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Running in the Family [Paperback]

Michael Ondaatje
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 10 2001
In Michael Ondaatje’s beloved family memoir, fact and fiction blur to create a dazzlingly original portrait of a lost time and place. Ondaatje left Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) at the age of eleven. Almost twenty-five years later, he returned to sort out the recollected fragments of experience, legend, and family scandal, and to reconstruct the carefree, doomed life his parents and grandparents had led in a place where couples danced the tango in the moonlight, where drink, gambling, and romance were the main occupations of the upper class. Rich with eccentric characters and captivating stories, and set against the exotic landscape of a colonial empire in decline, Running in the Family is Ondaatje’s unforgettable journey through memory and imagination to reclaim his past.

From the Hardcover edition.

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From Amazon

Picture The Great Gatsby with heat, tea plantations, and even more gin and you've got part of Michael Ondaatje's 1982 Running in the Family. Set in Ondaatje's native Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Running begins with the champagne shenanigans of competitively romantic upper-class youths swept up in that first global trend, the Jazz Age: "They all went swimming again with just the modesty of the night. An arm touched a face. A foot touched a stomach. They could have almost drowned or fallen in love." The main characters to emerge from this frolicking set of dancers and drinkers are Ondaatje's parents, and it is upon them that the book turns from moonlit serenades to financial and emotional ruin.

Part travelogue, part family memoir (complete with photographs), part collection of poems, Running is also a poignant autobiography/biography that reimagines the alcoholism of Ondaatje's father Mervyn and the eventual (inevitable?) divorce of his parents. In telling these tall tales, Ondaatje is affectionate and insightful toward a father who was clearly difficult to accommodate in life. Driving intoxicated over a rickety wooden bridge no one else would trust in any condition, Mervyn turns to young Michael to wink and claim, "God loves a drunk."

Running marks the commencement of Ondaatje's growing interest in migration (does running run in the family?). The expatriate characters of Ondaatje's later novels are here presaged by a generation of Ceylonese steaming off to England for education and an enduring love of cricket. Salman Rushdie knows that "the past is a country from which we are all migrants." In Running in the Family, Ondaatje reaches back, inwards, and abroad to map that most treasured and troubled of places, the human heart. --Darryl Whetter --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From Library Journal

