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jbradway

jbradway

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Cat's Table

The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje It's a four-star book with five stars. I'll explain in a minute.I'm still thinking on the Cat's Table. I've enjoyed Ondaatje's poetry more than his novels and this book seems to straddle those categories a bit. He writes beautifully on the visual and emotional fronts. He structures long works creatively and I'm still trying to decide how well this one works for me.The Cat's Table is, primarily, a story of a three-week voyage by ship, from Colombo to London. Its focus is on three unrelated and unsupervised boys and their interactions with fellow travelers, especially those assigned to their low-profile dinner table. It's a 1952 bit of exotica and bildungsroman with flashes into the future to see how these characters fare or have been effected by events along the voyage.I think the structure lessens the emotional impact a bit, but I'll keep thinking on it for a while. Sometimes a really excellent book will have characters that come back to the front of my mind over the course of years. I can almost imagine the ship and the lights of the Suez Canal at night coming back to me, but not the characters.So, five stars?If you are an author who wants to evoke a powerful emotional response, there are some easy paths to this: rape, torture, abuse of children or other innocents, messy divorces, cancer, etc. Some of these things are fairly common in our lives, some much less so. All can be used for shock value and as a foil for characters to be tested, to explain their growth or diminishing.As a reader, often but not exclusively, of what passes as serious literature (I want to read short lists for the Booker and Tournament of Books selections and Pulitzers and National Book awards) I want to see what an author can say about life without resorting to these easy obstacles. Being wiped out in a drug deal gone bad is not particularly enlightening. I am shocked but not improved in any way from the depiction of a brutal rape either from the victim's or the aggressor's point-of-view. What is particular bothersome is that these shortcuts are more frequently becoming the path toward critical acclaim and awards.So, in some categories of literature, I'm taking away a star or more for authors that require this little bit of shock value to propel their characters or add weight to their writing. Likewise, I'll add a star to authors that can get by without it. Ondaatje has written beautifully and thoughtfully about humanity enlarged by events and gets one rape-free star bonus point.