The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje

A young boy—only eleven—is sent alone by ship from Colombo to London where he will join the mother he hasn't seen in four or five years. He is nominally supervised by a woman his uncle knows, but since she is in First Class he rarely sees her. For his meals he is seated at the Cat's Table, the one farthest away from the Captain's Table and clearly reserved for the least important passengers. There he meets two other boys his age, Ramadhin and Cassius, who will become his constant companions on the voyage, and a handful of peculiar adults: a botanist, a down-and-out pianist, a silent tailor, and a woman who keeps pigeons in the pockets of her jacket.

Another person at the Cat's Table is Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, a gentle man who lets the boys pester him for details about the structure of ships. He tells them of how in a month they could make a ship disappear, pulling apart walls, carefully gathering everything that could be reused and burning the remainder. He says, “'. . . 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 take that older life and you link it to a stranger.'”

Similarly, the boy, now grown, is dismantling the experience of this once-in-a-lifetime voyage, unpacking the past, discovering new meanings, linking it to the rest of his life. Although the narrator is named Michael and shares some biographical details with the author, Ondaatje says in an end note that this story is fiction, not a memoir.

This is a story that you can read lightly, chuckling over the boys' adventures and mourning their frayed innocence, or you can pay closer attention. The book is dense, as one person in my book club said, with motifs and themes that all tie together. There are secret wounds—literally: a scar on a belly, a weak heart—and impaired senses: a blind girl, a man who cannot speak. There are certain moments when a touch, perhaps on a shoulder in the moonlight, reveals everything. There are people who are controlled by others: the mysterious prisoner in chains, Michael's cousin Emily in thrall to her lover, a young girl subject to her father's needs. The three boys each feel the need to protect “others seemingly less secure than ourselves”.

Above all, or perhaps beneath all, lie the hidden things: the spy rumored to be on board incognito, the magician producing lost items with a flourish, the mysterious nighttime conversations the boys overhear. After a terrible storm, Michael says, “What we had witnessed was only what had been above the sea. Now something shook itself free and came into my mind. It was not only the things we could see that had no safety. There was the underneath.” Later Emily tells of a time when a wealthy American for whom she worked in Italy took her elbow and “walked me down the hall until we were in the grand Rotunda, where a sixty-foot tapestry hung. He lifted a corner and held it up so I could look at the underside, where the colors were suddenly brilliant and forceful. ‘This is where the power is, you see. Always. The underneath.'”

Ondaatje's books always reward close attention. This one, too, is a masterpiece worth reading and rereading. It is a Boy's Own adventure of knives and dogs and mischief, and at the same time a coming-of-age story. Memories are dismantled and reused; the mysterious motives and knotted hearts of adults are unwound; and the secret scars of childhood laid bare. Read it. Then read it again.

The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart, by Mathias Malzieu

This fantasy novel is the story of young Jack who was born on the coldest night of the year, so cold that his heart is frozen. To save his life, the midwife, Dr. Madeleine, who is also a mechanical genius and suspected witch, grafts on a cuckoo clock to act as his heart. The clock dismays would-be adoptive parents, so the orphaned Jack continues to live with Dr. Madeleine and her entourage in 1800's Edinburgh. Dr. Madeleine warns him that strong emotions may damage his fragile heart; above all, he must not fall in love.

But of course he does. On his tenth birthday he encounters Miss Acacia, a street singer with a glorious voice and poor vision. Despite her propensity for bumping into things, she too recognises the connection between them. However, the two children are separated, and the novel becomes Jack's quest to find Miss Acacia again. This quest sends him to school, over Dr. Madeleine's misgivings, where he encounters a bully who takes delight in torturing the small boy. Eventually he sets out across Europe for Andalusia where he believes Miss Acacia to be living. Along the way he encounters Méliès, a magician and clock-tender, who joins Jack. In Andalusia, he finds her performing at the Extraordinarium, a sort of ongoing carnival.

With such a whimsical start I had high hopes for this novel. I listened to the audio version, read by Jim Dale, my favorite reader, with his evocative voice and strong characterisations, so the book had everything going for it. However, I became bored rather quickly by the focus on Jack and his increasingly unattractive emotions. As his behavior deteriorated, I became fed up with him and wished for some other storylines. Malzieu has wonderfully inventive side characters, including Madeleine and Méliès, two prostitutes and a man who have also been the recipients of Madeleine's wizardry—Arthur plays When the Saints on his metallic spine—and the brusque owner of the Extraordinarium. I wish the author had made more use of these side characters, both for their intrinsic interest and to give some relief from Jack's complaints.

First published in French as La Mécanique du cœur (The Mechanic of the Heart), it has also seen light as an illustrated novel and a concept album, La Mécanique du cœur, by the French rock band, Dionysos—Mathias Malzieu is their lead singer—and is soon to be released as an animated feature film. Although it sounds as though it should be appropriate for YA or adults, the rather obvious sexual imagery makes it more of an adult fairy tale.

