Tag Archives: literature

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I’ve been trying to come up with a really good, well-thought out post about so-called “Muslim rage” and censorship and Salman Rushdie and J.K. Rowling and artistic control. Because there’s something similar about the way Rushdie, in the New Yorker excerpt from his new memoir, writes about whether or not he was trying to offend anyone when he wrote “The Satanic Verses” and the way Rowling has over the years apparently tried to control the way she is portrayed.

The Harry Potter books have been banned by some, and yet Rowling herself has sought to limit the journalists who cover her. (It’s one thing to refuse interviews. It’s another to agree on condition that you get to approve the quotes.)

Rushdie was imperiled and basically imprisoned for ten years. And yet he seems to me to not allow that, in the absence of a fatwa against an author’s life, people have the right to be offended by a work of literature, or even the idea of a work of literature–just as the author has the right to write that work.

Maybe I’m wrong about Rushdie’s sentiment. It’s hard to say given the awfulness of what happened to him because of what he wrote. The idea that an authoritarian regime could reach beyond its borders to strangle an artist’s creativity or even take his or her life, or the lives of his or her loved ones–that thought is not alien to any artist who lives in a democracy but has family who reside in a totalitarian state.

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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!).

I’ve got to blog more. Or, Shut Up And Read.

I keep reading things about how we’re supposed to read the classics, or we’re supposed to appreciate genre fiction more. And then the New Yorker’s so-called sci-fi issue features a whole bunch of essays about the precise moment of childhood when the writer realized that there was a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction, and started lying about what he or she liked to read.

Enough already, people. The existence of a genre-literary distinction is interesting, and debates about where that line lies are interesting, and questions of how and why we value certain kinds of literature are also interesting. Up. To. A. Point.

At the risk of seeming like I’m taking sides, I’m going to quote Shirley Hazzard’s response to Stephen King at the 2003 National Book Awards:

I don’t see this as ‘we should read this or we should read that.’ We have mysterious inclinations. We have our own intuitions, our individuality toward what we want to read, and we developed that from childhood. We don’t know why. Nobody can explain it to us.

Or to paraphrase God:

To you your books and to me mine.

I like Michael Ondaatje and Robin McKinley. I like E.M. Forster and Ursula LeGuin. I like Jhumpa Lahiri and Tamora Pierce.

You like what you like. It’s all good as long as people keep reading.

So, what are you waiting for? Go read, everyone!