Tag Archives: books

START HERE: Michael Ondaatje

As I told you in my previous post, I’m entering Book Riot’s START HERE Write-In Giveaway. I’m sure some of you guessed who I would write about.

As a teen, I was an awkward and, as my brother puts it, bookish girl, growing up a half-breed with an American mother in my father’s hometown of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Jeddah had few libraries, and bookstores typically carried more stationery supplies than books. So all the anglophone bookworms banded together. In my junior year of high school, a British friend of my mother’s gave me a plastic bag full of paperbacks she no longer wanted. Out of it I fished, and then devoured, a funny, moving, and poetic memoir about the English-speaking, Tamil-Dutch, Sri Lankan family of Canadian novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje.

Readers may know Ondaatje’s most famous book, the Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient, which later became an Oscar-winning tragic love story starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas. Or they may have heard of his most recent novel, The Cat’s Table. Some may feel daunted by the unconventional narrative structure of the former or the slow pacing of the latter. I think Ondaatje is an important novelist because of the ways he tackles history, memory, language, truth, and identity in a multicultural world. Sometimes, he takes Sri Lanka as his subject. Sometimes he avoids it. Always he plays with the line between history and fiction. We make up our world and our memories, his writing tells us, and that fact brings joy and humor, tragedy and failure.

The pathway I recommend through Ondaatje’s work starts with a memoir that borrows techniques from fiction, works through two historical novels, and ends with a novel that borrows techniques from memoir.

Running in the Family

If you can, get the edition with the photos. They’re hilarious portraits of Ondaatje’s Sri Lankan family, and the punchline to the photo of the authors’ parents on their honeymoon is unforgettable. Running in the Family will introduce you to Ondaatje’s lyrical language, his sensuality (flip forward to the poem “The Cinnamon Peeler” and I swear you’ll smell cinnamon and feel water on your skin), his sense of humor, and his willingness to blur the lines between fact and fiction–a blurring that, in my opinion, is never hidden from the reader. (At a reading last fall, he said of the relatives he interviewed for the book something to this effect: “They were lying up a storm. I figured why shouldn’t I?”)

In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient

I group these two together because they share some of the same characters, they’re both complexly structured historical novels, neither has anything to do with Sri Lanka, they both feature love stories, and they both deal with transnational identity. You could decide to read the two books in chronological order (Skin first, English Patient second). Or answer this question: Would you rather start with immigrant bridge builders in early twentieth-century Toronto? Or a ragtag group of people of various nationalities who take refuge in an Italian villa at the end of World War II? Whatever you do, think about whether you think Ondaatje’s fictional doppelganger (yes, we’re going to play that game) is the Canadian nurse, Hana, or the Indian sapper,  Kip.

The Cat’s Table

I read a review of The Cat’s Table that, while positive, dismissed the book as minor Ondaatje. I disagree. The Cat’s Table is the book Ondaatje fans were waiting for, especially after the brilliant-in-spots but ultimately disappointing Divisadero. In Ondaatje’s most recent novel, an 11-year-old boy named Michael embarks alone on a steamer from Sri Lanka to England, just as the author did. The narrator Michael, many years later, tells the story of his journey, the people he met, and the lifelong connections and disconnections that started during the course of the trip. After giving us family history, national history, and world history, Ondaatje has turned inward, sort of, giving us a fictional tale of an older man’s need to reflect on his own history.


If You Can’t Beat ‘Em

It’s lucky that just the other day I told a coworker my idea, otherwise I wouldn’t have a witness. Here’s the idea: A website where various contributors give advice on how to get started reading the work of famous authors, giving recommendations of three or four books and the order in which to read them.

And it turns out, of course, that such a site–or rather, column on the book blog Book Riot–already exists. And will soon become a book called Start Here.

I learned long ago that any good idea will probably occur to more than one person. And if you have an idea for an article or book and someone else puts it into writing before you get a chance, you should just pat yourself on the back for having had a smart thought, be thankful you didn’t actually write the book or article only to be lapped, and move on to the next good idea.

