Sunday, January 29, 2012

Going to extremes in Jo Nesbo's The Leopard

Fire and ice. Lava and snow.  Love and hate. Mercy and revenge. From Norway to Hong Kong and the Congo. Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo takes us to extremes and the ends of the world in The Leopard. Once again weaving a theme – this time of extremes -- through a densely plotted police procedural, Nesbo creates a visually saturated, film-worthy landscape, full of grisly murders, shifty enemies and exotic locales.
Nesbo begins with a murder that is also a suicide – an ingenious scene where the victim kills herself by making the wrong choice to relieve pain so horrible that she unknowingly drowns in her own blood.  When a second body with the same wounds is found, a dilemma that will play out in the most personal of ways for  detective Harry Hole is set fully in play: when is pulling the plug – or the string as the case may be or aiding others in so doing – the merciful and right thing to do? Is it better to endure or relieve pain, even if relief means death?
A possibly connected third death of a minor official signals serial killer – and as anyone who’s read any Nesbo before knows Hole is the only cop in all of Norway smart enough and trained to catch such a criminal.
               First problem is he’s not in Norway any more. Harry Hole has hit bottom. His last skirmish with the Snowman in the previous book in the series has taken its toll. He’s living in the back alleys of Hong Kong amidst the opium dens, up to his ears in debt and without a passport, waylaid on his way to killing himself by jumping into a volcano in the Philippines. Overdramatic perhaps, but that’s the point and the Snowman did nearly kill those dearest to Hole: life love Rakel and her son Oleg.  Rakel has fled to places unknown. Like Rakel, Harry doesn’t want to be found.
 Investigative Crime Squad boss Gunnar Hagen has a different idea. He sends the beautiful detective Kaja Solness in pursuit of Hole.  Though her beauty, message and the money she comes with are not enough, she has a trump card: Hole’s father, Olav is very ill and in the hospital. Anyone who knows Harry knows he will do (almost) anything for those he loves. 
Second problem is Kripos, the Norwegian central agency that investigates murder, the same that raised its competitive hand in seeking the Snowman is at it again. They’ve got new rules and a new chief investigator, Michael Bellman, an ambitious cop who so resembles Hole’s old adversary Tom Waaler in previous books, that one wonders if Nesbo hasn’t just dusted him off, changed his name and a few details, and sent him back to work.  Bellman quickly moves to remove Hole from the investigation.
Hole pursues the crime anyway and quickly finds the connection between the victims, one that suggests more deaths are likely. Sure enough. The killer invents another, more tortured way to drown.
               Excessive gore is followed by extremes of nature – avalanches of snow and visits to volcanoes as well as trips to the Congo.  Hole eats up the travel budget and then asks for more funds. Even his champion, boss Gunnar Hagen’s eyes pop at the audacity of Hole’s budget request calling him “expletive deleted incredible.” Hole’s preposterousness is not limited to money. To the dismay of his partners, he visits the dark edges of society. He uses patients in mental institutions as consultants in his crime solving.
All the while, he punctuates his work with visits to his dying father – the father who tells Hole he acts out of love.

  Harry: “Of hatred, you mean.”

 Olav: “No of love. It’s the same currency. Everything starts with love. Hatred is just the other side of the coin.” 

The extremes share similarities. Olav, who is as different from Harry as night from day, also taught him as a child what to do if he was “buried in an avalanche and had constrictive pericarditis, a hardened sac around the heart that prevented it from expanding. An armoured heart.”   Harry Hole suffers from such a metaphorical condition.
Reading Nesbo is fun but not easy. The Leopard is big, excessively plotted, and complicated featuring a many stranded plot with multiple characters and landscapes.  I’ve found I have to keep track of even the most seemingly minor of characters and places, along with page numbers where their histories appear in order to backtrack when I need to.  Numerous motifs weave through the book: a bride and wedding are among those here.
Nesbo also builds and ebbs suspense; he is particularly fond of ending chapters in cliff hangers. He uses tricks even when he doesn’t have to: a letter mysteriously signed “C,” where C is revealed in the following chapter; a chapter that ends with a voice on a phone, a voice identified in the next chapter. He uses every trick of deflection he can think of and just keeps throwing red herrings at the reader. Outrageous at times for sure but it kept this reader turning pages as she seesawed through emotional ups and downs.
So much about The Leopard is over the top. This is not a quiet book that creeps up on you from behind (like a leopard), though the agent of the murders might be. Rather it strains full of thrills and chills, melodrama and sensationalism. So perhaps the greatest surprise is not the violence but a final merciful act that comes seemingly out of nowhere and yet looking back makes so much sense. As it is delivered here, “the quality of mercy is not strained.”
Readers who dislike this book may say it goes too far.
It does. But as  T. S. Eliot said in a different context, “Of course one can ‘go too far’ and except in directions in which we can go too far, there is no interest in going at all; and only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out just how far one can go.”
Both Harry Hole and Jo Nesbo take risks to find out just how far one can go.  As an avid Nesbo reader, I get to go there too -- from the comfortable safety of my couch.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fertilizer for my brain: Exercise

