Thursday, June 21, 2012

Vacation Reading

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje - Ondaatje publishes fiction so infrequently that I don't remember much of his last two novels Anil's Ghost and Divisadero except that I liked them. Once I started reading The Cat's Table I was home though, slipping into Ondaatje's episodic, immersive style and devouring this semi-autobiographical tale very quickly. I hate to make a movie comparison (though I don't think Ondaatje would mind) but The Cat's Table reminds me a bit of those early scenes in The Tree of Life shot from a young child's point of view. Michael, our narrator, is sailing from Sri Lanka to London in the 1950's on his own. He forms a gang of sorts with the unruly Cassius and gentle Ramadhin, and the three boys alternate making mischief with receiving half-understood life lessons from a group of misfit passengers they meet at the "Cat's Table" (farthest from the Captain's Table). The novel does coalesce into a plot of sorts as connections and agendas that the boys can only sense are played out, and it isn't until an epilogue of sorts set in the present that Michael can understand what it all meant. By then of course it's too late, the past has done its work. That sense of life molding us while we unwittingly carry on from day-to-day is precisely the feeling Ondaatje wants to get at. I very much liked The Cat's Table.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell - Vowell wants to know exactly how Hawaii got to be the way it did and what happened to native Hawaiian culture. (In other words, why were there so many white people in The Descendants?) In her even-handed at dryly funny way she finds that there's plenty of blame to go around. Missionaries from New England brought education, which led to a written language, but wanted to Americanize the Hawaiians. You may lose track of the chain of succession of lengthily named Hawaiian kings; Vowell praises those who broke with some of the more outlandish customs, like segregation by sex at mealtimes. Yet too much inbreeding and alcohol weakened Hawaiian royalty, and by the annexation of Hawaii in the 1890's (an action of dubious legality) the native culture was in no position to challenge Manifest Destiny. Vowell reports on a recent renaissance  in Hawaiian culture with enthusiasm but doesn't lose sight of her thesis: America was built on wanting more. If you're new to Vowell I'd recommend Assassination Vacation before moving onto her other historical works, but Unfamiliar Fishes is worth your time.

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