Best known for his novel The English Patient , Ondaatje wrote this 1982 memoir after returning to his native Ceylon. His experiences led to a "you can go home again" reflection on his family and country. "For the outsider, this memoir offers a poignant vision exotic in cultural particulars, familiar in intimate human feelings" ( LJ 11/15/82).
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lush, evocative, and poetic! July 5 2000
"Running in the Family" is an impressionistically written and reflective memoir of Michael Ondaatje's eccentric Ceylonese family.
The book begins with a series of disjointed stories about Ondaatje's parents and grandparents. I found this part somewhat hard to get through as Ondaatje drops into the stories without providing the reader with the necessary information to understand who the players are and why they are important. However, since the book is highly impressionistic in style, perhaps this approach works. After all, most of us learn about our family history in bits and pieces; we don't pick up yarns and memory bites in chronological order.
The third section, "Don't Talk to Me about Matisse" is a literary treasure! Ondaatje weaves a travel journal with childhood memories. Ondaatje's journey through Sri Lanka and memory land is depicted with great passion and reflection: "I witnessed everything. One morning I would wake and just smell things for the whole day, it was so rich I had to select senses. And still everything moved slowly with the assured fateful speed of a coconut falling on someone's head, like the Jaffna train, like the fan at low speed, like the necessary sleep in the afternoon with dreams blinded by toddy."
Ondaatje generously included several of his poems in the middle of the book. "The Cinnamon Peeler", with its strong sensuality, serves as a fitting metaphor for the stories about romantic interludes in the author's family. "The Cinnamon Peeler" is so beautiful, I plan to commit it to memory.
Ondaatje dwells on the salient qualities of his relatives and homeland. If this book were a painting, it would be a mostly green wash of color with bright, blood red splashes.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For Those Who did not love "Anil's Ghost" April 3 2001
No author can make every book work. It's unfair to expect that. This is the first Ondaajate book I read, make that: devoured. I loved the non-linearity, the depth of love for his home country, the characters gathering and separating. I write this review because I believe strongly that Anil's Ghost is the companion piece to "Running in the Family" and less well-done, less artful. But this book more than makes up for the flaws in the later book. Perhaps the kleig lights of fame are too hot for a writer to work at his best. I say that because the author of this book is so gifted and has so much to evoke that I expect he will do so again, maybe not in his beloved, insane Sri Lanka, or maybe back there again. So, in closing, If you despaired of loving "Anil's Ghost" read this and you're efforts will be fully redeemed.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lush and Beautifully Written April 21 2000
I thought that this was a beautiful book but I wouldn't recommend it to everyone-if you're the type whose reading is limited to thrillers and soppy romance then I doubt this would do for you. But if you like imaginative, beautiful, flawless writing, like me, then you'd love this wonderful memoir everybit as much as I did. Ondaatje transports you into his world through his witty, tender and sensual places it reads like a poem. Running in the Family is sort of like a sketchbook...filled with humourous anecdotes, sensual poems and glimpses of beauty and history...and of course, his outrageous family. Even though I live in Sri Lanka and am familiar with most of the places and things he writes about I was still delightfully stunned by the way he adds new insight and meaning and beauty to these things. Also, I used to imagine that memoirs were dull and boring...but I totally regret my words now. This is hilarious (though in places exaggerated), beautiful and powerful stuff and I give it my highest recommendation.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ondaatje's journey back to his beginnings... May 28 2000
Format:Audio Cassette
'Running in the Family' is an outstandingly evocative autobiographical account of Michael Ondaatje's journey back to his beginnings in Sri Lanka. It is an attempt to trace his origin, record the history of his family and understand his father who was a mystery to him. In the process he also provides rare insights into his family and his growth and development such as the early exposure to literature etc. When I read his latest novel, Anil's Ghost' I discovered how a few locations, names and places he captured in this book has resurfaced in the novel.
This is indeed an original piece of work.
I enjoyed the book full of lyrical writing. But the audio version of the book is better. Ondaatje adds value to his original masterpiece when he reads to you with his soft and hypnotic voice.
This is one of the rare opportunities of listening to a great writer of our time.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensual writing at it's best April 6 2000
By Nicole
There are some books that can transport you beyond your surroundings, that effortlessly overwhelm your senses. Where words themselves disolve into a picture, and the memories are so lush that feels as though you lived it yourself. This is a book of such astonishing prose that it is no longer anchored to the print, but extends into reality itself. On a cold, rainy Seattle day, I was in Sri Lanka, I could feel the heat and breathe the stifling air. I could see the exotic jungle and animals slinking inside around the trees, I could taste foods that have never touched my tounge, while hearing the laughter of people I have never met. I greedily consumed this book, not moving from my couch, and when finished, I sat in a trance, letting the words sink slowly into my skin.
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Published 23 days ago by Allan Aguilar
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it
Ondaatje makes a history of his family's life in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before leaving when he was a boy sound like a magical story set in a mysterious place. A delightful read!
Published 9 months ago by CDNav8r
5.0 out of 5 stars Going to Sri Lanka next month...
.....and wanted to immerse myself in the culture.
I now feel that I understand a bit of it.
And had the pleasure of appreciating soo well written text.
Published 9 months ago by Marf
5.0 out of 5 stars This story deserves to be read and remembered.
I read this book about 15 years ago and now, as I write this review, I recall how much I loved Ondaatje's writing. Read more
Published on Dec 30 2011 by David Sabine
5.0 out of 5 stars What a family!
This book was just so enjoyable and hilarious but yet so beautifully written. From the beginning till the end Ondaatje opens up to the reader (in a journal entry) this magical and... Read more
Published on March 18 2002 by Rashanda Davis
5.0 out of 5 stars you *can* come home again!
In Running in the Family (1982), Ondaatje turns the biographical microscope on himself and his personal family history. Read more
Published on Feb. 11 2001 by A. Gillingham
5.0 out of 5 stars A lost paradise
In this magical book what Micheal captures is the essence of a bygone era. Sri Lanka (Ceylon) also had a generation like Scott Fitzgerald's jazz generation. Read more
Published on Sept. 23 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars Hypnotic experience
Having read Michael Ondaatje's work, I am a bit predisposed to enjoy it, but my anticipation did not prepare me for the luscious experience of listening to this work on tape. Mr. Read more
Published on April 23 2000 by Laurie Gatlin
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