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4.3 out of 5 stars
Running in the Family
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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on 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. The red splashes could represent the tragedy so inherent in Ondaatje's family history. Alcoholism and mental illness rule the house in this family. There are many humorous moments, however, and Ondaatje delivers them with great bravado: "Lalla's great claim to fame was that she was the first woman in Ceylon to have a mastectomy. ... She kept losing the contraption to servants who were mystified by it as well as to the dog, Chindit, who would be found gnawing at the foam as if it were tender chicken." These hilarious memories give the reader a reprieve from the underlying tragedy like a much-needed downpour during a drought.
In the final sections, Ondaatje slowly reveals the many layers of his father's sad, but remarkable life. One chapter, called "Dialogues" merely consists of bits and pieces of conversations about his father. Whether Ondaatje imagined these conversations or actually heard them retold is not important. They give homage to his father in a unique and poignant way.
If you're looking for a travel journal on Sri Lanka, don't look here. But, if you want unforgettable impressions of an exotic land and a remarkable family, if you yearn for a memoir rendered with the finest of literary care, "Running in the Family" will surely please.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 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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34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on 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 writing...in 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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 1999
Ondaatje makes prose poetic like no other writer, and this is his best example of poetic prose. Divided into many fragments, each fragment is as dense as a small poem, as alive with imagery, and yet still contributes to the narrative as a whole. A wonderful merge of history, fiction, truth, and lie, Running contains not only the most mournful writing I have ever read, but also the most sexually charged poem, and the most loving treatment of an imperfect family. Excellent reading, even on your tenth time through
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2001
In Running in the Family (1982), Ondaatje turns the biographical microscope on himself and his personal family history. There are wonderful anecdotes about his parent's courtship (a story so amazing it would make for an excellent novel in itself) and Ondaatje's feelings on returning to Ceylon. I was pleasantly surprised to find that in addition to the personal anecdotes, many of the poems I love in "The Cinnamon Peeler" have their origins here. This book is a masterful blend of prose and poetry and a must read for the Ondaatje fan.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 3, 1999
This continues to be one of my favorite books. I give copy after copy away to new friends when I recognize theirs as families whose best intentions and selfish motivations collided in the making of their lives. While Ondaatje's post-colonial collage is partly the story of the love and destruction of the idea of Ceylon, it mostly speaks not just of his family, but of the way we all share stories and romanticize our selves. The erotic poem "The Cinnamon Peeler's Wife" is alone worth the cost of the book.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2000
'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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 1999
Michael Ondaatje's "Running In The Family" is a fascinating look into the author's family and "growing-up" traditions. Despite the fact that I have not been to Sri Lanka, Ondaatje's masterful use of imagery and local color add substance to what he is writing about. Another thing is the subtle humor throughout the book. I particularly enjoyed the chapter "Lunch Conversation". It's quite insightful which is why it strikes a familiar chord in all who read it perhaps. A definite must-read for those who appreciate vivid and unusual use of words to convey the book's essence.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 1997
Running in the Family is a wonderful autobiography, in the magical-realist, crazy-family-saga vein of Garcia-Marquez or Rushdie. It's funny, poetic, sensual, moving and strongly evocative of Sri Lanka, the author's eccentric family, and the sultry damp tropical greenness. It took me until the middle of the book to really get into it, but then i couldn't stop, and i had to re-read the beginning again; there's something about the events and the time-cycle he's describing that throws you right into the middle of things at the beginning, and becomes more understandable and linear from the middle of the book onwards. But it's well worth any initial confusion, and if you loved the English Patient, this book is a must
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2012
The writing is beautiful. Oondatje skillfully uses vivid language that makes the memoir engaging and poetic (not purely for the language, but also for actual poems Ondaatje chooses to include). He manages to engage all of the reader's senses and create world that often feel too appetizing to leave. For instance, Ondaatje brings us in to his replaying of sounds from a recorded Sri Lankan night: "In this silent room (with its own unheard hum of fridge, fluorescent light) there are these frogs loud as river, gruntings the whistle of other birds brash and sleepy, but in that night so modest behind peacocks they were unfocussed by the brain--nothing more than darkness, all those sweet loud younger brothers of night." He is constantly using such lovely details to bring the reader into this foreign world, and it was his skill with language that kept me reading to the end.

And furthermore, there is such an intimacy in Oondatje's writing about family members. The minutest details, such as the way he noticed the changes in his mother's handwriting, display to a reader how well he does know these people, and how much he cares about them. For all the stories he tells, there is never a sense of bitterness or wanting to shame anyone. He tells very good things and he tells very bad things. He brings the people alive in his retelling of family history. In one instance, Ondaatje writes with humor the story of his father's multiple casual engagements and, later, his father's alcoholism. But he never laments that he's been psychologically ruined. There isn't bitterness. Instead, the only lament seems to be that he never knew his father as well as he'd wished he had. Near the end of the memoir he includes an anecdote of being with his father two days prior to death. Ondaatje writes, "You know it is a most relaxed thing when you sit with a best friend and you know there is nothing you have to tell him, to empty your mind." It's when he writes statements like these that one feels the genuine nature behind the memoir. Ondaatje brings the reader into both a foreign country and foreign family, yet makes us feel affection for them just as well as he does.
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