There are some lovely images and ingenious descriptions, as well as of course the marvelous core image of the clock-heart, but I found the book disappointing. Aside from my increasing dislike for Jack, the love story that propels the plot never seemed real to me, perhaps because Miss Acacia, described in Jack's first-person narration, is never presented as more than a pretty picture; we don't learn anything about her as a person. Although it may seem odd to say about what is, after all, a fairy tale, the ending seemed far-fetched to me—even in fantasies, I look for internal consistency—and somewhat clumsy. Yet the material is so promising! Perhaps it is better served by its incarnation as an album or illustrated novel. I will also look for the film, which is due to be released in October, 2013.

Wordsmith Studio, an Appreciation

I'm taking a break from talking about books this week to celebrate an anniversary. Last year at this time I participated in Robert Lee Brewer's Platform Challenge: How to Build (or Improve) Your Writer Platform in 30 Days. Each day in April 2012, he posted an assignment and explanation on his My Name Is Not Bob blog. I am a writer as well as a reader, and writers these days are told they must have the dreaded P-word. However, details of what it actually means to have a platform are pretty fuzzy, so Robert's challenge came at a good time for me.

Each day I and others pushed ourselves, sometimes far outside our comfort zone, to complete the assignment. In the comments section of each blog post, we documented not only our accomplishments, but also our questions and confusion and fears. In further comments we comforted each other and shared what we knew, always supplemented by Robert's encouraging and clarifying comments. Many of the tasks I'd already done—joining Facebook, starting a blog—while others I hadn't yet attempted. I learned a lot during that month, but what came afterwards really astounded me.

The group of us who came through the challenge continued to stick together, following each other on Facebook and Google+, connecting on LinkedIn and GoodReads, commenting on each other's blog posts, continuing the Twitter chats—all assignments from the Challenge originally that took on a life of their own. We decided to formalize the group, originally naming ourselves the Not-Bobbers and then—returning Robert's name to him—Wordsmith Studio. People created a Facebook page, a Google community and a website. We've continued to use these fora to stay in touch, ask and answer questions, celebrate successes, and commiserate with the inevitable rejections.

If I have a mission driving my various activities, it is to build community by bringing people together and finding common ground. Writing and reading are a compelling way to do that, sharing our stories, seeing the world through someone else's eyes. But I never expected a community like this! Before this year I would not have believed that a group of men and women who had never met in 3D (as one of my friends says) could form a community as tight as any I've been a part of.

Why does it work? Because of everyone's openness. In the original challenge, any competitive instinct was set aside as we helped each other untangle the technology and confront our doubts. We wrote openly in the comments to Robert's blog posts about the dread that comes with attempting new territory. Then we continued to write blogs and Facebook/Google+ posts about our struggles as writers.

The only reason it's continued to work, though, is because people volunteered to be part of the Steering Committee. People set up the fora mentioned above, as well as twice-weekly Twitter chats, a couple of virtual book clubs, and the beginnings of critique groups. This is one community that I had very little hand in creating, so I want to take this opportunity to thank all those volunteers who made it happen.

Members of the group have enjoyed tremendous successes this year, winning blog awards, getting published. I myself have a new collection of poetry, Terrarium, coming out in May 2013. I've been invited to speak about my memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother at festivals, bookstores, libraries, universities and book clubs. I've continued to lead memoir-writing workshops and will be teaching an extended, week-long version at Common Ground on the Hill in July 2013. I've also taken what I've learned about book promotion over the last few years and created a workshop which I've been presenting. So it's been a sensational year for all of us wordsmiths.

The good news is that Wordsmith Studio has opened to new members. You don't need to have participated in Robert's Platform Challenge to join. Check us out here.

Bloody Falls of the Coppermine, by McKay Jenkins

The book's full title, Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness and Murder in the Arctic Barren Lands, captured my attention as I was perusing the shelves after a reading at my local bookstore. Although the title seemed a bit lurid, I was pleased to find the book itself a well-written and -researched narrative of two Catholic priests undertaking a mission to convert a group of Eskimos, as they were then known. In 1913, when this journey took place, this particular group had met few white men, trappers mostly, and scraped a living in their harsh environment as previous generations had: gathering in large communities, sharing everything, migrating with the seasons.

One of the priests, Father Rouviére, had come north the previous year with a trapper who had agreed to guide him and three men who were investigating the rumor of copper deposits. His bishop had sent him on a race to convert the “heathen” to Catholicism before the Anglican missionaries got there. Father Rouviére's contacts with the native people were generally friendly, though limited by his inability to learn their language. He and Father LeRoux who joined him in 1913 were spectacularly unprepared for their journey to the north. They had no wilderness skills, having grown up in France's well-settled and gentle land. Unable to hunt and lacking appropriate clothing, they were forced to rely on the very people they hoped to convert for sustenance and support. Even though this additional strain on their meager resources represented a grave danger to their community, the people were hospitable and generous to the priests, at least at first.

