The CAT'S TABLE | Michael Ondaatje

Occasionally, good writing penetrates the walls we build around ourselves, The Cat's Tableopens the shutters and 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.

The Cat's Table (Vintage International)

IT'S FINE BY ME | Per Petterson

True, Lonely, and Uplifting

Rare is the author or his/her work that I can order sight unseen and know. Know that the book will be a permanent presence on my shelf of quality literature, revisited and reread often. Per Petterson's novels are among the rarest for me.

I promised myself that I would understate these observations about Petterson's third book, the novel, IT'S FINE BY ME (1992), but I've failed already.It's Fine By Me

With the exceptions for love and great ambition, restraint is a desirable quality in most things. Writing, in particular. Petterson's mastery of restraint shows in his spare use of adjectives, and his refusal to embellish any description of setting or action. He simply writes what is, what happens, period. It's up to us to figure out the why of it. Just like life. And he does this without affectation or apparent effort, which reinforces his credibility with the reader and simultaneously sets the stage for profound, moving and often tender human insight.

Audun Sletten is Petterson's 13-year old protagonist in IT'S FINE BY ME, a working-class teen who identifies with Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, and is annoyed by adult hypocrisies, and his sister's choice of her James Dean wannabe boyfriend. He has outgrown the rules of childhood and is experiencing the contradictions of adulthood as he strives to understand his emerging identity, which is being defined as he responds to the messes that parents, sisters, friends, strangers and co-workers create for themselves. The culture of adulthood is a strange and chaotic bazaar of public selves and private rules that his elders seem to have accommodated in their own failed personal dreams of freedom and success. In this world seen through Audun's adolescent senses, adulthood is life lived under a succession of truces in which the line between what might be and what is shifts and morphs like light under water.

Previous Reviews of Per Petterson's works:

IN THE WAKE 

OUT STEALING HORSES

A trained librarian, Petterson worked as a bookstore clerk, translator and literary critic before he became a full-time writer. He cites Knut Hamsun and Raymond Carver among his influences.

The KILL ARTIST | Daniel Silva

The restorer raised his magnifying visor and switched off the bank of fluorescent lights. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the murkiness of evening in the cathedral; then he inspected a tiny portion of the painting just below an arrow wound on the leg of Saint Stephen. ...

- The KILL ARTIST by Daniel Silva

So begins The KILL ARTIST (2000), Daniel Silva's fourth novel, the first in the Gabriel Allon series.

GABRIEL ALLON is back to the solitary life he requires, the life of the artist tending to great works of art injured in never-endingbook-kill-artist-lg wars of commerce, transcultural migrations, and time. He bandages the detritus of clumsy repairs, incompetent preservations and restorations, even overpaintings of classic works by the original artists in response to client patrons who could not bear others seeing his portraits of them. Allon finds meaning in peeling back layers of time, varnish, and the dust of timeless centuries. It is more rational and productive than his professional past of dark operations for the state of Israel, the up-close assassinations of ruthless terrorists, the cycle of personal vengeance that resulted in the death of his daughter, the damaging of his wife, the self-imposed exile from life, professional work, and any meaningful connections with another woman, let alone love.

He is alive in technical terms only. His heart beats. His mind turns. He eats, drinks, sleeps, sails, and restores great paintings. This is the life of Gabriel Allon.

Until he is called back to the service of his mentor, uncle, grandfather, boss, confessor, protector and tormentor, Ali Shamron, director of the Office. Gabriel is drawn back from his anonymous life as a recluse art restorer for one important mission, a secret sanction, the elimination of the terrorist Tariq before he can hurt Israel on the eve of its historic signing of a treaty with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

Silva's storytelling makes a contract with his reader in the first sentence and honors that contract through nearly 500 pages with hardly a false note, a rash edit, or errant verb.

Video: John Berger Conversation with Michael Ondaatje

Two important writers discuss story telling and the creative process in a conversation recorded courtesy of the Lannan Foundation. I have read, been inspired by, and re-read several of these writers' books. John Berger's To The Wedding and Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion and English Patient are particular favorites of mine. This conversation was recorded at John Berger's farm in Quincy, Mieussy, France, October 2002.  Enjoy...

 

IN THE WAKE | Per Petterson

When the Old Life is Gone

Per Petterson's novel of personal grief, guilt and redemption is palpably authentic as release, if not renewal.