In this case, however, there’s an opportunity to pitch in, in the form of a Book Riot contest, so watch this space for my Start Here article and use the comments to (a) guess who I’ll write about and/or (b) tell me who you would want to write about (and maybe you should write about them!).

A book review changed his life

A few years ago, when the Washington Post eviscerated Book World, its standalone Sunday books section, and merged it with the Outlook section, I felt (can you guess?) really upset. Book World was the only section I really loved. Even when I didn’t have time to read books, I could read the book reviews and still feel in touch with the book world.

Yeah, there’s plenty of book blogs and Amazon reviews and Goodreads updates and The Morning News’ annual Tournament of Books and other place to read about books. Even so, I miss Book World.

An essay last month* in, HA, the Post, reminded me of the power of the book review. Inmate Gregory White read a review of a book called “Black Jacks,” then he read the book, then he contacted the author, then he eventually became a merchant mariner, living a life on the seas, just as he’d always wanted to.

Since reading White’s essay, I’ve been thinking about whether I can point to a book that changed my life or made me pursue a dream. For me, that book was “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” which I read as a high school student, at the recommendation of a friend who’d read it in a college creative writing course. I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but Natalie Goldberg’s book came to me at a time when I didn’t have writing mentors or teachers to encourage and push me and make me shut up and go write.

How about you? What book helped you follow a dream? And how did you learn about it?

*Yeah, forgive me for blogging about a month-old article. I’m slowly emerging from hibernation, y’all …

Thanks for Nothin’, Newsweek. And 5 Favorite Historical Fictions.

Newsweek recently featured Booker winner Hilary Mantel’s five favorite historical novels. Sadly–or happily, depending on how you look at it–I hadn’t heard of all but one of them. More books to add to the “maybe read” list!

But the magazine sort of pissed me off by saying that Mantel “elevates the field [of historical fiction] with her new book ‘Bring Up the Bodies.'”

OK, first it’s annoying to introduce a writer’s favorite books by implying she’s better than them. (Obviously, it’s Newsweek not Mantel I’m griping about.)

Second, Mantel lists “Things Fall Apart” as one of her picks. So obviously, the field needs no elevation.

Third, I can name offhand two Nobel laureates who’ve written historical fiction. So I’ll repeat: Obviously, the field needs no elevation.

Whatever. Here’s a list of some of the novels I love that happen to be historical:

  1. “Beloved” by Toni Morrison
  2. “The General in His Labyrinth” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. “Away” by Amy Bloom
  4. “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
  5. “In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje

On Being Married to a Non-Reader

When I first met my husband, I thought his not being a book lover would be a deal breaker. Although I read for pleasure much less now than I did as a child and teenager, I still consider reading part of my identity. Many of my childhood friends were bookworms, and so was my first boyfriend. When A told me “I don’t read,” I had to discard certain fantasies. Curling up on the sofa with our separate books and reading passages out loud–that wasn’t going to be part of our shared future.

But then I realized a few things. First of all, A wasn’t exactly telling the truth. He does read online news, and Pop Candy, and CHUD.com. And occasionally he reads a book. Though that doesn’t make him a reader of the wormish sort, it’s not the same as thinking books–or reading–suck.

Second, I realized that dating a movie lover was just as important to me as dating a book lover. Maybe more important. People go to movies together. We read books alone. Bonding over The Lord of the Rings films was just as good as bonding over Ondaatje.

Third, I realized it didn’t matter. My brother Y isn’t a reader, and I still loved _him_. (He has only been known to read books by Robert Jordan and he has convinced me–not on purpose, but pretty much convinced me–that even video games can be “literary.”)

Finally, I eventually learned that A loved me enough to go to a Michael Ondaatje reading _when I was out of town_ to buy me a copy of _Divisadero_ and get it signed.

What more could a book lover want in a spouse?