Drawing on primary and secondary sources, Jenkins lays out and substantiates the shifting relationships between the priests and the people, between their different cultures and assumptions, between their languages. I especially enjoyed the details of the traditional way of life and how it had adapted to an environment where it seems inconceivable that anyone could survive. The people the priests set out to convert had no religion per se, though Jenkins describes their superstitions and use of shamans. They lived in the far north, migrating between Great Bear Lake and the mouth of the Coppermine where it empties into the western corner of Coronation Gulf, in the Barren Lands of the Northwest Territories.

The murder referred to in the title results in a trial, which gripped my attention just as much as did the account of the priests' encounter with a foreign culture. The questions raised by the trial rebound on all of us. Those of us who have sat on juries and been baffled sometimes by the logic behind some of the deliberations in the jury room will be interested in how the concept of a “jury of our peers” plays out here.

I have long been fascinated with hard places, desert sand and polar ice. I've read many of the books Jenkins refers to and am as fascinated as he with the interaction of place and people, “the relationships that human beings develop with the land on which they choose to live.” The blurbs inside say the book reads like a mystery novel. While there are mysteries, I would describe the book differently. Jenkins's measured tone and clear prose makes him a reliable narrator whom I felt I could trust to give me the story undistorted by prejudices and polemic. There may not be any car chases here, but the book is as compelling as any novel.

Note: Although we have read some of the same books and, according to the acknowledgements, apparently frequent the same coffeeshop, I am not acquainted with the author.

My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

This is not a memoir. Memoirs are nonfiction, and Jhabvala makes it clear that these stories are fictional. Each features a different cast of characters, different conflicts, different settings. As she says in her “Apologia”, “The central character—the ‘I' of each chapter—is myself, but the parents I have claimed are not, or hardly ever quite my own.” However, she does say that these stories are tales of a life she might have lived. “Every situation was one I could have been in myself, and sometimes, to some extent, was.”

It's an intriguing premise. Perhaps we all wonder what other lives we might have lived given a different decision casually made long ago. I'm reminded of the alternate paths the children follow when they go through the mirror in A Diamond in the Window and of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead where the two courtiers wonder when and whether they made a choice that thrust them into their current predicament. I, myself, have derived great entertainment from the Google Alert set up on my name, which enables me to follow the careers of a jazz singer, a professional hockey player, and someone in Yorkshire who competes in sheepdog trials.

In one sense, then, we can listen to the resonances between Jhabvala's stories to discover where they chime, teasing out the person who has sent out these messages to us. In another sense, though, every story written is a possible life. Writers imagine ourselves into our characters, imbuing them with some sliver of ourselves, or our possible selves.

It may be that these stories are a joke pulled on those earnest readers who pull apart novels looking for the author, who interpret fiction by way of the author's life. I sometimes do that, not on the first reading which is for pure enjoyment or the second which is for reading as a writer, but on the third or fourth because I'm curious as to how other writers conjure stories from all the bits and pieces of our lived lives. I also like to read a favorite author's entire oeuvre, not so much to hear the books in conversation with each other—though that may happen, just as poems change when placed next to each other in a collection—but to see the author's development as a writer.

The stories themselves bear up well under this burden of expectation. I enjoyed all of them, whether sad or happy. The first, aptly named “Life”, is narrated by an elderly woman who has returned to India. Rosemary, a name she never felt suited her, first ventured there while working on her PhD thesis about an Indian woman poet, in company with Somnath, a clerk she met in her native New York City. This is a story of family, her film-star mother Nina and sturdy father Otto, Otto's second wife Susie, Somnath's family in India. Rosemary struggles with the conflicting demands of family and desire; even when she is in “the remotest part of a remote province, trying to decipher the inscription on a Sufi poet's grave,” a phone call makes it through to the single phone in the village, located in the hut that serves as the post office, with a plea from Susie that she return immediately. Somnath's great gift to her is “that sudden leap of recognition—as when listening to poetry or music—that this is how life could be and maybe, somewhere else, really was.”

In “Gopis” Diane, a successful New York publicist, befriends young Lucia who is studying Indian dance over the fierce objections of her WASP parents in Connecticut. Lucia says that Indian dance is about “love in spite of, love in absence—all that Krishna and gopi stuff.” She wants her new friend to persuade her father to send Lucia to India, but then Diane's former lover, the larger-than-life Vijay arrives for a visit. A shopkeeper in New Delhi, Vijay also seems to be involved with “murky politics”, a past that catches up with him, reaching halfway round the world to Diane's apartment.

Other settings include London, a country estate outside New York City, and a remembered Germany. Many revolve around the unexpectedly persistent influence of someone from the past or the complicated relationships with parents and siblings. Jhabvala's prose is wonderfully clear and, as one would expect from the screenwriter of films such as Howard's End and A Room with a View, she builds drama effectively. From the first page I felt myself in the hands of a storyteller who knows what she is doing. She doesn't reveal too much; by the end of the book I had some sense of her preoccupations but not of the author's own life. I'm still intrigued by the idea of these stories that she says are “potentially autobiographical”.