Cynthia's Reviews > The Cat's Table

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje
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Oct 20, 11

bookshelves: books-read-in-2011
Read from September 22 to 25, 2011

A Trip through the Liminal

It's hard to imagine today but in 1953 Michael, who was eleven years old, traveled by ship from his native Sri Lanka to England with virtually no adult supervision. He had an `aunt' traveling in first class who chatted with him a few times throughout the trip when they happened to meet on deck but other than that he was on his own. There was a vast distance between steerage, where Michael berthed, and first class. In steerage he mixed with the crew, an odd assortment of academics and even some criminals. Anything could happen in these nether regions. The worst that could happen in first class was gossip over cards. Michael immediately bonded with two other `tween boys, Ramadhin and Cassius, when they're seated together at the cat's table. The cat's table was the designation for the lowliest table set furthest away from the glitter of the captain's seating. Michael's new friends were as unfettered as he was and they roamed the boat freely spying on their fellow passengers and watching the ever changing and amazing scenery pass by. There was a criminal in chains on board whose guards led him out during the late evening hours. The boys hid in lifeboats and watched as he walked in chains around the deck. They speculated what horrible crime he'd committed since no one seemed to know any facts. Michael shortly cavorted with an onboard thief who enlisted him to help steal. Emily, Michael's beautiful and wild seventeen year old and much admired cousin, puts an end to this when she realizes what he's doing. In short the boys have the adventure of their young lives.

On landing in England and reuniting with his mother, Michael quickly merges into his new life but stays in touch with Cassius. Most of "Cat's Table" is written from the perspective of an eleven year old but there are sections written from Michael's adult self is looking back on a great adventure and reevaluating its meaning. What appeared to be truth to an eleven year old takes on different meanings through the experience of middle age. His two friends changed the trajectory of his life. At eleven his travels seemed like just a blip but looking back what seemed minimal actually influenced large swaths of his life.

Anyone whose read Ondaatje is aware how lush his language is and how profound his insights are and happily"Cat's Table" is no exception. The two weeks of their ship journey was a suspension of life. A pit stop. Their lives were on hold and anything was possible. They formed associations at whim. They stayed up to all hours. They stole. They were free from constraints. They spied on adults. The future seemed irrelevant. They didn't question their friendship. Yet this trip influenced the rest of their lives. It was a small journey that became large. This is a trip through the liminal. A demarcation between one world and another, from Sri Lanka to England, from childhood with kind but distant relatives and freedom to roam the lush Sri Lankan sights, sounds and people to a barely remembered mother and an alien England.

I've read Ondaatje's "Divisdero", "In the Skin of the Lion" and "The English Patient" (That's also the order of my preference.) and compared with them "Cat's Table" feels more restrained. As always Ondaatje sprinkles truths and cogent observations about the tragedy and beauty of life but he never hits you over the head. He leaves it to the reader to take away what's relevant for themselves.
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Quotes Cynthia Liked

Michael Ondaatje
“she had a laugh that hinted it had rolled around once or twice in the mud.”
Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table


Reading Progress

09/22/2011 page 95
31.0%
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Comments (showing 1-38 of 38) (38 new)

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Joan Winnek I want to read this. Please let me know how you like it.


Mary Ronan Drew I'm enchanted by this book. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, Cynthia.


Anne Love your review. Nothing else I've read about this book really told me what it was about. I have to get to this soon while it's hot off the press. I don't see any stars, Cynthia. Are you still deciding?


Mary Ronan Drew Anne, she's out looking for another star because she needs six for this book.


Anne Mary Ronan wrote: "Anne, she's out looking for another star because she needs six for this book."

Haha. Glad to hear that it's that good.


message 6: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue I'm wondering about your rating too. I haven't read Ondaatje yet and found the description of this book intriguing.


Cynthia I'm conflicted about my rating opinion. It's a 5 compared to most books but a 4 compared to Ondaatje's other books. 4.5?


Anne I guess Mary was wrong. You weren't looking for another star. You've been wondering whether to cut the 5th star in half. I'll leave you to it.


Cynthia That's my dilema (besides not knowing how to spell) that for any other author this would clearly be a 5. My Ondaatje standards are too high. Just for his language alone it rates a 5.


message 10: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne Cynthia wrote: "That's my dilema (besides not knowing how to spell) that for any other author this would clearly be a 5. My Ondaatje standards are too high. Just for his language alone it rates a 5."

Well, this is your decision. But did I just see two 5s flash by?


Maria This is a wonderful review, Cynthia. I read an excerpt of this in the New Yorker recently, but I'm unfamiliar with this author otherwise. Thank you!


message 12: by Joan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joan Winnek My book club has just chosen this as our December book, and I'm the hostess. We try to serve food tied to the book, so I would appreciate any info as to what is eaten.


Cynthia Oh goodness Joan. This isn't good news. The boys would steal food first class and hide in the lifeboats munching it late at night while standing vigil waiting for the cops to take the criminal out for his nightly walk. Other than that food didn't play a big part. As per the title they sat at the lowliest table, furthest from the Captain's.

Many of the characters were Sri Lankan so maybe you could serve that food. I have no idea what that is though. The other largest shipboard demographic were English folks. Shepard's pie? Fish and chips?


message 14: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne I'm reading The Cat's Table today. I think I'll have fish and chips. Good idea, Cynthia.


message 15: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne How about tuna fish?


