Book Review Tuesday

Book review for The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

cat'stable

In need of a little light summer reading, I picked up the Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel The Cat’s Table from the Popular Fiction Collection on the basis of several glowing recommendations. Ondaatje weaves together a beautiful narrative that boarders on the poetic in its language and imagery.

The tone is autobiographical, and though it is fictional, the story does borrow from elements of the author’s life. It follows 11-year-old protagonist, Michael, as he makes his way from his native Sri Lanka across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, and through the Mediterranean Sea to make a new life with his family in England. During the three weeks he is aboard the Oronsay, Michael is seated at the Cat’s Table during meal times, a table full of outcasts at the fringes of society. It is the table furthest away from the prestigious captain’s table. It is also here that he befriends Cassius and Rhamadin, fellow Sri Lankan school boys, who he goes on to form life long memories with.

The mystery of a prisoner unfolds as the book goes on – a prisoner with a mysterious past, only seen after everyone, except for the curious boys, has gone to bed. He emerges with shackles around his hands and feet, with guards at his side, and is allowed a nightly walk on the deck. As the narrative jumps between Michael’s young self on the ship and his adult self, established and settled in Canada, we learn how this slowly unfolding mystery ties people together, and has a lasting impact on the lives of the people we learn to know.

Ondaatje’s writing is much like the ship he writes about – it moves slowly, sometimes feeling like it has stopped moving altogether, caught up in dream like imagery and winding thought processes; but then one comes to the end, and realizes one has crossed oceans. The story is intricately and masterfully crafted; creating a tangible world out of the liminal space that transition creates, between one land and another, between chapters of life, between childhood and adulthood. Despite the storms, the crashing waves, and the navigation through misty canals, in some ways, it is the story of any state of change.

Book Review Tuesday

Book Review for The Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms and Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers by David Grambs

describersdictionary

While crafting a research paper or a creative writing assignment, do you ever find yourself stumped on a perfect descriptive word? Does it ever feel frustratingly out of your grasp? If you are like me, thesauri and dictionaries can be a useful tool to help pull you out of the word blank mire, but these resources can only go so far; if I’m in search of a word to describe “light,” yet don’t know exactly what kind of “light” I’m looking for, a thesaurus can be limited. Terms such as “sunny” or “bright” are familiar, even overused, synonyms. But what about more nuanced words like “twinkling” or “shady?” Both describe “light” in vastly different ways.

While this resource has been around for a while, I continue to find it especially valuable in my academic and personal pursuits. David Grambs’ The Describer’s Dictionary (W.W. Norton and Company, 1993) is a writer’s dream, dividing words by subject: Things, Earth and Sky, Animals, and People. From there, the categories further narrow so you can search for items such as shapes, climate, even coiffures. Instead of definitions, Grambs provides us with related literary quotes on the left of each page as well as grouping similar words together in the list. As I enthusiastically read through this, I found myself coming up with more words and creating my own personal lists. Which leads me to a minor quibble; the book is by no means comprehensive. I almost wish that the quotes had been dropped to fit in more word lists. The color section could have been a lot longer than a mere twelve pages, seven if you discount the pages with multiple quotes for the same words. I would have liked to see a much longer work, perhaps with illustrations (ie, color swatches, images of patterns, face shape drawings beside the corresponding descriptive words) so you can choose the word that more closely matches what is in your head. Grambs does have a newer edition out (1995), so perhaps I will take a look at it to see if any updates have been made.

In short, I find this a unique resource for physical descriptions. It is suited for writers, but just about everyone can find a word of worth in this practical work.

The library call number for this item is PE1591 .G67 1993.

-Melody Steiner, Access Services

Book Review Tuesday

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

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Jules Verne’s famous book Around the World in Eighty Days is the story of Englishman Phileas Fogg who bets his friends that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. First published in 1873, the novel was a great success and is still in print today. Several years after the publication of Verne’s novel, Nellie Bly, famous reporter for the New York World newspaper, set out to beat the fictitious Fogg’s 80 day timetable for travelling completely around the world. She left Hoboken, New Jersey in a steamship sailing east on November 14, 1899.

On that same day, another New York reporter, Elizabeth Bisland of Cosmopolitan magazine left New York travelling west across the United States by train. Bisland’s goal was to beat Fogg and Bly around the world. Would either woman be able to beat Verne’s fictitious hero? And which reporter would make it back to New York first?