Petterson's set-up is inventive - Arvid Jansen regains consciousness pressed against a bookstore's closed glass door - and his writing is masterful. He hews close to a minimalist style with just enough character bubbling through to reinforce our sense of the narrator as human, in pain, and shouldering on. Arvid is flawed, not very much of the good person most of us hope for ourselves, yet he possesses the strength of the genuine loner. He is not railing against God or others. He is just afloat and fighting the drift.

Disoriented and beside himself, Arvid is buffeted by flashes of sorrow. We discover that his parents and brother are dead, killed in a ferry fire that was nearly his own fate. He is estranged from his wife and daughters, one of whom recognizes her father's free fall and is showing signs of  the girl child mothering the grown man. Arvid navigates turbulent dark emotions, confronts the paralyzing losses, climbs back to his feet and takes the first courageous steps toward resumption of life. Not his former life, for that is utterly gone, but a life to be lived.

IN THE WAKE is the novel that Petterson wrote prior to his breakout bestseller, OUT STEALING HORSES, which is a more restrained and ultimately more timeless work.

 

Anil's Ghost | Michael Ondaatje

Nothing Civil About This War

This novel was published after the phenomenon that was THE ENGLISH PATIENT. It is more grounded in human tragedy than PATIENT, and hews more closely to the female protagonist's (Anil's) story than PATIENT's Hana.

Ondaatje's achievement here is capturing horrible truths in asides. It is in the actions of supporting characters that he makes his case for the best and worst aspects of the human experience.

In THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Kip the sapper lives and works at the edges of the novel's principal plot. Yet it is in his seemingly incongruent actions that he is so effective a presence. For example, he hoists Hana on a line into the high shadows of the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo so that she can glimpse the centuries-old frescoes. In doing so, he lifts her above the nightmare of Nazi occupation in WW-II Italy and transports her across time to the heights of mankind's artistic triumph.

In ANIL'S GHOST, we are dropped into the terror of Sri Lanka's civil war. There she is caught between three intractable forces: leftist and separatist insurrections and the government's ruthless repression. Here she collaborates with two brothers - one an archealogist and the other a doctor. In their world, abduction is to be expected, torture is a fact of life, and the aspirations of their professions - discovery, knowledge, compassion - are dark and threatening ideas. They are ultimately loyal to these values, these abstractions of light, shadow, and hope.

It is especially relevant reading now, when what appears to be nascient civil war threatens the Middle East from Tripoli to Tehran.

GHOST is deeply researched and written. It is a good addition to the literature of our time.

Anil's Ghost: A Novel

Related: Michael Ondaatje: Auteur, Author

The FAITHFUL SPY | Alex Berenson

Auditioning new thriller authors is a gamble. We develop a relationship with selected authors, their characters, plots, and settings. Investing time in a complex literary reading experience written by a new author entails a leap of faith. Yet risk can pay.  Discovering a talented author who possesses a wealth of experience and who has so much to share is satisfying. While I've enjoyed thrillers by Tom ClancyAnthony Hyde, Frederick ForsythJohn LeCarre, and Daniel Silva, I was ready for new material and a fresh narrator's voice. I decided to try Alex Berenson's writing. Berenson is a New York Times reporter who has covered stories ranging from the occupation of Iraq to the flooding of New Orleans to the financial crimes of Bernie Madoff. Reading his first novel, The FAITHFUL SPY (Jove paper 2008), looked like a good way to get acquainted.

The FAITHFUL SPY: Plot

John Wells is an American Central Intelligence Agency agent who, by all appearances, has gone over to the other side and is now a member of Al Qaeda. He has converted to Islam and is a devout Muslim. He has not been heard from in several years, yet the CIA takes note of occasional reports that a tall American matching Well's description has surfaced in the company of Al Qaeda fighters.The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson

John has earned the respect and trust of his fighters after years of sacrifice, living, fighting, and sacrificing as they do.  As the novel opens, he maneuvers his squad into an attack on American special forces in Afghanistan that he knows will devastate his team. All of his fellow fighters are killed by the Americans, and John 'surfaces,' revealing his identity complete with the code phrase that he has not used in many years, to notify Washington that he is still loyal to the CIA. From there, the plot moves to a planned attack in America, and his need to remain undercover to learn details from his secretive Al Qaeda handlers in the hopes of averting another disastrous attack on America.