               Four years ago when I was in my neuroscience for laymen book phase, I read John Ratey's book Spark, and became an overnight zealot, proselytizing the book to family, friends and acquaintances, anyone who would listen – and a few who did not.
                       I still think this book should be on every educator’s shelf, given the first chapter which chronicles the changes exercise makes on students’ learning at a school system in Illinois. Increasingly studies by professionals in pediatrics and sport medicine and neuroscience also emphasize this point. Anyone who is interested in changing the body to change the mind could also find a place for this book.
               Ratey is clinical associate professor  of psychiatry at Harvard, a runner, and a heart -rate monitor devotee. He prescribes exercise the way pharmaceutical companies push pills  -- for everything from improving learning, to handling stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, addiction, hormonal fluctuations – and improving the way we age. While at one time or another, I’ve had the need for information on all of the above, as I venture into my 60s, aging gracefully is a chief concern.
               Together with co-author Eric Hagerman, Ratey’s science  writing is easy to follow and well documented. A handy glossary at the back helps with terms. But be forewarned: Ratey is so enthusiastic he goess on and on about the benefits of exercise.  For many readers this could have been a shorter book. A good way to approach it is to read the beginning and then only those chapters that apply to you. That’s probably enough.
               What I love about Spark is that it offers a way to change your brain without drugging it. Not only, Ratey promises, can you increase the number of synapses, those bare tree branches of axons and dendrites, the connections that wire together and fire together, but you can even grow new cells.
Here’s the good news:
                       “For the better part of the twentieth century, scientific dogma held that the brain was hardwired once fully developed in adolescence, meaning we’re born with all the neurons we’re going to get. We can reaarange sysnapes all we like, but we can only lose neurons. Certainly, we can speed up the decline, a point that your eighth-grade biology teacher may have made to scare you away from underage drinking. Now remember: alcohol kills brain cells, and they never grow back.
                       But guess what they do grow back ---- by the thousands.”

               If like me, the eighth grade you was more interested in the cute boy sitting next to you than the neurons in your head that would someday be dead, it’s time to get off the couch and grow some new neurons, a process called neurogenesis.
               Spark tells you how. The secret is something called Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor or BDNF – what Ratey calls Miracle-Gro for the brain. “Whereas neurotransmitters carry out signaling, neurotrophins such as BDNF build and maintain the cell circuitry – the infrastructure itself.”
Ratey describes how pools of BDNF work with other factors that push into the brain during exercise and promote both learning and stem-cell division. I won’t describe it here. If you’re interested, get the book.
                       In the final chapter Ratey tells you how to put the findings in this book into effect in your life.  The bad news (for me) is that interval training – in which you push yourself to the high intensity range for your heart for short bursts  seems to be the most effective in that the closer you get to your maximum, your brain unleashes human growth hormone – also dubbed the fountain of youth.  I tend to prefer my exercise slow, steady and meditative-- walking, swimming laps and practicing yoga.  So adding a little push to my workouts will, well, take some work.
               I’m not sure it’s in my nature to achieve what Ratey describes as the “best” program: aerobic exercise six days a week for 45 minutes to an hour:  4 longer program days at moderate intensity, 2 shorter program days at high intensity. Total six hours a week to feed the brain. But I intend to and can improve. 
Ratey says in this final chapter that he has not discussed non-aerobic exercise because the research was scanty at the time he was writing.  However, Spark was published in 2008 and the last few years have seen a flurry of research on the effects of all exercise – much of it on activities like yoga and Tai Chi.
This doesn’t mean that Spark is dated,  just that Ratey was ahead of the curve. Spark is so relevant it is now being issued in paperback and is available for pre-order at Amazon.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

