Cover to Cover

The Cat’s Table
Michael Ondaatje

This story of an 11-year-old’s shipboard adventures, as he travels from his native Sri Lanka to England—to school and a mother he hardly remembers—shows off Ondaatje’s skill at evoking with mere words the beauties, the mysteries, and the poignancies of life. In an atmosphere suffused with warmth and wonder, the boy roams the decks with his friends in the middle of the night, shimmies into staterooms at the behest of a thief, and is invited into the hold to explore a garden of exotic and, in many cases, thrillingly narcotic botanic specimens. Through his eyes and incomplete understanding, the events and society on the ship are subtly unmoored from the hard and dark constraints of the adult world. “As children,” he says, “we were imagining and accepting all kinds of things.” The novel’s loose structure allows for vivid and affecting vignettes: a night spent lashed to the deck in a cyclone, for instance, and a remembered afternoon in Ceylon, when the narrator is casually plucked from certain and horrible death in a storm drain by an older boy. But attempts to pull the looseness together—to impose a linear plot and to connect the experiences of the ship with the course of the narrator’s later life—result in irritating and unconvincing musings that read more like vague pseudo-psychology than insight. For the most part, Ondaatje achieves a winning blend of well-grounded reality (the narrator’s name, Michael; the time, early in the 1950s; and the locations—Sri Lanka, England, and Canada—even create an aura of memoir), dramatic realist fiction, and a shimmer of magic. But when he shifts point of view and strays from the boy’s rangings into a half-baked plot involving a prisoner and his daughter, he forfeits what is best about the book. These missteps wouldn’t be forgiven in a less accomplished (and cele­brated) writer.

Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs
Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis
Getty Publications

Carleton Watkins’s pictures of the American West, particularly California, convey the feel of the place—its natural grandeur and the vigorous human incursions upon it. One of 19th-century America’s most significant photographers, Watkins was among the friends who followed Collis Huntington, future railway baron, from Oneonta, New York, to California during the Gold Rush, and there he learned his craft during photography’s nascent years. This beautifully produced catalog raisonné collects prints from the nearly 1,300 mammoth, 18-by-22 glass plates of his now known to exist. The pictures include landscapes of Yosemite, which have been credited with helping to make the area a national park; derelict missions; and the Mendocino and Monterey coasts. But Watkins was no romantic, and his photog­raphy doesn’t abstractly celebrate landscape and nature in the manner of, say, Ansel Adams. In his photo­graphs of mines, railways, and lumber mills, Watkins recorded in a clear-eyed manner the triumphs and ravages of industry’s impact on the West.

Lorine Niedecker: A Poet’s Life
Margot Peters

Often compared to Emily Dickinson, Lorine Niedecker was part of the long-neglected second wave of modernist poets, among whom William Carlos Williams is the best-known. Niedecker has been particularly obscure, in part because she lived and worked far from New York and its community of like-minded poets. She was born and for most of her life remained on Blackhawk Island in rural southern Wisconsin, the natural features of which permeate her tightly pruned, emotionally packed, cerebral verse. Peters, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, weaves keen analysis of the poetry into her feminist-­inflected chronicle of the poet’s life. A skilled biographer (among her books are well-received portraits of Charlotte Brontë, the Barrymores, Shaw, Lunt and Fontanne, and May Sarton) and a Wisconsin native herself, Peters has nearly managed to sponge up the place in these pages, evoking the yearly round of freezes and floods, the birds and wildflowers, and the backdrop of friendly neighbors, a few of whom appreciated the unusual sensibility in their midst. “Women,” Peters writes, “necessarily let more everyday into their lives”; she pre­sents Niedecker as self-­effacing and often frustratingly powerless in a world mostly controlled by men, but also as admirably tenacious in pursuit of her calling and stubbornly true to herself. Supporting herself by cleaning hospital rooms and proofreading, Niedecker eked out a penurious existence in service to a rich, if periodically lonely, life of the mind. She titled her last collection of poems T & G, abbreviations for tenderness and gristle, and the combination well describes her poetry, as Peters observes—and her personality, too. This biography renders an eccentric and challenging poet accessible and profoundly sympathetic.

Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
Penguin Press

We can’t appreciably increase the intelligence with which we were born, but maybe we can do more with it, if we exercise some self-control. This entertaining and smart self-help book breaks willpower down into its physio­logical and psychological components and convincingly explains how to use it. The authors have hit on just the right proportions of lucidly described science experiments, practical advice, and common sense (enough already with the self-esteem). The upshot: willpower is essential for a happy life but easily depleted; here’s how to build and conserve it.

The Great Sea
David Abulafia

This magnificent history, at once sweeping and precise, spans the period from 22,000 B.C. to 2010 A.D. to explicate the history of human activity on and around the Mediterranean Sea, “probably the most vigorous place of interaction between different societies on the face of this planet.” In writing his 784-page panorama, Abu­lafia, the Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge, necessarily labors in the shadow of the great historian Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, one of the most influential works of history of the 20th century. Braudel stressed long-term historical continuity and focused determinedly on the underlying forces—primarily geography and climate—that influenced societies, and specifically on the ways those forces shaped and constrained social and economic networks. Abulafia, himself a member of an ancient Sephardic family that ramified throughout the Mediterranean world, displays a keen sensitivity to environmental influences, but he focuses on contingency—the ways, for example, that the rise of Islam and the Black Death each fragmented the Mediterranean’s cultural and economic interactions. He also emphasizes the impact that specific historical personalities and political, military, and economic institutions—be it the Etruscan thalas­socracy, Amalfi’s early medieval fleet, or Nelson’s squadron—had on the inter­dependent but often hostile societies, religions, and polities he scrutinizes. For two outstanding reasons, this chronicle of commerce, migration, cultural cross-pollination, and conquest across millennia never lapses into encyclopedic mishmash. First, whether he is tracing pottery styles, the use of papyrus, the Genoese grain trade, or kabbalistic mysticism, Abulafia—a scholar of considerable historical imagination—refuses to speculate further than his evidence will take him. Second, and most important, he is a superb writer with a gift for lucid compression and an eye for the telling detail (concerning, for instance, the dietary preferences of medie­val sailors from Barcelona and of mod­ern British holidaymakers on Greek Cyprus). He has taken on a grand subject, and has related and interpreted it with authority, exactitude, and verve. His work deserves a wide and appreciative audience.