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A Notable Novel, “The Cat’s Table” by Michael Ondaatje

I’m continuing my annual trek through the American Library Association Notable Books List, having recently finished “The Cat’s Table” by Michael Ondaatje.

This novel takes place on a ship traveling between Sri Lanka and England in the early 1950’s. Its narrator, Michael, is eleven and traveling without supervision. He befriends two other young men on the ship and the three of them engage in the kinds of adventures one would expect–sneaking into the first class areas, filching food, sneaking a dog aboard.

The book’s title refers to the table in the ship’s dining room where the passengers with the lowest status were assigned. That is, of course, where one would expect to find the most interesting people–and Michael does.

About a third of the way through the book, I began to wonder where it was heading. At that point, it seemed much like a romp of a book, the mood overall light, a quirky cast of characters introduced in succession, with no sense of a narrative trajectory–no problem to solve.

And then Ondaatje introduces some evil and mystery. That dog that one of the boys sneaks aboard bites and kills a seriously ill passenger. A prisoner tries to mount an escape. Michael takes all of this in, only later figuring out how some of the pieces fit together.

At about the same point, the narrator moves away from the voyage to tell some of what happened after. He remains friends with one of his ship buddies and eventually marries that boy’s sister though the marriage doesn’t last. Decades after the voyage, he meets up with a cousin who had been aboard, a pretty young woman who at the time seemed to be involved in some mystery all her own. These time shifts continue until the novel ends with the ship’s arrival in England.

I sensed that the novel lost energy when it left the ship itself. There’s something about a ship story, a group of people confined together, that when written well becomes a delicious soup of humanity.

Each time that I read a book from the Notables list, I reflect on why it was chosen. In this case, Ondaatje is the master of elegant writing, of the effective turn of phrase. The narrator that he creates here strikes a perfect balance of a youngster’s point of view with an older man’s wisdom and regret. Reviewers often use the word “elegant” to describe Ondaatje’s writing–fine choice of words, observations that are spot on, and that sense of writing so well done that it calls no attention to itself. Applying such elegance to so quirky a group of characters as in “The Cat’s Table” is a lovely irony.

I’ll recommend this to readers who often choose more literary novels, seeking the qualities that Ondaatje weaves into this fine sea story.

A Notable Novel, “Say Her Name” by Francisco Goldman

Just this morning I finished Francisco Goldman’s “Say Her Name,” an autobiographical novel about the death of his young wife, the writer Aura Estrada. The book has won many accolades, and is included on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List.

The basic story is that Goldman was an established writer in his early 50s when he fell in love with and in 2005 married the emerging Mexican writer, Aura Estrada, who was in her mid 20s. Just short of their second anniversary, she died following a swimming accident on a beach in Mexico.

Goldman casts the story of their courtship and marriage, her death, and his life since then, in sections that move in time and in place. It has the sense of how one would expect such a story to be told, with one memory providing a nudge that reminds the author of something else that seems unrelated and yet highlights or foreshadows what will come. This backing and forthing continues until finally at the end of the book, Goldman describes what happened on the beach that day and just after.

I was interested in why Goldman chose to tell this story in a novel instead of as a memoir. What he said in an interview in the Paris review, “I have never liked the memoir form because I tend to think that memory fictionalizes anyway. Once you claim that you are writing a narrative purely from memory you are already in the realm of fiction.”

What a perfect book for book groups–there is the marital relationship made more interesting with the difference in their ages, the intense relationship between Aura and her mother, the striving of Aura as a writer with a dream of success, her balancing of Mexico and America, and of course the exploration of grief and loss. I doubt I’m the only reader who takes a little too much interest in what writers are like, and so book groups can add the added incentive of looking into these closets and cupboards.

I’m reflecting on my own internal score for this book–Goldman writes so well, well enough that this tribute to Aura is worthy of her, and I sensed that he was honest about himself, even when being honest meant revealing things that I didn’t much like. Thinking a little more about it, I see that this book grew on me in a way that I admire. I wasn’t instantly pulled in, but Goldman managed to make me want to know more, to continue to read about Aura, and to fathom and face his loss.

An Especially Good Nonfiction Notable–“Destiny of the Republic”

Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard is subtitled, “A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of A President.” In this American Library Association Notable book, Millard tells the story of President James Garfield, who was elected in 1880 and died in 1881.

Some readers may recall Millard as the author of “The River of Doubt” which was a One Book One Lincoln finalist a few years ago. That focused on an episode in the life of Theodore Roosevelt. She excels at writing history as story.