Cynthia Tuna fish is good but well made fish and chips is one of my all time favorite meals. Now you're making me hungry. My morning yogurt has worn off.


message 17: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne I was only joking about the tuna fish: cats...tuna... thin joke.

Yogurt for breakfast? That would only make me hungry.

I love well-made fish and chips. YUM.


Cynthia It's better than just coffee which is usually my other alternative. It tastes good and has some nutrition and more importantly I can just reach in the fridge and grab it.

Speaking of cats....I have all my friends on cat watch. I hate not having a cat friend or two. Hopefully they'll hear of one who needs a home soon.


message 19: by Anne (last edited Nov 05, 2011 11:32AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne How hard is it to get a cat in LA? My parents had cats trying to get adopted by them all the time. My dear father would leave food out for the poor creatures - he felt sorry for them. Our house became very popular. Hey - there's an idea. Leave out some cat food or cat nip,


message 20: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne I'm having a little trouble getting attached to this book. Just starting, but nothing much is happening - just getting introduced to different characters. Did you find that it took a while for the book to get going?


Cynthia LOL It's NOT hard to get a cat. In fact the other day at dinner one friend was talking about how she and a neighbor found three kitties abadoned in the park where they take their morning walks. In my neighborhood people don't let their animals roam free both because the population is so dense (lots of cars) and because we're a few blocks from the mountains with the coyote population. They like to come off the mountain in the night and eat pets :(.


Cynthia Anne wrote: "I'm having a little trouble getting attached to this book. Just starting, but nothing much is happening - just getting introduced to different characters. Did you find that it took a while for th..."

Hmmmmm.....this is why I gave it a 4 instead of 5 stars. But Ondaatje's writing style is like this. Outwardly not much seems to happen until a huge bubble of insight breaks over your head. Until then you have to sit back and enjoy his beautiful use of language.


message 23: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne Yikes. I have to get a map and look at where you live. Coyotes in LA. That's a new one for me.


Cynthia I've seen them a few times walking down the street or sidewalk when I'm getting home late at night. Shiver. Any LA community near a mountain range has coyotes. In the flat lands of San Fernando valley they only have people coyotes.


message 25: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne Cynthia wrote: "Anne wrote: "I'm having a little trouble getting attached to this book. Just starting, but nothing much is happening - just getting introduced to different characters. Did you find that it took a..."
I haven't read him in a while, but remember loving what I read. I refuse to give up on an Ondaatje.


Cynthia Please don't give up. This is one of those books that lingers in your mind long after you read it. I'm still pondering some of the things that happened in it.


message 27: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne Cynthia wrote: "I've seen them a few times walking down the street or sidewalk when I'm getting home late at night. Shiver. Any LA community near a mountain range has coyotes. In the flat lands of San Fernando ..."
"people coyotes" exactly. Hahahahahha


message 28: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne Cynthia wrote: "Please don't give up. This is one of those books that lingers in your mind long after you read it. I'm still pondering some of the things that happened in it."

I told you I will not give up. I like this author too much. Plus, I read your review and I trust you.


message 29: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne Cynthia wrote: "I've seen them a few times walking down the street or sidewalk when I'm getting home late at night. Shiver. Any LA community near a mountain range has coyotes. In the flat lands of San Fernando ..."

And you were giving me sh*t about my little black bear.


Cynthia Coyote's only eat critters. Bears on the other hand......


message 31: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne No no no.. Black bears run away from humans. If they smell you they won't come in to the house. If you yell at them they run away.


Cynthia Well dang you should have built it a bear hut out back and given it a pet door so he could raid your freezer whenever he wanted. Silly me. What was I thinking?


message 33: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue Speaking of coyotes, they've been wandering into the Boston suburbs lately too, walking off with family pets. I guess we humans have just taken too much of their land.


message 34: by Teresa (last edited Nov 05, 2011 12:38PM) (new)

Teresa Sue wrote: "Speaking of coyotes, they've been wandering into the Boston suburbs lately too, walking off with family pets. I guess we humans have just taken too much of their land."

I didn't see any but we had them in the area (a N.O. park and the suburbs) after the Spillway needed to be open. From many accounts, they were emaciated, looking for food of course.


Cynthia The times I've seen them they've been half starved too. That's the only reason they show themselves. They're so hungry they're willing to risk getting near people in order to hunt :(. Their condition and obvious need makes them even more eerie.


message 36: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne Cynthia wrote: "Well dang you should have built it a bear hut out back and given it a pet door so he could raid your freezer whenever he wanted. Silly me. What was I thinking?"

He built his own door (my window). But he doesn't get in anymore.


message 37: by Joan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joan Winnek Coyotes that live in the wild and have enough to eat are beautiful creatures--but it's true, they eat cats. My sister lives in Valley Center CA, and you can hear them barking at night. They cross right under her bedroom window. All pets inside at night, even yellow labs. Also she has rattlesnakes. And rats that destroyed the insulation in her attic. And gophers.
I like a slightly less rural environment.


Cynthia I've heard the lighter colored animals are most at risk because they're more visible at night.


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