In Rankin's "The Impossible Dead," the living don't cooperate either

Inspector Malcolm Fox might consider getting a life.  The Scottish detective is a teetotaler and turns down a woman’s advances. He doesn’t listen to cool jazz or hot rock bands. He doesn’t watch great films, and his idea of television is watching old American reruns. He eats microwave-ready meals.   When he’s not working, he’s visiting his ailing father in a care home and spatting with his unemployed sister.  He’s not even a goody-two shoes. He’s reformed, but struggling. He used to drink and has had a short, failed marriage and at least one one-night stand behind him. Briefly put, he’s an anti  antihero and a bit of a bore.
Except if Fox got a life, he might not be as good at what he does. He works as an inspector for the Complaints Department, the Scottish police division that is treated as the lowest of the low by their fellow police men; they investigate crooked cops.
After the successful Inspector Rebus stories, Tartan noir writer Ian Rankin has created this unusual hero.  The Impossible Dead is the second in the series, preceded by The Complaints.  By creating such a hero, Rankin shows off what he does best, creating captivating characters and dialogue. Rankin uncovers the intrigue of the ordinary.
Inspector Malcolm Fox, Sergeant Tony Kaye and the fledgling Constable Joe Naysmith are called to Fife for a seemingly insignificant mop- up operation – the flotsam of a recent conviction.  Detective Constable Paul Carter, a 15-year cop from a family of cops, has been found guilty of misconduct for seeking sexual favors. It’s the Fox team’s job to investigate the lesser charges of whether his fellow officers turned a blind eye, engaged in a cover-up, and possibly gave false testimony in Carter’s behalf.
The team arrives to interview detectives Haldane,  Michaelson and Scholes,  only to find they are otherwise engaged; two are out on call, the other on sick leave. Once they do get Scholes and later Haldane in an interrogation room, they are treated the way a 7th grade English class welcomes a substitute teacher. Both use familiar runarounds -- phony interruptions, defensive and evasive smart answers. Fox responds with the heard-it, seen-it all before imperturbability of the seasoned professional.  Still, the team gets nowhere.
The stonewalling leads Fox’s team to pursue other leads. Here, too, they meet resistance.  A primary witness Theresa Collins freaks, turning so hysterical that the officers flee the interview; Collins proves far more successful at unnerving the Fox team than the officers; additionally neighborhood hoodlums dump garbage on their car.
Paul Carter’s uncle, Alan Carter, the original complainant and a retired cop is more welcoming, but hardly more revealing, when Fox interviews him.  Avuncular to all but his nephew, the mystery deepens when Alan turns up dead in an apparent suicide.
Still the long, slow investigation seems to be going nowhere except to the sidelines, and those sidelines are where the investigation gets interesting.  A passing glance at material Alan Carter had been looking over from 1985 provides Fox with an investigative thread to follow.  A weapon that was supposed to be destroyed long ago re-emerges and a car that might have long since been junked turns up to reveal other old clues. Problem is Fox isn’t formally investigating Alan Carter’s death – but he’s way ahead of those who are.
Set against the backdrop of new blasts in the woodlands outside Lockerbie, a name the world associates with international terrorism after the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 there in December 1988, the plot stretches into the all-but-forgotten home-grown terrorism and social upheaval in Scotland in 1985.  At the time Scotland experienced its own nationalism shadowing what was going on in Ireland   with paramilitary organizations similar to the Irish Republican Army. Those formerly incendiary issues of domestic terrorism have cooled and become acceptable, even mainstream; some of their leaders now blend in as respectable citizens.
By inverting so many of the conventions of the hard-boiled police procedural, Rankin’s achievement rests on plain good writing, character development and plot. There’s a lot to briefly stop and admire.
 Language. Scottish colloquialisms anchor the dialogue to its world; phrases such as  “grassing up his mates,”  “threw a wobbly,” “keep your gob shut,” and “he was cack-handed” locate the characters.  But it isn’t just the local jargon that pleases me. Each time I read the word comprise, my editing knee jerks. Here it’s used in the active voice and correctly (not as a synonym for compose) every time. It warms my heart’s cockles to see that Rankin loves and knows how to use language.
Scene construction:  A subtle family moment occurs when Fox visits his father Mitch whose failing memory is a concern. It’s the son who doesn’t remember ever having been in Fife before and the father who shows a photograph and recalls all the details of a long ago day.
Layering of conflicts: Complicated dynamics work at the most intimate of levels.   Malcolm Fox can’t ever seem to say the right thing to his sister Jude.  Conflicts among family members of several characters are involved at the edges of so many of the intrigues.
The interactions of teams reveal the same kinds of frictions.  Among Fox and company it’s Tony Kaye who’s particularly good at teasing, giving the greenhorn Naysmith a hard time for his choice of clothes,  sticking  him with the bill, chores, lesser duties and poking away at Fox for his persistence.
Ultimately conflict is what Rankin  explores most skillfully; showing how we jostle and grate, irritate and anger, betray and terrorize within family, work  teams, professions, national politics and ultimately even world politics.
In Rankin’s The Impossible Dead, the dead may be impossible, but the living don’t cooperate very much either.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Draino for the arteries