In Langley, CIA administrators and managers distrust Wells. They don't buy his story.  He is a rogue. There is little the bureaucrats fear more than individual initiative. All except for his handler, Exley, who believes in him, yet must tread carefully to avoid being kicked out of the the agency and everything she has worked so hard to achieve. Wells remains caught between America's intelligence apparatus, law enforcement officials, and lethal Al Qaeda believers. He must operate effectively in both cultures and does so at great personal cost.

Ultimately, Wells confronts the Al Qaeda villain who drives a car bomb loaded with radioactive elements that will render several square miles of midtown Manhattan uninhabitable for a century.  The authorities who are hunting for Wells will certainly shoot first, and ask questions later.  It comes down to Wells against the fury of radical Islam on a street with no place to hide.  It will either be Wells or his Al Qaeda nemesis who survives, but not both...

The FAITHFUL SPY: Recommended. Berenson's sure voice, direct writing style and pacing kept me turning pages. I look forward to reading the next.

The Faithful Spy (John Wells, No. 1)

A MATCH TO THE HEART | Gretel Ehrlich

In 1991, Gretel Ehrlich was struck by lightning while walking her dogs on her Wyoming ranch.

Before electricity carved its blue path toward me, before the negative charge shot down from cloud to ground, before "streamers" jumped the positive charge back up from ground to cloud, before air expanded and contracted producing loud pressure pulses I could not hear because I was already dead, I had been walking.

A Match to the Heart, page 5

She regains consciousness and with her dogs manages to get to the house.   She is in shock, singed, disoriented, lame, plagued by furiously burning pains, her throat is paralyzed, and her nervous system is seared, broken and fragmented. Somehow she dials 911. So begins her journey from blinding light through years of shadows.

Hospitalized and severely debilitated, she begins a battle that will take more than two years for her to regain her health and a sense of confidence and autonomy. As compelling as being struck dead by lightning may be, it is Ehrlich's narrative of her return to life that is extraordinary.

As in her other work, Ehrlich explores existence from all angles and perspectives.  Even she, the victim, is not spared the Nature writer's intense probing, research and exploration in search of understanding.  She studies thunder, lightning, and storms and discovers comfort in their fierce science. She seeks out other victims of lightning strikes and finds many others who have experienced the indescribable pains that are invisible to medical specialists, impossible-to-explain personal transformations, and isolation due to society's ignorance.

As she did in THE SOLACE OF OPEN SPACES (1985), and ISLANDS, THE UNIVERSE, HOME (1991), Ehrlich generously shares her unblinking observations along her uneven path to understanding with us.

I heard her read from MATCH and speak at the Los Angeles Public Library in December 1994.  Her humility, commitment to nature, and passion for expressing the often inexpressible were moving.

A MATCH TO THE HEART, One Woman's Story of Being Struck by Lightning. Pantheon, New York, 1994.

 

Related Links

Gretel Ehrlich site

Gretel Ehrlich (Park Central)

OUT STEALING HORSES | Per Petterson

Alone, Not Lonely

Several Decembers ago, while walking up a side street in the Colorado Rockies, I experienced a sense of being transported across time to another life. It should have scared me. Yet I knew exactly where I was - the Silver Boom-era Victorian houses, the approaching winter storm’s metallic taste in the air – and knew to a certainty that I had not been there before in this life. I was in surroundings that felt like home, just not my then current home. This effect happened to me again when I read the first page of PER PETTERSON's novel OUT STEALING HORSES, which begins:

Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don’t know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest.  There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water.

That paragraph evokes sense memories that clarify and transport. Per Petterson has said that he worked extensively on the English translation with Anne Born and that he prefers the English text to his original Norwegian.  Reading this, it is possible to understand why.

We imagine other lives in the flickering cinema or while reading a good book.  This is the effect when Per Petterson’s narrator in HORSES, Trond Sander, includes us in his thoughts as he adjusts to life in the rural cottage to which he has retreated after the death of his wife and a career as an Oslo professional. We are drawn into his shrinking world and the occasional tricks of his memory as he shares past events with candid, unassuming, transparent detail. Trond is without artifice.  We like him immediately.  Even when he is not so accepting of himself, perhaps the more so because of his mild surprise at his own decay.

