Monday, December 17, 2012

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

For this blog post, I’m going to try a little something different…I will not be providing a rating score for the latest novel I read (you’re shocked, I know!!). My reasoning behind this decision is my own personal inability to award or deduct points with any accuracy in this specific circumstance.

(Let me explain…)

About a year ago, I joined the Evening Book Club at my local library, and I have been attending meetings on and off (depending on my work schedule) throughout the year. The novels that the Book Club reads are chosen arbitrarily by a librarian and discussed once a month in a seminar-like setting. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje was the most recent Book Club novel and was the cause of much discord and controversy within the group discussion. Michael Ondaatje is both a novelist and a poet, and is the author of the best selling novel, The English Patient (which was also adapted into a film). In The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje highlights the three-week sea voyage of an eleven-year-old boy named Michael from Colombo, Sri Lanka to England. Although the novel is fictitious, it is not hard to imagine that parallels exist between the narrator and the author, who is also a Sri Lankan native that immigrated to England in childhood.

Essentially, The Cat’s Table is a coming of age story. Within the novel, the narrator details his adventures with his two friends, Ramadhin and Cassius, ranging from petty theft to interactions with a variety of characters that occupy the “adult world” on the boat. The Cat’s Table frequently vacillates between the past and the present, allowing the audience to understand how a three-week journey to England has impacted and affected nearly every aspect of life for the narrator, Michael.

I enjoyed this novel, but did not love it. For me, it was a fast and easy read; and I would most likely be recommending it on this blog were it not for the comments of my other “book clubbers.” I was very shocked to walk into a book club discussion only to discover that I was the ONLY person in the room who enjoyed reading The Cat’s Table. (Mind you, the average age of every member in the Book Club, excluding myself, is well above 70…) Comments from my library book buddies ran the gamut from lukewarm sentiments to complete animosity. A few drew a parallel between reading The Cat’s Table and a homework assignment, and a couple refused to keep reading before they even reached the halfway mark (…tough crowd!).

The only thing that was agreed upon during the Evening Book Club discussion was Michael Ondaatje’s marvelous writing style. One woman described Ondaatje’s prose as poetic, and I most certainly agree. Oftentimes, the alternation between the past and the present narration reminded me of the ebb and flow of the ocean, and the constant swaying of a boat. The writing was moving, profound and authentic without veering into the land of pretentious. For example, early on in the novel, Michael introduces the audience to Mr. Nevil, a former ship dismantler on the boat leaving Colombo; Michael describes: “Now he was sitting with me, remembering the harbours he had inhabited at one time or another, rolling a piece of blue chalk in his fingers, suddenly meditative. It was, he murmured, a dangerous profession, of course. And it was painful to realize that nothing was permanent, not even an ocean liner…He had been there to help dismantle the Normandie- ‘the most beautiful ship ever built’- as it lay charred and half drowned in the Hudson River in America. ‘But somehow even that was beautiful…because in a breaker’s yard you discover anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or a shovel blade. You can take that older life and you link it to a stranger.’” (72) This passage in particular is not just beautiful in sentiment, but is especially meaningful within the context of the novel. Michael, on a journey to a new life, much like a dismantled ship, must take the pieces and experiences of his childhood and mesh them together with his newfound adulthood in order to create and define himself in a new environment.

 The two biggest sources of controversy within our book club discussion were the ending of the novel (which I refuse to spoil in this blog!) and the narration. Many negative comments were made about the composition of The Cat’s Table. The entirety of the “book clubbers” vented their frustration at the open-endedness of a few of the chapters as well as, Michael’s scattered observations while on the boat. In many circumstances throughout the novel, the audience is only privy to snippets and bits of character portrayals, and pieces of action. In this way, I believe that Ondaatje provides a realistic perspective of life through the eyes of an eleven-year-old narrator. At the age of eleven, Michael only mentions what is interesting to him at the moment, and never the full picture. Rather than seeing this as an “annoyance” to overcome when reading, I think that this stylistic approach demonstrates Ondaatje’s skillful writing ability.


Get out there and read this book! Comment below afterwards, and tell me how you would rate it!!

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

            I just recently began a foray into the wonderful world of classics. Although I am an avid reader (and a former English major), I must admit that I haven’t read a vast majority of classic literature (among that list: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, the Count of Monte Cristo…boy, does the list go on!). In an attempt to be a more well rounded reader (& book lover in general), I picked up a “classic” that has been on my “to-read” list for some time now: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
I found my copy of Wuthering Heights in a precariously tipped pile of long forgotten books in a corner of my basement. With a torn cover and yellowing pages, my copy heightened my reading experience (it’s far more romantic to read a classic when the novel has character!). I am a firm believer in the fact that a book has not only the ability to stay with a reader and leave an imprint on their soul, but the reader also leaves a part of themselves among the pages, hidden in the words and phrases that affected them the most. This novel certainly tops my list of stories that have fostered this type of internal reciprocity in my life; overall, Wuthering Heights had a strong impact on me, and pulled on my heartstrings across the centuries.