             Oatmeal, flax seed, skim milk, walnuts, sardines. Yum. Yum.
               All of the above are cholesterol lowering foods – and I have nothing against any of them.
               Some of my best breakfasts include oatmeal, lightly salted with pools of butter melting into the folds of the steaming mound. I also like sardines – with my favorite olive bread slathered with oil.  I love walnuts.  Baked in Brownies made from scratch with real butter and lots of sugar.  I have long been willing to cut back on the fat in the milk I put in my coffee -- from whole to 2 percent.
               Oh, how I delude myself. 
               On my last visit to my doctor, my LDL cholesterol (aka the bad kind) was too high, I resolved to try to lower it with diet and exercise, and then retest my blood. I don’t have a problem with blood pressure or weight, but high bad cholesterol can put me at risk for heart attacks or stroke.
               I have a long six months ahead:  morning oatmeal with blueberries, but no butter. Sardines on Wasa crackers. Plain walnuts. No bread from the bakery. No Hersey bars with almonds from the dollar store.  I tossed out the flax seed in the cupboard – it was more than a year old and probably rancid, and I am buying more. I switched to skim milk. More salmon, (which I love) and sardines. More broccoli unadorned with sauce or margarine. More carrots and bananas.  More lentils, chick peas, black beans and leafy greens.
                How will I maintain this diet?  Try a little reverse visualization—negative as opposed to positive picturing.  This is how I imagine food in the blood stream: I eat something full of saturated fat and sugar. The goop goes right to the blood.  It’s yucky stuff, thick and creamy as warm caramel, sticky as deflated cotton candy.   It adheres to the vessel walls, starts to dry up but stays gluey just long enough to attract more goo and other bad stuff floating around in the stream. Pretty soon the vessel walls are as gross and tacky as the floor of a fraternity after homecoming. The gunk hardens like taffy, like shellac, coat after coat of yellowed hard marshmallow stuff all along a formerly sinuous circulation system.  That’s arterial plaque or atherosclerosis, and that’s what will happen if I don’t lower my LDL. Maybe it’s already happening.
               How can I get to it – to clean the mess out?  It’s all inside my body like the pipes inside the walls of our house. Where’s Ms. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus, full of janitors instead of kids, when I need her?
               Instead I’ll try Draino for arteries: Fiber and Fish oil.  Flax seed and fruits. Kale and Swiss chard. Oranges. Here’s how it works:  Pour in fiber.  Wait. Drink a lot of water and soon, like magic  – dissolving and scouring away at the vessel walls, flushing away any coagulating clogs of LDL cholesterol.
              Add a little Omega 3 fatty acids to soften and dissolve the lumps. Presto, chango; everything is flowing again. My LDL numbers sink; my HDL rise.
                Except this fantasy may be poppycock. If there is plaque in the arteries, it’s likely to stay that way unless really major life style changes are made.  But there’s even hope for that. The works of Dr. Dean Ornish suggest that prevention is realistic and reversal is possible. For less fantasy and more science Web MD  and Mayo Clinic health information  have lots of information on cholesterol and heart health.  Also this month’s Prevention magazine has a section titled “Make Yourself Heart-Attack Proof.”

