant blue. I did some mini-research, which led me to the real family that Cussy Mary’s was based on. The “Blue Fugates” lived in Kentucky from the early 1800s until as recently as the 1970s. I do not want to give too much away, but will say that it is a fascinating example of recessive genetic traits. The book does delve into the details of this eventually, as Cussy Mary works with a local doctor who is intrigued by her condition.

This turned out to be much more than I was expecting, with an ending that I did not see coming. Cussy Mary spends most of her life surrounded by tragedy: poverty, hunger, discrimination. Despite being pushed to the fringe of society by her classification as “colored,” she persists in a dedication to her patrons through both her books and her attempts to bring a little ease to their lives. There are a few dramatic turns toward the end of the novel, which are taken in stride, and appear to be heading toward a fairly clean and mostly happy ending for Cussy Mary—but it did not turn out exactly as I had anticipated or hoped. I do not want to say that I was dissatisfied with the ending, as it was quite fitting given the context of the story.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I suppose that book for book people means a book for book cats. 4 paws.”

Where the Crawdads Sing

img_7456Book: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Date Read: January 1 to 9, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

This was my pick for the first Unread Shelf Project prompt of the year: a book with high expectations. I thought through quite a few different ways to interpret this, and decided that I would use some data from Goodreads to narrow things down. This was the highest rated book on my to read list that has been rated by over 1 million people. I felt that this gave an endorsement both for the popularity of the book, and a general consensus on quality. In addition to that, this is a book that was given to me as a gift and came highly recommended.

Despite the hype, I actually knew very little about this one going into it. In fact, I was a couple chapters in before I even decided to read the description on the inside jacket. Overall, I really enjoyed the layers to this story; although it took me a little bit to really get into it. Once I was hooked though, I could not get enough of the story. I admit I was a little put off by the time jumps in the first part of the book, created by the dual storyline. Kya’s childhood was so much more interesting to me than the murder-mystery set up happening so many years later. Of course I realized that all would eventually become relevant, but it was occasionally frustrating to be pulled away from the more engrossing part of the narrative.

I mentioned enjoying the layers of the story, which I think was the most appealing aspect of this novel for me. There is so much here to consider: love, tragedy, discrimination, trauma, coming of age, loss, judgment, and a great appreciation for the natural world. To pinpoint any one cause of Kya’s eccentricities or her ostracization would be difficult, but examining her past, it is easy to see why she developed a fear of the outside world and the behavior patterns that went along with this. It was curious to me that the main source of Kya’s peculiarities was a fear of those in town, whose own prejudices led them to fear her as well.

While I have seen this elsewhere as a criticism of the book, I appreciated the details included in the naturalistic elements of Kya’s relationship to her home. It was obvious that the author has impressive knowledge on the subject, and helped in building the fascinating juxtaposition within Kya’s own character—the bits of truth in the town’s view of her life, contrasted with the accomplishments far beyond what anyone would suspect from her. Even later when the detectives from town see her collections, they do not understand them, assuming there is some element of madness in her work. I suppose this plays even further into the “fear of the unknown” element between Kya and the town.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I think I understand this girl. I, too, am fascinated by birds. 3 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for January

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 0
  • Total Unread Books: 269

Three Years of Books (On My Cats)

Three years ago today, I made my first post in this blog, dedicated to sharing my love of books and the cuteness of Boris. It has not always been easy, partially due to my own unrealistic expectations, as well as a few bad habits. Since then, I have learned so much about myself as a reader and blogger, and ways to be more successful in maintaining this project. I would like to think that with practice I have grown and improved along the way.

Each year, I reflected back on how I have been managing my time and content, and used the anniversary as a jumping off point for changes—and last year as a introduction for our new family member, Minka. While I did not want to let today pass without remark, I feel that I have finally reached a point where I am comfortable with what I have built and how I am running it. I may not have a huge following, but I do have something that I enjoy and use.

So, in celebration of 3 years of Books On My Cat, I want to say thank you to those who have been following along on my blogging journey. I appreciate the time you take to read my posts, and hope that you have found something here that you feel is worth it. I do not have any major changes or efforts in mind for this year, only to continue doing what I have been doing (and perhaps catching up on a few already in progress related activities).

