Friday, October 28, 2011

Author Michael Ondaatje Book Tour Review

Seattle Public Library

October 24, 2011

Tonight is going to be huge and I am so sure of it I get off work early to ensure I get a prime seat. One of the true masters of prose, Michael Ondaatje has arrived to promote his newest book, “The Cat’s Table.”

Mr. Ondaatje’s appearance was advertised in the Seattle times as part of the Library author series and as expected the place was packed.
Now, I honestly believe that Mr. Ondaatje writing is some of the best prose by any living author. Too bad his author reading stunk.

Rick from Elliot Bay Bookstore gives a heartfelt introduction and Ondaatje makes a grand appearance, looking the part of a regal professor from that Ivy League school you wished you could have attended.

This is the biggest crowd I have seen in a long time. Three hundred plus fans of literature appear tonight for an evening that truly sucked. This is the kind of author who is capable of attracting a crowd that might never step out of the house.
Oh a word about the audience. This is not the regular lit crowd. Book clubs came. Groups of students arrive. This is the high snob, I read a book a week and what an intellectual I am crowd. This is the crowd that comes into town with friends for dinner and lectures, plays symphonies. They buy books get it?

Mr. Ondaatje begins with a very brief introduction, so brief in fact that I barely get the premise before he starts reading scattered long sections from his newest novel. “Cat’s Table”

The novel is the story of three eleven year old boys, on a voyage to London. The boys, strangers at first, are traveling unsupervised by adults and the novel follows their journey of discovery as they leave home for various reasons.

Mr.Ondaatje’s reading voice can best be described as hypnotic. He has a soft unique accent that is pleasant to the ear and as he begins reading you can hear a pin drop. The passages he reads tonight lead me to believe this book is of the same caliber as his previous works and his ability to command words that good together is on full display. If you have never read one of his novels, check one out and you will see what I mean.

For instance, Mr.Ondaatje’s protagonist, (ironically named Michael) describes a specific character he meets as “tentative,” “languid”, and “moving like a sick cat.” When the boys place themselves intentionally in harm's way and are discovered by the ship’s spotlight the narrator describes that he and his companions could “sense the outrage behind the light.”

As said earlier, Mr.Ondaatje has a soothing voice, it lacks inflection, but is a gorgeous voice causing the crowd to sway like the rocking of the ship his characters travel. There is however a danger to listening to this kind of author read and that is the danger of falling asleep.

The first twenty minutes go well. Rarely did Mr.Ondaatje take a break from reading to explain anything and when doing so, the author offered little background to the audience. What little bit of the novel’s back story he did expound upon lacked humor or antidotes.

This reading was analogous to a long slow steady love making session; after the initial magic wears off the constant rhythm becomes irritating and then you just hope it ends soon.

Finally when he stopped reading, the author closed the book and said softly, “I will now take your questions.”

Questions about what? He hardly said anything, read for forty minutes and now the crowd was expected to ask questions? I got some questions, Hey Mike why don’t you talk to us about the book's plot, or your motivation for writing or your writing process or you what you had for dinner? Something so the audience has a starting point for a conversation.

So now unfold the worst thing that can happen during an author reading. The audience provides all subject material; the author is forced to deal with the result thus turning a nice evening into a staid, insipid mess.

So what do you get when an author steps on the stage, reads for forty minutes then goes straight into Q&A?

Here are some pearls:

Which of your novels is your favorite? (Ondaatje dismisses the question.)
What are you reading now? (He can’t remember off the top of his head)
Who was your first publisher? (Relevance please)

By now, Mr. Ondaatje looks bored. I’m bored. That is because there is no focus of his reading. The excitement of the audience is reduced to a band of adults checking their smart phones. Give us a conversation starter Ondaatje. Tell us where you lived how you started where you came to love the craft? My God it was more awkward than a junior high dance.

Here is some more questions:

“What novels were your inspiration?” (The author says too many to mention)
“What is your method of writing?” (Long hand then three or four drafts before the finished product.)

Okay, maybe I am being too harsh. To be fair Mr. Ondaatje has been on a huge tour and Seattle was the tail end. He is and older man now; he successful but he is tired. I doubt there are few questions he has never been asked.

I don’t care. People made sacrifices to come here tonight. Seattle is in the midst of one of the biggest paralyzing road projects in its history. It was a testament to Mr. Ondaatje and the city’s literary fans that came out tonight in such impressive numbers most authors will never experience.

At least Mr. Ondaatje could have made an effort to be interesting.


  1. "... after the initial magic wears off the constant rhythm becomes irritating and then you just hope it ends soon" ... ! You're a hard one to please, I Claudio, but I think we all know what you mean. Thanks for another insightful review - will check out Ondaatje's books & skip the readings.

  2. He seemded like a nice man. The critics have said kind things about Ondaatje's book. The kind of novel you can snuggle up with someone wrote. I don't doubt that. I may get around to Cat's table in about six books from now.

  3. I don't know... vertical boredom to equal the horizontal variety doesn't sound all that appealing. If Cat's Table is as hypnotic as Ondaatje's reading, I might have to snuggle up to it on a bed of nails.