Friday, January 13, 2012

Nesbo's The Snowman: Now you don’t see it; now you do

The Snow Man 

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.                             

                          ----- Wallace Stevens

Harry Hole must have a mind of winter.  The Norwegian detective looks at a scene with a blank mind. He seeks what patterns emerge from a landscape of evidence.
Like Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” Jo Nesbo’s “The Snowman” features a protagonist, who “beholds the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
               Well, behold may be too awe-filled a word for Hole and the several snowmen that populate Nesbo’s book. The snowmen are, it turns out, the signature of the serial killer police detective Hole pursues.  As the killer plays with his pursuers, he creates increasingly awful --  horrific  -- snowmen.
Even before the investigations begin, Nesbo casually sets motifs. Hole wakes and listens to a radio nature program discussion on the sex habits of Berhaus seals in the Bering Strait. The commenters compare the seal population to Norwegian society, which is not as monogamous as it appears. Fifteen to 20 percent of children have a different father from the one they think.
Before Hole leaves his apartment an iterant mold remover knocks on the door. He’s investigating Hole’s building, searching out sickening mold in the walls. Hole didn’t know anything was there.  But, he’s told:  It’s mold.  Nothing to smell. Nothing to see. You can’t see that it’s there, but it is.
The story begins: There’s nothing for the crime division to investigate – so they take on a missing persons case.   But this one’s odd. A woman has disappeared in the middle of the night leaving behind her young son and a new snowman facing the house. Hole tries to reassure the boy that the disappearance will probably amount to nothing, even as an anonymous letter and the snowman’s pink scarf tell him otherwise.  How many missing person reports are hidden statistics – murders unrecorded as such?
A second disappearance, followed by the discovery of a gruesome snowman confirms Hole’s hunch. Although Norway has no record of serial killers, Hole solved such a case in Australia and is something of a celebrity sleuth following an interview on Oslo talk show.   He’s also the only  Norwegian detective have taken a course with the FBI on catching serial killers, learning such useful techniques as speed cuffing. Is he seeing something that’s not there?
               Once others agree that it’s a serial killer case involving victims who are mothers of small children, Harry, together with Magnus Skarre from forensics, and a new female detective, Katrine Bratt, work together. Bratt, like Beate Lonn before her in Nemesis, has a hidden motive of her own.
Hole’s icy methodology is limited to his investigative technique. Hole, otherwise, has the heated passion of summer in matters of the heart and his obsession with solving crimes.
Rakel, his on-again, off-again love, is somewhat off in The Snowman; she’s found someone new, a doctor, who is everything Hole is not. Rakel still feels attracted to Hole, but she finds him too obsessed with his work, too motivated by revenge, too raised-middle-finger defiant. His anger, like the mold in his apartment, is making him sick and spreading into others’ lives as well.  The relationship, however, can’t be severed so easily. Her son, Oleg still thinks of Hole as Dad, and Harry fondly continues to nurture their relationship. Thus, on a personal level Hole will explore what it means to be a father, while paternity issues -- biological and otherwise -- become a driving theme in the investigation. 
If the reader applies Hole’s methodology to Nesbo’s latest book, she finds recurring patterns of structure, plot, theme and character from previous works.  Here are a few:
·        The book begins with a flashback as an anonymous young man sits in a car while his mother engages in a tryst. As in Redbreast, we are allowed to see and not see (or identify) the murderer.
·        The Snowman’s chapters are dated – reaching back in years and then into the present investigation, marking it by days.   Nesbo sets the novel’s clock by placing events against mentions of American presidencies, a nice technique for those of us who aren’t paying close attention to the chapter dates.
·        Nesbo uses neurological or physiological medical conditions, an increasingly common practice in  much popular culture from books to television and film ,  to his advantage.  In an earlier work partner Beate Lonn, had an unusual Fusiform gyrus and the ability to remember a face after she had seen it just once. (A current new TV CBS show “Unforgettable,” stars a female detective with a similar ability – though not limited to faces. I discovered from Wikipedia that show is based on  David A. Adler's Cam Jansen series and J. Robert Lennon’s  short story "The Rememberer.”) In The Snowman,  genetic and physiological oddities become extremely important to the plot.
·        Also, the novel shares some plot structure with Nemesis. The crime seems solved several times over.  At times, Hole seems to be the only one convinced that the killer hasn’t yet been found.
 Admittedly the tie-in with Stevens’ poem, “The Snow Man” is a genre stretch.  Nesbo’s fast-paced yet complex work leans more towards film than poetry. He has plotted a maze of murder with many dead-end turns and gory surprises at each of those ends.  It leads in its twisted way to a breath-taking, heart-pounding cinematic climax. The multiple twists, the brutal images, the obscure, grisly murder weapon, all seem chosen for maximum shock potential.
    I find myself glad that I am reading this book rather than watching the film it seems destined to become.  I would spend so much of a movie of The Snowman peeking through my hands, covering my eyes, trying to see and not see at the same time.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Ondaatje's story of a voyage comes in on cat's feet