In Matthew Goodman’s fascinating history Eighty Days, the tale of this extraordinary race is told, alternating between Bly and Bisland as they made their way around the world via train and steamship. The story of Nellie Bly was told in hundreds of newspapers around the United States, but Elizabeth Bisland did not get nearly the same amount of coverage. Goodman rectifies this by giving short biographical sketches of each woman, telling of their lives before and after the race, and often quoting from their own books about their travels, which lets both women’s voices come through.

It was an interesting time for travelling, as the completion of the Suez Canal and Transcontinental Railroad and the prominence of steamships and passenger trains made a journey around the world much shorter than it had previously been. Both Bly and Bisland dealt with storms, mechanical mishaps, late-arriving ships, strange food, unpleasant fellow travelers, dramatic changes in weather and temperature, and long periods of boredom punctuated by frantic rushes to catch the next train or ship.  Both women were pioneers in another sense too: in this period, a woman travelling by herself was almost unheard of, and for two women to travel alone in such a great hurry was completely new.

Goodman’s book is an excellent read, and whether you’re traveling via airplane, train, car or just in your favorite chair at home, you’re sure to learn something interesting in this excellent history of travel and of two fascinating and brave women who did what was considered impossible.

The library call number for this book is G440.B67136 G66 2013.

-Adrienne Meier, Social Sciences Librarian and University Archivist

Book Review Tuesday: Special Collections Exhibit

Reality:  an illustrated monthly magazine of spiritual, scriptural and experimental truth speaking of the presence and acts of the Holy Spirit in the world. Ed. Eld. W. Kellaway. Los Angeles, CA:  Reality Publishing Company, 120 North Spring Street, 1897-[1901].

Reality was a short-lived inter-denominational effort in service of the Holiness Movement up and down the West Coast and beyond at the turn of the last century. Edited by Eld. W. Kellaway, the son of a W. T. A. Kellaway of London, it enlisted columns from a range of contributors, including Miss Beryl B. Bishop (later the Rev. Beryl Boswell Bishop Collett?), the “Evangelist and Missionary of the Free Methodist Church” who served as its “Northern California Agent”, and seems likely to have been a daughter of the W. D. Bishop mentioned often in the Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Free Methodist Church for California (not Southern California) throughout this period. References to events associated with other churches, just for example the Church of the Nazarene, abound. Vols. 2-4 of Reality came to Seattle Pacific via the Seattle Bible Training School of the Philadelphia Church and, before that, Wm. C. Stevens, himself a frequent contributor, and “superintendent of the Christian Alliance [later Christian Missionary Alliance] work on the Pacific Coast”. They appear to constitute the only extant run of the publication in WorldCat apart from that at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, which, unlike Seattle Pacific, owns also vol. 1.

Reality can be located in the Emmanuel Room with library call number BT767 .R43 v.2 – 4 (1898-1901).

Steve Perisho,Theology and Philosophy Librarian

Book Review Tuesday

Bird Sense:  What It’s Like to Be a Bird byTim Birkhead

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Ever been called a “bird brain”? Well, after reading Bird Sense:  What It’s Like to Be a Bird by Tim Birkhead, you might take this as a compliment rather than a criticism.  Writing with a deft sense of humor, this British author dedicates individual chapters to the senses of seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell, magnetic sense, and emotions. At times, the writing may be a bit technical for nonscientists or amateur ornithologists, but the variety of species mentioned and the facts discussed are fascinating.

For example, did you know that an owl’s asymmetrical ears contribute to its keen sense of hearing or that a Kiwi can smell earthworms through 15 cm of soil?  (Remember, these types of facts may prove useful should you ever become a contestant on “Who wants to be a millionaire?”.) The illustrations by Katrina van Grouw are also fetching, but a note of caution: What It’s Like to Be a Bird may not be appropriate dinner time reading. Learning about contact wearing robins is one thing, but some of the dissection sequences quite another. A final takeaway is the overall sense of the remarkableness of these relatively small feathered creatures. One cannot help but recall Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:29-30: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

The library call number for this item is QL698.B57 2012.

-Becky Paulson, Acquisitions Librarian

Footnote: This review is dedicated to the family parakeets Pickles (the three ounce bully!) and his sidekick Petunia