Millard opens this story with a prologue that introduces us right away to Charlies Guiteau. Guiteau survived a collision between two steamships in 1880. His own survival when others died led him to believe that he was saved for an important purpose, and when that belief combined with his mental illness, it twisted itself into his intention to kill President Garfield.

Chapter One picks up at the United States’ Centennial Exhibition in 1876, where James Garfield, a congressman, strolls the grounds with his family. Millard uses this event to introduce two key angles that will be highlighted when Garfield is shot–the work of Inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, and pioneering work regarding antiseptic procedures in surgery.

Millard spends enough time with Garfield’s remarkable rise from poverty to presidency to set the context of the time, and to tell the parallel story of Guiteau’s descent. The events following the shooting take up a good deal of the book, yet she doesn’t lose the narrative’s momentum.

I appreciated how much I learned in the course of this book. This takes several forms. The sense of the United States shortly after the Civil War, the personalities engaged in politics, the dirtiness of the politics, and the lack of cleanliness as it impacted Garfield, are staying with me.

This may not be the book for serious students of American history, but for readers who have a general interest in the time and who are unfamiliar with James Garfield, Millard unrolls a fine story. I’ll recommend it both to those with that interest in American history, and also to fiction readers who are willing to try nonfiction “when it reads like a story.”

A Notable Novel, “The Art of Fielding”

Here’s my short assessment of “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach. It’s a fine book with a fabulous first half. As a reader and evaluator, I’m so overwhelmed by the unfulfilled promise of that first half that I may be underestimating the second.

But to back up–this is a baseball novel combined with a coming-of-age story. Its focus is Henry Skrimshander, a remarkable shortstop. Henry’s fielding ability is witnessed by a catcher who is able to wangle Henry a place at Westish College. Henry’s magical talent transforms the team…until he loses it. And then his friends, his teammates, and all who have been introduced in this novel adjust their orbits around his misery.

Other aspects of the story include the life of a small liberal arts college, the first motions toward a gay relationship by the college president, the return of the president’s prodigal daughter, and the coaching brilliance of that catcher.

Harbach is a wonderful writer, combining a sense of Henry’s transcendent talent with the everyday details of college, of roommates, of part-time jobs. He takes an often wry approach, even as he describes scenes artfully, maybe wistfully. I thought to myself that he strikes the tone that I sense Jonathan Franzen going for, of telling a story with a clever voice, from a perch that allows the teller to know an awful lot, when the teller honestly likes the characters, warts and all.

I absolutely loved the first half of this book, with Harbach introducing characters in lovely order and a perfect pace. This part of the story seemed so clean, so lusciously straightforward and true. What happens after that just didn’t live up to the promise. The drama of sexual betrayal, the ongoing suspense of Henry’s inability to play, the awkward introduction of a counselor who untangles Henry’s issues, they seemed like too many condiments on a perfect hot dog.

I can’t bring myself to dislike “The Art of Fielding,” and I do think it’s fair to describe it overall as a good book, a fine baseball story. I’ll recommend this to fiction readers, to people who enjoy contemporary settings, to baseball fans, and certainly to book groups. It’s easy to see how it earned its place on this year’s Notable Books list.

From the Notables List, “Turn Right at Machu Picchu”

I just finished “Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time” by Mark Adams, one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List.

Adams alternates chapters of his own recent trek to Machu Picchu with chapters describing the travels of Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911.

Adams travels to Machu Picchu via the ancient Inca Road, using routes that allow him to see what Bingham saw. He includes himself very squarely in this story, offering many personal opinions, observations, and conversations with his guide and the Peruvians who manage the donkeys, food and gear. This works. As a travel writer, Adams achieves that delicate balance where his own personality enlivens the story with overpowering it.

There’s something about Machu Picchu that remains eternally interesting. Recent developments regarding the ownership of many Inca items that Hiram Bingham transported back to Yale have added an additional measure of interest to Bingham’s portion of the story.

Adams explores several theories about the function of Machu Picchu, describes well the mountainous area where it is, and draws connections among stories, geography, and personalities. He deepens his own experiences with deft study of others, including those who have always lived in the area, the early white explorers who sought the Lost City of the Incas, and the thousands who visit the site each year.

Although this is not a deep academic study, I’ll recommend it to people with an interest in this area. In particular, I will mention it to those who have visited or intend to visit Machu Picchu, to readers who enjoy travel books generally, and to fiction readers who will enjoy a nonfiction book of it’s “a good story.”