Revelations in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table quietly creep up on both reader and story teller as Michael, the narrator, recalls a sea journey that shaped him.
He relates a 21-day voyage aboard the Oronsay he took when he was 11 years old from Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), to England. Michael Ondaatje took such a voyage in 1954, and acknowledges that the situation is autobiographical, but the incidents are not.
Narrator Michael, now a writer of some renown, had long remembered the journey as “placid.” It is, he says, when prompted by his children and seen through their eyes that he reconsiders it.
He reflects: “I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally with no knowledge of the act, into the future.”  

               It is at Table 76, the cat’s table, the dining table farthest away from the Captain’s table, the least privileged place, that Michael meets the two other “feral children” who will become his partners in mischief.  With the defiant, exuberant Cassius and the cautious, quiet Ramadhin, Michael scurries about the ship, invisible to officials.  Fellow adult diners at the table include Mr. Mazappa, a pianist who has “hit the skids” and speaks with colorful language;” Mr. Nevil, a retired ship’s dismantler;  Miss Lasqueti, a spinsterish woman with real pigeons in her coat; Mr. Daniels, who is transporting a botanical garden, and Mr. Gunesekera, a silent tailor. 
Other adults who influence include an aunt in first class who trades tidbits of gossip over tea, a teacher who shares his love for books and the smells of home, a baron and most influential, a cousin, the free-spirited Emily de Saram, who teeters much more closely and dangerously on the brink of the adult world – at age 17 than Michael. Emily gets mixed up with a traveling troupe of acrobarts, street performers and an illusionist.
The preteen boys quickly learn the lay of the ship, their “castle” comprising seven levels that include first class,  the deck, the engine room, a section where chickens are kept, another where fish are prepared,  and  the hold where an indoor garden full of exotic  and poisonous plants grow. Deep in the hold there’s a mural of nude women and even a jail complete with a prisoner, who is taken in chains for a deck walk each night. No corner – except the captain’s bathroom – seems impenetrable by the boys. Like small rodents, they nest during the day in a turbine room and hide from and spy on the adults from the lifeboats. They even learn the course of the air duct work and watch the ballroom from struts in a false ceiling.
“I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius, and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.”
Beginning with pilfering food from first class, swimming at odd hours in whatever pools they please, and smoking twigs from a cane chair, the three grow ever more daring in their ventures into the forbidden corners of the adult world -- a world where there are predators and those who save children from becoming prey.
As the voyage progresses it becomes more than a passage through the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea finally to England. More than an exploration of the ship. More than a meeting with several interesting adults including those at the cat’s table.  More than a young boy’s adventure story.
It becomes a journey fraught with mischief, mysteries, curses, perils, thievery, Houdini-like possibilities, hidden identities, near death and death.  Along the way, the story told becomes Ondaate’s portrait of a writer as a young man and what follows:  the movement of a heart from innocence to experience.
               The reader discovers that world the way the child does, absorbing its sights, sounds and smells.  Michael learns by listening, observing and dabbling in forbidden substances. He records random snippets of overheard conversations in a child’s examination book.
Once through the Suez the children have “eyes open,” and the narrative changes, veering into the future and a period in London where Michael rekindles some friendships. Then it’s back to the ship and off again into consequences felt in young adulthood and a letter from Miss Lasqueti that layers on more information about what occurred on board.
               Just as childhood seems one endless carefree day after another and time speeds up as one ages, the novel picks up its pace. The final 50 pages fly with intrique, mystery and the letter from Miss Lasqueti that changes the way we view everything.
There’s a moment when the now mature writer, whose current life details we learn almost nothing about, reflects on art. The chapter Miss Lasqueti: A 2nd Portrait begins:
"Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or look down on them. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion many would not."
This principle guides writer Ondaatje, narrator Michael and informs the reader about how to approach Ondaatje’s work of art.   The second look at Miss Lasqueti reveals a much more complex and central character in the lives of all the children. So too, The Cat’s Table is best read twice.  I read it once in innocence, soaking in its sensory impressions and the second time in reflection, knowing what was going to happen, piecing the hitherto random pieces together. Even as I write a new revelation pounces.   I suddenly connect to a small but beautiful discussion of Madonnas in the book. My second read shares a feeling mentioned there.
The Cat’s Table is a book that lingers, that haunts. I wake in the middle of the night and it’s there and I’m wondering why Mr. Mazappa debarked the ship when he did?  Why did Miss Lasqueti so abruptly change the direction of an awkward conversation?
I don’t know, but imagine what might have happened, who might have been the responsible for Mazappa’s departure. I invent an answer.  Michael does this too late in the book when he reveals to an older Emily a possible and much more hopeful version of the worst event of the voyage.  This event also impacts Cassius, and it is for him the narrator pens the tale of the voyage. And calls it …..The Cat’s Table.
What a rare a wondrous reading experience!