Thanks for being here.

Love,

Katie, Boris, & Minka

Midnight Sun & Twilight

img_7155Book: Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer; Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Date Read: December 10 to 16, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars; 3 (of 5) stars

Like most everyone else who read these, I found Twilight in the middle of the hype in 2008. The series was complete, and the movie would be coming out soon. My sister, who was not a big reader, was interested in the series, and we decided to split the cost of the boxed set of books. I loved the idea of encouraging her to read, and figured that I would get around to them eventually; but when her and my mom both finished it and started to get excited for the movie release, I caved so that I could join them.

I think it goes without saying that I do not consider Twilight, or any of the remaining books, as high quality literature. I take them at face value and consider them for what they are: quick entertainment romance novels aimed at a younger demographic. As that, they succeed spectacularly. (I suppose I should note that, at the time, I was probably just on the cusp of this ideal demographic, having graduated high school a couple years before the first book was released.) Along with that, I have to give Stephenie Meyer credit with perfect timing in the release of Midnight Sun, coming long enough after the initial series that those who read the first can look back with enough nostalgia to not cringe too much.

Knowing that Midnight Sun was coming soon, and with my new habit of rereading via audio book, I decided to revisit Twilight over the summer. I like to be prepared when reading something from a series. It was definitely an interesting look back. While the story was much as I remembered, the writing was a bit worse than my memory. Bella is more irritating of a character than I recalled—although this may be somewhat biased from reading the other books. I do remember liking her more in the later books of series, so perhaps taking that development backward clouded my view. I will say, however, that the narrator for the audio book was matched well, and I do like listening to audio books written in first person.

All things considered, I think this was a better story from Edward’s perspective. Perhaps some of this is improvement in writing over time, but I also think that part of that relates to the difference in the voice of who is telling the story. Sure, Edward comes across pretty arrogant much of the time, but he is also more reflective, and, well, does not talk like a teenage girl. Being familiar with the story from Bella’s view, and the more neutral view from the movie, it was interesting to see things from the other side. There is certainly more brought in regarding the other members of the Cullen family, which makes for a richer story with a bit more depth. I particularly liked filling in the pieces toward the end of the story, when Bella is in the hospital.

The switched viewpoint also allows for more insight into the actions of Edward and several other characters, given the “talent” of mind reading that Meyer has endowed him. It was good to piece together the motivations of him and others, which also shed some new light on some of the events from the original book. Edward’s view of himself was also different that I was expecting—although he often has a superior attitude, he very truly believes himself to be something terrible and unworthy of good things. His reminders to Bella that he is “not good for her” are much deeper than the obvious consideration for her safety. Turns out, Edward’s head is a pretty dark place to be, but of course, why didn’t I see that coming?

Minka’s Thoughts: “This book is so big. Almost me-sized. Do you think it wants to play?”

Just Mercy

img_7112Book: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Date Read: November 15 to 30, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I heard about this book some time during the last school year, at one of our district PBIS Meetings (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports). Each school has their own systems in place to support behavior proactively—teaching expectations, building community, and reinforcing those expectations throughout the school. A few times throughout the year, the coaches from all of the elementary schools gather to share ideas, successes, and get input on our practices. An additional focus in the last few years has been equity.

Equity. Not to be confused with equality. The idea of equity goes beyond the idea of everyone getting the same thing, to the recognition that individual circumstances matter in what is needed to create an equal outcome. Not everyone needs the same thing to have the same potential outcomes. Representation matters. When it comes to literature, many often characterize this by saying that children who are minorities need to see characters that look like themselves. This falls short. Diversity in reading is important for everyone—not just the people who fit in a particular category.

Bryan Stevenson tells the story of working on the case of Walter McMillian: a man who has been sentenced to death for murder, but maintains his claim of innocence. As the circumstances that lead to Walter’s arrest and imprisonment are laid out, the reader has an interesting view of the justice system: how things fall into place in an investigation, how individual circumstances impact progress, and how many opportunities there are for things to go wrong.

Walter’s story is told interspersed with many others: specific cases of executions, sentences for life imprisonment, and statistics of crimes and punishments that readers will find shocking. This was an excellent read; an important read; also one that will intermittently turn your stomach and/or bring you to tears. There is injustice and redemption, progress and frustration, and so many places where we can do better as a society.