To be completely honest however, when I first cracked open this novel, I wasn’t immediately hooked (shocking, after the great review I’m giving it, I know). I trudged through at least four chapters (until around page 40 in my edition) before I honestly felt compelled to keep reading for more reasons than creating a (spectacular!) blog post. I fully and wholeheartedly attribute my renewed interest in Emily Bronte’s writing to the introduction of the background story of Heathcliff. (For those of you who are unaware, Heathcliff is the ultimate swoon-worthy bad boy who you hate to love, but love nonetheless). By far, he was the most fascinating and profound character in Wuthering Heights for several reasons: 1. Heathcliff’s Unknown Origin (Is he really an orphan who Mr. Earnshaw discovered and took mercy on, or is he Mr. Earnshaw’s illegitimate son? What happened in his life leading up to his entrance at Wuthering Heights?) 2. The Concept of Nature vs. Nurture (Heathcliff’s entire storyline raises the question of whether his thoughts and actions are the result of his environment and experiences or his inherited characteristics) 3. Heathcliff’s Fluctuation Between Extremes (Heathcliff appears inhuman as a result of his anger and malignancy one minute, yet in the next, he is exposed as vulnerable and heartbreakingly weak in his love for Catherine) 4. His full name (first and last) is Heathcliff (just cool and mysterious…enough said)

It’s true: at times I hated him, and at times I loved him, but there is no way NOT to be drawn into the world of Heathcliff; he shapes and makes Wuthering Heights in every way. In fact, Heathcliff uttered the vast majority of my favorite lines within Wuthering Heights. I’m including a few Heathcliff conversational snippets below that I believe highlight his palpable grief at losing the love of his life, Catherine:

“And I pray one prayer- I repeat it till my tongue stiffens- Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you- haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe- I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always- take any form- drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul.” (163-164)

“What is not connected with her to me? And what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree- filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object, by day I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men, and women- my own features mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!” (307)

There are a myriad of heartfelt and heart wrenching dialogues within this novel that drew me in and captivated my attention (I dare you to pick up this novel and not be emotionally moved). At its heart, Wuthering Heights is a novel, which chronicles the thwarted love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, and the ways, in which their lives intertwine, collide and change based upon their interactions. There is no denying that Emily Bronte is a skilled writer with the capacity to capture raw human emotion. She has utilized a framed narrative technique effectively in order to create a literary work of art that highlights a plethora of themes including love, death, revenge, and familial tensions and tragedies.

The story is told by Ellen “Nelly” Dean, a housekeeper and nurse who is intimately acquainted with each character. Nelly takes it upon herself to regale Mr. Lockwood, a new tenant, with the history of Heathcliff and the Earnshaws at Wuthering Heights (and also Thrushcross Grange).  Nelly is an unreliable narrator who appears self-righteous and slightly controlling, but ultimately harmless. However, my initial impression of Nelly, changed after reading an interesting article, entitled “The Villain in Wuthering Heights,” (which can be read at JSTOR). In the article, the author James Hafley details a compelling argument that identifies Nelly as the villain of Wuthering Heights. Villain or not?...Read the book and the article, and judge for yourself!

The only part of this novel that really irked me was Joseph’s dialogue. I know that Emily Bronte was creating a character that was believable, but boy, was he hard to understand!!  Also, I was a little surprised at the ending of the Wuthering Heights. I do not feel as if Heathcliff or Lockwood experienced a moment of revelation or insight. Heathcliff remains self-centered and vindictive until the end (with more than a dash of crazy). Lockwood on the other hand, after hearing the entirety of Heathcliff and Catherine’s story, declares presumptuously on the very last page of the novel: “My walk home was lengthened by a diversion in the direction of the kirk…I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next to the moor; the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonized by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare. I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” For me, this “happy ending” that Lockwood portrays, over-romanticizes and ignores the truth at the heart of Nelly’s story. It is nearly impossible to imagine Edgar, Catherine and Heathcliff resting in eternal peace side by side; their intertwining lives were anything but peaceful on earth! It is through this last paragraph that I find undeniable evidence to support my assertion that Lockwood, an unreliable narrator to the end, learned nothing from Nelly’s story.

P.S. This is an excellent novel to read if you are intent on increasing your vocabulary (SATs or GREs anyone!?).  Words like: lachrymose, propitiate, cogitation, obviate, ague, salubrious, laconic, carrion, inveterate and elysium  (I could go on!) fill the pages of Wuthering Heights.

Total Points Awarded:

Point Breakdown 101:

Category 1: Theme
A. Consistent and clear theme(s)
B. Fully developed and explored theme(s)
                -Tie into plot and character development
C. Thought invoking theme(s)

                Total Points Received in this Category: 3
Category 2: Characters
A. Characters are unique
B. Characters are animated and relatable (3 dimensional)
C. Characters possess human characteristics and depth
D. Character learns something about self or world; Experiences a moment of clarity/ revelation
E. Characters seek to enhance plot and themes

                Total Points Received in this Category: 4
                ***Points Lost: Did not meet requirement D

Category 3: Plot
A. Beginning, middle and end (although not necessarily in that order)
                -Organized structure (interrelation of all parts of a story to make a whole; completeness)
B. Cohesive, thoughtful design to story telling
C. Meaningful, significant purpose (what aim to reveal, criticize, or showcase)
                -Clarity, thoughtfulness and relevance of detail to enhance purpose
D. Presence of a struggle /conflict/ trial/ adversity
E. Interesting/ attention holding
F. Satisfying Conclusion
                -Brings together Plot, Theme, Character in a succinct and satisfactory manner
Total Points Received in this Category: 6

Category 4: Style
A. Writing style is accessible to readers (not elevated language)
B. Style accurately communicates themes and enhances character representations
C. Contains consistency in expression, execution and design of ideas
D. Illuminates rather than obscures basic human truths
E. Effectively helps to create a complete reality
F. Effectively communicates human emotion with unique and powerful language

Total Points Received in this Category: 6

Caitlin’s Overall Opinion:
            Wuthering Heights is indubitably timeless: Read. This. Book. It’s a classic for a reason!

(If you are eager for more, try: H: The Story of Heathcliff's Journey Back to Wuthering Heights by Lin Haire-Sargeant or Return to Wuthering Heights by Anna L'Estrange)