THE CAT'S TABLE | Michael Ondaatje

Occasionally, writing penetrates the walls we build around ourselves, opens the windows to let sunlight in, and reminds us of who we are, what events shaped us, and hints how we got to this particular place. Michael Ondaatje’s writing does this for me.

Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence.

This truth, a defining presence in Ondaatje’s writings, is a powerful current in the flow of this novel. The Cat’s Table is understated and life-affirming, with a cast of characters that capture a lifetime of experiences during several weeks at sea.


Quince Tree Press Edition - 1980

J.L. Carr captures a moment in time in England’s rural north.  The narrator is shell-shocked veteran, Tom Birkin, who tells of his weeks in Oxgodby in 1920 to restore a painting in the local church.  The Pastor is a bitter and misunderstood man; his wife is a caged beauty.  In a field nearby, another veteran, Charles Moon, digs for the bones of a 500 year-old victim of this village’s ancestors.  Tom’s summer in the almost surreal Oxgodby is the tale of restoration of wounded souls, how the answers we seek are so often within our reach, and crafted in English that is a delight to read and re-read.  I was reluctant to put this small book down.

J.L. Carr’s A Month In The Country is a quiet masterwork.

Booker Prize shortlist in 1980.

Note: This edition of the novel can be difficult to find.  First published in England in 1980, it has appeared in various small press editions since that time.  I recommend the illustrated Quince Tree Press edition.


GREAT HEART | Davidson & Rugge

GREAT HEART | Davidson & Rugge

It’s rare to return to a book a decade after reading it and find that it has grown, or more accurately, it has kept pace with my own evolution as a reader.  I am a more critical reader now, probably due to the flight of years. There are ever more books to read, yet less time in an increasingly busy chain of days.  Eleven years after reading GREAT HEART – The History of a Labrador Adventure I find I am once again transported by the story of Mina Hubbard’s fierce search for the truth about her husband’s death in Labrador’s unforgiving wilds.

I wrote an anonymous review of the book on Amazon in November, 1999, and upon returning last evening to see how the book is doing I discovered that my review is featured as the most helpful ‘positive’ review.  While I appreciate that other readers rated my comments as helpful, I was disappointed that other readers hadn’t long since eclipsed my own comments in support of this good book.

Here is what I said:

Using Leon and Mina Hubbard’s diaries, as well s those of their guides, Dillon Wallace and George Elson (great character!), Davidson and Rugge reconstruct the extraordinary story of a woman’s search for the truth behind her husband’s death in 1903.  They flesh out the facts, give form to the unspoken fears and desires hidden between the lines of desperate journal entries, and then skillfully breathe life into the tragic events.  A powerful docunovel in a class all its own.  Don’t miss it.

Others have been compelled by Great Heart. In 2000, author and freelance journalist, Alexandra J. Pratt attempted to retrace Mina Hubbard’s 1905  560-mile route by canoe through the sub-Arctic of  Canada’s Labrador, but a century of forest overgrowth defeated her team’s effort.  In 2002, Pratt published Lost Lands, Forgotten Stories, A Woman’s Journey into the Heart of Labrador.  I look forward to reading Ms. Pratt’s take on this story.


Dramatic Structure | Aristotle

Just reviewing my notes about structure written when I was halfway through my third novel (as yet unpublished). Aristotle… good material.

Classical Unities

1. Single Place

Aristotle called this Unity of Place:  he recommended that no play should cover more than one physical space; and definitely should not get into gimmicks like compressing geography or representing more than one space on the stage.

2. Single Action, Objective, Challenge

Aristotle called this Unity of Action: he recommended that the story (play) have one main action, with few or no subplots.  Can you imagine a primetime hourlong with only one plot?  Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, comes to mind – two men, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for Godot by a tree along a deserted country road.  A few sitcoms have attempted it (i.e., Mad About You in which Paul and Jamie wait by the bedroom door for the baby to fall asleep).

3. Brief Time (a.k.a. ‘time lock’)

Finally, Aristotle suggested – you guessed it, in his Unity of Time – that no play should cover events representing more than 24 hours of time. Hmmm… so a season of 24 actually represents the Aristotelian ideal, right?  Each episode follows Jack through exactly one hour of his challenging existence.  That’s a time lock.  Yet, at the risk of nitpicking, while he follows one overarching action, he is all over the world trying to achieve it.  My guess is that Aristotle wouldn’t judge 24 too harshly.  The structure works.

Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls is another example of the essential power of Aristotle’s Classical Unities:

1. Strategically important BRIDGE in war-torn Spain
2. Jordan must DESTROY the bridge
3. He has 3 days in which to achieve his objective… 72 hours

Apply that to just about any story and you see the pattern. There IS method!  How many times must we rediscover what we know?