It is this contract of decent, at times self-deprecating truth-telling he establishes with us that enables some significant coincidences to pass into our accepting state of mind.  His meeting the former boyhood friend, Lars, half a century after life altering tragedy seems right in Trond’s contracting universe.  His daughter Ellen’s sudden reappearance after his abrupt escape to anonymity brings still more validation of his life’s choices and in Trond’s chosen time.  We trust that we will learn what we need to know. And we do.

Literary Northern Light

OUT STEALING HORSES is a book for writers.  We read, hope to occasionally glimpse a little of how he does it, perhaps detect a pattern, some clue to technique, yet Petterson’s style is organic, so thoroughly in tune with his mind that it is unlikely any of us can parse it successfully for its underlying machinery.  He may not even be aware of precisely how he accomplishes such precise emotional resonance.  One gets the sense that Per Petterson trusts himself to navigate the cross currents of the average life’s rapids, like when as a boy he discovers one of his father's secrets, he knows he should be troubled yet intuits that he should keep it to himself until he can determine its meaning.  When young Trond drops from a high branch to a horse’s back, he trusts that Zorro’s ghost will guide him to a suitably valiant flight on the mare’s back through the ancient Norwegian forest.  When instead his crotch meets the horse’s fence line of bone at the withers, he suffers the ignominy of busted balls and blinding, legendary pain, we wince and shift in our seat, relive our own first such catastrophe and invest a little more of ourselves in Trond’s story.

There is an intimate quality to Petterson’s writing here that brings Barry Lopez’s writing to mind. It is hard to imagine a more unexpected connection. Lopez, who is best known for his excellent non-fiction accounts that compete for impact with the best fiction, is a master of erudition, intimate detail, ethics and how the individual relates to him/herself. Petterson's writing is simultaneously understated and precise, a daring combination for fiction.

OUT STEALING HORSES won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007. I have added Per Petterson to my list of authors to watch and look forward to reading his other work.

Publisher's Blurb

OUT STEALING HORSES is the story of a man who has settled into a rustic cabin in an isolated part of eastern Norway to live the rest of his life with quiet deliberation. A meeting with his only neighbor, however, forces him to reflect on a fateful childhood summer. Petterson’s subtle prose and profound vision make OUT STEALING HORSES an unforgettable novel.

Graywolf Press

ABNA: One Way to Break Through

First prize in the 3rd Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) Contest for previously unpublished works is a publishing contract with Penguin and a $15,000 cash advance.  Almost any opportunity to get your work before interested readers, share a good story, gather some feedback, and connect with other writing professionals is good. ABNA is such an opportunity, yet its modest profile ensures that many writers will miss this chance to break through.  The contest's low profile is surprising – ABNA's sponsors are three of publishing's leaders: Amazon, Penguin Group (USA), and Publishers Weekly

Here's how the contest works: 

During the submission time window, ABNA accepts up 5,000 submissions in each of two categories: General Fiction and Young Adult. They specify 'up to 5,000' because ABNA closes submissions upon receiving 5,000 or after two weeks, whichever comes first. 

Initial Round: Amazon editors read 300-word pitches and select 1,000 from each category. 

Quarter-Finals: Expert Amazon reviewers read 3,000-5,000 word excerpts from entries and select 250 from each category. 

Semi-Finals: Publishers Weekly reviewers read and rate complete manuscripts, and select 50 from each category. 

Finals: Penguin editors evaluate the final 50 manuscripts in General Fiction, the final 50 in Young Adult, and select three finalists in each category. 

Amazon customer voting: Amazon customers have seven days to vote for their favorites in each category. 

Grand Prize Winners will be announced in Seattle on June 14, 2010.  Each will receive a publishing contract with Penguin, which includes a $15,000 advance. 

For every writer but the winner, the benefit is feedback.  Novel writing can be a solitary enterprise and feedback about work-in-progress can become the difference between good and great writing. 

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UPDATES

25 Feb 2010:  Initial Round - Pitches  

23 Mar 2010:   Quarter-Finals 

27 Apr 2010: Semi-Finals 

25 May 2010: Finalists 

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2009 ABNA Winner:  Bill Warrington's Last Chance by Jack King 

2008 ABNA Winner:  Fresh Kills by Bill Loehfelm