Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Time and a Place

I'm going through a huge Michael Ondaatje phase right now. This happens to me every now and then, when there is something about a writers' work that makes me want to read nearly everything else they've written. Most recently I went through a James Salter phase after reading A Sport and a Pastime; before that, a huge Joan Didion phase, after reading The Year Of Magical Thinking. I loved Salter's sentences, his succinct but eloquent way of examining the fragility of male and female relationships. Joan Didion, who manages to write about the supremely personal while remaining universal. And can anyone balance cynicism and lyricism as well as her?

What triggered this Ondaatje phase was his memoir, Running In the Family. This book was assigned to me in an undergraduate class that I took seven years ago called Reading and Writing About Place, and then, for time reasons, it disappeared from the syllabus. Earlier this summer I found it on my parents' bookshelf and brought it back to Boston with me, curious. In this memoir Ondaatje goes back to his native Sri Lanka to find out more about his parents and especially his father, who was a notorious alcoholic and passed away before the two got to know each other. He weaves together poetry, memories, straight narrative and anecdotes told in the form of dialogue. I was impressed with his ability to pull off this hodge podge of form and genre, to manage to get the reader so close and intimate to each of the various characters in such a short space. But, true to my professor's extinct, what most appealed to me about his writing was how steeped it was in a sense of place.

Some of the short dreamlike chapters make you feel like you're in a fever heat. The train that snakes through the country, the jeep thrashing through the jungle to get to a party in the middle of nowhere, people dancing outside - this book is full of images of a particular lifestyle in Sri Lanka. The scene where he imagines his grandmother, Lalla, floating through her hometown during a flood is one that will haunt me forever. Since then, I've been pleased to find that nearly of all of his books are deeply rooted in different places all over the world. I read Divisadero, a novel in set northern California, then Lake Tahoe, then the countryside in France. The California chapters feel rural and wild; the Tahoe chapters, gritty; the France chapters, other-worldly. Now I'm reading In the Skin of a Lion, set in the 1920s in Toronto. Each of his books transport you to a life completely outside your own.
Running In the Family is my staff pick - you'll see it on the shelf with all the other staff picks in a few weeks. And you can always check out our past staff picks on our website.

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