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Resolutions: Cultivate heart, draino veins, fertilize brain

I love beginnings –  the empty white pages of September notebooks, the blank blocks of January calendars, even 40 days and 40 nights of Lenten not doing something.
I like intention setting, resolution making, spring cleaning and a little bit of self discipline. I’m not so good with charts, check lists or sticking to a routine.  It isn’t so much that I give up. I rebel, grow bored and get diverted. Process is more interesting than product; big picture trumps the details.
So over the years I have found a way to fudge resolutions to fit my patterns – one that allows me to find wiggle room, to begin over and over again and the best of all to delay evaluation, endings and abandonment. I don’t start with a list. I choose a theme. Rather than trying to do – or not do – several things every day, I pick a direction. What, I ask, am I moving towards? What do I want to cultivate?
One year, during the coldest, shortest days of December, I decided I wanted to “lighten up.”  I was, I decided, too dark, too serious, too flabby and living with too much stuff. That year proved easy to comply with the direction I had chosen. Mother Nature helped: Spring came.
Another year, it was to get out of my head and into my body.  Sub idea: Already practicing yoga, I wanted to take my practice deeper.  I signed up for the first yoga weekend workshop at a studio. It turned out  not to be a physical practice but rather two days of lecture and demonstration for yoga teachers by a noted body worker –  all anatomy instruction way over my head --  not what I had in mind at all. But it did lead me years later to become a yoga teacher with a renewed interest in anatomy.
Often I am not sure what the theme will mean for me. To pick it and let it percolate is sufficient.  This year is like that with an exception.  My first theme for the year is to nurture my heart. Visit my grandchildren and friends more often, read, write on my blog more—and here’s where it gets specific and tricky --  lower my LDL cholesterol.  I am at lower end of normal on the BMI index for body fat, and I think I exercise enough and eat moderately well –  working in lentils, salmon, walnuts and whole grains. But apparently when it comes to my diet, thinking and direction aren’t enough – particularly if you have a sweet tooth and a cheese tooth that cheat.
               I really can’t leave this open-ended.
                So in addition to cultivating my heart, I resolve to find a way to Draino my circulatory system and fertilize my brain (more on this in later posts) in the coming year.  Simply put, I end up with two of the resolutions that many others are making without all the thematic nonsense. Eat better. Exercise more. I give myself six months to lower my numbers. June blood test to follow. 

Here’s a link to the best list of resolutions I’ve read: Woody Guthrie in 1942:

Happy New Year and Dream Good