While we would like to think that our justice system follows the adage that “justice is blind,” there is clear evidence that it is not. Perhaps in light of this, we should consider things differently. Maybe justice should not be blind: background and circumstances matter. If we strive for equity, we need to acknowledge that there are differences in how our system treats individuals, and adjust accordingly.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Books that cause tears really put a lot of pressure on us lap cats. 2 paws.”

Interested in supporting the work discussed in this book? Find more information and donate to the Equal Justice Initiative at: http://www.eji.org

Butts Are Everywhere

img_6759Book: Butts Are Everywhere by Jonathan Stutzman

I first saw this book in an Instagram post from Penguin Publishing, and knew immediately that it was going to be a must have coming into the holiday season. It was in consideration for all the kids on my list—but I decided to mix things up some for the others, and only purchased this one for my siblings’ kids. (Honestly though, this is a gift for my brother just as much as for my nephew, right?) My nephews are 4 and 2; my niece is 3. For them, a butt is just about the funniest thing on the planet. Although none of them are old enough to read, they were delighted to see the butt illustrations on the cover of the book when they opened their gifts.

This gem is an ode to butts everywhere: the small butts, the smooth butts, the large butts, and the furry butts. There are just so many types of butts that can be discussed! Obviously, there is plenty of silliness and laughs abound with the topic of butts. There is some educational information mixed in along the way, with a list of many other names used for butts, as well as some fun facts about the many purposes of butts in both humans and animals. Of course, no book about butts would be complete without mention of toots. Just like butts, there are many different types of toots—and all of them are perfectly normal, even if they do sometimes stink.

In addition to being a book that kids can laugh along to, this could be a good start to a conversation about bodies and body positivity. The book celebrates all types of butts: every size, color, and shape that they come in. The book wraps up with a reminder that even though we sometimes laugh about them, our butts are an important part of us; and you should never forget: Your butt is awesome!

Boris’s Thoughts: “You are so immature.”

Annihilation

img_7041Book: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Date Read: December 1 to 8, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

For December, the Unread Shelf Project asks you to read the shortest book on your shelf. It’s really the perfect fit for this time of year, when everyone seems to be going just a little crazy to fit in their holiday plans along with wrapping up their goals for the year. While I am often somewhat rigid when it comes to metrics and data, I interpret this one a little loosely: anything under 200 pages counts as my shortest books. There are quite a few of them—mostly Shakespeare, as I am that person who gets the complete works of Shakespeare and then individually lists all plays as things to read (making Shakespeare both the shortest and longest books on my list!). In the end, of course, I did not go with Shakespeare: I picked this one up at one of my local independent bookshops, when I went in for a gift and had to leave with something for myself too.

Annihilation is a little outside my normal reading spectrum, as a mystery and science fiction combo. While I do enjoy both, I do not read too heavily in either genre. The story is a slow build without much direct action, but much time put into building the world of Area X. This fits with the context of the novel—it is written as a journal belonging to a biologist, who is part of an expedition to an area reported to have had experienced an “environmental disaster.” Early on, her reports suggest that there is more going on than meets the eye, although this is never quite defined.

Each member of the expedition has a different area of expertise, which they are defined by rather than named: the Psychologist, the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, and the Biologist. While they have been given general orders as a group, each seems to have their own slightly varying agenda. The expedition quickly devolves, as each of the members is impacted by their surroundings and begin to follow their own paths. The biologist’s journal paints an eerie picture of the landscape, as she tries to make sense of her surroundings and describe things that she does not seem to understand herself.

While the concept here is definitely interesting, this book left me wanting more than it was willing to give. It was an enjoyable read, although a little unsettling in places. The style allows for the reader to start piecing some things together, and there’s definitely a ton of room for speculation. However, the ending is left too open for my liking. Of course, this is the first book in a series, so there may be some of what I was looking for in the other books; though I am not sure that I am invested enough in the story to continue.

Boris’s Thoughts: “All that strange wildlife, and not cats? Ridiculous. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for December

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 8
  • Total Unread Books: 271